COON VALLEY - As a kid, Dave Vetrano was fascinated by moving water. He remembers damming up creeks to watch how the current changed. Half a century hasn't dampened his enthusiasm.
Standing on the banks of Coon Creek, Vetrano describes vortex weirs and boulder retards that subtly alter the currents churning below. On this horseshoe meander, underwater rocks focus the channel, sparing the banks from erosion and creating deep plunge holes, perfect spots for trout to feed during the winter.
It's the work of his Department of Natural Resources fisheries team, part of a $200,000 project to restore an overgrown stretch of the creek to prime habitat for trout and other species, and an effort to reverse the effects of 150 years of farming practices that caused valleys to fill with top soil and warm rainwater to wash into coldwater streams.
Eric Rauch, president of the Coulee Region chapter of Trout Unlimited, fishes all over the globe and says the Driftless Region is among the best for trout.
Much of the credit, he said, belongs to Vetrano, who retired last week after 33 years with the DNR.
His title was fisheries team supervisor. His legacy is helping turn the state's Driftless Region into a world-class destination for trout fishing.
"It's the best trout fishing in the Midwest, even the country," said Ken Wright, the former area fisheries supervisor who hired Vetrano.
Since the early 1980s, Vetrano's work and innovations have helped add more than 400 miles to the region's list of classified trout waters, earning him a reputation far beyond the blufflands.
When Mat Wagner, who owns the Driftless Angler in Viroqua, was scoping out a place to raise his kids and open a fly fishing store, he called Vetrano to get a feel for the health of the region's fisheries.
Vetrano responded with one of his favorite sayings: "The good old days of fishing are right now."
Vetrano is 60 and has long, curly hair and a goatee. He wears a Harley Davidson sweatshirt and an earring. It's an image to match his reputation.
"I always thought of him as this rogue biologist who got great results," said biologist Jordan Weeks, who was drawn to Vetrano even before he was hired onto the fisheries team.
Vetrano likes to say it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
He did it back in 1983 when he had an idea. Rather than stocking streams every year with domesticated trout, he decided to try harvesting eggs from wild trout, whose survival instincts were better honed.
His instincts were pretty well honed too: When fingerling spawn were released, they darted for cover, unlike the domestic strains that would sit still.
At the end of the first season, the wild trout were outliving domesticated by two to one. At the end of a year, six to one. Not only were they surviving, the wild trout were reproducing, and the streams became self-sustaining.
When Vetrano saw the traditional methods for stream bank stabilization weren't working, he came up with a design that could be assembled on site with local materials. Not only was it more effective, it provided overhead cover for trout. He nicknamed it Little Underwater Neighborhood Keepers Encompassing Rheotaxic Salmonids - LUNKERS - and it was adopted throughout the state.
Fisheries technician Mike Leonard has worked with Vetrano for the past 22 years. He says Vetrano combines his professional knowledge with an angler's intuition.
"He knows what the fish need."
A native of West Allis, Wis., Vetrano says his dad took him fishing for the first time when he was three.
He says he always wanted to work in conservation, and even wrote school reports on it. But he claims he flunked out of UW-Stevens Point - twice - before joining the Air Force in 1970.
After four years as a B-52 crew chief, Vetrano said he was more focused and earned a degree in fisheries management. He landed a job with the DNR as a seasonal worker and moved through the ranks.
Those who worked with Vetrano say it was never just a job.
"If you were going to work for Dave," Weeks said, "you had to love the resource."
You also had to be willing to try new approaches.
"Status quo," Vetrano says, shaking his head. "I don't even like the word."
Vetrano talks about his work in big picture terms. He isn't just restoring trout streams. He's improving systems, building communities.
"He wasn't just another fishery employee. He cared about the fisheries, he cared about the landowners and he cared about making sure everything clicks," Wagner said. "He's trying to make it work in everybody's best interest, knowing that it's part of a community as a whole."
On the Neprud property, a 200-acre farm site along Coon Creek acquired in 1981 for public access, Vetrano worked with other biologists to include habitat improvements for birds, turtles and even snakes. It will eventually feature restored prairie and woodland habitats and serve as a living classroom.
"I'm gonna miss this stuff," Vetrano says surveying the site. "This is what it's about - not the process and bureaucracy."
While he's looking forward to having more time to fish the streams, Vetrano, who has served for 10 years on the Bangor school board, doesn't plan to stop working to improve the Driftless Region, though he wants to expand his focus.
He wants to find ways to take a systemic approach that considers social and economic forces, such as farming, that affect water quality. Instead of just revitalizing streams, he'd like to revitalize communities.
"I'm not just going to go away," he said. "I might as well use whatever reputation I have."