AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinalsThe California Trout organization, or CalTrout, formed to protect the state’s trout and trout habitat, has also asked for the ban on fishing in the river above the fish ladder.“Now that we know the ladder is functioning, we need a uniform approach to protect these priceless fish,” said Jim Edmondson, CalTrout’s Westlake Village-based Southern California manager. “You sometimes can’t tell the difference between a rainbow trout and a steelhead. We don’t want to see these steelhead become like the grizzly bear, which is seen only on our state flag.”The new concern is the result of sightings this spring of about eight trout in the ladder, which was completed in December 2004 for $8 million – $4 million each from the state and the local water district – with an additional million dollars in improvements planned nearby to help the steelhead go up and down the river.“The Casitas Municipal Water District has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in operational and research costs to help with the recovery of the steelhead population in the Ventura River watershed,” district officials said in a written statement advocating the ban on fishing.In addition to the fish recently seen in the ladder, another new development is a rise in the Lake Casitas water level, which is less than a foot below the spill level at nearby Casitas Dam. This is good for the steelhead recovery effort because water from the lake is sometimes needed to keep the ladder flowing. LAKE CASITAS – State and local water district officials spent millions of dollars to build a fish ladder in the Ventura River to save the endangered steelhead trout, and recent sightings of fish swimming through the ladder seem to indicate success.Now, the Casitas Municipal Water District is waging a battle against another possible hurdle for the trout – the fish hook.District officials are asking the state to prohibit fishing on a new stretch of the river just north of the ladder, and plan to send a letter this week emphasizing that the millions of dollars they spent to build and maintain the ladder will be wasted without a ban on all fishing. A draft of the letter says allowing anglers above the fish ladder “seems counter-productive to all of the efforts that are now being undertaken to assist the endangered steelhead.”Fishing would be prohibited in the river, but not in Lake Casitas, which is nearly a mile west and contains a half-dozen varieties of fish popular with anglers. Lake Casitas is about five miles southwest of Ojai. “The lake level is good for the fish and good for the people, and we’re very excited and happy to see the fish passage operating as it was designed to do,” said Ron Merckling, a spokesman for the water district. “The fish we’ve seen (in the ladder) are pretty large trout, about 14 inches or so.”He noted that it’s unknown whether the fish seen in the ladder are young steelhead coming upstream from the ocean or smaller rainbow trout that live their lives in the river.Mary Larson, a fisheries biology specialist with the California Department of Fish and Game, said fishing is already banned on the river below the fish ladder to the ocean. Her department is in the process of putting in a request to the California Fish and Game Commission to ban fishing on the river upstream from the ladder to Matilija Dam and Wheeler Gorge along Highway 33.“We’re pleased to see fish going through the ladder, and if they are steelhead, we need to close the waters above to protect the fish and be consistent with the federal Endangered Species Act,” she said.The fish passage was developed to allow the steelhead to get around the massive concrete Robles Diversion Structure built in 1959 to divert water from the river into the lake. The passageway provides a continuous flow of water for the fish to swim up and down the river around the Robles structure.The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has also approved an environmental impact report for razing the 168-foot-high Matilija Dam northwest of Ojai so the steelhead can reach habitat at higher elevations in the Los Padres National Forest blocked by the dam for almost 60 years.But if approved, the $130 million project probably wouldn’t be completed until 2011, officials have said, so in the meantime they hope the steelhead will at least be able to swim up the river and Matilija Creek to the base of the dam.Some officials estimate there were once as many as 5,000 steelhead in the river before the Matilija Dam was built in 1948, and Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, 73, recalled standing in the river when he was a boy and watching the steelhead swim between his feet.But before the ladder opened, the steelhead had just about disappeared, particularly in the upper reaches of the river near Ojai, which is why biologists are excited about the recent discoveries.Some biologists and fish advocates hope the restoration of a steelhead population in the river will encourage the fish to migrate into the Santa Clara River, which goes from Oxnard up through the Santa Clara Valley, and into Malibu Creek, where there are already steelhead living below the old Rindge Dam. 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