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AGFC plans Lake Wilhelmina renovation

BY Randy Zellers

ON 04-11-2024

Lake Wilhelmina Caged Fish Facility

MENA — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will begin a controlled drawdown of 66-year-old Lake Wilhelmina in Polk County, beginning Aug. 1 to make extensive repairs to failing infrastructure and improve the fishery’s long-term health.

In 2019, uncontrollable falling water levels indicated a failure somewhere in the dam or water control tower. The lake level dropped so much that launching a boat became impossible. After a thorough inspection using side-scan sonar, AGFC staff discovered two holes in the lake bed between the water control tower and the dam. In 2020, AGFC contractors dropped about a dozen large 1,800-pound sandbags over the two holes to slow the leak for inspection.

Tommy Laird, AGFC fisheries chief, said, “The dam has not leaked enough since then to repeat that low water level, but the sandbags were not meant to be a permanent fix.”

Contractors inspected the leak from the downstream end of the discharge pipe once the flow had slowed and discovered the source of the problem.

“This structure has been underwater since 1958 and has gone well past its expected lifespan,” Laird said. “Holes in the 30-inch outflow pipe have formed, letting water flow through the structure between the control tower gates and the dam. We’ve been able to secure funding and develop a plan for a renovation, and we’re ready to implement a more permanent solution.”

The repair will require a complete drawdown and major construction to the section of the dam nearest the existing water tower.

“We’re also taking advantage of the low water and completing quite a few other projects while the lake is drained,” Laird said. “We’re going to improve and extend the boat ramp, add a courtesy dock and renovate the parking area.”

Bank anglers will benefit from additional work as well. Laird says the current fishing pier will be renovated and moved. Many new fish attractors will be placed throughout the lake, with some being artificial habitats and others created from wood and brush.

“Several road improvements are planned to provide more locations to pull alongside the lake and fish,” Laird said. “We’re working with (Polk) County Judge Brandon Ellison to try and get those road improvements, and he’s been great to work with.”

Repairs are expected to be complete by the end of summer 2025 and the lake is expected to fill quickly post construction.

The AGFC is planning to lift all size restrictions and harvest limits from the lake before the drawdown to allow anglers to enjoy as many fish as possible before the construction begins.

“Local anglers are going to be without this lake for a little while, so we want to make sure the fish are used by anglers instead of being trapped in shallow pools or pulled through the dam and into Powell Creek,” Laird said. “The watershed is very large, and we may see times when the lake fills substantially even when the renovation is taking place, but it will drain quickly, too. Once we’re finished with work, the lake will refill and we’ll stock forage species, followed by game fish like bluegill, catfish and bass.”

The project is expected to cost roughly $1.4 million, with $1 million of that coming from a special transfer from the Restricted Reserve Fund Game and Fish Grants Set-Aside authorized by the Arkansas General Assembly in 2023. AGFC Director Austin Booth said the authorization of this money was critical in moving forward with the project.

“Lake Wilhelmina is a legacy fishery for the people of Polk County, an area of the state where infrastructure dollars can be tight,” Booth said. “We are extremely grateful to the General Assembly for helping us provide this much needed improvement for the people of Mena and the surrounding area.”

Lake Wilhelmina is a 200-acre reservoir built on Powell Creek six miles west of Mena. The lake’s dam was constructed in 1958. The lake is well known for good populations of bluegill as well as largemouth bass and channel catfish. The lake also is home to Arkansas’s state record black crappie, a 5-pound giant caught in 2011 by then 11-year-old Donivan Echols of Mena.

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