July 13, 2006

Silence of the Clams

The catch of the day

My fishin' buddy has a knack for catching clams. (More likely mussels. There are 49 species of mussel in the Mississippi, but only four species of clam.)

While this doesn't seem like much, it makes him as happy as... well... a clam. (Not sure how the clams feels about it. They were pretty tight lipped.)

Any time we're able to pull at least some sort of critter out of the water, no matter how big or small, it's all good.

How he manages to catch these clams is a mystery. My best guess is that the clams are doing their clam thing on the bottom with their shells partially open, and he manages to drag his hook across them and the clam, annoyed, clamps down on the hook and it gets snagged.

In my years of fishing around here, I've caught eels (twice), sturgeon, bowfin, gar, snapping turtles, and every sort of odd creature you could imagine, but never a clam.

The first lunker clam my pal caught was in Sylvan slough a few years ago. He was ecstatic and wanted to keep it as a pet. I debated, not sure whether the clam would chew the furniture or be easily house broken. I finally decided to compromise and at least take it home so he could show it off. Then, I figured, I'd return the clam to whence he came.

This wasn't a great idea.

I emptied the cooler and filled it with some yummy slough water for the clam, not easy with a steep rock bank, and we fished for perhaps another half hour before eventually leaving for home.

I was a bit worried about the health of the clam, as the day was hot, and on the way home, I thought better of the idea and decided to stop off behind the Moline water works where I knew there was a clam bed. I thought we could put him in the water there and observe it, see if it opened up or showed any signs of life. Maybe it would at least revive the clam enough to take it back to it's home.

We watched it for a long time. Nothing. Two of us crouched on the river's edge staring at a motionless clam for about a half hour. Concern mounted.

I tried to say hopeful things to my buddy to ease his (our) concerns, but I harbored doubts. Surely after this amount of time, it would have opened up at least a little.

I felt very bad about it, and not knowing exactly what to do, I gently convinced the clam hunter that we should leave the clam there. I told him that the clam was probably alright, though I wasn't too sure.

I once caught a catfish, wrapped it in some newspapers and put it in my trunk where it stayed in probably 100 degree plus temperatures for several hours. This was back when I actually cleaned, prepared, and ate some of my catch, which I no longer do. (strictly catch and release) When I finally got home to my then apartment, I hauled it in and prepared to clean it. And the thing was STILL alive and kicking. (well, flopping)

Clams aren't like that I found.

So I took my buddy home. We told the story of the amazing clam he'd caught in breathless tones, and relived the excitement. But the clam was weighing on my mind.

After going home and taking care of some things, I got online and did some research. I knew that clams were protected, and I found out that if you take a clam, you should return them to the spot you found it. Different species of clams establish beds over several years, and introducing other species can upset the balance of things.

I read more about how dredging, agricultural runoff, barge traffic, and other factors are posing severe threats to mussels. They are truly the canary in the coal mine for river health.

But despite all these threats, they've hung on, though in dramatically smaller numbers and only attaining a fraction of the size they used to. But now, the invasive Zebra Mussel threatens to wipe them out entirely.

The mussel we caught yesterday had many of them attached to it's shell, which I removed before returning it to the water. The Zebra mussel is an enormous threat to midwest rivers and apparently has escaped the notice of our environmentalist state senator, perhaps because it's such a difficult problem and there's no money to be made in trying to eradicate it.

So after reading up on the issue, I couldn't take it anymore. I had to go check on the clam and at least return it to the spot where we'd caught it.

It was now after midnight. But I got up, drove down behind the waterworks, hoping maybe the clam had revived and moved off, but not too confident that was the case. With a flashlight, I eventually found it in the water where we'd left it. I put it in the cooler in some fresh river water, and loaded the thing gently in the car.

I drove back to the Sylvan slough, which those familiar with that area know is a pretty remote spot in an industrial no-man's zone. At night, it's very spooky, to put it mildly.

But I got out and walked onto the ancient iron bridge over the rushing water of the slough which is the only access to the island. While on the bridge, I noticed the glow of a fire by the side of the river up the channel near my destination. I hoped that whoever was there wasn't some gang of crack addicts who would look upon someone like me stumbling up on them as a gift from God.

I continued onto the darkened island which over the years has been the home of vagrants, drunks, gangs, and on which more than one body has been found.

It's been improved in the last few years, with widened paths, fishing platforms, and other very nice improvements. But it's still damn spooky in the middle of the night.
The bottom line is that there's no one there to help, if you were attacked or severely injured, you'd have a loooong way to go to even get off the island, no one would even hear you if you screamed or yelled, and if you couldn't move, no one might find you for days.

With all this in the back of my mind, I walked up the path flanked by tall weeds and a steep bluff leading down to rushing water on one side, and dark tangled woods laced with paths on the other, and I'll tell you, I was, shall we say, ON EDGE. A snap of a twig would have given me a heart attack. It was just plain scary. And I had about two hundred yards to go to get to the place we'd gotten the clam. And who knew who was up there? But I was on a mission, damn it.

I kept going, carrying the cooler and trying to convince myself that I could deal with whatever I might come upon.

I got to the area with only a couple jumpy moments, and didn't see anyone around the fire. This was good and bad. At least if they were there, I could keep an eye on them. I didn't know if they were in the dark around there watching me or what. Had they left with the fire still going? Where were they? (I never did see anyone)

I went out on the fishing platform where we'd caught the clam, opened the cooler, fished out the clam, which had likely gone to the big clam bed in the sky by this time, and tossed it back into the slough. Then I hoped that I didn't see anyone standing there when I turned back around.

I didn't.

I squared my shoulders and just --- kept ---- walking. I couldn't help but steal a few glances back over my shoulder as I made my way back to the bridge, but thankfully, I couldn't see anything in the gloom.

I resisted the impulse to run the last distance to the car, calmly unlocked the door, and got in. But boy, I never felt such relief as when I finally locked the door behind me.

But at least I knew that the clam was where it was supposed to be. Aside from it having apparently joined the choir eternal, things were put right.

We didn't make the same mistake with the clam yesterday, and quickly returned it to the water. Good thing, as it looks like it may have been a Higgin's Eye, which is a federally endangered species and threatened with extinction. (more here)

The moral of the story? Don't take clams out of the water for long on a hot day. They'll die.

And don't go out on Sylvan Island in the middle of the night by yourself.

You might run into some crazy person carrying a clam in a cooler.


At 7/13/2006 9:33 AM, Blogger Scott said...

This may have movie of the week potential.

The only thing I have ever caught at Sylvan Island are snags.

At 7/13/2006 11:24 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

Yeah... I can see a movie.

Maybe "Clams on a Plane"???

And you're right about Sylvan slough, it's very snaggy.

If the channel were ever drained, I'm sure it would be carpeted about a foot deep with lead and fishing lures. (and God knows what else)

Due to it's rocky bottom and walls and swift current, it's a good spot for walleye at certain times of year.

There's also some other large fish that get stacked up against the power dam.

I've never had great luck there, though I've caught some walleye, gar and a few channel cat.

At 7/13/2006 11:41 AM, Blogger DookOfURL said...

Good story, well told.

At 7/13/2006 12:28 PM, Blogger CaringDem2 said...

Great story! It sounds like something i would do... risk my life for a clam. I can't even kill a spider and I'm extremely scared of spiders! i catch them and let them go outside. (and i'm sure they just come back into my house) :)

At 7/14/2006 12:48 PM, Blogger QuadCityImages said...

I've always been curious how many permanent residents Sylvan Island has, just judging from all the old firepits I see while mountain biking over there.

On the clam side however, its interesting that you posted this yesterday, because a woman just drowned in Davenport while clamming. Obviously some people don't share your concern for clam survival.

At 7/14/2006 6:40 PM, Blogger maybesomeday said...

And to think the folks in Davenport Iowa don't know this information...The Corps of ENgineers approved moving the Riverboat over a few hundred yards despite the fact that they had explained their reservations even though it will disturb a very established valuable clam bed at the edge of the water where the old "Dock" restaurant stands now....

Progress my friends at the expense of the environment is bad and sad...isn't that what Al Gore's movie is trying to explain to us all?

At 7/14/2006 8:05 PM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

I just saw that story moments ago QCI. Very weird and very tragic.

And yes, it appears that some people are still trying to raid clam beds. I guess for some people, clam meat is still a part of their cuisine. I'm not sure why they'd be out in the river trying to get them otherwise, unless they make something out of their shells or were doing it just for the heck of it.

As to Sylvan Island, I know that it's been a haven for the homeless, vagrants, drunks and others for years. I mean, if you ever wanted to go somewhere where you'd be utterly and totally alone, that would be it.

Before the massive efforts to clean up the island, it was even more wild and spooky, with plenty of evidence of little camps, old nasty mattresses, endless garbage, etc.

Suffice it to say that if you found yourself sleeping on Sylvan Island, you had pretty much hit rock bottom and then some.

I simply can't imagine what would have happened to someone to have them reduced to living like that, though I'm sure that it's much easier to end up in that shape than we may imagine.

And I'm sure that to some, having a place like that to stay was probably considered a good thing, away from jail, homeless shelters, mental hospitals, or whatever.

At any rate, as you know, it's pretty creepy to wander the paths back among the remains and ruins of the steel mills and other industry that once occupied the island, leaving a network of overgrown concrete foundations and other refuse, and spot all these secluded and hidden spots with evidence that someone had been staying there.

Before it was picked up, it was really wild, with literally tons of garbage all over. Around the banks, there were the nasty garbage left by fisherman, many of whom drive here from as far away as Chicago to fish: styrofoam bait containers, wrappers for tackle, line, etc. and spiderwebs of fishing line everywhere, including power lines over the slough turned into curtains of snagged fishing line with various lures, bobbers, and sinkers hanging from the ends.

To go into the interior of the island was a very creepy thing even in mid-day. You literally didn't know what you'd find, aside from being assured of finding dozens of cheap liquor bottles and beer cans.

I know that there have been bodies found there at various times as well.

But after a huge effort, including a lot of volunteer effort and years of planning and fund raising by a group calling itself "The Sylvan Island Dreamers", the island was turned into a pleasant and attractive place, with nice signage explaining the fish and flora of the island, and groomed paths, fishing platforms, etc.

But within two years, vandals had managed to spray paint gang graffitti on most of it and damage the rest. It's truly sad.


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