O’Neill Forebay working on low striper count

By Bruce Farris
The Fresno Bee
(Published Thursday, November, 8, 2001 5:36AM)

SAN LUIS RESERVOIR — Hand-feeding 8,000 hungry 11/2-year-old babies in 20 minutes is not as insurmountable a task for two people as it might sound.
There are another 32,000 1-year-olds that have to be satisfied daily. This takes 40 minutes for one person.

These “babies” are striped bass. They are housed in five pens joined together about 50 yards off shore in the O’Neill Forebay.

In March, the 8,000 larger fish will be released into the big reservoir to enhance a fishery that once produced three world inland striped bass records and several world line-class records.

(The last world standard came in 1992 when Hank Ferguson of Soquel caught a striper weighing 67 pounds, 8 ounces.)

Several factors contributed to a decline of fishing after Ferguson’s big catch. Foremost was the passage of a 10-fish limit for San Luis and the Forebay in 1997.

The limit was reduced to five fish after two years, but the impact of the bigger limit was obvious. It appears likely in March 2002 that the limit will be reduced to two fish with an 18-inch minimum to coincide with other state inland striper limits.

Striper fishing this year has been more productive than in the past five years, but big fish are rare.

The restoration is a combined effort of the Fresno Chapter of the California Striped Bass Association, the state San Luis Parks and Recreation and the state Department of Fish and Game. Financing is a $65,000 grant distributed from the statewide sale of striped bass stamps.

Fresno chapter president John Poindexter and I made the feeding trip to San Luis on Tuesday.

“Look at those whitecaps,” Poindexter said as we approached the gate to the O’Neill Forebay. “I want you to get an up-close look at what I’ve been telling you about. It’s pretty exciting.”

The pen water was relatively calm when Poindexter tossed his first handful of feed into the meshed covering. In an instant, the water was frothing white with fish vying for food. Only after we finished about 70 pounds was there a respite in fish enthusiasm.

Volunteers include California striped bass president Red Bartley of Modesto, Poindexter, Tim Mitchell of Mitchell’s Outpost, a college student and a parks staffer.

In the parking lot, we passed a disassembled pen.

“That one will be put together and attached to one side of the current pen setup,” Poindexter said. “We’ll sort the biggest fish from the 8,000, put them in that pen and up their feed to larger rabbit pellets.

“We have to keep a close tab on these fish because they grow so fast. Bigger fish will eat smaller ones.”

The wind picked up when we made the short trip from the boathouse to the 30-by-40-foot enclosure housing the pens.

“None of these fish will be stocked in the forebay, but obviously some will make their way back here when the water rises,” Poindexter said. “It happened this year when large numbers of 10-12 inchers showed up in the forebay.”

The program started with $15,000 in seed money. Then $50,000 was added for feed, maintenance and other expenses. Much of the labor is done by volunteers.

One of the key volunteers is Tom Hampson, who instituted a massive pen-raising project near his Mare Island home to revitalize the Delta and Bay Area striper fishery.

His 10-year program was too successful. His operation was suspended this year because state and federal officials said too many stripers would endanger the fall run of chinook salmon.

“One man’s misfortune is another’s opportunity,” Poindexter said. “Both of our pens came from Tom and he will be there [today] to help us put the second pen together.

“There still is some maneuvering that could allow Tom to pen raise his stripers on at least a limited scale. One thing about San Luis — it has every fish that’s in the Delta plus a few others.”

Contact the reporter at bfarris@fresnobee.com or 441-6347.

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