Nov. 24, 2021
Randy Zellers Assistant Chief of Communications
MONTICELLO — After two years of drawdowns and construction work, the city of Monticello was able to close the gates at its namesake lake in Drew County last week, hoping to see the fish and recreational opportunities in the reservoir flourish again once the lake refills.
It may take 3-5 years for the 1,500-acre reservoir to reach full capacity, but according to Kris Nault, fisheries supervisor at the AGFC’s Monticello regional office, it should have as close to a clean slate as the AGFC can make it to begin the process in rebuilding one of Arkansas’s top trophy bass-fishing lakes.
“It’s entirely dependent on rainfall to fill up Monticello,” Nault said. “It has a small watershed and is fed by intermittent streams, so it may take a while. But if we get a lot of rain, it could happen much more quickly. We have 28 or so acres of water out there now and it needs to reach 1,500 acres of water, so we have a long way to go.”
Lake Monticello had to be drained by the lake’s owner, the city of Monticello, in 2019 because of failing integrity of the lake’s levee. The city conducted a partial drawdown in 2017 to repair the levee, but the solution did not hold. This resulted in a complete draining of the lake and larger repair project.
While the water was low, biologists jumped into action to add the things the lake will need and remove the things it doesn’t. Since the lake was dropped to a level that would require starting over, biologists took the opportunity to remove any remaining undesirable species with the use of rotenone. Rotenone is a fish toxicant that naturally occurs in the roots and seeds of some subtropical plants and has been used for decades to remove unwanted fish.
“After the lake was drained, there were 25 ponds that remained in the lakebed so we applied rotenone to remove any grass carp, yellow bass and other undesirable species from the water that was left,” Nault said. “Just before the construction was complete, we used trash pumps to pump out as much standing water as possible to concentrate fish so the rotenone application would be more effective. We were able to reduce the standing water from 67 acres to 17 acres.”
During the rotenone application, AGFC staff observed hundreds of dead grass carp, which will help submersed aquatic vegetation to become established once again.
“Although we observed dead yellow bass during the first year we applied rotenone, we did not observe any dead yellow bass during the second year of rotenone application, so hopefully they have been eradicated from the system,” Nault said. “We also walked the 14.7 miles of creek beds of the old lake and sprayed them with rotenone to remove any fish there as well.”
Stocking Trophy Potential
Nault said remaining game fish were inevitably killed as well during the rotenone applications, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“The largemouth bass killed during the rotenone application had both Florida and northern largemouth bass alleles,” Nault said. We plan on restocking pure Florida largemouth bass into Lake Monticello, which will increase the trophy potential of the fishery.”
Lake Monticello will receive only stockings of pure Florida largemouth bass. Florida largemouth bass can grow more quickly and reach a larger size than their northern largemouth bass counterparts. The lake will also be restocked with bluegill, redear sunfish, black crappie, and forage species.
“We plan on restocking the lake with bluegill, redear sunfish, threadfin shad, golden shiners, and fathead minnows in fall 2022,” Nault said. “We will stock the lake with Florida largemouth bass and black crappie during summer 2023. The bream and forage species will go in first, so they can become established without predators and will be able to spawn once before predators are introduced.
“We’ll stock all of the 19 ponds in the upper portion of the lake, and we will deliver the fish to the ponds with a UTV pulling a trailer with a stocking tank,” Nault said.
Those fish will also have a playground of habitat in which to grow when the water arrives, as Nault and his team have worked from day one of the project to create the best lake they could offer, with the city of Monticello’s help. The lake still had stumps and woody cover from its previous incarnation, but AGFC staff spent thousands of worker hours creating and placing more complex woody cover that serves as both cover for prey species and ambush points for predators like bass.
“We conducted a major habitat project in summer 2020 once the lakebed was dry enough to work, and we’ve added various habitat structures and have been hinge-cutting trees along the shoreline since.”
The large-scale habitat project Nault mentions took 15 AGFC staff an entire week to complete, but when they were done, 41 large brush piles, 32 porcupine fish cribs and 117 pallet structures lined key spots along contours in the lakebed. In December 2020 and May 2021, Nault and other AGFC staff revisited the pallet project, adding 120 single- and 60 double-pallet structures during each trip.
Roughly 2,100 pallets were used for aquatic cover. Most were donated from local businesses and delivered to the lake by the City of Monticello and AGFC staff.
“Additionally, we made 15 ‘Georgia cubes’ out of PVC and corrugated pipe and placed these at two sites,” Nault said. “We constructed 100 spider buckets (which look like a small artificial shrub) out of concrete and sprinkler tubing and placed 60 near the fishing pier at Plantersville Access and 40 at the Hunger Run Access pier.”
AGFC staff created a total of 67 habitat sites on the lakebed during the project, all of which will be available to the public at the AGFC’s interactive map on AGFC.com. These marked fish-attractor sites are only a portion of the actual habitat added to the lake.
“From Nov. 23 of last year until Nov. 10 of this year, we hinge-cut 1,653 trees to offer complex cover for juvenile and adult gamefish,” Nault said. “We wanted to cut enough to provide habitat to improve game fish populations and not just offer targets for angling, but the laydowns will do that, too. The trees will sit in water ranging from 6 inches to 8 feet deep when the lake is at full pool, so they will offer cover for juvenile and adult game fish throughout the year.”
Starting from the Bottom
Woody and artificial cover is only one piece of the puzzle being constructed at Lake Monticello. The lakebed has been allowed to dry and crack, recycling nutrients into the system, and grasses and plants have grown throughout the lake that will offer ideal nursery habitat for forage fish when the lake begins to refill. The decaying vegetation will make even more nutrients available to bolster the base of the lake’s food chain for the predator fish planned for Monticello.
Sunfish spawning areas were created at two bank fishing areas off the lake’s Hunger Run Access and one area near the Plantersville access. These spawning sites were created by spreading dump truck loads of pea gravel to offer spawning substrate for bluegill, redear sunfish and other bream species. These areas should increase bank anglers’ catch rates of large bream when they spawn. Larger bass also will find these areas and take advantage of the spawning bream as a food source.
The lakebed also received about 1,550 tons of lime, which was spread throughout the lakebed to lower the acidity of the lake’s sediment. This will increase the effectiveness of fertilizer added to the lake once it is full.
It may take a few years once the lake is full before the results of the AGFC Fisheries crew become evident. Hopefully, Lake Monticello will once again see trailers from states across the U.S. parked by its shores with anglers setting out to catch their personal best bass from its waters.