DELAWARE COUNTY, Iowa — In Iowa’s northeast corner, spring comes late. The cold hangs on, and the woods — safe in the lee of these hills — are slow to green. But for some here, conditions are ideal and their lives are about to begin anew
It’s a busy time for Garald Rivers, back and forth, from truck to trail to tree-lined banks…coloring the clear waters of Spring Branch Creek with rainbows.
“I kind of like to toss them into moving (water),” he says, with a net full of trout, “because they just sort of disperse a little bit.”
Water this clean is rare in Iowa, and these rainbow trout waste little time making themselves at home in it.
“The nice thing especially here is this is the same water they just came out of,” Rivers says.
They and 90% of the other trout found in Iowa are from the nearby Manchester Fish Hatchery —built here long ago with a purpose.
“In the late 1800s,” explains Mike Steuck, the Iowa DNR’s northeast fisheries supervisor, “the US Fish and Wildlife Service started a fish hatchery at this site because of the three coldwater springs that feed our water for this facility.”
The springs around here are so clean, the hatchery can simply harness a portion of their water, and raise trout year-round.
“Trout need cold water to survive,” Steuck says, “and because of that groundwater input, it’s 55 degrees — roughly, give or take ten degrees — year-round.”
Steuck and his team here are up to their gills in trout — rainbows, browns, and brooks — from hatchlings to honkers.
Their motive is simple.
“We’re raising these fish to be stocked out in our streams so that anglers can catch them,” Steuck says.
Let’s set our bearings here a moment:
The streams of “Trout Country” are confined to about 9 northeastern Iowa counties. From the Mississippi River, west to Howard. From the Minnesota border, south to Jackson. Ninety to 100 have public access. There are some 500 miles of them in all.
They are all stocked with fish from the Manchester hatchery, which spend about five months inside and another ten, outside.
In its 140 years of raising fish, this place never saw a year like 2020.
“We sold 55,000 trout stamps or privileges last year,” Steuck says, “and that’s 25% more than we did in 2019.”
The hatchery worked overtime as COVID-weary Iowans fell back on fishing. We made some 720,000 angler trips to trout waters last year, and spent an average of $46 in local communities when we did. That’s a grand total of nearly $35 million.
“These smaller communities,” says Steuck, speaking of towns like Manchester, “people travel to go fish, they’re spending money in these communities and so it helps support them.”
The Manchester trout also made their way to the ponds in Ankeny, Ames, and Bondurant.
Steuck explains the process of netting the catchable-sized trout in the outdoor ponds at the hatchery and placing them in the truck for transport to the streams.
“We need 300 fish and they’re about half a pound apiece, so they’re gonna weigh out about 150 pounds of fish, put ‘em on the truck…and then we’ll get those 300 fish stocked in the stream.”
And when they get to the stream — awkward introductions aside — two Iowa resources join as one…and even a man on the job has to stop to marvel.
“This is certainly a crown jewel,” says Rivers, looking over Spring Branch Creek, “and Backbone (state park’s) stream is a crown jewel for sure. But there are some others off the beaten path that I can’t believe more people don’t use.”
The DNR would like us to use them. That is what this has always been about. Joining people and nature — even in the farthest corners and chilliest shadow — where there is new life to behold.
For more information on trout fishing in Iowa, check out the DNR’s website.