There's one poor trucker who is probably still perplexed by the scene he encountered about this time last spring. He was hammering along U.S. 17 where it crosses the roiling currents of the Savannah River in Georgia when he chanced to glance at the water below and saw what looked like a particularly vicious game of chicken being played by the occupants of two johnboats. He could hear their yells and see the water being lashed into a froth. Then, perforce, his eyes returned to the highway as he headed for I-95 and South Carolina, the most flummoxed driver on the road.
Hey, Mack, if you should read this, don't worry. That was no act of riverine mayhem you witnessed, just a hit team from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, Game and Fish Division, doing its best to brighten the clouded future of the striped bass. The commotion you saw concerned a reluctant piscatorial bride. She was a regal 45-pounder, which means that she was carrying approximately three million eggs, and she didn't know it at the moment of your observations, but ahead of her lay her own private tank and the finest of prenatal care at the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery on the delta of the nearby Ogeechee River. Meanwhile, though, like many another bride-to-be, she was kicking up all kinds of preceremony hell.
Until she showed up, the day had been a frustrating one for the DNR team, which for almost 10 hours had been probing the Savannah with electrodes in order to harvest big cow stripers. Stunned catfish, dozens of them, had been surfacing when the surge of AC current, 650 volts of it, went through the water. Likewise mullet. And now and again a broad, bronze carp would float up. But no stripers.
"They come in waves," Bob Rees, senior research biologist at Richmond Hill, had said earlier. "We seem to be in between waves."
April 19, 1987
Nevertheless, all day long the team had worked systematically, exploring known striper haunts. At the lead was the shock boat, with just one man to run it and handle the equipment. Trailing in the wake came the pickup boat with its two-man crew: the helmsman and, standing in the bow, the catcher, his legs pressed against the safety rail, a huge dip net, three feet across, in his hands. Well behind these boats cruised the tank boat, with its 140-hp engine and its three-man crew ready to rush captured stripers back to the hatchery to minimize the chance of trauma.
For most of the day the crew had fished about three or four miles upstream of Savannah, in a heron-haunted wilderness lined, so it seemed, with alligators and cypresses. But now it was the tail end of the day, and the tall gantries of Savannah's docks were in sight when the team encountered the silver beauty that caused the frenzied lashing of the water.
What the departed trucker missed was the real fun. With a truly big fish like the striper, the electric charge stuns it for a few seconds. The shockman then has to chase the fish, spinning his boat around in tight circles, standing it almost on its tail at times, in order to keep the fish confined to as small an area as possible. Jinking behind him, bouncing high in the first boat's wake, comes the pick-up boat with its catcher hanging three-quarters of the way overboard as he tries to sweep his net under the fish.
"There's a lot more art to shockin' than people think," Marvin Shell had said that morning. Shell is retired from the DNR, but in the striper spawning season he can't keep away from the hatchery, seeing the crews off, checking their return. "When I was hunting stripers, I used to look for sandbars and the drop-offs behind them—one electrode on the bank, one in the deep. You can find huge fish that way. Biggest one I saw must have been 75 pounds. Couldn't get her in the net. Tore one up, one of those three-foot nets. I had to switch the shocker off and let her go. I decided I couldn't fool with her. The biggest we ever brought in was 56½ pounds.
"This is hazardous duty, man," Shell went on. "Runnin' the shocker, sittin' astraddle 650 volts. You learn pretty quick not to put your hand in the water to try to pick up a fish. You get tingled pretty good that way. But the worst job is on the pickup boat when it runs across the other wake as the shockin' boat is turnin' to hit the fish again. One time a wake flung a pickup boat on its side and it rolled over and sunk. The catcher had a life jacket, though, and didn't he just bob up and catch the fish. That was a man called Paul Loska, and when the tank boat came alongside him, he was treadin' water with a 47-pounder in his net. You have to be a whole group of artists, man."
The DNR hit team operating under the Route 17 bridge proved worthy of that description. Their yelling turned triumphant, and for just the briefest moment they acted as though they were more like sports fishermen than biologists as they hoisted the gleaming silver bulk of their capture high in the net in celebration. After a tough day, that's understandable, but professionalism swiftly took over. The cow striper was eased out of the net into the holding tank and whisked quickly back to Richmond Hill, where Rees was waiting. When he saw the size of the fish, he looked as if he were ready to hand out cigars.
As befits a research biologist, Rees is careful about what he says. But there are times when chauvinistic pride slips out, as when he says, "Us 'turkeys' down here, right?... With no commercial experience, right? We developed the techniques for hatching stripers. States like Pennsylvania have turned to us. There was a Californian here for training. And one day they'll have to go to a program like this in the Northeast."
What Rees is talking about is an environmental paradox. The heartland of the striper empire has always been considered to be Chesapeake Bay and to a lesser degree the Hudson River. In barely more than a decade, the Chesapeake's striper population has radically diminished because of overfishing, acid rain and other pollutants. You can no longer fish stripers, commercially or for sport, anywhere in Maryland, and almost every other state that borders the Atlantic has severe restrictions on the number and size of fish that can be caught because of the species' decline.
Everywhere except in fresh water, that is. The striper, once thought to be a true anadromous fish that spends the majority of its life in salt water but breeds in fresh or brackish water, was found to be able to live, thrive even, in fresh water. Thirty years ago the only such striper water was the Santee-Cooper complex, in South Carolina. Now stripers are found in lakes and reservoirs all over the nation, and the hatchery techniques that stocked those impoundments were developed almost exclusively in the South. They are techniques that may prove vital to the striper's survival as a saltwater fish, the wheel having come full circle.
This means that Georgia's striped bass, a very limited riverine population in no way comparable numerically with the vast schools of fish that once cruised the Chesapeake, has become increasingly important. "Five or 10 years down the road," says Rees, "this is the way we might replenish the marine stock. At the worst, we have a kind of bumper stock here to fall back on. While there might be a revival of the species after the moratorium [Maryland's moratorium encompassing the stripers' Chesapeake breeding grounds], my gut feeling is that we won't see it, and that we might have to look to hatchery fish to restore the striper. The mid-Atlantic and Northeast will look to fish culturists in the South for help in this project."
An examination of the records kept at Richmond Hill shows why. In 1967, the first year "hatching" stripers was attempted, there is this laconic entry: "Tried unsuccessfully." In 1986, though, 4,864,000 little stripers were hatched. Of the 1,135,000 that Richmond Hill kept—the rest were sent to other Georgia hatcheries—39% reached at least the fingerling (two-inch) stage. (The 4,864,000 represents only about a quarter of the fry population produced annually at Richmond Hill, where hybrid fry are the main emphasis.) In biological circles, Rees is given credit for much of this success, although he modestly insists it is a team effort.
That, in turn, explains why spring on the Savannah is such a crucial time. So crucial, indeed, that Rees is able to call in members of the DNR staff from all over the state to work, sometimes 16-hour days, for seven-day shifts when the big cow stripers move into the lower reaches of the Savannah and the Ogeechee to spawn.
The operation is run along virtually military lines, with the scholarly Rees taking on a new persona, that of the tough but fair boot-camp sergeant. "Don't use the hot cycle on the dishwasher when there's somebody in the shower," he orders. "If the steaks come out solidified, don't yell at the cook. Any suggestions, stick a note on the 'fridge door. I'll be along to scratch it out. Check the duty roster, especially the midnight shift. I love to change it...." A wit wants to know if there's an extra allowance for mental anguish. The quip evokes no smile from Rees. These new inductees will work long, hard days on the river and spend sleepless nights on duty at the hatchery itself, constantly checking brood fish to see if the eggs are ripe—the eggs are viable for only 60 minutes. In the little wardroom—each member of the team eats and sleeps in a "barracks" at Richmond Hill during the four-week spawning season—a crew member from past years has written this satirical verse on the bulletin board:
The drone of the pump, on the 12 to 8 shift
Is like music to me, and gives my heart a lift.
On their first day at Richmond Hill, a new group of 15 volunteer-draftees is split into two river teams. One will work the Ogeechee, because the Savannah, in contrast to most years, is still proving to be largely unproductive, while the other will draw duty in the hatchery.
The Ogeechee is very different from the Savannah. Its waters run dark-stained, about the color of strong tea, but they are not opaque. It is one of the last rivers on the East Coast that still flow unimpeded to the sea as nature intended. There is almost no industry on its banks, and there are channels that lead boats into backwaters where the wild rice is head high, and you feel as though you are in a wilderness as remote as any in the world. Until, that is, the rice parts again and before you stands the strange mansion, isolated in the swamp, known as Hermitage Plantation, once a home of Henry Ford.
Shell recalled that a big fish he had just shocked once ran into one of these little creeks. "He come out of the water like a missile," Shell said, "right into the rice shoots. I went in behind him, through a narrow little cut no wider than the boat. When I got through to a wider place, I found a rattler and two wild hogs in there, along with the fish."
This crew of mostly neophyte fish-shockers is hoping it will have no such adventures. Shell has already filled them with horror stories, like the one about the time he shocked a sturgeon. "Nine hundred, a thousand pounds," he said. "Frightened me pretty bad. Biggest I ever saw." Something manageable, around 30 to 40 pounds, is their aim.
Meanwhile, the big drama is happening back at Richmond Hill where, if this were General Hospital, the beepers would be sounding off everywhere. Brood fish No. 18—17½ pounds, 32½ inches—had checked in three nights earlier. She had been weighed, her sex determined and her eggs checked for development. Then she had had a shot of gonadotropin, a hormone that makes the eggs develop faster. Since then, though, like many a mother-to-be before her, she had gone into a holding pattern. Now at last she might be very nearly ripe. Under a microscope, samples of her eggs are displaying a translucent golden hue. With genuine pleasure in his voice, one of the new biologists exclaims, "She's flowing real good! She'll be ready in an hour!"
"A half hour, more like it," says Bill Valentine, the hatchery superintendent, peering into the lens. Both men look into another tank, where a dozen milt-laden potential fathers swim, all tiny in comparison with the cow striper. Two of the males make the cut and are put into a smaller tank that contains an anesthetic. The female gets a shot of a tranquilizer, which takes three or four minutes to work ("You could get your knuckles well beat up against a tank wall by a big striper," says Valentine). In a few minutes the first of the eggs are stripped by hand from the female into a bowl. Then a technician releases milt from the male fish over them, producing a greenish, cloudy mixture like a rich pea soup, which is ladled into jars of chilled water. Brood fish No. 18 produces 18 ounces of eggs, around 450,000 of them. Now she will have 24 hours in the recovery room—the tank she had come from—before she is returned to the river. When she is put back into the tank, she alarmingly rolls belly up and turns scarlet. A biologist fits her into a kind of plastic foam life vest which keeps her upright, but in minutes she has shrugged it off. She is going to be all right. In seven days her eggs will be fry large enough to be introduced into the stock ponds out on the grounds of Richmond Hill, and in a month some will be perfect, two-inch-long stripers.
Not until dark do the shocking crews return from the Ogeechee, and they too are jubilant. The day's total is 11 fish. Shell has materialized again. He looks on as Rees transfers the last of the captured fish to a holding tank.
"Take care," he says. "That's a precious cargo." It's a statement that America's 25 million anglers would endorse with all their hearts.