A life in fisheries: Retiring IL fisheries chief Dan Stephenson’s career path

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Dan Stephenson, retiring chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, with a bass from Lake Jacksonsonville.

Dan Stephenson grew up east of Decatur, where there wasn’t much fishing. But life flows in its own direction.

His mom was from Colorado, and he did a lot of fishing when the family visited there every year.

‘‘I just always loved animals,’’ said Stephenson, 64, who grew up on ‘‘The American Sportsman’’ and ‘‘Wild Kingdom.’’

He ended up as the chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

‘‘I was going to go at the end of last year, but it was just such a mess,’’ said Stephenson, who will retire at the end of June.

His biggest feat was leading fisheries through the bottom and out.

As he noted in his retirement email to staff: ‘‘I even have more staff than vacancies. Yeah! 71 on staff and 66 vacancies and another dozen or so job postings waiting in the queue. In addition, I have another 25 to 30 positions approved for filling. We’ll never get back to the 146 we had at one time, but if we can get to 105 or 110 strategically located both in the organizational chart and geographically, we will be well-positioned to head into the future.’’

Any of three managers under him — Mike McClelland, Rivers, Reservoirs and Inland Waters Program manager; Kevin Irons, Aquaculture and Aquatic Nuisance Species Program manager; or Vic Santucci, Lake Michigan Program manager — would be worthy of being fisheries chief.

‘‘They will get somebody in here quickly,’’ said Stephenson, who will be back on a 75-day contract.

In a look back last week, Stephenson told of a varied career path. He earned a bachelor of science and a master of science in zoology from Eastern Illinois.

‘‘When I first started, I was kind of hoping to get into large mammals, deer management,’’ Stephenson said.

But with fish shocking, he was ‘‘kinda hooked.’’

He began working under contract with the Illinois Department of Conservation (now the IDNR) from August to October in 1979. In 1980, he was hired as a full-time technician. From February 1982 to November 1997, he was a district fisheries biologist. He would move up the ranks to fisheries chief in January 2016.

Some memories are different, such as being thrown while electroshocking in April.

‘‘During the Clinton walleye run, an inexperienced guy was running the boat, and we got ejected,’’ he said. ‘‘Wayne Herndon managed to stay in and got us.’’

Stephenson learned along the way. As a young biologist, he oversaw the renovation of Lake Jacksonville — the largest water-supply lake ever killed out and restocked in Illinois — in 1986.

‘‘Before and after draining, I had to have public meetings,’’ Stephenson said. ‘‘I was young, and people were yelling. Then there were the droughts of ’87 and ’88, and it didn’t fill for several years. But the fish populations were super afterward. Some forgave me and some not.’’

Public outreaches (Boy Scouts, Elks, etc.) would become a career hallmark. He piled up more than 1,500 outreaches.

His work on developing the three new lakes at Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area were among his proudest moments.

There’s more to do. He would like to see an Ohio/Wabash biologist hired, all three spots on the Mississippi filled, two streams biologists in each region and biologists specifically for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes (Rend, Shelbyville and Carlyle).

‘‘It has been a fun ride,’’ Stephenson said. ‘‘I was always proud of my lakes. Everybody out there takes such pride in their work.’’

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