Storm spawns mysterious fish in driveways

The wackiest stories to come out of Monday's storm revolve around the mystery of how fish ended up on suburban driveways.

When a Stevenson High School senior on Monday sent us photos of a couple of fish he found on his driveway in Buffalo Grove after the storm, I couldn't stop myself from speculating in print about “raining fish.” However, I accepted a meteorologist's suggestion that the fish could have been dropped by birds caught in the storm as a perfectly plausible explanation.

Then I received more photos showing piles of fish, eight to 12 at a time, plopped on driveways in the Brookside Estate subdivision in Gurnee.

“Right around 8 o'clock things blew through and it looked pretty crazy,” remembers Jeff Chahley, a 47-year-old senior director of sustainability for Kraft Foods who was home that morning when the storm hit. “We had some trees down. Our neighbors had some missing siding.”

The storm canceled swim lessons for neighbor Hailey Royce, who turns 7 next month, so she and her dad, Dave, returned to their home just as folks were stepping outside to survey the storm's damage.

“There were some downed trees. The furniture in our back yard was now in our front yard,” says Dave Royce, 43, who works as president of National Auto Sport Association Midwest. “And then Hailey said, ‘Why are there fish over there?'”

Royce and Chahley were surprised to see the girl was on to something.

“Well, I guess you are right. There are fish,” the dad said.

“There's another pile over there,” Chahley added.

And another in the street.

“If it was a bird, it was an awfully big bird carrying two dozen fish around,” a skeptical Royce quips.

OK. Maybe a fisherman in the neighborhood left his bait bucket on top of his car and it was blown off by the storm.

“I do fish, but I think I'm the only one,” Chahley says, to discredit that theory.

Maybe the fish flew out of a windblown garbage can.

“I like to investigate things. These fish were incredibly fresh. They weren't from someone's trash,” Royce says.

A transport plane hauling smelt to Wisconsin dumped its load when the storm hit? Aliens collecting Earth species chucked them overboard when the fish refused to take anyone to their leader?

“Those look like the local shad we have in our rivers, a small herring, American shad, probably genus Alosa,” emails Mark W. Westneat, curator of zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History after he sees the photos. “Not sure how they got on driveways. People buy them in bait shops by the dozen, so it might be a joke.”

The cynical reporter in me appreciates Westneat's theory, but the fish arrived during the quick and unexpected storm and that Gurnee neighborhood isn't one prone to pranksters. “I think they were picked up by a waterspout,” Chahley says, adding that the fish “for the most part” were “still intact and still fresh.”

As reported in Tuesday's fish tale, there are cases of small fish and frogs being caught in a powerful updraft, sucked from water and deposited on land, but that is rare. Westneat deems it “beyond probability” that winds stacked the fish. While winds during the storm reached gusts of 80 mph, there were no reports of tornadoes or any winds capable of toting fish.

“It takes a considerable amount of lift to lift things out of the water,” says Pat Slattery, the National Weather Service spokesman for Illinois and 13 other states in the central part of our nation. Hail rides the updraft, getting bigger and bigger before it falls to earth, but no one ever talks about hail the size of a bucket of five-inch-long fish.

“I always hearken back to what some old weather service employee told me years ago,” Slattery says, referring to his days as a reporter 30 years ago when he was the one calling sources for help writing his weather stories. “When you are dealing with the weather, you never say always and never say never.”

But he can say the idea of our storm delivering fish is highly improbable. Which brings us back to fish-eating birds, such as seagulls.

“A lot of times when they are startled, they regurgitate or drop fish they've caught,” says Don LaBrose, a fisheries biologist with the DuPage County Forest Preserve.

A gull startled enough to drop its front load probably would have left evidence from the back end, figures a dubious Royce, who doesn't seem to buy the theory that a flock of seagulls lost their lunch. But one thing is certain.

“It is,” Royce concludes, “kind of a fun story compared to ones about all the damage around.”

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This mess of fish arrived on a driveway in Gurnee during Monday’s storm. Courtesy of Jeff Chahley
If Monday’s winds weren’t strong enough to move these fish onto land, maybe nervous seagulls delivered them. Courtesy of Jeff Chahley
No one knows for sure how several 5-inch fish ended up on a Buffalo Grove driveway after Monday’s storm.
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