By Sean Dunlap
The U.S. Forest Service has announced plans to temporarily close Franklin County’s Okhissa Lake for up to 16 months to make improvements to the popular Southwest Mississippi recreational destination.
The closure is slated to begin Monday, Nov. 15 and is projected to run through Wednesday, March 15, 2023.
Issues being addressed during the closure include improvements to the overall quality of the man-made fishery, reducing the impacts of invasive vegetation and improving the general recreational experience for visitors of all ages.
Forest Service officials said the lake has been in a state of decline over the past decade due to an increase of aquatic weeds like giant salvinia, low quantity and poor health of fish populations and a lack of access for bank fishing.
“We believe the management of the fisheries and planned amenity improvements will be a positive addition to be enjoyed by everyone in the community along with forest visitors,” Homochitto National Forest District Ranger Shaun Williamson said last week.
“It’s going to be a much-improved place for fishing opportunities with increased lake health and it’s going to be a better place to visit overall.”
The scope of work — developed in consultation with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks — will notably involve an extensive drawdown of the lake that will last roughly 12 months.
During this time, officials anticipate the drawdown will stimulate a positive response from existing fish populations by inducing a large crappie spawn.
In addition, natural vegetation will also become established on the exposed lake bottom to provide added nutrients to the water as the lake eventually re-fills in the future.
Also during the drawdown, the Forest Service plans to aggressively treat infestations of giant salvinia, an invasive weed that blocks sunlight, stagnates water, increases mortality and degrades the overall health of the fishery.
Giant salvinia, which is a noxious weed, was unintentionally introduced into the lake several years ago and has been a growing problem since that time.
Left unchecked, giant salvinia can form dense mats — referred to as sudds — that can be greater than three feet in thickness.
Other work at the site will include an extension of the existing boat ramp so that future drawdowns will not affect waterway accessibility, the creation of a two-acre children’s fishing area, renewed stocking of pan and bait fish and the possible installation of a new fishing pier.
The Forest Service’s plans for its improvements to the lake are entirely separate from efforts led by the regional Scenic Rivers Development Alliance to develop a lodge and conference center at the site.
In July, after years of negotiation and political wrangling, SRDA announced the purchase of about 150 acres of federal land along the lake’s northern shoreline for eventual construction of a 200-room lodge and 1,000-person conference center.
Joseph Parker, who serves as SRDA executive director, said the just-announced federal lake improvements will not interfere with his agency’s short- and long-term plans.
“The lake maintenance being performed by the Forest Service will be completed and folks will be fishing again well before we begin vertical construction based on the timeline we have been provided,” Parker said.
“Scenic Rivers has been working closely with the Forest Service for several years on our project. There is hope to have a master plan regarding future improvements around the rest of the lake as described in the original discussions when the lake was being constructed years ago.
“The overall success of drawing guests and visitors to the area requires great partnerships like the one we have with the Forest Service and their local staff.
“We are looking forward to a bright future and thank all of those who have supported these efforts to this point.”
Parker characterized Okhissa Lake as a hidden gem in the Southeastern United States with those looking into the lodge and conference center project being amazed at the rugged beauty and abundance of wildlife and outdoor opportunities that exist with the lake and surrounding lands.
SRDA confirmed design and construction phases of their development project will be happening over the next three years.
Okhissa Lake, which is part of the Homochitto National Forest off U.S. Highway 98 not far from the Homochitto River, encompasses about 1,100 acres and has roughly 47 miles of shoreline.