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'Never seen anything like it': Hundreds of dead fish pile up on rocks at Huron dam

“The majority of the fish coming up dead is mainly because of the lack of oxygen they have. The rocks really hurt the fishery,” Wolf said of the rocks that were placed by the dam a few years ago.

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Hundreds of dead fish are stacked along the rocks Monday at the 3rd Street Dam in Huron.
Sam Fosness / Republic
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MITCHELL — As longtime Huron resident Kelly Wolf watched groups of people sift through hundreds of dead fish along the rocks of the 3rd Street Dam in Huron, he shook his head in awe.

Over the past several days, hundreds of dead fish have piled up on the rocks of the dam that sits on the edge of Huron. While it's unclear what exactly caused the mass fish kill, Wolf said he’s “never seen anything like it.”

“This is crazy. I’m all for them getting the fish out because they’re going to die anyway being trapped by the rocks,” Wolf said of the herds of people filling up buckets of carp, alligator gar and other common James River species.

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A group of people sift through dead fish stacked along the rocks Monday at the 3rd Street Dam in Huron.
Sam Fosness / Republic

Wolf speculated the rocks that the city of Huron placed in the James River next to the dam roughly five years ago, paired with a lack of oxygen available to the fish due to the low water levels beneath the ice, were largely responsible for the pileup.

“The majority of the fish coming up dead is mainly because of the lack of oxygen they have. The rocks really hurt the fishery,” Wolf said. “When the river level is a little higher, they can fight to get through the rocks. But when it gets a tad lower, they can’t make it through.”

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Huron Mayor Gary Harrington has been closely monitoring the dam and the growing number of dead fish stacking up over the past few days.

While some Huron residents were skeptical of the decision to place rocks next to the concrete dam, Harrington explained why the city added the large rocks a few years ago.

According to Harrington, the rocks were placed to reduce reduce public safety hazards, including drowning. When the river water is steadily flowing downstream during warm weather, Harrington said it produces a strong current.

“It was done for public safety reasons. By the front of the dam, it's about 14 feet deep. You could have 14 feet of water coming down on top of you if you got caught by the current,” Harrington said of the reasons behind the placement of rocks near the dam.

Wolf said there was an incident that caused an individual to drown near the dam decades ago. While he said it was a tragic accident, Wolf indicated it was a rather “unique situation.”

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks has been monitoring the surge in dead fish and investigating the cause of it, according to Harrington. Harrington pointed to the river being low following the summer and fall drought combined with the ice and snow leaving little to no oxygen for fish as factors that played a role in the fish kill.

Requests for comments from GF&P officials on Monday were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon when this edition went to press.

Since fish began piling up a couple days ago, people have been flocking to the dam for different reasons. On Monday, over a dozen people were sifting through the dead fish in search of trapped live one’s to scoop up and take home. The large number of people netting fish has led to another incident for GF&P officials, who have had to warn people that solely using landing nets to catch fish from a public river is illegal and those using legal means to catch fish must still comply with the state’s daily legal limits of fish per species.

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According to a state codified law, “No spear, spear gun, bow and arrow, crossbow, snaghook, setline, hoop net, trap, artificial light, or other device except hook and line may be used for fishing except as expressly provided by rules promulgated by the Game, Fish and Parks Commission.'' The state law also explains that “landing nets, gaffs, and similar devices may be used as an aid in landing fish” that are in the process of being “caught by legal methods.”

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A pile of dead fish are left on the ice Monday near the 3rd Street Dam in Huron.
Sam Fosness / Republic

“The GF&P has been out here and had to warn people that nets can only be used to help when you’re fishing with a line, not to just scoop them up right out of the river. You should see how many people come to scoop fish in the evening hours… Lines and lines of people,” Wolf said.

Among the primary species of dead fish scattered across the rocks are carp, alligator gar and freshwater drum, more commonly referred to around the area as sheepshead. Several species of game fish, including walleye, catfish and northern pike, have also been found dead along the rocks.

It’s unclear how the GF&P will handle the cleanup of dead fish piling up at the dam.

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A pile of dead fish sit along the rocks Monday morning at the 3rd Street Dam in Huron.
Sam Fosness / Republic

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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