Striper lakes' claim to fame is dwindling
No explanation for drop in state fish's numbers
BY BO PETERSEN
The Post and Courier
LAKE MOULTRIE-The striper is disappearing. What was once the premier fish of the Marion-Moultrie lakes can't be reeled in often enough to keep a guide in business. Fishermen are angry. State biologists are at a loss to explain it.
S.C. Natural Resources' sample count of the big, bottom-dwelling bass fell from more than 500 in 2000 to 91 in 2005, despite more than 2 million fingerlings being stocked each year. It is the latest in a long line of disappearances or sudden deaths among fish in the relatively shallow, warm lakes.
"There's not enough to even talk about, for sure," said longtime lakes fisherman Billy Goshorn.
"It's bad. There are still fish in the lake, don't get me wrong. People who know where to go can still get a mess of them. But it's a shame. We're the home of the mammoth striper," said Allan Weiss of Black's Fish Camp near Cross. And the "meat fish," the big stripers, are hard to find.
Weiss' brother-in-law once caught a 55-pound striper right off the camp. But regular fishing guides today have moved to catfish, and Weiss has watched the number of all guides working through the camp drop from 35 every day of the year four years ago to seven regular guides.
"You walk a fine line between driving people off and letting them know," he said. "We don't book something we can't catch. We tell people who want to fish for striper, 'We have guys who can take you but we don't advise you coming.' "
A state tourism official couldn't estimate the economic cost of the loss of fish. The lakes are considered a multimillion tourist attraction.
Striper, or rockfish, are striped bass. They can grow as long as 4 feet. The state record freshwater catch weighed nearly 60 pounds and was pulled from Lake Hartwell in 2002. Fishermen prize the fish for its size and aggressive fight. It is, ironically, the state fish, and with that designation the state legislative manual notes, "The Santee Cooper lakes (Marion and Moultrie) were the original home of the landlocked striped bass."
Marion and Moultrie have a history of fisheries trouble. In 2004 a die-off of more than 50,000 carp became the most massive single species loss in the lakes' history. The same year sports fishermen said commercial fishermen were depleting the catfish after numbers and sizes dropped. In 1992, a hydrilla infestation at the St. Stephens dam and power plant led to a die-off of 350,000 fish, the largest in state history.
Fishermen say they have heard the drop in stripers numbers blamed on everything from overfishing to predatory catfish and nutrients, natural minerals or man-made fertilizers runoff into the lakes. State biologists concede all of that is likely true.
"It could be any one or more of a gazillion things," said Val Nash, Natural Resources fisheries chief. State sampling has found two or more of every three stocked fish die young, and most of those after being caught and released by fishermen as too small to be kept under state law.
The fish hit keeper size at about 3 years old but females don't begin reproducing until they are 4 or 5. The young like to hide and feed along specific plants at specific times in moving water. In the warm, shallow lakes where the nutrient loads that feed those plants vary, it's hit or miss whether the fish find them.
The state is working on it, Nash said, looking at options like changing size limits, moving to a keep-the-first-two-fish-caught rule or shortening the season. Natural Resources officials are meeting with fishing interests to gauge reaction and will hold public meetings on their plans.
Fishermen want to see more fingerlings stocked. At least a few would like to see white bass or a fast-growing hybrid introduced to give them a catch until the striper repopulate. Even if a plan works, repopulation could take three years or more, Weiss said.
"We can't put any more fish in. It doesn't serve any purpose" if they are not surviving, Nash said. There's a concern for crossbreeding and genetics with hybrids that usually don't reproduce, but have. And putting in hybrids or white bass is essentially surrendering the lakes as striper lakes, he said. "That's one of our last choices."
Reach Bo Petersenat 745-5852 or [email protected]