The Fish Man of Wisconsin

George Becker was a seminal scholar in the world of fishes, and his contributions still inspire conservationists today.

by Erik Ness

(Wisconsin Academy Review, Fall 2003)

ON AN INCLEMENT DAY NOT LONG AFTER the close of the Second World War, a young veteran pressed forward into the nasty weather and quickened his pace: the Professor was waiting. George Becker was only auditing Aldo Leopold’s class on game management, yet he didn’t want to miss the field trip. But when he finally got to the game management building he found only the unflappable Leopold. No other students showed, allowing Becker and Leopold to talk for a time. When Becker ventured back out into the abysmal weather, a very special gift was tucked in his bag: a copy of Game Survey of the Midwest, signed by Leopold, to Becker.

George Becker had always loved the natural world, but he’d started out studying music, then languages. Auditing Leopold’s class laid in a course for the final leg of his professional education. The result was one of the more significant-and unheralded-acts of natural resource scholarship in state history. Becker would spend the next few decades hip-deep in the rivers and lakes of Wisconsin, collecting fish from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, from the Rock River to the Brule. The result was his monumental book, Fishes of Wisconsin, a hefty, 1,052-page tome detailing the state’s 157 known fish species.

Given the encyclopedic nature of his achievement, you would be forgiven for picturing George Becker as a genius of the pigeonhole, single-minded, laser-focused, all about fish. Nothing could be further afield. Becker was a polymath who mastered nearly every skill he put his mind to. He could build a garage from scratch and plumb a house. He collected stamps, played violin, and practiced taxidermy. He was a popular and dynamic teacher and committed activist with no fear of questioning the status quo.

“How many men are you?” marveled his daughter-in-law Patty Clayton Becker, considering his roll call of accomplishments and abilities and passions. “Droll and amusing and mischievous” is how his friend and colleague, mammologist Charles Long, remembers him. “I’d sure like to see him again.”

EARLY YEARS

George Becker was born in Milwaukee on February 26, 1917, to master tailor Peter Becker and his wife, Theresa. He grew up in the city, learning the violin and watching birds in Washington Park. “He had such an interest in the natural world,” says his son Dave. “He knew bird calls very wel!.” One teenage summer he and his brother hiked the Lake Michigan shoreline from Milwaukee to Port Washington and back again, fishing and camping on the beach. He attended Washington High School, and then Downer College, also in Milwaukee.

Becker began his collegiate studies in music, but after quaking through his first recital he shifted his focus to languages. It was here he met another young language scholar and kindred spirit, Sylvia Helen Klenk. It was a classic love-at-first-sight scenario that led to their marriage in 1941. But there was a war on, and soon George was drafted, assigned to the Army Signal Corps. Deployed to the Pacific theater, the young linguist mastered Morse code and established radio stations serving Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines, attaining the rank of master sergeant. Sylvia, meanwhile, took over George’s teaching position in remote Phillips.

After the war, with the help of the GI Bill, Becker went back to school, earning master’s degrees in German philology and science (zoology and botany). The combination may seem strange in today’s tightly disciplined academy, but “he was always interested in the sciences. As he put it, he wanted to keep it pure,” says Mike Dombeck, a fond former student who went on to head the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, then returned last year to Stevens Point as a professor of global environmental management. “He didn’t want to take a lot of biology courses, and yet throughout his career his interest drew him like a compass.” As he completed his degree work he taught in Port Edwards and in Madison, and was a principal in Clintonville. He worked at a game farm in Poynette, where he ruined his back lugging feed bags. In 1957 the road led to UW-Stevens Point, where he taught biology and acted as chief ichthyologist. In 1962, with renowned fish biologist Arthur Hassler acting as his dissertation adviser, he earned his doctorate.

THE FISH ROOM

Bill LeGrande fumbles for his keys and unlocks an unassuming cinderblock room. A motion sensor trips the lights, revealing a space-saving accordion shelf system. LeGrande spins it open, exposing shelf upon shelf of glass and plastic lab jars stuffed with fish. Precise lettering on the majority of the jars identifies the contents, site, and collector: George Becker. Once upon a time, this fish collection was housed in the basement of the Becker home in Stevens Point. Now owned by the Stevens Point Museum of Natural History, it bears Becker’s name. LeGrande filled Becker’s position upon his retirement, but as LeGrande says, “No one could fill George’s shoes.”

Even before he left graduate school, Becker knew he wanted to draft a compendium of the state fishery. His first choice might have been mammals, but Hartley Jackson had already done that book, and Becker wanted “a niche that had not been explored in great depth,” says his son Dave. He began collections in 1958, the summer after taking up teaching duties at Point. Fish became the centerpiece of family life. “If it weren’t for my sons, I would never have been able to make it,” Becker told a biographer in 2002. “I had a home-raised team for getting this underway.”

Becker’s middle son, Dale, even became a fish biologist himself, and he fondly remembers a childhood in piscine pursuit. “When I was a kid it was my whole lifetime,” he says. “We’d go out every summer with a 16-foot house trailer and park ourselves up by the Pine River in northern Wisconsin for a couple of months, then go down to Boscobel and do a summer there. We pretty much traveled the whole state that way.”

It was a rustic life, with the family stacked like cord wood in the trailer and graduate students in tents outside. The day began at sunrise with a hearty breakfast cooked by Sylvia. Once they reached the sampling site, they surveyed the area, noting stream flow, turbidity, bed composition, human touches. “We’d stand at the bridge for a few minutes and look upstream and downstream and come to grips in our minds with what we thought would be there,” says Dale. “Then we’d look at each other and say: okay, this looks like finescale dace territory, or least darter territory. And then we would start our search.”

George had built a little wooden flat-bottom boat that he could put a generator in, then built his own electrodes for electroshocking fish. George would run the electroshocker, while the boys waded along behind with nets, scooping up the stunned fish. Most were returned to the water after identification, but a representative few made it into the collection jars. In time, they could guess what was there before they even set foot in the water. “That was his legacy, because he had such a sensitivity that way,” says Dale. “He could read an environment and list 10, 15 species that were absolutes, and maybe a couple that would be real corkers to find.”

It was an intellectual exercise, not a clinical one; George never did anything without enthusiasm and a certain sense of wonder. “Anytime we found something really rare it would just stop our hearts for a minute,” says Dale. Some fish became almost legendary, “fabled species that we had been going after for years, that we hadn’t seen and came to think might be close to extinct. And all of a sudden there they were in the net. I remember the first gravel chub we ever saw, we all were just marveling at it because it was such an unusual fish. Only ever found in the cleanest streams.”

Other times they didn’t even know they had a rare one until they got back to the lab and worked up the fish. That’s where George’s expertise was unparalleled. “He was the last word. If anybody had a real question, they always sent him the specimen because he was the one who could figure it out,” says Dale. “He was the one who worked out the keys that allowed us to come to grips with whole families of fish.”

Even on vacation the family fished, trading in the electroshocker for more sporting tackle and exploring high mountain lakes in the Rockies, walleye country in Canada, and ocean fishing in Florida.

You can’t spend that much time with your feet wet without learning something, and over the years George began drawing uncomfortable conclusions about the health of Wisconsin waterways. “As I prepared the distribution maps, it became evident that an irretrievable loss had occurred in the fish resource,” he wrote in his introduction to Fishes of Wisconsin. Pollution of every type—heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, acid precipitation, phosphorus, nitrogen—was pressing hard on fish populations. “Our present effort to control pollution problems are not succeeding,” he warned. “As population and industrial growth continue, we attempt to control increasingly complex wastes with antiquated and ineffectual treatment methods….”

A FIGHTING SPIRIT

When he was a Boy Scout, George Becker took an oath that he would never smoke and never drink. Other than one perfectly defensible beer while returning from the war, he stayed true. “He made a promise and he kept it,” says his daughter-in-law, Patty Clayton Becker. “That was one of the things that was so wonderful about George. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand on an issue. His principles really came first.” She met George even before she met her eventual husband, Dave. “He liked to tweak people. I was a high school student when he spoke out against the Vietnam War. I saw him at teach-ins. Even though he knew I was a supporter of his, he would pick little fights with me.”

High principles and a fighting spirit inevitably led to conflict. Reflecting on his career as a gadfly, he wrote: “I have earned the titles atheist, pervert, murderer of babies, rebel, radical, and communist.” He often referred to people as supporters and non-supporters.

He had many issues: nuclear power, the war in Vietnam, evolution, population growth, and reproductive rights. But his most impassioned activism was reserved for what he knew best, the rivers of Wisconsin. In Stevens Point, “the Wisconsin River was at our doorstep,” recalled George in one essay. “We could see the decline in water quality during the ‘50s and ‘60s. The river was brown and lacked its former clarity. It had a terrible odor. Massive fish kills were occurring. We were turning the river into a sewer, and I knew something had to be done.”

One of the more bitter fights was with the DNR itself, when it made plans to use the poison antimycin to take out the rough fish in the Tomorrow-Waupaca River to improve the trout fishery. Becker had done his Ph.D. work in that river, on the diminutive longnosed dace, and he didn’t like the DNR’s definition of rough fish, which seemed to include just about anything that a sports fisherman wouldn’t keep. He knew there were dozens of other species of fish—never mind the insects and crustaceans—that would be hurt by the poison. He made his views known, loudly, even attempting to get a restraining order. “He made a lot of people in the DNR very, very upset,” recalls colleague Virgil Phiesfeld. “It turns out he was right. He was way ahead of his time.”

“We weren’t even talking about biodiversity in that era,” adds Mike Dombeck. “He knew the diversity of fish that were out there and he knew what would happen if we eliminated a whole segment of these diverse fish populations and that we would also take out a lot of them that we didn’t intend to.”

Becker presided over the Citizens Natural Resources Association of Wisconsin (CNRA) from 1972 to 1974, where his passions led to the creation of the Wisconsin River Restoration Committee. Becker’s grand vision for the river—it became known as Becker’s pipe dream—was to create a central treatment plant with state-of-the-art technology for cleaning every drop of wastewater that went into the river. Becker’s plan was never implemented, but as a result of this kind of activism the 1972 Clean Water Act was passed, and the Wisconsin River is cleaner than it’s been for decades.

THE FISH MAN’S LEGACY

George Becker retired in 1979, when he and Sylvia dove full-time into the book. “He was at the office a lot,” remembers Dave. “He would work nonstop on it. And after he retired, he went into full gear. They just worked around the clock getting that book out. He would take his bike, flying back and forth.” Finally finished in 1982,24 years after it was started, it’s an encyclopedia of biology, management, distribution, habitat, and status of the state’s fish species. “He left an enormous legacy in terms of the book, which is among the best on state fishes,” says Bill LeGrande.

But there are so many more stories that define the man. For example, shortly after Sylvia was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and couldn’t drive, George taught her how to ride a bike. When she could ride solo no more, George ordered a custom-built tandem. “They were just a sight all about town,” remembers Patty Clayton Becker. Then there was the time in 1973 when they installed one of the very first solar collectors in their backyard. It didn’t work all that well, but at least they walked the walk. And they didn’t hang around Stevens Point long after completing the book; once he completed a task George moved on to the next goal on his list. Late in life he took pilot lessons, just because he had always wanted to fly. He even wanted to write a book about sex. Their early retirement included a lot of time in Florida with a nudist community. It was a long-held interest, though he refrained from participation until after retirement because he didn’t want to give his opponents ammunition.

As important as the book is, Becker’s biggest legacy may be as a teacher. In 1968, Becker’s colleagues voted him to head their department, but he turned them down. Virgil Phiesfeld, who wound up with the job, says Becker just wanted to focus on his students and his other projects. He remembers one day when he walked by George’s classroom, and “everyone was looking out the window. They were talking about anything they saw—the trees, the clouds, anything. He would take that and connect it to what he wanted to talk about.”

“George Becker’s skill as a teacher was incredible,” recalls Dombeck, who spent his undergraduate and graduate years with Becker. “I might not have even majored in the sciences if I hadn’t met George. That was a distinct turning point, seeing his enthusiasm, the way that he was able to connect the pieces together, his ability to make you work at 120 percent of your capability and like it.”

Dave says his father considered Dombeck to be a fourth son, following his rise through the Forest Service. He even passed his signed copy of Leopold on to his star pupil; Dombeck insisted that Becker add his own inscription. Dombeck’s warmest memories are of a very special fishing trip. “I had just finished my master’s, and it was sort of the capstone of my working with George. It was the most amazing trip I’d ever been on.” Venturing into Canada, they first hit a series of lakes where the walleye “practically flipped themselves right out of the water into the frying pan. He was just absolutely in heaven.” But the best was yet to come. Dombeck had worked as a muskie guide, so next the pair went to Eagle Lake and fished muskies for three days.

The muskie chapter in Fishes of Wisconsin editorializes a little more than usual on the intersection of sport and conservation: “I have suggested that muskellunge fishing be continued on a catch-and-release basis,” wrote Becker, a decade after the trip with Dombeck. “Large muskellunge which would be continually returned to the water might serve as checks on the competitive northern pike, and would provide a continual source of fishing for other fishermen. A single trophy fish, rather than ending up on one person’s table or wall, might instead be commemorated by successful fishermen either through the ‘thrill of the moment’ or through a snapshot taken prior to releasing the fish to the water. As an added protection to the fish, only artificial baits with single hooks should be allowed. Catch-and-release programs work by offering more fishing fun, and provide the moral satisfaction that comes with leaving something for the next fisherman, rather than contributing to the exhaustion of an already strained resource.”

But catch-and-release was not what happened on Eagle Lake. Nixon had just resigned, and the professor and his student were basking in the glow of history taking a momentous turn in their general direction. In the evening, just before dark, Dombeck landed a 26-pound muskie. Many who stalk muskies go their entire lives without seeing a fish that big. But the next morning, in the exact same spot, Dombeck reeled in a 40-pounder. “I caught the largest muskie I ever caught with George,” says Dombeck, still wondrous. “Today it would be catch-and-release. This was one we had mounted.”

George Becker died in November of 2002 in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He took with him his unique perspective and knowledge about the fish and waters of Wisconsin, but that’s only because some things just won’t fit in a book—even one with 1,052 pages. “It was a very special gift for anyone to get that deeply into the lives of these fish,” says Dale Becker of his father’s defining passion.

Perhaps even more special was the ability to enjoy, observe, and adapt. Somewhere between Eagle Lake and the publication of Fishes of Wisconsin, George Becker and his star pupil changed their minds about what constituted the best conservation practice for the muskie fisherman. To do so required a willingness to both examine new science and reevaluate cherished memories and habits. No skill is more needed today in the woods and waters of Wisconsin.

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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