Anglers accustomed to spinning yarns about “the one that got away” may soon be changing their tunes.
Duke Energy is upgrading the Wateree Hydro Station spillway near Ridgeway, S.C., that involves removing about 5,200 tons of concrete. Rather than send all of it to a landfill, the company is working with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources to create six open-water, artificial fish attractors.
That improved fish habitat could lead to improved success for fisherfolk.
“Fish are naturally attracted to structures like this for foraging and safety,” said Mike Abney, senior environmental resource manager for Duke Energy’s Water Strategy, Hydro Licensing & Lake Services. “But reservoirs, especially old reservoirs like Lake Wateree, are typically devoid of this kind of structure. Most timber that was present when the reservoir was created over 100 years ago has either decomposed or been removed – especially if it was in open water.”
Ross Self, the Department of Natural Resources’ chief of freshwater fisheries agrees.
"This project," he said, "is creating areas where fish may accumulate.”
What kind of fish? Largemouth, striped and Alabama bass, catfish – both blue and channel varieties, black crappie and bream.
The fish will come for the protection provided by the structures’ nooks and crannies. They’ll stay for the buffet.
Vegetation will grow on the concrete, and that attracts minnows and other bait fish. Then, slightly bigger fish discover a food source and start hanging around. And next come schools of even bigger fish lured by the food supply.
Self said these habitats don’t guarantee you’ll come home with dinner. There’s a lot more to the sport than just choosing where to drop a line.
Don Wells, a retiree and former bass tournament fisherman who lives on the shores of Wateree, goes fishing five or six times a week. Sometimes, he’ll fish off his dock. Other days, he’s out on his boat looking mostly for crappie and bream – “relaxing fishing,” he calls it.
Fish habitats, he said, aren’t a sure thing. “Sometimes, you can sit in one spot and have you a real good time. But the next day, you might go back to that same spot and not catch a thing. Knowing the location of the fish habitat doesn’t make fishing easy.”
Building a fish domain starts on dry land. To begin the spillway enhancement project, a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license requirement, Duke Energy dropped Lake Wateree to nearly 7 feet below its full pond level before improvements could start.
After being broken up on the spillway, the chunks of concrete are placed on a barge. The locations are marked with buoys so the barge operator knows where to place the material.
“Historically, popular, cost-effective and easily accessible materials, such as Christmas trees, have been sunk to create habitats,” said Abney. “But that only lasts a few years. Concrete will last indefinitely.”
Duke Energy made the concrete available at no cost. Teams from the Department of Natural Resources and Duke Energy worked to select the sites that would become, essentially, fish condos.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to make the lakes better,” said Jeff Lineberger, Duke Energy’s general manager of Water Strategy, Hydro Licensing & Lake Services. “Structural fish habitat is limited at Lake Wateree, and it’s a shame to take up landfill space with the concrete fragments from the dam if they could be put to good use. Repurposing the concrete to improve the lake for both fish and anglers was clearly the right choice.”
The structures are in areas deep enough to be safe for boaters, Abney said, shallow enough so fish will use them, close enough to the dam to cut barge travel time and not near homes and busy access areas.
“Having these areas marked allows anglers, including those less familiar with Lake Wateree, to target areas that may be concentrating fish, increasing the potential for catching fish,” Self said.
While concrete is a long-lasting material, it’s not the only material Duke Energy has used in fish “home construction.” At Cedar Cliff – near Sylva and Cullowhee in Jackson County, N.C. – rock from a nearby mountaintop was used to create fish habitats under Cedar Cliff Lake in a project between Duke Energy and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Fish don’t wait for vegetation to grow on the concrete condos before taking up residence.
“Fish find these structures almost immediately,” Abney said. “We know that from prior habitat creation projects on Lake Norman and Lake James, where we’ve documented fish on the structures within days. I suspect fish were there even sooner.”
If Wateree anglers should come home having netted a bigger haul than usual, nobody needs to know their secret.