(Editor’s note: The following article has been republished with permission of The Chicago Sun Times and outdoor columnist Dale Bowman. A previous article featuring UIU alumnus Wooten ’21 can also be viewed in the Arts and Sciences section files of Bridge Online.)
When I interviewed Ryan Wooten about an epic catch in 2020, he mentioned studying native brook trout in Iowa’s Driftless Area as an intern. I filed it. Native brookies are my freshwater favorite. I forgot about it until Ryan’s dad, Les, emailed last month.
A refresher on Wooten: He made a lifetime catch in June 2020 of a 42-inch, 31.75-pound flathead catfish on 4-pound line from the Fox River. As the hourlong battle raged, Jackson Kennedy thought Wooten was snagged. When he found out it was fish-on, he came over, then jumped into the river to help land the fish. Kennedy eventually called his brother Josh, who brought a net.
‘‘I would probably still be there fighting the fish without Jackson and his brother,’’ Wooten said then.
Family matters for Wooten in the outdoors. His connection to fishing was passed from his grandfather Al to Les to Ryan. His cousin Elijah Wooten earned Fish of the Week in 2009; Ryan was with him.
I caught up with Wooten, 22, in February after he returned from the Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Wooten, who graduated in May 2021 from Upper Iowa University with a degree in biology, was introduced around by Paul Skrade, an associate professor of biology.
When asked about going for a master’s degree, Wooten said: ‘‘Thinking about it. Mostly thinking about kind of what master’s project I would want to do.’’
‘‘I enjoy wildlife a lot, but fish have always been my thing,’’ Wooten said. ‘‘That’s not to say that I still won’t turn around and go to wildlife. That is still a possibility, but I am leaning toward fisheries.’’
He is coming off a seasonal job (May to October) working at the Chuck Gipp Decorah Fish Hatchery in Iowa, where he focused on growing the Shasta strain of rainbow trout.
He helped stock rainbow trout, fed fish, moved fish, cleaned raceways and took care of the hatchery. He also worked with the management side in electrofishing.
As an undergrad in 2019, Wooten worked with Brett Kelly, a graduate research student, on remnants of native brook trout in the Iowa portion of the Driftless Area.
‘‘I am currently wading through that stuff,’’ he said. ‘‘I might want to be a biologist, but I’m still really trying to figure out what I really want to pursue in this field.’’
He has a résumé to build on.
At Hinsdale South, he was an honor-roll student and fished on the bass team for four years for Jim Bondi. He was recruited by Upper Iowa as a soccer player.
As for his flathead, Cliff’s Taxidermy in Plainfield mounted it. It is in the butterfly display case at the Upper Iowa science building.
‘‘I didn’t really have place to put it, and Dr. Paul Skrade said whenever I get settled in somewhere, I can take it back,’’ Wooten said.
I intend to fish the Driftless Area with Wooten, especially after his dad sent a video his oldest son, Kyle, took of Les battling a brook trout netted by Ryan.
‘‘It was awesome,’’ Wooten said. ‘‘It meant a lot to show them what is up here. I didn’t know before I came here. It was a special experience to show them all the different and cool spots you can fish out here.’’
‘‘It’s absolutely the good stuff of life!’’ Les emailed. ‘‘I’ve had so many wonderful years spending time in the outdoors with my boys. And we’ve only just begun!’’