Steve Galmor of Sayre has been fishing at Altus-Lugert Lake since he was 16.
“I've caught 18-pound hybrids, tons of sand bass,” said Galmor, who owns trailer homes less than a mile from a lake for weekend getaways.
“My passion is those mountains and that water. I have caught fish there all my life. I am 58. I will be 70 before I will be able to go back in there and catch a fish that is worth something.”
That's because golden algae has killed most of the fish in Altus-Lugert Lake. An estimated 350,000 adult fish died over a three-month period at Altus-Lugert because of toxic golden algae blooms.
Biologists for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation spent four days in April conducting electro-fishing and gill netting surveys. They didn't catch a single fish.
“There are no fish we can find in the lake,” said Gene Gilliland, assistant chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “It doesn't mean there aren't any. It means the population is so low we couldn't find any.”
State wildlife officials hope to restock the lake, first with forage fish and then with sport fish at some point, but they don't know when that will happen. The water is still toxic from golden algae blooms, and there is no guarantee there won't be another fish kill in the future.
Altus-Lugert Lake is essentially dead as a fishery, and no one knows when, or if, it will come back. It is a major blow for anglers in southwest Oklahoma where fishing holes are few and far between.
“It's a damn tragedy is what it is,” said Galmor, who along with many other Altus-Lugert regulars is now fishing at Tom Steed Reservoir near Snyder.
Altus-Lugert Lake, which sits next to Quartz Mountain, was one of the main fisheries for southwest Oklahoma. It once held the state record for both walleye and striped bass hybrid.
Larry Cofer, southwest region fisheries chief for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has spent his entire 30-year career with the Wildlife Department in southwest Oklahoma.
“We certainly didn't expect to have a whole lake go belly up in my time here,” he said.
Golden algae forms naturally and can produce blooms that are toxic to fish and turtles. It is not harmful to humans or pets or livestock.
It flourishes in cool water conditions where there is less healthy green algae and in lakes with higher salt content. The lack of rain also can concentrate nutrients in the water that increase the odds for toxic blooms, but there is no way to predict when they will happen.
Golden algae can be present without producing the toxic blooms that are deadly to fish. It is in the Red River and possibly other southwest Oklahoma lakes where fish kills haven't happened, Gilliland said.
“We don't know all the pieces of the puzzle,” Gilliland said. “We don't know how it spreads.”
State wildlife officials worry about golden algae spreading to other Oklahoma lakes. They recommend that boats be drained and dried before moving from one lake to another.
Basically, all lakes west of I-35 are vulnerable to golden algae. A handful of lakes east of I-35 – including Hefner, Sooner, Konawa, Keystone and Kerr – also have been identified as potentially vulnerable because of their higher salt content.
In the past, Lake Texoma has been the victim of minor fish kills from golden algae blooms. The kills were isolated to small areas on the Red River arm of the lake and mostly were non-game fish.
It is doubtful golden algae would devastate Texoma like it did Altus-Lugert, but “it could hurt it,” Gilliland said.
The fish kill at Altus-Lugert Lake began in December and continued through February.
The previous winter, golden algae blooms had killed the trout stocked in the basin below Altus-Lugert Lake. That's why the winter trout fishing area was moved to Medicine Park from Quartz Mountain.
“We kind of anticipated this, but there wasn't a lot we could do about it,” Cofer said.
Altus-Lugert Lake once offered good fishing for walleye, hybrids, crappie and blue catfish, but golden algae has killed the fish and the fishing.
“Biologically, I have never handled anything worse in my career,” Cofer said.