Lake Elsinore fishery standing out
Jim Matthews, Outdoor Writer
Posted: 01/15/2009 10:55:53 PM PST
Lake Elsinore is quickly becoming one of the Southern California's premiere fisheries, and a special plant of hybrid striped bass or wipers on Wednesday this week was just the latest step in the rehabilitation of this long-maligned and malingering water.
It has been a long process, but today the results of nearly a decade of work are beginning to pay off.
Before 2000, Lake Elsinore was choked with carp and algae. Its water quality was poor. There were often annual fish die-offs caused by algae blooms that completely depleted the shallow water of oxygen, and rotting, floating dead carp lined the shores 25 feet out from the bank after these incidents. Recreational use of the lake had just about ceased.
Back then the fishery was at least 90 percent carp. Today, carp represent probably just 15 percent to 20 percent of the fish biomass, with threadfin shad, largemouth bass, catfish, bluegill, crappie and wipers making up the bulk of the fishery. It's starting to look like most of Southern California's other good fisheries - maybe even better. The change began in 2001 when the first of Elsinore's aeration systems were installed and a pipeline was built to deliver highly treated reclaimed water into the lake to keep its level more stable. Today, the refined aeration system consists of nine miles of aeration lines on the lake bottom and lake-mixing fans that circulate the oxygen. The water quality is better than it has ever been and
fish-killing algae blooms are a thing of the past.
As important, more than 1.3 million pounds of carp have been removed since the start of 2003.
This allowed for other gamefish and baitfish to get a strong foothold and reproduce.
Now, threadfin shad, which are eaten by all the other fish in the lake except carp, are a healthy component of the lake.
Wipers, a sterile cross between striped bass and white bass, were first planted in 2005 when 18,000 ½- to¾-pound fish were released to help keep the threadfin shad population in check and hopefully eat young carp, too. Smaller numbers of wipers have been planted each year since, with some 3,000 wipers weighing 1¼ pounds each planted in 2007.
Pat Kilroy, lake and aquatic resources director of the City of Lake Elsinore, said there were no plans to add more wipers this year, but when Kent Sea Tach, a commercial fish producer in Niland decided to liquidate its wiper stock, Kilroy said they got a deal they couldn't refuse. Instead of the typical rate of $4.50 a pound for the wipers, the 6- to 8-inch fish were offered at 15 cents apiece, or about $1 a pound.
Another 18,000 wipers were planted on Wednesday.
The wipers have not only helped keep carp and threadfin shad in check, but they've provided an excellent sportfish for anglers. The fish grow quickly to the 18-inch minimum keeper size, and wipers more than 10 pounds have been reported in the past year, and many anglers have reported catching and releasing 15 to 20 wipers in a single morning.
Most anglers are releasing the wipers, even through the limit is two fish over 18 inches, hoping they will help improve the other fisheries. This appears to be working. Local largemouth bass anglers are whispering about how good this fishery has become.
George Kramer, a well-known bass writer for Western Outdoors, has fished Lake Elsinore since 1971 and lived on the lake since 1981. He's watched the largemouth fishery cycle through a period of excellent fishing, usually in the one or two years after a major winter water year that washed bass out of Canyon Lake above Elsinore.
Kramer says the problem is that Elsinore has not been a place where the largemouth successfully spawn.
"The fact is that I don't see babies," Kramer said. "If anything, the past cycles proved the black bass just don't reproduce well here." The last big rain year that moved fish out of Canyon Lake was in 2006, and Kramer says the bass fishing was excellent in 2007 when it was easy for two anglers to catch and release 50 or 60 bass a day. It has been modestly declining since.
The other real success story has been the crappie bite in the past year. Many anglers report good stringers of crappie to 2 pounds starting this past spring and continuing off an off through the fall. Anglers who were able to dip net a few shad found they had the ideal bait for the bigger crappie.
Bluegill and catfish are also a component of the sportfishery. Kilroy said the catfish population seemed to peak in 2004, with fewer catfish showing up in surveys the last couple of years, but other gamefish have taken their place, and the lake now has more bluegill than ever before, including small fish which indicates they are successfully spawning.
"I think our carp removal program has been the key to our success in restructuring Lake Elsinore's fishery," Kilroy said.
Even though the gamefish in Elsinore have increased by more than 50 percent, the Lake Elsinore and San Jacinto Watershed Authority (LESJWA) and the City of Lake Elsinore, which jointly manage the lake, have put additional carp removal projects on hold because so few carp are showing up in surveys now. Money that would have been spent on carp removal is now being put to work on a new series of lake enhancements to further improve the sport fishery for anglers.
The new round of improvements are part of the Back Basin Wetland Improvement project that will include the creation of spawning benches, brush shelters, additional vegetation, gamefish rearing ponds, and more fish-friendly piers.
There is also design and permitting work moving forward on a new marina and campground complex. This isn't the old Lake Elsinore. It's a new, improved Lake Elsinore.