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At long last, Dutch Fork nearly back

| Sunday, Aug. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
outdoors mainbar art (Dutch Fork). 'Spider humps' dot a field that will be hte bad of Dutch Fork Lake when it refills in time for opening day of trout season 2013. The fish-holding habitat structures are being put in place now in anticipation of the lake's return.

Just a little bit longer.

Dutch Fork Lake in Washington County has been sitting empty since 2004, when Hurricane Ivan wrecked its dam and made it so unsafe that it had to be breached. Anglers and boaters have been waiting for it to be repaired ever since.

That's finally about to happen.

And then? Look out. The lake should offer some outstanding, if challenging, fishing for a longer-than-usual period of time.

“The fishing in that lake is going to be phenomenal,” said Dave Miko, chief of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's division of fisheries management.

It's going to be available in stages starting next spring.

The nearly $5.1 million job of rebuilding Dutch Fork's dam is essentially done, said Jack Rokavec, chief of the commission's division of engineering. Next, the lake will be refilled at a rate of about two feet per week, with hold periods and even a test-lowering perhaps in the mix.

“With an earthen dam, you don't want to fill it too fast,” Rokavec said. “And once it's full, you don't want to draw it down too fast. Both can create instability.”

If all goes well, the lake should be full in five months, he added.

Opportunities to fish will follow shortly thereafter, Miko said. The commission will stock adult trout in the 91-acre lake in time for opening day 2013.

Fingerling largemouth bass, bluegills and white crappies — fish two to three inches long — will follow next summer and the one after.

Over that same time, and every year moving forward, the commission also will stock channel catfish fingerlings.

It will take a few years for those fish to reach sizes desirable to anglers, Miko said. But all should thrive — with the bass, bluegills and crappies ultimately sustaining themselves through natural reproduction — because the lake will have substantial habitat.

Over the past eight years, the lakebed has transformed into a forest, full of tall trees seemingly more suitable for deer than fish. The plan is to cut those trees to ground level in a 400-foot buffer zone around the dam. Most will be left standing throughout the rest of the lake, though, with only some “strategic removal” done in spots to create boating lanes.

That will have huge benefits, Miko said.

Any time a lake is refilled, there's what's called a “new lake effect,” a period of five to eight years when fish populations go through a boom cycle, Miko said.

“We think that with leaving more of those trees in, we can extend that boom to 15 to 20 years,” Miko said.

That will pose challenges in the short term, too, Miko said.

Boat anglers might have to adjust from casting “to more a vertical jigging-type activity,” he said, and shore anglers may have to bushwhack or stick to “angler casting zones” the commission may or may not create.

The commission also is open to partnering with groups to build handicapped-accessible docks, Rokavec said.

But executive director John Arway said the commission will not spend angler dollars to turn the lake into a multi-use facility.

“We don't build trails, we don't build pavilions, we don't build parks,” Arway said.

Washington County commissioner Larry Maggi said the county may look into developing those options.

“I don't know if it can happen or not. I don't want to put any expectations out there,” he said. “But it's something we've talked about.”

For now, the good news is that Dutch Fork Lake is almost back.

“This is a success story,” Rokavec said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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