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'No live fish in, No live fish out'

Dan VanDyke continues to live out the fish biologists' nightmare of seeing aliens appear in Southern Oregon water bodies — transported by nitwits who think they know what's best for public waters.

It's bad enough in recent years that the yellow perch that crapped-out the trophy crappie fishery in Emigrant Lake have showed up in Lake Selmac, Lost Creek Lake and even the ponds on the Denman Wildlife Area.

But lately, it's the illegal minnow craze that has VanDyke's eyes ablaze.

Brown bullhead in Spaulding Pond, fathead minnows in Fish Lake and Bear Creek. Even a red-sided shiner in the Cole Rivers Hatchery fish-trap.

These are all new and frightening examples of how the illegal transportation of live fish can pollute an angling landscape one seemingly innocuous minnow at a time.

"It's an ethics thing and it gets really frustrating knowing this doesn't have to happen," says VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist.

"I'm really concerned about a new species setting up shop in the basin," he says. "That's what keeps me up at night."

But VanDyke may rest a tad easier this summer thanks to a ramped up effort against the invasion of non-native species in local waterways.

Boaters throughout the region are now beginning to see an increasingly visible combination of educational outreaches and police patrols to reduce the region's vulnerability to the intentional flow of non-native fish into already alien-laced waters.

This effort even includes a reach south of the border — to California fish biologists and bait shops — to inform California anglers that live minnows legal in much of their state are strictly forbidden here.

Over time the new mantra of "No Live Fish In, No Live Fish Out" will become so commonplace anglers will likely utter it every time they launch their boats.

That's because the slogan eventually will be stenciled onto all the concrete public ramps throughout Jackson and Josephine counties.

The first ramps were tagged with the slogan Friday when Forest Service crews painted the lettering onto ramps at Applegate Lake, the site of past illegal stocking of bass.

"It's sort of a State of Jefferson approach, looking at what we can do to get ahead of illegal fish releases here," VanDyke says.

"Illegal fish releases have been rampant in the Rogue watershed," he says. "There are always unintended impacts occurring when someone puts a non-native fish in our rivers or lakes."

Illegal fish introductions have damaged fisheries throughout the region, with documentation as far back as the 1950s.

Smallmouth bass released into Lost Creek Lake crashed the reservoir's once-proud largemouth bass fishery, while tui chub have bit into the productivity at Fish Lake and Hyatt Lake.

Smallmouth illegally placed in Howard Prairie have altered the rainbow trout fishery to a point where the ODFW now is experimenting with different stocking strategies to work around it.

But no where has illegal introductions become more prevalent and more expensive than Diamond Lake, which has become Oregon's poster-lake for the anti-alien efforts.

Fresh off the $5.6 million poisoning of the lake in 2006 to eliminate illegally stocked tui chub, trap nets last summer collected 640 golden shiners — bait fish commonly used legally throughout most of the United States as "minnows."

Local Oregon State Police troopers have crafted an invasive species action plan that includes a half-dozen weekend patrols that will include Diamond Lake during the Rainbow 5000 trout-fishing derby on June 27.

One of the theories on how those shiners made it to Diamond Lake is that a derby participant brought them here from Northern California.

State troopers have already done patrols at Hyatt and Howard Prairie during the opening weekend of trout season and at Emigrant Lake during a recent bass tournament.

"We can't dig into their live wells without consent, but we'll ask some of them what they're using for bait," OSP Senior Trooper Jim Collom says. "People are glad to see us doing this kind of work.

"Mostly it's public relations, talking to people," says Collom, who is investigating the Diamond Lake shiner case as a possible environmental crime. "A lot of it's education."

That's perhaps the best way to get into the heads of nitwits before they dump a bucket of minnows into another lake.

"We have to try and stop this illegal activity," VanDyke says. "We're making some changes that, hopefully, will make a difference."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.