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In this June 2010 video, Chris Wasta fly fishes for brook trout in South Pine Creek northeast of Decorah. Register file video

Kent Kleckner says he has about 20 miles of good trout fishing within about 15 minutes of his Decorah-area home.

Anywhere along those streams, pockets of 20 anglers could be fishing for brown, rainbow and brook trout. The anglers might be spread out, but their spending adds up.

“People don’t see that,” said Kleckner, a part-time fishing guide.

A new report says trout fishing in parts of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota added $1.6 billion to local economies last year.

The study, commission by Trout Unlimited, looks at spending in the Driftless Area, 24,000 square miles that boast limestone and sandstone bluffs, deep river valleys, and more than 600 coldwater spring creeks that flow over more than 6,000 miles.

Tourism has grown as Iowa’s coldwater streams have improved, say area leaders.

The state has gone from six streams in the 1980s that partially supported naturally reproducing trout to 73, said Joe Larscheid, chief of fisheries at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Carina Cavagnaro, a Decorah native who left and moved back about a year ago, sees the changes.

“In the last 10 years, tourism has become one of the primary economic drivers,” said Cavagnaro, who runs the Dug Road Inn with her fiance.

“It wasn’t a tourist town when I was growing up here,” she said. “It wasn’t where people made their money.”

Now visitors come to fish, but also to hike, kayak and take advantage of other outdoor activities, she said.

“It’s incredibly busy, and it’s just tourism. It’s amazing how much it’s changed,” said Cavagnaro, adding that guests mostly come from Midwest metros: Des Moines, Madison, Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids.

D.J. Friest sees fishing’s impact when buyers walk into his Decorah real estate agency.

Most buyers want recreational land, and most recreational land buyers want a trout stream running through it, said Friest, president of Friest & Associates Realtors.

“I tell them if that’s what you have to have, you have to be willing to pay top dollar for it,” he said.

Buyers are mostly people who live in northeast Iowa full-time, but the region’s outdoor amenities also are attracting people looking for summer getaways and workers who can telecommute.

Word is getting out about the area’s quality fishing, Friest said.

“People hire a guide, come for a week, stay in town and spend their money,” he said, adding that several restaurants, including two breweries, have popped up to serve the growing number of visitors.

Larscheid said the state’s restoration work has focused on watershed and habitat improvements that included reducing soil loss from area farms.

The silt makes it difficult for trout to reproduce. They lay their eggs in gravel beds and need a cold, clear flowing stream, he said. 

“Of the 73 streams that show some natural reproduction, 45 are totally self-sustaining,” or streams the state no longer needs to stock with trout, said Larscheid, adding that the state has partnered with dozens of private and public groups.

Anglers, he said, have responded. “Every year we bust records” Larscheid said. Trout stamps hit 46,600 last year and are on pace to set another record this year. That’s about 12 percent of Iowa’s 375,700 anglers.

The stamps, required on top of a regular Iowa fishing license, cost $12.50 for Iowa residents. “It’s been an economic boon to Iowa,” he said. 

Larscheid, himself an trout angler, said the attraction is easy to understand.

“In northeast Iowa, you can get lost in the streams,” he said. “There are streams you can drive right up to. And we have some you have to hike for an hour to get to.

“You can be in Iowa in remote locations, and you swear you’re out West somewhere,” Larscheid said.

Kleckner, who works as a full-time controller in a manufacturing plant, said his fly-fishing customers figure out pretty quickly if they’re hooked — whether it’s the skill needed to catch the fish or the area’s rugged beauty.

“My wife calls it a disease,” he said.