ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — The Viking Sportsmen group in Alexandria, Minn., spearheaded an effort in the spring of 2019 to try to establish a fishable trout stream in west-central Minnesota with stocking efforts.
The Department of Natural Resources was watching closely to see how the rainbows and brown trout would respond that were put into Spruce Creek at Spruce Hill County Park in northeastern Douglas County.
“We honestly didn’t think they’d do well because of some previous work we’ve done on Spruce Creek,” acting Glenwood DNR fisheries supervisor Bill McKibbin said. “We thought water temperatures were just too warm.”
McKibbin said they consider lethal water temperatures for rainbow trout to be sustained periods of 77 degrees. Brown trout can survive warmer temperatures in the low 80-degree range.
After a couple summers of sampling, McKibbin has become more of a believer that trout can be a legitimate angling opportunity on the Douglas County stream.
“We’re pretty convinced,” McKibbin said.
This stretch of stream near Miltona, Minn., features public land along its banks that allows anglers to fish from shore or wade the waters enjoying an opportunity that is generally thought to be only available in the northern and southeastern parts of the state.
Trout thrive in cold, clear water and are adept at finding those areas when they're available. Some of the monitoring the DNR did during trout stocking efforts near here in the 1970s showed water temperatures well in excess of 70 degrees.
The DNR tracked water temperatures on the stream through the summers of 2019 and 2020 from two locations. The summer of 2019 was relatively cool weather wise, while 2020 returned to more normal conditions with longer spells of hot temperatures.
“In 2019, we did not hit that lethal (water) temperature (of 77 degrees) until the end of June, and it only lasted approximately three weeks,” McKibbin said. “In 2020, that lethal temperature started in mid-June, and it lasted throughout the entire month of July.”
To see how the trout were responding, the DNR conducted backpack electrofishing surveys in the summer of 2019 and again in late July of 2020.
In 2019, they sampled about 30 brown trout, most of which were about 6-7 inches in length. Their sampling in 2020 found 15 brown trout about 11-13 inches in length. They did not sample any rainbow trout, but they have had angler reports of people catching rainbows later into the summer each of the last two years.
“So there’s definitely some type of thermal refuge within that stretch of stream where trout are able to survive,” McKibbin said.
By the numbers
Brown trout and rainbow trout are the two most common species in Minnesota streams. Both were introduced in the state in the late 1800s.
The stocking of browns and rainbows into Spruce Creek has been a continuous effort since last year. In 2019, 350 rainbow and 3,000 brown trout were stocked. Earlier this year, about 1,600 rainbows and 800 browns were stocked ahead of 401 brown trout added on Oct. 2.
DNR staff was on hand for the latest stocking to clip the left pectoral fin on the brown trout. The clipping of the fin will help identify which stocking class is present in the stream when fish are sampled in future years through electroshocking surveys.
Viking Sportsmen member Mike McDaniel, the primary organizer of these stocking efforts, said anglers have reported catching fish anywhere from 8 to 21 inches. Rainbows tend to be the more aggressive of the two species, which is why McKibbin said continuous stocking of rainbows may still be worthwhile just as a put-and-take opportunity for anglers.
“This has been a tremendous fishing opportunity for this community as shown by the diversity of people showing up to fish,” McDaniel said. “Anglers generally don’t need a lot of equipment to fish stream trout. A fishing pole, some hooks and lures, bait and you’re ready to go.”
Trout require the right mixture of habitat to successfully reproduce in streams. The females thrash above gravel bottoms to hollow out a nest called a "redd." Nest locations must be carefully chosen so the water flow can keep the eggs clean and oxygenated.
Whether or not trout have the habitat to successfully reproduce in the Spruce Creek system remains to be seen.
“I’m fairly skeptical,” McKibbin said. “I won’t say it can’t happen. We’ve had some trout reproduction in the little stream right below our office. I don’t know. I think our further testing will be able to maybe shed some light on that when we continue to electrofish.”
To sustain a fishery here, stocking will likely always play a big role in that, and McKibbin said the DNR has proposed to take over stocking efforts on Spruce Creek with trout produced in Minnesota hatcheries.
“We’re going to do a surplus stocking in spring of 2021,” McKibbin said. “That’s pretty much whatever fish the hatchery down in Lanesboro has available for us we can stock. Then I just submitted a proposal for what we call base stocking starting in spring of 2022.”
If everything works as planned, the DNR would stock 500 yearling brown trout and 500 accelerated yearling trout that are a little bigger in April of 2022.