ARCADIA — Rob Herman surveyed the distant thin corridor of trees, mostly box elder, and other brushy vegetation lining the course Chimney Rock Creek carves across Ron and Marietta Halama’s farm.
“Needs a haircut,” said Herman, of Pleasantville, a trout stream restoration specialist for more than 25 years, as he described the various stream repair techniques — bank shaping, rip-rapping, weirs, lunker-style jetted tables and root wads — that could be deployed here on the Halamas’ property.
Later in the morning Herman met the Halamas and local attorney Bruce Kostner for an informal signing of yet another perpetual conservation fishing easement for the token fee of $1. The agreement clears the way for Herman to bring in heavy equipment and materials to begin restoring a one-mile section of Chimney Rock Creek.
The Halamas thus joined about 40 other farmers and rural landowners who over the past 15 years have given conservation easements for fishing access to a network of about 10 miles of native brook trout and brown trout streams spread around Trempealeau, Buffalo and Jackson counties in the northern fringe of western Wisconsin’s Driftless Area.
“It’s a great thing you’re doing,” Kostner said to Halama.
For his part in the project, Kostner confirmed he has donated his legal services for years, explaining, “I’m committed to trout and committed to people.”
Asked why he got involved, “It’s my last hurrah,” replied Halama, whose family bought the land in 1942.
“I haven’t fished for 60 years,” he said. “But I snowmobile [on] a lot of other people’s land and I figure now I’d let the people fish mine.”
Over on the north branch of Elk Creek, landowner Dan Gray, a retired carpenter, counted about 10 fishermen on his restored quarter-mile section near Pleasantville during the first week of this year’s trout season. Gray said he grazes beef cattle in compartments along the creek, which is “good for the grass and cattle and the stream.”
Anglers are asked to voluntarily sign in and report any harvest for Gray’s personal records at his homemade kiosk marking the public access portion of the stream.
“There’s not a lot of harvest, most people are releasing,” Gray said. “We have better fishing, and we’re saving the creek.”
Herman said restoration costs ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 per stream project are covered through organized fundraising by partners matched with landowners’ money and in-kind contributions amounting to about 30 percent of total cost. Partners in major fundraising and technical planning include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited, Trempealeau County Land Management Department, Associated Conservation Clubs of Trempealeau County, Buffalo County Land Management and conservation and sportsman clubs from Elk Creek, Waumandee, Fountain City and Northfield/York and FFA.
“Our goal was to keep local control as much as possible,” Herman said. “We did not want DNR or other government entities controlling our efforts any more than we had to. Therefore the easements are controlled and held by local conservation clubs, Trout Unlimited or the ACCTC.
“When projects were near completion we would start searching for (more) willing landowners. They’d see the work done on their neighbor’s property and they want it on theirs. We would secure the easement and organize funding sources, always staying about a year or two ahead with easement and funding.”
In Buffalo County, which recently also has begun taking easements, Leeroy and Sharon Fernholz teamed with the Arcadia Sportsman’s Club to improve a section of eroded banks and other degraded habitat on Swinn’s Valley Creek, which in recent years had survived heavy flooding.
“It had to be good, and the plan was good,” Sharon Fernholz said.
The couple’s conservation-minded support is typical of landowners in the three-county region, conservationists say. And it comes at a critical time in the push for protecting water temperatures and groundwater.
“There’s a sense of urgency,” said John “Duke” Welter, outreach coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Driftless Area Restoration Effort in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.
TU scientists studying climate in the region, he said, have gathered evidence suggesting coldwater streams in the three counties have potential to be the most resilient in dealing with climate changes posing a threat to native brook trout. The easement program, he said, will continue to play a major role in maintaining water quality of the region’s fragile trout waters.
Trout numbers at various streams in this area are not as high as streams farther south in the heart of the Driftless Area around Viroqua south of La Crosse, Herman said.
“There is natural reproduction among brook trout here, but not much on browns, ” Herman said. ”But anglers report catching browns over 20 inches here.”
Such prospects coming from one of the people who helped bring new life to Swinn’s Valley Creek lifted my expectations as we walked its grassy bank.
A high bright sun and clear sky with not much bug activity weren’t optimal fishing conditions. However, the creek’s “fishy” waters offered plenty of choice habitat to explore with a reliable “pink squirrel” nymph.
“Even though farmers are doing a better job of managing their land than they used to, everywhere you go there still are raw eroded banks and on some of these corners you lose 50 to 100 tons of soil,” Herman said.
“What has been completed here is a Band-Aid on an artery of what could be done.”
Carlson is a freelance writer who lives in Eau Claire.