Electrofishing on Duck Creek: lots of fish, cows, and horses… 0 ducks.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 - 6:53pm


Arielle Sperling

“You know who would be really good at electrofishing?” I asked the crew as we sat down in the grass, peeling off our thick rubber gloves in the 85-degree heat.
            “Who?” Jeff asked as he let the 50(ish) pound electrofisher off his back and joined us in the grass.
            “A professional lacrosse player!”
            We all laughed at my little nerdy joke, and started to guzzle water before our final e-fishing pass of the day. It was hot outside, and dressed up to the nines in our long pants, waders, and shockproof rubber gloves was certainly not cooling us down. 
            Now, you might be wondering what exactly e-fishing is. (I certainly was before I came out here!) Anne Marie was careful to assure me yesterday that we were not electrocuting any fish (that would imply fish-murder. Definitely not something the foundation supports). Rather, e-fishing is a way to collect data on fish populations in any given area of a stream/river. An electrofisher has two ends: an anode, and a cathode. A current travels between the two ends (both of which are placed in the water, several feet apart). Fish that are within reach of the current are lightly stunned – as they rise to the surface of the water they are scooped up in a net, and placed in a live-well where they can happily swim around until re-released into the stream after the survey is complete. Two or three “netters” follow behind the person who is electrofishing – the netters must deftly position themselves in the optimal place for catching tiny, stunned fish… hence the lacrosse joke. (Perhaps the strong sun weakened my humor?)
Setting up the electrofisher before heading out to the creek - this bad boy is probably
the most expensive piece of electronic equipment I will ever handle. 

            This summer the Henry’s Fork Foundation is taking part in a statewide survey of rivers/lakes/streams/tributaries in order to assess the population and health of native cutthroat trout. This survey was last done in 2002, and the new data will be used to compare the status of cutthroats over the last decade. Yesterday we assessed a tributary of Henry’s Lake – it quickly became one of the most interesting, exciting, and rewarding days of my summer.  Duck Creek is a lovely little stream, surrounded by a herd of cattle and many horses. Overgrown in several sections by thorns, trees, and sagebrush, the stream can be a little bit difficult to navigate while holding an e-fisher or nets, but it was complete worth the struggle. Duck Creek’s challenging sections were gorgeous; even after my third time up our 100-meter reach (each stream must be e-fished 3 times for our surveys); I still found it to be quite beautiful. I am still struck by Idaho’s beauty every day I am here.
The cows wanted to e-fish too, but we didn't have waders big enough for them...

            Yesterday I got to be a professional lax player/e-fishing netter, along with Bess and Chris. For his last day with HFF this summer, Jeff got the chance to don the e-fisher. (He did a great job – I was quite impressed with his ability to hold his body upright under the weight of the e-fisher AND handle the anode/cathode ends at the same time. While wearing waders, in the heat, on the slippery rocks, amid the thick sagebrush. 10 points for Jeff!) Netting, as it turns out, is a job that requires a competitive drive, good eyes, and quick reflexes. Bess, Chris and I soon turned our job into a little tournament (though no winner was crowned, I would like to believe I caught the most fish!)
The crew e-fishing Duck Creek

            So, what did we find? Hundreds of fish – mostly brook trout and sculpin… and nine cutthroats. It is hard to assess our data without comparing it to data from the rest of the state. However, it is a relief to see that there are at least some cutties still in the tributary. Brookies are more aggressive than the cutties, and hatch earlier too. The question is – will the cutties be able to make a comeback, or have the non-native brookies and rainbows taken over? It seems cliché, but perhaps only time will tell. Rainbows were introduced several decades ago because it takes more athleticism to fish for them – but nowadays we also know the value of a thriving native species. It seems to be a battle between what is best for nature and what is best for humans – a common struggle for environmentalists.
One of the cutthroat trout we caught while e-fishing

            An internship is meant to expose students to a potential career path, and to give them the opportunity to gain new skills. How many college students can say that they have spent a day electrofishing in rural Idaho, participating in field-research with some of the best scientists in the field? So often an internship turns into an opportunity for a corporation to exploit an unpaid college student – but an internship with HFF is the exact opposite of that. I am so grateful for this experience; my summer with the Henry’s Fork Foundation has been the perfect way to actualize the lessons I have learned in the classroom at Colgate University as an Environmental Studies major, reinforcing my passion for sustaining, conserving, and protecting the environment for its own sake and for the sake of future generations. 
Checking on the fish at the live-well at the end of the day