Chasing history on Chicago shoals: Day exploring with Shedd folks

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Capt. Damon Karras signals to his brother, Capt. Adam Karras, to slow down the Great Lakes Expeditions’ Double Jameson as the Shedd Aquarium’s Phil Willink lays net in a historic survey of Oakland Shoal.
Credit: Dale Bowman

We boarded the Double Jameson at the water taxi dock by the Shedd Aquarium, then motored south past the Adler Planetarium, Northerly Island, McCormick Place, 31st Street Harbor and Oakwood Beach.

We clicked off familiar visuals on the way to the obscurity of the Lake Michigan shoals off the South Side. The shoals are rock outcroppings transitioning to rock rubble to sand.

Phil Willink, Shedd’’s senior research biologist, led the expedition on Monday to do more research on habitat, structure and fish on Oakland Shoal and the better known Morgan Shoal. This also was a shakedown cruise with the Double Jameson from the Great Lakes Expeditions.

Shedd volunteer Greg Regnier, diver on the Shedd’’s Caribbean Reef, and two brothers who are captains, Adam and Damon Karras, were on board. The Double Jameson is 37 feet long, 41 feet with diving deck, and with a 500-pound winch, generator, side scan, sub-bottom profiler and ROV. It’s a company I expect to make news in coming years on Lake Michigan.

I digress.

First Willink set nets on Oakland Shoal, just off Oakwood Beach, with Damon Karras’’ help. It is believed to be the historic first survey of Oakland Shoal.

Then to Morgan Shoal, where three members of the Shedd’’s Learning Team planned to “fly”’’ an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle). But the generator was on the fritz, so back to the Shedd for a gas generator.

Sabrina Bainbridge of the Shedd Aquarium’s Learning Team holds the ROV before putting it on Morgan Shoal while leader Belle Archaphorn prepares to handle the ROV tether.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Sabrina Bainbridge of the Shedd Aquarium’s Learning Team holds the ROV before putting it on Morgan Shoal while leader Belle Archaphorn prepares to handle the ROV tether.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Once we motored back to Morgan Shoal, the Learning Team of leader Belle Archaphorn, Sabrina Bainbridge and Sharon Fuller put out an ROV.

Let me digress again. One thing they were looking for was “Samantha’’s Canyon.”’’

The Shedd and the Illinois Natural History Survey mapped the area around Morgan Shoal with 31 scans back and forth earlier.

While using mapping software afterward, Samantha Hertel, a Shedd volunteer in research and conservation, found a mini-canyon. “I thought at first it was an error,”’’ she said. Since then, it is called “Samantha’s Canyon,”’’ which is about 60 feet x 20 x 8-10 deep.

The Learning Teams began “flying’”’ their ROV. The tether is 100 feet long. It is remotely operated, much like a video game with what in essence are joy sticks.

Later on Archaphorn allowed me to control Grace Hopper, the ROV is named for the United States Navy Rear Admiral, and also put her in the water.

While Fuller was “flying’’” the ROV, she found the edge of “Samantha’s Canyon.’”’ Also a couple freshwater drum popped up. That is significant because, though Willink knows drum are relatively common, he never documented one on the shoals. That gave him another species.

Then Willink asked Capt. Adam Karras to pass near the wreckage of the Silver Spray, which ran aground in 1914. The ROV screen showed several smallmouth bass swimming around the boiler.

Before we could check nets, a thunderstorm flared. Capt. Adam Karras called it and we headed back in.

As we motored back toward the darkening sky, Willink said, “We have a better idea of the habitat, a better idea of the canyon.’’”

The next day, when Willink checked nets, most interesting were Oakland Shoal-Southwest with three longnose suckers (Illinois state threatened), brown bullhead, seven yellow perch and two rock bass; and Oakland-Southeast with three perch, three smallmouth, three shorthead redhorse, two rock bass and a gizzard shad.

Another day I will break down tips for fishing the shoals, gleaned from things Willink noted from his work.

It was a nearly perfect day for surveying Oakland and Morgan shoals off Chicago’s South Side.<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

It was a nearly perfect day for surveying Oakland and Morgan shoals off Chicago’s South Side.
Credit: Dale Bowman

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