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Out of one-time disaster, a fishing oasis was born

by Nancy Cleeland
The San Diego Union Tribune, February 1, 1983

Four different species of game fish thrive these days in the Salton Sea

The Salton Sea is an accidental lake, born when the Colorado River broke through the headgate of an irrigation canal in 1905. For nearly two years, despite desperate efforts to stop it, the water poured.

Fields and homes were flooded. A town of 12,000, supported by the produce trade, was abandoned. And the firm that started it all--California Land Development Co.--went bankrupt.

When the Southern Pacific Railroad finally managed to close the break, the lake had swollen to cover 45 miles by 17 miles, by far the largest body of water within California.

Little life arrived with the new lake, and most of it died as the water became more saline. It would have been hard to imagine then that the desert lake would become the most productive fishery in the state.

Early attempts by the Fish and Game Department to establish a selfperpetuating fishery failed: Thousands of salmon and striped bass fingerlings planted there in the 1930s were never seen again.

Then, in the 1950s, three species from the nearby Gulf of California were introduced. They thrived. The orangemouth corvina, a close cousin the white seabass, has become the sea's prime game fish--some reach 30 pounds or more. Sargo and gulf croaker, smaller but far more abundant, rounded out the fishing picture.

Less than 10 years ago, a fourth game fish--tilapia found its way to the sea by way of irrigation canals, where it--was introduced to control aquatic weed growth. Prolific growers, tilapia reach sexual maturity in 60 days and reproduce every 35 days. Within a few years, the small African perch had became the dominant catch at the sea.

All four species are most active in the warm water of summer, so that is when most anglers visit the sea, even though midday temperatures can easily top 110 degrees. "Fishermen are crazy," said Tex Ritter, chief ranger at the Salton Sea state recreation area. "If the fishing's good, nothing else seems to matter."

For those unfamiliar with the sea's fish and their habits, Ritter covers the basics in a fishing class at the recreation area most Saturday mornings at 10. (For more information, write him in care of General Delivery, North Shore, Ca. 92254, or call 1-393-3059). In the meantime, a few tips:

Tilapia have become the fabled fish of the sea. In warm weather, anglers fill ice chests and buckets with their catches after a few hours of fishing. The silver-sided fish will bite through the year, until the water dips below 60 degrees.

Tilapia cannot tolerate a sustained water tempera-ture below 57 degrees. When this occurs, as it did last month, the fish die by the thousands.

Worms are the top bait for tilapia, which bite readi-ly at the shoreline. Most are in the two to three pound range. The taste is said to resemble that of scallops.

Sargo are the most likely fish to bite from now to early spring. Most sargo taken are in the two pound class, up to 14 inches. The silver perch-like fish can be recognized by one or two black bars running down its sides.

Sargo are usually taken from jettys and boats. Canned corn is the usual bait. Chumming with corn is permitted at the Salton Sea, unlike other lakes in the state. The fish is a good fighter on light tackle, and is good for eating.

Gulf croaker, or bairdiella, is a major food source for the corvina and is sometimes used as bait for that fish. However, the silvery fish, which rarely exceeds 15 inches in length, has become a popular catch because of its abundance and readiness to bite. Small pieces of cut mackerel or bonito, as well as flyrod lures, work well.

Late evenings and early mornings are best for shore fishing; offshore fishing is usually good throughout the day.

Corvina, the prized catch of the sea, is the only fish there subject to a limit. Anglers can take no more than nine corvina in a day, but most days that isn't a problem.

Jackie Dibble baits a hook with canned corn, a favored food of sargo. Below, a morning's catch of the perch-like fish. Below, Talmon Fulton and freinds wait for the next bite.

Ritter said spring is the best time to catch the racy tan and silver fish - food is scarce then, and the fish are hungry as they prepare to spawn. Most corvina caught in the sea are less than 10 pounds; the record is 36 pounds.

A schooling fish, corvina roam the sea in bands. When an angler finds one, he often finds more. Live croakers and mudsuckers are popular baits from mid-May through August. In cooler temperatures, bottom jigs or bottom-running trolling lures work best.

Boats can be launched from several private marinas around the lake, including North Shore, Bombay Beach, Salton City, and at the state recreation area, just south of North Shore. Camping is also available at the marinas, and hookups are provided.

Boaters should be watchful for high winds, which can create choppy seas as dangerous as the ocean. These winds are most likely to be encountered in March, though they occur throughout the year.

The sea is 90 miles east of San Diego, and can be reached by taking the Borrego Salton Seaway or Highway 78 through the Anza-Borrego desert, or by taking Interstate 8 east to El Centro, then driving north on Highway 111.

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