Ray Ricketts of Hiawatha Trout Unlimited is shown at Blagsvedt Creek in Houston County.  PHOTO BY CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Ray Ricketts of Hiawatha Trout Unlimited is shown at Blagsvedt Creek in Houston County. PHOTO BY CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY READER

"I think this is one of the best fishing locations in the country," Ray Ricketts said. He should know. Raised in the fabled trout fishing Valhalla of western Montana, Rickets now serves as habitat coordinator for the Hiawatha Chapter of Trout Unlimited. His beat is the spring creeks of southeastern Minnesota's "Driftless Area."

Ricketts spoke from the bank of Blagsvedt Creek, a tiny brook trout stream in Fillmore County, which is scheduled for habitat improvement this summer.

"I'll even challenge my Montana friends," he continued, "for the size of our streams and the size of our fish, proportionally. We've got better fishing than you do on the Big Hole, the Bighorn, Rock Creek, the Bitterroot or the Blackfoot."

Could a bunch of small streams in places like Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties compare to the most famous trout waters in the nation? Some fishers would call that heresy. Ricketts calls it fact.

"I've fished Montana, the Yellowstone," he said. "Out here, it's just different. It's not worse or better, just different. We've got spring creeks here that are as good as the Livingston (Montana) area. We've got chalk streams that are as good as England, and the opportunity to fish that they don't have."

The Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, supported by Lessard-Sams dollars, is infusing life-blood into efforts to restore and improve streams and lakes throughout Minnesota, according to Trout Unlimited spokespersons.

Last May, a $2.1 million appropriation for the 2013 work season was signed into law by Governor Mark Dayton. The money will funnel through seven TU chapters towards a variety of projects.

Ricketts said it would be hard to overestimate the impact of the constitutionally dedicated sales tax, which Minnesota voters approved in November of 2008.

"Before Lessard-Sams became available, we had to save money and obtain five to six years' worth of other grant funding in order to do the amount of work we're doing in a single year now," he noted.

"If we had to do this on the basis that we used to do, anywhere from a half-mile to two miles a year, we'd only cover up to 40 miles in 20 years. That's not forgivable. If we can do 10 miles per year, it's something that can make a difference," Ricketts added.

In 2013, Hiawatha will work on several streams in Fillmore and surrounding counties. Typical jobs include healing crumbling banks with back-sloping and seeding, providing fish habitat through overhead cover, added depth and rock for in-stream cover.

Other work sometimes includes narrowing sluggish, silted streams to bring them back to life, and adding rock riprap where appropriate to stabilize banks. The term "reconnecting streams with their flood plain" is often heard. It typically involves back-sloping eroding banks so that high water can spread out and dissipate its power rather than shoot through the streambed like a high-pressure hose.

Ricketts admitted it's a big job.

From proposal to implementation, it takes three to four years to accomplish a stream improvement project. Along the way, a myriad of hurdles must be cleared. Some of those include permits, approvals by various governmental agencies, appropriations, additional planning and documentation.

"We have them stacked," Ricketts added, "several years deep."

Walking along the stream, he pointed towards a pile of logs washed into a hole. Deep water suddenly bulged, as living arrows shot under tree roots. "Brook trout," Ricketts grinned. "Did you see the white edges on their fins?"

It's hard to tell if the trout in the creek are true natives, descended from the original stock of fish that existed in the region before the plow.

These "specks," like all brookies, are actually members of the char family. Even if they're not descended from the original strains, they are still brook trout. Larger, slightly warmer creeks in the driftless area typically favor the imported brown trout.

Rainbow trout from the western United States are also stocked in some waters. Ricketts said that genetic testing could be able to identify remnant populations of native brook trout, which may still exist in some local streams.

Tiny, "jump across" brooks like this one retain constant cold water temperatures year-round. That's something brook trout favor. Ricketts placed temperature monitors in the creek last year with the landowner's permission. Even during record July heat, the water stayed in the 50s.

Three Fillmore County spring creeks are slated for TU sponsored work in 2013. That includes a mile of Mill Creek, about a mile of Camp Creek and a half mile on tiny Blagsvedt. There are more stream improvement projects planned for neighboring counties.

"It's not just Hiawatha. We've got the Win-Cres and the Twin Cities Chapter working towards this as well," Ricketts said. "And there are four or five other chapters in the center part of the state that don't have the fishing opportunities that we do. I'd like to get them to come down here and 'own' a stream. Take responsibility for it. Come down on Saturday and do project work and we'll take you fishing on Sunday."

Trout Unlimited only works on streams with public access agreements in place. Luckily, a large number of Minnesota landowners have generously entered into fishing easements, Ricketts noted. Another key is a good working relationship with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the projects.

"We've been working with the Lanesboro Fisheries Office for 15 years," Ricketts said. "We've got a very good partnership with DNR. (Area supervisor) Steve Klotz is fair to work with. He's got very progressive thinking in terms of what needs to be done," Ricketts added. From stream selection to planning and contracting, the state closely monitors the process.

"In looking at what we have, we've got about 600 to 700 miles of streams in the driftless region of southeast Minnesota," Ricketts concluded. "I'd say a majority of that is probably threatened in the sense that agricultural practices in the past as well as in the present can pose a danger to those streams. I see this as an opportunity. It's something we can hand over to our kids and grandkids."