Fish spawning season is here—and it’s looking good, Corps biologist says

The annual water management period for fish spawning officially began April 5 in the Savannah River Basin—and so far, conditions are favorable for a very productive spawn, said Jamie Sykes, fisheries biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District.

According to Sykes, spawning season begins when surface water temperatures reach 65 degrees Fahrenheit at Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond lakes.

“We use 65 degrees as a starting point since that’s the preferred spawning temperature for largemouth bass, which is the most popular sport fish on our Savannah River reservoirs,” Sykes said. “But that temperature also falls within the spawning season for other species, so it benefits multiple species.”

The largemouth bass is the most popular sport fish on the Savannah River reservoirs.

The largemouth bass is the most popular sport fish on the Savannah River reservoirs.

During this period—which typically lasts between four and six weeks—water managers aim to maintain pool elevations with no more than a six inch drop in reservoir levels. Sykes said that a slight increase in pool elevation during spawning season is permissible, but drastic increases can be just as troublesome for spawning as rapid decreases.

“If we allow water to rise too high during spawning season, fish may spawn in those newly-flooded areas near the shoreline; but when the water recedes, fish will often abandon their nests and predators will overtake them,” Sykes said.

Outflows increased this week to maintain lake levels

Shortly after the spawning period began, the basin experienced a concentrated, heavy rainfall event April 7, which dumped 3 inches at Hartwell, 2.3 inches at Russell and 2.2 inches at Thurmond. That rainfall translates into additional “run-off” into the reservoirs, causing pool elevations to quickly rise.

To ensure minimal impact on critical fish spawning, our water managers have increased releases from the dams this week until we reach a target elevation of 660.5 feet above mean sea level (ft-msl) at Hartwell and 329.5 ft-msl at Thurmond.

Our water managers have revised the weekly declaration several times in the last few days in response to quickly-changing basin conditions. Daily outflows will change as basin conditions change, so be sure to check our water management website for the latest real-time data at To view the latest declarations, click the “Declarations” button in the left menu.

Sykes predicts this spawning season will be very beneficial to the basin, but fishermen won’t reap the benefit until two or three years from now when the eggs become mature fish suitable for sport fishing.

“When the lake levels were down during the last drought, a lot of vegetation grew up along the shorelines,” Sykes said. “And now, all of that vegetation is flooded, so there is a tremendous amount of shoreline cover at Hartwell and Thurmond. That usually equates into a good spawning season.”

Sykes said shoreline cover is important since it provides protection from predators and provides a nursery area for small fish.

“This water level management during the spawning season is the single most important thing that the Corps can do to aid fisheries in our lakes,” Sykes said. “We don’t stock fish, we don’t set regulations—the states do that. But we do control the water. So it’s very beneficial to sustain fisheries at our reservoirs.”

~By Tracy Robillard, public affairs specialist


About US Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District oversees a multi-million dollar military construction program at 11 Army and Air Force installations in Georgia and North Carolina. We also manage water resources across the Coastal Georgia region, including maintenance dredging of the Savannah and Brunswick harbors; operation of three hydroelectric dams and reservoirs along the upper Savannah River; and administration of an extensive stream and wetland permitting and mitigation program within the state of Georgia. Follow us on Twitter @SavannahCorps and on
This entry was posted in Fish and Wildlife, Water Management and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Ferris

    Hi Tracy,
    Sounds like USACE will have to be “driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake” until spawning season is over. After that, how will a major rainfall event like we had last summer be handled since Thurmond cannot exceed 330 Ft without temporarily stopping repairs? For the next two years, if repairs are temporarily stopped, will both Thurmond and Russell still be able to hold 5 feet of flood storage?

    • Ferris: Our goal is to target 329.5 ft-msl at Thurmond for fish spawning and so that gate work can continue. If we get excessive of rain, levels will rise into flood storage allocation, in which case we may need to temporarily stop gate repairs. Bottom line: both Russell and Thurmond can still hold their designated 5-feet of flood storage in the event of a heavy rain event. We are monitoring conditions very closely. Thanks for reading us. ~Tracy Robillard

      • Thad Beckum

        What about fish spawning in the river in the basin? How does this plan effect them and us…the people who live in the lower basin? Very high water is no fun down here!

        • Bert P Ellis

          And, in addition to Thad’s question, why do you have to flood our farms below Augusta to help the fish spawn? We just potentially lost our spring crop planting due to the flood you folks created. I thought, based on the reason behind building the dam, was to stop floods downstream. These man made floods are getting old. Fish Vs Man, and Fish win… Hmmm???

      • Bert P Ellis

        And, in addition to Thad’s question below, why do you have to flood our farms
        below Augusta to help the fish spawn? We just potentially lost our
        spring crop planting due to the flood you folks created. I thought,
        based on the reason behind building the dam, was to stop floods
        downstream. These man made floods are getting old. Fish Vs Man, and
        Fish win… Hmmm???

        • Ferris

          Hi Bert, I am in a 5400 acre hunt club across from Jackson Landing, between the Butler Creek and Waynesboro gauges. The river level begins to importantly affect us when the Butler Creek gauge exceeds 106 Ft using the USGS scale, or at a Thurmond release rate of 13K CFS plus local inflows of about 1K CFS. I am wondering, what do you use as a reference and at what level or flow rate does the river become a problem for your farming? ~ Ferris

          • Bert P Ellis

            Are you in Walkenshaw/Pollard? The same as you, it sounds. Around 105, on the new gauge, we have water coming across our roadways. Last week, we had roughly 400 acres flooded. We are just above the Silver Bluff boat landing, on Hollow Creek.

          • Ferris

            Hi Bert, Thanks for the info. I’m a member of Walkinshaw Sportsman’s Club, and we lease from Pollard Land Co. For your reference, the lower third of our property was under water for two days last week. High Bank Creek was flooded and blocked access to the upper half of the property, for one or two days. There is room for improvement in practically all operations, especially one as large as the Savannah River Basin Management with so many divergent stake holder needs, and I expect USACE to review outcomes for opportunities to improve. I have made suggestions and I think some of them have been heard. However, I do not see a way in this instance to have improved overall outcomes even though we were flooded. Sport fishing is a huge business in the area, and maintaining the lakes within about 6 inches for a six week period is required to support that business. As I recall, Thurmond was about 3 inches below the target of 329.5 feet when the rains hit and was allowed to rise to 330 feet plus a little. The three reservoirs were lowered over several days to within the upper range of the targets, greatly reducing the impact of letting all of the rainfall pass through at once. I had to cancel a trip to the club, and lots of turkey eggs were underwater, but I do believe that watching out for the lake fishing economy was the best call to be made in the situation. That said, the lakes are now on the high side of the targets and the window of opportunity to gently lower them is rapidly closing. It is possible that the rainfall coming later this week may be more problematic for both of us that the recent rainfall. Ed Potter says hello. ~Ferris

          • Bert P Ellis

            Good Ol’ Ed Potter. Tell him I also said Hello, and he needs to come see me next coon season. I bought a dog recently and started back hunting, a little.

            Oh, and in regards to the Basin management, we have been working for 20+ years to see a better outcome. We just wish they would correct the flood stage along Butler Creek. Stan Simpson, a great guy (Hydrologist) with the CORP, said the million dollar phrase, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and below Augusta doesn’t squeak enough.


          • Interesting comments this week from folks downstream. We welcome everyone to the conversation and are glad to hear from upstream and downstream stakeholders. I will try to answer your questions.

            The dams were built with multiple purposes. One of the original and primary missions is flood risk reduction. (Originally this was called ‘flood control’ but we realize we can’t control floods, we can only reduce their risks.) Other missions include hydropower production, water supply, water quality, downstream navigation, recreation and fish and wildlife management. Balancing all mission areas takes education, experience and a bit of finesse.

            Since we can’t control floods, we strive to reduce their impacts. As we see downstream river levels getting too high, we try to cut back on releases, even if that means impacting fish spawn or gate repairs.

            Last week we succeeded in reducing downstream damage but we can’t keep all low-lying areas along the Savannah River dry. By increasing release rates at Thurmond Dam we also maintained storage capacity for the next set of storms which will cause the reservoirs to rise again. Simply put: Nature is bigger than we are.

            I hope this helps readers understand more of the ins and outs of Balancing the Basin.
            Thanks for all the comments.

            ~Billy Birdwell, Corporate Communications Office

          • Ferris

            Hi Billy,
            I’m revisiting this 5 day old post because we are in a similar situation again with less than half the expected rainfall forecast 6 days earlier, yet the reservoirs remain a few inches to a foot over target and Thurmond is just 1/10 of a foot below the level that would cause gate repairs to stop. Thurmond release rates were reduced from ~12K CFS to ~7K CFS or less from April 12-16, providing only a 6/100 to 3/10 buffer for gate repairs and leaving downstream users vulnerable to high water if or when water is aggressively released to approach the desired targets. Maintaining the ~12K release rates for those 5 days would have allowed levels to approach target more rapidly and provided better flood protection for downstream users. So much for my critique, the question regards Bert Ellis’ comment about correcting the flood stage at Butler Creek.
            According to NOAA’s graphs, Flood Stage at Burton’s Ferry is 15 Ft, or 18.9K CFS while Flood Stage at Clyo is 11 Ft or 13.7K CFS. Flood Stage at Butler Creek is 117.5 Ft or ~38K CFS, although a couple of USACE sources have told me that the goal is to not exceed the Action Stage of 115.5 Ft or 30K CFS, when practical. Because a flow rate of 18.9K CFS at Butler Creek will bring downstream gauges into flood stage, it seems to me that the minimum goal should be to not exceed 110 Ft or 18.9K CFS at Butler Creek when practical, with an initial goal of not exceeding 107 Ft or 13.8K CFS when practical. Are these targets something USACE would consider and what is required to make that happen? ~Ferris

          • Bert P Ellis

            Ferris, I have not located a reply within, from Mr. Birdwell, in regards to your question? Did I miss the response, or have we not heard from him, yet? Your logic explained above is something we have discussed with the Hydrologist for years. They use the theory that there is enough flood storage between Butler Creek and Cylo to disperse the water. However, when you look back at the downstream gauges history, they exceed action level on many of these “…we can’t control floods, we strive to reduce their impacts…” floods before Butler Creek come close to Action Stage.

            Let me know if you have heard a response.

          • Ferris

            Bert, in another discussion I learned that the flood levels at Burton’s Ferry and Clyo are not as important as they might be otherwise because of a lack of structures that could be damaged with high water levels. The order of magnitude of our agricultural losses is probably much smaller than losses would be for most buildings. We are playing in the flood zone at our own risk and I knew it before I started.

            Another consideration that I have learned about is the downstream ecology. To paraphrase a post by Eric Krueger with the Nature Conservancy, periodic flooding of 20,000 CFS along the lower river at certain times of the year is needed for the health of the Cyprus forests. He also notes that in 2003 it was thought this flow rate needed to be 50,000 CFS. Reviewing the more recent history, it does appear that the water manager often avoids pushing the 30,000 CFS in favor of the lower rate when feasible. We will have a lot more information when the comprehensive study is complete.

  • Johnson