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Captain Doug Lown on Water Quality and Lake Murray Bass

  • by Jay

When Captain Doug Lown says that Lake Murray is like a pond out of balance it is worth listening. Captain Lown has fished Lake Murray for 35 years and has been a preeminent largemouth bass guide on the lake for more than 20. He has watched the crappie fishery decline over the last 20 or 30 years, seen white perch push out white bass only to have their own numbers decline, and watched the rise of what was for a time a nationally renowned largemouth bass fishery. His opinion is so respected even outside angling circles that he was asked to serve as a representative on FISH (Fishermen Involved in Saving Habitat). However, for the last few years Captain Lown has watched the Lake Murray largemouth bass fishery in a period of decline. He believes other factors have contributed to this decline, but most important is that aquatic vegetation on the lake has been largely eradicated, and there is now far less species recruitment while no corresponding decline in fishing pressure yet. Over time the fishery and fishing pressure may find a new equilibrium, but it is unclear how bad the fishing will have to get before the lake starts to rebound. And not only fishermen are likely to be affected – the same factors which are causing the decline of the bass fishery will continue to degrade water quality on the lake. In the absence of preemptive action the lake will continue to get worse before it improves.

To decide how to address the problems on Lake Murray Captain Lown says that it is worth asking what we value about the lake. Clearly homeowners and pleasure boaters think they would like to have the lake at a perpetual full pool, and many people believe it would be better to have the shoreline free of terrestrial, emergent and submerged vegetation. (I will discuss later why homeowners and others are not correct to want these things since they do not realize their negative effects on water quality.) However, the largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie, catfish and bream fisheries are also important assets which policy-makers have to take into consideration. In addition to the intangible pleasure hundreds of thousands of visitors to South Carolina each year receive from fishing on our lakes, the revenue those tourists provide to the local economy has a very tangible value. Tourism is the largest industry in South Carolina and, were it not for their immense value to the local economy, groups like the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau and Capital City Lake Murray Country would not work so hard to attract national tournaments to this state. The August 2008 Walmart FLW tournament on Lake Murray alone brought in an estimated $40 million to the local economy, and recreational fishing is at least a $2.3 billion industry in South Carolina. Freshwater fishing, and particularly largemouth bass fishing, makes up a substantial percentage of that number.

This article will first examine what Captain Lown told me about water quality issues on Lake Murray, specifically with regards to aquatic vegetation and lake levels, and their effects on the largemouth bass fishery. Next it will address the impact that Captain Lown and I discussed of the introduction of herring and their population explosion on the lake. Finally I will share some of Captain Lown’s fishing techniques on Lake Murray through the year, starting with the herring spawn and continuing through winter, and then conclude with his views about the future of the lake and the fishery.

Water quality, grass and the largemouth bass fishery

In the early 1980s Lake Murray was a good fishery for largemouth bass and 2-3 pound bass were fairly common. There were some 4 and 5 pound fish and bass up to 6, 7 or 8 pounds were occasionally caught. Threadfin shad and crayfish were the main prey for largemouth bass. Then in the late 1980s aquatic vegetation (“grass”) began to flourish on Lake Murray. The first major wave of grass was Brazilian Elodea which grew from about 1987 to 1993. Because it was submerged non-anglers were largely unaware of and undisturbed by it, and for a time conditions were ideal. Like that of many other species, the largemouth bass population flourished both in numbers of fish and their size. Before long Lake Murray was considered as having as many 4 to 6 pound bass as any lake in the country.

Around 1991 or 1992 hydrilla appeared in Lake Murray, and by 1994 or 1995 it had largely choked out the elodea. Because it was emergent this type of grass did bother the homeowners and other interests on the lake. Some of these people would like for the lake to essentially be a giant swimming pool, and hydrilla did not fit within that scheme. Homeowners accused anglers of importing hydrilla to the lake for the benefit of the fishery, but Captain Lown believes it probably came in on the propellers of either pleasure boaters or fishermen. He points out that grass fishermen already had a better weed – Brazilian Elodea –so why would they bring in hydrilla?

Captain Lown believes that hydrilla was never really, nor would it have become, the problem that people feared. Unlike the Santee Cooper lakes which may have an average depth of 10 feet Lake Murray is a deep lake that has an average depth more like 50 or 60 feet, and because hydrilla needs sunlight it cannot grow in more than 15 or 20 feet of water. Left completely unchecked hydrilla would have only possibly been able to grow in a ring around the lake corresponding to the 20 foot contour. Additionally, for some reason hydrilla did not grow above the Big Gap or in the backs of many creeks. However, between 1997 and 2000, Illinois pond weed likely brought in by geese began to become a problem in some areas, and it did choke out some docks.

Grass, however, including water primrose which has always existed on Murray, is very important to the health of a lake. As Captain Rob Thames discussed in the article below this one grass provides a giant hatchery for young fish, feeds plankton and nourishes invertebrate food sources like crayfish and grass shrimp, and moderates water temperatures in summer and winter. An additional benefit of grass is that it oxygenates the water, and Captain Lown believes that the absence of grass makes summer fish kills more likely and has hurt the striped bass population.

In addition to fishery benefits aquatic vegetation provides important ecosystem services. Much like the salt marsh along the coast it filters the water, particularly of nitrogen and phosphorus. Intense shoreline development including fertilized lawns that run down to the water, natural contaminants and pollution from human traffic are detrimental to water quality, and even more so in the absence of aquatic vegetation. Captain Lown has noticed that in many areas the color of Lake Murray is changing and the lake is getting almost tannic; even the lower lake is not as clean as several years ago. The desire to eradicate grass and make the lake into a swimming pool may have the opposite effect on water clarity and quality.

The use of herbicides and other chemicals to control the hydrilla began around 1994 or 1995, and the 1995 drawdown did have a temporary effect. However, it was not until the 2002-2005 drawdown and surrounding events that extermination of the grass began.

Interestingly, Captain Lown noticed that hydrilla began to turn brown and die back in 2002, one of many unexplained mysteries of the weed alongside why it did not spread more widely in the lake. Because of the nature of hydrilla (and its inability to grow in deep water) once lake levels came back up to normal pool much of the grass was quickly killed. Meanwhile, the authorities had stocked several hundred thousand sterile grass carp, a number calculated based on the amount of hydrilla before water levels came up and much of the grass died. They had predicted that it would take several years for the carp to have a noticeable effect on the hydrilla but it began to die very quickly after water levels came up. And with several hundred thousand hungry grass carp swimming around any new hydrilla was unable to establish itself, and other invasive or native vegetation was unable to survive.

According to Captain Lown the great fallacy of grass carp is that the correct number is never used, and on Lake Murray far too many were used for the lake’s size and the amount of grass. Because of fears about their true “sterility,” and because of their well known negative effects on fisheries, grass carp are illegal in many places including Florida despite out of control hydrilla on many of that state’s shallow lakes. Ironically, after using herbicides and grass carp to kill off weeds in Florida that state planted hydrilla to restore health to the fish populations!

Finally, one other factor that is affecting both the largemouth bass fishery and Lake Murray water quality in general is year-round high water levels. While lakefront homeowners like to be able to see water out their windows and have water off their docks the year round, the absence of traditional winter drawdowns has significant effects on the lake. Pulling water out of the lake in the fall and winter keeps the lake from becoming stagnant – water is cleaner and clearer with a good yearly “flushing.” Relatedly, drawdowns keep the bottom of the lake from becoming covered in silt and maintain a firmer floor. This season Captain Lown has noticed that when pulling a Carolina rig or bouncing a shakey head jig across the bottom it often feels mushy.

The herring population explosion

The eradication of grass on Lake Murray had a major effect on the largemouth bass fishery, but the introduction of blueback herring and their population explosion in the last decade has also changed the lake. According to Captain Lown instead of orienting to traditional bass structure, outside of the spawn bass have started to relate to the large schools of herring for much of the year. Herring are open water fish. Instead of their being located off brush, over humps or near points many of the largemouth can be now found roaming out in open water. Using a double rig fished near bait schools in the winter Captain Lown has caught a striper on one hook and a largemouth bass on the other.

There are now effectively two populations of largemouth bass on Lake Murray – one of resident shallow fish that inhabit traditional bass cover and feed on bluegill, crayfish, and other shallow water bait, and one of deeper fish that follow the roaming schools of baitfish. The activities of this second group of fish are characterized as “spawning and schooling,” referring to the fact that they still spawn like normal largemouth but spend the rest of the year suspended in packs following baitfish.

Captain Lown says that suspended fish are the most difficult to catch, and particularly on lures. In a clear lake like Lake Murray the bass get a very good look at lures that pass in front of them in the middle of the water column, and they will often choose to ignore the baits. Sometimes topwater lures are the best way to catch suspended bass because instead of being able to examine the bait fish merely see a silhouette. Additionally, suspended fish are difficult to find because you can’t just fish the bottom and move deeper until you locate the fish – they could be anywhere from the surface to the lake floor.

Fishing during the herring spawn

While the eradication of grass on Lake Murray has reduced the population of bass, in some ways it has made the fish more vulnerable to fishermen. There may have been just as many herring in the lake five or six years ago as there are today but the decline in grass has certainly made them more vulnerable to bass. When there was a healthy amount of grass on Lake Murray the herring were more protected from predators during their spawn and there was also a healthier population of crayfish. Now that crayfish numbers are down and the herring are spawning out in the open, the bass that follow them in are vulnerable to fishermen. Well-publicized Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments on Lake Murray and Lake Thurmond last year brought even more attention to an already popular time to target vulnerable largemouth, and having five or six club tournaments out of Dreher Island on May Saturdays is now typical.

The biggest misconception about the herring spawn is the belief that all of the blueback herring spawn at the same time – this is not true, and in my interview with Captain Rob Thames in mid April he told me that herring were already spawning in some areas. The blueback spawn is related to water temperatures and typically begins when temperatures hit 65 to 66 degrees; by the time water temperatures pass 70 and reach 75 the spawn is usually finished. This roughly correlates with mid-April to mid-May. In 2009 the week of April 13 before the Sunday MSKP tournament the herring spawn had already started in the creeks. It generally progresses from the creeks out to the main lake, and the Beaver Dam area is among the last places it occurs because of the (sometime significantly) lower water temperatures. Since the herring spawn had progressed to main lake points last May for the Elite Series tournament (it was actually winding down) many people wrongly concluded that was the only place the bluebacks spawn.

A favorite spawning location for herring is shallow gator grass, and the bass like to use points as ambush spots. The bluebacks mostly spawn at night and early in the morning and so the best bite is first thing. During the day the herring move deeper and bass back off as well; in the evenings there is almost no bass action related to blueback herring. The exception is on blustery days when a strong wind will activate the baitfish and keep them shallow all day long. Wind direction also affects herring spawning points, and a good trick for locating herring if you can’t see them is to cast a spinnerbait until they follow it back to the boat.

While packs of marauding, exposed bass feeding on spawning bluebacks can make for good fishing, the availability of fish at this time of year is probably not healthy for the bass fishery. In mid-April and May largemouth bass are at their most vulnerable. Between physical exhaustion from having recently completed the spawn and stress from changing water temperatures bass are at their weakest point of the year, and Captain Lown estimates that there is a 20 to 30% mortality rate for bass caught in May tournaments. When he worked at P and L Landing, on Sundays and Mondays after big tournaments Captain Lown used to see dead bass littering the bottom after tournaments – most of these fish swim off as if they are healthy and then die. Captain Lown learned from a reliable source that after last year’s Elite Series event they had coolers full of dead bass, and then this May he has seen dead fish floating and on the bottom at Dreher Island after weekend events. While fish released immediately at the boat are more likely to survive, an all-day ride in the live well is the undoing of many, many bass. And if any blood is drawn from a bass by the hook it is almost certainly going to die. As will be discussed later in this article Captain Lown has decided to no longer fish May daytime tournaments on Murray for this reason.

While Elite Series professionals at the May 2008 event on Lake Murray made it appear and sound as if getting bit by bass keying on the herring spawn was easy, that was never the case. I watched Ninety Six’s Davy Hite work very, very hard and methodically for quality bites on the final day of competition. If they were back on Lake Murray again this year, though, Captain Lown says the professionals would do nowhere near as well as last year. His own experiences and anecdotal evidence from this message board validates that the May herring bite is down this year. While fishermen report finding the herring schools without too much trouble the packs of feeding bass are smaller than last year’s, if anglers can find them at all. The bass are also more finicky and harder from which to draw a strike. Increased difficulty getting the fish to bite is probably partly the result of bass’ learning, but it is also in large part a function of reduced competition. Just as reef sheepshead are more aggressive feeders than their inshore siblings, bass competing with lots of other bass for limited food are easier to convince to strike.

Trying to continue to catch fish relating to spawning herring this year Captain Lown has discovered that bigger baits are one answer. Bass are efficient, and if they have to expend equal energy for a small meal and a large meal they will choose the large meal. He has turned to bigger Sebilles, bigger swimbaits, and bigger lures in general. If a school of herring is comprised of small and medium fish matching the hatch may not produce the best results!

As the herring spawn winds down the shad spawn begins on Lake Murray at water temperatures around 70 degrees on roughly May 1. Although water temperatures are about 70 degrees right now, in many areas Captain Lown has found that most of the larger fish have backed out of the shallows and returned with the bulk of the herring, and particularly the larger ones that spawn first, to deeper water. It is becoming rare to find herring in shallow water after about 9:00 AM. What few bass are still around the banks are generally small and Captain Lown has had trouble catching fish over two or three pounds shallow for the last week.

Summer Bass Fishing

The summer bass bite is different in technique and result than a few years ago. Captain Lown has fished summer night tournaments on Lake Murray for years, and today he fishes the summer Tuesday night tournament series out of Shull Island sponsored by South Lake Marine. Captain Lown remembers when the fish population was better and, when there were 10-fish sacks, on one memorable night it took 52 pounds to win and 35 pounds to cut a check. The best five fish were over 30 pounds. While that result was atypical very heavy bags used to be the norm. Now 20 to 22 is almost always enough to win, and this year his team has won a night tournament with less than 12 pounds!

In addition to the quality and numbers of fish caught being down the bite has changed. Summer brushpile fishing used to be a strong pattern, and as the water got hotter in July and August fish and fishermen would just move onto even deeper brush. This decline is not just a summer phenomenon – the deep brushpile bite has gotten worse in the winter, too. Captain Lown believes that when a bass goes into a brushpile he is generally looking for crayfish, and the decline in the population of crayfish post-grass has been one factor weakening the brushpile bite. The last time a tournament was won on brushpiles was during the winter 2006 FLW tournament, and a winter drawdown that year likely pulled crayfish out of the creeks and into deep brush.

Another factor weakening the deep brushpile bite, and structure and cover fishing in general, has been the growth in the herring population. Now, instead of relating to cover, Lake Murray largemouth spend much of their time orienting to herring (and shad) schools. Herring are open water fish and so they are more likely to be found roaming in the middle of the lake than relating to a particular piece of cover or type of structure. That is not to say that bass no longer hold near cover and structure, but there are now two distinct populations of bass on Lake Murray with different physical characteristics. One population is resident shallow bass which are cover and structure oriented, and the other population follows the herring and shad schools and inhabits deeper water. The grass-fishing August 2008 FLW fishermen generally targeted the longer, skinnier resident shallow bass, while the May 2008 Elite Series anglers pursued the fat, herring-fed football shaped deep water fish (during a period when they came shallow).

While the football-shaped deep water bass are clearly in the lake year round they are easiest to catch when they are shallow – during their spawn and when they are feeding on spawning herring. Since they do not relate to traditional cover and structure the rest of the year Captain Lown says they can be very difficult to catch when they are roaming the open water following baitfish. Most of the FLW anglers did not have the time to invest on Lake Murray in August to learn the deep bite. One exception was South Carolina’s Anthony Gagliardi and during the lead-up to the tournament he found a population of suspended fish, including some suspended over as much as 100 feet of water in the middle of Hollow Creek. The weather changed, however, and his pattern fell apart. Such is following suspended fish!

In Lake Murray today there are three summer patterns that Captain Lown fishes. First is the “FLW” pattern – targeting resident shallow fish. This pattern consists of throwing a topwater lure like a frog shallow the first couple of hours of the day, when almost all of the bites and fish come, and then practically calling it in after the sun is up.

The second distinct pattern involves targeting suspended bass which are out in deeper water relating to balls of threadfin shad (which will stay shallower because of better heat tolerance) or herring. On a graph small striper and largemouth bass are often difficult to distinguish, but Captain Lown says that if the predators are grouped very tightly they are more likely to be striper than bass. These suspended fish are easier to find if they are related to a hump or point, but that is not always the case. Good lures with which to target them are swimbaits, soft jerkbaits, jigs, spoons and even topwater lures (they will come up to feed). Swimbaits are particularly versatile because, unlike a crankbait which generally has a set depth, they can be fished at different depths. Captain Lown likes a swimbait with a tighter wiggle, such as the Sebille, rather than some of the “floppy-tail” varieties.

The third summer pattern is fishing on the bottom, and sometimes fish will be on the bottom near where others are suspended. Last June the bottom bite was in 20 feet of water and by July and August the fish had moved into 25 and then 30 or 40 feet. When catching a bass from these depths Captain Lown says they will be okay if you let them go immediately, but for bass that are going for a ride in the live well he pokes their swim bladder with a hypodermic needle to prevent them from dying. Bass on the bottom may occasionally be feeding on crayfish but generally they are feeding on schools of bait. If you are lucky the bait will be relating to main lake humps and points that drop off sharply near the channel. They will usually be close to main lake deep water. A Carolina rig or a shakey head worm is a good lure.

Fall and winter fishing

Late in August Captain Lown says that a strong thermocline, visible on your depth finder, will have developed, and all of the bait will be above that line since there is almost no oxygen below it. As the surface temperature cools bait will come up to the surface. This may be over very deep water or in shallower bays. Cloudy, drizzly weather in the late summer, or cool spells and perhaps a tropical storm the first or second week in September, will speed up this process, although a real cold front or a hard wind will usually mess up the bite for several days. While bass will not move as shallow following the herring as they do during the spring, this period has many similarities to the spring herring spawn and topwater baits and swimbaits are good ways to catch these fish. Other similarities between this period and the spring herring spawn are that both will usually last a little more than a month, and big bass can be caught on or near the top both times.

At some point each fall the surface and bottom temperatures will equalize and then the surface water will get cooler and heavier and the lake will turn over. The oxygen level at the surface will plummet as the water from the bottom comes to the top. The fishing will generally drop off for a week or more as happened the last week in October in 2008 and in mid-November of 2007.

While creek fishing is a strong fall pattern on many reservoirs traditional fall and winter lake level drawdowns on Murray can slow down this pattern. However, if water levels stay high this year then the threadfin shad will enter the creeks en masse this fall. Herring schools, however, do not go as far up the creeks and will stay off main lake and deeper points. By late October or the beginning of November the suspended fish bite is generally over and Captain Lown will spend a lot more time fishing a shakey head rig or bouncing a crankbait along the bottom.

In November and December bass will be related to rocky points along with the bait. In the past he would look to distinct vertical drops and brushpiles in the winter, but that bite is not as strong as it used to be – deep water bass are following the bait. Occasionally the bluebacks will move shallow during the winter, and the bass will come in with them. For a week or two in February 2009 around the BFL tournament on Lake Murray the herring and bass moved shallow, but then they returned to deeper water.

The future of Lake Murray and the largemouth bass fishery

Fishermen are notorious for complaining but not taking action, and Captain Lown realizes that the typical weekend angler working all week and supporting a family does not have time to be particularly political. However, tournament practices today (including club ones) are part of the problem, and anglers do have control over those. Captain Lown says that he will no longer fish daytime May tournaments on Lake Murray because the process of riding highly stressed, post-spawn bass around the lake is too much for them. He thinks it is okay for fishermen to continue to target (and quickly release) bass which are relating to the herring spawn, but the pressure of multiple May tournaments each weekend is already having a noticeable effect on the population.

On the political level changes need to be made in the way the lake is managed. Instead of having a strategy of eradicating grass, the benefits of aquatic vegetation for water quality and fish populations need to be recognized, and a grass management approach needs to be taken. The sterile grass carp will reach the end of their life expectancy in the next two to three years, and at that point some new policies will need to be implemented. Grass carp were introduced into Lake Guntersville, Alabama in the early 1990s and the gamefish population subsequently declined; however, once the carp were allowed to die off the fishery rebounded. If grass carp on Lake Murray were gone tomorrow it would take 3-5 years for a healthy amount of aquatic vegetation to grow back. Finally, on issues like winter drawdowns the various interest groups need to realize that sometimes short term inconvenience is necessary to maintain a healthy resource. And in the instance of manicured lawns running all the way to the waterfront unbordered by terrestrial or emergent vegetation, perhaps we can’t have it all. As we must learn from the long-term decline of the Santee Cooper striper fishery, it is better to respond to warning signs and act proactively than to have to react after the fish population collapses.

Captain Doug Lown guides for largemouth bass, striped bass and crappie on Lake Murray. He has a wealth of knowledge about Lake Murray and the fishery and I am grateful that he is generous enough to share it. To book a trip he can be reached at 803-924-8946.

Note: This article was originally published on the SCFishingReport.com message boards.  To see it in the original context with the original comments visit: http://messageboard.scfishingreport.com/viewtopic.php?f=327&t=2409

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