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Monday, May 2, 2016

Anglers helping to keep Iowa lakes hopes afloat

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

If you like your lakes, thank an angler.

Enthusiasts purchasing fishing licenses provide a vital source of funding the Iowa Department of Natural Resources uses to pay for a portion of lake renovation and restoration projects.

This partnership has become more common in the past 10 years and anglers and campers are enjoying the success. License dollars are key to providing good fishing in Iowa but the bottom line is, as the amount of money shrinks, the number of projects is likely to shrink as well.

"We are hoping that our anglers see the value of investing their fishing license dollars in lake improvements that not only benefit them, but also benefit the surrounding park," said Ken Herring, administrator for the Conservation and Recreation division. "Our parks staff can demonstrate that where we have our lakes with better water quality, our parks have higher camping and visitor numbers."

Beginning in the middle 1990s, the Iowa DNR took a comprehensive approach to fixing lakes, using money from hunting and fishing license sales.

The DNR developed a plan for lakes - find and fix the problems in the watershed, protect the shoreline, improve the in-lake fish habitat, eliminate the problem fish, restock the lake with the right fish balance and bring fish closer to shore anglers.

In Storm Lake, fishing has literally helped to remake the lake. Most recently, the $3 million first-ever Iowa State Marina at Casino Beach was paid for with State Marine Fuel Tax dollars, along with some federal funds through the Coast Guard.

Fishing licenses entirely pay for the work of fisheries personnel who ensure the health of the lake's sports fish, including stocking catfish and walleye and netting walleye each spring to harvest eggs to ensure a good future population of the marquee fish.

Fishing dollars were used with federal Sportsfish Restoration Fund cash to construct the walleye spawning facility at Casino Beach.

"We have dramatically increased our stocking of large fingerling walleye in the lake and also continue to stock channel catfish in Storm Lake, both annual initiatives paid with fishing license fees," says Mike McGhee, DNR Lakes and Rivers project coordinator.

The local ecosystem efforts are a complicated web in which users ultimately make a difference.

"The lake and watershed restoration initiative and Project AWAYSIS are all linked to a larger agenda to improve water quality, expand fishing access, improve the lake's fishery, increase water-based recreation and create aadditional local economic opportunities at Storm Lake," says McGhee.

While funding for dredging itself comes from other state and local sources, "without the support and funding from our fishermen and fishing license dollars" the landmark construction and restoration projects that have improved the lake in recent years "would still be a concept rather than an advanced work-in-progress," he says.

The community, and the state, has a vested interest, then, in encouraging fishing and passing down an appreciation for the outdoor sports to new generations.

DNR officials proposed an increase of about 34 percent in license fees this year, noting a million-dollar loss in revenue from license sales this part year, perhaps largely due to rain and flooding that closed some parks and campgrounds in peak season. They hope the action will not have a negative impact.

Storm Lake is not the only location to depend on fishing tourism and license funds.

Lake Ahquabi was the first major lake renovation success. It was in a downward spiral. Fishing and park use was low. The lake was filled with carp, gizzard shad and slow growing panfish.

Once the work was completed, the water quality improved and the fish community became much more attractive to anglers. Visitor days tripled. While the overall cost of the project was just under $4 million, it took less than two years to pay back in recreational benefits based on studies showing each lake community park visitor spends $20 per day.

The complementary relationship between lakes and parks has blossomed in other areas.

Lake Anita was choked with stunted yellow bass, so in 2003 the DNR drained the lake, killed what fish remained, deepened the shoreline, installed underwater mounds and structure, and added pea gravel spawning areas to attract bluegills and largemouth bass closer to shore. It took three years for the lake to refill. But the results are irrefutable. Fishing for bluegills, largemouth bass and channel catfish is phenomenal, and six bass fishing tournaments came to the lake in 2008. Visitation and camping numbers at the state park are way up.

The 665-acre Lake Icaria faced a similar fate. The lake renovation in 2004 included significant work in the watershed, adding silt retention structures and applying conservation practices on the land. The plan also included a 52-acre wetland on the upper end of the lake to remove nutrients and sediments from the runoff before the water entered Icaria. The project has produced excellent growth rates in bluegills, crappies, walleyes and largemouth bass and the water clarity improved from one foot to nearly four feet. The lake is attracting so many people to fish and camp at the county park that the staff is working hard to keep up.

People take notice of these success stories and want to repeat them for their own area. Green Valley Lake and the state park are currently undergoing one of these major renovation projects.

It is expected that Storm Lake will continue to see more lake and park use, marina business, fish torunaments and tourism impact as water quality continues to improve.

The same goes at Lake of Three Fires, where water quality has improved to levels never seen in 70 years. Fishing quickly rebounded to the best seen in 40 years, and the number of campers shot up 100 percent.

Jim Lawson, a supervisor for state parks in Iowa, says, "Good fishing gets the park use and camping season off to an earlier start. Anglers tend to be out in the cooler spring weather where our regular campers tend to wait for the better, warmer weather before coming out."

Based on a survey in 2000, campers spend an average of $63.23 each camping night in a park. Parks that have better water quality have more visitors and campers and more repeat customers.

"People will travel greater distances to visit a park that has better fishing because they feel they are guaranteed fishing success," Lawson said.

"I can understand people not wanting to pay more to fish and hunt in our state, but, until something changes, our conservation efforts are carried on the backs of our hunters and anglers and we are to the point where a fee increase is necessary," Herring said. "The cost of doing business keeps going up. We have cut where we can cut. We are not filling vacant positions and have put a freeze on any equipment purchases. We are down to the barebones.

"These lakes and wildlife areas belong to our hunters and anglers and they have to decide if they want these areas to grow and thrive or if they want us to do the minimal to try to maintain the status quo. The license increase does not amount to much in the grand scheme, and even at $23.50, the fee to fish all year is pretty cheap when compared to other forms of entertainment. There are not many places anglers can invest their money and be the direct beneficiary from that investment," he said.

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