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Wednesday
Jan142015

Sediment Removed to Restore Habitat on Lower Missouri River

This past fall, work began to remove more than 130,000 cubic yards of sediment from two backwaters and access areas, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to rehabilitate the lower Missouri River.

“Backwaters are huge reproductive areas,” said Luke Wallace, a Corps biologist. “I’ve heard them described as the grocery for the river.”

Many of these prime feeding, spawning and winter refuge areas were lost in 2011, when the swollen river smothered them with tons of dirt and cut off side channels from the main river. That occurred mostly because a year’s worth of rain fell during the second half of May on the upper basin, adding to a melting snow pack that was 212 percent above average in the Rocky Mountains.

Since then, the Corps has spent between $14 and $16 million to restore 17 of these places between Sioux City and the Iowa-Missouri border. As work continues, another $3 million to $5 million likely will be spent.

Most all of the areas are popular for fishing and hunting.

 “I think in general, the importance of backwaters has been underemphasized,” said Dave Swanson, director of the Missouri River Institute. “They’re important as nurseries for fish, important for insects. They really need these areas to do what they do.”

In the latest effort, contractors are removing 45,000 cubic yards of sediment from a 9-acre site known as Hole-in-the-Rock, near Macy. Deeping that pool should benefit bass, as well as an additional 59 forage, game, and rough species.

They also are cleaning out 88,000 cubic yards from a side channel at Middle Decatur Bend. That will lower the entrance by two feet to once again allow water to enter the channel.

Scheduled to be completed in June, the two projects will cost an estimated $972,000.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)

Monday
Jan122015

Boating Safety Threatened at Lake Eufaula

One of the most popular bass fisheries in the Southeast soon might become one of its most hazardous.

That’s because proposed budget cuts for fiscal year 2015 could force removal of navigation markers on Lake Eufaula/Walter F. George, a 45,000-acre impoundment on the Chattahoochee River.

“Safety is the main issue,” said Jim Howard, Alabama B.A.S.S. Nation Conservation Director, who has been leading a campaign to alert anglers to this possibility. “Every angler I talk to cannot imagine the lake without buoys. As I see it, boat damage and boater injury will be common. Ultimately, boater death will occur.”

Without markers, the lake would be most dangerous at levels below 186 feet (above sea level), according to Troy Gibson, a tournament angler and lure designer for Southern Plastics.

“It would be especially that way for people who don’t live here and don’t know the lake,” he said. “They might run over sand or hit stumps or trees.”

Gibson has personal experience with such hazards. In 2011, his boat suffered $2,800 in damage when he motored outside the markers.

The average depth outside the channels is just 5 to 7 feet (at 188 feet), said the Eufaula regular, who added many use the buoys to position themselves for fishing, as well as navigation.

Removal of those markers could occur because no operational funding has been requested for the U.S. Coast guard unit at Eufaula, which is responsible for their maintenance and which has been at the impoundment since the 1960s. Chief Petty Officer Patrick Haughey confirmed that his unit is scheduled for closure as part of the proposed federal budget for 2015. He added that some of the markers have been “thinned,” but the main navigation channel remains marked (as of late November).

“The bottom line is that the Coast Guard does plan to pull out of Eufaula on approximately March 31,” said Andrew Ashley, a military legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama.

That’s reputedly because of limited barge traffic on the river, as well as the need for those Coast Guard personnel elsewhere.

“Apparently, the drought of 2007 has significantly impacted water traffic,” Ashley said. “The Coast Guard reports that there was only one barge that traversed the waterways last year.

“The previous barge that traversed the waterway was four years ago. The mission of the Coast Guard is to facilitate commercial traffic --- not recreational.”

But what’s being overlooked, besides safety, is popularity of recreational fishing and boating on Eufaula and their importance to local economies.

“Impact on the city of Eufaula will be huge,”Howard said. “Once the word gets out that (Lake) Eufaula is not a safe place to boat, folks will write it off their list.

“I expect the city and surrounding communities will lose angler/boater expenditures in the millions of dollars.”

When/if the decision is announced to close the Guard Coast unit at Eufaula, a public comment period will afford citizens and businesses the opportunity to express their concerns, Ashley explained.

“The Coast Guard encourages the community to seek funding for navigational assistance from the state government or private sources,” he added. “The Coast Guard offered its expertise and assistance to future providers of navigational services in the region.”

Additionally, assistance for maintenance of the markers will be solicited from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said. 

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)

Friday
Jan092015

Mentors Make the Difference in Growing Up With Nature

My parents were not the outdoors type.  My Dad was in the military and we moved all over the country until I was about ten years old.  When Dad retired from the service, we moved back to the family farm, but even then I did not get too deeply immersed in “nature.”  I was not into cattle and wheat.  And fishing was not even on my radar screen. 

That all changed one day when my Uncle Ralph took a chance on a twelve-year old novice and invited me on my first fishing trip.  Of course I had no idea then, but that trip started me on a path to my future.

Ralph had a long history with fishing.  He tied his own flies and carved wooden bass plugs.  He had fished all over the county.  He was deep in the culture.  An upstairs space over his printing shop was the first home of the Bomber Bait Company, a business that grew into one of the biggest names in the tackle industry.

But what seemed to give Ralph his greatest pleasure was introducing kids to the sport of fishing --- serving as a mentor.  When his own children had grown up and moved out and his grandkids had gotten older, he looked for a new challenge.

That challenge turned out to be me.

 This is an excerpt from Gene Gilliland's essay "Mentors Make the Difference" in Fish, Frogs, and Fireflies: Growing Up With Naturea new book by Robert Montgomery. His previous was Why  We Fish. Both are available at Amazon.

Gilliland is the National Conservation Director for B.A.S.S., following a 32-year career as a fishery research biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. He represents the organization and its members on several national committees dealing with sport fishing interests and acts as an adviser to 46 B.A.S.S. Nation state conservation directors.

Thursday
Jan082015

DNA Research Reveals Trophy Bass Parentage at Guntersville

Contrary to popular belief, Guntersville trophy bass are not pure Florida strain, according to DNA research conducted during the 2014 Bassmaster Classic at that northern Alabama fishery.

From a scientific standpoint, however, that really isn’t surprising. Between 1981 and 1994, an estimated 500,000 Florida bass were released into Guntersville, but few have been added since.

“The population, instead, consists largely of hybrid crosses,” said Dr. Eric Peatman, an associate professor in Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences.

Eight-pound-plus fish are 52 percent Florida and 48 percent northern. That’s in keeping with the assessment of Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director, who said that bass with 50 percent or more Florida genes have enhanced trophy potential. “Below that, and it’s no greater than for native fish,” he added.

Peatman and his team also found that the “lakewide average genetic composition” is about 70 percent northern and 30 percent Florida.

“Four to five-pound fish do not vary significantly from the lakewide average in their genetic make-up,” he explained. “However, seven-pound-plus fish show an increase in Florida percentage to 42 percent of their genome.”

These findings suggest that stocking Guntersville with Florida bass has been effective in shifting the genetic baseline of the population and that trophy-size fish are bunched around a rough 50:50 genetic split, said Peatman, adding that more samples are needed to reach definitive conclusions.

“One of the missing components in this analysis is age,” the scientist said, adding that multiple ages likely are represented among those samples of larger bass. “Ultimately, we want to know what is the genetic composition of the largest size fish within each year class, or what mix of Florida and northern alleles produces the fastest growing fish.”

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) will with this aspect during its spring sampling.

“A final component in the mix is obviously habitat,” Peatman said. “The best performing genotype in one reservoir is not necessarily the best genotype in a different reservoir with different environmental parameters. “So we have plans to include different reservoirs and habitats in the analysis in the coming year as well.”

All of this work is part of a statewide project funded by ADCNR to better understand the impacts of the state’s Florida bass stocking program on the quality of its bass fisheries.

“The Classic and other tournaments throughout the year in Alabama represent an excellent opportunity to take non-lethal DNA samples from larger bass brought in by anglers,” Peatman said.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to use these genetic tools to help ALDCNR make proactive stocking and management decisions to ensure the highest quality bass fisheries for our anglers for years to come.”

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)

Wednesday
Jan072015

Would Florida-Strain Bass Improve Your Fishery? Maybe . . . Not

In southeastern Oklahoma one winter, hatchery ponds for the state’s Florida bass stocking program were covered by ice for three weeks. One hundred miles to the south, at Lake Fork, just three days were below freezing.

Anglers at Fork during that time probably found the bite tough, but the world-class fishery suffered no long-term damage. In those ponds, meanwhile, 60 percent of the Florida bass brood stock died.

Yes, Florida bass grow faster and larger than their northern counterparts. And stocking them outside their native range has resulted in the creation of some spectacular trophy fisheries in states such as Texas, California, Georgia, and Alabama.

But desired outcome from the expensive effort is not a guarantee.

“In Oklahoma, we finally decided that stocking Florida bass was a waste of time in some places, no matter what fishermen want,” said Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Director and former assistant chief of fisheries for that state.

Still, anglers continue the drum beat to stock Florida bass in waters that biologists say are inappropriate, as Ron Brooks knows all too well.  And in their arguments for stocking, they cite “evidence” that really isn’t evidence at all, explained the Kentucky fisheries chief.

“We receive requests to stock the Florida strain fairly regularly, and they always site Tennessee’s stockings in Kentucky Lake and the larger bass there as a result,” he said, echoing the experiences of fisheries managers in several states.

But biologists haven’t verified that those large bass are the result of Florida strain stockings. “The truth of the matter is that Kentucky Lake is a very fertile lake with very abundant forage species,” Brooks added.

Recently, some wanted Kentucky to stock Florida bass in Cave Run Lake, an infertile fishery east of Lexington, with limited forage and almost no habitat in the lower end. And, oh yeah, muskies, fish that like cold water, do quite well there.

Still, Brooks said, explanations for why Cave Run is inappropriate fell on deaf ears.

In a nutshell, here’s what introduced Florida bass need to thrive: mild climate, abundant forage, and plentiful habitat, preferably vegetation. Originating in subtropic Florida, they’re most at home in shallow water with a long growing season and plenty to eat.

Simply for survival, climate is the most critical of the three. Temperature drop of just a few degrees can stress Florida bass, and rapid and/or severe drop can kill them. Unfortunately, a clear geographic boundary for determining where Florida bass can live and where they can’t does not exist.

 “It’s not a north/south thing,” Gililland said. “It’s a diagonal, with cold moving from the northwest to the southeast.”

To thrive, meanwhile, Florida bass require plenty of food both throughout the year and during all stages of their life cycle. In their native range, that means mostly golden shiners, shad, and sunfish. But they will grow large and fat on other species, including trout in California and tilapia in Mexico’s Lake El Salto.

Shallow-water, vegetated habitat is the least critical of the three components, especially if the climate is mild and food plentiful.

Okay, some of you say, “I understand that. But what’s the big deal if you stock Florida bass in a lake and they don’t do well. No harm, no foul. Right?”

Wrong.

Introducing Florida bass is not the same as a supplemental stocking to enhance a depleted fishery. There’s only one reason to stock them: To grow trophy fish. If a water body isn’t conducive for that, then Florida genes mixed into the native strain actually can harm the fishery, making them less hearty, at least in the short term. Eventually, Florida genes will disappear from the population.

But the money wasted to maintain brood stock, spawn them, and stock the offspring still will have been wasted.

Additionally, as Florida bass breed with native bass, the potential for growing to trophy size is lost over time. “You can’t just stock and leave them,” Gilliland said. “As long as you have 50 percent or greater Florida genes, there’s still the potential. Below that, it’s no greater than with just native fish.”

Still, many anglers who want big bass in their home waters continue to lobby for something that is not in the best interests of their fisheries.

“Believe me, if past research projects indicated that Florida strain bass would produce lunker bass in Kentucky, we would have stocked them years ago,” said Brooks, voicing the frustration of many fisheries managers. “We strive to produce the best fisheries possible within the limits of our resources.”

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)