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Conservation Conversations: Conserving Critical Muskie Spawning Grounds

Muskie or muskellunge illustration
from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
/
https://picryl.com/media/muskellunge-usfws-20e8a9
Muskie or Muskellunge illustration

This interview is one in a series of conservation conversations aired monthly on KAXE/KBXE. Heidi Holtan and John Latimer are joined by John Sumption and Annie Knight from the Northern Water Land Trust. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Heidi: So, Annie, what a difference a month makes! Last month, it didn't seem like we were going to have any spring or summer. Now, the lakes are open, and the natural world is coming alive. What's going on for the Northern Waters Land Trust this summer?

Annie: Yeah, the whole week of spring we got was really lovely. Now we're right into summer! The transition happening outside has been really wonderful to watch, as well as the transition with all the landowners coming back up north and thinking about their lake cabins. We’ve been able to have more conversations with them, many of which concern loons coming back onto the lake, which has been fun. In terms of the summer, we have a couple of workshops that are coming up. To highlight a few, we have a cabin succession planning workshop, where we’re having experts in the area join us to talk about options for passing down your cabin and the importance of planning ahead (and how to start that legacy conversation with your family). So, that’s coming up in June, and we’re also excited about the topic of loons! We’re partnering with the National Loon Center down in Cross Lake to put on a loon workshop: they have a floating classroom, which is a 31-foot pontoon that we get to hop onto and learn a lot about loons. So, check out our website for more details on both of those workshops and there are a couple more, too!

John S.: Heidi and John, baby birds aren’t the only thing we’re watching out for right now!

Annie: That’s true, yeah. I likely won’t be on the next Conservation Conversation because we’ll have a baby.

Heidi: Let’s talk a little bit today about the Millers Bay project on Leach Lake.

Annie: To give a little bit of background: since 2013, Northern Waters Land Trust has been working hand-in-hand with the Minnesota DNR to protect the land surrounding Millers Bay. Millers Bay is located on the south shore of Leech Lake and is largely undeveloped. Many years ago, the DNR identified Millers Bay as being a critical muskie spawning habitat. Together with the DNR, we have been targeting the bay for strategic protection, and we know that if we can protect the land around these really critical sensitive areas (Millers Bay, for instance) by protecting it from being further developed, the critical muskie spawning habitat within will have a better chance at continuing to thrive. And that’s what we’re doing! We’re continuing the efforts of land protection on Millers Bay. Today, we have a couple of experts on the show to talk about the specific work on Millers Bay: George Selcke and Doug Schulz. George Selcke is on the Northern Waters Land Trust Board, a member of the Twin Cities chapter of Muskies Inc., and is the chairman of its Hugh C. Becker Grant Committee. Then, we have Doug Schultz (the DNR Walker Area Fisheries Supervisor) with us to talk more about muskies. To start us off, we’ll kick it over to George.

Annie: George, tell us more about what Muskies Inc. Is, and (speaking of Millers Bay) where other critical muskie spawning habitat is located in our four-county service area.

George: Muskies Inc. has grown to 10 chapters since 1966, with more than 3,000 members and an additional 60 chapters nationwide. Muskies Inc. is dedicated to muskies, through the principles of research, youth, and fisheries, which include habitat, stocking equipment, and labor. Today, we’re specifically talking about habitat.

Annie: Wonderful. George, do you want to talk about where other critical muskie spawning habitat is located?

George: Okay. That’s a whole new program, but recently, we’re talking about Millers Bay. We have also done recent work on Woman Lake, Wabedo, Little Boy, and Lake Roosevelt.

Annie: And those are topics we can touch on in another episode: we’re going to focus on Millers Bay today. Doug, thanks for joining us. Doug is our area fishery supervisor in Walker. Doug, what makes the Millers Bay habitat critical or significant for protection?

Doug: Millers Bay is a shallow protective bay on the south end of Leech Lake. As Annie mentioned, it’s about 150 acres in size. Most of it is less than six feet deep, and we’ve learned through research that muskie spawn on chara or muskgrass: that bay is loaded with it. The way it’s oriented also makes it protected from all but east winds. That protection is important for a spawning and nursery area on a lake that’s 112,000 acres in size! The bay itself has chara, as I mentioned, but it also has a lot of other aquatic vegetation. Wild rice rings the fringe. It has potential for nesting loons as well. Finally, as we’re talking about today, spawning muskies use the area. Protection efforts on Millers Bay were initiated around 2000, when the U.S. Forest Service acquired the old Cedar Springs Resort that was on the bay. In 2003, we at the DNR got our first reports from anglers about muskies potentially spawning there. We investigated that in 2004, and found there was actually quite a bit of spawning activity. Since then, I’ve actually moved our stocking operation for muskies which we use to feed the statewide program. We moved the entire operation to Millers Bay because it’s protected and we can get our hands on quite a few fish in a short amount of time. As a result, it’s been a focus area for us for continuing acquisition. To date, we’re up to about 13 acres and 2,800 feet of lakeshore. With the shallowness of the bay, development and propeller wash disturbance (some of the shoreline activities that would occur) would be pretty impactful if the bay were developed.

Heidi: Let’s talk a little bit about why you’re talking about the land when we’re also talking about water. Doug, why do we need to protect the land? How is that related?

Doug: The land is a sponge. We talk about runoff. We talk about ground water resources, for example water being able to infiltrate or reach the ground water. What happens on the landscape is reflected in the water. We can focus and work on the shoreline, but if we allow the rest of the landscape to be negatively impacted, we’re going to see that show up later on in water quality. This is due to runoff in streams, which eventually ends up in lakes et cetera. So, protecting the landscape and the ‘sponge’ is really important. Our focus is starting to shift because that’s an area that warrants attention, especially as development continues up here in the north.

Heidi: We’re talking today about the Millers Bay project on Leech Lake with our partners, Northern Waters Land Trust. Let’s talk a bit about how you partnered together and how this works with the DNR, Muskies Inc, and Northern Waters Land Trust.

John S.: The Northern Waters Land Trust serves three basic functions in a project like this. First, we help Doug and the DNR identify those high priority lands for protection. Then, we try to make contacts with those land owners. Second, we serve as a kind of coordinating organization, or the focal point, to bring the project partners together. We work with the landowners, the DNR, with funding organizations and interest groups like Muskies Inc. (and George and the Hugh C. Becker Foundation), and the Leech Lake association, which has a very strong vested interest in this project. Thirdly, we help negotiate the sale and perform all the due diligence and idiosyncrasies of completing the actual sale, then transfer the property to the DNR for the aquatic management area. So, we are kind of the middlemen that help get the deal done.

John L.: Doug, this is John Latimer. I’m curious about the muskie populations in Leech Lake. Are they stable? Are they fluctuating up and down? What is the situation presently?

Doug: We cannot sample enough muskies in Leech Lake to accurately answer that question with data. This is because it’s so large and a lot of the spawning habitats (aside from Millers Bay) are offshore. We just can’t be effective with our gear. That said, we do some tournament reporting (volunteer reporting from fishing tournaments) and it looks to be very stable. We’re consistently seeing fish from 30 inches up to the mid-fifties. The presence of those younger, smaller fish in the 30-inch size class is really indicative of very consistent recruitment. That’s the first thing to go when you see impacts occurring. All the data we do have certainly suggests that it’s doing just fine and very stable.

John L.: Maybe George would like to volunteer some information: not where you’re catching them, George, but how’s the bite from time to time?

George: The important part of Leech Lake is that it’s the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s the home of the Minnesota strain of the muskies, and that’s important to the whole state and the whole area. As far as the bite is concerned, there’s a number of 50-inch fish caught and released in Leech Lake every year. The catch and release program has really promoted muskie fishing in Minnesota.

John: Yeah, I’m not surprised. I think that muskie fishermen were probably among the first to practice catch and release, because if you catch a fish that big it’s kind of like catching your grandpa, you know? That’s an old fish. The work is really important. I was looking at Millers Bay on Google Earth while we were chatting. It’s an interesting piece of land: looks to be pretty low around the edges, which may be helpful in keeping people from wanting to purchase land and live there.

Doug; That’s a really good point, John, because as that becomes what is left that’s available to buyers, that’s where we see the more significant impacts because they’re hauling in fill. They’re altering the hydrology of those shoreline areas. Our focus point collectively- and I should add that the lake association was a very engaged and integral part of this acquisition as well- our focus point has been to dial in and do as much work as we can on these critical areas where development is most impactful. We can be effective there, and also continue to be effective on the broader landscape. With strategic acquisitions, we can be really effective at curbing some of the impacts and we have really good county support up here. Cass County commissioners and land department are very supportive of state acquisitions and that’s worth mentioning, as that’s not the case in a lot of places in the state. They recognize the importance of keeping the landscape wild. That’s a big draw for tourism up here. Acquisition is one of the tools we have in the toolbox to do that.

John L.: When you think about it, if you can promote and preserve good fishing habitat, in the long run you’re going to earn a lot more money for the people in the area. Resort owners and merchants and the like will earn more over a long period of time, rather than selling off a piece of the land and profiting from the land taxes, which aren’t going to compare.

Doug: The nice thing is that we have realtors that know what we’re interested in. If they see a property coming up for sale, some of them will touch base with us first and say “Hey, this is something that fits with your guys’ goals, and the landowner might be willing to have that discussion.” This has really been a collaborative effort on a lot of different fronts and very successful.

Heidi: Annie, we are just about out of time. Can you give us some final information, or how people can find out more?

Annie: If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to visit our website, or give us a call directly at (218) 547-4510. If you’re interested in talking with George to learn a little bit more about Muskies Inc., contact us at Northern Waters Land Trust and we’ll get you in contact with him. Doug, would you like to share your information in case people are wanting more information from the DNR’s perspective?

Doug: Absolutely. The easiest way to contact us- especially with it being field season- is to email walker.fisheries@state.mn.us. I should be able to follow up with you within a couple days.

Heidi: That’s Doug Shultz from the DNR. We also heard from George Selcke from Muskies Inc. and John Sumption and Annie Knight from the Northern Waters Land Trust. Thanks so much, we’ll talk to you next month!

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 22 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director where she manages producers, hosts local interviews and programs, oversees and manages web stories and establishes focus areas of programming like phenology, clean energy, Indigenous voices, Strong Women, local foods, clean energy, economic development and more. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota. During the pandemic, Heidi hosted 14 months of a weekly statewide conversation on COVID-19 for the AMPERS network.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).