Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Drought ’09: Issues arise in east-central Minnesota

St. Paul – While lack of summer rainfall in parts of Minnesota
has been enough to send lawns into submission, it’s likely the
cumulative effect of several consecutive summers with below-normal
rainfall is to blame for lake levels low enough to cause access
problems.

The drought conditions – centered mostly in east-central
Minnesota – also could affect wildlife and fish in other ways yet
to be seen, officials say. Much depends on if the drought
continues.

“Usually we come into this in August,” said Erik Wrede, DNR
water trails coordinator. “It’s just early this year. Now it’s a
question of how long it lasts.”

Anglers are noticing the effects of the drought in eastern
Minnesota when they get to boat accesses.

Problems are especially evident at places like White Bear Lake,
a 2,400-acre east-metro lake with a small watershed. It’s about 3
feet below normal levels this year.

The single public access on White Bear is now under
construction. And the permit access at Matoska Park needs to be
dredged, according to CO Lisa Kruse.

Some bays are nearly without water, Kruse said, and now she must
address issues involving work along the lakeshore where water used
to be – residents cutting or roto-tilling the shoreline.

“We’re worried about the (lake) vegetation,” she said.

Fellow CO Todd Langevin works east-central Minnesota to the
Wisconsin border. He, too, has worked with anglers who are having
trouble getting on area lakes.

What’s happened in many areas, he said, is that the problem
associated with “power loading” has been exposed. Mounds created by
prop wash as boaters load their boats are creating barriers to
launching. South Center and Big Green are prime examples, Langevin
said.

North Center access is bad, just because of the dought. “There’s
just no water in the bay anymore,” he said.

In most cases, loading and unloading boats is still possible;
it’s just more time-consuming, and potentially hazardous for boat
propellors.

The access to South Lindstrom and Chisago is “probably the
best,” according to Langevin. There, the power-loading mound was
dredged out. Besides loading and unloading issues, boaters should
be aware of hazards in the water that didn’t exist when waters were
at closer to normal levels.

“(The low water) started out last year, and just got lower (this
year),” Langevin said.

Low water levels in some water bodies could be reflected in
things like increased vegetation where lakebed has been exposed,
and in potential winterkill due to shallower water (thought that
depends on a number of other factors, as well, including the
severity of winter).

Parts of Minnesota recently were 6 to 8 inches below normal
precipitation during the current growing season (beginning in
April), according to the state climatology office. From last June
until now, some areas of east-central Minnesota are down 12 to 14
inches from “normal” precipitation.

While the metro and greater east-central Minnesota are parched,
the northwestern and southwestern parts of the state have received
ample rainfall amounts, according to the climatology office. Across
the river, burning bans – usually reserved for pre-green-up in the
spring – recently were put into effect.

“The saving grace is the cool weather,” said Peter Boulay,
assistant state climatologist in St. Paul. Less hot weather means
slower evaporation, he said, adding that evaporation this year is
just 60 percent what it was during the hot, dry summer of ’88.

According to the climatology office report, “The seasonally cool
weather in July tempered evaporation rates and kept the drought
situation from deteriorating more rapidly.”

Boulay said Twin Cities temperatures were 3.4 degrees below
normal so far during July. In International Falls, July temps were
8.6 degrees below normal.

Boulay said the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction
Center called for “more of the same” in terms of temperatures for
the remainder of the summer. “Precip is a coin flip,” he added.

Boulay said some parts of the state are working on the fourth
consecutive summer of below-normal rainfall.

Along with lower lake levels, stream and river flow has been
significantly reduced in some areas, in some cases concentrating
fish for anglers.

Mike Mueller, a DNR area hydrologist in Cambridge, said low flow
can reduce refuge areas for young-of-the-year fish, and in extreme
cases, native mussels can become stranded and eliminate necessary
habitat.

“Most major rivers are in a low-flow condition, for some we’re
in critical – what you’d see once over 10 years,” Mueller said.

Many area wetlands are completely dried up, a negative for those
species that rely on them. Those areas that lack good vegetative
diversity, Mueller said, could see increased and varied plant
growth next year.

According to a recent climatology office report, streams and
rivers with “much below normal” flow included the St. Croix River
near Danbury, Wis., the Snake River in Pine County, and the
Vermillion River in the south metro area. The Mississippi River
near Aitkin was reported to have “below normal” flow. On the other
side of the state, the Red River, near Fargo was “much above
normal,” according to the office.

Portions of Minnesota experienced a slight reprieve when 2 to 4
inches of rain fell in central Minnesota. Most of the state
received some rainfall earlier this week, as well.

Following the rain event last week, the climatology office
offered this: “A quick evaluation indicates that there was a
short-term response in stream flow, but not enough to significantly
change the overall drought pattern.””The (20- to 26-inch) slot was
really attractive to anglers,” he said.

The new slot also served to reduce release mortality, Barnard
said. It’s estimated that release mortality is at about 2,600
pounds, or about 3 percent of those returned to the water. About
285,000 pounds of walleyes have been released, he said.

While a number of 17- to 19-inch fish now are being harvested,
livewells continue to hold quite a few smaller fish, Barnard
said.

“It’s pretty encouraging to see a lot of 11- to 12-inch fish
being caught, as well,” he said. “There are good year-classes
coming up.”

While walleye fishing can rebound in the late summer and fall,
Barnard said angler pressure usually remains light on Upper
Red.

“This year it will be interesting to see what the (new) slot
will do (to angler pressure),” he said, adding that there’s been
more early July angling pressure than in past years.

Barnard said the safe harvest level will remain at 168,000
pounds on the state’s portion of Upper Red unless the spawning
stock biomass decreases considerably. Given state angler harvest,
this year will be a telling one regarding Upper Red regs.

“This will be the first time we’ll be close to the safe harvest
level,” he said. “We have to get there (to the safe harvest level)
and see how the lake handles the harvest.”

Like state anglers, the safe harvest level for the Red Lake
Chippewa Band’s portion of Upper Red and Lower Red is 31/2 pounds
of walleyes per acre. The band’s safe harvest level is about
820,000 pounds of walleyes.

Barnard said until this week tribal anglers had caught walleyes
via hook and line for the fish-processing plant the band operates.
With slower fishing and a need to keep the plant operating, limited
tribal netting will now begin.

Mille Lacs

For Lake Mille Lacs anglers, it’s been a mix of good and bad,
according to Tom Jones, DNR large lake specialist in Aitkin.

The total walleye kill this year for the 130,000-acre lake has
been 76,000 pounds, he said, with the actual harvest now at 65,000
pounds. The state angler allowable harvest this year was 414,500
pounds.

Jones said about 320,000 pounds of walleyes have been released
this year on Mille Lacs; 280,000 pounds were released all of last
year.

“Fishing isn’t terrible, but pressure has been kind of low,” he
said.

Actually, creel surveys have showed steadily increasing success
for walleye anglers on the lake. The recently completed “third time
period” for the lake indicated a catch rate of .4 walleyes per
hour. That’s double the first-period rate of .2 fish per hour, and
an increase from the second period rate of .3 fish per hour.

“Fishing has been getting better all year,” Jones said, adding
that early season cold fronts may have slowed angling success.

Jones said there’s still an ample supply of perch in the lake,
which in part reduces walleye-fishing success. But the perch size
structure is increasing, which means there are smaller, hungrier
walleyes available for anglers.

“We can’t have a lot of perch every year forever,” he said.

Jones said it’s good to see several younger walleyes now being
caught.

“Either there are a whole lot of them, or there’s not much food
for them,” he said.

The Mille Lacs bag limit this year is four walleyes. There’s
also a protected 18- to 28-inch slot in place.

Members of Ojibwe bands in Minnesota (Mille Lacs and Fond du
Lac) and six in Wisconsin netted and speared just over 100,000
pounds of walleyes this year; their allocation is about 126,500
pounds. Last year, the bands harvested about 90,000 pounds of
walleyes.

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