Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Winnebago rock reef now in place

Brothertown, Wis. — Walleyes for Tomorrow finished a rock reef project on Lake Winnebago in June, more than five years after the project began. From beginning to end, the project was hit with tragedy, bad luck, and unexpected circumstances.

Twelve deep-water reefs were built by using rocks excavated from stone fences on farmland in the area. The reefs will provide habitat for many fish species, and anglers should appreciate the new structures as prime locations to fish.

The original plan in 2010 was to haul the rocks onto Lake Winnebago with trucks in winter and dump the loads into 4-foot by 8-foot holes in the ice. WFT had used that procedure for 15 years without any problems.

On Jan. 19, 2010, the project was halted when Todd M. Rupert, 39, from Van Dyne, drowned when his truck loaded with rocks broke through the ice. A day earlier, 25 loads of rock were hauled on the lake.

“I don’t envision us ever hauling rocks on the lake again (in trucks),” said WFT chairman Mike Arrowood at the time in an interview with Wisconsin Outdoor News.

The rest of the rock pile sat in a field off of Quinney Road until this year, when the landowner asked WFT to remove it.

“We had two options,” Arrowood said. “Find somebody with a big-enough hole in the ground so we could bury the rock, or get it out on the lake.”

WFT hired Radtke Contractors to haul the rock onto the lake via barges. That brought the cost of the project to around $80,000.

“We never thought barging on the lake was cost-effective,” Arrowood said. “We bit the bullet and we bit our budget and we are getting it done.”

Work began in May and the process ran smoothly for a time. The rocks were loaded on dump trucks that were driven a short distance down Quinney Road to the launch, where a barge was moored.

When the barge was full, it motored out to GPS coordinates and the rocks were dumped. It was a slow process.

After a couple of weeks, work was stopped when the Stockbridge town board grew concerned about possible road damage and asked WFT to repair any road damage to the town’s specifications after the rock hauling was complete. The financial risk was too great, so they moved the unloading south four miles to Driftwood Beach Road in the town of Brothertown. 

“That move probably cost us $10,000,” Arrowood said. “The final cost will be over $100,000.”

In the end, more than 2 million pounds of rock were put in Lake Winnebago at two locations.

“On the south at Gene’s Reef,” Arrowood said. “The north location doesn’t really have a name. It’s three miles east of the Winnebago County boat landing.”

He said each reef is about 12 feet wide by 80 feet long. They rise about 5 feet off the bottom.

The reefs are a complement to WFT’s spawning habitat work.

“When we started WFT, a professor at Stevens Point told us if we were really successful putting walleyes in the lake, at some point in time we might be Forage for Tomorrow,” Arrowood said. “That turned out to be true.”

He pointed to last year as an example.

“Last year we had a cold spring, a really long winter, and virtually all of the forage species in Winnebago had a horrible spawn,” Arrowood said. “That makes nothing for little walleyes to eat. All of the rock work we have done in the lake has been with the intent of producing forage, with the exception of the sauger reefs we put up on the north end.”

The DNR was happy to see the reefs installed.

“It’s a flat, featureless plain out there (where the reefs were placed),” said Kendall Kamke, a DNR fisheries biologist. “The rock reefs provide all of these different spaces and nooks and crannies as habitat for small fish.”

Kamke said the surface of the rocks can get covered with algae that will then attract bugs. Those bugs will attract small fish; the small fish will attract larger fish.

The reefs became an immediate fish attraction. Arrowood said the day after the first barge dumped, local anglers were marking schools of fish surrounding the new reef.

“On one rock pile last year on the south end of the lake, I caught 23 different species of fish,” Arrowood said. “I didn’t catch a muskie and I didn’t catch a sturgeon, but I caught just about everything else.”

The cost of the project will not be a significant setback for WFT.

“WFT never does a project unless we have money in the bank for the project,” Arrowood said.

However, the extra cost for finishing this project makes less money available for future work.

A member of the Fox Valley WFT chapter set up an online  campaign on GoFundMe, gofund.me/wh63gk.

GoFundMe deducts 5 percent of every donation that comes through its site; a 3-percent processing fee also is deducted. Arrowood said people can make direct contributions to WFT to avoid those deductions. Donors can earmark their funds to go to any specific WFT project or to go to its general fund.

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