SHOAL LAKES -- The Great Flood of Noah's Ark may have spelled disaster for most legged creatures, but fish call it something else: the good old days.
Flash-forward several millennia. Manitoba has withstood above-average precipitation and flooding for more than a decade. Lake levels and water tables have risen steadily.
Now fish are moving into places not seen before, such as the Shoal Lakes, just north of Winnipeg and east of Highway 6. (The lakes are plural, the North, West and East Shoal Lakes, and not to be confused with Shoal Lake in northwestern Ontario, the source of Winnipeg's drinking water.)
'You can go out your back door and fish. It's the only good thing that ever came out of the flooding and stress and all the work we did to save our place'
There haven't been fish in the Shoal Lakes in living memory, said Cyril Lillies, 59, whose land borders the Shoals.
Now local anglers are pulling in jack fish. ("jack" is a Prairie colloquialism for northern pike, the same way we say "pickerel" instead of walleye) and jumbo perch (an oxymoron like "jumbo shrimp" except it's true: Master Angler-size perch more than 33 centimetres long have been caught here in abundance.)
Previously, the Shoals weren't deep enough to hold enough dissolved oxygen to support fish. But wet years have raised lake levels. The three Shoal Lakes have now joined into one large lake due to flooding.
For landowners such as Lillies, the fish are a consolation prize. Most farmers have been flooded out around the Shoals. The wet years, plus improved farm drainage, funnelled water into the Shoals and the water couldn't drain. With their pastures submerged, ranchers had to exit. A total of 72 farms recently accepted provincial buyouts costing nearly $14 million.
Lillies sold off his cattle, too. But he is one of the few who refused the province's voluntary buyout. Instead, he built a $130,000 dike. It cost him about $18,000 after government flood assistance. "Now we have this resource. You can go out your back door and fish," he said. "It's the only good thing that ever came out of the flooding and stress and all the work we did to save our place."
Fish were initially spotted in some of the creeks that feed the Shoals. Lillies tried fishing five years ago but caught nothing. He tried again the next year and started to reel them in. The clincher was the 2011 flood. Fish started swimming up a 15-kilometre drainage channel from Lake Manitoba into Shoal Lakes. (The drainage channel only functions when North Shoal Lake reaches a very high level.)
To the uninitiated, the Shoal Lakes look like gigantic flooded pastures. They're too shallow, marshy and rocky for a motorboat unless you're very familiar with the lake. Even today, with the lake higher, you risk tangling your propeller in barbed wire and fence posts that are submerged. But the lakes are rich in fish food such as freshwater shrimp, leopard frogs and minnows, and have lots of reedy cover.
Only a couple of pickerel have been caught in the Shoals so far, but "that's heartening news," said Geoff Klein, Manitoba Conservation regional fisheries manager. The provincial fishery at Swan Creek had a million walleye fingerlings left over two years ago, so it dumped them into North Shoal Lake. They should be just a foot in size (0.3 metres) by now, he said.
Klein called it "a silver lining" that jack and perch have moved into the lakes. "Pike and perch are just fantastic colonists. If there's just a skim of water across land, they'll get across it and spawn." Pike also have tremendous tolerance for low oxygen, he said.
It's likely fish have been in the Shoals during a previous wet cycle, Klein said. Pike and perch have also moved into other lakes in the current wet cycle, including Chitek and Inland Lakes in the north Interlake, he said.
Ice fishing is the modus operandi for catching the fish. Many people won't eat jack fish, but Interlake people know what they're doing. The flesh of jack fish is much firmer in winter and, when properly dressed so it's boneless, the way Ernie Welburn does it, it's delicious.
The great fear of residents here is net fishing could come in and destroy this fragile fishery. Some net fishing has been spotted already. "The fishing would be wiped out in two years," said Welburn. As a Métis, Lillies said he could net fish if he wanted but what's the point of destroying a natural resource? He wants the province to designate the Shoals exclusively for sport fishing.
Klein said that could only be done if a species was endangered, not the lakes. Otherwise, aboriginal fishing rights take precedent over sport fishing. However, he does not believe aboriginal fishing will pose a threat to the Shoals.
Klein said there's no control to stop lakes from shrinking again, should there be a series of drought years. It may mean a massive winterkill occurs some year due to an oxygen shortage, if lake levels drop.