Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter Fish Sampling - Not the Warmest of Jobs

As I trudge through about 6 inches of fresh snow in the dark I wonder what the day holds. Most college students are still in their beds at their homes or some tropical place, but not me. I am awake before the sun, before most people in our town. Not because I don’t want to be in my warm bed but because I have fish to set free. I am one of seven STEP students hired by the CRFPO biologists to sample the screwtrap in the lower Walla Walla River with the hopes of catching bull trout to tag so we can monitor their movements out into the Columbia River.

After a few blocks the sun starts to peak over the horizon and I reach the science building at Walla Walla University and head down to the basement hoping that the waders and boots are dry and don’t smell too bad. Carrying my equipment I head out to a snow covered vehicle. After a few minutes of getting a ton of snow off the windows and using the defroster, I discover that I may not be adequately dressed for the weather. Our normal thirty minute drive now takes about forty minutes in four wheel drive on a snow covered road with other drivers who seem to have never seen snow in their lives.

Once on site and dressed in river appropriate gear, that was not dry and is quite rank, my partner and I encounter the ice laced winds that are sweeping across the RV park where the fish trap is located. Stomping through the snow in my boots seems to be difficult as the snow and mud stick to the metal on the bottom of the boots, eventually making me about 4 inches taller. Balancing on these new stilts is nothing compared to attempting to open the first of four frozen locks with my now frozen fingers.

Carrying the rest of our equipment to the river on the short trail seems magical with the fresh snow covering the bushes that line the trail, yet I still stumble on my stilts in unseen holes. We reach the river, its banks lined with ice, the trap spinning perfectly with water splashing to add to the icicles dripping from all parts of the cold metal of the trap. One of us cranks in the trap while the other preps the data sheet and buckets. The trap reaches the shore and we grab our equipment. We hope for two things as we enter the water: not to trip and get soaked, and for our waders to not have any holes in them. Fishing out sticks and debris seems to be the hardest as our fingers’ numbness tells us to save what movement we have left and not yet get our hands wet. The night before has produced so many fish that the water in the trap appears cloudy. To our amazement the catch turns out to be more than 200 fish. Identification starts with us immersing our hands in the ice cold water that is 2 degrees Celsius. After sampling the fish our fingers have turned blue. We must now push out the trap since flows have decreased with the cold temperature, and yes it takes both my partner and I to do it making me aware of muscles I did not know I had. Eventually we get back to the rig, we crank up the heat, get out of our wet clothes, and smack the snow off the bottom of our wading boots. Then we sit and thaw out before we head home to rest before turn around and do it all again that evening.

Over time our group developed a perfect system of working together for efficiency and we also discovered the perfect amount of clothing layers to wear- usually about 6or 7. We discovered the great benefit of thick snow gloves and our hands and bodies eventually became use to the cold and the water no longer phases us. The people working the fish trap have been brought together as a team and the experience has allowed me to see the beauty in the river and the many different species of fish that few people get to see in the cold winter months. It is more than just counting fish and recording data. It is working hard for a better future with the people here today and having fun while doing it.

Submitted by Rebecca Bullard

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