The Man Who Loved to Move Fish
by Mary Thill
Twelve thousand years ago, after the retreat of the last glacier but before there were forests, the Adirondacks were roamed by giant bison, giant beavers and giant elk that grazed on low-growing tundra plants. Those animals were hunted by the first humans in the region.
Those humans “also probably fished and may have (because man has the propensity) stocked some of the more upland lakes toward improving the harvest for their next annual visit from the south,” Carl George, professor emeritus of biology at Union College, wrote in “The Fishes of the Adirondack Park,” a 1981 report for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
I’ve never seen it put so succinctly: people move fish because we have the propensity. The person who expanded the reach of that propensity more than anyone in the Adirondacks was Seth Green. Green established the first fish hatchery in the United States, near Rochester, NY, in 1864. He’s also the guy who mated speckled trout with lake trout to give us splake, and he was a big advocate of raising and eating carp.
In any case, he is credited, or blamed, for introducing smallmouth bass to high-altitude, interior Adirondack lakes. The evidence is in the hotel register of Forge House, a former hostelry in Old Forge. “Here Seth Green, then fish culturist of the New York Fish Commission, set down in writing in 1872 what is doubtless the first authentic record of the introduction of small-mouthed bass into Raquette Lake,” according to “A Biological Survey of the Raquette Watershed,” a 1933 report of the New York State Conservation Department.
Put 31 Black Bass in Raquette Lake Jan 18, 1872
4200 white fish
4200 w fish in Little Moose Lake, Jan 18, 1872
Any one shall [? illegible] take any of these fish will pleas [sic] put them back.
“In those early days, fish culture was in its infancy. The enthusiasts of the time were given to experimenting not only with bass but with other species so that many waters were unwittingly and often unwisely stocked for all time,” the 1933 report stated.
Partly in reaction to the advent of railroads and the tourist trade in the 1870s, “The streams and lakes were overwhelmed with sport and commercial fishermen, and the result of all the foregoing was the decline of fish populations in turn engendering a nearly maniacal hatching and stocking program,” George wrote.
“Yellow perch, smallmouth and largemouth basses, the northern pike, the chain pickerel, the rock bass, the whitefish, brown trout, Atlantic salmon, rainbow trout and many other species were then almost endlessly dumped upon the Adirondack upland.”
As for the brook trout, round whitefish and other species that had adapted over a relatively stable period of 11,000 years? They “were thoroughly scrambled, often resulting in stunted, ragged fish, or no fish at all.”
Today smallmouth and largemouth bass are present in many if not most Adirondack lakes, and really most lakes anywhere in the United States. In the shifting baseline of what successive generations consider normal, the popularity of bass fishing has created its own clientele. It’s important to know, though, what went before.