N.H. Weekly Fishing Report -- July 24, 2008

Today, an ode to water weeds by fisheries biologist Matt Carpenter, along with some tips for fishing the rich habitat that aquatic plants provide.

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In Defense of Weeds
By Matt Carpenter, Fisheries Biologist

It's common knowledge among anglers that, if you want to catch fish on a lake or pond, areas in and around aquatic plants are the place to go.  Countless species depend on aquatic plants that grow in shallow water for food, shelter, and reproduction.  Some species of insect larvae graze on aquatic vegetation or on the film of microorganisms that coat their surface.  These insects are in turn fed on by other insects such as diving beetles and dragonfly larvae.  Fish are attracted to vegetated shallows by the abundance of insects, snails, crayfish, and other invertebrates that thrive in this habitat. 

Frogs and turtles find refuge and food among stands of pickerel weed and water lily.  Birds of prey, especially ospreys, choose hunting perches with good views of well-vegetated shorelines.  Loons commonly forage adjacent to dense aquatic plant stands.  Here, yellow perch and other fare can be found using the plants as cover.  Without aquatic vegetation, less forage would be available and the loons would find the waterbody less desirable.  The large amount of forage fish in some of our smaller, more densely developed waterbodies may be one of the main attractions that keep loons returning every year. 

Many species of fish, amphibians, and invertebrates use submerged plants as spawning habitat.  Often their eggs are specially designed to attach to plant stems or leaves.  In other words, where you find aquatic plants, you will find wildlife.  In addition to providing habitat for aquatic organisms, the roots of aquatic plants can maintain water clarity by providing stability within the substrate.  These plants also protect shorelines by dissipating erosive forces from waves generated by boat wakes and wind.

A few tips on fishing in aquatic vegetation:

  • Take advantage of weedless fishing gear to fish directly within the vegetation. 
  • Weedless hooks are available for soft plastic baits, jigs and spinner baits.  Some topwater baits are specifically designed to be used in thick vegetation. 
  • Fishing vertically from a boat, whether it is a motorboat, paddleboat or canoe, is a great way to target sunfish and yellow perch. 
  • Cast to the open water along the edge of the vegetation to try to lure fish out of cover.
  • Since fish typically find protection within aquatic vegetation, fish can be caught at any time of day.

It makes me cringe when I hear aquatic plants referred to as "weeds." Nonetheless, there are places in New Hampshire where nonnative, invasive aquatic plants have done serious damage to waterbodies. These aquatic nuisance species spread quickly, wreak havoc on native plants and animals, degrade the quality of aquatic resources and can make waters unusable for fishing -- not to mention boating or swimming.

But then, don't let fear and loathing of invasives dampen your enthusiasm for the many, many native and beneficial aquatic plant species. Some shoreline property owners believe that a healthy waterbody contains no plant life.  I'm not sure exactly where this attitude originated.  Perhaps the movie "On Golden Pond" created an expectation that New Hampshire lakes should all be rocky and clear.  In reality, only a small fraction of lakes are classified as "oligotrophic," or nutrient-limited, and even these have isolated coves full of vegetation.  Maybe the common aversion to aquatic plants is an innate response that evolved in our ancestors during a time when those who enjoyed swimming in thick vegetation were probably eaten by crocodiles.  I can understand the desire to swim and boat in open water, but when this desire is not accompanied by an appreciation for the value of aquatic plants, the end result is often a request for broad-scale weed eradication using herbicides or water level drawdown.  Proponents of these approaches either forget or ignore the type of solace offered by a leisurely paddle among vegetation filled with brilliantly colored flowers, dragonflies, frogs, turtles and muskrats...a type of reconnection to nature that one doesn't feel in a speedboat ride full of noise and gas fumes.

Sure, it's OK to clear an area for a dock or beach, as long as an effort is made to leave some shoreline vegetation intact for fish and wildlife, and important shoreline/wetland rules are followed.  Leaving some trees that fall in the water can also provide great cover for fish, as well as resting habitat for frogs and turtles.  Many studies have shown that as the density of houses increases along the shoreline of a lake or pond, wildlife diversity decreases.  The loss of species is not the result of the structures themselves, but the shoreline alteration that occurs during construction or when people access the water.  Impacts to the ecology of a lake or pond can be greatly reduced if each landowner leaves part of the shoreline in its natural state.  Another solution is to set aside long stretches of shoreline for protection while designating other areas for development. 

Although aquatic plants are usually a sign of a healthy ecosystem, rapid or excessive plant growth can be a sign of "nutrient loading."  All waterbodies become more eutrophic, or nutrient rich, over time as decaying plant matter and sediment washed in from the surrounding land accumulate and add nutrients.  This process can be accelerated by failed septic systems, poor storm water management and fertilizer use in the surrounding watershed.  When algal blooms or unusual plant growth becomes a problem, the first step is to identify and prevent sources of excess nutrients from entering the waterbody.   This approach will be far more effective in the long term than short-term fixes such as applying thousands of pounds of chemicals to control native plants.  

Herbicides are used, in lower doses, to control some nonnative, invasive plants, which can crowd out native species, as mentioned above.  Herbicide application can be an effective tool when used conservatively in conjunction with a long-term management plan that also includes hand pulling and "benthic" barriers (on the bottom of the waterbody).  Unfortunately, when the value of native vegetation is not appreciated, both native and nonnative plants can be easily grouped into the same category of "nuisance weeds."  As with nutrient loading, prevention is the most effective approach to controlling invasive plants.  A little time spent checking boats, trailers and fishing equipment for invasive plant fragments can help avoid some difficult and costly decisions down the road. 

The next time you hear someone complain about "the weeds" in their favorite lake or pond, perhaps you could tactfully suggest an alternative point of view.  The nexus between aquatic wildlife and aquatic vegetation cannot be underemphasized.  The more people that understand the value of aquatic plants, the more likely they will be treated as a valuable resource rather than a nuisance. 

And for those that ARE a nuisance, here are some easy ways you can help prevent their spread to new waters:

  • Remove any visible mud, plants, fish or animals.
  • Drain water from equipment (engine water intake systems, bilge, live wells, bait buckets).
  • Clean and dry anything that comes into contact with water (boats, trailers, equipment, etc.)
  • Never release plants, fish or animals into a body of water unless they came out of that body of water.

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