The local Viking Sportsmen group in Alexandria 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, which is located 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.
Monitoring the trout
This stretch of stream near Miltona 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 8-21 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.”
The fish stocked on Oct. 2 were adult brown trout after the closure of the trout-fishing season in hopes that they spawn in November and establish some level of natural production.
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.”
DNR to take over stocking
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. Often in put-and-take fisheries like this, angler harvest can deplete numbers of stocked fish rather quickly.
“If we can get it to work out, I’d also like to stock an additional 500 accelerated yearling rainbow trout in August so anglers have another month, month and a half to fish for trout before the trout season closes,” McKibbin said.
The DNR plans to conduct creel surveys with anglers in future years to get a better understanding of how many people are fishing the stream and what they are experiencing.
McDaniel and McKibbin both said they talk with quite a few anglers who have caught trout at Spruce Hill County Park and are enjoying another angling opportunity in the area.
Douglas County Parks Superintendent Brad Bonk said traffic has not only increased since trout stocking began, but vandalism at the park has gone down with more use.
“This spring in the month or so between trout opener and the Minnesota fishing opener, we saw large amounts of fisherman,” Bonk said. “With schools being on distance learning plans, we saw a lot of school-aged kids in the park fishing.”
Angling slowly declined after the regular fishing opener for walleye and pike until about August.
“After that, there always seems to be someone at the park fishing or just watching the trout from the bridges,” Bonk said. “The increased traffic has caused some parking issues and a few erosion issues from the increase in foot traffic. It is all minor in comparison to the number of families and kids we saw enjoying the outdoors.”
Contributing groups to Spruce Creek Trout Stocking Project
The Viking Sportsmen, Leaf Valley and Parkers Prairie Sportsmen have been vital contributors to trout stocking efforts in Douglas County through the last two years.
Many other contributors have also helped make trout fishing at Spruce Hill County Park a reality. They are the Millerville Sportsmen, Brandon Sportsmen, Osakis Sportsmen, Evansville Sportsmen, Miltona Firemen Relief Assoc., Miltona Lions, Eagle Bend Lions, Urbank Lions and Carlos Lions.
“One of the best things that has happened with this project is the cooperation between the sportsmen groups and how they have worked together to support this project financially,” Mike McDaniel of the Viking Sportsmen said.
Things to know
Those who fish trout in Minnesota between the ages of 18-65 must have a fishing license and a trout stamp.
The season is currently closed after running from April 18 through Sept. 30 this year.
Visit the Minnesota DNR’s trout page for more information at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/regs.html?section=definitions&topic=trout.