SUMMERSVILLE — Aaron Yeager and Sam Cowell aren’t plumbers, but they’re doing their best to fix a biological toilet bowl.
Yeager, a Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, and Cowell, the wildlife manager at the Summersville Lake Wildlife Management area, are spending their winters creating fish habitat in Summersville Lake.
It’s a tall task. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Summersville Dam more than half a century ago, they paid contractors to remove all the trees that stood within the lake’s basin.
“The corps was interested only in flood control,” Yeager explained. “The idea of creating fish habitat wasn’t on their minds. So, for the past 50-some years, the lake hasn’t been very fish-friendly.”
To make matters worse, corps officials drop the lake’s surface down 77 feet every winter to catch snow melt from the Gauley, Cranberry, Williams and Cherry rivers. Former DNR biologist Frank Jernejcic once complained that developing a thriving fish population in the reservoir was “like managing fish in a toilet bowl they flush every winter.”
Three years ago, Yeager and Cowell decided to take advantage of the wintertime water-level drop by anchoring entire trees into parts of the lake bottom exposed by the draw-down.
The trees come from wildlife clearings on the Summersville WMA, a 5,974-acre tract which surrounds the 2,700-acre impoundment. Some of the WMA’s original clearings have regrown into mature forest and need to be cut again.
“A lot of them have grown into pine thickets,” Yeager said. “The timber is worthless, even for pulp, so we figured we could clear out those trees, sink them into the lake and significantly improve the fish habitat.”
Three men comprise the work crew — Yeager, Cowell and excavator operator Jeremy Quick. They use the excavator to uproot the trees and carry them, root ball and all, from the shore to strategically chosen sites on the bare lake bottom. So far, working mostly in the reservoir’s Battle Run arm, the three men have placed about 300 pieces of habitat.
“We anchor them with soil off the bottom, or with big rocks,” Yeager said. “Since there’s no current in the lake basin, we don’t have to worry about them being dislodged. Besides, once the trees become good and waterlogged, they’ll never move.”
Yeager said the sunken trees serve two purposes: to attract fish, and to provide places for adult fish to spawn and for the newly hatched offspring to hide from predators.
“This will benefit all species, but it should be of special benefit to yellow perch and walleye,” he continued. “Yellow perch need sunken trees or brush to drape their strings of eggs on. We expect the perch population to take off, and for those young perch to feed a lot of walleye. We think this might help the Great Lakes-strain walleye in the lake to grow larger. Right now they max out at about 18 inches.”
To see how many fish are using the sunken trees, Yeager and Cowell cruise the Battle Run arm in a boat from time to time, peering into the depths with a pair of video cameras attached to a long pole.
“The lake’s waters are so clear, it’s easy to see which species are using the structures,” Yeager said. “We have some really good video of perch, crappie, walleye, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass. I’ve also seen big schools of emerald shiners in these treetops.”
Anglers are starting to notice.
“I’ve heard some really good things from the bass anglers who fish around these structures, especially in the springtime when bass are up in the shallows,” Yeager said.
For anglers whose boats are equipped with electronic fish-finders, locating the sunken trees is easy. Their tops sometimes rise more than 40 feet off the bottom, so they show up readily on sonar. For anglers not so well equipped, Yeager plans to create a bathymetric map that can be accessed by smart phone.
“I have a sonar unit I can use to create the map,” he said. “Anglers will be able to open an app and see where they are in relation to the structures.”
Funding for the habitat-improvement work comes from mitigation fees paid by the company that operates the hydropower station at Summersville Dam. “That money pays for our use of the excavator,” Yeager said. “When we’re using the excavator, we can place about 100 structures a month.”
The work on the lake’s Battle Run arm is about finished. Next, Yeager and Cowell plan to concentrate on the McKee Creek arm.
“We’re waiting for a pending timber sale to start,” Yeager said. “That will give us access to the lake in that area, and it will also give us a lot of treetops to move into the lake.”
If the habitat work produces the results DNR officials expect, other Corps of Engineers lakes — particularly those with significant winter draw-downs — will be next in line.
“Our next project after Summersville will probably be Sutton Lake,” Yeager said. “You increase the naturalness of a reservoir when you add complex woody structure like this, and we’d like to do that in as many of these impoundments as we can.”