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Project protects pike spawning habitat on Lake of the Woods

by OutdoorsNews Staff

BAUDETTE — A small stretch of ditch could make a big difference for Lake of the Woods boat access via Bostic Bay and for northern pike spawning habitat in connected waters. Known as a world-class walleye, northern pike and sturgeon fishery, the lake on the U.S.-Canada border supports nearly 60 Minnesota resorts.

“It’s known as one of the big walleye lakes in Minnesota,” said Phil Talmage, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Baudette-based area fisheries manager.

With annual angling hours at about 3 million in recent years, Lake of the Woods is one of the state’s top fishing destinations.

“The other thing that makes Lake of the Woods unique is that we have long-lived fish that grow to be big. So we have probably one of the best chances of an angler catching up with a trophy-sized walleye throughout the entire state,” Talmage said.

Lake of the Woods Soil & Water Conservation District’s $350,000 channel stabilization on 2.75 miles of Judicial Ditch 28, which finished late this summer, was designed to curb bank erosion, improve water quality and protect fish passage to shallow, grassy spawning sites.

The sedimentation and cattail growth, which accelerated after a ditch clean-out 40 years ago, have, over time, constricted passage on once-open Bostic Bay to a 20-foot-wide navigation channel.

“Our bay was wide open when we bought the resort, and now it’s pretty much just the harbor area and the channel that goes out (to the lake),” said Ken-Mar-Ke owner Bob Ericksen, who estimates he’s spent $40,000 to $50,000 on dredging since he bought the resort 27 years ago.

“It hasn’t even made a dent in it, other than trying to keep our harbor open,” Ericksen said.

Exceptionally low water levels this year forced Ericksen to pull his 27-foot charter boat by late August. The propellers were damaged. Risking $9,000 in additional damage wasn’t worth it. At the same time that sediment was accumulating, anglers began to expect larger rental boats. The resort’s fleet of 18-foot rentals requires deeper water than the 16-footers they replaced.

If Bostic Bay were open like it was in the 1960s, Baudette-based Realtor Pat LaValla said property there likely could fetch $1,100 per foot of waterfront, as it does on the Rainy River. On average, he said Bostic Bay properties sell for about $500 per foot of waterfront.

“We used to water-ski out there where it’s all cattails now,” LaValla said, recalling how he spent some of his free time in the early 1970s when, as a teenager, he worked at one of the resorts. LaValla went on to run Cyrus Resort for nearly 20 years starting in 1977. His family owns property on Bostic Bay, which they use as an RV campsite. While installing docks, LaValla said he’s encountered up to 4 feet of sediment before reaching sand.

“It has great harborage, but it’s full of weeds,” LaValla said of the bay.

The sedimentation and cattails changed how retired county maintenance supervisor and former fishing guide Matt Mickelson, 69, accesses Lake of the Woods from his property on Bostic Creek, where he’s lived since 1977.

He used to run a 16-foot fishing boat from his house to the lake. For more than a decade, he has trailered his boat to a ramp on Bostic Bay instead.

“You could still run a boat on it,” Mickelson said of the creek. “You’d have to probably tilt your motor up so it wasn’t all the way in the water. And then you’d probably have to stop several times before you got to the lake and clean the weeds off your prop.”

Lake of the Woods Public Works Department and the SWCD received a $378,000 Clean Water Fund grant from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources for Judicial Ditch 28 work affecting Bostic Creek.

Matching funds came from Lake of the Woods County, the SWCD and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. NRCS staff has designed side-water inlets and studied groundwater movement through Graceton Bog, which encompasses the project area. More than half of the county’s share of the matching funds likely will be from ditch assessments to landowners who benefit from the maintenance.

The final design excluded some ancillary components but bolstered the primary objective — stabilizing ditch banks and reducing sediment transport — by extending the existing two-stage ditch. The project came in under budget, despite the additional excavation required for the extension.

Final project details, including an education component, will wrap up in the spring.

The two-stage ditch will provide more spawning habitat for northern pike within the channel and within connected waters. Talmage said slowing the water and reducing in-channel erosion would allow fish to more easily reach spawning habitat.

“The other part of it is the sedimentation,” Talmage said. “When we get sedimentation, we also usually get a lot of deposition. And when that happens, we end up with quality habitat being buried.”

Previous Minnesota Pollution Control Agency monitoring, DNR surveys, and an NRCS watershed assessment allowed the SWCD to target its work. DNR river ecology, watershed, fisheries and wildlife staff lent their expertise to project development and design.

“We are directly targeting the area where the sediment is coming from. You can visibly see. You go upstream, and the water is clear. You go to a certain point in the middle of our project, and it’s mud,” Corryn Trask, Lake of the Woods SWCD resource conservationist, said during a tour of the Bostic Creek watershed.

Judicial Ditch 28 drains about 41,125 acres — roughly 10,000 acres of it cultivated — and benefits about 830 landowners. More than 75% of the drainage area is privately owned.

“Everything that we do on the land, eventually that water gets to Lake of the Woods,” said Josh Stromlund, Lake of the Woods SWCD and Land & Water Planning department director.

“It’s such a huge body of water, and so much of it is out of our control locally, and there’s no one single solution that’s going to make a huge impact. It’s going to have to be many small fixes,” Trask said.

The work that finished this summer widened the channel to 8 feet and more gradually re-sloped the banks to create a half-mile-long, two-stage ditch. The newly constructed two-stage ditch is an extension of a 1-mile stretch that was installed in 2008 and has proven to be a successful innovation. This year’s work took a proactive approach to stabilizing the channel, which was showing evidence of down-cutting. This summer’s work also rebuilt three rock riffles, installed 10 more and constructed two side-water inlets.

A two-stage ditch includes a flat “bench” within its banks that serves as a floodplain when water tops the main channel that carries low flows. Rock riffles are positioned to cut velocity and provide access to fish habitat. The riffles are situated to help prevent down-cutting. Side-inlet structures connect the ditch to the field through a culvert in order to prevent the formation of gullies when runoff flows over the bank into the ditch.  Higher flows and larger, more intense rains had, over time, destabilized the ditch banks.

“Looking at the stability of that stretch and how it was degrading, I think that was where the decision was made to go a little bit above and beyond,” Trask said.

A more permanent fix lies in flow reduction — a potential solution that’s been debated for 35 years or more. The SWCD is using watershed-based implementation funding to identify flow-reduction options within the watershed.

Reducing the flow is complicated by the fact that the 100-year-old ditch runs through Graceton Bog. Because it doubles as a road ditch, abandoning Judicial Ditch 28 would eliminate a long stretch of County Road 4, one of the county’s main thoroughfares.

The SWCD and county saw the channel stabilization as a necessary first step. While flow reduction might not happen for 10 years or longer, the fixes made now will prevent costlier repairs later — and keep the ditch from falling into disrepair.

Trask described pre-2008 conditions:

“The banks were just a vertical straight drop 20 feet to the bottom. There were big chunks of the ditch sitting in the middle, so the water would swirl around (them). … This section was just on the cusp of heading in that direction.”

Monitoring will show what effect the stabilization has on sediment reduction.

Evelyn Ashiamah, Detroit Lakes-based MPCA monitoring coordinator, has been involved with the Bostic Creek watershed since monitoring started in 2017. She’ll continue to work with the SWCD.

From two stations on Bostic Creek, Ashiamah collects flow and water-level data monthly during the open-water season, and during peak flows. Together with data from continuous stage monitoring equipment, the information helps to fine-tune channel modeling. It’s also used to calculate the concentration of total suspended solids and pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

“They’re going to use it to calculate loads,” Ashiamah said. “It gives an idea how much of the pollutants are passing through with that water.”

— Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources


The great angling bite of fall

by Tim Lesmeister

The leaves have transitioned into their fall colors providing landscapes that epitomize the definition of raw beauty. The crimson, amber, and blaze orange terrain also signals the beginning of fall fishing patterns and that means changing tactics, expectations, and the potential for some incredible catches.

The water temperatures in the shallower regions of the lakes and reservoirs we fish will drop along with the night temperatures, and this will create conditions that move fish from their deep water haunts to lesser depths where the forage is present in higher numbers and easier to ambush.

October is prime time for muskie anglers. In a conversation I had with muskie addict Kolt Ringer he once said, “Muskies hang out in the deep cold water all summer, and they move up into the shallow vegetation in short bursts to feed at times. But in the fall, when the water temperatures drop, they stay in the shallows and feed a lot longer. This is the time to be after muskies.”

Ringer’s favorite fall muskie tactic is jerking shallow-diving baits over the top of big beds of cabbage, milfoil, and coontail. “Anywhere there are big stands of cover, there will be muskies roaming, looking for something to eat,” Ringer said. “You get a lot more bites then follows this time of year.”

Walleyes anglers will appreciate the night bite, according to Mr. Walleye, Gary Roach. “It’s a fall tactic that has been used to catch huge walleyes forever,” Roach said. “You troll crankbaits over the shallow rocks or on the edge of some deep vegetation after the sun goes down.”

Use lures that stay close to the bottom, Roach instructs. “Keep your trolling speed slow, use a lure that gets down near the bottom, and make sure it has good wobble at your speed,” he said. “On lakes with a decent population of walleyes, that fall night bite can produce a lot of big fish.”

My favorite fall fishing is the topwater largemouth bass bite. My favorite fishing buddy to fall topwater fish with was Stacy Barbour, who has passed on, but there were many mornings when the mist was floating above the water that we would cast top water chuggers and weedless frogs to docks and pads. “We have to get out early.” Barbour would say to me when he’d call to set up the outing. “I’ll pick you up right when the sun comes up.” And he would be there two minutes early chomping at the bit because he knew those bass were already feeding around those docks and pads.

Barbour was correct in his penchant for getting out early. We would get into the bite almost as soon as we began casting and for an hour, maybe two, the action would be steady. Then, like someone threw a switch, it was over. The topwater lures came off, the spinnerbaits went on, and it was out to the weediness to fish for pike.

The biggest fish I have caught over the years have been hooked in the fall. I have some great memories of spring, summer and winter, but the stories I tell of my fall exploits outnumber those of the other months. It pays to be on the water when the leaves tell you it’s time.



The word “transitions” may be one of the more overused terms in fishing today. We hear about mud-to-sand or sand-to-rock transitions, seasonal transitions, and bait transitions; to the point where the word tends to lose its meaning. Yet, it’s highly appropriate when discussing fall walleyes, as there are few times of year where everything can change as quickly as it can in the fall. Which is why you’ll need to be flexible in your approach if you’re going to catch fish during this stage of the game.

“Transitions” to fall walleyes means fish that are behaving differently in terms of their location. Warm spells and resultant increased water temps push fish back to more summer areas, often deeper than 20 feet of water. Cold bouts, and especially prolonged cooler temperatures have the opposite effect they do in the summer. Walleyes push shallower, feed more aggressively, and should be welcomed by anglers, even if they need some bulkier clothes and more cold-weather stamina to handle it. Nothing kills a great fall bite like an “Indian Summer” that hits as water temps are slowly but surely otherwise dropping nicely.

If walleye locations change, it should be no surprise that the techniques to catch them should transition as well. After water temps are in the 50’s to stay, you can put away the leadcore gear you used all summer to target scattered deep fish, and look for fish to congregate. For the most part, cool weather concentrates fish, and often does it shallow where walleyes like to feed heavily. This is especially true with prolonged wind events that stack fish in shallow, predictable locations. Cool, windy days in the fall can see the biggest fish in any water body actively feeding during daylight conditions.

That’s all well and good, but rarely in the fall is any one water body locked into a specific depth and individual pattern that works well for walleyes most of the time. In reality, fish move at back and forth, with these depth migrations being gradual over time, with all kinds of smaller movements throughout the days and weeks of fall. They relate to water temperatures, light conditions, and major weather events. All of which sums up the truest sense of the term “fall transition,” meaning that walleyes in the fall are ALWAYS in flux.

Knowing that, then we have the challenge of determining details in targeting them. First and foremost, start shallow, and start aggressive. Crankbaits, both lipless and short-bodied shad diving baits, along with swimbaits, jig and plastic combinations, and even stickbaits are great choices for this type of fishing. Fish wind-driven points, rock piles, and ledges in as shallow as a few feet of water, and give it a good hour or more of your time. Make the fish prove to you that they’re not shallow before abandoning that bite, as when it’s on, it’s on in a big way.

Next, move to the first break, and let your electronics be your guide. Often, especially in clear bodies of water, fall transition fish will move below the edge of the first pronounced drop-off from shore during the day, still feeding occasionally, while waiting to push to nearby shallows for a night-time feeding session. These fish may require a bit more attention and subtlety, and large, live minnows are a great presentation for them. Free-swim a big chub behind ample weight on a larger than average rigging hook, and wait for the thump-thump of the minnow to be interrupted by a “smash.” Pay the fish ample line and give it some time to get the bait in his mouth before setting the hook, and you’ll be surprised how well fall walleyes are into big minnows. With some patience, many minnows lost, and some practice, you’ll also be wondering how even eater-sized walleyes can eat these extremely large minnows.

If live-bait isn’t your game, it’s a great time to try Puppet Minnows on these intermediate-depth fish. You’ve got the combination of concentrated, aggressive fish, along with a bit of distance between you and the fish, such that Puppet Minnows really have the space to dive, dart, swing, and work their magic. I know more than a few anglers that fish this bite from 60 degree water temps all the way until lake ice-up.

Finally, if fall walleye locations are confounding you, and you haven’t found anything at shallow or intermediary depths, consider going back to what worked in the summer. This could be live bait rigging deep structure, or even pulling leadcore. A few years ago, I did really well pulling leadcore, at night, in 25 feet of water in October. The fish shouldn’t have been there, especially then, but they were and they ate. It could be due to warmer than average weather preceding your visit to the lake, exceptionally clear water, or a number of other factors including turnover, but know that you’ve always got the patterns from the previous weeks to fall back on.

Stay mobile, be flexible with your baits, and fish the fall walleye transition in order from shallow to the depths. Let the fish decide what they want and where they want it, then realize that each fall day can act like a new season altogether as you repeat the process with success.

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Catching gar from a kayak – on purpose

For anyone who knows me, they probably understand that my body is not made for a kayak. I am not very bendy to say the least. So, when fellow scribe Joel Spring of Ransomville asked me to go kayak fishing for longnose gar no less, I was a bit apprehensive. First, because of that whole kayak thing. Second, because who goes fishing for gar – on purpose!

I decided to give it a try. Spring promised that it would be plenty comfortable because it was a sit-on-top kayak with a seat and plenty of room to stretch. Once I was in/on the personal vessel, he was right – it was not bad at all.

Like with any fishing trip, I brought way too much gear. That is not good for a kayak, especially when you are not very bendy. Did I mention that? I brought along my camera bag that was stuffed with extra fishing tackle and binoculars (which I could not reach because it was on the bow of the kayak strapped down). I had an extra tackle box that was tied down to the stern of the boat (which I also could not reach because I am not very bendy).

Basically, all I needed was my fishing rod and a lure in the way of tackle. And “lure” is suspect because there are no hooks on it. Spring calls it a “rope fly” and he has added a spinner to give it a little flash. It is a piece of rope that has been frayed. That is all you need. Really.

We paddled across the launch ramp on the Oak Orchard River and Spring was immediately excited.

“There are lots of gar just outside the weed bed,” as he pointed near the docks. He caught one on his first cast and I immediately paddled over to try and take a photo or two from the phone. My camera bag was too far away.

“You should see them just fine if you have polarized sunglasses,” he said.

I switched the glasses I had on and it seemed to make a difference, but I still could not see them … until I did. Then they were everywhere. These waters were infested with longnose gar and if I were going to catch one, this would be the place.

As we moved up the creek in search of more active gar, it did not take long. Yes! I fought the fish as Spring jockeyed into place to take some photos. The rope fly worked its magic and I pulled the fish alongside my kayak. There was no net.

“Just put your gloves on and grab it by the snout,” said Spring matter-of-factly.

These gars have a long mouth full of teeth. Trying to get the fish to open its mouth to pull the rope fly out was no easy task. Spring came over to assist as he saw me holding the body with one hand and the mouth with the other.

Once we released the fish, Spring was back off casting, catching several more gars including one that was huge. “They get bigger than this, too,” said Spring. He was much more adept at catching, and releasing, the prehistoric-looking fish.

I had several more hits, but the rope fly failed to connect properly. Next time … and there will be a next time – if Joel asks again. We will have to wait and see on that one.

It took me longer to get out of the kayak after my legs were locked into place from not moving them for 2-1/2 hours. However, it was worth it, and it was a great experience to try something new and be successful.

I wonder how a pontoon boat would work fishing for longnose gar.


Kicking big-lake madness via trout isolation

Most of my time spent fishing since May has been in a boat on big(ish) lakes. Lately, though, I’ve started to lose my desire for 4 a.m. alarms and the inevitable recreational boat traffic that seems to start earlier and earlier each day (and which really reaches a fever pitch by lunchtime). This has me thinking about small streams and trout.

Trout are generally the first fish to have a wave of open-water anglers descend upon their haunts, usually in April. By mid-May, the hordes die down to the point where you’re far more likely to see a solo fly fisherman standing in a good run with plenty of elbow room upstream and downstream to work with, as opposed to multiple fisherman running everything from flies to spinners to crawlers.

By August, you’re likely to not see anyone out. That’s what has me putting aside 7-foot, 6-inch flippin’ sticks and picking up rods that are a bit whippier right now. Even though small stream trout are generally, as a rule, pretty small, they are also current fish which means if you’re stealthy they’ll bite. That’s probably reason enough to get out there, but for me it’s more about the places they live and the fact that I’ll probably be the only person there.

I saw this my whole life growing up in southeastern Minnesota, and even more these days now that I target brook and brown trout in northern Wisconsin every time I’m over there scouting deer. While the bugs can be bad, the fishing won’t be and it’s usually easy enough to find a stretch of quality water without a single angler on it. It’s low pressure, quiet, and usually productive fishing.

There’s plenty to like about that in my book, and if that sounds interesting to you, consider leaving the lakes to the jet-skiers and head out to some small, meandering water. You probably won’t catch any giants, but you’ll have all of the peace and quiet you want on some of the most beautiful waters

Anglers who are tired of the lake traffic might want to check out some nearby trout streams, which can be a great place to find quality fishing action and solitude in late summer.

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