State turns to commercial fishermen to keep carp out of Carlyle Lake
By Rod Kloeckner
Published December 20, 2007
Rob Maher and Dick Conner stood on top of the dam at Carlyle Lake and looked down at the spillway below.
What they saw on that warm day last summer made their skin crawl.
Teaming in the water where the Kaskaskia River meets the steel gates and concrete walls of the dam was an enormous school of invasive Asian carp, one of the biggest ecological threats to Illinois waterways.
"There was a school of these bighead carp down there that was about the size of a building," said Conner, assistant operations manager at Carlyle Lake. "It was 30 yards wide and 40 to 50 yards long. That water is about 8 to 15 feet deep, and those fish extended all the way down to the bottom.
"When I saw that, I said 'Wow.'"
It also blew the mind of Maher, commercial fishing program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"It was just mind boggling," Maher said. "It looked like you could walk from one side of that tailwater to the other without getting your feet wet. They were stacked in there shoulder to shoulder."
Both men decided on the spot that something needed to be done to try and stop the progression of the Asian carp, reduce their population and avert a potential disaster, which it would be if the fish somehow found a way into Illinois' largest man-made lake.
Their solution? Net the aquatic pests.
For the first time, the IDNR is conducting a trial contract with two crews of commercial fishermen to remove Asian carp below the Carlyle spillway.
The commercial crews, headed by Carlyle natives Chad Isaak and Joe Curry, started Saturday and they can fish during daylight hours only until the end of the month. Maher said there's a good chance the contract could be extended.
"We're trying to protect Carlyle Lake," Conner said. "Because of the proximity of the spillway to the lake, if we can take some of these adults out, perhaps we can postpone the time when these fish get in there."
Using gill and trammel nets stretched from bank to bank along the narrow spillway, the crews hauled 20,000 pounds of Asian carp to a processor in Pike County, where they received 10 cents a pound.
On Tuesday morning, Isaak and his two-man crew of Travis Jondro and Brandon Schrage, both of Carlyle, were off-loading 5,000 pounds of the two species of Asian carp -- silver and bighead -- by hand into enormous green tubs on the back of a trailer in the parking lot below the General Dean Suspension Bridge.
Their first catch of the day filled the midsection of their johnboat to the top of its 2-foot sides.
"It's working pretty well," Isaak said. "We just drive them into the net. We raise the motor and run the prop right above the water. Some of them are the flying ones that jump. Mostly, though, they head right into the net."
Any native fish such as largemouth bass, catfish, crappie or bluegill that are netted must be released back into the spillway.
Ecological and economic impact
Why the fuss over the Asian carp, or "jumping carp," which got its nickname because of its ability to jump up to 15 feet out of the water and slap into anything in its path?
Experts fear the fish -- an average female can carry 2 million eggs -- will eventually overrun the waterways and bully food away from native fish, causing them to starve to death.
Asian carp can grow to between 4 and 5 feet in length and weigh anywhere from 15 to 120 pounds, each day consuming two to three times their weight in plankton, snails, clams and other microorganisms.
According to the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, the silver and the bighead carp escaped into the Mississippi River from southern fish farms in the early 1990s when the facilities were flooded. Fishermen there had imported the Asian carp to eat parasites that threatened their catfish farms.
Steadily, the carp have made their way northward, procreating rapidly and becoming the most abundant species in some areas of the Mississippi.
They entered the Kaskaskia River from the Mississippi near Evansville and have made it all the way to Carlyle.
"The only thing keeping them out of the lake is the dam," Conner said. "If they get in the lake, it's going to be bad news. They could significantly impact these reservoirs."
There has been only one recorded catch of an Asian carp in Carlyle Lake. Isaak caught a female last year -- weighing 44 pounds and full of eggs --which prompted Conner to call Maher and other local fishermen to formalize a plan to reduce their numbers in the spillway.
Conner said if Asian carp start to populate the lake, it could have a significant ecological and economic impact on the area. The wide open 26,000-acre lake is ideal for motor boating, sail boating, jet skiing and fishing, drawing thousands of tourists each year.
If the Asian carp start to take hold, boaters and skiers would constantly be dodging 20-pound missiles jumping out of the water. The native fish population also would be decimated.
"One of the most important things for the lake is the infrastructure, and that infrastructure would be our fish population," Conner said. "When you have good largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie and channel cat populations, those are the type of fish that attract tourism to the area.
"If these bigheads get into Carlyle Lake, they are going to displace a lot of those sport fish that people come for. Then you have a real problem with the fisheries in the lake. That's one of the things that would impact the economic engine that Carlyle Lake is."
Not the solution, but a start
While it's naive to think Isaak caught the only Asian carp in Carlyle Lake, Maher said there are no signs of reproduction by the species in the lake.
Asian carp need flowing water to reproduce, which is why they are so abundant in rivers. The concern with Carlyle is the Kaskaskia River that feeds the lake on the north end from Lake Shelbyville.
"There's concern they would have suitable reproduction habitat above Carlyle before they get to Shelbyville," Maher said. "The young would come back down into the lake, where they will do very well."
That's why Maher appreciates the effort of the commercial fishermen, who are doing so much more than earning a quick dollar.
"It's certainly not going to be the solution to all the problems on the Kaskaskia River with Asian carp," Maher said. "But our take on it is, it can't hurt anything to have those guys take every one of them out of there that they can.
"As long as they want to do the work and they still have a market willing to buy the fish, then we welcome it."
Contact reporter Rod Kloeckner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2663.