There's one poor trucker who is probably still perplexed by the scene he encountered about this time last spring. He was hammering along U.S. 17 where it crosses the roiling currents of the Savannah River in Georgia when he chanced to glance at the water below and saw what looked like a particularly vicious game of chicken being played by the occupants of two johnboats. He could hear their yells and see the water being lashed into a froth. Then, perforce, his eyes returned to the highway as he headed for I-95 and South Carolina, the most flummoxed driver on the road.
Hey, Mack, if you should read this, don't worry. That was no act of riverine mayhem you witnessed, just a hit team from Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, Game and Fish Division, doing its best to brighten the clouded future of the striped bass. The commotion you saw concerned a reluctant piscatorial bride. She was a regal 45-pounder, which means that she was carrying approximately three million eggs, and she didn't know it at the moment of your observations, but ahead of her lay her own private tank and the finest of prenatal care at the Richmond Hill Fish Hatchery on the delta of the nearby Ogeechee River. Meanwhile, though, like many another bride-to-be, she was kicking up all kinds of preceremony hell.
Until she showed up, the day had been a frustrating one for the DNR team, which for almost 10 hours had been probing the Savannah with electrodes in order to harvest big cow stripers. Stunned catfish, dozens of them, had been surfacing when the surge of AC current, 650 volts of it, went through the water. Likewise mullet. And now and again a broad, bronze carp would float up. But no stripers.
"They come in waves," Bob Rees, senior research biologist at Richmond Hill, had said earlier. "We seem to be in between waves."
Nevertheless, all day long the team had worked systematically, exploring known striper haunts. At the lead was the shock boat, with just one man to run it and handle the equipment. Trailing in the wake came the pickup boat with its two-man crew: the helmsman and, standing in the bow, the catcher, his legs pressed against the safety rail, a huge dip net, three feet across, in his hands. Well behind these boats cruised the tank boat, with its 140-hp engine and its three-man crew ready to rush captured stripers back to the hatchery to minimize the chance of trauma.
For most of the day the crew had fished about three or four miles upstream of Savannah, in a heron-haunted wilderness lined, so it seemed, with alligators and cypresses. But now it was the tail end of the day, and the tall gantries of Savannah's docks were in sight when the team encountered the silver beauty that caused the frenzied lashing of the water.
What the departed trucker missed was the real fun. With a truly big fish like the striper, the electric charge stuns it for a few seconds. The shockman then has to chase the fish, spinning his boat around in tight circles, standing it almost on its tail at times, in order to keep the fish confined to as small an area as possible. Jinking behind him, bouncing high in the first boat's wake, comes the pick-up boat with its catcher hanging three-quarters of the way overboard as he tries to sweep his net under the fish.
"There's a lot more art to shockin' than people think," Marvin Shell had said that morning. Shell is retired from the DNR, but in the striper spawning season he can't keep away from the hatchery, seeing the crews off, checking their return. "When I was hunting stripers, I used to look for sandbars and the drop-offs behind them—one electrode on the bank, one in the deep. You can find huge fish that way. Biggest one I saw must have been 75 pounds. Couldn't get her in the net. Tore one up, one of those three-foot nets. I had to switch the shocker off and let her go. I decided I couldn't fool with her. The biggest we ever brought in was 56½ pounds.
"This is hazardous duty, man," Shell went on. "Runnin' the shocker, sittin' astraddle 650 volts. You learn pretty quick not to put your hand in the water to try to pick up a fish. You get tingled pretty good that way. But the worst job is on the pickup boat when it runs across the other wake as the shockin' boat is turnin' to hit the fish again. One time a wake flung a pickup boat on its side and it rolled over and sunk. The catcher had a life jacket, though, and didn't he just bob up and catch the fish. That was a man called Paul Loska, and when the tank boat came alongside him, he was treadin' water with a 47-pounder in his net. You have to be a whole group of artists, man."
The DNR hit team operating under the Route 17 bridge proved worthy of that description. Their yelling turned triumphant, and for just the briefest moment they acted as though they were more like sports fishermen than biologists as they hoisted the gleaming silver bulk of their capture high in the net in celebration. After a tough day, that's understandable, but professionalism swiftly took over. The cow striper was eased out of the net into the holding tank and whisked quickly back to Richmond Hill, where Rees was waiting. When he saw the size of the fish, he looked as if he were ready to hand out cigars.