Pelican lake, river waterways opened up after dam removal

Boulder and rock rapids have replaced the aging, deteriorating Depression-era dam on the Pelican River, between Pelican-Fish Lake and Lizzie.

The collaborative project, formally dedicated Aug. 9, tallied grants and donations from the DNR, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota Legacy Fund,
F-M Muskies Inc. Red
River Valley Sportsmens
Club, the River Keepers

non-profit and the Peli-
can Group of Lakes Im-
provement District.
The entire group cheered the completion of the natural, rock rapids conversion of the Fish Lake Dam, on the Pelican River between Pelican Lake and Lake Lizzie.
The Fish Lake damsite is an unusual, undeveloped area on the Pelican chain. Here, a man and his dog enjoy the natural rapids that have been restored at the site–following removal of the aging dam, built in 1932.
Speaking at the Fish Lake dam project dedication, from left, Moriya Rufer, RMB Labs; Jay Elshaug, Pelican Group Of Lakes Improvement District; and Luther Aadland, DNR river scientist.
Also introduced at the ceremony August 9 were Erik Jones, Houston Engineering, the firm designing the modification with the DNR; Jeff Peltier, among the early advocates of the project–which has been nearly a decade in the making.
A “before” image of the Fish Lake Dam.
DNR river scientist Luther Aadland speaking at the dedication program.

One thing muskie fishermen and Pelican Lake property owners agree on, for sure, is the habitat and conservation benefits of opening up the Fish Lake Dam.

Converting the 1932 dam from a concrete structure to a free flowing rapids has been complete. With fanfare and applause from a group of over 30, the project was dedicated August 9.

Often at odds over stocking and managing Pelican Lake’s muskie population, the Fargo-Moorhead Muskies Inc. chapter and Pelican property owners were harmonious on the dam modification. In fact, F-M Muskies made a donation to the $400,000 project.

Natural fish spawning, and free fish movement up and down stream, are the conservation benefits of the project, said Luther Aadland, DNR river scientist, who spoke at the dedication.

A “permanent fix” to a dam that has been deteriorating for decades is how Jay Elshaug described the project.

Elshaug is chairman of the Pelican Group of Lakes Improvement District (PGOLID)–a quasi-governmental body, with taxing authority over Pelican Lake structures and parcels. In addition to allocations from the Lake Improvement District’s annual levy of $130,000, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service chipped in about $100,000. State money from the DNR’s fish passage program; and also from the “Legacy Fund” helped the project become a reality. Other contributors included the Muskie group, the Red River Area Sportsmens Club and the Pelican Area Property Owners
Association.

The damsite, which is now a stream dotted by large boulders and stone, is in a remarkably undeveloped and preserved area of the Pelican chain––which at one time was targeted for a large commercial development, Echo Bay.

“Each boulder is placed with precision,” said Elshaug, noting that the DNR’s Aadland was wearing waders in the frigid winter waters–delivering very specific placement instructions.

“It was life-threatening work, at that time of year,” said Elshaug. The boulders, in a sense, are scientifically situated to impede and control the downstream movement of the river–which flows into Lizzie, and downstream to Prairie Lake and Pelican Rapids.

Though the dam modification barely spans the size of a basketball court, the regional impact is substantial.

The conservation benefits of opening up the dam span nearly 15,000 lake acres, and 84 river miles of the Pelican River Watershed, noted Mariya Rufer, lake coordinator for PGOLID.

“This is a community project, not just a Fish Lake project,” noted Elshaug.

Located near Dunvilla on the Pelican River, the dam was built for the purpose of maintaining consistent water levels in Pelican Lake. This dam has a long and storied history, including numerous partial washouts and patches, which caused drops in lake water levels of Pelican Lake and have left the dam in deteriorating shape.

An additional problem created by this dam, and many dams in general, is that they are barriers that make dispersal for river species difficult both up and downstream, but these structures can be converted in such a way that they are more favorable to passage of fish, muskrats, otters, shorebirds, waterfowl, salamanders, frogs, crayfish and other invertebrate species. As part of the Red River of the North Fisheries Management Plan, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has listed goals of removing barriers to restore uninterrupted fish migration pathways.

The DNR’s Aadland, who has worked on nearly 100 dam modifications all over the nation, said that the restored rapids are ideal spawning waters, particularly lake sturgeon–a threatened species that was reintroduced to Otter Tail lakes and waterways about 20 years ago.

“Hopefully, in time, we’ll see some of those big fish here,” said Aadland.

The design that would fit the goals of all groups involved: to modify the dam into a rock arch rapids fishway, which is a structure that mimics shallow natural waterfalls in rivers that can be traversed by fish moving up and downstream from the falls.

A similar structure already exists at Dunton Locks County Park near Detroit Lakes and another was just completed this past summer in Barnesville on the Whisky Creek at the Blue Eagle Lake Park.

Visiting Swedes amazed with plentiful fish in Pelican Lake–they could catch ‘with their bare hands’

Visitors from Sweden marvelled at the bountiful waters of Pelican Lake and the Pelican River.

This was a number of years ago, as the story was recounted by Millie MacLeod, a Pelican Lake seasonal resident for more than 40 years.

As an organizer of the Moorhead “Sister City” program with a community in Sweden, about 20 Swedes visited Moorhead and the lake country a number of years ago.

Enjoying the shallows of the Fish Lake Dam area, the Swedes were able to dip their hands in the waters and actually catch fish with their fingers.

“They all went back to Sweden and told their friends and relatives that there are so many fish in Minnesota that you can catch them with your bare hands,” said MacLeod, at the dedication of the modified Fish Lake Dam on August 9.