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Published on: Oct. 17, 2011

How many times have you thought, “This place would be loaded with fish if only there was some cover in here,” or bemoaned the loss of trees or structures that produced great fishing? Many fishing spots change over time due to the loss or creation of good habitat. Fisheries biologists help situations like this by placing brushpiles and trees in locations where habitat is lacking or needs some improvement.

Most of these habitat projects are aimed at covering one cove, or one small portion of a lake over a couple of months, or even just weeks or days. These types of projects improve angling opportunities tremendously. But what if the biologists had all year, or even five years to improve angling opportunities? The amount of “spots” an angler could fish would increase greatly and more fish could wind up on the end of a line. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), in cooperation with Bass Pro Shops, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is currently working on a five-year project to maintain and enhance fish habitat in Table Rock Lake. This project is part of the National Fish Habitat Initiative (NFHI) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s More Fish Campaign, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Act, and is under the umbrella of the Reservoir Fish Habitat Partnership. The Table Rock project is serving as a model for this national partnership aimed at improving habitat in reservoirs around the country.

The goals for this project are not just limited to Table Rock Lake. MDC, its partners and private landowners are focusing on the entire Table Rock Lake watershed. The goals include: improve fish habitat within Table Rock Lake, improve the water quality of Table Rock Lake and its tributaries, monitor the effectiveness and longevity of the structures and projects employed, and develop a framework for a broader national program focused on habitat protection and restoration in reservoirs and their watersheds.

Table Rock Habitat

The primary objective for the Table Rock Lake NFHI project is to improve fish habitat within Table Rock Lake. Table Rock Dam was built in the 1950s, and the lake filled to its current level in 1958. This makes Table Rock Lake more than 50 years old. When the lake was first created, much of the Ozark forest in the reservoir basin was flooded, and the trees and brush provided cover for the lake’s expanding fish populations.

Throughout the past 50 years, much of that habitat has begun to deteriorate and disappear, reducing the amount of habitat available to fish. The NFHI project is supplementing the deteriorating habitat with new habitat. Cedar trees, hardwood treetops and recycled Christmas trees are being used to build fish habitat. These types of materials are placed in Table Rock Lake using MDC’s “Table Rock Fish Habitat Barge.” The habitat barge was built specifically for this purpose by Tracker Marine in Lebanon, Mo. It is a large pontoon-style boat with a hydraulic lift on the front that raises and “dumps” the habitat into the lake.

MDC has contracted another habitat barge— the “Rock Barge”—to place larger habitat structures comprised of rocks and stumps into the lake. This barge has a large half-circle-shaped basin on the front and a hydraulic piston in the rear that pushes the rock and stumps from the basin off the front of the barge. MDC gets these materials from developers, contractors and landowners in the Table Rock Lake area who are clearing land and need to dispose of them. To date, 1,460 brushpiles, 104 rock structures, 49 stump fields, 11 combinations and 26 rock “fence” structures have been installed, for a total of 1,650 new habitat structures in Table Rock Lake. These structures were placed in areas and depths that are available for fish during most of the year, were located using GPS, and are available to the public on MDC’s website at mdc.mo.gov/node/10182.

Water Quality

Water quality is a critical component of fish habitat. In addition to improving physical habitat, MDC is also helping to improve the water quality of Table Rock Lake by working in the watershed.

Funding has been contributed to project partners such as the James River Basin Partnership and Table Rock Lake Water Quality, Inc., to help with septic tank pump-outs and septic system upgrades within the watershed. This pumping program is part of the James River Basin Partnership’s “Pump a Million” campaign and offers a $50 incentive per pump-out to landowners within the watershed of Table Rock Lake to promote proper maintenance of their septic systems and water quality improvement. More than 2 million gallons of septic tank content have been pumped out under this program. Each participant also receives a packet of educational materials that explains the importance of properly maintaining their septic systems. The program has gotten great reviews and will continue as long as there are funds, interest and need. For more information visit: http://trlwq.org/index_files/Pumpoutprogram.htm

Evaluating Structures

Another objective of the NFHI project is to monitor and evaluate the structures that are placed in Table Rock Lake. To this end, MDC has designated four evaluation techniques: fish sampling, SCUBA observations, an angler survey and a black bass biotelemetry study. By monitoring fish use of the habitat structures, MDC is learning what techniques and designs work best for placing habitat during the remainder of the NFHI project and in other lakes in Missouri. Information gathered from the evaluation will allow MDC to share ideas and techniques with other states’ agencies that are also working to improve fish habitat in reservoirs.

Watershed Health

MDC is working to improve watershed health by protecting eroding stream banks and enhancing riparian corridor conditions. Improving these areas will reduce sedimentation and excess nutrients and will improve in-stream habitat. Five stream bank stabilization projects have been completed to help reduce sediment being deposited into Table Rock Lake. Three other projects within the watershed are currently underway.

Cost-share funding may be available to landowners within the Table Rock Lake watershed to help stabilize eroding stream banks. For more information, or to see if you live within the Table Rock Lake watershed, contact the MDC at 417-334-4859.

MDC is also working with contractors to build large boulder structures within the upper mile of Lake Taneycomo, which is the tailwater of Table Rock Lake. This part of Lake Taneycomo is primarily gravel bed with limited fish cover. Large boulder clusters will help congregate fish in this area allow more areas for anglers to catch fish.

National Program Development

While the habitat project on Table Rock Lakewill benefit Missouri anglers, it is also a pilot project designed to serve as a basis for habitat restorations in other large reservoirs throughout the country. The results of efforts on Table Rock Lake will be shared nationwide and will give other reservoir biologists ideas and methods to improve habitat within their reservoirs.

So, now that the area has new fish habitat, we can look for results. Is that area going to be loaded with fish? Will an angler always be able to find fish off of those trees? The only way to find out is to get out there and fish those areas again. One way for biologists to know if this project is working is if anglers let them know. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/10182 to download the GPS points, print off a map and go fish some of the habitat structures that have been placed in Table Rock Lake. After all, they were put there with anglers in mind.

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