Springtime at the ARF

Spring has arrived in the northern hemisphere, bringing warming temperatures and activating wildlife as it creeps northward after the cold winter, pushing up into Illinois. Light March rain has damped the ground, where a variety of vegetation begins to sprout above, some daffodils and tulips even budding to herald the spring season. Male red winged blackbirds swoop over water bodies and perch atop last year’s cattail stems as they jostle for this year’s territory. Below, deep beneath the water’s bottom, American bullfrogs set in thick mud are beginning to stir from their winter slumber, readying themselves for emergence. After being nearly still for the winter, the fishes of Illinois also slowly ramp up activity; soon fishes of all different species will be feeding, competing, mating, and nesting in the wildlife crescendo that is the spring and summer. For the Sport Fish Ecology Lab at the Illinois Natural History Survey, this means the pond draining season is upon us.

The SFEL at the INHS operates the INHS Aquatic Research Facility (INHS ARF) – a pond complex and research lab where studies are conducted on various sportfish of Illinois. From largemouth bass to bluegill to shortnose gar, the SFEL studies a variety of important Illinois sport fish and has the ability to hold them year-round in quasi-natural pond environments. The great utility of the ARF is the ability to drain and refill each of these ponds to periodically capture its entire fish population, which we can then utilize for experiments in the laboratory using our temporary, small-scale holding apparatus, or redistribute into one or more of our twenty-four ponds on the complex according to experimental design needs for reproductive crosses or growing juveniles to adulthood.

This season, we planned as a main objective to set up production of 2020 largemouth bass from all of the high and low vulnerability lines of Illinois largemouth bass established and maintained by INHS since the late 1970s. These bass have been selectively bred over many generations as a part of a long-term study on the existence and preservation of behavioral and genetic differences caused by Fisheries Induced Evolution in sportfish populations. Because largemouth bass reproduction takes place in during early spring (when water temperatures begin to exceed 15°C), it is imperative that we get an early start on draining and redistributing if we want to produce offspring of largemouth bass in the 2020 season.

Our mission was to first drain and consolidate unneeded fish for the 2020 production into secondary ponds in order to establish a sufficient number of empty ponds for the largemouth bass production. We processed and relocated some beautiful gar from the Illinois River and some pumpkinseed, as well as some rainbow trout, leaving the main set of ponds on the complex for largemouth bass production. There are six different genetic lines to maintain when producing new generations in our largemouth bass. We needn’t get into the details of the different lines, but a preservation of each line, with a replicate backup, calls for twelve ponds needed in the setup of 2020 production. Many days of morning pond drainings and labored steps through deep muddy pond bottoms to recover fish proved successful. After draining most of our 2016 largemouth bass ponds, which we used as the parent generation, we acquired a sufficient number of fish to stock our desired production ponds.

Of course, this year provided unprecedented circumstances in which to accomplish our research aims as well as deal with life itself. The emergence and spread of Covid-19 happened just as pond draining season was underway. As the brood of newly hatched largemouth bass seem like an exploding swarm in the small waters of our ponds, so too has Covid-19 exploded onto our world and swarmed our communities. The virus notwithstanding, we were able, with speed and determination, to finish our efforts just in time. Throughout the month of March, we at the Sport Fish Ecology Lab successfully collected and redistributed all necessary largemouth bass to produce each desired genetic line of offspring for the 2020 season. As the season transitions through spring into summer, the 2016 parent largemouth bass will produce thousands of offspring, which will grow throughout the year and be ready for collection and processing in the fall, once the spring creeps back down into the southern hemisphere.

Opening Day — Fieldwork 2020

By Torri Leek

Outside the sky is still dark and the early morning air is chilly. The day’s forecast is partly cloudy with a high of 48 degrees. At the Natural Resource Studies Annex, the SFEL lab truck is filled with gear and has a full tank of gas. Ahead of us is a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Illinois River to set out on our first day of fieldwork for the year!

On Friday March 13th, despite superstition, the weather began to show signs of spring, which was perfect for receiver deployment for our shortnose gar movement study. With the help of biologists Kris Maxson and Levi Solomon, along with their technicians Carly Capon and Devlon Sutton from the Illinois River Biological Station, our team (Justin Rondon, Miles Bensky, and I) placed 24 acoustic receivers in select side channel, back water, and main channel locations of the Illinois River.  2020 will mark as the third year of data collection for this ancient sport fish project.

Last Summer, we implanted the last of our transmitters, adding another 10 fish to our study. Learning to perform surgery on gar was really cool and I was excited to be an important part of this research. Tracking shortnose gar will give us a better understanding of how these aquatic relics use the different river habitats and the movement patterns between these areas, and in turn can help us ensure that these sometimes-misunderstood creatures persist another 100 million years.

Thank you again to Levi, Kris, Carly, Devlon and the Illinois River Biological station. We appreciate all your help in making this work happen.

We were lucky to get this work done before the shelter-in-place order was issued in Illinois as we can collect some data now while we are social distancing. Even though field work ended as quickly as it started, we are all hopeful that we will be back out on the water soon.

Cheers to an optimistic and successful continued field season!

Be Sure to Write Home

Research conducted pursuant to NMFS ESA Permit No. 21043.

Normally, the first post on a new blog might look forward to what is to come.  But given all that is happening in the world right now, I see some value in some good ol’ fashioned retrospection that doesn’t focus on COVID-19 and what the future holds. I’d like to a tell a story about how sometimes just the little things can make a big difference in what we do.

I’ve been leading the Sport Fish Ecology Lab for six years now, and like many advisors/PI’s, I started off not really knowing how to do this “advising” thing. All I had to go on was watching how more senior researchers around me approached advising.  I learned some valuable habits and saw how I very much wanted to do things differently as well.  I stumbled, struggled, and probably disappointed some of my early advisees, which ranged from undergraduates to post docs.

Through some of those early experiences, I got to thinking about the seasonal field techs we often hired and started wondering whether I was making their time @SFEL valuable to them. Many of us have written letters of recommendation for those short timers, where we talk about all the difference experiences they’ve received in our lab and how it prepares them for grad school or the next job.  The seasonal tech heads off to new adventures, and we think they’re ready and that they’ll thrive, but we don’t always know for sure, do we?

The other day I received an exciting email from one of our former short timers, and it wasn’t for a letter of recommendation.  And what I read told me all I need to know about the kind of experience this tech received in the 9 months they were with us.  Read for yourself (with permission from the author!):

Hey guys,

Last week we did a few sawfish necropsies on fish that were found dead. Before cutting into the body cavity, my boss asked me if I had ever performed an acoustic surgery. I said that I had not, but told him that I had seen them up close many times when holding gar for Sarah and the few times that I have caught sawfish here in Florida. So he ended up handing me the surgery instruments and let me perform practice surgery on our dead sawfish! Hopefully I am able to get the proper training to get onto the permit that allows us to perform acoustic surgery on live sawfish. If so, I would obviously LOVE to acoustically tag a sawfish. But I just wanted to let you guys know that I thought of you when I practiced the surgery!

Also, I have not heard back yet about grad school, but if I am to hear back good news it should be some time in March, so the time is quickly approaching. I get more anxious by the day! However, I am very cautiously optimistic as I know that I have worked very hard to make myself a competitive applicant. I’ll be sure to let you guys know what happens as and when I hear anything back.

I hope everything is going well back in Illinois!

What I love about this email is that it’s just a simple gesture and a short story, but it says so much about this tech’s time here.  The tech liked it here (because s/he bothered to write home!), and the tech learned something here just by watching others, and that the tech’s experience here led to more cool work (sawfish in Florida!), and that grad school is on the horizon for this person.

We had a small hand in that journey.  And that just feels good.

So, undergrads and recent B.S. grads – listen up. Your early advisors are like parents in a way, even if you don’t end up spending a full couple years with them in a grad program.  They give you your start, teach you a few skills, and send you into the great beyond.

You can call home and ask for money (or a letter of rec), and that’s nice.  But mom and dad always like it better if you write home and just tell a story about how you are getting along.

SFEL’s Newest Lab Member

We have a new lab member! Liam James King was born on February 20th to SFEL researcher Sarah King and her husband Greg King, who works in a lab down the hall. A big welcome to this little prince.


New for 2020, the Sport Fish Ecology Lab introduces the SFEL Blog! Every week or so, we will bring you inside the day to day of our lab with short posts about our research activities, interesting papers and topics related to sport fish ecology, and even share a little personal news about our past and present lab members.

Watch our Twitter feed for announcements of new blog posts.

We hope you enjoy! –JAS