Our Man In Canada
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 time.

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 of me.

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 highly probable.

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 everywhere.

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 unwanted pest!

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 Yellow Taxi:
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, Alberta. For information on where to find, or how to get a copy of Clive's book, Click here!

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