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Fish and Game Q&A: What are the creepy leech-like things in lakes and rivers?

Leech-like organisms often found in lakes and ponds are part of the aquatic food chain, providing food for fish, ducks, turtles and some birds. In support of the California Department of Fish and Game and its effort to keep hunters and anglers informed, Outposts, on Thursday or Friday, posts marine biologist Carrie Wilson's weekly Q&A column:

Question: My daughter and I love to swim and play in waters wherever we find them. While in French Gulch (Shasta County) last year, we decided to play around in Clear Creek. The creek was running pretty high, but when my daughter and I got out we had these black, worm-like things hanging off us. Our first thought was leeches, which got us out of the water quite quickly! Someone told me they were rock worms and wouldn’t hurt us. We haven’t returned there though because we’re still too scared they were leeches.

We also stopped at Eagle Lake (Lassen County) to go swimming and ended up with these tiny little round slime balls on us. When picking up these slimy things in question, they flattened out on our hands and started slithering like a leech across our hands. This was another trip where my daughter and I ran screaming out of the water to rinse off under the faucet! There were lots of people swimming in the lake who either didn’t seem to notice or else knew something we didn’t.

Clear Creek was a very cold creek, but Eagle Lake was very warm, so I could understand Eagle Lake possibly having leeches. Do these leeches suck human blood? Are they harmful to humans in any way? I love the outdoors and swimming, but too many encounters with creepy leech-like things are making me leery about the safety of it. (Kim B.)

Answer: Without pictures, it’s tough to say, but it sounds like you encountered two different invertebrates. According to Department of Fish and Game associate fish pathologist Garry Kelley, the organism at Clear Creek was likely a free-living caddisfly larvae (Genus Rhyacophila), commonly known as a rock worm. This type of caddisfly crawls around rock bottoms in search of food and is commonly eaten by trout. Caddisflies are not at all harmful to humans.

The organism at Eagle Lake might be a leech based on the "slithering" swimming motion you described. There are many types of leeches and most are fluid feeders. Leeches are either scavengers or are parasitic (i.e., they feed on other organisms). Some species of leeches suck blood from vertebrates (humans, waterfowl, fish, etc.) while others feed on insects, mollusks, oligochaetes or dead animal matter. Kelley suspects the organism described at Eagle Lake was nonparasitic in nature because bloodsucking was not indicated.

Q: If we’re fishing in Mexican waters and catch a cowcod, can we legally bring it back into a California port as long as we have all of the proper licenses and the Declaration for Entry form properly filled out? I’d just like to know for sure as we fish Mexican waters, frequently targeting rockfish, and I’d like to avoid a citation. (Jeff M., San Diego)

A: No. Cowcod may not be imported or even possessed in California regardless of where caught (Fish and Game Code, section 2353(a)(2)). Broomtail groupers and canary, yelloweye and bronze-spotted rockfish are also illegal to be possessed or imported into California under this regulation and under California Code of Regulations Title 14, section 28.55(b)(1), even if they were taken legally in Mexico.

Q: I’m going out of town on a three-day turkey hunt and need some clarification on the possession limit. If my buddy and I each get a turkey each day (total of six) and get stopped by a warden on the way home, will we be legal? I heard that you can’t have more than one bird with you at a time, but the regulation states possession limit is three birds per hunter for the season. I want to make sure I am legal. Otherwise I will have to travel back and forth after each successful day and it’s about a two-hour drive each way. Any information you could give me would be appreciated. (Brent M.)

A: The daily bag limit for turkeys during the spring season is one bearded turkey per day and you can take three per season. According to retired DFG Capt. Phil Nelms, you may have three bearded turkeys in your possession as long as you only take one per day. You do not have to return home after taking a bird on any one day.

Q: When fishing for sanddabs, how many hooks can be attached to the line on a single rod? (Len P.)

A: You may fish for sanddabs with as many hooks as you like on a single rod, unless rockfish, lingcod or salmon are on the vessel or in possession, in which case special restrictions apply (CCR Title 14, section 28.65).

If you have a question you would like to see answered in this column, e-mail it to CalOutdoors@dfg.ca.gov.

Photo: Leech-like organisms often found in lakes and ponds are part of the aquatic food chain, providing food for fish, ducks, turtles and some birds. Credit: Wilderness Unlimited

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Outposts' primary contributor is Kelly Burgess.



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