Bass Lake returning to normal following dam project

The Fresno BeeMay 1, 2013 

SPT EPZ KOKANEE JIG

Water levels at Bass Lake -- shown in 2007 -- are expected this summer to top out at about 6 feet below capacity, which is normal for a low snowpack year.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA/FRESNO BEE FILE PHOTO Buy Photo

BASS LAKE -- The trucks, bulldozers and dredging barges are gone. Lake levels are slowly rising, water clarity is improving and the fish are biting.

In other words, things at Bass Lake are getting back to normal following four years of disruption caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's seismic retrofit of Crane Valley Dam.

Just in time, with the annual fishing derby this weekend and summer right around the corner.

"It's such a relief to have that over," said Leslie Cox, owner of The Forks Resort and president of the Bass Lake Chamber of Commerce. "I think we can anticipate things being back to normal this summer.

"The lake won't be full to the brim, but it'll be much fuller than it's been the last few years."

To reduce the risk of flooding while the century-old dam was bolstered to meet modern earthquake standards, lake levels were dropped 10 feet below capacity. (Last year, it was actually closer to 11 feet.) As a result, many boat docks were out of the water, leaving exposed coves and beaches, especially along the lake's shallower northwest side.

There are no such restrictions this year, except those imposed by Mother Nature.

Lake levels have already reached last year's maximum and continue to rise about an inch a day. Marc Sobel, a business owner who tracks the lake's conditions and events on his website, basslakeca.com, said he expects water levels this summer to top out at about 6 feet below capacity, which is normal for a low snowpack year like this one.

"More docks will be in the water and the coves will be wider and fuller, especially where the beaches are," Sobel said. "Six feet (below capacity) is functional for 99% of the lake. Only about 20 to 25 docks on the north end won't be floating."

Bass Lake isn't especially wide -- about a half-mile at its narrowest point -- so more water provides more room to maneuver for boaters and personal watercraft users.

The fishing has really picked up as well now that the lake's famous water clarity is no longer muddied by dredging.

Bass anglers are enjoying a tremendous spring. A 9-pound spotted bass was reported to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Cox said she's personally seen an 8-pound largemouth and two 7-pounders caught over the past two weeks.

"We've seen some huge stringers of crappie, too," Cox added.

Of course, rainbow trout will be the most heavily targeted fish at Bass Lake this summer thanks to stocking efforts by the CDFW and lake operator PG&E.

Between the two, almost 40,000 trout will be planted, including 1,500 pounds worth of trophy fish weighing between 4 and 10 pounds. The largest trout caught so far this year weighed 9 pounds, 2 ounces, fishing guide Todd Wittwer said.

More trout plants, including a fresh batch of trophy fish, were scheduled this week in advance of the Bass Lake Fishing Derby. The annual event, featuring $55,000 in tagged fish, used to draw more than 1,000 anglers, Cox said. But those numbers slid to 700-800 during the dam project.

"We're anticipating big numbers this year based on the registration," Cox said.

Unlike trout, strictly a put-and-take fishery, Bass Lake's once-thriving kokanee salmon population will take longer to recover.

Planted as fingerlings, kokanee typically take three years to mature into adults. And they are much more sensitive than trout to changes in environmental factors such as water temperatures, dissolved oxygen levels and turbidity.

According to Wittwer, owner of the Kokanee.net Guide Service, anglers have been catching some early maturing 2-year-old kokanee, but no 3-year-olds have been caught since July. He said aging tests, taken from more than a dozen scale samples, bear that out.

However, CDFW supervising biologist Brian Beal isn't ready to say all the 3-year-old kokanee have perished.

"It's not a strong class, certainly, but we can't say there's a complete die-off," Beal said. "There's been no evidence of that."

Beal said it would take about a year for zoe plankton, the kokanee's primary food source, to re-establish itself and that he will be looking this fall to see whether the kokanee congregate in the usual places.

"Most people at Bass Lake are targeting rainbow trout, and they're quite happy," Beal said. "But we recognize there's a group of anglers that do target kokanee ... and that their fishery has been affected."

Now that the dam project is completed, pedestrians and cyclists are once again allowed to cross the 1,880-foot-long earth-and-concrete structure. (Because Bass Lake lacks a paved road that encircles the lake, this is a welcome convenience.)

However, free parking near the dam has been reduced by half, which many fear will lead to increased congestion near the U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and Miller's Landing Resort. No parking spots were added.

"There's going to be a lot of people parked along a narrow road," Sobel said. "That whole end of the lake will be all trucks and trailers."


Fish on! $55,000 BASS LAKE FISHING DERBY

When: Saturday-Sunday, lines can be in the water only from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the two derby days.

Registration: $25 per individual or $60 per family (two adults and up to three kids 15 and under); must register by 9 a.m. Saturday and pick up wristbands at Millers Landing, The Forks or Bass Lake Boat Rentals.

Prizes: Two tagged trout worth $10,000 apiece, one worth $5,000, 150 worth $100 and 849 worth $20. Tagged fish should be verified as soon as possible on the day they are caught.

Details: (559) 642-3676 or basslakechamber.com

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6218 marekw@fresnobee.com.

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