Augusta Canal could support fishery for trout

Trout were once stocked in the Savannah River by Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, as shown here, in a 1972 photo taken near downtown Augusta's Fifth Street Bridge. New studies are under way to gauge the feasbility of creating a trout fishery in the Augusta Canal.

Even after 168 years, the Augusta Canal is still creating new opportunities for the city it was built to serve.

Just last week, as word leaked out that ancient textile mills along its banks might become a new university campus, science teacher Carl Hammond-Beyer was sharing some canal news of a different kind.

The Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School educator and his students have been quietly evaluating the waterway to determine if it could support a recreational fishery for trout.

“Yes, it’s possible,” he told members of the CSRA Fly Fishers group. “The take-home message here is that it’s time to think about it.”

Hammond-Beyer and his students conducted a year-long water quality study to measure temperature, oxygen levels, pH and food availability.

The conclusions were encouraging, he said, with adequate oxygen, suitable pH and plenty of food.

The only potentially limiting factor was water temperature.

“We’re right on the edge of survivability,” he said. “Only in mid-July to August does it get close to being too hot.”

The Savannah River that feeds the canal is drawn from deep below the surface of Thurmond Lake, where water is colder. By the time it flows downstream, and into the canal, it becomes warmer – but not necessarily too warm.

Even at its hottest point last year, average water temperatures were just a few degrees above those found in the Saluda River in South Carolina, which has been proven to not only support stocked trout, but has evolved into a trophy stream due to fish that survive from year to year.

Oxygen levels in both the river and the canal have improved dramatically in the past decade, due in part to vented turbines installed at Thurmond Dam to improve water quality downstream.

In the canal, all oxygen measurements were above 7 parts per million — well above the critical limit of 5 parts per million, he said, and pH levels were within an acceptable range as well.

Trout have their preferred foods, Hammond-Beyer learned, and the canal is a veritable smorgasbord.

A bug census found a succulant array of midges, whirlygigs, shiners, crayfish, dragonfly nymphs and other preferred trout snacks.

During one trip along the canal, the researchers observed the estimated hatch of 156,000 blue-winged olives — in a single day.

“So on the canal, we have this great productivity, but with no one utilizing the resource,” he said.

Creating a canal trout fishery could become a huge economic draw, but for now, it is just an idea.

“We have just a year of data,” he said, “but it’s something to wrestle with.”

The next step, he told the anglers group, will likely be tests in which a small number of trout would be kept in the canal within a submerged cage or enclosure to observe their behavior and mortality.

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