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An Essay: I Hate to Burst your Bubble

I am not really old and wise, yet, but I have been fishing the St Lawrence for all of my 68 years. I am not a fisheries biologist but, I do have some environmental education and have a pretty good understanding of aquatic habitats and the biota there-in. The opinions to follow are my own, based on regular observations which I hope, prove to be dead wrong, in the future.

All of us who have been around here for thirty years or more, have seen some dramatic changes on the River; changes which impact on our natural fishery. Highlights of the list include:  the completion of the “Seaway”; the move to municipal sewage treatment plants; the arrival of the zebra mussels and cormorants; the changes in regional agricultural practices; the arrival of aggressive invasive aquatic plants and most recently the establishment of the “gobies”.

Compounding these influences was the increased fishing pressure brought by bass tournaments and the new fishing habits that spun-off from tournament-style fishing.  (Another time perhaps, I can expound on my distaste for that sort of fishing.)

Considering all the above, the stage is set for a drastic decline in the richness of our natural fishery. I think the crash has started and I think the gobie has tipped the balance.

The Round Gobie

[Round Gobies are bottom-dwelling fish that were introduced to the Great Lakes from central Eurasia, via the ballast water of large, ocean-going cargo ships.]

The gobie started appearing in numbers at least ten years ago. I used to do a lot of work underwater and was fascinated to find the bottom in some areas covered with a squirming carpet of these critters. They are ugly, almost pre-historic looking things, which seem to consist mostly of head and outsized mouth. They don’t have scales or sharp spines, so as one might expect, our local fish eat them with gusto.

For the last couple of years, bass fishermen in particular have been euphoric with the results of this new forage base for our bass. It is now fairly common to catch bass over 20 inches and five plus pounds in weight. Most bass now come to the landing net looking like a football….they are gorging on gobies. The word has spread and bass fishermen are excited. As I mentioned at the outset, I hope I am wrong, but I have grave concerns about where this is all headed.

My concerns began when I realized, I and others that I talked to were not catching any of the pesky little eight to ten inch bass, which were common. Similarly, rock bass and perch in deep water have just about disappeared. I am more of a northern pike specialist these days and I have caught absolutely no “hammer-handle” 18 inch pike in the last two years. The pike are also gorging on the gobies and growing fat.

What I believe has happened, is that spawning efforts over the last few years have been hugely less successful because the gobie swarms are eating anything that will fit in its face.

The fish that it could not handle a couple years ago are in turn growing huge on this abundant food source, but there is no replacement class behind them! I fear we will soon see a major crash in our natural fishery….the big bass will become more and more scarce. The northern pike, by standards of yesteryear, are already scarce. I have recently caught some veritable monsters, as have others. I catch virtually no skinny little pike as I commonly did a few years ago.

A Possible Reason

This year I was fortunate to see two things I had never seen before. First, prior to bass season opening, I saw a large bass in about 15 feet of our now crystal clear water. It was tending a typical spawning pocket on the bedrock and gravel bottom. It darted frantically in and out of the little depression it had made, trying to keep a swarm of gobies out of it and it was obviously a hopeless effort. There was an ebb and flow of gobies in and out of that nest, depending on which way the overwhelmed bass made its defensive rush. I doubt if a single egg could have remained.

The gobie is almost furtive in its efforts to cling to the bottom and squirm around in the tiniest of cracks and spaces amongst the bottom rocks. It is definitely where it thrives and feeds.

Second, not long after seeing the bass episode, I saw a pike in about ten feet of water in a rocky bottom area devoid of any submergent vegetation. This is not the pikes classical habitat. This particular pike was well over “keeper” size and was standing on its head rooting around amongst the rocks after the gobies like a pig. I think this is pretty unusual behavior for a pike. They have evolved with a long streamlined body with eyes on top of the head, all for lurking around and running down prey like a barracuda all in a horizontal attitude.

While I am expounding on my own opinions, I’ll declare that the northern pike resource has long been over-utilized. The closed season is far too short and late ice fishing takes a terrible toll on hen fish which stage in shallow bays prior to spawning runs. Twenty or more years ago, it was not uncommon for a local fishing guide to catch dozens of pike in a day with a party of four. Now it is not uncommon for a guide to go pikeless with that same party of four.

You have my doom and gloom about a pending collapse of our game fishery. I think we are long overdue for some regulatory changes and, perhaps, consideration of hatcheries for bass and pike. Those of you who are ecstatic over our big fat bass and bigger than before pike….well, I hate to burst your bubble, but… be prepared for ceremonial fishing and much less catching.

By Hunter Grimes III

Hunter Grimes served in the Navy, from 1966-1970; in 1968-70 he was with UDT 21 and Navy Seals. He is currently owner of Diverse Construction Group, LLC. He attended SUNY Oswego, University of Alaska at Fairbanks and Syracuse School of Forestry. Hunter is certainly a genuine River Rat – a reliable term given for those who spend their lives on, in or under the River. In 1989, Canadian author Shawn Thompson wrote his book, River Rats: The People of the Thousand Islands; page 68 has the Hunter Grimes story. Hunter and his wife Martha have devoted their lives to their community, both being recognized for their volunteer efforts and leadership.  To see other of Hunter’s essays in TI Life, click here.

Posted in: Nature, Sports
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Ron Mowers
Comment by: Ron Mowers ( )
Left at: 11:41 PM Thursday, August 14, 2014
I too have observed the lack of small pike for the past 3 or 4 years and have thought that the gobies were at least partly responsible. Along with devouring the eggs and fry, I have been told that they also are carriers of the VHS virus. The introduction of foreign life forms has devistated our River.
What else could possibly be introduced into our waterways that will cause even more damage? Or, sadly,is it already too late?
Gregg German
Comment by: Gregg German ( )
Left at: 8:15 AM Friday, August 15, 2014
I believe that Mr. Grimes' hypothesis is spot on. My wife and I am are avid "dock fishermen" from Washington Island. In past seasons we have easily and frequently caught (and released) from the local abundant Largemouth population. This season we go weeks between a catch. At first, it was logical to blame the late thaw, and the high, cold water for our frustration, but then it dawned on me that
our 4 year-old grandson with his red Spider-Man fishing pole catches three Gobies to every Rock Bass. He only occasionally catches a Perch, and never hooks a Sunfish.
I hope we are merely experiencing a seasonal aberration, but I too fear that the Gobie invasion may be responsible for the disappointing changes we are experiencing.
What can be done?

Pete Grevelding
Comment by: Pete Grevelding ( )
Left at: 1:51 PM Friday, August 15, 2014
Sadly , I completely agree with Hunters thoughts. The River fishery has transitioned from plentiful to scarce. I also have not caught many'hammer handles" or small bass over the last several years. I think his concern over missing a replacement class is meant to be more a species than next years hatch.
If only the Cormorants would expire after eating many , many gobies!
Stan Ren
Comment by: Stan Ren ( )
Left at: 8:45 PM Friday, August 15, 2014
It's a very depressing fact at how true Hunters article is. When we purchased our place on Wallace Island 32 years ago fishing was super. Three years in a row on my first cast from the dock I caught a 32" pike with a tour boat stopping to watch until I landed it, Perch were plentiful with the children always having a good time catching them. Then came the convoys of jet skis, followed by cormorants for a number of years and then finally the gobies. Until I gave up fishing for perch and bass I kept a bucket to throw any gobies in burying them afterwards. I no longer enjoy fishing unless I do it in the fall after the summer crowd is gone, Hopefully it's not too late for corrective to be taken to restore the St Lawerence River fishing to what it once was.
Bob Hawthorne
Comment by: Bob Hawthorne ( )
Left at: 9:35 PM Friday, August 15, 2014
I think that Hunter has some valid points. When I was growing up in Morristown 60+ years ago we would fish in the Morristown bay and catch stringers and buckets of perch and sunfish, but mostly perch. We were gone from the area for several years and finally bought a place on the River on Riverledge Road in 1997. When we first had our place the kids would still catch lots of perch, sunfish, and rock bass from our dock. Now our grandchildren catch only gobies and have not seen a sunfish in several years and only an occasional perch. We have caught several very large bass over the past few years and not many of moderate and small size. I am not a marine biologist or politician, but something needs to be done and perhaps it is time that we all start making some noise and force some action. Count me in Hunter.
Will Salisbury
Comment by: Will Salisbury ( )
Left at: 7:38 AM Sunday, August 17, 2014
Hunter , you nailed it! Great observations....
David Ballou
Comment by: David Ballou ( )
Left at: 8:52 AM Monday, August 18, 2014
Great article, I thought I was the only one seeing the fishing going away. Its a shame
no one in positions of authority is sounding the alarm.
Stovin Briggs
Comment by: Stovin Briggs ( )
Left at: 7:03 PM Monday, August 18, 2014
We couldn't agree more with the points made in the article. My seven year old is an avid gobie trapper, also putting them in a bucket to remove from the river. "He says we can still get our fish (Rockies and perch) back if we get rid of the gobies"
jerry backus
Comment by: jerry backus ( )
Left at: 8:08 PM Monday, August 18, 2014
i have fished the river for 70 years and agree with Hunter 100%. i spent last week on the river with my son and we only had 14 smallies all week. just a few years ago we would have caught and released about 30 a day. in all the years i have enjoyed the river i have practiced catch and release,except for a few bullheads each spring. hopefully somehow the river can be brought back to what it once was. catch and release everyone
Dave Palmer
Comment by: Dave Palmer
Left at: 7:44 AM Wednesday, August 20, 2014
I thoroughly agree. Am located in the Chippewa Bay Area. I first noticed the changes in the early 90's with the zebra mussels, than the Cormorants and now the gobies. The sunfish, rock bass and perch appear to be gone--I rarely catch either now. Pike and bass are larger but seem to acquired a different taste now especially the large ones. The catching of small pike and bass is not common--however this Spring I noticed large schools of bass fingerlings in my boathouse. Hope, something can be done soon--especially against the cormorants.
jack patterson
Comment by: jack patterson ( )
Left at: 12:10 AM Thursday, August 21, 2014
Thanks, Hunter. Not bursting any bubbles here.

I have been especially watching the St Lawrence since the mid sixties when I first sent a sample of algae (new to us then ... and to the river) to the International Oceanographic Foundation in Miami and was told that the conditions in the water from which the sample was taken ... were changing. And, of course, they continue to change. To degrade. Then it was phosphates in detergents. Now it is the 'steroid' of commercial fertilizers abounding everywhere.

I have been an islander since my birth- before WW II. A highly privileged one we think in the Lake Fleet Group. All water intake was potable then. And we had two pipes into/out-of the river- one slightly downstream from the other.

An International Preserve might be created joining Ottawa and Washington and all the states and provinces in the basin uphill from the Great Lakes. A reservoir, thus. With boundaries and rules and establish regulations as such as are instituted for any city or town supply.

This is our resource. We cannot do without it.

It continues to degrade.

Nelson Rockefeller had much to do with the refurbishment of the Long Island Railroad. Eventually he claimed that it was, "... the best railroad in the world!" Well, he then went to work on the old New Haven and NY Central roads. And said again to reporters, ... "this will be the best railroad in the world!" He was reminded that he had said the same thing originally about the Long Island R.R.

Well, he quipped, "It will be a tie!"

I'll take a tie. But I think it is the spirit of the former governor that most attracts me. Do we care enough? Enough to not fertilize our lawn the week before our daughter's wedding, say?

I didn't. I don't think you do either. Yet.

Ted Bradford
Comment by: Ted Bradford
Left at: 8:41 AM Thursday, August 21, 2014
Great observations if not sad. One wonders where the Ministry of Natural Resources is hanging out these days?
Thomas Pullyblank
Comment by: Thomas Pullyblank
Left at: 11:23 AM Thursday, August 21, 2014
Excellent essay, Hunter. Thank you for it.

The pending collapse of the game fishery is related to a particularly destructive attitude that pervades our culture--that the natural world has value primarily (or only) insofar as it is useful for human beings.

To the River's detriment, shipping, tourism and power generation are currently valued by far too many people far above anything else. Shipping brings dredging, pollution and invasive species. Tourism brings pollution, garbage, overfishing and human overpopulation. Power generation brings fish-kills and unnatural water levels that destroy habitats. All three, while beneficial in the short term for our national and local economies, will, in the long term, threaten the vitality of the River, as they have threatened the vitality of one river after another worldwide. A fishery collapse would be one of the most devastating consequences of this human-first attitude.

The sad things is that this particular way of thinking is relatively new. For thousands of years people lived in harmony with the River and appreciated its ecological, aesthetic and spiritual magnificence. That magnificence can still be appreciated today, of course, but those who place primary value in it are outnumbered by those who do not. If this trend continues, we'll be left with a river still full of ships and jet-skis, still producing electricity for our homes and businesses, still beautiful to look at from the deck of a tour-boat--but the River, as people have known it and loved it for ages, will, like its fish, be gone.
Jim Flynn
Comment by: Jim Flynn
Left at: 9:34 PM Saturday, August 23, 2014
Hi Hunter,

Good essay; all sounds logical to me, but hopefully it is more complicated than that and things turn out for the best. I read some of the other articles too. Nice writing.

Jim Flynn
Glenn Matys
Comment by: Glenn Matys
Left at: 6:05 PM Wednesday, September 3, 2014
This article mirrors my observations over the past 7 summers while vacationing on Sampson Island. Our group has gone from perch fries for 15 persons to only 1 perch caught the summer of 2014!
Hunter's analysis certainly confirms my observations that the food chain was dramatically changed and expectations for a robust, diversified fishery are limited.
Tyler Barton (Pennsylvania)
Comment by: Tyler Barton (Pennsylvania)
Left at: 7:28 PM Saturday, September 6, 2014
While I can't speak to the perch or bass as I do not fish for them I can speak to the pike.

I have been traveling to the 1000 island since 2000 in late September and October. While I am clearly going to be in the minority we routinely catch hammer handles and the numbers of catches has been steadily increasing. I was just up for a two day marathon trip out of Clayton and we caught over 35 pike between two of us and that was even with a all day pouring rain the first day. We never keep anything we catch so hopefully that will also help if there is an impending crash.

I would never discount what you locals see all the time and you maybe correct about the perch and bass. I will have to pay more attention at the docks this October and see if we notice any difference in the amount of perch compared to other years.

Great article and information and I HOPE that it is wrong and just some natural cycle.
Christy MacLetchie
Comment by: Christy MacLetchie
Left at: 6:27 AM Sunday, September 7, 2014
When I was a kid (70's) we would stand on our dock on Round Island and fish for hours catching perch, sunnies and rockies. Now my kids catch gobies, rock bass and the occasional perch. The rockies are also getting big - much bigger than I ever remember. We caught one pumpkinseed this summer from our dock (three kids fishing daily for 6 weeks). I have encouraged the kids to chuck back the gobies (to have compassion for all living things), but think that we will also have a gobie bucket next year. Thank you for this article.