Jul 25, 2023

Chris Smith: The fish are there (even if it takes a magic wand to find them)

Chris Smith

Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to know what’s in your favorite fishing hole. Whether shivering in an icy February steelhead stream or baking under a relentless August sun, I just want to know what’s there. Catch them all? Sure, except that’s unrealistic. Hook one or two, now we’re talking. But with each passing year, big-fish stories compete with simply knowing big fish are there to begin with, fueling a “return another day” mentality in an ongoing attempt to bring a few to hand.

I’ve often dreamed of an imminent retirement should I invent a pair of high-tech, thermal imaging angler spectacles that would allow me see what’s swimming within casting distance. They’d be part of the cheaters I need to tie on a fly in the first place, and by clicking a button, “Bingo!” Anything with a fin would be instantly visible, recognizable, and measurable. From an angling perspective, it would help concentrate the precious few hours each outing offers on where the big ones hang out, instead of frothing water that’s void of life. From a biology perspective, such specs would grant valuable insight to the health of the stream.

While I haven’t invented those glasses (yet), a technique exists to satiate these desires for trout bums and science. Electrofishing is a method where biologists use a wand to emit an electrical field in short radiuses that temporarily stuns fish, which consequently float to the surface to be scooped up in a net for examination. It is not a legal form of fishing for obvious reasons, though remains a safe, viable, and necessary part of fish biology for measuring important factors such as survival rates and reproduction.

More than 30 years ago as a Fisheries and Wildlife undergrad at LSSU in the Sault, I and my classmates eagerly put this method to use in fish biology classes on some of the eastern Upper Peninsula’s small creeks. So strange to walk down a clear yet seemingly stagnant stream, stick the wand under the banks, and net huge brook trout that floated to the surface.

Fisheries Management Biologist Heather Hettinger and her crew let me tag along for a fun morning of electrofishing until we were rudely interrupted by more electricity, this time from above. But before our hasty retreat from the storm, we got an hour in and I was transported back all those years to slogging along Pendills Creek in the U.P., net in hand and scooping up stunned fish. Speaking of those old days, the group consisted of several students, both undergrad and grad, as well as a veritable LSSU class reunion.

I was extremely pleased to see old friend and classmate Nate Winkler, longtime biologist with the Conservation Resource Alliance, on the business end of one of the probes, along with alum and fisheries technician Joe Mickevich manning another. LSSU grad and fisheries technician Tara Miller and MSU alum and fisheries biologist Mark Tonello rounded out the electrofishing team. Several other techs from UofM were helping as well — we almost had enough for a pickup game of five-on-five basketball.

According to Nate, “electrofishing is a common tool used to evaluate the status of fish populations in both lakes and streams and, when done correctly, results in very low to no fish mortality. The ability to temporarily immobilize fish so they can be captured for measuring and identification is important to biologists because it allows for accurate data recording, which translates to reliable estimates of abundance, age classification, and trends when compared between water bodies of prior years.”

To avoid mortality, Heather explained that “prior to every survey, we are taking a conductivity measurement to ensure that we have our control settings within the correct range to stun fish but not injure them. Occasionally, smaller animals like frogs get stunned, but the larger critters like ducks, turtles, muskrats, and snakes “feel the electricity and move on — it’s not enough to stun them like it does the fish.”

Heather put me to work manning envelopes for fish scales collected off new-capture species four inches and larger. Speaking of species captured, today’s site just below Brown Bridge Rd yielded brook, brown, and rainbow trout, blacknose dace, golden shiners, mottled sculpins, slimy sculpins, white suckers, and northern brook lamprey. To say it was a well-oiled machine would be an understatement — this was not their first rodeo. As fish were stunned, they were immediately netted and put in a bucket of water and walked to Heather, who identified, measured, clipped the caudal fin on new captures, and took scales when necessary. Each fish was then quickly released. When the team wanted to get a little deeper in the weeds, a gas generator created a pulsed current that was delivered to the wand.

Nate said that if certain species are present in the collection, that information can “lead to further investigations into habitat suitability and changes in habitat over time. Much like aquatic invertebrate communities, fish communities provide a reliable barometer of the health of a lake or stream.”

Like Heather, Nate is an avid sportsman, just as he was all those years back at LSSU, something I feel is crucial to making them the effective biologists they are. His answer to my question about the overall health of the Boardman River fishery was encouraging, to say the least. “I can confidently say as a biologist, angler, and canoeist, the river is in a much healthier state than it has been in probably 200 years,” he said. However, he is concerned about “residential development in the riparian corridor and the inevitable degradation and loss of habitat.”

After commiserating about what happened to the youngsters we once were, our conversation turned to fishing, like it often does. As I’ve mentioned in a previous column, I love fly fishing the Boardman, though admittedly it’s more difficult (for me, at least) than years ago to catch a few nice fish. He repeated what I’ve been hearing from more anglers, that while we grew accustomed to catching fish in our favorite places by tried-and-true methods, rivers change. “The dam removal resulted in positive trends in water quality, species composition, and habitat,” but “substrate and insect communities are somewhat different now, which can affect fish presence.”

Nate’s old school, and occasionally does a little “poor man’s electrofishing” by snorkeling and paddling the river. These personal studies indicate to him that “trout are there,” though he admits that the catching can be tricky. But the proof is in the pudding, and continued electrofishing surveys by professional biologists like Heather and Nate show a river that’s much healthier than it has been in a long time.

So northern Michigan waters are in good hands, and the Boardman is no exception. Electrofishing remains a viable and safe way to test and study the health of a river. Unfortunately, my high-tech thermal imaging spectacles might not be needed after all. The fish are there, and that’s a good thing. The bad news is that I have to adapt and learn. At my age, that’s (almost) impossible. If you ask the Good Wife, there’s no “almost” about it.

Author and illustrator Chris Smith is a co-conspirator in The Lost Branch Sportsman’s Club. Reach him at [email protected].

The MDNR has several ongoing electrofishing sites on the Boardman: Long-term locations at Ranch Rudolph, Brown Bridge, and the old Sabin Dam stretch, and periodic sites at Shumsky’s, the Forks, Scheck’s, and Beitner. Protocols vary by location. For example, Ranch Rudolph is a “Status and Trends” site, where 1,100 feet of stream is surveyed each year for three years, then off for three years,” and so on. Of those three years, one is devoted to a two-day population estimate for trout only, one year is a collection of all species, and one year is a detailed habitat analysis.

At other locations, like Brown Bridge, they try to do a two-day population estimate every other year.

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