You've heard the phrase "like shooting fish in a barrel"?
That's about what it seemed Tuesday at Lake Ralphine in Santa Rosa's Howarth Park, when a batch of hatchery trout delivered by the California Department of Fish and Game ended up crowded into a shallow weed bed at the edge of the lake.
Massed in a small area above a slanting concrete boat ramp and surrounded by thick underwater weeds that rise almost up to the surface, the fish were unable or unwilling to disperse into the rest of the lake as more than a dozen fishermen on shore cast their lines over and over into the pool.
"The fish don't have a chance today," said one of them, Cody Gardner of Santa Rosa.
"It's almost not even fishing when they put them down there," fisherman Matt Marocco said.
Mike Ficele, hatchery manager for Fish and Game, said he was confident the rainbow trout would swim through the weeds into open water.
Ficele said he'd instructed his driver to unload them off the boat ramp rather than the usual spot off the dam because the earthen structure had been undermined by squirrels and, with the rain, was slippery, as well.
"We don't want to take a 26,000-pound truck on a dirt dam up there, so for safety we just take them to the boat ramp, which is common practice at every other reservoir," Ficele said.
But several longtime Lake Ralphine regulars were incensed by the mishap, saying it would encourage anglers who already claim more than their fair share to be even greedier.
"They should be for the kids," said Dave Punger, who was there with his young son, Richard.
When a similar situation occurred last year, Punger donned waders and spent hours trudging out into deeper water to try to clear a path for the fish through the vegetation.
A buddy, Terry Meeks, said the men were contemplating returning to the lake Wednesday to take out small boats to clear the channel again, though he feared it might be too late.
Confined in a relatively small area, "they're gulping for air already," he said Tuesday.
Fish and Game plants about 15,000 pounds of rainbow trout each year into Lake Ralphine, one of about 300 California lakes, ponds and reservoirs covered by a program to ensure good stocks for recreational fishing. The program is funded by the proceeds from license sales.
The fish are delivered roughly every other week between mid-October and May in roughly 1,000-pound allotments, Ficele said.
The fish plants are intended to be irregular to give the fish time to disperse before folks are out trying to catch them. But regulars said it's easy to figure out when they're coming, and even those complaining about others were present Tuesday because they expected the lake to be resupplied.
Ficele said he's aware of complaints from locals about folks who reportedly catch their five-fish limit, run them home and soon return to fish for more — sometimes catching many times what they're allowed.
He's left word on more than one occasion with the Fish and Game tip line, alerting wardens to the problem.
In the meantime, he said his driver is experienced and educated enough to evaluate the conditions of the lake and to plant the fish only if they can get out to the lake.
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