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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Rivers, groundwater feel effects of extra rain

After what seems to be years of chatter by the weather people about drought conditions and the need for rain, I think we have, at least temporarily, put a halt to hearing them drone on about how dry it is.

Normally at this time of year my garden topsoil is nearly dust and I am busy watering it. I have yet to water the garden this year and here it is the second week of July.
After searching the Internet for a while, I was unable to find local rainfall historical data but I am sure it is there. However, I did find average rainfall data for May, June and July. Those figures in inches for Colonial Beach and Fredericksburg are as follows: May through July for Colonial Beach 4.1, 4 and 4.5 inches. Fredericksburg is 4.1, 3.4 and 4.5 inches.

Although I could not find rainfall totals for this year for these two areas I did find several maps and charts showing that rainfall in our area has been such that river levels are above normal. Lake Anna and other large lakes are above normal, stream flows are above normal and well surveys all over Virginia show them normal or above normal.

In fact, no county in the state is in a drought or dry state at press time. So, what does this mean for anglers and commercial fishermen?

The rain, while welcome to most of us, has made fishing a bit unusual to say the least. In fact, one local business that we use for our fishing report has mentioned several times that the crabbing is terrible and has been all season.

According to a previous press release by VMRC, the juvenile crab population dropped from an estimated 581 million to a mere 111 million. This was determined by a winter dredge survey that scientists use to extrapolate the population numbers.

The total numbers of crabs fell from an estimated 765 million to 300 million crabs. If you do the math it appears the drop was mainly due to the loss of juveniles. Some fluctuations do occur naturally and can even be substantial due to weather events and water quality, but another factor that comes into play in my mind, and backed up by the press release, was the surge in puppy drum populations and the increase in red drum populations in the bay and the rivers.

Red drum and the juvenile versions love to eat crabs. There were reportedly over 2.5 million puppy drum caught last year vs. a mere 61,000 reported the previous year. Imagine how many crabs were dined on by the puppy drum. I looked at harvest figures for crabs and that figure was down last year so it appears harvest was not an issue on this year’s crabbing.

Although local reports show crabbing to be poor, some reports in the lower bay and on the ocean front are showing promise. The Eastern Shore activity has picked up. Perhaps the influx of rain or fresh water did push the crabs out. However, those juvenile crabs also had a part in the numbers this year too as many of them would be approaching catchable size.

Croaker and spot are in the area although not in large numbers. Some people are reporting good croaker numbers or spot numbers but that fishery remains spotty and the croaker sizes are not yet noteworthy.

On the freshwater side of things rains have kept ponds and rivers up to spring levels so far. In the river the rain can have positive and negative effects on the fishing.

VA Game and Inland Fisheries biologist John Odenkirk commented on that. He noted that if the runoff inhibits submerged aquatic vegetation, like hydrilla, from getting out of control then perhaps that is a positive. Being able to float down the upper river because water levels are good can also be positive. Adding nutrients to the river can be good as long as they are the right nutrients and not in excess.

Too many nutrients (muddy rivers) can block sunlight and reduce the planktons and other small creatures for newly spawned fish to feed on. Spawning success can be reduced due to muddy waters too. Nests can be blown out by high water or the young of the year can be displaced making survival tough.

Overall, the freshwater fishing seems to be fine and not as affected by the amount of rainfall thus far. What happens with the spawning success remains to be seen. I suspect that on the upper rivers fishing pressure is down and when the water finally clears we will have noteworthy fishing.

In conclusion, the weather has certainly thrown us a curve and changed things. However, the fish adapt well and change their habits. We have to figure it out and change our own habits to be able to catch them.

Some cobia have been rumored to have moved into the bay now and have even ventured a bit farther north than they normally are found. Puppy drum are in the area and seem to be a bit early despite the salinity levels.

While we may not have crabs in numbers there are other fish to focus on. At least we are not in a drought and can enjoy regular rain showers as we get them to temporarily cool things off. It appears we may have to settle for fewer crabs this year due to the drop in juvenile crabs last year but maybe the puppy drum will be big enough to keep!

Mark Fike

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