Aquatic plants give shelter to young fish

Aquatic plants into Russell Lake

Annette Dotson, center, a park ranger from Russell Lake plants water willows into that reservoir as part of a joint effort with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Corps of Engineers. The native plants, provided by the Georgia DNR, provide shelter for young bass, feeding areas for fish, and help prevent bank erosion. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Billy Birdwell)

Finding a quiet and safe place for a nursery tops the priorities for new parents, be they humans or fish. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state partners help fish in Savannah River reservoirs find those safe places for their young.

To make those safe places this summer, workers, student interns and volunteers have planted thousands of native aquatic plants in Richard B. Russell Lake and J. Strom Thurmond Lake on the upper Savannah River. This joint effort between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Corps’ Savannah District, provides needed shelter for fish to hatch and then hide from other fish trying to eat them. The plants also provide feeding areas for the fry.

The agencies bring pallets full of water willow and maiden cane to transplant into shallow water near the lakeshore. Water willow (Justicia americana) proves especially beneficial as it can spread naturally by root, rhizomes and seed.

“We’ve been very successful over the past few years in seeing water willow spread naturally from our planted areas into several other places,” James Sykes, Savannah District fisheries biologist, said. Water willow is native to the region.

“These plants provide great fish habitat for juvenile and adult fish and good erosion control,” Chris Nelson, a fisheries biologist for Georgia DNR in Social Circle, Georgia. The DNR effort is backed by a grant from Yamaha Motor Corporation, a manufacturer of outboard boat motors.

Workers from the state and from the Corps’ Russell Lake put out more than 18,000 plants in 2018 that started in the greenhouse and now cover several acres of shoreline at Russell Lake. A 2017 survey of the reservoir indicated the places best suited for the plants that would provide the most cover for the most fish.

“Anglers really love the plantings,” Nelson said. He explained bass go into the plantings to spawn and feed then move about outside the patches of willow, which makes for good fishing spots.

The joint effort at Russell Lake led workers at Savannah District’s Thurmond Lake to begin a similar program. Without a dedicated greenhouse to start the willows, rangers fashioned an outdoor plant nursery. At this location near a campground for volunteer campground stewards, workers care for thousands of plants until mature enough to transplant into the reservoir.

David Quebedeaux, a park ranger at Thurmond Lake, manages the mini-nursery. He, other rangers and some dedicated volunteers prepare and install the plants along selected areas at the reservoir north of Augusta, Georgia.

 “We set it up near our volunteer campground and asked them to assist us, which has been very successful,” Quebedeaux said.

Plants in both locations benefit the fish, giving them the necessary cover needed to grow. This in turn gives rise to a stronger fish population in both reservoirs.

“Nothing makes anglers happier than the tug of a nice fish on the end of the line,” Quebedeaux said.

In conjunction with planting water willows, Thurmond Lake has had an oxygen injection system in place since 2006. This system places pure oxygen into the reservoir about five miles above the Thurmond Dam. It enhances the habitat by increasing the dissolved oxygen in the water which helps fish survive hot summers when oxygen naturally depletes but it also helps them thrive by allowing them to move away from the area near the dam where they risk being caught in a dwindling area of oxygen. (See Balancing the Basin post for June 27.) The Thurmond oxygen injection system also attracts anglers who know fish congregate near the system, Sykes explained.

The extra effort to increase native aquatic plants in the Savannah District reservoirs and oxygen injections give the sport fish in these reservoirs the kind of start in life needed to keep the Savannah District reservoirs rated among the best recreation areas in the Southeast, Sykes said.