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|By JANIS MARSTON
For The Daily Press
At times, Quemado Lake is so thick with goldfish, it looks like one gigantic, submerged, blaze orange hunter's vest, said one of the men who's been hauling the unwanted fish out of the lake by the tons.
Last year, five and a half tons of goldfish were removed from the lake in northern Catron County. Another one and a half tons have been hauled out so far this year, according to Ernest Jaquez, a fisheries manager for the state Game and Fish Department.
Jaquez took another crew to the lake this week to resume efforts to reduce the goldfish numbers there.
They remove the fish by blocking them in a cove on the lake's west end by a boat ramp. Then, they set a hoop net at the entrance of the cove and trap the fish as they swim into it.
According to Jaquez, their efforts haven't made a dent in the goldfish population and more drastic measures should be taken.
The Game and Fish De-partment estimates there are 65,000 goldfish in Quemado Lake. In reality, Jaquez said Wednesday, "we have no idea on the number." The goldfish population could be "anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000," he said.
How the fish got there also is a matter of speculation.
One theory is that in the early 1970s, when the dam was built to create the 130 acre lake 15 miles southwest of Quemado, there was a stock tank upstream from the dam filled with goldfish to keep it clean of weeds. During a hard rain, some fish escaped and got into Quemado Lake.
Another theory has goldfish being used as bait, with someone tossing the leftover bait into the lake.
Finally, Jaquez said, some believe the goldfish got there "when some mom told her kids to either feed their goldfish or get rid of them" and they dumped the pet fish into the lake.
Over the years, the goldfish multiplied. But cold winters kept the population to a minimum. "There were just a few, here and there," he said. The recent string of mild winters, however, has resulted in an explosion in goldfish numbers.
When the lake's water turned orange about a year ago, anglers began to complain that the goldfish were crowding out the rainbow trout. They came to catch trout, not goldfish. Residents also reported a decrease in business at the lake's tackle shop and restaurant.
Game and Fish biologists say goldfish — a member of the carp family — don't eat trout or crossbreed with them. But they do compete for food and space. Goldfish feeding habits also can hurt the trout, they say. The water becomes murky from the suspended sediment and, if it becomes too thick, the trout can't grow to full size.
People are still catching trout, Jaquez said, so the abundance of goldfish apparently hasn't affected the fishing. But, he said, there is a perception that it has.
State Game and Fish statistics show the lake's popularity has increased dramatically since the mid 1980s. About 6,500 fished 23,000 angler days at the lake in 1986-87. In the 1997-98 license year, 13,225 fished 55,855 angler days.
While Game and Fish records show a drop in numbers the next year — 10,270 anglers and 43,280 angler days — fisheries management staff say that is not statistically significant because of variables that are factored into the computations. However, estimated revenue from fishing licenses went from $263,000 in 1997-98 down to $197,000 a year later.
Looking at the economic impact of the goldfish problem, Catron County commissioners this week recommended that Game and Fish stop stocking trout and put sterile tiger muskie in the lake to get rid of the goldfish. They chose that alternative over poisoning the lake or draining it. Using bass to eat the goldfish also is an option.
The tiger muskie is a muskellunge and northern pike cross that Jaquez said "will eat anything that gets in its way, including the trout."
However, there are a few problems with it. For starters, the lake is in the Little Colorado River drainage system.
He said that even though the water never makes it to Quemado, there are endangered species, like the bluehead and razorback suckers, in the drainage, and the Fish and Wildlife Service would have to approve the introduction of any new species into the lake.
If that step were accomplished, Jaquez said, he's not sure where to get the muskie.
If he finds a source, he said, he'll look at stocking the lake within the next year with the muskie, which he described as a Midwestern sport fish.
Introducing a smallmouth bass is an option he likes, because he said there also is a crayfish problem at Quemado Lake and the bass would eat the exotic crayfish.
"The crayfish problem is actually a bigger concern for me than the goldfish problem," Jaquez said. "An exotic literally could destroy the native crayfish there." While Southerners relish crayfish, people here don't fish for them, he said.
Jaquez also is researching a toxicant that reportedly is "species specific" for carp. His early studies indicate it would kill the goldfish, but not the trout. However, Catron County has an ordinance against adding toxicants to its waters and Jaquez said he would have to get a waiver from the commissioners to use it.
Draining the lake would be a lastditch effort to remove the goldfish, he said.
In the meantime, Game and Fish will continue to haul up thousands of gold-fish in nets and replace them with trout from the Glenwood Hatchery. About 2,200 rainbow trout were trucked to the lake in March and April, and another similar amount will be stocked this month.