Stein Innvaer, Swan Lake Area assistant area wildlife manager with the DNR (left), and Brad Karel, a construction engineer with DU, view plans for a water control structure for the Gilfillan Lake WMA near Madison Lake.

A glance out the car window as one cruises past Gilfillan Lake just west of Madison Lake reveals just another pretty Minnesota wildlife lake.

But pretty as it appears, hard times have befallen the lake that anchors a state wildlife management area over the last several decades.

It’s really what you can’t see — any quality vegetation, the large population of rough fish that now roams the lake, the 4 feet of silt that have clogged the 180-acre lake basin — that are at the roots of its problems.

But the backhoe that has been gobbling up buckets of black earth, the aluminum water control structures and grates and the stacks of concrete culverts that have been parked at the outlet in recent weeks, hint of a rebirth of the once-popular and productive hunting area.

What’s more, it’s the kind of place one can go out to and view or walk on for proof of the impact and success of projects funded through the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

“The lake suffers from two major problems — static high water levels and a high population of rough fish,” said Stein Innvaer, an assistant area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The continued high water levels mean that desirable native plants, the kind valued as wildlife food sources, have vanished, displaced by a ring of aggressive, hybrid cattails that now ring the lake.

The problem has been further exacerbated by the roaming schools of carp that uproot vegetation and cloud the water. The project now underway is a joint effort between the DNR and Ducks Unlimited.

The lion’s share of the $315,000 project — $200,000 — comes from LSOHC funding. Ducks Unlimited is kicking in $20,000 through its Living Lakes Initiative and expertise in engineering, project design and implementation.

A $75,000 grant through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and $20,000 from the DNR complete the funding.  

 The major part of the project will be a new water control structure that will allow the level of the lake to be better managed and a fish barrier to keep rough fish from nearby Lake Ballantyne from getting into the basin.

But a unique component in the project will be an electric pump that will permit the lake to be drained at will and much more completely than was able to be done previously.

According to Brad Karel, a DU field engineer overseeing the Gilfillan project, the 3,000 gallon/minute pump will be able to drain the lake nearly dry, something that was impossible to achieve with the existing outlet because of the elevation issues.

Lowering the lake level will expose much of the lake basin, allowing desirable plant species once again to emerge and gain a foothold and allow a complete winterkill of rough fish to occur as what little water remains in the basin freezes solid to the bottom over the winter.

Exposing the bed also will allow the nearly 4 feet of silt that now clogs the basin to consolidate.

Phase one of the plan is the installation of the structures and should be completed sometime next week when electrical service to the site is hooked up.

With the pump operating, it will be possible to drain the lake in as little as 30 days, Karel said.

As water levels fall and the lake freezes sufficiently, workers will be able to move equipment onto the ice this winter to install some 700 feet of 25-inch concrete culvert that will stretch from the deepest part of the basin back to the pump to drain the lake even further.

If all goes according to plan, the lakebed will be exposed through much of next year, Innvaer said.

Assuming timely rains and with a careful eye to exactly what kinds of emergent vegetation is present — the germination of too much of the existing hybrid cattails versus more desirable native bulrushes would be a setback — in about a year the lake again will sparkle in the sunlight.

Once again, pretty to a passing motorist.

But beautiful to a migrating mallard.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact at 344-6376 or  by e-mail at

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