Canvasbacks and redheads lined a portion of the shoreline on Lake Christina on a warm afternoon on October 13.
It wasn’t the same sight that duck hunters and bird enthusiasts marveled at during the lake’s prime when thousands of these birds would stop on Christina to refuel as part of their annual migration. But it’s a step in the right direction as the efforts to turn the fortunes of this Douglas County Lake continue to evolve.
“The water was awful high [this year] and that did hurt the plant growth,” Lake Christina landowner John Lindquist said. “But there still must have been enough plant growth to bring the ducks in.”
The Department of Natural Resources will combat those high water levels after announcing on October 8 that they are planning a partial drawdown of Lake Christina beginning in mid-October. Using Lake Christina’s permanent pump system, water levels were expected to be lowered by up to one and a half feet and will be maintained at the lower level throughout the winter and into early summer.
“The purpose of the drawdown is to provide ideal conditions that encourage growth of submerged aquatic plants in the early growing season next year,” DNR shallow lakes program supervisor Nicole Hansel-Welch said. “An added benefit may be enhanced over-winter mortality of existing fish populations that have negative impacts on water quality and aquatic vegetation.”
The permanent pumping system was used to lower the lake by almost three feet during the fall of 2012. Aquatic plants increased dramatically after that drawdown. A wet spring in 2014 resulted in higher water levels this summer and a plant community that was less robust than in 2013.
The ducks that were using the lake in mid-October were still finding the food as they feasted in the sago pondweed patches. The DNR said the lower water levels after this drawdown are not expected to impact hunter access to the lake until the early part of November, if at all.
Lindquist grew up on Lake Christina after his father purchased the land he now owns on the lake in 1953. He says that even with the higher water levels, he was encouraged by the ducks that were using the lake earlier this month.
“There’s a pretty fair number there,” Lindquist said after a morning hunt on October 13. “Canvasbacks and redheads. It’s better than last year. There’s quite a few birds in the lake. It was kind of about what we expected last year, but this year it’s been better. It’s a success, but it’s ongoing work.”
Lake Christina is making a comeback after being known as a duck hunting hotspot nationwide through the mid-1900s. The near 4,000 acre Douglas County lake has historically served as a critical stopover during the canvasbacks’ migration. At its best, more than 100,000 of the birds had been known to use the lake to rest and refuel on the vast aquatic plants that grew when water conditions were clean and clear.
Lindquist can still recall the DNR duck count of 108,000 canvasbacks on the lake in October of 1994. He said those high numbers also had to do with the droughts that were hitting the Dakotas at the time, causing the birds to shift their migration patterns.
Like many shallow lakes, Christina started to suffer as carp became abundant and the water dirtied, resulting in the aquatic vegetation dying off. The permanent pumping structure that was first used in 2012 has been a part of turning around the fortunes of the lake.
The drawdowns the DNR conducted two years ago almost immediately paid dividends. The lower water levels led to winter kill of some of the rough fish and to better water clarity. In September of 2013, the sago pondweed that canvasbacks and other waterfowl eat lined much of the shoreline of Christina.
“Last year, I think the plants came back in full force and really kind of exceeded my expectations with the sago,” Hansen-Welch said. “This year, we had really high waters through July, which I think was hard on the plants. With this drawdown, we’re trying to do what we can to prevent that from happening next spring.”
That’s the advantage of having the permanent pumps on the lake as water levels fluctuate based on the weather from year to year.
“We have this pump infrastructure, so we may as well actively use it,” Hansen-Welch said. “Try to get us some insurance that we prolong the results that we saw from the full drawdown that we did a couple years ago.”
It may be a stretch to think that the lake will hold more than 100,000 canvasbacks at any time in the near future. A lot of factors go into that, but the rebirth of a once crown jewel for waterfowlers continues to take shape.