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A river runs free again

The Dawson city council will be deciding soon whether to approve plans to replace the city's 1913 dam on the Lac qui Parle River with a set of rapids. The project is designed to maintain the upstream reservoir while improving fishing opportunities in the river. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny1 / 2
The Department of Natural Resources and the City of Appleton replaced the "drowning machine", or lowhead dam, that had held the Pomme de Terre River for 120 years with a series of six different riffles. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny2 / 2

APPLETON -- Autumn is best when there is color in the trees and the river is relaxed.

That's when Chris Domeier enjoys slipping on a pair of chest waders or climbing into his kayak, fishing pole in hand.

He makes his way down a roughly three-quarter-mile stretch of the Pomme de Terre River as it glides by the Appleton golf course, makes a giant 'S' curve and straightens a bit for a run toward downtown.

There are six different riffles along this stretch to help the river drop a total of 10 feet.

Each riffle is a collection of boulders and churned water, and immediately downstream of each is a pool of deep, quiet water. Each of these pools holds walleyes. Domeier goes from one to the next and vertical jigs a small minnow.

Wham. The pole bends and throbs, the spinning reel's drag screeches, and Domeier has another.

And usually, he has it all to himself. "I rarely see others fishing it,'' said Domeier, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff in Ortonville.

That's partly because lots of anglers continue to return to their favorite haunts on the Pomme de River both upstream and downstream of Appleton.

They have good reason to continue to spread out on the river. Fishing has improved along the length of the Pomme de Terre River. It has a lot to do with what happened on the stretch that Domeier enjoys fishing.

After the 1997 flood had damaged the dam that had created Appleton's mill pond, city officials worked with the Department of Natural Resources to remove it. They replaced it with the six riffles. They allow the river to drop in steps.

Removing the dam meant that a wall that had kept fish from migrating upstream beyond Appleton for 120 years was gone.

"Fish like to migrate,'' said Domeier. He explained that the dam had kept fish downstream as far as Marsh Lake from reaching spawning grounds and food sources above Appleton, and consequently harmed the river's overall fishery.

Taking out the dam also meant that Minnesota has one less "drowning machine.'' The hydraulics immediately below low-head dams -- like the one that held the Pomme de Terre River in Appleton -- have been likened to washing machines with rocks.

By slowing the river, the dam had also created a large, upstream bed of silt, making the waters in this part of the river shallow and unsuitable for game fish. The project to remove the dam included excavating the channel down to its original sand and gravel bottom, and as a consequence returning ideal walleye habitat to this stretch of the river.

Domeier isn't sure why the walleye fishing on this portion of the river is much better in autumn than late spring or early summer. He can only guess that the greater flow early in the year disperse the forage fish the walleye prefer.

He does know that the unrestricted flow and free migration for fish have benefited game fish populations, especially walleye. Channel cats have returned to the river above Appleton as well. Many of them are now decent sized, he said.

Domeier is hopeful of restoring river fishing elsewhere in the region by removing aged dams. Most were built to tap water power at the turn of the century, but today serve no such purpose.

He is currently working with the City of Dawson to remove a 1913 dam that holds the Lac qui Parle River in the community.

He said the Dawson project should also improve fishing on the river by returning rapids to the river in place of the dam. Landowners upstream of the dam in Dawson are fearful about losing the reservoir created by the dam during dry periods.

Consequently, a series of weirs, similar to what was installed on the Crow River in Hutchinson, may be installed to replace the dam, said Domeier. The City of Dawson is currently reviewing the latest engineering proposal and will decide early this month on the possible project.

He is also hopeful of someday seeing the 1905-vintage Minnesota Falls dam on the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls replaced by rapids. Doing so would allow fish to migrate upstream, clear out a silt-filled reservoir, and provide outstanding spawning habitat.

The Minnesota Falls dam has prevented the Minnesota River's world-class flathead catfish fishery from being enjoyed by anglers upstream of the site. The dam's presence appears to have harmed fishing for all species upstream to Granite Falls, said Domeier.

The dam is owned by Xcel Energy. It creates a reservoir that provided cooling water for the utility's Minnesota Valley coal-fired power plant. The plant is no longer in operation. There are concerns about the structural integrity of the dam due to its age, and Domeier said the utility has expressed some interest in the dam's removal.