By Shawn Perich
The extraordinary rain storm that flooded Duluth in June, 2012, also damaged area trout streams. In the red clay hills of Carlton County, the Blackhoof River was ravaged by flood waters. Saturated hillsides gave way, sending trees and red earth into the river.
“Some landslides hit the river, went across it, and took down trees on the other side,” says Dennis Olson of Cambridge. “In other slides, the trees seem to have slid down the hill upright and piled up in the river.”
Olson, 69, grew up along the Blackhoof and began fishing the river as a boy. The property where he now owns a cabin contains about one mile of the river. He had eight major slides on his property, including four that reached the river. The slides clogged and slowed the river’s flow, allowing sand and silt to accumulate.
“The sand covers the spawning gravel and fills in the holes for up to a quarter mile upstream from the slides,” Olson says.
The little-known Blackhoof is among northeastern Minnesota’s best trout streams. A tributary of the muddy-watered Nemadji River, the Blackhoof runs clear and cold throughout the year and thus supports lots of aquatic insects and other invertebrates, which are food for the river’s trout. In this respect, it is more like Wisconsin’s Bois Brule than the rocky, runoff-dependent North Shore streams. Like the Brule, the Blackhoof receives spawning runs of Lake Superior steelhead and brown trout, as well as supporting resident populations of brook and brown trout. Olson says the river is not stocked by the DNR and all of the trout are wild.
“The only fisheries work on the river is an ongoing program to trap beavers and remove their dams,” he says.
Fishing for steelhead last spring, Olson and his son David, also of Cambridge, found the big fish were able to find passage through the log jams, although some appeared to have been scarred by sharp sticks as they did so. The log jams were up to 50 yards long and in two cases completed plugged the channel, forcing the river out of its banks.
Olson decided the river needed some help. He met with DNR fisheries manager Deserae Hendrickson to discuss the situation and get her approval to remove the logjams. Then he went to work. He gathered a crew of strapping young men—David and his fishing friends—to attack a log jam.
Last August, when the river was at its lowest flow, the seven-man crew used chainsaws to clear a seven-foot-wide channel through a large jam. Because the trees were under tension and likely to move and shift as they were cut, it was slow, dangerous work. The crew toiled for eight hours to make their way through the jam. Once freed, the river flowed quickly through the open channel, taking some of the silt with it.
“It took a couple of months and a couple of rains for the river to flush the sand out,” Olson says. “But now the stretch is back to the way it was.”
The crew–consisting of David Olson, Jason Kopp, Tom Cawcutt, Ben Dummer, Jerry Olson, Al Koczur and Dennis Olson—was only able to clear one jam last summer. Olson plans to keep clearing a jam or two each summer until they’ve sufficiently cleared the river—no small accomplishment for a group of volunteers. The group has one thing in common that gives them purpose—they all enjoy fishing for steelhead in the Blackhoof.
Olson is also working to improve another Carlton County trout stream, the Net River near Holyoke. This remote river supports resident brown trout, as well as lake-run steelhead and browns.
“My son even caught a 35-inch muskie in there last summer,” Olson says. “It must have come up from the Nemadji, which has everything in it.”
The Nemadji flows into the Wisconsin portion of the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Lake Superior trout travel a surprising distance upstream to reach cold-water spawning tributaries like the Net and Blackhoof. It is about 50 river miles from Olson’s cabin on the Blackhoof to the mouth of the Nemadji.
In the Net River, upstream migrations are presently hindered by a series of beaver dams. Olson is working with a professional trapper this spring to begin reducing the beaver population and to remove an especially large dam near the junction of the Net and Little Net rivers. He was able to fund the project with a donation from the Isanti County Sportsmen’s Club.
“The only problem is there are more dams than we have money to remove,” he says.
Olson plans to reach out to other interested organizations to form a partnership to improve the river. If he can do so, he’ll then work with the county soil and water conservation district to apply for an Outdoor Heritage grant.
An avid trout angler, Olson has no other motivation than a lifelong love of the rivers he fishes. Being retired, he also has the time to pursue conservation projects. He also appreciates that the rivers support wild trout populations, including lake-run steelhead and browns that may weigh five pounds or more. He says in recent years, the resident brook trout population has made a “tremendous comeback,” as well.
“We don’t keep anything,” he says. “All of our fishing is catch and release.”
Olson isn’t particularly worried that publicizing the Blackhoof and the Net will attract more fishing pressure. Trout streams need anglers looking after them to ensure they remain healthy. And, even though the rivers are within two hours of the Twin Cities and less than an hour from Duluth, their wild environs ensure they won’t be overfished. Both rivers are crossed by few roads and offer miles of remote fishing.
“It’s tough going,” Olson says.
For Olson and the handful of other anglers who fish these trout streams, the rewards are worth the effort. Removing log jams and beaver dams is physically demanding work, but for these anglers, it’s a labor of love.