More than two decades ago, Bob Capron was looking for a project to make a difference for local fishermen. Being told of the loss of trout by an uncle who was an irrigation canal manager, the conservation coordinator for the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited suggested the now well-known trout rescue program.
“It was too labor intensive for the Game and Fish,” Capron said. “So I thought it would be perfect for us.”
Walking area canals, catching as many trout as possible and returning them to their native waters, Capron has been there every day. On Tuesday — the second day of the 2017 effort — the wind was light and there was only a slight chill in the air. Still, the volunteer crews had to break through surface ice on shrinking pools to get to the fish.
“It gets really miserable when we start getting ice,” said Dave Crowther, chapter member for 10 years.
Talk among Tuesday’s group of about 30 volunteers was of the coming storm. And while volunteer turnout was high in the opening days, Reed was concerned about volunteer turnout. He had spent Sunday night on the phone reminding volunteers the rescue started just after sunrise the following morning. But he didn’t have to worry about Capron.
“Bob is always here, even on the worst days,” said Tom Reed, president of the chapter.
Capron doesn’t worry about inclement weather.
“I guess it will happen whether we’re ready or not,” he said.
Volunteers have saved over 100,000 trout in the past 20-plus years of sloshing through the mud and water at the end of the growing season. If you consider the number of fish the rescued trout have spawned, the group has added millions of fish to area rivers.
More than 90 percent of the fish caught in the popular annual rescue are brown trout. Rainbow and cutthroat trout are also found, but in much smaller numbers.
Trout receive the royal treatment, but long-nosed and white suckers aren’t so lucky. Those caught in volunteers’ nets are taken to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and served as a frozen delicacy to Jade and Suli, a bald eagle and a turkey vulture in the Draper Museum’s Raptor Experience program.
“They brought them in rather than see them go to waste,” said Melissa Hill, assistant curator of the Raptor Experience.
The birds, which can be known as somewhat picky eaters, should enjoy the treats while they’re available. Reed would soon like to see an end to the annual fish rescues. He’d much rather install a system of fish screens to keep trout out of the canals. The price of the project is a problem.
“We need to find some big donors or do one heck of a fundraiser,” said Steve Yekel, chapter member and former fisheries supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The cost of a fish screen system for area canals could run into the millions of dollars. Screens that don’t require constant maintenance include automated systems that rotate the screens, cleaning debris from the screens as they rotate. They also require heavy duty foundations.
“Screening is in its infancy in Wyoming,” Yekel said. “The Cody Canal alone could cost as much as $1.5 million.”
If the chapter can raise the money for the screen system and is able to end the fish rescue program, they have plenty of back-breaking projects in which they can participate. Projects the chapter attacked this past summer include stream building in the Beartooth range, maintenance of a mile of creek shores near Medicine Lodge State Park and work on erosion issues in Sunlight Creek.
The chapter also organizes annual fishing clinics for children, sponsors speaking engagements several times a year and is always building trails to give fisherman access to area rivers.
Despite the tough working conditions, volunteers saved more than 500 trout the first day. The second day totals were off, only recovering about 50 trout in the Cody Canal before lunch. Reed suspected birds and raccoons got to the bounty before volunteers were able to mount the rescue effort. Despite the lack of fish, volunteers pressed on for miles through the muck.
“We have a great core of volunteers,” Reed said.
Those volunteers who make it to the parking lot at Rocky Mountain Discount Sports at 8 a.m. this (Thursday) morning amid poor weather will definitely earn their praise. The group will meet in the parking lot through the end of the week for doughnuts and to make a plan of attack.