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Hurricane Florence hurts freshwater fishing

Jess White returned to his flooded family home for the first time since the rising Waccamaw River and Crabtree Swamp ran him from his house on Busbee Street. “I don’t know what to do and don’t even know where to begin,” he said of his home with it’s warped hardwood floors and visibly molding walls. October 1 2018. Jason Lee jlee@thesunnews.com
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Why the effects of Hurricane Florence have freshwater fishermen cringing

By Gregg Holshouser
For The Sun News

October 05, 2018 08:34 PM

The devastating flooding along the Waccamaw River in the wake of Hurricane Florence has been the worst in recorded history, with the river cresting at 21.2 feet in Conway on September 26, nearly doubling the flood stage level of 11 feet.

For many generations, the Waccamaw has been the freshwater playground for residents and visitors alike from Longs to Georgetown, a scenic blackwater river perfect for boaters, naturalists and, of course, fishermen.

Local anglers who target bass, bream, catfish and crappie on the river are watching, and cringing, as an ongoing fish kill is taking a serious toll on their favorite species of freshwater fish.

The culprit? Low levels of dissolved oxygen as a result of the flooding.

The scenes observed along the Waccamaw have been depressing, as scores of dead fish have been seen over the past few weeks along the edges of the flooded river, in parking lots, yards, woods – virtually any area adjacent to the floodwaters.

Jess White’s plight is akin to so many Conway residents, as his home adjacent to Crabtree Swamp flooded for the first time during the river’s unprecedented rise.

White, 42, is an avid fisherman, and competes in numerous area bass tournaments including Carolina Anglers Team Tournament Trail (CATT) events and tournaments staged by local bass clubs. He is also owner of Chasin’ Limits Apparel, which produces performance fishing apparel.

Since he was a toddler, White has spent endless hours on the Waccamaw, from the narrow stretch of the river at Longs to where it widens to join Winyah Bay at Georgetown.

Simply, the Waccamaw is near and dear to his heart.

“I know the river like the back of my hand,” said White.

On Wednesday, with the floodwater still on his property, he could see dead catfish and bream in his front yard from his driveway. White has observed the ongoing fish kill, and he’s very concerned about the impact on the river’s fisheries.

“It’s taking a big toll,” said White. “I don’t know how much fish loss we’ve had but it’s not a little bit.

“I truly do feel it could be a 50 percent fish loss. That’s just an opinion. I’m no biologist but that’s based on what I’ve seen in person and online. I want some more evidence from those that are qualified in that field.”

Chad Holbrook is the Region 4 Freshwater Fisheries Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, with Region 4 comprised of all coastal counties in the Palmetto State.

Holbrook was in the Myrtle Beach area this week, and surveyed the Waccamaw River out of Enterprise Landing on Monday.

“There’s definitely a fish kill occurring in all of the freshwater portion of the Waccamaw,” said Holbrook. “We haven’t seen any saltwater fish kills yet. Some species that can breathe air, the long-nose gar and bowfin (mudfish) are surviving.

“We have seen just about everything else that lives in the river, we’ve seen at least a couple of (each species) dead along the banks. From the North Carolina-South Carolina line to Winyah Bay, we’ve seen dead fish. The fish kill occurred on that entire stretch of the Waccamaw.”

Holbrook emphasized he is sure fish will survive in the river.

“Some of them are going to find a way to survive, there will be some fish that remain alive in the river,” said Holbrook.

Holbrook had received reports of live fish spotted in the Pawleys Island area along the river.

On Friday, Holbrook noted the dissolved oxygen level in the river was at 1 milligram per liter, while the average for this time of year is 4 milligrams per liter. With the flood waters receding, Holbrook is hopeful dissolved oxygen levels will soon improve.

“I think we’re probably at the tail end of the event,” said Holbrook. “The dissolved oxygen will start to rebound, but it won’t come back over night.”

Holbrook couldn’t venture a guess as to the final impact the kill will have on the river’s fisheries.

“As far as the extent of the fish kill all I can really say is we’re going to try to assess this in the Waccamaw to get a handle on the extent of it,” said Holbrook. “(S.C.) DNR is going to follow up during the next year to try to get an idea of the impact.”

Anglers can certainly play a role in the recovery of the fisheries by limiting the number of fish harvested in the coming months, even years.

“(Anglers should) take into consideration to not harvest as many as in the past and try to leave a few for the spawing stock for next year,” said Holbrook. “The fish can repopulate relatively quickly. If we have enough fish out there to spawn, hopefully we’ll see the recovery in a few years and it’s not a long-term impact. We need to take into account whether stocking fish would help shorten the amount of time it would take for the river to recover.”

*Notes: Residents along the river have reported what appear to be small, juvenile flounder found dead during the fish kill.

Holbrook pointed out the fish is actually a freshwater species called hogchoker, a small flatfish that resembles a flounder.

“They look very similar, but there’s not a baby flounder kill going on,” said Holbrook. “It’s a fish that lives in the river that’s part of the ecosystem that’s also dying. They get as big as a 50-cent piece, and most of the ones we’re seeing are a little bit bigger than a quarter.”

Holbrook urges the public to call S.C. DNR at 803-944-5000 with any concerns or observations regarding the fish kill.