By Ronald F. Dodson, Ph.D.
When we are youngsters there are many things that make a lasting imprint on which we build our additional experiences to form a past image of the world, as we know it. If you were fortunate enough to have a father, or mother, who nurtured your love of the outdoors by taking you fishing and hunting then the learning experiences included a snapshot in your mind of lakes, woods, streams, and rivers.
We weren't as specialized in going for one type of fish as often occurs among present day fishermen. The two local lakes were both built for the city water supply. Lake Crook was by far the largest and, in the eyes of a six- year-old, surely close to the acreage of one of the great Texas lakes. Gibbon was the old city lake and much smaller.
We hadn't reached the rod and reel stage of my life, but we did have various commercial types of cane poles for dunking a minnow. While we could catch crappie and catfish in both lakes, it was a waste of time to fish for bass in Lake Crook. You see Gibbon was clear and had an excellent growth of water lilies and moss while Crook was always muddy with only shallow-water reeds along some banks. In fact, after having a zillion minnows entice considerable numbers of crappie over the years, I never remember seeing anyone catch a bass.
Interestingly, my dad told of days when he was a boy fishing the relatively new Lake Crook which at that time was clear, had water lilies, as well as other aquatic vegetation and plenty of bass. From that time until now it catches me totally off guard when someone who should know better seems to lose sight of the value of vegetation to a fishery. For example as I was developing this article, I happened to catch a B.A.S.S., Inc. special report on the Internet titled B.A.S.S., Inc. and Aquatic Vegetation: The Lake Gunterville Story. The lead paragraph stated, "The most serious problem facing sport fishing as we enter the next century will be the unmanaged spread of exotic aquatic plants. The most serious threats are hydrilla, Eurasian milfoil, and water hyacinth."
While this is an interesting article, I must take exception to those statements. I could focus my concerns about this concept from my perspective, but let me simply offer some food for thought as one fisherman to another.
If vegetation is the major threat to our aquatic systems can anyone advise me as to which lakes have warning signs that say, don't eat the fish due to plant growth? I therefore submit we have a more imminent threat to our waters in the form of existing and additional influx of chemicals. As we discuss aquatic plant control, you can probably guess we are going to come back to the issue of herbicides and aquatic vegetation.
While this article was developing I got all sorts of angles on the issue of aquatic vegetation. The story unfolds with a cast of well-meaning, concerned people. These include groups with common interests of assuring the quality of our water supplies and therefore aquatic environments that sustain fish and wildlife. In fact, this is one of the exciting findings for me in that not only have various bass fishing organizations come together but also conservation and ecology-based groups to present a strong voice for clean water.
This isn't a bad idea since the top of the food chain contains humans and we are also vulnerable to a messed up environment. We then mix in some state and federal agencies that sometimes appear to forget they have responsibilities to the people, or at least to hear concerns of the people.
I want to insert here that while I wouldn't want to convey that in the past I would tell you I had a lot of comfort with some fishery folks in Austin, I do have great optimism after talking to several present administrators. There appears to be some display of common sense from a senior leader in regard to aquatic vegetation in state waters. This is in contrast to the content in the internal memo a short time ago which suggested a desire to eradicate all hydrilla and exotics from the state.
Then finally, let's look at the perspective of aquatic vegetation from the standpoint of experiences outside this state. What happened in one state where local agencies, fishermen and environmentalist's desire for control responses ran counter to each other?
Let me start the section on individual interviews by saying each person came across as sincere and deeply committed to water quality first and foremost. Furthermore, I believe the stated position of administration of aquatic resources for Texas Parks and Wildlife is now more open to input and to actually working with concerned citizen groups than I have felt existed since the days of Bob Kemp's administration.
As I said I wanted to speak to the leaders of some of the groups in the state that have come together and are speaking out on the importance of water quality as well as concern for the impact of herbicides on humans and others dependent upon that water supply.
Bill Bales is the president of the Texas Association of Bass Clubs (TABC). He gave an overview of some of the groups that now work for clean water in Texas. When the 2,000 members of his organization joined forces with Sensible Management of Aquatic Resources Team (SMART), Clean Water Action, Honey Hole, F.I.S.H. (Fishermen Involved in Saving Habitat, the Sierra Club, and others you have a formidable pressure as a cohesive force to speak loudly for water quality. It didn't take long for him to relate his story of a lake being rejuvenated by the influx of vegetation. In this case an older lake, Stillhouse Hollow which has made a drastic turnaround in overall fishing due to the influx of aquatic growth. He also brought up Lake Raven in Huntsville State Park as a big disappointment in that all the groups involved had thought a harvester was going to be used for hydrilla removal only to learn that grass carp and herbicides were used. This was contrary to what was thought to be an agreement with administration of TP&W.
This was a story worth tracking down and will be discussed, based on visiting with the actual players in the saga.
The next person I spoke to was Ed Parten. Ed has been the president of Texas Black Bass Unlimited (TBBU) and an officer in the state federation through a local chapter, worked in TABC since 1971, and is a member of BASS, Anglers Choice, and Honey Hole. These credentials are primarily for your review of his background since from my own perspective Ed and I go back to a friendship formed when I lived in Houston and we both fished bass clubs and circuits.
In short, he's a classy guy who deeply cares about bass fishing, conservation, and the environment. He proves this by the countless (and sometimes thankless) hours he donates in support of these causes. Ed reiterated the same message I had gotten from Bales, namely a coalition had formed and the numbers were amazing. In Texas, Ed quoted, claiming 300,000, in the Clean Water Coalition, 70,000, and this was only part of the 20-some organizations that have come together for a common cause.
SMART is raising funds that are hoped to enable the purchase of a harvester by TP&W. They are underwriting, as well, the expense of a film which emphasizes the importance of vegetation to the ecological system. The point is to make understood to the public that plants filter and detoxify the water as well as show the importance of aquatic plants to fish as other members of the food chain. The film will also demonstrate the impact of herbicides on a portion of a lake and the change brought about through loss of habitat in a fishery. The legendary Glenn Lau is producing the film.
As to the value of vegetation, Ed reminded me of the Sam Rayburn story. When we fished clubs and circuits during my Houston days a 10-fish, 25- to 30-pound catch was impressive. Add the influence of hydrilla and stocking of Florida strains in the recent history of the lake and 30- pound limits were common. If you rightly ask, wasn't this due to Florida influx alone, then I would, like Ed, tell you emphatically - NO!
All you have to do to check the importance of vegetation is determine the numbers of winning catches made below 147, where there has been hydrilla, versus those made above.
We then got back to the harvester issue and the frustration felt by what appeared to be betrayal in the case of little Lake Raven. A harvester wasn't given the chance to be tested before carp and herbicides were used as a control for hydrilla. This was in contrast to what several leaders of the groups I spoke with felt was an existing agreement with TP&W.
I spoke with Chuck Newberry, who had wanted to use Lake Raven to test the harvester he'd just purchased. Raven is 200 acres and though he had not set a restriction on how much of the hydrilla in the lake he would cut, it was to be a test of the machine. It is said his harvester works differently and if it functions as projected it would have considerable commercial application.
He volunteered the equipment to a local Parks and Wildlife officer who apparently worked at the park and neither called him back nor relayed his offer to the appropriate administration in Austin. The decision was made thus locally as to the introduction of grass carp and herbicides as per the old policy. I say old policy because as you will learn, during my interview with Dr. Larry McKinney, the guidelines have now changed.
Meanwhile, Chuck is still receptive to finding a test site for seeing how well his harvester will work. Ah, communication is wonderful. The humbling could be taken lightly except for it chipping at the fragile foundation of trust beginning to develop between the various fishing and environmental groups and the new administrator of aquatic resources in TP&W.
Dr. Larry McKinney is the Senior Director for Aquatic Resources of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the issue of concern by fishermen, including the control of aquatic plants, are his area of responsibility. Dr. McKinney is originally from the marine section where pollution, chemicals in the water and fish, as well as fish kills are common issues.
As to the Lake Raven flub, it appears there was a local open meeting and those in majority wanted to take the vegetation out of the lake. Historically, regional officials had the authority to deal with such decisions. The 200 grass carp (one per acre) were stocked. Apparently the offer made by Chuck to test his machinery had not been made known to Dr. McKinney, or any of the coalition folks.
Clearly, Dr. McKinney was not covering up anything and he was not a happy camper since he was sensitized to the damage control he now had to deal with to re-establish trust with the fishing/environmental coalition. He did clarify that present aquatic plant control guidelines were agreed upon by a group functioning as an aquatic vegetation task force and actually sent me the document that identifies the members as representing groups having interest in effective and safe management of aquatic habitats. These organizations include Sportsmen's Conservationists of Texas, Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Association of Bass Clubs, Lower Colorado River Authority, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, Consumers Union, Friends of Lake McQueeney, Texas Aquaculture Association, The Chemical Connection, Freshwater Anglers Association, Health Awareness and Water Knowledge, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Sabine River Authority. Remember, however, the policy as established for dealing with aquatic plants is applicable in water governed by TP&W. This means water under river authorities, US Army Corps of Engineers, land owners, etc. can go their merry way and use herbicides at will. Well, sort of. As we will look at the Tennessee case in a moment, but even there public concern groups had to require compliance with federal laws.
By the way, Dr. McKinney said he was personally willing to oppose the use of herbicides for aquatic plant control. But, he said, the aforementioned groups wanted the department to be the gatekeeper to assure some type of control existed in determining who could do what, with what, in the public waters of Texas. He says he is reluctant to use herbicides and when they are applied it should be in very limited application.
It should be noted again that Dr. McKinney sent me the documents to which I am referring in this article. His guidelines for staff include the first choice of aquatic vegetation control being a harvester or mechanical approach, followed by biological control (carp for example), and finally chemicals as a last choice with an emphasis on restricted application if they are to be used.
When I think of grass carp I revert to the Conroe stories. At one time it was listed as one of the top five bass lakes in the United States. Then came carp and with them a rapid decline in vegetation and a fishery that required years to rebuild to a shadow of its hydrilla era.
Dr. McKinney also said that he has instituted further policy on vegetation control. The department won't take exotics out unless they have a program for replacement with native plants. That is a far cry from the "scorched earth" mind-set of previous administration policy.
His next statement is one that left me temporarily searching for the operator to see if I was hearing it from a TP&W official. McKinney said hydrilla can be a good plant, but in some circumstances can be a pain due to extensive overgrowth. He feels that about 30 percent coverage of the surface area of the lake with some sort of vegetation provides the best habitat.
Rumors of the relationship of the die-off of bass at Sam Rayburn to black helicopters spraying hydrilla were also discussed. The link of spraying didn't match any data collected. McKinney had probed into the possibilities and provided me with a complete report from both the department and a private independent lab that tested some of the fish found dead at Rayburn. From a biological standpoint, chemicals as the culprit didn't match. For starters the die-off was species specific. Since Rayburn wasn't the only lake subject to high temperatures last summer, heat cannot be pinpointed as a factor either. And on the fishing pressure, angler induced concept, the map of the kill area interestingly indicates none of the kills were around weigh-in sites and at Rayburn there are heavy fishing pressure areas where no die-off occurred.
Though it doesn't make things better, the likely culprit is an infection, virus or bacteria that preyed on bass specifically.
I was greatly encouraged by his openness and frankness in general and hope the department gives Dr. McKinney the opportunity to build bridges with the groups who have banded together to protect the aquatic environment in Texas.
The final part of our story consists of the "been there, done that" connection. Harold Sharp, tournament director for B.A.S.S. from 1970 until 1987, now operates Fishin' Talents, Inc., a firm representing professional anglers that negotiates contracts and appearance scheduling. His experiences with the herbicide to destroy vegetation story began some years ago with the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) attempt to get rid of Eurasian milfoil with the use of 2-4-D that spread to using it on other plants as well.
In the battle over the use of herbicides anglers formed an organization and filed suit against the TVA. The suit was dropped when an agreement was reached to use only harvesters. It continues today with no use of herbicides by the TVA. Furthermore, in Tennessee, the Department of Health and fish and game folks control and authorize any use of herbicides in public waters.
This doesn't seem like such a radical idea, an agency listening to and working with the people who pay their salary. Again remember, we don't have much in the way of protection in this state. Private citizens can, river authorities, Corps of Engineers, all have freedom to apply chemicals to vegetation.
If Tennessee can place the approval process for using herbicides under state agencies maybe we should seek legislation during the next session to have better defined checks and balances in Texas.
The final individual I spoke with was Ray Scott. His involvement with conservation and organized fishing is of course legendary. He made the point that you can't remove vegetation without destroying a major source of habitat for the fundamental life forms that are part of the food chain. In fact, he believes strongly that a given area of a body of water is automatically more fertile than a comparable sized barren area of the same water body.
He also agrees that too much of anything can be bad, but he strongly disagrees with putting chemicals in a body of water when proven and successful intervention can be achieved with mechanical controls such as harvesters.
So, the point we have reached in Texas is that unification has occurred of diverse interest groups that have the common goal of better water quality and therefore purer drinking water and better fisheries. The union of these groups working together offers some exciting potential for achievements. The presence of someone in TP&W who is open minded and shows a willingness to build bridges with these groups of caring citizens is also refreshing.
Heck, if we're not careful the concept of all interest groups working together for the common good is an ideal I can handle and we better make it happen or we betray the trusts of future generations. Don't lose sight of the fact that man is the only species with the ability to improve the environment or literally destroy the world in which we live.