The Lake Bracken Fish Kill


by Terry Hogan


Do you remember the Lake Bracken fish kill?  At the time it was “all the buzz”, at least among the flies. Some were really “raking it in.”  I must confess.  I was one.  We, the rakers were, at first, minor celebrities.  Folks would come down to our pontoon boat to find out what were the biggest fish we were finding.  As the days passed and the fish “ripened” in the summer sun, folks kept their distance from us and our floating, bloated, prey.  I learned that celebrity status was short-lived.  The slide from greeting to avoidance was all to steep and fast.  The smell of success was replaced by another.


Many times in our lives, we do stupid things.  Sometimes we do them intentionally.  These latter times can be classified as, “It seemed like a good idea at the time”.  And so it was, over 40 years ago, when Lake Bracken decided to kill all its fish.  It wasn’t really Lake Bracken’s idea.  It was, I believe, recommended by the insightful fish and lake management folks in Springfield. 


As I recall, the deed was done in the early to mid 1960’s.  Its purpose was to kill off the fish community, and in particular the bottom feeders, such as carp.  The carp and other bottom feeders were attributed as being the reason why the lake was so turbid.  There were too many bottom feeders stirring up the soft lake sediments, not unlike hogs in the muck.  


Killing of the fish was the easy (and quick) part of the project.  A selective fish poison, rotenone, was applied to the lake.  It is a gill poison, interfering with the breathing of all gilled creatures, great and small.  The fish died for lack of oxygen.  Those fish with float bladders would quickly rise to the surface to float and be carried into windrows of dead fish lining the shorelines.  Those without floatation would sink and begin to decay until sufficient gas was formed to float them to the surface as well.  The fish came.  And more fish followed. So many dead fish came that they would windrow for several feet out from the shore, mouth to caudal fin, dorsal to ventral surface. There were carp, catfish, sunfish of all kinds. Gizzard shad glistened silvery in the hot, baking, sun.  Bass, bullheads, minnows of all shapes and sizes filled the small void spaces between the large fish. Each, in their own way, sought their revenge.


I was one of several Lake Bracken youth hired to collect these dead fish.  There were tons and tons of them.  They lined the shores.  They floated under boat docks.  They tangled among the rocks, logs, and tree branches of the shoreline.  They began to rot. The flies soon noticed the free meal and the opportunity to greatly enhance their population by laying eggs in the decaying flesh.


The first day or two following the kill, lake residents would see us raking up dead fish onto the club’s pontoon boat.  They would come to the shore and ask us the same questions – largest fish?; any unusual species?; any alligators?  However, as the days passed, and the fish rotted, we noticed a distinct drop off in our fan club.


Our work day was simple.  From sunrise to sunset, we would rake dead fish and load them onto the wood deck of the pontoon boat.  We would continue this until the deck approached water level under the burden of dead fish.  We’d take our load to the Saluda Fill where a boat lunch was located. There, we’d shove the dead fish into a front end loader that would, in turn, dump the fragrant, slimy, scaly mass into a truck.  The truck would take the load to the nearby rendering plant, located west a couple of miles. Upon completion of the off loading, we’d return to the job of collecting more dead fish.  I believe we were getting about $1.25 an hour (no overtime pay) for this job.


As time passed, the raking of fish became more and more difficult.  Fish tissue was rapidly being converted to maggot tissue.  Fish bloated and decayed. Fish then began to disintegrate upon contact with the rakes.  Our job gradually turned from “fish raker” to “fish disintegrator”. If we had job descriptions, we would have had to rewrite them.


The stench permeated our clothing; our tennis shoes; our bodies; and, I believe, our very souls.  Nobody sat near us when we’d go to the movies.  We all certainly stopped eating fish.  When we’d nudge the barge to somebody’s shoreline to collect the rotting flesh, we could hear the cranking shut of windows and the closing of doors.  Those who had air conditioners had them running.


We became the equivalent of the old-time outhouse cleaners who did their work at night in the back alleys of Galesburg.  It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.  But nobody wanted to watch it being done.


Flies became an aerial assault. On cue, the black mass would fly up in formation to buzz angrily around our eyes and mouths.  We didn’t cuss them. We were afraid to open our mouths. We had flies the size of sparrows.  Some carried whole carp off to a less offensive location.  Even the flies were starting to be overwhelmed.  We had a confirmed sighting of two large horseflies carried off a 5 pound carp, while two others attempted to steal it away in mid-flight.  


The cleaning operation went on for days.  We had unkind thoughts about the club manager.  We had worse thoughts about the fishery folks from Springfield.  We thought about mailing the largest and the ripest, unpreserved, COD to them in their air conditioned offices in Springfield.  As time progressed and the fish continued to disintegrate, we had even harsher thoughts that cannot be shared with you in print.  I will have to leave it to your imagination.  


All things come to an end.  So did the fish.  So did the fish-raking.  But the work haunts me yet today.  Where did those fish go?  What were they used for?  No fish was too rotten. No fish was ever rejected. 


To this day, I don’t trust fish oil and I’m very suspicious of fish that have been reconfigured into un-fish-like shapes.  You ever wonder about the rectangle “fish sticks”?  How about those deep-fat fried chunks labeled “real fish and fish byproducts”?     I’m pretty sure they don’t grind up fresh salmon or trout for this.  What is a fish byproduct?  On second thought, I don’t think I want to know.  It was prudent then to keep my mouth shut when the fish-fed flies were flying about.  It probably is now.


It was the great Lake Bracken fish kill.  I remember it well. Did I mention that I prefer beef?