October 4th was a beautiful day for a boat ride on Roosevelt Lake, as I tagged along with Arizona Game and Fish Department’s (AZGFD) Amberle Jones and her team. This was the third day they had worked placing artificial habitat in the lake. There were volunteer citizens as well as AZGFD employees. All seemed to have one thing in common – they love to fish. So, they work to improve the probability of a better “catching” experience. This project began in 2014 after anglers noticed a sharp decline in the amount of sport fish.
Many wildlife species get a lot of attention – “But what about the fish? We live in a desert!” That was a great line by Dave Weedman, the aquatic habitat program manager for AZGFD.
He explained that when the lake was first filled with water, all the trees and bushes left on the lake bottom provided the habitat needed for fish to thrive. Over time and with the rise and fall of the water levels, that original aquatic habitat has eroded away. Add into the mix gizzard shad, an invasive fish that has grown unabated. “Mother Nature bats lasts and bats 1000,” added Weedman.
Jim Goughnour of Rim Country Custom Rods in Payson further explained the effect of an unchecked gizzard shad population:
Gizzard shad are bait fish which are common in many lakes around the country. Normally, gizzard shad in a lake provides a good food supply for bass. The problem with western US lakes is that the lakes do not have large amounts of cover (brush, trees and other submerged stuff) for fish to hide and more importantly to spawn. When bass, crappie and bluegill spawn in the spring, huge schools of gizzard shad can be seen attacking the nests. The balance of gizzard shad to bass was out of balance. The Gila County Roundtable was formed to meet with AGFD representatives to discuss the problem. Over the next few years due to the leadership within the Aquatics Branch and the Commission, a solution was developed which is now being implemented.
Weedman explained AZGFD performed an underwater sonar analysis that showed there wasn’t much structure left in the old river channel and the slopes had no vegetation left for good fish production. The solution was to add artificial habitat made from environmentally friendly PVC, vinyl strips, concrete, etc. Some resemble tree branches coming out of a heavy “pot” if you will, so when they are launched into the lake they stand up as a tree would. They also have give so when the water level drops they follow.
There have been over 600 volunteers involved over the last several years who pitched in to help with the work required for this project. The US Forest Service supplied the parking area where the supplies had to be assembled. The money for the program came from several sources including licensing revenue, a federal grant for sport fishing restoration, another grant for habitat partnership between nonprofit Midweek Bass Anglers AZ and US Fish & Wildlife.
When I arrived Midweek Bass Anglers members were assembling the Mossback Fish Havens. One member, Ingo Moura from Casa Grande said, “It makes me feel good to help out.” Moura also rode on the pontoon to help wrestle the heavy, awkward things into the water.
The four types of habitat used were the Mossback Fish Havens, Fishiding HighRise, Georgia Cubes and concrete fish balls. Mossback and Fishiding are commercially produced and Georgia Cubes are made from 4” PVC sewer drain pipe available at the large home centers. All provide the substrait needed for fish to survive and grow. They have a growing surface for algae and periphyton, things baby fish like to eat, as well as a place for them to hide out from predators.
The very large pontoon boat purchased by AZGFD and was needed to transport the extremely heavy concrete fish balls to their new resting place at the bottom of the lake. During my visit the volunteers would load the things onto the boat and driver, Amberle Jones, would take off at top speed until we got to the predetermined spots. Then, she would coast around checking depths until it would read from 30 to 50 feet. At Jones’ command, the crew would hoist the heavy awkward things into the deep. The boat would turn and go full bore back to the loading dock and the process would start all over again.
Curt Gill, the fish program manager for AZGFD, was on board as part of the “hoisting” crew. He will be keeping track of all of the statistics of the habitat improvement program. In about six months AZGFD will conduct a dive into the areas of the habitat installments to gather information for study.
They’ve also stocked to date over a million Florida strain Bass into Roosevelt Lake. They are known to be aggressive eaters of bait fish and will hopefully reduce the number of gizzard shad in the lake. 10,000 to 15,000 small crappie were also stocked to help replace the loss of that species due to high depredation by gizzard shad. “Really good news,” said Jim Goughnour, “Is Curt Rambo and Art Chamberlin, both longtime crappie fishing guides on Roosevelt Lake, will be assisting in determining the release sites to assure a high survival rate for the crappie.”
“We had about 20 anglers who volunteered approximately 170 hours in two and a half days. We had 20 Game and Fish Folks come out and volunteer approximately 338 hours to the project. We were able to assemble and deploy a total of 140 Mossback Safe Havens, 163 Fishiding HighRise, and 44 Georgia Cubes resulting in a total of 347 structures in two and a half days.
So far this year we have deployed 160 Mossback Safe Havens, 224 Fishiding HighRise, 102 Georgia Cubes, and 29 Concrete Fish Balls resulting in a total of 515 structures.”
Bottom line if you have been disappointed with fishing at Roosevelt the past couple of years, you’re not alone. Many thanks to the anglers, community leaders, AZGFD and other government entities for taking actions that will hopefully restore sport fishing there and make it a fun destination for anglers once again.