These Nerds Are Angling for a Different Conversation About Freshwater Fish

Dave Kellam and Clay Groves are frying up more than catfish and bass to highlight biodiversity—and the threats to native species and their habitats.

Channel catfish. (Photo: Guravich Dan/Getty Images)

Jan 7, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Heather Rogers has written for ProPublica, The New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones. Her most recent book, Green Gone Wrong, explores the contradictions of green consumerism. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The late summer sun was low as two men, Dave Kellam and Clay Groves, teetered on a boulder above the Connecticut River in the southwest corner of New Hampshire. The pair was trying to tow in a 12-pound fish on an eight-pound line. It would be the largest channel catfish ever caught in the state. Kellam’s rod was arching with tension from the struggling fish. With the smell of the chicken-liver bait on his hands, he tugged and then let the line slacken, a cycle to tire out the fish. This could not be the one that got away.

Fifteen minutes into the battle, envious that he wasn’t the one reeling in the prize, Groves scooped the fish into a net. The men screamed with excitement. “I kissed that fish hard when we got it out of the water,” Groves wrote in an account of the catch. They char-grilled the haul and paired it with champagne for their triumphal meal.

(Photo: Courtesy Fish Nerds)


The celebration was not only for their record-setting catch, but also for the completion of a three-year “quest,” as they call it, to catch and eat each species of New Hampshire’s freshwater fish—48 in all, both native and invasive. When most anglers go out, they cast their lines, hook as much as they can, and down a bunch of beer. But these guys made a sport of learning the state’s fish and their habitats. Before their expedition, Kellam and Groves had never caught, let alone been able to identify, say, a slimy sculpin, a margined madtom, or a banded sunfish. Although the quest started as a fisher’s challenge, the two soon realized the adventure was giving them a valuable education in the diversity of species—and their fragility—living in New Hampshire’s waters.

The duo dubbed themselves the Fish Nerds and have been documenting their adventures on a website and a podcast since early in their adventures.

In the conversation about fish, sustainability, and protecting species and ecosystems, the focus is invariably on seafood. The overfishing of Atlantic cod or bluefin tuna or the impact of acidification on oysters is increasingly wellknown. Conversely, there’s been little focus on the problems freshwater species face. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution such as mercury and PCBs, and other contaminants have left more than half of all surveyed rivers and streams and the great majority of lakes, reservoirs, and ponds impaired. The few commercially viable edible freshwater fish are predominantly farmed now. But there are almost 1,000 freshwater fish species living across the country, from the salmon runs of the West Coast to the freshwater mangroves of the South. Catching and eating some of these less-familiar species in New Hampshire, in the minds of Kellam and Groves, is perhaps the best way to conserve fish and their habitats. “If everybody slowed their life down and said, ‘I’m only going to eat fish I catch,’ we would not see depletion,” Kellam said.
“If you ask people to name 20 species of fish, they can’t do it,” Groves added. “We’re talking about fish no one’s ever heard of before. Being aware of this diversity helps people appreciate nature.”

The two plotted their course by overlaying a state fish and game department survey of aquatic habitats on a map of New Hampshire. Zigzagging the state on weekends and days off—Kellam works in communications at Sea Plan, a nonprofit ocean science and policy organization; Groves is an administrator for an after-school program—the duo ticked each catch off their list. They ventured to idyllic settings, including iced-over lakes and remote streams. “We had to get into the environment and understand it and study where these fish were,” said Kellam.

The banded sunfish, for example, lives only in the swampy areas of southeast New Hampshire. Finding the creatures took commitment and finesse. To the untrained eye, banded sunfish are invisible as they loiter in dense grasses on the water’s edge. “It was my white whale for two years,” said Kellam. He finally resorted to sitting in the swamp with a camera, shooting underwater footage to figure out where the three-inch-long critters gathered. After deciphering their habitat, Kellam realized the best way to bring one in was the tried-and-true worm on a hook. He ate the fish filleted.

Some environmentalists have criticized the men for consuming rather than releasing their catch. But they defend this choice, saying it is at the core of their point. “Eating them highlights the fact you don’t have to eat just one kind of fish,” Groves said. “If you have a fish with low stock numbers, you can eat something else.” Dining on their haul, they believe, rectifies the “disconnect from our food system that causes environmental problems in the first place,” Kellam said.

In addition to pristine areas, the pair also found themselves in polluted spots. Catching carp on the Merrimack River, near Manchester, was disconcerting. That stretch of waterway was littered with metal scraps from old factories and thousands of wafer-size white plastic disks released in a sewage spill from a nearby wastewater plant. “You’re fishing and you think this is such a clean place, and then you’d see this disk float by,” said Groves.

Over their three years, the pair learned to identify dozens of fish and came to understand more about what species were at risk of endangerment and why. Their list was always evolving to account for fish they knew existed but subsequently discovered were rare. For instance, they decided to forgo the native lake whitefish, rapidly dwindling in population, and hook the invasive channel catfish instead. “We became experts one fish at a time,” Groves said.

As they did with many species, they called a fisheries biologist to get a better handle on the channel catfish. Among other facts, Dr. Erika Martin told them that the fish’s body is covered with taste buds, and it can detect in the water substances as potent as chicken liver but also as elusive as the sex of another channel catfish. “They can even taste hierarchy,” said Kellam. “How could you not love a swimming tongue?”

Benjamin Nugent, a fisheries biologist with the state fish and game department, said the attention Kellam and Groves have been attracting to lesser-known species—not “stars” like bass and trout—was helping cultivate a broader public understanding of the complexity of aquatic life. “It helps people have an awareness of what species live in their areas, and that can lead them to become active in local politics and help protect sensitive aquatic habitats,” he said.

Learning how beautiful the slimy sculpin is and that channel catfish taste with their whole body is the type of knowledge that opens up nature, making it accessible and real. It is just such an education that brings specificity and meaning to the monolithic notion of the environment.

“I’ve read about ecology, but to participate in it—to go out and be in it—I learned stuff that can’t be written down. There’s respect but also awe,” Kellam said. “Right now, I can see in my mind what the banded sunfish are doing.”