Snot Grass

Black mat algae is a growing problem for anglers at Tuckertown Lake.

Tony Garitta

April 24, 2007 at 12:31 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Anglers fear catches of bass may decline at Tuckertown Lake because of black-mat algae.
Photo by TONY GARITTA
Anglers fear catches of bass may decline at Tuckertown Lake because of black-mat algae.
I tossed a medium-running crankbait across one of my favorite points at Tuckertown Lake while my fishing buddy, Emery Hollar of Lexington, followed suit. My bait bounced along the gravel bottom, slowly loaded up, and ceased to wobble.

I should have been excited, but I wasn’t; I should have set the hook, but I didn’t. Instead, I reeled in the bait with a look of disgust upon my face.

When a crankbait feels heavy, a fish has usually engulfed the bait, but in this instance, no side-to-side battle ensued, no fish jumped, no movement of any kind occurred, only a lifeless dead weight.

When I lifted the bait from the water, its green/chartreuse body was enshrouded by a clingy black moss which emitted a foul odor.

Slapping the bait repeatedly upon the water did little good; the gook held steadfastly until I picked the stringy black stuff from my lure. In a few moments, my fishing buddy was doing the same to his lure.

What had embraced our crankbaits was “snot grass,” a disparaging but appropriate name given by local fishermen to a black algae which has become prevalent at Tuckertown Lake.

During the past four years, black algae has draped fallen trees, clung to shoreline grasses and plants, and crept out upon deep-water structure at Tuckertown.

The stringy menace clings to crankbaits, jigs, plastics and spinnerbaits, rendering the lures ineffective wherever the algae is thick. The only fishable baits are topwater lures and plastic stick baits if they’re maneuvered through clearings within the mats of algae.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists Lawrence Dorsey and Keith Hendrickson initially identified the black entanglements as some form of algae.

Hendrickson later contacted Dr. Rob Richardson, assistant professor of Aquatic and Non-crop land Weed Management Crop Science at N.C. State University, for assistance in identifying the algae and plant life at Tuckertown.

Richardson accompanied Andrew Gardner, a research technician, Hendrickson, Chris Nelson, and Nick Shaver of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to Tuckertown Lake Sept. 14, 2006, to obtain samples of aquatic plants and black algae.

Richardson identified the black filaments as black mat algae and took a sample with him to N. C. State to place under the microscope for positive identification.

In a Sept. 22 e-mail to Hendrickson, Richardson confirmed the musty algae was black mat algae or Lyngbya. Another form of algae was found in the sample but could not be identified.

Black mat algae is composed of stringy mats of entangled filaments which can persist throughout all seasons. The mats rise to the surface when oxygen becomes trapped buoying the mats to the surface. Conversely, the mats sink when oxygen is forced out of them by thundershowers or turbulence.

Salisbury’s Robert Zabicki, who has fished Tuckertown Lake for more than 17 years, said black algae has always been in the lake. Years ago it was confined to the back of Flat Creek and to a small cut within the creek harboring the Highway 49 landing.

In recent years, black algae has spread upriver, throughout Flat Creek, and to the N.C. 49 landing and beyond to Pumphouse Creek.

Jamie Benton, who assists Carl and Dianne Benton with the New Piedmont Team Tournament trail, which holds bass tournaments at Tuckertown, said black algae has had an impact upon the water willow (Justica americana) which comprises the main shoreline grass at the lake, called “canary grass” by fishermen.

Benton and Maynard Edwards of Yadkin Lakes Guide Service agree there’s less productive canary grass than there used to be at Tuckertown because of the encroachment of black algae.

“Wherever black mat algae has taken hold along the shoreline grass, the grass has decreased,” Benton said.

Because black mat algae makes lure presentation almost impossible, anglers fear many bass-holding areas will become unfishable. Some tournament anglers have already lost places to the black menace. Others have adjusted their fishing styles to cope with the algae.

Glenn Jones of Mt. Pleasant and his tournament partner, David Esmay of High Point, have experienced difficulties with black mat algae.

“(The black algae) really hurt us last year,” Jones said. “It stopped us from fishing a lot of our favorite fishing holes. We keep losing places to it.”

Jones said his crankbaits get hung up in the stuff all the time. Worse yet, he’s noticed the algae isn’t confined to the shallows; his baits have got snarled in the algae while running in 9 to 10 feet of water.

Esmay struggles when he fishes the algae with jigs.

“Dave’s gone to a heavier bait to get through the junk,” Jones said.

“He has to pick the algae off his jig after every cast.”

Dale Hege and Wayne Lawson, both of Ramseur who favor the high spot at Flat Creek during tournaments, have seen the algae take over that area.

“Only the side that drops off into deep water is fishable,” Lawson said. “Dale and I use flukes and other twitch plastics to work the area. They’re the only baits we can fish there. And bass aren’t as numerous at that high spot as they once were.”

Edwards said the algae at Tuckertown has forced him to take his clients elsewhere.

“I didn’t guide at Tuckertown much last year,” he said.

“I went to Badin Lake instead,” Edwards said.

He noted the algae and other expanding plant life at the lake have forced him to alter his style of fishing.

“Dragging a Carolina rig or a jig along the bottom in the shallows has become a thing of the past,” he said. “I’ve switched to jerkbaits and buzzbaits, and I can’t fish them unless there’s pockets among the grass and algae.”

One of Edwards’ favorite spots, the gravel point extending from the island at the mouth of Riles Creek, has been choked out by algae.

“I can’t catch fish there any more,” he said. “Bass once schooled off the point in the heat of the summer. Not any more. You can’t get a bait through the place with all the black gook.”

Shane Floyd of Lexington, a tournament angler, fishes deep-diving crankbaits at Tuckertown, working structure 8- to 14-feet deep.

“We’re losing places to black algae and, like Jones, have had our baits dredge up algae in as much as 10 feet of water,” Floyd said.

One burning issue with fishermen is whether or not black algae repulses fish as much as it does fishermen.

Some argue the fish are in the algae, but they’re hard to catch because most baits get snarled before the fish can react to them. Others contend the thick mats choke out desirable habitat, lower oxygen levels, and drive the fish away.

Benton said while duck hunting he’s shone a light across the algae and in places where it’s really thick, he hasn’t seen any fish, but in places where it’s patchy, he’s seen bass.

Jones thinks the algae holds some fish.

“The fish are in places with algae but not as good,” he said.

Scary Stuff

The scientific community views black mat algae as a serious problem.

In an e-mail to Hendrickson, Richardson described black algae as “problematic.”

“The algae can release toxins and is very difficult to manage,” he said. “It has no positive attributes.”

In “Aquatic and Wetland Plants of South Carolina” by Cynthia Aulbach-Smith and Steven de Kozlowski, the authors said black mat algae was a “nuisance infestation.”

Robert Montgomery refers to the “water-degrading Lyngbya outbreaks in Southern fisheries” in his article “Bad year for algae and sport fisheries ” for the Nov. 2006 issue of BASS TIMES.

In “Giant Lyngbya: A Pond Owner’s Nightmare” for the April/Spring 2005 issue of “Southern Ponds and Wildlife,” David R. Bayne said Lyngbya “has few redeeming qualities” and “interferes with practically all uses of a pond, particularly recreational uses like fishing, swimming, and boating.”

Bill Frazier, water-quality lab supervisor for the Public Services Department’s Water and Sewer Division, has been investigating Lyngbya (also called Lyngbya woolei) for more than six years.

Frazier, who has BS degrees in chemistry and business from High Point University with a concentration in biology and post-graduate training in environmental forensics, recently presented a power-point presentation to the Midsouth Aquatic Plant Management Society entitled “Lyngbya woolei: How did It come to This?”

Frazier said the algae is “scary stuff” that can ruin a fishery in two to three years if not treated.

He said the algae isn’t an exotic growth but native to lake environments and thrives wherever there’s compost.

“The algae first shows up in the backs of nooks and creeks and doesn’t pose much of a problem until its growth is triggered by an excessive flow of nutrients,” he said.

Once it spreads, Frazier said black mat algae becomes a serious threat to fisheries by releasing toxins, ruining spawning grounds, and eliminating fish habitat.

“What fishermen see and what entangles their lures is actually dead algae trying to float to the top,” he said. “The live stuff is beneath. Some fish may suspend at the edges of the algae, but the algae itself creates an environment harmful to fish.”

Black mat algae impacts all aspects of a fishery and water quality.

“The plant hordes nutrients and prevents their use in the pond’s food web that could otherwise benefit fish production,” Bayne said.

“Reduced sunlight penetration into the water under the algal mats can degrade water quality (eg. decrease dissolved oxygen) and threaten fish health. Lyngbya produces volatile organic compounds that enter the air, water and fish and impart musty fecal odors around the pond and off-flavor to water and fish.”

The Newsletter of the Haw River Assembly noted “(Lyngbya woolei) can cause major problems to fish or animal life....North Carolina’s drought, which began in 1998, has fueled the growth of Lyngbya, especially in the Yadkin and Catawba River Basins. (Lyngbya) has some scary characteristics.

“It seems to respond to outside threats by releasing a toxin into the water when disturbed. It also can grow in size from just a few meters across to cover an entire lake in a single morning! The algae imparts a foul taste to water supplies.

“The most likely cause of the spread of black mat algae is the presence of high amounts of nutrients from agricultural run-off coming into the lake.”

Alcoa Power Generating Inc., the lake owner, and the N.C. Division of Water Quality have been informed of the black algae problem.

Emergent, Submerged Plants

Black mat algae isn’t the only upstart at Tuckertown Lake. Several plants have experienced a growth spurt; fortunately, hydrilla isn’t one of them.

A June 2005 Wetland and Riparian Habitat Assessment Final Study Report prepared by Normandeau Associates, Inc. for APGI includes results of 2003-2004 field surveys of wetlands at Tuckertown Lake.

Tuckertown was found to have extensive areas of emergent wetlands and aquatic beds. Emergent wetlands are those areas where plants grow in 1 to 2 feet of water with their roots in the water but with their stems, leaves and flowers above water.

The most common emergent plants in Tuckertown are arrowhead, pickerel weed, cattails, and water willow. Water willow exists along much of Tuckertown’s shoreline. When local fishermen talk about fishing the grass, they’re usually fishing water willow.

Aquatic beds are areas where the plants grow completely under water in 3 to 6 feet of water. The most common submerged plant cited in the report is elodea. The 2003-2004 survey found hydrilla near the Flat Creek landing, and fishermen have reported what they thought was hydrilla at Tuckertown.

When Richardson and WRC biologists visited the lake in September, no hydrilla was found. Richardson said hydrilla spreads quickly after it invades a lake so it’s unlikely it just disappeared.

Richardson identified one submerged aquatic plant as Brazilian elodea (Egeria) which is prevalent at Lick Creek, the Highway 49 landing area, and the stump fields near the Flat Creek landing. The elodea could have been mistaken for hydrilla.

Richardson doesn’t consider elodea problematic like hydrilla.

“Only a very low concentration of Egeria was present,” he said. “The widespread distribution of coontail, a native species, may restrict expansion of Egeria.”

Fishermen don’t see elodea as threatening as black mat algae, nor do they see it as impossible to fish. Although any stringy plant can be aggravating to fish and force adjustments in lure presentation, spinnerbaits, plastics, topwaters, jigs, and jerkbaits can find their way through passages within the elodea.

More importantly, emergent and submerged vegetation have positive influences upon fisheries.

“Submerged and emergent wetlands serve as nursery and spawning areas for fish, macroinvertebrates, cover for juvenile and small fish, (and) foraging areas for fish,” said the Wetland Report for APGI. “Submerged and emergent wetland vegetation also help remove impurities from water, reduce sediment and nutrient loads, and significantly improve water clarity.”

For these reasons, anglers generally tolerate the problems that come with fishing grass and plants.

“What I know about grass is that it’s a good thing, no matter how hard it may be to fish,” Zabicki said.

While Benton said stumps are now harder to fish at Tuckertown because the elodea has gathered around the stump roots, he views vegetation as having a positive impact.

“The fish will stay in grass because of the oxygen it puts off,” he said.

Lily Pad Explosions

At the back of Newsom’s and at a cut near an old roadbed, patches of lily pads or American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) have found a home. No other creek harbors these striking green pads.

“This species rarely becomes a nuisance,” the Wetlands Report said.

Zabicki said the pads provide some of the most exciting shallow-water fishing at the lake.

“I’ll toss a plastic worm on top of a pad, pop it off, and then hang on,” he said. “If there’s a bass under the pad, the fish will smash the bait as it falls.”

In recent years, the number of pads have declined but not because of black algae. Zabicki said the plants are being sprayed. Last year a good number of lily pads reappeared at Newsom’s.

Oh, Rats

Whatever their views of black algae and the plant growth at Tuckertown Lake, fishermen agree bass fishing never will be the same.

“If black mat algae grows unchecked, in a few years we’ll all be rat fishing,” said Zabicki, referring to the weedless plastic frog and mouse baits used for fishing waters clogged with grass and scum.

“We’re close to rat fishing now at the upper end unless you’re fishing the rocks below High Rock dam,” he said. “Tuckertown was once a textbook lake for bass. You knew when and where to catch them. That’s changed now.”

Benton and Edwards said the changes in the aquatic lake environment have brought about other changes.

“The fish have changed their habits,” Benton said. “Not as many big bass are caught from the canary grass as before.”

Edwards said the topwater bite has declined.

“Tuckertown used to be a great lake for a topwater bite,” he said. “Fish no longer chase shad to the surface as they once did.”

No Quick Fix

No quick fix exists for preventing invasive and problematic aquatic growth from getting into reservoirs.

Boat trailers constantly transport aquatic growth from one body of water to another.

“Seeds get in livewells, between trailer tires, and the plants get carried by boat trailers,” Zabicki said. “There was a big controversy over this in Delaware, but it’s almost impossible to stop it from happening.”

No quick fix exists for managing black mat algae, either.

Frazier said that even if the source of the agricultural run-off that triggered the growth of the algae could be identified and the run-off curtailed, the algae would not go away.

“Black mat algae is similar to certain social diseases,” he said. “Once it’s there, it’s there for keeps; there’s no way to get rid of it.”

Frazier said Lyngbya resists conventional management treatments and can replenish itself by making its own nutrients and by regulating its own environment. It also attacks anything that comes near it.

Fortunately, Dr. John Rogers, a specialist in environmental hazards and wetlands from Clemson University, has discovered a fairly inexpensive means of treating black mat algae that has already been tried successfully. The treatment doesn’t eliminate the algae, but it does keep it under control.

Frazier’s been crusading against black mat algae for years, trying to convince health and fishing agencies and lake owners about the devastating effects of Lyngbya.

“I informed agencies about black mat algae in 2000,” Frazier said. “But no one wants to tell you the bad news.”

The Department of Water Quality within the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources in Winston-Salem, (336) 771-5000, is the state agency which has the authority to investigate a water quality problem and to take steps to resolve it. The agency can also levy fines and take legal action, if need be.

Agricultural agencies offer technical assistance to the farmer about waste management systems but only upon the farmer’s request.

“We act in an advisory capacity,” said Lloyd Phillips, district resource specialist for the Davidson County Agricultural Center in Lexington. “We don’t have the authority to visit the farmer’s property or carry out any inspections.”

The WRC also serves in an advisory capacity in respect to water quality issues. It notifies the lake owner and the DWQ of potential problems and provides assistance.

APGI works with the DWQ and the WRC to see what steps can be taken to remedy a problem.

“Our cooperative efforts include management of invasive exotics,” said Gene Ellis of APGI. “The invasive exotics category includes species like Brazilian elodea, but it does not include algae such as Lyngbya. Algae growths are typical of nutrient-rich waters, something over which we have no control.”

Anglers also have a responsibility.

Fishermen should report sightings of black mat algae to wildlife agencies,” Frazier said. “We already know it’s in Badin and Shearon Harris lakes.”

While fishermen may rightly turn their noses up at snot grass, they must also realize it will take more than a handkerchief to wipe away this problem.






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