A drop in the lake, for a fish cause

TRAIL — Lonnie Johnson hopes 800 dead Christmas trees lining the muddy banks of Lost Creek Lake will have enough yuletide magic left in them to help solve one hell of a tongue-twister.

The trees are meant to create underwater habitat for young largemouth bass this summer and create a simple answer to the reservoir's complex conundrum:

Can small largemouth avoid the large smallmouth long enough for the small largemouth to become large largemouth and live in peace with large smallmouth?

Johnson won't even try saying that three times quickly.

But he realizes this latest batch of discarded tannenbaums could fill the present need of a few thousand palm-sized largemouth counted on to return Lost Creek Lake to largemouth prominence in Oregon.

These trees are meant to provide initial cover so introduced largemouth can hide from predatory smallmouth that over the past 20 years have overrun what once was Oregon's top largemouth lake.

"We put 2,000 little largemouth in here last year and we're hoping that, once we have these trees in, they'll have a place to live," says Johnson, a Grants Pass man and member of a consortium of bass clubs working on a long-term largemouth reintroduction project here.

"It's a perfect way to recycle Christmas trees," Johnson says.

Johnson will join other volunteers in placing the trees in the reservoir during a day-long project planned for Jan. 7 at the lake, along the upper Rogue River 30 miles northeast of Medford.

It's the latest in a never-ending series of fish plants and habitat improvement projects meant to restore some balance in Southern Oregon's most popular boating and fishing reservoir, a waterway where largemouth once were king.

When contractors built the reservoir in the mid 1970s, they clearcut the basin and carved into the rock to form the 3,430-acre lake bed — normally not a recipe for good largemouth habitat.

Initially stocked with largemouth bass and rainbow trout, the reservoir's fishery took off as largemouth feasted on fingerling rainbows and grew to become the largest largemouth in Oregon.

Lost Creek Lake earned its stripes in 1988, when Joe Pool of Central Point caught an 11-pound largemouth to set a new Oregon record.

But the lake already had tasted its fate.

Sometime in the mid 1980s, someone illegally released smallmouth bass in the reservoir. Smallmouth prefer the rocky habitat that dominates the lake, and they don't struggle with the fluctuating summer water levels as much as largemouth do.

By the mid-1990s, smallmouth bass were everywhere and only a few big largemouth remained. Smallmouth were feasting on juvenile largemouth, and by 1997 the fishery was all but gone.

That's when bass clubs began helping the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife catch smaller largemouth in nearby lakes like Willow Lake, which were over-populated.

To give them a fighting chance, biologists and volunteers began to line discarded Christmas trees in jagged lines along the muddy banks each winter when the water levels were low.

As the water rose and dropped, the smaller largemouth had brushy corridors to follow in relative safety from the larger smallmouth that patrolled open waters between them.

But too many smallmouth, too few largemouth and far too few Christmas tree rows spelled an end to the effort.

"We were tagging the smaller largemouth that we released there and we weren't seeing a whole lot of return on them," says David Haight, an ODFW fish biologist who helps manage the lake's fisheries. "It didn't seem like we got much for our effort.

By the middle of this decade, however, things changed.

Smallmouth populations seemed to steady and bass anglers like Johnson have revitalized interest in Lost Creek Lake as a trophy largemouth fishery.

Earlier this year, Johnson and others caught about 2,000 juvenile largemouth bass from Howard Prairie Lake, where they are overwhelming the trout population. ODFW trucks hauled them to Lost Creek Lake, where they were released.

Last January, volunteers anchored about 400 Christmas trees to the muddy banks of the Lost Creek Arm, where crews will do another 800 more Jan. 7.

"Given the size of the lake, what we're putting in so far isn't going to change the lake," Haight says.

Johnson knows he and his fellow largemouth lovers know the answer to their largemouth tongue-twister — more woody structure. It will just take a lot of holidays to do it.

"It's a long-term project, like eating an elephant one bite at a time," Johnson says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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