Chasing minnows, after dark, with a crappy light, in the winter, in a foreign country, after a fourteen-hour drive…and such
Ya know what would be a really unfortunate ailment to have as a fisheries biologist? Sea sickness. Working ten hours straight on a cramped boat with one other dude, picking dead fish out of nets is enough fun without your head swimming around asking your stomach how it feels about the situation.
“Not great but thanks for asking,” said the stomach.
As a proud member of the Sea Sick Biologists Society, I generally stick to bodies of water I can walk around in; after all, you can’t get sea sick on land, right?
As I discovered during my most recent visit to the river I’m conducting my graduate research on, if you go to the river at night, limit your field of view to the small illuminated area of a headlamp, and stare into the moving water, you can beautifully replicate the conditions needed for sea sickness. Something about focusing on a small area swirling with oceanesque little rivulets and tides really puts one back onto that rickety rowboat watching pond detritus try to decide if it’s too high-class to incorporate a little vomit.
Luckily, I was able to choke down that TV dinner and carry on trying to catch small, juvenile trout in the shallows illuminated by the light of my inadequate headlamp. In the Lardeau River of Canada, as in many larger rivers, fish spend most of their day in deeper waters to avoid the hawk-like eyes of a hawk that might want them for dinner. Once it’s dark however, many fish move into the shallows where the current isn’t as strong. Hence, a biologist outfitted with adequate light can use a minnow net to scoop up little fish just by walking along the bank and moving slowly.
We were trying to catch these little fish so as to tag them with a little flurorescent tag that snorkelers could identify the next night. Thus, by comparing the number of fish we tagged to the number the snorkelers saw, we could get an idea of the percent of all fish in the river that the snorkelers counted. Spread across many reaches on several nights, snorkelers would cover a good percent of the Lardeau River’s length and biologists could determine how many juvenile trout live in the river. At least that’s the idea. My dad and I, with our Sportsman’s Warehouse discount headlamps captured one fish for every dozen, or so, the Canadian biologists captured. Luckily, we were not critical to the operation, just tagging along to watch how this unique procedure was carried out. Come to think of it. That might be the best kind of work…watching other people do it.
In all seriousness, observing professional biologists work in-the-field and asking them lots of questions about how and why they are doing what they are, is one of the quickest ways to learn about your field of study. In the Lardeau River, the snorkeling survey was previously conducted on a very small reach of the river with poor estimation of the percent of fish observed. Chatting with the biologists there and asking about why they were conducting the survey in the current manner, and how that fit into the larger picture of trout management in the basin, allowed me to better understand the context of my own study.
It’s said that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. I’m glad I am able to talk with the experienced biologists who can share what has and hasn’t worked in the past. That way, I can at least avoid the mistakes that have already been made. Lord knows, I’ve got plenty of my own unique mistakes to make during the course of this project.