Ken Russell: More than half a century, fisheries biologist

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Ken Russell received a hands-on introduction to working as a fisheries biologist for Illinois his first day on the job, Nov. 1, 1962.

“Ken was to report for his first day of work to his boss’s residence in Sterling,’’ is the way Mike Conlin, longest serving fisheries chief in Illinois history, tells it. “As Ken approached the address he had been given he observed two guys (whom he later learned were his boss, the regional fisheries biologist, and the fisheries technician for Region 1) having a terrible knock down drag out fight in the front yard.

“Seeing this, Ken did not stop but drove around a while and then returned to find the fight had ended. What an introduction to your job with the Department, huh?’’

And introduction to Russell’s touted people skills.

Russell, 76, just retired with 53 years and 8 months on the job, a feat unlikely to be approached again. He planned to work for a year or two more, but a debilitating aneurysm last year changed that. Russell is featured on Illinois’ fishing regulations cover.

“The day before the aneurysm struck he and two other biologists sampled a lake, conducting electrofishing runs, and setting and lifting nets,’’ emailed Dan Stephenson, current fisheries chief.

I value Russell’s toughness and longevity.

As good as Russell’s pond management was, his people skills were even more valued.

“Our boss, regional biologist Leo Rock, always referred to Ken as old silver tongue,’’ emailed Conlin, who started nine years after Russell. “He referred to him that way because Ken just had a way with people.’’

Whether a pond owner, a local mayor or a Springfield bureaucrat, Russell knew how to talk to them.

“He was a master at convincing people that he spoke the truth and that he knew what he was talking about . . . he never told anyone that, they just came to that conclusion on their own after talking or dealing with Ken for a while,’’ Conlin emailed.

Beside pond management, Russell mentored young biologists and students, and gave fishing demonstrations to tens of thousands of young anglers, Stephenson said.

“He is well-known by multiple generations of people in his district making him a celebrity in that part of the state [Galesburg area],’’ Stephenson emailed.

In 2012, Russell won the Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers’ annual Golden Glow Public Servant Award.

Conlin called him an “intuitive biologist,’’ who didn’t crunch numbers but knew what a pond or lake needed after sampling the fish.

“Ken knew he didn’t need the computer to do his job and so did I,’’ Conlin emailed. “So, I made sure he was left in peace on that topic.’’

After Conlin left the field for Springfield as fisheries chief, he sometimes had to sooth Russell’s superiors who rued his not entering the computer age (or entering data).

“He was the Iron Man of the Division of Fisheries for 54 years,’’ Conlin emailed. “There will never be another like him. It is indeed the end of an era.’’

INDIANA CHINOOK: The Indiana DNR will suspend stocking Chinook and instead use hatchery space to raise 45-50,000 yearly skamania steelhead. This comes after the lakewide decision to drop Chinook stockings 62 percent because of drop in baitfish.

VADAS NEEDS TALK: Jack Vadas, irascible fixture of Vet’s Bait, was moved to Vibra Rehab Hospital in Crown Point, Ind. He would value calls–(219) 472-2200–or visits (Room 207).

As his son James said, “Absolutely he has a lot to talk about and not being able to be in the bait shop spreading his verbal manure, entertaining his customers, he is bored and anxious to have people to talk to.’’

And everyone who knows Jack knows what his son James is talking about.

STRAY CAST: For one Chicago team, the All-Star break feels like staring at the waterfalls after a heavy thunderstorm in the Dells at Matthiessen State Park, and wondering.

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