John Weiss: Is sun setting on Rochester reservoirs?

Sam Muench holds a nice crappie he caught at Willow Creek Reservoir.

Small Gulp plastics, emerald shiner color, are the ticket for Willow Creek Reservoir crappies, said Sam Muench.

The Rochester angler said he likes to fish for crappies in the southwest Rochester reservoir two to three times a week to look for crappies, especially in the spring. Right now, "they're 10, 11, 12 inches" long, he said.

He and and I were at the reservoir last week, fishing one of the man-made lakes that have added so much to Rochester's fishing scene over the past 25 years.

Muench figured it would be a good night to try his luck, maybe catch a meal of fish. The ice was long gone, the water was warming, and the wind was blowing the warmer water into where we were fishing along the dam.

He'd first tried his luck from the fishing pier, but nothing big hit. I joined him as he began fishing along the rock-strewn north side of the reservoir.


As he fished with Gulp, I used a waxie on a 1/64-ounce jig that also had some scented plastic on it. He gave me a piece of the Gulp and I put that on, but also stayed with the grub.

I caught and released a crappie, a nice thick one. Muench then caught and kept two thick crappies off a weed bed, and I added a third that he added to his stringer.

A group on the pier didn't do well. We heard on angler say, "All I'm catching is a limit of fun."

But will similar scenes still be playing out on Rochester's reservoirs in another 25 years?

How we got here

To explain what's happening in Will Creek Reservoir and others in the area, let's begin with a history lesson.

Olmsted County has no natural lakes. For years, Rochester anglers had only local rivers and streams, which offer excellent fishing but no easy to fish places for kids and adults. Then the city bought Foster Arend Park and with it, got a nice deep former quarry where the Department of Natural Resources now stocks trout for catch-and-keep fishing.

When the city planned its project to slow floodwaters from inundating parts of the city, it included seven reservoirs where water would be stored and released slowly after an initial flood surge passed. Only one was designed for recreation -- Bear Creek Reservoir, that is now surrounded by Chester Woods Park, operated by Olmsted County.


No one was sure how well, or if, the other six reservoirs would hold water, said Assistant City Administrator Gary Neumann, so no one really planned for any fishing or recreation. The first was done in 1984, the last one in 1995, he said.

Luckily, five do hold water and they have fish. And now, the city is working on adding even more fishing at the Cascade Creek quarries area on the west side of the city. Eventually, they will have public access and some great fishing.

Right now, however, the reservoirs and Foster Arend are the best local fishing holes.

Because they are reservoirs, they will fill in with silt and sediment, he said. That's how they're designed. Even when they are only marshes or dry land, they will still hold back flood waters.

The great news now is that the land-treatment measures required before the dams could be built have worked very well, said John Wellner, infrastructure manager for Rochester Public Works. The reservoirs have filled in, on average, 2 feet since they closed. "That's not a lot," he said.

Of course, there is a lot of variation, and areas in some reservoirs are silting in more quickly, but overall there is still a lot of water, he said.

Constantly changing

In one way, the reservoirs are like lakes, said Kevin Stauffer, DNR fisheries supervisor in Lake City. "The fish populations are going to ebb and flow," he said. Right now, Kalmar to the west is good for crappies; a few years before that, it was perch and bluegills there. "I think it moves around," he said. As anglers hear about a good bite, they hit a reservoir and maybe knock down a population, he said.


Jeff Weiss, a DNR fisheries specialist in Lake City, said electroshocking and netting at Kalmar has shown the average size of bluegills have improved a full inch because largemouth bass were added in 2008 to control stunting. Bass are getting big, but they want to see a lot of smaller ones because the one-pounders tend to keep down numbers of bluegills and also increase the size of the panfish.

Gamehaven Reservoir, on the other hand, is "out of balance" even though bass and northern were added, he said. There are some big bass, but not enough smaller ones, Weiss said. It's possible the stunted sunfish are eating too many tiny bass, essentially creating the reverse of Kalmar, he said.

DNR Conservation Officer Phil George, who enforces laws on the reservoirs, said he's seeing pressure vary. "People move around to where the fishing is good," he said. Last year, Silver Creek Reservoir east of Rochester, didn't get as much pressure, but Foster-Arend's pressure rose "just because the fishing was so darned good," he said. Willow has been good for keeper crappies, he said.

The best local fishing spot is still Chester Woods because of excellent populations of sunfish, crappies and largemouth, he said. The problem there is it's deep and harder to fish from shore. Only boats that are paddled, rowed or use electric trolling motors are allowed.

Though the flood-control reservoirs are slowly filling in, anglers still have something to look forward to in the quarries at Manor Woods and Cascade, he said. They are loaded with fish and are going to make an excellent fishery in years to come, including having some walleye.

Unfortunately, access is difficult because a company still controls a lot of the access as it tries to mine more sand there, he said. "There are plenty of fish there," he said. "What they need is access." One of the keys to fishing those if looking for structure, such as piles of beaver sticks, George said.

Problems are brewing

From Cody Rollings' position as an avid angler and an owner of Hooked On Fishing on the north side of Rochester, the reservoirs are hurting. "I think the big fish that were in there aren't there any more," he said. "Everything is so small that no one wants to fish them."


One exception is crappies at Willow Creek Reservoir because of a good food base. But for the other reservoirs, he's pretty much given up on them because the fish are so small. He thinks the problem is overharvest that can lead to stunting, he said.

Look at Lake Zumbro, he said. When he first began fishing it several years ago, he caught many crappies in the 12- to 14-inch range, with one hitting 17 inches (it went back in). Now, he doesn't see that any more. "I noticed over the last three years, they are getting smaller and smaller and smaller," he said.

He said others coming into the shop also see a lot of fish but fewer big fish.

The 10-fish limit on panfish and perch is good, but it's not enforced enough, Rollings said. Too many anglers are double- or triple-dipping at Foster-Arend, taking a limit of trout home and coming back for more that day. He also wants to see more limits on Zumbro crappies.

Weiss said size limits might help, but reservoirs depend heavily on recruitment with good and bad years, so it's hard to know if the problem is natural variations or overharvest. One thing he would like to do is tag a lot of the panfish in a reservoir and have anglers either record when they caught one and released it or send the tag into the DNR is they keep it. That would give the DNR a better picture of what's happening, he said.

He agreed with others that Chester Woods is the giant among reservoirs. They electroshocked last spring, and "Oh my gosh, did we roll bass and crappies and bluegills, big, big ones," he said. He's never seen so many big bass. "They were coming out all over the place." Panfish also have a really good size structure at Chester Woods, he said.

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