PORTOLA, Calif., May 2
The anglers are back at Lake Davis, drinking their coffee at the Grizzly
Country Store, stocking up on gas and beer at Dollard's Market and making
life in general in this fishing town look like the good old days before
But people who live here know better.
The war on the northern pike is not over. Far from it. Armies of pike,
better known here as saw-tooth Satan spawns, still occupy Lake Davis, five
years after California officials thought they would have them licked, five
years into an escalating and increasingly desperate campaign of poisoning,
electrocution and even, in recent weeks, precision bombing.
The fast-breeding, rapacious species may be a prize catch in its native
habitat east of the Mississippi, but it is a savage outlaw in these parts.
Not only is it threatening to decimate the trout fishery of Lake Davis and
with it tourist-dependent Plumas County, 45 miles west of Reno, but should
it make its way out of the lake, marine biologists fear
Should the pike enter the open waters of the Sacramento and San Joaquin
Deltas, they could become nearly impossible to contain, and decimate
California's dwindling salmon and steelhead populations, among other
But just as no one knows who invited the pike here, no one knows how to get
rid of them.
The experts have tried. And tried. And tried again. There has even been talk
lately of draining the 4,000-acre lake, putting it out of commission for
five years or more. But such an idea has bitter opposition, considering that
pitting the State Department of Fish and Game against the pike has been as
successful as pitting Elmer Fudd against Bugs Bunny.
Most drastically, and disastrously, in 1997, the Department of Fish and
Game, armed with pike disaster stories from Alaska and Colorado, poisoned
the lake, killing the pike and every other living thing in it. The poison,
rotenone, also destroyed Portola's drinking water supply, leaked past where
it was supposed to, killing every fish for five miles downstream, and put
County (population 20,000) out of the fishing business it lives by for
nearly a year.
Eighteen months and $20 million in fees and fines later, including more than
$9 million in damages a judge awarded to residents who were sickened by the
poison fumes and businesses sickened by its success, the pike were back.
Since 1999, the Department of Fish and Game, with a new leadership, has
teamed up with local residents and officials to find more creative,
acceptable ways to kill the pike. They brought big brown trout to Lake Davis
to eat the pike, only to find the trout had better tastes. They have tried
fishing the pike with big nets and small nets, electrocuting them and
ensnaring them in areas that would force them to eat their spawn. But the
pike, which like to munch on snakes, ducks and other small animals along
with trout, have proved as hard to kill as giant mutant killer ants.
The latest tactic: bombing. A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Fish
and Game bombed one acre of the lake, using 1,000 feet of detonation cord
placed just below the water's surface. The bombing killed all the pike
within 25 feet of the detonation, though these were pike that the agency had
put in cages in the test area. All the uncaged pike in the area got away
(though the bombing did kill two free-roaming rainbow trout).
"It's just another tool to use to manage and maintain the pike," said Ivan
Paulsen, a senior biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, adding that
the state would replace the number of trout lost to any bombing, supplying
two live trout for each one bombed out of the water.
Mr. Paulsen, who had spent the morning net-fishing for pike, caught 10 with
an assistant's help, though he was still brooding about a particularly big
one that got away, one of about 20 his agency had wired with a radar device
to monitor migrations.
Like the detonation cord, which the department plans to use on a wider
surface perhaps as soon as the fall, Mr. Paulsen is another highly visible
tool in what an agency spokesman, Steve Martarano, called "our pike-reducing
Mr. Paulsen moved to Plumas County when the department opened an office in
Portola two years ago to demonstrate its commitment to managing the pike.
Another action was the agency's creation of a Lake Davis Steering Committee
stocked with local and county residents, as well as officials from the
department and related agencies, like the Department of Water Services.
"We're open to anything," said Mr. Martarano, who recalled the time someone
suggested harnessing lightning and electrocuting the pike ("we actually
looked into it") and the time someone suggested throwing pike-eating frogs
in the lake (the frogs wouldn't bite).
Here in Portola, while no one is forgiving or forgetting the pike poisoning
catastrophe, residents are encouraged and impressed by the Department of
Fish and Game's greatly improved attitude.
Back in '97, the department brought in 150 police officers, including SWAT
teams and sharpshooters, to quell the protests against the poisoning. These
days people like Bill Powers, the mayor of Portola, who had chained himself
to a buoy to try to stop the poisoning, have nothing but praise for the
department's efforts, even if they are not always thrilled with its results.
Fran Roudebush, a former Plumas County supervisor who considered the
Department of Fish and Game public enemy No. 1, is now chairwoman of its
steering committee as well as the local Save Lake Davis Coalition.
"It's been like night and day with Fish and Game," Mrs. Roudebush said. "I
can't tell you the difference it has made. The people who live here now have
the right to make the decision with what to do with our drinking water."
Mrs. Roudebush, who was one of the most vociferous opponents of the lake's
poisoning, is even talking about the need to try another "treatment" on Lake
Davis, as she now calls the poisoning, using the state's euphemism.
The state did it all wrong last time, she said. Maybe a second time, done
during the right time of year, with the right water temperature and the
right amount and type of poison, will do the trick, she said.
"But if we do it," she said, "it's because the community says, `This is what
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