Bill Swango of Smithfield is unhappy that the state is proposing banning fishing on and around the Bernadotte Dam on the Spoon River, show in the background. The carving he holds is of his grandson Bret Swango with a 40-pound flathead catfish caught at the dam.
Spoon River dam controversy
Voice an opinionWritten comments on proposed rule change 17 Ill. Adm. Code 3703 are due by Oct. 20. Send comments to: Robert Mool, Legal Counsel; Department of Natural Resources; One Natural Resources Way; Springfield, IL 62702. Bill Swango of Smithfield also has petitions in Bernadotte, Lewistown and Smithfield. Call him at (309) 783-3283. After comments are collected, draft rules will be sent to the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. JCAR then has 45 days to render a decision.
Impacted damsThe 31 dams impacted include the following. Spoon River -- Bernadotte Dam Sangamon River -- Petersburg Dam Fox River -- Algonquin Dam, Aurora East and West dams, Carpentersville Dam, Dayton Dam, Elgin-Kimble Street Dam, Geneva Dam, Montgomery Dam, North Aurora Dam, North Batavia Dam, South Elgin Dam, St. Charles Dam, Stratton Lock and Dam, Yorkville Dam Rock River -- Dixon Dam, Fordham Dam, Oregon Dam, Rockton Dam, Sears Dam, Sinnissippi Dam, Rock Island Steel Dam, Sterling Lower Dam Kankakee River -- Kankakee Dam, Momence Dam, Wilmington Dam, Wilmington Mill Race Dam Des Plaines River -- Fairbanks Road Dam, Hoffman Dam Vermilion River -- Vermilion Dam.
When Bill Swango looks at the Bernadotte Dam he sees a flood of memories flow over the old concrete structure.
Swango, 79, has fished the dam since it was built in 1943 to provide water for Camp Ellis. And the well-known wood carver from Smithfield has plenty of stories to tell after spending 65 years at the Spoon River’s lone dam.
He’s got a wild tale about finding a feed sack filled with dynamite near the dam, apparently placed there by commercial catfish anglers from upstream who wanted to blow the structure to pieces. There’s another story about crawling under the dam from one end to the other. Swango even has tales of falling off the dam while fishing. Most of all he enjoys sharing stories about pulling big flathead catfish out of downstream pools while standing on top of the concrete with water rushing past his legs.
Whether Swango will legally be able to add new tales, though, is suddenly and unexpectedly up in the air.
Last month the Department of Natural Resources quietly announced a proposed exclusion zone 300 feet above and 50 feet below the Bernadotte Dam. Anyone entering that area would risk a Class A misdemeanor and a $75 ticket. Bernadotte is one of 31 run-of-river dams listed under the proposed rule 17 Ill. Admin. Code 3703.
While the news caught Swango unawares, it didn’t take him long to respond. In addition to attending a public meeting in Bartlett with fellow dam supporters Larry Bainter of Peoria and Doug Lafary of Lewistown, Swango printed petitions and hopes to collect at least 1,000 signatures.
Timing of the Spoon River Drive this weekend and next should help Swango gather signatures before the comment deadline closes Oct. 20. So will his passion for a dam he first started fishing as a 15-year-old who rode his bike from Smithfield in pursuit of catfish.
“When I started fishing here Camp Ellis was open and soldiers would park tanks right where we’re standing,” he said as we looked at the dam from a park south of the river. “I think closing this is the worse idea I’ve ever heard of. Because so many people enjoy fishing here and it’s of no danger to anyone who uses any common sense at all.”
Illinois legislators apparently disagree. In response to six drownings in 2006 at dams in Yorkville and Wilmington, the General Assembly passed House Bill 33. The bill required DNR “to come up with a set of rules to keep people safe,” spokesman Chris McCloud said.
Balancing safety with access is a debate that’s not unique to Illinois. The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of low-head dams, some built more than 100 years ago. Very few serve a purpose. They do create problems: blocking fish passage, concentrating silt and even causing drownings.
Over generations, though, people have grown attached to their dams. That’s particularly true of anglers who fish below dams, which concentrate big fish and offer easy access on streams that might otherwise be inaccessible.
Despite protests, some states are removing dams. Others are increasing warnings and creating exclusion zones. In some areas of Illinois, the concern seems warranted. At the Wilmington Dam on the Kankakee River 23 people have drowned in the past 20 years. At the Glen D. Palmer Dam on the Fox River there have been 16 drownings in 40 years.
But Swango is aware of only three drownings at Bernadotte: two soldiers in the 1940s and one other person about 20 years ago.
“All three had been drinking and people warned them to stay out of the river because it was running bank full,” Swango said.
Over the same period, anglers have logged countless hours on and around the dam with considerable success and few mishaps. Holly Trent’s state-record shorthead redhorse sucker came from the tailwaters in 2003. Flathead catfish of up to 40 pounds are common. To catch those whiskered bottom dwellers, anglers stand on the dam—even though slips are a real possibility.
“I’ve gone over twice in 65 years and never lost my fishing pole,” Swango said. “My dad (Willis Swango) went over when he was 65. He said he looked around a bit while he was down there because he didn’t think he was going to come up. But he did. And he couldn’t swim a lick.”
Then too, as Paul Martindale of Ipava noted, “People drown every day, not just around dams. We’re talking about using common sense here. It’s not hurting people, but if we shut down this dam it’s going to have a negative impact on our community.”
To avoid that, Swango will petition to have the Bernadotte Dam removed from the state’s list. He is seeking an engineering report stating the dam does not pose a hazard to the general public. A more difficult chore is determining ownershipe, since nobody claims the dam.
Swango is undeterred, stating flatly, “It makes no sense to have this dam on the list. None at all.”