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The Mysterious Goldfish of the Portage River

goldfishstory from evening independent dec 20 1920Finding fish in a river is usually no big news. Bigger news perhaps if there were no fish in a river.. But sometimes, certain types and species of fish turn up where they shouldn’t be. Such was the case of the mystery goldfish that invaded the Portage River almost a century ago.  I recently found several newspaper articles about such a situation occurring at Port Clinton in 1920.   Now,  I am not referring to a mere isolated incident involving a few fish, but a massive crypto-zoological phenomenon of such magnitude that commercial fishermen descended on this Ottawa County lake port to harvest these invaders as curious culinary delicacies.

According to an Associated Press article, dated December 20th, 1920, the carp-like goldfish were being taken by the ton at the Portage River and many of them were several inches long and weighing up to a half pound. They were “highly colored in yellow and gold” with sprinkles of red, making them “very attractive”.  The local fishermen say they had been catching them in their nets for several years at various times, and would take them in as novelties.  It wasn’t until this particular years, 1920, their numbers were so huge and so abundant that they were being caught and put “live” into railroad tank cars where they were being shipped to retail and wholesale markets in New York City.

From where these exotic golden-carp-like fish had come was a somewhat of a mystery, although there were theories. The most popular one was that because fishermen had begun to notice the fish appearing in the nets for several years, it is believed that may have gotten into Lake Erie during the great floods of 1913 when many backyard ponds and aquariums were flooded over and thousands of the little gold fish were sent into the flood waters.  In particular, it was largely believed that these colorful fish might have been refugees from the Belle Isle Aquarium  near Detroit when the floodwaters of 1913 overtook the aquariums and outdoor ponds. They continued to flourish in the warm waters of Lake Erie and multiplied by the millions and may have inter-bred with carp. In the winter months, they would move from the shallow water of the marshes and into the deeper waters of the Portage River to avoid freezing temperatures.

This logical explanation appears to have been widely accepted by the public at large. True or not? Difficult to determine. There are other theories that these fish might have been Prussian Carp, believed to be a type of feral or wild goldfish which also established themselves in this region many decades ago.  But whatever they were or where-ever they came from,  this copious crop of large golden-colored fish remained in the waters of Western Lake Erie and the Portage River for many years after.  I recall in 1964, fishing in the Portage near Elmore one spring and catching a large gold-colored fish that was almost two feet in length. Was it an ancestor of the famed mystery goldfish of 1920? Could be. As I have recounted this story with Ottawa County locals, familiar with the river, I have been told by numerous folks that they too have had similar encounters over the years through the 1960’s and later years with these large goldfish.

Others may, to this day, still encounter some of these colorful invaders, for state fishery experts say the goldfish has become a common species found throughout much of the Western watershed of Lake Erie. Able to adapt to changing temperature and ecosystems, the goldfish are often found in shallow waters and can reach lengths of up to 16 inches. The fish are not however, welcome visitors to the lakes and rivers for they are true invasive species and may have been the first invasive introduced into North American waters. They can compete for habitat with native species and often carry disease. Wildlife experts say many of today’s population of goldfish in this area can be traced to  people carelessly dumping pet fish into natural waters or allowing them to escape from backyard ponds during floods. It is not just this area that encounters the “wild” goldfish.  Sighting and catches are being reported throughout the U.S. and in some cases, the invasive goldfish grow to sizes that are astonishing and larger than most gold-fish bowls.

Fisherman shows off recent goldfigh trophy from Lake Tahoe Nevada.

Fisherman shows off recent goldfigh trophy from Lake Tahoe Nevada.

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