AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Summertime trout fishing on Lower Illinois in jeopardy
The longtime water woes surrounding the summertime trout fishery on the Lower Illinois River near Gore in Sequoyah County may finally be reaching a tipping point.
“The summertime trout fishery, in my mind, is in real jeopardy if we can't come up with a working solution with the Corps or Southwest Power or somebody on how to get some water for the trout stream,” said Jim Burroughs, streams supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The Lower Illinois River below Tenkiller Ferry Dam is only one of two year-round trout fishing streams in the state. The Wildlife Department can maintain trout, a cold-water species, in the river even during the summer months thanks to cold-water releases coming from the dam.
However, the Wildlife Department has to rely on “borrowed” water to keep the stream cool enough for trout to survive.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is charged with managing the “conservation pool” behind Tenkiller Ferry Dam, and 100 percent of that water is allocated to public and private entities — 93 percent of it to Southwest Power Administration.
For many years, the Wildlife Department has been borrowing water from those entities to keep the summertime trout fishery intact, but in recent years it has never been enough. Several times, the Wildlife Department had to suspend trout stockings because the river was too warm.
Now, Burroughs has been told by the water and power entities that they will be using more water in the next year or two, so the Wildlife Department will not be able to borrow as much.
“This amount of water that we have been borrowing and getting by with, which isn't enough, is now going to be reduced very soon, so I am told,” Burroughs said.
As a result, Burroughs is pessimistic about the future of the summer trout fishing on the Lower Illinois if a solution is not found.
“Without a water source that ODWC has some control over, I don't see how we can maintain a summertime trout fishery,” he said.
The Wildlife Department battles with issues of water temperature and dissolved oxygen each summer on the Lower Illinois River. Water quality issues not only affect the trout in the river, Burroughs said.
“Let's say we forget about the trout,” he said. “There is still state-record quality striped bass there, stripers over 50 pounds because we have sampled them. There is state-record size walleye there.
“If you still have very poor water quality conditions, you are still very likely to have fish kills, even if you don't have trout there. The issue doesn't go away even if the trout did.”
For many years, a leak through the dam provided enough water to help the trout get by most of the time. In 2008, that leak was fixed, although Burroughs said the dam began leaking again, but not like before.
A meeting is planned in the near future between concerned anglers and representatives from Oklahoma's Congressional delegation in the Tulsa area to discuss the problem.
“We should be able to maintain a wintertime fishery, but it's the summer one that is in jeopardy. We need some kind of water earmarked for the trout stream,” Burroughs said.
“In my mind, it is going to be a federal issue more than it is a state issue because the Corps and Southwest Power are both federal entities. Anything done on a permanent basis is probably going to have to be done at the federal level.”