As a kid, my dad convinced my siblings and I to give our mom a fishing pole as a Mother’s Day gift several years in a row. Of course, we thought it was a great idea since it meant we’d be doing plenty of fishing, but Mom wasn’t as enthusiastic.
Aside from the obvious fact that it had become a gag gift, fishing, something that should be relaxing and rewarding, was work for my mom. Why? She was the only one who could take the bullheads we’d catch off the line without getting stung by the barbs on their fins. With five kids casting lines, that’s a lot of bullheads.
Green, stinky and gross
Catching a bullhead isn’t that exciting, but it was the only thing that lived in our pond.
I grew up on a homestead farm in south-central Wisconsin, 200 acres of fields, wetlands and woodlands. And a spring-fed pond that, through my youth, was either surrounded by crops or cattle. The land, my dad would say, was too valuable to let lie fallow. While there are bottom-line benefits to our hardworking farmers for planting more corn or allowing cattle to graze freely, doing so within yards of a water body can have devastating effects on its ecosystem.
And that’s why Mom spent her summer nights handling the bullheads.
In the 1980s, crop farming included heavy doses of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, which contain phosphorus. Cow manure also contains a large amount of phosphorus. A nutrient for plants, phosphorus gets picked up rainwater or snowmelt and is washed off fields into neighboring water bodies and waterways. In the water, it causes overgrowth of aquatic plants and algae; algal blooms can be dangerous to humans, pets and aquatic life. As these algal blooms grow and cover water’s surface and eventually die and decay, creating a blanket that blocks sunlight from entering the water. This kills the plants below and reduces oxygen, food and shelter for fish.
Species like bullheads, suckers, redhorse and carp, dubbed “rough fish” and undesirable to most anglers, can live in these subpar waters; some, like bullheads, can thrive on little oxygen and even live on the algae and fish that die because of the warm, stinking habitat created by these blooms. In the ’80s, when our family spent many summer nights and weekend afternoons at the pond, it had become a haven for bullheads. By the 1990s, after years of being inundated with phosphorus-filled runoff from the fields and cattle and around the same time my four siblings and I couldn’t stand to spend time with one another, the pond had become a green, gross, stinking mess.
Like our pond, phosphorus is devastating prime fishing waters around the state; here’s an interesting map from the DNR on waters and watersheds that have been impaired by the stuff. In 2010, a set of state rules were adopted that would cost effectively reduce the amount of phosphorus entering our waterways and, over time, greatly improve and protect water quality. Though it’s a non-budget item, Gov. Scott Walker wants to delay implementation of this set of vital phosphorus rules for two years in budget bill. This delay is harmful and unnecessary; communities are already committed and coming together to clean up their waterways.
Back at the farm, the pond is slowly recovering; some time in the late 1990s, my dad came around to the fact that heavy fertilizers were a bad choice (and getting extremely expensive) and he moved the pasture away from the pond. But cleaning up a water body is no easy task; it takes years for phosphorus to cycle through its ecosystem. We need action today, not two years from now.
It really stinks to fish in a green lake (or pond, as it were). Don’t believe it? I’m sure my mom would be happy to teach you how to take a bullhead off the line without getting stunned. It will be a valuable skill in the future if we don’t take polluted runoff and phosphorus pollution seriously.
–Contributed by Amanda Wegner, Media Specialist