Joe Fellegy

The first half of June brought record and near-record 90s heat, plus a severe lack of rain. Sure, on June 20, the Brainerd-Mille Lacs region saw rainfall either side of an inch, some welcome short-term drought relief.

What will future weeks and months bring for temps and precipitation? Will things sort of even out? Will we get more extreme heat and dry weather with a big drop in Mille Lacs’ water level? Or maybe we’ll see above-average precip and high water. Yep, Mother Nature plays her games.

While the big lake’s water level has receded a few inches in recent weeks, it’s remained near the average of 1251.39 feet above sea level. (The Mille Lacs Messenger publishes the latest U.S. Geological Survey readings at Cove Bay, plus other lake-level info.) As Erik Jacobson reported in the June 23 Messenger, the record low of 1245.63 came in October, 1936.

How did that 1930s super-low water impact life at Mille Lacs? When driving through Garrison, always remember that the Garrison Concourse, that big “stone lookout” and popular tourist attraction, was built on dry ground when the big lake was about six feet lower than it is now. Crews from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a make-work program during the 1930s Great Depression, built the Concourse’s stone walls and then filled the interior with on-land soil from Pike Point.

Mille Lacs old-timers often reminisced about how shallow shoreline areas and shallow offshore reefs were “out of the water,” thanks to extreme 1930s heat and drought. Where today’s anglers pursue walleyes, bass, and other fish, Dust Bowl-era hunters sometimes built duck blinds! Resorters had to make big adjustments — with dock locations, anchoring launches, beaching rental rowboats, and more. For example, Burman’s Resort at Malmo relocated their “boat house” and rental boats many yards out from their normal on-shore locations.

Another standout year with record-breaking heat and drought was 1910. The shallow Malmo sand” got more shallow and dry that year, so steamboats couldn’t reach the big Malmo steamboat dock. Locals had to row small boats loaded with heavy cream cans out to the steamer Luella, which hauled cream across Mille Lacs to the Bridgeman Russell creamery in Wahkon.

Later dry years, like 1976 and 1988, brought “low water,” but nothing like the big lake experienced in the 1930s. During low water in modern times, and during “high water” extremes in 1972 and 2002, DNR hydrologists explained to local and county officials, lakeshore owners, resorters, and others that Mille Lacs water levels cannot be “controlled”. Dams — whether rocks at the Rum River outlet, or dams at the lower ends of Lake Ogeche and Lake Onamia downstream — have insignificant impacts on Mille Lacs levels.

The big players are precipitation and evaporation. Usually there’s a pretty good balance. Typically only a couple feet separate what lake watchers informally call high or low. Many years see only a one-foot variation.

But given record June heat and drought this year, Mille Lacs-connected minds wander and wonder. Will things even out as 2021 progresses? Hey, cooler-than-average temps and lots of precip might bring high lake levels. Like old-timers still lecture, don’t count your chickens until they hatch! Is June 2021 the start of ongoing weather extremes or not? We’ll see.

Related questions: Given the big lake’s unusually warm water in recent weeks, what will the impacts be on the 2021 walleye year-class strength? The forage base, including young-of-the-year (YOY) perch, tullibees, and shiner minnows? And will increased hooking mortality guesstimates further penalize state-licensed anglers?

Other stuff

* The recent passing of Stan Van Epps (1947-2021), longtime employee at DNR’s Aitkin Area Fisheries office, stirred this writer’s memories of being in a boat with Stan during the earliest DNR trawling assessment work on Mille Lacs. I was very surprised when an August 1972 trawl caught over 100 walleyes in the shallows west of the #169-#18 junction on the lake’s north shore. Yep, walleyes can be abundant where anglers rarely or never fish.

* The upcoming July 1 – July 15 walleye fishing closure at Mille Lacs, when anglers can’t even “target” (fish for) walleyes, is, in my view, an unnecessary and unethical scandal.  Nothing in the Mille Lacs biosphere justifies such extremism. Blame “treaty” co-management, its off-base low walleye allocations, and hooking-mortality nonsense. Release-‘em-all isn’t enough? Yikes!

* I appreciated Erik Jacobson’s June 23 feature about catch-and-release. I’d add that the old Mille Lacs Lake Advisory Association (MLLAA) was a big player in walleye-release conservation here, across Minnesota, and beyond. Eddy Lyback, of Lyback’s Marine and Lyback’s Ice Fishing, and I often reminisce about how we helped MLLAA launch a voluntary catch-and-release program in 1984. In 1986 DNR formally supported our efforts via Project CORE (Cooperative Opportunities for Resource Enhancement). Thanks to MLLAA’s 1980s and 1990s work, millions of walleye pounds have been conserved, voluntarily and through special regs.

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