Fish are swimming again in the Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area.
The 106-acre lake closed in 2012 due to leaks, underwent a repair last year and now is refilling fast.
On Monday, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources put 100 adult largemouth bass in the lake, with about 500 more to come.
If all goes well, it’s possible the lake could open in late spring, said Bert Deener, the fisheries regional supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.
“I’m excited,” Deener said. “In three years we are going to have sure-enough trophies again.”
Despite a major setback, the opening is on track for what was originally expected.
After the repair was completed in December, the lake began filling and soon a leak formed in a part of the lake that had not been repaired. Engineers determined that another five acres needed to be added to the 18 acres in the original repair. That added about $500,000 to the project, for a total cost of $2.9 million.
The contractor was still on site completing work around the lake when the leak was spotted, so it didn’t take long to achieve the new fix, Deener said.
On Jan. 11, the gate closed again and the lake began refilling. Now it is nearly two-thirds full and the repair is holding. The DNR has already put in thousands of forage fish, redear sunfish and bluegill bream in the lake. Crappie will also be added.
But the lake was best known for its trophy-sized bass when it closed, and this week marked the first stocking of bass.
Tim Bonvechio, senior fisheries biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources Division, arrived at the lake Monday afternoon with a tank in tow that held the fish. The bass, about 1 pound each and 12 inches long, were born last March and raised at DNR’s Bowens Mill Fish Hatchery in Fitzgerald.
It was the first of several more loads that Bonvechio will be bringing. He spent an hour gradually circulating lake water into the tank to acclimate the fish to the new temperature, which was a few degrees warmer, before releasing them into the lake. He put a single fish in by net to see how it would do, and it swam off quickly.
“You just witnessed the first bass going into the lake,” he said.
It was a big step in the lake’s comeback. When it closed, anglers were regularly pulling out bass of 10 pounds or more. When the fish were removed as the lake closed, a 13-pounder was pulled out.
Bonvechio said that recipe for success is coming back. One key to it is that bass are catch-and-release only. Also, the DNR takes the “Jurassic Park” approach with the bass, putting only females in the lake. Without the ability to reproduce, the fish will not overpopulate, which allows the bass to grow to a large size.
Although anglers won’t be pulling out any whoppers this year, the wait may not be long. The lake first opened in 2006, and Bonvechio said it took just four years before it produced a 10-pounder. Some improvements are being made this time around, including not stocking catfish. The catfish are a big competitor for food, so leaving those out should help the bass grow even better, he said.
DNR has also placed many fish attractors in the bed. Those are structures to give fish a place to hide and to encourage plant growth. Some of the structures are made out of wood pallets and some are made of PVC pipe and drain pipes. The ones made out of the pipes are a patented DNR design. Coordinates to the attractors will be published on the internet.
The lake closed after the water level dropped so low that the fish were in danger. Those fish were removed to other public fishing area. Engineers determined that water was seeping through crevices in the limestone underneath the lake bed and into the aquifer below. The fix was made by excavating away some of the lake bed, putting down geotechnical fabric, then putting red clay over that and compacting it.