DAVE ARELLANO OF Coal City was one of the last anglers to get to dip a line in Milliken Lake, which was closed this week by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The shallow lake experienced a severe winter fish kill, and will be restocked. It could be closed for three to four years while the fishery gets re-established.
Dave Arellano had had a few nibbles Monday evening, but, unusually, he hadn't caught anything from Milliken Lake.
Milliken almost never disappoints, says the optimistic fisherman from Coal City. He heard about the lake's winter fish kill, but knows there's still something swimming around in its shallow waters. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources closed the popular Des Plaines Conservation Area fishing hole Tuesday to give the lake's fish population a chance to recover from what was a very hard winter, and make every future outing for fishermen like Arellano a good one.
The IDNR reports the lake sustained a near-total fish kill in the winter of 2013-2014, and is now closed at least for the duration of the season, and likely, three to four years.
Milliken Lake was constructed in 1961, as a borrow pit for the construction of nearby Interstate 55. The 25-acre lake is 8 feet deep at its deepest point, and has an average depth of 3 to 4 feet. Only shore fishing is permitted.
Species fishermen pull from the lake include bluegill, catfish, largemouth bass, northern pike, white crappie, yellow bullhead and carp. The lake is stocked with catchable trout in the spring.
Biologist Rob Miller checked lake conditions in March, just before a scheduled stocking of rainbow trout for the spring season opener on April 5. He expected to find what he found when he cut a hole in the ice cap - dead fish, floating just below the ice.
"I kind of had a feeling with the way this winter went we were going to have an issue there this year," he said. The spring trout stocking was postponed. When the ice came off the lake, it became evident there had been a substantial winter kill, in which a majority of the game fish were lost.
Milliken is an older lake and has a large amount of organic sediment, which leaves it in a very compromised condition. When ice covers the surface for long periods, as was the case last winter, oxygen levels are quickly depleted. Miller netted some of the surviving fish, surprisingly catching some hearty black crappie, and predictably, a lot of less desirable fish - shad, carp and yellow bass.
The biologist was concerned about the lake's vulnerability - if the IDNR restocked it and fishermen kept fishing it, the less desirable species would flourish, which would hamper the development of a good population of game fish.
Since a picnic pavilion at the lake is also in need of major rehabilitation work, site superintendent Jeff Wepprecht recognized an opportunity to fix both problems at once, and the Milliken Lake day use area was closed. There will be no fishing or picnicking there, at least for the summer.
A restocking program has been initiated, however, it will take three to four years for the fishery to develop.
"The best opportunity to let the lake get re-established is to close it ... If we can keep people away from the lake for three years ... that would be ideal," Miller commented, expecting that he'll hear from some unhappy anglers.
"I think if you explain what you're trying to accomplish, fishermen will understand."
According to the IDNR's ifishillinois.org website, it is vital to the fishery that anglers do not harvest fish during this stage and it is equally important that fish from outside sources, or unused bait, are not released into the lake.
In the 28 years that Miller had worked at Milliken Lake, he's never had to close it, which he considers a pretty good track record for such a small, shallow body of water. The standing recommendation for improving conditions in Milliken Lake has been dredging. Although its current conditions create an opportunity to make that improvement, there is no plan to do so.
The conservation area's Class C campground, which offers vehicle access, gravel pads and pit toilets, are also closed indefinitely. Wepprecht said he currently does not have the staff to operate it, and the site needs about $15,000 in well repairs.
Anglers will still be permitted to park at the north gate off of New River Road and walk in to fish in the Kankakee River, the only access being allowed at this time.
It may be a long time before Arellano lands another lunker from Milliken, but when the gates reopen, anglers will quickly see the healthier game fish population was worth waiting for.