Saving Florida's Harris Chain

EUSTIS, Fla. — Man and nature have combined to make the future look a bit brighter for bass fishing in central Florida's Harris Chain.

 Rains during the past two years have relieved drought and restored flow for the string of lakes that includes Beauclair, Dora, Eustis, Griffin, Harris and Yale. That translates into improved clarity and growth of beneficial aquatic plants such as eelgrass and peppergrass.

 "We're seeing more plants in Eustis and Harris, and most lakes have increased transparency," said biologist John Benton. "Rains gave us a much needed shot."

 The Florida Bass Conservation Center (FBCC) and the Nutrient Reduction Facility on the Apopka-Beauclair Canal, meanwhile, provided two more.

 Courtesy of the center, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) stocked about 200,000 fingerlings into Griffin, and intends to do so again in March 2011 and 2012.

 "There's nothing wrong with the water quality in Griffin, except that it was so green [from algae] that light penetration was limited and plants couldn't grow," Benton said. "That meant there was a lack of habitat, and fish couldn't find the right food size at the right time in their lives."

 In other words, many small bass weren't surviving the critical first year.

 By stocking larger bass, instead of the more typical 1- to 2-inch fish, FWC hopes to bypass that problem.

 "The young hatchery-raised bass are approximately 4 inches long when we release them," said FBCC's Rick Stout. "This larger size should increase their ability to survive and ultimately increase the number of bass available for anglers to catch.

 "This is the result of coaxing the fish to reproduce in October, which is several months earlier than they would have spawned naturally."

 The stocked fingerlings will be large enough to feed on fry from crappie and bluegill as they hatch, and should grow to 14 inches within two years, about a year faster than if they were stocked at a smaller size.

 "This is the first time we've tried this advanced size at any lake in Florida," Benton added.

 And as the bass population is being supplemented at the bottom end of the chain, pollution is being diminished at the top by the Lake County Water Authority's new facility on the Apopka-Beauclair canal, which treats water flowing out of Lake Apopka. Possibly doomed never to recover, Apopka remains the poster child for a world-class fishery that was destroyed by abuse and poor management.

 During its first year, the Nutrient Reduction Facility has prevented a ton of algae-feeding phosphorus from entering Beauclair and, consequently, the rest of the chain.

 "The facility is performing very close to what we expected," said the authority's Mike Perry. "What we're doing is making a huge difference. We're already seeing more fishermen on Lake Beauclair and on the Apopka-Beauclair Canal."

 Officials explained that the facility removed 63 percent of the total phosphorus flowing through the canal in its first 12 months. It did so by treating the water with alum, which binds to the pollutants and then settles out in ponds. Thus far, about 7.4 million gallons of sediment, or "floc," have been dredged from the ponds.

 "It's too early to judge how it will perform for the rest of the chain," Benton said. "But it's a great idea."

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