Only one fishing boat was anchored downstream of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River in Bladen County. That was unusual, considering it was time for a rite of spring, the annual shad run, to begin.
However, another boat was also in the water. Rather than carrying anglers monotonously casting and reeling small jigs to catch fish, this one carried people who were hard at work. The boat had two metal hoops at the bow. From the metal hoops dangled metal electrodes that tickled the water like the tentacles of an octopus.
“We have been capturing lots of big roe shad,” said Clint Morgeson, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Dist. 4 assistant fisheries biologist. “The run began in early February when the water was warmer than usual. But several spells of cold weather since then have delayed some of the fish, so it is too early to tell the strength of this year’s migration.”
In the 18-foot Sea Ark aluminum boat with Morgeson were NCWRC District 4 fisheries biologist Kyle Rachels and fisheries technician Madie Polera. Rachels was running the boat while Morgeson and Polera were standing at the bow with long-handled dip nets with long non-conductive poles. The array of tentacles was the anode and the boat hull was the cathode for a Smith-Roots Electrofisher. The water conductivity dictated that its settings generate 1000 volts at 7 or 8 amps to stun the anadromous fish they were seeking. It worked well because every so often, Morgeson or Polera scooped a fish from the water.
The term “anadromous” means fish that migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. The species they wanted to capture were American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring and striped bass.
“The easiest fish to catch are American shad,” Polera said. “They surface really quick and turn on their side so their pure white bellies are easy to see. The hardest to catch are striped bass because with one little flick of their tails, they are gone.”
It was early in the season, so striped bass were scarce because they migrate when the water is warmer. The high hickory shad numbers were a surprise because the fish were once nearly absent from the NCWRC’s Cape Fear River sampling. Restrictive recreational creel limits enacted a few years ago that allow anglers to keep just 10 shad of which only five can be American shad appear to have helped increase the populations of both fish.
“We did not catch anything at Lock and Dam No. 3,” Rachels said. “We caught seven American shad at Lock and Dam No. 2. Here at Lock and Dam No. 1, we caught six American shad, six hickory shad and five blueback herring.”
Another thing helping to restore the fish populations is the rock arch rapid, which are boulders piled on top of Lock and Dam No 1’s concrete face several years ago. In theory, the rock arch rapid created a piscatorial staircase that allows the fish to leap up and over the dam. During the peak of the run, lockmasters also operate the locks to help the fish swim upstream.
“This is our third sampling trip,” Rachels said. “We sample once a week through the end of May, when the migrations are ending. We want to see how the populations of shad, striped bass and herring are doing in terms of size and abundance. It is too early to tell how this year will go. Because of the weather, the migration will probably be prolonged.”
Low river levels were also having an impact on the spawning run. Besides conductivity and temperature, the crew was taking flow measurements. Normal flow has been about 6,000 cubic feet per second. Polera set device to measure the flow in the water and the reading was 2,500 cfs.
“High water helps the fish swim over the dams,” she said. “We take readings from different parts of the river on each trip. We will also be doing something new this year, setting light traps to try to capture larval striped bass.”
Striped bass have been of special concern. Despite a moratorium on commercial and recreational fishing and annual stockings, striped bass reproduction in the Cape Fear River is nearly zero. Only a few eggs were captured in tow nets last year, but biologists were hoping this season would bring better news.
“Striped bass eggs need a velocity of about one foot per second, or they sink to the bottom where they may become covered with sediment and will not be viable,” Rachels said. “Lake Jordan has been releasing some excess water over the past few days and that should increase the flow. The past few years, they have also been making some unscheduled releases to help anadromous fish in the lower parts of the river.”
Morgeson and Polera put the captured fish in a large tank. When their 30-minute sampling period had ended, they measured each fish, weighed it and released it, with the exception of the hickory shad, which they retained for further research.
For now, the shad and herring were concentrated at the foot of Lock and Dam No. 1. However, with March’s notoriously unpredictable weather, more rain could come. Any increase in the river’s flow would help more fish make it above the dams to their historic spawning habitat, where anglers once welcomed them as far upstream as Clinton.