TILDEN — Chainsaws started ripping through a jungle of box elders and dozens of other trees that shaded the stream on a recent, unseasonably warm January morning.
A heavy equipment operator skillfully plucked and piled the bigger logs on brush fires placed along the creek.
A steady line of people, workday volunteers from Trout Unlimited, cut and hauled limbs and branches. Soon, columns of thick white smoke spiraled into the cloudless blue sky.
Gradually Hay Creek began to take on a new face.
Elsewhere around the state, some anglers probably couldn’t resist observing this Saturday, Jan. 5, by taking part in the opening of Wisconsin’s early catch-and-release trout fishing season.
Not this bunch.
In almost spring-like conditions, some two dozen volunteers showed up to do their giving back by helping state fish managers with the site preparation phase of the stream project.
But it was not all work and no play.
“There’s a lot of trout talk out here today, too,” said Dick Duplessie, of Eau Claire, who is president of the TU’s Clear Waters Chapter in west-central Wisconsin. “We should be fishing, but we’re not. We’re here and that’s a good thing.”
Designated a brook trout reserve by the state Department of Natural Resources, the stream meanders for six miles before emptying into Duncan Creek, south of Bloomer, also a high-quality trout stream, which is thermally challenged in sections due to a stream impoundment.
The stream’s reserve designation implies Hay Creek likely has the best chance of enduring effects of climate change and other environmental disturbance and thus become a thermal refuge for brook trout in search of colder water.
After the smoke has long cleared, the DNR’s trout crew this spring and summer will bring in heavy equipment to pull the banks back, install in-stream overhead cover and plant stabilizing grassy vegetation.
Where and when needed, the TU volunteers say they will return to lend a hand.
“The stream has good quality water and good public access to go with it,” Duplessie said. “We’ll keep on with it.”
The cost of improving the 1,600 foot section of the stream below 93rd Street and a bridge near its confluence with the Duncan Creek is about $80,000, according to Joseph Gerbyshak, the DNR fish manager at Eau Claire. State trout stamp revenues covered some of the cost.
“Hay Creek has good thermals but lacks good overhead cover and deep pools,” Gerbyshak said.
In the upstream portion of the creek, where there’s better habitat — some of it older DNR/TU projects needing upgrading — surveys show the stream holds about 650 brook trout per mile, compared to 150 trout per mile in the portion undergoing rehabilitation. As the new habitat “seasons” over the next several years, trout will move in to find improved food and cover.
“There’s potential for a phenomenal fishery in there,” Gerbyshak said.
Drawing national attention, the Clear Waters chapter was awarded a $15,000 grant from the Fish America Foundation for Hay Creek’s rehabilitation, one of five similar grants the group gives nationally.
Fish America is funded by the philanthropic arm of Brunswick Corp., manufacturers of boating equipment, including Mercury Marine, Tracker, Boston Whaler, Harris Flote Bote and Cypress Cay Pontoons. The project also received $3,500 from TU’s national Embrace-a-Stream, $6,000 from the Clear Waters TU chapter and $2,000 from the Wisconsin State Council Friends of TU.
“It’s great to have partners like that,” Gerbyshak said.
Two weeks later the volunteers were to continue working downstream in more frigid, snowy conditions. After Hay Creek is wrapped up, they will take their tools and desires for better trout waters to other nearby streams. Elsewhere their fellow trout volunteers carry on with similar projects, dozens of them yearly throughout Wisconsin’s trout country.
It’s their way of preparing for trout season — for this year and many to come.
Dave Carlson is a freelance writer who lives in Eau Claire.