It was a tough winter for fish in Minnesota lakes. But officials with the state Department of Natural Resources say they are relieved to find no more than the usual number of fish killed from lack of oxygen under the ice and snow.
The agency is stocking ponds where fish did die over the winter to restore the fish supply and encourage families to take to the water.
To survive, fish need oxygen dissolved in lake water. In a cold winter with a lot of snow, oxygen can be depleted -- especially in shallow lakes. The fish literally suffocate in what's called winter kill.
In the Twin Cities, the DNR typically restocks lakes that have lost a lot of fish by taking them from other lakes.
At Alimagnet Lake near Burnsville, fisheries specialist Jim Levitt and two colleagues use a trap net to capture bluegill and other sunfish. The fish in Alimagnet survive because the DNR provides oxygen through an aeration system.
They weigh the catch of each species, from bluegill to and other sunfish to crappies and even a few perch.
The workers then dump their catch into a small aerated tank sitting in the bed of a pickup and head to the freeway to deliver the sunfish to their new home.
The DNR is trying to turn about 60 small lakes and ponds into good fishing holes. The Fishing in the Neighborhood program is designed to encourage people, especially families, to take up a fishing rod, perhaps for the first time.
Urban Fishing and Aquatic Education Specialist Mark Nemeth said the agency is stocking lakes with species that are easy for children to catch, and species that will appeal to urban residents, especially new immigrants.
"As our demographic is changing, we need to be open to allowing some different angling opportunities here in the metro area," he said.
Nemeth said DNR workers test fish for mercury and other contaminants to make sure they're safe.
Some 30 miles north on Interstate 35E, the truck pulls up to Handlos Pond in Lakewood Hills Park near White Bear Lake. It's only about eight feet deep and probably lost most, or all, of its sunfish over the winter.
Nearby, the roads are full of cars, and a leaf-blower blares nearby. But the pond is surrounded by trees, and a loon paddles nonchalantly across the calm water. It looks like the perfect new home for 400 bluegills.
Levitt makes several trips from the truck, his net full of squirming yellow fish.
"I'll just walk them out on the pier, and then I'll just scoop them over, lower them in, and off they go, ready to be caught by some kids, hopefully," he said.
Unless the loon gets them first.
The Fishing in the Neighborhood program is 10 years old. Its $100,000 annual budget includes small grants to help communities install fishing piers and restore shorelines.
DNR officials say it's a challenge to figure out how to put fishing rods in the hands of people who never thought much about it before. But Levitt says it's a key part of the agency's mission to draw people to the water.
"People are becoming less connected to the outdoors," he said. "We want them to be connected. This is Minnesota. It's our heritage in a way, the outdoors. And [by] getting these families and kids exposed to fishing, we're hoping they'll be lifelong anglers and hunters."