TWI lands a whopper with special fishing season

It was a warm morning on Tuesday, September 1, with the sun rising over Hennepin & Hopper Lakes at about 6:30 a.m. The kiosk by the boat launch was stocked with permit applications and maps, ready for eager anglers. This day was long awaited by many: the reopening of public fishing at TWI’s Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge after Hennepin & Hopper Lakes had been closed for several years to address an invasion of common carp.

After carp-eradication efforts in 2010 and 2012 in close collaboration with fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), TWI declared the twin lake system free of the common carp in 2014. And after waiting another year for populations of native and game fish to develop—restocked by IDNR—the lakes were finally ready for public fishing in 2015.

IDNR fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon weighs a large fish during TWI's BioBlitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in June 2015.

The fishing season did not open in May, however, because the official paperwork between TWI and IDNR took longer than expected. The Dixon Refuge is privately owned but, as TWI’s partner in returning the lakes to health, IDNR weighed in on establishing rules and regulations for public fishing—expertise that is invaluable to TWI in its efforts to maintain a healthy fishery.

Though the paperwork wasn’t completed until the end of the summer, TWI Executive Director Paul Botts said, “We still wanted to open up the lakes for however long we could before the fall migration started, because we knew that lots of people were eager for public fishing again.”

A special 2015 fishing season was set for September 1–27 and TWI quickly delivered the news to all those who had inquired throughout the summer. TWI also quickly prepared materials including permit applications and maps and built a kiosk for them by the boat launch. A logbook was put at the kiosk as well, where fishermen could record the species they caught, the number and size of their catches, and whether they kept or released them.

On all counts it was a successful season, with 231 individuals applying for Hennepin & Hopper Lakes fishing permits. There was little confusion regarding the application process—people could apply and fish the same day as long as they had a valid Illinois fishing license—and as soon as the sun rose on September 1 the lakes started to fill with boats.

Fishing-season regular Bill Armstrong said of his experience at the lakes, “I was up there frequently, I couldn’t stay away. I caught more northerns there than I ever did up north anywhere. The bass were the fattest I’ve ever seen.”

This was a sentiment shared by virtually everyone who fished at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes, with some individuals catching up to 50 largemouth bass and 40 northern pike in one session. The logbook was filled with such results. By the end of the month-long season, more than 3,000 largemouth bass had been caught, as well as almost 1,000 northern pike, with the majority released (size and creel limits were in place for the season).

Healthy, dense aquatic vegetation is essential for the food web at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes and to maintain an excellent fishery.

Dense aquatic vegetation is essential for the food web at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes and to maintain an excellent fishery.There was some frustration because the thick aquatic vegetation made it difficult to navigate by boat through the water, but strong vegetative growth is actually desired.

TWI Senior Ecologist Gary Sullivan explained, “The dense vegetation represents the base of the lakes’ web of energy, the energy on which all lake and marsh wildlife depend for food, including the game fish species living there. So despite the difficulties it presents in getting boats around, having healthy and dense lake vegetation is a critical component of the lake and marsh ecosystem that makes it possible for the Refuge to provide excellent fishing.”

Rick Seibert, TWI’s Dixon Refuge site manager, had only good things to say about the season overall. “I thought everything about the fishing season went great,” he said. “I like seeing the fishermen take ownership of the lakes and how they want to protect them.”

This is perhaps the best outcome from the fishing season—more visitors to the Dixon Refuge who recognize it as a natural treasure and feel inclined to keep it that way. For the next fishing season, TWI hopes to create a volunteer stewardship group to help monitor the lakes and assist others who come there to fish. It takes a village, as they say, to protect and maintain a healthy ecosystem like Hennepin & Hopper Lakes.

The Wetlands Initiative plans to have a full summer fishing season in 2016 and will announce dates early in the year. Please watch our website for updates.