Alabama Power, working with state conservation officials, tries to give nature a little assist when gamefish spawn.
Any good fisherman knows that small fish grow up to be big fish. Part of the rationale behind catch-and-release practices is to “throw them back and let them grow.” But before a little fish can grow into a bigger fish, an egg must turn into fry and fry must turn into fingerlings.
The spawn is an essential part of maintaining a healthy fish population and a successful spawn can make the difference later in whether fish are plentiful or scarce. A multitude of variables influencing the aquatic environment can affect when fish lay their eggs and how successfully those eggs turn into fish.
Alabama Power Company tries to give nature a little bit of an assist during the critical time when fish are spawning.
“We have, for several years, held Smith on the Warrior and Weiss and Logan Martin on the Coosa for about two weeks,” says Angie Anderegg, hydro licensing and compliance supervisor for Alabama Power. “If we can from an operational standpoint, we will hold those lakes steady or slightly rising to facilitate the fish spawning.”
State biologists keep tabs on the lakes’ water temperatures and other conditions that trigger spawning in gamefish species. When the conditions are right, they contact company officials, who restrict or increase flow to keep the lake levels stable.
At Weiss and Logan Martin lakes, the emphasis is on when crappie and black bass species, which include largemouth bass and spotted bass, are spawning. At Smith Lake, the emphasis is on the black bass species. Alabama Power also works with conservation officials at Lake Harris on the Tallapoosa River, says Mike Holley, district fisheries supervisor for the Alabama
Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
“We’re trying to hold that water stable so that doesn’t affect nest success,” Holley says.
Weiss Lake is also home to the only population of the Gulf strain of striped bass that are successfully reproducing outside of captivity. The fish run up into Weiss Lake’s headwaters in Georgia to spawn. The eggs must tumble down the river for 72 hours without sinking to the bottom to hatch, and the long stretch of water gives them that opportunity.
When water temperatures rise into the upper 50s in the spring, bass and crappie move into shallow water. Crappie look for a hard surface such as a gravel bottom or rip rap wall in three to 10 feet of water, Holley says. Spotted bass seek out similar habitat, while largemouth bass make their nests in shallower backwater. Once they stake out spawning sites, it is important that water conditions remain stable or the fish will abandon their nests.
Biologists closely monitor water temperatures, watch other signs and talk to crappie and bass anglers who know the signs that are present when fish spawn. State officials usually make a request to Alabama Power to hold the water levels steady around early or mid-April.
“They’ve been very easy to work with in giving them the prime time and them following through,” Holley says.
Anderegg notes that the lakes’ flood control function is paramount.
“If we have to operate for flood control, that trumps everything,” Anderegg says. “If we get in a flood situation, we have to operate according to our flood control guidelines.”
Holley says biologists understand that flood control comes first. But
otherwise stabilizing the water level has been a real boost to fish populations.
“As long as nature allows it, it has been a good process,” Holley says.
Comparing what humans can do in a hatchery against nature illustrates why the spawn is so important. The Conservation Department releases crappie into Weiss Lake every year. The state’s hatchery can produce about 500,000 hatchlings in a season, Holley says. That production can be equaled by about 15 pairs of crappie. A mature female crappie can produce 30,000 to 350,000 eggs a year.
“Our hatcheries can’t even get close to what can be produced naturally,” Holley says. He adds that surveys indicate that fingerlings released by the state make up only about 2 percent of the total catch in Weiss Lake.
Professional crappie guide Mark Collins says there is a pattern that results in successful spawns.
“Over the years, they’ve noticed a trend that when we have wet winters and high spring water levels and hot summers, we have a good spawn,” says Collins, a guide on Weiss Lake.
The heavy rains sometimes make good spawning habitat available to the fish, Holley says. Then, the dry, hot summer weather promotes the growth of the zooplankton that crappie fry feed on.
Catching spawning crappie and bass can be difficult. Both species shut down their feeding activity when spawning begins. But some of the best fishing occurs immediately before bass and crappie spawn.
“The peak time for fishing covers about a week before the spawn,” Holley says.
Both species of fish move into the shallow water as the water temperature rises into the high 50s. They feed aggressively in anticipation of the spawn, when their feeding activity will cease or decrease.
The sunfish species — bream to Southern anglers — don’t really need help with their spawn. By the time they spawn in late April or early May, water levels have usually stabilized, Holley says.
Species like bluegills spawn multiple times during the year, usually on the full moon from April through August.
So many variables affect the spawn that it’s hard to know just how much impact stabilizing the water level has on fish populations, Holley says. But he does know that it improves the chances for a successful spawn.
“We have a really good relationship with the Department of Conservation and support them in efforts they feel benefit the fish community,” Anderegg says.