IN SOUTHEAST MINNESOTA – Natalie Quinn hadn’t been to southeast Minnesota before, and had never in her 13 years cast a fly to a trout. All of that was about to change Monday while she sat on the tailgate of a pickup watching her uncle, John Quinn of Golden Valley, tie a bead-headed nymph to the end of his leader, before choosing a similar fly for her.
Though a little sunny for trout fishing, the day couldn’t have been more inviting. The stream John and Natalie were about to fish flowed clear and bright, unusual perhaps for so early in spring, and lay bracketed alternately by steep limestone bluffs and flat woodlands, the latter lining the bottomland of the picturesque valley through which the waterway flowed.
The scene to some might have recalled more storied trout fishing destinations, perhaps the Catskills of New York, the Poconos of Pennsylvania or the mountains of western Maine, each beautiful in its own way.
But none is any more precious than the “driftless’’ region of Minnesota that lies south and southeast of the Twin Cities. And few trout fishing destinations can match the more than 700 miles of designated Minnesota trout streams that course through the region bordered on one side by the Mississippi River and on the other, approximately, by Hwy. 52.
“Natalie is visiting from Seattle, and I thought I would bring her down for a day of trout fishing,’’ John Quinn said.
Though perhaps an obvious recreation destination for a seasoned trout angler such as John, the southeast — where the regular trout season opened Saturday, following a winter-long catch-and-release season — still lies relatively undiscovered, even by native Minnesotans.
The reason: For so long, so much has been made by so many state residents about heading Up North whenever a free moment could be found that driving in an opposite direction seems counterintuitive.
And while it’s true that Minnesota’s lakes are seductive, whether in the Arrowhead of the far northeast, the pinelands surrounding Brainerd or the mixed farm country stretching from Willmar north to Detroit Lakes and beyond, the streams of the southeast that harbor brown and rainbow trout, as well as native brook trout, issue an irresistible siren call of their own.
It’s a sound thousands of anglers who regularly descend on the South Branch of the Root River, Trout Run Creek, Rush Creek, the Whitewater River or the region’s other flowing waters find difficult to resist.
Which is good news.
Better still is that, thanks to money that has flowed from the Outdoor Heritage Fund following approval by voters in 2008 of the Legacy Act, habitat work to conserve and preserve the southeast’s clean-flowing streams has accelerated by orders of magnitude.
Examples: Stream banks have been sloped and stabilized. Overhead stream protective cover has been established. Soil erosion blankets have been installed. And invasive plants that once crowded stream banks have been replaced with native species.
Were this only the work of the fisheries section of the Department of Natural Resources — which it largely has been — the rewards to anglers and the general citizenry would be important enough.
But in fact much of what has occurred in the southeast has been accomplished in partnership with individual conservationists, particularly members of Minnesota Trout Unlimited (TU).
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How important has passage of the Legacy Act been to the state’s cold-water fisheries?
• Since 2009, the DNR has leveraged Outdoor Heritage Funds to pay for all or part of 80 stream easements statewide totaling more than 30 miles.
• In the southeast alone, 40 stream easements have been acquired totaling 18 miles. Included are easements on four streams that previously had no public access — Wildcat, Gorman, Mazeppa and Spring Valley.
Contributing immeasurably to these and other accomplishments have been members of Minnesota TU, a grass-roots conservation group with seven state chapters that operates on many levels.
John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota TU, for instance, often can be seen at the Capitol in St. Paul testifying about the threat posed to southeast trout streams by sand mining, or presenting sophisticated and detailed Legacy Act project-funding requests to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
“John wears many hats,’’ said Brian Nerbonne, DNR stream habitat coordinator. “In addition to presenting funding requests to the Lessard-Sams Council, he helps oversee the projects as they are undertaken.’’
In testament to their conservation ethic, Minnesota TU volunteers regularly join in the physical work involved in cleaning brush, pulling buckthorn or otherwise improving streams and stream habitat.
Last weekend, for instance, a group organized by the Twin Cities TU chapter gathered alongside the Vermillion River in Empire Township just south of the Twin Cities. The goal was to help improve over a mile of excellent trout water.
These and other habitat-development efforts, particularly ones completed since passage of the Legacy Act, have contributed to a doubling of the number of trout in southeast streams since the 1970s.
“Our surveys show that population increase is of trout 12 inches or longer,’’ Nerbonne said, “which is the size of fish most anglers seek.’’
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Yet challenges remain to the southeast’s trout fishery, said Vaughn Snook, Lanesboro assistant area fisheries manager.
“We’ve made and continue to make significant progress,’’ Snook said. “But habitat challenges that adversely affect the region’s trout fishery aren’t going away, and occasionally it seems every time we take a step forward, we also take a step back.’’
Sometimes these regressions take the form of woodlots being torn up that for decades held stream banks together. Another threat is the increased use of nitrate-based fertilizers by farmers, which can adversely affect both surface and groundwater.
Yet so long as the region’s springs continue to rise through fractured limestone bedrock — or karst — providing the cold, clean source water trout require, the continuation of a first-rate fishery is possible.
“It’s also a plus that more and more farmers are practicing conservation tillage and other methods that reduce erosion and fertilizer use,’’ Snook said.
Which is important.
But on Monday, Natalie Quinn just wanted to go fishing.
Which she soon did, standing not far from her uncle in a cold stream as beautiful as any and casting a tenkara rod, a back-to-basics piece of equipment that in mere moments makes fly-casting experts out of novices.
So it went, and so it goes, in the southeast.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org