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Grass or No Grass?

I recently received a call from one of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission board members wanting to talk about "invasive species" on Lake Wylie. Specifically he was referring to the snakehead fish and hydrilla. The marine commission is concerned about the spread or growth of these species. We talked for about an hour, during which I tried to make a few points.

The snakehead fish is an interesting situation as they are prolific breeders and aggressive predators that will likely have few natural predators in these waters. The board member asked me spread the word and urge anyone who catches one of these fish not to release it and notify the Department of Natural Resources. I suggested the best method I could think of for finding and removing these fish would be to use the "shock" boats South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and North Carolina Wildlife have to work through areas where the snakehead is likely to live.

Then we started talking about hydrilla, which is a touchier subject. There is a struggle to maintain balance for all the users of Lake Wylie. The power company wants to continue to make power and money without additional expense; homeowners want a clean, pretty lake to live on; fishermen want a prolific fishery; pleasure boaters want a lake they can ride on; and conservationists want to return or maintain the lake in as natural a state as possible.

I am not a biologist, but this is what I know about the hydrilla:

• It grows and spreads quickly, up to one-inch a day under the right circumstances.

• It serves as a filter, removing particulate matter from the water as it passes through the grass.

• It will grow on just about any bottom but does particularly well on sand or soft bottoms.

• It will grow to the surface and form "mats" in less than 10 feet of water.

• The grass dies off during the winter months and begins re-growing in the spring.

• Most of the country's best fishing lakes have grass as it provides abundant habitat (something Lake Wylie is sorely lacking) for all species of fish.

So what is to be done about it? That's the question.

Spraying it with chemicals to kill it also impacts the fish and other wildlife that live in and feed off the grass. Sterile grass carp will eat it, but when they finish with the hydrilla, they begin to eat other forms of native vegetation we need. If we let it grow, it could "choke up" shallow areas where it grows making it difficult to get a boat through.

As a fisherman, I say let it grow. It will take decades for it to spread throughout the lake at which point the river and creek channels will remain clear for navigation and pleasure use. It will help restore Lake Wylie to the prolific fishery it once was, and the lake could become a world-class fishery. The grass will filter the water making it clearer, cleaner and prettier than it ever has been.

What it could mean to the businesses around the lake: I contacted the tourism department of Marshall County Alabama, home of Lake Guntersville. For those unfamiliar with Lake Guntersville, it is one of the premier fishing lakes in the world. People come from all over the planet to fish Lake Guntersville. Why? It has a huge population of big fish that live in the lake's plentiful grass beds. The tourism department for Marshall County forwarded to me the estimated economic impact of the fishing in the county. In fall 2008 alone, the estimated economic impact of the tourism generated by the lake alone was more than $3 million! That is a lot of money for local businesses.

The growth and spread of hydrilla in Lake Wylie will change the lake -- for some better and for some worse. As with all things in life there is good and bad in every situation. We won't know the long-term effects or benefits for decades to come, but I will be anxiously watching as things develop.

There is no substitute for time on the water!

Rusty White of Rock Hill is a professional fisherman and full-time guide on the Catawba chain of lakes, offering full- and half-day services. For more information, visit fishingwithRusty.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Almost 2,000 sterile Asian grass carp were scheduled for possible release in Lake Wylie this week, however, calls to obtain comment and find out about specifics were not returned by press time Monday. As reported May 5 in the Lake Wylie Pilot, for the second year, Lake Wylie Maine Commission plans release the grass carp for the second year in a row to combat the spread of hydrilla in North Carolina waters of the lake. "It'll choke up a place where you can't use it," said Howard "Biff" Virkler, who heads the hydrilla effort with the Lake Wylie Marine Commission. Hydrilla is a non-native, fast spreading water weed estimated to cover 90 acres in Lake Wylie, blamed in water bodies where it grows for everything from closing down boat ramps to breeding mosquitoes and rendering coves unnavigable. The vegetarian fish can eat their body weight in hydrilla in a day, and can grow to three feet long. The Lake Wylie stocking will cost $9,000 from North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Duke and the marine commission. Annually, the cost of battling hydrilla in North Carolina tops $1 million.

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