Clubs battle water chestnuts

This invasive pest is rapidly overwhelming some of the most productive bass fishing waters

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — When most people think of water chestnuts, they may imagine the white crunchy morsels that are often found in Chinese take-out food. Unfortunately, the unrelated Asian water chestnut plant is not the least bit tasty, has fearsome thorns, and is rapidly overwhelming some of the most productive bass fishing waters in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states.

While its exact date and point of entry into the United States are not definitively known, it is believed that the Asian water chestnut may have been mistakenly planted in a botanical garden at Harvard University in the mid-1800s. Now the invasive waterborne pest can be found in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes any body of stationary or slow-moving water that is at least 16 feet deep is vulnerable to infestation by the Asian water chestnut.

For bass anglers, the water chestnut is a serious menace. It spreads quickly, robs oxygen from important submerged plant life, and is virtually impenetrable for bass boats using trolling motors. The Asian water chestnut has an astounding ability to proliferate. A single water chestnut plant can produce up to 16 additional plants over the course of a year. The thorny seeds of the plant may lie dormant at the bottom of a water body for as long as 12 years before they germinate.

Several local fishing clubs, businesses and other organizations along the Oneida River near Syracuse decided to launch a concerted attack on water chestnut plants that are choking the river. With donated equipment from Gander Mountain Outfitters and other local merchants, the Good Ole Boys Bassmasters, the Good Ole Boys Junior Bassmasters, the Salt City Bassmasters and the Salt City Junior Bassmasters rounded up almost 30 volunteers one mid-August evening to destroy water chestnut plants.

The participants stuffed uprooted water weeds into 144 large trash bags supplied by Gander Mountain. A local bass angler allowed the dead water chestnuts to be dumped on his farmland to start a compost heap.

After about four hours of work, the volunteers had completely eradicated about 12 water chestnut plants. BASS water chestnut project coordinator Mike Cusano of Syracuse emphasized that the eradication of even a small number of plants can be an important achievement. He calculated that 244 water chestnut plants, over the space of three years, could multiply into 1 million plants.

"This project was less about eradication," said Cusano, "and more about educating and raising awareness about the impact that the water chestnut will have on our fantastic water resources."

Cusano lamented the dearth of government funding available to combat the water chestnut. "The state provides $300,000 or $1 million per year," Cusano declared. "But that's just a drop in the bucket. We [hope] that people will start demanding that local and state politicians allocate the level of funding necessary to protect our multimillion-dollar [bass fishing] resources."