Harsh winter has fish orders on rise

Harsh winter has fish orders on rise

DANVILLE — When the foot-thick ice on Raymond Calton's 1-acre pond finally thawed in March, many of the fish in it were floating — and dead.

"This was a bad year as far as freeze-up," Calton said as he waited Friday afternoon to pick up the hundreds of new fish he ordered to restock the pond on his property, off Henning Road in Vermilion County.

The Vermilion County Soil and Water Conservation District had more than 40 orders, totaling 6,600 fish, for its spring re-stocking sale Friday at the agency's headquarters on U.S. 150 west of Danville. With buckets, garbage cans and plastic totes full of water, customers lined up to get their bass, bluegill, catfish, minnows and other types of fish hauled in by Fountain Bluff Fish Farm in southern Illinois.

Lisa Leigh, administrative coordinator with the soil and water district, said that's a big order compared with other years. It's partly because of pond owners losing fish to heat and drought conditions last year and the bitter cold this winter.

Leigh said the agency anticipates a large number of orders for the fall fish sale, as well, as more pond owners realize throughout the year that their fish populations are down.

Some deeper ponds fared well; others, not so well, Leigh said. One Vermilion County man hauled wheelbarrows full of dead fish out of his pond, she said.

Johnathon Manuel, resource conservationist with the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, said the agency got at least one call per week starting in February from pond owners who'd experienced fish kills from the tough winter. Two homeowner associations in the Champaign-Urbana area each filled a dumpster with dead fish from their ponds, he said.

Another person he knew he had a fish kill before the pond had completely thawed because seagulls were covering the surface, pecking at the dead fish in the ice.

"And it's always the big ones, the ones you want to fish for," Manuel said of the fish that die.

Calton said he lost a lot of nice crappies that weighed a pound or more. He had planned to be fishing for those this summer.

Manuel said the biggies will come back in the ponds that suffered fish kill; it's just a matter of time.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has had many reports of fish kills on lakes and ponds around the state, especially in northern Illinois. According to the agency, fish kills are natural and happen when light cannot penetrate the ice, slowing the growth of algae and plants that produce oxygen.

Shallow ponds are more likely to have fish kills, but even the deeper ponds experienced winter kills, according to the IDNR.

Calton's pond is 12 feet at its deepest, and the ice was thicker than 12 inches. He said it didn't thaw until mid-March.

One thing that helps fish — not only in rough winters but also in hot, dry summers — are aeration systems that circulate the water, Manuel said. Local companies rent and sell them.

As anyone who owns one will tell you, keeping a pond well-stocked is a lot of work.

"It's a lot like having a pool," Manuel said.

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