- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

COCHRAN, Ga. (AP) - Eight years ago, the Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area opened to rave reviews and quickly became one of the hottest spots to drop a line in Middle Georgia.

Then it all vanished as quickly as a trophy bass that just wriggled off the hook.

The 106-acre lake on the Bleckley and Pulaski county line closed in November 2012 after the lake level dropped so far that fish were about to die. The lake was leaking, and no one was sure why.

State officials had originally hoped to have it reopened by this spring, but pinpointing the problem and how to fix it has taken longer than expected. The state believes it has the solution, but it’s expected to cost more than $1 million, and that money will have to be approved by the General Assembly next year.

Several people involved said they are confident the money will be approved and that work can begin next year. However, the lake will have to be restocked, so it could be another couple of years before it reopens.

The original fish were removed as the lake was dying, relocated to other public fishing areas. Wayne Sapp, president of the Bleckley County Sportsman Club, said he hopes the state will retrieve some of the grown fish from those lakes so the Bleckley Lake can reopen relatively quickly after the repair is made.

Although the lake was only a few years old when it closed, people were regularly pulling out bass that were 6 pounds or more, he said.

“It’s been a productive lake,” he said. “Anytime you would go there would be people fishing, even on a work day.”

John Biagi, chief of fisheries for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, said geologists who have examined the site are confident they have a solution.

The problem was that small sinkholes had formed in limestone in an 18-acre area under the lake bed. During times of drought, that allowed water to seep down into the groundwater underneath.

When it was rainy, the groundwater was apparently high enough that it wasn’t a problem, but 2012 was a drought year and by November the lake level had dropped so low that the fish were in danger.

The proposed fix involves filling in the crevices, then covering that with a liner that Biagi said is most similar to a silt fence that surrounds a construction site, only in much larger sheets. That would then be covered with a layer of clay.

Before the lake opened, the state had to fix a similar problem in another part of the lake, although the leak there was smaller. Biagi said the geologists are confident that once the fix is made, the same problem won’t crop up elsewhere in the lake.

“This certainly isn’t the cheapest repair, but it is the one that is most likely to hold,” he said.

The state has experienced leaking at other lakes, but nothing on the scale of the Ocmulgee Public Fishing Area.

Sapp and the Bleckley County Sportsman Club labored for 20 years to get the lake built and opened. The project was delayed by problems finding a suitable location, then the state settled on land in the Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area.

Surrounded by protected forest, the lake made for one of the prettiest fishing spots in Middle Georgia. Unlike large reservoirs, public fishing areas are designed specifically for fishing. Only low-powered boats are allowed, and the lakes have docks and maintained bank areas that are popular with anglers who don’t have a boat. The lake drew 14,000 visitors in the last full year it was open.

Sapp said he does not believe anyone is to blame for the problem at the lake, and said it could not have been foreseen.

“It’s just something that Mother Nature does,” he said.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson, a Perry Republican and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, said he believes funding will be approved. It will be part of a bond issue.

“I think there’s a good chance I can get that done,” he said.

The lake bed today is mostly a gnarly expanse of weeds. There is still some fishing going on there, however. A two-acre children’s pond is unaffected by the leaking problem and has remained open for special events.

Jody Swearingen, who helps manage the lake for the DNR, said several events are planned there this year.

He visits the lake at least weekly. On Friday, he couldn’t help but note the near perfect weather.

“It would be a great day to be fishing,” he said. “There would be a lot of people out there if it was open.”


Information from: The Macon Telegraph, https://www.macontelegraph.com

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