An Innovative, Voluntary Habitat Enhancement Initiative for Lakeshore Owners

CRACK, CRACK, SPLASH! The old tree had lived a full and accomplished life. It had crossed paths with countless generations, changing with seasons, changing with age. Now it began its second life…in the lake. Within hours, crayfish crawled beneath its partially submerged trunk, followed by a mudpuppy and tadpoles. Minnows and small fish hovered within the lattice of its branches. Within days, sunfish, bass, pike, even walleye and muskellunge had also entered the complex network of branches. Algae and diatoms began establishing colonies, while dragonfly nymphs and mayflies followed to forage. A wood duck competed with a painted turtle for basking space. Use of the tree by a variety of organisms would continue again for much longer than its life on land; remarkably perhaps 300 to 600 years, slowly changing shape over time as it yields to father time.
[Excerpt from Michael A. Bozek, UWSP CNR]

In 2007, property owners on Bony Lake in southwest Bayfield County, in partnership with the Bayfield County Land and Water Conservation Department and the DNR, began a whole lake restoration project to move the shoreline on their lake toward a more natural appearance with a functioning near-shore eco-system. An innovative part of this project was the installation of large diameter wood (whole trees and branches) to the restored or natural shorelines of interested landowners. In 2008, the Eau Claire Lakes Conservation Club provided volunteers and financial assistance to advance the installation of woody habitat to the Eau Claire Lakes Chain.

The number of landowners participating is growing steadily as is the number of lakes benefiting from the habitat work. Developing a process for landowners to easily install woody habitat complexes along their shorelines as part of the restoration projects was the beginning of a revolutionary approach to shoreline restoration. There is both financial and technical assistance available to landowners interested in completing a wood complex on their shorelines. The “Fish Sticks Project”, as it is now known, has helped landowners install more than 600 trees to their shorelines on four lakes. Bony Lake has increased the number of habitat trees available in the lake from 89 to nearly 500. The Upper and Middle Eau Claire Lakes have added almost 150 trees, while Wilipyro Lake has installed 106.

Trees are selected for use according to sound forest management guidelines and are not taken if considered to be likely future recruitment trees. Trees may come from the landowners’ properties or from donor parcels near by. Installation is done from the ice so there is very little ground disturbance of the uplands. The trees are attached to the shoreline by steel rods or cables so they stay in place while they “settle in” for the next couple of hundred years. As the ecologic importance of wood is better understood by lake property owners, interest in the installation of Fish Sticks continues to increase. The addition of wood to the littoral zone or near shore area of a lake is the next best conservation practice after the establishment of a native vegetation plant community along the shoreline.

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Fish Sticks Enhance Habitat on Twin Bear Lake
Butch Lobermeier, Bayfield County Conservationist

Iron River , WI – Fish and fishermen will benefit from the major habitat restoration work completed on Twin Bear Lake this past February. The restoration of critical near shore habitat on the Pike-Delta Chain of Lakes received a big jump-start with what is likely to be the largest Fish Sticks project ever installed in Wisconsin. Beginning in October and funded by state and federal grants, the Bayfield County Land and Water Conservation Department (LWCD) and the Tourism Department initiated a make-over of the Twin Bear County Campground which included controlling run off, stabilizing erosion, and enhancing shoreland habitat. A key feature of this restoration effort was establishment of Course Woody Habitat (CWH) along the shoreline that is critical to maintaining sustainable fisheries.

CWH consists of trees, branches, and twigs that accumulate along the shorelines over hundreds of years, creating a complex structure that powers the life cycles of animals living in and along the lakes. Installation of these complex woody structures, locally called Fish Sticks, replicates the natural conditions typical of glacial lakes, dramatically increasing the availability of quality habitat for fish and wildlife. Installation of Fish Stick Complexes along degraded shorelines advances the functionality of the shoreline ecosystem by hundreds of years according to research cited by Butch Lobermeier, County Conservationist.

Lobermeier says that there are many causes for the lack of CWH in our lakes, but they all have to do with land use practices that were harmful to the lake. Following current shoreland zoning ordinances and maintaining natural buffers will eventually lead to accumulation of adequate CWH through the natural recruitment process of trees growing, dying, and falling into the water. But that process can take hundreds of years because on many shorelines there are very few trees growing at this time. Fish Sticks fast forwards the habitat clock at least two hundred years in a matter of days! Once in the water, the wood will continue to provide habitat for 200-300 years.

In a period of three days, 516 trees were cut along Twin Bear Park’s east property line, moved to the lakeshore with logging equipment, and constructed into complexes secured with cables along 820 feet of shoreline. The trees were oak, pine, aspen, and maple ranging from 4 inches to 20 inches in diameter and up to 70 feet in length.

Fish Sticks projects generally use trees cut a distance from the shorelines, so future recruitment is not reduced. Trees are layered both parallel and perpendicular to the shoreline, with the number of layers dependant on the depth of the water. The complexes are designed to submerge with ice out, with only the top layer of the complex remaining visible at the surface.

Lobermeier and Scott Toshner, DNR Fisheries Biologist pioneered the Fish Sticks Project beginning in 2007. Since then, they are closing in on 2000 tree installations completed on six Bayfield County lakes. “Wood is good.” says Lobermeier. “It doesn’t matter so much the size of the wood, or the amount of wood, it just needs to be there on the shoreline. Many critters will satisfy their habitat needs in the wood.”

Toshner cites fisheries research showing increased growth rates and greater spawning success in lakes with adequate wood. A single pine log can have 75,000 invertebrates living on it. All popular game and panfish species use submerged wood at some point in their life cycle as do lesser known forage fish species. While the emphasis may be on fish habitat, the Fish Sticks benefit many other animals like furbearers, turtles, frogs, ducks, and dragonflies as well.

Cost share assistance is available through the LWCD for landowners wishing to install Fish Sticks or to restore their shorelines to a natural state. Recently the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the LWCD to provide additional financial assistance for Fish Stick installation on area lakes. “The number of landowners interested in restoration projects on their shorelines is growing steadily as the understanding of land stewardship and sustainability increases.” says Lobermeier. Toshner, Lobermeier, and other partners look forward to assisting many more landowners inspired by the Twin Bear Fish Sticks Project to create high quality, sustainable habitats on their shorelines.

If interested in considering a restoration project on your lake front property, contact the LWCD at (715) 373-6167 or visit our website at