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A fish (and tree) story

Tree health is important to water quality, which is important to the health of fish. In this photo, Conservation Corps of Minnesota staff are thinning Aspen trees on John Macho's property near Mahtowa. Macho has been more active than most landowners in working with his property to improve the forest and wildlife habitat. Photo by Kim Samuelson 1 / 2
The tullibee or cisco is a small fish with a big job. Photo by John Lyons, Wisconsin DNR 2 / 2

In our area, no matter the season, many conversations will include fish stories. Stories comparing the latest fishing exploits. Stories bragging of finding and landing "big fish." Stories with grins and pictures of big fish. Stories of how "that fish was good eating!" These conversations are to be expected when we live where the lakes are cool, fishing rods outnumber boats, and the fish taste great!

We are blessed here in northern Minnesota to have good water quality and lots of fish. However, there are some parts of Carlton County where the fish stories tell how big and numerous the fish used to be, how easy it used to be to find and catch them, how "something" has changed. This "something" has decreased water quality, which has had a significant negative impact on the fish.

In many cases, the "something" that has changed are the trees. If you mess too much or in the wrong way with the trees, you mess with the water. And if you mess with the water, you get less fish. It's as simple as that.

Fish and trees. What could they possibly have to do with each other? One's in the water and the other is on land.

To explain how, I'm going to tell you a different kind of fish story, a story probably unlike any you've heard. A story about the tullibee and the trees.

The tullibee — also known as cisco or lake herring — are members of the trout family and are small fish with a very big and important job. They aren't the game fish we like to eat, like lake trout, pike, muskie, and walleye. But they are a main, high-value food source for these fish.

(I can already hear some of you saying, "Ewwww! This isn't a nice fish story!" Well, this is a story about fish, about facts of life. Big fish eat little fish. Big fish are caught and eaten by men. Simple, natural food chain hierarchy.)

In order to live, the tullibee need cold, oxygenated water. If the water gets too warm or has too little oxygen, the tullibee die. And when the tullibee die, the big fish start dying, too.

And that's where the trees come into the tullibee fish story.

Trees are important for getting cold water. There needs to be enough trees along the river or lake waterfront to shade the water and keep it cool, especially during hot summer days. When the water feels just right for us to go swimming, it's getting too warm for the tullibee and they have to go to deeper water. However, the deeper they go, the less oxygen that is present in the water. So the tullibee can only go down so far. Sometimes they are caught in a very thin band of water between the too-warm shallow water and the not-enough-oxygen deep water.

Trees also have an important role in helping keep oxygen in the water. In areas of few trees, heavy rains hitting the ground will gouge out ditches as the water flows from higher land to the lower land where the rivers and lakes are located. This water runoff will pick up and carry dirt and sand, leaves and twigs, herbicides and animal manure and pollution on its way. These things are called "nutrients." When nutrients get into the rivers and lakes, they feed and cause an increase in phytoplankton, little single-celled plants and bacteria. These "not able to be seen with the naked eye" creatures are at the bottom of the food chain and are a food source for lots of water animals, including tullibee. However, if there are too many phytoplankton, known as a "bloom," they use up much of the oxygen that the tullibee need. This leads to less tullibee which leads to less big fish.

The trees' role in this part is simple. Tree roots anchor the soil to help keep it from washing away. Tree branches slow down rain as it falls through so the rain has less chance of gouging the soil. The understory and litter (dead leaves, needles, dropped branches) also slow down water runoff and filter out some of the nutrients.

Lastly, trees help the tullibee and other fish in another way. As trees die along the waterfront, they fall over into the the water and create important and needed "woody structure." Fish, big and little, find food in amongst this woody structure. They also seek these areas to spawn in safety and to find protection from birds, otters, ducks and other predators that want to eat them.

A healthy forest is very important for fish, for good fishing, and for good fish stories.

Add man to the mix and the story changes; maybe to a happy ending or a sad ending.

Sad ending: Men come along and cut too many trees, even trees miles away from the river or lake. Soon the water will be warming up and full of nutrients which deplete oxygen. Soon the tullibee will die off and the big fish will decline in number. Soon the fish stories will change to "where did the fish go?"

Happy ending: Landowners, like John Macho, become concerned about "preserving the land for everyone" and for wildlife and actively work to improve their property. What a landowner does with his land is very important, not only for his little corner of the world, but also for the watershed and, thus, for fish like the tullibee.

Macho, who lives in Elko, Minnesota, has owned 280 acres in the Mahtowa area since 1998. He isn't a hunter or fisherman; he's just a man who enjoys watching nature and commented, "I saw a fox last weekend. That's cool! We don't see that down where I live!"

Macho has been more active than most landowners in working with his property to improve the forest and wildlife habitat. Years ago, he had a Forest Stewardship Plan written by a Sappi forester. Then he got involved in the Sustainable Forestry Initiatives Act (SFIA) that helped to reduce his property taxes. He has also worked on a 10-year lease with a neighbor which gives the neighbor and sons access to trails across Macho's property in return for their watchfulness and maintenance. And he became a "big time Buckthorn Buster," leading efforts to educate and help landowners and groups get rid of Buckthorn, a very fast growing invasive species that, according to Macho, "creates a dense canopy that keeps prevents native plants from competing for sunlight."

In 2013, Macho became part of the Tullibee Lakes Project (TLP), Phase 1, program coordinated by the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). The TLP is a trial project being done on a select few of the tullibee lake priority watersheds throughout northern Minnesota.

Carlton County's Hanging Horn Lake Watershed, which ranges from south of Barnum to north of Sawyer and included the Mahtowa and Atkinson areas, is one of the few priority watersheds.

Funded with Clean Water Legacy Funds through a grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the TLP Phase I program provided funding for FSPs and for cost-share project work  that improved water quality.

According to Carlton SWCD manager Brad Matlack, the DNR set a goal in the priority watersheds of 75 percent of the acres protected under Forest Stewardship Plans (FSPs). The Hanging Horn Watershed has 52,581 acres in Carlton County and 8,459 acres are already protected.

"Under TLP Phase I, 12 FSPs were completed," Matlack said 12 Forest Stewardship plans were completed in TLP Phase 1.

"Although some progress towards the project goal was made, there yet remains just over 29,800 acres in planned FSPs to meet that goal," he said, adding that the TLP Phase 1 project was completed in December 2014.

Under TLP Phase I, Macho accomplished several of his goals.

First, he discovered in great detail what is on his property and how to improve it. Carlton SWCD conservation technician Kelly Smith created a multi-page FSP that details what kind of soils, trees, grasses and groundcovers are on Macho's property. The FSP identifies the range of tree stand age, height and density, and it gives recommended objectives and activities for each part of his property, as well as how to achieve those activities. The FSP also includes a valuable large binder full of information about each kind of tree, bush, grass, and ground cover, etc. In addition, the FSP gives information about technical and financial assistance available to help Macho improve his property through implementing recommended woodland management practices.

Macho took his FSP a step further and implemented parts of his plan. A Forest Stand Improvement project was started on his property which involves thinning of aspen and releasing of oak, maple, and birch to encourage a healthy, diverse forest. So far, 86 acres have been thinned by the Conservation Corps of Minnesota staff under the direction of the Carlton SWCD. The project is funded using state cost-share monies.

For 10 years after projects are completed, Macho is responsible to maintain a healthy, diverse forest cover by monitoring for disease, insect damage, invasive plants and other concerns.

That suits Macho fine as he has walked, and continues to walk, most of his property every year except for "those areas you just can't walk through."

In July 2015, the TLP Phase II started and again covers funding for outreach, FSPs, and cost-share projects. Macho encourages landowners in the TLP area to get involved and to participate in the program to improve their property, attract more wildlife, increase property values, and protect the watershed.

When it comes to tullibee and people, Macho forcefully stated: "If you don't have good water, you don't have anything!"

For Macho, working with the Carlton SWCD and the MN DNR was a positive experience.

Both agencies "made it easy for me to do the projects as they pretty much managed them" he said, adding that "each property owner has different goals," and "my goal is to help the land, the water and the wildlife. These agencies help people understand what's involved and get projects done."

Smith reiterated that healthy forests are needed for healthy fish populations, adding that Macho is a "great inspiration to other landowners to participate in helping to keep the Hanging Horn Lake Watershed a healthy, viable home for the tullibee."

A good ending for a great fish story about the tullibee and the trees. Wouldn't you agree?

To find out if your property is in the Tullibee Lakes Project area and for more information about how you can involved in this and other natural resource projects, contact the Carlton County SWCD at 218-384-3891 or visit