A visit to Volga Lake
Are the fish in Volga Lake growing fast enough? Are there other species that would survive there? What factors impact the fish growth rate?
Those are questions Iowa DNR Fish Biologist Bill Kalishek hears anglers ask, along with others, regarding the popular 120-acre lake situated between Fayette and West Union.
On any given day, license plates in the parking lot at Volga Lake reveal anglers traveling from all counties surrounding Fayette County, in addition to Linn and Black Hawk counties hoping to try their luck. It isn't unusual to find 30 or more vehicles near the boat dock even on the coldest days of winter and twice that many in the summer.
For some anglers, there's a definite goal to return home with a meal of pan fish, while others are satisfied to throw back their catches, having simply enjoyed a day outdoors.
For Roger Boleyn, there's nothing better than a meal of crappies or blue gills on his dinner table.
With the lake being just a 10-minute drive from his home, the Elgin man fishes every day, if he can. On one particular Saturday, he's paired with Elgin banker Barry Schrag to huddle in a tent with a propane heater, aiming to get their limit of 25 pan fish each. With 18 crappies in hand and six more hours of daylight left, they're well on their way.
As Boleyn watches his line through a small circle of ice on a cold, February day, he describes the flavor and texture of Frog Hollow's crappies as being like "eating candy." And, he says, "There's gotta be a million of 'em in here."
But even though Schrag and Boleyn were getting a good catch, a few feet away a group of men from Howard County had caught little. The four men had returned to the water a catfish or two, so by noon, they packed up and decided to try their luck in Winneshiek County.
Anglers who frequent the lake are seeking one of four main species: crappies, bluegill, channel catfish and large-mouth bass. According to the biologist, 1,900 eight-inch channel catfish are stocked every other year.
To effectively monitor the species and growth rates of fish in the lake, Kalishek said the DNR conducts samples of the fish every two to three years. An actual estimation of growth rates takes place about every five years, with this spring being the time for another growth study.
To do the study, either scales or otoliths are removed from a sampling of crappies and bluegill to determine not only age, but how quickly (or slowly) the fish are growing. From previous studies, while acknowledging that the fish could be growing more quickly, Kalishek doesn't see that their growth has slowed to a point that would yet require drastic measures. Once a lake's fish habitat has started to wane, he said, corrective measures would include drawing down or draining the lake.
"That's a drastic and expensive measure, and it would leave us with two to three years without any fishing," he says. "We aren't at that point yet."
Because there's a presence of grass carp and common carp in the lake, these large fish also figure into Volga Lake's equation. Although Kalishek said common carp have not reproduced in the lake in several years, he explained, "They will reproduce again at some time. When this happens, it will most likely cause problems for the game fish populations."
"The carp stir up the bottom in their feeding activities, which makes the water turbid or cloudy and impedes the ability of game fish to see their prey," he said.
For their part, local anglers have gotten involved by assisting DNR staff with improving the environment for fish, cutting or hauling cedar and other scrub trees into the 120-acre lake.
Lake fed by 6,000-acre watershed
There are other factors that impact fish size and the pace at which they grow, according to Kalishek, whose office is at the Decorah Trout Hatchery.
The lake is fed by the runoff from an approximate 6,000-acre watershed.
"We shoot for 20 acres to every one acre of lake surface. What we have here is 50 to 1, so it is on the high side," Kalishek noted. "And the bigger the watershed, the more silt you'll have."
Among the DNR biologist's other observations is a slight trend toward an increase in chlorophyll A and more nutrients and phosphorus in the water.
He said studies by Iowa State University reveal an upward trend that's due in part to more algae bloom and both chemicals and nutrients in the runoff that enter the lake.
Still, Kalishek said the lake at the Volga River Rec Area (VRRA) has the potential to be a good lake.
When it was first built in 1979, its bottom was covered with one to four feet of clay to act as a sealant. While effective in assuring the lake held water, clay is a sterile environment and its dense composition makes it difficult for insects to burrow, resulting in less aquatic life.
But while the lake may have had a slow start in allowing aquatic life to get established, the lake bottom is now covered with enough silt that more plant life is thriving.
Bob Medberry is yet another Elgin-area angler who fishes the lake as often as he can fit into his schedule. He says a nice catch of bluegills or crappies for his table or to give to others makes the hobby fun.
Medberry believes if northerns were stocked, the larger fish would help reduce what he says is an overpopulation of crappies. He'd also like to see the 25/day limit on the pan fish removed as another method to reduce the crappie population.
Kalishek said the lake was stocked with tiger muskie, a cross between a northern pike and muskie, many years ago. However, the fish didn't survive well.
For anglers who enjoy the sport of catching big fish, he said he's seen channel catfish that have reached 26 inches and large-mouth bass reaching 18-19 inches.
Yellow perch is a species that's present in Frog Hollow Lake, even though it was never stocked there. Kalishek explained that even though anglers enjoyed catching the fish, it just isn't well-suited to the environment and wouldn't likely thrive if it were to be stocked.
Conservation practices another consideration
As DNR officials continue to monitor the fish population at the VRRA, Kalishek said one other factor that will be examined is whether additional conservation practices can be put in place throughout the watershed.
A decade ago, the NRCS had probably reached all the landowners it could in promoting good conservation practices that reduce silt and chemical run-off, he said.
Since then, there have been land ownership changes and new dollars available toward implementing programs.
"We might have landowners willing to work with us that weren't part of the equation, before," he continued.
Kalishek and VRRA park rangers Scot Michelson and Tom Halverson recognize the popularity of Volga Lake for its fishing and hope to continue to promote the rec area.
"Good fishing adds to the economic vitality of our local area," Kalishek closed.
"All of these anglers driving to Volga Lake to fish from outside the area spend money on gas, food, equipment and maybe lodging just to come and fish for a day."