Who gives a damn about crayfish?Well, I know I do…and I’ve got this six year old great-grandson, T.J., and I’m pretty sure he does, too.
T.J’s a town kid, lives in an apartment complex – a nice one but still an apartment complex: him and lots of other indoor electronic kids. He literally jumps at every opportunity ta come out and visits his old grandpa who lives in the woods. This relationship is still pretty new to both of us. Him stayin’ out here fer several days in a string, that’s what I mean.
At first I was worried about what me and a six year old were gonna do ta pass the time. Been a long time since I’d had an active li’l kid underfoot. I shouldn’t have been. I’m about rested up enough fer another round.
He tags with me everywhere, whatever I’m doin’. His interests are wherever we’re at, which, in all kinds of weather, is mostly outside my cabin.
T.J. thinks it’s neat ta have this old man who’s like the caretaker fer this 100 acre eco reserve that’s got this great stream that serpentines it’s way past wetlands, prairie fields and then through dense woods. He doesn’t know yet that he’s this old man’s sorta captive deep-ecology student, but eventually I’m sure he’ll catch on.
Last time he was out here we focused on the stream and the multiplicity of life forms that abound and thrive in it.
“Grandpa, I can’t catch the little fishes. They’re too fast. But I did find a lobster.” He says this ta me as I’m readying the small pump I use ta pull water to my gardens and prairie plant nurseries.
“A lobster!” I responded, me knowin’ he was describing a crayfish. I’d told him we were going to try and find some crayfish that morning, he didn’t know what they were and now there in the creek-crossing riffle he’d discovered one on his own.
I took time to verify his find and then he said, “Hey, look! There’s another…and another!” Rocks, riffles, crayfish, that’s how things laid there.
I showed him how to get down stream of the rocks, let the current carry away the stream bottom dust that our feet were kickin’ up. Then we slowly worked our way back up into the riffle, us looking for rocks that crayfish would be hangin’ under. Most of the good rocks, when our eyes adjusted ta lookin’ fer ‘em, had their residents, claws first, peekin’ out after disturbance we’d made and were continuing to make. Big ones, small ones, we spotted lots of crayfish.
He picked up the recently shed carapace or shell of a large one, him surprised that there was nothing but water inside. I told him about why a crayfish sheds it shell and how it makes another to fit it better just as fast as it can. We lifted some close by rocks and found one in hiding that looked to be about the right size for the old shed and I was lucky enough to capture it in my cupped hands. “Uh. Soft,” that’s what T.J. exclaimed.
I told T.J. what great fishin’ bait these soft ones were. I told him too that the medium size hard ones were good bait also. But these soft ones, the big fish react to ‘em just like a kid would to an ice cream cone. July and August. An ultra-light fishin’ rod. Us two knee deep in movin’ water, flippin’ these crayfish up into deep holes. Whew! We’d be catchin’ big ones.
As we turned over more rocks T.J. was surprised at the miriad of other life forms we encountered. Small fishes would dart out but then again some of ‘em just hid there, where he could see ‘em, when pointed out. Darters which were near perfectly camouflaged until a trained eye picked out their bent forms. Blunt nose minnows with faces covered in pointed, horn like, breeding tubercles. And still clinging to the underside of most rocks were species of invertebrate insects that do a big part of their life cycles submerged. I pointed out dragonfly nymphs. The tubes of cadisfly larva, clusters of snail eggs sorta glued to rocks underside. I showed him how we had to be careful to put these rocks back down like we found them so we didn’t mess up too much of other things lives.
Well, as things turned, about two days later we had an overcast day that I determined was just about perfect fer fishin’. It was way too dry ta dig worms but I did remember those crayfish. Shoot, me armed with handheld dip net and a bucket, in about 45 minutes I had about 30, maybe 35 real choice baits. And then shortly found myself knee deep in a bigger clear stream and tossin’ a hooked crayfish (this is not a sport for the faint at heart) up stream and into a deep hole.
The current nudged the bait back towards me, and, wham! The unmistakable strike of a pretty nice fish. I slacked my line, watch it move out away from me. Then I tightened up the slack till my rod tip told of tight contact, then, wham! I struck. The drag on my small reel screamed. I couldn’t see what it was yet as it fought ‘round and ‘round that pool.
Fresh water drum. Coming out of that fairly clean water, they’re real good eatin’. Smoked they’re supreme. Maybe a four pounder. I clipped him on my stringer, baited up my hook again, and made just about the same cast. Wham! I set the hook and this fish immediately broke water, and then did a tail dance across the surface. Small-mouth bass with its signature fight-back style. Nice one. I played him back and forth fer a good three er four minutes before I could grab its lower jaw and thrust my next stringer clip through thin tissue of its under mouth and then clamp around its jawbone. About 16, maybe 17 inches and definitely a legal keeper.
Another cast with near same results. This time a big channel catfish. I’d guess it at a four pounder. I was off to a great start and there were yet bigger, better holes in front of me.
Long story shortened considerably, I strung four big bass, six big cats and two drum, and threw lots of smaller ones back. The total stringer close to er exceedin’ 40 lbs. We were needin’ fresh fish in our diets. And with that steady supply of crayfish right outside my cabin door, why, hell…my bait source was near inexhaustible. I made my mind up that next time I take the kid.
Next day I was needin’ ta pump water into our hoop house, where I’ve got a good crop of peppers. I’m down at creek crossing hookin’ up my 1” pump and since the riffle where I’d harvested crayfish just the am before was right there beside me, I decided ta take a look ta see how many I’d missed. Right off I spot a big one layin’ belly up, and I’m thinkin’ it’s a shedder. But when I investigate further I discover it’s whole, and just dead. Fresh dead and not rotten.
Then I spot another smaller one layin’ maybe two feet away. And it’s whole and just dead, too. Then I went ta pokin’ round more and had no trouble findin’ lots more in the same condition. Then it became crystal clear that all crayfish in the area, all of ‘em, (not one live one) were stone dead. And then on top some of the protruding rocks I discovered the fresh dead bodies of dragonfly nymphs, which had crawled up there while still alive.
It hit me! The morning before I’d been doin’ somethin’, on yeah, pickin’ blackberries out in one of our prairie fields while a powerful prop plane was circling back and forth in efforts to spray the neighbors corn about a half mile away. This was before I caught crayfish and went fishin’.
Chemicals! This had to be a chemical kill. I checked five different riffle sites just on our ground here. Many dead but not one live crayfish. And, except for the fishes, the under rock community had suffered a hit as well. As ya might imagine, my temper started risin’. And I’ve got one, believe me.
Not knowing what to do I called the office of the State D.N.R. in Sterling. “A crayfish kill?” the lady who’d answered questioned with air of skepticism. “Yeah. Crayfish. My stream was alive with ‘em yesterday, and now they’re all dead.” Well, she wants ta know if I’m filing a complaint. And, “Yes, I certainly was.” She took down pertinent info. But gave me very little hope that an investigation could be conducted soon. I know what problems the D.N.R. has with budget and under-staffing. That’s when I decided I’d better go and collect and preserve the evidence.
Next day I went over to the neighbor whose ground had been sprayed. The same creek runs right through two big corn patches. The neighbors, who I’m pretty good friends with got the news. The wife stated that the past day’s aircraft activity had been like bein’ back in World War II, which she’d never been in but seen plenty of movie footage about. They don’t farm the ground, just rent it out.
I asked and was granted permission to take my collecting can down into creek there and look fer what I expected. Already going putrid rapidly, dead crayfish were an easy find.
“What da find?” the neighbor says as he meets me comin’ up outta creek.
I showed him. These were startin’ to stink.
“This ain’t right,” he comes on, and then repeated himself. We walk together over to his big shed that he’s turned into part of an extensive target shootin’ range. Three ‘er four of his shootin’ buddies were hangin’ there. They wanted ta see, too. “Yep. Dead crayfish. Phew!” Then echoed the neighbors,
“This ain’t right,” they said to the man.
“Yep. This ain’t right. And I’m gonna do something ta make sure this was not going to happen again,” states me. Me by then getting’ pretty stirred up.
The neighbor calls the farmer and he’s upset. I know the farmer too and I’m sure he’d a never sanctioned such a thing. I called him later myself. Yes he was upset. He’d called the chemical company with his complaint already. He gave me phone number of this establishment and told me who ta talk to there. Naturally, I called.
This gentleman and me know each other but not very well. He was pleasant and straight with me. They subcontract out aerial spraying. He gave me the name of flying service and told me that the chemical used was called, “Tombstone.”
I called the flyin’ company, got a secretary. After me tellin’ her why I was callin’, she took down my name and number. Told me somebody’d get back ta me.
Since the D.N.R. hadn’t gotten back to me I called the E.P.A. “Crayfish?” this fella responds. “Yeah, crayfish.” He asked me if there were any fish involved? I hadn’t seen evidence of dead fish.
Well…that might be a problem. There were plenty of regulations in place with respect to fish, but he wasn’t aware of anything on crayfish.
“Yer kiddin’ me,” was my comeback. You’ve got to have something on habitat degradation in general. I mean we’re talking about messing with the streams food chain. Disrupting ecological balance! You’ve got to have some base regulation that this sort of thing falls under.
I got a thoughtful response. He’d check.
He promised me he’d get back with me. And in not too long he did respond, tellin’ me the people I wanted to talk to on this were the Il. Dept. of Ag. Which he said he’d already contacted.
And it wasn’t long before I received a voicemail from somebody from Il. Dept. of Ag. Giving me detailed information on how to obtain a complaint form via Internet, which I, bein’ a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite techno fob, couldn’t do, but my wife, who’s almost the exact opposite, quickly and easily did. This landin’ a copy of complaint form right here in my ratty-ass cabin…right into my hands.
As compliantly and diligently as was possible, especially considerin’ how I’m normally functioning, I fill this not-complicated document out. Next day I faxed this to pertinent destination. I settled to wait.
It was only like three days when I get voicemail from an investigator from said agency. I made contact and this gent and me made arrangements to meet. I told him ta beep his horn when he pulled up and then stay in his vehicle until I’m sure I’ve control of the dogs.
At appointed time the guy pulls up and follows instructions and the incident of his arrival slowly subsides. Big guy, tall, and the fact he’s not afraid of dogs helps settle them. We do basic information exchange right there on his car’s hood. That done he wants me to take him down to creek where I’d first discovered dead crayfish. I jump on my four-wheeler and he follows me.
Now this is like eight days after the kill. He stands there at streams edge and peers into running water, obviously reluctant to get his feet wet. I’m in the water with sandals on, explaining how and what I’d discovered. I turned a few rocks from under which crayfish once scurried. I explained to him the extent of my search, the dead evidence I’d collected.
For the second time since I’d started this I’m told that it would be much more helpful if the dead crayfish were there visible in the water. After eight days, I questioned, what would be left of a dead crayfish? “Nothin’,” I answered my own question. They’d be back to elemental form.
He wants to see the dead and frozen crayfish. OK. We go back up the hill to travel trailer where I put ‘em in freezer. He looks ‘em over but in truth had no idea what could be done with them. After him declining he wanted to go over to neighbors place. I put them back in the freezer.
From over there the picture of what went on became more obvious ta this gent. Same stream, running next to and through tall tasseled corn field. He was not at all in the dark as to how spray planes operated.
He’d done his homework on “Tombstone,” read all about its usages’, do’s and don’ts. Obviously, to him, someone hadn’t been playin’ by the rules.
The neighbor was home but one of his shootin’ buddies was hangin’ there in what I’d guess you’d call their club house. He’d been there on day I’d investigated, him backin’ up my story ta this government gent.
From there he’d go check records of flying company. He’d file his report and send it down to Springfield. Anything from fines to nothing might result from this. He was up front with me. Lots of time this stuff just gets lost in the shuffle. I told him that I mostly understood. And my expectations weren’t really all that high.
In a few days T.J’s comin’ fer another visit. I’m going to try to explain this crayfish kill to him as best I can.
Chemical agricultural. I wonder if he’ll understand, right off, how he’s a victim of it, too. How all of us are. Us and the environment.
To be continued….