Down at the Salton Sea, a strange body of water lying in the bottom of a vast depression in the southern California desert, the state's Department of Fish and Game has gambled some race-track money on a scientific project which shows every promise of turning that great, saline slough into a new game-fishing center. After 28 years of trying they have found a game fish, the orangemouth corvina, which has become adapted to the severe conditions of this shallow lake, which is 235 feet below sea level.
Biologists of the University of California who have been working on the project for three and a half years have come out with a firm prediction, a thing biologists seldom do. They announce that by next winter or early spring there will be good sport fishing in this 340-square-mile body of salt water. They know the corvina are there, they know that millions of fry are now growing rapidly and they can't see anything ahead that will prevent a fishing boom in the Salton Sea.
It is safe to add that when these predictions are translated into good catches of fighting corvina, fishermen in large numbers will migrate toward the Salton Sea. Southern California fishermen already have proved that they will move like the hordes of Genghis Khan the moment they get wind of fish. An example of just how fish-hungry they are took place last April at Crowley Lake, 40 miles north of Bishop, where 10,034 fishermen swarmed out onto the lake in 3,178 boats and took out 18� tons of trout on opening day. Under such fishing pressure as this, it is small wonder that the Department of Fish and Game has gambled on the Salton Sea.
The fact that race-track money has been used to develop the predicted fishing boom doesn't mean that the members of the Department of Fish and Game have been playing the horses. They have a better deal than that; a sure thing, in fact. In California some of the tax money from horse racing goes to the Department of Fish and Game for "capital improvements." In 1953, California's Wildlife Conservation Board authorized an expenditure of $86,000 of this money for a three-year study of the Salton Sea with the hope of getting game fish established there. Dr. Boyd W. Walker of UCLA was appointed director of the program, and the Salton Sea Project advisory committee, composed of biologists of the Department of Fish and Game, was appointed to assist in the planning.
It was a scientific gamble. If the biological studies provided the fish for sport fishing, it would constitute capital improvement. If they failed, the conservation board could be accused of using the money for basic research instead of capital improvement.
The orangemouth corvina (Cynoscion xanthulus), the payoff fish, has long been considered a prime game fish among anglers visiting the Gulf of California, whence it was brought to the Salton Sea. A relative of the California white sea bass, it is silvery in color and is an excellent eating fish.
"It has everything necessary for a game fish," Dr. Walker said. "It takes both bait and lures and is a good fighter. It doesn't jump but it makes good runs and it is fast. It's a beautiful fish, and some man is going to have the thrill of making the first big catch."
The biologists already have received reports of some corvina being caught by fishermen. Richard Easton of Westmorland, Calif. has caught a couple while fishing from the shore and using shrimp as bait. One seven-pounder was caught on a bass plug. But a seven-pounder is small compared to some that are in the Sea. Corvina attain a weight of 30 pounds, and their early growth is phenomenal. Some corvina seined from the Sea by the scientists, who could tell their age by studying the scales, show that they weigh about three pounds when one year old, around six pounds at 2 years, and when 3 years old they run 12 to 16 pounds. One specimen was a 3-year-old corvina weighing almost 17 pounds.
Irritation in the desert
From the viewpoint of sport fishermen, the Salton Sea has been an aggravation for more than a quarter of a century. There it has been—an enticing body of blue water with desert on both sides of it but with no fish worth catching. To the south lies Imperial Valley, once a howling desert but now, thanks to irrigation from the Colorado River, a fabulous producer of winter vegetables. To the north lies the Coachella Valley, where date palms, grapes and other crops are also nurtured by Colorado River water.