By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
CASSVILLE, Mo. —
Longtime fly fisherman Paul Niegsch peppers riverbank conversations with the occasional odd phrase, such as “wooly bugger,” “crackleback” and “Copper John.”
In March 2012, he added a new term to that vocabulary: “didymo.”
“I hadn’t ever heard of it until I saw the signs,” said Niegsch, a Kansas resident who frequents Missouri’s many trout streams.
Since then, didymo has become all too familiar to anglers.
It also has become a topic of conversation among those responsible for the health of Missouri’s streams and rivers. Hatchery managers and conservationists have, essentially, garrisoned the borders of the state in hopes they can keep it out.
A single-celled algae, didymo — the scientific name is Didymosphenia geminata — blooms in freshwater rivers and streams with consistently cold water temperatures and just the right pH level.
It forms large mats that blanket river and stream beds, critically altering habitats and cutting off food sources for fish. It could wreak havoc at trout fisheries such as Roaring River State Park or in other cold-water streams in the state.
The ill will that anglers and conservationists have toward didymo is reflected in the nickname they have given it: rock snot.
“It can also make fishing impossible — or nearly impossible,” said Paul Spurgeon, who manages the Missouri Department of Conservation trout hatchery at Roaring River State Park, south of Cassville.
Didymo, a non-native, invasive species, has expanded in recent years to 18 states, including to a 13-mile stretch of the White River in neighboring Arkansas, where it was found in 2005.
“That’s very, very close, and a lot of anglers who fish there (White River) also come to Missouri rivers and streams to fish,” Spurgeon said.
Beaver Lake in Arkansas and Table Rock and Taneycomo lakes in Missouri are part of the White River basin, all upstream from where it was found just south of the Missouri-Arkansas line; Roaring River also empties into Table Rock Lake near Eagle Rock.
Missouri Department of Conservation experts say the state’s spring-fed trout streams, with a water temperature of around 57 degrees, provide ideal conditions for didymo to flourish.
“It’s microscopic,” Spurgeon said of the algae. “One drop is all it would take.”
Mats of didymo can easily detach from the stream bed and float downstream on their own, expanding its range naturally. But it also can be transferred between bodies of water on an angler’s porous, felt-soled waders or fishing gear, prompting a ban of felt-soled waders in Missouri in 2012.
Felt-soled waders had been a popular choice for anglers because they provide better traction on slippery river surfaces than some other traditional options, such as rubber.
So far, so good
“It has never been found in Missouri. We’re being preventative. We’re trying to stay ahead of the game,” Spurgeon said last week.
The Missouri Department of Conservation kicked off a public awareness campaign in 2012 and is continuing to spread the word.
“We’ve held public forums to help educate the anglers and the retailers and outfitters, too — they’re the ones selling the equipment,” he said. “We’ve handed out buttons and brochures, and we have signs up.”
Those are the signs Paul Niegsch spotted while fishing in Missouri.
The trout parks also erected boot- and gear-cleaning stations near wade-in fly fishing zones so anglers can disinfect their equipment.
“It’s a concrete basin you step into, with a scrub brush and a salt solution. Salt will kill it. We maintain it and clean it out once a week,” Spurgeon said.
The department also issued a directive earlier this summer for the state’s hatcheries to conduct testing in their rivers and streams. Roaring River Hatchery had planned its test for early August but postponed it after a flood caused the river to rise a couple of feet overnight. That testing will be conducted in the spring, Spurgeon said.
“We’ll do algae scrapings on rocks. We want to find out: Is it already here? Do we need to ramp up our efforts? If it’s not, we stay with prevention,” Spurgeon said. “Meanwhile, we’re just making sure everyone knows to check. Clean and dry — that’s our motto.”
Some anglers are finding it challenging to get used to discarding their felt waders but have found that the fishing gear industry has responded with new products.
Kansas angler Pat Pence, who like Niegsch has been fishing in Missouri streams for decades, said switching off concerned him.
“What I really like about felt waders is they give you stability,” Pence said. “You’re not going to slip and fall. I’ve had some hip surgeries so I was concerned. It was really a matter of developing some confidence.”
He found it in a new style of rubber wader that clings to the rocks on the river bottom a bit better.
“I’ve tried them in different places and they work,” he said. “And it was a trade-off I was willing to make. They didn’t make the law just to make the law. The stuff that could get into our streams is terrible. Missouri is being very proactive, and that’s good.”