Aquatic plants serve as foundation for food chains

A tiny fish last week provided a big clue about the health of one of our weedy reservoirs.

Aquatic plants — some native and some invasive — have become well established in many northeastern Ohio reservoirs and rivers and serve as the foundation of food chains that are vigorous from bottom to top.

The jig I was swimming last week snagged an inch-long sunfish as I pulled it through an alley in vegetation growing in two feet of water.

The bass that I caught before and after snagging the tiny fish sported bulging bellies, no doubt a result of feasting on the forage fish hiding in the submerged plants.

Young-of-the-year bluegills, crappies, yellow perch, catfish and even walleyes supplement the diets of predator fish that also gobble crawfish, shad, shiners and minnow species.

The baitfish and gamefish in Mosquito Lake, Pymatuning, West Branch, Portage Lakes, LaDue, Mogadore and other lakes in our corner of Ohio all rely on leafy green plants for food and security. The Mahoning and Ohio rivers also have healthy stands of aquatic vegetation.

Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Chris Amon, fisheries biologist for Division 3 in Akron, and Nick Radabaugh, fish management supervisor for Division 1 in Columbus, say the proliferation of plants is good for the fish populations. But they warn that too much of a good thing can be bad.

Native plants have taken root in our lakes for many years, but the usually stained water served to restrict the amount of sunlight that penetrated to the lake bottoms and thus the depth and lushness of the weed beds.

Zebra mussels introduced by boats from Lake Erie spread rapidly. Filter feeders, the mussels cleaned up the water and enabled sunlight to penetrate and photosynthesis to happen in the plant base.

Invasive species Eurasion milfoil, hydrilla and others have been transplanted from southern U.S. waters to Ohio. Radabaugh noted cut pieces of hydrilla can ride to the lake on boat trailers and livewells and flourish when they are dunked in new waters.

The invaders are outcompeting the native grasses and creating problems for boaters, dock owners, anglers and water resource managers. Efforts to control plant growth are underway.

The fish, meanwhile, are benefiting from the greenery.

Radabaugh reported central Ohio’s Alum Creek Lake and Indian Lake have improved as fisheries with the influx of vegetation.

Amon said Portage Lakes and Mosquito have seen booming populations of largemouth bass and the fish they eat thanks to the improved water clarity and expansion of weed beds.

That bitty little bluegill on my jig hook last week is one piece in the elaborate puzzle we anglers seek to solve whenever we push our boats from the dock and cast our lures to the green patches out on our favorite local waters.

Jack Wollitz’s book, “The Common Angler,” is a collection of stories that explain why anglers are passionate about fishing. Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com.


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