Clear as crystal

Published 8:13 pm Saturday, October 8, 2011

Two years ago, people fishing or canoeing on Pickerel Lake may have been turned away by what they saw.

“You could stick your hand in four inches and not see it,” said Andy Henschel, watershed technician with the Shell Rock River Watershed District.

The lake, what was described by many as looking like “pea soup,” had little if any healthy vegetation, was full of carp and had large algae blooms by May. There was no habitat for fish, ducks or other organisms.

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Now, two years later — after two major projects — Shell Rock River Watershed District officials and other lake enthusiasts said they are excited about the progress they’re seeing in the lake.

In fact, they’re calling the water clarity there “phenomenal.”

On Thursday, watershed officials, representatives from Albert Lea Community Education and a few people with an engineering firm working with the watershed took a canoe tour of a portion of the 587-acre lake to see first-hand how it has changed.

What they found was a success story.

What once was compared to pea soup — “as green as green can be” — is now crystal clear, Henschel said.

People looking over the lake can see all the way to the bottom, healthy aquatic vegetation is flourishing, fish in the lake are thriving and different native wildlife are using the lakes.

The northern pike in the lake are the fastest growing in the region.

But what may be even more important is that the success of Pickerel Lake — a headwaters lake to Fountain and Albert Lea lakes and ultimately the Shell Rock River — is heavily influencing those lakes for the better as well.

“I think we’re making a difference,” Henschel said. “If we can treat these satellite lakes we can make a difference in the rest of the watershed.”

How did it all happen?

In 2008, Henschel said, the Shell Rock River Watershed District received $100,000 from the North American Wetland Conservation Act to assist with the construction of a fish barrier on Mud Lake, northwest of Pickerel Lake off of Freeborn County Road 46.

The aim was to help keep all of the raw fish — such as carp and bullheads — out of the Mud Lake and Pickerel Lake systems.

That was installed in the fall of 2008.

Then in the fall of 2009, district officials conducted a reclamation of Pickerel Lake and all of the ditches in the system, treating them with a one-time application of the chemical Rotenone, which acts instantly to kill all of the fish in those systems.

And that’s what it did.

Henschel said in the spring of 2010, the lake was stocked with 126,500 northern fry, 19 pounds of adult bluegills taken from Fountain Lake and 320 pounds of adult yellow perch from Albert Lea Lake.

The northern fry grew between 12 and 14 inches in the first year.

By the fall of 2010, he said both submergent and emergent vegetation had started to establish themselves.

Henschel said there were roughly 20 aquatic species identified by the Department of Natural Resources as seeds that already been in the lake that had been waiting for the sunlight to reach the bottom to help them grow. Now that sunlight was able to reach the bottom, these aquatic species have been able to take off.

On Thursday when officials looked at the lake they said they were also pleased with the different native wildlife using the lakes, including ducks, muskrats and birds.

Some of these things haven’t been seen near the lake for years.

“We’re pretty confident this will last for a while,” Henschel added.

Scott Hanna with Albert Lea Community Education said the lake offers dimensions for canoers that never existed before.

He said it is conducive for canoeing, kayaking, fishing and hunting, and he hopes to be able to eventually make it more of an educational experience for youth.

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