Carpe Diem on the Illinois River
The feisty fish nobody wanted have seized the waters, leaving fishermen no choice but to seize the opportunity
By James Janega
Published May 7, 2006
LACON, Ill. -- Dawn on the Illinois River, in pursuit of the fish no one wants to catch.
A rough hand reins in a 300-horsepower Yamaha at the mouth of a backwater, idling 30 feet of bloodstained johnboat in front of a distant swell. It grows closer by the minute, the false tide forced up by a swarm of agitated fish below.
Charging at the boat are Asian carp, the invasive species that in the last few years has all but wiped out the river's native fish and the commercial fishermen who lived off them. But as two fishermen throw nets in front of the surge, they couldn't be happier to see it coming.
"See that wave? That's all fish. Every bit of it," Orion Briney shouts toward the bow, where his stepson and partner, Jeremy Fisher, watches the rushing disturbance roiling acres of water. "There's a pile of them here, Jeremy. Good Lord, get ready to lay in the net."
There is no beating the Asian carp, the river men say. So they're trying to make a living off of it, and an Illinois carp fishing industry is beginning to grow up around them.
A sun-baked man of 47, Briney is a third-generation fisherman on the Illinois River with a standing order from ethnic grocery stores in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere for 10,000 pounds of Asian carp a day.
He and Fisher, 26, caught 24,000 pounds of Asian carp in a nearby backwater two weeks ago, and they have caught 36,000 pounds in three days farther upstream. They once pulled up 32,000 pounds in a day--a weight comparable to a good-sized dump truck. Game wardens who searched their catch for more valuable fish a few years ago now wave happily as their creaking trailer rolls past.
This time of year, the 10,000-pound order will take two casts of the net, filling the boat knee-high with slippery, writhing junk fish, 15 thudding pounds at a time. The men will be off the water by mid-morning.
While efforts mount to keep Asian carp from eating their way into the Great Lakes, commercial fishermen have warily dipped into savings for nets strong enough to hold them, and businesses have looked to them as a source for cheap food and organic fertilizer.
"There's probably 65 million pounds of harvestable Asian carp in the Illinois River alone," said entrepreneur James L. Sneed, whose father, Kermit, was among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife ecologists who introduced ancestors of the Asian carp to eat the algae in ponds on catfish farms in the 1960s.
Though their escape was regrettable, it now affords opportunity, the younger Sneed said.
"Don't think of carp as an ugly-looking fish that may not taste good or look good to you," he said. "Think of it as a mass of proteins. Anything you can do with proteins, you can do with this."
That's what he tells his investors. He has visions of flavorless fish pastes, organic fertilizers, and more exotic things still. The Hollywood, S.C., businessman plans to open a processing plant in central Illinois, and other fisheries in Illinois and Iowa are equipping themselves for carp already.
Across from Iowa on the Mississippi River, Mike Schafer of Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill., says the future of his family's business lies with the carp. He's already bought a million-dollar freezer that shuffles 750 pounds of fish through a flash-freeze every nine minutes.
Schafer sold 2 million pounds of carp last year to Asian communities in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles. He ships another 3,000 pounds a week to restaurants and shops in Chicago's Chinatown.
"Right now, they're just snowballing," Schafer said. Like other owners of Midwestern fisheries, Schafer is looking for new markets to buy the carp. He has already offered a line of carp-based fertilizer to local farmers.
The horizons for his fish could widen further if he spends an additional $750,000 on a machine that can take 5,000 pounds of de-boned, ground-up carp an hour and form them into thousands of 4-oz. patties.
The Netherlands-built Koppens MultiFormer 900 is commonly used for red meat, but the Dutch have found it works for mulched fish, Schafer said. Almost anyone might eat the patties, proponents say--so long as they don't know they're carp.
A measure to supply the money through a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity was introduced by state Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-East Moline), who said it survived end-of-session budget wrangling Thursday and awaits signature by the governor. The state spent $100,000 last year to test the feasibility of controlling the carp through fishing.
"I laughed until I saw all these fish being processed. There's all these boatloads of Asian carp and they can't do anything with them," Jacobs said. "I don't think you can stop these fish, so I think we're going to have to maintain them."
Rushing up the Mississippi
First found in the Mississippi in the 1970s after escaping the catfish ponds and government fish hatcheries, the carp population hit a tipping point sometime earlier this decade. The fish have rushed up the Mississippi and its tributaries and clogged habitats from South Dakota to Arkansas.
Native to the Yangtze River in China, the adaptive fish have felt especially at home in the Illinois River, where they've found warm water, fast, deep currents for spawning, and innumerable backwater nurseries for fry to grow to adulthood.
Prolific breeders and wide travelers, vast schools move up the river at least 30 miles per day, said Duane Chapman, a fisheries biologist at the U.S. Geologic Survey in Missouri. They'll go much farther to spawn--which they'll do during every period of high water when water temperatures are between 64 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because of that, they're found as far up the Mississippi as Iowa and nearly as far east as Cincinnati on the Ohio. They've invaded the Tennessee River to Alabama and hide behind breakwaters in the Missouri River up to Yankton, S. D.
For Illinois fishermen, the stakes are high. Briney shared the Illinois River with more than 700 commercial fishermen when he started in 1979. Now there are barely 100, and only half of them fish full time.
Few have focused on the carp as intensely as Briney.
"They've helped me," he said. "I guess if you stay in the business long enough, you hit the good and the bad. This fish has been good for me."
And fishing for them is spectacular entertainment, he said.
They jump and push ripples ahead as they move, like a herd galloping underwater.
Fishermen and ecologists say the carp know a net when they encounter one and work to avoid it. To prevent them from escaping, Briney roars in circles behind them, driving the swell of terrified fish into the trap.
"It's solid meat, boy," Briney says above the roar of the outboard motor, edging ever closer to the line of detergent bottle floats marking his nets. A fish smacks his propeller with a deep wet burst and emerges in his wake. "Mercy sakes, now you'll see some fishing!"
When they hit Briney's trammel net, they boil to the surface and strain and tear at the four-inch web tied from 32-pound-test monofilament. Silver carp go flying into the air to escape. They drag the net and float into the shallow water.
7,500 pounds isn't enough
In minutes all is quiet again, and the next hour is filled with the sound of Briney and Fisher grunting and spitting side by side as they heave on the net. Squirming fish flop over the rail and have to be slipped from the webbing with old-fashioned wooden clothespins before they're tossed like sodden logs into the aluminum boat.
The fishermen pull 7,500 pounds on the first cast, a slimy and bloody mass writhing shin-high. They make another set upstream once more before calling it a day. Unlucky fishermen from out of town watch from the bank as the labored boat roars to the Lacon landing, a mountain of fish in its hold.
"You've caught some dandies!" calls out Roy Craig, 67, of Rockford, who has been trying for catfish near the landing but can't get one on his hook.
But Briney isn't satisfied.
"Not near enough," he grumbles back, and adds privately: "There's always tomorrow."