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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Low catches this fall at Whittlesey Creek during coaster brook trout population estimate

Region 3, October 2, 2012
Staff from the Ashland FWCO and partners work to restore brook trout in Whittlesey Creek, a Lake Superior tributary.
Staff from the Ashland FWCO and partners work to restore brook trout in Whittlesey Creek, a Lake Superior tributary. - Photo Credit: n/a

Whittlesey Creek is a 5.2 mile tributary with average flows of 16 cubic feet per second that drains to Lake Superior near Ashland, Wisconsin. Whittlesey Creek is known for cold, spring fed waters and has been identified as a stream that historically supported a self-sustaining coaster brook trout population. However, coaster populations are significantly reduced from historic levels due to habitat degradation, overharvest, and competition with non-native trout and salmon species. The Ashland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) is working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR), Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Iron River National Fish Hatchery to re-establish a self-sustaining brook trout population in Whittlesey Creek that exhibits a migratory life history. In pursuit of this goal, the partners have stocked eggs, fingerlings (50mm), yearlings (127 mm) and adults (>254 mm) into Whittlesey Creek from 2003 through 2009.

 

Monitoring to determine the effectiveness of these efforts has been conducted prior to, during and post stocking. Mark/recapture population estimates of salmon and trout species have been conducted in the fall annually since 2001. This year, the surveys were conducted from September 10th to September 13th at four locations in the upper reaches of the Whittlesey Creek watershed. Fish were captured using barge and backpack electrofishing gear. All fish were marked with a partial/temporary fin clip before they were returned to the creek. All brook trout and a subset of other trout species were measured to the nearest tenth of an inch. Additional data were collected on brook trout including weight, genetic samples for strain identification, and sex and maturity (when possible).

Of particular note this year was the low numbers of fish collected of all species. Heavy rains in the western part of the Lake Superior basin this spring led to substantial flooding in some areas, including Whittlesey Creek. The timing of these storms, when young-of-the-year are vulnerable to displacement or mortality due to high flows, may have affected 2012 year class strength. As in previous years, young-of-the-year coho salmon (under 4 inches) dominated the catch (>90%). The number of rainbow trout also far surpassed the number of native brook trout, and a few brown trout were present as well. Nearly 100 brook trout were sampled during the survey. Sixteen of those collected had existing Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags that were implanted in previous years. PIT tags were surgically inserted into an additional 28 brook trout this year to monitor movement throughout the Whittlesey Creek system.

Staff from the Ashland FWCO and WIDNR are now entering data from these surveys to calculate population estimates. Significant investment in personnel time to this effort reflects the Ashland FWCO’s commitment to brook trout rehabilitation in the Lake Superior basin and to working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance native fish and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the public.

Staff and volunteers from the following agencies assisted with field work this fall: USFWS Ashland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office; USFWS Iron River Fish Hatchery; USFWS Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - Bayfield office; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – Superior office; Wild Rivers Chapter of Trout Unlimited; Northland College and University of Wisconsin Extension.

Contact Info: Michele Wheeler, 715-682-6185 x19, Michele_Wheeler@fws.gov