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Inside the Outdoors: Whose lake is it, anyway?

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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Always an early riser, I was out on the deck at first light with a cup of coffee, when I heard the “oldie” strains of the band Huey Lewis and the News coming from a boat several hundred yards offshore. Daybreak is not especially early for fishermen, but it seemed unusually early for wakeboarders. Especially surprising on this Labor Day Sunday morning, since the air temperature was a chilly 46 degrees.

Farther down the lake, a fisherman was slowly trolling over a point, one that is always popular with walleye fishermen. I guessed that he was as surprised as I was to see and hear wakeboarders at that early, chilly hour. Maybe just a bit irritated, too, since one of the expected angling rewards for being on the water at sunup is relative peace and quiet. The sounds you expect to hear then are other anglers’ outboards, the honk of Canada geese leaving the lake to feed, and maybe the laugh of a loon or the cry of a gull. Not the sound of pop music.

For those who are unfamiliar, wakeboarding—or wake surfing—is a step beyond waterskiing. A wakeboarder rides behind a specially designed boat, one that sits low in the water and can generate very large waves. A wakeboarder rides on a mini-surfboard in the boat’s wake, without the benefit of a connecting rope. As my Sunday morning experience attested, it’s typical for a wake boat’s sound system to be pumping out its occupants’ favorite music, often to be heard hundreds of yards away.

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Wakeboats create these unusually large and powerful waves by pumping lake water into ballast tanks within the boat’s hull. This causes the boat to ride lower and displace more water. Depending on the boat, from 1,000 to 3,000 pounds of water are pumped into the boat’s ballast tanks, to be pumped back out into the lake at the end of a ‘boarding session. Think “submarine,” and you have a fair idea of how this works, the difference being that a submarine takes on enough water to actually submerge.

Hull design also plays a role in the size of waves these boats can generate. A primary objective of their designers is to create bigger wavers for a ‘boarder to ride. As you can imagine, boats of this complexity cost more than a typical fishing boat. Prices range from about $60,000 at the lowest end, to $150,000, some as much as $200,000.

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Wakeboats have become controversial because of the very thing they are designed to do: create large waves. These waves travel great distances, often breaking on shorelines, and—especially under high water conditions—can contribute to shoreline erosion. Minnetonka is a 14,000 acre lake west of the Twin Cities that is tremendously popular with boating enthusiasts of all kinds, and is also surrounded by many year-round homes. It has become ground-zero in a battle between property owners who blame wakeboats for shoreline erosion and disruptive wakes, and the enthusiasts who use them.

Recently, a no-wake restriction went into effect that doubles an existing zone along Minnetonka’s shorelines, from 150 to 300 feet. This means that boats within 300 feet of shore are supposed to travel slowly enough to generate virtually no wake; a feat not easy to accomplish for either an angler or a pleasure boater.

Any boat of large size and high horsepower—including some used by anglers—can generate waves capable of causing shoreline damage, and with it lakeshore owner ill will; not to mention disturbing fishermen. Realistically, boat-caused shoreline erosion existed and no-wake zones were needed, long before the wakeboat era. But wakeboats are an escalation above the old normal, as well as being a visible and identifiable target.

“Getting along” among those with different on-the-water interests has always been an issue. My late father-in-law harbored an intense dislike of jet-skis. Not just the sound of their propulsion systems, but especially the way some riders were inclined to “buzz the docks” along his cabin’s shoreline. Yet his three children—one of whom was to become my wife—spent much of their summers waterskiing and “tubing,” trying to squeeze all the speed they could out of the family runabout, and no doubt raising the hackles on the necks of a few fishermen in the process.

Another long-running “my lake” issue is which fish will be stocked in a given lake. Walleye, the Minnesota state fish and the culinary and sporting favorite of so many, are stocked in more waters and in greater numbers than any other fish. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Section of Fisheries has been gradually increasing the number of lakes and river systems into which it stocks muskellunge, better known as “musky.”

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Muskies are prized by a growing number of serious anglers, and also happen to be a top-of-the-food-chain predator. Some people, including some who happen to own lakeshore property, are convinced that muskies decimate—or at least suppress— walleye populations. This, despite biologists’ insistence that muskies’ main food sources are other species, not walleyes. “Not on my lake,” so the argument goes. There have been multiple bills in the Minnesota Legislature to restrict or ban further musky introductions where they are not already found, and as a result the pace of introduction has slowed.

There are other lake use issues, of course. Some feel they have the right to remove aquatic weeds in a lake’s shallows, for weed-free wading and swimming, even though that vegetation is beneficial to aquatic life of all kinds, including game fish. Or to establish lush green lawns close to the waterline, with all of the negative fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide implications for a lake’s aquatic life, including fish.

Some resent anglers fishing very close to their docks and boat lifts, when in fact those structures are positioned in waters that really belong to everyone. This, given that fact that under Minnesota law the land under a lake or stream is public, not owned by an adjacent land owner.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

When we’re very young, one of the important lessons we hopefully learn is how to share. This doesn’t mean we have to like it, either then as youngsters or now as adults. But there are some things—like the limited and fragile water resources on which our very different recreations depend—that we may have to share; being tolerant, responsible, and getting along as best we can.

Like it or not.

Opinion by Mike Rahn
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