KW Morrow, White River

October 11, 2004

Where Have All My Sowbugs Gone?
By Fox Statler, Salem, AR

I used to fish two beautiful rivers. They were so clean and rich with aquatic life. If you stood in one spot for a couple of minutes, gray-olive Sowbugs would cover the toes of your boots. Brown scuds scampered from rock to rock and several invaded the crevice between my waders and boots. Their fish were large, healthy, colorful, and fought with heart. The streambeds were filled with clean tan gravel, yellow sandy eddies, and chalk gray bedrock shoals. Lush, emerald Coontail Moss was downstream of their islands and schools of mirror skinned minnows scoured their shallows. Craneflies, fishflies, mayflies, dobson flies, caddis, and midges danced on their silver surface. Their misty morning perfume was intoxicating and invited the fisherman.

These rivers that I loved so much are very different today.

After 25 years of guiding the White River below Bull Shoals Dam and the North Fork of the White River below Norfork Dam, I can say that I have seen the water quality, river ecology, and general habitat deteriorate dramatically. The evidence of organic pollution overwhelms the alert fisherman and a microscope is not needed to find it.

The streambeds that were once filled with tan to slate colored gravel are now coated with dead, black-olive gunk that has the consistency of cow manure. This gunk is so plentiful that it covers the large rocks that are in the current as well as the rest of the bottom. The sandy eddies are worse. The pollutant is several inches thick in these areas to the point that the Coontail Moss beds are disappearing or are already gone. The light gray bedrocks that once dotted our streambeds are now undistinguishable from the rest of the dark green bottom. The free-stone habitat that the sowbugs once thrived in is now silted to the point that only a handful of them can be found in the entire North Fork and barely more are in the White.

Other aquatic insects have disappeared as well. Several species of mayflies, midges, blepharocera (net-veined midges), and caddis along with craneflies, dobson flies, fish flies, water pennies, water beetles, in the upstream area of the White and all of the North Fork gilled snails (right opening) and others are long since absent from our waters. Today only the callibaetis mayflies, burrowing caddis, planarian, scuds, sowbugs, oligochaete worms, leeches, in some areas lunged snails (left opening), and a few midge species are present. Several of the other aquatic species are quickly disappearing. With the extinction of a species due to the escalating degree of pollution, the food web of our streams offers less and less to feed all of our fish. This includes minnows, suckers, sculpins, bass, and sunfish, as well as the trout that we value so much. With the sowbugs approaching extinction in our water, what species will be next?

This being a high-water year and a cooler than normal summer, one would expect that our bug populations would have been revitalized. However, this is not the case. Instead of clean gravel bottoms and hoards of bugs, the conditions are quite the opposite. The polluted state of our rivers is approaching "grossly polluted" conditions swiftly and the bug population is less than ample. This is very evident at Rim Shoals Catch-N-Release Area where the trout are filled with snails, not scuds or sowbugs. Their bellies feel as though they have been eating marbles and it is possible to see the roundness of the snail shells in their stomachs. Reports of "good fishing" have come from all parts of the rivers, but this does not reflect the condition of the fish. It simply means that the fish are hungry and are eating to fill themselves. They may not be getting enough to eat. Even with a full stomach of snails the fish are still hungry. Remember a "satisfied" fish does not eat, while hungry fish do. Bad fishing days are often attributed to the fish being filled and satisfied. This is the situation after the first three hours of one of our winter shad kills. The fish stop feeding for two or three days because they are packed with high protein dead Threadfin Shad.

The polluting of these rivers has not come upon them suddenly, but has amplified yearly for the last 15 years. The growth rates of the Rainbow Trout are a testament to this. Less than 10 years ago the Arkansas Game and Fish boasted of growth rates of 6 inches a year in the White and 12 inches a year in the North Fork. Today, according to Darrell Bowman, AG&F Trout Biologist, the growth of our rainbows is less than one inch a year at Rim Shoals Catch-N-Release Area and 2.69 inches in the North Fork Catch-N-Release. The numbers and size of our rainbows has also decreased within this same time period. Tom Rogers (, a long time friend and guide, said to me this week that there use to be as many as eight times the fish in the North Fork.

Why are the rainbows' growth rates dwindling? Simple, there are less food items for them to consume, fewer sowbugs, scuds, planarian, midges, caddis, mayflies, minnows, sculpins, small trout, and others. With the pollution of the aquatic environment all species of our rivers' ecology are affected. With the advancement of pollution becomes the threat of toxic die-offs of every valued species within our waters because of high PH level, oxygen depletion and other problems. Believe me, the problems with our bug populations is not caused by rising water traveling over hot gravel it is the quality of our water and the polluting of our streambeds. The very life-blood of our rivers is the culprit. With each drop of water that is discharged into our rivers come the pollutants that are contained within it. As the pollution escalates in our lake so does the amount of pollution carried within each drop. This is evident because the pollution begins at the dams and not downstream.

What evidence do I have for these claims?

Let's start with the North Fork River. The North Fork starts in Missouri as a warm water runoff stream. As it meanders through the Ozarks, five out of the seven largest springs in Missouri change this river into a cold water stream. Constance Whiston (, over 25 yrs experience, guide service, presentations, FFF casting instructor, professional outdoor writer), recently floated this area and here is a quote from her.
"I did some over nights paddling down the river alone from the upper sections down to Sunburst Ranch which is almost to Dawt Mill. The nasty floating gobs of green started around all the houses in the cold trout water, which is what I would call the lower sections. The warm water/upper areas were pristine and not as inhabited people/houses...hence run off. I moved here a river zealot belonging to many conservation organizations in Texas and remain a river zealot. The gobs of green were so bad it was cast and clean, cast and clean."

I had a conversation with John Gulley ( this past week. John has been guiding the White and North Fork for over thirty years. He knows every nook and cranny of these rivers. He sited several examples of the pollution in both rivers. The green gunk covering the bottoms, the disappearance of the sowbugs and other species, the dying of the coontail moss and other aquatic plants, the die-offs of the scuds, and more. John told of us of the decline in the sowbug population over four years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a bulletin earlier this month that stated their random sampling of the lakes and rivers in the USA revealed high levels of mercury in fish taken from Norfork Lake. This was aired on CNN News, broadcasted on KTLO radio station in Mountain Home, and published in the Arkansas Gazette. While mercury's natural occurrence in all waters is due to airborne molecules precipitated out with rain, several other mercury contributing methods are at work in the White River System. All oil products contain some mercury contamination. Two-cycle outboard motors use 25% of the gas-oil mixture for lubrication and this is deposited within our lakes and rivers. As the gas-oil mixture floats on the surface of the water it is broken down by sunlight, it melts. During the melting process the lightest molecules and elements disperse into the air while the heaviest molecules and elements sink to the bottom of our lakes. Mercury is more than ten times heavier than water. Some of the protein used in livestock feeds for cattle, chicken, and even farm raised fish is derived from crude oil. Crude is also laced with the element mercury. As agriculture runoff is deposited in our river and lakes it brings with it heavy metals. Fertilizers, fungicide products, and lead contain mercury.

I have an interesting picture that shows the amount of pollutants in the North Fork River.

The picture above is of the new boat ramp below Norfork Dam. I guess you are wondering what this is supposed to illustrate. The pad on the right of the launch is less than one day old. Notice the green gunk that is already deposited on it from one short generation cycle. Looks like it could have been there for months or even years. If you have the opportunity to fish this area during the conclave, be sure to check out the progress of the pollution on this pad.

What evidence is there of the pollutants in the White River?

Let's start at the headwaters of the White in the Fayetteville area. Northwestern Arkansas is the fastest growing population, economical, and industrial area in Arkansas. The U.S. Census Bureau stated in July of this year that in six years the Fayetteville area will be larger than the Little Rock area. With sewage plants running at their maximum now will they be able to keep up? Regardless of the increase capacities of the sewage systems, septic tanks and construction runoff will increase incredibly. This is going to affect two major rivers in the Ozarks; the White River to the north and east and the Illinois to the west and south. I hope the Oklahoma boys are willing to join the fight to keep their rivers as clean and beautiful as they are now. It would be a shame to see the upper Illinois befall the same shameful abuse as the White.

The Beaver Lake area is already having problems with tremendous algae blooms and oxygen depletions. This is a matter of record and the situation has finally become a concern for the land owners on the lake's banks.

The tailwaters of Beaver Lake were the concern of Skip Halterman more than ten years ago. He spoke forcefully about the pollution of the upper White River, Kings River and others. The fishermen of all types turned a deaf ear to him. As the Eureka Springs area continued to grow, so have the contributing polluters and the amount of pollutants in the area streams.

An article published in the August 15, 2004 Springfield Sunday News Leader on the pollution levels in the Kings River is a real eye opener. Due to the phosphorus levels in the Kings River below Berryville, the algae bloom is so thick that the bottom can not be seen in water that is two feet deep. The wastewater treatment plant at Berryville (with a population of 4,000 people) processes 2.4 million gallons of sewage each day with 1.3 million being contributed by the Tyson Processing Plant. The Kings River and its tributaries (War Eagle Creek, Osage Creek and others) are the home of several chicken producing operations. Add to this the increase of septic tanks and you have a much polluted tributary of the White River System. Also mentioned in this article are the phosphorus and other pollutants of the James River of Southern Missouri that flows into Table Rock Lake. In my book, Fishin' What They See, on page 25, I discussed the minnow situation in the Kings River. In the data that I was using eighteen minnow species are either extricated or rare, and this could be considerably worsened by now.

Table Rock Lake is beginning to see the results of large deposits of pollutants from its tributaries and from its banks. Reports of scum covered banks and foul smelling, green algae colored water is common. With the Branson Boom as a major contributor to the lake's problems it is a wonder that a fish still live within its depths. It is merely a matter of time before a major ecological disaster befalls Table Rock.

The fishes of Lake Tanneycomo may look good in the summer but come winter time they are emaciated. This is due to the lower production of bugs.

Bull Shoals Lake has yet to produce visual evidence of the problems that are masked by its depths. However, the time is coming when the algae will discolor its banks if regulations are not placed to correct the upstream pollution.

The White River below Bull Shoals Dam is another story. Because the lakes are very similar to large septic tanks and the discharge into the river comes from the bottom of the dams, the heavy pollutants come out with each generation cycle. To a lesser degree the White is experiencing the same type of pollution as the North Fork. The green gunk is covering the bottom and destroying the freestone habitat quickly. The growth rate of the rainbows in the Catch-n-Release area is one inch a year. Just one sixth of what it was ten years ago. Because I lived just two miles from the dam for several years and have fished this area extensively, I have several pictures of this area.

This picture is of the gravel bar at Bull Shoals State Park. Notice behind me is the wastewater treatment plant for the city of Bull Shoals. More importantly pay particular attention to the gravel that is behind me.

This picture, taken August of 2004, is of the same area. Notice the white powered deposit on the gravel. This is phosphorus and lots of it. Incidentally, during the time period of the first picture and the second, this gravel bar was removed for an upstream bank restoration project above the state park, so all of this gravel has been washed downstream in the last few years.

Notice the gravel in this picture. See how clean and colorful it is. The picture was taken at the upstream gravel bar at the state park.

This picture is taken within inches of the first. Notice the green gunk on the rocks and the white phosphorus deposit on the gravel. Quite a contrast between these two pictures, and you thought I was making this all up.

Notice the bottom of the river in this slide. The bottom is not covered with the green gunk.

Notice the green gunk that is covering the streambed now and the phosphorus on the rocks on the far bank.

I have hundreds if not a thousand pictures of what the White river used to be. Today, I don't take pictures of it. I even hate the smell of it. Like the North Fork, it often has the ammonia smell of an outdoor toilet.

I have a friend, Vaughn Coomer, who lives in Texas and has a home on the bluff above Cane Island. Vaughn has been coming to this area to fish for trout for nearly twenty years. Vaughn gave this information to me over the phone during a discussion about the pollution of the rivers. One of Vaughn's friends and neighbor built a boat dock on the White River five years ago. Last year, his friend's boat dock took an unexpected trip down the river. The reason the dock took a trip was because the cables that held it to the bank had been eaten through where the green gunk had collected on them. The broken cables were replaced with new stainless steel coated cables. Guess what? The dock took another unexpected trip down the river this year. And guess what? The new cables had been eaten through again in one year where the green gunk was on them.

Another friend of mine is Jim Miller of Norfork, Arkansas. Jim is the best midge fisherman that I know. Jim is meticulous in noticing every aspect of the midge populations in the White and the North Fork. He samples the river continuously to keep up with the size and color of midge to be using. Recently, Jim told me that the midges in both rivers are getting noticeably smaller. Midges can live in extremely polluted areas but there is one thing that will remove them from a system.

Last year, while guiding at McCellan's on the North Fork, I had two clients fishing straight out in the river from the parking area in the pasture. It was raining lightly but the rain was steadily increasing until it was slightly less than a downpour. It wasn't lightning so we elected to stay until the rain got too heavy. As we were climbing the sandy river bank to leave, I noticed something very odd. The scuds were coming out of the river and swimming up the small streamlets caused by the water dripping out of the grass. These streamlets, every one of them, were packed so full of scuds trying to escape the river that it seemed impossible for them to swim. The next day we returned to the same area to fish. To our amazement the scuds had swam in these streamlets until there was no more water, and there they had died.

What do these three seemingly unrelated events have in common? What could a downstream trip of a boat dock, the growth of midge pupa, and scuds trying to escape the river share? The green gunk in our river is extremely acidic which is driving the PH level in our river up and up. Phosphoric acid is very potent, strong enough to eat stainless steel coated cables. The only thing that will destroy a midge population is a high PH environment. The scuds were escaping the river because the streamlets had a lower PH than the river. All three of these events are scenarios of what is to come.

What species of bug is going next?

In the White River most likely the sowbugs. Their numbers are drastically reducing, especially in the areas nearest Bull Shoals Dam and below Cotter. I consider the sowbugs in the North Fork on the verge of extinction. Their habitat has been destroyed by the green gunk that has filled the crevices of the gravel.

The Planarian in both rivers is sharing the ills of the midge. They are getting smaller and fewer. I attribute this to the higher PH levels in both rivers due to the green gunk. Planarian are an "under the rock bug" that prefer a moderately clean gravel. These areas are disappearing quickly in the White and are gone in the North Fork.

Scuds prefer the top couple of inches of clean gravel. The White still has large areas like this but they are disappearing quickly. Each time the dams open up more and more organic pollution is added to the streambed. The North Fork is worse. There are not a couple of inches of clean gravel. Usually the surface rocks are covered with the black-green gunk. In the North Fork, the scuds are living on the fringe and I expect to see them die off just after the planarians and midges.

In the last three years I have observed massive die-offs of the scuds in the North Fork River; once three years ago, three times two years ago, three times last year, and once already this year. Some fishermen seem to think that this is a natural occurrence. If it is why isn't it happening in the White River also?

The minnows in the North Fork are diminishing. I notice the only places that I see minnows are at the mouth of creeks or old sloughs, not in the main river. I can remember when there were clouds of minnows a below the islands and shallows along the banks. The number of minnows in the North Fork once rivaled the number in the upper Spring River below Dam #3 near Mammoth Springs. I notice I see hardly any sculpins in the North Fork now. Their numbers have sharply decreased. This is also true below Bull Shoals Dam.

Will all of this Organic Pollution affect Natural Reproduction of the fish?

When a trout spawns, the eggs lay buried in the gravel for 48-54 days until hatching, depending upon the water temperature. Then as a Sac Fry, it is trapped by the sac beneath the gravel for another two weeks until the "button-up stage," when the sac is absorbed. Finally the small fingerling must make its way out of the gravel. So the shortest amount of time from when the egg is laid until the fingerling trout is out of the gravel is about 55 days. At the rate the organic pollution is pouring into the North Fork River from the hatchery and the dam, no natural reproduction could possibly be happening throughout the entire river. Why? If the PH level is not killing the eggs, the eggs and sac fry are suffocating from the green gunk silting the surface and crevices of the gravel. The White River in the first two or three miles could not be much better. This is the area that has the greatest amounts of phosphorus deposits and organic pollution. This encompasses the major spawning grounds of the Brown Trout. Only spawning areas below this could possibly still have natural reproduction taking place but probably at a lower rate than 10 years ago.

The organic pollution and the phosphorus deposits are taking their toll on natural reproduction in every portion of the White River System where they are found. This includes the lakes as well as the streams and rivers. These pollutants will slowly kill every species of aquatic insect, fish, crawfish, and some plants that it touches. In time the minnows, bass, sunfish and everything else except for the lung snails, leeches, and oligochaete worm will be gone.

Our rivers and lake in the White River System are dying--dying because of abuses to the land and waters within it. Without regulations that change agricultural practices, regulation for better septic and waste deposal systems, regulations for higher standards of water treatment, regulations that require smaller amounts of mercury released in our atmosphere, thousands of our lakes and river will be lost and surely all of the White River System. We as anglers should first be concerned with the quality of our upstream waters. With better water the fish will grow to their potential once again. Without quality water nothing will improve the fish in our rivers for the long cast.

In my office I have these words framed to remind me daily of my priorities as an angler, a hunter, an outdoorsman, a sportsman, a father, a teacher, a lecturer, and a writer. For me this says it all. I will share them with you.

"Will you teach your children what we have taught our children?
That the earth is our mother?
What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all.
Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it.
Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our god is also your god.
The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator." ~ Chief Seattle

I need your help. If you can help me with the problems of the White River System then contact me by email, phone, or letter. If you can't help me, share this article with your fellow anglers and friends until it gets to someone that can.

Thank you for your time.

Fox Statler
P.O.B. 1352
Salem, AR 72576
(870) 895-2678

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