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Creating warmwater fisheries takes time at Sprague Lake

Three years after Washington’s largest fisheries rehabilitation project, Sprague Lake is just barely kicking into gear.

As predicted.

The annual fall fisheries survey was conducted at the end of September in the lake’s notoriously fertile waters spanning the Adams-Lincoln county line. Results left Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologists confident that bluegills, crappie, channel catfish and largemouth bass are still young but prospering.

“It just takes time with warmwater fisheries,” said Chris Donley, district fish biologist in Spokane.

Meanwhile, surveyors using gillnets and electro-shocking boats also proved the lake holds good numbers of beefy rainbow trout, some of which are bigger than the steelhead anglers are traveling to catch in the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Unfortunately, an unusually persistent algae bloom infesting Sprague Lake has made fishing difficult for weeks.

“We closed for the year in mid-August because the water was so murky and low this summer and nobody was coming out,” said Scott Haugen of Four Seasons Campground on the lake’s northwest shore.

“This lake is so productive, you have to expect algae blooms,” Donley said, noting that the first good frost of autumn would start clearing the lake and fall fishing should be good.

But cooler weather has taken its time to arrive.

The water was still murky on Wednesday “and we still have most of the leaves on our cottonwoods, and that’s unusual,” Haugen said.

“I expect that to change any day.”

In the meantime, the Sprague Lake fishery is slowly maturing into what state biologists expect to be a standout attraction beyond the chance to catch huge rainbows.

The lake’s restart button was pushed in the fall of 2007.

In a massive project, Fish and Wildlife Department workers treated the 1,800-surface-acre lake with rotenone to kill the existing fishery, which was terribly out of balance with carp, stunted panfish and uncooperative walleyes that few anglers could hook.

To lure anglers back, large triploid trout were stocked the next spring along with the first of the fry plants to provide trout fishing for several years.

In 2009, more than 500,000 trout of various sizes had been released into the lake to grow like feeder pigs on Sprague’s annual bumper crop of aquatic insects, particularly chironomids.

But the plan from the beginning has been to establish a standout warmwater fishery for panfish and bass.

State biologists collected about 4,000 black crappie and at least 60 channel catfish from Sprague Lake before the 2007 fall treatment so the fish could be returned to the lake. These fish plus adult largemouth bass and bluegills captured from other lakes were released into Sprague in the spring of 2008 so they’d have a chance to pull off the first post-rehab spawn.

Juvenile warmwater fish species from the Columbia Basin’s Meseberg Hatchery – about 40,000 bluegill fry and 10,000 adults, 14,000 largemouth bass and 2,000 crappie – also were stocked.

“I’m not sure we had a spawn that first year, but we did in 2009,” Donley said.

So with eagerness and heightened curiosity, the Fish and Wildlife Department biologists launched three flat-bottom research boats at sunset on Sept. 27 to see the difference another year has made.

Donley took his position against the belly-high bow railing on one boat along with Bruce Bolding, the state’s warmwater fisheries program manager from Olympia. They turned on powerful flood lights and lowered a boom spiked with electrodes into the water.

Warmwater fisheries specialist Marc Divens maneuvered the boat slowly along designated stretches of the shoreline as the men up front used long-handle nets to scoop up any fish, large or small, momentarily stunned by the electric current.

Every fish captured was quickly dropped into a big livewell. After six-minute sessions, they would shut down the motor and huddle around the livewell. Bolding would scoop out the fish, weigh them and hand them to Donley, who would identify the species and measure their length.

Divens would record all the data, fish by fish, including those that were barely 2 inches long.

The men handled the fish with the skill of professionals and the kid-like curiosity that lured them into the profession.

“Look at all the sculpins,” Donley said. “They’re a native forage fish that came back naturally. They’re a main part of the diet for the bass and probably the big trout.”

But sculpins get their shots in early. Bolding handed Donley a sculpin, it’s outsized mouth stuffed with a little bass it had ambushed in the livewell.

“There’s no such thing as being too stressed out to eat if you’re a sculpin,” Bolding said. “But the bass will get their revenge.”

They speculated about scars on the bigger fish and poked through anything the bass would upchuck in the measuring trough.

They rejoiced at finding crappie and frowned when they turned up a small tench.

Largemouth bass stocked last year from the hatchery were plump and weighing about a pound. Donley said bass anglers could have enjoyable fishing now followed by a good fishery next spring and very good fishing in 2012.

Several big trout pounded the inside of the aluminum livewell with the force of a mule.

“Trout grow so fast and so strong in this lake,” Donley said, noting the fry of the year had already beefed up to 13 inches.

Then he measured a lunker rainbow at 25 inches long. “You want to eat them before they get this big” he said, shaking his head and tossing it into the lake where it might thrill an angler this month.

The biologist oohed at a bass about 3 inches long. “I’ve never seen a young-of-the-year largemouth that big,” Donley said.

But it was a few small bluegills of different sizes scooped up by the nets that finally made Donley smile.

“Aha, that’s what I want to see,” he said, sorting them out in his tray.

“This means bluegills spawned not once but multiple times this year. Now we’re talking.”

“Mark it on your calendar,” Divens said, looking up from his clipboard. “The summer of 2013 should be great fishing for bluegill in Sprague Lake.”

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