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By STEVE MERLO, Contributing columnist
Serious boaters know that when they reach their lake or river destinations, someone will be on hand to carefully inspect their craft for signs of either quagga or zebra mussels attached to the undersides, livewells or other possibly wet areas of their boats. Most people will have to fill out an affidavit at the location attesting that their craft remained clean and dry both before and after their last visit, lest the mussels be unintentionally transported and allowed to continue their rampage across the United States.
Named after a subspecies of extinct African zebra, the quagga mussel (dreissena rostriformis bugensis), an invasive species from the Dneiper River drainage in the Ukraine, has invaded America. Most shells sport stripes, thus the moniker.
Arriving in the bilges of trans-oceanic ships and then unintentionally pumped out into our bays and rivers, the less-than-inch-long shellfish now inhabits most of the Great Lakes region and in many western states. Causing untold billions of dollars in damage to our natural resources, recreational activities, water delivery systems and shipping transportation, the minuscule hard body remains an uncontrolled plague.
So just how serious is this threat? I just spent most of a week fishing Arizona's and Nevada's bi-state-located Lake Mead, formed when the world- famous Hoover Dam blocked the Colorado River, and can tell you without reservation that the attack is real. Billions upon billions of mussels have taken over the entire lake, one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the world, completely coating almost every exposed rocky area throughout the impoundment with their colonies. Boat hulls and engines left in the water for too long are coated with the hard-shelled monsters and water pumps for irrigation and electricity generation are clogged with tons of shell debris, adding plenty to the already costly operating overhead.
Besides the harsh economic outlook caused by their presence, I can attest that the mussels are also posing distinct problems for anglers. Because nearly every subsurface rock formation is coated with the sharp-edged shells, line abrasion and break-offs are incredibly common.
For instance, after making the 40-mile trip from Callville Bay to Gregg's Basin via bass boat to start a recent tournament, my partner Ron Raymond and I found lots of nice smallmouth and largemouth in a biting mood. My first cast of the morning found my jig inside the maw of a six-pound largemouth that, after jumping, instantly dove to the shell-covered rocks a few feet below and cut off my 12-pound-test line like a hot knife through butter. My next two casts were repeats of the first, the only difference being that I was not able to feel both fish bite before they sliced me off on the now jagged, razor-like rocks. I simply lifted my rod and reeled in a lure-less line!
Now I can usually feel the bite of most gamefish, but all these bass had to do was move away even a few inches with the line barely touching a rock and the line would instantly sever. One can well imagine our irritation and consternation at losing possibly tournament-winning fish with thousands of dollars on the line. We eventually had to move to another less-infested area of the lake before we ran out of our costly jigs.
Right now, the Colorado River, lakes Mead, Havasu and Mojave are infested, with little to stop the invasive attack and progress downstream. The mussels continue to purify our waters by filtering from the water tons of plankton normally reserved for fish fry, devastating their numbers and severely hurting many different species by depriving their progeny of baby food.
Recently, the Colorado River system has been planted with red-ear sunfish, a shellfish-eating fish that remains about the only hope to control these out-of-control creatures. Along with their ability to help control the mussels, the perch-like fish have been growing to outlandish sizes by gorging on the shellfish, including some weighing in at over 5 pounds! Not only do they eat well, but they have been compared to bluegill in table fare, one of Mother Nature's best-eating fish.
So what else can be done to assist in the fight against the quagga? The national anti-quagga slogan "Don't Move a Mussel" should ring true to every boater both before and after using their craft. Every boat should be thoroughly drained and dried and all plugs removed to allow bilges to completely empty. Remember, each female quagga mussel can spawn over a million eggs a year and it will only take a couple to completely ruin a lake or river system.
I often wonder if migrating waterfowl might one day be the delivery system to our local waters, but until that's been proved or disproved, we as sportsmen must stand tall and continue to fight the invasion as best we can before the quagga mussel completely ruins our waters, forever.