Dover’s Hengst finds his passion on Moores Lake

Thomas Hengst, known by many as the unofficial mayor of Moores Lake in Dover, stands by the lake Thursday. Mr. Hengst lives less than a football field’s distance from the lake and is joining in the effort to rid it of debris and a recent algae outbreak. (Delaware State News photo by Matt Bittle)

Thomas Hengst, known by many as the unofficial mayor of Moores Lake in Dover, stands by the lake Thursday. Mr. Hengst lives less than a football field’s distance from the lake and is joining in the effort to rid it of debris and a recent algae outbreak. (Delaware State News photo by Matt Bittle)

DOVER — To some, Dover resident Thomas Hengst has another name: the mayor of Moores Lake.

The 27-acre lake sits in southern Dover, between South DuPont Highway and South State Street. At its best, it’s a picturesque setting. Fish such as bass, carp and perch swim through the water near turtles and snakes. Birds of prey fly overhead, occasionally swooping down to try to grab a fish.

Homes sit on the shores of the lake, while fishermen often visit to cast their lines. Amateur photographers take pictures, and children come to play by the body of water.

It’s Mr. Hengst’s favorite setting.

But lately, the lake has been plagued by algae, which likely bloomed from nutrient runoff, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Mr. Hengst, who lives less than 300 feet — a football field’s distance — from the lake, believes the invasion is due to runoff from nearby farms.

DNREC’s Fish and Wildlife Section was dispatched to the lake for the first time last month, using aquatic lawnmower-like machines called harvesters to cut up and collect the algae near the surface.

Moores Lake is cleaner that it was three weeks ago, but algae remains.

Moores Lake is cleaner that it was three weeks ago, but algae remains.

Workers collected 264 cubic yards in two days about three weeks ago, but it didn’t take long for the algae to strike back.

“We cleared that up in two days, then came back next week and it was already almost half back,” said Doug Doherty, a harvester with DNREC who was at the lake Thursday.

Workers will likely keep returning to the scene weekly until the algae clears up, which could take days or months, Mr. Doherty said.

On Thursday, the lake looked much better than it did before DNREC’s initial cleanup. The spillway, a man-made, ramp-like structure that controls water flow from the upper portion of the lake to the lower section, was crowded with algae just three weeks ago. Massive clumps several feet in width and length, piled together so thick they almost looked like yarn, blocked the waterways.

The sickly green algae killed many fish that went down the spillway and were unable to get back into the water due to the blockage, Mr. Hengst said.

Mr. Hengst was pleased with the progress but remained pessimistic about the lake’s long-term prospects.

He grew up in the same house in which he now lives, little more than a stone’s throw from the lake. Mr. Hengst visits the shore on a daily basis, fishing, taking photos and going boating.

“I got six kids and 12 grandkids that I want to teach to fish and this is where most of them learn,” he said.

Passionate doesn’t begin to describe how he feels about the lake. During a conversation, Mr. Hengst halted his train of thought to point to an osprey overhead, and he repeatedly gushed about the wildlife living in the water.

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DNREC workers continued to clean algae from Moores Lake in Dover using a harvester machine and a truck last week.

He’s been fishing since he was 3 years old and enjoys teaching children how to cast a line.

“I love to see a kid catch his first fish,” he said with emotion in his voice.

The rampant algae made it almost impossible to fish, with the vegetation so thick it blocked the hook. Mr. Hengst said he was also unable to use his boat, which rests at a dock on the lake.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hengst decided to take matters into his own hands. Although he owns waders, he did not have them when he went down to the lake and made a “spur-of-the-moment” decision to go into the water and start cleaning up debris.

Working for eight hours, he said, he dragged logs, algae and trash out of the spillway, clearing up the waterway.

He’s been known to come by at night and pick up trash. Just a few days ago, he said, he found three bags of heroin by the lake, which he turned over to Dover police.

He has gotten to know others who frequently visit the area. On Thursday, a nearby resident who stopped by, engaged in a short conversation with Mr. Hengst, marveling at his commitment to the lake.

State Rep. Trey Paradee, D-Cheswold, posted his admiration on Facebook Wednesday night.

“Thomas ‘The Moores Lake Spillway Vigilante’ Hengst took it upon himself to clear a ton of debris and several trees that were blocking the flow of water at the Moores Lake spillway and dam,” he wrote. “The positive effects were immediate. I contacted DNREC so the debris can be picked up.”

Mr. Hengst, who said he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has channeled his energy into many projects over the years, many of them nature-related.

Now, he visits the lake daily, cleaning it and taking photos, which he then dates and saves as documentation of his day’s trip.

And he does this all of his own volition.

His only pay, he insisted, is the satisfaction in helping clear up the lake — although he did once find a quarter.

“I had one little girl come up and give me a warm bottle of water. That could have been a glass of champagne, I was so happy, because I was tired, I was thirsty,” he said.

During Wednesday’s work, some people simply stared in confusion and his shoes were just about ruined, but Mr. Hengst did not care.

He’s in it for the lake.

Moores Lake in Dover is a favorite Kent County spot for fishing, splashing and sightseeing.

Moores Lake in Dover is a favorite Kent County spot for fishing, boating and sightseeing.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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