Weed Kill on Lake Guntersville: A Debate for the Ages

By Frank Sargeant, Editor

Fishing websites throughout North Alabama are buzzing this week about the recently-announced renewal of weed spraying on Lake Guntersville financed by TVA after a hiatus of several years. Guntersville was in the fishing news of late as the remarkably productive site of the Bassmasters Classic, the world championship of bass fishing.

Vast mats of weeds form on much of north Alabama's Lake Guntersville in late summer, restricting boat travel in some areas-but anglers say the cover produces great fishing.
Vast mats of weeds form on much of north Alabama’s Lake Guntersville in late summer, restricting boat travel in some areas-but anglers say the cover produces great fishing.

In general, bass anglers love weeds and homeowners and marina operators hate them, and you can easily find the extremes of both views on the web at present.

Anglers generally agree that weeds provide preferred habitat for both bass and the baitfish they eat, as well as for the many panfish in the lake. Weeds are also known to clarify the water in many areas, and can help reduce shoreline erosion in areas exposed to strong winds. They also trap run-off, reducing pollutants free in the water, and they add oxygen, essential to all fish.

On the down side, they are smelly, messy and capable of completely bogging down a boat if they get thick enough. They block channels, docks and marinas, and are also bug hatcheries. It’s not hard to see both sides.

One thing nobody can argue much about is that the 69,000-acre lake has a BUNCH of weeds, with most of the massive summer mats made up of hydrilla, plus plenty of Eurasian milfoil in some shallower areas. Both are invasive species that grow pretty much uncontrolled throughout most of the southeastern U.S. More limited areas of native plants including coontail and eelgrass are prime fishing areas but are nearly overwhelmed by the invasive plants in many areas.

One man’s weed is another man’s bass fishing treasure. There’s no question that lakes with moderate weed cover produce lots more gamefish than those without vegetation. Guntersville has recently been named the top bass lake in the nation via a survey of Fishhound.com, mostly based on the amazing catches during the Classic fished here in February.

The attitude among many local anglers is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when it comes to spraying the very weeds that help to produce the fish.

“I’m in favor of weed control,” says well-known Guntersville guide Mike Gerry, “so long as it doesn’t turn into weed eradication–the right amount of weeds is essential to our business.”

Captain Mike Carter, who mostly fishes the middle and upper end of the lake, also takes a wait-and-see attitude.

“If they limit the spraying to boat trails and docks and marinas and beaches, I don’t think any of us would object, but if they kill a lot of the weeds in the prime fishing areas, that would be a concern,” says Carter.

Kay Donaldson, director of the Alabama Bass Trail and also one of the three angling representatives named to the new Alabama Board for Aquatic Plant Management, says that controlled spraying not only is not harmful, but is essential if the big lake is to continue to remain near the top in bassing quality.

“Flight surveys have shown that up to 40 percent of the lake is covered with weeds in late summer,” says Donaldson. “That’s too much of a good thing. When you get that much weed cover, it blocks anglers out of thousands of acres of water that could otherwise be great fishing–the best situation is controlled spraying at the right times of year, which will give us a balanced lake that produces lots of fish and still allows homeowners, boaters and swimmers to enjoy open areas year around.”

Donaldson said that because Guntersville’s water level is not allowed to fluctuate more than a couple of feet, there is no low-water period to control weed growth. While winter cold knocks the weeds back from December through March, they quickly go wild as the warmer days of summer arrive.

“In the past, the lake has done best when we’ve had about 3,000 to 5,000 acres of the shallows cleared out, and we’ll ask for something like that now, as well,” Donaldson said. “They don’t spray during the spawn, and they don’t spray any more than is necessary to kill the weeds–it’s a professional program that we think will have good results.”

However, she noted, there are no guarantees.

“We can’t ever be 100 percent certain, when we do something like this, that there won’t be negative results, at least in some areas, but overall the science and the odds are that this is going to make Guntersville better, and keep it at the top of the bass fishing world.”

Bottom line is weeds can be good or bad, or both at the same time, but a reasonable level of control is essential to maintain a healthy, viable recreational lake.

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