The culmination of three years of effort by volunteers and resource managers and grants nearing $300,000 were celebrated Thursday with the commemoration of walleye spawning riffle placed in three sites in the Rat Root River this spring.
The project, a partnership between local and state groups and agencies and funded by state grants designated for natural resources, was designed to improve the degraded habitat of the river blamed for the decline of a traditionally productive walleye spawning run that benefits Rainy Lake and Rainy River. Those efforts included clearing log jams to increase water flow, planting shoreline trees to reduce erosion and silt movement, and adding riffle, or rock, to the river bottom for walleye spawning.
A group gathered Thursday on the Galvin Line Bridge near where a new sign has been erected crediting the projects collaborators: the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club, Koochiching County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Lessard-Sams Heritage Council.
Tom Worth, long-time RLSC board member, said the addition of the riffle was the crowning jewel of the project.
“The log jams and the erosion control were necessary, but the riffle has the potential of helping the Rat Root be a more successful spawning river for fish,” he said.
The three-year project, organizers have said, wouldn’t have been accomplished without the unique and successful partnership between the local club, county SWCD and the DNR, Worth said. “All three are very important in bringing out project to fruition,” he said.
Worth recalled the hay day of the Rat Root River spawning run which was so productive the DNR from 1933 to 1943 trapped walleye to gather eggs to benefit other Minnesota waters. During that time, the eggs from an average of 3,887 walleye were used each year, he reported. By the 1970s, the count dropped to 243 walleye and the DNR stopped using the river as a source for eggs.
The local project really began in 2008 when club members Dave Peterson and Rob Ecklund, who now serves as a county commissioner, took action during a meeting to seek a grant from the Lessard-Sams Heritage Council, recalled Worth. That initial money was used to begin the massive effort of clearing log jams that had trapped sediment, degrading spawning habitat and reducing river flow.
In 2010, the Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club teamed with Koochiching SWCD, which have common resource management goals. The club’s ability to provide matching funds and SWCD’s expertise in grant administration and technical service was combined with the knowledge of walleye by the DNR Fisheries staff creating a successful partnership.
The collaborative efforts of the three partners resulted in a small Conservation Partners Legacy grant in 2011, totaling $22,500 with $2,500 in matching funds provided by the RLSC. This initial phase served as a pilot project for how to address the log jam removal needs identified in a report as the first key step in improving spawning habitat. The effort resulted in 15 miles of log jams opened or removed to restore water flow. Building on that success, a second CPL grant was awarded in 2012 for $215,000 with $21,500 in matching funds provided by the RLSC and more than $11,000 provided by Koochiching County. Phase 2 expanded the efforts to address sediment issues and ongoing log jam removal.
DNR walleye tagging began in 2010 to determine spawning site fidelity and dispersal in Rainy Lake. Angler tag returns show walleye are traveling about 60 miles from the Rat Root River to the upper end of the North Arm of Rainy Lake.
Additional partners included Nature Valley, which provided funding in 2013 to plant conifers in the area around the river to stabilize shorelines and reduce timber from other tree species from falling into the river creating more log jams. This project brought together dozens of volunteers from across the nation along with members of the Minnesota Conservation Corps youth crew, National Park Conservation Association, and Voyageurs National Park Association.
Last year, Koochiching County led efforts to stabilize severely eroding shorelines at two public sites on the Rat Root River just north of Rat Root Lake.