In case you haven’t heard about what’s going on out a Folsom Lake, I’ll bring you up to speed.
It started very quietly back in the fall of 1991 . The lake was extremely low that year and all three boat ramps at Granite Bay were out of the water. A fisherman soaking worms for catfish one evening near Beal’s Point caught the ugliest fish he’d ever seen. The big brown beast (he described it as a “turd with fins”) had a few giant scales scattered along it’s leathery looking hide. It had small beady eyes and a couple wormish feelers on the outsides of its rubbery lips. The heavy fish was obviously a carp – and a sick one at that – so the angler did the only right thing to do which was punt it unceremoniously up onto the beach.
The next afternoon, the fisherman told a neighbor about his hideous catch. From the description, the neighbor knew that the fish wasn’t sick – it was a mirror carp (cyprinus carpo). Unlike common carp which feature oversized scales over their entire bodies, mirror carp have only a few scales sprinkled irregularly along their flanks. So, what’s the big deal – a guy catches a carp in Folsom Lake – so what?
Well, here’s where the plot thickens – kinda. Somehow word got out that there were mirror carp in Folsom Lake. In the U.K. and much of Europe, carp – particularly mirrors – are a highly sought after sportfish, and consequently, over harvested in most waters over there. Obviously, carp don’t get fished for much here, so we have plenty of “virgin” carp waters in California. To the small, but enthusiastic group of displaced European coarse fishermen living in the Sacramento Valley, finding mirror carp in Folsom was like discovering a healthy run of 50-pound salmon in the Auburn Ravine. They were ecstatic and joyfully pursued Folsom’s mirrors until the Indian Summer ended that year in mid-November and the water got too cold for carping.
The next year found Folsom low again and the carpers were at it as soon as the fish became active in the spring. The fishing was excellent and Folsom Lake started getting a pretty good following. Carp fans came from as far as Fresno to sample the fishing and some of these excited folks told their buddies and families across the Atlantic about it. It got to the point that somebody probably could have started a guide service for carp fishing just to service the out-of-town contingent of anglers and done quite well. The only problem with that idea: you’d never be able to tell a soul what you did for a living.
Unfortunately for the carpers, the mirror fishing boom was short-lived. It peaked in the fall of ‘92 and the last bit of frenzied action that occurred in late October before the stormy season set in was the beginning of the end. That winter, Folsom filled up and the water temperature was several degrees colder than it had been the previous couple of springs. The carping started off slow and, though most anglers thought it would pick up when the waters warmed, Folsom continued to produce lousy scores all summer long (the trout, bass and catfishing were outstanding that year, however!).
Over the next few seasons, Folsom was full and the carp fishery petered out. A few hardy souls continued trying for the mirrors and scratched a few here and there, but the glory days were long past. And then, it happened.
Last spring, with the lake at an extremely low level, the mirrors started coming back in good numbers for the handful of guys who pursued them. Over the last couple weeks of March, the carp enthusiasts returned to Folsom in numbers even greater than in 1992. Not wanting the fishing to go into the tank again, the anglers formed a non-profit carp fishing and conservation club and even hired a private consultant to look into why the fishery was so cyclic. By the beginning of the summer, the independent biologist had some very strong ideas about Folsom Lake’s mirror carp fishery.
She determined that, when the lake was low – below 125,000 acre feet – deepwater clam beds were exposed to the carp. When the lake was full or close to it, the shallow-running carp were unable to access the clams, which make up a major portion of their diet. Without the clams to dine on, the mirrors didn’t fare well in the lake. The biologist found that Folsom is deficient in all the other main menu items on a mirror’s list. Therefore, it was clams or nothing for the fish. In addition, the lake’s surface temperature remained a critical 6 to 9 degrees warmer in low water years than it did when the reservoir was at capacity and the carp benefitted greatly from that as well.
So, here’s where thing start getting ugly. The carp group, armed with the biologist’s findings, has decided to sue to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (the operator of Folsom Dam) to force them to keep the lake’s level low – below 150,000 acre feet, or under one-quarter of capacity. I just caught wind of this yesterday and I’ve heard that they’re planning to try to use the Endangered Species Act as leverage. As I understand it, the biologist has identified Folsom Lake, in an extremely drawn down state, as critical habitat for mirror carp and if the reservoir is allowed to fill up each season, the mirror carp – the only ones in the U.S. – will not be long of this world.
One of the solutions the group has come up with is to drain the lake and capture all the mirror carp and put them in holding tanks. Everything else like trout, landlocked salmon, bass, catfish, bluegill, crappie and even common carp will be left to die. With the lake “purged” of other species, it will be allowed to fill to ideal carp level and then there will be an aggressive re-stocking program that will include the lake’s original carp as well as fingerlings from Europe. A hatchery facility will be built near the now inundated town of Mormon Island near Dike 8 and fish barriers will be built at the mouths of the North and South Fork American rivers to prevent unwanted “trash” species like rainbow trout from entering the lake.
If this all comes to pass, the ramifications will be felt perhaps even more downstream in the Lower American River, where runs of salmon, steelhead, shad and striped bass are surely to be affected. And if that weren’t enough, Douxbaal LTD., a French corporation that builds resorts has applied to lease or purchase the parking lots at Granite Bay. With the lake low, they want to use the flat parking areas to build a luxury carp fishing resort and theme park on. Another group wants to put in a links style golf course and a carp petting zoo on land that’s currently underwater near Rattlesnake Bar and a factory outlet mall is also in the works.
Don’t let this happen to Folsom Lake! I urge you to check with your congressman about this issue…and while you’re at it, you may want to check your calendar as well. Yep, it’s April Fools time again! Come on…a carp petting zoo? A French company called “dough ball?”