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Rush Lake is a conservation success story in the making and a testament to what can happen when diverse groups are willing to put aside their differences and work together. Located in Winnebago County, Wisconsin near Oshkosh, the lake is a fantastic place to bird watch and is rapidly becoming a great place to fish.
Rush Lake is the largest prairie pothole marsh east of the Mississippi River. Prairie potholes are typically shallow, marshy lakes with significant wetland areas. Prairie potholes like Rush Lake result from periods of drought when variations in water levels allow aquatic vegetation to take root. The lakes rely on the fluctuations in water levels to maintain a healthy balance of vegetation, fish, and wildlife. It isn't uncommon for the lakes to dry out completely in severe drought years only to reappear when the rains come back. During dry periods the dried out lake bed becomes a great place to hunt for small mammals. The wet and dry cycle results in the build up of rings of soft muck and sediment. In the case of Rush Lake only about one percent of the lake has a hard bottom. The rest of the lake bed is covered with soft muck up to twenty feet deep in some places.
The Native Americans who lived in the area around Rush Lake called the lake "Appucaway" which means "where the rushes or flags grow." Named for the hardstem bulrush and cattails that made up the lake's extensive wetlands, Rush Lake had plenty of native aquatic vegetation and lots of birds. Water levels on the lake cycled up and down naturally, unadulterated by humans until 1847. In 1847 a series of dams were built on Waukau Creek the outlet of Rush Lake. The dams built for hydroelectric power, raised water levels over 30 centimeters and doubled the lake's surface area. By the 1920's the dams were removed and Rush Lake went through several periods where it completely dried up.
In order to encourage duck and fish populations, in 1946 the town government rebuilt one of the dams at the north east corner of Rush Lake. Unfortunately over time the dam had the opposite effect, and for the past 30 years there has been a significant decrease in water quality, wildlife and vegetation. The artificially high and stable water levels allowed carp to infest Rush Lake and by the end of the 20th century fish populations had shrunk to just bullhead and carp. There were just a few duck broods every year, and only one percent of the lake was covered with the bulrush stands that gave it its name. There was also a study done in 1994 that found that the amount of lead shot in Rush Lake from shots fired over the lake was equal to 150 tons of lead. The lead caused a major die off of birds especially mallards. Over 1,200 birds succumbed to lead poisoning.
Because the town had built the dam to improver recreation opportunities on Rusk Lake they were reluctant to get rid of it, but everyone agreed the lake wasn't what they remembered from childhood. Instead of imposing conservation methods, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources together with other conservation agencies formed a fifteen member steering committee made up of government representatives, citizens, and user groups, and in 1999 they started work on a holistic lake restoration project.
The plan included a two year draw down of water levels to kill off invasive species and reestablish vegetation. In 2005 Ducks Unlimited contributed $100,000 in funds and engineering to design a new dam and oversee its construction. The new dam has gates to better control and vary water levels. It also includes carp guards to keep the carp from swimming upstream into Rush Lake. In 2007 the Wisconsin DNR sprayed the lake to kill the remaining carp which are very destructive to the emerging vegetation. There is also a new boat landing for small to medium motorboats. Money and resources for the project came from several organizations and was administered by the steering committee which was renamed Rush Lake Watershed Restoration, Inc.
By 2008 the restoration of Rush Lake was almost complete. There is boating for canoes, kayaks, skiffs and small motorboats with marsh engines. The fish are back and so are the fishermen. Anglers can fish for northern pike, bluegill, crappie, and large and small mouth bass. The bird watching is exceptional with rare red-necked grebe and forester's tern along with the more common American coot, black tern, and common moorheads. The Nature Conservancy manages the Owen and Anne Gromme Preserve for bird watching and wildlife. Rush Lake inspired some of the scenes painted by Mr. Gromme.
Rush Lake is just one of several lakes in Winnebago County including Lake Poygan, Lake Winneconne, and the state's largest lake, Lake Winnebago. Rush Lake is between Lake Butte des Morts and Green Lake, and fishing and boating opportunities abound nearby. The lake is only about five miles from Waukau and Ripon both of which have populations over 6,000. Ripon in bordering Fond du Lac County has a charming historic district, shopping, restaurants, and various accommodations. It is also home of the Little White School House, the 1854 Birthplace of the Republican Party.
Rush Lake is a beautiful example of people working together and with nature. It is once again a fantastic place to fish and watch the birds and once more the place "where the rushes grow."
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