That Kenly Contraption

Device aids study of Little River fish
By Suzette Rodriguez
Staff Reporter
KENLY — Joshua Raabe might not have snagged the biggest fish out of the Little River. But he could claim bragging rights for building the granddaddy of all fish traps.

A bass headed up or down stream would have to pole vault to clear it. But it’s flexible enough for canoes and boats to drift downstream over it.

The contraption, as locals call it, is a resistance-board weir, designed to safely capture fish coming and going in the waters where the 10-foot-thick concrete dam of Lowell Mill once stood.

Restoration Systems, a Raleigh company that specializes in environmental restoration, bought the dam, then blasted and cleared it away in December 2005 and January of 2006. It plans to give the 17-acre site and a $140,000 endowment to the county for use as a park.

The purpose behind removing the dam was to open up spawning areas to striped bass, herring and shad — species of saltwater fish that spawn in fresh water. With the removal of the dam, the fish can now migrate from the Atlantic Ocean up the Little River all the way to Atkinson Mill.

Raabe, 25, a graduate student, built and installed the weir as part of a study by the N.C. Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at N.C. State University. U.S. Fish & Wildlife is funding the study, while Restoration Systems put up the $15,000 to buy the materials.

For his design, Raabe borrowed from a blueprint of a weir used to catch salmon in Alaska. He spent about five weeks drilling, cutting and connecting sections of PVC pipe to make the two cages and floating panels. Pieces of plywood attached to the panels give them lift as the river rises and falls.

On either end, metal pickets block the fish and steer them toward the cages.

Raabe will leave the weir up through May. He’ll take it down, then reinstall it for the March-to-May period of 2008.

Every morning, he wades out to the cages to see what he’s caught.

On Friday, he scooped out of the trap a gizzard shad, a fish more suitable for bait than eating. But in earlier weeks, he had caught an American shad as well as a few suckers, or bottom-feeding fish.

On one particular morning, Raabe got a startle when a curious beaver swam up to his feet as he was working at the weir.

Locals have also dropped by to see what’s going on. On weekends, two or three people come to cast their lines, Raabe said. “But most come, look and leave,” he said.  

“All remember the dam,” he added. “And they ask if the shad are running. There’s definitely an interest.”

Dr. Joseph Hightower, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey stationed at N.C. State, says he’s disappointed that more American shad aren’t at the Lowell Mill site. He thinks the river’s low flow brought on by the drought is to blame.

Hightower said the fish adjust their migration to river conditions. At the weir, the river is two feet at its deepest point, he said.

“We have no idea how many there are, so we don’t know what to expect,” Hightower said Friday. “We assumed we’d have more.”

Back in the 1800s, the American shad were considered fine eating, he said. Nowadays, they’re becoming popular for sport fishing. He’d like to see the population in the Little River build up as much as the hickory shad in the Roanoke River.

At one time, North Carolina produced more American shad than any other state. But catches plummeted from more than eight million pounds in 1896 to 205,000 pounds in 1995, according to information in a brochure about the project.

Hightower says the shad can rebound quickly, however, with quality habitat. A mature fish can lay as many as 600,000 eggs.

As part of the study, Raabe and an assistant, Dana Sackett of Fayetteville, are sampling the river farther upstream and downstream for the tiny fish eggs that ride with the currents.

Raabe records the length and tags the American shad and suckers before turning them loose. To keep track of the gizzard shads, he notches their tails.

But the one he scooped up Friday wiggled its way free while being measured. If not for Sackett’s quick hands, the fish might have gotten away.

Herald Staff Reporter Suzette Rodriguez can be reached at 934-2176, Ext. 128, or by e-mail at [email protected]