18 Oct October 2023
Smith Mountain Lake Fish Habitats
Smith Mountain Lake (SML) is a 20,600-acre pumped storage hydroelectric project owned by Appalachian Power Company (APCO). Though the primary purpose is power generation, SML is an outstanding fishery which supports Black Bass (largemouth and smallmouth), Striped Bass (Stripers), Sunfish, Crappie, White and Yellow Perch, Channel catfish, Flathead catfish, White catfish, Carp, and Asian Grass Carp. Many tournaments, fishing shows, and private anglers contribute substantial revenue to the local economy in their attempts to catch their preferred species.
The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Fishery Biologists stationed in Forest, VA monitor and manage the SML fishery by routinely sampling fish sizes and ages when caught by anglers or by electrofishing. Electrofishing is a non-lethal sampling technique that uses electrodes to energize a small area of water. Any fish in that immediate area are stunned by the shock, and float to surface for collection and identification. Once surveyed, the fish are released, unharmed. From this evaluated data, harvest recommendations by species are made based upon quantity and/or size.
Smith Mountain Lake Association (SMLA) Habitat, Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV), and Invasive Species volunteers assist DWR in monitoring these three fisheries health interrelated areas.
Native SAV has been present in SML since formation in 1966, however, Hydrilla and other invasive species began growing out of control and degraded the recreational experience on the lake for many users, especially those focused on small coves. Sterile Asian Grass Carp were introduced approximately 10 years ago to feed upon and remove the Hydrilla but unintentionally, they also depleted SML of most SAV. Dive studies over the past 10 years indicated a virtual SAV desert that is only now starting to repair itself as the Asian Grass Carp die off. This lack of SAV created a problem for the bass fishery because SAV provides protection for fry (juvenile fish) enabling them to reach a size and maturity enough to sustain their population levels.
DWR Fishery Biologist Dan Wilson, with the help of APCO funding, searched for a way to provide juvenile fish habitat and started with underwater rock piles, wood pallets, and some wood pyramid structures, all of which helped. Since 2017, DWR has been modifying and deploying PVC fish habitat structures that have significantly increased the survival rates of the fry as evidenced by dive studies after placement. These habitats have been deployed in approximately eight to ten feet of water at 180 locations throughout the lake as of 2022. Deployment locations are tracked by GPS latitude/longitude and are available to the public from DWR or email email@example.com.
A completed fish habitat deployed to one of the 180 locations on the map
Each fall, SMLA Habitat volunteers assist the DWR with the assembly and deployment of approximately 30 new structures. DWR and SMLA also encourage dock owners to apply for an APCO permit enabling them to put an alternate style fish habitat under their dock to support juvenile fish. Placing any additional structures in SML does require a permit.
Attendees at our 2023 A Day at The Lake event this past June assembled a fish habitat structure for deployment. The habitat was placed into the lake later in the summer. In 2024 SMLA will champion a new program to “Support a Fish Habitat” to raise awareness and funds to deploy additional structures above and beyond what DWR is funded to do. APCO is required to provide a limited amount of funding every year to construct and place fish habitats. More to come on this and we hope all will help us in achieving the creation of new habitat.
While much of the information presented above would be of keen interest to folks fishing at SML, what do these structures do for the lake, in addition to improving habitat for game fish? Any healthy fishery is comprised of a distribution of age classes in a natural setting. As fish age, they become prey for larger fish, and even for non-fish predators in the food chain, such as Belted Kingfisher, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron, River Otter, and more. This healthy balance between sufficient prey species and successful predators continues to fuel the success of the ecosystem beyond what it provides for sport. The return of River Otters to many parts of the lake in recent years is a solid indicator that appropriate population levels of prey species are supporting this apex predator. The human population of the lake can appreciate the beauty and excitement of seeing a large bird of prey or tumbling otter as they pursue these fish that are protected by artificial habitats.