Webber Lake

Webber Lake is a natural Sierra lake at 6500’ elevation north of Truckee. Located in the Little Truckee River headwaters, it was recently purchased and opened to the public by Tahoe-Donner Land Trust.1

Webber Lake was once renowned for big trout (privately stocked), but it is now a put-and-take fishery with a few holdovers (standard trout fishing regulations). The lake so far has no milfoil (boats and float tubes must be “certified” by staff). It has nice pond weed beds with abundant red shiners. It is a relatively small but deep (> 40’). The lake and valley are very quiet and pristine. Eagles, osprey, terns, and cranes are common.

The lake is situated off Hwy 89 on the way to Portola in a serene mountain valley. The adjacent mountains still have late summer patches of snow. It has a nice campground ($30; 35 widely spaced sites in woods next to lake) and day-use parking area (no fee). An RV camp will open next year.

The fishery is now managed by CDFW with mostly small 8-inch planter rainbow trout and holdovers from prior years’ stocking. I have not heard of any recent catches of browns or brookies, though in the past both were commonly stocked. Natural spawning creeks that can support wild trout flow into the lake.

It is sad to see this natural gem managed as another put-and-take trout lake like most of its neighbors (Davis, Frenchman, Gold, Boca, and Stampede, etc.). It could be managed as a wild trout lake, on the model that the Nature Conservancy now manages nearby Independence Lake.2 DFW has recently started stocking Webber Lake with Lahontan cutthroat, the native trout of the Truckee watershed. This suggests that management of the lake for wild native trout might be considered in the future.

Stocked Trout Fisheries

A recent paper in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management1 describes a nationwide 20% decline over the past two decades in sport fishing for trout.  The trout angling population is getting older, while the number of young recruits is declining.  With shrinking revenues from license sales, trout anglers and agencies are concerned about potential reductions in the numbers of trout stocked and the quality of popular trout fisheries supported by stocking.

Though the researchers found little relationship between the numbers of trout stocked and catch rate (within normal levels of stocking and catch rates), they did find a positive relationship between angler satisfaction and catch rate in the Virginia lakes and rivers they studied.  They also found greater satisfaction with greater size of trout caught.  Average catch rates of stocked trout were approximately one per hour.  Total angling hours were much higher for lakes than streams primarily because of ease of access and less need for equipment.

Because numbers of trout stocked were not significantly related to catch or angler satisfaction, the researchers suggested reductions in stocking rates to counteract longterm losses in license revenues.   Because this would seem counter-productive to sustaining angler interest and effort, they suggested:

“Beyond catch metrics, we believe that demystifying the programs by increasing transparency and increasing the communication of stocking densities and the persistence of catch rates—two common concerns—may increase retention and possibly lead to the recruitment of new anglers. We encourage information exchange between agencies and their anglers.”

This past June, I wrote a post on Lake Davis, a popular Sierra trout fishery.  In that post, I spoke of perceived angler dissatisfaction with low catch rates.  Rates had fallen well below one-per-hour in recent years, into the range where angler satisfaction was very low in the above-described research paper.  I suggested that the poor catch rate was possibly due to low stocking rates, although other factors were possible (e.g., drought-related low water levels).  This fall, I have noticed a sharp uptick in the catch rate at Lake Davis and a corresponding increase in angler satisfaction and effort.  Catch rates from both shore and boat, for both bait and fly anglers, increased into the 0.5 to 1 fish per hour range, with the large size of the fish pushing angler satisfaction (and seasonal effort) to near maximum.  Given the large average size of the trout, I assume the catch rate increase is not due to higher stocking rates, because fish are usually relatively small when they are stocked.  A reasonable hypothesis is that warm water in Lake Davis, due to low water levels and lack of snowmelt this past spring and summer, probably put fish off the bite.

A final thought on declining numbers of licensed anglers.  While CDFW does sponsor activities that promote angling for young people (see photo below), there is no general program promoting efforts, projects, and specific fisheries around the state.  A more comprehensive program designed to increase angling participation, such as the programs offered by other states (e.g. Michigan, Oregon, Texas, etc.), would help to increase angler recruitment.  I like Michigan’s weekly fishing report and its fishing tips reports.  CDFW needs to generate more excitement with up-to-date news, tips, maps, and techniques.  Biologists, wardens, and creel census clerks collect a lot of information that they could share through volunteers or the CDFW blog.  CDFW could also post, link or summarize reports from guides and shops (while giving appropriate credits).  CDFW could also report on how it is managing fisheries around the state how these fisheries are faring.  One topic of interest to many anglers I know is a new fishery that has appeared in the American River, apparently as a consequence of stocking trout (steelhead smolts) from the Battle Creek hatchery (Redding) in the American River (see photos below).

Fishing in the City event sponsored by CDFW. Young people love these events, but the program needs to follow up with other elements to sustain their interest.

Fishing in the City event sponsored by CDFW. Young people love these events, but the program needs to follow up with other elements to sustain their interest.

Are these American River fish steelhead from the Battle Creek Hatchery?

Are these American River fish steelhead from the Battle Creek Hatchery?

Lake Davis Sierra Trout Fishing

Typical “trophy-sized” rainbow trout caught (and released) in May 2016 from Lake Davis. (Jon Baiocchi photo )

Typical “trophy-sized” rainbow trout caught (and released) in May 2016 from Lake Davis. (Jon Baiocchi photo1)

Lake Davis is a popular Sierra trout fishing destination in Plumas County near the town of Portola, California. Lake Davis was created in 1966 when the California Department of Water Resources dammed Grizzly Creek, a tributary of the Middle Fork Feather River, as part of State Water Project. The lake is perhaps best known for its decade-long battle over northern pike extermination efforts by CDFW that ended successfully nearly a decade ago.

Controversy now returns to the lake’s fishery, because catch rates for trout have plummeted again, similar to their decline when pike spread in the lake. This time, the problem seems to be either over-harvest by fishermen or cutbacks in CDFW’s stocking program since the huge hatchery plantings that followed the poisoning of pike (and trout) in the lake a decade ago. Did fishermen become spoiled and harvest too many fish? Or has the state become stingy with its fishery stocking and management programs?

Some speculate the state has become vindictive to ongoing lawsuits brought on by the town government by holding back on stocking. Others note that overall hatchery production, especially of the popular Eagle-Lake strain used in Lake Davis, has suffered during the recent drought. Regardless, the issues beg the question of whether changes are needed in managing some Sierra lake fisheries, if only to protect fragile local Sierra community economies sustained in large part by recreation.

Like many other popular Sierra lakes, Davis is managed by CDFW as a Hatchery Supported Trout Water. It is stocked and managed as a Put-and-Grow and Put-and-Take water. Such waters are capable of supporting trout growth and carry-over survival, but have limited capacity for natural reproduction. For Put-and-Grow fisheries, hatchery-produced trout 3-6 inches in length are stocked periodically to augment the trout population. Put-and-Take waters are stocked with catchable-sized hatchery trout in support of intensive fisheries to support waters near campgrounds, roadsides or other high access areas where angling demand is high, and where anglers often want to keep some fish. California is blessed with many such public waters sustained by CDFW and public utilities’ stocking.

At Lake Davis, many locals, visitors, and guides have noted a gradual decline in catch rates of trout, but an increasing average size of trout over the past four to five years. Catch rates including my own have gone from 20 to 10 per day to 5 to or even 1 or 2 per day. Average size has increased several inches to 20-22 inches, with larger fish common. Rather than faster growth, it appears more fish are reaching their terminal age of 4 to 5 years. A lack of smaller size trout in catches may indicate reduced stocking or poor survival of the 3-12 inch hatchery fish.

Harvest rates of 5 per day are allowed, with 10 in possession. The season is openyear round, and ice fishing is popular. Winter-spring harvest of adult trout near the mouths of spawning creeks is allowed, whereas some other Sierra lakes open in April or May to protect spawning fish. Other quality Sierra lake fisheries have reduced harvest rates of 2 fish per day. Regardless, the lake attracts many diverse fishing interests who have been attracted by high catch rates and the large size of trout over the years.

Other than harvest and stocking rates, what else has changed the lake in recent years? Certainly four years of drought has brought about the gradual drop in lake depth and surface area, with some recovery this winter and spring. Largemouth bass and shiners have returned in small numbers, but thankfully there have been no reports of pike. The trout’s food supply seems recovered and abundant for the most part. The lake’s bed of invasive aquatic Eurasian milfoil plants remains abundant. The lake’s twin sister Davis Lake in southern Oregon with restrictive fly-fishing-only regulations and no trout harvest allowed has also had its trout fishery decline in recent drought years.2

Other than stocking more fish or restricting harvest, what else could be done to improve the lake’s fishery? One option I would recommend is raising catchable and trophy sized trout in pens using local funding. This approach was recently begun at Englebright Reservoir on the Yuba River.3 It is gaining favor throughout the West for enhancing popular high-intensity trout lake fisheries where there is limited natural production and limited conflict with wild-trout populations. On Davis Lake, Honker Cove or the Dam Cove would be good locations for such an endeavor. I would also recommend stocking more sterile triploid trout, as they may grow faster and survive better to older ages by not having the urge to undergo the rigors of spawning.

For further reading on the Lake Davis trout fishery, Sierra lake fishery management, and related issues see the following: