News and views, and history and humor, about the lake I love.

"I can hear my granddad's stories of the storms out on Lake Erie, where vessels and cargos and fortunes, and sailors' lives were lost." ~ James Taylor, Millworker

Friday, January 27, 2012

Dead Fish: An Essay

Photo by Rich Norgard

In my youth I lived on five acres of sandy-soiled lakefront property in a small town in northwest Ohio.

My town was Port Clinton, named for DeWitt Clinton, the guy who invented the steam engine. In the winter it was a small, sleepy town, much like any other small midwest town, with an old courthouse, old churches, and lots of old people. In the summer, though, my town transformed into a lively tourist destination. And one of the places the tourists came was our home on the lake.

You see, my parents rented vacation cottages. Back then there were no condominiums, only small summer cottages made mostly of wood. And unlike the condos of today, no showers or flush toilets, just a white metal bucket. I'll let you guess what that was for.

We lived in a big white two-story house my grandfather built. Behind the house, and set at intervals across a five-acre span of lakefront, he built nine or ten small cottages. My parents, who bore seven children, inherited the place. It was called Clinton Beach Cabins.

I didn’t care much about the cabins and tourists who came to stay in them during the summer. I only remember how Lake Erie shimmered in the sun. How the only time we wore shoes throughout the whole summer was for church on Sundays. How we spent every waking moment on the beach or swimming in the water or fishing. 

For us kids, fishing consisted of loading the 15-foot steel boats, powered by Dad’s five horse, sputtering about a half mile offshore, and then dropping first an anchor and then a line into the water. Minnows were the bait of choice. If we didn't catch sixty or more perch in an hour, they weren’t biting. 

We had a nice beach and my Dad wanted it kept clean and neat for the tourists. That meant periodically scouring the 300-foot stretch of sand for sticks, logs, cans, bottles, and...dead fish.

There were lots of fish in the lake and I learned early on that at some point they die, float to the surface, and wash ashore, littering the beaches. Including our beach. Sometimes there weren’t that many -- perhaps half a dozen. Other days, though, there were fifty...seventy-five...even one hundred, all dead and rotting and stinking up the beach.

Tourists love swimming and boating and picnics. One thing they do not love is dead fish, so one of the chores us kids had to perform, every couple of days, was gathering up and burying the fish. There was nothing particularly complicated about it. All you needed was a shovel to dig a hole in the sand. Scoop up the dead bodies and in they go.

One can well imagine that ridding the beach of dead fish could qualify handily for anyone’s list of “Worst Jobs,” and yet this seemingly undesirable chore transformed me, unwittingly, into something of an amateur naturalist. Here, on this small expanse of warm sand, lay a cross-section of Lake Erie sea life. From Carp to Yellow Perch, Channel Catfish to Walleye, every itinerant species was on display for my study. For the first time I discovered the more rare species such as Alligator Gar and Dogfish, and even one or two that I was never able to identify. Were they some undiscovered sea monster, perhaps? They sure looked like it. It was the kind of analysis only a boy could conjure up.

On rare occasions I noticed a curious circular red welt or bruise on one side of a fish, roughly three inches across. These marks, I realized, were the devilish work of sea lampreys, an eel-like creature that entered the lake uninvited, stowaways hiding in the bilges of ocean freighters. Once I found a fish with lamprey still attached -- predator and prey united in death.

The condition of the carcasses depended upon how long they’d been floating dead in the water. When a fish -- or any other living thing, for that matter -- dies, build up of gasses inside the body cause it to swell and bloat. The eyes glaze over and bug out. The entire carcass turns a pasty white. And then come the green bottle flies, burrowing into eyes, mouth, gills and anal cavity, laying eggs that became maggots, bursting forth from the openings like armies of puffed rice.

The carcasses at times also showed evidence of unnatural causes of death. Strange sores and lesions that hinted at sickness and disease. But some endings were not as grim -- at least for me. Once I buried a large yellow perch that held a much smaller perch in its mouth, and that perch, in turn, had a minnow lodged in its throat, like some avant garde work of art.

I confess, though, that despite these Aldo Leopold moments I did not always relish my work. There were times, in fact, that I was so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of deceased sea creatures that I resorted to, shall we say, shortcuts. One rather expedient method of disposing of fish carcasses was to scoop underneath the deceased with the shovel, but deep enough into the underlying sand to create a small depression, one just large enough to contain the victim. Then it was a simple matter of lift and flip, like flipping a hamburger on an iron skillet. If my shovel thrust was deep enough and the carcass not too big, the fish was now completely covered with sand -- now you see it, now you don't.

Moving from fish to fish in this way I could complete the job in a much shorter time than it would have taken to shovel out a large hole and fill it up with the stinking, bloated bodies. It was a removal method neither Hoyle nor my Dad would have approved of, but it got the job done, if only to the casual observer. I was never caught carrying out this morbid sleight of hand and I eased my conscience with the excuse that this method was only for the most desperate of times.

Had that been the only method I employed to cut corners I might have thought little of it, but I must confess it was not. On one or two occasions I committed an act far more brazen. The idea came to me one very hot summer day as I gazed at the dozens of dead fish littering the shore, and the perhaps equal number still bobbing in the water, poised like WWII landing craft waiting to come ashore. At that moment I knew what I had to do. One by one, I scooped up those lifeless creatures that had invaded our private beachfront paradise and unceremoniously flung them back into the sea, where they joined their white-bellied comrades queuing up to come ashore. In short order the beach was devoid of dead fish. What difference did it make if they came ashore later? Father, forgive me.

This ritual of the dead fish continued until my parents decided to sell the place and move to another spot on the lake, to other adventures and the responsibilities that come with age. Loathsome though it was, that bizarre summer chore forced me to think more about the larger world that surrounded me. I came to realize that those dead fish were but a symptom of a greater sickness in the lake itself. The lake I loved. I hadn't understood anything about pollution then, but the realization that this jewel of an inland sea was suffering remained with me throughout my life.

Even more fundamentally essential than the realization that the lake was sick was knowing that I was somehow connected to it all. To the lake, the fish, and the flies. We all are. That these fish had as much to tell us in death as they did in life would be brought home to me throughout my life, as I learned about forensics, the environment, and about human nature itself. Life lessons for a young boy, walking barefoot on the solitary shore. Walking with the dead and the dying.


  1. You changed it a little since you emailed it to me. This is very good and I like the picture too! Maybe you should ake an archive of pictures.

    1. Thank! Did a little fine tuning after I sent it. I will post more of my early photography with future essays.

  2. Wow Rich- excellent post. It reminded me of my own childhood living (for too short of a time) on Tybee Island, in Georgia. My father had taken a job close by and we were living in a condominium on the beach. When the shrimp boats would go by, the beach that I romped on from dawn till dusk (barefoot, of course :p ) would be littered with all types of sea creatures. The smell was horrible, but never stopped me from exploring. I too would hurl things back out to sea, but I’m afraid I wasn’t as gentle as you. The first thing that came to mind when I read your post was how I would take a stick, stab the jellyfish that had washed up on shore and hurl them back into the sea. I was, of course, protecting my fellow barefoot beach combers from stepping on these creatures and receiving a terrible sting. :)

    I LOVED examining all the sealife that would wash up on shore, too…and if I was lucky, there would be a few fishermen with nets that would bring back a whole net full of living sea creatures for me to examine. I even had a small pet shark for a short while that my brother and I caught fishing (funny story, but too long for this).

    So thank you, Rich, for another great post. You brought back some wonderful memories!

    1. Thanks, Michele, for adding your own stories and for your nice comments!

  3. Nicely done, Richard. I miss reading your work. Seeing it on the screen, I couldn't even take a pencil to it. :)
    (note the smiley face)

    1. Thanks, Rischele! And how I miss your keen editing skills...and that pencil. ;-)