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Outdoors | Crab Orchard Lake drawdown should be beneficial to ecosystem

Harkins Tournament 028

An angler gets ready to bag a nice bass in the 2016 Harkins/Sanders Four-Man Bass Tournament at Crab Orchard Lake. Crab Orchard has long been known for its large bass. Fisheries biologist Luke Nelson said the current drawdown should be good for the lake's bass population.

CARTERVILLE – Luke Nelson, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ district fisheries biologist that oversees Crab Orchard Lake, sees the current drawdown of the lake as a win-win proposition, both him and the fish.

The water level was lowered four feet by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow repairs on the spillway. Nelson said his only concern about the drawdown was the possibility of a fish kill, but at this point, any negatives appear to be a remote possibility.

“I would say we are past the point of being a downside,” Nelson said. “The only thing I was concerned about was when we had that really hot weather. I was concerned about a fish kill, but it seems we are past that. There aren’t many drawbacks to a draw down.

“This is one of those things that apparently only happens once every 30 years. It’s a unique opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at the lake. It brings on a whole lot of really cool things, habitat work. We’ve done planting. We planted 1,250 water willow plants, which is what people call Crab Orchard grass.”

In addition to that planting, grass has flourished in the mudflats. Most of the areas seeing heavy growth haven’t been exposed to sunlight in nearly eight decades. Several fragile species of plant are growing well out into the lake bed.

“It’s huge,” Nelson said of the newly-emergent grass. “A big part of that is we will see some sediment stabilization. Not that it will last forever, but it will slow down the water for a year or two. When the lake gets water back in it there may be a little bit of fertilization that happens with the breaking down of the plant material too.

“It’s kind of a booster shot for the lake. It’s hard to project what will happen. When these drawdowns happen it’s almost like a mini new-lake effect.”

And, as far as existing habitat, Nelson has been pleasantly surprise, particularly largemouth bass habitat.

“We were kind of surprised by the amount of proper spawning substrate in the lake,” he said. “We were pretty surprised when the lake came down how much gravel, sand and rock was in there. We’ve actually kind of focused on putting more refuge habitat in for fry.”

Rather than hauling in truckloads of gravel and sand for spawning beds, biologists will be playing spawning “benches” in the lake.

“Bass like to spawn with a roof over their heads,” Nelson said. “When they build their beds they like to have a log, or something similar, over their head for protection. I’m hoping to put out about 70 of those spawning benches and as much of that refuge habitat as I can. That will basically be like small woody structures. We’re trying to put real tight habitat in there so little fish can get in and big fish can’t.”

Likewise, the drawdown should be good for the lake’s healthy crappie population.

“I would say by and large it will affect most species the same,” Nelson said. “The literature has shown that when you have these drawdowns, it pushes a lot of the forage fish, the shad don’t have any place to hide out. I can’t promise it, but I’m hoping to see some good bass and crappie growth as the shad are pushed out into the water where the bass and crappie hang out. We’re hoping it creates kind of a buffet.

“The channel cat population in Crab is kind of a hidden gem. Channel cat feed on shad more than people realize. I expect the channel cat to really like the drawdown.”

He added that the shad density in the lake is such that the population won’t be harmed.

Finally, the draw down has also allowed biologists to get a look at fish attractors that were placed around boat docks and fishing piers last year. And, they like what they see.

“A lot of the fish attractors you see from Route 13 are new,” Nelson said. “We put those out in the spring of 2021. I’m probably not going to move those. What I liked to see when the lake came down, a lot of people told me I should sand those because the algae wouldn’t grow on them. That was a good thing for me to see, that algae layer really piled up on them.”

CARTERVILLE – Luke Nelson, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ district fisheries biologist that oversees Crab Orchard Lake, sees the current drawdown of the lake as a win-win proposition, both him and the fish.

The water level was lowered four feet by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow repairs on the spillway. Nelson said his only concern about the drawdown was the possibility of a fish kill, but at this point, any negatives appear to be a remote possibility.

“I would say we are past the point of being a downside,” Nelson said. “The only thing I was concerned about was when we had that really hot weather. I was concerned about a fish kill, but it seems we are past that. There aren’t many drawbacks to a draw down.

“This is one of those things that apparently only happens once every 30 years. It’s a unique opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at the lake. It brings on a whole lot of really cool things, habitat work. We’ve done planting. We planted 1,250 water willow plants, which is what people call Crab Orchard grass.”

In addition to that planting, grass has flourished in the mudflats. Most of the areas seeing heavy growth haven’t been exposed to sunlight in nearly eight decades. Several fragile species of plant are growing well out into the lake bed.

“It’s huge,” Nelson said of the newly-emergent grass. “A big part of that is we will see some sediment stabilization. Not that it will last forever, but it will slow down the water for a year or two. When the lake gets water back in it there may be a little bit of fertilization that happens with the breaking down of the plant material too.

“It’s kind of a booster shot for the lake. It’s hard to project what will happen. When these drawdowns happen it’s almost like a mini new-lake effect.”

And, as far as existing habitat, Nelson has been pleasantly surprise, particularly largemouth bass habitat.

“We were kind of surprised by the amount of proper spawning substrate in the lake,” he said. “We were pretty surprised when the lake came down how much gravel, sand and rock was in there. We’ve actually kind of focused on putting more refuge habitat in for fry.”

Rather than hauling in truckloads of gravel and sand for spawning beds, biologists will be playing spawning “benches” in the lake.

“Bass like to spawn with a roof over their heads,” Nelson said. “When they build their beds they like to have a log, or something similar, over their head for protection. I’m hoping to put out about 70 of those spawning benches and as much of that refuge habitat as I can. That will basically be like small woody structures. We’re trying to put real tight habitat in there so little fish can get in and big fish can’t.”

Likewise, the drawdown should be good for the lake’s healthy crappie population.

“I would say by and large it will affect most species the same,” Nelson said. “The literature has shown that when you have these drawdowns, it pushes a lot of the forage fish, the shad don’t have any place to hide out. I can’t promise it, but I’m hoping to see some good bass and crappie growth as the shad are pushed out into the water where the bass and crappie hang out. We’re hoping it creates kind of a buffet.

“The channel cat population in Crab is kind of a hidden gem. Channel cat feed on shad more than people realize. I expect the channel cat to really like the drawdown.”

He added that the shad density in the lake is such that the population won’t be harmed.

Finally, the draw down has also allowed biologists to get a look at fish attractors that were placed around boat docks and fishing piers last year. And, they like what they see.

“A lot of the fish attractors you see from Route 13 are new,” Nelson said. “We put those out in the spring of 2021. I’m probably not going to move those. What I liked to see when the lake came down, a lot of people told me I should sand those because the algae wouldn’t grow on them. That was a good thing for me to see, that algae layer really piled up on them.”

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