A bright-hued flotilla of kayaks and canoes clogged the little gravel boat landing at Three Lakes, a connected chain northeast of Richland. They came to explore the wildest of the two lakes, which lie west of 35th Street amid pristine wetlands alive with the “o-ka-lee” call of red-winged blackbirds.
It was a fine morning for the kinetic pleasures of a paddle on open water, with bright sun and a cool riffle of early summer breeze. Thirty-six watercraft turned out for the event, sponsored by SWMLC, the Four Townships Water Resources Council, Kalamazoo River Watershed Council and Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The June 8 trip was one of four held this spring and summer to build awareness of wild lands and waters around Gull Lake
Although as float trips go, this one had a decidedly different goal in mind.
It was as much about education as recreation; as much about ecological wonderment as picnics and sunscreen. It was, essentially, a floating classroom where experts addressed the perennial questions that waterfront residents ask each summer: Why does my lake have weeds? How do we get rid of weeds? And, why do we have so many puny panfish?
With the lake as a handy teaching aid, the answers came soon enough.
“I’m surrounded here by a colony of blue gills,” said Matt Diana, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist based in Plainwell. He’d just parked his DNR-issue green canoe in the shallows, near a cluster of yellow-blossomed lily pads.
“You see these sandy, plate-shaped depressions?” he asked. “Those are blue gill spawning beds. The males use their tails to sweep away debris so the female can lay eggs. After the males fertilize the eggs, they stay around to guard the nest.”
As the big males guard the nest, their aggressive behavior makes them easy prey for anglers. And therein, explained Diana, lies a little-known cause for the glut of stunted blue gills. For years, it was assumed that catching more big ‘gills would help the little ones grow. Yet recent research in Wisconsin has found otherwise.
“We now see it as a circular problem,” Diana said, as orange-throated males fanned away at their nests, oblivious to the clutch of kayaks around them. “It’s the smaller fish that produce the most offspring, so when you catch too many big fish (Michigan’s bag limit is 25 per day) it leaves more small fish that produce more small fish. That’s been hard for some lake associations to understand. They try to solve the problem of too few big blue gills by stocking more small ones.”
Not long after that teachable moment, the paddlers had some work to do: navigate the narrow, twisting passage to the third lake in the chain.
The route winds through a head-high cattail maze, blocked at the far end by a beaver dam the size of a small car. Two paddlers climbed the dam to help portage the kayaks and canoes across.
As the passage gave way to open water, paddlers were rewarded by a sight rare in southern Michigan. A natural lake, ringed by forest and wetland, with no signs of development. It was an ideal setting to explain how shoreline vegetation can keep places like the Three Lakes/Gull Lake watershed healthy.
“This is a high-quality wetland, what we call the ‘littoral zone,’” Diana said. “What’s great about this one is all the different types of native plants. Some of these species do well under wetter conditions and some do better in dry conditions. Both are important, so that when water levels fluctuate, it doesn’t kill everything at once.”
Wetlands act as a huge sponge to both absorb flood waters and maintain the water table in times of drought. They also filter out contaminates from runoff into lakes and rivers. However, wetland vegetation can’t provide this biological function unless its kept intact.
And on a lake, over-fertilizing yards, mowing to the water’s edge and removing native plants such as reeds and lily pads are all ways to not keep natural systems intact.
“The big problem is too much phosphorus,” said Kenny Kornheiser, president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, whose well-traveled water dog, Lucy, joined him for the trip. “As a fertilizer, phosphorus makes lawns and farm crops grow – but it also makes weeds grow when it washes into the lake.”
As with small blue gills, some of the solutions used to remove weeds only compound the problem. Using herbicide to kill invasive weeds can also kill native plants that fish and wildlife need for food and shelter. And, using a mechanical weed harvesting machine on invasive plants such as Eurasian milfoil can create a horror movie-like scenario. The weeds, when chopped into little pieces, will sink, take root and grow into new plants.
Yet Kornheiser and Diana both say that attitudes have started to change. The DNR’s Shoreland Stewards program – similar to Michigan State’s master gardener program – trains landowner to keep natural shorelines on their property. There’s a new weeding machine that pulls out plants by the roots and hauls them away, much like a bagger on a lawnmower. Lake associations are beginning to use herbicides more judiciously.
“Having a clean lake is one of the biggest selling points,” Kornheiser said, “No one wants to see the water column clogged top to bottom with weeds.”
Writer, naturalist, conservationist Tom Springer is a frequent contributor to Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s publications.