An angler Dan Mishler knows built a fish shelter in the waters of Lake Charlevoix in front of his house.
Over the winter, said Mishler, who is the president of the Lake Charlevoix Association, the man was ice fishing over that shelter. In the early evening, he lowered a camera through the ice.
"There was a blizzard of little white things," said Mishler. "Maybe it was some kind of zooplankton."
Whatever it was, it brought minnows in "by the gazillions," said Mishler.
And you don't have to be a fisheries biologist to know that what follows minnows might be a larger predator fish — the kind of fish anglers want on the other end of their lines.
The Lake Charlevoix Association is partway through a five-year permit to construct 100 of these structures throughout Lake Charlevoix. And while the jury is still out whether these shelters boost fish production or not — one good anecdote about the shelter attracting minnows does not make a thorough science experiment, says Mishler, a retired chemistry teacher — the association hopes the structures will provide not just cover for younger fish, but habitat for insects as well. An increase in the area insects can live could provide an influx of nutrients up the food chain, he says.
"The structures are great for providing habitat for older individuals," said Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Heather Hettinger. "But it doesn't really provide what's typically missing from lakes, which is spawning habitat and juvenile rearing habitat."
Particularly in developed lakes, such as Lake Charlevoix, people tend to cut down diseased or dead trees that would otherwise fall into the lake and provide shelter for juvenile fish. Naturally vegetated shoreline provides spawning habitat. But lakes with overly manicured shorelines lack in spawning habitat, and often, trees are removed before falling into the water — and before they can create juvenile rearing habitat.
"Juvenile habitat is not something you can just put back into the lake. It has to develop on its own. Lake Charlevoix is still kind of missing that key component that starts at the beginning of the life cycle," said Hettinger. "But where you've lost a lot of that woody debris, fish shelters do provide some level of habitat for older individuals."
Lake Charlevoix is taking strides toward rehabilitating shoreline habitat with its "Lake Guardian" project. Part of the project asks that homeowners maintain a greenbelt buffer zone along their shorelines, so that their lawns are not manicured directly to the water.
In the mean time, the fish shelter projects continue.
The shelters are comprised of handmade structures. Over the winter, the association placed about 15 structures at locations throughout the lake.
Mishler said the structures have been a learning experience. Per the association's permits through the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the structures have to be made of all-natural materials. That means no screws, no nails. So the association members have been making do with hemp rope, boards and cinder blocks.
So far, they have a few different patterns of structure. The first is a triangle with sides 4 feet in length, stacked to about 3 feet high. The sides are constructed of slab wood — the wood planks left over from when lumber mills shave rounded sides off of logs.
The inventive association members drilled holes through the end of each board, ran a rope through each hole, and tied a cinder block to the bottom and top of each stack.
Another structure looks like a tree: association members poured a concrete base around a cedar post. They then drilled holes through the middle of the wood slabs and stacked the slabs on the cedar post. A dowel at the top of the post anchors the slabs down.
Mishler said many of the cinder blocks are left over from projects in people's backyards, and Matelski Lumber Company of Boyne Falls donated the planks.
Still, building upward of 100 structures through the 17,200-acre lake isn't cheap, which is where a grant from the Charlevoix County Community Foundation came in that will help the association distribute the structures. The goal is to place the enough structures strategically so that the fish are concentrated — not the anglers, said Mishler.
When the project is finished, the Lake Charlevoix Association hopes to eventually release the GPS coordinates of each shelter.
Even if the shelters don't help fish produce better, at least, Mishler hopes, the structures will increase the amount of cover fish do have.
"(Lake Charlevoix) is an empty bowl. There's very, very little cover," said Mishler. "These have to provide more habitat for insects, which smaller fish will eat ... Right now, little fish can't hide, and bass and walleye are hefty predators. This will be something to even the playing field."
At some point in June, the DNR will release about 150,000 walleye fry into Lake Charlevoix. The last year the lake was stocked was 2009, after the fish pathogen, viral hemorrhagic septicemia, was introduced to the Great Lakes basin. But even without the walleye stocking, the fishery in Lake Charlevoix is flourishing, said Mishler.
"It's becoming an amazing walleye and smallmouth bass lake," he said.
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Because Lake Charlevoix is connected to Lake Michigan through the Pine River Channel in Charlevoix, the Lake Charlevoix Association had to get permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources.
Here are a few things the association took into consideration while planning the placement of fish shelters:
The Lake Charlevoix Association wanted 10 feet of clearance in the water over each shelter, which meant it was aiming to place shelter in 15-20-foot deep water.
The association emailed and mailed letters to garner interest in property owners along the Lake Charlevoix shoreline, but required property owners to have 300 feet of approved property at the proposed reef site. That's because a person's riparian rights are determined by drawing a line through the center of the lake. A person's riparian property is determined by drawing lines at each end of the property, which must intersect at 90-degree angles with the line down the lake's center. Sometimes, said Mishler, those pieces of property end up being wedge-shaped, and the Lake Charlevoix Association wanted to make sure each shelter was well planted on property already okayed by owners.