Once one of Hillsborough's most popular regional parks, this refuge of bumpy slopes and open water is much quieter than it used to be. • After a major makeover that drained the reservoir, Edward Medard Park has a fresh look: New boardwalk, new boat ramp, new fish. But according to a county parks official, the number of park visitors has dropped off significantly while the once-hot fishing spot recovers. • "A lot of good things happened during this downtime," said general manager Jeff Mausch. "It's just that people are not able to do what they used to do there yet." • The droves of anglers have dwindled from a dozen a day, Mausch said, down to one or two boats daily — maybe three on a weekend morning. He attributes it to the limitations on fishing, open only to catch-and-release for the rest of the year while the newly stocked young fish grow up.
The lag on fishing has also cut into the number of campers staying at the park, Mausch said.
A beloved community gem and reclaimed phosphate mine, Medard Park boasts a range of recreational activities: picnic benches, hiking trails, tree-covered hills, a two-story outlook and a new disc golf course. That includes about $500,000 in improvements coinciding with the reservoir's drawdown, Mausch said.
The park area is managed through a three-way partnership between the county, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (commonly known as Swiftmud).
Its 700-acre reservoir closed in 2009, when Swiftmud lowered water levels for construction work to strengthen the dam and ease embankment erosion. The dam provides some flood control for the adjacent Alafia River. At a final cost of $1.9 million, the project came in under its $2.8 million budget, water district officials said.
Without water, the ecosystem changed. Weeds grew. Alligators left. Raccoons and animals explored the lowered reservoir and raided bird nests.
But after the renovations, the water replenished naturally through rainfall. The weeds still poke out of the reservoir's bottom, but a wildlife commission official says higher water levels should choke them out.
The wildlife commission restocked the reservoir with more than a million fish, spending about $250,000, according to freshwater fisheries administrator Bill Pouder. It added fingerlings, or baby fish, from several species: bluegill, channel catfish, redear sunfish, largemouth bass and black crappie. The commission also jump-started the bass population with several thousand adult fish.
Exotic species, such as blue tilapia and sailfin catfish, remain in the reservoir.
During a series of public meetings in late 2011, anglers clamored to reopen the reservoir to recreational fishing. Officials limited it to catch-and-release to protect the growing stock.
"Most fishermen catch them for the fun of catching," Pouder said.
The catch-and-release term expires at the end of the year. Before the reservoir resumes catch-and-keep, officials expect to hold public meetings this fall to decide regulations on the number and size of fish that anglers will be allowed to keep.
"It's going to really depend on what (the anglers) want out of the fishery," Pouder said. "Do they want a trophy bass fishery or rather just have a fishery where they can keep x number of fish?"
It also depends on how the fingerling fish fare in the reservoir, he said. The wildlife commission will take samples through electrofishing: A boat generator sends just enough electricity into the water to stun the fish, sending them to the surface. Officials can scoop up the fish to measure lengths and weights before throwing them back.
That helps them understand the growth and abundance of the fish population. To add to that information, officials will survey fishermen in the spring.
Still, it could take years before fishing at Medard Reservoir returns to its former bustling state.
"There's a contingency of folks that have fished this thing forever," Pouder said. "Those are the people that are dedicated to Medard, and they'll be back, I'm sure."
Park managers have discussed the possibility of opening earlier on weekends once the crowds perk up.
Recreational fisherman Mike Baccamazzi hasn't been back to fish at the reservoir as often as he once did. He lives nearby but now only goes once or twice a month, he said.
"It's definitely progressing," said Baccamazzi, who participates in a focus group of Medard anglers. He recognized the need for the fish to build back slowly.
When fishing opens up to catch-and-keep, he says he'll likely resume frequent outings to Medard.
"It's one of the best parks in the state," Baccamazzi said. "It's got everything going for it. It's got it all out there."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected]