Pete Scharber worried that other duck hunters beat him to his preferred spot Saturday morning when he arrived at Pelican Lake in Wright County.
It was 5:20 a.m. — about a half hour later than he planned — and nine rigs were parked near the public boat launch on the lake's west side. Buffeted by 30 mph winds, the 73-year-old resident of St. Michael, Minn., motored onto the lake's open water. The location he had scouted was wide open and flocks of waterfowl were buzzing the sky even before he finished setting decoys.
"Gadwalls, canvasbacks … I got five ducks,'' Scharber said. "I would say, 'yes,' there's a lot of birds moving through here.''
With a half century of hunting experiences to draw from, Scharber says without a doubt that Minnesota's multimillion dollar habitat investment in shallow Pelican Lake is paying off. Migrating ducks are staying longer, possibly in larger numbers, because the lake's food resources are bouncing back.
"I'm seeing a lot of vegetation now … I think it's improving,'' Scharber said.
Pelican Lake is one of only 45 designated wildlife lakes in Minnesota and a long-term revitalization project of the sprawling resource is more than half complete. A host of conservation partners led by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are encouraged by the results even as they continue to grapple with issues as basic as public access to the lake.
"It's just amazing,'' said Fred Bengtson, an area wildlife manager for the DNR. "The lake has responded nicely.''
Central to the refurbishment project is a slow-as-you-go drainage of Pelican's water levels. A gravity outlet and pump station were created in 2014 to lower the lake by 9 feet. The release is timed to avoid downstream flooding as it flows into Regal Creek, on its way to the Crow River.
Bengston said Wright County was spared some of the heavy rains that hit elsewhere in Minnesota this year, allowing a good drop in 2018 of 2 feet. After four years, the lake has been lowered 5½ feet, reducing its surface area to 3,500 acres, down from 3,800.
Before the drainage project started, Pelican had swelled beyond its optimal shallow state into a wildly popular fishing hole with a muddied bottom. As the water darkened, panfish, bullhead and northern pike populations soared but vegetation needed for waterfowl production died off.
Scharber said local anglers are still bitter over the fishery's sudden decline. Northerns still patrol the lake, but surviving panfish are the size of hockey pucks and have become increasingly vulnerable to winter kills as the lake loses more depth.
"The fishermen were very upset, some of them very much so,'' Scharber said. "But the ducks need more than just water.''
With sunlight penetrating Pelican's clearer waters, new plant life has fueled the emergence of tiny freshwater shrimp and other invertebrates targeted by ducks and geese. Scharber said it's been years since the lake carried those nutrients.
As the restoration continues, he said, the foods will only multiply and improve Pelican as a critical refueling site for migratory waterfowl.
"Without lakes in healthy shape, the ducks won't stay very long,'' said Jon Schneider, manager of Minnesota conservation projects for Ducks Unlimited.
Schneider said Wright County's Pelican Lake is well on its way to becoming a model for other shallow lake enhancement initiatives.
Scott Glup, project leader at the Litchfield district office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, said Pelican Lake has receded so much in the past four years that a public boat launch on federal land is now defunct. In its place on the lake's west side are broad mud flats — not even friendly to canoeists or kayakers.
The change prompted the DNR to start building a new public access on Pelican's northwest side — a project that won't be completed until next year. That leaves an existing DNR boat launch on the southwest side of the lake as the only public place to conventionally enter or exit with watercraft. Users must park their rigs at a fair distance from the launch on the shoulders of a nearby county road. At times this fall, Bengtson said parked vehicles and trailers have stretched one-half mile down the road.
Hunters are seeing scaup, teal, coots, redheads, mallards, pintails, wigeons and other species, Bengtson said. Trumpeter swans and whooping cranes are being seen in greater numbers and ecologists are hopeful that bull rushes and other plants continue to re-emerge. When they do, swan-necked western grebes and other birds could return, they hope.
Meanwhile, state and federal natural resource officials will continue to layer Pelican Lake with other protections. For years, taxpayers have spent $6 to $8 million to acquire nearby agricultural lands that have made the surrounding area wild again. So far, 65 percent of Pelican's shoreline is in public hands — including thousands of acres of native grasses giving cover to pheasants and other wildlife.
"We're well into this in terms of recovery,'' Bengtson said.