John Weiss column: Is Weaver's comeback complete?

WEAVER — Wild rice on our left, wild rice on our right, thick stands of wild rice in places that 22 years ago were open, wind-swept, muddy waters in Weaver Bottoms

Kayakers and canoeists paddle through a narrow channel in thick stands of wild rice at Weaver Bottoms last Saturday. That rice is good news for duck hunters.

WEAVER — Wild rice on our left, wild rice on our right, thick stands of wild rice in places that 22 years ago were open, wind-swept, muddy waters in Weaver Bottoms

This was great news for waterfowl hunters looking forward to Saturday's opener. Wild rice is great food for ducks, and stands of rice are good places to hide a boat. We also saw a lot of submerged vegetation, including water celery, another super duck food.

I've watched, hunted, fished and camped on Weaver for at least 35 years. It's the big Mississippi River backwater I look to as a bellwether for other river backwaters. Yes, backwaters do vary but they do tend to have a lot of commonalities.

On Saturday, I went out with five other canoeists and five kayakers, leaving Half Moon Landing on a perfect late-summer morning.

Ostensibly, we were there to search for parrot feather, water lettuce and water hyacinth, invasive species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is monitoring to make sure they don't get a toehold in the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. "They will change that entire habitat," said service Ranger Ed Lagace. They suspect these plants were introduced to the Mississippi by people emptying aquariums into the river.


The plants have been found in the Buffalo City, Wis., area and also a few places in Weaver. The service used pulling and chemicals to kill them in Wisconsin and pulled them by hand at Weaver. Our job was to look for more.

A chance to explore

In truth, however, most of us were there to have a chance to explore a backwater and not get lost, because service Ranger Ed Lagace was the guide.

"I just love this area," said Joan Woxland of Rochester. "I would come here every weekend if I could. It just breaks my heart to know about those invasives."

Only a few of the 11 were experts in the invasives. Lagace said just look for plants that look out of place. When you've been in backwaters enough, you sort of know what's normal.

We headed out, paddled up Murphy's Cut to the main channel and kept close to shore for safety and to look for invasives. We soon cut back into the bottoms and were at a place where 24 bags of hyacinth and 18 of lettuce were pulled out several years ago, said Curt McMurl, assistant manager of the refuge's Winona District. He also found a few stalks of parrot feather.

We looked around. We looked close and all we saw was duck weed, rice, phragmites and a lot of submerged vegetation, including water celery.

From there, we headed into the main part of Weaver that had deteriorated badly from the late 1970s to the end of the past century. Then, thanks in part to a drawdown and building of islands, it came back. Weaver was created when Lock and Dam 5 was built in the 1930s for commercial navigation. It once was a fish and wildlife heaven, but it had aged, like all impoundments do.


When we got into the main area, we were greeted by a flock of maybe 1,000 pelicans, along with a smattering of cormorants. We didn't see as many ducks as I had hoped for, but it was late in a bluebird day.

Then we hit the rice, massive stands of it. It's taller and less compact than the rice I saw when wild ricing up north in late August, and it's illegal to harvest on the refuge.

Lower water, more plants

While it's impossible to know for sure what caused what, the drawdown did help because it lowered water levels so more light could penetrate the water and get plants growing again, said Mary Stefanski, Winona district manager. With more plants, the wind couldn't rile up water so much, so water got even clearer and more plants grew.

The service hired the U.S. Geological Survey to sample the pool this year but results aren't yet in. The survey leader said that they survey by walking through it and throwing a metal frame 1 square meter and pulling out all the vegetation inside it. It's stored in freezers until it can be dried and weighed, she said. They filled three big freezers and needed to rent more space, Stefanski said. Before the drawdown, that was unheard of.

I went out with a similar survey 22 years ago and remember someone throwing the metal frame 20 times in 100 meters and coming up empty — no vegetation at all was found on Weaver.

Rice has already fallen off the plants and into the water, where it's available for ducks, she said.

As for invasives, "We have not found it for three or four years," Stefanski said. "We are very happy with that. We continue to look."


As we pulled back into Half Moon Landing, Lagace was equally happy. "It went excellent because we found none," he said. "It's very promising."

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