Interview: Bob Luck, President, Twin Cities Trout Unlimited
As proud business sponsors of Trout Unlimited, TroutRoutes continues to find ways to engage with local and state chapters to further the mission of conservation of cold water fisheries. Trout Unlimited has nearly 400 chapters across the United States, with the 3rd largest chapter being the Twin Cities chapter in Minnesota. TroutRoutes recently had the pleasure of spending some time speaking with Bob Luck, current president of the Twin Cities Trout Unlimited Chapter, on a number of topics related — and unrelated — to TCTU.
TroutRoutes: First off, thanks for your time in chatting with TroutRoutes. Second, who are you, and what do you do?
Bob Luck: Well, I’m Bob Luck, current president of the Twin Cities Trout Unlimited (TCTU) chapter. After a long international business career, I’m formally retired, but currently serve on the Trout Unlimited board, as well as the Japan-America board. I spend my winters in Japan skiing, and actually hit the slopes about an hour after we conclude this interview. I’m also a fan of the TroutRoutes platform!
TR: Could you spend some time detailing the mission and vision of Trout Unlimited (TU) for our readers? And how do state councils and local chapters fit together?
BL: Sure thing. Trout Unlimited began in Michigan in 1959, with a passionate group of Au Sable River anglers. Having seen first-hand the threats to their fishery’s longevity, they felt it was time to do something. At the time, the response of the Michigan DNR was stocking trout; the local anglers felt habitat improvement (HI) and stream restoration should be the focus, and they then began work with state agencies to allocate stream improvement resources. Fast forward to today, and TU operates something like 400 local chapters, lists over 300,000 members, and houses a national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
At the national level, the main TU goal is to identify and support local HI projects, and to do advocacy work. TU DARE (driftless area restoration effort) is an example of the former, and the successful effort to stop the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska is an example of the latter. Then, local chapters such as TCTU are your boots on the ground; they hold meetings, run educational initiatives, and volunteer on the HI work that TU is probably best known for. Between the local and national levels, are the state councils. State councils coordinate between the national organization and local chapters to advocate for TU at the state level. This includes grant applications and championing success stories, ultimately advocating for the longevity of the funds and programs that make those successes possible. Today, Minnesota has 5 chapters, along with the state council.
TR: What makes the TCTU chapter so unique and well-positioned to positively impact trout anglers in our region?
BL: Believe it or not, TCTU is the 3rd largest chapter in the country. We have a large metropolitan population with a high concentration of anglers, coupled with a unique geographic position between two outstanding trout fisheries: the Driftless to the south, and Lake Superior to the north. We also have a state history of progressive environmental government, and Minnesota has a reputation of ranking extremely high on activism and volunteer metrics. An example of the passion Minnesota anglers have for their natural resources is the creation of the Legacy Fund. In 2008, Minnesota voters imposed on themselves a three-eighths of one percent tax on themselves for 25 years, until 2034, in the name of cleaner water, healthier habitat, better parks and trails and sustaining our arts and cultural heritage. Now known as the Legacy Fund, that tax has generated more than $2 billion dollars for such initiatives.
TR: What is the relationship between TU and the DNR – specifically, how do the two agencies work together on projects?
BL: Great question. The Minnesota DNR actually has cold water fishery specialists throughout the state that identify opportunities for HI, as well as public easement procurement from private land owners. TCTU communicates frequently with these specialists on how they can help, like sharing contacts that may be willing to sell easements, and identifying stream sections in need of attention. In Minnesota, most funding for these projects comes from the previously-mentioned Legacy Fund. The ultimate goal in our HI work is reconnecting streams with their original flood plains that existed before improper farming practices and overall stream negligence occurred. For instance: lowering stream banks allows a heavy rain event to dissipate water outward, instead of the stream digging itself deeper and deeper. If we can re-establish these flood plains, then the rest of our HI work has a much higher rate of success and longevity.
One important thing to note, is that TU in Minnesota never does work on streams that lack public access. Gaining that public access is led by the DNR with support from TU. The DNR has a program and budget for purchasing stream easements. TU supports the program by developing relationships with local landowners and introducing them to the DNR. Once public access is secured, either through the easement program or by other means such as public land purchase, it is eligible for HI work. TU goes through a competitive bidding process on HI projects, which are ultimately approved by the State Legislature. Once the actual funding is approved, the State Council hires contractors and manages the project, the DNR provides permitting for work in the floodplain and stream bed (which often involves heavy equipment) and local chapters like TCTU provide volunteers to remove invasive species, replant native vegetation, and do other manual work.
TR: You published an interview in the most recent MNTU newsletter with Steve Hamrick, a Minnesota artist that contributes art to the Minnesota Trout Stamp program. Tell us a little about what you learned from Steve.
BL: Yeah, another TU member actually connected me with Steve, so I reached out for a story. It turns out, the trout stamp art contest is highly competitive. He’s won it five times. There’s actually four different Minnesota Stamp programs with their own individual art contest; he’s won them all at some point. So maybe it’s not that competitive, maybe everyone is just competing against Steve! Jokes aside, he’s a great artist and better person. He donates a large portion of his art to causes like TU to sell in auctions to raise funds, and he’s truly passionate about our natural resources.
Here’s a little background on the Minnesota trout stamp program. Minnesota started their trout stamp in 1982, by request of local anglers. Anglers essentially went to the state and said ‘charge us more money to fish for trout, so we have more resources to support our fisheries’. By law, 90% of the revenue from trout stamp sales must go into a fund for habitat management and easement acquisition. The program was initially extremely successful, as stamp sales increased every year until the early 1990s. We then saw a decline until the early 2000’s, for whatever reason. Luckily, that trend has shifted. Every year for the last 5 years or so, they’ve set records in sales on trout stamps. I haven’t seen the numbers for this past year, but judging by the number of anglers on our streams, I’m willing to bet we’re going to see another increase in trout stamp sales.
TR: Let’s recap 2020. Obviously, it was a challenging year for all, for a number of reasons. Can you shed some light on how TCTU was challenged, and also some triumphs you experienced?
BL: Again, good question. Big picture, we want to be able to get together in person again, like so many other organizations. Our HI volunteering projects were completely halted with COVID gathering restrictions, and we’ve got some projects for 2021 that we’re really excited for, particularly replacing invasive vegetation with native species. Native plants do a better job of stabilizing stream banks, and support a much higher quantity and diversity of terrestrial insects, an important food source for trout. . We are also working on securing public access to a metro-area stream that is completely closed to the public. I can’t divulge the name right now, but it holds some enormous fish! I’m sure your readers will be hearing about this via TU web and social channels. One stream in particular that we can mention — and are excited to continue work on — is the South Fork of the Vermillion river, a 20-minute drive from downtown St. Paul. Trout populations already exceed 1000/mile and are likely to increase more. Some of those fish will migrate down into the main Vermillion and grow into monsters.
Another lifeblood of our organization is in-person educational events. Stream walks, fly casting lessons, things like that. We also have a program called Trout in the Classroom for primary school children learning about the overall biology of trout and trout habitat in Minnesota. That one has been very popular.
We also have plans to kick off a program called ‘Stream Keepers’, essentially allowing volunteers to adopt a trout stream. The Stream Keepers would be volunteering for things like recognizing habitat improvement features that need repair, as well as identifying opportunities for future restoration projects. We’d also empower them to practice ‘citizen science’, as the Stream Keepers would be provided test kits to monitor things like water temps and measuring key chemicals for determining water quality.
On the flip side, we’ve actually had record attendance at our last few member events — with everything being virtual, there’s no commuter commitment — and we’ve also been able to land some guest speakers from out of state that we typically haven’t been able to secure in-person. So, we’ve been able to take some positives out of this as well, and hope to implement some of these learnings going forward.
TR: Why is Vermilion not a part of winter fishing season?
BL: You know, we get asked that a lot. It’s purely geographical. Dakota County just doesn’t participate in the winter trout season, unlike neighboring Goodhue County. There’s been ongoing discussions with the DNR to include Dakota county in the winter trout fishing season, but it hasn’t happened yet. The Vermillion is the most popular Dakota County trout stream, but Trout Brook south of Miesville is also in Dakota County. It’s one of my personal favorites to fish, as it’s the only stream in the Twin Cities metro that has a good population of brook trout. Also, the lower part of that stream has not been improved, so that is potentially on our radar as well for future projects.
TR: It’s no secret that the pandemic has created a desire for people to pick up new hobbies. Have you seen that translate into the trout fishing scene here locally, and if so, what are your thoughts on the increased participation?
BL: It’s definitely evident. I had quite a shock when I pulled into one of my turn offs on the Rush River this last May, and counted 14 cars! In a typical year, I’d see maybe 2 or 3 cars. My first reaction is annoyance, but as I think about it, it’s overall a very positive thing. I still had more days on the water not seeing other anglers than I did seeing more than one car in a spot. You just might need to drive a little further or find new spots, which is part of the experience. We’re just spoiled with the amount of fishable water in this region, and the amount of public access. Compared to out west, where overfishing seems to be a real issue depending on whom you talk to, our pressure is relatively low. I really believe we need more people to discover and love our trout resources, and find interest in protecting and preserving them.
I also think trout anglers are a fairly courteous group: they don’t litter; they don’t block farming access with their cars; they close fence gates; and they generally don’t knowingly trespass. However, I have talked to land owners that have gotten upset about increased trespassing with more anglers on our rivers, so maybe there needs to be some more education on access laws and angler etiquette as we see an influx of new anglers.
On a separate note for new anglers, I also don’t discourage keeping and eating trout. There seems to be this taboo in trout fishing that harvesting is unsportsmanlike. But, they’re organic, they’re delicious, and we have an abundance of smaller trout in our system. The DNR wouldn’t let us keep trout if it was bad for the ecosystem; the slots and limits on each stream are designed to help increase natural reproduction, and the overall numbers of large fish. TU is in the business of encouraging anglers to love their cold water resources–whether they keep or release trout, fishing worms or dry flies.
TR: Do you have any tips on local fly shops and overall involvement opportunities for this influx of new anglers?
BL: This is a softball question! First thing, join TU. We love to fish, and love to share fishing with others. If you come to a meeting, you’d be surprised at the number of people willing to actually take you fishing. We also currently have a half-price offer on annual TU memberships, which are typically $35, so this is a great time to join. Most of those membership fees also wind up back in your local chapter, as well.
Regarding fly shops, I’ve been going to Bob Mitchell’s in St. Paul for 30 years, but they’re all great shops here in the Twin Cities metro. Another piece of advice, is to hire a guide. Even after 30 years fishing local waters, I find I can benefit from guides when I want to learn something new…or stay out of trouble in the middle of the night! I hired a guide from Bob Mitchell’s for mousing for brown trout last summer, and had a blast. If you have the means to hire a guide and support those that make a living on trout fishing in our region, you’re not going to regret doing so.
Odds and Ends…
TR: What’s your favorite trout species to target in Minnesota, and in what season?
BL: Brook Trout – there’s something special about catching these fish in their native streams. I also love the first couple weeks of October – there’s just so many outdoor opportunities in our region during that time.
TR: Favorite state to chase trout in the United States and why?
BL: I guess my favorite state is the Driftless – even though it’s technically a region. I just think there’s something so unique about the massive concentration of spring creeks. It’s also wild to be driving through farm land, then 30 seconds later, descending into old-growth hardwood and limestone cliff valleys, peppered with secluded trout streams and minimum cell service. I grew up in Madison, and so much of my childhood was spent in the Driftless Area. It will forever be a part of me.
TR: Favorite Twin Cities fly shop?
BL: Bob Mitchell’s, but again, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them. I’ve had positive experiences at each Twin Cities fly shop I’ve visited. Bob Mitchell’s just happens to be the oldest and closest to me.
TR: You can use only one trout rod for the rest of your life. What are you swinging?
BL: 13-foot Tenkara rod. It telescopes, so I can use it at 10 or 12 feet as well. My second favorite place to fish is small streams high in the Rocky Mountains, so it works well for both of my favorite regions. It also travels well on an airplane. I’ve been experimenting with my own tight-line nymphing setup on the Tenkara, so it allows me to play a little mad scientist as well.
TR: Do you have a favorite fly fishing book? Author?
BL: Trout Madness by Robert Traver. He was the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, and he quit to write full-time. He just does a tremendous job with the storytelling of the landscape and culture of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.