Sunday, November 18, 2007

Why no Illinois trout streams?

This question has wracked the brains of dedicated trout anglers as they delightfully fish the streams of the Driftless Area in the other three states touched by the glacial anomaly. Anglers ask, "since Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota's Driftless Area has fine trout streams, why not Illinois?

Ask the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and they will say, "we don't know what you're talking about. Look at the Apple River. There are planted rainbows there right now." The Illinois DNR will also point out all of the trout ponds throughout the Land of Lincoln stocked with rainbows.

Well, yes, that is true. But there is more to trout fishing than suspending corn or salmon eggs under a bobber for "put and take" dumb hatchery trout. Tell the DNR that and they'll tell you "if you want to fish for wild trout in Illinois, go fish Lake Michigan. End of story."

But is it the end of the story? Is that the best that Illinois can do?

Is there a possibility of creating (or even discovering) a gem of an Illinois trout stream that accommodates naturally-reproducing brook, brown or rainbow trout? That's what we're talking about, really, when we mention a blue-ribbon trout stream, isn't it?

If you look at some of the commercially-available maps of trout streams in extreme southern Wisconsin, you will find a couple that bleed into Illinois, most notably Raccoon Creek in the Rockford area. This creek contains stocked Brown trout. However, one could make the argument that Raccoon Creek is really the same kind of thing as the Apple River in northwest Illinois--a put and take trout stream with no hope of ever sustaining a population of naturally-reproducing trout.

Delving deeper into the issue, the Achilles heel for an Illinois trout stream in the Driftless Area that would feature a naturally-reproducing trout population is the state's southernmost position in the four-state area. Most creeks just don't stay cool enough to foster a successful reproduction program. Still, it's very possible that in extreme northwest Illinois, that there are a few choice spring creeks that maintain the right temperature throughout the year.

Another strike against an Illinois blue-ribbon trout stream is the fact that there's no Trout Unlimited chapter in Northwest Illinois. There is a Chicagoland chapter and a Champaign chapter, but each of those is more than 100 miles from the Driftless Area. And while the Lee Wulff Chapter in Chicagoland does a fine job rehabbing Elk Creek in SW Wisconsin, I'd love to see them try to establish some brook trout water in Illinois.

Compounding the problem is that the Illinois DNR is perpetually underfunded and its priorities mainly follow saving what it has and not branching out into new projects.

Additionally, the other three states in the Driftless Area have worked with landowners to help them become stakeholders in perpetuating excellent trout waters. Agricultural runoff is limited. Buffer zones are planted and maintained. For Illinois to have a blue-ribbon trout stream, it would need to do the same.

An Illinois blue-ribbon trout stream could create a tremendous tourism boon to northwest Illinois. One reason that Wisconsin is a leader in out-of-state fishing licenses sold is because of its marvelous reputation for trout waters. These Northwest Illinois towns are picturesque, but devoid of much industry these days. They could use some tourism dollars. Look how Galena has been able to parlay its bucolic setting into a multi-million dollar annual visitors revenue stream. A beautiful little town like Mount Carroll could really take off by helping it to propagate some of its spring creeks with brookies.

Think about it.