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Kid’s Free Fishing Day event is back
Tainter Creek Watershed Council
Free Fishing Day banner 2022

STAR VALLEY - The Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s ‘Kid’s Free Fishing Day Streambank Event’ is back in 2022, after a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The beloved event will take place in Star Valley (at the intersection of Crawford County B and C), on Saturday, June 4, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The family-friendly event will offer free fishing for children and families, a fish-shocking demonstration, fly-fishing and fly-tying demonstrations, a complimentary lunch, and a tour of the stream restoration project on Tainter and Conway Creeks on the Rayner Farm.

During ‘Free Fishing Weekend,’ all Wisconsin waters are open to residents and non-residents to fish without a license or trout or salmon stamp. However, all fishing regulations, including size and bag limits and species restrictions, will be enforced.

Watershed Council

The Tainter Creek Watershed Council got their start in 2017, following a devastating flash flood that ravaged the watershed in September of 2016. In that storm event, almost 11 inches of water were dumped by a storm that set up over the Vernon-Crawford county line overnight on September 21-22.

In the aftermath of the storm and recovery, the efforts of Valley Stewardship Network’s Matt Emslie to reach out to watershed farmers about what could be done to help protect crops, fences, livestock, the creek, and water quality bore fruit. A group of farmers from the watershed began to meet, and eventually decided to pursue funding from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Producer-Led Watershed Council Grant Program.

At a meeting held June 12, 2017, the group voted to adopt the following mission statement: ‘Demonstrate and implement the best practices that can improve Tainter Creek and the Tainter Creek Watershed.’ At a January 2018 meeting, the group learned they had received a $13,000 Producer-Led Watershed Grant from DATCP. 

The final approved budget included $7,500 for cost share on installation of cover crops, $3,500 for outreach and education events, $1,800 for surface water testing, and $200 for meeting facility rental.

In 2018, the watershed council exploded on the scene with their first free fishing weekend event, held at the farm of council member Bruce Ristow. They followed that up with bringing eminent soil scientist Ray Archuleta to the farm of Brian McCulloh, with almost 200 farmers in attendance. That fall, the group also conducted the first of what was to become three rounds of well water testing in the watershed.

In 2019, the group once again held a well-attended free fishing day event at a property owned by the Olson family. They also hosted another well-known soil scientist Gabe Brown, once again at the McCulloh farm. At that event, more than 200 farmers, students and community members came to hear Brown’s message about soil health and farm profitability.

At a report delivered in December of 2020, council coordinator Dani Heisler informed the group about steady growth in acres planted into cover crops in the watershed.

In 2019, Heisler explained, the Tainter Creek Watershed Council reported 487 acres planted in cover crops.   In 2020, the acres reported increased by over 60 percent, totaling 800 acres. Those acres were planted across 23 farms, an increase of nine new farms for 2020. Acres continued to grow in 2021, and are expected to grow again in 2022.    

Pandemic years

The group has gone on to receive full funding from DATCP every year since then. The pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 were a little slower for the group, with fewer in-person meetings, and smaller events conducted on member farms. 

They continued to pursue a grazing project with the Wallace Center Pasture Project, designed to provide funding to convert row crop land in the watershed to managed rotational grazing, and formed a new alliance with the Grasslands 2.0 project. The group also launched signs for display in fields where cover crops were planted, as well as signs to mark the entrance to the watershed. 

In 2020, the group hosted one outdoor education event where members of the public were able to participate. That event brought eminent soil erosion researcher Stanley Trimble to Sidie Hollow County Park in September of 2021. Dr. Trimble had previously conducted groundbreaking research about soil erosion in the Coon Creek Watershed. His almost four decades of research built on the work of scientists who studied the watershed starting in the 1930s, where it is memorialized as the location of the nation’s first watershed demonstration project – the Coon Creek Watershed Project.

Watershed Council members were given a copy of Trimble’s iconic book about his years in the Coon Creek Watershed, and his research. That book is ‘Historical Agriculture and Soil Erosion in the Upper Mississippi Valley Hill Country.’

At his presentation, Trimble presented a saga of the Coon Creek Watershed that ranged from the stable pre-settlement hydrologic conditions to the devastation that began at the turn of the century, and reached its peak in the 1930s. Before the modern era of flooding that escalated in 2018, Trimble had observed that with the wide adoption of no-till management on hilltop farm land, the system had once again stabilized “as much as it can” under conditions of use of the land for agricultural production.

For Trimble, the flood of 2018 was a game changer. When he returned to the area to survey the damage in the aftermath of the rainfall and resulting widespread flooding, he was shocked to observe the impacts.

 “The 2007 and 2008 floods exceeded anything I had ever seen before, but I was amazed at how well the landscape had handled those events,” Trimble said. “But my mind was blown by the 2018 rain event and flooding.”

Trimble had been particularly struck by the Coon Creek floodwaters overflowing the railroad embankment along the Mississippi River in Stoddard. To his knowledge, he said, this had never happened before.

 “Given the flooding events we’re increasingly seeing, something is obviously going on,” Trimble said. “Up to this point, no-till management has been working, but at this point the ag technicians are going to have to come up with something more powerful than no-till.”

Stream restorations

In 2019, Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE) improved 3,320 feet or 0.63 miles of Tainter Creek, on both sides of the bridge over County C in Star Valley. Then in 2021, 1,550 feet of Conway Creek, a tributary of Tainter Creek, that flows from the west and joins the creek in Star Valley, was improved.

The restored banks of the two creeks, enhanced with trout habitat structures, now stands as a lasting legacy to Ernest Rayner, Sr., who authorized the work by TUDARE. The Rayners were honored at the Conservation Awards at the 2021 Crawford County Fair. Ernest Rayner, Jr., was on-hand to accept the award on behalf of his father, who passed in 2019, just before the first phase of the project was completed.

“Restoration efforts along Tainter Creek, like other major tributaries of the Kickapoo River, provide good conditions for a healthy trout fishery,” former TUDARE employee Duke Welter said. “The water, from spring-fed sources, is always cold with a steady, high flow, and the limestone and sandstone bedrock that the water is filtered through provides nutrients that create fertile conditions for water plants, insects and crustaceans that trout rely on for food.”

TUDARE limits their restoration efforts to properties where perpetual easements have been granted in order to ensure longevity of the results against their member’s investments. Once a landowner has granted a perpetual easement, then fundraising from public and private sources becomes possible.

The Tainter Creek project was paid for through public funding from USDA-NRCS, Crawford County Conservation Aids, the FishAmerica Foundation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Trout Unlimited members also contributed funding from funds raised from their membership.

For the Conway Creek segment of the project, funding came Oakbrook Trout Unlimited, in addition to the other funding sources described above. The group presented a $16,000 check to TUDARE’s Paul Krahn in Star Valley in June of 2021. The funds were used in the Conway Creek streambank restoration effort, completed last summer.