Aquatic vegetation key to Seminole’s powerhouse reputation

“Big bass and aquatic vegetation — that pretty much sums up Seminole in a nutshell.”

Popular places attract lots of visitors and Lake Seminole exemplifies this point with a stellar bass fishery that contributes mightily to the state’s tourism industry. However, not all out-of-towners are viewed equally; and when it comes to aquatic vegetation, the state fights a constant battle against outsiders mixing with the locals.

According to Rob Weller, Fisheries Section Supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s Southwest Region said the task of maintaining a healthy fishery that consistently cranks out the quality catches that have lit up the daily weigh-ins and kept fans glued to Bassmaster LIVE, relies on a favorable habitat complexion.

“Big bass and aquatic vegetation — that pretty much sums up Seminole in a nutshell,” Weller said. “It’s not like any of the other reservoirs in the state; a lot of places don’t even have a defined shoreline, because of all the vegetation.

“From an agency perspective, the basic rule of thumb is 30 percent vegetative coverage is perfect for fish,” Weller said. “That’s the ultimate combination of open water to vegetation.

“If we can manage for 30 percent vegetation, that would be great, but that’s not going to happen on Lake Seminole, especially in the coves and backwaters.”

As Weller explained, vegetation management is more precise in Seminole’s main basin, as opposed to the river and creek arms’ shallow, fertile habitat. Overall, Weller estimates the vegetation coverage on this 37,500-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs between 50 and 60 percent. 

Uninvited, but tolerated

In a perfect world, Lake Seminole would flourish with native plant species such as cattails, waterlilies, coontail, and pondweed. These species do thrive here, but you also have plants of foreign origin; namely hydrilla and Cuban bulrush.

Starting with the former, bass anglers know well this submersed perennial herb that quickly establishes dense colonies. With long stems often reaching the surface and matting over, hydrilla creates popular flipping, punching, lipless bait ripping, swim jigging and frogging habitat.

“The thing about hydrilla is that it has its good points and then it has some negative aspects,” Weller said. “It’s great for concentrating fish, but the unfortunate thing is that it can form super-dense mats that affect water quality; the dissolved oxygen can get very low in some of these areas.

“But hydrilla can be great for fish recruitment (the number of fish that survive and enter the fishery), because you have this large amount of bottom vegetation that gives (juvenile fish) lots of places to hide, so we see consistent largemouth bass recruitment in Lake Seminole year-to-year.”

Now here’s the delicate part; something we try to state honestly and fairly. You will not find many state agency folks — Weller included — saying that they want hydrilla in their lakes. Invasive species are viewed as a threat to native plant communities and navigational lanes (mostly hydrilla), so their presence is often unwelcome.

That said, there’s no denying hydrilla’s positive contributions.

“We really don’t like non-natives, but we do realize that some hydrilla definitely is beneficial for bass anglers,” Weller said. “We don’t want it to spread anywhere else; we don’t want it to go anywhere where it’s not currently. We are definitely against invasives, but with Lake Seminole, we realize it’s there and it does provide some benefit to the fishery.”

A harsher tone

While Weller takes an open-minded view of hydrilla’s presence in Lake Seminole, he said the agency has no love — none whatsoever — for Cuban bulrush. Since its arrival about 10-15 years ago, this dense growing plant has made quite a nuisance of itself.

“One of the bigger concerns to me is the Cuban bulrush,” Weller said. “It forms big mats of short grass growing out from the shoreline. It blocks out the sun, it keeps creeping off the shore where you can’t even get close to, or into the shallow water.

“I don’t really see any benefit to the Cuban bulrush. It grows in such dense mats on the surface that it doesn’t really even provide fish habitat. All it does is prevent access to the fish and shade out anything underneath it. Overall, it’s a negative for the fishery.”

Not to be confused with the taller Southern bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus) or soft stem bulrush (Scirpus validus), Cuban bulrush (Cyperus blepharoleptos) is an aggressively expanding plant that elbows its way into native communities. The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences describes Cuban bulrush as forming large monotypic floating mats on the surface of standing water. These mats may send out runners over other emergent plant species and crowd them or exclude their expansion.

During Saturday’s Bassmaster LIVE Mix, Elites Bradley Hallman and John Soukup commented on the patches of Cuban bulrush they had seen. Terms like “thick” and “un-punchable” bespoke frustrating experiences with this unyielding plant.

Management Outlook

If Weller could turn back time and eliminate the introduction of Cuban bulrush into Lake Seminole, he’d do it faster than you can say flippin’ stick.

Lacking such ability, Weller chooses to use this bitter reality as a call to action for anglers. While stocked triploid grass carp have been used as one part of the Lake Seminole hydrilla management strategy, Weller said targeted herbicide treatment is the only option for eradicating Cuban bulrush.

Current lobbying efforts seek to expand the Corps’ aquatic plant control budget, both in terms of targeted herbicide treatments and the stocking of more triploid grass carp. In the meantime, Weller stresses the simple, yet hugely important steps anglers/boaters can and should be taking.

“One of the things we’ve been working on as an agency is educating anglers on cleaning your boat before going to a different water body, cleaning out your live well with a little bit of chlorine, hosing down the trailer really good and looking for any fragments of vegetation that may be hiding.

“It doesn’t take much and hydrilla can spread by just a fragment. It doesn’t need roots; hydrilla can spread by just a 2-inch segment.”

Noting that hydrilla is a common aquarium plant, Weller said that unlawful dumping can also spread aquatic invasives. In any case, promoting awareness of the causes helps minimize the spread.

“That really is the key — putting the power in the hands of the people,” Weller said. “That’s where it all started and that’s where it goes.

“For big bags of fish, Lake Seminole is the place to go. Anglers can help us keep it that way.”