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Lake Cumberland’s signature fish under stress
In Sept. 9 Issue

A wildlife disaster contingency measure has been issued for Lake Cumberland concerning the lake's trophy fish, the striper, according to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Dr. Jon Gassett.

The measure, which was implemented last Wednesday, increases the creel limits and reduces size requirements for the fish, Gassett said.

The measure said that because of high water temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels in the lake, striped bass are under severe stress and in some cases, dying.

"It makes sense to allow these fish to be harvested for food," said Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Director Ron Brooks. "This regulation will also limit the fishing pressure on our remaining striped bass."   

Gassett took the action pursuant to Regulation 301 KAR 3:040 and these temporary changes supersede all regulations concerning fishing in the lake.

The emergency regulations mean anglers may only catch two stripers over 22 inches and must not catch and release striped bass over 22 inches, as these released fish are likely to die.

After an angler catches two striped bass over 22 inches, the angler must stop fishing. However, a licensed angler may catch two and net or hand grab three additional striped bass over 22 inches that are floating on the surface. Licensed anglers not fishing for striped bass may harvest five striped bass over 22 inches by net or hand grab those that are floating on the surface.   

For all other fish species in Lake Cumberland, existing size and creel limits will remain in effect; however, dying fish may be harvested by a licensed angler using a landing net or by hand grabbing, according to the department of fish and wildlife resources.   

State and federal officials have been closely monitoring water conditions in the lake for walleye and striped bass throughout the summer.

Biologists noticed a number of striped bass were either dead or dying due to high water temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels and with continued hot weather forecast, water conditions will likely continue to deteriorate.

These conditions are particularly stressful to cool-water species such as stripers and walleye.

Fisheries biologists expect the occurrence of dead or dying fish to continue during the next three to four weeks.

The record summer heat and two major rainfalls since spring have raised water temperatures and reduced dissolved oxygen in Lake Cumberland to levels that cool water fish species like striped bass and walleye cannot tolerate for extended periods.

Fish species that are more tolerant of warmer water, such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappie and bluegill, are not as affected by the current conditions.

"We hope that the cooler nights will alleviate some of the problems by dropping the water temperature," said Brooks. "We're keeping a close eye on this situation and monitoring the impact on the fish."

Lake Cumberland is being kept below its normal summer pool while repairs are ongoing to Wolf Creek Dam. The lower lake levels mean it cannot store as much cool water below or above the thermocline, where there is enough oxygen for the cool-water fish.

Walleye and striped bass are especially susceptible to higher water temperatures. The increased stress on walleye and striped bass caught by anglers during the hottest weather conditions can lead to higher death rates of these species.

"Anglers catching these species should not release or attempt to cull legal fish at this time," Brooks said. "We are seeing mortality of mostly stripers this week," Brooks continued. "We believe those fish succumbed to a combination of factors, but primarily from prolonged poor water conditions. A few had likely been caught and released by anglers during the past day or two. Most of the fish were in areas of the lake where conditions were very poor and caused additional continuous stress that they could not overcome."

 In the meantime, officials will continue to constantly monitor the lake temperatures and oxygen levels at the various depths and locations in the lake and quantify the fish kills occurring.

"Lake Cumberland is an important fishing destination and tourist draw for this region of the United States," Brooks said. "We are concerned about this situation and will continue to keep a close watch on the lake."

Tailwater conditions for trout, at this time, are favorable. Conditions in the lake's tailwater, in the Cumberland River, are slightly better this year than in the past two years.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Lake Cumberland's Wolf Creek Dam, is working closely with other agencies to monitor water conditions in the lake and its tailwater. Corps officials are also continually adjusting the flow of water from the dam to help support the tailwater's trout fishery and maintain favorable conditions in the Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery," said Bob Sneed, water management chief for the Corps' Nashville District. The hatchery draws water for its operation from the lake and the tailwater.

"We're cooperating closely with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife and the employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery to find the best solutions within some of the constraints that we face," he said.

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The Times Journal is a weekly newspaper issued on Thursdays. It was first published on October 13, 1949, by Andrew J. and Terry Norfleet.
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