By Noel Alfonso and Marc Beck

Although I had been looking forward to an opportunity to join one of our research scientists in the field ever since I started working at the museum as an Exhibition Designer and Project Manager three years ago, I really had no idea what to expect when I joined researcher Noel Alfonso in a nice summer day.

Four people walk in the river along shore with their equipment.
Museum staff during a field trip in search of fish for our RBC Blue Water Gallery. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature

The morning started simply, at a local Ottawa shopping mall where I was to be picked up in the museum cargo van, after which I would—along with three of my colleagues—be shuttled out to the Fitzroy Harbour area, northwest of Ottawa.

In the van, Noel Alfonso explained our goal for the day. He had with him a pocket field guide of Ottawa/Gatineau fishes, in which he pointed out the page describing the species that we were hoping to bring back.

The purpose of our field trip to Fitzroy Harbour on the Ottawa River was twofold. The first was to add to our database of Fishes of the National Capital Region, which has been ongoing for fifty years and now has 28 782 entries.

The second reason was to try to collect a specimen of the Longnose Gar (Lepisosteus osseus) for the river aquarium in the museum’s RBC Blue Water Gallery.

When we arrived at the site, the rear double doors of the van were opened to reveal a pile of waders, three coolers with ice for transporting any specimens that we might catch, and a rectangular plastic bin carrying the 30-metre net that I was soon going to become very familiar with and was excited and looking forward to learning how to use.

After squeezing into a set of brown waders and throwing on my baseball hat for protection from the sun of this beautiful and warm summer day, we headed out into the narrow Mississippi Snye.

Two people up to their thighs in the river. One floats the bin with the net along beside him.
Getting going. Researcher Noel Alfonso (foreground) and Emma Lehmberg, a student working for the museum's Environmental Monitoring Programme, wade through the water of the Mississippi Snye. The floating bin contains the 30-metre-long net. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature

This channel joins the Ottawa and Mississippi rivers. It was quite mucky and deep in the centre channel, and it was not long before most of us filled our chest waders with water! Thank goodness that it was a hot summer day.

For the first couple of attempts at collecting specimens, I took on the role of photographer and followed the team along the edge of the narrow river. I watched closely through the lens of my camera, snapping pictures while paying close attention to what might soon become my role in dragging one end of the net through the water.

The process went something like this:

Up to his thighs in the river, Marc Beck holds a loop that is attached to the net.
Marc Beck preparing to loop the bottom of the net around his ankle. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature
  • The long rectangular net comprised two ends with an approximately two-metre-deep pocket in the centre. The top edge was lined with oval floats to keep it at the surface. At each bottom corner was a loop of cord that could be attached to an ankle, thereby keeping the base of the net as close to the river bottom as possible.
  • Two people worked the net, pulling the bottom along by an ankle and the top by hand at the surface.
  • One person held an end and stood in one spot in the river near the bank, while the other person pulled the other end in order to extend the net to its full length.
  • Next, that end was drawn slowly to the stationary end, thereby forming a circle with the net. Any extra hands helped move the bottom of the net over any snagging obstructions (such as rocks, branches and logs) on the riverbed.
  • When the two ends of the net met, the loops were removed from ankles, and one person pulled the net in, keeping the catch in the pocket. The other person helped by dragging the back end of the net out of the way.
  • When the central pocket of the net arrived near shore, we all gathered around to help lift it out of the water.
  • Next came the exciting part: we gathered around to discover what we had been lucky enough to catch, while Noel rattled off the common and scientific names of each specimen. Some were released, while those that we selected for the river tank in our RBC Blue Water Gallery were placed in the water-filled plastic bin that we had floating next to us.
Two people in the water, each holding an end of the net, which almost forms a circle.
Fisher Emma Lehmberg stands in place while Marc Beck draws a circle with the net. Image: Angela Desjardins © Canadian Museum of Nature
Overhead view of the fishers and the circle made by the net, with the ends in the shallows and the pocket in deeper water.
Closing the circle. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature
Four people lift the net and its catch out of the water.
The moment of truth: the net is brought to the surface! Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature
Many fish at the bottom of the net.
A good catch! Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature
A person holds a young Northern Pike (Esox lucius).
A Northern Pike (Esox lucius). This young specimen was released back into the river. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature

After having deployed our net in several spots, we ended up with a large Black Crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus) specimen, as well as some large and beautiful Golden Shiners (Notemigonus crysoleucas).

A person holds a turtle.
Inadvertently caught, this young turtle is ready for its close-up before being released. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature

We also caught a beautiful turtle that smiled for the camera before it was released.

Three people transfer fish into a cooler on shore.
The museum's live animal technician, Angela DesJardins (foreground), oversees the transfer of the captured specimen from the live well into the ice-pack-filled cooler. Emma Lehmberg and Clayton Kennedy, another museum employee, transfer the fish. Image: Marc Beck © Canadian Museum of Nature

Back on shore, we transferred the fish into a cooler that contained ice packs. The cooler went into the van with us and was driven back to the museum, where our new specimens were released into a transfer tank. There, they would be able to acclimate, as well as provide our staff the opportunity to observe them. This ensures that they carry no diseases before they are moved into the main display tank in the gallery.

At the end of the field trip, we were a bit disappointed not to have caught a Longnose Gar, but happy to have found the nice specimens that we did, as well as spending a beautiful summer day on, and in the water. That’s the way fieldwork unfolds: you can’t always get what you want, but often, you get what you need.