A Day in the Life of a Fish Surgeon: Tuesday, June 28, 2015

This past Tuesday, I left the usual duties of the gang of HFF and FTR field workers and joined Matt Hively (one of the FTR crew) to perform surgeries on fish caught in Bitch Creek. The day before, Mike Lien and Matt had gone spin and fly fishing along the river and caught five fish: a few hybrids and one rainbow trout. Overnight the fish hung out in a pair of livewells—PVC pipes with caps and holes punched into the sides—and tied to some rocks within the flow. That day we were wading to these spots in order to surgically place radio telemetry tags within the fish.

The Tools of Choice

We hiked down the steep, rattler filled terrain with a pack on my back full of supplies and our fishing rods, while Matt carried a large cooler to be the site of the surgeries. Being the novice fisherman that I am, I opted to out of my slightly too large felt bottoms for my rubber bottomed hiking shoes. This was a grave mistake. The rocks that inhabit Bitch earn their name. Still, I slipped and slid my way as we waded about 45 minutes to the site of the first livewell. In the first livewell, there was one hybrid and the one rainbow. Unfortunately, the rainbow did not survive the night, while that is rare, it does happen. Most likely an unfortunate accident when the fish was hooked. The hybrid, however, was ripe for surgery. I took on the role of fish anesthesiologist and mixed in a little MS-222 into the water in the fish bucket. Once the fish was good and knocked out, it was placed within a metal trough inside the cooler. My job from then on was to keep the battery powered hose on the gills and to make sure the fish was still gilling (breathing in fish terms). Matt proceeded to make an incision an inch long in the abdomen of the fish with a scalpel blade duct taped to the back end of a pen—very MacGyver. Another, smaller, incision was made between the pelvic fins. Using a catheter the antenna of the radio tag was slid through the fish, to stick out from the pelvic fins to the end of the caudal fin. The tag itself was cylindrical and as thick around as my pinky though only a couple inches long. The tag’s large size was the reason it had to be surgically put in. Once the tag was squeezed into the abdominal cavity, Matt sewed up the top incision with two dissolving stitches. Stitches just like the ones we get from a nasty cut. The fish was revived inside the bucket, full of fresh, drug-free water, and then placed inside the livewell for the rest of the day to continue recovering.


The Surgery: the hose over the gills and just before the radio tag emplaced 

We waded for another 30 or 40 minutes to the second livewell and performed the surgery three more times, all with success. It was incredible to watch Matt slice open and stitch up each fish just like the surgeons on those medical dramas. After the hard wading and surgeries, we rewarded ourselves with some fly fishing. While the goal was to catch more hybrids and rainbows to radio tag, we only caught a few cutthroats—pretty awesome considering it was for work. On the way back to the truck we released the fish recovering inside the livewells back into the river. All of them looked great! On the occasional Friday, Matt goes out to track these tagged fish in a small plane to see how far up the fish go into the tributaries—places where pure cutthroat thrive. Overall, my short career as a fish anesthesiologist/nurse was exciting and successful.