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Taking down barriers to good fishing

The Pomme de Terre River, above, as it flows towards Appleton offers small rapids with pools of water holding walleye, great for fishing. Submitted photo

MONTEVIDEO -- If fishing for carp and bullheads is your desire, just look for a silt-filled reservoir.

These fish dominate in the poor quality habitat created by river dams, according to Chris Domeier, a fisheries biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Ortonville.

If walleye, northern pike or catfish are more to your liking, take a look at the Pomme de Terre River in Appleton or soon, the west branch of the Lac qui Parle River in Dawson.

Removing the aged dams in both locations is greatly improving fish habitat in the two rivers, while also reducing the risk of tragedy. Low-head dams are known as "drowning machines'' for the rolling waters below them.

Better fishing and safer waters could be coming to the Chippewa and Minnesota Rivers in the not-too-distant future as well. Discussions are afoot that could remove two other dams.

The City of Montevideo is interested in seeing the low-head dam on the Chippewa River in Lagoon Park -- site of three drowning deaths in 1975 -- replaced by a series of rapids.

Xcel Energy is considering what to do about the large Minnesota Falls dam it owns on the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls. It would cost an estimated $4 million to upgrade the 105-year-old dam to address public safety issues. It no longer serves its original purposes of generating hydroelectric power or providing cooling water for a 1930s vintage coal-fired power plant upstream.

Domeier outlined the benefits of removing dams for the benefits of improved fishing and safety during a presentation at the annual meeting of Clean Up our River Environment on Feb. 20 in Montevideo.

Dams are barriers to the natural movements that many fish species require to reach food sources, spawning areas or deeper and cooler water during parts of the year. The barriers lead to the disappearances of some species, he said.

Lake sturgeon has disappeared from Big Stone Lake and the upper Minnesota River due to dams.

The adverse consequences resulting from the 600-foot wide, concrete wall that is the Minnesota Falls dam are well known.

Shovelnose sturgeon, paddlefish and flathead catfish once were common upstream of the Minnesota Falls dam, but now can only be found downstream. It's unfortunate too, because the trophy flathead fishing found in the Minnesota River downstream of the dam is attracting lots of attention.

Other popular game species, such as northern pike and walleye, are adversely impacted by the unnatural barrier as well, he said.

The century-old mill pond dam that once held water to power a flour mill in Appleton was removed following the 1997 flood and replaced by six man-made rapids. The rapids offer ideal habitat for walleyes, and maintain the river as an attractive, focal point for the community, Domeier noted.

And contrary to what some may charge, the removal of the dam has not caused the downstream walleye to migrate upstream to Morris. "Just plain wrong,'' said Domeier.

The truth is that walleye and channel catfish both upstream and downstream of Appleton have benefited by the free movement, he said.

Domeier is hopeful of seeing similar results in Dawson, where a 1913 vintage dam was replaced by a series of rapids this last autumn. The project cost roughly $700,000, with all but $40,000 of that devoted to creating the new rapids that keep waters levels up.

Projects to remove dams can be costly and they are not always popular, said Domeier. "It's what they think they are going to lose,'' said Domeier of the opposition that greets some proposals.

Once people learn they are going to lose carp, bullheads and notorious drowning machines -- and gain walleye, northern pike and much safer river banks from which to pursue them -- attitudes change, he explained.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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