Carp population creating problems on Illinois River

Occupied with removing an arrow shot through the side of a hefty fish, Brandon Newby never saw the flying silver carp that smacked him in the hip, left a bruise the color of a thunderstorm sky and propelled his $600 bow into the murky waters of the Illinois River forever.

"The fish came out of nowhere," Newby said. The incident occurred last year when Newby and two other bowmen from Wisconsin competed in the Illinois Bowfishing Association's annual state championships. On a recent steamy weekend in July, they were back for another round in the inter-species war.

Silver carp, an invasive species in Illinois and on the Illinois River in the central part of the state, are fighting back, leaping from the water to clobber tournament adversaries and innocent boaters alike.

In recent years, to the dismay of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and everyday anglers, the Illinois River has become infested with silver, bighead and grass carp, the descendants of fish that worked their way north from Arkansas. They are devouring plankton and threaten to drive out smaller fish like bass as officials seek to prevent their invasion of Lake Michigan.

But the freak nature of the flying silvers draws interest. As motorboats whoosh down the river, the churn of their propellers provokes silver carp into spellbinding jumps. Sometimes they hit boat drivers or anglers and injure them. There is a wow factor in the leaps, but also a danger factor.

"People are fascinated by that," said Mike Conlin, IDNR chief of fisheries "They just can't believe it. Is it dangerous? Very much so."

This spring state officials hosted news crews from Russia and France filming flying fish. The problem was illustrated vividly when a jumping fish struck a cameraman.

"One hit him square in the chest," Conlin said of a cinematographer, "and kind of took his breath away. Then a big one hit him in the sternum."

The bowfishing championships began at 6 p.m. on a Saturday in Henry, Ill., population, 2,600, about 130 miles south of Chicago, and spilled over till noon the next day. Unlike most fishing, there was no limit on how many fish a bowman could take in 18 hours in a competition awarding $3,000 in prize money for the biggest fish, the biggest 20 fish and the most fish.

About 75 bow fishermen, spread among 21 boats, paid $30 entry fees to work more than 60 miles of river between dams located at Peoria and at Starved Rock. Adherents are passionate about the sport, saying the action mixes the challenge of bow hunting and fishing, but at a faster pace.

"It's a blast," said Ed DeVries, 48, of Palos Park, the association president. "I don't even hunt deer anymore. You don't always need a boat. You can walk the shoreline and stalk them. These fish - grass carp - are good to eat. "

The championships lured bow fishermen from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky and Louisiana, as well as Illinois. There is a loose summer circuit where the biggest events attract many of the same competitors.

DeVries competed with partners Lovell, 32, of Willoughby, Ind., and Brad Goetz, 19, of Roselle. The sun was still bright as DeVries motored his 16-foot Carolina Skiff into a cove to troll at 1 m.p.h. along shore. A large, garbage can - the fish box - stood in the middle of the boat. A hand-built wooden platform was nestled into the bow. Square lamps were screwed onto the platform for night viewing. Jumping fish routinely shatter several $7 lamps per shoot.

"I've seen them in the shallows," said DeVries, standing atop the platform, a bow and arrow reading for firing, and studying the muddy water through polarized glasses.

Suddenly, DeVries pulled back on his bow and let fly. The arrow splashed into the water and struck a fish. Hand over hand, DeVries reeled in line and displayed a grass carp's belly, holes on both sides leaking blood.

"Nice shot, Ed," Goetz said.

Lovell said he still bow hunts, but his fishing bow is a few pounds lighter than his hunting bow. The strain of a hundred pulls would be too great otherwise, he said.

DeVries steered the boat into the main channel of the river and stirred things up. As he got up to 15 m.p.h. silver carp took flight. They jumped all around, some, weighing maybe 25 pounds, a foot or so above the waves, some weighing perhaps 10 pounds, six feet in the air.

"Ah, it's a great sport," DeVries said. "You're boating. You're doing archery. You're fishing."

Yet bow fishermen are not slowing the carp takeover of the river. In the cove, uncounted hundreds of baby carp the size of minnows zipped along. This year carp have been spotted 6½ miles farther north of where the Kankakee River and Des Plaines River meet than in 2003, according to Conlin, who said boaters are wearing football helmets and goggles and carrying metal trash can lids for protection.

"The (carp) are not going away," Conlin said. "They're spawning successfully. They're plankton eaters and the gizzard shad and buffalo have been impacted."

The artificial barrier erected to shock carp and keep them away from Lake Michigan and its salmon, is working well, Conlin said. Unlike other regulated species, IDNR doesn't care how many carp fishermen take from the Illinois River.

"Take as many as they want," Conlin said.

Bow fishing contenders did their best. Newby, 25, a sales manager for an asphalt company in Stevens Point, Wis., helped by Wilson and Steve Beres, shot an astounding record total of 482 fish at a frenzied pace, winning the overall crown by 180 fish out of the 1,400 taken. Most of the dead fish later were ground up as fertilizer.

The winners dodged fish bombing them and counted five broken lights when they weighed in with slime and blood coating their vessel and clothing in 95-degree heat. According to DeVries, even hardcore bow fishermen looked the trio over and said, "You guys have to be nuts."

Newby said it was one of the most satisfying showers he ever took.