Those Dangerous Leaping Fish!

Along the southern seaboard and right up the Mississippi River drainage, we anglers and boaters have a new peril to fear. The fish are coming out of the water after us!

For most boating anglers, a day on the water means a chance to relax and maybe even catch a few fish.

Experienced boaters know how to avoid hazardous situations. By exercising smart boating practices, any fishing outing should end in a pleasurable, satisfying manner.

A sturgeon takes to the air on Florida's Suwannee River. These prehistoric fish often top 100 pounds. Photo courtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Well, don't tell that to fishermen on a number of waterways in the Midwest and South -- such as the Illinois, Missouri and Suwannee rivers.

Instead of returning home with only their day's catch, some anglers are returning with bruises, black eyes and broken noses! More and more boaters are falling victim to a circumstance that is beyond their control -- being struck by airborne fish!

Gary Hoskins of Nelson, Mo., had just started up the Lamine River with his daughter and son-in-law, looking for catfish, when he was "sucker punched" by a leaping carp.

While Hoskins' daughter was directing his attention to the left, a 30-pound silver carp shot out of the river and struck her dad's right cheek. After knocking a molar out of his mouth and slicing his arm with a fin, the big fish fell to the boat's deck.

Not very far downstream, near the town of Hartsburg, another boater fell victim to a similar encounter.

Vivian Nichols, her husband Edwin and some friends were cruising the calm water behind a wing dike when a silver carp leapt through the air, striking Mrs. Nichols in the face and breaking her nose!

As she lay across the center console, Nichols' husband didn't realize that the blood streaming from her face was her own blood, not the fish's. (Continued)

The boat's other occupants were caught up watching the large fish leaping around in the boat, until Mrs. Nichols exclaimed that she was hurt!

These were not isolated incidents on the Missouri River. Hoskins said that at least 50 times, he's experienced fish landing in his boat.

It used to be rare entertainment, but it's not funny anymore.

The sound of a boat's engine is what encourages the carp to leap as much as six to 10 feet into the air. Folks now think twice before heading out on personal watercraft. Water-skiers have all but disappeared from the waters where these invasive jumping species thrive.

Mark Pegg, research biologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey, said he dodges airborne carp on nearly every trip on the Illinois River near Peoria, where he conducts his fieldwork.

When Pegg signed on for the position, little did he know that dodging 15-pound flying fish would be part of the job! He and his crew also frequent the Mississippi and its tributaries, where they often get struck by those flying fish as well.

Silver carp are one of four species belonging to a larger family known as Asian carp. Other foreign carp species that have been introduced to our waters -- grass, bighead and black carp -- have proliferated throughout waterways of the Midwestern states, including the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

About 30 years ago, fish farmers introduced the Asian carp to control vegetation and algae blooms in their ponds. Unfortunately, those voracious eaters fish began to escape, consuming large amounts of plankton and vegetation and reducing the food supply for native sturgeon, bigmouth buffalo and paddlefish.

Once established, Asian carp reproduce at a fast pace and grow quickly, reaching weights up to 100 pounds. The silver carp is slightly smaller.

Boaters on the Missouri River now take precautions to handle their likely encounters with leaping carp. You'll commonly see nets strung out to catch jumping fish, lawn chairs used to duck behind and even homemade spears for impaling the flying fish.

Anglers on these waters are encouraged to catch and keep all Asian carp, regardless of how they catch them.

A commercial industry is even being developed around this plentiful species, hopefully to bring their numbers down.

When boating in waters known to harbor these leaping fish, you can take steps to help reduce the chances -- or the effect -- of collisions with airborne carp. Boaters should wear a life jacket at all times. Also, slowing down your speed allows you more time to react to a leaping fish. It's not as bad to be hit by a flying carp when you're trolling at five miles per hour, as it would if you're running at 25.

A few states away in Florida, anglers face a similar threat of being knocked unconscious by flying fish, but of another species. And in this case, the fish are much larger. Migrating and free-jumping Gulf sturgeon have collided with boaters on the Suwannee River.

Gulf sturgeon can grow up to 8 feet long, weigh up to 200 pounds and are covered with bony plates!

In recent years, a number of Floridians have been injured, either by direct strikes from airborne sturgeon or as a result of swerving to avoid a leaping fish. In 2007, a passenger in a small johnboat fell overboard and drowned after the boat veered to miss a jumping sturgeon.

Dorvan Daniel, a Conservation Officer with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, witnessed a group of boaters' encounter with a jumping Gulf sturgeon.

The sound of a boat's engine is what encourages the carp to leap as much as six to 10 feet into the air.

"The vessel operated by Scott Lockwood of Lake City was coming toward me, at about 30 miles per hour. I watched the fish jump out of the water and heard the impact when it hit. A child was knocked out of the boat and into the water," Daniel recalled.

"The boat stopped immediately, and I began shouting at the operator to get the little girl. She was treading water and screaming for help."

Daniel helped to treat the girl and was able to get her to a nearby boat ramp where they met emergency personnel able to transport her to a nearby hospital.

Another person on the boat was also struck and suffered a broken arm.

Another woman was riding a personal watercraft on the Suwannee River when she was struck by a leaping sturgeon. As a result of the collision, the 50-year old woman suffered a ruptured spleen and had to have three fingers reattached by surgeons. She ultimately lost a pinkie finger and a tooth.

Weeks later, a 32-year-old woman boating on the Suwannee was knocked unconscious by a sturgeon.

She was treated for non-life-threatening injuries and was released from a Florida hospital.

Biologists are not sure why sturgeon leap out of the water. Gulf sturgeon migrate into the Suwannee River each spring to spawn. They remain in the river all summer before dropping back towards the Gulf of Mexico in September and October. The fish move up into other rivers in the Florida Panhandle region, but the Suwannee holds the largest populations of this prehistoric species. Gulf sturgeon have been on the threatened species list since 1991 and may not be harvested.

Most people are aware of the tragic death of Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin after he encountered a stingray while diving off of North Queensland, Australia. Stingrays are also worth watching out for while you're wade-fishing in our coastal areas. But most folks don't realize that these sea creatures can be deadly in the air as well!

In Marathon, Fla., a Michigan woman was seated in the front of a boat going about 25 miles per hour, when a 75-pound spotted eagle ray with a 5-foot wingspan leaped out of the ocean and struck her in the face.

Her father, who was driving the boat, had no time to react to the airborne ray. The woman was knocked to the floor of the boat and was likely killed from the impact. There was no evidence of her being stung by the fish, which also died following the collision.

Spotted eagle rays can weigh up to 500 pounds and may attain a wingspan of 10 feet. They are not aggressive, but probably leap to escape a predator or to shake off parasites.

Whether you're on an inland river, a coastal waterway or salt water near shore, keep an eye on the sky to avoid boating injuries.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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