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