One angler’s big catch stirs more dam debate

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It’s a top-of-the-food chain, big game, wilderness symbol of the Thames River’s renewed health.

And a slap from a fairly large tail fin in the face of Springbank dam support.

A photo of London angler Matt Elias and a large muskie — the kind people fly to northern Ontario to catch — has renewed questions about the value of fixing the broken dam just as the city finishes gathering public comment on the idea.

London angler Matt Elias and a large muskie. (SUPPLIED)

Elias caught the muskellunge, about 100 cm long and weighing about 8.6 kilograms, upstream of the broken dam on Labour Day weekend. The Free Press posted his photo on Facebook a few days ago.

He and his friends “couldn’t believe that it was a muskie, but once we saw the fish go airborne, jumping out of the water, we were all excited to get it to shore,” Elias said in a series of emails.

He needed help from his brother, Isaac, and friend Danny Breuninger to land the big fish.

“A couple of people walked by as I was fighting the fish and once I landed it they couldn’t believe the size of it and the fact that it was a muskie.”

Elias released the muskie, providing video proof that shows as well the majesty of the fish.

Over the last few years, anglers have been catching some large muskie upstream of the dam, said Rob Huber, president of the Thames River Anglers Assocation.

“That is by far the biggest we’ve seen,” Huber said. “This is the top-of-the-food-chain predator fish. It’s the kind of fish people will pay $1,000 to hire a guide in Northern Ontario to find. Instead, it’s right here in the city of London.”

The big catch takes place as city hall collects public comment on the fate of the Springbank dam, part of the One River environmental assessment of the urban portion of the Thames.

Public meetings are planned for October, with recommendations about the dam expected for politicians in November.

In 2006, years after flooding damaged the dam, a $6.8-million repair was started. But bolts sheered off one of the four new steel gates during testing in 2008, and the river has flown freely since.

Many canoeists and paddlers support fixing the dam because it raises water levels for recreational purposes in summer, upstream to the Forks downtown.

Caught in the middle are city politicians, especially Mayor Matt Brown. He campaigned on a promise to fix the dam, but has backed off after hearing about species thriving in the free-flowing water.

At one end of that spectrum is the tiny, spiny softshell turtle. At the other end is Elias’s muskie.

Big muskie can only make it upstream if water levels are high enough downstream of the dam, the dam is open and there are plenty of other fish species to dine on, Huber said.

“As the river has opened up, they have come upstream to where they can find good habitat and food to eat.”

The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority doesn’t do fish testing in the main channel of the river, so it’s difficult to determine if the number of muskie caught upstream of the dam is on the rise, said aquatic biologist Michelle Fletcher.

But it is the second time this year she’s been contacted about a muskie catch upstream of the dam, she said.

“The anglers on the ground are the ones who have a better idea,” she said. 

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