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Paul Nelson: Slowing spread of AIS in Bemidji area lakes is everyone's responsibility

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Lake Bemidji hopefully dodged a bullet recently when an out of state boat with zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil was discovered and ticketed at the Northwoods access.

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AIS (aquatic invasive species) are a hot topic in many circles, with the welfare of our lakes at stake. Optimistically there is hope to stop the spread of AIS, but realistically it seems to be more a question of "when" rather than "if" the lakes will get exposed to some type of AIS.

Lake Winnibigoshish and Sand Lake are two recent additions to the list of lakes with zebra mussels. Both lakes are on chains of lakes, so it stands to reason that anything down river is eventually going to be exposed.

Looking at what an infestation of zebra mussels does to a lake strictly from an angling viewpoint should be enough to scare anglers into being much more careful about what uninvited pests they may be hauling around in their boat.

Populations of zebra mussels usually grow exponentially several years into the infestation. It usually goes from a few here and a few there to zebra mussels literally covering most of the lake bottom.

Zebra mussels strain the phytoplankton out of the water, which are the same things zooplankton eat. After an infestation of zebra mussels, there is almost always a crash in the zooplankton population.

What's the big deal about zooplankton, you may ask? The problem is young-of-the-year perch and walleyes, along with many other species of fish and minnows, eat zooplankton as their main food source until they are big enough to go hunting for larger prey.

Zebra mussels take over the food chain from the bottom. Most lakes in the Bemidji area rely almost entirely on natural reproduction so anything that attacks the ability of the lakes to be self-sustaining is serious business.

The ecology of the lake also changes. With less phytoplankton, the water clarity increases dramatically. This increases weed growth, both in density and in the depth of water the weeds are able to grow.

The changes in the lake usually cause a shift in the fish populations, with walleyes and perch often the big losers with the changes. No one can blame what is happening in Mille Lacs Lake entirely on zebra mussels but it is unquestionably a major contributing factor in the collapse of the walleye and perch fishing there.

Property values are affected as soon as a lake is declared to have AIS. Resorts and other businesses suffer, guides switch their clients to other lakes and the infested lake has a sudden fall from grace in the fishing community.

Fishing methods also change when a lake becomes infested with zebra mussels. Many walleye anglers like to fish presentations like live-bait rigs or jigs and minnows that make frequent contact with the bottom.

Zebra mussels are sharp and can cut your line. Anglers eventually have to switch to presentations that suspend baits off the bottom to avoid constant damage to their fishing line.

Swimmers also have to wear some type of protection on their feet to avoid getting cut and you can imagine what a good wipe out on water skis in shallow water could do.

Zebra mussels are one of the worst invaders to our lakes but they are not the only one. There are many other types of AIS including Eurasian watermilfoil, spiny waterfleas, New Zealand mud snail, rusty crayfish, curly-leaf pondweed and purple loosestrife that can all have a negative impact on our lakes and fish populations.

Every angler has to get serious about checking their trailers and boats for weeds and draining all the water from their boat every time they are pulled out of the water.

Anglers should take extra precautions whenever they fish a lake with AIS. It should become part of everyone's routine to take the boat to the car wash after fishing a lake with AIS and spray the entire boat including the livewell and let everything dry completely before bringing the boat to another lake.

The current regulations depend on everyone changing their routines to prevent the spread of AIS. It only takes one angler to infect a lake and cause irreversible damage, so don't be that guy or gal.

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Paul Nelson

Paul Nelson writes a weekly fishing column for the Bemidji Pioneer. He runs the Bemidji Area Lakes Guide Service.

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