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Original Issue


After 28 years a calculated gamble is about to pay off for southern California sportsmen

Down at the Salton Sea, a strange body of water lying in the bottom of a vast depression in the southern California desert, the state's Department of Fish and Game has gambled some race-track money on a scientific project which shows every promise of turning that great, saline slough into a new game-fishing center. After 28 years of trying they have found a game fish, the orangemouth corvina, which has become adapted to the severe conditions of this shallow lake, which is 235 feet below sea level.

Biologists of the University of California who have been working on the project for three and a half years have come out with a firm prediction, a thing biologists seldom do. They announce that by next winter or early spring there will be good sport fishing in this 340-square-mile body of salt water. They know the corvina are there, they know that millions of fry are now growing rapidly and they can't see anything ahead that will prevent a fishing boom in the Salton Sea.

It is safe to add that when these predictions are translated into good catches of fighting corvina, fishermen in large numbers will migrate toward the Salton Sea. Southern California fishermen already have proved that they will move like the hordes of Genghis Khan the moment they get wind of fish. An example of just how fish-hungry they are took place last April at Crowley Lake, 40 miles north of Bishop, where 10,034 fishermen swarmed out onto the lake in 3,178 boats and took out 18½ tons of trout on opening day. Under such fishing pressure as this, it is small wonder that the Department of Fish and Game has gambled on the Salton Sea.

The fact that race-track money has been used to develop the predicted fishing boom doesn't mean that the members of the Department of Fish and Game have been playing the horses. They have a better deal than that; a sure thing, in fact. In California some of the tax money from horse racing goes to the Department of Fish and Game for "capital improvements." In 1953, California's Wildlife Conservation Board authorized an expenditure of $86,000 of this money for a three-year study of the Salton Sea with the hope of getting game fish established there. Dr. Boyd W. Walker of UCLA was appointed director of the program, and the Salton Sea Project advisory committee, composed of biologists of the Department of Fish and Game, was appointed to assist in the planning.

It was a scientific gamble. If the biological studies provided the fish for sport fishing, it would constitute capital improvement. If they failed, the conservation board could be accused of using the money for basic research instead of capital improvement.

The orangemouth corvina (Cynoscion xanthulus), the payoff fish, has long been considered a prime game fish among anglers visiting the Gulf of California, whence it was brought to the Salton Sea. A relative of the California white sea bass, it is silvery in color and is an excellent eating fish.

"It has everything necessary for a game fish," Dr. Walker said. "It takes both bait and lures and is a good fighter. It doesn't jump but it makes good runs and it is fast. It's a beautiful fish, and some man is going to have the thrill of making the first big catch."

The biologists already have received reports of some corvina being caught by fishermen. Richard Easton of Westmorland, Calif. has caught a couple while fishing from the shore and using shrimp as bait. One seven-pounder was caught on a bass plug. But a seven-pounder is small compared to some that are in the Sea. Corvina attain a weight of 30 pounds, and their early growth is phenomenal. Some corvina seined from the Sea by the scientists, who could tell their age by studying the scales, show that they weigh about three pounds when one year old, around six pounds at 2 years, and when 3 years old they run 12 to 16 pounds. One specimen was a 3-year-old corvina weighing almost 17 pounds.

Irritation in the desert

From the viewpoint of sport fishermen, the Salton Sea has been an aggravation for more than a quarter of a century. There it has been—an enticing body of blue water with desert on both sides of it but with no fish worth catching. To the south lies Imperial Valley, once a howling desert but now, thanks to irrigation from the Colorado River, a fabulous producer of winter vegetables. To the north lies the Coachella Valley, where date palms, grapes and other crops are also nurtured by Colorado River water.

To many, especially the Department of Fish and Game, the large, sparkling but fishless expanse of blue water all seemed wrong. As a matter of fact, the very existence of the Sea was due to a mistake. Early in this century water already was being taken from the Colorado River to irrigate desert lands. In 1905, the floodgates were clogged with silt and stuck. To get their water, the farmers cut an opening in the river bank, intending to close it up again before the floods came. But a big and early flood swept down the river, tore through the opening, and they could not get it closed again. Their irrigation ditch became a mile wide, and the Colorado flowed northwest into the great hole in the desert for two years. The Southern Pacific railroad, whose tracks had been inundated, finally got it stopped, but the result was the Salton Sea.

Efforts of the Department of Fish and Game to get some sort of sport fish established there began in 1929 when striped bass were transplanted from the San Joaquin River. That was the last ever seen of them. In 1930 more striped bass were brought from San Francisco Bay. That was the last seen of them. Pileworms and saltwater mudsuckers brought in from San Diego Bay thrived in the Sea, but desirable fish had no such luck. In 1934, 15,000 silver salmon fingerlings were planted, but none were ever seen again. The same applied to anchovies and anchovetas brought from Mexico.

By 1950 biologists of the Department of Fish and Game had decided that such selective introductions were taking too long, so they switched to what they call the "shotgun" type of planting: taking every desirable species they could get out of the Gulf of California and dumping them into the Salton Sea. Under this program the first orangemouth corvina and the first gulf croakers were transplanted in 1950. Other species transplanted by the shotgun method included pompano, halibut, white and silver perch, bonefish, smelt, pez del rey, mojarra, grunion, sardine and totuava. Few of them were ever seen again.

In 1951 sargo were tried. Sometimes called china croaker or blue bass, they are also from the Gulf of California. By this time the department had transplanted some 34,000 fish of 35 different species from the Gulf of California, but in 1952 department biologists reported that of all those species only the gulf croaker and the corvina were known to have survived. Shortfin corvina also had been introduced, but since then it has been determined that they have not done as well as the orangemouth corvina.

It was this dismal knowledge that led to the establishment of the Salton Sea Project. Dr. Walker and his group of research biologists got under way in February 1954, launching into studies of numerous aspects of this contrary Sea. Appropriately enough, they established their headquarters and laboratory at Fish Springs, a resort on the west side of the Sea.

Dr. Lars H. Carpelan was in charge of work on the physical and chemical characteristics of the Sea as well as studies of the invertebrates and plants. Jay Quast did work on food chains. Dr. Richard R. Whitney, from Iowa State University, was put to work full time on the fishes, and Richard H. Linsley studied the marine worm, which abounds in the Sea and which is the most important link in the food chain. He also studied the barnacles, which are there in millions.

An odd body

The scientists soon realized they were working with one of the oddest bodies of water in the country, a huge desert lake that was always changing. The level had dropped after the original flooding from the Colorado but then, with increased irrigation to the south and north, the Sea began to rise again. This was caused by the farmers who used large amounts of water to leach out the salt which built up in the soil. The excess water containing the salt runs into the Sea. Since 1948 the level of the sea has risen about five feet. For a time it was thought that it would continue to rise, but irrigation engineers now believe that the level is just about stabilized through revised methods of water usage.

Contrary to widespread belief, they found that the Salton Sea is not extremely briny. At present its salinity is just about the same as that of ocean water, although it contains a different arrangement of salts. If irrigation continues at the present rate, however, and the sea level becomes stabilized, the rate of salinity will increase steadily. The scientists estimate that if this rate continues the Sea will provide up to 25 years of fishing before it becomes too salty to support fish life. They point out, however, that many things could happen which might shorten or lengthen the productive life of the Sea.

They found, too, that the water temperature ranges from 50° to almost 100°. Because the sea is so shallow, the deepest parts being only 40 feet, the bottom temperatures are only a few degrees cooler than those at the surface. The great temperature variation, along with other factors, explained why most imported species died off.

One of the first objectives of the scientists was to find out which, if any, of the introduced species had been successful in spawning. Using gill nets, they fished a whole year, but for their efforts they got only four corvina.

"But we knew they had spawned in 1953," he said. "The next year we had a problem getting corvina and put in only 118. But by the next year we had learned how and where to fish for them in the Gulf of California and we transplanted about 1,700."

Although they were netting but few corvina, such was not the case with the gulf croakers. Only 67 of these little fish had been put into the Sea, but within a few years they had increased to millions. They are not satisfactory as a pan fish, but they proved a fine food fish for the carnivorous corvina.

Linsley's worm studies proved how important this marine invertebrate was to the success of their project. These worms, from one to three inches long when full grown, spend most of their lives in the mud at the bottom, where they feed on detritus. Upon becoming adult they swim to the surface at night to spawn. This is the time when the croakers and young corvina find easy pickings. The larger corvina feed on the croakers, and the food chain will be completed when fishermen begin catching and eating the corvina.

Such a food chain seems simple after it has been worked out, but to establish it meant a lot of work. There were other fish in the Sea—a threadfin shad, mullet and several very small species—and the role of each one in the ecology of the Sea had to be determined. In time, the biologists' monthly seinings at points around the Sea began to turn up more and larger corvina. They soon established that successful spawnings had resulted in far more fish than they could possibly transplant, so they recommended that no more corvina be imported. This was important to the project, as the catching and transportation of large numbers of these fish were costly.

Fin-clipped survey

The majority of the corvina introduced had been fin-clipped, as an aid to determining subsequent populations. Seining samples and elaborate calculations taken last spring indicate that there were up to 100,000 adult corvina in the Sea. A more recent survey resulted in an estimate of perhaps a million corvina. This is not a superabundance for such a large body of water, but the millions of fry from these fish give promise of the good fishing to come.

Dr. Whitney found that year-long residence at the Salton Sea was almost as tough on human beings as it had been for most of the transplanted fish. There are times during the year when the weather is nice, but he found the summers almost unbearable.

"It's the closest thing to impossible I've ever seen," he said, as he sat in his office with his back to shelves laden with pickled fish. "It gets up to 120°, although it is a little cooler right by the Sea, say about 110°. In the spring the wind can come up any time and cause a sandstorm. These sandstorms last a couple of days, at most, although they usually die down within the same day. But it is cool and nice in the spring if you don't have a sandstorm."

He said that the best time of year there was the fall and winter, October through February. During that period there are many days when the weather is glorious: not too hot, the air clear and the water sparkling.

It is on such weekends that the Salton Sea becomes alive with boats and water skiers. Thousands come to the Sea in their cars, hauling their boats on trailers. At Fish Springs alone there have been as many as 300 separate boat launchings on a single weekend.

As the visitors drive along the shore, they can look off to the hills in the background and see the clearly defined line which marks the boundary of the ancient lake that once filled this great hole. In prehistoric times the Colorado River turned northwest of its own accord and created a lake which was 105 miles long, 35 miles wide and over 300 feet deep. Many scientists, including Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla, Calif., have studied the region, and some believe that the basin was filled by the Colorado on a number of occasions in the distant past. Dr. Hubbs said that there was evidence that at one time some 100,000 Indians lived around this great lake. They apparently were great fishermen, and the remains of their habitations indicate that they lived largely on fish. If predictions prove correct, the shores will soon again be alive with fishermen.

Fishermen planning to cash in on the fish parlay should first make inquiries about weather conditions, accommodations and, of course, whether the corvina are striking. At present, facilities right at the Sea are not adequate to house large numbers of visitors. There are three resorts on the west side of the Sea and one on the east side but, if accommodations are not available there, motels can be found in cities not far away (see map).

On the eastern shore there is the Salton Sea State Park, which has camping facilities. There are 25 campsites, with ramadas for shade, gas cooking plates and food cabinets. Mecca Beach State Park, now being established just south of the Salton Sea State Park to handle the expected increase in visitors, will extend state park frontage on the Sea to approximately 18 miles. Small boats may be launched over packed sand beaches at various points. Where the sand has not been packed, cars are apt to get stuck.

To start out, the Department of Fish and Game has established a limit of six corvina per day. If the expected number of fish materializes, this may be relaxed, although six good-sized corvina would provide plenty of sport. A California fresh-water angling license is required to fish in the Salton Sea. The cost is $3 for a resident license and $10 for a nonresident license, and there is a special nonresident license for 10 days costing $3.

Rockhounds and bird watchers

Good fishing appears to be assured, but even if early visitors this winter don't latch on to any of those big corvina their trip to the Salton Sea will be well worthwhile. Rockhounds find good pickings in the surrounding hills; bird watchers will find, among other things, one of the greatest inland concentrations of shore birds in the country. At the proper season there are between 100,000 and 200,000 of them. Down near the southern end there is the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, where crops are raised on 4,600 acres for the 60,000 wintering waterfowl. There is also a state game management area of 7,000 acres, where some hunting is permitted.

Down near the southwestern corner of the lake, there are some water areas where visitors are prohibited by the Atomic Energy Commission because dummy bombs are dropped. But don't worry—this area is marked.

To the scientists who have been working on the Salton Sea Project, the great day is due to come some time this winter when the first fishermen begin snagging those silvery corvina. The big gamble will have paid off—and on horseplayers' dough. Keep your fingers crossed.




FLANKED BY DESERT, the Salton Sea is still largely undeveloped as a resort. Nearest motels are at Brawley and Indio, 15 and 18 miles away. Campsites are provided at Salton Sea State Park and, for the plush traveler, there is Palm Springs, about 40 miles away.