December 19, 2006

Restored Leaser Lake By 2014: Lake Will Be Closed to Angling of Any Kind for Several Years After the New Dam is Completed.

By Christian Berg, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

Dec. 19--State officials hope to complete long-awaited repairs at Leaser Lake by 2010, but local fishermen will probably have to wait another four years before angling for species such as bass, walleye, muskellunge and catfish.

Mike Kaufmann, regional fisheries manager for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said fishing on the state-owned, 117-acre Lynn Township impoundment will be prohibited for several years after the new dam is completed. The commission will have to re-stock the lake after it is drained for repairs, and it will take time for the two-inch fingerlings released there to grow into legal-sized, adult fish sought by anglers.

"We probably wouldn't want to see fishing in the lake for about four years once the stocking has begun," Kaufmann said. "There's always a lot of opposition in the sporting community, but if they wait a little longer, they usually end up praising us for the quality of fishing they experience."

Owned by the Fish and Boat Commission, Leaser Lake is the centerpiece of a 540-acre park maintained by Lehigh County. It is named after Revolutionary War hero Frederick Leaser, a Colonial farmer who helped hide the Liberty Bell at Zion's Church in Allentown so it wouldn't fall into the hands of the British.

Leaser Lake has been drawn down since 1999 because of because of numerous leaks in its earthen dam. As a result, the size of the lake has been reduced to 40 acres -- about a third of its normal size -- and its 45-foot depth cut in half.

Local sportsmen, sailing enthusiasts and other residents have been clamoring for a new dam for years, and the community celebrated in September when Gov. Ed Rendell visited the lake to announce $4.8 million in state funding for the repair project.

George White, chairman of the nonprofit Leaser Lake Heritage Foundation, said state officials plan to solicit bids for design of the new dam in the first quarter of 2007, with construction starting sometime in 2008.

Although White and other lake lovers are thrilled Leaser will be fixed, the long repair and restoration process is a bitter pill to swallow for area fishermen such as Woody White, 74, of Windsor Township, who spent an afternoon last week trout fishing from the lakeshore.

"Do you think they could speed it up?" asked White, who has fished Leaser Lake for more than 30 years. "I may not be alive by 2014."

While Kaufmann understands anglers' desire to restore fishing access at Leaser Lake as soon as possible, he said experience has shown that eliminating all fish and starting over from scratch is the best way to restore a balanced fishery after a drawdown.

For example, when Leaser Lake was drawn down for a previous round of dam repairs in the mid-1990s, the commission allowed a small pool of water to remain in the center of the lake bed. The problem, Kaufmann said, was that too many adult largemouth bass survived and overpopulated the lake after it was re-filled. As a result, the commission struggled to establish walleyes and other species in the lake because the bass were eating them.

"Largemouth bass have been driving the fish population in the lake for some time now," Kaufmann said.

By eliminating all the water in the lake this time around, the commission will be able to start from scratch and stock a variety of fish species in balance with one another, Kaufmann said.

Prior to and during the drawdown, the commission will likely remove all fishing restrictions at Leaser Lake and allow fishermen to catch and keep as many fish as they want, regardless of species or size. Kaufmann said that's because it's too difficult and expensive to collect the fish stranded in the mud and move them to other waterways.

"The more fish you have hauled out of there by anglers, the less of a kill you have to deal with at the end," Kaufmann said.

Once the new dam is completed and the lake start filling up again, Kaufmann said the commission will implement a three-year stocking program to repopulate the water with largemouth bass, chain pickerel, walleye, muskellunge, brown bullhead, channel catfish, yellow perch, white crappie, bluegill and pumpkinseed. Several species of shiners also will be stocked to serve as a food source for the game fish species.

All fish will be stocked as fingerlings, juveniles that measure about 2 inches long, to give each species an opportunity to establish itself prior to predation becoming a significant factor, Kaufmann said.

Once the initial stocking program is completed, the commission will stop stocking self-sustaining species such as bass, perch, crappies and bluegills. However, Kaufmann said ongoing "maintenance stockings" of species that may not reproduce in the lake, such as walleyes and muskellunge, will continue. He said the commission is also likely to resume its popular practice of stocking adult trout in the lake to provide additional fishing opportunities.

The stocking of fish is just one component of the still-developing fishery plan for Leaser Lake. The commission also will place various structures in the lake bed to provide cover and spawning habitat for fish and other aquatic life such as turtles. The agency also will monitor the lake's water quality and plant life and survey the lake throughout the restoration process to gauge the fishery's progress.

The exact date for re-opening Leaser Lake to anglers will depend on how quickly fish populations rebound, Kaufmann said. The commission also will use survey data to determine whether special fishing regulations, such as those designed to boost the size of panfish or bass, should be implemented.

The plan for a future fishery at Leaser Lake was among many topics talked about last Wednesday during a roundtable discussion hosted by the Leaser Lake Heritage Foundation at the Lynn Township municipal building. Officials also discussed plans to secure additional funding, create wetlands and upland habitat near the lake, develop a trail system, conduct ongoing environmental monitoring and involve Kutztown University and the Northwestern Lehigh School District in environmental education initiatives.

The event drew representatives from more than a dozen government agencies and conservation groups, including the Fish Commission, state Department of Environmental Protection, state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lehigh County, Ducks Unlimited, Lehigh County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs and Wildlands Conservancy.

White said the event was an opportunity for interested parties to brainstorm about the lake's future and help maintain the community's focus on the project.

"I don't want things to get stagnant," White said. "We've got things going nice for us, so I want to keep things active."

The next major step for Leaser Lake's restoration, White said, will come in the spring, when Lehigh County is expected to apply for a DCNR grant to help develop a facilities master plan for the lake and surrounding county park.

White said the master plan, which is expected to cost $80,000-$100,000, will serve as a roadmap for future projects and help officials identify priorities for work in and around the lake.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa.

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