Natural rock dam could help restore the lake

Editor’s note: The following story is the third and final one of a series regarding a proposed tax assessment on the Sturgeon River Diversion Dam.

By Paul Peterson

For the Gazette

TAPIOLA – Finnish immigrants arriving in the Otter Lake area in the late 19th century found a nearly ideal fishery.

The almost 900-acre southern Houghton County body of water was teeming with fish -something Native American tribes in the region had been aware of for centuries.

After all, Indians camped at Otter Lake every summer to harvest the bountiful supply of walleyes, perch, northern pike and sturgeon.

With the Otter River entering the lake from the south and the Sturgeon River nearby, there seemed to be no end to the fish.

The late Wally Savela of Tapiola said there was also a good supply of ducks and geese available.

“You could go out in the morning and shoot a couple of ducks,” Savela said some years ago. “Then go out in the afternoon and catch a mess of walleyes. You had a choice for supper.”

But the lake, one of the largest in the western Upper Peninsula, began to experience a fishing slump after the building of a diversion dam on the Sturgeon River in 1974.

Ed Laitila, who often fished the area as a youngster, said the drop-off was noticeable.

“The fishing on the lake began to slump, and so did the fishing in the river after the dam went in,” Laitila said recently. “I think there was a definite connection (with the dam) for that happening.”

Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist George Madison said his department is very interested in the Otter Lake fishery.

“It’s one of the largest lakes in our district, we certainly want it to be a good fishery,” Madison said. ‘We’re willing to do whatever we can to improve it.”

Over the years, the DNR has coordinated efforts with the Otter Lake Sportsmen’s Club to bolster fishing there.

In 1978, the club removed 18,000 pounds of bullheads and 2,000 pounds fo suckers, using state nets and boats.

“We came back in 1988 and netted another 3,800 pounds of bullheads from the lake,” said former DNR Fisheries Biologist Ray Juetten. “In that netting, there were several walleyes up to 22 inches (long).”

In 1989, the Otter Lake Sportsmen’s Club received a $9,000 grant from the DNR to construct a walleye spawning reef.

In the next two years, walleyes were observed spawning on the reef, according to Juetten.

Laitila feels that installing a natural rock dam where the current dam is located could be a viable answer.

“With a rock dam there, the fish would have a better chance of getting into the lake,” Laitila said. “It has worked in other states.”

Minnesota DNR River Ecologist Luther Aadland has overseen several natural rock dam projects in surrounding states.

“If we restored those historic spawning habitats, we wouldn’t have to spend so much money (on fish plantings) every year,” Aadland noted in a MDNR publication in 2012.

But longtime Otter Lake resort owner Harold Filpus isn’t sure a natural rock dam is the definitive answer.

“It’s an interesting idea, but there’s going to be a certain amount of expense to have it (rock dam) put in …. and to maintain it,” he said. “And money is always the key thing nowadays.”

The question of who’s going to pay for maintenance on the existing dam is the main issue at the moment.

A proposed special tax assessment is under consideration by the Houghton County Board of Commissioners and it will affect the approximately 90 landowners on the lake – 40 more than there were when the dam was constructed nearly 40 years ago.

Portage Township and Houghton County may also have to contribute toward the cost of maintenance, according to county attorney Mark Koerner.

Madison said Otter Lake currently has a good population of crappies and northern pike as well as some walleyes.

“Right now, it’s noted mostly for its crappie fishing,” he commented. “But we’ve planted walleyes there in the past and plan to continue that.”

Property owner Dennis Myllyla said it’s unfortunate the diversion dam isn’t still being maintained by the DNR.

“I think that was the best way to handle it,” he said. “But everyone is going to have to put their heads together and come up with a solution.”