By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
LUTZ -- Chris Capkovic reached gingerly through the tea-colored water of Lake Brant into a wire mesh cage, not quite certain what was at the bottom.
His fist brought up a muddy mixture of good news, bad news and eel grass, chewed off to within 3 inches of the roots.
The good news: The cage had protected the eel grass from Lake Brant's huge carp, which would have eaten it completely. The bad news: The cage had not kept out turtles.
Another lake lesson learned.
Capkovic, 43, has been studying his lake for the past 10 years and has evolved into the quintessential modern lake lover.
From his boat, he regularly measures Brant's quality, clarity and chemical content. From his dock, he studies who's winning the latest skirmish for survival: algae or some other plant? Fish or some other animal?
Statistics show that the lake is benefiting from the tender loving care it receives from Capkovic and his fellow lake trustees. The water quality has generally increased since a crisis got the group organized in 1993. The 51-acre lake teems with fish, otters, turtles, wood ducks and even bald eagles.
"He's my most valuable volunteer," said Carlos Fernandes, an environmental scientist who coordinates Hillsborough County's lake management program, with 85 volunteer lake monitors.
Lately, Fernandes has enlisted Capkovic as a model for groups tackling problems on other lakes.
"Pretty much any place I'm invited, I'm going to have Chris there," Fernandes said.
Growing up in Tampa, Capkovic loved the beach until he visited friends on a lake.
"When I found out you could go swimming and skiing and all that stuff without getting salt in your mouth, I said, 'Wow, this is for me,' " he says.
Yet it took six years in Manhattan, working for Chemical Bank, to convince Capkovic that a Florida lake was his destiny.
"I had to go on jogs, just so I could get open air," he said.
Capkovic and his wife, Lou Anne Moody, bought their house on Lake Brant in 1992.
As Moody's sales career thrived, she persuaded Capkovic to become a "house slave," as he puts it. He keeps the house functioning, and devotes roughly a day a week to lake matters.
Brant was in turmoil then. Like many lakes, it had become infested with hydrilla, a foreign weed that can grow into mats on the water's surface and ensnarl boat propellers.
Lakefront property owners created Lake Brant Tax District, Hillsborough County's only tax district for lake improvements. Early taxes paid for herbicide treatment to kill Brant's hydrilla and for 300 carp to keep it from growing back.
Capkovic has been a board member since the beginning. The board adopted a management plan meant to keep Brant good for skiing, which means controlling hydrilla, and also good for fishing, which means stocking the shallows with native plants. Today, a third of the shoreline is planted, some by nature and much by volunteers.
Capkovic believes the board's biggest accomplishment has been educating homeowners to drop behavior that pollutes the lake:
Fertilizing lakefront lawns.
Letting septic tanks leak.
Dumping grass clippings into the water.
Mowing down shoreline weeds, which are needed to filter impurities from rain runoff.
Installing sandy beaches, which let dirty runoff flow unfiltered into the lake.
Using boats that leak oil or gasoline.
In repeated newsletters, the Lake Brant group dispels common myths. It reassures residents that native aquatic plants are good, that no Florida lake can look like a swimming pool, that lakes benefit as weather trends make them shrink and swell.
Although the scourge of hydrilla is long gone from Lake Brant, its cure has become a new problem. About 100 or more of the carp still patrol the lake. They're as long as 40 inches, with appetites to match. They have been eating the plants the volunteers are trying to propagate.
"The carp are harvesting my bullrush," complains Dan Romesburg, who is helping Capkovic design cages to protect the new plants. "That's the only way we are going to get the plants working in the lake."
Despite that and the turtle's eelgrass raid, Capkovic is characteristically sunny. The cages haven't sheltered plants yet, but they've attracted schools of small fish, protecting them from predators.
And a recent measurement of Brant's clarity was one of the best in years.
"When you're swimming, you can look down and see your toes now," he said. "That's a comforting feeling."
-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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