Licensed anglers have the ability to fish without catch limits on Big Lake, located within the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi County, as federal plans to renovate the refuge began in earnest recently.
This emergency action by Big Lake NWR and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which manages the lake’s fish for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, is effective through September 30.
The actual window to catch fish may be shorter than the 92 days allowed in the emergency order. The USFWS was to recently begin the process of fully drawdown Big Lake by removing the planks from the water control structure at the south end of the lake, hoping that it would be drained in about two weeks, in depending on rainfall.
“You’re going to want to strike while the iron is hot and it will only be hot for a little while,” said Sean Lusk, staff biologist with the AGFC’s Fisheries Division. “Renovation of the lake is to be done entirely by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Our only role is to remove regulations on catch limits. The lake is state waters, so we manage the fish that go there. find. “
The USFWS goal for Big Lake’s renovation is fourfold: to compact the buildup of sediment and organic matter on the lake’s substrate; reduce invasive aquatic vegetation; replacing the water control structure in the middle of the lake; and to “provide migratory waterfowl with food resources to help meet the energy goals of the refuge, the state, and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture for waterfowl,” according to the draft environmental assessment for the project that has was opened for public comment from March 31.
“The lake continues to shrink with invasive species,” said refuge manager Steven Rimer. “The two main invasive species are the American lotus and the giant grass clippings. They end up making the lake smaller and smaller, and they make it difficult for people to navigate different areas of the lake. The only option we have, if we don’t. dredging is draining it, exposing the bottom of the lake and compacting what matters.”
Big Lake has historically served as a major winter stopover for migrating ducks and geese, and it serves as a no-hunting staging area for waterfowl allowed in the National Refuge (hunters can harvest waterfowl in the Wildlife Management Area of Big Lake near the AGFC).
The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 altered the course of Little River, a tributary of the St. Francis River, to create Big Lake among low-lying swamps adjacent to the Mississippi River. The area was declared a National Refuge by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 after many years of commercial hunting of wildlife and fish, massive timber harvesting and the influx of agricultural development around Big Lake had led to a decline in popular wild species. Big Lake NWR is the third oldest inland Federal Wildlife Refuge.
When the drainage is complete in July, the federal refuge will employ contractors to begin invasive species control by aerial herbicide spraying.
“There are largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie and catfish in Big Lake, the warm water species characteristic of many Arkansas lakes,” Lusk said. “If fishermen don’t harvest these fish (during the no-limit period), these precious resources will be wasted. It just gives people a great opportunity to go get fresh meat and stock up.”
The only requirement during this emergency order is that anglers have a current Arkansas fishing license. The temporary regulations only apply to the lake inside the national wildlife reserve.
USFWS renovation plans, according to the draft assessment, call for the October replacement of panels in the southern water control structure and the opening of the northern water control structures and/or or mid-lake, gradually bringing Big Lake back to full throttle. swimming pool by November.
“As the (USFWS) monitors Big Lake rehabilitation, other similar actions may be required … on a recurring basis, as needed,” the assessment notes.
With a drained lake bed this summer, plans are to air seed portions of millet, rice and/or milo that will provide food for overwintering waterfowl.
Jim Harris is editor of Arkansas Wildlife magazine.