The lazy summer days of tracking just got a giant kick start. That’s right; fall telemetry season is upon us. This week we finished tagging 61 brook trout and also collected tissue samples from nearly 150 other fish for genetic analysis.
In an earlier post I walked through the step-by-step process of telemetry tagging. Reading that post now, I feel like it’s a bit of a misrepresentation of the tagging process. The methods are accurate, but it doesn’t do justice to how exhausting the process is. So, what does a tagging day actually look like?
For starters, there are a lot of batteries. And, no matter how good my intentions are to start charging those batteries early the day before sampling, it never happens. Same goes for running odd errands, packing miscellaneous supplies, and making sure everything is labeled. I can start these projects weeks in advance, but it won’t be until the day before that they actually get done. Often this is no fault of my own as I’m waiting for supplies to arrive from collaborators or details to be finalized. Either way, I go to bed far too late. I’m off to a great start.
It’s tagging day and the alarm greets me at 4:15am. I think ‘how much do I really want this degree?’ as I roll out of bed. I’m a morning person, but this really pushes my limits. I quickly make coffee and start hauling all of those supplies back to the truck. Thankfully State College grocery stores are open 24 hours, because I still need to get ice for tissue samples (side note: stores may be open that early, but by no means do they expect any customers to be shopping - many looks of insanity are received).
By 6am I’m at campus to meet anyone from Penn State joining me for the day. We throw everyone’s gear in the back and start the two-hour drive to Loyalsock.
We arrive to the site around 8 where we meet a small army of volunteers that have thankfully given up their day to help. Everyone waders up, and we start hauling the entire contents of my truck to the processing station. It takes about 30 minutes to get everything set up and I signal the electrofishing crew to start.
From there my day becomes a juggling act. I’m trying to keep the electrofishing crew moving, but they can’t catch too many fish because I need to collect tissue samples within 30 minutes of capture (after 30 minutes protein levels, the primary thing we are analyzing, in gills and blood change). I’m taking biopsies and tagging fish. But, almost every fish is a judgement call- tag a smaller fish now, or wait until later in the day when we might catch bigger fish but risk running out of stream. We are also trying to recapture fish that were tagged in May, so I’m trying to remember where they are and their tag IDs so the crew can focus effort to a specific place. But, “next to the big tree” isn’t very descriptive to someone that hasn’t been walking the stream all summer.
My job is mentally exhausting, but I barely move from the processing station all day. The electrofishing crew is constantly on the move. One person is wearing a 30-pound electrofishing backpack. The others are carrying heavy 5-gallon buckets of water and fish. Everyone is walking (more like controlled falling) over the equivalent of oiled bowling balls. As soon as they catch a fish, someone has to hike it to the processing station which can be up to half a mile away (recall the 30-minute time window). At the processing station, they set the bucket down, grab an empty one, and hike back to the electrofishing crew. No rest. I have the greatest volunteer crew around, otherwise this would not happen.
We typically finish sampling around 6pm, but the day is far from done. All the fish that we caught are still recovering in nets next to processing and need to be dispersed across the stream. While the new tagged fish are placed somewhat randomly in areas of good habitat, recaptured fish that were tagged in the spring need to be returned to the exact place they were captured. So, everyone grabs a bucket of fish and we start hiking. This week we also added plasma collection to our repertoire (because obviously not enough was going on). To collect plasma, every blood sample needs to be centrifuged for 5 minutes, plasma pipetted off of red blood cells, and then both blood components processed and put on ice. At this point, daylight and patience is growing thin.
We leave the site around 7pm and start the two-hour drive back to State College. I drop everyone off at campus and make a quick detour to my lab where I organize blood samples and place everything in a -110° F freezer. Finally, nearly 16 hours after I left, I make it back home around 9:30pm.
But, remember all of those batteries? That’s right; they all need to be brought back inside to charge. New vials need to be organized and labeled, supplies repacked, and an email sent to the volunteer crew meeting us the next day so they know where to go. Inevitably, something always breaks during the day, so I need to fix or troubleshoot the problems. Finally, around 10:30pm, I’m at least somewhat prepared for the next day. Despite only consuming coffee all day, I really question whether I want to eat dinner or go straight to bed. I opt for food, but only because I can hear my mother in the background scolding me for poor eating habits.
My head hits the pillow around 11pm, and the process starts all over. This time, not only am I waking up to question my desire to graduate, but also wondering just how sore muscles can get.