Hay Creek – A Success Story
This Stream Has a Story to Tell
Author: Dan Callahan
Hay Creek, a medium-sized trout stream near Red Wing, Minnesota, has some history behind it. It was the first place close to the Twin Cities to offer a winter catch-and-release season, back in the late 1980s. Now the winter season extends to the rest of the streams from Goodhue County and south, until April 16, when the regular season opens.
It was the first place we heard about the dangers posed to Minnesota trout streams from unregulated silica frac sand mining, leading to legislation that protects all trout streams in the Paleozoic bedrock areas of southeastern Minnesota.
It was the first place the Twin Cities Trout Unlimited (TCTU) chapter started doing major stream restoration work. Since 2008, we’ve restored six miles of Hay Creek. Together with the other six chapters of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, we’ve now restored more than 40 miles of trout streams across the state, with more on the slate this summer.
It was the first place that a fly fishing physician from Red Wing did NOT sh when he arrived back in the ‘50s. He wanted to save it, like dessert. Years later, Dr. William Wilson Sweney wrote why he wanted to wait:
“In my various tramps through the country, when I struck a stream at a ford or ripple, it was not uncommon thing to see dozens of trout rushing and tumbling over each other in their haste to reach their hiding places in deep water.
On Hay Creek I have thus frightened off a shallow ripple more than fifty pounds of the fish at one time, and though I always carry an ample supply of fishing tackle with me, I never wet a line in that stream until 1854.
This I consider the greatest instance of self-denial and resistance of temptation on record.
I could cite many cases where better men, probably, have signally failed, and where the restraining influence should have been much stronger.
The reason why I did not gratify my natural instincts was the opposing one, and true sportsman maxim, never to kill what you cannot make use of; and, also, I am too great a lover of the gentle art [of fly fishing] to hasten the extinction, through a mere wantonness, of a creature that has so largely contributed to my pleasure and happiness.”
Dr. Sweney was a founder of the city of Red Wing. The 1878 edition of The History of Goodhue County describes him as “…a gentleman of education, large observation and diversified experience.” He was born in 1818, and moved to Minnesota in 1850, to practice medicine in St. Paul with the only other medical doctor in the state at the time. He moved his family to the Red Wing trading post in 1852.
“Among the first items of information I obtained from the Indians was that the small spring brooks contained an abundance of trout, and the equally gratifying intelligence that they never used them as an article of food; in fact, their religious notions ‘tabooed’ their use.
From the name they gave the speckled beauties, I would infer they considered them too bad to eat. Hogal-wichasta-sni (literally, wicked-man-fish) is not suggestive of high appreciation among the Indian community. They really believed some malign in influence resided in the fish.”
Trout stream destroyers, who have taken on Trout Unlimited protectors over the years, might believe that malign in influence is still at work. I’ll be aligned with the wicked-man-fish every time.
Hay Creek Today
Hay Creek is a major tributary to the MPCA’s Mississippi River-Lake Pepin Watershed. Hay drains more than 30,000 acres of mostly farmland, though as you get closer to Red Wing, residential development, and then urban development, add their burdens. If you love watershed information, you can get more details online: https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/les/wq-ws3-07040001b.pdf
Hay Creek gathers waters from many small tributaries and springs as it carves down into a steep valley before rolling into the river bottoms, just southeast of Bench Street, upstream of downtown Red Wing. The limestone-softened springs keep Hay Creek cold enough for trout.
You need to head upstream about six miles on Highway 58 to get to the good trout water. Brown trout are the creek’s bread and butter fish, if you will. The DNR fisheries surveys show there was a booming hatch of browns in 2010, and inconsistent reproduction since then. However, they’ve documented much better numbers and sizes of fish in areas where we’ve done habitat improvement work. There’s a trophy trout stretch where you have to fish with only artificial flies or lures, and throw back any trout between 12 and 16 inches.
Not coincidentally, the slot-limit is on a four-mile stretch that Twin Cities Trout Unlimited members did all their early stream restoration work, upstream of the tiny hamlet of Hay Creek. (See map.) The fishing upstream is on privately-owned land, on which the owners have sold angling easements to the DNR. So if you see one of those landowners while fishing that stretch, thank him or her. When you park on the side of the road or in the little turnouts, don’t block any driveways, farm roads, access or gates. Leave any gates as you find them. They were open, or closed, for a reason. There is no public fishing in the gap in the map between the upstream easements and the rest of the creek that’s open to the public, downstream of the town of Hay Creek. That downstream portion is the lower two miles on which we’ve done restoration work, in the DNR’s Hay Creek Management Unit of the Richard J. Dorer State Forest.
It caters to horse riders, so you’ll be parking near trailers in some of the areas. The DNR has an excellent trail system that runs along stretches of Hay Creek. A detailed map showing the trails and parking areas of the unit is online:
Statewide regulations apply during the regular stream trout season, which means you have to buy a trout stamp and have it listed on your license. The limit is five trout, with only one over 16 inches. You can catch-and-keep from April 16 to September 14 this year, followed by catch-and-release fishing until October 15. After that, put away your rod until New Year’s Day 2017.
Where & How to Fish
The MNDNR has just published its new booklet and online version of “Trout Angling Opportunities in Southern and Central Minnesota.” You’ll find the good area of Hay Creek is shown on Map 13. Online, it’s http:// les. dnr.state.mn.us/maps/trout_streams/ south-2015/map13.pdf
Bob Trevis’ new book, Fly Fishing for Trout in Southeast Minnesota….A Troutchaser’s Guide is built around these stream maps as well. As a fishing guide for 30 years, Bob knows better than I do where to fish, and that includes Hay Creek. He kindly allowed us to use an excerpt from his book. There is more about fishing another part of Hay Creek that is not included here. Buy the book!
“Hay offers almost 16 miles of trout water, much of it prime fishing. Hay is usually accessed by going west of Red Wing on State Highway 58 for six miles or so. Some Twin Cities anglers head east of US Highway 52 on State 50 at Hampton and go thru Miesville, home of the semi-pro Miesville Mudhens, to get to Red Wing. Warning – the speed limit is 35, and enforced!
In the town of Hay Creek you can get a burger at the old Dressen’s Saloon (now Haycreek Valley Campground and Saloon), and then you can head north on Hay Creek Trail and access portions of Hay Creek in the state forest area.
Most fly anglers instead head west of the saloon on Hwy. 58 to 320th St. Way and proceed to the slab bridge crossing. You can park on the right or left before you get to the bridge crossing and fish upstream or downstream…
“Much of this area has had HI [Habitat Improvement] work done, some as far back as 1976, and some as recently as 2013-2015. Width varies, but most of Hay is 30 feet or less in width, although this is not hip boot water. The trout are educated, and it’s artificial lures or flies only. Proximity to the Twin Cities makes it a favorite of winter anglers.
“…Another option is to go a bit further south and west on Hwy. 58 to 325th St. and follow 325th to the first dead-end road and a bridge. Access here (up- stream or downstream) is public, but the weeds – including wild parsnip – can be very annoying after June 1st. There is a small cabin near the creek; please respect their privacy, and the outhouse is not for your use!
“Weekend use of Hay can make the water very crowded; if you find 4 or 5 cars here, and there were 4 to 5 cars on 320th, it’s probably best to head to another watershed. If you were to continue on 325th St. for another half-mile, you would come to yet another bridge crossing where you can make your own parking spot. Downstream of the bridge is the upper reach of the public access area, but you may want to stay in the water walking downstream for a few hundred yards, rather than fight the shoreline trees and brush. You’ll know when you get to the upper end of some HI work, since you will hear plunge pools. Again, this former pasture is quite weedy, but is often worth the hassle. Immediately upstream of the bridge is not eased water.”
I asked Bob if he would share some advice on what to use while fishing. He replied:
“Hay should fish well from January 1 to the spring melt. After the melt, good until late June – then the shoreline weeds take over in many areas. Nymphs or attractors should work well and hoppers in the pasture sections come August. Vegetation in-stream and on-shore is the biggest headache, but not insurmountable. As with most trout streams, mid-summer’s hot days are best for a fish-early or fish-late approach.
“What to use? Turn over some rocks to see the appropriate nymphs or caddis larvae to match. Consider dropper rigs or trailing midges behind larger weighted nymphs. SMALL indicators if you need to use them – these fish have seen enough Thingamabobbers!
“For hatches, check the spider webs in shoreline vegetation, and choose flies of the same size and color. I could write another book on “Tactics and Flies, by the Fortnight”, but that’s probably two years away! There you have it, everything you need to fish Hay Creek.”
Frac Sand Dangers
All the work Trout Unlimited members put into restoring Hay Creek was jeopardized in 2011. In March 2011, we learned that a Texas oil company had purchased the long slope where Hwy 58 from Red Wing drops south into the Hay Creek valley. Quick investigation by several TU members revealed that sand, not oil, was the company’s target. The first frac sand mine proposed in southeast Minnesota was to be located just about one mile from Hay Creek.
Energy companies want this type of round, hard, quartzite, silica sand grains to mix into a special slurry. They inject this juice into the ground, propping open the fractures they’ve made in bedrock, so that oil and gas can seep out and be pumped up to the surface in places like North Dakota.
Tony Nelson, TCTU Habitat Chair, and MNTU Executive Director John Lenczewski, were central participants in the initial community meeting organized to address this new threat. We had learned from the horror stories in Wisconsin. Massive groundwater pumping was going on, so miners could reach sand below the normal groundwater table. They also were using groundwater to wash and sort the sand.
The pumping was intercepting cold groundwater headed for trout stream springs. In some cases, the groundwater was used once in processing the sand. Then, much warmer, water was allowed to flow downhill until it reached ditches leading to trout streams, which were already warmer because their groundwater supplies had been intercepted. Trout streams are nothing without their cold groundwater flows.
Tony and John educated a packed room of people on how to properly use environmental review processes, and pledged TU’s support for the fight ahead. The “Save the Bluffs” group was born. Patrick O’Neill was a key player. His family owns the historic, red-brick building that is the headquarters for the Hay Creek Valley Campground and Old Western Saloon. German immigrant Albert Burkard constructed the building in the 1870s, along with a hotel that is now gone. The building became a general store, then fell idle. The Dressen family bought it in 1967 and opened the Saloon, along with a few campsites.
The O’Neills bought the place in 1977. They added a restaurant and campsites, now numbering more than 100. Some accommodate campers who bring their horses to ride on a DNR trail nearby. It’s the main business in Hay Creek, featuring a camp store, delicious burgers, cold beer, and an authentic, stuffed buffalo head that glowers down at you from the wall above the bar.
When I first met Pat, it was April 2013, opening day of the trout season. John Lenczewski had invited Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, and his son Hunter, to fish the stretches of Hay Creek that TCTU members had improved. Besides showing off the great partnership between the DNR and MNTU, John wanted to talk about protecting such an important asset from the dangers of excessive groundwater pumping associated with frac sand mining.
By this time, MNTU had spent many hundreds of hours working with the DNR, legislators, geologists, the Save the Bluffs group and others to craft a bill at the state capitol that would restrict frac sand mining within one mile of any trout stream in southeast Minnesota. The bill was gaining momentum. The fishing trip was strategically timed to garner media attention and increase public support for action.
MNTU had worked closely with State Senator Matt Schmit of Red Wing to craft the one-mile setback legislation. He grew up fishing for trout in Hay Creek. Matt joined Pat O’Neill and Commissioner Landwehr for interviews that day.
Trout streams attract a lot of tourism to Southeast Minnesota. While mining companies were touting temporary new jobs and economic benefits, they tried to minimize the negative impacts, such as hundreds of sand trucks on lo- cal two-lane highways, the removal of bluffs, and health concerns over silica dust—in addition to excessive ground- water pumping affecting neighboring water wells and trout streams.
Pat O’Neill told reporters, “Our business is tourism based. People come here to fish, or to bike or ride horses on the DNR trail. People come here for the scenic beauty, the bluffs and hills and creek. We’re worried that’s all going to be threatened by the frac sand mining.”
An intense legislative session followed. Pat traveled to St. Paul a number of times to testify alongside MNTU at the state capitol. Educating lawmakers about this issue eventually led to landmark legislation, giving the DNR new authority to regulate, and, where warranted, prohibit frac sand mining within one mile of any Southeast Minnesota trout stream or tributary. While not the outright ban on frac sand mining near trout streams that MNTU sought, it requires a special DNR permit which the DNR has authority to deny, based upon possible impacts to the streams or the network of subterranean channels which carry cold groundwater to a stream’s feeder springs. These cold springs are what define Hay Creek and the other fertile, cold, limestone streams in southeast Minnesota as “spring creeks”. However, the regulations have never been tested.
Oil prices have dropped, and frac sand is no longer highly desired. The land for the proposed Hay Creek frac sand mine is up for sale, cheap. Pat told me in late January, “I think even if they had succeeded in opening, they probably would have shut down right away because there’s no demand.” If the mine had opened, “It would have been ugly,” Pat said. “Traffic is already terrible on Highway 58, and sand trucks would have made it even worse. This is a unique area with clean, cold water and trout. Frac sand mining would have ruined it.”
The law, which MNTU helped pass in May 2013, appears to be working. No new mines have been proposed within a mile of Hay Creek or any other southeast trout stream. However, if demand rebounds, the law may face its first real challenge. When that day comes, TU and its partners in the Hay Creek community will be ready to protect this amazing stream and valley.
The Restoration of Hay Creek
If I ever achieved my dream of owning a chunk of land along a trout stream where I could build a retirement cabin, I’m not sure that I would look for a plot that had a public fishing easement on it.
Lucky for us, Dean and Catherine Rebuffoni did. The last part of the public angling easement on the map, north and downstream of 320th St, is their land. It encompasses a mile-and-a half of Hay Creek. This isn’t the only thing Dean has done for the environment. He was the lead environmental reporter at the Star Tribune newspaper for decades. He started writing in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, at the St. Louis Globe Democrat and retired in 1998 at the STrib, leaving a trail of awesome stories.
I was producing environmental coverage at WCCO-TV Channel 4 in the 1990s, and he would beat me time and again on stories. He was just so solid in his sourcing, research, writing and dedication to covering the hell out of any story. They bought the land from the Stumpf family in 1990, with the permanent DNR conservation easement already in place. I asked him in an email why he did it.
He answered, “Three reasons: (1) to protect, enhance, and restore a tract of rural land and water in the stewardship tradition of Aldo Leopold, (2) to have a country get-away (my wife Catherine and I live in Minneapolis and we built a cabin at Hay Creek), (3) as a long- term investment for our two sons and their families.”
He seldom fishes for the trout finning in his stretch of stream. He has more pressing issues to deal with. “I would rather be practicing land and water stewardship or just observing fish and wildlife — grubbing out buckthorn or cutting boxelder, for example, building brush piles for rabbits, walking through our prairie, watching birds, or watching trout feeding in Hay Creek,” he wrote. “Cathy and I also watch for a big snapping turtle that lives in our stretch of the creek.”
His most memorable trout didn’t come from Hay Creek. It came from his childhood. “It was a brookie from Kabekona Creek in northern Minnesota. It was only eight inches long, but it was my first trout and I caught it on a y rod,” Rebuffoni said. “My father was with me that day and I’ve never forgotten the experience.”
When TCTU members approached the Rebuffoni’s about doing some stream restoration work on their land, they agreed, convinced by our good reputation, which meshed with the stewardship goals that Dean and Cathy had set. They’ve been members of TU for about five years now.
“We couldn’t achieve those goals without the help of TU, the DNR and other conservation agencies. Also, a big shout-out to Pheasants Forever, whose volunteers help maintain our 10 acres of prairie plantings along Hay Creek.” Pheasants Forever volunteers are trained at prescribed burning. Native prairie needs periodic fire to renew and beat back competition from trees. When European settlers stopped frequent wild fires, forests took over in many areas.
When I joined TU back in 1989, the conventional wisdom was that our trout streams needed the shade of trees to stay cool. Trees were good. That turned out to be untrue in places where prairie grasses originally dominated, and the water was largely spring-fed, cold groundwater. Shallow rooted trees like box elder, and the doomed ash trees now on the emerald borer beetles’ menu, will grow big and then collapse into the streams. I thought that woody cover in a stream was good, which it is, in some cases. Up north it’s very important.
Now more than ever, stream restoration is a case-specific prescription which takes into account the pre-settlement ecological conditions, the slope of the stream, the watershed, etc. On Hay Creek, impenetrable log jams had spread out the stream into water that was six inches deep and 20 feet wide, which actually warmed the water. The shifting, sandy bottom couldn’t support aquatic vegetation and covered up natural streambed gravel. In gravel, insects thrive and serve as fish food. In gravel, trout lay their eggs to be oxygenated by owing water. The eggs don’t hatch if they get buried in silt or sand.
The log jams and toppled trees were catastrophic to the creek in high flooding. Water washed fallen trees down- stream, launching them into banks and diverting flood water to carve out even wider corners, undermining tall banks of dirt, which eventually would collapse into the stream, adding more silt.
The prescription was to narrow the channel, increase the velocity so it could carry away the sand, expose the natural gravel once again and deepen it. The creek, in high-erosion mode, sported sheer, 10-foot-tall banks of black dirt on outside bends in some areas. If the creek flooded, all that extra energy would carve farther under those banks and topple them into the water. The cure was to knock down those banks and reslope them to be gradual—make the surrounding banks more like a dinner plate’s gradual upturning edges, instead of the steep sides of a cup.
Flood waters easily rise up over the gently sloping banks of prairie grass, spread- ing the force of the water out across in the creek’s natural flood plain in a shallow sheet. When the water recedes, the prairie grass bends back up.
Native prairie grasses have deep roots that grow thickly together, anchoring the soil against erosion much better than the shallow roots of box elders. Overhead bank cover can be key to trout growth. An osprey can’t swim under a bank and grab a fish.
We’ve built wooden versions of undercut banks. First came “lunker structures”. Think of a two pallet sandwich, with up-right pieces of wood holding them apart about a foot or so. Worked okay, but the posts meant you could never drift a fly or lure under it without getting tangled and having to break off. The improved version, and the last ones we made for Hay Creek, are called “sky- hooks”. They are cantilevered, with a double stack of wood only on the back side and weighted, so the top side of the wooden sandwich can jut out like an awning. Heavy limestone rock is then put on top, to anchor the skyhooks. Then dirt is pushed over the top and re-seeded, creating a deep, dark, outside bend, a big trout hidey-hole.
This is the area we held our free fly fishing clinics for TU members in 2015. You can watch a cool video of one of the clinics on our website’s Hay Creek page, at www.twincitiestu.org.
It is important that skyhooks be set low enough, so that if a big flood carries fallen trees down the channel they do not lodge under the skyhook and rip apart the work. Restoration experts have also learned to harvest the invasive trees and incorporate them into banks to protect the outside bends from everyday erosion and strong water in floods, which are be- coming more frequent.
When we started stream restoration in 2008 through about 2010, the typical way to armor the outside bends was with quarried blocks of limestone, which held things in place, while the prairie grass established itself. But it can look unnatural for a long time. More recently, the DNR has preferred we use “toe wood”, which looks less out of place, and serves as a transitionary bank armor. You take out a big invasive tree, leave about 15 feet of trunk, and then bury it into the bank with the trunk on its side, perpendicular to the stream. The root ball faces out into the water, as a shield protecting the bank. After a few years, the wood will rot and wash away, the prairie grass will be established and the banks will be stable, we hope, for years. However, to restore the stream to that condition, requires ripping it up.
It’s horrifying to look at if you haven’t been educated to recognize terrible (but natural-looking streams) and don’t understand the serious surgery required to undo years of damage from human development’s increased stormwater runoff and neglect. The cliché about needing to crack some eggs to make an omelet is not a bad comparison.
Rebuffoni said, “As a reporter, I had witnessed several environmental-restoration projects and knew that, while under construction, they can resemble combat zones.
“But I also had seen how attractive the finished projects were, and knew of their positive results for fish and wildlife.”
Tom Lane, a TCTU member who led many of the restoration projects on Hay Creek, said that doing the early work was labor intensive. “But it was a really neat way to do the projects, and I think the work we’re doing is holding up well.”
Restoration methods on Hay Creek, like MNTU projects statewide, have evolved based upon new research. We now consult with engineers to design the restoration project and work with contractors using heavy equipment to do the massive, but efficient, restoration construction. There is still the need for hand-work by TU volunteers on projects, however.
Clearing pre-project invasive brush, working in areas too tight or sensitive to use heavy equipment, re-seeding and planting when projects are largely done, and following up to control invasive plants are all necessary.
Dean Rebuffoni says when he looks out his window at Hay Creek, he thinks of how fortunate his family is to have this land along a wonderful trout stream.
“It’s a gem of a trout stream, and it deserves the strongest possible protection and perpetual T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care),” he said.
Dr. Sweney must have thought that same thing back in 1854.