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New fish cribs provide habitat on Bass Lake

Photo by Kelly Spaniol Volunteers work to construct a fish crib in late January. The cribs are made of woody debris to create habitat for fish. Cement blocks are attached to the cribs to ensure that they sink to the lake's bottom.1 / 3
Photo by Kelly Spaniol The cribs and felled trees were dragged out to various locations around Bass Lake to create habitat for pan fish and game fish. Fishing success has dropped on the lake for years, and landowners hope their efforts will help guide Bass Lake back to its glory days.2 / 3
Photo by Kelly Spaniol Trees were also placed on the ice and they eventually dropped to the bottom of the lake for habitat.3 / 3

Bass Lake anglers could see better fishing opportunities in coming years, thanks to a habitat improvement project that is presently being implemented.

This winter, the Bass Lake Rehabilitation District partnered with a group of agencies, individuals, businesses and non-profits to construct fish cribs and fell trees that were placed on the frozen ice in anticipation of the spring.

After two years of planning, the project came together on Jan. 30 and 31 on a chilly weekend to build the cribs and fell trees that were then moved into various locations around the lake.

During the week of St. Patrick's Day, all of the cribs and trees dropped through the ice on Bass Lake. The materials now provide habitat for pan and game fish to congregate around.

According to Tony Spaniol, a Bass Lake Rehabilitation District member, the project went extremely well.

"It all went off beautifully," Spaniol said. "No glitches, no bumps, no problems."

A long list of partners helped to make the effort a big success, he noted.

Among the partners were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, St. Croix County Parks Department, Town of Somerset, Somerset School District, St. Croix Correctional Center, Star Prairie Fish and Game, Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District, St. Croix Sportsman's Alliance, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, St. Croix County Land and Water Conservation Department, local businesses and area volunteers.

The effort is part of a longer-term push to better manage and restore Bass Lake to its previous state.

Spaniol said the lake and its fishing quality has been declining for years.

"The DNR says that every year since 1995 the fishery has gotten poorer," he explained. "This is due primarily to the lack of near shore debris, like downed trees."

Spaniol said bass and crappie are dependent on woody habitat in the water for spring spawning and protection of juvenile fish from predation.

"Large woody habitat is critical in maintaining healthy bass and panfish populations," he said.

Lake water levels have also been dropping in recent years, causing problems for northern pike populations, he noted.

"I hear stories all the time about the great walleye and crappie fishery Bass Lake once was back in the '90s when the water level was higher," Spaniol said.

To address some of the water and habitat issues, a Bass Lake Management Plan was developed in 2009.

The plan backers are seeking to work with landowners around Bass Lake to increase woody habitat along the shoreline and to improve water quality. A number of landowners have already volunteered to be part of the lake fix, including Spaniol, Doug Elert, longtime resident Bill Holmberg and others.

The first crib and tree drop was supposed to happen in the winter of 2010-11, but thin ice put a stop to the idea. This winter, the project was able to begin.

The overall goal is to repeat the crib construction and tree drop annually until at least 10 percent of the suitable shoreline is restored. With this year's efforts, about 1 to 2 percent of shoreline has been restored.

"So, in five to 10 years we may achieve our overall goal," Spaniol noted.

The Bass Lake project was aided by the Star Prairie Fish and Game organization, which has been helping direct a similar project on Cedar Lake the past few years.

Don Demulling, secretary of Star Prairie Fish and Game, said the Cedar Lake project has dropped 313 cribs in the water over the past eight years.

Demulling said the project has improved the fishery on Cedar Lake tremendously.

"We are close to accomplishing the desired result on Cedar Lake, and wanted to expand our efforts to other area lakes," Demulling said. "So the Bass Lake project was a good fit for our acquired expertise, especially in building fish cribs."

The Star Prairie group helped the Bass Lake project with volunteers and funding.