A close encounter in the northwoods

A mid-September trip to the BWCAW offered autumn scenery and the hunting and fishing opportunities we sought.

A September frost had arrived before we did, but our timing could not have been better. The tinge of red and yellow evident in the forest when we arrived grew visibly by the day, adding lots of color to the boreal forest of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

And after all, it was autumn pursuits that brought us. Grouse hunting and fishing occupied all of our mornings. At mid-afternoon, we hid ourselves in tree stands among the changing colors of the forest canopy in hopes of luring a bear to boiling pots of honey before nightfall.

It almost worked.

For a few years now, my son Erik and I have been fortunate enough to be drawn in a lottery for a BWCAW bear hunting license. It’s a very challenging hunt. Most bear hunting in Minnesota takes place over bait. The bait is usually placed in the woods well in advance of the season, so that bears have had time to discover it and become accustomed to making regular visits to it. And in most cases, the bait is placed where larger quantities of it can be set.

We found grouse to cook over the camp fire, and the fishing was good too.

In the BWCAW, baiting has not been allowed. This year, hunters could set bait out while they are in their stands by it, but they must remove it when not present. Needless to say, there’s no way to portage barrels of sweet bait to remote sites.

The no-baiting regulation leaves hunters with one strategy.  Simmer honey in a small pot and hope the sweet aroma brings a hungry bear your way.

So while bear hunting is our stated purpose for the trip, we make the most of it by enjoying other fishing and hunting opportunities.

We were fortunate enough to have found an area in the BWCAW where there are old trails to follow in pursuit of grouse. The season opened on the day we arrived, and we took it up. We found birds too, although not as many as two years ago during a visit to this site. Still, we enjoyed grouse cooked over a campfire, along with fish we caught in the lake at which we were camped.

It’s the same lake that treated us to another pleasant surprise.  I woke one morning to a rhythmic sound, like a paddler in a canoe. Through the trees I could see ripples like that in the wake of a canoe too, until I spotted the source. A bull moose was swimming alongside the shoreline, and made a beeline across the lake when he realized his proximity to our camp.

As for the bear hunt, we came close too. Our schedules prevented us from making it to the BWCAW until mid-September, or two weeks after the season’s start. We also only had four days to hunt, far less time than we’d like.

And sure enough, it was on our final night when we finally got a bear interested. Erik set himself up deep into a swamp. To reach the site he had to canoe to a boggy, cattail-lined area where he then walked over a spongy marsh to a high spot with trees. He lined his path with colored ribbons to find his way out in the inky darkness of night.

On his final evening in his stand he heard sloshing and activity and knew a large mammal was circling about, but never got a sight of what he figured was a bear. When night fell, he took on the chore of removing his tree stand and bringing his unloaded gun to the canoe. He was making a second trip to the canoe with the last of his stuff when the bear growled at him and he made haste to exit.

Simmering a small pot of honey can attract bears.

New era to begin at Lac qui Parle with ’14 goose season; first come, first serve blinds

A four-decades long tradition ends with the 2014 goose season at the Lac qui Parle refuge, where blinds will be available on a first come, first served basis, no registration required.

WATSON — A new era begins at the Lac qui Parle refuge this year, where hunters will no longer be required to register for any of the state blinds.

Blinds will be available on a first come, first served basis through the 2014 goose season, running Oct. 16 through December 30.

It’s one of many changes coming this year, but hunters should know that it remains a controlled hunting zone. Hunters must use designated blinds within the refuge, possess no more than 12 shells, and must unload and case their shotguns when more than 10-feet from their blind.

Refuge Manager Dave Trauba of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources believes hunters will welcome the change to a first come, first served allocations of blinds. The change, he said, “makes sense.’’

Hunter numbers at the refuge have declined for more than a decade as goose hunters find ample opportunities to pursue their sport throughout much of Minnesota today.

As a result, there are more blinds available than demand for them, said Trauba. That’s the case on weekends as well as weekdays. It is no longer cost effective to staff the hunter contact station and hold the morning and afternoon drawings to allocate blinds, as had been the case for 40 years.

The practice originally began four decades ago in an old barn at the site, when the Lac qui Parle refuge offered one of the few opportunities for goose hunting in the state. Hunters gathered under dim, incandescent lights as a pre-dawn drawing was held for blinds lining the refuge.

This year, hunters need only drive to a blind of their choosing. They can use one blind in the morning and if not successful, move to a different blind in the afternoon.

Finding the right blind will be made easier too.

The DNR is currently in the process of publishing an “everything you want to know about goose hunting at Lac qui Parle” guide, according to Trauba. It will provide a list of blinds, photos of each, even information on placing decoys at each, and lots of tips on how to be successful.

The comprehensive guide will be available on the DNR’s website late this month or in early October, and include information on geese migration numbers and dates through the refuge.

The guide will also outline the other changes coming, and they are significant.

The controlled hunt zone is shrinking. All of the area east of Chippewa County Road 32 and north of County Road 33 is being removed from the controlled zone and made part of the wildlife management area. That means the area remains accessible to hunting, but hunters will be free to locate themselves as they wish and carry as many shells as they want.

The Watson Sag, including the water blinds located there, is part of the area being removed from the controlled zone and available for hunting as part of the wildlife management area.

A fabricated blind will be added to a crop field in this area as well. It will be mandatory to use decoys at the blind, and it will only be available for use on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The limited use should keep geese from developing a pattern of avoiding the area, explained Trauba.

Watching waves of geese arrive at the Lac qui Parle refuge has excited hunters and others for 40 years.

He said there are also plans to remove some of the blinds now in the controlled zone. He’s reviewed years of records and staff will be removing those blinds where hunter success was very poor. Due to the changed migration patterns, there were a few blinds where no one shot geese in the last five years, either because no one occupied them or the geese no longer fly over their locations.

With all of the changes are sure to come some challenges, noted Trauba. One of the concerns will be that hunters reach blinds before shooting hours in the morning. Staff will be watching to make sure that people aren’t parking vehicles and walking to blinds while geese are flying and other hunters working to decoy them.

DNR staff will continue to be available seven days a week at the refuge and can answer hunter questions about everything from flight patterns to which blinds were hot the previous day.

Overall, the changes being implemented are aimed at providing hunters with an enjoyable and quality hunting experience, said Trauba.

The changes also recognize that the Lac qui Parle area today is much more than a goose hunting destination. Trauba said many are recognizing that a trip to Lac qui Parle can also include opportunities for everything from pheasant hunting to walleye fishing.

The changes also speak to what has been the Lac qui Parle success story. There were no more than 150 Canada geese at Lac qui Parle in 1958, when efforts began in earnest to attract the Eastern Prairie Population geese that were migrating through the area from summer nesting grounds on the tundra.

At that time, there were also fears that Minnesota had lost its population of native, giant Canada geese.

Today, Minnesota’s giant Canada geese population has grown to the level that the DNR offers a special, August hunt with a daily bag of 10. And, the Lac qui Parle refuge remains a very important resting and feeding site for the EPP geese, which arrive by the tens of thousands through the migration.

Collecting the wealth of the prairie

 

Judy Schulte, left, prairie specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, leads a group of volunteers and workers to harvest seeds from a native prairie.

We emerged from our vehicles carrying blue plastic pails just as Glen Huseby was driving down his driveway in a hurry to get to his next carpentry project.

He was too excited about the news he held not to stop and relay it to Judy Schulte, who had led us to his rural home site in Redwood County a few miles south of the Minnesota River.

Ever since they cleared and burned invasive cedars from the granite outcrop and native prairie on Huseby’s property, he’s witnessed a show like none he’s ever seen. Lush, green acres have blossomed with all manner and color of flowers, new ones showing up all the time.

He’s counted 150 different, native prairie species since the burn, and he’s only started. Some are endangered and rare to find, and all are eye-catching, even those with funky names like “spiderwort.’’

“I was amazed how beautiful they were,’’ said Huseby of spiderwort before he hopped back into his pickup and headed off to work.

None of this surprised Schulte, a prairie specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom.

She works regularly with landowners who have enrolled lands in the state’s native prairie bank program. A perpetual easement protects the native prairie, while also providing the landowner with the assistance of the DNR to conduct prescribed burns and help manage the prairie. The prescribed burns help remove invasive species like red cedars and buckthorn, allowing the native seed bed to rebound.

“Most landowners are a little hesitant to change the overall look of the property but most of them, like Glen, are pumped when it comes up,’’ said Schulte to the group she led.

The blue pails they carried were all about spreading the beauty of what Huesby was raving.

Seeds are collected by hand and dropped into buckets carried by the volunteers and workers.

Schulte led a crew of volunteers and DNR workers who had come to hand harvest native prairie seeds from the site. The seeds will be dispersed on prairie lands that are protected as part of the Blue Devil Valley Scientific and Natural Area along the Minnesota River in Yellow Medicine County. Crews have been removing invasive cedars from the site.  It’s been tree-covered and shaded for so long that some of its original, native seedbed may have been lost.

Less than two percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remains.  The surviving prairie is isolated, so many small islands on a landscape of crop lands, towns and roadways. The only way to make up for the lack of connectivity is to harvest seeds from native prairie and sow them where needed.

The seeds are intentionally collected from prairie sites as near as possible to their intended destinations, said Schulte. The goal is to maintain the genetics of the native plant population as much as possible.

Native prairie banks like the one on Huseby’s property are where the treasure trove of native seeds and their valuable genetics are to be found.

The harvest season on the prairie is a lengthy affair. Different plants produce seeds on their own timelines, and even then, it can vary greatly by location and soil types.

The DNR and private companies use mechanical equipment to harvest seeds from many prairies, but this system misses the seeds of many plants, especially those which ripen early.

That’s where the crews with the blue pails come to the rescue. Schulte said hand harvesting is the only way to assure that the greatest diversity of seeds can be collected.

Volunteers play a big role in making this harvest possible.  No expertise required.

Amelia Schuenemeyer of Fairfax was among the volunteers who toted a blue bucket on Huseby’s property this week. She is a participant in shooting sports offered through her 4-H club. One of the requirements for participation is to perform eight hours of volunteer service related to wildlife, she explained.

She was enjoying the experience. “I don’t go out in the fields a lot. It’s nice to get off the pavement and concrete,’’ she said.

Her mother tagged along, a pail in hand too. An avid gardener, Katie Grams said she was very interested in learning about the diversity of native prairie plants they found.

By day’s end the crew of six had collected seeds from 24 different prairie plants, ranging from Virginia Mountain Mint and Heart-Leaved Alexanders to Wild bergamot, water hemp and dotted blazing star. As tiny as the seeds are, by day’s end the contents of the blue pails added up to 10 pounds.

Amy Linnerooth, a water quality specialist for Nicollet County, had made the trip to volunteer because she’s done this type of work before, and knows just how enjoyable it can be. The opportunity to become immersed in the incredible diversity of a native prairie, under a blue sky and popcorn clouds, is all the reward she asked.

“It’s always fun to see the prairie up close,’’ said Schulte as she led the group into the waist-high grasses and forbs. “It’s so easy to just drive by and think it’s just grass.’’

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources schedules a number of prairie seed collection events such as this one to collect seeds for Scientific and Natural Areas. Check the Minnesota DNR website volunteer opportunities or information on the Scientific and Natural Areas to learn more.

Blazing star

A big comeback story in the works with re-introduction of sturgeon to Big Stone Lake, Upper Minnesota River system

 

Tom Kalahar of Olivia (left) and Doug Knoer of Cook hold a 66-inch sturgeon they caught on the Rainy River. The re-introduction of sturgeon to Big Stone Lake holds the promise that anglers will have similar opportunities in western Minnesota someday.

There’s a big comeback story in the works.

Sometime this September, Norm Haukos and his crew at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Ortonville will introduce 4,000-fingerling sturgeon to Big Stone Lake and end the 68-year absence of this native fish.

The last lake sturgeon in Big Stone Lake washed up dead on the shoreline in 1946.

If all goes as hoped, the six-inch fingerlings will grow to become 30-inch fish in five years. Annual stockings will continue until a self-reproducing population is established.

Haukos had lobbied for this project for more than 10 years, and is optimistic about its prospects. “We believe the water quality has come back in Big Stone to support these fish,’’ he said.

All 4,000 of the fingerlings to be introduced to Big Stone Lake have been tagged and are waiting at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Hatchery in Genoa, Wis., where they were raised. Haukos is waiting for test results to be certain they harbor no disease before they can be introduced here.

Each of the 4,000 fingerling to be stocked has been tagged.

About 800 of the fingerlings are expected to survive their first year. Their survival odds improve dramatically after a year. Ten years after sturgeon were restocked in Otter Tail Lake, anglers reported catching some that were 48-inches long.

After that, who knows? Haukos assisted a fisheries crew with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources earlier this year when they stripped eggs and took milt from spawning sturgeon in the Wisconsin River to produce the fingerlings for Big Stone Lake. One of the females they stripped of eggs weighed 99 pounds, he said.

Catch and release fishing for sturgeon on the Rainy River has become an economic boom for that area as anglers from all over the state seek the opportunity to tangle with the big fish.

Haukos sees no reason why a catch-and-release season could not do the same for the Big Stone Lake and the upper Minnesota River area.

The re-introduction of sturgeon offers other benefits as well. They serve as a biological indicator, and can help us monitor the health of a river system, said Haukos.

Sturgeon can also serve as a biological control for invasive species. They are one of the few fish that will eat zebra mussels and do very well on them, said Haukos.

Sturgeon were once so abundant in Big Stone Lake that their dried carcasses were burned to power steam boats on the Red River, where trees were not so easily found, said Houkas.

The demise of the big fish can be blamed on a variety of factors.  Over-harvesting and degraded water were the chief cases, according to Haukos.  The development of dams and the segmentation of waterways adversely affected the fish as well. They need to have access to riffles and rock rapids for spawning and will migrate considerable distances to reach them. Dams block the way.

Over harvesting the fish took a big toll because the fish are slow to reproduce. A female is not sexually mature until age 25 and then, will only spawn once every four years. Each year, only about 10 percent of the adult population will spawn.

Haukos is among those who love to tangle with the big fish on the Rainy River, but he’s excited about this project for lots of reasons, this one among them:  He views it as an opportunity to bring back a fish and make right our actions of the past.

Eggs and milt were taken from sturgeon in the Wisconsin River to produce the fingerlings to be stocked.

Trail proposal could guide many to Renville County’s best

Trails in Skalbekken Park lead to both scenic overlooks and popular fishing spots.

 

Fortunate we were some years ago to have Ed Stone as our guide.

Since 1979, he’s lived in a home surrounded on three sides by Renville County’s Vicksburg Park along the Minnesota River.

Stone has a keen eye and well-developed appreciation for the natural world and especially, this bluff land wilderness. He led us atop granite outcrops that offered stunning vistas of the Minnesota River, and pointed out locations where he’s called to great horned owls and whippoorwills. He showed us cacti in full bloom on the granite outcrops, and led us down steep trails to the locations on the Minnesota River where anglers find the best action.  Others, he pointed out, seek these locations simply to enjoy a picnic or the quiet of the riverside.

There are miles and miles of adventures like this waiting in Renville County’s seven parks, in particular those along the Minnesota River.

The county is now on the verge of adopting a master plan to develop a hiking trail system that will open the parks to those who appreciate these opportunities, and don’t have a guide like Ed Stone waiting to lead them.

Mark Erickson, community and environment director for Renville County, told the Renville County board of commissioners recently that the county park board and a specially-appointed trails committee have developed a draft plan for developing a marked trail system in each of the seven parks.

The plan outlines the routes for trails in each of the seven parks.  It also describes how the trails will be signed and sets standards for the width of trails and how much vegetation to clear.

There are currently some maintained trails in the parks, but for the most part hikers are making their own way by following long-established paths. Many of the existing paths are really well-tread deer trails that hikers keep open by their use.

The trail committee and park board have been working to develop a plan for a developed trail system for just over three years ago now, Erickson told the commissioners. Parks maintenance director Andy Lang has already completed much of the ground reconnaissance for the proposed trails.

Cactus bloom atop granite outcrops in Renville County’s parks along the Minnesota River.

There’s a long ways to go, assuming the county adopts the plan as hoped.

Erickson noted that currently, the parks workers are too busy from Memorial Day to Labor Day to do anything but maintenance work. Trail development would occur during the off-season, as time allows.

He is also hopeful that the county will be able to find some outside assistance. There is the possibility of finding grant funds as well as recruiting workers from the Minnesota Conservation Corps.

There is no way to know how many people visit the parks to hike the trails, but there is no doubt. Hiking in the parks is a popular activity

A developed and maintained trail system would also open the parks to more usage during the winter. Input gathered at this year’s county fair showed that many park users would like to see trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing, Erickson told the commissioners.