When the critically acclaimed film “A River Runs Through It” was released in 1992, it drew thousands of tourists to Montana and helped rejuvenate local economies and waterways. It also introduced a whole new generation to the art of fly fishing. 

But the beauty and skill showcased so vividly in the movie isn’t limited to western states.  And if you look hard enough it can even be found in the heart of the Corn Belt.

Kent Kleckner, Bear Creek Anglers, Decorah, Iowa: It makes me feel like I’m in the mountains and I’m a long ways from work and everything else. This is one of the prettiest places I fish. And I get here as often as I can.”

For Kleckner, who is President of the Driftless Chapter of Trout Unlimited as well as a fishing guide and owner of the Decorah, Iowa – based Bear Creek Anglers, this is more than just another day wading in the cold waters of North Bear Creek to catch fish.   He knows each trout he catches and releases is there because a large number of people have been working together for more than 80 years.

The trout come from two sources – the native populations that swim in North Bear and others stocked by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources from the nearby Decorah Fish Hatchery. But preserving and expanding populations of brown, brook and rainbow trout in Northeastern Iowa is much more involved than simply restocking local streams.

Trout thrive in clear, fast moving, 50 degree water and need a gravel covered stream bed to survive. The spring-fed creeks in Northeastern Iowa are the perfect habitat for these fish.

Rainbow and brook trout are native to the region and brown trout were introduced in the 1880s. But as farming and industrialization grew, trout numbers began to decline and in the 1930s efforts to help bring back dwindling populations were started.

Efforts have really kicked into high gear during the past two decades as a strong relationship between farmers, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has been forged. 

Prior to his retiring from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Bill Kalishek worked with farmers in the region to help restore trout streams for more than 25 years.

Bill Kalishek, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (retired): “My experience with farmers has been that most farmers want to do the right thing, they want to do what is correct for the resource and correct for the stream that flows through their property. Now, sometimes they aren't able to do the right thing because of economic or social issues that come into play. And then there is that small percentage that doesn't care about doing the right thing. And unfortunately when you're talking about trout streams that have very small watersheds, just one or two really bad fields of high erosion can have a big impact on that small stream.”

Since the early 1990s, projects have included seeding riparian areas next to the stream to filter water and hold back the soil, placing rip-rap along the stream banks to reduce erosion, adding bank hides to give trout a place to escape from predators and the installation of fences to keep cattle out of the water.

Private contractors do much of the construction but there are some projects that only happen because of volunteer labor and donated materials.

According to the Iowa DNR, anglers make more than half-a-million trips to Hawkeye State trout streams and inject more than $14 million into Iowa's economy every year.

Efforts by land owners, volunteers and government agencies have helped clean up the water and keep gravel stream beds clear of silt allowing trout to lay their eggs. Those efforts have helped reestablish naturally reproducing trout in more than 40 of Iowa’s 105 trout streams.

An example of where the cooperation between farmers and government have yielded results can be seen at Valley View Farm where Walter Langland and his son Steve run a diversified grain and livestock operation in rural Winnesheik County. In 1993, the elder Langland started the first of several restoration projects by fencing off the riparian section along North Bear Creek to keep the cattle out of the stream.

Walter Langland, Valley View Farm:  “It makes me feel good that someone else can enjoy fishing along a stream that has good access to it.”

Some of Langland's other projects include stream bank restoration, bank hides and the creation of a parking lot for anglers.

Walter Langland, Valley View Farm: “Well, this is a century farm. I don't know who is going to carry on after my wife and I and son are gone. But we need to care for the land for future generations. We can't just rape it of all its productivity now. So, we planted trees for wildlife and erosion control. We planted a bottom land that was six acres of cropland at one time right next to the stream. That is walnut trees now.“

Not far away, Jason Howe runs Howlin’ Hills Farm in rural Allamakee County. Howe sought help from the DNR more than a decade ago to restore the land along his section of Patterson Creek near Waukon.

Jason Howe, Howlin’ Hills Farm, Waukon, Iowa: "I was kind of tired of seeing all of that good top soil washed away and so I had, went to them and asked about it. I think around the same time is when I was getting into, wanting to get the trout, see if I could get the trout reproducing, wondering what that would take and spoke with the DNR about that. ....most years I'll do one or two of the worst banks, kind of keep them from eroding away and it's been working out pretty good I guess."

Howe spent his summer days on the creek when he was younger and his children are continuing the tradition of fishing, swimming and playing in the water.

For Kleckner, just catching the trout tells him things are improving as more soil remains in nearby farm fields and out of the stream.

Kent Kleckner, Bear Creek Anglers, Decorah, Iowa:  “Having a pretty stream with nice rocky banks, and all that sort of thing is important and that’s nice. However, if the farmers don’t take care of the 500 or a thousand acres that are in the watershed, pretty stream banks aren’t gonna’ help natural reproduction of brown trout. So, I mean, it’s all the farmers taking care of the watershed that have allowed us to have natural brown trout reproduction going on here.”

The ideal of farmers and environmentalists sharing common goals of protecting and enhancing natural resources on which both depend often seems to be elusive these days.  But the synergy is evident in Northeastern Iowa and could easily have served as the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize winning author, Norman Maclean who once wrote, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.