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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 82° Partly Cloudy
Sports >  Outdoors

Landers: Aerator should solve fish problem

West Medical Lake is churning with the promise of great fishing when the 2014 season opens on the fourth Saturday of April.

Thanks to local fly fishing clubs, a new aerator was switched on in October and will run until ice-off as a winter-kill insurance policy.

This gesture of “working across the aisle” could be a model for getting our nation running more smoothly. Fly fishers coming to the aid of a fishery dominated by worm-impaling bait fishermen? No kidding.

The Spokane County lake is routinely among the top put-and-take trout fisheries in Washington. But it also has a track record of fish die-offs that can occur every few years without preventative measures.

“Aerators have been installed on West Medical since the early ’60s,” said George Potter, a senior member of the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club.

“The last aerator was simply a compressor with perforated plastic lines. It wasn’t terribly effective, but they lost fish a few years ago after it went out.”

“Winter kill” typically occurs in certain conditions that leave fish starved for oxygen in a lake capped with ice. But the massive kill of hatchery-stocked fish West Medical suffered two years ago happened in the fall.

A powerful wind storm hit the area during the inopportune period just before the lake was ready to naturally “turn over” and mix the summer-stratified water columns.

Normally by late summer, the trout in West Medical and many other lakes are squeezed into a life-zone between the warm water on the surface and the oxygen-depleted water near the bottom. The 2011 fall storm caused the lake to turn over very quickly, bringing the low-oxygen water from the depths to the top of the lake so fast the fish couldn’t cope with the change.

State biologists did their best to round up extra catchable-size rainbows from hatcheries to restock just before the season opened the following spring.

But the fishery was nowhere near as robust, diversified or long-lasting as it is under the normal management cycle that provides several-year classes of fish.

“The aerator at West Medical had gone out in 2009 and it hadn’t been replaced,” said Randy Osborne, WDFW district fisheries biologist. “It might have made a difference.”

Aerators are operating at four popular northeastern Washington trout lakes to combat winter kill. Rocky, Starvation and Williams lakes in Stevens County as well as Big Meadow Lake in Pend Oreille County need the systems to mitigate their vulnerability to oxygen depletion caused by decomposing vegetation under long periods of ice cover.

A solar-powered aerator runs at Z Lake, a lightly-stocked walk-in fishery in the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area southwest of Davenport.

West Medical, with its close proximity to Spokane, Cheney and Medical Lake, is the most popular of all these fisheries and well worth an investment in preventative medicine.

The Fish and Wildlife Department, struggling with lean budgets, seemed to need some help, so fly fishermen stepped up.

The $5,000 put up by the state was matched by $5,000 from the Inland Empire club and the Spokane Fly Fishers chipped in $2,500 to make the project a go.

This summer, Potter and several other fly fishers traveled to the lake a half dozen times to meet with Avista workers and the electrical contractor and help install the aerator. Fish and Wildlife staffers filed for the required permits.

Together they installed a new compressor and three lines running 500, 800 and 1,000 feet into the north end of the lake, each punctuated with big “air stones” that, as Osborne put it, “move an incredible amount of water.”

“We tested it at a private lake first and the system made in Florida was impressive,” Potter said.

Indeed, many of these fly fishers have access to private waters they manage exclusively for growing the largest possible trout they can catch-and-release with their fly-fishing brethren sans the heresy of Powerbait or nightcrawlers.

The clubs have been active in boosting fisheries such as Amber Lake, McDowell Lake and the North Fork Coeur d’Alene River – waters associated with fly fishing.

But why West Medical?

“I’ve gone to West Medical off and on over the years,” Potter said. “It’s been three or four years since I fished it, but I’m always aware of it.

“Some fly fishers go there regularly during the season. Some club members might be a little prejudiced since it’s not fly-fishing only. But having good fishing lakes is good for everybody.”

He pointed out that West Medical is the lake of choice for the Inland Empire club’s annual outing for youth from the Morning Star Boys Ranch.

“It’s pretty darn dependable fishing; just want you want when you’re taking kids,” Potter said. “I might show up myself.”

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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