The Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club (RLSC), assisted by local DNR, partnered with the Koochiching Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD) to address the increase in log jams along the Rat Root River as well as the decline in walleye spawning. In January of 2011, the Koochiching SWCD received a small Conservation Partners Legacy (CPL) grant for $22,500 that was matched with $1,500 cash and $944 in-kind contributions provided by the RLSC.
The project goal of Phase I was to open channel blocking log jams spanning a distance of 15 miles along the Rat Root River (as identified in a report by Sandy Verry, chief hydrologist with Ellen River Partners). Due to the complexity of individual jams underneath the water’s surface, the removal was much more labor intensive than originally planned.
Utilizing local contracted labor, work began in early winter of 2011 on the north end of our project area and proceeded south (upstream). Low water levels and good ice conditions on the river provided ideal conditions to access and remove a majority of the channel blocking log jams. By the end of December 2011, Phase I had been completed with most of the wood either having been cut-up into manageable pieces and hauled off-site or removed from the flood-prone area of the river. A total of 30 jams were either completely removed or opened for fish passage and boat navigation. Phase I was completed in December, 2011, almost one year ahead of schedule.
This initial effort served as a pilot project and laid the ground work for additional success during the next phase.
CPL funding for the Rat Root River Sediment Control and Spawning Enhancement Project (Phase II) was awarded in February 2012 in the amount of $215,000 with local matching funds of $32,250 from the RLSC and Koochiching County for a project total of $247,250. This grant provided funds to open and remove approximately 40 log jams, remove additional deadfall wood, install erosion control measures in high priority locations along the river’s streambanks, and install spawning rock in locations determined by DNR Fisheries.
Because the Rat Root can experience very high water levels in the spring, we expected to find new jams forming from deadfall and wood carried downstream. In spring 2012, contracted labor continued the process of opening and removing channel blocking log jams in the Rat Root River, beginning at the Galvin Line Bridge and continuing south for approximately 15 miles.
The winter of 2012 provided very little snow with a few weeks of cold weather which produced very good ice on the river. These conditions allowed log jam removal to be very successful as over 90% of the wood in each jam was above ice and easily accessible. Trees that were dead and hanging entirely across the river channel were also removed to prevent future jams. All of the work was completed by a five man crew using hand operated equipment to avoid disturbing sensitive shoreland areas.
Spring of 2013 brought above average temperatures which caused the ice to melt rapidly and work began in open water. As noted by the contractor in his activity report, working during open water seemed to be the “ticket” for removing much of the remaining wood in the jams. Completely removing individual logs from the bottom portion of the jam greatly increased low-water access for navigational purposes. It was also noted by various users of the river that the current in the channel seemed to be at its highest speed compared to historical spring flows. This in water flow provides multiple benefits for the river, the most significant being the cleaning of spawning substrate during the spring as walleye are heading upstream to spawn.
In the fall of 2013, erosion control practices were implemented at a picnic site and fish camp site on Rat Root Lake. The erosion sites were engineered with support from the Technical Service Area (TSA) 8 Northern MN Joint Powers Board, technical help from the Koochiching SWCD and MN DNR, and construction by Anderson Barging and Viita Construction. Both sites used a combination of rock rip rap, bio-engineering, and native tree cuttings to stabilize more than 900 feet of shoreline.
In fall 2014, Conservation Corps of Minnesota field crews continued efforts to improve navigability upstream by removing new log jams that formed at known congregation points along the Rat Root River.
Also beginning in the fall of 2014 was the first of two walleye spawning enhancements where a rock riffle was constructed upstream of the Galvin Line bridge. This project was completed with contracting by Up North Builders, technical assistance through Koochiching SWCD and MN DNR, and engineering designs by Sandy Verry of Ellen River Partners. The enhancement project was an arc of specific diameter stones that would create a rock spawning riffle on the bed of the river. The riffle is intended to draw water from the river toward the center and increase flow over the rocks to wash away sediment so the walleye have a clean substrate on which to lay their eggs. In March 2015, the second spawning riffle was constructed by Up North Builders a few miles southwest of the first riffle.
In partnership with the Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club, the Koochiching SWCD was awarded $219,000 in January 2016 through the Conservation Partners Legacy Program (CPL) to continue projects on the Rat Root River through 2019 with $25,000 in matching funds provided by the RLSC. Previous work funded by the same grant source to improve water quality, reduce sedimentation, improve fish passage, and enhance fish spawning habitat has been very successful. This new grant will continue log jam removal throughout the river, enhance additional preselected spawning locations, and further reduce sedimentation by addressing eroding banks adjacent to the river. The section of river involved in this round of funding will expand by 3 miles, beginning from Highway 217 east of Littlefork spanning 18 river miles north to Highway 53 west of Ericsburg.
Shown above: Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM) Crew removes log jams during the fall of 2016.
Other activities in 2016 included the hiring of two contractors, one to further remove logs in the spring of 2017, and another to install a third walleye spawning riffle, also during spring.
Shown above: A local contractor constructs a walleye spawning riffle, and complete flow is achieved. Trees are planted along the banks.
During the spring of 2018, a local contractor successfully installed a spawning enhancement site on the Rat Root River near Ericsburg.
In 2019, local contractors and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Fisheries Division removed log jams which will aid in walleye passage and installed two spawning enhancement sites. The two locations for the spawning enhancement sites were on the upstream side of the Galvin Line bridge near UT Road 198 and the other to be roughly one mile downstream of the snowmobile bridge crossing off of County Road 97. Both spawning enhancement sites were installed in a similar fashion as the previous successfully installed sites in which a variety of spawning rock sizes are placed in an arc formation. This will channel water towards the middle of the stream, keeping substrate clean to increase the chances of walleye spawning success. Plans to remove a bridge structure near Highway 217 while stabilizing the adjacent banks were unable to happen in 2019, and if possible, this will happen in the future.
The Koochiching SWCD serves as the fiscal agent on this project and provides administrative and technical support.