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Gratiot Lake — a jewel of the Keweenaw Peninsula/Biological Bits

December 28, 2012
By Tom Rozich - For the Gazette , The Daily Mining Gazette

DNR fisheries biologists write Status of Fishery Reports on major lakes and streams around the state. These reports contain the environment, both physical and chemical, the history, including all stockings and fish surveys, Current status of the fishery, management operations, and finally Management direction recommendations. These reports are available online on the DNR's web site. Today we will look at a gem of an inland lake, Gratiot Lake.

Gratiot Lake, which lies at the feet of Mt. Horace Greeley and Mt. Gratiot, contains 1,438 acres (2.25 sq miles) and is the largest lake in Keweenaw County. These peaks are the two highest points in the Keweenaw, at 1550 feet and 1490 feet, respectively. Gratiot Lake is at 743 feet, while Lake Superior is at 602. It has a maximum depth of 78 feet and averages 25-30 in depth. Fifteen percent, or 216 acres, is less than 15 feet deep. It has four inlet streams, Eister Creek, Sucker Creek, 932 Creek, and an unnamed creek. It has an outlet, the Little Gratiot River, which flows about six miles into Lac La Belle. The water is very clear, one being able to see bottom in 20 feet of water. The oxygen levels and pH are good for aquatic life.

Gratiot Lake has a long history of fish stocking, with the first in 1934 and the last in 2004, in 31 different years and 10 different species. The species stocked were large and smallmouth bass, walleye, northern pike, northern muskie, tiger muskie, yellow perch, bluegill, lake trout, and rainbow trout.

Although 110,000 bluegill were stocked, none are present today, as Gratiot Lake lies north of their historical range, with mid-Houghton County being the northern extent of bluegill.

In 1962, a single stocking of 3,000 northern muskie fingerlings was made and will be discussed later. Of the 10 species stocked, five are currently found in Gratiot lake, so not all stockings are successful.

Ten fish surveys have been conducted on Gratiot Lake, with the first being in 1926 and the last in 2011. The 1926 survey found yellow perch and pike abundant, rock bass abundant, but smallmouth bass moderately abundant, and brook trout present, but rare. The brookies probably came out of the creeks entering the lake.

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The next survey, done in 1938, was more comprehensive and attempted to see if any of the almost 1.5 million walleye fry stocked in the four previous years had survived. None were found. They did report about the same fish and numbers as the 1926 survey.

They did report on minnow species sampled, which are important as forage for game fish. They found blunt nose minnows, Johnny darters, Iowa darters, sculpin, log perch, and ninespine stickleback.

The next seven surveys were done in 1953, 1957, 1968, 1977, 1987, 1997, and 2005. These were made to evaluate the various stockings of walleye, muskie, lake trout, and rainbow trout. No lake trout and very few rainbow trout were found in these surveys. All surveys reported rock bass very abundant and small.

In the early 1980's smelt were reported by anglers and also captured in surveys.

The 1987 survey found the first walleye, the result of the 1985 and 86 fingerling plants. The recently developed smelt population mostly likely contributed to their survival.

The 2005 survey was the first to capture muskie, although there were reports previously anglers had caught them.

The 2011 survey's goal was to evaluate and get a population estimate of the northern pike, muskie, and walleye. It was done with fyke nets and electrofishing, so all the fish could be released back into the lake unharmed. Several members of the Copper Country Walleye Association assisted DNR on the survey and reported it was great fun and a tremendous learning experience.

Ten fish species, excluding minnows, were captured, including walleye, pike, muskie, smallmouth bass, yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish, rock bass, bullhead, smelt, and common white suckers. The bullheads were a first-time discovery and probably came from a well-meaning angler dumping his bait bucket after a day's fishing.

Common white suckers were the most numerous, numbering over a thousand. Walleye were second-most common, with 659 captured. They represented 20 different inch classes from 5-25, with 139 being in the 15-inch class. Of the total, 391 or over 59 percent of the walleye were legal size of 15 inches or greater.

The walleye fishery is very good. Seventy-eight pike were handled, with 28 or almost 36 percent being the legal minimum size of 24 inches. Of the 24 smallmouth sampled, 17 were 14 inches or greater and the largest in the 17-inch class.

Seven muskie were captured, ranging from just over 10 inches to a monster female of 51-plus inches. The range of sizes indicates they are naturally reproducing, albeit at a low level. The large female, weighed over 50 pounds, and as far as is known, still swims in Gratiot Lake. So, if you are fishing on Gratiot Lake and something very big grabs your lure and suddenly breaks your line, this may have been the large muskie.

Rock bass continue to be small and very abundant, while perch populations are low.

In 1961, a public access site was purchased and developed. It is located on the north side of the lake, off Gratiot Lake Road.

In 1947, 90 brush shelters were placed along the 15-foot contour and another 600 were placed in 1958. It is not known if any of these remain or are functional.

Management direction is totally up the the Fisheries Division of the DNR. A couple of my thoughts: Protect the smelt population by banning dipping in the tributary creeks. They are a very important part of the forage base and over time, a winter ice fishery could be developed. A low-level stocking of muskie fingerlings, in my opinion, of say 5,000 every third year, would be appropriate. This would potentially create a better fishery, while reducing the white sucker population, the muskie's favorite food.

Go Fish!



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