- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

No one disagrees something is terribly wrong with one of the nation’s most historical and scenic rivers, Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah. But what is the cause and who is to blame (if anybody) for the number of dead sunfish and bass or fish with skin lesions?

Originally, the problem appeared to be concentrated in the river’s South Fork, but now it seems to have crept into the main stem of the river.

E-mails are flying back and forth across the state, with most of them sent by freshwater anglers, fishing guides, biologists and smallmouth bass activists. No one knows precisely what happened, not even scientists, but the anecdotal evidence is powerful.

Take Robert Green, of Sterling, Va., who float-fished the Shenandoah with a friend May 10 and May 12.

“I saw a strange white residue on the shoreline and in some of the waterlogged tree roots. It looked eerie,” he said yesterday. Green and his pal caught more than 50 smallmouth bass and redbreasted sunfish using small Berkley Power grubs in assorted dark colors as they floated the main stem between Morgan Ford Bridge and Route 7.

“The fishing was great, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving it a try, but I’d say roughly 15 percent of our fish had lesions,” Green said. “One smallmouth bass — a 14-incher — was missing its eyes.”

Two of the river’s full-time fishing guides, Jeff Kelble and Chuck Kraft, will be glad to hear Green’s suggestion that people don’t quit fishing. But Kelble is concerned that in some of the river areas a lot of fish will die when the water temperatures climb past 65 degrees. He probably is correct because whatever is in the river, when mixed with warmer water, could have dire consequences.

Kelble fished the South Fork between Route 661 and Route 663, downstream of Luray, on April 26. He observed four dead fish and lesions in some smallmouth bass. On April 27 he floated from Newport to Whitehouse and observed 30 recently deceased fish, including large- and smallmouth bass and sunfish, in the river. By May 1, Kelble again floated the Route 661 to Route 663 section and found the fishing to be good, with some smallmouth bass up to 191/2 inches. However, six bass that measured more than 16 inches long had at least one lesion.

Worse yet, when Kelble floated the Bentonville to Gooney Creek sector, he again found good numbers of willing bass, but up to 90 percent of the smallmouths had lesions.

Stephen Smith, a doctor of veterinary medicine and professor of aquatic medicine/fish health at the Virginia Tech Veterinary School, seems to suggest that the lesions and dead or dying fish might be the result of a combination of unsuitable water temperatures, reproductive stress and natural bacteria containing high amounts of nutrients.

In a report sent to Don Kain, a regional water monitoring & compliance manager for Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, Smith said, “The most likely scenario for the observed fish mortality is secondary bacterial and fungal skin infections due to immune suppression of the fish as a result of fluctuating water and environmental temperatures. This situation is probably made worse by the high organic and bacterial loads of the river system at this time of year. As a result, when the integrity of the skin is compromised by an ulcerative lesion as seen in these fish, the fish lose their ability to osmoregulate and ultimately die due to ion/mineral imbalance.”

One thing is certain: Virginia has had mighty problems with its rivers. Some years ago, the Shenandoah’s fish-keeping was shut down because of mercury pollution, and the James River fishery was closed because of harmful kepone chemical pollution. There have been water quality troubles in the South Holston and Rappahannock rivers that have questioned the state’s dedication to environmental quality.

Youth fishing derby — In celebration of National Fishing Month, the Capital Longcasters club will play host to a free youth fishing derby June 11 for ages 6 to 15 at Allen’s Pond in Bowie. The derby promises to have gifts, certificates, contests and prizes for the participants. The fishing is from 8 to 11:30 a.m., then is followed by a complimentary lunch provided by Wal-Mart of Bowie.

Advance registration is required, with forms available only at the sporting goods counter in the Wal-Mart.

For more information, e-mail [email protected] and don’t forget registration forms must be received by May 27.

Safe boating campaign starts Saturday — The annual North American Safe Boating Campaign, a nationwide event dedicated to the prevention of deaths and injuries from recreational boating, will be launched during National Safe Boating Week, Saturday through May 27.

The Safe Boating Campaign is a partnership of the National Safe Boating Council (NSBC), the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), the U.S. Coast Guard and hundreds of other organizations, including the Canadian Safe Boating Council and the Canadian Coast Guard.

And what should be the first concern of all boaters? Wear a life preserver whenever you’re on the water. At least wear one while the boat’s motor is running.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com

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