Environmental Almanac: Catching the sights, fish on the Salt Fork

Environmental Almanac: Catching the sights, fish on the Salt Fork

On the first Saturday of this month, I floated and fished a stretch of Salt Fork River in Vermilion County, something I've been meaning to do all summer. I went with my friend Rick Larimore, and our original plan was to float separately, me in my kayak and him in his canoe.

I was intent on fishing, though, and Rick said he wasn't, so he invited me to ride up front in the canoe. Fortunately, he also grabbed a fishing rod at the last moment, "just in case."

He was glad of that choice before long.

By August, the Salt Fork typically runs low and clear, which favors anglers looking for smallmouth bass. The bigger fish become concentrated in deep pools, and it's easy to distinguish those pools from the long, flat stretches, something that's trickier when the water is murky with silt early in the season.

We came into the first deep pool by way of a narrow, fast riffle only 20 minutes after getting on the water. I was fishing with a streamer called a woolly worm, one I tied myself a few years back. It's nothing more than a long hook wrapped with chenille and a chicken feather, the barbs of which stand out from the hook shank at a right angle.

To anglers, a woolly worm resembles the larva of a dobsonfly or some other large insect. To bass, who knows? Food of some sort.

In any case, I was letting the woolly worm drift just in front of the canoe and a little off to the side. As it hit the end of the riffle, my line tightened and I set the hook. The fish I had on, which I landed a few minutes later, was as big as any bass I've ever caught on a fly rod, maybe 21/2 pounds.

If you're an angler yourself (or you're familiar with the species), you know my friend needed no further prompting to put down his paddle and pick up his fishing rod. I won't bore you with the details, but we caught more than a dozen smallmouth between us that day. We fared better in some stretches of river than we did in others, but we caught fish in just about every spot that looked "fishy."

Because I was fishing with a fly rod, I also picked up smaller fish of many species, including various sunfish, creek chubs and shiners.

To catch a number of good-sized smallmouth would have been a pleasure for me anywhere, but I was especially glad to have a good day on the Salt Fork. It has been some time (years, really) since I did, and I had begun to wonder whether rivers otters, which now thrive both there and in the Middle Fork, hadn't reduced their population.

River otters have done phenomenally well in the state since the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reintroduced them in the mid-1990s and I am glad for every opportunity to see them in the wild. I'll be even gladder now, knowing any lack of success I experience fishing can't be pinned on them.

While my objective when fishing is always to catch fish, I also take great pleasure in observing other aspects of the natural world when I'm out.

The birding on this trip was remarkable. An osprey cruised over us before we even came to a stop at the bridge where we put in. Kingfishers, spotted sandpipers and great blue herons took off downstream to escape us as we drifted toward them, sometimes seeming annoyed that we kept coming after them. At one point, a first-year bald eagle circled overhead, just above the tops of the tallest riverside trees, then landed looking down on us from an ancient looking cottonwood, screaming all the while. Whether it was calling for a parent or asking us to throw a fish onto the bank, we couldn't tell.

I write about my enjoyment of the natural world to encourage other people to enjoy the treasures we have access to in central Illinois (or at least enable others to enjoy them vicariously). In doing so, however, I think it's also important to call attention to why we have that access.

The Salt Fork River — and rivers like it across the country — were once treated by industry as sewers and rendered unfit for use by wildlife or people. But during the course of my lifetime they have come back, thanks in large part to federal legislation — the Clean Water Act — that forced polluters to take responsibility for their waste.

Rob Kanter is a lecturer with the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society, and Environment. Environmental Almanac is supported in part by the UI Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, and can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.

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