For fish and for anglers, new points of entry open opportunities
Fish and Boat biologist Ken Anderson looks for chromers at the bottom of a fish bypass channel that climbs around a waterfall on Fourmile Creek near Erie. The new bypass and nearby fish ladder provide steelheads and anglers with miles of additional access.
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ERIE, Pa. -- In steelheading circles, "access" can refer to anglers' ability to get on the water or the fish's ability to move upstream. But in Lawrence Park, where the first fishable tributary east of Presque Isle flows into Lake Erie, "access" means so much more.
Here at Fourmile Creek it's about the state Fish and Boat Commission's access to private property for construction of a first-in-the-state steelhead habitat improvement project. It's about the steelheads' access to upstream waters, denial of access to invasive sea lampreys, angler access to the stream and parking areas, and the community's access to and acceptance of a project expected to soon bring opportunities and challenges for its 3,800 residents. In time, "access" could also refer to additional structures built to get people with mobility restrictions closer to the water.
"This is something that not every municipality has the chance to participate in," said Jean Rodemaker, Lawrence Park commissioner for parks and recreation. "We're fortunate to be able to open up this access to the public."
On Monday, Fish and Boat officially christened the four-year, two-part project that had swelled to nearly $400,000, adding four miles of access to Fourmile Creek. It's part of a broader regional agenda to expand steelhead fishing opportunities. A recent study estimated the economic impact of steelhead fishing in Erie County at $10 million per year.
The Fourmile project combined federal and state monies with the cooperation of the township, the exclusive lakeside Lawrence Park Golf Club, a General Electric locomotive manufacturing plant and a local sportsmen's club. In 2010, a cement fish ladder -- an Alaskan Steep-Pass Fishway -- was built to elevate steelhead over the golf club's utility dam. More recently, following construction delays and cost overruns due to efforts to ensure the project's permanence, a unique fish bypass channel was built upstream to route steelhead around a natural 8-foot waterfall. Golf club personnel will periodically clear the ladder and bypass of gravel.
Both structures will be closed summers to keep out sea lampreys, which spawn in streams and migrate to the lake where they attach to steelhead and lake trout, often killing them. Both structures are off limits to anglers, golfers and wildlife watchers. Fishing is prohibited within 100 feet of and between the fish ladder and bypass, and anglers may not park on golf course property.
Lake Erie Permit dollars were used to purchase easements on a 5,500-foot corridor on both sides of the stream north of Route 5 extending 25 feet from the top of the bank.
"The goal of this project isn't to bring fishermen here, it's to move the fish and the anglers beyond the golf course," said PFBC fisheries biologist Ken Anderson.
Fourmile flows under state Route 5 near its juncture with Route 955 and Water Street (Lawrence Parkway), which parallels the creek. A mile of parking is available on the west side of Water Street from Route 5 to Route 20 in Wesleyville, with exceptions including two large private lots for GE employees. No public access is granted in the residential neighborhood east of the creek. South of Route 20, Fourmile rolls past public lands at Emory Red Hinkler Park and Wintergreen Gorge on Penn State University's Behrend Campus, and under Interstate 90 between the Route 8 and Route 430 exits, originating at its Greene Township headwaters.
Commissioner Rodemaker, who has been in office since February, said the previous Lawrence Park administration researched the impacts of angler access.
"Our police are out there day and night enforcing the laws. I think if we're proactive about it ... the public will know they're welcome but there will be consequences for disrespectful behavior," she said.
Fines for trespassing or littering run up to $300 plus court costs.
"[The new fishery] will boost our hotel and our restaurants, but this is bigger than just bringing in people for our businesses. I want our kids to learn about the wonderful wildlife we have, and my hope is to install [Americans with Disabilities Act] fishing access at our parks."
Fish and Boat is contacting owners of properties abutting the creek about purchasing additional conservation easements.
Fourmile has long been stocked with steelhead smolts. In 2007, when two upstream blockages were removed, about 15,000 smolts were planted and fishing was largely limited to the mouth, although local anglers caught fish that made it over the dam and falls.
Last year the creek got about 37,000 smolts -- Anderson said that number will increase in future stockings. About 400 steelhead traversed the fish ladder last year.
With sustained showers expected this week, fresh chromers are expected to inaugurate the new bypass.
Additional projects now under consideration would stretch the Erie County fishery farther south.
"We try to establish new fisheries where appropriate," Anderson said. "When we look at these projects, we consider the amount of angler access areas upstream, the strength of the run, invasive species issues, geological and biological considerations, costs and other projects."
Funding is in the pipeline for a rock ramp fishway to help steelheads climb a 4-foot waterfall on Crooked Creek in Girard Township, extending the fishery about 7 miles.
A preliminary study at Temple Creek on East Branch Conneaut Creek near Albion suggested a fishway was possible but would be expensive -- it would have to stop sea lampreys but permit the passage of endangered native lampreys, which do not prey on steelhead or lake trout.
Also on the radar, Anderson said, are Sixteenmile Creek and others with permanent impediments to fish passage.
No consideration is given to removing or bypassing temporary log jams.
"Here's what tends to happen: The logs interfere with people catching fish ... so they want to take the logs out to preserve their nice pools," said Anderson. "But stabilizing those banks provides tremendous cover for smaller fish that steelhead eat, and [the logs] cover the exposed bedrock and hold gravel."
The hot sun heats the bedrock, which warms the water passing over it, removing oxygen and making the creek uncomfortable for steelheads, he said.
"I would encourage people who have large woody debris in streams to leave it there," Anderson said.
"Large woody debris creates jams that collect gravel, which creates variability in the habitat. When you have gravel, probably a third of the water or more moves through the gravel, which cools the stream tremendously. It also adjusts the nutrient component in the stream. If we had cooler streams in Erie County, we'd have natural reproduction [of steelheads]."
First Published October 28, 2012 12:00 am