Weister Creek Success Story: Interview with Paul Hayes, Project Visionary, Lifetime TU Member and Driftless “River Keeper”

By Jim Schmiedeskamp

Published July 2016

On a sunny day in May after fishing Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, I rendezvoused with Paul Hayes to get a walking tour of the Weister Creek stream restoration project Oak Brook TU has supported with $4,000 in grants supporting phase 3 work in 2016 and 2017. If you enjoy flora, fauna and critters of all types, then this outing was like spending an hour with Marlin Perkins, the long-time host of Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.” Paul’s vision, passion and commitment to this project are what makes it a success and ideal template for other Trout Unlimited conservation initiatives.

Here’s my interview with Paul on “living the dream,” the Weister Creek project, and Trout Unlimited’s role.

OBTU: First provide some background information on your professional career and current activities since retirement.  

Paul: My background includes a Master of Science degree in Biology from St. Mary’s University in Winona, MN. It was there that I caught my first trout and came to love the biotic diversity of the Driftless Area. I spent my professional career teaching high school science for 43 years, 38 of those at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, IL.

OBTU: Why did you retire to the Driftless Area?

Paul: Our family bought an old dairy farm in 2000 near Westby on the West Fork of the Kickapoo. We restored the stream, took the cows out of the woods and planted prairie and oaks in most of the corn fields. In 2009, I retired and we built a new home on the hillside overlooking our little valley and have been living the dream.

OBTU: What are your personal hobbies and interests in retirement?

Paul: I have been a TU member since 1970 and have worked on countless stream restoration projects which have allowed me to combine my scientific training with my passion for the outdoors.   My wife—Bernadette—and I are “river keepers” and spend many hours doing stream monitoring; we are also active in Audubon, the local prairie group and woodland owners group.

OBTU: How would you describe Weister Creek?

Paul: Weister Creek is a spring-fed stream, some 15 miles long, in Vernon County in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin and is a tributary of the Kickapoo River. The lower 5 miles of Weister Creek is surrounded by wetlands, forests and fields and lies in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve (KVR). The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is an 8,000-acre public land that was rescued from an Army Corps dam project in the 1970s.

OBTU: How and when did the Weister Creek project originate?  What has been your role?

Paul: I was appointed to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve management board in 2012; at that time the Reserve’s primary outdoor activities were hiking, biking, horseback riding and skiing. My wife and I did a thorough assessment of all the feeder streams to the Kickapoo on the Reserve. We identified Weister Creek as having the most potential for restoration as a trout fishery. The project was proposed and approved by the Board. My role has been twofold—to raise funds for the 30% match that most of the major grants require, and secondly to provide scientific advice to promote biological diversity and stability to the project.

OBTU: What makes this project unique from the typical Driftless Area stream restoration project?

Paul: The project is a demonstration site for a number of practices that enhance biological diversity and sustainability. Many of these are documented in Nongame Wildlife Habitat Guide by Jeff Hastings from Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort (TUDARE). Some specifics include:

  • Providing stillwater wetland habitat, some connected to the stream and some not connected. These provide habitat for minnows, tadpoles and larva of many aquatic insects.
  • Incorporating natural logs, root wads and shallow sloped grassy banks for turtles and frogs to use for basking and egg laying.
  • Connecting spring water outflows directly to deep water pools for thermal refuge in both summer and winter.
  • Constructing snake and turtle hibernacula. (A hibernacula is a protective abode in which a creature seeks refuge to survive winter’s cold temperatures, such as a bear using a cave to overwinter.)
  • Removing willow and box elder brush from the stream corridor to discourage beaver while keeping some large hardwoods for songbirds and raptors. Some standing dead trees were saved for woodpecker habitat.
  • The 100-200-foot stream buffer is planted in prairie grasses and flowers; once established the prairie plantings will be managed with fire to keep out woody brush. These plantings will enhance the pheasant hunting opportunities as well as nongame species.
  • Some sandbars are protected to provide shorebird habitat.
  • Some brush piles were saved or partially buried outside the floodway for small mammals and furbearer dens.
  • Some vertical banks in phase 3 will be enhanced for bank swallows and kingfisher nest holes.

OBTU: Who was responsible for the project planning and construction?

Paul: Project planning is shared by the KVR staff, myself and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries crew chief. Construction has been contracted to the Wisconsin DNR on a yearly basis—July to June. We may contract with other governmental agencies as well as the DNR in the future.

OBTU: Where did the funding come from?

Paul: Over $95,000 was funded for phases 1 and 2 with approximately $28,000 coming from Illinois (Oak Brook and Elliott Donnelly) and Wisconsin TU chapters, $15,000 from Vernon County (Ho-Chunk Trust); and $45,000 from the Wisconsin DNR Trout Stamp fund, as the major contributors. We are currently raising funds for the 2016-17 phase 4.

OBTU: What was the role of TU volunteers?

Paul: We have had three TU workdays, one each in 2014, 2015 and 2016. One was for a chainsaw day, the other two days were for construction of fish cribs (LUNKERS). All workdays have been midweek due to the schedule of the DNR and KVR staffs.

OBTU: How would you describe the handiwork of DNR contractors regarding their contribution?

Paul: I refer to the DNR contractors as “artists with backhoes.” There are many aspects of this work that are very subtle. Some examples would be visualizing the stream during high water events—where will the energy be spread out? How can we use flood energy to scour out pools? How to manage farm field runoff? The “artist’s eye” will break up long straight stretches with some gentle curves. Natural logs are used to cover fish cribs or lunker structures rather than squared-off face rock. There is a mix of sun and shade—some trees are in groves, some alone.

OBTU: How would you describe each phase?   When do see your work completed?

Paul: Phase 1 was 1,622 feet above the 24 Valley Road bridge; phase 2 was 1,693 feet below the bridge. The total project is planned at 9,627 feet. We are currently working on phase 3 which will continue into 2017. My involvement with Weister Creek will be ongoing once the actual stream restoration work concludes. As a new “adopted” stream, my wife and I as “river keepers” will have plenty of biotic diversity to monitor and maintain at Weister Creek.

Paul Hayes, TU member, Kickapoo Valley Reserve board member, and “river keeper.”
Large rock is positioned to cover lunker structures along the new meandering stream (above) by DNR contractors who created this deep pool below an island feature (below).