Fishing by hook, crook or dynamite

Sandy Vasko

    Today we look a bit east to the unpredictable Kankakee River and the piscatorial tribe (fish) that inhabit her.
    As the industrial age started polluting land, sea and sky during the first decade of the 20th century people started to appreciate the unspoiled, unpolluted places.
    The Kankakee River, both up and downstream from Wilmington, was one such place.  
    Fish in the Kankakee that decade were abundant. We read on June 24, 1904 in the Wilmington Advocate, “Fishermen complain that the river is swarming with minnows and small pickerel and the fish have so much food they will not bite at bait though they may be seen in large numbers.”
    In addition, due to the work of local fishing clubs, even more fish were being added to the river.
    We read on July 21, 1905, “There were 6,000 black bass minnows planted in the Kankakee River above the big dam in this city Saturday last. The fish were sent here upon the request of J. H. Ray, he having taken up the matter some time ago. The fish are of the big mouth variety and grow to weigh from six to eight pounds each.”
    The new appreciation of nature coupled with the new invention of the automobile joined together to make this part of the Kankakee a Mecca for tourists.
    We read on May 25, 1906, “Scarcely a day passes without fishing parties coming to Wilmington to try their luck in quest of the finny tribe. The banks of the Kankakee River from this city up to Custer are lined with fishing camps.”
    These tourists were not just from Joliet and Chicago. The reputation of the Kankakee as a hot fishing spot traveled far.
    We read on October 12, 1906, “A party of Cincinnati fishermen are busy casting their lines for the finny tribe at the feeder below this city.”
    Just as today there were fishing regulations concerning where and how many fish you could take, and by what means you could take them.      Unfortunately, there was only one fish and game warden to cover the Kankakee from the Kankakee County line up to the Des Plaines River.
    And just as today, people were getting in trouble fishing at the dam. We read on May 17, 1907, “For violating the State fish laws James Shack, Philip Sumolt and Jas. Bozolik, all of Braidwood were arrested by deputy Fish Warden N. Lonn Tuesday last and taken before A. S. Hadsall, justice of the peace, who fined them each $25 (about $650 today) and costs for fishing within 400 feet of the little dam at the head of the island.”
    And, one month later, “Four Diamond citizens were taken into custody Wednesday evening at about 8 o'clock by Game Warden Pitts and Fish Warden N. Lonn for seining in the Kankakee River near the little dam. The men were placed in the jail here and were let out last Thursday evening after two of the gang being fined $25.00 each and costs - in all $55.”
    As the economic situation got worse in the coalfields and in our area in general during 1907, people stopped looking at those fish in the river as sport and started to see them as supper. And catching them one at a time would not feed the family and neighbors. And so it was that fishing with dynamite, ever available in a coal town, became a problem.
    The Kankakee Democrat came out with an editorial that said in part, “Local fishermen have sent a strong protest to the state fish warden, protesting against the repeated violation of the law concerning the capture of fish. Every day fishermen contend, the river below Kankakee and opposite Bourbonnais is dynamited for fish.
    “At times” said Alderman Fred Heyer, last week, “the blasts are so frequent it is like a quarry. Hundreds of fish are killed by the blasts and but a small percent of the dead fish are secured by those perpetrating the unlawful act.
    Several efforts have been made by local men to secure evidence against the dynamiters, but they are unsuccessful. While dynamite is ridding the river of fish below the city, the gill nets are playing havoc near Waldron. A report comes from Waldron that last week five large gill nets were taken from the river in one day.”
    While illegal activity continued, so did the stocking of the river. And it seems that fishing did not suffer because of it.
    We read at the end of the decade, in October of 1909, “Charles Babel, of Kankakee, last week caught and has on exhibition in that city a 33-pound pickerel. The fish was caught in Rock Creek, a tributary of the Kankakee River, 10 miles south of this city.” And “John Zipp this week caught a four-foot two-inch sturgeon which weighed 35 pounds. E. Donahoe purchased same and sent it to the Porter Brewing Company boys at Joliet.”