Brushing crews on Kabekona River last week finished another round of alder removal as part of an ongoing effort to improve water flow and expand fishing access to one of the best cold-water trout streams in northwestern Minnesota.

Mike Kelly, fisheries specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Park Rapids, said this year’s weeklong slog cleared thick alder from the banks of nearly a half-mile of stream. Lighter work to clear a canoe channel and revisit previous work areas covered an additional 1½ miles of the river, located south of Bemidji in northeastern Hubbard County.

Removal and mitigation of the bank-choking plants has been a joint project of the DNR and Minnesota Trout Unlimited since 2016. The nonprofit organization has been paying for labor provided by the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa. This year’s tab was $5,640, Kelly said.

Doug Kingsley, supervisor of DNR Fisheries in Park Rapids, said the Kabekona is a worthy recipient of special attention. It’s a naturally reproducing brook trout fishery that flows 17 miles into Kabekona Lake through forestry land, other public land and some private land where the river is accessible through conservation easements.

The last time the DNR sampled the river to get a reading of the fish population, workers recorded three brookies that were more than 16 inches long. Kingsley said the largest stream brook trout he’s ever seen came out of the Kabekona in that 2015 survey: 18.5 inches.

“It’s very impressive … pretty remarkable,” he said of the river. “We’ve acquired lots of public access to it.”

But alder trees and brush have grown so thick along the banks that branches have dropped down and grown into the stream, sometimes breaking away. They catch sediment and debris, slow the river’s flow, cause issues with bank stability and alter the bottom — all to the detriment of trout habitat. The thickets also restrict access for anglers (most of the river is wadeable) and impede canoeists.

Kingsley said the ongoing cleanup of the Kabekona also has included work with private landowners to block grazing cattle from the river. That 2010 project by Trout Unlimited fenced cattle out of 2,000 feet of the stream. The improvement reduced fecal contamination, addressed erosion and allowed native plants to re-establish themselves. In turn, the plants helped stabilize the banks and provided shade to keep the water cool.

The DNR once proposed a catch-and-release regulation for Kabekona’s trout, but the idea was strongly opposed by local anglers. The river’s brook trout bag limit is the same as it is statewide: Five combined, not more than one longer than 16 inches.