March 22nd, 1999
Whirling disease update
It's still not here, but how long can we last?
By Clive Schaupmeyer
How long can we remain free of whirling disease,
and are we already living on borrowed time?
According to Alberta's fisheries biologists they were again unable to
find whirling disease in our wonderful trout streams last year. But with
all of the budget cuts, just how much checking is really going on? Likely
very little. I never saw any biologists on any of the streams I fished
last summer, and none of my friends reported seeing any either. Of course,
this is not a criticism of the biologists and other staff in the Fish and
Wildlife Division of Alberta Environmental Protection. Budgets have been
hammered for a decade now and there simply is not enough money to pay for
real protection of our fish and wildlife resources. Another story for another
I don't think about whirling disease too often when on the stream. But
I got the scare of a lifetime one day last fall on the Crowsnest River.
It was during one of the two trips John and I took in late September and
again in early October. I was up in the Dog Run and saw an 8-inch rainbow
flopping and wriggling by. It was clearly in distress. But I was unable
to get to it in time before it reached some faster water and was carried
down toward the Electroshock Hole where John was fishing. Later I mentioned
it to him, and he had seen it too. Later we told Vic Bergman at the Crowsnest
Angler Fly Shop. Vic thought it was most likely injured by a an angler,
hawk or osprey. Likely. But still, it was a grim reminder of the constant
threat we face from whirling disease.
So officially we don't have whirling disease in Canada, and we want
to make sure it stays that way. But here's what scares the daylights out
Whirling disease thrives in streams just hours away in southern Montana.
I could fish in southern Montana in the morning, and wade into the Crowsnest
River in southern Alberta for the evening rise. If I had been fishing in
a Montana stream infested with whirling disease I would almost certainly
infect the Crowsnest with this dreaded pest that was carried in the mud
on my waders!
It's that simple folks. At least it's reportedly that simple, but some
argue that it is not spread so easily. They claim that it should have spread
to our rivers by Canada Geese or other birds that are common inhabitants
of both sides of the USA-Canada border. Perhaps.
Can geese (that wade the shores of southern Montana streams) fly non-stop
to southern Alberta? Surely they would rarely do this without resting along
the way and presumably rinsing mud off in ponds and sloughs. The majority
of southern birds (that could carry the disease) would end up on the Great
Plains of Alberta where there are few trout. But I admit there are a lot
of geese and other birds, and this has to be a real possibility, if not
However the cause of spread, the disease continues to advance through
our trout world. According to a Whirling Disease Foundation website article,
whirling disease was found in native Yellowstone cutthroat trout taken
from the east side Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone National Park
last September. The article states, "The detection of the disease
in Yellowstone Park confirms the generally held belief that whirling
disease is likely to spread, over time, to all or nearly all geographical
locations that are capable of supporting trout populations."
Wow! Those are very scarey words.
Without going into too much detail, whirling disease is caused by a
microscopic organism, Myxobolus cerebralis, that affects particularly rainbow
and cutthroat trout. Infection of young trout results in erratic whirling
or circular swimming motions. The fish are unable to swim after food and
are vulnerable to predation by birds. Severely infected fish die. Populations
of rainbows have crashed on severely infested streams in the USA.
Rainbows Are Affected by W.D.
The micro-organism spends part of it's life cycle in small tubifex,
mud-dwelling worms. These parasitized worms can survive a road trip in
mud on the bottom of waders, fins, float tubes or boats and can later release
the parasite into previously non-contaminated water.
Brown Trout Unaffected by W.D.
If you have been fishing in an area where whirling disease is present
and later plan on fishing "clean" waters in Canada or elsewhere in the
USA, thoroughly clean your gear as described below. You'll be doing yourself
a favor by helping to preserve the future of trout fishing in great waters
If you are not prepared to clean your expensive waders with bleach
as described below, then you have two more options: buy new waders and
boots, or stay home.
Use a high-pressure hose to clean mud from boats, trailers, waders,
boots, float tubes and fins. Then rinse gear with a 1:5 solution
of household bleach and clean water. Rinse and air dry the equipment
out of the sun. (The combination of sunlight and bleach can weaken fabric.)
Felt soles are a haven for the parasite and must be treated with bleach
to ensure total destruction of this pest. The felt must be soaked for at
least ten minutes to ensure that the parasite-killing bleach gets to all
parts of the thick felt. Some companies are promoting wading soles that
are completely washable and that will not harbor this pest provided they
are washed in uncontaminated water.
Anglers who refuse to take the time to thoroughly clean and disinfect
their gear are not welcome here or any place that is free of this most
With a little help from our friends perhaps we can keep whirling disease
from destroying our wild trout populations whether they be up here or in
other parts of the USA.
Visit the Whirling Disease Foundation Internet site for more information:
Closing thought, again from one of Joni Mitchell's greatest songs, Big
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got 'til it's gone?
They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot.
Let's not be so complacent about whirling disease that one day we will
sing this lament about our pure trout streams. ~ Clive Schaupmeyer
Our Man In Canada Archives
Bio on Our Man In Canada
Clive Schaupmeyer is an outdoor writer and
photographer. He is the author of The Essential Guide to
Fly-Fishing, a 288-page book for novice and intermediate fly
anglers. His photo of a boy fishing was judged the best outdoor
picture of 1996 published by a member of the Outdoor Writers
of Canada. He fly-fishes for trout in Alberta's foothill and
mountain streams and for pike near his home in Brooks,
For information on where to find, or how to get a copy of
Clive's book, Click here!
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