Last year I watched as Golden Algae took over Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, and Saguaro Lakes and knew I needed to learn more. I studied all I could from other states affected by golden alga and for two years documented the effects on the Tonto Lakes through my photographs.
WHAT IS GOLDEN ALGAE?
Golden algae is a single-celled plant that exudes toxins harmful to gill-breathers like clams and fish, but there's no risk to humans who handle or consume the fish. Golden algae can cause devastating fish kills and wipe out entire fisheries. Golden algae was first documented in North America in Texas in 1985 and Arizona first documented golden algae in 2005 at an urban lake in the Phoenix area (Az Memory Project). Arizona has proven to be an excellent environment for golden algae because it thrives in water with a high salt content and it has taken hold on our aptly named “Salt River” chain of lakes. Golden algae blooms can last for days, weeks, or months and can change locations daily. Locations affected by golden algae within a body of water can change overnight and sometimes only a portion of the lake is affected. Golden alga typically presents itself as a layer at the top of the water column. In Arizona, the golden algae appears to recede when the summer temperatures reach their hottest and the monsoon rains start.
2017 ARIZONA ALGAE BLOOM
In early 2017 there was a motorboat bass fishing tournament at Apache Lake and the tournament anglers unknowingly released their catches at the weigh in site into water that was affected by golden algae. This resulted in 38 tournament bass between 2-8 pounds dying (Sonoran News). The fish were caught in areas not affected by golden algae, but when caught they were either pulled through the layer of bloom, put in a live well with golden algae water, or released directly into golden algae water at the release site. These bass had no chance and this led to the Arizona Game & Fish department and Tonto National Forest putting a temporary ban on tournaments for the three affected lakes (AZFamily.com). Roosevelt Lake also has golden algae, but because of the fresh water flowing into Roosevelt via the Tonto Creek and Salt River the algae typically doesn’t reach a high enough concentration to cause fish kills.
Game & Fish tested the waters throughout the summer and on July 20, 2017, the tournament restrictions were lifted by the USDA Forest Service in conjunction with the Arizona Game & Fish Department (USDA Forest Service), but unbeknownst to them the algae bloom was not gone. The week prior to the scheduled tournament on 08/12/17 I watched the bloom hit the west end of Canyon Lake and kill fish (mostly shad), but the bloom moved locations the week of the tourney to the east end where the tournament release site was at Laguna boat ramp. I showed up on Saturday to watch the weigh in and my plan was to return a couple days later to catch some of those released fish, but what I found on my return shocked me and literally left me in tears.
It was a bass massacre and the stench of death was everywhere. Turkey vultures were feasting on dead bass at the shoreline and the smell was so bad I was nauseated. I paddled around the lake and everywhere I looked I saw dead bass and they were big bass. My hopes of catching fish were crushed, but even worse all of them were dead. There were literally hundreds of dead bass floating around in golden algae water. I photographed what I could and tried my best to count, but gave up after reaching 200 dead large mouth bass. The stench was horrible and I couldn’t believe that anglers who seek these fish to make money were killing them by the hundreds.
2018 ARIZONA ALGAE BLOOM
Fast forward to March 2018 when I started noticing the change again. Dead fish were popping up, the water was changing color and starting to turn yellow. Try as I might, I could not catch a fish to save my life. I’m not bragging, but rarely am I skunked and pretty much never on my home lake. When I can’t catch a fish or even get a bite, something isn't right. Over the next few weeks I tried all over the main lake, the coves, and into the arm, but the bloom was everywhere…..except I did find a few pockets that remained algae free. The fish were stacked up in these shallow pockets because if they left it, they would die from the algae. I learned right away I could catch fish in these pockets, but knew these fish were in survival mode and chose for my own peace of mind not to fish these pockets. It did not feel sporting to me and I know any fish that do survive the bloom are the reproducers for the following years so I chose to let them be.
I switched to Saguaro Lake and the bite was good for a couple weeks, but then the bloom hit there too and the bite shut off. I was flabbergasted how one day the fish were there and the next I couldn’t find a single one. I don’t use electronics, but I borrowed a buddy’s fish finder so I could visually see if I was missing the fish. My friend paddled half the main lake and me the other half. Neither one of us could locate fish at Saguaro Lake much less get a bite. The fish completely vanished.
WHAT FISH DO DURING THE BLOOM
Fish are smart. They know water with golden algae doesn’t have enough oxygen so they seek new water that does. They can do this by going deeper positioning themselves under the layer of bloom where the oxygen level is higher or they find pockets free of golden algae to stay in. They also seek out areas with fresh water coming in via underwater springs or where there’s an inflow of fresh water. Fish are safe from the bloom as long as they can find algae-free water to hold the course in until the bloom is gone, but when you throw in catch and release fishermen, their lives are in danger.
FISHING DURING A GOLDEN ALGAE BLOOM
if you catch fish under the bloom and pull them through it, they will die. If you catch them in a pocket with no golden algae and release them 20 feet away in an area with golden algae, they will die. If you catch them and put them in a live well filled with golden algae water, which is located at the top layer and what is sucked into the live well, they will die. If you catch them in clean water and transport them in a live well, there is great risk that the fish will be released in an area with golden algae and die. The Arizona Game and Fish Department recommends catching and releasing at the catch site if you don't plan on keeping the fish. Transporting fish in a live well is not recommended if you are practicing catch and release.
ETHICS IN FISHING
My guiding business is new and the toll of losing three trophy lakes was going to be tough, but I quit guiding on these lakes and moved my guided fishing tours elsewhere. What I did do was about once a month stop by Canyon Lake and do some spot checking. I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell what water has golden algae and what doesn’t just by looking at. I did purposefully catch one fish out of a pocket to photograph and show other anglers that the lake obviously was not healthy and to show that fishing these pockets was not in the best interest of the fish. Nothing about catching that big dying bass felt good, but it was part of documenting the effects of golden algae on our waterways.
MEETING WITH ARIZONA GAME & FISH GOLDEN ALGAE PROJECT MANAGER
I met with Curt the Golden Algae Project Manger with the Arizona Game & Fish Department to make sure my facts were correct and to see if he could teach me more about Golden Algae. There wasn’t much I didn’t know to be honest (all the info is available online by googling it), but he did confirm that yes all three lakes had tested positive for golden algae. He recommended releasing on site if you’re not keeping the fish and they should not be transported in live wells to other areas of the lake that might have golden algae. This is the most important thing you can do if you choose to fish water affected by golden algae.
TESTING THE HEALTH OF THE LAKE
I didn’t always bring a pole to fish when I was looking at the health of the lake. Sometimes I’d paddle and look at the overall lake and I’d swim at the beach with my little girl (remember there is no risk to humans). Water clarity and color are important when telling if golden algae is present. If the algae is there, the water will be yellowish-green and it will be thick. Visibility is decreased. I always look for signs of life near or in the water while I’m fishing and when golden algae is present, you will not find bait fish or blue herons that hunt bait fish. The water looks dead and void of all life and many times if you look around, you will see dead fish.
During summer break 2018 I’d take my daughter weekly to swim and play in the water at Canyon Lake. We would also stop at each entry point to look at the water and for signs of life. Again and again my trips were disappointing in the golden algae department and the water was dead. There were no signs of life until late July 2018 when we were wading at the beach and I felt a nibble on my foot. Something was alive down there and it nipped me! This was the first sign of life I’d seen (or felt in this case) at this beach since March. I grew excited hoping things were turning around. I showed up weekly for another two weeks and continued to see signs of improvement from shore. The water was getting more clear and I would occasionally see bait fish. I also started seeing Blue Herons returning. I decided to show up early one day and head into the arm with my kayak casting along the way. When I arrived at the lake, there were bait fish everywhere but I did not get one single bite that day. I showed up the next week and was again seeing signs of lake life (bait fish and herons). I ended up pulling a few fish out that day and overall the fish I caught looked healthy.
I fished Canyon a week later and again caught fish, including a 5.9 pounder, but now what I was seeing is the fish looked okay belly wise, but many had sores or red blisters on them. The next week I fished and pretty much saw the same thing... the fish had red blisters and were beat up. The bite was tough, but when I found them – I found them. The fish looked like they are eating well, but more than half the bass I caught had sores and/or bleeding blisters. Literally, the red blisters on these fish were bleeding when I pulled them out of the water and this was concerning.
Being unsure about the health of the lake, I asked my buddy to take me on a motorboat trip into the arm of the lake. We fished for 6 hours before he finally caught one fish and then I ended up catching three. The bite wasn’t easy and 75% of the large mouth bass we caught had sores or bleeding blisters. I waited another week and fished it again and the bite was okay if you can find the fish and the right lures. If not, you will be casting a lot and catching a little. I obviously see a difference in the amount of fish I’m catching now versus last year. It’s pretty apparent the bass took a big hit on this lake number wise, but there are definitely fish left to catch. As a followup, over the last week my buddy and I caught many bass at Canyon Lake and not a single one had bleeding blisters. All fish looked healthy. We also fished Saguaro Lake and saw pretty much the same thing with bait fish everywhere, but the bite was tougher than the same time last year.
SHOULD I FISH GOLDEN ALGAE WATER?
After all my research and before writing this blog, I again called my golden algae contact at Game & Fish to run things by him. He confirmed that Saguaro Lake & Canyon Lakes have now tested free of Golden Algae, but Apache still had one slightly positive reading near Burnt Corral, which is an area that was hit very hard by the bloom. His number one recommendation for fishing these lakes is to catch & release on site. Do not transport the fish in live wells. A few weeks ago when I was fishing I saw a man leave on his motorboat in the morning and return around noon. He parked his boat by the boat ramp and pulled two nice bass out of his live well. He set up the phone with a self timer to photograph his catches for the day and then released the fish at the ramp. I’ve seen this so many times and I don’t understand it. If you’re going to release the fish anyway, why not take a picture where you catch it and then release it on the spot? Pictures with each fish separately are not a bad thing – I do it all the time!
THE DEATH OF AN 11.5 POUNDER AND WHY CPR (CATCH, PHOTOGRAPH, RELEASE) IS SO IMPORTANT
Part of what I do is document everything I see and last year I followed for a day with a “professional” angler who caught an 11.5 pound monster large mouth bass. It was an absolutely beautiful giant bass that outweighed my personal best by almost a pound. I snapped his picture at the catch site and then he put the bass in the live well, which I didn't understand since he wasn't in a tournament. We fished the rest of the day and then headed to the boat ramp. He tied his boat to the dock and pulled out the 11.5 pounder. Aha! Now I know why he didn't release it at the catch site. He wanted everyone to see it at the boat ramp and they certainly did. Prior to the release, he attached a little metal clip weight to the pelvic fin to “help” the fish and again I didn’t understand why so I asked questions. He assured me the fish would be fine and the weight would "fall off." Hmmm...
I have many friends on the lakes and one of my hunting guide friends sent me a picture a couple days later of a HUGE dead bass over by the marina. He sent me a few angles of the fish and I could clearly see the weight on the pelvic fin that the “professional” angler left on the 11.5 pounder. Oh my goodness, that big bass was dead and why? All because he wanted recognition at the boat ramp.
CATCH, PHOTOGRAPH, RELEASE (CPR)
I’m a kayak angler and we don’t use live wells. In our tournaments we Catch , Photograph, and Release on site (CPR). Our phone records the GPS location and time on the picture and we submit the photos online. Yes, there have been some cases of cheating nationally but for the most part people are honest. It only took me a few minutes to weigh, measure, and photograph the 5.9 pound large mouth bass in the photograph below and then I released her exactly where I caught her. I practice CPR because I know this is what’s best for the fish and because I want another angler to catch these fish too! Bass fishing is a blast and because I release my fish at the catch site, I know the chances of someone else catching them is great, which means another angler gets to enjoy the catch just as much as I did. It’s sharing and I thoroughly enjoy the fact that we anglers have the ability to share our catches!
THE FUTURE OF THE TONTO LAKES
Golden algae is flourishing here because our waterways have a high salt content. The fact that we're in a drought only means the salinity is even higher. Golden algae thrives in water with high salinity and Arizona definitely has that in the aptly named “Salt” River Lakes. The golden algae project manager said he expects the same type of bloom will happen next year if we don’t get a good snow pack this winter. I asked about the spawn because Canyon Lake had barely started when the bloom hit this year and the question couldn’t be answered because so much is not known about golden algae, but it seems possible they would just skip the spawn due to the golden algae bloom. This alone will decrease the number of bass in the lakes next year not to mention the large fish kills that have taken place in 2017 and 2018.
ARE THE LAKES THE SAME?
No, Canyon Lake is not the same as last year at this time. I’ve asked a couple buddies to fish it as well so I could get their opinions and we all can tell it’s different. There are not many fish showing up on electronics. Sure I can catch, but not the numbers like before. We really don’t know, but the cycles of these lakes are changing and the quagga mussel is now here as well as evidenced when my buddy pulled some up on his lure recently at Canyon Lake. In 2016 the quagga mussel was first discovered in Canyon Lake on a boat that was removed from the lake, but where we saw the mussels was back in the arm toward the dam. This invasive species will change the lakes forever and you must be careful about spreading them unintentionally. You can avoid transporting these mussels and golden algae by cleaning, draining, and drying your watercraft and this includes kayaks! All equipment should be dry between using different lakes. It has been suggested that golden algae can be transferred in a single drop of water carried by a bird so it’s imperative that all equipment dry out between bodies of water.
The Tonto lakes are open to fish year round even in a golden algae bloom, but during a bloom the fish biting your hook is almost nonexistent. Most anglers chose not to fish these lakes and I highly respect them for their ethics and I'll be honest I felt bad fishing these lakes while I was following the bloom process. I did not fish the lake for enjoyment and I did not guide on these lakes. Every time I did my scouting, I left sad hoping the lake would some day turn around.
CURRENT STATUS OF THE LAKES
The Arizona Game & Fish Department has been testing Apache Lake, Canyon Lake, and Saguaro Lake for the presence of golden algae. Two of the three lakes are now algae free at their testing sites and are only testing positive for blue-green algae (a good algae). Apache Lake has been hit hard and still has a slightly positive reading for golden algae by Burnt Corral at last testing. Please note I said "at their testing sites" because obviously in July 2017 their tests at Canyon Lake were negative when the USDA Forest Service lifted the tournament ban, but I knew the bloom was still present and the bloom ended up moving killing hundreds of tournament bass in August 2017.
I do believe the bloom will reappear when the environment is right and this is where watching for signs of life in the water and around the water is a good idea. Also look at the water color and clarity. Yellow-green thick water with no signs of life are not good signs for catching fish. Please please please if you’re not going to keep your catch, release the fish on site and do not transport them in your live well for photography purposes. These fish have just survived a big battle and are healing/recovering, which is why I've been hesitant to write this blog. I wanted to give the survivors a little more time to recoup before the pressure was applied by anglers. The remaining fish now look healthy and I'm seeing anglers on the lake.
CURRENT FISHING REPORT FOR SAGUARO LAKE AND CANYON LAKE
Right now, Saguaro and Canyon Lakes are fairly clear with good visibility for these lakes. There is a surplus of shad and tilapia fingerlings have taken over as seen in the video above. Last year on Canyon I saw one Tilapia plus her offspring all year. This year I have seen thousands and thousands of Tilapia fingerlings. Apparently the ability to take their offspring with them has enabled the Tilapia to come out on top this year. Tilapia fry swim in and out of the mouth/gills of the adult and go where the adult goes. Bass do not do this. Bass must protect their bed and then the young fend for themselves.
The large mouth bass at Saguaro and Canyon have a VERY high food supply right now and this makes the bite tough because they’re picky, but if you can find just one thing that appeals to them, you will catch fish. Over the last week every single fish I’ve caught was free of bleeding blisters and this tells me the survivors are healing. Yesterday was the first time I've seen bass fingerlings, which means yes some Canyon Lake bass did successfully spawn this year and survive the bloom. This is a great sign for our lakes because these new fish are what will help re-grow the fishery. There are definitely fish to be caught at these lakes, but without a doubt there are less bass and they are picky.
IT'S YOUR CHOICE
When you buy an Arizona fishing license, it's your choice whether you fish a lake with an active golden algae bloom and whether you practice catch and release. If you plan on letting the fish go, the best thing you can do is fish shallow water so you don't pull them through a layer of bloom, catch the fish quickly to reduce stress, and then release it exactly where you caught it. These public land fisheries belong to all of us and if we work together toward protecting these fish during an active bloom, the fisheries will benefit in the long run.