Willow Creek Research Project
On Thursday September 13, 2007, several volunteers including Rocky Mountain Flycasters members Phil Wright and Dave Piske accompanied Chris Kennedy, US Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist and Dallas Maurer, Bob Trout and Bill Maltby, members of the Alpine Anglers Trout Unlimited Chapter in Estes Park, on day one of a two day project to collect tissue samples of green back cutthroat trout and perform population studies on Willow Creek in Rocky Mountain National park. This one day enterprise is just a single example of the excellent work conducted by Chris Kennedy with the invaluable assistance of volunteers during the field season in RMNP. After meeting at the Long Draw Reservoir Dam at 9:00 AM, Chris and the volunteers shouldered packs including nets, buckets, electro fishing outfit and all, and set out over the ridge to hike into the Willow Creek drainage. When we entered the drainage we were greeted by views of a beautiful small meadow stream that descended with a fairly steep gradient from the base of Specimen Mountain. This area is one of the several research areas in the park so access and usage is limited.
After the hike in to an elevation of approximately 10,000 feet, it was time to break for lunch and take some rest before starting the day's work.
The purpose of the project was two fold: First to obtain tissue samples from Willow Creek cutthroat trout; and second to conduct a population study of the Willow Creek fishes. To collect trout we employed the electro fishing technique illustrated below. By passing an electrical current through the water, fish are momentarily stunned enabling Chris and the volunteers to quickly scoop the trout into nets.
In reality it takes Chris and two other volunteers with nets to briskly and aggressively net trout in the few seconds before they recover from being stunned and either make a break downstream or under an overhanging bank. Two electro fishing passes of each measured 100 meters of the stream are required to ensure that an accurate measurement of the trout population is obtained.
As the trout are captured, they are transferred to five gallon buckets and carried to the station where their size and weight are measured and recorded.
The great majority of the trout population sampled during the first day of the two day project was brook trout ranging from 1 inch to 8-9 inches. Many of the brook trout were in fall spawning colors (dark, nearly black, mossy back, ranging to nearly pumpkin orange on their bellies). During the first day three 100 meter reaches of Willow Creek were electro fished twice resulting in a total of 189 trout captured. Only three of the trout captured were cutthroat trout. These cutthroats were located in the upper and final reach of the day. Chris Kennedy noted that the research literature points out that when a stream is populated with brook trout that cutthroats tend to be found primarily in the highest reaches of these streams. Tissue samples about 1 cm2 were snipped from the tails of the three cutthroats and carefully preserved for analysis.
After electro fishing six hundred meters of Willow Creek and measuring and recording data on 189 trout, it was time to pack up some of the equipment and begin the hike out to reach the vehicles before nightfall. We left some equipment at the top of the final reach of the day, as Chris and Bill would be returning the following day after camping in the area, to complete sampling of the remaining upstream reaches. As is often the case, Chris could have used a few more volunteers, but much was accomplished and it was a beautiful day in a beautiful place, and as you can see with beautiful fish. A bonus part of the trip into and again on the trip out from Long Draw Reservoir was the viewing of moose: a good size bull in the morning, followed by a cow and calf on the return trip to Fort Collins.
If you would like to take part in future volunteer fisheries projects, Phil Wright and Dave Piske of Rocky Mountain Flycasters TU would be happy to provide details, or you can contact Chris Kennedy or Alpine Anglers TU in Estes Park for more information.
Contributed by Phil Wright and Dave Piske, Photos by Phil Wright