LOOKBACK: Cedar once stocked to the gills with fish by state
Austin Ikes later joined in effort, using lagoon as rearing pond
By Tim Ruzek, Cedar River Watershed District
Austin anglers who cast a line into the Cedar River had been offered quite a stock of pickerel (better known today as northern pike) by mid-summer 1903.
Minnesota’s state game commission the previous year had placed more than 120 million fish in lakes and rivers across the state, including in Mower County. State plans in 1903 aimed to stock a “still larger number” of fish in the state’s waters, according to the Mower County Transcript newspaper.
“Is this why the Cedar River is so full of pickerel at present? Not for many years have so many been caught,” the Transcript wrote on July 15, 1903.
Fish being stocked by the State of Minnesota in lakes and streams has a long history, including in the Cedar River and its tributary streams.
In April 2020, Austin’s Wolf Creek, a Cedar River tributary that flows through the city’s 150-acre Todd Park, is getting 600 rainbow trout stocked in its cold, spring-fed water. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ fisheries division in Waterville is stocking 300 rainbow trout (raised at the state’s Lanesboro fishery) for the April 18, 2020, state trout fishing opener for streams, and another 300 later in the spring.
Cedar River Watershed District proposed Wolf Creek for trout stocking to the DNR after testing the stream’s water temperature at an unshaded stretch for a few years. CRWD watershed technician James Fett found Wolf Creek remains cold enough to support trout thanks to Todd Park’s spring-fed pond that empties into it and a significant amount of upstream conservation land.
History of trout stocking in Austin area
DNR previously tried managing trout in Wolf Creek in the 1980s when Mower County was managed by DNR’s Lanesboro Fisheries (now the county is under DNR’s Waterville Fisheries) but stopped in the late 1980s. Young trout stockings failed to develop into a fishery over several years, and DNR stopped the effort. Surveys indicated a problem from predator fish — northern pike and largemouth bass — coming into Wolf from the Cedar River.
Under the new plan, DNR will stock rainbow trout (about a half-pound each), making for a size that’s a nice catch for anglers and too large for predator fish.
Decades ago, trout stocking in local waters happened more frequently and widespread in the watershed and Mower County.
On July 19, 1899, the Herald reported that the Mower County sheriff and other men had received a shipment of 10,000 trout from the state’s fish hatcheries in St. Paul. The locals placed the trout in the Little Cedar River in Adams, where the sheriff had placed trout two years earlier.
Other fish from the shipment were placed in streams south of Austin, “where the gentlemen who own them can take their friends and enjoy a day’s fishing.”
“There has been a large number of different kinds of fish placed in the streams near Austin at different times during the past few years and the fishing in the vicinity of Austin will be such in a few years that sportsmen from all around will come to Austin to angle for the finny tribe,” the Herald wrote.
In February 1949, a regular Herald columnist named “The Old Timer” recalled a fishing spot decades earlier that was “highly regarded by local trout fishermen.” This place a little south of Austin was known as the “Woodson’s pools,” which were a series of deep, spring-fed ponds. This likely was part of Woodson Creek, which flows to the Cedar River south of County Road 28 in Austin Township.
“Each year, when the trout season opened, there was much rivalry among the knowing ones to be the first to wet a line in the Woodson pools,” wrote The Old Timer.
Two years after The Old Timer’s column, Woodson Creek and Orchard Creek were referenced for trout fishing in a Herald article from April 30, 1951, titled, “Good Angling Expected in Area Streams.” Orchard flows from the west to join the Cedar after going under State Hwy. 105 in Lyle Township.
“Austin trout fishermen will find some good angling close to home when the season opens at one hour before sunrise Tuesday,” the Herald wrote.
Officials with the Lanesboro state fish hatchery and the Austin chapter of the Izaak Walton League (also known as the “Ikes”) had stocked Woodson and Orchard with 900 brown trout the previous week.
The following year, the Ikes planted 600 trout (type not specified) near Adams (presumably Little Cedar River) and 600 trout in streams near Austin, according to the Herald in June 1952. That month, the Ikes also gave East Side Lake a “truckload” of crappies from the Lanesboro state hatchery.
In April 1953, the Ikes planted about 1,000 trout in Orchard Creek. The next month, the Herald ran an article for trout anglers headlined: “Last Warning: Dobbins Creek Fishermen Will Be Arrested.”
The local game warden felt the need to issue a “final warning” to trout anglers about fishing Dobbins Creek because he had been “shooing them away like flies since the season opened” a week earlier, the Herald wrote. Dobbins was not on the trout list but some anglers were fishing there anyway.
At that time, trout fishing in Mower County was legal only in Adams Creek; Woodson Creek; Orchard Creek; and the Cedar River between the downtown dam and the Minnesota-Iowa border.
From 1998 to 2005, the DNR almost yearly stocked the spring-fed LeRoy Trout Pond (southeast Mower County) at the LeRoy Rod & Gun Club with hundreds of young rainbow trout but stopped due to poor water quality.
Fish stocking history in the Austin area
More than a century ago, stocking fish in the lakes and rivers provided a popular source of entertainment as well as food for locals. Replenishing the supply also was needed before the state put limits on keeping fish. Prior to that, local reports referred to anglers taking hundreds and thousands of fish out of the Cedar River and other local waterways.
On May 30, 1900, the Transcript wrote that the Cedar River’s low flow was making “fishing excellent and thousands are being taken out. None too poor to eat fish in these days.”
Three years later, the Herald reported that Austin’s meat markets were overwhelmed with the “great quantity of fish that came upriver this spring.” A local man, “who spends all of his leisure time along the river,” had said that more than 500 pickerel or northerns per day were being taken from the Cedar River between the downtown dam (called “Campell’s Mill” back then) and Officer’s Mill, which was south of County Road 4 in Austin Township.
On Dec. 5, 1888, the Albert Lea Tribune reported a group of men from Freeborn County went on a fishing excursion on the Cedar River, resulting in more than 700 pounds of fish. The article claimed the group had made “the largest catch ever made in one night on Cedar River.”
During this era, the state’s “fish commissioners” were distributing millions of fish every two years. They reported in 1881 that nearly 1.3 million fish were stocked the previous two years in the state’s lakes and streams; in 1883, nearly 1.7 million fish had been stocked in a two-year period.
Those reports did not include information on whether Mower County received fish but the Mower County Transcript reported in June 1886 reported that the “fish commissioners” sent 500,000 young walleye to be placed in late May in the Cedar River. Most were put in the Cedar River between the Ramsey Dam (today’s Old Mill Restaurant) and the downtown Austin dam.
“A few of them were put into the Warner Mill Pond on Dobbins Creek,” the Transcript reported, which referenced the area known today as East Side Lake. Back then, a mill operated from a different dam on Dobbins that created a backwater also called Beaver Lake that was drained when the dam blew out during an 1890s flood. A dam was not rebuilt until the 1930s with the creation of East Side Lake.
Although unmentioned in the article, a good number of walleye also were placed in the Cedar south of Austin as the following year there were fishermen asking what had become of 10,000 walleye placed in that stretch of the river the previous year.
Another popular area to stock fish long ago was along the 4-mile stretch of the Cedar River between Ramsey Dam and the downtown dam.
In May 1898, that stretch of the Cedar received 20,000 young walleyes from the state.
By 1925, the state had increased the stocking to include 175,000 young walleyes going into the Cedar River at Austin.
“Chances for catches, when local anglers case their lines out into the river in this vicinity, will be increased many fold several years hence when 175,000 walleyed pike just placed in the river grow up,” the Herald wrote in May 1925.
That year, the Austin Ikes, which had established a local chapter in 1924, got involved in stocking fish by securing a shipment of fish from the state’s game and fish department. That consisted of seven “cans” each holding 25,000 young walleye. All were planted in the Cedar River — five cans at the old Horace Austin State Park (Austin Mill Pond) and two cans at Ramsey Dam, according to the Herald.
Other times, a variety of fish and locations were reported for the state’s fish stocking locally.
In March 1919, the Mower County Transcript-Republican reported that the state’s fish hatcheries in 1918 had a “recorder breaker” for fish production. The number of fish actually hatched and planted totaled more than 330 million.
From the stocking by the state in 1918, numerous Mower County streams received fish. The breakdown was reported as:
· 12,000 brook trout for Dobbins Creek
· 12,000 brook trout for Woodson Creek
· 1,500 crappies for the Cedar River
· 500 crappies and 1,400 sunfish for Willow Creek (not clear what stream that is today)
Prior to creating a “fish-rearing pond” in the Skinners Hill lagoon by the early 1940s, the Austin Ikes in 1929 got assistance from beavers “on the west wing of the Cedar River at Ramsey” (likely Ramsey Creek). The Herald article carried the headline: “Beavers Sign No Contract But Do Big Job.”
“A colony of beavers is being used by the Izaak Walton League to replenish the waning supply of fish for anglers of Mower County,” the article wrote.
The Ikes were in need of a bass pond that might encourage reproduction but constructing such a pond “required considerable effort.” The group also had been eyeing a “branch of the Red Cedar River above Ramsey” since 1926 for use as a “bass spawning ground.”
That year, the new colony of beaver were “solving the League’s pond construction program. Though they are not under contract with the League, the beaver have been working all summer in the building of a 100-foot dam that exactly fits the League’s idea of what the specification of a new bass pond should be,” according to the Herald.
Once the beavers completed the dam, the Ikes expected the pond to be ready for a variety of smallmouth bass secured by the group and moved to that site.
By the 1940s, the Austin Ikes had started raising young fish at the lagoon or “fish-rearing pond” below Austin’s Skinners Hill at Community Bandshell Park.
As of fall 1941, the Herald reported that the “fish population in and around Austin has increased recently due to the success of the Izaak Walton League fish-rearing pond in Community Park.”
In October 1946, the Ikes reported netting a record number of fish from the fish-rearing pond during its “fall seining operations.” The group got help from the state’s fish hatchery staff from Lanseboro.
“If water conditions are favorable, fishermen of the Austin area have a right to expect considerably better angling in the future in the Cedar River and East Side Lake because 56,000 fingerlings were dumped in Thursday,” the Herald wrote.
Five years later, the Ikes planted about 1,000 bass (each about 4–6 inches long) in October 1951 in the Cedar River above Ramsey Dam. The bass came from the state’s Lanesboro fishery. Soon after, the Ikes then planted in the Cedar River above Ramsey Dam another 10,000 bass raised at the lagoon followed by 500 “full-sized crappies” at East Side Lake.
In October 1950, the Ikes seined more than 2,000 fish from the Skinners Hill lagoon and planted them in the Cedar River. Ikes members sorted crappies, bluegills and young bass by size along with a 4.5-pound northern and a “bushel basket of suckers.”
“Theoretically, the fish should have been all bass,” the Herald reported. “But during the high water period last spring, other varieties entered the pond and were trapped there when the water receded.”
The group had seined the pond after that high water but “some of the fish evidently escaped the net.”
In the early 1950s, the Austin Ikes also tagged and planted fish at East Side Lake for a “summer fish derby” aimed at local youth. Kids age 15 and younger who caught a tagged fish could win a prize. Reports from 1952 and 1953 indicated about 50 fish or so were tagged and planted for the derby.
Spring 1952, however, gave mixed messages on the group’s stocking plans. In late April 1952, the Ikes announced a plan to catch 5,000 bass with the “game warden watching them,” the Herald reported. Ikes members seined the lagoon for young bass or “fingerlings.”
“We got about 15,000 from the lagoon in seining operations last fall and we believe there probably are 5,000 still there,” the group told the newspaper, with plans to stock in East Side Lake and above Ramsey Dam.
The next month, however, the Ikes announced that seining operations the fish-rearing pond had been called off due to a high number of small bass minnows. Fish experts advised that the young bass needed another year of growth before being planted elsewhere.
By spring 1953, a Herald article warned people to leave the Skinners Hill lagoon alone because the Ikes had placed 11 largemouth bass in there for reproduction with help from the Lanesboro fishery.
“Fishing in the rearing pond is strictly forbidden,” the article noted.
Later that year (October 1953), Lanesboro staff planted 2,600 largemouth bass in the Cedar River, with half being 4 inches long and the other half 5 inches, which confused the fishery’s manager, Bill Nelson.
“He just couldn’t figure it out. All of the fish he brought were from the same age group and there shouldn’t have been many of them a full inch longer than the others,” the Herald wrote.
The article noted many bass were placed in the Cedar above Ramsey Dam, where “all should grow rapidly and it won’t be long before the bass will be big enough to make welcome additions to many an angler’s string.”
The Austin Ikes helped plant the bass with state staff, who returned the following week with seining equipment to help the Ikes gather bass from the group’s rearing pond at Skinners Hill.
“Austin area fishermen will be hoping scientists can concoct some vitamins to make fish grow big fast,” the Herald wrote on Oct. 14, 1953. “But even without any such fanciful feed, there’ll be a nice mess of bass waiting to be taken before too long.”
The article described the Ikes and Lanesboro staff seining the lagoon for 1,500 bass (3–4 inches each) eight 1-pound northern and one bass from the original brooding stock along with 35 bullheads. All the fish were planed in the Cedar River near Lansing, upstream from Ramsey Mill Pond.
“Many fish, including the seven other large bass of the brooding stock, were believed lost in the big flood of early August,” the Herald wrote. “Community Park was completely flooded at the time.”
Ikes members, though, were happy with the pond’s output as, for years, the group had aimed to raise fingerlings (young fish) but “the change in policy has been lauded by county fishermen, who pointed out today that the 1,500 fish seined this week weigh as much as 20,000 fingerlings.”
the following week with seining equipment to help the Ikes harvest their crop of small fish from the Skinners Hill lagoon. Those fish were to be divided between East Side Lake and the Cedar River to “improve future fishing prospects.”
Stocking fades away as water quality drops
Especially starting in the 1920s and 1930s, locals more often raised concern with the decreasing quality of the Cedar River and other local streams. By 1949, the Cedar River below the downtown dam and for a long way downstream was “practically devoid of aquatic life, the result of years of pollution,” wrote The Old Timer columnist in the Herald back then.
“Yet today conditions would be right for restoring the lower Cedar to its former glory as a delightful and easily available facility for fishing, boating and winter skating,” he wrote.
The Old Timer suggested the old McAfee dam south of Austin (near County Road 28) be repaired to raise the water level a foot or more and then have the Austin Ikes restock the river with fish. “In a few years, the almost-dry gully through town could be a real asset to the community.”
While fish stocking efforts continued in fall 1953 between the Austin Ikes and state fisheries staff, there also was growing protest about local water quality. That summer, 84 citizens protested to the Austin City Council that the Cedar River’s condition was “deplorable, unsanitary, odorus, unsightly and unhealthy,” the Herald reported. They focused on the Cedar’s stretch from its confluence with Dobbins Creek in Driesner Park to the city’s southern limits.
The group filed a petition for the matter, saying the river channel had filled with silt and other accumulations and needed to be dredged, deepened and widened. They claimed the river had been used as a “dumping ground.”
City officials mentioned that restoration work possibly should be done by the state and were concerned with the availability of funds.
Citizens also raised concern with the condition of the Skinners Hill lagoon, where 50 to 100 fish were found dead after a flood. Some council members said they thought the lagoon should be filled.
In June 1960, the Ikes completed seining the Skinners Hill lagoon but were challenged by “rapid growth of moss and weeds,” the Herald reported.
A large amount of smallmouth bass along with many young bullheads were removed from the pond and placed in East Side Lake by the group.
By March 1962, a new manager for the state’s Lanesboro fish hatchery told the Cedar Valley Conservation Club about the state’s tests each year to determine which lakes and streams were suitable for game fish in his territory of eight counties, including Mower.
“Streams polluted or overrun with rough fish can’t be stocked with game fish,” the manager said.
At that time, the local streams were no longer good candidates to receive fish.
In March 1964, the Herald reported that the Austin Ikes were planning for “new fishing haunts” as a pet project. A committee had explored streams and gravel pits, conferring with staff at the Lanesboro fishery.
“Only stream, which has not passed beyond the point of no return for rehabilitation, is Otter Creek that runs near Lyle,” the Lanseboro manager told the Herald.
Putting a stream into shape to provide good trout fishing would cost up to $20,000 ,and the state could not help unless easements were in place to assure public access to the stream.
Without state support of stocking popular game fish locally, the Ikes turned in May 1967 to stocking bullheads — about 1,900 pounds of them — in East Side Lake to make “fishing this summer more interesting,” according to the Herald. Each bullhead weighed about 1.5 pounds and came from the Lanesboro fishery.
Since then, the state has stocked fish at various times in the Cedar River and East Side Lake, including game fish placed in the lake in 1969 for Austin’s annual Great Snowflake Ice Fishing Contest.
In the past 22 years, DNR has stocked a variety of fish in the Cedar River watershed but definitely not on an annual basis. Fish stocking depends on the DNR’s lake-management plans for each waterbody, such as Austin Mill Pond, Ramsey Mill Pond and East Side Lake.
The most recent stocking by the DNR locally was in 2015 at East Side Lake involving 386 young walleyes, which was four years after 1,250 young walleyes were planted there.
As for the Cedar River, the last DNR stocking there was in 2007, when 50 adult walleye and 736 young walleye were placed in the Cedar River at Austin Mill Pond. Another 60 adult walleye were placed in the Cedar at Ramsey Mill Pond. East Side Lake received 195 adult walleyes and 280 young walleyes.
During 2002, norther pike were the fish for local stocking by DNR. The Cedar River received 413 adult northerns along with 900 young channel catfish. About 110 other northerns were placed in the Cedar at Austin Mill Pond and Ramsey Mill Pond.
In the late 1990s, the DNR stocked thousands of young channel catfish throughout the Cedar River along with several hundred adult northerns and nearly 8,000 young smallmouth bass.