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Public fishing area reopens near Claxton after upgrades
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After a yearlong closure and almost $750,000 spent on upgrades, the Evans County Public Fishing Area reopened Saturday with an influx of 37 young anglers — and about as many parents and grandparents — at the start of National Fishing and Boating Week.

"With the rebuilding of the dam and the restocking of the lake, we’re looking for a better turnout than what it used to be like," Evans County PFA Manager Steve Mincey said. "We’re looking for this to be like starting off brand-new."

The PFA, one of 10 operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, is state property. Accessible by Sunbury Road from U.S. Highway 280 about 9 miles east of Claxton, the site encompasses 372 acres of land and water. It includes three lakes measuring 8, 30 and 84 acres.

Beginning in June 2012, the site closed for 12 months to undergo what DNR officials described as maintenance. But it was a sort of maintenance necessary for manmade lakes "once in a lifetime," Regional Fisheries Supervisor Tim Barrett said.

The work included rebuilding the earthen dam at the end of 84-acre Bidd Sands Lake and installation of a new concrete-and-metal gate structure for controlling the flow of water into the Little Bull Creek. A second emergency spillway for flood control was created and fishing piers on two lakes resurfaced. The total cost came to $747,572, according to DNR Wildlife Resources Division spokeswoman Melissa Cummings. OCS Construction was the general contractor.

Smaller improvements during the closure included installation of eight new handicapped-accessible picnic tables, repairs to a nature boardwalk and removal of a dilapidated wooden dock. Nature and fishing-access trails were reblazed and some new ones cleared so that the area now has about 2 miles of trails.

Back in business

Without ceremony, the fishing area opened up at sunrise last Saturday for fishing. That was a free fishing day, as is this Saturday, June 8, which is when Georgia public fishing areas are open to fishing without licenses. Children younger than 16 do not need licenses anyway, but the adults who accompany them usually do.

The Evans County PFA has traditionally held a Kids Fishing Rodeo on the first Saturday in June, and resumed business as usual with this year’s. The event lasted until lunch, when free hot dogs and sodas were served.

Claxton resident Carroll Hendrix, who took his son Miles, 8, said they were happy to see the place reopen.

"A lot of people don’t have a place to fish," he said. "His grandma’s got a pond and we go to hers every once in a while, but it’s good to have an option to go somewhere and fish. He enjoys it."

Most of the Kids Fishing Rodeo action was at 8-acre Lake Longleaf, where the fishing pier had new planks. But the majority of what’s new is at Bidd Sands Lake. The 84-acre lake was drained for the first time in its 40-year history as a state-run facility and probably almost 60 years of existence, Mincey said. After the lakebed dried, stumps were removed and some vegetation burned.

The dam was resloped and made 2 feet taller, and a layer of stones called riprap were piled on the slope, from bottom to top. These are intended to reduce erosion from wind-driven waves.

By also eliminating trees and their roots from the dam, the project makes the lake system more stable for the long run, said Joel Fleming, the DNR fisheries biologist assigned to the area. Roots create pathways for erosion and weaken earthen dams, he explained.

Meanwhile, the yearlong hiatus gave the DNR time to apply strategy to rebuilding stocks of fish in the lakes. Mincey explained that Lake Woody, the 30-acre lake that feeds directly into Bidd Sands Lake, was restocked to full capacity, with largemouth bass, bluegill and redear sunfish. After a few months of growing time, these fish were released into the 84-acre lake, and the 30-acre lake was restocked again.

Some year-old fish and channel catfish also were added directly to the larger lake. A recent lake survey using an electrical device to stun fish turned up some 7- and 8-pound bass and "catchable" size fish of other species, Mincey said.

Also during the restoration of Bidd Sands Lake, 20 person-sized metal chicken coops donated by Claxton Poultry Farms Inc. were placed in clusters on the lake bottom near the dam. These form "fish attractors" after the fashion of offshore artificial reefs, Mincey said.

He and Fleming said they especially are interested in improving the population of crappie, another sunfish species, and that the fish attractors should help.

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