San Bernardino County Parks trout stocking program continues to degrade
By JIM MATTHEWS
The San Bernardino County Regional Parks Department announced last week that it was going to finally start its trout planting program for anglers at its five urban parks – Mojave Narrows, Glen Helen, Cucamonga-Guasti, Prado, and Yucaipa parks. The plants were supposed to start this week.
Then plants were suspended on four of the five county parks for Thanksgiving because of weather, with only Mojave Narrows supposed to get fish.
But the big news in the announcement, the one that all the fishermen noticed on the parks’ social media pages, was that parks would be planting the lowest number of trout ever planted each week and that it would charge its highest fees ever.
The weekly plants would consist of only 609 pounds per week (with stocks before each park’s annual derby consisting of a double load of 1,218 pounds). Fees for the 2019 season are $10 per angler Monday through Wednesday and $12 per angler Thursday through Sunday. Derbies cost $20 per angler. That is in addition to the $8 weekday vehicle fee or $10 weekend fee. For the average working angler, that means it will cost him $22 to fish one of the parks on a weekend day.
By way of comparison, it was just five years ago the county was planting 175,000 trout per year in the same five lakes, or about 35,000 pounds per month during the five-month season. This year, if the agency plants through March at the same weekly volume, it will only plant about 65,000 pounds total over four months at 16,000 pounds per month (this includes the double stocking for the five tournaments averaged in). During the 2014-15 season, the plants were averaging about 1,500 pounds per week per lake – more than double the plants this season.
Park entrance fees (both vehicle and fishing) are up about $2 each between 2014 and 2019.
While this is the biggest cause for the parks’ declining revenue and participation, there are other factors that explain why use during the fishing season has plummeted.
A state fishing is also required to fish the county park lakes. The cost jumps each year, adding $51.02 to the cost of the trip (or just $16.46 for a one-day license, neither of which is available at the park) this season.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also stocks fewer rainbow trout at all the county park lakes than it ever has planted. It was not that long ago, that most of the park lakes received DFW plants of about 1,000 pounds every other week. Today, once a month plants – at lower poundages averaging 400 to 500 pounds – are the norm for the DFW.
Another part of the problem is that the price and delivery of live trout has increased from private hatcheries that can serve California. Most of that is due to skyrocketing feed costs, but environmental regulations have also really increased the growers’ costs. Still, those increases in trout costs should have been more than offset by the increase of fishing fees at the parks. Those fees skyrocketed over the last 30 years, far outpacing inflation.
I found an old story I’d written from 1983 when San Bernardino County was just beginning its more aggressive stocking program. That year, the parks started planting 1,000 pounds per week at Yucaipa, and 1,000 pounds every other week at the other three parks in the Inland Empire (Glen Helen, Cucamonga-Guasti, and Prado). The program began the first week of November and continued into April. Cost for a fishing permit was dropped from $3 to $2.50 that year, and per vehicle fees were just $2. So it cost $4.50 to fish on a weekend then. Even if you factor in cumulative inflation from that era, it should only cost about $12 to fish at the parks today.
This clearly is a management problem.
During San Bernardino County Park’s peak years for fishing and park use in the 1990s and early 2000s, the money generated not only paid for the fishing program, it paid for the entire parks operating program. Let me repeat that: User fees during the fishing season paid for the parks entire operation with money to spare.
Today, user fees pay for about 60 percent of the parks’ operating expenses – even at the exorbitant rates now charged to visitors. When the parks were successful in selling their services, they were run by Tom Potter. Coming from the private business world, Potter understood that people will pay for a good product. Under Potter, San Bernardino parks were stealing anglers from the high dollar private lakes with trophy trout and heavy trout stocking programs. How? The fishing was as good at the parks, it cost less to fish, and they were close to home. Since Potter retired, the parks have been in a long, slow, dramatic decline – and not just with fishing.
This is a simple fix. I would bet the park director’s salary that if the county contracted for 1,200 pounds of trout per lake per week and went to a single $10 (weekday) or $12 (weekend) fishing/entrance fee (combining the two passes) that the visitation would increase enough to not only cover the cost of the increased plants, but also increase the late-fall/winter revenue. It would increase enough to raise the percent of the parks budget paid by fees.
Would it get back up to providing 100 percent of the operating fees?
Maybe not, simply because of cost of trout is greater by several magnitudes today. It would, however, cover its cost and make more money for parks. Perhaps, after a season or two of building anglers’ confidence back up in the program, it would even bump fee revenue up 10 or 15 percent. Wouldn’t that be worth the effort? Wouldn’t it be worth it to have more people using those parks in this off season? (And for the upwardly mobile bureaucrat, you can say that you were the one who boosted park visitation and revenues. What a boost for the resume!)
Currently, Santa Ana River Lakes – a private fishing lake in Orange County – is charging $29 per angler to fish its lakes, and it is very busy on weekends because the owners stock the heck out of the lake with trout, including big trout. Plants are frequently 3,000 pounds or more before holiday weekends like this one. They post video on-line of all their plants, so anglers can see the volume and size of the trout planted. It is impressive. And to top it off, a state fishing license is also not required at this lake.
So why would an angler pay $22 to fish a San Bernardino County Park lake to have a feeble shot at 600 pounds of fish?
No one at county park management is apparently even asking this question, and it shows in use numbers. The current bureaucratic solution is to increase fees and reduce services, and then blame the declines in fishermen and revenue somewhere else instead of looking in a mirror.
I said that I would bet the director’s salary the problem could be fixed easily. That’s not putting my skin in the game, is it? If the parks department would be willing to hire me, I’d bet my entire annual consulting fee I could increase revenue by spending more on trout while reducing fishing/entrance fees. I know a lot of other “consultants” who would make parks the same offer.
Would parks be willing to give me just one of the five parks as a test case? I could make Mojave Narrows or Glen Helen hum with activity this time of year. Or maybe the parks management could just look up what Tom Potter was doing back in the early 2000s and copy his playbook.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.
The download of the version of this story that ran in Western Outdoor News, a comment letter from the San Bernardino County Parks Department, and the WON response to that letter, click HERE.