Living on the Lake: ?Fish Sticks? projects build healthy lakes
“Woody habitat” is the technical term for something ubiquitous in the Northwoods: trees that have fallen into the water. So important is this structure to lakes and rivers that it can dramatically change the ecosystem of the water body. Especially affected are fish species that reproduce, shelter and feed in this type of cover. According to Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist John Kubisiak, research shows the presence of such cover can give a clear advantage to blue gills, crappies and largemouth bass, to name a few.
“This is different from the fish cribs that have been used for years,” he explains. “Fish cribs, which are the traditional ‘log cabin’ structures sunk into deep water, are ok; they’re good for anglers. But I don’t know many lakes that need more harvesting.
“Woody habitat in riparian zones along shorelines helps build fish populations. Especially in areas where rusty crayfish have devastated vegetation in the lake, it can make a huge difference.”
To that end, the DNR is encouraging a project with a catchy new name: Fish Sticks. It’s based on the practice called “tree-drop,” where a large tree is hauled to the water’s edge and anchored to the shoreline with its branches angled down under the water.
Fish Sticks makes this idea even more effective by adding additional brush and branches, all fastened firmly together and anchored to the shore and to the bottom of the lake.
“It’s a simple idea,” Kubisiak says. “But there are several things to consider, especially how to keep it from shifting in wind and waves, changing water levels and ice movement.”
Just released by the DNR is a new best practices manual with detailed drawings, photos and text on recommended methods and materials.
Along with the manual is a new streamlined permitting process making it easier – and less expensive – to get a Fish Sticks project going.
“This is something we’d like to see take off around the area,” Kubisiak says. “We are envisioning lake associations taking this on, getting permits for a couple years’ work on multiple projects around their lake shore.”
The good news is that the DNR website has loads of great information on Fish Sticks. The bad news is that there may be a bit too much information.
“Whenever we’re dealing with laws and regulations, it gets complicated,” Kubisiak says. “We hope to simplify things as we go along. We’ve recently established the use of a simple two-page general application with a $300 application fee.”
Two years ago, area property owner Dorothy Skye wanted to take down several trees in her yard that were dying. She had been working with Brent Hanson of Hanson’s Garden Village in Rhinelander to restore her yard with native plantings.
Hanson, an experienced restoration specialist, had done quite a few tree-drops in the past, and he thought Skye’s shoreline on the Wisconsin River in the Town of Newbold would be well-suited to the project.
“The jack pine she had were great,” he says. “Being short-lived trees, they were on their way out and causing a hazard in her yard. The water was a good, safe place for them.”
Hanson points out the importance of not removing all dead or dying trees from an area. “You need to have some trees for wildlife; birds and mammals use them for nesting and feeding. You have to weigh the circumstances; putting them in the water is much better than chipping them up and removing them.”
That winter, Hanson got help cutting the trees and moving them into position 50 feet apart along the shoreline with their tops laid out on the ice. “It’s a simple process, but it can be quite a job,” he says. “For instance, we use a power auger to get down through the ice to anchor cables down into the river bottom, but sometimes if the water freezes all the way down, it can be hard on the auger.”
The worst thing that could happen, according to Hanson, would be if the trees broke loose from the shore and drifted out to become a hazard for boaters. “It takes a couple years for the wood to become waterlogged and sink down,” he says. “You have to have it securely fastened.”
Although undoubtedly good for fi sh, Hanson sees many more advantages to tree-drops and Fish Sticks. “When properly placed, they can protect your shoreline from erosion,” he says. “They can break up waves coming in from boat traffi c and high winds. They can also fend off big pieces of ice in the spring; the ice will ride up on the branches instead of slamming into the shore.”
Woody habitat along the shore can also discourage some boaters. “You won’t have water-skiers and personal watercraft coming in so close,” says Hanson. Anglers will gravitate to such areas, though, he points out.
As far as wildlife is concerned, turtles, mink, otter and shore birds will all benefi t from woody habitat. And trying to establish new plants in a riparian zone will be easier with the cover supplied by tree-drops and Fish Sticks.
Hanson is ready, willing and able to help anyone who wants to explore the idea of creating woody habitat. “We can write permits and sub-contract the work,” he says. “We’ve worked with agencies, lake associations, property owners and municipalities.” The process, he adds, isn’t very complicated, but having help makes it easier.
What if a tree falls into the lake?
Given the new regulations on creating woody habitat, property owners may wonder what their rights and obligations are in regard to naturally fallen trees on their shoreline.
According to the DNR, if a tree falls naturally, the owner doesn’t need to apply for a permit. However, the owner is responsible if that tree drifts over onto a neighboring property. “We’d encourage you to keep it in the water,” says DNR fi sheries biologist John Kubisiak. “If it’s not fi rmly attached to its trunk, contact us for details on fastening it to the shore.”
In fact, if a fallen tree is in the water long enough to sink in and become part of the lake bed, removing it would be considered dredging, also a regulated activity.
Cutting of trees on shorelines is regulated on Wisconsin lakes, so most tree-drops and Fish Sticks projects will include trees dragged in from other locations. It’s important to get permission to transport trees on roadways and be safe when maneuvering on lake ice during the winter months.
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.