Winagami Lake

The contents of this online version has not been altered or modified from the original 1990 publication. It is reasonable to assume that much of the data e.g. water levels, camp grounds/boat launches, etc. is out of date. For updated or additional information on any of the lakes in this atlas please go to Environment Alberta's water web site.

Basic Info
Map Sheets83N/10
Lat / Long55.6333333, -116.7500000
55°37'N, 116°45'W
Area46.7 km2
Max depth4.7 m
Mean depth1.7 m
Dr. Basin Area221 km2
Dam, WeirWeir
Drainage BasinAthabasca River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Whitefish, Yellow Perch, Northern Pike
Trophic StatusHyper-Eutrophic
TP x193 µg/L
CHLORO x61.8 µg/L
TDS x281 mg/L
Photo credit: Alberta Tourism


Winagami Lake is a large, very shallow lake lying in the flat country west of Lesser Slave Lake. It is located in Improvement District No. 17, about 70 km southeast of the town of Peace River. To reach Winagami Lake from Peace River, travel south on Highway 2 for 63 km to the town of Donnelly; take Highway 49 east and then south for 26 km, then turn east onto Secondary Road 679 and drive for approximately 11 km until you reach the short access road to Winagami Lake Provincial Park (FIGURE 1). The nearest population centre is the hamlet of Kathleen.

Winagami is the Cree word for "dirty water lake" (Geog. Bd. Can. 1928); the lake was called Stinking Lake at the turn of the century (Sawyer 1981). Homesteaders settled the land near the lake in about 1905 and the town of McLennan on nearby Kimiwan Lake was established in 1915 as a divisional point on the Great Northern Railway (Guiltner 1972). About half of the basin southwest of the lake has been cleared for farming and selected areas north of the lake have been logged for white spruce (O'Leary et al. 1986). Most of the land north and east of the lake is owned by the Crown (FIGURE 2).

Before 1950, outflow from Winagami Lake was irregular, the water was stagnant and water levels often dropped and exposed large areas of mudflats (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.). In 1950, the provincial government built a dam on the South Heart River and a channel from the river into Winagami Lake. The Winagami-Girouxville Canal was built from Winagami Lake to Kimiwan Lake to improve the water supply for the towns of McLennan, Girouxville, Falher and Donnelly.

After water level fluctuations had been reduced by the diverted water, the lake became more attractive for recreation. In 1955, the Winagami Beach Association (mostly cottage owners) cleared a beach area on the east side of the lake (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.; McLennan Hist. Book Commit. 1981) and in 1956, Winagami Lake Provincial Park was established (FIGURE 1). The park covers 12.1 km2 and includes a campground with 64 sites, a group camping area, 2 day-use areas with picnic tables, a boat launch and docking area, a playground and sewage disposal station (FIGURE 2). Boat traffic is not allowed near the beach and power boats are restricted to 12 km/hour in posted areas near the provincial park (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). In 1983, at the request of local cottagers, a breakwater was built offshore from the beach and boat launch area. By 1984, aquatic plants had densely colonized the area between the breakwater and shore and as of 1989, modification or possible removal of the control structure was being considered.

Winagami Lake is very nutrient-rich and supports an abundance of algae from midsummer to autumn. The shore is ringed by sedges, cattails and bulrushes, and submergent aquatic plants extend far into the lake. Winterkills of fish are common, but they do not usually affect the entire lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The lake is popular for sport fishing for northern pike in winter and summer. General provincial sport fishing regulations apply to Winagami Lake. Fishing or disturbing fish in any way is not permitted within 25 m of the control structure (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Lake whitefish were first noticed in the lake in the late 1960s, but they were not abundant until the late 1970s. In 1988, the lake supported a commercial fishery and produced lake whitefish at one of the highest rates of any lake in North America. The lake also provides excellent habitat for waterfowl, including Oldsquaw ducks on the most southerly portion of the inland segment of their migration to the arctic.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Winagami Lake lies in a shallow depression in an almost flat (0 to 5% slope), clay-rich glaciolacustrine plain overlying morainal deposits. The relief of the drainage basin varies only 73 m, from a high point of 695 m on a gently sloping hill north of the lake to a low of 621.5 m at the shoreline. The watershed is typified by "humpy doughnut" topography, which is characterized by low-relief mounds with slightly depressed centres interspersed with organic wetlands (O'Leary et al. 1986). The drainage basin is located in the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981), and trembling aspen forests with an understory of cranberry and rose predominate. In the area north of Winagami Lake there is a white spruce and trembling aspen forest that has been selectively logged for spruce. The low-lying areas support either a black spruce/Labrador tea/Sphagnum community or willow/sedge community, and open water is a common feature (O'Leary et al. 1986). Much of the area west of Winagami Lake has been cleared for barley or canola production or for grazing.

Soils have been mapped and described in detail for the drainage basin (TABLE 1) (O'Leary et al. 1986) and for the provincial park (Greenlee 1975). The area north and south of the provincial park lies on coarse glaciolacustrine sediments. Well-drained Orthic and Brunisolic Gray Luvisols and Orthic Eutric Brunisols support trembling aspen and balsam poplar. South of the lake and in the northern portion of the basin, soils are moderately well-drained to well-drained Orthic and Solonetzic Gray Luvisols under aspen or white spruce/aspen forests. The north shore of the lake and the area between Kathleen and McLennan is primarily compact glaciolacustrine veneers (clays) overlying undulating glacial till; soils under white spruce/aspen woodland are well-drained Orthic and Solonetzic Gray Luvisols and poorly drained Orthic Luvic Gleysols.

The hydrogeology of the area was mapped by the Alberta Research Council. Groundwater quantity and quality is variable throughout the area (Borneuf 1980).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Winagami Lake is irregularly shaped; the main body of the lake is approximately 7-km wide and 9-km long and has shallow, marshy arms that extend north and northwest (FIGURE 1). The drainage basin is only five times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2) and does not provide sufficient runoff to maintain a stable water level or reliable outflow. In 1950, a dam was built on the South Heart River northeast of the lake to impound water and divert it via canal to Winagami Lake. A control structure was built on the south shore of Winagami Lake and the outlet stream was channelized as far as a marsh 3 km south of the lake. From there, the water meanders back to the South Heart River. A canal from the northwest corner of Winagami Lake to Kimiwan Lake ensures reliable water supply for McLennan, Girouxville, Falher and Donnelly. This system has decreased the average residence time of Winagami Lake from its natural 11 years to less than 2 years (TABLE 2).

The lake basin slopes gently to a maximum depth of 4.7 m; no detailed bathymetry is available. The shoreline is mostly soft and dominated by organic deposits. The east shore is sandy. Bulrushes have been cleared at the provincial park and the beach has been augmented with additional sand.

The level of Winagami Lake has been fairly stable since 1962. Annual fluctuations from 1962 to 1986 averaged about 0.5 m and the maximum range of water levels during this period was 1.1 m (FIGURE 3).

Water Quality

The water quality of Winagami Lake has been monitored several times a year since 1983 in a joint program by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

Winagami Lake is now a well-buffered, freshwater lake; its dominant ions are bicarbonate, sulphate and calcium (TABLE 3). Before the diversion, Winagami Lake was called a "stagnant salty body of water unfit for any use" (Thomas 1955). The diversion from the South Heart Reservoir brings in water that is much fresher and has quite a different ionic composition than that of the lake. Data collected in 1952 indicate that the water chemistry of Winagami Lake was much more saline 40 years ago. A sample collected in July 1973 had intermediate values, supporting a "freshening trend" (TABLE 4).

Winagami Lake is shallow and exposed to winds and therefore is well-mixed throughout the open-water season (FIGURE 4). In winter, dissolved oxygen rapidly becomes depleted throughout the water column (FIGURE 4). By February 1984 and March 1985 dissolved oxygen concentrations were below levels regarded as sufficient for fish survival. Although major winterkills of fish are reported about one year in five, many fish in the lake survive.

Winagami Lake is a hyper-eutrophic lake and produces very dense blooms of blue-green algae from midsummer to fall each year. Mean total phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations (TABLE 5) are among the highest of 34 other recreational lakes monitored by Alberta Environment (Mitchell 1986). In 1988, the mean summer chlorophyll a concentration (81 µg/L) was extremely high, as was the peak whole-lake concentration of 195 µg/L that was recorded in early September 1988 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). As in many shallow Alberta lakes, phosphorus concentrations increase throughout the summer, mainly due to release from the sediments, and then decline in the fall (FIGURE 5). With the release of phosphorus from the sediments, massive blooms of blue-green algae develop. When these blooms die, their decay consumes oxygen and a summerkill of fish may occur.

Biological Characteristics

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton community was sampled briefly in 1974 by Fish and Wildlife Division (Bishop 1976). Blue-green blooms from June to September were almost entirely composed of Aphanizomenon flos-aquae; the second most abundant species were Anabaena sp. in June and Microcystis sp. in July and August. A high concentration of the diatom Stephanodiscus sp. was found in May and October. Emergent aquatic plants, including sedges (Carex spp.), cattails (Typha spp.) and bulrushes (Scirpus spp.), ring Winagami Lake and submergent macrophytes are often a nuisance. There are no data on species composition or distribution.


The zooplankton was sampled monthly in 1974 by Fish and Wildlife Division (Bishop 1976). Cyclopoid copepods and daphnid cladocerans dominated the community most of the year. Chydorid cladocerans were common in the fall.

Benthic organisms in Winagami Lake were sampled at 100 sites in September 1973 (Bishop 1976). Midge larvae (Chironomidae) made up 45% of the wet weight biomass. The remainder of the biomass comprised 17% scuds (Amphipoda), 21% snails (Gastropoda), 13% leeches (Hirudinea) and 4% aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta). The average wet weight of the benthic organisms was 64.8 g/m2. Scuds and snails were most dense at sites less than 1.5-m deep whereas all other groups were densest at sites 1.5- to 3-m deep.


Winagami Lake supports a popular, year-round local sport fishery for northern pike and yellow perch and a commercial fishery for lake whitefish and northern pike. Ninety-eight domestic licences were issued in 1987/88 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). White suckers are abundant; no sampling has been done to determine species of forage fish in the lake (Bishop 1976).

Northern pike are native to the lake. Yellow perch were not found in the lake prior to 1953. They were stocked in 1954, 1963 and 1964 by Fish and Wildlife Division; by 1968 they were abundant, reproducing successfully and growing well (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). During a creel census conducted from 1 May to 31 August 1984, anglers fished for a total of 14,000 hours. They caught 13,564 pike (1 pike/hour), with an average weight of 1.2 kg. Six hundred perch were caught over the same period. Most of the fishing was from shore (62%); the breakwater and the outlet canal area were the most popular locations (Buchwald 1985).

The history of the commercial fishery in Winagami Lake is quite dramatic. Until the 1960s there were no lake whitefish in the lake and none have ever been stocked. By the early 1970s a few large lake whitefish were reported in test nettings by Fish and Wildlife Division; it is likely they arrived via the diversion from the South Heart River. The absence of young whitefish indicated poor reproductive success. In 1981, the regional fisheries biologist reported an "alarming increase" in lake whitefish and recommended that a commercial fishery be established (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1984/85, the first commercial licences were issued and by 1988 the Winagami Lake lake whitefish production of 70 kg/ha was among the highest in North America (Walty 1988). From the 1985/86 season through the 1987/88 season, an average of 254,000 kg of lake whitefish and 810 kg of pike were harvested annually (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The fish are fast-growing and free of tapeworm (Triaenophorus crassus) cysts.

There are several risks to the fish in Winagami Lake. Summerkills occur when algal blooms die off and their decay consumes oxygen and winterkills occur when dissolved oxygen is depleted under ice. Summerkills occurred in four years between 1967 and 1987 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). A winterkill took place in 1983/84 and 1985/86 when a long, warm fall was followed by a rapid freeze-up; lake mixing in the fall was too brief to allow much dissolved oxygen to be incorporated into the water. One risk has been mitigated: before 1984, many fish, both northern pike and lake whitefish, would leave the lake over the outlet structure. Once over the weir, they could not return to the lake and died because of either low water levels, high temperatures, intense angling or vandalism (Bishop 1972). Large numbers of fish were trapped in this way; in 1984, Fish and Wildlife Division lifted 40,000 lake whitefish back over the weir and returned them to the lake (Walty 1988). Since then, screens have been installed on the outlet and the problem has been alleviated.


Winagami Lake provides excellent habitat for waterfowl production, especially for Pintails, Mallards, Gadwall and Shovellers. Canvasbacks and White-winged Scoters are also common. Oldsquaw ducks use the area when migrating; this is likely the southern-most limit of the inland portion of their route (Ducks Unltd. (Can.) n.d.; Finlay and Finlay 1987). The woods of the provincial park provide excellent birdwatching; 150 species have been recorded, including dense populations of Yellow and Canada warblers, plus Cape May, Black-throated Green, Palm and Bay-breasted warblers. The most northwestern nesting colony of Purple Martins in the world was recorded in the park (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

J.M. Crosby


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