The run begins only after the ice goes out of Fish Creek, a small stream which passes through this hamlet to empty into Black Lake. The falls are made by a spillway.
The pike move upstream from the lake to the falls and swift water to lay their eggs, or spawn, and then return to the lake. They are followed in their journey by pickerel,suckers, and the last of the Black Lake inhabitants to make the pilgrimage are the bullheads.
It is generally believed that the suckers eat the eggs of the pike. I doubt that many of these millions of eggs ever develop into full grown fish, for the upper part of Fish Creek is stone dry in the summer.
But during the run, I have seen the creek so packed with fish that they have crowded each other from the bank, in the narrowest part of the stream near Grange Hall. And I have heard my grandfather tell how he used to back a lumber wagon into the stream and haul out a load of fish.
That sounded like a tall story, and I told him so, but he stoutly maintained that it was no "fish story" . It was no trouble at all, he declared, to go into the narrowest part of the creek and fill up a bran sack with pike in just a few minutes. You could thrust your hand down into the water among the fish and lift them from the water by the gills.
I can remember that sport as a small boy. We could never take the fish, for it was against the law, and we youngsters were in great awe and respect of the game protectors.
I recall one old game warden chasing me over the rocks , and I don't believe I was ever more frightened or excited in my life. The game protector could do nothing to me, except to seize the fish, as I was under sixteen and not liable to arrest and prosecution.
Another great sport was to "fish on land". I remember watching a fish pirate one night sneaking away around the hills and rocks to hide his booty in a nearby culvert. My father and I stood and watched him, and waited until he was safely away, and then I made a raid on the culvert. Those fish certainly tasted good, and I'll wager that fisherman did some tall swearing when he returned to gather up his cache. It was my opinion that he was a respected, solid citizen of Gouverneur.
I never dared ask him, but (if he has forgotten his "cussing") I hope he reads this, for I'll bet the air sure did blister for a few seconds, all of which made the sport more exciting.
In those days of small boyhood, we used to post watchers and give signals with whistles and flashlights. There used to be two flourishing hotels in the village, and some of the men would get the game protectors up to the hotels for a glass of beer, while we made the most of our opportunity.
But it doesn't happen any more.
The story is told every year about a certain fisherman in the old days who had caught a particularly choice fish and hid it in his buggy, after "showing it off" to the boys. Meanwhile someone went out and purloined the fish and sold it, stole it again and re-sold and re-stole it several times. No one dared to complain.
Then there's the story of the practical joke a hotel keeper of earlier days "put over" on the game protectors. He took an illegal pike in the fish run, cleaned , cooked and served it up for supper to the game protectors when they came in to eat. The story is that he asked them how they "liked the perch", and that they replied they liked it.
Those were the days! My father's home was nearby, and some of the boys would hide their fish in his wood box, and as fast as they hide them, the fish were stolen.
Game protectors in the old days generally allowed the boys time enough to get their catch and then enforce the law. But some citizens took advantage of this generosity and salted the fish down for summer. Most of the residents, however, frowned on that practice.
I was never caught, but came very close to it once. The local barber and I went up to get a spearing license to spear suckers, as that is allowed. I spotted what I thought was a nice big sucker and was about to spear him, when the barber asked me to let him do it. I obliged, but the suc cker turned out to be a pike, and a game protector immediately stepped up and arrested the barber. It cost him $12.50.
I have seen small boys with fish almost as big as they were. They used to slide them down inside their boots, when they were a little older and taller, and walk home. And it got to be a standing joke, when one youngster in particular would go over to the sawmill during the fish run and get a pail of sawdust.
Of course the hens were badly in need of bedding, and he insisted on getting it for them durng the fish run. It always seemed strange that he felt sorry for the hens during that season.
Another friend of mine came home for Easter vacation and said that he wanted to spear "just one fish". He did it in broad daylight, and it cost him $12.50.
Some of the boys used to stage what they called a "drive". They would screen off a part of the creek, and flail and agitate the water, forcing the fish into a net.
Several years ago, conservation men spawned some of the fish near the creek and took the eggs away, probably for use in a fish hatchery. The natives were always glad to help the state men in this work, but I am afraid that some of the fish spawned by the local boys went up over the bank, to be retrieved later.
The size of the fish run has dropped off considerably in recent years, and although the stream is often thickly crowded at times, I don't think the fish approximate their former numbers.
Some people think that the new bridge at Edwardsville has caused the numbers to diminish, but I personallly doubt it. At present there is an obstruction near the mouth of the creek, which may reduce the run. But I don't believe anyone knows the reason why the fish run isn't as large as it used to be.
To see the pike, you must leave your car and walk up to the falls by Grange Hall. As you look down into the water, you can tell a pike by the spot of white on the tail. Game protectors and local residents will be glad to show you these fish. It's not against the law to watch them, but it IS against the law to handle them!
Now just a few words about this small hamlet of Pope Mills. It was just a hundred years ago that the Town of Macomb was formed from the Towns of Morristown and Gouverneur. Pope Mills is in the Town of Macomb, which was named after a large land speculator known as Alexander Macomb.
Pope Mills was named after the Pope family, and the last surviving member of that sturdy family now conducts a general store on what some of the natives call the "East Side". A congenial gentleman, he is always glad to welcome visitors to his store.
Pope Mills usesd to be a thriving hamlet, boasting two hotels, the Hastings Housse and the old Fish Creek House, the latter operated for years by Ed Perry. This building is now occupied by a restaurant and bar.
The proprietor is an expert fisherman, who knows the story of the fish run thoroughly.
The old mill just at the right of the falls was a sawmill and gristmill combined, which was operated until abut fifteen years ago. The community also contained in the old days a wool carding factory, a distillery , lead mines, an ashery and a tannery, and tow blacksmith shops.
The stone dam which stands at the right of the falls was built in Civil War days to replace a wooden dam which broke, and caused a flood in the town. Buildings were moved and broken in the rush of water.
Before the present improved roads were built, it was a common sight to see people rowing about the hamlet in boats.
Also at the right of the falls you will find an old millstone. A similar stone burst and killed an early Pope pioneer. Most of the land about this hamlet was owned by the Popes.
About two miles from Pope Mills in the direction of Gouverneur are located the newly developed graphite mines, which promise to be one of the largest operations of that kind in the world. Consult local residents as to how to get there, as the road is rough and at present very muddy. By going an extra mile, the mines can be reached on a fairly good road.
The store on the "West Side" with the large glass windows was established by the author's uncle, and is now operatted by his widow. It is a general store, where almost any kind of merchandise is available. It is a favorite meeting place of local people, who gather there in the evening and during winter months to exchange gossip.
Both of the stores are typical country stores, and when you drop in at either every year and start talking fish, you will hear plenty of tales, some of which I have related.
One particularly choice story is related by an elderly gentlman who swears to its authenticity.
It seems that he started fishing one day with a minnow. It was swallowed by a larger one, which was swallowed, by a larger one which was swallowed by a still larger one, etc., etc., etc. He declares that when he got the fish all untangled, he had four fish on the single hook, including the original minnow. The fisherman is Ed Peck, who knows Fish Creek and Black Lake probably better than any other living resident. He has roamed and fished this area for some seventy years.
Black Lake, into which the creek empties, is about a quarter mile away. This large fresh water lake is about 10 miles long and over a mile wide in some places. It offers the best fresh water fishing in the country, and is noted for all kinds of fish, particularly pike, pickerel,bullheads,perch,black bass,Oswego bass,catfish,dogfish,billfish and some sturgeon.
Come on up and try the fishing in the summertime, when the season is open and the weather is pleasant. There are perhaps 50 or more people about the lake who make their living as fishermen there.