US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District

Potential Record-Size Fish Transferred as John Martin Stilling Basin is Cleaned Out for First Time in 70 Years

Jonathan Tague, John Martin Project Office manager
Published Jan. 28, 2019
JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- This flathead catfish was a “big fish in a small pond.” We’re pretty sure he’s still going to be a big fish but in a big “pond” on the upstream side of the dam.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- This flathead catfish was a “big fish in a small pond.” We’re pretty sure he’s still going to be a big fish but in a big “pond” on the upstream side of the dam.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A CPW park ranger loads a massive striped bass into the electrofishing boat’s holding tank, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A CPW park ranger loads a massive striped bass into the electrofishing boat’s holding tank, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- Colorado Parks & Wildlife generously offered to assist USACE with this project by lending their electrofishing boat, a hatchery truck, and the expertise of their aquatic biologists and park rangers. The success of this project was due in large part to CPW.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- Colorado Parks & Wildlife generously offered to assist USACE with this project by lending their electrofishing boat, a hatchery truck, and the expertise of their aquatic biologists and park rangers. The success of this project was due in large part to CPW.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A CPW volunteer loads a catfish by hand into the hatchery truck. Talk about an upper body workout!

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A CPW volunteer loads a catfish by hand into the hatchery truck. Talk about an upper body workout!

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – Potential state record alert! This behemoth catfish was relocated from the stilling basin to the reservoir upstream, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – Potential state record alert! This behemoth catfish was relocated from the stilling basin to the reservoir upstream, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A Colorado Parks & Wildlife hatchery worker transfers a large striper into the hatchery truck, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- A Colorado Parks & Wildlife hatchery worker transfers a large striper into the hatchery truck, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- USACE park ranger Valerie Thompson holds a striped bass in front of the stilling basin, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- USACE park ranger Valerie Thompson holds a striped bass in front of the stilling basin, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- USACE park ranger Christopher Gauger displays a flathead catfish while transferring it to the hatchery truck to be relocated in the reservoir upstream, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. -- USACE park ranger Christopher Gauger displays a flathead catfish while transferring it to the hatchery truck to be relocated in the reservoir upstream, Nov. 1, 2018.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – View of the dam’s stilling basin as seen on June 14, 2018, before it was dewatered.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – View of the dam’s stilling basin as seen on June 14, 2018, before it was dewatered.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – View of the dam’s stilling basin after it was dewatered.
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JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – View of the dam’s stilling basin after it was dewatered.

JOHN MARTIN RESERVOIR, Colo. – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque District, began construction on the John Martin Dam, then known as the Caddoa Reservoir Project, in 1940. After a three-year delay, during World War II (1943-1946), the dam was completed in 1948.

John Martin Dam is a gravity dam, consisting of a concrete middle section, and two earthen wing dams, on either end. The concrete section contains 16 tainter gates at the top of the dam, and six service gates near the bottom. The service gates control most of the water released into the stilling basin, and, ultimately, control the flows downstream on the Arkansas River. The tainter gates are used to release flood water. The stilling basin sits immediately downstream of the concrete dam, and contains large concrete baffles, to dissipate the energy of the water that is released from the dam’s tainter gates.  

To ensure the stilling basin performs as expected during flood releases, it is recommended that the stilling basin be completely dewatered, and inspected, every ten years. Before the inspections can begin, all of the sediment, which has accumulated from the normal water releases, must be removed. Since the completion of the dam, John Martin’s stilling basin has never been cleaned. That is over 70 years’ worth of sediment – equal to 60,000 cubic yards!

Due to the high nutrient content of the water in the stilling basin, this area has become a high quality, well-known “honey hole” for local anglers; in fact, the stilling basin has produced multiple state record bass and catfish in the past (both of which have since been broken).

On Nov. 1, 2018, work began to dewater, and clean, the stilling basin, as contracted workers placed one-half dozen high-powered pumps in the stilling basin, to begin the dewatering process.

Knowing that there were likely to be thousands of fish that were soon to be left high and dry by the dewatering process, USACE John Martin project staff teamed up with local Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff and a few hardworking volunteers, to relocate the game fish from the stilling basin to the main body of the reservoir. The fish were collected, through various means, including electrofishing, seine-netting, and dip-netting. Electrofishing involves a high-tech boat that is capable of delivering high-voltage currents, through the water, which essentially stuns the nearby fish, causing them to float to the water’s surface. Upon breaching the surface, USACE and CPW employees captured the fish via dip-net, and placed them in an oxygenated holding tank on the boat. After a few minutes in the holding tank, the fish recovered from being shocked, and were back to normal. Once the holding tank was full, the fish were transferred by hand to a hatchery truck, which was generously provided by CPW’s Las Animas Fish Hatchery. The hatchery truck shuttled the fish up and over the dam, to the main body of the reservoir, where they were released into the lake to continue life in their new, much bigger home.

This process fish salvaging continued for 14 days. During this time, tens of thousands of fish were relocated to John Martin Reservoir. The variation in species was very broad, and included channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, saugeye, walleye, white bass, striped bass, wiper, drum, bluegill, crappie, and shad, as well as the undesirable common carp. The sheer number of fish, and the size of them, surprised even the local CPW aquatic biologists!

Multiple “potential” Colorado state record catfish, and striped bass, are now lurking around John Martin Reservoir waiting for anglers to test their skill, and maybe a little luck, at catching them.

With most of the water and the fish finally out of the way, crews were able to begin hauling sediment out of the stilling basin. Backhoes, skid-steers, excavators, and dump trucks worked tirelessly to move the water-saturated dirt from the stilling basin, to a settling area for the dirt to dry out. Once dried out, the dirt will then be relocated to its final resting ground, on one of John Martin’s numerous food plots. The dark sediment will be used to enhance the food plots, where the John Martin staff grow crops, which support the local wildlife.

The final steps of the project include cleaning and inspecting the now-empty concrete stilling basin, and performing any needed repairs. Work is scheduled to continue throughout February and March 2019. Stay tuned for more updates and pictures.