Hundreds of anglers swarmed onto Pelican Lake in Wright County over the weekend, as they have for several years, lured by a hot panfish bite and decent-size northerns.

“Most days, it’s like a circus out here,’’ said Travis Luebben, 39, who lives in nearby Albertville and fishes Pelican often. “You can always catch fish here.’’

The 3,800-acre shallow lake is the most popular fishing spot in the county. But Pelican Lake’s days as a destination fishery are numbered. Plans call for the water level to be drastically lowered to improve water quality and waterfowl habitat — and that likely will mean an end to the fantastic fishing.

But hopefully the return of fantastic duck hunting.

Historically, the shallow lake was a mecca for ducks and duck hunters, and is a designated wildlife lake, meaning the DNR can manage its water levels to benefit wildlife. But increased drainage in the watershed over the years and steady rainfall have filled the basin to the brim. Over the past 25 years, water levels are up nearly 5 feet, to an average of more than 9 feet.

In days past, winterkills of Pelican Lake fish were a common occurrence, but with higher water, they have become rare. The last was in 2001. Since then, game fish have flourished — to the glee of anglers — but so, too have bullheads, which root-up sediment, causing turbidity and killing vegetation.

Now, beginning this summer, a long-planned and debated DNR-Ducks Unlimited project will use $2 million in Legacy Amendment money to build a water control structure and pumping system to lower the water in Pelican.

“Our primary goal is to improve water quality, get rid of turbidity, create more plants in the lake, more invertebrates,’’ said Fred Bengtson, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager. “The ducks will respond. You build it, and they will come.’’

Lower water means more winterkill of bullheads — as well as sunfish, crappies and northerns. The fishery won’t disappear overnight. Over the next year, the DNR hopes to lower the lake by about 2 feet. But eventually, officials want to drop it about 9 feet from its current depth, for a year or two, to wipe out the fish and boost vegetation. That would leave a basin of about 1,200 acres with water depths less than 4 feet, Bengtson said.

Then the lake would be allowed to refill to about 3 feet lower than it is now. Bengtson doesn’t expect all fish to be killed, but it’s unlikely the lake will draw the number of anglers it does today. The plan has been well-publicized locally, and Bengtson said about 70 percent of people who attended a public input meeting supported managing the lake as a wildlife lake.

Still, anglers on the lake Saturday debated the plan’s merits.

Luebben, a duck hunter, understands why the DNR wants to improve the waterfowl habitat on Pelican.

“I get it,’’ he said. “But I think the lake is better served for fishing. If I had to cast a vote, I’d say don’t drain it.’’

John Schwinghammer, 39, of Big Lake, fished with Luebben. The coming change is “disappointing,’’ he said. “Look at all the people here,’’ he said. “It seems like a waste.’’

He and Luebben caught about 60 panfish between them in about four hours, and kept 10.

But Cody Decker, 27, of Maple Lake, who was fishing for northerns with a group of friends and family, had a different take.

“As an avid duck hunter, I’m all for it,’’ he said. “The ducks are [in] decline, and other lakes could be as good as this one for fishing. If they fix Pelican it will improve duck hunting all around the area.’’

“But there’s a lot more people using it for fishing,’’ countered Decker’s sister, Brandy O’Connor, 29, of Maple Lake, nodding to the hundreds of fish shelters and vehicles scattered across the lake.

Yet Decker’s brother, Riley, 23, who also hunts ducks, noted the average size of fish has deteriorated in recent years on Pelican.

“The fishing will just decline,’’ he said.

Perhaps.

But on Saturday Luebben, Schwinghammer and other anglers found plenty of action.

“It wasn’t the best day, or the worst day, but it was fun,’’ Luebben said.

 

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib