Twenty-five rainbow and brown trout are now swimming in the Big Wood River in the Bellevue area with antennas protruding from their bellies and with names such as Frankenfish, Spot, Flipper, Tootsie and Dave.
The combination of radio tracking devices and fish names comes from a collaborative study on fish migration between the national Trout Unlimited organization and the private Pioneer Montessori School in Ketchum.
Referred to as “adopt-a-trout” programs, similar studies have been conducted by Trout Unlimited in collaboration with schools in other parts of the country, but this is the first time it’s been done in Idaho.
“We thought that Blaine County and the Big Wood River was a good place to get started,” said Chad Chorney, southern Idaho project manager for Trout Unlimited.
If the project is successful in Blaine County, Chorney said, Trout Unlimited intends to take it to other parts of the state.
The program officially got underway on Tuesday, Oct. 30, when Trout Unlimited researchers and a host of students and program supporters showed up at Lower Broadford Bridge near Bellevue to catch and implant radio transmitters into 25 rainbow and brown trout.
Chorney said the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Environmental Quality each sent two biologists to electro-stun the fish, a nonlethal means of rendering fish temporarily helpless so they float to the surface. Two representatives of the Wood River Land Trust and seven volunteers from the local Hemingway Chapter of Trout Unlimited were on hand to help net candidate fish once they were stunned and afloat.
Chorney said only fish at least 12 inches long, deemed to be healthy adults, were selected for the study. About two-thirds were rainbow trout and the remainder were brown trout.
Once caught, the fish were administered anesthesia in a holding tank prior to surgery being performed by Chorney.
“You just make a small incision with a scalpel, insert the tag and sew them up,” he said.
Once out of surgery, each fish was given recovery time by being placed in a “live box” made of mesh wire that was kept in the river overnight. Chorney said occasionally fish die from the procedure but all 25 for the Blaine County study were alive and well the following day.
“They were great—all the fish looked healthy,” he said. “They looked fine and they were released.”
Each of the 25 transmitters emits a unique frequency, so Chorney said the movements of all 25 fish will be monitored separately throughout the school year. He said that with the help of students on some occasions, he will use a receiver to record fish locations at least once a week.
The transmitters inside the fish only transmit a radio signal about a mile, Chorney said, so locations both up and downstream from the release point will have to be regularly checked. He said that if some of the fish travel all the way to Magic Reservoir, monitoring may have to be done by boat.
At the end of the school year, the students and Trout Unlimited will have data showing where each fish went and when.
Each of the 25 fish will sprout a small antenna from its stomach.
“We would request that if someone catches a fish meeting that description that they please release it,” Chorney said.
At Pioneer Montessori School, teacher Tom Downey is using the adopt-a-trout program for his science class of 32 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. Students, two students in some cases, were assigned individual fish that they were allowed to name.
Downey explained that the “Frankenfish” name arose because the fish were named just prior to Halloween.
A map on the classroom wall has 25 pins poked into it, each representing a trout and each labeled with a student-selected name. As data comes in throughout the year, the pins will be moved on the map to show where each fish has gone.
“One of the things to look at is if they’re going up into canals, and also what their range is in the Big Wood River,” Downey said.
He said his class is excited about the study, and all were relieved when all 25 fish survived the surgery.
“They had a good time naming all their fish,” he said. “Some of them have already bonded with their fish, saying ‘that’s the one I named,” so that’s kind of cool.”
Chorney said the study will provide additional data on fish migrations in the Big Wood River, but that there’s a higher purpose for the adopt-a-trout program.
“Definitely, the primary goal of this program is education and building stewardship,” he said. “We want them to be the ones who are guarding the river when we’re gone. We want them to get out and get their hands dirty and get a real feel for stewardship.”
Terry Smith: email@example.com