One crucial step in analyzing historic trends in fish distribution in the Upper Feather River Basin has been gaining access to the data collected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) over the past 100+ years. In order to access some of this data, I recently visited the CDFW Region II headquarters near Nimbus Dam and the American River fish hatchery, where I was able to begin digging through the vast records stored there.
While I have been steadily working on collecting and organizing any and all data and literature related to fisheries in the Upper Feather River Basin for the past few weeks, I have come across not only valuable information for analyzing the distribution of species present in the watershed, but also some interesting narratives and revealing histories. These narratives often concern changes in resource management philosophy, struggles to balance economic concerns and ecological conditions, and sometimes show evidence of shifting biological baselines. One interesting example of resource management history concerns that of the fisheries of the Lake Almanor Basin.
The dam that formed Lake Almanor was completed in 1912 (and subsequently raised in 1927), damming the North Fork of the Feather River and flooding the broad, flat Big Meadows basin, thus creating a generally shallow lake considering its vast surface area. While the fishery was considered to be in good condition through the first few decades after the lake’s formation (an explosion in productivity is typical of newly formed reservoirs), by the early 1940s it was held to be in decline. CDFW (then the Division of Fish and Game) consequently commissioned one of its Biological Surveyors, J.H. Wales, to draft a general report on the conditions of the lake. Wales identified numerous cold-water, warm-water, as well as rough fish in this initial assessment of biodiversity (Table 1, below).
Wales’ recommendations for improving the fishery consisted primarily of ramping up stocking programs. Wales was interested in testing the results of stocking various life-stages of Rainbow trout, Coho salmon, and Chinook salmon, but also exploring the effect of screening hydroelectric infrastructure and rescuing fingerlings from tributaries to improve productivity.
In 1950, a very similar assemblage of fish species in Lake Almanor was described by Robert Harry, a student biologist at CDFW, with the exceptions that the black bass species present was identified as largemouth, bluegill were listed as the only sunfish, suckers were noted as Western suckers, and Baird sculpin were added to the observation. The reason for the differences in species listed can only be speculated upon, but may have included inaccuracy of anecdotal reporting by anglers and lodge owners or by subjectivity of the surveyor.
While management of Lake Almanor had primarily focused on promoting a cold-water fishery, by the early 1960s the CDFW began considering managing the system as a warm-water fishery as well. The limnological characteristics (physical conditions) of the lake had already allowed for the establishment of numerous warm-water species, as mentioned above. In his 1962 report, C.E Geibel recommended the introduction of warm-water species such as smallmouth bass (only largemouth bass had been confirmed at this point), as well as white catfish or channel catfish. Geibel believed that warm-water fishery management would have no impact on the cold-water fishery, as the two sets of species had little overlapping distribution within the lake, and that the added perspective would improve the Lake Almanor fishery overall. Geibel even posited that warm-water species management could help to improve the cold-water fishery by allowing greater control of “rough fish,” a group of fish primarily comprised of carp, squawfish, suckers, and chub, but essentially meaning non-gamefish. While the establishment of a smallmouth fishery would in later years become a substantial success, the control of rough fish would be a management concern for a number of years to come.
Commercial fisheries and the control of rough fish…
Carp and the other rough fish are believed to have occupied the lake from the time of, or shortly after, the completion of dam construction. As the populations of these species grew, managers became concerned about the potential impacts the spectacular abundance of these species could have on the cold-water fishery. Potential negative impacts could be sorted broadly into two categories: direct, as in the form of predation on the eggs or fry of cold-water species, and indirect, as in the form of competition for forage species, among other theories. Managers were unsure about the potential degree that impacts could have on fishery production, hypothesizing effects as being anywhere from negligible to disastrous.
Interestingly, efforts to control rough fish populations were implemented early in the history of Lake Almanor. The Department of Fish and Wildlife was not only concerned about control, but efficacy of control efforts, as exemplified by the resources spent to evaluate effective means of control during the late 1960s and 1970s. These studies informed their work, which likely started with chemical treatments to control carp populations, but expanded to include trapping spawning runs in tributaries and commercial fishery permitting. For a time, a commercial carp fishery existed in the Basin that supplied fishmeal for poultry feed and fresh catch to Los Angeles markets. However, these operations were eventually shut down due to lack of sustainability of the operations. Other commercial fisheries of lesser scale and importance also existed at various times on the lake. One such fishery was for crayfish, but as the species is known to be an important forage item for sportfish, the Plumas County Board of Supervisors implemented a resolution that prohibited the commercial harvest of crayfish throughout the county. Ever since, commercial activity associated with Lake Almanor fisheries has been limited to those benefits provided by the recreational fisheries alone.
The role of forage fish and the problem of disease…
While the issue of competition with rough fish was long held to be a factor depressing the quality of the coldwater fishery in Lake Almanor, it was later understood to only be one of many. Part of the reason for the prolific rainbow trout fishery seen in the early decades after the formation of the lake was an abundant population of the native Red-sided minnow, a symptom of the overall explosion in productivity in the Lake. This fish species bolstered the quality of the fishery by acting as an abundant source of high-protein forage for the rainbow trout that inhabited Lake Almanor, allowing even average individuals to grow to impressive sizes (Wales mentions in his report an exceptional fish weighing approximately 18lbs.!).
Coinciding with the overall decline of post-construction productivity, the population of red-sided minnows eventually collapsed. Numerous reasons were cited for the decline, including predation by or competition with rough fishes, but the most probable being some sort of bacterial epidemic. With this collapse of a critical forage source for rainbow trout, the sport fishery entered true decline. As a result, CDFW began to evaluate different forage species for introduction in order to fill the ecological niche of the minnow, to once again support a productive cold-water fishery. Forage species considered included Mysis shrimp in the late 1960s, Threadfin shad in the early 1970s, and, finally, Pond smelt in the 1980s. The introduction of Pond smelt proved to be the most successful, and this species remains the primary forage source for cold-water fish in the Basin. In fact, the movement and behavior of Pond smelt heavily guides that of the target sport fish species today.
In addition to population crashes of forage species, the Lake Almanor fishery has historically been impacted by varying degrees and types of disease. As mentioned above, a bacterial epidemic was identified as a likely culprit in the collapse of the red-sided minnow population, and furthermore had delayed, altered, or halted numerous stocking efforts in the past. Some diseases commonly affect the cold-water fishery today, especially in the summer months when the lake warms and cold-water species congregate in areas with the coolest temperatures, thus allowing the spread of pathogens. The presence of disease and parasites remain a management concern today and will continue to be in the future.
Then and Now
Like many reservoirs, fisheries management in Lake Almanor has been and will continue to be is a dynamic and evolving process. While efforts and experiments by or acknowledged by the CDFW in the past have included stocking rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, Chum salmon, Sockeye salmon, and smallmouth bass, the strongest fisheries that have persisted have been those for rainbow trout, brown trout, chinook salmon and smallmouth bass. This persistence has been made possible either by continued stocking, natural reproduction, or both, and with impressive specimens of each harvested by the public every year. Because of this, stocking will likely continue to be a major source for species diversity and abundance in Lake Almanor.
The direct population control of rough fish has waned as a priority for managers (although a popular bow-fishing event hosted by local anglers that focuses on the harvest of carp occurs each summer) in favor of pursuing management of both cold- and warm-water fisheries. This shift in priority has been guided by better understanding of ecological conditions and dynamics of Lake, including how the management of the Lake affects, and is affected by, other resource areas upstream and downstream. Recent events, namely the draining of Mountain Meadows Reservoir upstream of Lake Almanor and consequent potential introduction or reintroduction of new species, underscores the implications of upstream effects and will have unforeseen effects on the future management of the fishery. Additionally, persistent drought, as well as the spectrum of climate change will likely affect the quality and composition of the fishery in years to come.
Fisheries management of Lake Almanor has always been a community concern in Plumas County with Assembly members, county supervisors, area lodge owners, campground operators, and individual citizens all in regular correspondence with CDFW regarding the resources that they rely upon and enjoy. Now more than ever, though, is the community interested and involved in the management of the reservoirs fishery, with community groups self-charged with water quality monitoring in the Basin, and angling associations steering hatchery efforts as well as habitat restorations. The local high school even has a program involving students in the running of a fish hatchery that supplies fish to the Lake.
In the future, successful management of the reservoir’s fishery and those upstream and down, in a way that satisfies the wants and needs of local communities and their visitors, will necessarily continue to be an integrative and inclusive process, requiring continued community engagement and support. Numerous opportunities exist to get involved in improving the quality of the fishery in Lake Almanor or the factors that affect it. The Almanor Fishing Association is a nonprofit organization made up of fishermen and local citizens interested in maintaining the health and quality of the Lake Almanor fishery. Feather River Trout Unlimited devotes it’s time to community outreach, education related efforts and resource conservation projects that positively affect the citizens and resources of the Feather, Yuba, and Little Truckee Rivers. The Lake Almanor Watershed Group (LAWG, formerly the Almanor Basin Watershed Advisory Committee) is a group of eleven community volunteers that exists for the purpose of addressing water quality, land use, and critical habitat issues in the Almanor Basin. Each offers its own unique opportunities, from water quality monitoring, to hands-on conservation work, to working with the next generation of anglers and scientists.
Thank you to Amber Rossi, CDFW District Fishery Biologist for Plumas and Sierra Counties, and Kevin Thomas, CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Region II, for facilitating access to the records that have informed this post. This work has been sponsored by Sierra Nevada Brewery and the New Belgium Foundation Water Conservation and Restoration Grant.