Fins of Fury

City of Escondido park ranger John Flohr hops up from behind his desk when I enter the rangers' office -- really a temporary trailer -- next to the snack bar in the picnic area on the southwest shore of Lake Dixon. He leads me outside and leans on the wooden porch railing in the cool shade provided by a grove of cottonwood trees. Tall and thin with a blond-to-gray mustache, Flohr seems more comfortable outside than in.

I'm here to talk trout-stocking with Flohr. Today, November 9, the lake will receive 3000 pounds of hatchery-raised trout. Asked how 3000 pounds translates into numbers of fish, Flohr, dressed in the ranger uniform of forest-green jeans and tan short-sleeve button-up shirt, answers, "It varies. This stocking will be a little bit different. Because of our derby that's coming up we're going to be putting a lot of big fish in. Generally, the weigh master at the hatchery -- who is also the driver who will deliver to us -- when he weighs out the trout and loads them in the truck, he'll take a random or average sampling of those trout and weigh them. Then he'll count the number in our sample. That tells us the average weight of the fish. It's not exact. The total weight is more critical than the count."

Every November, Lake Dixon holds its annual trout derby, a four-day event that attracts anglers from all over Southern California. Today's heavy stocking is to ensure that the fishing is good for the derby, and the large fish in the stocking are to ensure someone catches a clear weight winner. But no matter how small the trout you catch in Dixon, you keep it. Throwing it back is prohibited. "Trout don't take to being handled very well," Flohr explains. "They get damaged by being touched and by people ripping the hooks out. So although it is legal to release them by state law, it's one of our lake policies that you keep what you catch. Now, the majority of our bass fishermen are catch-and-release fisherman. A lot of the bigger bass might be caught several times before someone decides to keep it or the bass just dies from old age."

In the Sierras, the lakes and rivers are stocked with trout by the Department of Fish and Game. But were they not stocked, wild trout would live in those lakes and streams, at least until they were fished out. At Dixon Lake, there are no wild trout. If you catch a trout here, you can be 100 percent sure it began its life in a hatchery and was put in the lake less than a year ago. "Trout don't survive through the year here," Flohr explains. "The lake temperature just gets too high in the summer and the dissolved oxygen in the water gets too low. The trout have a higher oxygen requirement than other fish, and they can't survive in the higher-temperature waters. Inland Escondido gets to be 100-plus degrees, and our lake water warms up to the 80s, and that's much too high for trout. They can live in 70 degrees or below. Their ideal water temperature is 40s and 50s. The hatchery water is around 50 degrees. If you go up in the Sierras, the water in those streams is near freezing, and the trout are active and thriving."

Jim Brown, a lakes manager for the City of San Diego's water department, explains the fate trout face in local lakes. "Most of the reservoirs in San Diego County stratify thermally and chemically," he says. "In the summer, the water near the bottom of the lake is cold enough for the trout, but it doesn't have enough oxygen. The water near the surface has enough oxygen, but it's too warm for a cold-water fish like a trout."

The system of stocking a lake with trout that have no chance of thriving or surviving for the sole purpose of fishing is known as "put-and-take." In an average year, all the trout stocked in San Diego County lakes will either be caught, eaten by bigger bass and catfish, or die in the warm water. There have, however, been exceptions. "Some reservoirs," Brown says, "in some years will carry fish over; San Vicente has from time to time in the past. Miramar has, Lake Poway has, and I think Lake Wohlford has. But it's not a common situation."

Year-round trout survival, which Brown says happens in the county one or two out of every ten years, could become an annual occurrence at the 1000-acre San Vicente Reservoir in East County. "Currently," he explains, "there are plans to improve the water quality in San Vicente Reservoir with a hypolimnetic aeration system. The purpose of that system is to improve water quality, which then reduces the costs in the water- treatment plant to make that water potable for us. It reduces chemical costs and other factors. A nice byproduct for the fishery is a hypolimnetic aeration system, by destratifying the reservoir, meaning it will be mixed from top to bottom, will allow trout to survive year-round in that reservoir."

The ability of trout to survive year-round in San Vicente doesn't mean an end to stocking there. "Rainbow trout don't breed in lakes," Brown explains. "They need to go up a running stream to spawn. There may be very rare instances where they go up into Kimble Creek or Toll Road Creek or into the aqueduct that dumps into the lake, and they may successfully spawn. But, as a practical matter, they're not going to spawn successfully enough to restock the reservoir."

While Flohr and I lean on the rail enjoying the 70-degree Santa Ana conditions, we hear the rumble-rattle of a diesel engine from the parking lot on the other side of the office trailer. "I think that might be him," Flohr says. When a loud air horn blows, he adds, "Yep, that's him. Let's go."

Parked next to the office is a white GMC pickup. Flohr and I hop in and pull around the snack bar, through the parking lot, and onto a narrow blacktop road winding along the south shore of the lake. About 100 yards short of the earthen dam at the east end of the lake, we reach a locked gate. The trout truck, a two-axle, six-wheeled truck, is parked off to the left. "Hi, Mark," Flohr says as he jumps out of the truck to open the gate. Once it's open, we follow the other truck down the road and left onto the top of the dam. On the left, the surface of the lake is about 20 feet below us. To the right, about 120 feet below, is a water-treatment plant. "The water in this lake goes down into those pools down there." Flohr says. "That's where the water is treated. From there, it either goes directly out into the pipeline system or into that huge concrete pad down there, which is an underground storage tank."

At the north end of the dam, the trout truck veers left down a gradual embankment and stops 25 feet from the water's edge. We park up on top. By the time we climb out and walk down the embankment, Mark Bower, transport and equipment supervisor for the Whitewater Trout Hatchery near Palm Springs, has already pulled on his knee-high rubber boots and is pulling a 30-foot reinforced rubber hose, about a foot in diameter, from the equipment box underneath the left side of the truck's bed. On top of the flatbed sit three tanks, each holding 3000 pounds of trout. Each tank is as wide as the flatbed of the truck, each about five feet wide, four feet tall. The driver's-side end of all three has a foot-wide spout with a clamped cap over it. When Bower steps up and unclamps the foremost of the three, I expect a torrent of trout and water to rush out. Half a gallon or so spills, soaking one leg of Bower's blue jeans, but that's it. After he clamps the hose where the cap had been, Bower invites me to climb up to look into the tank. I do, and he climbs up behind me. Two latches hold the lid on the tank. Bower unlatches them and lifts the lid. I lean over and look, expecting to see a zillion replicas of the seven-inch trout I caught in Yosemite last summer. Instead, what I see look more like salmon than trout. Some are close to two feet long and must weigh eight pounds. "The biggest ones are in this front tank," Bower tells me. With that, he pulls up on a stainless steel lever on the left side of the tank directly above the spout. Immediately, the water level in the tank starts dropping half a foot per second, and the fish, startled, start flipping around, splashing cold water in my face. In less than five seconds, all the water is out, along with all but a couple of trout, which Bower gently nudges forward into the spout with a small broom.

I turn and look at the black rubber hose, undulating with the bodies of hundreds of giant trout, which have fattened on protein-rich commercial fish food at the hatchery. At the end of the hose, the fish barrel into the water with fin-flipping fury. Most dart into deeper water. Some try to swim back up the hose but are beaten back by the hurtling bodies of their tank mates. Others inexplicably swim into shallow water and beach themselves. But another ranger walking back and forth along the shore pokes them back into deeper water with a plastic boat paddle.

A hundred yards out in the lake, along the line of beachball-sized orange buoys that keep boats away from the dam, six metal fishing boats, each with a couple of anglers, are lined up in anticipation of the new trout. Another couple of fishermen stand on the shore where the buoy line meets land. The human fishermen are accompanied by one of nature's best fishermen, a large black cormorant, which has already caught himself a sizeable trout. But when he perches on one of the buoys, the trout drops out of his beak and swims away.

Bower repeats the process with the remaining two tanks, then stows his gear and gives an invoice to Flohr, who signs it, then shows it to me. "We just spent $6930," he says.

Dixon Lake, which offers fishing every day of the year except Christmas -- bigmouth bass, bluegill, and catfish are the other game fish in the lake -- charges each angler $5 to fish. Flohr pleads ignorance when asked if the permit fees cover the cost of stocking. Back at the office, he asks his supervisor, Tony Smock. "No," Smock answers, "we operate in the red. We don't collect enough income from the permits we sell to cover the cost of fishing. But this is a city recreational facility, so our main purpose is to provide recreation for the entire region. We have to buy all of our trout from Whitewater Hatchery. We don't get any state-supplied fish."

Smock says the City of Escondido spends "nearly $137,000" per year to stock Dixon Lake and nearby Lake Wohlford with trout. The breakdown is..."32,400 pounds of trout at Dixon and 26,600 pounds at Wohlford."

In comparison to the 32,400 pounds of trout Escondido puts in 75-acre Dixon Lake, the City of San Diego puts 32,000 pounds -- also from Whitewater -- in 150-acre Lake Miramar annually, and stocks Lake Murray -- also a 150-acre reservoir -- with 16,000 pounds, which the California Department of Fish and Game matches with trout from its hatchery in Mojave.

Trout isn't the only fish that the City of Escondido stocks in its lakes. Though the bass are prolific enough to keep populations up and hearty enough to survive the warm summer water, catfish need to be restocked periodically. "The catfish," Smock explains, "are from a hatchery out along the Colorado River called St. Anthony's Hatchery. This year we stocked 13,000 pounds of catfish at Dixon and 7000 pounds of catfish at Lake Wohlford."

The fish are bought by the pound. "Catfish are $2.10 a pound," Smock says, "and the trout are $2.31. We pay more than restaurants do because they're receiving them dead and we get them alive."

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