Category Archives: Conservation

Secrets About Bass Populations

Electrofishing At Night Reveals Secrets About Bass Populations
by Mark Latti, Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife
from The Fishing Wire

Boat for electrofishing


The electrofishing boat has two booms which deliver an electric current into the water.
Each year during late May and early June, the regional office gets a phone call or two about some strange things happening during the wee hours of the morning on some local lake or pond. I even had one caller exclaim once that a UFO had landed on the pond! If you see such a thing, rest assured it is probably not a UFO, but rather your regional fisheries staff working late nights to collect fishery resource information.

Each year about this time, the regional fisheries staff of the Sebago Lakes Region sample 2-4 different waters to collect baseline information on the bass population(s), as well as determine the relative abundance of other fish species. Sampling is done at this time of year during the night, because the fish are more likely to be in shallower water spawning and are less likely to be spooked by the approach of a boat.

Each bass is measured and weighed, so biologists get a clearer picture of the bass population in the lake.
This sampling is performed with an electrofishing boat. A what? An electrofishing boat has an onboard generator that delivers an electric current into the water, which temporarily stuns the fish so they can be collected with nets. Because the work is done in pitch black conditions, there are lots and lots of lights, beepers, and motor sounds…no wonder we get mistaken for aliens!

Prior to sampling, we survey the shoreline habitat of each lake (in daylight) and categorize the shoreline habitat into different habitat types (i.e. sand, cobble/rubble, muck with weeds, etc.) and mark the start and end of each with a GPS unit. Since most lakes are too large to sample the entire shoreline in a night. We then take the habitat data for the entire lake and develop partial sampling transects of each habitat type relative to their proportion in the lake. Once determined, coordinates for these sampling transects are entered back into the GPS, so we can navigate in the dark.

The boat hugs the shoreline and biologists are ready to net any fish that are temporarily stunned.
The boat is operated by a crew of three, one boat driver and two netters. Fish are stunned, netted, and placed into a live well for each transect. After one or two transects are sampled, the bass are anesthetized then each is measured, weighed, and returned to the lake or pond to recover. This work is repeated for each transect until completed, which is typically sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m.

Sometimes the night drags into early morning, but the onboard work lights allow biologists to accurately measure and record the data they need.
To date, we have collected baseline data on about 50 regional bass waters. This baseline length, weight, size class structure and catch per unit of effort data (abundance) on bass gives us a basis for categorizing waters by fishery quality, comparing populations or performance among other regional waters, and for evaluating changes in population characteristics over time due to varying regulations, environmental conditions, or other variables.

The next time your “upta camp”, beware of those nocturnal biologists. Hopefully, we will not be interrupting your peaceful evening, but if we do…it’s all to evaluate, protect, and enhance our important fishery resources.

The controls at the helm of the electrofishing boat are a little more complex than most center consoles.

Once the fish are measured, they are released back into the water, so lunkers like this one can be caught again.

What Are Greenback Cutthroats?

Greenback Cutthroats Get a Boost into the Colorado Back Country

This week, the endangered Greenback Cutthroat Trout got a major boost from Trout Unlimited volunteers and agency partners in Colorado.
from The Fishing Wire

Spreading trout


CLEAR CREEK, CO — Once thought to be extinct, the rare greenback cutthroat trout is making a big comeback thanks to the efforts of the Greenback Cutthroat Recovery Team – a partnership that includes the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Western Native Trout Initiative, and Trout Unlimited.

Over the course of two days in mid-July, 1,700 Year 1 Cutthroats (~4-6 inches) made their way into two headwater drainages in the Clear Creek Watershed, an hour west of Denver, CO. The Dry Gulch and Herman Gulch creeks represent the first major river populations for this threatened species since it was rediscovered in 2012.

To help agency partners stock these important little fish, over 80 Trout Unlimited volunteers carried the cutthroats in large packs up steep switchbacks and bush-wacked through dense brush to get to the remote rivers. Some people hiked over six miles into the top of the drainage (over 11,500 feet)! These volunteers came from ten different TU chapters and represented all walks of life – anglers and conservationists coming together to recover this native trout.

“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” says Paul Winkle, Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist for the Clear Creek Drainage. It was a major undertaking that took a lot of support from agency staff, non-profit partners, and local businesses.

At Colorado TU, we are very proud of the hard work and dedication that our chapters and volunteers provide to these projects. It shows what can happen when people focus on collaboration and overcoming differences. It didn’t matter whether someone was young or old, Democrat or Republican, a dry fly purist or never fished before – we were all side by side, climbing those steep trails together. All to save the Greenback.

That’s right! Over 80 volunteers and 20+ agency staff from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife service packed up 1700 native Greenback cutthroat trout to be released along Dry Gulch and Herman Gulch on July 16 & 18. These little trout were raised in a hatchery as part of a statewide effort to restore population’s of Colorado’s state fish. I’m not sure if you can tell if a fish is happy, but those little guys sure looked excited to be released into their new home. Check out the video spotlight that CBS Local Channel 4 did about the effort, below:

Feeling inspired? Learn more about Native Trout across Colorado – the efforts to protect and restore populations and ways to get involved.

Volunteers gather before setting off to deliver native trout to their new home. Volunteers and staff from:

U.S. Forest Service-Arapaho & Roosevelt Natl Forests Pawnee Natl Grassland, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region, Pikes Peak Chapter of Trout Unlimited #508, St. Vrain Anglers Trout Unlimited, The Greenbacks | Colorado Trout Unlimited, basin + bend, Western Native Trout Initiative, Dublin Dog Co., West Denver Trout Unlimited, Cutthroat Chapter of Trout Unlimited,Boulder Flycasters, Colorado Parks and Wildlife,Trout Unlimited, Gore Range Anglers – Trout Unlimited and Upslope Brewing Company.

A big shout out to all the volunteers who came out to hike and haul the native trout to their new homes, and to the various groups and agencies that came out to restore Colorado’s native fisheries. Read the full story that CBS Channel 4 News did here.

Pictured: Western Native Trout Initiative Sticker and Dublin Dog Co. trout collar.

Thank you to the following:

Colorado Parks and Wildlife
US Forest Service
US Fish and Wildlife
Western Native Trout Initiative
Dublin Dog Co.
Upslope Brewing Co.
Basin + Bend
Loveland Ski Co.
The Greenbacks
CBS Channel News 4
Trout Unlimited Chapters
Trout Unlimited

Modern Fish Act

Modern Fish Act Offers Hope
This article originally appeared in Sport Fishing magazine. To view it on the original page, click here.

By Mike Leonard
from The Fishing Wire

While federal fisheries law (the Magnuson-Stevens Act) has been successful in preventing overfishing, it has never been adapted to fit recreational fishing.

Federal marine fisheries management is not a topic that’s frequently in the public light. However, in the buildup to the U.S. House of Representatives’ vote on H.R. 200 — a bill to reauthorize the nation’s primary law governing offshore fisheries — the topic received way more media attention than usual, for better or worse.

Competing narratives arose: that the bill was either a reasonable set of changes to improve fishing opportunities, or would wipe the oceans clean of fish entirely. What’s the average angler — who cares about conservation but also wants reasonable fishing access — to believe?

Leading up to the vote, many environmental groups expended a tremendous amount of effort and resources in drumming up opposition to H.R. 200. Some even dubbed it the “Empty Oceans Act.” Meanwhile, most commercial and recreational fishing organizations acknowledged that the bill wasn’t perfect (no legislation is, certainly not something so complicated and with competing interests such as this), but supported it on the whole because it included provisions of importance to each constituency.

For example, the nation’s leading recreational fishing organizations supported H.R. 200 because it included provisions of a separate recreational fishing-specific bill, the bipartisan Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act (Modern Fish Act).

Why Mess with Success?

Opponents of H.R. 200 noted that overfishing is at an all-time low, and questioned why Congress would want to muck around with a law that’s working. No one can argue that the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that H.R. 200 would reauthorize, hasn’t been effective at ending overfishing and rebuilding depleted fish stocks. Indeed, earlier this year, NOAA Fisheries released a report showing that the number of overfished stocks in the U.S. has reached an all-time low.

The problem for the recreational fishing community is that, in many cases, increased fish abundance of federal fisheries hasn’t necessarily led to increased fishing opportunities. While I believe that anglers support conservation because of an inherent appreciation for aquatic resources, we also have historically benefitted from our conservation ethic because more fish generally equals more and better fishing.

Somehow, that simple formula has fallen apart in federal marine fisheries management. That’s largely because the Magnuson-Stevens Act was designed to manage commercial fishing, not recreational fishing. Unlike the most prominent commercial fisheries in places like Alaska and New England, in most recreational fisheries, federal fisheries managers lack the data needed to meet the prescriptive management targets required by law.

Lack of Data to Achieve Goals

The core of the Magnuson-Stevens Act is the requirement of annual catch limits and accountability measures in federal fisheries to end and prevent overfishing. If catch of a stock is approaching or exceeding its annual catch limit, fishery managers use accountability measures to ensure the limit is not exceeded or correct for any overage.

That’s all well and good when sufficient data exists to both calculate the annual catch limit based on current stock abundance, and to estimate how many fish are being caught relative to the catch limit.

Of the over 500 federally managed fisheries, on average, only 185 are assessed each year to develop scientific information needed to determine the current status of the stock. In the southeastern U.S., this discrepancy is even greater. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council is in charge of 75 different stocks, and the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council is tasked with 44. However, only about seven stock assessments are conducted annually between the two regions combined.

Despite lacking accurate and up-to-date information on the health of these fisheries, federal fisheries managers must still somehow arrive at annual catch limits for each of them.
The system for estimating how many fish anglers are catching in order to adhere to catch limits also has significant limitations. To date, saltwater recreational fishing harvest estimates have been based on a survey of coastal household landlines. That means someone like me, who doesn’t live in a coastal county or have a landline but goes saltwater fishing (albeit not as often as I’d like), was never going to be surveyed.

Obviously, this survey has some serious limitations. This system is now transitioning toward sending surveys by snail mail, which is a modest improvement but not exactly a major technological advance in the age of smartphones. Unfortunately, significant limitations in the timeliness and accuracy of angler harvest estimates will persist.

Because of the scientific and management uncertainty inherent in trying to calculate and manage toward a hard, poundage-based catch limit based on limited biological and harvest data, and because the Magnuson-Stevens Act is very explicit about preventing overfishing, precaution is built into catch limits. The worse the data, the more precaution that’s built in. Not only does this mean lost fishing opportunities when actual stock abundance is greater than what was used to estimate the outdated catch limit, it also means managers may in some cases not be accounting for declines in abundance that could warrant tighter regulations.

Given the economic, social and conservation importance of recreational fishing to the nation, as well as the importance of maintaining healthy fish populations, prescriptively managing this activity on guesswork is not a recipe for success.

How Do We Fix It?

The Modern Fish Act, which was included in H.R. 200, includes a variety of management and data collection improvements aimed at narrowing the gap between what the Magnuson-Stevens Act requires and how well fisheries data can meet those requirements. The bill will allow for alternative management approaches to the way annual catch limits have been implemented that are better suited to the nature of recreational fishing and available data, while still preventing overfishing.

These approaches are already being explored in fisheries like summer flounder in the Mid-Atlantic and red snapper in the South Atlantic, and the bill will clarify that they are allowed under federal law.

The Modern Fish Act also aims to improve fisheries data to better meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by facilitating the development and use of new, innovative angler harvest surveys that can supplement and improve existing surveys.

The goal of the Modern Fish Act is to address the significant gap that currently exists between the rigidity of management targets and the lack of quality data to meet them, by working the issue from both ends. It will provide fisheries managers with the tools needed to manage recreational fishing in a way that better aligns with what anglers are experiencing on the water, while also bringing angler harvest data into the 21st century.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act in a way that helps to address the problems with recreational fisheries management without creating new problems elsewhere, particularly rolling back on conservation gains, is a tough balance to strike. These issues are not simple or easy. It’s unfair and inaccurate to characterize attempts to address the very legitimate problems with how the Magnuson-Stevens Act manages recreational fishing as “anti-conservation.”

The provisions of the Modern Fish Act are thoughtful, sensible and grounded in conservation. Unfortunately, in these hyper-political times, even these modest legislative improvements are being swept up into the partisanship and tribalism that is pervasive in our political discourse.

Like much of what comes before the U.S. House of Representatives these days, H.R. 200 passed on mostly partisan lines. In the coming months, the Senate will likely take a run at its own Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bill. The recreational fishing community will be exploring opportunities through Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization, or whatever other options are available, to move the provisions contained in the Modern Fish Act.

In the meantime, hopefully the spotlight that has been shone on the Magnuson-Stevens Act leads to a collective realization that while the Act looks pretty good overall, it’s far from perfect. It has some wrinkles we still need to iron out.

*Mike Leonard is the conservation director for the American Sportfishing Association, where he advocates for policies that benefit fisheries management, conservation, and angler access.

Fish Tagging Program

Fish Tagging Program Yields Interesting Results
E. Weeks
South Carolina Coastal Resources
from The Fishing Wire

Big South Carolina Drum


Friends Andy Ball and Brent Milgrom pose with two large red drum captures from their day at the Winyah jetties. NOTE: SCDNR biologists suggest leaving fish this large in the water for photos, or pulling them out for no more than 30 seconds and providing the proper horizontal support, as shown here. (Photo: Provided)

Last month, Charlotte resident Andy Ball headed to the South Carolina coast for a summer escape.

“We were down with five other friends on a reunion of sorts – South Mecklenburg High School class of 1985,” Ball said. During the trip, Georgetown Coastal Adventures’ Captain Dan Scarborough took Ball and his friends out to the Winyah Bay jetties to target large red drum.

The friends got what they came for – including a three-and-a-half-foot bull red that topped out at 30 pounds, which Ball reeled in after a challenging fight.

The fishermen could tell it had been caught before: a plastic yellow tag protruded from the spottail’s back.

Tags are thin, nylon cords that let biologists track fish and other marine animals. Each tag has a unique number identifying that fish and the SCDNR number to call and report recaptures. Since the 1970s, SCDNR biologists have operated a volunteer tagging program whereby recreational anglers can turn their fishing trips into valuable scientific information by tagging the fish they’re already catching and releasing. Using a specialized tagging device, researchers and volunteer anglers typically insert the tag into the muscle of a fish just by the dorsal fin. Harmless to the fish, the tags can remain anchored there for decades as the fish grows.

Andy Ball contacted SCDNR’s tagging coordinator, Morgan Hart, to report the tag number and details of the red drum he’d recaptured. Every time a tagged fish is reported, Hart sends detailed updates about the fish’s history to both the original taggers and the recapturers. It’s a neat way to see where a particular fish has traveled since you last saw it.

When Hart ran the fish’s history, she was amazed – it had first been tagged over 21 years prior.

“I could tell right away that the tag report was special,” Hart said. “The tag number was different than anything I had seen recaptured before. Once I realized how long ago it was tagged, I think my mouth literally fell open.”

“I reached out to the original tagger, Kevin Mischke, and he was delighted to hear that one of his fish was still contributing to the population,” Hart said.

James Islander Kevin Mischke, who first tagged fish ‘A033559,’ dug up this photo from the 1990s, when he regularly tagged spottails in Wappoo Cut. (Photo: Provided)

Mischke was an active volunteer tagger from 1990 to 2006. In 1997, he’d caught a large red drum at Wappoo Cut, near his home on James Island. Mischke tagged the fish with a yellow, nylon tag labeled ‘A033559.’

When Mischke caught it, the red drum was already a mature fish at 35 inches – meaning he/she is now likely to be well older than 21 years of age. SCDNR research has shown red drum are impressively long-lived fish, with biologists documenting fish up to 40 years old.

A decade later, redfish ‘A033559’ showed up once again in the records, when angler Warren Wood caught and measured the fish in 2008. By this time, the red drum had grown five inches and migrated to Georgetown, where Wood reported catching it off the Winyah Bay jetties.

And that’s exactly where Andy Ball caught the fish this summer – no larger this time, but another decade older.

Redfish By the Numbers

Over the past 25 years, South Carolina anglers in the tagging program have tagged ~61,000 red drum. Those fish have been recaptured nearly 10,000 times, with individual fish being reported as many as four times each.

“Seeing how many fish are recaptured in our state really shows how important it is to carefully handle any fish you catch and release,” tagging coordinator Morgan Hart said. “Since we can’t just look in the water and see how many fish there are, it’s easy to assume that there are an infinite number of fish available to catch – but our recapture rate shows that’s just not the case.”

How to Report a Tagged Fish

You don’t have to be a volunteer tagger to help – we count on anyone who fishes in South Carolina to report tagged fish they encounter. Your fishing trip could provide valuable scientific data that helps biologists studying how far and when fish migrate, how long they live, and how best to protect different species in South Carolina.

Tagged fish can be reported online or by calling (843) 953-9832. Be sure to write down the tag number, date, location, species, and size of the fish so that you can accurately report it later.

If you’re interested in learning more about the tagging program, check out our website and/or contact program coordinator Morgan Hart at HartM@dnr.sc.gov.

Report a Tagged Fish Here

Artificial Reefs

Artificial Reefs Create Homes for Sea Life
from The Fishing Wire

From tourism to marine recreation and sport fishing, reefs play an important role in local economies. They’re also essential to the health of the ocean, providing habitat for a variety of marine life and increasing coastal resilience to storms.

To support thriving coastlines and ocean ecosystems, U.S. Department of Interior employees and programs are working with local partners to build artificial reefs — creating refuge for marine life.

Rigs to Reefs

A flat plain of clay, mud and sand, the natural bottom of the Gulf of Mexico offers very little natural hard bottom and reef habitat. But Interior’s Rigs to Reefs program is changing that by turning old offshore platforms into artificial reefs.

Not long after new platforms are installed in the Gulf, marine life take up residence in and around the platform’s steel frame supports — called jackets. As the platforms age, the populations of fish and other marine organisms that live near the structure increase. A single platform can provide habitat for thousands of fish.

When platforms are no longer economically viable, instead of removing the structure (and with it, much needed marine habitat), Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement works with energy companies and the states to make the platforms into permanent artificial reefs. Instead of paying to decommission a rig, the energy company pays to have the structure reefed and donates money to the state where the rig is to assist with the management of their artificial reef program.

Since the program was created in 1985, more than 500 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico have been converted into artificial reefs with 400 additional platforms eligible to be converted to reefs.

This program is a win for ocean life, outdoor enthusiasts and states. Artificial reefs provide shelter, food and other necessary elements for biodiversity and a productive ocean. This in turn creates a rich diversity of marine life, attracting divers and anglers. And states like the program because the increased tourism and commercial fishing benefits local economies.

Lots to see on a reef


Divers can experience fascinating marine life on artificial reefs. Photo by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Creating Living Shorelines
Back in the 17th century, oysters were abundant in the estuaries of the Atlantic Coast, but over time, development, pollution and commerce led to their decline. Now these mollusks are flourishing once again at sites in Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland, thanks to Interior.

Working with public and private partners, Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is building artificial oyster reefs and creating living shorelines. In Virginia at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, over 13,500 oyster castles were installed. These cinderblock-like structures provide a spot for young oysters (called spat) to stick to and grow. Along New Jersey’s coast at Gandy’s Beach, the Service, partners and volunteers have built more than 3,000 feet of living shorelines using oyster castles. They started in 2014 and are seeing amazing results creating a self-sustaining reef system. In Maryland, they’re placing reef balls — concrete cone-line structures — in a 287-acre stretch of the bay to promote oyster growth.

Why is a thriving oyster colony important? Healthy oysters have profound implications for the environment, water quality and the local economy. One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water each day — more oysters means cleaner water. Flourishing oyster populations are good for coastal fishing communities that depend on the species for food and to earn a living. They also provide food and habitat for other marine organisms. Not to mention, living coasts prevent erosion and act as wave breaks, making salt-marsh habitat and infrastructure more resilient in the face of future storms.

These are a few of the ways Interior is leading on ocean conservation and building artificial reefs to ensure fish and marine life populations are healthy.

Cutthroat Trout

Artifacts of Epochs Past: Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout Benefit From Private Lands Conservation
—Craig Springer
from The Fishing Wire

One might say that the past is dead and gone—but that notion doesn’t fly on the Vermejo Park Ranch, near Raton, New Mexico.

Managers of this private land seek to restore long reaches of mountain streams for the benefit of native Rio Grande cutthroat trout—not to mention the guided anglers who seek to catch the rare fish.

Crucial to the endeavor is a private-public partnership fostered through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). Ranch employee Lief Ahlm has been involved with native fish conservation for decades, and his interest in this present project comes only natural.

If you didn’t know better, one would think that a cartographer laid a turkey’s foot on paper, traced it, and made it into a map of a northern New Mexico watershed. The headwaters of the Vermejo River trickle over the Colorado state line into New Mexico and the storied Vermejo Park Ranch at the heart of the historic Maxwell Land Grant where the southern Rockies meet the prairie.

Three rivulets, the “toes” of the turkey foot, converge in an open vega—a big meadow—hemmed in close on one side by a steep, craggy high-wall of stone the color of a pronghorn’s pelt. Adventurous ponderosa pine trees cling against gravity, their roots veining into rock crevices. It is steep, impressive and imposing.

On the other side, the slope fans westward, gently, then precipitously to 11,000-foot purplish peaks that typify the southern Rockies. The remains of last winter’s snows tip the peaks like dollops of thick cream. That snow, what little of it that exists, is future trout habitat when it spills off the mountainsides and soaks wetlands or percolates over gravelly riffles and purls through dark pools.

At the base of the high-wall flows the North Fork of the Vermejo River. By eastern standards, it’s a little rill—and not a river at all. It adjoins the Little Vermejo Creek which is slightly larger in volume. Mere feet away, the two, now one, converge with the third toe, Ricardo Creek. The turkey foot’s spur is a two-mile-long spring run that joins the Vermejo proper another mile downstream.

Their cold, clear waters all possess another quality worth caring about, according to Ahlm, a fish biologist for Vermejo Park Ranch. “The Vermejo River and its tribs hold an aboriginal population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, unique to the headwaters of Canadian River drainage in New Mexico,” Ahlm said. “The cutthroat trout in these streams are holdovers from another time—and they have survived an onslaught of habitat loss and competition with introduced brook trout native to Appalachia.”

Water pouring off the east face of these mountains will eventually flow through Texas’s northern panhandle then through Oklahoma and onto the Mississippi. There’s nothing unusual about that necessarily, but the fish that swims here have immeasurable intrinsic value, an artifact of an epoch past.

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout was the first trout documented in the New World, in 1541. A chronicler of the Coronado entrada noted truchas swimming about in a tributary to the Pecos River as the explorers made their way onward to Kansas. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is one of 13 existing cutthroat subspecies that occur from coastal Alaska and over the spine of the Rockies southward to New Mexico. The Rio Grande is the southernmost cutthroat and is one of only three cutthroat subspecies that live in waters flowing eastward off the Rockies. All other western native trout live in waters that drain to the Pacific. The Rio Grande cutthroat persists in the upper Rio Grande basin, the upper Pecos and here in the furthest reaches of small Canadian River tributaries. The pretty trout resides in only 10 percent of its natural range. Rio Grande cutthroat trout retreated to small headwater streams due to habitat lost to overgrazing and a century of competition with nonnative trout species.

Vermejo Park Ranch was the first site to re-introduce elk into New Mexico following its extirpation resulting from unregulated subsistence harvest more than a century ago. In keeping with that spirit, the past lives large here as expressed in how this private land is managed. It’s owned by Turner Enterprises, which has endeavored to restore the land toward natural conditions and native wildlife. Buffalo roam where overstocked cattle herds once loafed. They eventually make their way to market.

The past matters to Ahlm. He holds a personal affinity for New Mexico history; he’s conversant in some of the most arcane texts on the subject. He originates from the northwest corner of the state, got educated in fisheries science at New Mexico State University. He followed that with a long and fruitful career with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and still holds a personal affection to the agency he once worked for.

“I had a front-row view of some of the greatest conservation work in New Mexico,” said Ahlm, speaking toward the many projects that he worked on through the decades: big horn sheep and pronghorn transplants, and law enforcement. But his heart’s desires lay with fish conservation. Ahlm managed the famous San Juan River trout fishery for a time and was involved in native fish conservation endeavors in all corners of the state.

And his heart is still in it, and thus his involvement with the Service’s Partners of Fish and Wildlife Program—a partnership with the express purpose of improving habitat for the rare trout on the ranch—that in the end can help keep the fish off the endangered species list.

Les Dhaseleer, Natural Resources Division Manager at Vermejo, and Carter Kruse, Director of Natural Resources for Turner Enterprises, consulted with Service biologist Angel Montoya, to set aside stream sections to exclude deer, elk, and bison. The intent was to rest select areas of streamside vegetation from forage by wildlife and allow nature to heal trout habitat. Since 2014, 10 half-mile-long blocks of stream have been rested by tall fencing over a dozen collective stream miles. The outcome has been impressive to witness.

“The fenced areas have seen a profusion of willow growth, shading and cooling the water and stabilizing the stream banks. That’s good for trout,” Ahlm said. “The stream channel narrows and the forces of the water dig deeper pools and moves sediment along making more space from cutthroat trout and habitat for bugs they eat. Cottonwood pole plantings help stabilize banks and add shade and structure, and bird habitat.”

Dhaseleer says that project involves long-term monitoring of water quality and aquatic insect composition along the length of the Vermejo River through the ranch. Once these half-mile sections heal, the intent is to move fence materials to the next blocks to rest and restore adjacent stream sections. It’s a long-term affair, and in the end should yield quality habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other species, such as the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse.

Surveys have yet to turn up the mouse, but the habitat could exist now and certainly into the future. Subsurface water spreads laterally from the streams as a result of the exclosures, broadening the breadth the stream’s influence on adjacent vegetation. Soppy soils and associated vegetation could be a future abode for the rare mouse. The new exclosures have invited beavers to take up housekeeping as well.

Montoya is impressed with the resiliency of the streamside vegetation and wildlife.

“It’s visually stunning to witness the differences, then and now—and so soon. A beaver dam is a measure of success; it’s interesting to see how quickly the dam was built after we erected the exclosures,” Montoya said. “The magnitude of the overall project and the landowner’s commitment to conservation will benefit cutthroat trout and other wildlife for decades.”

Kruse says that the Partners Program has been a tremendous benefit to the conservation work on the ranch. “Teaming up with the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed us to do the work faster and bigger with expanded intellectual power,” said Kruse. “By ourselves, we’d still be on exclosure number-three.”

So with Ahlm, he’s technically on career number two, but it must have been a seamless transition. That was probably so with another former New Mexico Game and Fish employee, Elliot Barker.

The two men intersect in spirit.

The late Barker is a legendary figure in conservation and his presence is felt at Vermejo and beyond. Aldo Leopold was his Forest Service supervisor in the 1910s. After working for Vermejo Park Ranch as a game manager in the late 1920s, Barker went on to serve as director of the Game and Fish Department for 22 years. He was instrumental in making Smokey Bear an icon. Barker helped found the National Wildlife Federation and advocated for wilderness decades ago. The conservationist published seven books on outdoors pursuits and western life. Beatty’s Cabin is a classic. He died in 1988 at 101. Nearby Elliot Barker State Wildlife Management Area is appropriately named.

Ahlm and Barker both came of age in northern New Mexico, though decades apart from one another. Fishing and hunting and conservation intertwined their lives and their careers. Barker cared about native trout of northern New Mexico probably as much as Ahlm and his colleagues.

Barker’s cabin where he and his wife and two young daughters lived for a time is perched on a hillside above a most picturesque Castle Rock at Vermejo.

“You can’t help but feel a kinship to Barker out here,” said Ahlm. “He and I both worked for the same outfits, and I suspect that working here influenced his conservation ethic and the progression of his long career. It’s kind of cool,” he says, passing through a gate of an exclosure where ranch employees are busy augering holes for cottonwood poles near the spur of the turkey foot.

Mere feet away Rio Grande cutthroat trout, followed by their silent shadows throw up puffs of sand as they scurry for the cover of grass thickets that hang over a cut bank.

Learn more at vermejoparkranch.com and www.fws.gov/partners

Springer is with External Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Southwest Region

How Do You Track Wandering Habits of Smallmouth Bass?

Radios Reveal Wandering Habits of Smallmouth Bass in Oklahoma
Angler-funded research lends greater understanding of one of America’s greatest sport fish

By Craig Springer, USFWS
from The Fishing Wire

Pretty Oklahoma smallmouth stream


About the time that redbuds flash their pretty pinkish blooms on eastern Oklahoma’s hillsides and gray streamside sycamores unfurl their fresh leaves the color akin to a wet lime, there’s something curious going on.

And it goes mostly sight unseen.

Smallmouth bass are on the move with the singular purpose of procreation. As Planet Earth wobbles back to the vernal position the daylight lengthens, shadows shorten and the creeks warm. These cues signal to what is arguably America’s top freshwater sport fish that it’s time to spawn.

The fish that ardent anglers call “bronzeback,” hold a renowned reputation as energized packets of fish flesh. Twitch a floating stickbait on slick water over a dark pool at dusk or drag a crayfish-colored club-tailed jig over a gravelly run, and then hang on. The fight of this fish is always outsized. And expect a few leaps out of the water before you feel on your thumb its raspy lip at release. A plucky flip of the tail fin, a splash, and off it goes.

Smallmouth bass are an angler’s favorite—have been for years since well before former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist and medical doctor, James Henshall, branded the species the “gamest fish that swims” in his 1881 tome, Book of the Black Bass. It’s still in print, by the way.

If you’ve caught one, you’re not hearing anything new. You know the “arrowy rush” that Henshall spoke of. And if you’re a licensed angler, take heart in knowing that you are helping pay for leading-edge research into the whereabouts of smallmouth bass in select Oklahoma streams, that in the end can improve a strain of bronzeback unique to the area—and make fishing all the better.

Dr. Shannon Brewer, an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University, leads ongoing research into how the bass behaves through the year. Brewer and graduate student Andrew Miller monitor a strain of bronzebacks found only in the spring-fed streams in the Ozark highlands near where Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas converge. The fish is known as Neosho smallmouth bass—and it has an affinity for flowing water.

This habitat and behavior research on smallmouth bass that swim in Oklahoma’s Elk River and tributaries is paid for through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, collected through taxes paid by fishing tackle manufacturers on fishing gear, passed on to the angler. When an angler hears the ding of a cash register and coin drop in the till, they are paying for conservation. Brewer and Miller conduct the work expressly for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC), which, in the end expects to use research findings to inform fishery management decisions.

How they get the work done is nearly as interesting as what they are learning. Brewer and Miller surgically implanted 100 Neosho smallmouth bass with radios, as early as 2015. The fish were caught by electrofishing, anesthetized, and the radios placed inside the body cavity and then stitched up. The bass were returned to the same streams in which they were caught after they recovered from surgery. A few radioed bass have been lost to otters and to anglers, but through the course of the study, at least 30 bass have remained tagged in each of three streams.

The radios emit a signal whereby the researchers relocated the fish many times, some for nearly three years before the batteries exhausted. In the warm months of March to October, the fish were relocated at least once weekly; in the colder months, only once per month. Though the research is still underway the professor and student have been able to gather a fair amount of information, revealing when and where these bass go through the year. Where the males take up housekeeping in the spring is of particular interest.

Brewer and Miller relocated the bass by walking streamside or kayaking, intent on hearing the distinct radio signals on a receiver they carried. Tracking through the winter months revealed very little movement, according to Brewer.

“Their favorite habitats in winter seemed to be deep pools,” said Brewer. “They would hold between rocks in slow water—and sometimes in quite shallow rocky areas—stationary. I’m an angler and naturally curious and snorkeled in January for a closer look. Smallmouth bass shoved themselves between rocks, in cavities, and in piles of woody debris – fish of all sizes. Some were wedged sideways in cavities, protected from swifter water. ”

As winter turned to spring, the two researchers found much variation among the many individual fish that carried radios. “Females were first to move,” said Brewer. “Come April, they were headed upstream to spawning sites. Some moved nearly five miles to find spawning habitat.”

Male smallmouth bass typically build nests over gravel in shallow water and court females to spawn. Males aggressively guard the nests during construction, through hatching and for a short spell as fry hover above the nest and the guarding male before disbursing to nursery habitat. The researchers noted that bass in their study seemed to concentrate in select areas which may speak to there being limited spawning habitat. As to what happened to the females, post-spawn, Brewer said they didn’t travel far, typically staying near the closest deep pools until around September when there seemed to be a downstream movement, particularly by the older and larger bass.

The three streams that harbored the radioed smallmouth bass all lead into Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees. Curiously, none of the bass to date have been located in the reservoir – they have all stayed in the streams. Moreover, the bass stayed in the streams in which they were tagged, save for one female that moved seasonally between to streams.

And that speaks to their uniqueness, says ODWC biologist, Kurt Kuklinski, who oversees the research for the agency. He works at the Fisheries Research Lab in Norman. “Neosho smallmouth bass are a stream fish,” says Kuklinski. “They have a liking for cool, spring-fed flowing waters. They’re native to the eastern third of Oklahoma—and their reliance on Ozark streams makes them different than lake-dwelling smallmouth bass.”

The preliminary results are surely fascinating, but Kuklinski says the full picture is not yet in view. The two researchers have more work to do and a great amount of data to analyze. As bass behavior and habitat selection in northeastern Oklahoma streams come into better focus, it should be good for fishery managers and for anglers, ultimately.

–Craig Springer, External Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Southwest Region

Thank a Beaver for Your Trout Stream

Thank a Beaver for Your Trout Stream

Making trout habitat with fake beaver dams


Beaver dam analog: mimicking the real thing
by Toner Mitchell, Trout Unlimited
from
The Fishing Wire

I recently visited a tailwater stream known for its capacity to produce lots of brown trout, some of them quite large. The reservoir feeding this stream is operated exclusively for downstream agricultural users, the result of which is that the fishery is also renowned for its poor conditions in winter, when dam releases are curtailed and the stream becomes a thin vein of shallow puddles, trickles, and exposed spawning redds. Since this stream is in the coldest corner of New Mexico, anchor ice is common.

I was pleased to see the latest work of the beaver population, knowing that their ponds would provide winter refuge for fish. But I was there to see the leveling device (beaver deceiver) installed by the New Mexico Game and Fish department to mitigate the legitimate though misplaced concern of downstream irrigators, who felt that the beavers were holding back valuable water from ranches and farms. The deceiver was working as intended, sending water downstream while limiting the pond’s depth and expanse so as not to inundate an adjacent parking lot.

My next stop was a nearby fly shop. I proudly reported my observations to the proprietor, who proceeded to give me an earful. The stretch of stream occupied by the beavers had always been a money spot for his guides and their clients. Until, that is, the beavers took up residence. The pond had since become a bugless sucker hole devoid of trout, and though he acknowledged the positive impact of the beaver impoundment on riparian storage and late season flows, the shop owner judged the local beavers as a net detriment to the fishery. Beavers are either good or bad, he opined, never both.

The beaver is a keystone species, generally defined as an organism that exerts an outsized influence on the function and even formation of an ecosystem. Beaver dams capture peak flows, prolong spring runoff, while supporting and extending baseflows with water stored in riparian aquifers. Their deep ponds concentrate nutrients and macroinvertebrates; they provide shelter and security for trout, especially in winter.

Understandably, the perceived downside of beavers comes with the keystone package. Like wolves, another disproportionately influential animal, beavers disrupt on a landscape scale. They not only plug up streams, but ditches, culverts, and bridges. Their dams inundate yards, fields, and pastures used by livestock and campers. Beavers kill and eat prized trees. The disgruntled fly shop owner hypothesized that his favorite run-turned-hated-beaver-pond might have warmed too much to harbor the trout it once did and, along with possibly consuming too much oxygen, accumulated silt may have buried insect production.

For what little it’s worth, I’ve personally witnessed few instances where beavers have negatively impacted trout. I don’t doubt that it happens, certainly not in this case, but I think such stories should be viewed in the broader context of watershed health. Consider how many of our highest quality fisheries (and grazing pastures) were literally made by beavers. They cleared trees to build their dams, which filled with trapped sediment and forced channel migration across floodplains. Over time, floodplains expanded and thickened thanks to further beaver-induced sediment deposition. This long process created thick, spongy meadows, essentially grass-skinned reservoirs feeding streams with cooled groundwater.

In addition to logging, mining, grazing, floodplain development, and road building, our large scale beaver extirpation in the late 1800s contributed greatly to watershed degradation. Without beavers, natural and man-made “nick points” went unrepaired, leading to channel incision and headcutting. By armoring and straightening streams for flood control, we actually intensified flooding by concentrating flow and increasing its cutting force. As a result, our beaver-created meadow reservoirs have been drying from within for many decades.

As climate change tightens its unpredictable yet certain grip on our landscapes, it falls on us, the ultimate keystone species, to restore the land’s capacity to absorb disturbance while maintaining function. To hedge against drought, we must lift and spread water tables and reconnect streams with their floodplains, especially in headwater regions. Reconnected floodplains will also enable our streams to de-energize high intensity precipitation events, particularly important in this era of common wildfire.

Where beavers live, we must make them welcome, as they are the cheapest and most efficient means of restoring the greatest acreage of watershed in the shortest timeframe. They work around the clock and accept food as payment; no matter how hard we try, we will never find a better deal than that.

And where they don’t live, we must imitate them; thanks to conservation groups in New Mexico, including the Truchas Chapter of TU, imitating beavers may soon become the hottest trend in stream restoration. Volunteer-made beaver dam analogs (BDAs) employ natural materials and are designed to pass water, trap sediment, and raise riparian water tables. Combined with willow and cottonwood plantings, which provide stream shading and future beaver food, BDAs create true beaver habitat and often attract the real animals to continue this important work.

As a wise man I know once said, “In times of flood, prepare for drought. In drought, prepare for flood.” I’m not sure, but I think this guy may have been a beaver in a previous life.

Toner Mitchell is TU’s New Mexico Water and Habitat Program coordinator for New Mexico.

Read more from T.U. at www.tu.org.

Lake Jordan, Lake Russell and Spot Problems

Last week I went to Lake Jordan just outside Montgomery, Alabama, and Lake Russell near Elberton, Georgia. Both are about three hours from Griffin and both have spotted bass, but they are totally different fisheries.

Jordan is a Coosa River lake and is full of the famous Coosa spots. Its waters are very fertile, the water has a greenish hue from algae, and the shoreline is covered with grass. Grass cover for bass is important for several reasons, among them giving young bass a place to hide from predators and giving adult bass great feeding areas.

Twenty-pound five-fish stringers of spotted bass are common in tournaments there. The fertility and cover make them grow fast and fat, and current moving in the lake brings them easy food, so they don’t have to expend much energy to feed.

Spots are native to Jordan, so they are well adapted to that environment. The population is in balance, with predator and prey at the right levels for the environment. Largemouth are also fairly common in the lake since they fill a slightly different niche and, since the spot population is balanced, they do not over compete with them.

We had a disappointing trip although the conditions seemed perfect. Even though it was Memorial Day, the clouds and threat of rain kept pleasure boaters off the lake. And the low light conditions, combined with current moving in the lake that day, should have put the fish in a feeding mood.

We caught a few fish and they were fat and healthy. The fish did not do what we thought they should, which is not unusual when fishing!

Lake Russell was very different on last Friday. The only common thing was the lack of pleasure boaters.
Shoreline development is not allowed on Russell and it is not near a big city, so it was not crowded. We saw a dozen or so fishing boats but no pleasure boaters even though it was a warm, sunny day.

Russel is not fertile. Its waters are very clear and shoreline grass is rare. Dammed in 1984, Russell is the newest lake in Georgia. It does have current since it has power generators and a pump back system at the dam. Power is generated during the day, so water flows downstream, then at night the same water is pumped back from Clarks Hill immediately downstream.

Since the water is recirculated, it does not carry a nutrient load like the water flowing down the Coosa River. Moving water does give bass easier feeding opportunities on Russell, but there is less food to move.

Spots are not native to Russell. In its early days it took 20-pound limits of largemouth to place in most tournaments. But midnight stocking of spots by bucket biologists introduced them in the 1990s and they have overcrowded the lake. It is rare to catch a largemouth there now.

Some fishermen think they can transport spots to lakes where they are not native and they will do as well as they do at Lake Lanier, a premier spot fishery. But Lanier is very fertile from run-off from chicken processing plants and has more food that spots like. Spots have just about taken over from largemouth at Lanier, too, but they grow fat there.

Not on Russell. We caught a lot of spots, but most were 11 to 13 inches long. You can easily catch 100 spots a day there but if your best five weigh 10 pounds you have caught a good limit of spots, and that weight would place in most tournaments.

Those little spots are fun to catch and good to eat. There is no size limit on spots anywhere in Georgia except Lake Lanier, to encourage fishermen to keep them. A trip to Russell to keep ten spots a day to eat is not only fun and good eating, it will not hurt the fishery.

Closer to home, Lake Jackson was an incredible fishery for big largemouth until the 1990s when spots started taking over. Fishermen put them in the lake and they have badly overpopulated it. We saw the first spots in our tournaments there in the early 1990s but they were rare. Now most of the fish we weigh in are spots.

Spots are more aggressive than largemouth and bed deeper, so they are not as affected by changes in the lake as much. But they do not grow as big as largemouth. An acre of lake can support only so many bass.

Where an acre of water at Jackson used to have, say 100 pounds of largemouth, ranging from one to five pounds or more, now it has 100 spots weighing a pound each.

If you catch spots on any of our lakes except Lanier and a couple of other far north Georgia lakes where they do well, keep a limit to eat.

New Catch Limit for Red Drum

New catch limit for red drum to address overfishing
from The Fishing Wire
(Editor’s Note: South Carolina, like some other southeastern states, is seeing a decline in red drum numbers in recent years. Here’s a report from SCDNR on the issues involved, and what the state is doing about them.)

South Carolina Red Drum


Red drum caught by SCDNR fish surveys are tagged and measured, allowing biologists to track their numbers over time. (Photo: E. Weeks/SCDNR)
CHARLESTON, S.C. – Red drum, redfish, spottail, channel bass – South Carolina’s most popular saltwater gamefish goes by many names and plays a key role in the coastal economy and ecosystems.

In recent years, state biologists have documented a declining trend in the state’s red drum population, which has been underscored by reports from longtime local anglers. These concerns prompted the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) to take a closer look at the species last year, culminating in an assessment that found South Carolina’s red drum population was experiencing overfishing.

The South Carolina General Assembly responded by passing a new law intended to reverse overfishing, which Governor Henry McMaster recently signed. The new catch limit allows two fish per person per day and no more than six fish per boat per day, effective July 1, 2018. The previous catch limit was three fish per person per day, with no boat limit. The slot limit (15-23 inches) remains unchanged.

“We’ve been monitoring red drum populations across the state using the same techniques for nearly 30 years, and what we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years is concerning,” said assistant marine scientist Dr. Joey Ballenger, who oversees SCDNR’s red drum research. “Across the state, we’ve seen declines in abundance of the juvenile fish most commonly targeted by anglers.”

Red drum are renowned for their beautiful copper color and characteristic black tail spots. Red drum reach several feet in length and can be found in all of South Carolina’s coastal waters at different stages of their lives. SCDNR research has shown that the fish reach maturity around four years of age, although adults may live to 40 years old. A healthy population of these adult red drum is critical to the success of the fishery, as the larger a fish is, the greater its contribution of spawn to the next generation of young fish.

Adult red drum spawn in the fall, producing an annual “crop” of new fish. Recently, the crop has been relatively small. Young red drum (1-4 years old), which make up the foundation of fishing in South Carolina’s creeks and rivers, have not been plentiful over the last decade.

Research at SCDNR shows that poor reproductive years are not necessarily unusual for these long-lived species – Ballenger notes that large crops of red drum fish are only produced about twice a decade. However, Ballenger’s team has also discovered that not as many red drum are surviving from one year to the next as in previous generations. The reasons for this poor survival are unclear, but the impact has translated into fewer fish within the slot size limit, which is ultimately expected to mean fewer adult fish annually entering the spawning population.

“Not only are we seeing declines in the annual crop of fish produced by adults, we are seeing that those produced are experiencing higher mortality rates,” Dr. Ballenger said. “Over time, this translates to fewer and fewer adult fish being around to produce the next crop, resulting in a feedback loop that continues the process.”

At the same time these ecological fluctuations have occurred, fishing pressure has increased in South Carolina, especially on large adult fish.

Adult red drum are already protected from harvest in South Carolina. Under current legislation, the fish are only legal to harvest when they fall between 15-23 inches in length – a size range that they reach for a little more than a year of their life.

As a result, the red drum fishery in South Carolina is defined by catch and release – 80% of red drum caught by anglers are released. But even under ideal conditions, studies estimate that 8-16% of caught-and-released fish die after release. Minimizing the death of released adult fish is critical to maintaining good fishing.

The red drum from South Carolina to Florida are managed as a single population, and the status of regional management is currently unclear. This left SCDNR staff with questions about the status of the species in South Carolina, given the declines seen in catch rates of young fish. The agency therefore initiated an assessment of red drum just in South Carolina to better understand the health of this important species in local waters.

The assessment determined that with a three fish per person per day bag limit, not enough red drum are surviving to sustain the population over the long-term.

The study also found that a modest shift in regulations – from three to two fish per person per day – would be enough, in time, to improve the number of fish recruiting into the adult population.

Companion bills codifying new catch limits (two fish per person per day and six fish per boat per day) were introduced in the S.C. Senate and House in early 2018 and received near-unanimous support on both sides of the Assembly. The Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina played played a key role in advocating the passage of the legislative changes.

The new regulations will take effect on July 1, 2018.

In addition to the legislative changes, SCDNR seeks to address increasing pressure on adult red drum by working with anglers to implement best handling practices. Valuable adult fish are highly susceptible to predators, disease, and exhaustion after release, making proper handling a matter of life or death.

SCDNR urges anglers who target adult red drum to use the following best practices for release:

Use a rig that minimizes the chance of hook damage (short leader, fixed sinker weighing 3 oz. or more, and barbless, non-offset and non-stainless hook)

Use gear that shortens the fight time (20-lb and higher test line)

Keep the fish in the water (take photographs of the fish while during revival and release)