Nov. 10, 2021
Jim Harris Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
FOUKE – When Arkansas Game and Fish Commission staff close off the gates on both ends of Mercer Bayou by Dec. 31, anglers and boaters will see the long-awaited restoration of a popular southwest Arkansas fishery and waterfowl destination.
Despite higher-than-usual water levels in recent years in Sulphur River, of which Mercer Bayou is a side-channel backwater slough, the AGFC’s multiyear renovation project of restoring the fishery and improving boat access is nearing completion. Recent work included dredging the existing access boat canal to the main bayou.
Dylan Hann, the AGFC’s district supervisor, said, “Mercer Bayou is an amazing resource, and I’m very excited for this renovation project to be complete and available for public use again.”Mercer Bayou is closed off on the northwestern and southeastern ends by water control structures that shut off river backflow and hold a permanent pool. The lake began draining in summer 2017 to allow work to eliminate silt and vegetation that had choked off a large portion of the lake. But two summers of work were lost to extensively wet conditions, leaving Mercer Bayou a bottomland swamp in midsummer.
Hann said, “We’ve been extremely dry in south Arkansas lately and that helped this last push to complete the renovation. In the past two months it has become very dry. The conditions helped one contractor get done in record pace and let us (Hann and Colton Dennis, a habitat biologist) get on the lakebed recently to survey it one last time before the project’s completion.
“It appears that we have a clean slate to start with, and a new reservoir effect will take over once the lake is filled again providing an abundance of habitat and food sources for the fish stocked next spring.”
Jason Olive, the AGFC’s assistant chief of fisheries management, said the renovation has been a long time coming.
“Navigation was so difficult because of the filling in of silt and vegetation,” Olive said. “People had access to a much smaller area of the lake than they should have. Now that we’ve been able to deal with these issues, they will have a larger lake to come back to than they did when we drained it. It will be more like it was when the weirs were first built.”
Now, following this project, populations of bass, crappie, catfish and bream can return to levels that are expected by local anglers. Stumps have been removed from narrowmain channel areas on the south end of the bayou and stands of aquatic vegetation were treated with the appropriate herbicides.
Plans for 2022, Hann says, include fish stocking that falls in line with other AGFC lake renovation projects: Mercer Bayou will be stocked with forage species such as bluegill, redear sunfish, fathead minnows and threadfin shad. Hann has also put in a request for stocking of fingerling channel catfish next year, as well as fingerling white crappie next fall.
“We plan to add largemouth bass in 2023,” said Hann, when they will be able to take advantage of abundant forage expected to exist in the bayou by that time. The lake will reopen to fishing as catch-and-release with reduced limits as the population develops.
Much of the work being done was where people couldn’t easily view it during the renovation.
“We have done extensive work on controlling vegetation, mapped the lakebed with sonar, and improved the navigation channel,” Hann said. “I’m really thankful one of the projects, the canal access, was in an area where the public could see it. Everything else has been deep in the bayou and harder to see our work.”
Hann said a contractor dug a half-mile boat access canal to a width of 25 feet as well as providing a constant depth of 3 feet for the canal when the bayou is at normal water level. For the remainder of the fall, another contractor with an amphibious excavator will return to continue the removal of stumps in narrow areas for navigation.
The work lately has been a balancing act with conditions, Hann said, and an early November rain helped. On one hand, they needed the dry conditions to tackle the lakebed work and canal improvements, but the amphibious excavator needed some water to use its floats to move around for stump removal on the south end of the lake. “We’re looking for the fine line,” he said. “Not too little water, but not too much.”
Even with the delays from heavy rainfall during the last few years, Olive says the recent favorable conditions and fast work has brought things almost up to speed.
“The original plan called for closing the gates by Nov. 1 of year 4 (2021). We’ll finish two months later, and quite honestly that’s a miracle considering two of the four years it was under water,” Olive said.
The boat access and improved canal, with paved parking lot, is off Miller County Road 151 on the west side and the northern end of Mercer Bayou, near Sulphur River Wildlife Management Area. Another often used access ramp is on the southern portion of the bayou at the end of County Road 109.
The estimated cost of the project was $234,500.