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The Big Fish Kill

More than 92,000 fish suffocate
during long, hard winter under
Lake Scugog ice shroud

It was a sight that veteran conservation officer Ben Smith will never forget. When he looked across Lake Scugog, just two km. from his Prince Albert home, he saw thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the lake.

"We took things in our stride," Ben recalled, but seeing all those dead fish has to rate as the biggest shock that I had in my 26 years as a conservation officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The date was April 22, 1960, the day after the lake ice had melted. The first Ben heard of the fish massacre was an anguished phone call for a native trapper. He hurried down to the lake, pushed his cedar strip boat through clumps of remnant ice and made for the deepest water where the concentration of dead fish was the heaviest.

"The wind was drifting them in to shore" says Ben. "Many of the carp had rotted but the bass looked good enough to eat." Belly-up in the frigid water were huge muskellunge, some of them 23 kg. or more; carp, smallmouth bass and perch. Ben theorized they were all victims of chronic lack of oxygen.

From dawn till dusk for the next 14 days, Ben puttered about the 35-km. lake totting up the dead fish with a push-button counter. Over a 7.8-km square area he recorded more than 92,000 dead fish. But there were survivors. Ben swept nets across the deepest stretch of the shallow man made lake and found 28 lively muskie and thousands of catfish, a species capable of surviving with a low oxygen level.

As for the dead ones, they disappeared in no time and the lake was heavily restocked with bass and muskellunge that spring.

Ben figures that three ice storms, so packed and insulated the snow and ice, that the fish progressively exhausted the underwater air supply before the April 21 thaw. "There are usually cracks in the ice, but there weren't any that year," he said.

The spring thaw of 1960 also a vivid memory for many residents who call Scugog their home, as it was the same year the heavy buildup of ice and snow caused the Port Perry and Cartwright Causeways to remain flooded for almost eight weeks.

Article reproduced from the March/April 1982 issue of Aski magazine, published by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

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