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WOSTER: Managing fish populations through surveys

WOSTER: Managing fish populations through surveys

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It wasn’t the first time Bill Miller and I had gotten together over a passel of fish.

I reminded him of that as he piloted a flat-bottomed Game, Fish & Parks Department boat across the sun-sparkled waters of Newell Lake.

“How long ago was that, when I first wrote something about you?” I asked.

Miller did some pondering as he cut the motor to glide up to the set of buoys marking the next net to be checked, then concluded: “Well, I was 12 then and I’m 51 now. It seems like a long time ago.”

Yeah, almost 40 years. That’s a while. Miller was just a kid back then, holding up a stringer of fish for a picture. I was a 20-something reporter focusing on natural resources and outdoor recreation for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.

Those were the days when newspapers had some serious resources, including enough staff to commit reporters to a single area of coverage. And back then mine was hunting and fishing and wildlife and fisheries, parks and recreation, natural resource conservation and preservation.

So it was only natural that I showed up at the new Big Sioux State Recreation Area along the Big Sioux River near Brandon, to cover a youth fishing tournament. In an indication of professional dreams to be fulfilled, young Bill Miller won that tournament.

When I see Miller today, I still see that amiable kid and that hefty stringer of fish. He has long since grown up, of course, with a family of his own and enough gray hair in his goatee to look like the seasoned fisheries professional he is.

Which is what took him and fellow GF&P fisheries biologist Gene Galinat to Newell Lake a couple of weeks back, and why I joined them as they checked nets they’d set the day before as part of a summer lake fisheries survey.

Summer lake surveys are important work. They help GF&P keep track of fish populations in public lakes across western South Dakota, from Angostura and Orman and Shadehill to Curlew and Belvidere and Newell. The big, popular lakes are surveyed every year. The smaller lakes are on a 3- or 5-year rotation, depending on what’s going on with the fish and what the management goals are for the lake.

“The big thing is, we’re doing it for a reason: to help manage that fish population,” says Jake Davis, area fisheries supervisor for GF&P in Rapid City. “Our goals are likely the same as the anglers’. We want to see a healthy sport fishing population and healthy lake overall.’

Information compiled from the surveys is essential to that.

“If we see something that might be a red flag, that’s where we’ll look at it with more directed research,” Davis says. “So we use the surveys to help focus our research.”

Along with data on fish numbers and size and species, lake surveys provide the state departments of Health and Environment and Natural Resources with fish-tissue samples for testing of mercury levels. Newell is one of more than 20 South Dakota lakes with state-issued mercury advisories, so anglers there are advised to limit consumption of walleyes and northern pike more than 18 inches long.

But GF&P fisheries pros rely on the data from the survey work to gauge fish population trends and growth rates. And that helps with fisheries management plans, fishing regulations and, where appropriate, stocking agendas for each lake.

The work is also important because it allows me to take a ride with the fish crews from time to time. I love that stuff. And at almost 69, I have no plans to stop tagging along.

In fact, when he and Galinat dropped me off at the dock, I told Miller my goal was to join him for another fish survey in 10 years or so, which will be half a century after that day we met back on the Big Sioux River when he was a kid.

He smiled at my plan, kind of like he did when he won that fishing tournament a long time ago.

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