Another smallmouth rises from the softly flowing waters of the Rock River to sting the plastic being offered by Tom Beyer on a still and humid August afternoon. This fish though, is even better than a pair of 16- inch fish and a score of other bronzebacks that had already entertained Beyer over just an hour on the water before being gently released back into the current to fight another day.
“Oh, this is a nice fish,” Beyer says softly as a bowed rod adds an exclamation point to the statement and the fish continues to stay tight to the bottom rip-rock. “This big girl has got some shoulders. They’re so healthy here. The Rock River is as good as I’ve seen in Wisconsin when we’re talking smallmouth bass, and I’ve fished the Black, the Chippewa… Namekagon…”
Eventually, the largest fish of the day at 18 inches, two inches shy of Beyer’s largest, surrenders to a lot of finesse and 6-pound test. A fabulous hour of fishing is in the books. Despite searing mid-day temperatures in the eighties, the fish have cooperated. And this reporter, who had done nothing but stand in knee deep water to capture the show with a camera and notebook, is sold. The Rock River Rescue, built on a foundation of time and patience, has breathed new life into a tributary seemingly on life support just 15 years before.
The Rock historically had potential as a quality fishery. Beyer remembers as a teenager in his parents’ furniture business listening to the tales of an old timer revisiting smallmouth trips to the river in the 1930s. By the 1970s though, the DNR had been compelled to poison the Rock with rotenone in an effort to eradicate a strangling carp population and had stocked the water with gamefish to jump start the river. Beyer would take his bike as a high schooler and catch enough smallies from the Watertown bridges to stimulate thoughts of what might be.
By the early 2000s, the question bantered about in a local baitshop with eventual Rock River Rescue co-founder Leonard Pochowski had evolved to ”What can we do about the river?” Which evolved to a single bucket being placed for donations outside the local Farm & Fleet and addressing virtually anyone who would listen about the need to revitalize the Rock. “People told us the river was so polluted we were wasting our time,” Beyer said. “They said any gamefish stocked would swim down to Lake Koshkonong. They said the carp would eat the gamefish fry. It’s nice to see none of that happened.”
At its inception, the founders envisioned attracting maybe five new members annually to the Rock River Rescue and raising hopefully $500 annually toward collective efforts to improve the fishery. Fifteen years later, membership stands at about 75, who bring in $30,000 for their rejuvenation efforts. Their focus is 60 miles of the Rock from Lake Sinnissippi to the approximate 150-acre Watertown mill pond. With vital advice and assistance from the DNR, Wisconsin Chapter of the Isaac Walton League of America, the Gollon Bait & Fish Farm of Dodgeville, and many other individuals and organizations, Rock River Rescue sets it sights primarily on stocking gamefish and removing rough fish.
“Improving habitat was an early priority,” Beyer said in the current, “but as you can see the fish do fine without our help.” Removing rough fish, he said, included a public awareness effort that encourages anglers to place any carp caught in receptacles located for that purpose and a Cash for Carp day that pays a bounty of $1 per each carp removed from the water. Beyer points to the decline in the harvest from approximately 1,000 fish and $1,000 payout the first years of the event, to perhaps 80 to 300 fish in more recent years as a sure sign that the rough fish are on the way out. Manmade efforts were assisted by nature when a Koi Herpes virus that affects only carp eliminated a DNR-estimated 80 percent of the Rock carp population in 2013. Any carp remaining from fry to adult also face predators from bluegill to flathead cats stocked specifically to help control further the population.
With the pump ready for priming, gamefish are stocked utilizing the expertise of Gollon Bait & Fish Farm. On average, 3,000 smallmouth bass are stocked annually, 3,000 walleyes, 500 to 750 northern pike, and 300 muskies. A bucket-brigade is formed to escort the 4-6-inch extended growth gamefish from the Gollon fisheries truck to the Rock during the single-day effort. Still, Beyer, an avid fisherman frequently seeking hard evidence of improvement with a rod and reel, remained unconvinced after many years that the collective efforts were working at all. Channel cats remained virtually his only catches.
“I called Tim Gollon and told him that there was nothing here as far as gamefish were concerned,” Beyer said. “I just didn’t think it was working. He said ‘The river is healthy. You have to give it time.’ He knows his stuff. About five years ago, there was an explosion of the gamefish population.” Standing in the Rock on a scorching August afternoon, Beyer’s hope has been replaced by the knowledge that fishermen will catch and release quality smallmouth on the Rock. He credits a simple and concerted effort by people and organizations helping the Rock River Rescue. And he invites the generations to follow to carry the baton further. “It’s very cool to see the kids carry the buckets of fish to the river on stocking day,” he said. “If you’re 20 years old you don’t know what it’s like not to have fish in the river.
They’re welcome to make it even better. We’re hoping to find people of like minds. There’s been no egos, no trained biologists or anything like that on our Board, just a simple, fantastic, collective effort of a lot of people. Every lake association in Wisconsin could do this. It just takes time and effort. A healthy river is beneficial to everyone. The local bait shop, the restaurants and gas stations and motels from people coming here to fish.”
“We were trying to build an ecosystem where there was none,” he said. “But what’s happened here on the Rock River is beyond my wildest dreams.”
The Rock River Rescue annual benefit including live and silent auctions, gun boards and a livewell full of fun will be held on October 6 at Turner Hall in Watertown beginning at 5:30 pm with dinner at 7 pm. Cost is $35.00. Connect with www.rockriverrescue.org , Facebook, or Tom Beyer at 920-988-6965 for more information.
Hatchery Efforts Along The Rock River in Wisconsin
The Rock River Rescue Foundation was founded in 2002 to improve the aquatic ecosystem of the river within the Watertown City limits. The funds we raise are used for fish stocking, habitat improvement, education and handicap access to the river. www.rockriverrescue.org
Bark River Fish Hatchery – The Bark River Hatchery is located in a small building on the Bark River, a tributary of the Rock River in Fort Atkinson, WI. About 50 million fish have hatched there and have been released since the early 1990s. Learn more