Douglas County is home to popular fisheries where anglers can target an abundance of bass, walleyes, northern pike and panfish.
The area is known for having waters where people can go after almost any species they want, but trout has never really been one of the options. This spring, a host of outdoor groups are trying to jumpstart an effort to change that.
"The end goal is to provide an opportunity," Bob Gibson of the Alexandria Viking Sportsmen Club said. "I've lived in a number of different places in the Twin Cities. This is the only area I know of that there weren't even any trout lakes. That's because this is such a huge walleye area. When I introduced my fly rod to some of the guys in the sportsmen's club, they looked at me like I was crazy. Slowly, I'm starting to win some of them over with that."
Gibson and fellow Viking Sportsmen Club member Michael McDaniel are co-chairs for a community trout stream project in Spruce Creek, a spring-fed tributary of the Long Prairie River.
On April 9, the Viking Sportsmen stocked nearly 350 rainbow trout into the creek at Spruce Hill County Park, which is located in northeastern Douglas County. Those fish are already at a catchable size-ranging from about 8-16 inches, Gibson said.
On June 15, Viking Sportsmen members and volunteers met back at the county park to release approximately 3,000, six-inch brown trout that came from the Seven Pines Fishery out of Frederic, Wis. Now it's a matter of seeing how the reintroduction works.
"I was just talking to someone who caught some fish here (in early June)," Gibson said. "This is a great place to fish. Why not have another type of experience that people can try out?"
Will the stocking efforts work?
This is not the first time that efforts have been made to create a trout fishery in the county.
The Department of Natural Resources led a stocking effort in the 1970s that lasted about a decade. That took place along private lands north of the Spruce Center dam, on a stretch of the stream that extends into Otter Tail County.
"One of the shortcomings of that early work is there were fish stocked but there hadn't been much invested in public access in terms of fishing easements with private owners," Glenwood Area Fisheries Manager Dean Beck said. "That's where the current situation in the county park is better. There's a good mile of stream reach there that is in public ownership where people can gain access and fish."
Beck and the area DNR fisheries department is watching with interest to see how these current stocking efforts play out.
"I have some pessimism because we tried it in a designated reach upstream of Spruce Hill Park for 10 years and got poor survival," Beck said. "At the same time, it's kind of fun if you look at it as a unique opportunity and more of a catch-and-release type fishery."
Neither Gibson or Beck are worried about winter kill on the trout as the waters freeze. It's the summer that will be the critical period.
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 the 1970s stocking effort showed water temperatures well in excess of 70 degrees, the critical threshold where trout have a hard time surviving.
The DNR also ran into a specific problem during the 1970s introduction. Beck said an aerial survey at one point showed 17 beaver dams per mile on the stretch of water that is still designated as a trout stream. That slowed the current down, likely allowing the water to warm even further during the late-summer months.
"Now we're told there's some springs coming in there that could be cool," Beck said of the current stocking efforts in Spruce Hill Park. "We will be installing an automated temperature monitor as we get into the warmer part of the summer just to see what that stretch of stream does for water temperatures. We like the concept and opportunity, but our past experience would suggest it's going to get too warm. Let's find out."
'You'll have the time of your life'
Jerry Larson is excited about the possibilities that the trout stocking project might provide.
Larson is relatively new to the Alexandria area, but he was eager to volunteer his time with his granddaughter, Emily, as they helped with the stocking efforts on June 15.
He moved to Carlos about four years ago after living on a trout stream in northern Arkansas. Like most people, Larson viewed areas of southeastern Minnesota and the North Shore as the greatest opportunity for trout fishing in the state.
"I saw this here, and thought, 'This is awesome.' I can't wait for these things to get a little bigger and go catch them," Larson said.
Trout anglers, specifically those who go after the fish with a fly rod in hand, might be a smaller community in Minnesota, but they're a passionate one.
"I don't know how you get a walleye or bass guy in here to do this, but it's a lot of fun because these things put up a lot of fight," Larson said. "You get about a two pound trout, that's a fish that can put up a fight."
Larson's face broke into a smile as he described that battle in what are often scenic surroundings on moving streams.
Anglers tend to go after trout one of two ways-with a fly rod or spin casting. Gibson expects the brown trout released in June to be 10-12 inches within about a year. Plenty big enough to provide a fun new opportunity for local anglers if the fish make it through the summer months.
"A fly rod is a little bit of an art, and it takes a while to do that. This is pretty tight quarters down here, but you could just get a spinning rod and like a Mepps spinner," Larson said. "That's all it takes, and I'll tell you what, you'll have the time of your life."
Trout in Minnesota
Minnesota has just two native trout species-the brook trout and lake trout. Lake trout are found predominantly in Lake Superior and other deep, cold and clean northern lakes.
The other common trout in the state are brown trout and rainbow trout. Both were introduced in Minnesota in the late 1800s. Brown trout are considered the hardiest of the trout species and are known to tolerate water that is warmer and less clear than a rainbow or brook trout. Common food sources for brown trout include land and water insects, worms, crayfish, small clams, snails and a variety of small fish.
• Reproduction: 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. Brown trout spawning season begins in October and goes into December.
In terms of there being any natural reproduction from the fish stocked into Spruce Creek at Spruce Hill County Park, both Glenwood Area Fisheries manager Dean Beck and Viking Sportsmen Club member Bob Gibson were hopeful, but not necessarily counting on it.
"We hope for it, and if the conditions are right, that can happen to a limited extent," Gibson said. "But I don't see anything wrong with stocking because we stock almost all the other trout streams in Minnesota, the DNR does."
The current local stocking efforts are privately funded from a total of nine organizations: The Viking Sportsmen, Leaf Valley Sportsmen, Evansville Sportsmen, Brandon Sportsmen, Parkers Prairie Sportsmen, Millerville Sportsmen, Miltona Firemen Relief, Urbank Lions Club and Eagle Bend Lions Club.
Gibson was hopeful that if the stocked fish have strong survival rates, that the DNR would some day include trout stocking in Spruce Creek as part of its fish stocking program.
"I think to maintain a viable fishery there's going to have to be supplemental stocking," Beck said. "We have a trout display pond down here on our facility. We have springs up on the hillside that feeds the creek that runs through here. It stays very cold, and we get natural reproduction in that little stream. There's some potential, but they certainly didn't see it in the 10 years that they stocked above (the Spruce Hill County Park) site."
• Anglers are reminded that they need a trout stamp to target trout. Full regulations on trout fishing in Minnesota can be found at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/regs.html?section=definitions&topic=....