Feature Article: State of Clear Lake

The state of the lake: How Clear Lake is rebounding from a 2017 fish kill

BY PAUL LEBOWITZ/WON BASS ContributorPublished: Mar 26, 2019

LAKEPORT — In July 2017, a fish kill struck Clear Lake, believed to have been caused by an algae-induced shortage of dissolved oxygen in the water. Because larger fish have a larger oxygen demand, the impact fell more heavily on the lake’s trophy bass.

That was then, this is now. The lake is well on its way to rebounding according to several Clear Lake regulars interviewed by WON BASS.

“You know that Mark Twain quote, ‘The rumors of my death have been highly exaggerated?’ It fits Clear Lake,” said Kent Brown, host of the Ultimate Bass radio show and a Clear Lake tournament fisherman. “The lake lost some big fish, but still has a better size of average fish caught during competition in the state, maybe with the exception of the Delta. Clear Lake is the best tournament lake we have in the state.”

THE CLEAR LAKE bigs aren’t all gone. Here’s Paul Bailey of Big Bait Bailey Guide Service with a slug of a bass caught last fall. PHOTO COURTESY PAUL BAILEY

Brown said the lake’s current health is excellent. “The number of 2 1/2- to 4-pound fish is staggering. It has a great population of hitch, there is an incredible population of bluegill and crappie in the lake, not to mention the lake is extremely fertile with crawfish and various minnows,” he said, speaking of the lake’s current forage base, all growth pills for hungry bass.

He sees the 2017 die-off as a cyclical occurrence, and now the lake is bouncing back. Brown has seen this scenario before in his 40-year history at the lake. “Five years ago we were looking for shad minnows. We thought none were left. Now the lake is overrun with shad minnows,” he said.

According to Brown it will still take a hefty limit to win the California Open, just not as heavy as prior to the fish kill. “In April, to have a chance of winning you’re probably going to need to be somewhere in the 24-pound range a day. That’s conservative for Clear Lake weights. Four years ago I would have said without 28 pounds a day you’d have no chance of winning this tournament.”

Tim Little of the Tactical Bassing website and YouTube channel, who is also a California Department of Fish and Wildlife game warden in the area, has a hopeful outlook. “Obviously, the talk has been die-offs and the large fish that have died, but there are quite a few very large fish in Clear Lake. Large fish consume more oxygen than the little ones, but there are definitely some that survived. There are tons of 3 to 5 pounders out there now, and so much bait in the lake, in a couple years those 5 pounders will be 7, 8 and 9 pounders. It will only get better the next few years,” he said.

Where once Clear Lake was a hitch lake, now there’s tonnage of shad as well. “Before to target large bass in spring you’d follow the hitch and fish the creeks. Now you can do both. It plays into the anglers’ favor. In April (the California Open fishes April 10-12), that time of year the lake fishes awesome. I think it will take in the mid 20s a day to win. It’s getting better for sure. I caught several good fish toward the end of 2018. You need consistency. If you catch 23 to 25 pounds a day you’ll be right there,” he said.

Terry Knight, the fish reporter for the Record Bee, said the lake has changed since the fish kill. “When I ran the Record Bee tournament, we’d get a lot of 7, 8 pounders. It’s not back to that yet. We’re seeing lots of fish in good shape,” he said.

Knight said the lake is moving in the right direction. There are a lot of 5 to 6 pounders, and due to the incredible tonnage of forage, the fish are heavy. “What was a 1½-pound fish in the old days now weighs 3 pounds. Clear Lake can be a wild lake for a tournament fisherman. People will catch 20 to 30 fish a day, you just have to be on the fish. Tournament wise it’s good,” he added.

“Big Bait” Paul Bailey, who runs a guide service on Clear Lake, fishes 300 days a year. He agrees the lake is rebounding and on the upswing. “There are still a lot of fish in the lake, but the size class has dropped. There are more 2- to 3-pound fish rather than 4-6,” he said.

He figures the weights will be similar to last year’s California Open. To refresh your memory, it took 2018 California Open champ Doug Mcka 73.04 pounds over the three days of the tournament to win, just over a 24-pound average. “To win you’ll want a 34-pound stringer (one day), but we’ll see a lot more 20-pound bags,” he said. The extreme 40-pound bags? We’ll have to wait for those.

“It should only take a couple years until we’re back where we are averaging 4 to 6 pounds per fish,” he added.

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