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Exciting new fishery emerging in Englebright

Outdoors
By: J.D. Richey Journal Outdoors Columnist
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I have to give the California Game Fish Department credit. For all the negative things we can say about the organization, they’re also doing some really cool stuff. Take for example the new fishery that they’ve been instrumental in developing at Lake Englebright near Smartville. In case you haven’t heard much about it, I’ll give you the abbreviated version to get you up to speed. The Lake Englebright Fisheries Enhancement Project is the brainchild of Dr. Irving Paralichthys (known around the region as “Dr. P”), who is the Department’s chief ichthyologist. In this day and age of ever-worsening fisheries, Dr. P and Department brass have been diligently working on several plans to increase fishing opportunities in the state. The most exciting of which is the Englebright Project. In a nutshell, the program started with the team’s recognition that kokanee salmon are one of the state’s most popular gamefish. The little salmon are thriving in an increasing number of lakes throughout California, are easy and inexpensive to raise and are directly responsible for a large (and much needed) revenue boost to the Golden State’s coffers through license, tackle and boat sales. Dr. P and the gang wanted to find another species to introduce to our waters that would be as successful — or perhaps even more so — than the kokanee planting program. They took a close look at kokanee to see what biological factors contributed to their ability to thrive in California reservoirs. Kokes are a landlocked sub-species of the ocean-going sockeye salmon. It is assumed that a population of spawning sockeye got blocked off from the saltwater by some sort of major geological event and eventually adapted to freshwater and became what we now know as kokanee. Pretty much the same as their ocean cousins — only they don’t get quite as big and are able to live in freshwater. Why couldn’t you do the same with halibut, Dr. P wondered? After months of intensive research in his laboratory, Dr. P messed with the genetics of California halibut and eventually found a chromosome that, when removed from the genetic code, allowed the fish to survive in freshwater. His initial batches of altered halibut didn’t survive but he kept tinkering away and eventually found a way to make it work — I read the study after he published it and must confess that I didn’t understand even a quarter of it. But no matter, Dr. P prevailed and then started searching for body of water that his new babies could call home. After a protracted revue process of the state’s waters, in which a zillion factors like forage base, average depth, bottom composition, dissolved oxygen content, water temperature and a whole host of others were considered, Lake Englebright seemed to be the perfect fit. The first plant of 25,000 six-inch freshwater halibut was released six years ago and totally disappeared without a trace. The next year, the same thing happened and then Dr. P realized that he needed to plant the fish in the lake in the summer time when the water’s alkalinity was higher. For reasons I don’t quite comprehend, the fish did a whole lot better when stocked in July than they had in February. Anyway, that brings us to the present. While nobody really knows the halibut are there yet, Dr. P and his associate biologists have been running some deepwater trawls over the past nine months and have been capturing decent numbers of the flatfish. Apparently, the fish are doing well, he says, with an average size of about 6 pounds and fair numbers of flatties in the 10-pound class. When I asked him about the sporting opportunities that these fish would provide, he said that he had no reason to expect the fish not to be aggressive and fairly easy to catch — once people figured out where they lived. Of course, that got my brain cranking and I decided on the spot that I was going to head up there and give it a shot. I’m no halibut master, but have caught my share in the Bay and Pacific and figured I wasn’t going to totally be making a fool of myself. Dr. P said that they had netted the majority of halibut near the dam, particularly on the shelf above the main river channel near the Headquarters boat ramp. So, a buddy and I headed out there last week to give ‘er a go… Since halibut are bottom dwellers, we were not able to graph any on the fish finder, so we basically fished “blind.” We found the shelf Dr. P told us about and jigged 2-ounce Hopkins spoons slathered in Pro Cure for several hours without any luck. We managed only to get a couple funny looks from trout anglers pulling out of the marina… Then with the afternoon clouds building, we stumbled onto the ticket. We rigged up with three-way swivels and tied off 2-ounce lead balls on 18-inch droppers. To the other eye of the swivel, we went with 26 inches of leader with a small copper Sep’s dodger followed 12 inches behind by a 3.5-inch glo pink Hootchie. We trolled at 2 mph and kept our lead bouncing the sand along the flat above the river channel in 55 feet of water. Our first bite came around 3 p.m. It was what you’d call a “shaker” in the ocean — 20 inches — but there’s no size limit on halibut in Englebright, so we tossed him in the box. We were extremely stoked! Ten minutes later, my buddy got bit and missed it and then shortly thereafter, landed a sweet 6-pounder. And so it went, the clouds stayed with us for about 2 hours and in that time, we landed 8 halibut, including a dandy 9-pounder that I boated. As soon as the sun came back out, however, the bite dropped off. Maybe you just have to fish deeper when the day’s bright — I’m not sure what the deal is as I obviously don’t have a whole lot of experience with halibut fishing in a lake! I can say that I have been back a few times when there were some clouds and experienced some of the best halibut fishing I’ve ever had — all at Lake Englebright. Now, before you rush on down there and try it yourself, you haven’t forgotten about all those April Fool’s gags I’ve run in this column have ya? Yep, you guessed it — after a two year hiatus, I’m baaaaccccck! Did I get ya? Oh and by the way, Dr. P should really be called “Dr. Butt.” After all, his last name — Paralichthys — is part of the Latin name for California halibut: Paralichthys californicus. J.D. Richey is a 1986 Placer High graduate, and his outdoors pieces have been published nationally. He can be found on the Web at www.fishwithjd.com.