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Weather conditions slow Lake Okhissa growth

MEADVILLE – With more than 800 acres of surface lake, LakeOkhissa is still growing, a U.S. Forest Service ranger saidThursday.

Tim Slone, deputy district ranger, said the lake will exceed1,175 acres of surface area by the time the park opens to thepublic in October or November.

The opening has been slightly delayed from a September datebecause of weather conditions. Despite gaining 2.5 to 3 feet indepth the past two weeks, Slone said, the lack of rainfall hasslowed the process.

“I’ve been here a year and a half and it’s been so dry,” Slonesaid. “The lake hasn’t been filling as fast as we expected.”

Once full, Lake Okhissa will have an average depth of 31 feetand a depth of 73 feet at its deepest point near the dam. It’spresently about seven feet below projections. The lake stretchesapproximately two miles from north to south and is over a mile wideat its widest point at the lagoon.

“There’s a lot of coves and shoreline,” Slone said.

The quiet inlets should create some good fishing, the rangersaid. The lake was stocked in previous years with bass, bream andcatfish.

“It’s got catchable fish in there now,” he said. “What we’rehoping is to have some 3 to 4 lb. bass when we open. The one thingyou really don’t want to do is stock crappie before the bassmature. They’re so prolific they’ll squeeze out the bass and limittheir growth.”

Despite Forest Service efforts to not stock crappie, Slone saidtests have revealed they have made it into the lake.

“Some people have taken it upon themselves to stock it,” hesaid.

The number of crappie is small, however, and should not affectthe growth of other game fish, the ranger said.

Lake Okhissa features 600 spawning beds only now starting to becovered by water. Fish populations should swell immensely once thatoccurs, Slone said.

Other game have discovered the lake as well, he said. Some, likedeer, turkey and waterfowl, are welcome additions to the lake’secosystem.

“We’ve had several different people see eagles. I saw my firston the east side of the dam a few months ago,” Slone said.

The sight of the large raptors floating on the wind over thewater is majestic, he said.

In addition, other not-so-desirable creatures, like beaver andalligators, have also strayed in from nearby rivers and creeks.

“They just kind of go along with the territory,” Slone said.

Sightings of at least three different alligators, based on size,have been reported by rangers.

Whether the park service will open the property surrounding thelake to game hunters is still under consideration, the rangersaid.

“We’ve got to make some decisions on hunting and the limits onfishing and other things,” Slone said. “We’ve had time, but it’sstarting to close in on us now.”

Hunting, if allowed, would likely be limited to archery becauseof safety factors, he said.

Construction of visitor facilities has also been slowed, Slonesaid, but a boat ramp, parking lot and restroom facilities areexpected to be ready when the park opens.

Other planned facilities like campsites, cabins, a marina andday use areas will hopefully get developed through privatepartnerships, he said.

A prospective sent out to investors in early 2005 drew littleresponse because of “a lack of existing infrastructure, primarily,”Slone said.

“It either wasn’t there or wasn’t guaranteed; and that wassomething investors had to look at,” he said. “Also, we were askinga single partner to offer all the services.”

A new prospective that carries their hopes of a better responseis expected to be sent soon, the ranger said.

Much of the needed infrastructure was put in place in 2005 and2006.

A trunk line for water services now nearly encircles the lakeand power is available to much of the shoreline. Water and sewerauxiliary lines will be placed once the locations of facilitieshave been determined by the partner, he said.

Much of the observation point overlooking the lagoon and a roadat the main entrance leading to the first day use area, boat rampand parking lots are complete, although the lake is presentlyclosed to visitors.

When the lake first opens, Slone said, he foresees it operatingon an “honor box” system until other developments arecompleted.