The NCWRC took another step toward establishing a red drum fishery at Hyco Lake on March 12, when they held a public forum at the Hyco Lake Campground Community Center in Leasburg to hear input from the public on the possibility. The overall opinion of the public was favorable to the idea.

NCWRC Commissioner Tom Berry said the issue has not been taken lightly.

“A whole lot of thought and study went into this, to do something about the abundant tilapia population, which is adversely affecting the size and numbers of bass, crappie, and other gamefish,” said Berry.

Tilapia are not a native fish to the state of North Carolina, but became established on the lake several years ago after about 100 tilapia that were contained in cages for the purpose of research escaped. Because the water stays warm enough throughout the year near the power production facility on Hyco, the tilapia have been able to survive, and thrive, which has put pressure on bass, crappie, and other gamefish.

Through creel surveys and electrofishing studies conducted within the past few years, fisheries biologists determined what Hyco Lake’s anglers already knew. Hyco’s gamefish population is poor compared to other Tarheel State lakes in terms of size and harvestable numbers.

“Tilapia are very aggressive and territorial, and they have pushed those gamefish out of areas that are good for spawning and laying eggs. They feed heavily on the lake’s vegetation, and have also been known to eat the eggs of other fish, and we have traced a direct correlation between the accidental introduction of tilapia to the stunted growth of bass and crappie in Hyco. There’s no doubt that tilapia are responsible for the poor fishing in Hyco Lake,” said fisheries biologist Jessica Baumann.

As the meeting began, Baumann conducted a survey which found 58% of attendees were favorable to developing a red drum fishery on the lake. After quoting some statistics and fielding questions and discussing different scenarios with the public, Baumann did another survey to see if the discussions had an impact on the opinions of attendees. It had.

At the end of the meeting, 84% were in favor of having the Commission introduce redfish to Hyco Lake.

“There’s really no downside to it,” said Berry. “Drum cannot reproduce in freshwater, so if we see unintended consequences that make things worse, the drum we introduce will be caught or die, and there just won’t be anymore, and at worst, we’ll end up right where things are now.”

Redfish need three things to live in a freshwater impoundment – sufficient forage like tilapia, a certain calcium level, and for water temperatures to stay above a minimum range. Hyco has all three.

It’s not just about controlling the tilapia population, according to Baumann. 

“We’re trying to establish a unique fishery on Hyco Lake. We want to give anglers another gamefish population to pursue, and we are hopeful that the added benefit will be that the drum will lessen the population of tilapia, which will in turn help the other gamefish. With the tilapia situation, we’ve been given lemons, so we’re trying to make lemonade,” she said.

Now that the Commission has gotten a favorable response from the public, their next step is to do another survey of largemouth bass and crappie, monitor the lake’s water quality, then hopefully begin stocking redfish in 2017.