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The low down on Lake Wakanda

Fishing success and water levels are on the "low" side on Lake Wakanda south of Willmar, and that's not necessarily bad. The drawdown underway on the shallow lake is aimed at making possible a winterkill to knock down the carp population and allow vegetation to re-establish itself in the lake to improve habitat and water quality.

WILLMAR — Lake Wakanda has been Frankie Herning’s go-to lake since 1976.

He can talk about many successful outings he’s enjoyed hunting waterfowl and catching walleye on it over the years.

He was back on the lake earlier this week, but when it came to success, not so much to talk about.

Herning, 69, of Bird Island, said he’s picked up a few perch on the lake since it was opened to liberalized fishing at the start of the year, but that’s it.

It’s a story others know too. With the exception of using dynamite and certain nets, the liberalized fishing regulations give anglers every advantage to catch fish. Despite this, angler success overall has been low, according to Cassie Block, conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Willmar.

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The water level on Lake Wakanda has dropped by just about one foot since the drawdown began Nov. 9. Newly-installed control structures make the drawdown possible in an effort to induce a winterkill to knock down the populations of carp and other undesired fish. The control structures include fish barriers to prevent carp from returning. Photo courtesy of Josh Kavanagh, shallow lakes specialist Minnesota DNR

She reported that the first weekend of liberalized fishing regulations saw most of the angling activity, and it has dwindled since. Some have been able to catch a few, others not, she told the Tribune in an email.

“Kind of what we expected,” said Josh Kavanagh, shallow lakes specialist with the Minnesota DNR, of the lack of success. A partial winter kill during the 2017-18 winter knocked down fish populations in the lake, and helped set the stage for what is now taking place.

The lack of a large population of game fish, a dry summer and fall, and expectations that the restored Grass Lake basin will be able to hold some water this spring has combined to make this the perfect winter to start the drawdown of L ake Wakanda , Kavanagh explained.

Water control control structures and fish barriers were installed on this lake southeast of Willmar as part of a $921,000 habitat enhancement project made possible by a host of partners, ranging from the DNR, Ducks Unlimited and Kandiyohi County to the Blomkest Sportsmen's Club. The drawdown began on Nov. 9, 2020. As of Wednesday, the lake had dropped by about one foot, Kavanagh said.

That’s as good a drawdown as could be expected this quickly, he pointed out. Despite the dry year, the lake level was to the top of the boards on the control structure when the drawdown began.

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land Outdoors

It’s hoped the lake can be lowered by another foot in the months ahead. If all goes well, the lake will remain at the drawdown target through the year and into next winter as well. That would provide the opportunity for two consecutive winter kills to suppress the population of carp and other undesirable fish in the lake.

Afterwards, the DNR will stock predator fish in the lake to restore and help maintain a better diversity of fish species.

This is a shallow lake. It's no more than 15 feet deep when brim full, and its bays usually hold no more than three-to-four feet of water.

As the lake level has dropped, so has the dissolved oxygen in the water. Oxygen levels dropped from 10.1 parts per million a foot from the surface and 7.4 ppm a foot from the bottom on December 29 to 5.6 ppm and 2.7 ppm, respectively, when tested this week, according to Dave Coahran, fisheries supervisor with the DNR’s office in Spicer. Levels need to drop to 1-2 ppm, and sometimes to below 1 ppm, to trigger winterkill, he explained.

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A crane is used Tuesday on Kandiyohi County Road 8 about three-fourths of a mile south of County Road 119 to help construct a water control structure near Lake Wakanda. The structure is part of the Lake Wakanda enhancement project to improve the diversity of the lake’s ecosystem and natural habitat. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

Carp are the primary target for the winterkill. They uproot vegetation and stir up the bottom, which keeps nutrients suspended and feeding algae blooms in the warm season.

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Kavanagh said there were already signs this year of the benefits of the partial winterkill of a couple years ago. Some vegetation re-established itself this year. There were reported increases in the number of waterfowl visiting the shallow-but-expansive lake of 1,754 acres as a result.

The lake is a designated Migratory Waterfowl Feeding and Resting Area. Restoring aquatic and emergent vegetation will help make this lake a destination for migrating waterfowl once again.

The lake is the headwaters of the South Fork of the Crow River. Its water connects to lakes Eleanor, Little Kandiyohi, Kasota, Swan, Minnetaga, Big Kandiyohi and Lake Lillian. The newly installed fish barriers are designed to keep carp from returning to Wakanda.

The revival of vegetation along the shoreline will also help reduce the erosion of the lake banks. Even during the drawdown, the lake’s waters remain murky, much to the chagrin of those who would like to spear fish it during the liberalized regulations.

The liberalized rules remain in place through Feb. 28 and it’s hoped anglers will have opportunities to remove as many fish as possible. The fisheries supervisor said a commercial fisherman used sonar to see whether there were sufficient numbers of carp pooled together to net. He found an estimated 10,000 pounds of carp schooled up, which is not enough for a profitable haul, he said. If commercial netting does take place, any game fish caught would be transferred by the DNR to other lakes, Coahran pointed out.

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There was a fair amount of activity when Lake Wakanda was opened to liberalized fishing regulations at the start of the year, but activity and success has dwindled since. The liberalized fishing regulations are in place through February 28. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

While Herning had only a few perch to show for his efforts earlier this week, he’s sure to be returning. An avid outdoors enthusiast, he said he appreciates the lake for more than just the fishing. He’s taken advantage of its snow cover this winter to strap on his cross country skis and get a workout.

“This is such a beautiful lake because it’s so quiet,” he said, pointing to the wooded shoreline largely devoid of development.

Call it the perfect storm or the alignment of all the right stars, it has all left Kavanah optimistic. While acknowledging that Lake Wakanda is a challenging lake to manage, he’s hopeful. Things are going the right way to restore the lake’s habitat and improve water quality, which will make this lake all the more attractive to outdoor enthusiasts in the years to come.

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