Adopt-a-Lake logo

by Valerie Pettigrew

photos-Dave Houser

When many of Pennsylvania's lakes were created in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, trees, brush and other natural habitat were removed before the area was flooded. There wasn't much thought given to fish habitat. The lakes were barren aquatic deserts.

Lakes need cover and specific habitats for the different fish species that inhabit them. These fish need adequate breeding, feeding and spawning areas. In 1979, realizing that Pennsylvania's lakes needed help, the Fish & Boat Commission started the Adopt-a-Lake program, headed by Dave Houser, chief of the Habitat Management Section. The section often joins in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Bass Federation.

Any new program is a learning experience, and the Adopt-a-Lake program was no different. The first habitat structures consisted of discarded Christmas trees and old tires. Though at first beneficial, the trees lost their needles after several years and were thus rendered mostly useless as habitat. The tires didn't always stay in place, and they created problems for boaters and dam managers.

Another problem was people. They saw the Commission "recycling" tires and trees and thought they would help by "recycling," too. Dam managers were finding all sorts of "recycled" things in their dam gates, and the program had to be rethought.

Bass structure

Dave Houser (hat) and Marc Rickard (also aboard boat) are assisted by two other Commission employees to position the top of the black bass structure.

So in 1980, the Habitat Management Section placed the first Pennsylvania Porcupine Brush Crib in Yellow Creek Lake, Yellow Creek State Park, Indiana County. The structure was designed by Habitat Management Section staff. The new structure had many benefits. It was made mostly of natural material, it protected fish throughout their early life stages and provided ambush cover for adults.

The structure also attracted aquatic insects such as mayflies and caddis flies, and provided an excellent base for plankton attachment, both of which supply fish with a great food source.

Since the first porcupine crib was placed, the Habitat Management Section has designed several other kinds of structures. These include the Pennsylvania Turtle Basking Platform, Pennsylvania Channel Catfish Spawning Box, Pennsylvania Black Bass Nesting Structure and the Pennsylvania Stake Tree Structure. Nearly all materials used to make these structures are natural. Concrete blocks, nails, nylon strapping and buckets are their only artificial materials.

"The nails are the weak link," Houser says. "Nails, of course, can corrode, and if the nails don't hold, the structure collapses. He expected the structures, if they remained totally submerged, to last about 10 years. Research shows that the structures surpass Houser's expectations.

Specially equipped boats are used for this type of work. "Bob the Boston Whaler," one of the boats Houser uses to place structures, is labeled "unsinkable." "It has to be to do this kind of work," he says. Completed structures weigh more than 500 pounds. "Bob" has a forward deck with a pair of rollers attached. Once the structure is taken to its destination, it is rolled off and sinks to the lake bottom.

Houser's truck is also customized for this work. It's equipped with a cabinet on a roll-out bed containing compartments for everything from nails, saws and drills to models of his structures. Everything needed to perform the task at hand is contained in that crate.

Porcupine crib

Dave Houser with a porcupine crib that's ready to be taken out and placed in Lake Wilhelm, Goddard State Park, Mercer County.

Overall, the Adopt-a-Lake program is very successful. Houser says the program's success could be seen in the ability of the partnering agencies and organizations' ability to work together. "It's wonderful when volunteer groups, along with state and federal agencies, come together as one and work together on the same ideas and the same project and get it done," says Houser.

The program is funded initially by fishing license dollars. The average cost of most projects is between $500 and $1,000. Costs are shared among the partners, and volunteer groups help supply the labor for building the habitat structures.

"You might spend $50, but you get a $100 value," Houser says.

The Dingell-Johnson Act and the Wallop-Breaux Amendments reimburse most of the Commission's costs. This Act (a 10 percent excise tax on certain items of sport fishing tackle) and its amendments (a 3 percent excise tax on fish finders and electric trolling motors) provide money for fish restoration projects. Nearly 75 percent of the Commission's total cost of each project is reimbursed this way.

Houser started with the Commission 25 years ago. He's been working with the Adopt-a-Lake program for the past 10 years and couldn't be happier. "What makes the program fun for me is one day I'm working with kids, whether it's Scout groups or challenged youth, and the next I'm working with bass clubs or lake associations," Houser says.

Currently, Houser oversees 50 projects in the Adopt-a-Lake program. Very few applications are denied, he says. One reason an application is denied is poor water quality. Water quality is affected by acid mine drainage and runoff from farm fields, which causes over-fertilization of a lake. Another reason why a lake may be excluded from the program is that the waterway already has adequate habitat.

Bulding a structure

Crews work on building spawning structures.

Becoming an active participant in the Adopt-a-Lake program takes about a year. It starts with the application process, goes through a review by the Commission and its partners, and ends with a five-year plan for the lake.

"I believe the single biggest reason people should participate in the Adopt-a-Lake program is that it gives them a say in the management of Pennsylvania's aquatic resources," says Houser.

The Adopt-a-Lake program is one way we can help ensure there is a future for Pennsylvania's fish populations and the anglers who enjoy them.

Species-Specific Structures

Structures are made with green, rough-cut hemlock or poplar lumber. A completed structure is lifted onto the boat's rollers and secured for the boat ride to its destination. Cement blocks are then placed inside the structure to weigh it down and help sink it. The cement blocks also continue to provide habitat after the rest of the structure biodegrades. The structure's top is set in place and nailed down, and a nylon strap is wrapped around the entire structure to help hold it together. Structures are then pushed into the water and allowed to sink.

Structures differ in size and shape. They are placed at different depths in a lake, depending on the different species they are designed to help.

Porcupine Brush Crib. Measures 48 inches x 48 inches x 44 inches. Usually placed in 10 to 20 feet of water near the shore or a stream channel. Designed for panfish.


Porcupine brush crib

Crib parts

PA Black Bass Nesting Structure

PA Black Bass Nesting Structure. Measures 48 inches x 96 inches x 15 inches. Usually placed in three to five feet of water near a gravelly bottom. Designed for bass species.

PA Channel Catfish Spawning Box. Measures 32 inches x 18 inches x 18 inches. Usually placed in 3 to 5 feet of water. Designed for catfish.

PA Turtle Basking Platform. Measures 48 inches x 48 inches x 5 inches. Usually placed on the water as far from shore as possible near a food source of vegetation where the water is 4 to 8 feet deep. This structure is the only floating platform. It is designed for painted turtles and redbellied turtles.

PA Stake Tree Structure. Consists of 2x2s standing up in a 5-gallon bucket filled with concrete. Usually placed in 20 to 30 feet of water. Designed for panfish and bass. This structure is cumbersome and dangerous to work with, so a new design is under consideration.--VP.

July/August 2001 Angler & Boater

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