Basin’s rivers, creeks overstocked with fishermen
Pat Cleary has been fishing the Sierra for most of his life. The 57-year-old Sacramento native can remember holding up heavy stringers of trout for the camera when he was a boy, all caught in rivers and creeks in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
“It sure isn’t like that anymore,” said Cleary, who accompanied his son and nephew on a fishing excursion on the East Fork of the Carson River this past May on the opening day of fishing season. “This is one of the prettiest places on earth, which is the reason I keep coming back. It sure isn’t for the fish.”
It has become the fisherman’s annual lament in the Tahoe area – where are all the fish? Although experts will tell you that the overall health of Tahoe area fisheries is good, seasoned anglers cannot help looking back fondly to the good old days.
Fishing season officially concluded last week in most areas of California, and the results are in. Even though the area has been blessed with five consecutive years of wet weather, game fish seem to be getting harder and harder to come by.
“Fishing in the basin has gotten ridiculous,” said Geoff Beer, President of the Lake Tahoe Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “In the 25 years I’ve lived here, it’s steadily grown worse and worse, with smaller and smaller fish.”
Is it true that Tahoe is past its prime as a sport fishing destination? The answer is more complicated that one might think.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, we were planting a large number of fish in the creeks,” said Dave Bezzone, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. “We’re not doing that any more, for a variety of reasons. But what I’m hearing from locals is that the fishing continues to improve.”
Five straight years of drought in the early 1990s did its part to drive down the game fish population. But more of a factor is the ever-increasing number of anglers who are taking to the basin’s waterways.
“There are probably just as many fish, just more people,” said Mike Nielsen, a fishing guide with The Sportsman outfitters in South Lake Tahoe.
“The big argument seems to be why Fish and Game won’t plant fish in creeks like the Upper Truckee. With all the revenue generated by fishermen buying licenses and equipment, it seems to me that the state should be putting something back into it.”
If one wants to come to Lake Tahoe in search of the wily trout, the best option still seems to be the outlying areas such as the east and west forks of the Carson River in Hope Valley, or the small lakes in the Desolation Wilderness area – all of which are stocked with as much as 40,000 fish per season.
Also, Lake Tahoe itself enjoyed a banner sport fishing season, with guides reporting more trophy Mackinaws than ever.
“It’s a constant challenge to keep game fish in the lake,” said Chris Healy, a warden with the Nevada Division of Wildlife. “Lake Tahoe is a very sterile environment for fish. Food is not easy to come by; there are much better places than Lake Tahoe to make your living if you’re a fish.”
Nevada Wildlife stocks about 40,000 adult rainbow trout in Lake Tahoe every season – at Cave Rock and Sand Harbor – and as many as 200,000 rainbow fry in area tributaries such as Incline Creek and Third Creek.
“If we didn’t, you couldn’t catch a rainbow on the Nevada side of the lake,” Healy said. “We’re very conscious of our sport-fishing reputation.”
Tributaries such as Incline Creek are closed to fishermen year-round. Not so on the California side, where the Upper Truckee can be fished in season – that is, if you can find a fish.
“They haven’t planted in the Upper Truckee or Trout Creek in many years,” said Beer. “To plant there right now would be silly, in my opinion. There are currently plans to divert both of those creeks, to bring them back to their original flows. In three years or so, it might make sense to put fish in there.”
When and if that happens, Beer hopes that Fish and Game will plant Lahontan Cutthroat Trout – a native species which was wiped out in the basin by early logging practices and the introduction of non-native species, such as rainbows. An experiment to reintroduce the Lahontan species at Taylor Creek was recently postponed by U.S. Fish and Game.
“Trout Unlimited’s position is that local fish populations should be self-propagating,” Beer said. “In order for that to work there will probably have to be some kinds of regulations, such as catch-and-release only, or a one-fish limit.
“There is currently a five-fish limit in California – which means that just two people going out every weekend of fishing season could kill 1,000 fish per season,” he said. “There’s no way the fisheries can endure that.”
Bezzone agrees that a stricter limit may be the answer.
“To me, planted trout suggest tourism,” Bezzone said. “A catch-and-release situation may be in the future, I don’t know. But the trout are coming back. You just have to know when and where to look.”
THE MAIN PLAYERS:
Lake Trout (Mackinaw). Introduced around the turn of the century to Lake Tahoe, there were no reported catches of large Macs until the 1940s or so. Recorded catches in Tahoe include several of over three feet long and 20 pounds. They have been recorded to live 40 years. Overall, Macs comprise the lake’s healthiest fishery, but are not found in tributaries.
Rainbow Trout. A native species from the coastal streams of Alaska to Northern Mexico – but not Lake Tahoe. The most adaptable of all trout, it was introduced in the 19th century and quickly became the Basin’s most popular game fish. Got its name from the array of rainbow colors on its sides. Found in almost all lakes and tributaries.
Brown Trout. Imported from Europe and Western Asia, this fish is identified by the red and brown spots along its body. These trout spawn in streams with gravel riffles from mid to late fall. They can live up to nine years and attain a weight of 24 pounds.
Brook Trout. Dark green or blue with white belly and a square tail, these stout fish are found in many Tahoe rivers and creeks, but not in the lake itself.
Kokanee Salmon. A member of the ocean-going Sockeye Salmon family, these fish were accidentally introduced to Lake Tahoe in 1944 when holding ponds in Tahoe City overflowed during a rainstorm. Planting at Taylor Creek and a dam to control the water have made that area its principle spawning grounds.
Lahontan Cut-Throat Trout. A native of Lake Tahoe and tributary streams, it was extinct in the area until efforts began to reestablish it in the Meiss Meadows area and the Upper Truckee River Basin. A recent plan to reintroduce it to Taylor Creek was postponed. In the 19th century it was taken out of Lake Tahoe in great numbers. Logging practices allowed silt to clog up the streams that served as spawning grounds. As the final blow, Cut-Throat were out-competed for food by by the introduction of non-native trout around the turn of the century. The name Cut-Throat comes from the yellowish to red slashes on the underside of the jaw.
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