Bill Burgess has fished on Lake Rousseau thousands of times in the past 10 years and pulled all kinds of bass, bluegill and other native species from its depths.
These days, though, Burgess’ catch is pitifully small, and it’s been that way since Hurricane Irma rolled in last September. This is the time of year when bass are preparing to spawn and the 3,650-acre lake should be swarming with fish. But it’s not happening. And recent fishing tournaments have yielded smaller fish than in the past.
“We’ve had several tournaments and the catch is very minimal,” he said. “Not like it was.”
Burgess and other anglers who frequent Lake Rousseau are indeed seeing the after-effects of Irma and they will likely experience small catches for the foreseeable future.
“I would have thought things would have been getting pretty close to normal by now, but they haven’t,” said Bruce Jaggers, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Inverness office.
A few weeks after Irma, Lake Rousseau was littered with dead fish — bass, carp, catfish, bream, shad — of all sizes and shapes. They were a result of oxygen depletion along the river caused by flooding of the Withlacoochee River, which feeds the lake. Fish absorb oxygen from the water using their gills, so when deprived of it, they die. The FWC estimates 35,000 fish were killed.
Four months later, oxygen levels have not been fully restored in the lake and that is why fish are scarce. The FWC will visit Lake Rousseau in about a month and sample the fish population to determine the merits of restocking. Jaggers doubts it will be necessary.
“It just takes a few pair of bass to repopulate the size of that lake,” said Jaggers, citing the prolific breeding capacity of the fish. “The fish will do it themselves faster than we could.”
Allen Martin, regional freshwater fisheries administrator for FWC’s North-Central Region, said the lake’s oxygen levels were already lower than normal due to hot summer temperatures, so when Irma hit conditions deteriorated.
And even though 35,000 dead fish is a big number, it’s not as catastrophic as in 2004 when Citrus County was hit by three major storms, Martin said. At that time, fish kills were even larger and yet the populations came back.
“This (latest fish kill) is not minor,” Martin said, “but it’s not catastrophic.”
Burgess agrees the lake will rejuvenate naturally, just as it did in 2004. But back then, it took four long years, he said, for the small fry to reach maturity. That’s a long time for folks to wait and the economies of the counties it borders — Citrus, Levy and Marion — could suffer, he said.
He believes FWC should augment the cycle by introducing faster-growing juvenile fish.
Keith Austin has been a bass guide on Lake Rousseau for more than 35 years. It’s known in the region as a great place to catch big bass. He’s seen the lake when it was teeming with fish. And he’s seen it seriously depleted, as it is now.
“Normally this time of year is my prime season and I’m not doing real well out there,” he said.
So these days, Austin provides his guide services on the Tsala-Apopka Chain of Lakes and various spring-fed rivers in the area where fish are more plentiful.
The recent cold spells, he said, drove the fish deeper in the lake for warmth and protection, making them even harder to catch.
Still, Austin is not worried.
“It always comes back and generally the fishing is better,” he said. “In a couple years, it’s like you have a new crop of fish.”