By Gerald Ensley • Democrat Senior Writer • October 2, 2009

Joe Jacobsen has been fishing Lake Jackson since 1956. On a recent Friday morning, the retired Tallahassee electrician went out with hopes of catching some bream but wound up catching a bunch of speckled perch instead.

“This is going to make some of my friends (who like to eat perch) real happy,” said Jacobsen, idling his boat on the way back to Sunset Landing. “Mostly, I’m just learning to fish this lake all over again.”

Everybody is.

Ten years ago — September 1999 — Tallahassee’s most famous lake disappeared down a sinkhole, Porter Sink. Fish congregated in a few surviving pockets of water. Grass grew 100 yards out from boat ramps. Lakeside docks were left stranded in fields of dirt and bushes.

It was nothing new. Lake Jackson, a rain-fed lake the Indians called Okeeheepkee, or “disappearing waters,” has dried up a dozen times in recorded history. But this “dry-down,” as scientists call it, was persistent.

The lake stayed dry for six years as Tallahassee suffered through a spate of years with lower-than-normal rainfall. The lake began refilling in 2005-2006 — only to drain again in 2007 through Porter Sink.

Now, a decade later, Lake Jackson has rebounded. The sinkhole has pretty much closed up. Two years of almost normal rainfall have refilled the 4,000-acre/6.5 square miles lake.

Lake Jackson is considered “full” when its surface is 84 to 87 feet above sea level. As of Thursday, the Northwest Florida Water Management District reported the lake level as 82.82 feet above sea level.

Even a few feet shy of perfect, the lake appears healthy. Boats can be launched again from all of the half-dozen public boat ramps. Water laps at the docks of most lakeside homes. Fishing has “exploded,” according to fishing guides such as Bob Mills, even if most of the young bass for which the lake is famous haven’t grown to the 18-inch keeper level.

“The lake is in phenomenal shape,” said Mills, steering his boat over a lake he has fished since 1972. “I haven’t seen this sheer number of bass in Lake Jackson ever. The problem is you have to catch 10 to get one you can keep.”

Of course, Lake Jackson looks different than its heyday. When the lake went dry, grasses, plants and trees sprouted in abundance. Once a sandy bottomed, open expanse of water, Lake Jackson is now a sort of mini-Everglades.

Boats must follow single-lane-wide paths carved through carpets of hydrilla, lily pads, dog fennel, pickerel weed, bladderwort and maidencane. Pine, cypress and oak trees have marched from the shoreline to hundreds of feet into the lake. Water skiing is confined to Church Cove, a deep swath of the lake near Miller’s Landing that is free of vegetation.

The flora growth has been beneficial: It’s given fish a place to spawn and baby fish a place to grow while hiding from predators. It’s attracted colonies of birds, ducks and wildlife. It has trapped and cleansed pollutants draining into the lake.

“The lake is a sportsman’s paradise,” said Michael Hill, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, as he piloted an airboat around the lake. “You just can’t water ski and jet ski everywhere yet.”

Hill said the old look and recreational opportunities will return. When the lake level rises another 2 or 3 feet, sunlight won’t reach the roots of plants and they will die and clear out the surface.

Despite what has seemed like a “wet” year, Tallahassee remains more than 10 inches below normal for rainfall thus far in 2009. Hill said the lake needs rainfalls of four to six inches at a time to out-pace evaporation and refill completely. Such rain may be coming: Forecasters predict a wet winter for the southeast U.S., thanks to the current El Nino effect in the Pacific Ocean.

“I would hate to get my wish of 20 inches of rain (at one time) because all the people around the lake would be flooded,” Hill said. “But regular rainfall will help.”

Government aided the lake’s restoration: From 1999 to 2002, the county and state spent more than $8 million to remove 2 million cubic yards of muck. The state has fought the growth of damaging water hyacinths “with a vengeance,” Hill said. Leon County has been eradicating giant apple snails, an invasive species that can denude a lake of all plant growth.

“And there’s a lot of just leaving (the lake) alone and not messing with its natural cycles,” Hill said. “The lake was exceptionally dry for an exceptionally long time. It’s going to take a while for it to cycle through.”

The decade long travail has had economic consequences. From the 1960s to 1990s, Lake Jackson attracted fishermen from all over the nation. A 1995 study pegged their impact on the local economy at $10 million a year. No study has been done since the lake went dry, but aside from modest spending by local users, FSU business professor Mark Bonn said, “I imagine the economic value of the lake is gone for now.”

“You’ve got to get the word out, got to get people coming back,” Bonn said. “It’s going to be five years before we can do a good study again.”

Some still believe man should prevent future dry-downs. Local hydrologist Tom Kwader has long advocated building a berm around Porter Sink that would prevent water from draining in dry times but could drain excess water in flood times. Kwader’s chief concern is water quality, as pollutants in the lake go down the sinkhole into the Floridan aquifer that provides our drinking water. The sinkhole was draining 5,000 gallons of water a minute when it opened in 1999; Kwader estimates only 500 gallons a minute are being drained now.

“(Pollutants) move as a slug when you pour them down there and if it goes to city wells, you’ve got some high concentrates,” Kwader said. “I still favor a berm to protect the aquifer. And a lot of people are coming around to the idea.”

Few of them are scientists, who insist interfering with the lake’s natural dry and refill cycle would create a muck-filled, dead lake. They note such encroachments are prevented by law: Lake Jackson is a state aquatic preserve, which stipulates its preservation in a natural state. They suggest people are impatient: In the 1930s and 1950s, the lake went dry for years and yet rebounded to full use.

“When water doesn’t reach people’s docks, when their property values decline, when they can’t water ski and jet ski, there is a lot of frustration,” said Sean McGlynn, a local water quality specialist. “But that’s different than (doing what’s best for) the lake’s health.”

Jacobsen agreed. He does not believe in tampering with the lake, even if the dry-down curtailed his fishing for many years.

“You don’t mess with Mother Nature,” Jacobsen said. “Mother Nature made it a good lake. And Mother Nature will keep it a good lake.”

Till next time tight lines and good fishing….
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