July 3, 2008

Flood Depletes Trout Numbers

By Joe Wilkinson Iowa DNR

On a sunny morning at Big Spring, everything appears normal. The big wooden sign welcomes visitors to the Department of Natural Resources trout rearing station, along the Turkey River near Elkader. A closer look, though, and the signature of the 2008 Flood appears. A cornstalk is lodged overhead in the welcome sign, carried there by the wall of water spilling over a levee 40 yards away.

"After the 1991 flood, we added 18 inches to the levee. Still, the river surged four feet above that. Once the water came over, we only had four or five minutes to get out," recalls hatchery manager Gary Siegwarth, pointing out the latest'record flood level'mark in the hatchery's gutted office and shop...34 inches above the previous one.

Workers hauled some supplies and equipment to higher ground. A lot didn't make it.

The trout'inventory'took a hit, too.Same for the trout. "We probably lost 75,000 catchable trout to be stocked this year, as well as 50,000 fingerlings (being raised for 2009)," estimates Siegwarth. About 15,000 trout were salvaged from the hatchery's ponds and transferred back to the raceways.

DNR crews from across eastern Iowa helped net trout-salvaging about 15,000 that had washed into the nearby ponds. They also cut downed trees, power washed the office and hauled away debris. "We had anywhere from 15 to 25 people a day helping," said hatchery technician Dave Gould. "Neighbors let us use their big tractors to help clean up. Campers came in and helped clean the campground."

To the south, the DNR hatchery at Manchester fared better, damage- wise, but still lost trout when the Maquoketa River backed up Spring Branch Creek and covered the raceways, grounds and office with a foot of water. "We did lose about 20,000 catchable trout, though, and a higher percentage of the fingerlings here," listed hatchery manager Dave Marolf.

More important, perhaps, is what the hatchery held onto. Many thousands of fingerlings were loaded into trucks and sent to the DNR's third trout station, at Decorah.

"We lost less than 20 percent of our brood trout. We always carry a surplus and those big fish like those deep dark holes, so many of them were still in the pond," assures Marolf. The big three to ten pound brood fish are the backbone of Manchester's hatchery program. They produce the rainbow, brook and brown trout that go into those coldwater streams across nine northeast counties, as well as urban fisheries in the winter, ranging from Council Bluffs and Des Moines to Davenport, Dubuque, Cedar Falls and Mason City.

However, that double blow from flood waters is no knockout punch. "We want people to realize we are getting trout out there," stressed Siegwarth. "We are reduced in numbers but are still putting out more trout per angler on these streams that don't seem to have that much pressure, yet." He wonders whether cool, wet weather, delays in planting and now floods and cleanup have kept anglers away from the 50 trout streams in northeast Iowa. "It's a great escape for people, especially up here as the river recedes. Trout fishing is going to be phenomenal all summer long on the Turkey River, due to all the escapees from the hatchery."

Reduced trout numbers didn't keep Ken Klinkner of Dubuque away from Sny-Magill stream near Garnavillo this week. Fishing once a week, he had a nice 14-inch rainbow in the bucket, when the stocking truck pulled up. "They're still around, you know. They go into different coves and under rocks (during high water). You just have to work the creek up and down; one here, one there," Klinkner observed, as he pulled in another rainbow, probably one just stocked a few yards away.

And the prospect of lots of'loose'trout in some streams is too hard to pass up for some. "We had a guy come in who never had a license before. He was 73, so we told him he qualified for a lifetime license. He just said'No, I just want a license and a trout stamp'for this year," laughed Marolf. "It's been gridlock in the parking lot here, especially with those big brood trout missing."

Fairport Hatchery facility escapes major damage from Mississippi

Near Muscatine, the DNR's Fairport Hatchery escaped major damage as the Mississippi River rose out of its banks over the last couple weeks. The facility is used primarily for raising bass and bluegills for private pond stocking across Iowa. "Our lower ponds are still underwater," reports hatchery manager Ken Snyder. "They held feeder fish for the bass, which are probably gone now."

The high water came just as crews were preparing to stock bass in ponds, so many of those fish were scooped out and held in a large tanker truck, before being parceled out for distribution. Snyder says fall bluegill stocking might be affected if the flooded ponds don't dry out soon, so they can be restocked with spawning bluegills.

The water rose over the floor of the hatchery's pump room and holding house. Sandbags kept the water away from the pumps, minimizing damage to facilities.

Pheasant Harvest Dips...Lousy Weather, Loss of Habitat Cited

Hunters in Iowa harvested 630,000 pheasants last season. While still ranked among the national leaders in pheasant hunting, that marks a 16% dip over 2006 and continues to rank below the'million rooster'mark that used to be routine. A decade ago, Iowa had twice the number of hunters (109,000 in 2007-08) and roughly double the harvest. Among them were 23,000 non-residents, helping spur a $250 million economic boost to rural Iowa each fall.

That report comes as biologists fear for this year's pheasant hatch, with flooding and cold, wet weather compounded by loss of critical habitat for the popular game bird. "Small game populations can bounce back from short-term weather related setbacks, but we need good habitat. Without it, they have no place to get out of the weather, hide from predtors or hatch and raise young," stresses Todd Bogenschutz, upland wildlife research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

The equivalent of 233 square miles of Conservation Reserve Program habitat was plowed up this year, as CRP contracts expired last fall. Another 209 square miles are on the line this fall. Adding to the concern is discussion in Washington to open up CRP acres to battle high grain prices, brought on by flooding and high grain prices.

"Road ditches, waterways and fence lines produce very few pheasants or quail. It's that simple," stresses Bogenschutz. As over 300 roadside survey routes are run this August, Bogenschutz expects counts to come back 50% lower than already low 2007 counts in many areas. If there is a bright spot, he says it could come in northwest Iowa, where counts have been higher and where weather extremes have been avoided in large part.

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