NEW ROADS — State fisheries officials rolled into town Thursday with some 6,000 Florida-strain largemouth bass fingerlings, releasing them into False River as part of the effort to return the ailing oxbow lake to its former distinction as a fishing paradise.
The bass stocking effort is just one component of a much larger plan to restore False River to what it had been, or at least close to it, during its glory days more than 20 years ago. But for fishermen, just the prospect of soon being able to cull a bountiful catch of trophy bass from the 10.5-mile-long lake is seen as a crowning achievement.
“This is what a lot of anglers have been waiting for and we’re working for them, so we are at least trying to give them this,” said Mike Wood, director of Inland Fisheries for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “We’re stocking the lake with Florida-strain bass because they have the genetic potential to be larger-sized fish. I’m not saying they all do, but they possess the genetic potential. And a lot of anglers look for that.”
Tommy Bryan was one of 13 fishermen from the local chapter of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society who aided Wildlife and Fisheries in the bass stocking Thursday.
Each fisherman was given up to three bags of bass fingerlings, which were released from boats into various areas of the lake.
“You can’t imagine the economic impact this lake will have on the community if the lake gets its quality back,” Bryan said. “There used to be dozens of boat launches all over the river. But when the fishing fell off, the boat launches sort of just went away. We only have about three left now.”
Bryan said that 20 years ago, anglers could catch two to three trophy bass a day in False River. He hasn’t seen those kinds of catches in a while.
“This place used to be a jewel of a river,” Bryan said. “We’re just trying to bring the river back so the bass fish can spawn again.”
Of course, anglers will have to wait several years before they’ll be able to put the bass fingerlings released Thursday on their dinner tables and trophy mantels.
State law prohibits fishermen from harvesting bass from False River until the fish are at least 14 inches long. The average size of an adult largemouth bass is between 14 to 16 inches long.
They grow, on average, about a pound each year.
The fingerlings released into the lake Thursday were at least 4 inches long.
Rachel Walley, a biologist manager with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said the Florida-strain bass fingerlings were raised at the department’s hatchery in the St. Tammany Parish community of Lacombe.
Walley said the fingerlings have a “very good chance” of survival in False River’s current state of recovery.
“These fish will grow and spawn with the native bass and integrate into the existing fish population,” she said.
For the past two years, the state and members of the False River Watershed Council — a governing body of residents and local officials chaired by Wood — have been taking a more aggressive approach toward addressing the lake’s decline. Their efforts have been guided by an ambitious restoration plan the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources unveiled to the public in May 2012.
False River’s decline is mostly attributed to heavy silt buildup over the past two decades. It has affected the lake’s water quality, stifled vegetation growth and curtailed fish-spawning habitats.
Efforts in the past two years to reverse the lake’s water quality have consisted of lifting a 1991 ban on commercial fishing, thus reducing the number of bottom-feeding fish that were eating the lake’s vegetation; restocking the lake with 300 pounds of redear sunfish; and preparing an engineering report that outlines techniques to reduce siltation by better managing the lake’s drainage canals.
And in October, the LDWF used 60 tons of gravel to create spawning beds for fish to encourage a natural replenishment of lake’s fish population.
Most of the efforts were funded through a $1.5 million grant from the state.
Wood said that later this year, LDWF will start building island terraces that will help improve wildlife habitat, control water temperature and reduce turbidity.
“The siltation issues haven’t gone away; it’s going to take a lot more work from the Watershed Council to get clearer water,” Wood said. “This is really going to have to be a long-term project; a compilation of a lot of different things to get a healthy False River. One (bass) stocking won’t fix the lake, but it does make the anglers happy.”