It’s been a long year

The city of San Diego has announced that they will be re-opening Lake Hodges to the public on 5/31/23. Just a couple of weeks over a year after it was closed for emergency dam repairs.

The lake level will remain low (280′) and so trailer boats cannot launch from the ramp. Water contact sports (SUPs, windsurfing, etc) will not be permitted until the water quality improves. The runoff from so many houses and farms takes its toll on water quality. But kayaking and canoeing will be permitted.

And we have been called back to our cleanup activities. We can go out starting on Monday, 5/22 in order to get caught up after the closure. Hopefully the shoreline will look all nice and clean when everyone else shows up for fishing and picnicking. Many people will trash a place that has already been compromised, but will clean up after themselves if the area was clean when they got there. So I’ll be out there first thing on Monday, evaluating the task ahead of us and, of course, picking up fishing line!

You can read more about the re-opening on a couple of Nextdoor postings:

What happened to Lake Hodges?

The city of San Diego discovered some problems with the Hodges Dam that need to be repaired. They began lowering the lake in late May, 2022, in order to facilitate the repairs. The ultimate level that they will need to drain it is unknown as of this writing.

While the entire lake will not be drained, the edge of the water will be so far from the launch area, and the ground will be so soft and muddy for a while, that the volunteers are not currently allowed to kayak on the lake. That’s sad, but it it also an opportunity.

While we have scoured the shore line from the nominal normal water level to the high water mark and got it nearly spotless, we have been unable to remove fishing line from below the surface. We have still been losing grebes at a steady rate as they become entangled in this underwater fishing line. Some of them we find, but most are presumably decaying underwater – into our drinking water. Ick.

So while the lake is down, we are going to try and scour the bottom and remove as much line as possible. And there is a LOT of it down there. Just look at this video:

At some point we may try to get some community assistance, but for now the city is banning non-volunteers from the lakebed due to the risk of stranding in mud or quicksand.

Once the water returns this problem will begin to build up again. One thing that will not eliminate it, but will greatly decrease the amount of long, loose line in the water would be if the fishermen would use lightweight leaders and then pull their line until the leader breaks rather than cut the line at the pole. A hook or lure stuck into a deadhead with a couple of inches of monofilament leader on it is just litter – it is not likely to kill a bird. If you fish, or know a fisherman, please think about this. Feel free to contact me if you want to learn more about it.

Lake Hodges update

You may have noticed that my last posting was 8 months ago and assumed we are defunct. In fact, we have been very successful at cleaning up Lake Hodges and keeping it that way. But making this happen takes a lot of time and so I just don’t post very often. Sorry.

Fishing season opened on February 2nd at Lake Hodges. As of February 1st the lake shore was almost spic and span clean. Probably cleaner than it has been since the dam was built in 1918. The Del Dios shore will probably always be a cleanup in progress, but even there we are in “maintenance mode” – finding and removing line that was lost only since the last time we checked. And we are trying to check it multiple times a week. The problem with Del Dios is not a reflection on the town, it is because there is such good access to that stretch of shoreline from many turnouts and parking areas along Lake Drive. The people who use those access points fish or party and leave lots of line and litter behind. You’d be amazed.

A piece of line or a hook or lure becomes a menace to birds the instant it is cut loose and remains that way until we are able to find and remove it. So we do still lose some birds along the shoreline. But the numbers are greatly reduced from when we started.

Our biggest problem now is underwater line. I mentioned that way back in November of 2019 and we have made little headway on it. Oftentimes a fisherman will snag his hook or lure on some underwater object. If they are unable to jiggle it loose, they cut the line. (If you look at my previous posting you will see that there is a solution to this problem.) So that leaves a long piece of invisible nylon monofilament fishing line wafting in the currents and anchored to the bottom. This can happen anywhere in the lake and these pieces of line are almost impossible to find.

So what does that matter? Grebes nest at Lake Hodges by the hundreds. Grebes are diving birds who swim underwater using a powerful frog kick. When they happen to kick a piece of fishing line it gets whipped around their legs and they are snared. Since the line is anchored to the bottom, they can drown before they manage to get loose. And they do drown.

Detail showing fishing line entanglement around a grebe’s foot. This grebe was drowned and remained under water for some time before we found it as shown by the algae growth on the feathers. Many of these birds die too deep for us to ever find and decompose – in a drinking water reservoir.
Entangled grebe found by volunteer kayaker at Lake Hodges.

Right now drowning grebes are our number one problem. The pumping/generating system causes the lake level to rise and fall a couple of feet each day – like a man-made tide. We find grebes who were entangled and drowned when the tide was high and then float to the surface when the water was low. It is impossible to know how many grebes die deeper and we never find their bodies. It is a grim thing to think about.

One of our members is working on a device which may help us to find more of this underwater line. But it will still take a lot of time and effort to drag the entire lake once we have it working and then we will have to do it over and over again forever.

So if anyone would like to help us with this, by all means contact me. You may have an idea for a device or you may be willing to devote some time to using it. However you think you can help, please let me know.

A note to fishermen: How to catch more fish and help the birds at the same time.

Most of the fishermen we talk to enjoy being out there and seeing the herons and egrets and grebes and other birds while they fish. And most of them have expressed appreciation for our cleanup efforts. So I know that they don’t want to harm the birds. They just don’t know how to prevent it without putting an end to their hobby.

We recover a surprising amount of lost fishing line on Lake Hodges every single week. I can see the lake from my house and I see how many fishermen are out there and it seems like, on the average, maybe a quarter or more of them must lose at least one length of line every time they go out. It seems that they get a snag and just cut their line, leaving sometimes 50 to 150 feet of line drifting in the air or water waiting to entangle a bird. I think they do this because pulling until the line breaks will weaken the whole length of it and they will have to throw it away, anyway. It is a poor decision, but I think that is the reasoning.

I am an almost lifetime fishermen (quit in 2017 when we moved out of salmon and trout country) and I doubt that I’ve lost three pieces of line longer than a few inches in my life. I can’t actually remember losing any of my main line, ever. And I’ve never once, in almost 60 years of fishing, just cut my line to release a snag. I’ve pondered on that for the last couple of years and I suddenly realized why.

It has always been my habit to use a light leader on my line just above the hook or lure. This makes the line harder for the fish to see and makes the lure or bait look and move more naturally, resulting in more strikes. So how does this help the birds? If your hook snags on something when you are using 12 pound line and a 6 pound leader, for example, you can pull until the leader breaks. It will break before the main line ever starts to stretch. This will leave a hook and a few inches of line snagged on the bottom or in a tree, but a hook buried in wood will rust away without harming a bird and a few inches of line is not enough to entangle a bird.

So if you are a fisherman – anywhere in the world, not just at Lake Hodges – please tie a light leader of about half the weight of your main line between your main line and your hook or lure. Then, if you get a snag, pull until the leader breaks. It will not damage your main line to do this. If you use a lightweight rod, keep your tip pointed at the snag so you don’t damage it. It will hurt nothing, will probably improve your strike rate, and will help keep those birds alive that you enjoy watching while waiting for the fish to bite.

If you fish with bait, please consider either attaching your weight to the leader or using a three-way swivel and hang your weight by a piece of light weight leader from the third eye. That way you can also safely pull and break the leader if the weight gets stuck somewhere.

If you are afraid the fish is going to break your lighter leader and get away, learn to adjust your drag. Besides, this is supposed to be a sport, so make it sporting. If the fish doesn’t have a chance, then you might as well be pulling in tuna cans.

Covid trash

Robin entangled in surgical mask
This Canadian robin was found entangled in one of the billions of blue surgical masks used and discarded during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sandra Denisuk, A.-F. Hiemstra et al/Animal Biology 2021

Well the list of covid related problems just keeps growing. Researchers in the Netherlands have been documenting a lot of wildlife which are being killed by discarded masks and latex gloves. They are also inviting individuals from all over the world to post their own observations of wildlife that has been affected by covid waste. (Negatively or positively – many animals are dying while some birds have been using masks and gloves in nest building.)

You can find their website, see the results, and make your own report here:

A story about it in Science News can be found here: Science News Covid Trash Article

Our volunteers are very diligent about picking up trash as well as fishing line. While a mask is dangerous until we find it, we usually find and remove them pretty quickly, thus reducing the danger. So far we have not found any wildlife entangled in covid litter at Lake Hodges.

If you would like to help us – at Lake Hodges or at your own local fishing area – please contact me.

Spring status at Lake Hodges

Lake Hodges has been open to fishing for over two months now. We have a number of new volunteers and we are able to cover the entire lakeshore almost every week. It would be good if we could do it twice a week – after the weekend of fishing and after Wednesday fishing – but we’re getting there.

I looked back through my records and the last egret we found hooked or entangled was in 2019! That is good progress. Birds such as cormorants and coots will try to take the bait from fishing line that is still in use by the fishermen. The fishermen could reel those birds in and remove the hook or take them to wildlife rehab, but most just cut them loose and leave them to die. This is something that I think we can reduce through education. We still lose grebes to underwater fishing line entanglement, but fewer of them. Finding and removing underwater line is a challenge. We are actually getting pretty good at it along the shoreline, but offshore underwater line is a problem that we have not yet solved.

If you would like to help us proactively save birds and wildlife by removing threats from their habitat, then we can sure use your help. Training is provided. Contact me for more information.

Some good news for a change

We found a lot of birds affected by fishing and/or boating activities at Lake Hodges in 2019. We have only found two since March of 2020 and those both appeared to have been the victims of deliberate attacks (possibly a pellet gun in one case) rather than incidental hooking, entanglement, or boat strikes.

This means that we are finally catching up and making a measurable difference in the bird fatality rates at Lake Hodges. That is very good news and gives us encouragement after 2.5 years of hard work.

When we started we would poke the boat into the shore, pull all of the fishing line that we could find, back out, move over 2 to 5 feet, poke the bow back into the shore, pull all of the line that we could see, etc. It took months to make our first complete circuit of the lake at this rate.

Now we have a good group of volunteers, some of them quite regular, and we are pretty well caught up with old fishing line. So we are able to cover almost the entire shoreline each week. That is a really big deal because the sooner you find the line after it was lost, the less chance it has to catch and kill a bird.

I’d like to thank all of the people who have helped us get to this point. Some are out there every week, some have only been able to come once or a few times. All are appreciated – we never know which piece of line that we retrieve might have been the one that killed a bird.

Now the end of the season is approaching. The lake will be closing on October 28th and will reopen in February for the 2021 season. We will not be accepting applications for volunteers until mid-January. We will be scouring the lakeshore through the winter, trying to get every last bit of line and litter that we can find. That will put us in really good shape for opening day of fishing season.

We usually lose some volunteers over the winter. And a lot of line is lost during the first weeks of fishing season. So I will likely post a call for new volunteers in January. If you’ve been thinking of joining us, please contact me at that time and I’ll get you started.

Winter birds at Lake Hodges

San Diego county is an important bird hotspot in the US. Lake Hodges and the surrounding land is a very large natural area in the county and so is very important for birds and is very popular with wintering birds.

The winter residents have begun showing up and in just the last couple of weeks we’ve seen these newly arrived winter birds and others that we failed to ID:

Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Winter egrets (most go away during mating season)
Eared grebes
Ruddy Ducks
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary sandpipers
Belted Kingfishers
Yellow-rumped Warblers
Common Yellowthroat

On Again, off again … currently on!

A lot has changed in the 4.5 months since we were originally locked out from the lake due to the Corona virus pandemic. We were invited back in late June prior to the re-opening of Lake Hodges so that we could clean up and prepare. Then after a couple of weeks we received a boilerplate email from the city which appeared to cancel all volunteer activities again. Now, after two more weeks of delay we have been welcomed back again.

So our status right now is that we are back to work! “Work” sounds like such an unpleasant word. We do work hard, but it is some very enjoyable work.

And we are once again looking for help. If you’d like to volunteer some of your time to help save the lives of the birds of Lake Hodges, and have fun doing it, we’d like to hear from you.

Corona Virus News

The city has closed all of its lakes and reservoirs and halted all volunteer programs. So we are suspended at Lake Hodges until things settle down. As far as I know, hikers are still allowed on the trails and so individuals could still “bank walk” for line and litter, but we cannot do it as volunteers, nor can I do any recruiting or training at this time. If you are interested in helping us, please be patient and check back when things start to normalize again. We will still need you.