Drought impacts fishing across Southern California

Jim Matthews

STATEWIDE — 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 this was getting serious. Brown explained the meadow was usually covered in several feet of snow early in April. On this day, there was no snow anywhere near Brown, only bright sunshine and an open field.

The fact 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 to listen, and knowing it has been more than a decade since most of the state’s major reservoirs have even approached full pool, the impact of another year of low precipitation is starting to affect sportfishing.

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: 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 5 acres, according to Doug Elliott, who owns the facility. He said the lake was less than 5 feet deep, at its deepest, and it would likely dry up by mid-summer, resulting 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, drawing 3,000 or more anglers per week. Elliott said he had to lay off all of his staff.

Diamond Valley Lake, located in western Riverside County and Southern California’s highest capacity water supply reservoir, is at its lowest level since it was filled in 2002. The lake opened to the public in October 2003. It has dropped so low that the launch ramp closed April 15.

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.

In spite of the low water level, the fishery remains healthy and intact at Diamond Valley Lake; 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 is at the lowest levels since being completed in 1953. None of the boat launches are operational, but some anglers are still able to launch boats off 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. Resort and marina operators are suggesting visitors plan their respective trips earlier in spring or summer 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. 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 more than 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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