Charlotte Observer Article

Piranhas, snakeheads, a monster … Is Lake Norman safe?
By Théoden Janes
The Charlotte Observer
Published August 26, 2010

There’s really no reason to be afraid to swim in Lake Norman or Lake Wylie. Or … is there?

On the one hand, the wildlife swimming in our lakes isn’t nearly as wild as the man-eating piranhas terrorizing spring breakers on fictional Lake Victoria in “Piranha 3D,” the campy gore-fest that made $10 million at the box office last weekend.

On the other, toothy fish do lurk beneath the surface of our lakes. And some locals are afraid to get their feet wet.

“I’ll go to about my ankles, but that’s it,” says Stephanie Sawyer, 35, of Matthews, who has been petrified of lake swimming since her childhood. “(It) definitely has to do with the ‘creatures’ in the water. Absolutely.”

Lake Norman resident Whitney Dainko’s fear cropped up more recently.

“I was running about a month ago near my house when I noticed an animal lying in the sand trap,” she recalls. “As I got closer, I realized it was a turtle. It was huge … probably two feet. When it saw me, it freaked and ran a lot faster than I thought a turtle could move and jumped in the lake. I have to say, I’m not that psyched about swimming in Lake Norman anymore.”

‘I once caught a fish this big’

It is against state law to own piranhas and several other species of exotic fish. But people occasionally get their hands on them, and in rare cases, release them into the wild because they can no longer keep them.

In 2007, state wildlife officials identified a fish caught in the Catawba River as a piranha … but later they determined it was a pacu – also illegal, but not as menacing-sounding. In recent years, two other predatory nonnative fish have turned up: In 2007, a man caught a snakehead in Lake Wylie; another was caught there in 2009.

Chris Wood of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission says that even if a piranha got into a lake, a single one could cause little harm. The problem with snakeheads? “They are indiscriminate fish eaters and can have deleterious effects on native fish” – but they aren’t aggressive toward humans.

“Sorry,” Wood says, “but (our) fish fauna is pretty benign.”

Still, there are a couple of types of local fish that would be scary to run into while swimming.

One is a gar, which has an elongated jaw filled with sharp teeth. They can grow 2-3 feet long and weigh 6-7 pounds. The other is a bowfin, which also has sharp teeth and can grow more than three feet long, weighing as much as 20 pounds. Both might bite anglers as they unhook them, but they’re otherwise docile.

Nope, experts say, there’s not a fish around that will attack a human.

“No man-eaters in the lakes,” says Ken Manuel, Duke Power’s head aquatic biologist. “But watch out for alligators.”

Is something fishy going on?

Manuel is kidding, of course.

But a handful of people are convinced there’s a beast of some sort in Lake Norman. Most of them can be found trolling, which features a cartoon dinosaur as its mascot and hawks T-shirts, key chains and a “monster hunting call.”

The site includes reader “sightings” like this one, from “Jacob” of Denver: “Me and my dad were on our boat and … we saw a 30-foot fish. It swam away as fast as lightning.”

Gus Gustafson, a longtime Lake Norman fishing guide and Observer columnist, spins the Lake Norman Monster story as well as anyone: It’s a tale about a genetically engineered superfish that escaped from a fishing farm in the ’60s.

Asked if it’s true, he laughs, then says – with tongue in cheek – “Uh, I’m not sure.”

Ultimately, though, he gets serious: “I don’t wanna frighten anybody … Your bigger concern really should be the boat traffic and the jet skis. That’s a real danger. It’s not what these fish are gonna do to you.”

This article is reprinted with permission of The Charlotte Observer.
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