MONETA, Va. (WFXR) — There will be a reduction in the number of striped bass (stripers) stocked into Smith Mountain Lake in 2023.
Striped bass is a sportfish targeted extensively at Smith Mountain Lake, and that fishery is a major economic driver for the Roanoke and Lynchburg regions, accounting for millions of dollars each year.
There is almost no natural reproduction of striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake. The fishery has to be sustained through stocking. The fishery is managed for numbers and size. On average, more than 300-thousand stripers are stocked into the lake every year. That number will be reduced to 225-thousand in 2023.
There are a variety of factors involved in the decision by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to reduce the number of striped bass stocked, but the primary concern involves the growth and health of the striped bass population in the lake.
“Growth has slowed down the last two to three years,” said DWR fisheries biologist Dan Wilson.
A primary factor affecting that growth rate is forage. Gizzard shad are a primary food source for stripers and research has shown a correlation between striped bass growth and gizzard shad numbers in Smith Mountain Lake.
The slowdown in growth coincides with a drop in gizzard shad numbers at Smith Mountain Lake. There are a number of reasons for that drop and predation is one of them. By cutting the numbers of a predator like striped bass, gizzard shad would be given a chance to rebound.
“We’ve been looking at the shad populations for probably the last 23-24 years,” Wilson said. “What we see is whenever gizzard shad numbers are really good, striped bass growth is also good.”
The decision to cut stocking numbers, even just for one year, is not sitting well with many striped bass guides and fishing-related business owners on Smith Mountain Lake. They are concerned about the impact a reduction will have on fishing in the years to come. Those guides also point to other sources of forage like blueback herring, threadfin shad, and alewives which can be found in Smith Mountain Lake.
However, the science indicates that stripers thrive when gizzard shad are more readily available.
Wilson says fisheries managers learned a very harsh lesson in 2003 when a similar scenario was unfolding at Smith Mountain Lake: “Twenty years ago we had a major fish kill because our stocking rates were really high and we could see the bait was not looking good. The striped bass growth kept declining and we kept stocking the same amount. Eventually, the fish got into such poor health that parasite came into the lake and killed most fish we had and almost all of the larger fish in the population.”
Another issue is the explosion of threadfin shad numbers at Smith Mountain Lake. The lake is on the northern edge of the Threadfins’ range. They do not do well in colder temperatures, and it was thought they were wiped out years ago during cold snaps on the lake. However, they reappeared in the last five years, possibly because anglers brought them in from other places to use as bait, and they are known to out-compete gizzard shad. A cold winter could take care of the threadfin issue, but until that happens, their numbers are expected to remain high.
Fisheries experts say the population of striped bass in Smith Mountain Lake remains high, and even with the cuts the outlook is good. Survival rates from past stockings have been high, leading to good numbers of catchable-sized fish in the system. Because of that, the impact of the reductions may not be felt very strongly.
Wilson says taking action now will preserve the fishery, and could actually improve it.
“Seeing this kind of thing coming and trying to make corrections along the way is really beneficial.”