How do you stock a 3,500-gallon tank full of fish at the DuPage County Fair?
Dan Grigas could not leave this fishing expedition to chance.
A fish ecologist for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Grigas and his crew had one morning of fishing to stock a 3,500-gallon tank for a popular educational exhibit returning to the DuPage County Fair.
Their outing began early Tuesday at Silver Lake in Blackwell Forest Preserve near Warrenville. Now, they could have dipped their lines into the 62-acre lake with the hopes of catching the elusive big ones. But why risk a shutout?
"My friends always tell me that every fish I catch is a cheater fish because I'm not catching it on a rod and wheel," Grigas said.
The farm animals receive most of the attention from the pens and show ring during the fair's five-day run that starts Wednesday at 2015 Manchester Road in Wheaton. But it takes just as much care and preparation to transport live fish from their natural environment to one of the more offbeat exhibits at the fairgrounds.
So Grigas and his team took the path of least resistance aboard an electrofishing rig that launched from the shores of Silver Lake. The vessel is equipped with a generator to produce fields of current in the water and lure fish out of the depths and into fiberglass nets without metal handles.
"They are attracted to that current," said Grigas, who uses the technique to survey fish populations. "They swim toward it, and then when they get in that field, they get stunned. They roll over, and we can actually net them."
But even with all the bells and whistles, fishing is, and always will be, a frustrating sport. Grigas and his crew faced less-than-ideal conditions with a surface water temperature of about 81 degrees, pretty warm for the cooler-water species such as northern pike, walleye and yellow perch.
"The electricity that's generated that stuns the fish, it only gets about six, seven feet deep," Grigas said. "And right now the water temperature is so warm that a lot of the fish species are down deeper."
Still, on their first run around the perimeter of the lake, the crew caught about 75 fish, snaring "quite a few" largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and yellow and black bullhead, Grigas said.
"This lake also has quite a few different fish species that we have in the county, so our chance of catching something unique when compared to the rest of the county is higher here," Grigas said.
He hopes county fair audiences who peer into the fish tank come away with a deeper appreciation of the natural resources at Blackwell and other forest preserves and go on to engage with the outdoors.
"We manage over 30 lakes and ponds for game and nongame fish, and a lot of these places are right in these folks' backyards, and they don't even know about it," Grigas said. "So it's a good opportunity to let the public see what we do have."
Grigas turned over his haul to Katie Montgomery, who travels to fairs around the country to educate her audience about native species and fishing tactics. In Wheaton, she will operate the tank and give fishing demonstrations between the animal barns and the grandstands until the end of the fair and the fish are returned to Silver Lake.
"The bluegill that are in there right now are probably some of the prettiest-colored blue gill I've seen," said Montgomery, who works for The Hawg Troughs, a tank supplier in Ohio.
Jim McGuire, executive manager of the DuPage County Fair Association, contacted the company to bring back a fish tank after a hiatus. He's always been impressed by the selection of fish and still marvels at the northern pike that was netted one year in unusually shallow waters, apparently because it was spawning.
"It was a female northern, 46 inches long, in Blackwell," McGuire said, almost in disbelief.
Grigas wanted that kind of shock value and a few more fish with size. So he did what all optimistic anglers do: He headed back out on the water.
DuPage County FairWhen: Wednesday, July 24, through Sunday, July 28
Where: DuPage County Fairgrounds, 2015 Manchester Road, Wheaton
Admission: Kids free Wednesday; seniors free before 3 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; $15 for adults; $8 for kids 3 to 12 Thursday through Sunday; and free for kids 2 and younger
Info: (630) 668-6636 or dupagecountyfair.org