Dixon Refuge summer update: Fish are biting, the eclipse nears

Two hours southwest of Chicago, the Wetlands Initiative’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is a year-round attraction. There’s no month when our flagship restoration site doesn’t boast some seasonal feature nature lovers can enjoy. Spring and fall play host to remarkable migrations, while winter brings a fresh, alien landscape that’s quiet and peaceful. Summer, however, is unmatched in engaging opportunities that bring the site to life for visitors.

Two summer activities are particularly notable this year: public fishing at the Refuge continues to attract serious anglers, and we’re also looking forward to hosting visitors to view the upcoming, super-rare solar eclipse on August 21.

Two fishermen return to shore with their catch: six keeper northern pike (IDNR regulations limit fishermen to three per permittee). Photo by Julie Erdmann/TWI. 

High-quality fishing opportunities at the Refuge have increased rapidly since TWI reopened Hennepin & Hopper Lakes for public fishing in 2016, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. IDNR has been working with us to maintain a healthy, varied stock of fish in the Refuge lakes, and continues to track the fish populations. In April this past spring, they spent a day setting nets to catch fish, which were then tagged and measured as part of an ongoing study.

This tagging was followed up by an electrofishing survey in May. In electrofishing, a weak electric current is used to temporarily stun fish so they can be captured and analyzed without causing harm. The IDNR crew also added more than 9,000 muskie fry and 7,000 northern pike fry to the lakes, ensuring that these fish populations will remain robust in seasons to come.

This year, TWI has issued more than 600 fishing permits for the Dixon Refuge. It’s been a busy season and we’re very grateful to IDNR Conservation Police for helping us to manage and enforce both state fishing regulations and TWI’s own site-specific rules. Since the lakes are a sensitive ecosystem within the larger ecological restoration of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, permit holders must follow not only state fishing regulations, such as size and creel limits, but also rules specific to TWI’s Hennepin & Hopper Lakes. For example, to protect water quality, gas motors are not permitted on the lakes, even if raised out of the water. Similarly, certain areas of the lakes are off limits to protect bird species that make the lakes their home.

Even with the protective regulations, the fishing opportunities are abundant. One dedicated fisherman spent a full day on the lakes this summer and ended the day having caught and released 15 largemouth bass, 18 northern pike, and 5 muskie. Interested fishermen have until Labor Day to get out on Hennepin & Hopper Lakes. While fishing is usually not permitted on Mondays, Labor Day, the last day of this year’s season, is an exception to that rule.

Fishing may now be a perennial pleasure, but only in 2017 will the Refuge host a watch party for a solar eclipse! You’ve probably heard about the upcoming eclipse, a true rarity. It’s the first in decades that will pass over the entire contiguous United States, following a path that takes it from Oregon to South Carolina.

An eclipse is an extraordinary event, and not only as a visual experience. Viewers can expect the temperature to drop noticeably, may feel an increased breeze, and will hear and see the Refuge’s diverse bird, amphibian, and insect populations go through their dusk routines in the middle of the day.

While the Dixon Refuge is not in the path of totality, in which the moon will pass entirely in front of the face of the sun, it will still be an arresting sight. Those watching from our observation tower will experience 91% solar coverage, the most complete eclipse to hit our region since 1925. A coast-to-coast eclipse won’t pass our way again until 2045.

It’s important that all those who plan to watch the eclipse remember to protect their eyes. The human retina has no pain receptors, so if you look at the sun during the partial eclipse without eye protection, it’s possible to experience no discomfort yet end up with permanent ocular damage. The Wetlands Initiative will provide NASA-certified eclipse glasses to watch-party attendees so they can view the eclipse head-on without fear.

In Hennepin on August 21, the eclipse will begin around 11:50 a.m. and peak at 1:17 p.m. All interested guests are invited to meet at the observation tower at 11:30 a.m. to enjoy a light TWI-provided lunch before darkness begins to fall. If you do plan to attend, please RSVP here. We hope to see you at the Refuge!