Drought impacts on fishing across Southern California

Jim Matthews

When Gov. Jerry Brown stood in a Sierra Nevada meadow a couple of weeks ago and announced California was in a serious drought, anglers familiar with the spot he was standing knew how serious this was getting. Brown explained the meadow was usually covered in several feet of snow early in April to help illustrate his point.

But the fact that this drought has been ongoing for two to five years, depending on where in the state you are talking about and which expert you choose, and knowing that it has been over a decade since most of the state’s major reservoirs have even approached full pool, the impact of another year of low precipitation is really starting to affect sport fishing.

The impacts fall into three categories: First, and the most serious, is when a place simply dries up or the water levels get so low as to not support fish or fishing. Second, water levels get so low that boat ramps and/or docks are left high and dry, preventing boat access. Third, because of a lack of fresh water inflows, water quality suffers and temperatures rise in many lakes and reservoirs, even if they do not dry up or still have boating facilities. This can kill some fish, make them lethargic so they stop feeding, or prevent trout plants.

There is also an upside to low water conditions many waters are plagued with this year: The fish in those waters are concentrated in smaller areas, which can make for better fishing, at least in the short term.

Corona Lake was closed in March because the water level was so low. The small, private lake normally has 40 surface acres but it had shrunk to about five acres, according to Doug Elliott, who owns the facility. He said the lake was less than five feet deep, at its deepest, and he said it would likely dry up by mid-summer and that would result in a total fish loss.

“The whole resource is going to be lost,” Elliott said.

Some of the finest fishing in Southern California is going to be gone.

While Corona Lake is a small private lake, it is heavily stocked with trout during the winter and catfish during the summer and it draws 3,000 or more anglers per week, and Elliott said he had to lay off all of his staff.

Diamond Valley Lake, located in western Riverside County and Southern California highest capacity water supply reservoir, is the lowest it has been since it was filled in 2002. The lake opened to the public in October 2003. It has dropped so low that the launch ramp will close April 15. Falling water levels will drop below the end of the launch ramp sometime in April and the Metropolitan Water District announced it would close the ramp in March.

Fishing will continue to be allowed in the shoreline fishing areas and from rental boats, at least until it becomes impractical or unsafe to operate the rental fleet. Kayaks and canoes (that meet the launch guidelines) will be allowed to launch as long as boarding docks are serviceable. All other facilities will remain open at DVL.

In spite of the low water level, the fishery remains healthy and intact at DVL, and the water quality is very good.

All of the San Diego County and City water supply reservoirs are very low, but all remain open to fishing and continue to have boat launching (where allowed). Ed Zieralski, the outdoor writer for the San Diego Union, reported that Barrett Lake, one of the San Diego City reservoirs, might reduce its daily angler quotes this season because the lake is so low.

On the state water project, Piru and Castiac are both low (Piru is at 37 percent capacity). Silverwood and Pyramid are both have high water levels for now. All four could be drawn way down this summer with launch ramp closures possible, especially at Castaic and Piru.

Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra Nevada out of Bakersfield is at the lowest level it has been since being completed in 1953. None of the boat launches are operational, but some anglers are still able to launch boats off the public beaches with four-wheel drive vehicles.

In the Eastern Sierra Nevada, many lakes and reservoirs will be very low by the end of the summer and resort and marina operators are suggesting visitors plan their trips earlier in the spring or summer this year to assure they are there when fishing conditions are still good. For the trout opener on April 25, nearly all of the waters with paved road access are already ice-free, even many lakes sometimes not ice- free until June. Waters already ice free include the entire June Lake Loop (Grant, Silver, Gull, and June Lakes), Crowley Lake, Convict Lake, Twin Lakes in Bridgeport, and Bridgeport Reservoir. Waters opening up and expected to be ice-free by opener include all of the Bishop Creek drainage waters, Rock Creek Lake, most of the Mammoth Lakes, Lundy Lake, and the Virginia Lakes (normally one of the only places where anglers can ice fish).

Drought-caused water quality issues and warming water temperatures have affected Department of Fish and Wildlife trout plants for over a year in waters of this region. Many waters, like Lake Gregory in the San Bernardino Mountains north of San Bernardino, had all of its late summer plants curtailed last year due to water quality concerns, but they are resuming this week and expected to continue until water conditions degrade again this summer. Low flows in some of the local streams (notably Lytle Creek) could also curtail plants in these waters this year.

Anglers planning trips should be sure to check ahead to make sure lake and launch facilities are open and check with the DFW’s trout plant website page to see if favorite waters are getting stocked.

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