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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.

Driving into Denali National Park for the road lottery

By Troutnut on September 12th, 2014
Whenever we remember not to miss the deadline, Lena and I put in for the "road lottery," a draw for permits to drive personal vehicles into Denali National Park for a day in mid-September. The rest of the year, it's only open to tour buses and other official vehicles. This was the second year we've drawn a permit.

As is customary, we took way too long to leave Fairbanks and were among the last people into the park on our designated day. We quickly set up a spacious dome tent at the Teklanika River Campground (a luxury after spending so much time in backpack tents this year), and drove into the depths of the park behind everyone else.



It was a cloudy, windy day, but the sun peeked out a few times to liven up the scenery--not that it really needed any livening. Denali National Park is always amazing, and it's great to be able to enjoy it from our own vehicle, at our own pace.

This was our best trip for bear viewing. I think we saw seven grizzlies in all, including one just before dusk that we spotted very close to the road eating berries. It got curious and ran up to the car (or "charged," as Lena says), then walked past and lumbered down the road behind us.




We were among the last cars out of the park, but we did better than last time. This time, at least, I didn't have to drive Polychrome Pass in the dark--a narrow stretch of the gravel road that winds sinuously across a thousand-foot-high cliff face with no guardrail. It is beautiful from a distance, but every time I'm there I feel nervous that I'm not wearing a parachute.

Photos by Troutnut from Denali National Park in Alaska

Flight-Seeing Tour from Talkeetna to Denali

By Dneuswanger on September 6th, 2014
After a good night’s sleep, we awakened to sunny skies and had a good breakfast in the Swiss Alaska Inn restaurant while checking out Denali flight tour brochures. McKinley Tours with K2 Aviation looked good and had one route called the “Grand Tour” that would provide great high-altitude views in relatively clear skies without ascending all the way to the summit, which was still shrouded in clouds. Luckily, they had room for a couple “walk-on” passengers for the tour that departed at 10:30 a.m., so we booked it. I elected not to inform Sandy of our plans before the flight, judging that she had enough to worry about at home after a September 4 windstorm had dropped a couple large trees on our attached garage roof.



Our pilot and guide, Rick, was professional, knowledgeable, and had a good sense of humor, so he inspired confidence and provided entertaining narrative the entire 1.5-hour flight. Jason and I sat in the rear-most seats of the twin-engine, ten-seat plane, enjoying more legroom and greater lateral (Lateral: To the side.) vision than the other five passengers because we were far behind the wings.



Shortly after take-off, we flew over the highly braided channels of the converging Talkeetna, Chulitna, and Susitna rivers.



Within 15 minutes were entering the foothills of the Alaska Range. And before long we were viewing glaciers, sheer rock faces, and craggy peaks.







I was amazed at the effects of gravity on rock and ice – causing piles of rock debris atop the snow near the rock faces, and crevasses in interesting patterns wherever the glacier moved over uneven terrain. These highly variable breaks in snow/ice cover had not yet filled with new snow, so it was easy to see what dangerous obstacles they must present to those who would attempt to traverse them while climbing the mountain. From our altitude, we could see the effects of friction along the side walls of the valleys through which these massive sheets of ice flowed – the crevasses crescent-shaped with convex sides downhill, made even wider toward the middle wherever the ice spilled over a particularly steep ledge.



We observed the lateral (Lateral: To the side.) moraines formed at the edges of ice sheets and the dirty medial (Medial: Toward the middle of the body.) moraines formed by the joining of lateral (Lateral: To the side.) moraines of glaciers descending from adjacent valleys.



Ascending through various passes, we were treated to clear views of the summits of Mount Hunter and Mount Foraker. In a small plane surrounded by such grandeur, it was possible to understand what a camp-raiding raven might see while flying into this raw wilderness of rock and ice. Indeed, climbers sometimes return to food caches only to find that ravens have scattered them all over the ice and rock.



We saw the glaciated landing area where most Denali climbers are flown in, and we flew past a small amphitheater known by climbers as Camp 3. We also flew over the “Mountain House” – a cabin and outhouse flown in and built stick-by-stick on a small outcropping of rock in a glacier where planes can land. (Is this location the inspiration for “Mountain House” freeze-dried meals?)



When I asked our pilot how they know the snow atop the glacier is firm enough to land, he said, “Well, normally the first flight of the day serves as the ‘guinea pig’ to determine that.” There have been several occasions when passengers had to exit the plane and pack down a “runway” with snowshoes so the plane could take off again. I’m glad we did not choose a flight that included a glacier landing. Occasionally we would fly over a glacial tarn – a small depression containing glacial melt-water reflecting a strikingly bright blue-green light. Our pilot called them “sapphires” because they resembled blue-green gems.



All in all, we got an eagle’s-eye view of a striking landscape that we would never have seen any other way. I came away with the impression that climbing these peaks would be a high-risk challenge that would not only be hard work, but would be miserably uncomfortable at times. The degree of suffering seems highly disproportional to the personal reward associated with achievement, especially the way groups are guided these days, where much of the hard, dangerous work is done by guides; and most reasonably fit people willing to suffer though the experience can reach the summit.



After the flight, we took a short drive through “downtown” Talkeetna, which was loaded with gift shops targeting cruise line visitors. We walked out on a well-trodden sandbar along the Susitna River, then bought some roasted almonds from an enterprising young girl before heading north to Fairbanks.



We drove at a leisurely pace while trying to catch a glimpse of the summit of Denali along the way. Twice we were fooled into thinking we may have seen it; but Jason confirmed later that we were seeing smaller snow-covered peaks in the foreground, including Mount Deception (where a group of senior tourists gushed over their good fortune in having finally “seen Denali”) and Mount Mather. Denali remained mysteriously cloaked in the high clouds.





We stopped outside Denali National Park and had a late lunch at the Alaska Salmon Bake Restaurant, arriving back in Fairbanks by ~7 p.m. after a spectacular day of sight-seeing.

Photos by Troutnut from Denali National Park, Miscellaneous Alaska, and the Susitna River in Alaska

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 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

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