North Park Lake has new lease on life

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It's good to be back," said Joe Guesman of Hampton, casting from the shore of North Park Lake off East Ingomar Road on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon. "A lot of people really missed this lake when it was gone."

North Park Lake is back, and while Guesman didn't catch anything that day, he and returning anglers are discovering a whole new lake. The three-year, $21 million rehabilitation of Allegheny County's largest lake is virtually complete, with additional fish stockings and plans for more upgrades remaining.

Part of the state's Early Season Trout-Stocked Waters Program, North Park Lake is open for fishing through March 31. It will close April 1 and reopen at 8 a.m. April 14, the opening day of trout season.

The lake is the signature feature of 3,075-acre North Park, located in Hampton, McCandless and Pine. Director Andrew Baechle called the lake's revival "the start of a new era."

"The fact that the county spent that much money to rehab it is just great," he said. "We've given the lake a new lease on life, and it's going to be a very good spot to fish for years to come."

Despite some bureaucratic setbacks and cost overruns, the overhaul succeeded where prior efforts to dredge the lake in the 1980s had failed. Nearly 300,000 cubic yards of sediment, which had been settling since before the lake was completed in 1936, was removed from the lake bottom. The elimination of some algae-strewn swampy backwaters has added about 15 acres to the lake, which is now about 90 acres. Maximum depth at the dam breast under Babcock Boulevard has increased from 10 feet to more than 20 feet.

For anglers fishing deep, the new North Park Lake will be snag-prone, but that's a good thing. By July 2011, fresh water running in from Pine Creek, North Branch Pine Creek and Irwin Run had covered new wood-and-rock fish habitat structures including dozens of "rock stars," "spider humps" and "post clusters" built by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to meet specific spawning and cover requirements of baitfish and game fish.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uncovered and left in place some of the original stumps -- once buried in 75 years of muck -- that remained on the lake bed when it was created. Erosion prevention "coir logs" -- tightly bound cylinders of coconut fibers -- were installed to stabilize the lake banks and provide structure for naturally colonizing vegetation as well as some 30 varieties of plants, including fox sedge, cardinal flowers and silky dogwood.

To reduce future sedimentation, Allegheny County Public Works built aquatic and land-based anti-siltation improvements on the tributaries, and new development controls in communities north of the park are intended to ease future sediment problems.

The county improved the boat launch near Irwin Run and plans to add a second. Baechle said he's working with community groups to upgrade the current bike and walking trail circumnavigating the lake and improve links to existing mobility-impaired fishing areas.

Building a lake, literally from the ground up, is a rare opportunity for biologists and wildlife managers. Rick Lorson has done it twice before -- at Raccoon and Laurel Hill lakes -- during his tenure as a Fish and Boat Commission district fisheries manager.

"Despite all the planning and all the work, each lake takes on a life of its own," he said. "You don't have as much control as you may think."

For instance, although some aquatic weeds are healthier for the lake and wildlife than others, none were planted at North Park Lake.

"That's basically a losing battle," Lorson said. "What's going to be there will get there on its own."

Denny Tubbs, Fish and Boat education specialist, said some aquatic weeds survived in the creek channels while the lake was drained. More will enter through the tributaries. The lake is expected to be naturally repopulated with the same weeds it contained before.

Bug life -- the all-important base of the lake's biology -- will also repopulate itself without human intervention. Baitfish, including various minnows, suckers, chubs, crayfish and amphibians, as well as other animals are expected to enter the lake through the tribs.

Biologists have more, but not total, control of the new lake's larger fishes. Stockings of warm-water species -- largemouth bass, bluegills, black crappie fingerlings and channel catfish yearlings -- began last year and are scheduled to continue.

North Park Lake will remain a shallow warm-water fishery with low dissolved oxygen content -- not suitable for the long-term survival of cold-water trout. Nevertheless, the first of five rainbow trout stockings in the next 11 months is planned for April 4. (If you want to help, the tanker trucks stop at 1 p.m. at the boat house.)

"We know based on our data that when we stock trout in a lake like this, on public land in an urban setting, we can expect to gather nine times the number of anglers as we could in general," Lorson said. "Eight out of nine people interested in fishing there will be interested in trout, especially in the spring."

In short, anglers like trout, and those at North Park Lake are there as a put-and-take recreational opportunity. They won't reproduce, and most are expected to be caught. Fall and winter stockings replenish the waters for ice anglers.

Some fish species are specifically not included in plans to rebuild North Park Lake.

"Carp are another one that will end up there on their own," Lorson said. "We prefer to manage without them, if possible. Before, carp made up a lot of the biomass in North Park Lake. They tie up benthic [bug] food supplies that other fish would have eaten."

Then there are the gizzard shad.

"We don't want them in there," Lorson said. "In all of our lakes where there are gizzard shad, they compete directly with bluegills and crappies, and can overwhelm the lake."

But the gizzard shad will find their way into the lake, he said, by way of bait buckets.

"A lot of times, unknowing anglers dump their bait buckets in streams or lakes, or someone thinking [the shad] may be beneficial puts them in intentionally," Lorson said. "The bottom line is wildlife management should be left to state agencies."

The launching of non-powered boats without state registration is legal at North Park Lake. Failure to clean hulls when moving boats among lakes is also likely to introduce unwanted species.

Pssst. Here's a tip: Lorson said don't forget about Marshall Lake, the North Park pond where many of the main lake's warm-water game fish were transplanted when the impoundment was drained. Letting that slip, he said, "is not going to screw it up because there's been less fishing pressure there because everybody was at North Park Lake. We didn't put any trout there."

In the months following the breaching of the lake, sediment funneled downstream, burying miles of Pine Creek's bottom all the way to the Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only area, spoiling much of the trout fishing for several years.

"When we get some high waters," Tubbs said, "[Pine Creek] will be back to exactly where it was before [the lake] was drained."

Tubbs said a healthy lake in an urban environment improves the quality of life for everyone in the region. Allegheny County, the state and other partners are footing the bill for dredging and landscape improvements at North Park Lake, but the Fish and Boat Commission pays for fish stockings and the management of aquatic wildlife through the sale of fishing licenses, leases on its properties and a federal tax on fishing supplies and equipment without input from the general funds of the county or state.

Lorson said the new North Park Lake is expected to fish well almost immediately. But during the second stage of its biological development, the lake will reach peak fertility. The once-dry and compacted lake bed will release nutrients into the water, which will work their way up the food chain to create an abundant food supply for game fish, triggering robust reproduction and peak fishing in about five years.

"My prediction," Tubbs said, "is [that] in a few years, North Park will be one of the hottest fishing spots in the area."

John Hayes: 412-263-1991 or . First Published March 11, 2012 5:00 AM


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