Fish Rearing Cage Program
The Lake Almanor Fish Rearing Cage Program, one of the largest and most successful pen projects in the State, is located in the Hamilton Branch area at the intersection of Hwy. 147 and County Road A-13 at the northeast corner of Lake Almanor. This area is one of the most popular bank fishing areas for anglers and their families. The facilities at the public access area are maintained by the association which hosts parking, picnicking, and toilets.
The Fish Rearing Cage Program was established in 1985 in the Hamilton Branch area by two local fishermen, Jim Pleau and Reuben Chavez with the assistance of Ron DeCoto, a biologist with the Department of Fish & Game (DFG). They started with two nylon net pens which were located at Lassen View Resort owned by Jim and Reuben. The DFG provided the fish via hatcheries to rear during the winter months. DFG also provide food to feed the fish, acquired the necessary permit from PG&E to have the nylon nets in the waters of Lake Almanor, and took responsibility for maintenance of the net cages.
The cage program was very successful; so much so that DFG decided to provide two aluminum cages which were a much sturdier structure than nylon nets. It was at this time that the Almanor Fishing Association (AFA) was established.
In 1988 DFG provided eight more aluminum cages from a failed Lake Orville cage program. That brought the number of cages up to ten which is what AFA has today. Each cage can hold up to 5,000 fish. In addition, stairs were installed by the Screen Shop out of Redding, CA. and paid for by DFG. The stairs lead down from the top of Hamilton Branch to a transfer dock used to get to the cages. DFG continued to cover the cost for all the cage maintenance, delivery of fish, and fish food. The Almanor Fishing Association continued to be responsible for feeding the fish during the winter months (October – April). The Association did minor maintenance to the cages, docks, and pontoon boats during those early years.
In the fall of 2007, DFG transferred ownership and maintenance of the 18-year-old fish rearing cage program to California Inland Fisheries Foundation Inc. primarily because the state could no longer afford to pay for the maintenance and the fish food. In 2009 Kokanee Power was granted ownership to cover the fish food, insurance liability, and permit from PG&E for the project. AFA took ownership for the maintenance and continued responsibility for feeding the fish. This same year the cage program appeared to be in danger of ending because of the condition of the cages. After 22 years in the water, they badly needed repairs; the supporting timber and floats were water-logged and looked like one big storm away from breaking apart. The AFA Board of Directors and membership were very concerned and wanted to keep this program moving forward. In 2010 and 2011 repairs on the pens were done by volunteers with financial support from CIFFI, Kokanee Power, and the Plumas County Fish and Game Commission. Brett Womack of Almanor Dock Supply was also instrumental with the platform work that was needed. In the end, the five wooden platforms and ten aluminum pens were successfully repaired!
Historically, 50,000 Eagle Lake trout are delivered each year by the DFG (aka DFW when they changed their name in 2013). It takes 15,000 pounds of fish food during the time the fish are in the cages until they are released into the lake. To date, Jim, Reuben, and the association have released more than 3.2 million Eagle Lake trout into the lake for the enjoyment of anglers.
Fish get delivered to Lake Haven via DFW trucks and are unloaded to a transfer cage and then to the aluminum holding cages in Hamilton Branch where they remain for the winter. AFA volunteers feed the fish on a daily basis throughout the winter and early spring. When the fish are delivered, they average 4-6 inches long. When they are released starting in April or May, they are usually 10 to 13 inches long. After the release of fish, the cages remain anchored in the Hamilton Branch to await next year’s delivery.
They are cleaned several weeks before the next fish arrive in late October or early November depending on the weather.
AFA coordinates the delivery of fish two to three days in advance to give the hatchery notice. The transfer day needs to be a day where there is little or no wind so forecasted weather reports are considered. AFA recruits approximately 20 volunteers to do the transfer which may take up to two days to complete depending on the number of trucks DFW utilizes. Kokanee Power schedules delivery of the fish food so this has to be taken into consideration as well. The food gets delivered and transferred from truck by AFA volunteers to a metal cargo shed located at Hamilton Branch where it is stored for use. On feeding days, 40-pound sacks of fish food are taken from the shed, carried down the stairs to the pontoon boat, and then pulled over to the pen docks to feed the fish.
2016 has been a disappointing year for the program. There have been a number of factors that resulted in a poor year. It actually started in December 2014 when the Almanor Basin experienced a severe wind storm. Three cages were damaged and the fish found their way into the lake. In March 2015 Darrah Springs Hatchery was quarantined because of the Whirling Disease and shut down. This hatchery is the sole supplier of the fish for our cage project. AFA was told by DFW that they would not be providing any fish for the 2015/2016 cage program. The AFA Board of Directors then made the decision to not repair the cages given we would not be receiving fish and the cages would sit empty for the year. We kept pursuing DFW to see if they could find us fish, but with no luck. In late September the Shasta Hatchery, also quarantined with the Whirling Disease, was removed from the closure and delivered 30,000 Shasta Lake Trout on October 12. At that time we had six cages that could hold 5,000 fish per cage. We, in fact, received more than 30,000 fish and had to utilize a marginal cage which was damaged in the 2014 wind storm. Unfortunately, during one of the 2016 winter storms this damaged cage failed and the fish again slowly found their way out into the lake. This was not a bad thing, just an early release into the lake.
The next major problem came in the form of River Otters. Some people think they are adorable creatures but they are very destructive. They breached several cages and ate the fish. One cage is completely empty while two have few fish still remaining. Obviously, these fish are gone and not in the lake, but are in Otter’s fat bellies. The Otters have also severally damaged a number of cage covers and these will need to be repaired.
Next came floating debris from the PG&E power house. All this material came down from Walker Lake as it was overflowing and washing down all the dry debris from when the lake was drained. The water was so muddy you couldn’t see into the cages to determine how many fish we had left.
DFW is still providing the fish for this project; however, the number of fish delivered continues to decline. Last year it was 30,000 plus because of the Whirling Disease that affected the hatchery where we normally receive the fish. This year our allotment is scheduled to be only 25,000 fish due to the lack of funding for the state’s hatchery programs.
The association is in the process of writing grants to obtain funding to get the cages and covers repaired this summer to be ready for the fish in October. Let’s hope we get more than the allotment of 25,000 fish, we obtain the necessary funding for the repairs, and we don’t have the problems we experienced the past several years.
A big thanks goes to Jim Pleau, Reuben Chavez and Ron DeCoto for their foresight and initiative; PG&E for their long-standing support; California Inland Fisheries Foundation Inc. and Kokanee Power for their financial support; Brett Womack and Almanor Dock Supply for helping in a time of need; the many, many volunteers for their eagerness to do good and be personally motivated to support the pen project regardless of need – install cage pens and docks, build stairs and parking lots, transport fish and fish food, feed fish throughout winter and early spring come rain, sleet, snow, or ice; and, most importantly, to Paul Garrido for his many years of devotion and unselfish desire to keep the pen program alive.
See updates on the "About AFA" page.