Nearly one-third of the St. Louis River Estuary has been filled or dredged since the mid-1850s, yet it remains one of the most biologically productive wetland complexes within the Great Lakes.
Over 45 native species of warm water fish live in the St. Louis River Estuary.
Prized walleye, channel catfish, northern pike, muskellunge, small mouth bass, black crappie and lake sturgeon live within this 12,000-acre freshwater complex of wetlands, tributary streams, and bays.
High up in the estuary, just below the Fond du Lac dam to the southern end of Nekuk Island, the river is relatively undisturbed. Here the rocky bottom and strong currents provide spawning habitat for walleye, lake sturgeon and other fish, making it a favorite springtime haunt for anglers seeking walleye. Riverfront property owner, Kenny Danelski, jokes that “we could walk across from one shore to the other, stepping from boat to boat” in the spring. Boating requires constant vigilance in this section of the river. Fluctuating flows from a series of upstream dams, combined with periodic water level changes caused by Lake Superior seiches bring underwater rocks and obstacles unpredictably close to the surface.
At one time the community turned away from the river, but that has changed.
Today, a visit to the river can be anticipated with pleasure, but that wasn’t the case from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s. John Lindgren, a fisheries biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) and a 20-year resident says “You didn’t go into the water; it was smelly and had different colors.”
Water quality improved dramatically after the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Wastewater Treatment Plant (WLSSD) started operating in 1978, and today the estuary provides some of the highest quality and diversity of fishing in the region.
- In a 2003 creel survey, Minnesota anglers spent 100,000 more hours fishing on the estuary than on the entire North Shore of Lake Superior.
- Lake sturgeon, an ancient and slow-growing lake fish (it takes 24 years for sturgeon to reach reproductive age) are making a comeback with the help of state and tribal biologists from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Young sturgeons were released in the estuary from 1983 to 2000, and critical habitat was restored.
- In 2011, biologists from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa found the first young sturgeon naturally produced from the stocking that took place nearly 30 years ago!
Despite the vast improvements, problems linger, as reflected in Fish Consumption Advisories and high sediment loads.
John Fehnel, an avid fly fisherman who has built a business around the St. Louis River system notes that “The St. Louis needs people to care.” Maintaining this fine fishery for future generations will require dedication, vigilance, and persistence for, only a cast away, the estuary is also home to the largest harbor and international port on the Great Lakes.
Fish Consumption Guidelines
For more information on Fish Consumption Advisories, visit these websites:
Minnesota Department of Health - Fish Consumption Guidelines