Do you love big bluegill?
Man, this winter sure is starting rough. I told myself while I was out hunting the third weekend of November in 2013. It was one of those days where walking was the only way to stay warm. -5 degrees isn't great hunting weather but when your time is limited you take what you can get. At least this will get the ice started and we can get fishing sooner, I consoled myself. As it turned out it was one of the earliest starts to ice fishing in recent memory. There were reports of brave fishermen hitting the ice on Thanksgiving weekend. As optimistic as I was to get out early a snow storm hit the last week of November dropping enough snow to make the Ice conditions way too slushy and dangerous. But come Christmas, I was able to get out with my brother in-law on Grand Lake and we had our best Ice fishing outing together ever, catching dozens of pike and crappies for hours....but it was cold. As we watched the sun set that evening, temps dipped below zero (again), but winter in Minnesota, It's suppose to be cold.....right?
Grand Lake had proven itself over many years of fishing it consistently to be one of the best panfish/bass lakes I have ever come across. I felt blessed there was a world class fishery only 10 minutes from my front door and didn't take if for granted. It was one of those special places that had a large population of quality Blue Gills (8.5"-9.5"), Crappies (9"-12") and Large mouth bass (16"18" with 5-6lb bass being caught often through the summer). It was also known for producing 20+ pound Northern Pike. Did I mention that I didn't take the lake for granted?
Fast forward to May 2014, it had been one of the coldest winters my 90 year old Grandma could remember with long standing records falling. First it was the most days in a row of the lowest daily temps being recorded in the sub-zero's (23). Then came the most days total in any winter of temperatures being recorded at some point in the sub-zeros (74+). Lake Superior froze over for the first time in nearly 20 years.......and then there was the snow. When the last snowfall came through in early may the total for the year was 130.2 inches which was the 3rd most ever recorded for our area.
We had already endured a long snowy winter in 2012-13 with some of the latest Ice outs ever recorded in most of our lakes (Lake Vermilion ice out date was 5/17 in 2013) which pushed everyone's opening fishing plans out 2 weeks. I can't believe this is happening again, I thought as we pushed our opener plans out again this year because Ice out wasn't projected to happen in time. The problem wasn't the thickness of ice, our area always max's out at around 36-40" thick. It was the snow......the more snow on the ice, the more it insulates and slows down the melt. As it turns out there was a difference between the two years, 2013-14 had way more cold (record cold) with the snow (a record amount of snow), translation? The snow didn't melt. It covered the ice much longer and thicker then most years.
Why does all this matter? May 15th, 2014 I get a txt from my cousin at 6:30am “Did you hear about the fish kill?” My heart sank as I read it…..fish kill…..dreaded words for a fisherman. No one who loves to fish any species likes to hear those words. I didn’t want to answer because I was afraid of the answer….”No,” I responded. ”Where?” His answer was like a train running me over. ”Grand Lake, they have an article about it in the paper.” An article? Could it really be that bad? I went strait to the report and read it with trepidation…..then I saw it. The estimated amount of fish dead, 35,000……wait 35,000?! That can’t be! It must be a typo, there is no way! I got in my car that morning and drove to my favorite lake to see for myself……
The smell of dead fish was unmistakable as I drove up to the 1,658 acre Lake. I was grieved with the amount of dead fish I saw along the shore. They were spread out as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t help but shed a tear. I guess I did take the lake for granted, I thought. I always assumed the fish would be here. Maybe one day the bass fishing would not be as good or the Crappie population would come down or the average size blue gill in the lake will get smaller but never could I have predicted or imagined that they would be gone. I started to take inventory, there’s a few gills….a few more, some crappies over there, some bass….northerns….on and on it went. Not just dozens but hundreds of fish on this small shore line of the lake. I couldn’t stay there anymore, I was to upset. Selfishly I thought, This was supposed to be the lake that would produce the first locally caught 10” bluegill for me! Last year I caught a couple at 9.75inchers so it was only a matter of time, right? The thought trailed off, just a matter of time. I was bewildered…….
June 7th 2014, I was able to talk myself into giving my favorite lake a try. Reports through my connections confirmed that the lake was hurt bad from the fish kill but I had to know it for myself. I only had a couple hours but that was enough time to fish the two spots I knew panfish would and should be. They had been my go too spots, the places I took my family and close friends to because we were guaranteed to have a good blue gill outing. A lot of good gills had been caught from bobber fishing to fly fishing in these areas and I knew if I could pull out a few gills or crappies my hope would be restored. 1 hour went by…..2hrs….3….4, nothing. There was no pan fish to be seen or caught just 2 small northerns and 1 perch. Nothing, unbelievable.
The sadness doesn’t end….. Recently we learned that the Minnesota DNR plans to stock millions of Walleye fry in the lake and manage it as a Walleye lake for the unforeseeable future. The problem? It isn’t a Walleye lake. They had long abandoned managing it as one due to the lack of natural reproduction along with the health of the other species. Those primarily being Bass and Panfish. The local folks I have talked to that care about this agree, it will just prolong the inevitable making the recovery harder and longer for the other species this lake is really good for. I am hopeful that a dialogue can be created with the DNR to talk about the lake so those that really care about it can be listened to and give input, only time will tell if they are willing to open that line of communication.
Conclusion? I’m not sure there is one. The only thing I know is that the lake’s lack of oxygen this winter, created by the lack of light that wouldn’t penetrate the snow covered ice, killed the weeds, which in turn ate oxygen as it decayed and created one of the biggest fish kills in this lake/area’s history. Will it ever return to the Panfish/Bass/Northern grandeur it once was? Maybe, in time, but the DNR’s plan to manage it as a Walleye lake could delay that recovery. Sure Walleye fishing may be good for a time but when they naturally reproduce is known to be minimal in the lake how long would that last? I believe the reality will be that the new competition created by introducing a large Walleye population will only stunt the other species potential and make their recovery take longer. Since the lake wants to be a Bass/Panfish lake I remain hopeful.
My heart hurts for the loss of a great fishery, for what appears to be the lack of wisdom to help it recover properly and for the many years of patience that pan fishermen will need to have in waiting for the lake to come back. The hard truth is, it's "recovery" may only be a shadow of what it once was and It's known potential could fade into memory as the “good ‘ol days”. I remain hopeful that this will not be so.
Grand Lake, you held a special place in this fisherman’s heart. For the many great memories with my children, wife, family and friends, I thank you. I believe one day we will catch pan fish together again my friend, just like the "good 'ol days".