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River concerns

Dam removal has fishermen worried; DNR, city say the changes will bring more fish

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Anglers have complained about low water levels and unfavorable fishing in the Des Moines RIver since the removal of the dams. A fisherman walks through the river Thursday.

Some anglers are suspicious of the less “fishy” conditions they say the Des Moines River has taken on since Fort Dodge removed its two dams earlier this year.

But experts say that in time, the removal will make the local section of the river a more thriving habitat for walleye, catfish and more.

“Unless you’re catfishing, I don’t think you’re getting anything,” said local fisher Tony Rivers, who said water levels have been drastically lower, eliminating old fishing spots. “It’s been so low, I can’t imagine anything biting.”

He’s also seen much fewer fishermen than he usually sees along the river in the usual spots.

“We’re not killing fish, there’s just different places (in Fort Dodge) they’ll have to go fishing,” said City Engineer Tony Trotter. “Now that those barriers are gone, fish are able to travel wherever.”

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
The banks below the Kenyon Road Bridge show a water level lower than it used to be in this stretch of the Des Moines River.

In the long run, this means healthier habitats with a thriving population as fish are freely able to travel upstream to spawn, said Ben Wallace, fisheries biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

He said dam removal certainly does change the dynamic of the river, and will involve some short-term adjustment for long-term benefits.

As Rivers stood on the banks below the Kenyon Road Bridge, he noted that water levels where he stood would have been over his head last year. Nearby, another man walked on an exposed strip of bedrock in the center of the river.

“You could probably walk across it now,” he said.

Rachel Contracting Inc., of St. Michael, Minnesota, was paid close to $1.5 million to tear down the little dam and the Hydroelectric dam. Reasons driving the decision included safety, financial benefits and environmental benefits.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Rachel Contracting will begin work on the second phase of dam removal in the Des Moines River next week. The company will also install new angling access and restore natural habitat.

In the end, Wallace says the changes will benefit everyone.

“We look at removals of dams as a positive step to improving the fish populations in rivers,” he said.

Along with healthier fishing, he said the added function of removing “drowning machines” that can trap people under the water is an undeniable benefit.

Eliminating that hazard also had a broader appeal for conservationists wanting to attract more recreational users to the Des Moines River, including kayakers and canoers.

The city has recognized concerns from local anglers and said it will be constructing new features as part of the process that should attract more fish to make a longer stay in town on their journey upstream or downstream.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Some anglers say this area under the Kenyon Road Bridge, once a hotspot for fishermen, has declined in quality since the dams were removed.

Trotter said that starting next week, they will begin constructing a J-hook, putting 3 million pounds of rock into the river to create an attractive spot for both anglers and fish without blocking the passage of fish and recreational river users.

The new $2.5 million feature, to be installed about 500 feet upstream from where the Hydroelectric Dam was, will improve environmental conditions and give fishers a new spot better for bites.

Due to DNR regulations and the water level of the river through the summer, the City of Fort Dodge said the project was planned to be completed in two phases.

In a press release Thursday, the city said that Rachel Contracting will complete the removal of the dam’s base structure and the sloped concrete on the south side of the powerhouse structure. The contractor will also hydraulically seed and mulch the riverbanks to restore wetlands and prairie grass areas.

Wallace said the new J-hook feature, a structure that jets out into a stream at roughly a 30-degree angle, redirects and concentrates water flow below the structure, digging a deeper scour hole for fish to congregate in. The bank stabilization of the area and improved water flow creates better angling access.

And as parts of the river reconnect after being separated for decades by the dam, he said blankets of silt that coated the bottom will slowly revert to a cleaner, rocky substrate that invertebrates — and the fish that eat them — love.

“It diversifies the habitat,” Wallace said. “When you have rock boulders, it provides refuge so fish will rest,” before moving upstream.

Biologists and conversation experts are excited about the new stretch of bedrock and good habitat that is becoming available to fish in Fort Dodge’s stretch of the Des Moines River.

Local homeowners along the river banks will also have a reason to be optimistic about the change, as the dam removal means some of them will no longer be in flood plains, meaning they won’t have to purchase expensive flood insurance.

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