The Summer of ’59: Chasing White Bass Across Mendota

The pier is in. The ice is off. Fish migrations are already underway. And that means that the “open water” field season at the Center for Limnology is about to begin. Before I start filling this blog up with engaging posts about our exciting research, though, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at field seasons gone by.

Tom Mohs Photo courtesy of Placon Corp.

The following Q & A is with Tom Mohs, a Madisonian who has done quite well for himself in the field of plastic packaging. The UW-Madison mechanical engineering grad founded Placon Corp. in 1966. The company is still going strong and Tom serves as chairman of the board. But, for one memorable summer in 1959, Tom Mohs took a break from mechanical engineering and dipped a toe into another field – limnology. I’ll let him take it from here:
What brought you to the CFL as an undergraduate?
At the time, I was a student in the school of engineering studying mechanical engineering and I learned about the opening from my brother, Fred Mohs, who had worked for the limnology lab the previous two years. Back then the lab was where Hoofers, the little red building, is now. And I should add that Dr. Hasler (namesake of our lab and one of the founding fathers of the CFL) was a very good friend of my father’s. And we’d gone on a number of outings with the Haslers on some occasions in university boats. I believe that my Dad and Dr. Hasler even jointly owned a boat at one time.
So, what did you do all summer?
Researchers on a modified pontoon boat in Lake Mendota

One of the research projects Horrall (MS ’56, PhD ’61) was working on involved using a purse seine. At the crack of dawn or slightly before dawn, we were stationed between Picnic Point and Second Point and we’d find a school of white bass that was feeding on the surface. I would drive the barge, if you want to call it that, and somebody in a smaller outboard boat would go around the school and encircle it with the purse seine.
We’d bring the fish in and, generally, we’d get about 150 white bass each time. We’d put them in tanks and I’d drive the barge over to the other side of the lake over near Governor’s Island and, while we were heading over there, the fish were tagged on their dorsal fins and then we’d release them. Horrall was looking at whether the schools would stay together and how long it took them to get back to their original location. It was a lot of work and we did it about once a week.
What did Horrall find?
To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t very successful. I think about only two fish were retrieved and one of those was dead!
Researchers demonstrating fish tagging with white bass

Were you involved in any other projects?
We also had a fike net over near Governor Island and we’d net fish and a few soft shell turtles and we’d log what fish were caught and then release them. So that was something we’d do a couple days a week. Other than that I don’t remember. I know I did a lot of repairing of nets!
I assume you enjoyed yourself, though?
It was a great job. I grew up on the (Madison) lakes and boating was my passion even then and it was something I really enjoyed. Driving the barge with the two engines, I felt that I could control it as well as any ship captain. I loved bringing it in and docking it perfectly with one engine going forward and the other backward.
Did the experience make you reconsider your chosen field?
I wasn’t swayed in the least! But my decision to go from West High School in Madison to mechanical engineering (at the UW) was about as automatic as going from 3rd grade to 4th grade. I was very mechanically inclined.
Okay, so not even a nibble on the career change question. Are there any fond recollections at least?
What I didn’t mention is when we gathered the 150 or so white bass, along at the same time we generally caught about an equal number of jumbo perch which had to be sacrificed because we wanted to get the bass into the nets without too much trauma. So the jumbo perch were, of course, filleted and we had a nice cookout at the end of the summer on Picnic Point. Had we been able to release them we would’ve, but they were caught in the net by the gills and it simply wasn’t practical.
Other than that it was just a marvelous congenial atmosphere. Ross was just a wonderful person to be with and it was a lot of fun.