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UIU student spends shocking summer looking for trout

Ryan Wooten spent most of his summer doing this. He is shown wading through a trout stream, shocking fish and netting them so they could be measured. If the fish was a Brook Trout, it was also weighed.

Fishing from sun up to sundown every day and getting paid for it sounds like a job made in heaven for large majority of us.

Well that’s what Upper Iowa University junior Ryan Wooten was able to do last summer, except the fishing he was doing required him wading in ice cold water, carrying two car batteries on his back, fighting gnats, flies and mosquitoes, walking several miles each day, holding a 10’ metal rod in one hand and a four-foot dip net in the other, and never taking a fish home.

Ryan was helping Iowa State graduate student Brett Kelly complete a survey of 144 headwater streams across Winneshiek, Allamakee and Clayton counties, to update the status and distribution of the state’s only native trout species, the Brook Trout. They partnered with the Iowa DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Iowa State University graduate student and project leader Brett Kelly and UIU junior Ryan Wooten (middle, l-r) are pictured with some of their other crew members. Kelly’s thesis project was to update the status and distribution of Brook Trout.

“Ryan was one of my stream technicians during the summer 2019 season and helped me wade through streams electro-shocking fish and characterizing habitat. We encountered 34 different species of fish and found some new places where trout; Brook, Brown, or both, were reproducing in the wild,” Kelly related.

He further explained, “I am working on completing my thesis now, and will hopefully have it submitted to the college by the end of May. Ryan enjoys the outdoors so much, that even during his time away from working with fish, he went fishing all the time. He was able to catch everything from sturgeon to a master angler Brown Trout!”

Like all good fisher people, Ryan experienced some good luck when it came to getting his fishing job. He saw an advertisement from the ISU Fisheries Lab asking for a fisheries technician to help with the project. Ryan applied but discovered it was a type of mentoring position. To stick around Fayette all summer rather than return home to Willowbrook, Ill., southwest of Chicago, Ryan would need some type of income.

UIU Professor of Geosciences Dr. Kata McCarville heard about the young biology major’s predicament. She knew that the UIU Department of STEM and the School of Arts and Sciences had developed some external grants through which eligible students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields may receive additional financial support (scholarships, stipends, additional resources).

Ryan was going to get to spend his days fishing and researching and get paid thanks to the STEM grant.

“He’s a super sharp guy but he didn’t have a lot of field experience,” said Ryan’s advisor Associate Professor of Biology Paul Skrade. Recruited to play soccer for UIU, Ryan arrived as biology major but after experiencing the driftless countryside around Fayette, it convinced him he wanted to be field biologist, and not be working in a lab or classroom.

Upper Iowa student Ryan Wooten had to be ambidextrous while he was wading area trout streams, shocking fish and netting them as he went. In his right hand he holds the wand that would send an electric current through the water, shocking the fish. Unseen is the large backpack he had to carry that contained two car batteries along with the controls. (Jack Swanson photo)

The glamour part of the fishing job soon faded. Ryan and the rest of the crew were making their summer home at the Girl Scouts’ Camp Tahigwa near Decorah. From there, they was transmute to the Fish Hatchery at Decorah each day where they would start their mission.

Each day they would try to hit one to three streams.

“A lot of it would depend on how many fish we found. If we found a lot at the first stream we might not get to a second or third. One day we started out finding 1,500 fish. That was an all-dayer,” Ryan smiled.

He said weather was also a big issue in their progress. “If it was raining or had rained it was impossible to sample. The water was too dirty,” he explained.

When Ryan and Brett and other crew members weren’t wading through the middle of the streams waving a long underwater wand in front of them, delivering shocks to the residents below he surface, they also were looking at the habitat and recording what they saw in certain places. Stream flow, canopy cover, underwater vegetation, stream sediment, stream bank angles, stream depth, stream width, macro habitat, amounts of wood debris and other specific measurments were all part of the process.

The electric wands were powered by a car battery. One battery plus a back up were carried on the electric fisher’s back. At the same time he was running the wand, the fisher also had to try and net everything that came up with his other hand, holding a long dip net. The fish were gathered in a bucket and each one, no matter if it was a trout or not, was identified, measured, and weighed if it was a trout. Also, if they happened to find a Brook Trout, its caudal fin was clipped and placed in a jar where it would later be sent to a lab to determine their strain, possibly tracing it back to the strain that was original to the State at one time. Brook Trout are the only trout native to Iowa.

Ryan said some of the streams they monitored were barely more than a trickle at some points and that there were several streams where because of manure and other contaminants, no fish were found at all.

For the survey, 90 percent of the streams that were checked were on private property.

“When we told the owners what we found, a lot of them were really surprised that anything was living in them, let alone trout,” Ryan revealed.

The streams were tributaries of the Upper Iowa River, the Little Maquoketa River and the Yellow River.

“When we did find one or two Brook Trout in a stream, we thought everything was pretty cool. Sometimes Brett would get a little frustrated when nothing showed up,” Ryan related.

Lots of species of fish were found besides trout. Ryan said he had a Petersen Field Guide to help him identify fish he has never seen before and that if there was a question they would look to Brett for confirmation.

White suckers, Brown Trout, Southern Red Belly Dace, Mad Tom, Lamprey, Sculpins and other species were found besides the Brook Trout.

Ryan Wooten remembers the day he measured and weighed this prime specimen, a 17-inch Brown Trout. Ryan spent last summer specifically looking for Brook Trout in streams all over northeast Iowa as part of a research project. Other species were recorded as well.

One 17-inch Brown Trout was particularly memorable for Ryan, who at one time, not having a car, rode his bike six miles from Fayette to Grannis Creek so he could fish.

On some days as a change of pace Ryan would help at the Decorah Hatchery and also helped with a sampling at Volga Lake near Fayette.

“At this time we are still analyzing data, and won’t be releasing the results publicly until after my thesis is published. Preliminary results suggest that cold summer stream temperatures and natural land covers are critical for Brook Trout,” Brett related.

“There was a point where I really didn’t want it to end. I really enjoyed the people I was working with. I got good at it. After a while it was simple and not that hard to understand. It was a great experience,” Ryan said.

That experience paid off in more ways than just a salary. Ryan was so inspired by his summer of  “fishing” that he entered a poster that he made about the project in the annual Iowa Illinois Nebraska STEM Partnership for Innovation and Research and Education (IINSPIRE) Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Conference in Cedar Falls. The poster won first place for The Peoples’ Choice Award.

“Of the 22 posters that were entered, mine was the only one based around field work,” Ryan said with a smile.

(Editor’s note: This article featuring UIU junior biology major Ryan Wooten was posted with permission of the Fayette County Newspapers and news/feature writer Jack Swanson. Additional information about Ryan’s award-winning poster and UIU professor of physics and mathematics Dr. Nigel George being presented with the Excellence in Mentoring Award at the recent LSAMP Conference can be viewed in the Arts and Sciences section of uiubridge.com.)

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