These are good times to be a brown trout in northeast Iowa’s Tete des Morts Creek. And it’s also a good time to be a trout fisherman.

That’s because farmers in the area have voluntarily stepped up to improve the water quality in the beautiful stream which meanders through the hilly countryside in Iowa’s Jackson and Dubuque counties, passing near the historic Luxembourger town St. Donatus,  before  spilling into the Mississippi River.

 Over the past few years farmers in the watershed have planted buffer strips and grassed waterways to catch sediment and keep it from reaching the 16-mile-long stream.  A growing number of area farmers have sown cover crops to hold the soil in place over the winter months. Livestock farmers have constructed monoslope barns to control manure runoff and keep their animals away from the water. And farmers are installing a number of other conservation practices, including sediment basins, stream bank stabilizers and rotational grazing systems as part of the water-quality improvement project.

“The landowners are really stepping up and volunteering to put their practices in place, nobody is forcing them to do it,” according to Michelle Turner of the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District, who is coordinator of the Tete des Morts Creek watershed project. “You would be hard pressed to find a field that doesn’t have some type of conservation practice applied, such as farming on the contour, using minimum tillage, or conservation crop rotations.”

Voluntary conservation efforts, like those by farmers in the Tete Des Morts Creek watershed, are the key to the success of the ground-breaking Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy, designed to provide farmers with scientific and technical information to help them determine the types of conservation practices that work best on their farm to save soil and reduce losses of nitrogen and phosphorus.

These conservation investments like those on the Tete des Morts are not cheap. Over the life of the project, farmers there have invested more than $600,000 to help improve water quality in the creek and his tributaries, Turner said. When government cost share is added to that, more than $1.7 million has been spent on conservation improvements, she said. And many farmers in the watershed are also doing conservation projects on their own to save time and red tape.

 But the conservation work is paying off in cleaner, clearer water. To date sediment reaching Tete des Morts Creek has been reduced by more than 5,300 tons per year and the project is well on the way to its objective of a reduction of 7,500 tons of sediment per year.

But perhaps the best signs of progress in the Tete des Morts project are swimming below the surface. That’s where brown trout are thriving and reproducing in the stream, said Dan Kirby, a fish biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. .

The IDNR spent years stocking trout in Tete des Morts Creek without much success at establishing a sustainable population, Kirby said. But a few years ago, as the work from the watershed project started to take hold and water quality improved, the biologist found that the trout were beginning to thrive and reproduce. The fish are becoming large and numerous enough that the area is becoming a destination for anglers, he noted.

“It’s really exciting to see that,” Kirby said. “It shows that we are making progress when we see fish that are mature enough to reproduce and eggs that can survive in the stream. And it really gives you tangible proof that we are seeing improvement in Tete des Morts Creek.”

 Written by Dirck Steimel
Dirck is the news services manager for Iowa Farm Bureau