July 3, 2008

Spillway Rescue Puts Muskies Back in Evergreen

By Scott Richardson

Independence Day came early for 53 muskies.Illinois Department of Natural Resources fish biologist Mike Garthaus and Mike Steffa, acting director of the McLean County Parks & Recreation Department, led a crew one day last week to rescue the big fish trapped in the spillway of Evergreen Lake.

They had nowhere to go when water all but stopped flowing over the dam. The muskies and other fish, including a handful of saugeye and largemouth bass, would have died when they used up their food supply of smaller fish or the temperature of the shallow water rose high enough to be lethal. The goal was to return the fish to the 900- acre reservoir where anglers have a chance to catch the massive, toothy creatures.

Evergreen Lake is a top muskie destination in the state. A muskie must be at least 48 inches to keep, but many devoted muskie hunters consider a 50-inch fish to be a true trophy. Unofficial records assembled by Illinois muskie advocate Ray Thompson records 41 such 50-inch muskies caught from Illinois waters since the early 1990s. Of those, five came from Evergreen. But, the real number is likely higher. While other fishermen brag, muskie anglers are legendary in keeping their biggest catches secret to avoid increasing angling pressure on fragile fisheries.

IDNR's annual netting surveys at Evergreen Lake have captured muskies that eclipse the state record of 38 pounds, which came from the spillway at Lake Shelbyville.

The rescue has been done each spring for several years. An IDNR boat equipped with an electric generator sends a shock into the water to temporarily stun fish, which are scooped in nets, placed in a large tank on the boat and taken to shore. They're transferred to an aerated truck, transported to the lake and returned to the reservoir unharmed.

Last year's work saved a record 225 muskies.

Because muskies do not spawn in Evergreen Lake, their numbers are supported when IDNR stocks 900 annually. Muskie clubs also have paid to stock muskies at Evergreen over the years.

Garthaus said he is uncertain why so many muskies are pushed over the dam. They just go with the flow when high water creates moving water, he said.

"I think they just like current," said Garthaus, who's last fish- netting survey earlier this year rated the muskie population at Evergreen Lake as very good.

The city of Bloomington, IDNR and McLean County have studied whether to put a barrier on top of the dam, but officials worry debris could block a barrier and stop the flow of water during high water. The dam could be endangered as a result.

As an alternative, a cyclone fence was placed across the opening of the spillway about five years ago to stop muskies from escaping from the spillway into the Mackinaw River before they could be returned to the lake. Fishing in the spillway was banned at the same time.

Steve Pallo, who heads the IDNR's fisheries division, said muskies cost about $17 each to stock, but their value as a recreational resource and to tourism is much higher. Muskies currently rank second only to crappies, a tasty panfish, as a magnet for anglers at Evergreen, according to Steffa. Evergreen Lake also holds the state record for saugeye, a sauger/hybrid mix, at 9 pounds, 10.88 ounces caught in 2001.

Two footnotes:- Anglers owe Garthaus a standing ovation. Because of scheduling conflicts, he gave up a day of vacation to oversee the muskie rescue.- Anglers also owe Steffa a heartfelt thank you. He's been working seven days a week, many hours each day for several weeks since his former boss, Bill Wasson, moved downtown to a suit- and-tie job in county administration. Steffa has been at Evergreen for 18 years and is a key reason the park is one of the state's best destinations for fishing and deer hunting as well as camping, mountain biking and hiking. The powers that be should look no farther than Steffa for a top-notch permanent replacement for Wasson.

Tournament notes- Fishing alone, Andy Veselak won the Bloomington Normal Bass Club Tuesday night event at Lake Bloomington with three bass of 9 pounds, including big bass of 4.2 pounds. Brad and Lynn Norris were second. Larry Russell and Randy Ferguson were third. - Andy Wegner and Aaron Geheber, sponsored by G Loomis and Triple Fish line, won the Strike King Ever-Bloom Tournament at Evergreen Lake with two bass that weighed 9.22 pounds. They also had big fish of 5.96 pounds. Jamie Maisenbacher and Brad Norris were second. Terry Brown and Mike Blake were third.- Norris won the Bloomington Normal Bass Club tournament Sunday at Lake Bloomington with five bass of 8.8 pounds. Ken Petersen was second. Maisenbacher was third. Fred Myers had big bass of nearly 3 pounds.- Jeff Henson and Bryan Thrasher, sponsored by Lucky Craft Lures, Falcon Rods, Ranger Boats and Midwest Marine, won the Thursday night tournament at Clinton Lake last week with a six-fish limit all over 16 inches that weighed 17.3 pounds, including big bass of 4.55 pounds. Travis Boley and John McKinney were second with about 9 pounds.

Scott Richardson is Pantagraph outdoor editor. Contact him at (309) 820-3227 or email [email protected] Share stories and read past outdoor and fishing columns at www.pantagraph.com/ blogs

. Share stories and read past outdoor and fishing columns at www.pantagraph.com/blogs

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