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Lake Wilson fish kill not fatal to fishing

Dead fish float in the water at Lake Wilson on July 28 after soaring temperatures and low oxygen levels in the lake caused many fish to die. The fish population in the lake is expected to recover within a few months if the area gets more rain. Paul Durham | Times

For those who love to fish at Lake Wilson, the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of dead fish last week due to soaring temperatures and falling oxygen levels in the water was not a happy one.

However, the impact on the popular fishing spot might not be as dire as it appeared, even as the heatwave continues. Kirk Rundle, the fish biologist with North Carolina Wildlife Commission’s District 3, thinks the effects of the drought — assuming it’s not extended — won’t create too great a dip in the fish population, at least for anglers.

“It was just a ‘perfect storm’ with the warm water temperatures,” Rundle said in a telephone interview Friday. “Warm water holds less oxygen. I’m pretty certain it was dissolved oxygen causing the fish kill; however, I think it just caught a lot of fish off guard and some of them were trapped — not enough to ensure a good chunk of fish held on and found refuge and will fill that void and repopulate. So there’s quite a few adults that survived. I’m quite certain of that.”

While the number of dead fish may have been in the thousands, Rundle noted that Lake Wilson encompasses an area of some 90 acres and has had a healthy fish population for awhile. While the folks putting lines in the water lately might have more success — if they can get the fish to bite — the long-term effects should be minimal.

“I don’t think you’ll notice much of a difference at all,” Rundle said. “Even next year when the water comes back, I think fishing is going to remain pretty good. There might be a slight depression and maybe not as good as it was last year, but I think it’ll come back pretty quick. Just because I’m pretty certain there’s a lot of adults that hang on and they will provide opportunities and then they will reproduce next spring and their offspring will repopulate and continue to fill that void.”

Rundle said that the long lines of wading birds, sometimes numbering in the dozens, that have made Lake Wilson their favorite new dining spot likely won’t have an appreciable impact on the fish population, despite the seemingly easy meals they’re enjoying.

Because the fish kill came after the spring spawning season, Rundle thinks the number of young fish will likely not drop off significantly either.

Since the dead fish started showing up around July 24, lake levels have risen due to a combination of rainfall and Silver Lake owners opening a gate on its dam to allow more water to flow downstream to the stricken lake, per City of Wilson communications and marketing director Rebecca Agner. Thus, the time to regrow the fish population is probably just a matter of month as opposed to years if all the fish had Lake Wilson had died. Because the event was a natural one, Rundle said there will be side benefits.

“You know, it’s a good thing to have a thin out every so often,” he said. “If you have a lot of fish, this is a good thing — not for the fish that died and the unsightly part of it — but in the long run, it was a Mother Nature thing. It wasn’t nowhere near a complete kill and the fish that are left will have more food to eat and it’ll rebound pretty quickly. I think it’s going to be overall a good thing.”

While all of eastern North Carolina has been wilting in the summer heat of late, Rundle, whose territory covers 11 counties, including Wilson, said the Lake Wilson fish kill appears to be an isolated event. The Tar River Reservoir, which has also seen massive level drops in recent drought years, is holding up well, Rundle said, as well as several other area lakes on which he checked.

“So, knock on wood, I think we’re OK,” he said of the long-lasting effects of the dry summer. “And the way these things happen normally, it’s a gradual thing and the fish adjust to it and then it comes back up gradually. And so I think we’re good — that’s not to say it’s not impossible — but knock on wood, I think we’re good so far this year other than this isolated incident.”

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