Okhissa reopens for use

by Sean Dunlap

For Homochitto National Forest District Ranger Shaun Williamson, this week’s reopening of Franklin County’s Okhissa Lake couldn’t happen soon enough based on the volume of inquires he has received in regards to the public gaining access to the resource.

“There have been a lot of questions if we would reopen the lake as planned on Wednesday, March 15, and I am happy to say it was going to happen on schedule,” Williamson said.

“I hope people who use the lake will be as pleased as we have been with the improvements and that it will be a destination for years to come.”

He noted a top-tier priority for the closure of the lake in November, 2021 was to address a noxious weed from southern Brazil that had been introduced into the 1,100 acre body of water.

“One of the major parts of the project was a drawdown of the lake, which started in January of last year,” Williamson said.

“This was due in large part to a Giant Salvinia infestation, and in bringing (the lake) down when we did, there was a hard freeze the next week and that decimated the plant.

“Even though the weather did much of the work, we also did a herbicide treatment prior to bringing the lake down and that got the process started in getting rid of it. We are yet to find any residuals of the plant anywhere at Okhissa and that’s a very good thing.”

Williamson said any portions of the invasive tropical plant that remained along the banks of the lake after the drawdown died during that cold snap.

The U.S. Forest Service’s plan also involved bringing the water down roughly 20 to 22 feet for the purpose of allowing vegetation to grow along the exposed banks of the lake.

“Not only does that kind of vegetative growth provide habitat for spawning and for young fish to have escape cover, but it also resolves a cost prohibitive — between $900,000 and $2 million annually — process to fertilize and lime the lake,” Williamson said.

“So, when the vegetation has grown and the water comes back up, the organic material breaks down and naturally fertilizes the water.”

Williamson said another element undertaken by the Forest Service was burning a portion of land adjacent to the waterway, and the resulting ash from the fire will serve to lime Okhissa Lake.

“This natural fertility has already created a plankton bloom, which is perfect when the fish are spawning and for your prey fish — minnows and shad,” he continued.

“For the first year or so, the lake will not have the clarity that it had in the past, which is a good thing because the less clarity you have, the more fertile the water is.”

To this end, Williamson said Okhissa will have more of a greenish tint rather than being able to see 20 feet down into the body of water.

Bank fishermen will also experience improved access to the lake now that excessive vegetation has been burned.

Improvements also included the stocking of more than 400,000 pan fish — including bluegill and redear — along with 50,000 catfish and 5,000 gizzard shad for a new prey base for the lake’s existing bass.

“We did not do anything with the bass population in regards to numbers as much of the emphasis was on lake fertility and providing the bass with more prey to fatten them up and make them more healthy,” Williamson said.

He noted a fisheries biologist came in and shocked the lake and the fish that were examined looked healthy as many of them had gained significant weight.

So, Williamson said, over the next couple of years, those long, thin bass will be less common than they have been on Okhissa in recent years.

Other work included updates to existing picnic areas, a pressure washing of the scenic overlook and fencing, replacing bridges going to the beach area and an extension of the South boat ramp as a means of allowing access to the lake even if the water levels are drawn down

“We want to do drawdowns on a more regular basis — certainly not to the extent we did this time — say maybe five to six feet to help with spawning … especially among crappie,” Williamson said.

“That’s something that we will be looking at closely as we work to wisely manage the future of the lake. When the fisheries biologist recently went out to look at it, he said he believes the water appears to be the healthiest it has been in more than a decade.”

Officials noted the beach area will not be open to the public for swimming until water levels sufficiently rise, and presently the lake remains five to six feet below where it needs to be.

“Because of those levels, we’re also going to do an idle speed across the lake for the time being, and that restriction will also be lifted when the water comes up,” Williamson said.

“We’ve had calls from skiers inquiring about being on the lake, but it’s still a safety concern right now and we’ll allow that only after the water comes up to more adequately cover any stumps or trees below the water line.”

Williamson said, in retrospect, the closure of the lake was probably the best decision that could have been made for the future viability of the body of water and the enjoyment of people who visit it and take advantage of the recreational resource.

“At the end of the day, it has been about getting the most bang for our buck in terms of investing in Okhissa,” he continued.

“In managing the entire lake and its associated resources, the Forest Service took a step forward in addressing things that hadn’t been and needed to be done — from an overall health perspective — so this unique place would continue to be a destination for those looking to enjoy all nature has to offer.”