HOWARD LAKE, MINN. — Seven mallards lifted off the small, shallow lake and sailed out of sight while thousands of coots skittered on the water, clucking incessantly.
Dan Nyquist admired the wildlife from amid lush-green bulrushes, cattails and grasses on the shore of Smith Lake.
"For years it's been nothing but a Dead Sea,'' said Nyquist, 76, who has lived on the Wright County lake all his life. The 330-acre body has long been green and devoid of vegetation, thanks to the carp and other rough fish that fouled its waters.
Not any more.
Last week, the lake was crystal clear and brimming with sago pondweed -- and ducks. Among the coots were mallards, teal, wood ducks, Canada geese and even a lone trumpeter swan. Canvasbacks, redheads and bluebills should show up later this fall.
"It's been a long time since I've seen this many ducks on the lake,'' said Dennis Larson, 53, as he hunkered with his shotgun in a duck blind early Wednesday.
The turnabout followed construction of a water-control structure that allowed the Department of Natural Resources to lower the lake level starting in 2010, causing a winter kill of fish. Last summer, 90 percent of the lake was dry and sprouting lush vegetation.
Now the lake is slowly refilling with water.
Like Nyquist, Larson owns shore land there and remembers the lake once teemed with wildlife. "When I was a kid, it was really good,'' he said.
Joining Larson near a couple dozen duck decoys were Josh Kavanagh, a Ducks Unlimited biologist from Spicer, Minn., and me. We wanted to see firsthand how Smith Lake has recovered following the restoration project that Kavanagh, Larson, Nyquist and others helped launch.
"It looks fantastic,'' Kavanagh said. "The water is clear and full of sago. It's absolutely beautiful.''
And just as ducks rediscovered the revitalized lake, so, too, have hunters.
"About 14 rigs were here last weekend [on the waterfowl opener],'' Kavanagh said. "There was a lot of shooting.''
On a clear, warm, sunny morning, our hunt was quickly over. Larson fired the only shots in our threesome, and we failed to bag a bird. Instead, the ducks and geese we saw ignored our decoys and calls, landing instead safely among the coots in the center of the lake. Two other hunting parties fired more shots and likely bagged a few birds.
But locals are excited about the turnaround.
"I couldn't believe the number of waterfowl,'' said Ken Durdahl, 67, secretary of the Howard Lake Sportsman's Club. "It's a thrill for us.''
Smith Lake is one of about 4,500 shallow lakes -- waters 15 feet deep or less -- left in the state. Since the turn of the 20th century, many others were drained.
But 100 years of ditching and drainage has left many of the remaining shallow lakes in poor condition. And lousy habitat is one reason for the decline of ducks -- and duck hunters -- in Minnesota. Work over the decades has helped restore some, and the infusion of Legacy Amendment dollars since 2010 has accelerated that effort.
About $128,000 of the $145,000 spent to construct the Smith Lake water-control structure was Legacy Amendment money. A fish barrier was built a few years ago to prevent fish from coming into Smith from its outlet. All told, about $250,000 has been spent to restore the lake, including help from Ducks Unlimited, the McKnight Foundation and Flint Hills Resources.
"Shallow lakes, when in good condition, with clear water and abundant plants and invertebrates, provide great waterfowl habitat,'' said Ann Geisen, acting supervisor of the DNR's shallow lakes program.
And when they become cloudy and devoid of vegetation either from persistent high water or from rough fish, "they provide no habitat,'' Geisen said. "The goal is to flip them.''
The DNR is focusing on 1,900 lakes. But often there are obstacles. Some people don't want to see water levels lowered. Others want to retain the gamefish that sometimes swim in them.
At Smith Lake, Nyquist helped get local support for the project. "I remember what the lake could be,'' he said.
"That was huge,'' said Fred Bengston, DNR area wildlife manager.
Smith Lake drains through Larson's land, and he agreed to sell an easement to the DNR to build the water-control structure. And the DNR was able to get locals to support designating Smith as a wildlife lake in 2009 -- which enables the DNR to manipulate water levels.
Larson built a platform near the shore just to watch waterfowl and water birds.
"It's great,'' he said of the project.
Meanwhile, Bengston plans to seed the lake with wild rice, which once grew there.
"Hopefully the coots won't eat it all,'' he said.
Doug Smith • email@example.com