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FELT OR NO FELT
If you currently use felt-soled waders or wading boots it’s likely that you will need to replace them sooner rather than later. Currently the State of Alaska has banned the use of felt-soled wading gear in all fresh water streams. Several other states currently are considering a similar ban. [My research indicates that, in addition to Alaska, Vermont and Maryland have banned felt-soled wading gear, and Oregon and Montana have similar proposals in the legislative hopper]
The idea behind banning felt-soled wading gear is that felt material harbors invasive organisms like Whirling Disease, Mud Snails and Didymo.
Whirling Disease is caused by a microscopic parasite and was introduced to the United States from Europe in the 1950’s. This parasite has been found in 25 states. The parasite damages the cartilage in the body of the fish, either killing them directly or causing them to swim in circles or in a whirling motion.
Mud snails [New Zealand Mud Snails] are very small snails that, according to fisheries biologists, have the ability to become so plentiful that they will crowd out other invertebrates like mayflies, caddisflies, and stone flies.
Didymosphenia geminata, is a microscopic alga, which is also called ‘rock snot’ or ‘didymo.’ It covers the stream bottom with mats that are several inches thick.
It is clear that these parasites can be transported from one waterway to another by sticking to felt-soled wading gear; however it is unlikely that banning felt glued to the bottom of wading gear will have any dramatic impact on the spread of these organisms. There are just too many other methods by which these organisms can move from drainage to drainage.
Anything that is used in a lake or stream that contains one of these organisms could be the source of infection. Since the banned on felt-soled wading gear is directed exclusively at anglers it causes one to wonder about what restrictions, if any, are being directed at other water users. The answer seems to be nothing! On my home waters in Montana anglers make up a small percentage of those using our lakes and streams. On any given day during the warmer months of the year our waters are filled with more recreational water-users than anglers. They hit the water with all manners of floating devices from hard sided boats, rubber rafts, kayaks, inner tubes, canoes, pontoon boats, and just about anything else that will float. The users of these crafts are mostly completely ignorant about invasive species like Whirling disease, mud snails or Didymo. It’s not uncommon for many of these people to float several different waterways during the course of the season and it’s unlikely that any of them clean or disinfect their gear. Just because they are not anglers doesn’t mean that their boats, tennis shoes, or even their bathing suits will not transport invasive organisms from drainage to drainage. Given their numbers it is more likely that recreational users are more likely to move invasive species around the environment.
Despite the hysteria that accompanied the initial announcement that whirling disease had been found in the Madison River in Montana, the Madison River fishery was not permanently decimated. The jury is still out on whether mud snails or didymo are the threat to the fisheries that some have predicted. However, they are non-native organisms and we should do what we can as anglers to avoid contributing to their spread, and there are some very basic things that you can do to help insure that you are doing your part.
First, drain all the water out of your boat at the take-out. Don’t drain it out by pulling the drain plug and then driving down the road. Drain the water out of your boat before you leave the take-out area. If there are aquatic weeds stuck on your anchor or motor clean them off at the take-out.
Secondly, don’t transport fish parts from drainage to drainage. If you kill fish, clean them and dispose of the entrails in the drainage where you caught them. This will assure that you don’t transport diseases like whirling disease to another drainage.
Thirdly, clean your waders, especially the boots and gravel guards, after each trip, especially if you fish different drainages. It’s a good practice to carry a stiff brush and scrub your boots when you finish fishing for the day. This will remove mud and other debris that may be stuck on your waders and will leave it where you found it. All gear should be thoroughly dried between trips, especially if you are moving from drainage to drainage.
Realistically, once we have done all that anglers can do, it is unlikely that we can stop the spread of these invasive species. Given the reality that we are not the only people using our aquatic resources it is unlikely that any steps that we take will halt the spread of these invaders. Hopefully these threats will prove to be less problematic than some people have predicted.