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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog

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Haunted by Water: Flyfishing and Protecting Wisconsin's Waters

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 1:35pm -- Stephen M. Born

I’ve spent much of my professional life in Wisconsin working on water and related natural resources science and policy issues. During a teaching and research career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’ve worked on lake, groundwater, river, watershed, fisheries, and land use planning and management. I’ve also focused on building institutional arrangements to support the stewardship of those natural resources. A career highpoint was the opportunity to co-chair the Academy’s first Waters of Wisconsin initiative, which culminated early in this new century. It’s been a rich and fulfilling experience to work with a myriad of committed resource professionals and enthusiastic students along the way - many of whom became lifelong friends. Some of them even made it into that inner circle of fishing partners!

Me seated by a big spring discharging into the Green River in Southwestern Wisconsin.

Me seated by a big spring discharging into the Green River in Southwestern Wisconsin.

I feel fortunate to have been able to blend my professional and avocational interests over many decades—much of the time involving the diverse waters of the Badger State. Like the family in Norman Maclean's wonderful novella A River Runs Through It, I too have always been haunted by water. I can recall my earliest childhood fishing experiences, although there were no real anglers or fishing mentors in my family. Perhaps my deep passion for fishing is somehow genetically encoded. Whatever the genesis, it has been a lifelong avocation (some would say addiction).

My early days as an angler.

My early days as an angler.

When I returned to the Midwest in 1969, I left behind the majestic rivers and streams and mountain landscapes of the West. My fishing activity turned to the innumerable beautiful lakes of northern Wisconsin and their warm-water fisheries–especially the elusive muskellunge. Closer to home, I chased bass, panfish, and pike on the Madison lakes.

Two events changed the trajectory of my angling world. First, while fishing on a friend’s ranch in Wyoming, I became hooked on flyfishing, which shifted my attention to trout angling. The second shift occurred when I joined Trout Unlimited, the largest cold-water conservation organization in the U.S. These experiences moved me to explore Wisconsin’s 13000 miles of trout streams, and it led to a love affair with those cold waters and their finny inhabitants that has never ended.

A beautiful wild Wisconsin trout.

A beautiful wild Wisconsin trout.

From a trout angler’s perspective, Wisconsin’s natural heritage is a treasure. There are the fertile spring creeks of the unglaciated Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin and many miles of remote brook trout waters in the glaciated northern part of the state. And there are big high-energy freestone rivers like the Namekagon and the Wolf in the North. Small northern spring ponds, Central Sands groundwater-fed streams, and Great Lakes tributaries embellish the trout fishing scene across the Badger State. These fisheries are set within a diverse and beautiful array of landscapes, adding to the quality of the fishing experience.

While through the years I have been fortunate to have fished all over the world–from New Zealand to South America, from Alaska to the Caribbean–I always anticipate the magic and challenge of returning to our groundwater-fed spring creeks–especially those laced through the Driftless region. The stories emerging from these experiences are endless (and largely true!). Some of these narratives are recounted in our book Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams: The Angler’s Guide (I’ve always marveled that many thousands more people read this book than any scientific or policy publication I ever wrote!).

Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams: The Angler’s Guide – a great book!

Getting lost and forced to spend a cold summer night in northern Wisconsin’s Bibon swamp–the largest roadless area in the state–while pursuing the mystical Hexagenia mayfly hatch on the White River is unforgettable–at least my fishing friends have never let me forget it! And the many spring days awaiting caddis hatches along creeks dissecting small fertile valleys, viewing trilliums and hoping for the occasional morel sighting, all the while listening to the enchanting melodies of the stream and its riffles… Indeed, sometimes catching beautiful and wary wild brown trout was just a bonus! These special times a-stream, fly rod in hand, have led to many of my most precious friendships.

In pursuit of trout in the spring in Southwestern Wisconsin.

In pursuit of trout in the spring in Southwestern Wisconsin.

While these are the best of times for trout angling in Wisconsin, anglers who have a sense of history know how fortunes change. The once bountiful fisheries that characterized Wisconsin during centuries past, including our only native salmonidae–the iconic brook trout–were plundered by overfishing, agricultural development leading to erosion, sedimentation, and dewatered wetlands, as well the expansion of urbanization and transportation systems and the damming of rivers and streams. Parallel to national trends, recovery of depleted fisheries and their environs was pursued aggressively with hatcheries and stocking of fish from the late 1800s until midway in the 1900s. But these remedies didn’t solve the problems of water pollution and degraded habitats. In the mid-part of the last century, forward-looking scientists and natural resource managers in state and federal agencies, in concert with the national environmental movement, cleaned up our waterways and completed major habitat restoration. Wisconsin was among the leaders in this effort. Trout anglers today are reaping the benefits of this long-term planning in environmental management.

Anglers evolved too. Moving beyond a narrow focus on catching fish, anglers recognized the vulnerability of fish and their environs. Limits on harvest and catch-and-release angling helped to sustain fisheries. Anglers came to understand and support efforts to build naturally-reproducing fisheries with less reliance on the stocking of hatchery fish.

A stream restoration project on Black Earth Creek near Mazomanie.

A stream restoration project on Black Earth Creek near Mazomanie.

These changes in practice and angling culture led many anglers to see the health of their fisheries through the lens of healthy habitats and watersheds. Many anglers advanced their thinking from simply being part of the “hook-and-bullet” community to becoming ardent conservationists. Fishing clubs morphed into citizen environmental organizations or built alliances with non-traditional allies in the conservation movement. Many anglers took “time off” from fishing to become citizen scientists engaged in monitoring, hands-on workers in environmental restoration projects, and advocates for the protection of watersheds, streams, and fisheries. While we love the time we spend flyfishing for trout, hours diverted from fishing to protecting the future of our water resources and the fish that live there has become part of anglers’ stewardship culture and our sporting ethics.

It is not surprising, therefore, to see significant numbers of the more than one million anglers–including 150,000 trout fishers in Wisconsin–commit themselves not only to the magical experience of “goin’ fishin’”, but also to the hard work necessary to preserve this wonderful sport for future generations.

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Stephen M. Born was associated with the University of Wisconsin from 1969 until retirement in 2005, where he was a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and Environmental Studies. He has served as Chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and the UW-Madison graduate Water Resources Management Program.

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