Monday, August 6, 2018

Stunning And Stocking

                                                         Stunning And Stocking                              

Yesterday was one of the most rewarding days of my life.  I got the privilege of carrying nineteen rare cutthroat trout up a wildflower-filled valley into Colorado’s high country, to be released into the wild and hopefully propagate as well.  It was the third time I’ve been lucky enough to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife this year, and they’ve all been interesting.

 The first volunteer day occurred in April, doing the annual fish census on the Eagle River. It’s part of an annual fish count that’s over twenty years old, designed to monitor river health after a Gold King Mine-like spill that occurred in the 1980s.  The process of doing a river census involves spanning the river from bank to bank with three rows of netters. The members of the first row (usually the biggest, burliest guys) hold a device called an electrode in one hand, and a long-handled boat net in the other.  Each member of the first row are connected to each other by an electric cable, and they have by far the toughest job, since both of their hands are occupied and they have no way to steady themselves in the swift current flowing over slippery round river rocks.  The second row follows right behind, trying to snag the stunned fish who tumbled past the knees of the first row.  The third row catches those the second row misses, and also drags floating fish corrals behind them.  Eventually all of the netted fish get brought to another corral-type enclosure that’s set up near the bank, where the fish are counted and their sex and species noted. This is something I help out with every year, since I find it pretty interesting to see what everything that is swimming in a river.  As a fly angler, I only get to see that which will take a well-presented fly.  But when you electroshock the river, you get to see everything in there that swims, and not just the trout.  These include whitefish, chubs, dace and my personal favorite, sculpins.  Its often said that healthy trout populations are a good indicator of a healthy river, like a canary in a coalmine, but that is even more true of sculpin. 
  The Eagle River that day was as cold as it usually is in early April.  I was glad to have my hands free, for I was constantly having to use my net to steady myself.  At one point one of the Parks and Wildlife officers in the front row stumbled back, and I rushed forward to catch him.  He was a big guy, but I was able to just keep him from going under and overtopping his waders.  On one previous river census I had done that myself, and it made for a cold, miserable rest of the day.    
  By the end of the day there was just enough time left to make some runs at Beaver Creek­.  The ski season was down to it’s last couple of weeks, and when it comes down to the end like this I don’t want to miss any opportunities to make some turns on the hill. Living in Eagle County one is constantly reminded of how much everything related to water is tightly tied together, from the frozen snowpack to the creeks, streams and rivers it transforms into later in the year.  The snow we ski on in February becomes the whitewater we crash through in June, and the habitat we try and fool trout in come August.  The well at our home beside the Colorado River is very shallow, for the water table sits only a couple of feet below ground. That frozen water we play on in the winter becomes that water we drink and nourishes our garden in the summer.  Its all one and the same thing taking different forms, and living here you are constantly reminded of just how connected by water everything is.
  My next opportunity to help Parks and Wildlife came in May.  This would involve electroshocking again, but this time on the Colorado River not far above my home.  Shocking a river the size of the Colorado involves doing it from a boat, and not standing in the cold water.  The rafts themselves have frames that are purposefully designed for this exact task, with diamond plate decks and railings that extend out over the front so that the two netters in the bow can lean over and capture the stunned fish.  The electric shock is delivered by an electrode mounted on the end of a boom that is lowered into the water. Electric power comes from a gasoline generator mounted under the seat, and the gas tank is located in the rear of the raft which helps weigh down the back a little.  But the whole boat is still very front-heavy, especially with two big guys leaning out over there.  Between the netters and the rowers sits a live well, and as fish are netted the netters swing the nettees around and into the live well.  When the live well gets full, we row over to the bank, where each fish is counted and a small hole punched into their tail.  The reason for the hole is to come up with a figure known as the Recapture Rate.  The same section of river gets surveyed again a week later, and by counting the amount of fish that get netted a second time, biologists can estimate what the total population of the river is.

  It was fun to be out on a section of river that I know well, and to be able to net the fish without having to stand in their cold environment.  On that day we had two boats doing the survey, one going down the left side of the river and the other surveying the right side. We set off down the river, lowered the boom, and began looking for the flashes of stunned fish to scoop out of the river and deposit into the live well. It immediately became apparent that we would have one obstacle to deal with, and that was the poor clarity of the water. Visibility was only about a foot, and there were many fish the we stunned that would flash for only a moment and then disappear into the murky water.  This was especially true of the many small sculpin I saw that never made it into my net.  Then a second problem began to become apparent, and that was an increasing amount of wind blowing upriver right back in our faces.  The natural state of things in a river is the flotsam in the water moves faster than objects on top of it, and so as the fish were temporarily knocked unconscious they quickly floated away from us and out of sight downriver.  Our raft was being rowed by a Parks and Wildlife officer named Kendall, whom I had worked with many times doing the Eagle River electroshocking.  She did the best that she or anyone could have in trying to push us down the river, but rowing the heavy, unbalanced boat in a stiff wind was a tall order.  I offered a couple of times to man the oars, and wasn’t too disappointed when she gamely demurred and pressed on.
  We were on a section of the Colorado River below an access point called Catamount, which has a very remote feel to it.  It is one of the few river stretches that isn’t paralled by a road, and it sees very little river traffic, especially since a local rancher blocked the only public access point below Catamount.  The other notable feature in this out of the way canyon is a very large Bald Eagle nest right beside the river.  This spring there were four eagles living in the nest, two big mature eagles and two fledglings.  We had already filled the live well once and were on our next round when the nest came into sight.  The two older eagles were there as always, but instead of flying away they hung out to watch, and they were soon to be rewarded for their curiosity. 
   Almost all of the fish we caught were released back into the water as gently as possible, with the exception of any long-nosed chubs we caught.  Those fish are considered invasive non-natives, and can breed with the native chubs which create hybridized offspring which are undesirable.  So the long-nosed chubs got tossed onto the bank after they were counted, and the eagles watching this closely caught onto that quickly.  No sooner would we push off the bank than they would swoop down, grab the unfortunate chub, and carry it off for a one-way ride to their big nest.  The eagles were clearly loving this, for it was Christmas time in May for them. 

  At one point, when the wind was blowing the hardest, I looked up to see a big bald eagle hovering ten feet above my head, watching the whole process with an intent gaze.  I tried to remember to keep watching the fish I was supposed to be netting, but it was hard to ignore the bald eagle who was close enough to shit on my head.  Kendall was pushing as hard as she could into the gale, but fish were tumbling away from us in the persistent current.  Suddenly the eagle overhead spotted a tasty snack, and plunged down into the water just ahead of the boat and came up with a fine brown trout, winging it away to add to the pile of fish filling up its nest.  It was a spectacular sight to see, and one I’ll not soon forget!  Our run down the canyon was finished way too soon, and I could have kept doing it all the way down to my house.  Again I was surprised by the numbers and diversity of the fish we caught, especially the numbers of mountain whitefish, which almost equaled the rainbow trout. 
 Even though the process of surveying the fish has to be much less fun for them than it is for those netting them (and way less than for the eagles), it was good to know that there’s a very good reason to be doing this.  In the past year I became part of a stakeholder group trying to come up with a plan to ensure the long-term health of the Colorado River, and surveys like this are critical to coming up with data to objectively measure where we are now and where things are going, for better or worse.  Living and working beside the Colorado has made the river almost as much a part of me as my limbs.  Even if I spend the rest of my life here along its banks, that will only be a small amount of time in the grand scope of things, and anything I can do during my short tenure here to ensure the river’s well-being is a worthwhile expenditure of time. 
  Then in July I got to participate in a third opportunity to work with Parks and Wildlife, this time planting some genetically pure Greenback cutthroat Trout into a high mountain drainage that had been readied for their arrival.  For many years there were considered to be three types of cutthroat trout existent in Colorado, the Greenback, Colorado River, and Rio Grande varieties.  Then, a few years ago a population of cutthroat trout were found on a single small stream called Bear Creek near Pike’s Peak that didn’t look like any of the other three. After some genetic analysis comparing them to cutthroat samples taken over a hundred years ago, it dawned on fish biologists that what had been referred to as Greenback cutthroats (which are found all over Colorado’s eastern-flowing watersheds) were actually Greenback hybrids, and not the real deal.  This lead to a multi-year effort to breed the true Greenbacks, so that they could be transplanted into other watersheds.  Having all of your genetic eggs in one geographic basket risks losing them in case of fire or flood. So my next project would be to carry some of these trout into their new home. 
  I got up early that morning to make the drive over two mountain ranges, the Gore and the Continental Divide.  Herman Gulch wasn’t too far east of Loveland Pass, on the north side of I-70.  It was a sunny morning, and the parking lot was full of eager recreational hikers plus the fifty or so of us who were here on a mission of fish relocation.  Eventually we were all gathered for an explanation of our task for the day.  The truck bearing the precious cargo arrived at nine am on the dot and soon bags were being filled with a careful mix of water to air.  The bags were doubled up, and then nineteen wiggling little trout were added, from three to five inches long.  Each one of the volunteers got to put one of these trout bags into their backpack, and hike it up a steep trail to the meadows above that would become these trout’s new home.
  We were divided into five groups, with Group One releasing their precious packages into the lower stretches, and with Groups Two through Five going progressively higher up the watershed.  I assumed that everyone would want to go as high as possible, so I volunteered for Group Four to give someone else the chance.  But Group Five was two people short, so I jumped over to join that bunch. Soon we were getting our bags of trout and heading up the trail. One unexpected bonus of being in the highest group was that we got our trout first, and would be the first ones going up the hill.  Coming down the trail were lots of people who had gotten up there early for a quick hike, and some of them inquired as to our cargo, especially when they saw Boyd our Parks and Wildlife officer.  This was in large part Boyd’s project, and he was more than happy to let people know what we were doing.  Most were delighted to learn that were putting such rare fish into such a beautiful place.  I’d point to my backpack and ask if anyone wanted some fresh sushi.


The first mile of the trail was pretty steep, and within our group of fish bearers we all found our individual rhythms.  I ended traveling at about the same rate of speed as Ryan, and we became trailmates.  It was a warm morning and took some effort, but the shade of the trees helped cool us.

Along the way we kept running into our other Group Five partners, usually stopped in the shade explaining our purpose to the downhillers. Colorado was undergoing a summer-long heat wave, and getting in your outdoor time in the cooler air of 11,000 feet seemed like a pretty good idea to a lot of people. Every mile or so, Boyd would plant a big wooden stake marking the ending of one zone and the beginning of the next.  The trail leveled off a bit and we passed through the top edge of the tree line, which had kept most of our hike shady.  Soon the cobalt blue Colorado sky began to show through the thinning canopy of pines.  It had been some time since I’d done such a strenuous hike, and with the heat and load on my back I began to feel a bit lightheaded.  But once we cleared the last of the trees and into the big open meadow above, I got a second wind.  The area where the trout were going to make their new home was just beautiful.  A large mountain peak loomed above us, and the hills were carpeted in uncountable numbers of wildflowers.  The cool mountain air was fresh and invigorating, and the sky the bluest I’d seen in a summer that had been filled with wildfires hazing things up.

  We got to our zone, and one by one the Group Five members peeled off to deposit their trout in some new spot in the river that Boyd would point out.  My legs felt so strong that I wanted to keep going as far up the hill as I could, and by the top Boyd and I were the last two left.  He showed me a small deep pocket in the river to put my fish in, then walked up to the last remaining hole where he would put his. 

  My trout’s new home was a triangular pocket about fifteen feet across and a foot deep, with the flow of the small creek creating a counter-clockwise eddy spinning around in it.  There were some deep undercut banks on each side, which gave the trout plenty of cover from the sun and predators.  The first step of the process was to put the bag full of fish in the river itself for five minutes, giving the water in the bag time to cool off.  For this step, I attached the bag to a root that stuck out and walked back to relieve myself and to take in the magnificent view. 

  These had to be the luckiest fish in the world.  I couldn’t imagine more perfect place for a trout on any living creature to live in.  We were mostly above treeline, which meant that wildfires should not be of concern.  The footrail we had hiked up had mostly disappeared down where the trees ended, so there shouldn’t be much human traffic up here. Also nowhere to be seen were any cows, which can be a detriment in some watersheds where cutthroat trout cling to existence.  There were also no mining activities above, with their potential for heavy metals leaching in. Ans since all of the other fish competitors had been removed already, these fortunate Greenbacks had this ideal resource all to themselves.  In the brief time I’d been there, I’d already seen a lot of midges on the water and just above it, and so the trout had plenty of food.  It was hard to imagine a better place to have placed them.

 The next step was to open the bag and let some water in, again to gradually cool the water off.  For this I had to lay down on my belly in the cool, wet grass, while letting in the pristine water. It actually felt great doing this, for the day was hot even at 11,000 feet. It felt as though I was immersing myself into a new, foreign environment, too.  The environment I spend most of my time is at 6,200 feet, technically the high desert, and not the mountains.  The vegetation there is mostly hardy enough to survive with very little water, and the verdant band created along the river is the exception to its surroundings. Here though everything was wet and green and pulsing with life.  I took my waterproof camera out and tried to take pictures of the greenbacks as they swam out of the bag and into their new home. After spending their entire existence up to that point in concrete raceways, what would they make of their new environment? 

  I stayed in the tall wet grass on my belly that way watching them for way longer than necessary, for it seemed to me that what I was watching was something of a miracle.  This moment had been many, many years in the making.  First came the discovery of these genetically pure fish, the only such population in the world.  Then came the decision to try and breed them, and to distribute them in various parts of the state to so that if anything happened to their original habitat, there might be healthy populations elsewhere to ensure their genetic survival.  There had already been two wildfires that had come close to small stream they were found in, so losing them was an existential threat, not merely hypothetical. Next some suitable habitats needed to be found for them, and once those decisions were made then the current occupants of those lakes and streams needed to be removed.  Removing the other fish was a painful but necessary component of the whole process, since leaving them there would mean having them hybridize with the true Greenbacks, invalidating the whole experiment.  Where possible, anglers were organized to catch as many of the current occupants as possible, so they might be relocated to other areas.  But fishermen alone were never going to catch them all, so the final step of the removal process involved using piscicides to ensure a clean slate for the greenbacks.  All of those years of planning and action lead up to this final step, actually putting these fish into the small creek they would be spending the rest of the lives in.  I felt like a very lucky person to be given the honor of completing the mission, for climbing up that steep hill with nineteen greenback trout in my backpack was arguably the easiest phase of a multiyear project.

  It was fascinating watching the trout exhibit various types of behavior once they were set free into their alien environment.  Some of them immediately shot towards the dark safety of the undercut banks.  Others kind of hung about in the middle, as if wondering “What the hell?”.  But three of them immediately figured things out, and within minutes were up at the top of the eddy line sipping midges off the surface.  The trout were not fed immediately before their big trip from Leadville to Herman Gulch, so that when they got into the water they would be hungry and ready to feed.  I stuck my hand in the frigid water holding my camera still, trying to get some underwater shots, but the water was so cold I only lasted a couple of minutes doing that.  Finally I just put the camera away, and just lay there on my stomach watching these beautiful little miracles doing their thing.  The wet cool grass soaked my shirt and pants all the way through, but I barely noticed.  After my previous two experiences with Parks and Wildlife electroshocking fish, it was nice to be doing something that was non-traumatic or stressful to the fish. It gave one an almost god-like sense of power, to be bringing life and beauty to an already perfect place. Being a man I’ll never know what its like to give birth to another human being, so moments like this will probably be the closest I’ll get.  I lost all sense of time and place, and just lay there with my nose inches from the water watching them adjust to their new home, so very glad for the fact that I got to play very small role in making it all happen. 

  Living in the mountains in an expensive resort area isn’t always easy.  I work four different jobs depending on the season, and rarely have a complete day off as a result.  So taking a day off now and then to volunteer my time with Colorado Parks and Wildlife isn’t always easy to do, but I always feel like its some of the time best-spent I’ll do all year.  Taking people down the Colorado River in my boat is almost always a wonderful experience, especially watching them experiencing it for the first time.  When I see a seven year old hanging onto a tenkara rod, connected to a feisty rainbow trout on the end of line, I see someone that I hope will someday grow up into a person who might one day love these rivers and mountains as much as I do.  And knowing that I might have made some small contribution to keeping that resource wild and healthy, for future people to enjoy, is the next best thing to making some tiny humans of my own!

                                                      Jack Bombardier