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Weeds at Kentucky Lake making fishermen happy

PADUCAH — Kentucky Lake again is growing weedy, a cause for celebration or consternation, depending on the viewpoint.

Multiple species of aquatic vegetation are growing in bays and, in some cases, on flats and ridges on the main body of the lake. They are seen toward the reservoir's northern end but grow more plentiful to the south, especially into Tennessee reaches.

Rooted in the bottom, many patches break the surface in only thigh-deep water, but in many other instances they are visible in places 8 to 10 feet deep or more.

After a series of dry years that saw the waters clear and increased light penetration stimulate the growth, the TVA reservoir became especially weedy for the first time in the late 1980s.

“Looking way back, we estimated about 7,000 acres in vegetation near its peak in 1987,” said Paul Rister, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources western district fisheries biologist. “TVA used to do a survey of it, and last year it was estimated to be about 4,500 acres.

“There hasn't been a survey this year, but I think the acreage has gone up since last year. We've definitely seen an increase.”

The late '80s weed boom was primarily in the form of an invasive species, Eurasian water milfoil, along with another, a naiad.

“Nowadays, coontail is predominant, and there's a lot of spinyleaf naiad and curlyleaf pondweed,” Rister said. “Plus there's some chara, milfoil and even some hydrilla with a big bed near Fenton and, I hear, a bunch of it down around Paris Landing” in Tennessee.

Recreational anglers are practically giddy over the resurgence of the vegetation. The proliferation of greenery in the late '80s triggered an explosion in the lake's bass fishing. In addition, the clearer water and vegetation apparently spurred a takeoff in the red-eared sunfish and black crappie populations, and it seemed to boost the size of adult bluegill.

“From our perspective of producing fish, the weeds are a good thing,” Rister said. “The weeds support a lot of bugs living in them and little fish show up to eat them, and those attract bigger fish. It's a food chain thing. It creates lots of new habitat.”

Rister said research shows booming year classes of young bass in Kentucky Lake.

“The grass just gives more places for fish to hide,” said Marshall County's Rodney Hairgrove, a Kentucky Lake fishing guide. “It lets more little bass get started and ends up producing more bigger fish.”

Hairgrove said the influence of the vegetation can be seen at bass tournaments: As weeds grew, so have winning weights.

“A while back, people were winning tournaments with (five-fish) limits weighing 15 or 16 pounds, then it got to where you needed about 17 pounds,” Hairgrove said. “Now in almost all tournaments it's taking more than 20 pounds to win because everybody is catching more.”

Word spreads that the lake's fishing is especially hot, and anglers plan vacations with their families, he added.

“There may be some that worry that the grass is going to make it hard to fish, but everybody that comes here to fish leaves knowing that it's a positive thing.”

All regular lake users, particularly those with no concern for the fishing, aren't so enthralled with the vegetation. Weeds can impede boat traffic and swimming.

“It affects our beach,” said Margie Norman, owner of Cozy Cove Waterfront Resort along Marshall County's western Kentucky Lake shore. “Nobody wants to swim in seaweed.

“Around our docks it's not so bad, but with the weeds growing and the water level coming down, it may knock out the use of our open boat slips by September,” Norman said.

Norman appreciates what the vegetation does for the fishery, but she recoils at the thought of runaway weed beds that might make some of her lakeside facilities unusable.

“The bottom line is we need someone who can take responsibility,” Norman said. “We need someone — not to eliminate the weeds, because they're good for the fishing — but who can keep lake accesses, boat docks and swimming areas open.”

For problem areas with weeds snarling boat docks or ramps or infesting private swimming areas, no agency claims a role in spot eradication. The ball is then left in the court of the property owner who has such issues.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said the recommended option is to contact a state Department of Agriculture to obtain information about licensed pesticide applicators.

Gay Brewer, supervisor of the Paducah regional office for the Kentucky Division of Water, said property owners with aquatic vegetation problems should contact a licensed applicator and not treat weeds themselves.

“You really need to be aware of restrictions on the pesticide use, and licensed applicators are trained for that,” Brewer said. “You really want to think twice about pumping poisons into the lake.”