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Troutnut.com is a photographic shrine to trout, fly fishing, beautiful rivers, the fascinating flies we imitate, and how to match the hatch for every common species in North America. It is run by "Troutnut" Jason Neuswanger with help from many others.

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As of this August, it's Dr. Troutnut!

By Troutnut on November 26th, 2014, 9:23 pm
I didn't post much to the site this year because I was very busy finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and immediately starting an exciting post-doc. I defended my dissertation in June and graduated in August, and my dissertation was finally published online recently. Anyone curious what I've been up to in Alaska can download it from ProQuest as a free PDF here:

New 3-D video methods reveal novel territorial drift-feeding behaviors that help explain environmental correlates of Chena River Chinook salmon productivity

The long-winded title results from my doing four chapters on seemingly separate topics that deeply connect to each other in detail. Overall, my dissertation is about understanding what processes and environmental variables control the success of salmonids--both individuals and entire populations. I directly studied juvenile (fingerling) Chinook salmon, but many of the results are likely to apply to trout, grayling, and any other stream fishes that engage in drift feeding (i.e. holding a stationary feeding position in the current and darting back and forth to intercept items of food).

Details of my dissertation

Chapter 1 is about technology, especially a computer program I developed (called VidSync) that makes it possible record fish with a pair of video cameras and then quickly make thousands of measurements of the fish, their environment, and their behavior. The chapter describes this program and the math behind it (which I didn't invent from scratch, although I made some important improvements). VidSync made the next two chapters possible.

Chapter 2 is about how tiny debris in the drift affect drift-feeding fish (and it was published already in Environmental Biology of Fishes). Even crystal-clear water naturally contains a large amount of fine debris, which is difficult to notice in person but jumps out on video shot at certain lighting angles, much like the dust in the air is revealed by a lone sunbeam shining into a dark room. This debris comes from many different processes, such as the gradual breakdown of wood and leaf litter by aquatic insects and bacteria, or insects shedding their exoskeletons (exuviae) between instars (Instar: Many invertebrates molt through dozens of progressively larger and better-developed stages as they grow. Each of these stages is known as an instar. Hard-bodied nymphs typically molt through more instars than soft-bodied larvae.) or during emergence. Drift-feeding fish face the very difficult task of distinguishing between debris and food of a similar size and color. It's probably especially difficult for small fish (because there's more small debris of a similar size to their prey). Most of the foraging effort of juvenile Chinook salmon was directed at debris items they either rejected without capturing or captured and spit out. This doesn't mean they're bad at feeding--it just means they had to engage their senses of taste and touch in an important way. Even large trout are sometimes found with debris in their stomachs and observed rising to inspect inedible items... including our flies. It's a bit humbling as a fly fisherman to realize that we aren't always fooling fish into thinking our fly is food--we're basically just getting them to give it the benefit of the doubt, just like they do to countless other bits of natural flotsam.

Chapter 3 is about territoriality. Previous studies of salmonid territoriality have described fish widely spaced across a pool, with territorial boundaries that can be mapped out in 2-D (i.e., mapped from a "top view" of the pool). Juvenile Chena River Chinook salmon, at first glance, behave very differently--they feed in large, 3-D schools (meaning some fish are directly above and below others) along the edges of the river. Even though this is very different from the typical, widely spaced patchwork of 2-D territories, and even though feeding territories have never been detected within schools of fish or any other animal groups, I found that some Chinook salmon were very territorial. Some were transient, "just passing through" the school in a minute or less. Many others used strategies in between the two extremes, which haven't really been studied before.

Chapter 4 is about the effect of high stream flow on the Chena River Chinook salmon population. I analyzed 20 years of salmon run data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and found that the salmon do very poorly when they experienced a high-water year in the river as juveniles. This effect is probably relevant to the broader decline of Chinook salmon throughout the Yukon River drainage in recent years, although there's also probably more to the story. Hundreds of scientists are working on bits and pieces of that puzzle, because so many people depend on those fish for subsistence in rural villages. This chapter identified an important clue, but it's not the whole story.

If you're interested in a slightly more technical explanation of these chapters and how they fit together, read the abstract in the dissertation PDF.

What's next?

The same week I turned in the final draft of my dissertation, I began remotely working as an Alaska-based post-doctoral research associate at the University of Georgia. I'm working with a top expert on drift-feeding behavior, UGA Professor Gary Grossman (who writes the "Ask Dr. Trout" column in American Angler). We're starting a 3-year project studying the mechanics of drift-feeding in juvenile Chinook salmon, as well as adult grayling, and dwarf dolly varden. My hope and expectation is that this project will greatly advance our understanding of the mechanisms that control the behavior and feeding success of drift-feeding fish.

This new project means I'll be remaining in Alaska for at least two more summers. Depending on my wife's career, we might move somewhere else for the rest of the year, but we have no specific plans yet. I'm really excited to have the opportunity to work with one of the leaders in my field while still spending summers in this amazing state and focusing on a project I helped design to follow my #1 research interest. I will try to continue to update Troutnut.com throughout, including posting some of my intense adventures from this summer over the next couple months.

Updates from September 6, 2014

On The Road - Homer to Talkeetna

By Dneuswanger on September 5th, 2014
After a good night’s sleep at the Ocean Shores Motel in Homer, we woke up late and partially packed up, then went downtown to get a late breakfast. Homer Fish Processing did an excellent job vacuum sealing and freezing all our fish into 1-pound packages, so we put Jason’s fish into his cooler and arranged to have my fish shipped home. We stopped at a gift shop in Homer and toured the Oceans and Marine Visitor’s Center, which had some interesting displays and information about the Maritime Refuge system in Alaska.

By noon we had checked out of the motel and were headed back north, stopping only briefly to check out Quartz Creek (photo below) and enjoying the scenery along the Kenai River near Cooper’s Landing. We stopped at the new Cabela’s store in Anchorage, which had lots of impressive taxidermy and two big aquaria (one for unsociable rainbow trout only, and another with Dolly Varden, round whitefish, and Arctic grayling). Back on the road, we stopped for supper in Wasilla. We called ahead to the Swiss Alaska Inn in Talkeetna and had them leave the key in the door to our cabin in anticipation of our late arrival (~10:30 p.m.). The cabin was very clean and comfortable.

Photos by Troutnut from Quartz Creek in Alaska

Quartz Creek near Cooper Landing From Quartz Creek in Alaska.
Quartz Creek near Cooper Landing
StateAlaska
LocationQuartz Creek
Date TakenSep 5, 2014
Date AddedDec 19, 2014
AuthorTroutnut

Fishing Cook Inlet for Halibut and Ketchemak Bay for King Salmon

By Dneuswanger on September 4th, 2014
Jason and I awakened and ate early, then drove down to “The Spit” in Homer where our charter was located. We arrived there at 7:30 a.m. and departed at 8:00 a.m. with the captain and his deckhand.

Seas were rough in the distant offshore area fished for lingcod and rockfish, so the itinerary had changed to fishing for Cook Inlet halibut in the morning and Kachemak Bay salmon in the afternoon. I was mildly concerned about the insincerity of the deckhand’s obligatory “safety speech” before we left port, especially when he said, “We have life jackets below deck… just don’t fall overboard.” (As it turns out, a later inspection revealed that life jackets were nowhere to be found after some rummaging around below deck.)

Our first offshore stop in a steady rain was on a mussel bed at a depth of 140’ where the captain thought there might be some bigger-than-average halibut. We caught only a couple small halibut (lots of bites/nibbles by various demersal creatures) and larger skates. The crew held skates (the “S-word” to them) in such disdain as to cut our hooks from their mouths and unceremoniously release them to suffer and die. I could not hook a halibut at this location. Finally the captain decided to move to a spot the charter boat skippers called “Old Faithful.”

It was mid-morning by the time we arrived, and the wind/waves were picking up. I was fine, but another client was miserably seasick and dealing with severe back pain. We started catching halibut here on herring-oil injected dead bait (herring), but the catch/bite ratio was low. We all missed many fish on the hookset, and had to rebait many times, which became an arduous task involving dragging a 3# weight up 140 feet every time a fish bit and stripped the bait (often within 10 seconds). But the action was fast and consistent enough that we eventually caught our limits of halibut (two each, one of which had to be under 29” long. I kept a 28” halibut and later caught the largest halibut of the trip, but didn’t measure its length.



It was no trophy by any means, but it was one of the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. Jason finally got his second “keeper” halibut after releasing several small ones, allowing us to leave this open-water area as the weather deteriorated.

For the next hour we motored into the upper end of Kachemak Bay, which was relatively calm and protected from the wind. We were treated to a breathtaking view of glaciers at the head of the bay.



En route, the deckhand set us up to troll for king salmon (“feeder kings” that were not yet old enough to ascend a river to spawn). Depth was only ~40 feet, and sonar marked most fish at depths of 20-25 feet, so the downriggers were set accordingly. We trolled dead herring 5-6” long. The action here was pretty steady for a couple hours, resulting in many salmon missed, hooked, lost, and caught. I caught the first big salmon – a 33” fish that put up a great fight with numerous jumps and runs – quite exciting.





Eventually Jason and I both had two salmon that we were happy to keep (our limits).



We stayed in the area for another hour while the captain tried to get his other clients their fish. By this time, the Packers were playing the Seahawks and holding their own (first half), but all I could do was follow the play-by-play on Jason’s iPhone. Finally the other clients caught their two fish, and we got back to port by 5:45 p.m. or so. The deckhand did a nice job filleting our fish on the way in (including one of Jason’s skates, which raised some eyebrows), and the Homer Fish Processing company met us at the dock to pick up our fish for vacuum packing and freezing.

We drove to the Sports Bar and Grill at the Beluga Lake Lodge as fast as possible and caught the last 1.5 quarters of the Packers-Seahawks game – about the time things went sour for the good guys. Still, we enjoyed a great meal and represented Green Bay by wearing the green and gold. Back at the Ocean Shores Motel, I took a long, hot bath in order to thaw out some joints that had gotten very stiff during a long day of exposure to cold rain and wind.

Photos by Troutnut from Kachemak Bay in Alaska

Fishing the Kenai River

By Dneuswanger on September 3rd, 2014
The alarm clock awakened Jason and I obnoxiously early (5:15 a.m.) so we would have time to eat breakfast, pack, and meet our guide at the Troutfitter’s fly shop by 6:00 a.m. Wish we’d had more time to enjoy the deluxe accommodations. Our guide for the day was a good-natured young man (late 20s) from Montana named Jeff Heiskell, who was in his third season of guiding for trophy rainbows and Dolly Varden on the Kenai River. We were to be joined on this trip by a Major in the U.S. Air Force who is an avid fly fisherman and was looking forward to escaping his increasingly administrative job to enjoy three days of not making decisions. I understood completely.

Our destination was 45 minutes west of Cooper Landing along the Sterling Highway on the way to Homer (our next stop), so we paid our lodging and guide charges, packed everything up, and drove in tandem with our guide to the take-out point at Bing’s Landing, several river miles downstream of the put-in point near the lower end of Skilak Lake. We left our vehicle there and rode upstream to the put-in with Jeff, who was towing a 19-foot drift boat (to be shuttled to the take-out during the day by a third-party shuttle service).



Some anglers fish Skilak for lake trout, but most simply use the lake as a point of access to the Kenai River flowing out of it. As soon as we reached flowing water, it was obvious the “pinks” had arrived in great number – this being the alternate year in which most pink salmon would make their spawning run in this system. (The water was a beautiful but cloudy shade of turquoise blue, so we could not see the salmon underwater; but they would frequently breach the surface.)



Rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char would be gorging themselves on eggs below shallow riffles covered with spawning pink salmon. This can work for or against anglers, depending on the number of live eggs available to feeding trout. A moderate number of eggs attracts concentrations of trout to these areas where anglers can target them. But a high number of eggs can result in a “glut” as the guides call it – a situation in which an angler’s bead may be akin to the proverbial “needle in a haystack” amid the millions of real salmon eggs drifting in the current. We eventually learned that we had, indeed, arrived during a glut.

Jeff provided instruction (which I appreciated but Jason and the Major did not need) on the proper technique for roll-casting his 6-weight fly rods and mending the lines in order to maximize the time our weighted beads (attached ~2” up from #6 barbless hooks) would drift naturally in the current alongside the skillfully rowed drift boat. We began fishing on a riffle within sight of the lower end of Skilak Lake, where anglers in other boats were casting spoons for silver salmon with some success.



We began catching pink salmon almost immediately – some in the mouth and some snagged accidentally in mid-body that fought particularly hard. I thought they were interesting to see and fun to catch, but Jeff viewed the “humpies” (spawning males) we caught with much disdain; he unhooked them with annoyed alacrity at boatside as quickly as possible before resuming the search for our principle quarry (trophy rainbows and Dolly Varden).



I hooked the first sizeable rainbow trout (mid-20s), which made a strong run and leaped far enough out of the water for a positive ID before it spit the barbless hook. We made several passes over this first riffle – drift fishing downstream and motoring back upstream – because we were having slow but steady action with “small” rainbow trout (14-18”). Jason was substantially out-fishing me and the Major, presumably due to his extraordinary ability to detect and react to real bites. Action slowed and we moved downstream to the next major spawning riffle. Again, we caught mostly pink salmon, which I was personally thrilled to see and catch, even if seasoned Alaskan trout anglers regard them as something akin to motile algae.



The sun appeared and the air warmed around mid-day, so we stopped to shed outer layers and eat lunch amid some small islands on the inside of a large bend where the pink salmon were spawning. Brief excursions to shore revealed many salmon redds in the shallow channels between the islands, and many salmon carcasses that had been dragged onshore by bears or other animals. We saw no bears on this trip.



The riparian corridor was wild and undeveloped in the upper reach of this float, but as we progressed downstream, private cabins appeared all along the shoreline. In one of the more highly developed areas, we fished another spawning riffle loaded with pink salmon and caught several more trout, including Dolly Varden; and Jason caught and released his largest rainbow (photographed with guide). Our take-out at Bing’s Landing was only another mile or so downstream.



We ended our float shortly after 5:00 p.m., bid farewell to Jeff and the Major, who had been a superb fishing companion, then headed west and south for Homer. The west side of the Kenai Peninsula offered great scenery, including a view over Ninilchik of volcanic Mount Iliamna.



We arrived in Homer just before sunset. After encountering numerous road construction delays on “The Spit” (to locate our charter service office), we doubled back to the Ocean Shores Motel by ~10:30 p.m. for a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s charter fishing trip.

Photos by Troutnut from the Kenai River and Cook Inlet in Alaska

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