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Low lake level, delayed runoff, killing walleye

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His first sight was sick enough: about a hundred skin-headed vultures crowding around an open patch of water on Lake of the Prairies in western Manitoba.

Kirk Lyttle's second sight, once he'd chased off the prehistoric-looking scavengers, was even worse: perhaps a hundred walleye floating in the water, most of them dead from asphyxiation.

"It was disgusting," said Lyttle. "The water's really murky, full of live ones that are starting to die, and small ones and master anglers that are dead."

The ones still alive are surfacing in an effort to breathe. "Some were swimming upside down, some swimming sideways. They were dying," he said.

Lyttle contacted Manitoba Conservation and shot a short video, which he posted on YouTube.

Fish breathe dissolved oxygen under water, but, as a flood-control measure, the lake was drawn down very low this winter to provide more space for the high runoff expected from the Assiniboine River.

The lake was drawn down to a similar level in 2011, but fish died this year because the runoff that would replenish water with oxygen has been delayed by cold temperatures, said Steve Topping, the province's executive director of water management.

"This late melt has delayed reoxygenation. Fish are dying due to depletion of oxygen," he said.

The fish were discovered in an old oxbow of the former Assiniboine River that is now covered by the Lake of the Prairies, a reservoir created by the Shellmouth Dam as flood protection in 1972.

The lake is so low the old river oxbows are now exposed, creating small pools with fish trapped inside them and cut off from the rest of the lake. Lyttle suspects there are more dead fish in other oxbows on the lake.

"You can see where the road was before they built the dam. That's how low the lake is," he said.

Lyttle reported what he saw to Manitoba Conservation on Wednesday, but there was no action Thursday. He thinks officers should scoop out the live fish, drill a hole in the ice over deeper water, and release the fish there.

"It's not a good thing for this lake because fishing is what it depends on," he said.

The lake has two big fishing derbies each year, an ice fishing derby in February, and one in the first week of July. The derbies draw many American tourists to the area.

He made his discovery at about midpoint on Lake of the Prairies on the west side, near Roblin.

Garr Thickens, a year-round cottager on the lake, said the low lake level "really screwed up winter fishing, which is a big deal out here."

He questioned the province's control of the dams. "Why did they lower the lake for such a long period, for the whole winter?"

Topping said the lake was drawn down to 1,382 feet above sea level, about a foot lower than in flood year 2011. That's about 20 feet below the summer target level of 1,402.5.

"This year is a very significant flood event year for Assiniboine River, as well as the Qu'Appelle River which enters the Assiniboine at St. Lazare," Topping said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2013 A9

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