Itasca County is an anglers’ paradise. Over a thousand natural lakes of pristine water set in storybook scenery serve up an endless buffet of excellent multi-species fishing. Consider these lakes a gift from the glaciers that created them about eleven thousand years ago. As the glaciers retreated, huge chunks of ice were buried in a sediment mix of rock, gravel, sand, and soils (moraine). These chunks of ice melted and became our structure-rich lakes, healthy and varied, and supportive of diverse fish communities teaming with panfish, walleye, bass, pike and muskie, and lesser-known yet important cold-water species like burbot, tullibee, and whitefish.
Many of us live or visit Itasca County, in part, because of the excellent fishing. Clean water and intact habitats are the foundation of quality fisheries. Add to that, conservation-minded anglers and progressive DNR management, and you have the makings for world-class fishing. But preserving or even enhancing fisheries for future generations requires a combination of knowledge, care, and ultimately action. How we, as users, interact within watersheds, and most immediately, at the critical shoreline interface (riparian) has an immense impact on water quality, which in turn impacts fish communities and fishing, as well other aquatic and terrestrial life.
As the Itasca County Shoreland Guide to Lake Stewardship (http://itascaswcd.org/images/Itasca-Country-Shoreland-Guide-2018.pdf) provides, the immediate shoreland zone is a lake’s first line of defense against pollution. “Managing water quality means appropriately managing the land use around a lake to reduce the amount of pollution that enters the lake.” Removal of natural shoreland vegetation is a leading culprit of increased runoff of pollutants and sediments into a lake, reducing overall water quality and fish and wildlife production. While nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen are essential for plants, excess amounts from lawn fertilizer, faulty septic systems, and other non-naturally occurring sources lessen water clarity by supporting excess algae and aquatic plant growth. In turn, fish-sustaining dissolved oxygen is reduced, and overall recreational value diminished. Sedimentation or the runoff of soils into the lake is another harmful byproduct of shoreline vegetation removal. Similar to algae blooms, sedimentation also increases turbidity (reduced clarity). In both instances, fisheries change in unforeseen and usually adverse ways. Simultaneously, lake aging accelerates with enhanced amounts of decomposing organic matter and inorganic sediments filling in lake basins. So what? Many of our favorite gamefish species need hard-bottoms comprised of sand and gravel to spawn successfully. Excessive nutrient loading and sedimentation speed the natural processes by which productive hard-bottom areas fill over. Maintaining a buffer zone of vegetation along at least 75% of a property’s frontage is a best practice that stands to maintain or even improve overall water quality and fishing.
Some problems solved by Shoreland Buffer Zones:
• Emergent vegetation, like bulrushes and cattails, reduces shoreline erosion caused by wind and boat traffic.
• The natural vegetation serves as a filter strip that helps prevent lawn fertilizer and pesticide runoff from reaching the lake.
• Aquatic vegetation helps purify lake water by removing contaminants and calming water, allowing suspended soil particles to settle to the lake bottom.
• Buffer zones reduce the amount of fertilizer and herbicide needed on lakeshore property. The resulting lawn is smaller, and native plants in the buffer zone don’t need fertilizer or herbicides.
(Source: Henderson, C. L. (2000). Lakescaping for wildlife and water quality. St. Paul, MN: Nongame Wildlife Program -- Section of Wildlife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.)
The shoreland buffer notes mentioned above are but a few areas of consideration for lake property owners. The Itasca County Shoreland Guide to Lake Stewardship states a comprehensive list of shoreland management topics to inform and educate on how to achieve a sustainable blend of lakeshore (including rivers) development and watershed health.
Fishing is just a subset of an Itasca County tourism economy built, in large part, on water and forest-based outdoor experiences. Itasca County is the end of the road for Minnesota’s north-central natural lakes region. The pristine water of this caliber is scarce throughout the country, and even within Minnesota. Notwithstanding the effects of Covid-19, demand for Itasca County lakeshore will accelerate. Continued population growth and degraded lakeshore examples from densely populated or agricultural areas underscore the need to think about our lakes and protect them now! Want help to get up and running? The Itasca Waters Shoreland Advisors Program can assist you with a free onsite visit (https://itascawaters.org/). Lakeshore owners gain information about managing their shoreland property in an ecologically friendly way that helps water quality.
We owe it to our flora and fauna, our families, and future generations to keep the lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands in good health. Lakeshore development that doesn’t account for water quality will degrade these systems. Angling practices such as catch and release and sustainable harvest are only part of the equation. Collectively, sustainable land use within Itasca County watersheds and thoughtful individual lakeshore property management is an absolute must. Water conservation is apolitical, but it is economic. People want to be where the water is pure and clean, and the fishing outstanding. Small business thrives as a result. This commentary’s fishing community signatories are from the community and beyond, and support the shoreland best practices outlined in the Itasca County Shoreland Guide to Lake Stewardship. Lakeshore best practices are 100% in our control and make an immediate positive ecological impact now and in the future. It is important to adopt these shoreline practices as soon as feasible to avoid the damage done through neglect of such principles in regions like Crow Wing and Morrison counties, where algae blooms, increased invasive species, and unwise herbicide treatments have resulted, harming water quality and fishing success. Connect with Itasca Waters to learn more.
Al Lindner: Lindner Media Productions / Lindner’s Angling Edge
Bill Lindner: Bill Lindner Photography, Owner
Dan Quinn: Rapala, Field Promotions Manger
Grant Prokop: Thousand Lakes Sporting Goods, Owner
James Lindner: Lindner Media Productions / Lindner’s Angling Edge, Owner
Jeremy Smith: Lindner Media Productions / Lindner’s Angling Edge, General Manager Television
Kyle Peterson: Wired2Fish Inc, Field Producer
McKeon Roberts: Wired2Fish Inc, Editor
Mike Hehner: Lindner Media Productions, Bill Lindner Photography
Mitch Anderson: Wired2Fish Inc, Videographer/Editor
Ryan DeChaine: Wired2Fish Inc, VP Video and Production
Scott Glorvigen: Wired2Fish Inc, Co-Owner
Steve Quinn: Editor at Intermedia Outdoors
Tom Neutrom: Minnesota Fishing Connections