It was three days past Christmas, and not much above zero. The light, westerly breeze cut into exposed skin like a scalpel. A dozen of us, bundled in layers of coats and sweaters, climbed into Justin Isherwood’s old manure spreader, which had been re-engineered into a makeshift wagon. As with many things around the Isherwood homestead, the retired manure spreader was a symbol, suggesting ingenuity, frugality, and modesty. We took seats on bales of straw, pressing together our lower extremities to share our metabolic heat. Lynn, whose integral role in activities around the farm begged the conclusion that she might have arisen from one of Justin’s ribs, brought out some old blankets to throw over our laps and legs. Justin, a late-middle-aged, fifth-generation farmer-philosopher-writer, assisted the last arrivals into his rusty chariot with a joke and smile, then climbed onto the 70s-something Ford tractor to begin our mile-long trip to “see the remarkable spawning run of native brook trout” in the Isherwood Lateral, part of a system of drainage ditches constructed over a hundred years ago to improve farming opportunities in the vast Buena Vista Marsh.

I didn’t expect much, and had come primarily because I value Justin’s and Lynn’s friendship, and knew there would be lively comradery among those attending, especially on such a blustery day. Justin is well known throughout central Wisconsin. His weekly column in the Portage County Gazette is popular among many regular readers, and he has published several books highlighting life on the family farm, all with his unique style of writing and humor. The extensive farm he and Lynn operate with his brother, and their son, Isaac, and his family has been in the Isherwood family for seven generations. For the last dozen years, Justin has been arguing with those who made decisions about maintenance of the drainage ditches, and the Isherwood Lateral in particular. It is his view that the ditches do not need to be engineered like storm sewers. Allowing some natural structure, such as streamside vegetation and woody debris in the water to create irregularities in the flow greatly improves trout habitat without much, if any, reduction in drainage function.

Farming in the Buena Vista, begun mid-19th century, was marginal–subsistence at best for those who could weather the bad years. It attracted early settlers primarily because the land was cheap. In his report after surveying the area in 1839-40, Joshua Hathaway wrote, “…no good land…mostly sandy…brushy and wet in places.” If young Hathaway had been there in early spring, he might have written “…dry in places,” because the Buena Vista was a huge marsh. Pre-settlement vegetation, it is estimated, was a little over 60% forested, and 26% open wetland, with the balance in prairie. It could be purchased for a $1 an acre from the government. When it wasn’t too wet, it was often too dry. Frost came late in the spring, and early in the autumn. Still, there was plenty of marsh hay and, on slightly higher ground, white and red pine grew to decent size.

In 1898, the farmers in the Buena Vista petitioned the state for permission to establish a drainage district. Drainage districts were being formed throughout Wisconsin, each consisting of land owners sharing a common need to lower groundwater in their immediate area so that agriculture could become more profitable. Ditches were dug to carry water to the nearest stream or lake, with pumps to assist in some cases. The Buena Vista Marsh was drained naturally by a few slow-moving, meandering streams such as Buena Vista Creek, and some thought they probably were about as effective as the ditches for moving water. The ditches at least expanded the acreage that could be tilled if not the production of all land under cultivation.  To equitably raise the money required for construction and maintenance of ditches, drainage districts assessed landowners an annual fee based on their acreage. The assessment for farmers in the Buena Vista was low relative to that in the other 175 districts in the state because gravitational drainage was far cheaper than having to pump water from an area, as was needed in many districts.

The Portage County Drainage District (PCDD) was approved by the legislature in 1905, and ditches were dredged over the next several years. On the northeastern edge of the Buena Vista marsh, the Isherwood Lateral was dug in 1913, connected to a branch of Buena Vista Creek that had been previously altered by dredging, and thereafter called “Ditch No. 2.”

Those of us who place a particularly high value on pristine nature are quicker to condemn those who alter nature solely for personal gain than might otherwise be the case. Every species, however, uses the energy and materials that can be captured or made from nature to alter its environment to favor its survival and reproduction. Consider, for example, the spider with its web, the swallow its nest, and the beaver its pond. In every case, the evolution of these diversions of natural resources has resulted in community changes, with some associated species being disadvantaged and, generally, many more gaining some benefit. An extreme example is the coral reef built over time by a community of coral species, arguably the most diverse natural community on earth. Humans have been on earth a shorter time than nearly all other species, but with ability to find and use resources far more efficiently than any other species, we have altered earthly environments to a far greater extent, and we’ve done it so rapidly that many species have not been able to adapt. Moreover, with our cleverness, we have converted resources into more exotic kinds of structures, including chemicals, which render adaptation more challenging. One of those structures, drainage ditches, has a profound impact on ecosystems such as the Buena Vista Marsh.

Buena Vista Marsh was a remnant of glacial Lake Wisconsin–a large, shallow lake that developed as the Wisconsin Ice Sheet conceded defeat at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch over 11,000 years before Great-grandpa Isherwood staked his claim. When the glacial lake, swollen by meltwater, spilled over the Baraboo Hills to the south, the Wisconsin River was formed and tributaries cut into the old lake bed. The streams, such as Buena Vista Creek, were fed by cold seepage from moraines to the east, filtered through the sands underlying the marsh, and although they were slow-moving, the cold, clear water they carried was suitable habitat for brook trout. After dredging, once ditches stabilized and acquired some structure, brook trout moved from the creeks into the ditches. The ditches were engineered with enough gradient for water to move freely. Although unnatural, the lower temperatures and higher dissolved oxygen in the ditches, with exposed gravel beds in at least some areas, were acceptable for spawning trout that moved up from the streams. Average summer temperature in the Isherwood Lateral in the summer, for example, is around 550 and rarely exceeds 610.

Of all symbols of water quality, brook trout may be best known. Ideal conditions occur in areas where nearly all precipitation seeps into the ground and flows out in springs that feed the streams, many of which have at least partial tree or shrub cover along the banks to keep water temperature in the mid-500 range. Having coarse woody structure in the stream is also important to provide places for the trout and their prey to hide, and to create irregularities in the current to create gravel bars. Such ideal conditions occur most often in wild land, where human disturbance is minimal. Those in serious pursuit of brook trout know that the best fishing usually is reached after slogging through heavy brush and wetlands, often far from civilization. Having grown up in southern Ohio, without brook trout, and having seen them only on rare occasions when camping along wild streams farther north, never in the spawning season, I couldn’t imagine brook trout in a dredged ditch bisecting potato fields.

Brook trout is the only native trout that is adapted to streams in its natural range, which extends from the Atlantic coast west to the upper Mississippi watershed, and from the upper Great Lakes north to the lower Hudson Bay watershed. They occur in the Appalachian Mountains down to northern Georgia, where they are found only in headwater streams. Brook trout also will inhabit high-quality lakes where seepage and water movement are sufficient to provide suitable near-shore conditions. Both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior once had good numbers, but over-fishing and water contamination, especially in Lake Michigan, have largely eliminated naturally reproducing populations. Brook trout are also choice prey for any number of larger fish that inhabit bigger water.

As we left the barnyard and headed east between two wide-open fields where the soil lay bare, scattered snow swirled out of the overcast sky. In the open, it seemed colder, and the breeze was stronger. We reached a corner where the farm road took an abrupt turn to the south. I braved a quick look past Justin, who was hunched over the steering wheel against the cold, toward a distant line of trees that marked the edge of a woodlot. In every other direction there were only open fields where corn and potatoes had been harvested. There was no sign of the Isherwood Lateral.

In mid-autumn (earlier farther north), male brook trout begin moving up streams to pools adjacent to gravel beds where there is enough flow to discourage silt accumulation, and there they defend as much area as possible. Females follow and prepare spawning beds, called “redds,” by fanning their tails to remove silt and fine sand. In central Wisconsin, spawning begins by late October and may continue into January. Once spawning is done, adults disperse to deeper pools, leaving only the current to keep any silt or fine sand from suffocating the eggs. Eggs begin to hatch the following spring, in March and April. Especially without stream structure in which to hide, most of the young trout will fall victim to predation by other fish, including larger brook trout, and fish-eating birds such as herons. A few from each redd might survive to reproduce, some as soon as the following year if food is plentiful. Most do not reach sexual maturity, however, until their second or third year. As they reach sexual maturity, success in breeding varies primarily according to size. Small trout are forced to spawn in more marginal gravel beds in less-favorable sections of the stream, where fewer of their offspring will survive. Although in pristine waters of the North brook trout might reach two to four pounds in four or five years, with lengths of 18 or 20 inches, those in the southern portion of the range are much smaller. Fish in the Isherwood Lateral have an average size of about four inches, though, very rarely, some are as large as 12 inches. However, for the purist-leaning trout fisherman, even a small brook trout is a diamond in the rough, worthy of awe and respect.

I heard Justin throttle back the Ford and looked up to see that we were entering a fringe of trees along the Lateral. We all were eager to get a look at what had been promised, and soon, Justin stopped so we could hop down and peer into the ditch. The water was perfectly clear, weaving from one gravel shallow to another, with slightly deeper pools between. Some vegetation grew along the margins, and there were larger woody limbs and even a few stumps that had been pushed into the stream in places, creating gravel shallows between the pools. I couldn’t see any fish.

Then, I spotted movement, and saw a five- or six-inch fish dart with dazzling speed from one patch of vegetation to another. Then I saw another, and another, and another, and….there was school holding in the pool just below the shallows! Others, who were also peering from the bank began to exclaim. “Look there! There’s a dozen fish!” “There’s a big one!” “Oh, my God, there are fish everywhere in that next pool!”

Several of us began to wander upstream. Each pool held dozens of fish. Most remained still, holding in the current with slow movement of their lateral fins and tails, much as a leaf might waver in moving water. Occasionally, one would dart from one spot to another, and sometimes several would follow. They moved with speed that seemed physically impossible. Although the groundwater that fed the stream was in the mid-500 range, it surely cooled quickly when exposed to the frigid air.

A quarter-mile up the Lateral, we reached the culvert over which the Isherwoods crossed to their woodlot. A deeper pool below the culvert held hundreds of fish. As my eyes adjusted to the conditions and behavior of the fish, I was able to study them more closely. Sexually mature male brook trout are one of nature’s masterpieces, impossible to describe adequately. Their body is a gray-brown to greenish color with yellow spots, with smaller red spots on the lower half, each surrounded by a bluish halo. In many areas, brook trout are known as “spotted trout,” or “speckled trout,” because of the spots, which are also present on females. The belly of mature spawning males is a fiery reddish-orange that extends to the lower fins, which are outlined in white on the leading edges. Even less-dominant and immature males are colorful, although less so. Females tend to be light brownish-green with darker brown tails and nearly white bellies. With so much color, so much quickness, so much intolerance of disturbance, no wonder brook trout are held in such high esteem by those who appreciate nature at her best.

Justin is a serious farmer who is well educated, well read, and thoughtful. He not only inherited his portion of the farm, but also the values passed down from his grandparents and parents, who were closely tied to the land. Fear of God and love of land merged somewhere among those values. Justin would argue that they are one and the same. While appreciating the Lateral for making the land profitable, Justin also appreciates the trout as a symbol of healthy land, and feels that productive land and better trout habitat are not mutually exclusive.  Hydrologists have examined the structure, the stumps and woody debris that the Isherwoods have added to their section of the ditch to determine if it impedes drainage. The answer is consistently “no,” or at least, “scarcely at all.” Justin and Lynn received permission from the DNR to add woody structure to the lateral through their property, but the PCDD was opposed, claiming, without evidence, that it reduced the effectiveness of the ditch. With minimal vegetation and no structure, the engineered ditch as envisioned by the PCDD might even be less stable, and certainly not as useful for the trout. Not far upstream from the culvert, the Isherwood property ends. The ditch had been dredged and reshaped within the last two or three years on the neighboring property. It was free of nearly all structure, and there was a minimum of vegetation or exposed gravel. There were trout present, but only a small fraction of the number visible in the lower stretch.

The PCDD board members have a model of the ideal ditch in their minds—a straight trench devoid of any natural attribute other than the water it carries. It was that which we could see upstream from the Isherwood property, similar in form to the concrete storm-water ditches that some cities use to move water quickly from the urban area. Even if the only function of the ditch was to remove water as efficiently as possible from the land, which was the original intent 100 years ago, the PCDD model is not the only suitable design according to many hydrologists, and keeping the ditch clear and straight-sided requires considerable maintenance. When drainage districts were begun, there was no understanding of wetland ecology, or stream hydrology, and no appreciation for biodiversity. Even hydrology was poorly understood. Wetlands were an impediment to farming, and while trout on the dinner plate might be nice, there were other places to catch them.

The aim of the Isherwoods to increase trout habitat in the drainage ditch without significantly affecting the primary function did not fit the PCDD model. Granted, there might be some concern about brush washing downstream and blocking culverts, but headwater ditches, especially, have limited watersheds and very low threat of storm runoff that would be able to move the coarse wood that was so important to trout habitat in the ditch. To those of us observing the conflict between the mechanical model of the PCDD and the more trout-friendly concept of the Isherwoods, there was a wonderful opportunity for a win-win solution. Study after study has concluded that “overwhelming evidence shows the physical, psychological, and social well-being of humans depends on contact with nature.” Can’t we redirect our ingenuity toward finding ways to work more cooperatively with nature?


            The Isherwood appeal to the PCDD to spare their portion of the Isherwood Lateral from the maintenance that would remove the structure from the ditch was denied. To prevent the PCDD from proceeding with what the board described as “routine maintenance” until professional hydrologists could weigh in officially, the Isherwoods petitioned the court for an injunction and were granted a court date of June 28, 2017. If the Isherwoods’ ideas were supported by professional hydrologists, the outcome could be a win-win-win on all sides. On the win side are the Isherwoods and their desire to walk more softly on the land. The PCDD would benefit from an opportunity to have more scientific input into the question of the intensity of maintenance required for the drainage ditches. In addition, the drainage district would  win because money and labor could be saved if the ditches are managed in a less intensive, more nature-friendly way, as hydrologists think possible. If this were confirmed, drainage districts everywhere could profit. Finally, the brook trout, along with the myriad other species that are favored by the greater structural complexity in the ditch, would have at least a section of greatly improved habitat, and the potential for less-intensive maintenance elsewhere that would enhance habitat. Here was an excellent opportunity to prove that we can be more compatible with nature while maintaining the productivity of the land and saving money.

The PCDD ignored the Isherwood petition and preemptively moved in equipment and removed the structure from the Isherwood Lateral on June 6.

© 2017 Alan Haney and All rights reserved.