A project to reintroduce the Lake Tahoe Basin’s only native trout at Fallen Leaf Lake is moving to a new management phase after years of gathering research.
Since 2002, several agencies have worked together to recover and sustain Pilot Peak Lahontan cutthroat trout at Fallen Leaf Lake. This has required stocking the lake yearly with the native fish, while removing the threat of mackinaw by way of gillnetting.
Under a new fishery management plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would continue those methods. However, resources would be focused on protecting the cutthroat trout population instead of pursuing costly research. That includes maintaining two weirs in Glen Alpine Creek to control access to spawning areas and stop rainbow trout from moving downstream.
It also calls for the removal of rainbow trout, specifically, to prevent them from spawning with cutthroat, as hybridization could hinder the reintroduction of the “pure” native strain, according to USFWS.
The rainbow population in the area is now down to about 40 breeding-capable adults. Brown trout are also low in number.
The draft fishery management plan has not been finalized or made public at this time. But Lisa Heki, project leader with USFWS’s Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex, said she expects that to change by October.
“We’ve learned a lot about LCT and their needs in the system,” Heki said, “and now we’re ready to make it a successful fishery and conservation population.”
Some of the agencies partnering with USFWS on the project include the U.S. Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
In the past, the project has generated some concerns from the fishing community. It continues to do so following the news of its new direction.
Victor Babbitt, owner of Tahoe Fly Fishing Outfitters in South Lake Tahoe, questions the viability of the cutthroat population in the area and whether it will ever produce any larger-sized fish.
The cutthroat currently in the lake are skinny, he said, and they’ve been that way for several years. Meanwhile, many of the other fish species are being removed from the watershed.
“They (cutthroat trout) can weigh over 20 pounds, but are there 20 pound fish swimming in Fallen Leaf Lake?” Babbitt said. “No, there are not.”
According to Heki, improving recreational fishing in the watershed is a key goal of the new plan.
The hatchery added another 30,000 to 40,000 cutthroat trout to Fallen Leaf Lake last week. The fish range in size from about 8 to 10 inches, but they aren’t safe from nonnative lake trout until they reach about a foot.
The lake strain of cutthroat is believed to live 15 to 20 years, with the largest on California record caught at Lake Tahoe in 1911. That one weighed more than 31 pounds.
However, Babbitt is also concerned with the multi-million dollar cost of the project, which is still underway more than a decade later, he said.
“They’re going way too far,” Babbitt said.
Heki said Lahontan cutthroat trout do have a foothold in the watershed and that the shift to the new management phase will only make the habitat better for them to thrive.
Whatever happens, the plan to bring cutthroat back to the basin seems to be focused solely on the Fallen Leaf Lake area for now. Heki said there is no activity planned for Lake Tahoe at this time.