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Fish rescuers on a mission

July 08, 1997


Staff Writer

"Yee-ha, look at this," shouted Butch Ward as he manhandled a 5-pound largemouth bass.

"Com'on over here and put him in the bucket. Now, run on back. Get him to that oxygen, fast," Ward told 13-year-old Josh Fiedler, who responded with precision.

Scenes like this one Tuesday at Little Conococheague Creek were part of a two-day mission of mercy that saved more than 6,000 bass, catfish, carp and sunfish from the creek's dangerously stagnant waters.

Ben Smith, the area's wildlife manager said last month's draw down of Blairs Valley Lake - done to repair cracks and holes in the dam's concrete control tower - pushed a lot of fish into Little Conococheague Creek below.


Under normal circumstances, the water would have carried them to the Potomac River, Smith said. But the drought turned the creek into a shallow, murky and oxygen-starved habitat.

There the fish would have died, had it not been for Josh Fielder, who came to the creek Friday.

"I caught a few fish and realized they were in trouble," he said. Stomach abrasions - a sign of distress - told Fielder something was up.

"My son was so upset when he saw the fish were dying. So we came down with friends and saved them," said Debbie Fiedler, Josh's mom, who was part of an initial rescue mission Josh organized for Saturday.

They caught 200 fish using poles and nets. One by one, the team ran the fish up and over the dam wall, tossing them into the deep, fresh waters of Blairs Valley Lake.

But the number of fish that needed moving far outnumbered the resources and equipment of Fiedler's rescue workers.

So they called Ward, a legendary bass fisherman and conservation expert, and vice president of the Maryland Bass Federation.

The fish "would not have survived if it weren't for Josh and the kids going in and saving them," said Ward, who called the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

On Monday and Tuesday, the DNR, Ward and Josh's team of teenage missionaries went to the creek with the goal of moving fish.

On Tuesday, Ward and two natural resources officers trudged through swamp-like waters in rubber waders up to their midriffs. One officer, John Milligan, wore a backpack of high-voltage electric currents that he directed into the water to stun the fish just long enough for them to be caught.

Meanwhile, a dozen teenagers formed a bucket brigade that carried the recovering and thrashing fish out of the water to 50-gallon bins on the shore.

They began at the outside of the creek's deeper waters, scaring the fish upriver and blockading them with a white net that stretched across the creek.

Milligan sent electric currents through the water, slowing the fish down long enough to be caught, some by hand, others with nets.

One 40-pound carp's dorsal fin surfaced like a shark in the ocean. "Wow, look at that one," said an awestruck youth.

"All right, get all the buckets down here. Let's go. You can look at the fish later," Ward commanded, as the boys lingered over their catch in the bins on shore.

"Come on. These fish have to get to the water," said Milligan, who came out of the water and paced around the truck as he waited for a 10-pound carp that 14-year-old Richie Nicewarner was carrying by the gills.

More than 6,000 fish were hauled by truck in 50 gallon bins to the lake.

"When you get used to fishing and hunting and knowing the wildlife, it's upsetting to see these fish distressed," Ward said. "Josh got it all going, making phone calls and getting people out here."

To say Ward loves fishing would be an understatement. Since the 1970s, he has won more than 20 bass tournaments. In 1987, he was named national bass man of the year.

Last year, after severe flooding, he spearheaded a similar fish rescue mission on the Potomac that earned him the distinction of conversation man of the year.

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