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Centennial History Series: First Catch — Initial Fish & Water Management in the Forest Preserves

Fishing 1930s - 1940s

Fishing, ca. 1930s-1940s

by Natalie Bump Vena

 

The Forest Preserve District’s early leaders viewed fishing as a key way to introduce urban residents to Cook County’s plentiful open land. But they faced some obstacles in bringing their vision to life. The streams that flowed through the holdings were polluted and the forest preserves lacked fishable ponds and lakes. In a series of projects aimed to protect public health and facilitate transportation, District administrators partnered with state and municipal governments to clean streams and create lakes in the forest preserves. Beginning in the late 1930s, District staff also received assistance from the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Illinois Department of Conservation to stock those bodies of water with desirable species of game fish.

 

Administrators believed fishing gave Cook County residents much-needed exposure to nature. In 1931, General Superintendent Charles Sauers supported efforts to build strategic dams across the shallow Des Plaines River in order to produce areas for fishing and boating. He described how fishing there would bring people to the forest preserves: “The important thing is that man and boy get out and fish for a day, and of course man is going to bring his family along because they won’t stay at home. If he gets out all day in the open air with his family that is sufficient recreation for them all whether he catches a mess of fish or not. They have all tasted and felt and smelt the open.”[i] In 1949, senior naturalist and fisheries manager David H. Thompson and naturalist John Jedlicka wrote of the sport’s benefits: “There’s something about fishing that smooths out the wrinkles in a tired mind.”[ii]

 

In 1931, the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners appointed the Clean Streams Advisory Committee to coordinate efforts to abate pollution in Cook County’s waterways, in part to protect aquatic species.[iii] For instance, the Committee recommended municipalities and individuals adopt more effective sewage treatment methods so that Salt Creek could be “free of sewage solids and odors, usable for recreational purposes and suitable for fish life.”[iv] The Committee’s members had observed the effects of pollution on Salt Creek’s fish. After a thunderstorm churned up a large volume of untreated sewage, passersby saw “great schools of small catfish carp, perch, and shiners gasping for air at the surface of the water.”[v] While the Committee helped improve water quality in Cook County’s streams over the course of the 1930s, their efforts stalled during World War II. In 1953, staff members asserted that fishing in the Des Plaines River could only improve when pollution subsided. Thompson and Jedlicka wrote, “In the middle section of its course through the county, the Des Plaines is so polluted that, during most of each year, the fish are reduced to small populations of the hardy carp and bullhead,” species then deemed undesirable.[vi]

 

Many fishing waters in the forest preserves took shape during highway construction projects. In the 1920s, Maple Lake—already a low-lying area—accumulated ground water when Cook County’s highway department filled a ravine to extend 95th Street.[vii]  Likewise, Sauk Lake filled with water when engineers impounded Thorn Creek in the process of extending 26th Street over the stream.[viii] During the late 1950s, the Illinois Tollway excavated land in some preserves to provide fill to build expressways. District leadership often invited these projects because they simultaneously produced fishing lakes. Illinois Tollway contractors dug Wampum Lake in 1956, producing “600,000 cubic yards of spoil for the Calumet Expressway.”[ix] In 1957, the District anticipated five additional lakes made from similar excavations. In The Forest Way (then a newsletter for District employees), General Superintendent Sauers said the six lakes, totaling 177 acres, “will be ideal for the type of fishing desired by a great many Chicago citizens. They are highly accessible and of sure water supply.”[x]

 

To facilitate fishing in the man-made lakes, the District began a fisheries program in the late 1930s. Although there is evidence that hatcheries existed in the forest preserves as early as 1927,[xi] fish management seems to have become more systematic in 1937, when General Superintendent Sauers sought guidance from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) to make Maple Lake a viable place for fishing.[xii] During the next few years, the Illinois Department of Conservation (IDC) also helped to survey Maple Lake and to move surplus sunfish to other bodies of water.[xiii] By 1940, fishing in Maple Lake had improved, with larger bluegills and some largemouth bass.[xiv] Soon after, David H. Thompson left the INHS, where he worked as a zoologist, to become a senior naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. Upon transferring, he led other naturalists in fish management, with continued support from the INHS and IDC.

 

Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, naturalists tried to maintain game species in the forest preserve fishing waters by creating stable populations of bass and panfish (namely, bluegill and pumpkinseed). To do so, they attempted to eliminate carp, goldfish and bullhead catfish that outcompeted the more desirable species. In the spring of 1946, staff from the District’s Department of Conservation reported removing from the Skokie Lagoons 5,675 “little carp, golden shiners, bullheads and goldfish…These undesirable little fish, mostly carp, we took out with a dip net and buried in a big hole.”[xv] Later, staff worked under the authority of the IDC when using piscicides (pesticides specific to fish) in ponds dominated by unwanted species. In 1953, they planned to eradicate the fish population at Potawatomi Woods Gravel Pit with rotenone and then to restock that pond with smallmouth bass provided by the IDC.[xvi]

 

Today, staff members in the District’s fisheries section regularly conduct population surveys of the over 40 fishing areas located throughout the forest preserves. They determine population dynamics by using gill nets and fyke nets, as well as electro-fishing, which stuns the fish, making them easier to count. The fisheries section partners with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (formerly the Illinois Department of Conservation) to stock lakes and ponds with game fish, including bass, bluegills and crappie, as well as larger species such as walleye, northern pike, rainbow trout, and even muskie. Fulfilling the vision of the Forest Preserve District’s early conservation leaders, the fisheries section works with organizations like Fishin’ Buddies to introduce city residents to the outdoors through the sport of fishing.

 

The Centennial History Series takes an in-depth look at various chapters throughout the Forest Preserves’ 100 years. Natalie Bump Vena is a JD/PhD candidate in Northwestern University’s School of Law and Department of Anthropology. She is also the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, MA. Natalie is writing her dissertation about the history of natural resources policy in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. She grew up on Chicago’s South Side and visited the Palos forest preserves most weekends with her family.

 

 

 

[i] Charles Sauers, “Clean Stream For the Forest Preserves,” River Restoration Session of Chicago Regional Planning Association Chicago, March 5, 1931. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 29, Folder 432.

[ii] David H. Thompson and John Jedlicka, “Fish and Fishing in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois,” June 1949. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 20, Folder 271.

[iii] Emmett J. Whealan, Annual Report of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, 1931. Chicago History Museum Research Center.

[iv] Harry Ferguson et al, “Inventory of the Pollution of Salt Creek and its Tributaries, A Tributary of DesPlaines River and Recommendations for the Abatement and Prevention of Pollution,” January 1932. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 7, Folder 115.

[v] Letter from J. Lyell Clark (Sanitary Engineer at the Des Plaines Valley Mosquito Abatement District) to George Hughes (Chairman of the Cook County Clean Streams Committee), July 9, 1932. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 7, Folder 115.

[vi] David H. Thompson and John Jedlicka. “Report on the Fishing Waters of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois,” November 1953. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 61.

[vii] David H. Thompson, “The Management of a Small Public Fishing Lake.” Illinois Wildlife. 1947. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 59.

[viii] David H. Thompson and John Jedlicka. “Report on the Fishing Waters of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois,” November 1953. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 61.

[ix] Charles Sauers, “General Superintendent Report.” The Forest Way. October-December 1957. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series I, Box 47, Folder 531.

[x] Charles Sauers, “General Superintendent Report.” The Forest Way. October-December 1957. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series I, Box 47, Folder 531.

[xi]  Anton J. Cermak, Annual Message of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, 1927. Chicago History Museum Research Center.

[xii] David H. Thompson, “The Management of a Small Public Fishing Lake.” Illinois Wildlife. 1947. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 59.

[xiii] David H. Thompson, “The Management of a Small Public Fishing Lake.” Illinois Wildlife. 1947. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 59.

[xiv] David H. Thompson, “The Management of a Small Public Fishing Lake.” Illinois Wildlife. 1947. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 59.

[xv] “Conservation Department.” The Forest Way. May 1946. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series I, Box 47, Folder 524.

[xvi] Roberts Mann, Notes for Seminar on Fish Management, December 9, 1953. Forest Preserve District of Cook County Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago. Series III, Box 3, Folder 60.

Visit two of the treasures of the Forest Preserves of Cook County