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Local DNR braces for winter kill

Some local lakes could have fish wash up on shore when the ice melts after a long and cold winter led to ideal winter kill conditions on lakes. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

While local anglers wait with anticipation to get back in the boat this spring, the local Department of Natural Resources is bracing itself for what the long winter might mean for some popular fisheries in the area.

Glenwood Area Fisheries supervisor Dean Beck said many of the lakes in Douglas County are deep enough to withstand rough winters and not reach dangerously-low oxygen levels that lead to huge numbers of fish dying off. Some of the shallow lakes, though, are a different story.

“I think we can look forward to pretty widespread winter kills on the shallower basins unless they are part of some greater flowage that might have kept some oxygen in there,” Beck said. “Douglas County, in general, I don’t think will be a major concern, at least not for our managed fish lakes. I would say Gilbert, maybe Round Lake.”

Gilbert Lake, which is a 201-acre lake near the west edge of Lobster Lake, was opened to liberalized fishing with no daily limits in February after low-oxygen levels were already taking a toll on the fish. It is a lake that has experienced high numbers of winter kill in the past and one of the first to be affected in Douglas County during long winters.

This winter had conditions that were as tough on fish as any that Beck said he can remember since moving to the area in 1989. Cold temperatures led to early ice that got thicker and thicker as the winter progressed.

Heavy snow that piled up on some lakes also kept the sun from reaching plants in the water that produce oxygen. As the plants die, they use up more oxygen during the decaying process.

“Shallower basins with a lot of plants are probably going to be the first to go,” Beck said. “A lot of these shallow basins in the Corn Belt out here with very little plants, they hold up pretty well.”

Beck said one lake the DNR is curious about this spring is Emily Lake in southwest Pope County. Emily is a popular fishery that covers almost 3,000 acres but has a maximum depth of a little more than five feet.

Beck said Emily has held up well in the past to tough winters because of little plant growth in the lake and water that flows from Lake Minnewaska. But with almost 40 inches of ice on a lot of area lakes, this winter might prove to be tougher to withstand.

“There’s not a lot of room there for the fish to occupy,” Beck said of Emily. “That one doesn’t winter kill that often, so I’m going to be curious to see how it shakes out. I’m guessing there will be partial winter kill on many of these smaller lakes around here.”

Beck said the first fish to go are panfish such as sunfish and crappies, along with bass. Walleyes will often follow as oxygen levels get lower with northerns and yellow perch being the last game fish to die off. Rough fish such as carp and bullheads tend to hold on longer than any of them.

Beck said he has received calls this winter about Lake Johanna and West Port Lake in Pope County where people have noticed possible winter kill conditions with fish.

“We’re a little concerned about Lake Villard, a very productive fishery in the middle of a chain there,” Beck said. “There’s concern we may have lost some fish in that. That is not a common event. It has occurred, but it’s certainly not common.”

What the fish need right now is a quick thaw. With temperatures still hovering around freezing into this week, the prospects of that happening didn’t seem great.

“Last winter, it was tough,” Beck said. “This one I think is worse yet. Typically, things are starting to improve by this time, and we’re still pretty locked up. It’s a critical period any time through mid-March when there’s still this much ice, the chances really grow.”

That’s why the local DNR is preparing itself for a busy spring once the ice finally melts. Beck said there are around 20 lakes in their work area they will look at to gauge whether or not they need to take action in an attempt to help populations recover. Walleyes they can restock, but many of the other game fish that typically suffer first from tough winters will have to be transplanted.

“If needed, we’ll move some adult game fish in and try to get them in early so they can reproduce in the lake and get some of these populations reestablished,” Beck said. “Typically the ones we’ll move are bass, bluegill and black crappie. We’re definitely preparing for that.”

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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