FAIRMONT - After a seemingly endless winter, a patch of open water is about all it takes to excite a fisherman. It also raises questions of the impact months of frigid temperatures and snowfall had on fish in area lakes.
When a lake freezes over and is covered with snow, light can't penetrate the surface. Without light, algae begins to die, depleting the oxygen supply in the water. Without oxygen, fish will die.
A winter fish kill is common in this area, according to Nate Hodgins, assistant area fisheries supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources. Walk along any thawing body of water and you're bound to see flocks of birds feeding off fish carcasses that have washed ashore.
But some lakes fared this past winter better than others.
The DNR monitors lakes throughout the winter with an "aeration inspection," taking measurements to check the severity of oxygen loss.
"We've got about five lakes of concern," Hodgins said. "Cedar Lake is the worst."
When oxygen levels fall below two parts per million, the situation is "very stressful" for the fish. The first reading at Cedar Lake, taken about Jan. 1, registered .7. The last reading at the lake, located by Trimont, was taken on March 7. Readings had dropped to .2.
Cedar Lake is popular with crappie fisherman, and Hodgins urged them to "give it a couple of years" to recover from this year's winter kill.
"We have management plans in place," Hodgins said. His office, located in Windom, will soon be looking at restocking the (fish) population, including "walleye, for sure."
Adult fish will be used in the restocking efforts, especially with yellow pike, so the fish will spawn and recolonize the lake.
Staff will do some netting and sampling to determine what fish remain. Yellow perch and northern pike are more tolerant fish and can survive with low oxygen levels, he said.
Buffalo Lake, north of Cedar Lake, is "a little bit better, but low." East Chain Lake's initial reading was 1.6, dropping to .4 through the winter. But Big Twin Lake, south of Cedar Lake, seemed insulated from the winter effects, holding a 5.9 reading.
"People hear a certain lake is dead so they assume the rest of them are too," Hodgins said. "Fairmont's chain didn't experience a kill. Fox Lake didn't experience a kill. There's still a lot of good lakes out there," Hodgins said.
Tuttle Lake, also known as Okamanpeedan, near Ceylon "stayed surprising good," holding a reading of 10 parts per million, despite its shallow depth. Hodgins said Jim Hand, a commercial seine operator, "pulled quite a few good walleyes" out of Tuttle.
He recommends fishermen check out the DNR's website at www.mndnr.gov.
"There's information on aeration - all the oxygen readings starting with 2009-10, five years of data," Hodgins said.
At the top left of the home page, under popular links, is fishing. Clicking on that will take you to a list of area offices, and information on local lakes can be found by clicking on the Windom office.
"They (fisherman) are getting antsy," he said. "The first thing is to get a license and pick up a regulations book for 2014."
He noted that licensing is a little different, so fishermen should make sure their license is valid before throwing a line in the water.
"May 10 is the walleye opener, and it's the same for northern pike. Crappies and yellow perch are continuous," Hodgins said.
"A good one to try out is Fox Lake by Sherburn for crappies, also Fairmont's chain for walleyes," he said. "And Temperance Lake by Sherburn might be a good spot for pike."