Muscatine County, Iowa

The Preservation of our Native Fish
Read before the Muscatine Academy of Science October 22, 1895 By J.P. Walton

Transcribed by Greta Thompson, July 13, 2013

The destruction of our native fish during the cold weather is getting more general as the country gets older. We learn that during the last winters great numbers of our best fish died in the lakes and sloughs all over Iowa, and especially in this locality. In Keokuk Lake alone, I am told that car loads died, it is supposed they were frozen to death. This has gotten to be a common experience of late years.

In the winters of 1893-94 and 1894-95 they died in many places where forty years ago they wintered well. In fact, this fatality did not occur forty or fifty years ago. Very rarely did we hear of such an occurrence previous to 1860. It was not because the winters were not severe enough. In the winter of 1843-44 there were seventy-three days of continuous freezing, the ice got to be three feet thick on the Mississippi river and in many of the lakes. No fish froze or died that winter. The question is asked, why do they die now and not then? We will answer that the fish die for the want of air. The supply has been cut off during the recent winters and no arrangements have been made to supply them. The fur bearing animals—the Otter, the Mink, the Beaver and the Musk-rat—were the great air suppliers. These animals always kept the water opened and made it accessible to air in a limited way but sufficient for the use of the fish. It is true that while they supplied the fish with air the Otter and Mink lived on the fish. I think the Beaver and Muskrat rarely, if ever, touched a fish, but what the Otter and the Mink ate was a small amount as compared to the number that now die for the want of air.

The Muskrat is the best friend of the fish. He either lives in a house where he thinks there will be water all the winter or at least where he can reach the water from it at all times, or in the bank if one can be found steep and the water deep. A Muskrat house in appearance resembles a shock of hay from two to three feet high. They are erected during the autumn months and the high waters in the spring and summer generally wash then away, hence a new one is built every year. They are built with rushes, roots, grass and mud. If one would cut a house open they will find a nice arched dome, with a raised platform above the level of the water on which the rat resides when not out in the water feeding or gathering food. We know how they look. We have cut open many a one to get the rat after spearing him with a long sharp, one tine spear through the shell of the house. From their houses they have roads running to other houses and to deep water. To large houses they have three or four of these roads. In the roads the rushes and mud are cleaned out and they are kept in constant use, the rat going to or from the other by no other route. If the roads freeze over with clear ice sufficiently strong to bear a man these roads make an excellent place to spear the rats through the ice. My brother and myself speared 130 one day in the Big Sand Mound pond. These roads are white with air under the ice, carried in by the rats, I presume for their own use and to keep the ice from freezing so hard over the road. This air and the open water at the end, kept in motion by the rat, supplies the fish with air.

It is possible that the rat may feed on the fish if hard pressed, but I think not often. He feeds on the roots and nuts in the bottom of the ponds, and when the water is not frozen, on clams or mussels.

When the water is deep or the bank above the water is steep he digs a hole back into the bank beyond the reach of frost, then he runs another outlet under the surface of the ground into the water which he always keeps open under the ice, making the same traveled roads with a deposit of air along them under the ice, running from one hole or house to another.

The Otter makes his home in the bank like the Muskrat and keeps the water open in the same manner, but in place of living on roots and mussels, as the rat does, he lives on the fish that resort there for air.

The Mink is a regular pirate. I think he never makes a hole of his own but uses the Muskrat’s when he wants a mess of fish. I am not familiar with the Beaver. There were but few in his locality.

In shallow ponds where Muskrats do not work the fish usually die, while in similar ponds with a few rat houses on the side no fish die.

In early days the Muskrat was abundant and had his houses or holes in almost every pond where roots, clams or mussels could be found. It could be frozen almost dry, if the muskrat would stay the fish would live. When the Muskrats were abundant as they were, say in 1840 to 1845, one could calculate to find a house or hole in use from every 60 to 100 feet along the shores of all our ponds and sloughs. I think we can place to the credit of the Muskrat the preservation of the number of fish we had at an early day in our waters.

In deep ponds where moss grows in the bottom a few fish survive the hard winters. The growth of moss although but slow in the winter makes some air or oxygen which the fish live on. If a person will go to a pond of this kind in the winter when every thing is frozen hard, cut a hole in the ice and drop a hook baited with a live minnow he will catch a pike if there is one in the pond. Te fish in these deep ponds wear hollow places in the underside of the ice which catches the air that rises from the moss. During the past winter one of my acquaintances struck one of these inverted hollow places that had a little air in it and got a fine mess of fish.

It is evident that if we have fish we must take care of them. In connection with the legal protection we now have, we should include set lines. For instance two parties set a row of poles and lines for six or eight miles along Muscatine slough. They had over 500 lines each and made a business of it. At one time it was thought they had caught about al the fish in the slough. Also, som means should be provided for supplying the fish with air. For the present the supervisors should employ at county expense some one to keep holes open in all ponds or sloughs where the fish are during the extreme cold weather. Or, perhaps, better than this, keep a supply of fresh warm air pumped or forced in jnder the ice. I am inclined to think it would spread out and be more accessible to the fish than a hole of small dimensions or by adopting a device now in use in carp ponds which is simply making a Muskrat hole with tiling placed below frost. And protect the Muskrat, who is a harmless prolific animal, who if not molested would in a few years help to, if they did not entirely take care of the air supply for our fish. They can be easily protected as they are worthless for anything but their fur, the sale of it could be prevented as easily as the sale of game. The legislature should make provision for these purposes at the coming session.

One word in regard to the habits and abundance of fish in former years. In the winter, if possible, they gathered in deep holes where there was moss after the surface of the water was frozen over, and when they began to suffer for the want of it they started out to look for it, if a rat hole or springy place was to be found the the fish went there. In Muscatine slough there were several springy places where the ice did not freeze thick and it opened easily. These places are well known to the residents along the slough. For the past fifty years they have been in the habit of cutting holes at these springy places and taking out the fish. Large numbers were taken out during the winter of 1894-95.

We frequently have what we call a January thaw. If this thaw is extensive enough and wet enough to make water run in the slough the fish are safe. They leave these places and do not return again.

In regard to the abundance of fish in former years, I will say that when a person would go along the sloping banks of the river almost any still time in the summer and autumn months they would see the wake of a fish that would weigh from one to ten pounds every two or three rods, all swimming up stream, probably all looking for food. In late years but few can be seen. Fish in those early days grew to great size. I recollect seeing one that Mr. Gilbert caught in the summer of 1838 that weighed 165 pounds.

We hardly expect to see them as abundant again, but if they are cared for in this and other states their numbers can be greatly increased with but little expense. We have thought that if the fish were cared for at county expense they would be considered worth something and would be less liable to be stolen by the net fisherman.


NOTE: -- The question was discussed at length by the members of the Academy, and it was the unanimous opinion that the legislature should provide a way by which the board of supervisors or some one else be required to protect the fish by supplying them with air during the cold weather, at the expense of the county. Also, that the game law be so amended as to protect the Muskrat.

*       *       *

Return to History Of ... Contents

Back to the Muscatine Co. IAGenWeb, Index Page

Page created July 14, 2013 by Lynn McCleary