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Installing fish cribs is winter chore

It's spooky walking on water even if it is late January and the ice is 20 inches thick.

The Snow Trax attached to boots make a biting sound as the cleats cut into the clear dangerously slick ice. On the horizon several hundred yards ahead, a figure slowly walks around a configuration of newly constructed log fish cribs.

Dressed from head to toe in canvas-colored insulated overalls with an oversized pair of wool mittens and wearing a chartreuse vest is Barb Scott, fisheries technician with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. She had been assigned the lonely job of positioning the cribs as they were towed one at a time from the north end of the lake to the south end of the lake.

"I don't mind it. I just like being outdoors," said Scott. She held a map designating specific depths that had been ground-truthed earlier in the season and were now represented by orange cones and a series of orange circles spray painted on the ice.

The cones and circles follow the contour of the lake bottom, averaging from 14 to 22 feet in depth. Eighteen feet is the ideal depth both for the fish and for keeping the cribs clear from interfering with boaters.

Using sleds specifically engineered to lift and transport these cribs, workers on two John Deere ATVs took turns hauling cribs from the assembly site by the old schoolhouse at the north end of Cedar Lake to Scott's position at the southeast end and another location along the northwest shore.

Brush sticks out from between the large logs, laid cabin style to form the 6 foot square by 5 foot tall cribs. They are held together by four pieces of rebar, one in each corner bent over at the top and bottom to keep the logs in formation and to keep the brush from escaping from between the logs. Brush starts on the second tier of logs to enable fish and the sleds to get under the crib.

"I keep the cribs five to six feet apart to allow fish to access them. The brush provides cover for smaller fish from predators. Over time, it will break down but the larger logs will be around for a long time," explained Scott.

Water is greener

"Cedar Lake used to have more weed coverage, but over time, the water's become more green," said Scott. "Weeds also do better when water levels vary, but since they added the dam on Cedar Creek, the water levels have remained relatively constant."

Scott directs the sled, and it drops the crib to join eight others already in position. Volunteers help her place four cinder blocks from the back of the ATV onto the top of the crib.

Later the blocks will be secured using twine. The blocks ensure the cribs will sink in place when the ice melts. If a crib doesn't sink where it's supposed to, it will be towed back to its designated location when the DNR checks the colonies in the spring.

Volunteers from Star Prairie Fish and Game, the Cedar Lake Rehabilitation District along with individual sportsmen have been working with the DNR each winter for the past five years to create colonies of 20 to 50 cribs strategically located throughout the lake.

"We started with a general plan based on structure availability in the lake and what we wanted to enhance," said DNR Fisheries Biologist Marty Engel, the project coordinator. "Where we locate cribs and how many is really based on the number of sites actually available to receive cribs, and we are getting to the point where we figure we have enough colonies out there that it's made a difference spreading the fishing pressure around."

Colonies may be arranged in a specific pattern like a weed bed to enhance the effectiveness of the habitat.

"Permits require that they be under at least 12 feet of water," said Engel. "Most of them will be around 18 to 19 feet. We want to make sure they are completely submerged and won't cause any problems for boaters or skis."

Today's effort will bring the total close to 400 cribs. It will also be the last such effort for a while, according to Engel.

"Our goal was about 500 cribs when we started. After today we'll reach over 400 and we're feeling we are where we need to be," he said.

SPFG volunteer and sled driver, Duane Madsen grew up on Cedar Lake and attests to the effectiveness of the crib project.

"Back in the 60s and 70s, you could go out pretty much any time of day and catch something," said Madsen. "Then it went dead. A lot of lakes suffered due to run-off. The cribs have brought it back. It's 100 percent better."

Wearing a big smile and a blue hard hat, retired DNR employee Dan Gilbertson summed the morning up: "This is what it's all about. It's a beautiful day and I'm having a little bit of fun with the guys.

"The cribs have helped the fishing immensely. If you look at all the fish houses, the little villages all around the lake, it's obviously working."

By 10 a.m. the group of volunteers has grown to about 20 scattered between skid steers and ATVs and several small teams building cribs.

Along the shore, precut logs are organized by size behind numerous piles of brush stretching out onto the ice. Skids full of cinder blocks and rebar wait to be divided up amongst the growing inventory of cribs. DNR personnel in their bright yellow vests move from team to team helping out and answering questions.