Two Ohio college students muscling their way through a summer vacation that will help decide whether Fish Lake is reborn as a trout mecca or dies a slow angling death as just another water over-run by an invasive species.
Donnie Danesi and John Rimelle are spending the summer trapping and hauling their way through an estimated 1 million tui chubs that are harming the lake's water quality and it's historically solid trout fishing.
Illegally introduced in the early 1940s by fishermen from nearby Klamath Lake, the chubs have survived five chemical treatments like the one that reclaimed Diamond Lake, the Douglas County lake that is the new poster-boy for better fishing through chemicals.
So these two Forest Service interns are going low-tech with nets and buckets to extract as many chub as possible.
They are the guts of an experiment to see if regular netting can keep the chub from out-competing with trout for food and space. If so, trout survival and growth rates should improve and so would the smiles of anglers returning to this lake off Highway 140 in eastern Jackson County.
"It's a lot of hard work, physical labor," says Rimelle, who picks out a half-dozen rough-skinned newts from a sunken net before dumping the chubs into a garbage bag.
"But it's good for you, too," he says.
It's also quite good for the lake, which has markedly less algae in the water since the experiment began last month, says Ian Reid, a district fisheries biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest who oversees this project.
Already, the pair have hauled out about 200,000 chub, or about two tons worth of these tiny fish captured either in two large trap nets or eight smaller so-called "hoop traps" all bought for this project, which will cost about $50,000. (Correction: See below.)
Next month, a commercial gillnetter will try his hand at out-fishing the interns. Next fall, Reid will assess the relative success, theorize whether long-term netting would work and estimate how much money and effort that work would entail.
"I'm pleasantly surprised and cautiously optimistic," Reid says. "We know we've made a dent in them.
"We also know there's still 800,000 of them in there," Reid says. "We just have to go find them."
Finding a solution to the chub here has dogged anglers and biologists for six decades at one of the West's more unusual high-mountain lakes.
Naturally formed by lava flows and springs, Fish Lake is one of only 5 percent of high-mountain lakes in the West that have naturally occurring fish species, attracting anglers as early as the late 1800s.
"That's why it's called Fish Lake," Reid says.
In 1907, a dam was added to increase storage, and that dam's height was increased again in 1923 to increase the lake's size to its current 483 acres.
It's been stocked regularly since 1912 and anglers enjoyed great success until one or more unwitting anglers illegally used chub as bait minnows as early as 1941. By 1949, the chub's presence began to harm trout fishing. Between 1951 and 1985, biologists used fish-killing chemicals five times to wipe out the chub, but enough nosed into freshwater springs to survive treatment and repopulate the lake.
Though no chub eradication efforts have taken place in the past 22 years, the chub have not exploded here like they did at Diamond Lake in half that time. Reid believes the lake's mostly rocky bottom and regular draw-downs for irrigation leave the lake with far less aquatic vegetation — veritable chub factories that doomed Diamond Lake.
Still, their presence leaves the lake only moderately productive for trout.
"We know we may never get all the tui chubs out of Fish Lake," Reid says. "But, if we can shift some of that biomass away from chub and to rainbow and brown trout, then that will mean the project is a success."
Removing that biomass falls to Danesi and Rimelle, two 21-year-old Ohio Northern University students whose internships could land them guest spots on "America's Dirtiest Jobs."
Each weekday, they putter in a boat among the nets, hauling the heavy mesh onto the deck to fish out their quarry. The chubs are put into 5-gallon buckets, which hold about 750 chubs each. The buckets then are emptied into black garbage bags that cook in the mid-day sun.
"They get a little ripe sometimes," Danesi says.
Typically, they catch 5,000-10,000 chubs a day. In one exhausting day, they corralled 39 garbage bags worth of chub.
"It was incredible," Danesi says. "When the old fishermen asked us how much we had, we told them we literally had a ton of fish on the boat."
Initially, the fish were taken to Wildlife Images Rehabilitation Center, where they were fed to rehabbed animals. Now, the duo take them to an organic farmer outside of Phoenix, where they are composted.
A commercial gillnetter will work the shallows for a few days in August as part of the study, which is funded in part by the Forest Service, state Restoration and Enhancement Program money and donations from clubs like the Middle Rogue Steelhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
Danesi and Rimelle will haul chub through August, then return to college with a report on what they did on their summer vacation to earn credits. By university rules, they cannot get paid.
They've already fished out portions of the lake, and they muscle their nets into new coves regularly.
Reid's review will help determine if the program should continue and whether it should be done with interns like Danesi and Rimelle or perhaps get adopted as a regular summer project by a fishing group.
Regardless, whoever pulls those future nets will follow the legacy two Ohioans formed here this summer, one smelly garbage bag at a time.
"Getting 50 percent of the chub would be phenomenal," Reid says. "There's been no active chub management here in 22 years, so just seeing what works and what doesn't work is important."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: This story originally listed an incorrect number of chub removed from the lake. This version has been corrected.