Western Outdoor News
SoCAL FEATURE REPORT BY JIM MATTHEWS
MECCA -- James Patterson was standing on the jetty at the headquarters of the Salton Sea State Recreation Area on a sunny, warm afternoon in January watching the angler next to him reel in two tilapia at one time.
“He’s been doing that all afternoon,” said Patterson. “I’ve caught a few but my wife is outfishing me.”
But then his rod tip twitched and he picked up his rod and set the hook. Fishing with a light spinning rod, the rod took a deep bend and everyone stopped to watch him reel in the fish. When Patterson lifted the tilapia out of the water, it was -- by his own admission -- one of the smallest fish of the day, but he didn’t seem to mind. It joined the others in the cooler.
Patterson and his wife Linda had come to the Salton Sea with some friends from their Palmdale church to cash in on the unusual mid-winter bite of tilapia. The weather was balmy and the fish were biting. The jetty had about 30 anglers spaced along its length, and everyone was filling ice chests with fish. Anglers had come from all over Southern California to fish -- one group was from Hemet, two groups were from San Bernardino, two other groups from Orange County, and a big group from the Palmdale-Lancaster area. The word was getting out.
The tilapia population has been growing in the Salton Sea for the last few years, according to Sharon Keeney, a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game in Palm Desert. But she thinks the population has probably peaked because their surveys in October didn’t turn up quite as many fish. Past work has shown that the Salton Sea is one of the most prolific fisheries in the nation, producing an incredible number of fish per surface acre. It appears that hasn’t changed.
The tilapia population can be so dense that anglers snag fish when they are merely reeling in. Two anglers on Monday, who stopped fishing when they had 25 tilapia after a little more than two hours of fishing, said that two of the fish had been hooked in the back accidently. Even heavy fishing pressure seems to have no affect on the numbers of fish. Later in the spring it will be nothing to see 100 or more anglers fishing off this same jetty, and they will all catch ice chests-full of fish for days on end. Yet, the bite never seems to slow down or the tilapia numbers diminish.
The size of most of the tilapia being caught mirror what Keeney says they find in their gill net surveys. The bigger fish in the nets are usually in the 1 ¼- to 1 1/2-pound range with most of the tilapia half- to three-quarter-pounders. That is exactly what anglers were catching over the weekend.
What is unusual was the timing of this action. Normally, the tilapia bite doesn’t begin until late February at the earliest, and most of the time it takes a week or two of warm weather in March to launch the bite into high gear. But the unseasonably warm weather through late December and early January seemed to start things off earlier than normal, and many of the fish are already starting to put on their bright, spawning colors.
Salton Sea regulars know the tilapia may be a fishery swan song for the sea. They have watched the variety of fish at the sea decline over the past decade until the tilapia are the last fish that can survive in the highly salty water and its algae blooms that deplete vast areas of oxygen. This is almost ironic because the tilapia is actually a fresh water fish that has adapted to the salty conditions.
Keeney said the last corvina and croaker the DFG found in a survey was in 2003, and sargo disappeared the year before.
Corvina were once top dog in the Sea, growing to 20 pounds or more, and chopping through schools of smaller croaker or tilapia like yellowtail munching on anchovies. But the last good action on corvina was in 2002, with only a handful of skinny fish landed the following year. The death knell was a one-two punch of increasing salinity levels that finally made it impossible for corvina spawn to survive and water quality episodes that killed off both adults and young in shoreline areas.
“We still get occasional reports, third or fourth hand, of someone knowing someone who’s caught a corvina, but we haven’t actually seen one since 2003,” said Keeney.
Even the last 20 years the corvina were in the Sea, it took major winter rains to add enough fresh water to the environment to allow for successful spawns to occur, and the fishery followed boom and bust regimes. The death of the corvina fishery had been predicted since the early 1970s, but it took until this century before it finally happened.
There is a restoration plan awaiting action by the state legislature that would revive the Salton Sea’s fishery, but it is in limbo. The restoration is expensive and with the state’s ongoing budget crisis, it isn’t likely to be funded this year or in the near future. While the plan will reduce the size of the Salton Sea with a dike that bisects the body of water, allowing a portion to go dry. Salanity levels would be reduced and the corvina fishery could return one day.
Until then, there’s the tremendous tilapia fishery that can restock itself from populations in area canals and irrigation drains throughout the Imperial and Coachella valleys even when there are major dieoffs. Right now, the Salton Sea is again one of the most productive fisheries in the state.