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Restoring a Bass Lake: Trafford, in Southwest Florida, recovers from decades of abuse.

Southwest Florida is odd: There's freshwater everywhere but not many sizable inland fisheries.

Maybe that's why Lake Trafford is so important to anglers here. It's really the only notable freshwater fishery in Lee or Collier counties, one of few places where you can open up a 16-foot bass boat and run on plane for any significant distance.

Once a sandy-bottomed oasis in the middle of the historic Everglades, the 1,600- acre waterbody was a world-class largemouth bass fishery in the 1970s.

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Poised to pitch Trafford as a worthy tournament location, Edward "Ski" Olesky began buying up ownership in the Lake Trafford Marina during the heydays. He and his late wife Ann hoped their home lake would compete with the top freshwater fisheries in the state and nation.

Little did the Olesky family know the hurdles that come with being located close to a major agriculture hub. Combined with stormwater runoff from the rapidly developing area, nutrients from these lands flowed steadily into Lake Trafford during the '70s and '80s. And because Trafford has few tributaries, the vast majority of muck-causing run-off piled up in the lake--6 feet deep in places.

By the early 1990s the bass population suffered as hydrilla took hold of spawning grounds. Fueled by excess nutrients, hydrilla exploded in the lake.

Over the years the hydrilla bloomed, died and built up on the bottom of the lake, creating a layer of muck several feet deep. That muck fueled algae blooms that dropped dissolved oxygen levels, resulting in fish kills. In 1996, a massive fish kill triggered Olesky and his late wife to start a grassroots campaign to restore the lake.

Restoration funding was approved on the state and federal levels in 1996, and the project was supposed to break ground in 2001. But the ecological fix hit road bump after road bump. Hurricanes, droughts, and over budget engineering bids delayed the restoration by years. The final cost was more than $21 million, and the project removed more than 6 million cubic feet of muck.

In the end, there was enough muck to cover more than 600 acres several feet deep.

It took about a decade, millions of dollars and a commitment from local, state, and federal agencies to push this single project through to completion. The grassroots push to revive the lake was actually started by the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers joined the effort, creating a task force aimed at crafting a strategic plan to revive and maintain the lake.

The main method of cleaning the lake involved dredges that literally sucked the muck from bottom and piped it to a 627-acre dumping location to the north. Water used to push the muck through the system was then funneled back into the lake through a series of pipes, ditches and canals.

Agricultural practices are more efficient and cleaner than they were decades ago, and government regulations are in place for water quality standards (although those are tough to define and even more difficult to enforce). In theory, there are fewer pollutants going into the lake than during the 70s, '80s and fa '90s. So as long as the hydrilla is kept at bay the lake should flourish for generations to come.

Early signs of the payoff are showing. A bumper crappie spawn in 2009 has speck anglers excited about the coming winters, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission released 50,000,4-inch largemouth fingerlings in March of 2011.

There are still pockets of cattails, a few too many beer cans and bottles here and there, but overall Trafford looks healthier than it has in nearly a decade.

The sandy bottom is starting to show again. The water still has that brownish tint; but it's due more to the natural tannins in the water than the nasty muck that nearly crippled Trafford.

Anglers are catching a few crappie worth keeping, and some of the more aggressive juvenile largemouth are starting to slam chartreuse and black crappie lures.

The lake restoration project seems to be working. What was once called a dead lake is looking more and more like the world-class bass fishery it was decades ago. The project certainly came at a cost, but the end result will be well worth the troubles if Trafford returns to its former glory.

News and commentary from the environmental battlegrounds

Muck-fueled algae blooms caused oxygen levels to drop, leading to fish kills.

Lake Trafford Marina and the public boat ramp are located at the west end of Lake Trafford Road, on the northeast shore.
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Title Annotation:Conservation Front
Author:Gillis, Chad
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Apr 1, 2012
Words:782
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