Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A True Story About the Collapse of a Fishery and It's Recovery : Part 1

*Disclaimer* What follows is my own personal experience in a sad situation. I have talked to local biologists about this , but I may not get all the facts absolutely correct. I hope my personal experiences shed light on the severity of a fish kill that hit very close to home for me and serve as a cautionary tale to those who don't follow rules intended to protect our waters from invasive species. Several factors could align and almost any body of water could experience something very similar or even worse.

Part One : The Golden Years and The Beginning of the End

Smith Mountain Lake , one of the most beautiful lakes in Virginia. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains the 20,000 + acre hydroelectric project has approximately 500 miles of shoreline dotted with beautiful flora and million dollar homes. The dam was completed in 1963 , forming the upper reservoir of a pumped storage hydro project operated by American Electric Power. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries manages the fisheries and makes recommendations to AEP and counties bordering the lake based on their findings.

The lake is home to a wide variety of game fish , including Striped Bass , Largemouth Bass , Smallmouth Bass ,  Crappie , Catfish and several other species not listed. The deep waters are also home to big populations of forage species like Gizzard Shad and Alewives. Threadfin Shad are occasionally caught , but are deemed undesirable by VADGIF and many anglers.

Stocking of Striped Bass began shortly after the lake was formed and continues today because of limited spawning success in the lake. These fish contribute a great deal to the local economy and earned Smith Mountain Lake a reputation for big fish. During the 80's and 90's catches of 10-15 pound fish were common and you had a very real chance of catching a 30-40 pound trophy every trip. It was without a doubt one of the best Striped Bass fisheries in the nation. Large schools could be found breaking almost anywhere on the lake and the fish could be taken using a wide variety of baits , both real and artificial. Smith Mountain Lake and it's sister in the pumped storage hydro project , Leesville Lake , both produced state records for freshwater Striped Bass in the late 90's. Leesville still holds the record due (in my opinion) to a series of tragic events that brought about the decimation of the fishery in Smith Mountain Lake.

It was too good to last. Once a fishery has reached it's potential there is a precarious balance of fish to forage that must be maintained or the consequences can be dire. The story of Smith Mountain Lake in the past decade is a testament to the importance of good populations of forage species in any fishery.
A SML Gizzard Shad (Photo and hand courtesy of Jody White)
One of the main contributing factors to the collapse of the Striper fishery on SML was a winter kill of Gizzard Shad that happened during the 2002-03 winter. Populations were reduced by a minimum of 60% for an extended period and this was a big setback. The full effect on the fishery wouldn't be understood until several months later , when fish began to die.....

Look for Part Two tomorrow!


  1. Curious to read it! I've fished SML several times over the years and have just never been a big fan. So much boat traffic....just a stressful time on the water on many days.

    It's an artificial lake in an increasingly volatile eco/climate region (mid-atlantic), and fisheries managers continue to ask SML to do a lot for VA anglers. Wonder if it can ever sustain at a high-producing level?

  2. Fisheries managers do ask a lot of SML. I'm a fan of the lake since I live so close , but I do think they have valid reasons to expect so much from the lake. SML is very fertile for a lake that size with so much deep water. The black bass fishery is steady , walleyes have established a breeding population and the Stripers are making a comeback.

    Sustainability will always be a question on the lake. Before the fish kill , there were unbelievable amounts of fish in the lake. We found out the hard way that they were just one cold winter and a parasite away from being wiped out.

  3. I know in the NC reservoirs, the state occasionally tries to backfill gaps in the shad population by stocking herring (had good and bad impacts). How much of that type of experimentation has DGIF tried at SML?

  4. They did introduce Alewives (which is a type of herring) and that helped somewhat , but in my informal bait fishing experiments the fish still prefer gizzard shad. I don't think I've ever caught anything on alewives.

    I'm sure they will help if/when we have another winter kill.


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