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Illinois hunting and fishing

Great egrets wade among dead fish in a pond last July when many fish ills occurred statewide in Illinois Photos by Chris Young

Fall lake surveys will reveal extent of summer fish kills

September 16, 2012 at 01:00 AM

The State Journal-Register

The summer’s drought that has withered crops and baked lawns also has taken a toll on the Illinois lakes and ponds, and the damage may take years to repair.

Serious fish kills were reported statewide as water levels dropped and oxygen available to fish became depleted.

Fisheries biologists will be looking very closely at their upcoming fall lake surveys as they seek to find out what’s left and decide how best to restore fish populations and species balance.

Options include restocking or adjusting fishing regulations.

Some smaller bodies of water may be killed out and restarted.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon covers a district that includes Powerton Lake, a power plant cooling lake near Peoria that was especially hard hit.

Herndon said at one point, water being discharged into the lake reached as high as 120 degrees.

“Heat has a large effect on bigger fish first,” he said. “The changes are not just thermal, but water chemistry is changed, too.

“It got to a point that it was almost toxic (to fish).”

Illinois hunting and fishing
Fisheries biologists will try to get Illinois ponds and lakes on the road to recovery this fall.

It will take some extra effort this fall to accurately tally the losses.

“We have to assess what the fish population is like now after the effects of the warm water and low water,” he said of Powerton. “I have no idea what is left.”

Biologists normally sample the same portions of lakes in the same way each year so results are comparable.

This time, Herndon said surveys likely will be more extensive, conducted over a period of days and employing electro-fishing, hoop nets and gill nets to provide more detailed information.

“Once we have the results, we will figure out a strategy to get back to where we were or go another direction,” he said. “Powerton was so badly impacted, we may have to change our lake management plan greatly, but that will be assessed in the fall.”

Of special interest are large fish, especially catfish.

“I’d like to get a handle on how skewed the channel catfish and blue catfish population has become,” he says. “For instance, blue catfish are fast growers, but it has taken us 12 years to attain the population we had.”

Others may take longer to reach trophy size.

A 40-50 pound flathead catfish could take 20 years to get that big.

Herndon said fish kills also provide opportunities for biologists to correct problems.

White bass, for example, disappeared from Powerton seven or eight years ago.

“They used to be 50 percent of the catch and keep fish at Powerton,” he said. “I’d like to reinsert white bass as a portion of that fishery.”

Spring Lake, located along the Illinois River in Tazewell County, also experienced a fish kill, including the loss of some muskellunge, a valuable game fish.

“Spring Lake had a moderate musky die-off as a result of warm weather and thickness of vegetation on the north end of the lake that resulted in low levels of dissolved oxygen,” Herndon said.

He said biologists hope to expand their annual survey to get a better feel for the musky population.

Some fish will be collected as brood fish for the Jake Wolf Hatchery located just a couple of miles away.

Smaller bodies of water sometimes need to be restarted after a fish kill, according to DNR fisheries biologist Dan Stephenson.

“Usually the pond is out of balance (predator/prey) after a kill and needs some adjustment,” he said. “Often times it’s better to finish killing it out with Rotenone and starting over with the right species in the right balance. 

“Or it may need some bass and channel cats stocked.”

Each body of water is different and must be addressed individually, Herndon said.

Come this fall, Herndon, Stephenson and other fisheries staff will be out trying to get Illinois’ lakes and ponds back on the road to recovery.

“We’re going to try to make lemonade out of those squeezed lemons,” Herndon says.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

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