FREDERICK COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — “Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches.”
If fish could sing, that Christmas carol might be one of the songs at the top of their playlist.
Well, because Christmas trees are getting a second life by being used in the creation of artificial reefs in lakes around Virginia.
Those reefs essentially provide homes for fish and other aquatic creatures; a place for them to shelter and hide, and to find a meal in the form of other smaller fish.
That is life in the food chain, but those Christmas tree reefs are vital to creating and maintaining thriving fish populations and providing anglers with optimal fishing opportunities.
“These are trees straight out of people’s living rooms that were headed for the landfill, so we give them a second lease on life,” said Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) biologist Jason Hallacher.
Hallacher and his team are based out of the DWR office in Verona. They manage fish populations in various lakes and streams, and part of the job sometimes involves the creation of Christmas tree fish habitats.
On this day they were building and sinking artificial reefs on Lake Frederick. The lake is located in Frederick County between Stephens City and Front Royal. It is managed by the DWR as a public fishing lake.
“The process is to collect the trees from local landowners who would normally send them to a landfill,” said Hallacher as he gestured to a pile of trees collected from the Town of Front Royal. “We purchase some blocks, get some volunteers, drill the trees, wire blocks on with some of this fencing wire, and then we pick strategic spots within the reservoir to sink these trees to provide structure for fish so anglers can come back and target those areas.”
The habitats provide cover that attracts smaller baitfish. The baitfish then attract larger fish. In addition, decomposing trees provide food for zooplankton which is a vital food link in the lake’s ecosystem.
“We put fish habitat maps on our website so people can see where they can target those structures,” said Hallacher.
After the tree habitats were built on shore, Hallacher and his team spent hours sinking them at various locations around the lake.
“We put them in strategic areas, usually in about 15 to 25 feet of water,” Hallacher said as he guided a boat loaded with tree reefs across the lake. “We want to congregate the fish so anglers have a place to catch them.”
Lake Frederick holds a good population of largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappies, and panfish. It even has decent numbers of northern pike, one of the few lakes in Virginia where that toothy fish can be found.
“The main predator in this lake and the main target for most anglers are those largemouth bass,” Hallacher said. “They can grow upwards of 10 pounds.”
Those Christmas tree reefs are a major reason why Lake Frederick has such a thriving gamefish population. Those fish are why Lake Frederick receives as much fishing pressure as it does. Anglers will not return time after time to a lake that does not produce. The tree reefs help to enhance a quality resource and provide angling opportunities in the process.
“I think there’s something really great about being able to have interaction between people doing the scientific work and anglers that are reaping the benefits of a lot of that work,” said a member of Hallacher’s team, DWR fisheries technician Kirsten Bauer. “That interaction with the community makes this kind of work extremely rewarding.”