KANKAKEE, Ill.–“I would say the most exciting thing we ever dipped was a beaver,’’ J.R. Black said. “And I was screaming, `Turn him loose, turn him loose.’ Catfish have a black tail, too, and they thought it was a catfish.

“When he came up you saw nothing of the beaver, all you saw was teeth.’’

That’s the most exciting creature Black, executive director of the Northern Illinois Anglers Association, remembers of fish-tagging days over the decades for the Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby.

Tagging fish for the Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby. Credit: Dale Bowman

Tagging fish for the Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby.
Credit: Dale Bowman

The 33rd derby started Friday and runs through July 10. Fish tagging was Wednesday at Bird Park. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources helps collect fish for the tagged fish part of the derby.

For the last eight to 10 years, I’ve taken members of our church youth group to help carry nets from the boats to the tubs in a Reed’s rental truck. The truth is my altruism is more being intrigued by the fish stories.

“We get odd fish, drum,’’ said Black, who for a rare year stayed on shore. “We get gremlins, that’s what I call bowfin. The biggest thing was a gar one time. I have never seen one that big.

“I have seen fish that were amazing. Even the biologists were amazed when we turned a [huge] walleye down by the metro sewage. The two biologists said it would have been a state record.’’

This year one shocking boat had fisheries biologists Rob Miller and Blake Bushman and new Olivet-Nazarene University zoology professor Derek Rosenberger. The other boat had streams specialist Steve Pescitelli, retired IDNR fisheries chief Debbie Bruce and Mark Meents, Braidwood-Mazonia site superintendent.

The 38-inch flathead was big fish for tagging day at the Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby. Credit: Dale Bowman

The 38-inch flathead was big fish for tagging day at the Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby.
Credit: Dale Bowman

In recent years, several changes are notable. The program to stock walleye from native river stock is working. With the increased sand load in the river, largemouth bass numbers are up. Flathead catfish, which used to be only below the Wilmington dam, have made a resurgence in other parts of the river. Black thinks they may have to open a category for them in the derby.

A 38-inch flathead, estimated at 24 pounds, was the highlight this year. Two years ago, a 27-pound flathead set the mark for tagging day. Flatheads are what most stick in Miller’s memory.

Most fish were the usual river ones: Smallmouth bass, largemouth, drum, flatheads, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill, bowfin, redhorse and other suckers, and carp.

Meents said his most memorable day was when the water was high. Fish were tight to the bank and they shocked up 125 fish quickly. A thick 36-inch northern pike is the individual he most remembered.

Pescitelli said his most memorable are the American eels, of which there have been several in recent years.

“It is just an incredible journey [thousands of miles] they make,’’ he said.

Northern hogsucker from tagging day at Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby. Credit: Dale Bowman

Northern hogsucker from tagging day at Kankakee River Valley Fishing Derby. Credit: Dale Bowman

Black said retired streams biologist Bob Rung would get excited about obscure minnows and the eels.

My favorite fish Wednesday was the northern hogsucker, which Emilie Janes took to go into the tank inside Reed Hall of Science at Olivet-Nazarene. Fans coming to Bears training camp can look at the huge tank before or after practice.

“It is amazing how good our fishery is considering the sand load in the river,’’ said Black, acknowledging the cloud on the horizon.