N.C. Wildlife Commission Improves Fish Habitat in 5 Piedmont Reservoirs

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Staff with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission this summer planted aquatic vegetation in five Piedmont reservoirs to improve fish habitat and provide anglers with better fishing opportunities.

N.C. Wildlife Commission Improves Fish Habitat in 5 Piedmont Reservoirs

N.C. Wildlife Commission Improves Fish Habitat in 5 Piedmont Reservoirs

Staff planted native vegetation, such as pickerelweed, water willow, soft stem bulrush, white water lily and eelgrass, in W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, Lake Gaston, Lookout Shoals Lake, Lake Townsend and Oak Hollow Lake — bodies of water that lack natural shoreline habitat. When established, these plants will be beneficial to all life stages of fish, and will provide anglers with a variety of habitat types to fish. In addition to providing excellent habitat for fish, these native plants will protect shorelines from erosion and will filter sediment and pollutants from surface runoff.

To keep the new vegetation from being eaten by turtles, grass carp, muskrats and other herbivores, Commission staff built fenced-in protected areas, called exclosures, in shallow areas and near the shorelines on each lake. They hope that the protected plants will act as founder colonies that will grow and spread throughout the reservoirs over time — a long-term process that should reap big dividends for anglers who are patient.

“By adding aquatic vegetation in these lakes and along the shorelines, we are providing much-needed habitat for fish such as largemouth bass and crappie — two species that benefit from the presence of aquatic plants — with the hope of increasing their densities and improving fishing over time,” said Mark Fowlkes, the Commission’s Piedmont aquatic habitat coordinator. “While anglers shouldn’t expect to see the shoreline of their favorite lakes covered with vegetation in 2015, they should be able to see the progress of these projects within the first year.”

At W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, staff again partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, planting water willow in the 1,475-acre lake, which is located near Wilkesboro. This was the second consecutive year that staff planted vegetation in the lake. Like many reservoirs in the Southeast, W. Kerr Scott is a relatively young ecosystem and has eroding shorelines with little aquatic vegetation, which can make the lake muddy and degrade water quality over time.

In Lake Gaston, staff partnered with N.C. State University and the Lake Gaston Weed Control Council to extend a re-vegetation research project begun by the USACE in 2006. This year, they surveyed existing sites to determine what vegetation was present, as well as the condition of the vegetation. They repaired existing exclosures, expanded fencing at one site and planted Illinois pondweed.

Establishing colonies of native vegetation in Lake Gaston is especially important to biologists because the lake, which is located along the Virginia border in Halifax, Northampton and Warren counties, is infested with hydrilla, a non-native, invasive plant from Asia. While hydrilla provides fish habitat, it spreads quickly and can overtake a body of water, causing severe problems for anglers fishermen and boaters alike. To control the spread of hydrilla, the Lake Gaston Weed Control Council has been stocking triploid grass carp in the lake for the past 15 years. The carp have eaten many acres of hydrilla, and biologists are planting the native vegetation to replace the acres of hydrilla eaten by the carp.

“We are providing better habitat using native plants,” Fowlkes said. “Although grass carp may eat some of the native vegetation, much of what we are planting is not preferred by grass carp.”

In Lookout Shoals, a 1,305-acre reservoir in Catawba, Alexander and Iredell counties, Commission staff planted native vegetation at eight sites. Agency biologists have documented a substantial decrease in largemouth bass densities in recent years.

“We anticipate improving habitat will help the bass population,” Fowlkes said.

In Lake Townsend and Oak Hollow Lake, staff is continuing a 5-year aquatic vegetation establishment research project begun in 2012. Lake Townsend is a 1,500-acre reservoir and Oak Hollow Lake is an 800-acre reservoir, both located in Guilford County. The data collected are being used to determine what plants to use in other reservoirs.

“So far, we’ve been very pleased at the success we’ve had on Lake Townsend and Oak Hollow, particularly after finding young plants growing on their own outside of the fenced-in exclosures,” Fowlkes said.

While the vegetation plantings in other reservoirs seem to be doing well, similar plantings in High Rock Lake, a15,180-acre reservoir that experiences wide water level fluctuations, may prove to be the biggest challenge of all for the Wildlife Commission.. Staff currently is testing different plant species to determine which one will work the best in this reservoir located in Davidson and Rowan counties.

“High Rock’s water level can drop four feet in the summer and 10 feet in the winter, which makes establishing aquatic vegetation very tricky,” Fowlkes said. “We built exclosures and planted aquatic plants at nine sites throughout the reservoir using a variety of species. The plants that survive the winter drawdown will give us an idea of what to plant in greater numbers and at other reservoirs with similar water-level fluctuations.”

The projects were funded through the Sport Fish Restoration Program, which utilizes state fishing license money and federal grant funds derived from federal excise taxes on fishing equipment and motorboat fuels.