SWMTU looks to turn barren stretch of Coldwater River into trout haven

From Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press

Victor Skinner | The Grand Rapids Press

FREEPORT — The Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited chapter plans to transform a featureless 2,500-foot stretch of Coldwater River into ideal trout habitat using recent grants.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sustain Our Great Lakes program awarded the chapter $40,750, and another $20,000 grant came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners in Fish and Wildlife program.

The funds will be used to bury numerous 18-inch tree trunks along a barren section of riverbed east of the Baker Avenue bridge near Freeport.

The project, funded and coordinated in part by the Coldwater River Watershed Council, is expected to boost trout numbers along an 127-acre publicly accessible property owned by the Schrems TU chapter by providing woody cover in otherwise ideal fish habitat, said JR Hartman, the chapter’s conservation chairman.

“The Coldwater River is an excellent trout stream where the fish have cover,” Hartman said. “In this particular stretch, it looks like a big long ditch and there’s just not anything there to keep the fish there. Our goal is to increase the trout population from about 40 fish per mile to about 800 fish per mile.

“It’s just a short drive from Grand Rapids, and I think we can really showcase the Coldwater River as an excellent trout fishery.”

CRWC president Dick Smith said recent electrofishing surveys on other sections of the river and its tributaries showed trout numbers near the chapter’s 800 fish-per-mile goal, with numerous fish over 20 inches.

Despite an extensive manure spill on the Coldwater’s Tyler Creek tributary in 2006, a similar project on that waterway attracted numerous brown, rainbow and brook trout.

“This is an experiment that has been tried other places. On Tyler Creek, after the spill, they put large rocks in,” Smith said. “It worked very well and it turned into excellent trout habitat.”

Aaron Snell, TU member and research biologist with Grand Rapids consulting firm Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber, submitted applications for permits to work in the river last week. He said he expects the plans to be approved in the next two months.

Construction could begin as soon as June and likely would last two weeks, he said.

TU board member and CRWC councilman Ron Barch has fished the Coldwater River extensively over the past 30 years and said he is optimistic about the project.

The river, a 34-mile designated trout stream, was one of the first to host the Gilchrist Creek brown trout when the DNRE introduced the strain several years ago. The species has thrived in the river.

Other smaller improvement projects also have made big gains on the Coldwater over the past decade, Barch said, adding he expects the TU project to have similar success.

“There is lots of gravel and lots of cold springs. When people do take the time to work on the river, it makes major changes,” Barch said.

He said he sees less-obvious benefits to the project in the long term.

“More important than to improve fish numbers, it is going to bring economic gains to West Michigan. People’s property values will increase as the fishing gets better,” Barch said. “It’s not just a deal where we have more fish to catch, it’s going to add to the quality of life in the Coldwater River Watershed.”

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