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The Good Old Days - Were They Really THAT Good?

To paraphrase Rick James, nostalgia is a hell of a drug. We all tend to think that things were better "in the good old days". When "the good old days" were varies for everyone. For me, the good old days were when I was learning to fly fish in the mid-1990's. I think that is true for many people - the good old days were their formative years. The music was better, the cars cooler, and the fishing was certainly better. Or was it?

Avalanche swinging bridge
One of my favorite pieces of nostalgia - the old bridge over the West Fork that lead to the Avalanche general store.

But when I look back at my "good old days" - objectively - I also understand that a fair number of the trout I caught were stocked fish. Streams that today are full of wild, stream-born trout were stocked with hatchery browns and rainbows. Sometimes with big old 'brooders (hatchery brood stock) that made you feel really accomplished for catching the big one. There is no question that there are more wild fish today than in my formative fishing years and to me, that is a huge improvement of the streams of my youth.

A rainbow and a brown trout going home for dinner.
From somewhere around 1994 - a couple of fish for dinner from Crooked Creek - one of the first streams to have too many wild fish.

And I recognize that memories and recollections are often less than perfect. That is where data - stocking records - help tell the story. Below are data from a number of Vernon and La Crosse County streams, a couple of which today have 10 fish, no size limit bag limits.

The images above are, in order:

  1. Mormon Creek (Mormon Coulee; La Crosse County) which today is a 10 fish, no size limit stream. The stream was last stocked in 2013 with "wild stocked" (Timber Coulee - Southwest feral) Brown Trout.

  2. West Fork of the Kickapoo River (Vernon County) which still sees Brook Trout stockings - again from feral (wild) stocks. The last stocking record of a Brown Trout was in 2009.

  3. Bohemian Valley (Coon Creek; La Crosse County) which has been a 10 fish, no size limit stream since the last regulations changes. In the mid-1990's, the stream was still being stocked with Rainbow Trout and the last Brown Trout were stocked in 1988 - over 30 years ago now!

  4. Lastly, Vernon County records from 1972 - the furthest back that the fish stocking database has data for - show a lot of streams that are no longer stocked and have not been for decades.

If you are a fan of wild fisheries, the good old days are now. I could have gone to a number of other counties and favorite streams anywhere in Wisconsin and seen very similar trends.

I learned to fly fish in Grant County. For the most part, I was regularly catching stocked trout. Sometimes it was obvious - they were rainbows which rarely reproduce successfully in Wisconsin streams - and like the one in an above image, they often looked like they took a beating in the hatchery. It was less obvious when they were Brown Trout which were quite heavily stocked. At some level, it rather helped my development as a fly angler as I had a bit more success with dumb, stocked fish. I also hypothesize that some of what has made many trout anglers move out of trout fishing is that the dumb fish went away and success became more limited as the fishing became more challenging.

My formative years of fly fishing - the early to mid-1990's - saw a lot of trout stocking. Grant County had well over 50 trout stocking entries during those years. Last year there were a dozen entries and almost all of those were "wild stocked" (feral) trout which, it is hoped, will lead to wild, sustainable fisheries as has been the case in many other streams.

While my frame of reference only goes back to the early 1990's and the stocking database only back to 1972, there is other evidence of just how degraded Driftless streams were. Below is perhaps the best known quote,

“Coulee region streams are in extremely poor shape because of watershed management problems and it is probable that the habitat conditions will continue to be degraded. Because of this fact it is also likely that trout stream fishing in the coulee region may practically disappear in the future”

- John Brasch, Wisconsin Conservation Department, March 18, 1958 (now the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

The Driftless is greatly improved - and I think it is important to keep sight of that. However, it still faces challenges, particularly with agricultural impairment and fish kills. And we will be dealing with climate change impacts, which we are currently seeing the impacts of on Brook and Brown Trout. For more details on the Driftless, read the post, The Re-Birth of the Driftless.

Me with a fish in 1999
I was certainly much more svelte back in the good old days. This is from 1999.

For some, the good old days were probably 20 and 30 years ago. There were more larger fish (for the most part), probably because the streams had less natural reproduction and more "brooders" (hatchery brood stock that were stocked into streams), in some cases. I do long for the days when we had better hatches - particularly the sulphurs which were once our best hatch. I do know the very skinny "Timber fish" we used to catch are largely a thing of the past in that watershed. Like most of these generalities, they are not necessarily applicable everywhere.

I had thought that we saw fewer anglers "back in the day" but the data do not really support that (see above). There certainly has been a shift to more fly anglers and fewer bait anglers - and I do think that is unfortunate in many ways. My "good old days" - 1991 to 1997 - were a time of great change. We were coming off the late 1980's drought which had a huge effect (more below) and reduced angler numbers. It was also about the time that the Wisconsin DNR was shifting to more wild trout management and less trout stocking. That too, probably, had an effect on angler numbers.

What About Elsewhere In Wisconsin?

I am certainly more in-touch with what is and has been happening in the Driftless Area, it is where I do 90+% of my trout fishing today. I do enjoy getting up north and to the UP when I have time but it is awful hard driving by thousands of miles of Driftless streams to do so. And I get a number of friends that want to meet up and fish the Driftless - maybe we need to make good on some of our trips to other parts of the state.

I do have a good number of friends "up north" or in the Central Sands but I am certainly less informed on those fisheries. But below is what I think I know, largely from experience and conversations with others. If your experiences vary, please share in the comments.

Ed Haaga with a Wolf River Brown Trout.
Ed Haaga with a Wolf River Brown Trout. (George Close photo)

The stocking trends I wrote about in the Driftless are largely reflected in the rest of the state. Trout stocking statewide is down significantly, particular of your standard issue hatchery (non-wild stocked) trout.

The first image is Wolf River (Langlade County) stocking data from last year - 2022 - and the second image is from 1991 to 1996. The number of stocked fish is maybe down a little bit but the 1990's had a pretty great fluctuation in how many were stocked each year and the current stocking seems to target 20,000 trout a year (15K Brown Trout and 5K Rainbow Trout). In the 1990's, there were some larger stockings - over 32K trout - but other years saw about half of what is stocked currently.

George Close and Tim Landwehr with a smallmouth bass
George Close and Tim Landwehr with a smallie - not from the Wolf, but further east.

The Wolf is and historically has been a largely stocked trout fishery. It probably lacks the tributary density - at least in Langlade County - to support sufficient natural reproduction and cold water inputs to sustain summer temperatures. Today, the Smallmouth Bass certainly garner more attention than they did in the past but they were always there. Maybe they are there in larger numbers and/or larger sizes today but the biggest difference is there has been an explosion in smallmouth fly fishing in the US. Smallies are the reason I travel to the Wolf in August to hang out with friends and float the river (when STREAM Girls is not scheduled for the same weekend...). Unlike my experiences in the Driftless with declining hatches, my experiences in northern Wisconsin is that hatches are generally much like they were "in the good old days". Declining hatches is - by far - the largest source of yearning for the "good old days" in the Driftless. And increasingly, the crowds are adding to that yearning.

Traveling further north, I know a few friends that have seen declines in trout, particularly Brook Trout. They date these changes to the late-1980's drought which contracted the ranges of trout in some areas. This seems to be more of an issue in northwestern part of the state.

To be quite honest, I do not fish the Central Sands very often. I used to fish it more when it was some of the closest trout water to me. I mostly fish, "The Sands" to chase some burrowing mayflies - the Hex and the Ephoron. My largely uniformed "take" on the Central Sands is that their trajectory has been a lot like the Driftless. From the trout stocking database, it appears that wild trout management came earlier to the Sands. Though with many more lakes, that allowed for streams to remain unstocked as the lakes were and remain fairly heavily stocked.

My brother fishing a central Wisconsin stream
A stream on the northern edge of the Central Sands was a favorite Brook Trout stream.

Some of the earliest wild trout management occurred in the Central Sands. Lawrence Creek is rather famous in the scientific community that does and/or studies stream habitat improvements. Bob Hunt's work was some of the earliest research on the effects of stream improvements on wild trout populations. Like the Driftless, the region was altered by agriculture and that continues to be the most significant source of degradation today. In particular, you may be familiar with some of the issues associated with groundwater withdrawal that made the news, like when the Little Plover River ran dry.

George Close and his Jeep.
The fishing vehicles were certainly cooler back in the good old days.

The good news in Wisconsin is that these largely are the good old days. Things certainly change over time - we have improved many miles of streams (sometimes for better or worse), restored connectivity to stream networks, there are fewer stocked trout and more wild trout, hatches have sometimes changed - not always for the better, and we face current threats from a number of sources - not the least of which is and will be climate change. We are too often quick to think that conditions always get worse - they don't. Sometimes, through lots of hard work and investment, things do improve and largely, I think we have seen that in our trout fisheries.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. What changes have you seen to your favorite fisheries?

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I know more about the north end of the Driftless, NW Wisconsin freestone streams, and the MN North Shore than I do about the Driftless spring creeks.

The Good Old Days is a matter of personal perspective.

I’ve met a few older gentlemen who fondly recall the days when they and all their friends could catch ten, 10-inch long brook trout every day, and now they catch very few brookies and the fish are smaller. Maybe they don’t know or don’t care that their baskets of brook trout came out of the back of a hatchery truck, and Wisconsin has moved toward sustainable wild populations.

I caught more trout and bigger trout 20 and 40 years ago than I do…

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