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Since the late 1800s, artificial methods to increase the fish population in California have been employed in order to fill a void between nature’s ability to produce fish and anglers’ demands for them.
To keep up with the demand, the California state Legislature passed “An Act to provide for the restoration and preservation of fish in the waters of this state” April 2, 1870. Under this act, the three newly appointed commissioners of fisheries were given the duty to establish “fish breederies” and stock streams, lakes and bays with both foreign and domestic fish.
For areas such as Lake Almanor, having a healthy fish population is key to a thriving community. The beautiful 28,257-acre reservoir is home to a variety of fish, which help attract anglers from all over.
This manmade lake has reaped the benefits of the restoration act through the Almanor Fishing Association’s cage-rearing project. For the last 25 years, fish have been artificially planted and reared in the waters, making up more than half of Lake Almanor’s fish population.
“The whole community relies on the quality of fishing here. Lake Almanor is the key and we want to keep it as healthy as possible,” said Rich Dangler, AFA board president.
Cage rearing history
Community members Rhonda Dakota, Ruben Chavez and Jim Pleau started the Lake Almanor Fish Pen Project in 1979 with the assistance of the California Department of Fish and Game. In the beginning, only two netted squares framed in 2-by-4-inch lumber were used to rear the fish.
After a couple successful years, DFG donated four aluminum cages to the program. Not long after, Lake Oroville’s cage rearing program ended and their cages were sent to Lake Almanor.
By 1982, the program had 10 cages, which helped expand the fish rearing efforts. Today, it is the largest and most successful cage program in California.
Eventually, the DFG ran out of money to feed the fish and instead of canceling the project, AFA took over. Every year, for more than 18 years, DFG has supported the cage-rearing project by donating 50,000 rainbow trout fingerlings for planting.
When the fish arrive on the DFG truck, they are hosed into a large cage in groups of 5,000. The cage is then secured to a pontoon boat that has a special crank built just for use in this project.
Volunteers navigate the loaded pontoon to the Hamilton Branch side of Lake Almanor and then manually net the fish into 10 separate cages, with 5,000 in each cage.
The fingerlings are planted when they are about 4 to 6 inches in size and by the time they are released, they have grown to 10 to 14 inches.
Throughout the winter, normally between November and April, volunteers feed the fish on a day-to-day basis, counting and removing any that didn’t survive through the night.
Over the years, native bird life and previously reared and released fish have adapted to the feeding schedule and will often be seen hanging around the cages, waiting for their next meal.
Kokanee Power donates 15,000 pounds of fish food to last through the winter. According to Dangler, if they run out of food, the fish are released early. If any food is left over, it is donated to the Chester High School hatchery.
Usually, the fish remain in the cages until late April or early May.
Throughout the years, more than 1 million fish have been reared in the Hamilton Branch cages.
Aside from AFA’s fish-rearing program, DFG plants fish throughout Plumas County at different times throughout the year. A monthly fish-planting schedule can be found by visiting nrm.dfg.ca.gov/fishplants.
The DFG currently stocks approximately 1,000 bodies of water within California and operates 21 public hatcheries.
Continuing its successful cage-rearing project for another year, AFA members and volunteers worked together to transfer 50,000 fingerlings to the Hamilton Branch cages Nov. 6 and 7.
“This year’s fingerlings were rather large and should be 10 – 12 inches by the time they are released in late May,” reported AFA’s website.
Starting this year, DFG is requiring a mixture of both diploids (fertile fish) and triploids (sterile fish) be planted in the lake. Up until now, all fish delivered have been Eagle Lake diploids; however, with the new requirement in place, both types of fish were planted.
Eagle Lake diploids dominated the mixture with 30,000 delivered, while only 20,000 Shasta triploids were delivered.
“We are researching how well the triploids will survive in the cages,” said Dangler. “They are more susceptible to stress, which means we will have to work a lot harder to rear them.”
This year is also the first year the newly restored cages will be used. For the last three years, the 10 cages have been undergoing restoration after being in the water for nearly 25 years.
The restoration cost $37,000, which was donated by California Inland Fisheries Foundation Inc., Kokanee Power, Plumas County Fish and Game Commission and AFA.
The future of AFA
As the economy plummets, fewer and fewer people are able to contribute to memberships in groups such as Almanor Fishing Association. Over the last year, membership has declined by almost one-quarter.
Although much of the cost associated with the cage-rearing project is covered by generous donations, if membership continues to fall, the association may have to close its doors.
According to Dangler, if this were to happen, it is likely the cage program would also be forced to shut down. With the majority of Lake Almanor’s fish being reared through AFA’s project, the fish population could be faced with a decline in numbers, and anglers would be diverted out of the area.
Volunteers to help feed the fish have also seen a decline; there are several feeding slots available for this year’s batch of fingerlings. To volunteer for a feeding slot call 259-5899.
AFA membership is not limited to the Almanor area, and many of its members live throughout Plumas County. Membership levels start as low as $25. To become a member visit almanorfishingassociation.com.
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