Life jacket a must these days

Although the calendar says spring is already more than a week old, our recent spell of cold weather and snow showers indicates that winter intends to go away grudgingly this year.

But spring weather will get here eventually and bring with it some great days of early-season fishing. Trout season opened last Saturday in 18 counties in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, while the first day of trout season for the remainder of the state will be next Saturday.

Anglers or anyone else who will be on the water during the next month in a small boat, canoe or kayak needs to be aware that a new law now requires “a person shall wear a Coast Guard approved personal flotation device, or life jacket, during the cold weather months from Nov. 1 through April 30 while underway or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or any canoe or kayak.”

It has always been mandatory to have a life jacket on board for every person on any watercraft, so to be in compliance with this new regulation, boaters merely need to wear one while on the water from the late fall through the early spring months.

Going overboard in cold water always has the potential to be a life-threatening situation.

I speak from experience on that as wearing a life jacket saved my life when I took an unexpected spill into chilly water several years ago. Before your first trip on the water this spring, make sure your life jacket fits well and is comfortable enough to wear for several hours; if not, get one that is suitable.

And if the lifesaving factor isn’t sufficient motivation, wearing one as required could save you from receiving a costly fine for not doing so.

On March 21, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission announced that Colyer Lake in Centre County would be completely drained because of structural deficiencies with its dam and spillway.

This 77-acre reservoir located in Potter Township had been partially drawn down by approximately 10 feet since 2003. The lake is scheduled to be drained at a rate of about two feet per week and may take up to three months to complete. PFBC biologists plan to remove and relocate as many fish as possible from this popular fishing spot. Fishing will be permitted during the drawdown as long as conditions there are safe.

Unfortunately, Colyer Lake is just one of many small manmade impoundments that have been drained in recent years due to safety concerns regarding their aging dams and spillways. Back in February, the PFBC announced a similar fate for 204-acre Meadow Grounds Lake on State Game Lands 53 in Ayr Township, Fulton County.

The PFBC leases the dam and lake areas there from the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Losing these small lakes and reservoirs is regrettable because of all the fishing, boating and other worthwhile outdoor recreation they provide.

But rehabilitating the numerous small dams around the state in need of repair is a costly proposition, and the PFBC does not have the money for all those infrastructure improvements, so small lakes like Colyer, Meadow Grounds and others will remain dry indefinitely until funding for them can be obtained.

In spite of overall financial shortfalls, some individual projects have gone forward. Opossum Lake in Cumberland County near Carlisle opened to fishing again March 30 after a four-year hiatus. That 59-acre lake was drained in 2008 because its spillway was badly cracked and leaking.

The PFBC began rebuilding the spillway in May 2010 with the help of state and local funding, including $1.5 million from the state’s capital budget, $775,000 from the PFBC, $609,000 from Cumberland County, $100,000 from Lower Frankford Township and about $100,000 raised by the Friends of Opossum Lake Conservancy via donations from individuals and businesses. The total cost of the project was approximately $3.38 million.

And for one last entry from the “It’s always about the money” department, members of the board of commissioners voted in January to close two trout hatcheries – Oswayo in Potter County and Bellefonte in Centre County- as a cost-cutting measure to help the agency meet its long-term financial obligations.

The closures were expected to yield a savings of about $2 million a year in operating costs for the PFBC. The plan was to phase out the two hatcheries by the end of 2014 with all the employees being offered positions at other PFBC facilities.

At a special public meeting on March 22, however, that same board of commissioners voted unanimously to keep those hatcheries open for at least two more years while the agency pursues a long-term funding source through the General Assembly.

“We’re thankful that the General Assembly has recognized the fiscal situation we’re in and have expressed their willingness to help us reach a solution,” said PFBC Executive Director John Arway. “However, it doesn’t eliminate the fact that we must still find $9 million in annual savings or revenue over the next four years.”