Nick Zupo says the good news is that trout fishing at Big Bear Lake should be red-hot right now.
The bad news is that it won't be for long. Big Bear, along with all other Southern California fisheries, will be hit hard by a severe cutback in the state's trout planting program.
Zupo is a fish culturist at the Mojave River state fish hatchery, which will be closed by Oct. 1, a victim of $12.6 million in cuts in the Department of Fish and Game's 1990-91 fiscal year budget mandated by the legislature.
The cuts could be restored through legislative bail-out measures, but those--if passed--wouldn't kick in until mid-'91, and by then the Mojave River hatchery will be history.
Mojave River, in Victorville, is the southernmost of the state's 13 rainbow trout hatcheries and the primary facility for stocking Southern California waters. No other trout hatchery will be closed--and yet, Southern California is the largest area of the state with year-round trout fishing.
There also are eight hatcheries for anadromous fish--salmon and steelhead--one for striped bass and one for catfish, the Imperial Valley Hatchery, that also will be closed. Imperial Valley's loss will hardly be felt. Predator birds got 95% of its production last year.
But the loss of Mojave River means that Southern California's annual allotment of trout will be cut nearly in half, from 645,200 to 360,000 pounds. Thirty-five waters, nearly half of the 73 currently stocked, will be eliminated.
Mojave's loss will throw the burden onto the smaller Fillmore hatchery, which already is operating near capacity to serve waters in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Logistically, closing Mojave River seems to make little sense. Big Bear, the top trout fishery in Southern California, is about an 80-mile round trip by fish truck from Mojave River but a 250-mile round trip from Fillmore, an all-day haul. The supply lines for other fisheries also will be stretched, some beyond economic reason.
"Now we'll be lucky if we get a plant once a month," said Lin Crawford, who runs a tackle store in Big Bear. "(It's) a matter of how many they can bring over from Fillmore."
Until then, Big Bear and other area fisheries can live it up.
Don Von Allmen, manager of the Mojave River hatchery, said: "We'll be planting every week, and some of them will be planted more than once a week . . . sometimes more than once a day. We've got a short time to get rid of 200,000 pounds of fish."
Normally, the hatchery plants 10,000 pounds a week. Now they're unloading 50,000 pounds a week to empty the ponds by mid-September.
However, there are two problems: Some of the waters are too warm for planting trout--75 degrees at the surface temperature is the usual limit--and many of the planted fish are under legal size. There isn't time to let them grow, and their small size makes them easy pickings for predator fish, such as striped bass.
"The low elevation waters we usually hit during the winter months," Von Allmen said. "But if the water's deep enough that there's some cool water down there, we can get away with it. The ones that are suitable to plant will get a lot more fish than usual.
"Some will be sub-catchables, some fingerlings. We'll have to put the small fish where they'll have a good food supply and won't be noticed so much and will have a better chance (to survive)."
The legislative mandate called for $1.8 million in cuts for the DFG's Inland Fisheries Division. Sacrificing the two hatcheries will save $1.2 million, but Von Allmen says he isn't sure why Mojave River was picked.
"The only reason I've ever been given is they save a big lump sum of money by closing this place," he said. "It's still probably the most expensive hatchery to run. But we were always among the lowest in cost per pound."
Ken Hashagen, the DFG's hatchery coordinator in Sacramento, said: "The primary reason is that we've had some disease problems there in the past, (and) it is a hatchery that pumps its water supply and the water supply costs us about $300,000 a year. A lot of our other (hatchery) waters are gravity supply or spring supply.
"And, in reality, it was an exercise that was done in haste, as many of our exercises up here are during the legislative season. (But) I think if we had taken time to sit down and look at all our hatcheries, that one probably would still have been high on the list. Whether it would have been the one picked, I don't know."
The disease was redmouth, a stress-related affliction that hit the Mojave River hatchery in October, affecting about 10% of the fish. It has since been eradicated.
Martin Chen, a DFG fish pathologist for the Southern California hatcheries, said: "It's too bad they're closing it now because we're in the best shape we've ever been for numbers and the health of our fish. Before the dump started two weeks ago, we were crammed full of healthy fish."
One problem at Mojave River is bird predation. Night herons take 30%-40% of the production, leaving about 500,000 pounds a year to plant. Nets would keep birds out of the six 1,000-foot raceways, encompassing 60 ponds, but nets would cost $200,000-$300,000.
Von Allmen said: "This place always could have raised 600,000 pounds, but the first part of the '80s they wanted to hold down production for cost savings. The second half, when they wanted more production and bigger fish, we had the problem with bird predation."
Fillmore has only 40 ponds but it has bird netting, and, with additional staffing, will try to increase its production.
"We need to get a lot of our hatcheries bird-caged," Hashagen said. "Where we have done it, it has been very successful. The hatchery system also could use more money to modernize their trucks, improve their housing, put bird cages up."
Such improvements would be cost-effective, but the DFG lacks the capital. Worse, the cutbacks could be counter-productive economically if fishing license sales fall off with reduced angling opportunities.
Nobody involved is happy about the situation. It will affect several lives.
Von Allmen has been with the DFG for 35 years and the manager at Mojave River for 19. He doesn't know where he will be after Oct. 1, but he probably will stay with the department. The DFG has 160 vacant positions overall. One is at Mojave River, which has six employees.
Hashagen said: "We will be able to place all of our people with no problem. Unfortunately, it uproots them from family and friends. But hatchery folks are used to moving around."
The residents of Big Bear may feel it at the bank.
"(Fishing) pumps a lot of money into this little valley," Crawford said.
Nobody knows whether Mojave will reopen.
"We don't see the money right now," Hashagen said. "So there will be some fish next year (from Fillmore), but unless we can get our feet back under us, things are going to be tough for recreation down there."
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TROUT PLANTING QUOTAS In Pounds
LOS ANGELES COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Big Rock Creek 2,800 1,400 Big Tujunga Creek (lower) 2,800 1,400 Bouquet Canyon Creek 5,000 3,200 Castaic Lake 54,500 40,000 Castaic Lagoon 15,700 13,000 Crystal Lake 7,000 4,000 El Dorado Lakes 14,000 10,000 Elizabeth Lake 5,000 3,000 Peck Park Road Lake 14,000 6,000 San Gabriel River (east fork) 11,000 8,000 San Gabriel River (north fork) 22,000 1,500 Legg Lakes 16,500 13,000 Little Rock Reservoir 9,500 6,000 Puddingstone Reservoir 37,500 20,000 Santa Fe Reservoir 15,000 13,500
ELIMINATED: Arroyo Seco Creek, Big Tujunga Creek (upper), Piru Creek (Frenchman's Flat), Pyramid Lake, San Dimas Reservoir, San Gabriel River (west fork), Jackson Lake, Little Rock Creek.
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Big Bear Lake* 48,000 32,000 Cucamonga Guasti Park Lake 12,500 10,000 Glen Helen Park Lake 9,500 7,000 Green Valley Lake 9,000 5,000 Lake Gregory 19,000 10,000 Mojave Narrows 12,500 10,000 Prado Park Lake 9,500 7,000 Santa Ana River 15,000 10,000 Lake Silverwood 45,000 20,000 Yucaipa Lake 12,500 8,000
*--Plus 12,000 individual fish (75,000 pounds), sub-catchable size.
ELIMINATED: Arrowbear Lake, Colorado River (Needles), Cucamonga Creek, Holcomb Lake, Jenks Lake, Lytle Creek (middle fork), Lytle Creek (north fork), Mill Creek, Santa Ana Ruver (south fork).
SAN DIEGO COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Cuyamaca Lake 15,000 10,000
ELIMINATED: Doane Pond, Merina Lake, San Luis Rey River, Sweetwater River.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Lake Cachuma 27,100 20,000
ELIMINATED: Davy Brown Creek, Manzana Creek, Santa Ynez River.
VENTURA COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Lake Casitas 27,100 20,000 Lake Piru 36,100 25,000 Rose Valley Lake 2,700 1,000 Sespe Creek (upper) 3,300 2,000 Ventura River (north fork) 2,300 2,000
ELIMINATED: Matilija Creek, Reyes Creek, Santa Paula Creek.
ORANGE COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Laguna Niguel 13,500 10,000
ELIMINATED: San Juan Creek, Trabuco Creek.
RIVERSIDE COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE Evans Lake 7,000 5,000 Lake Perris 36,000 20,000 Lake Skinner 29,500 20,000
ELIMINATED: Cahuilla Lake, Dark Canyon Creek, Fullermill Creek, Fulmer Lake, Hemet Lake, Strawberry Creek.
IMPERIAL COUNTY CURRENT FUTURE None -- --
ELIMINATED: Sunbeam Lake, Weist Lake.