I linked up with the DGIF sampling crew on the last morning they were on the Smith River for their annual sampling of the fishery which normally occurs the first week of August. DGIF Fisheries Biologist Scott Smith always welcomes volunteers to come by, observe and help out with the "fish count". Many of us have been involved since the Virginia Tech Study back in the late 1990's The last site where I found them was just downstream of the "Lemon Hole" on the road going to the base of Philpott Dam - Lots of State trucks so you could not miss them
We set up the fish processing station and then proceeded downstream for about 100 yards - Water was real chilly and gave off so much fog that we lost site of our "put in" point.
The scenario was for two barges containing a generator and voltage conversion machine and large aerator tank to be pulled upstream with four hand held electronic probes on each barge fanning out abreast up the river. Each probe handler also had a net and he or she was backed up by other net handlers who helped transfer the fish from the probe handlers. The probe handlers usually scooped up the fish but if they missed someone else got them. The fish were then transferred from net to net until they were in the holding tank. Not many fish escaped this onslaught. You could see fish shooting ahead but they would come up against a ledge where the current would momentarily stun them so they could be scooped up.
Lots of fish in this section. My guess is more then last year and that figure was about 800. They sample 10-12 sites along the river each year and it is humbling to see how many fish are in a section where we fishermen would be happy to catch a few out of each run. I can tell you that most of these runs hold hundreds of fish. (Now if only someone would come up with a fly rod and line that included an electronic probe)
The fish are all processed by measurement and weight. This data will be compared to prior years so DGIF can assess the health of the fishery.
Before I left I spoke with the DGIF biologist Scott Smith who is responsible for monitoring the Smith and was told he is cautiously optimistic that things are improving. It is impossible to tell until they get back to the office to compare data but it looks like the average size has grown about an inch in the past year and more 12-14 inch fish are seen in the sample. No doubt there are a ton of fish in the river. We just need to figure how to make them grow. One thing they did was move approximately 150, nine and ten inch brown trout from the Bassett area of the river to below the Martinsville Dam. This section below the Martinsville Dam will be included as designated trout water under a proposed regulation change which will protect all Brown Trout from 10-24 inches. This proposed change is available for public comment at the DGIF website http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/regulations/comment2010/display.asp (You don't need to be a resident of Virginia to comment. Non-residents have a strong voice because they are trying to promote tourism in the region). The fish they moved were carefully weighed, measured and their adipose fin (behind dorsal fin on top of fish) was removed so they can be identified and followed in future studies. If the regulation change is placed into effect they will move more fish to below the Martinsville Dam where there is an abundance of food which will allow them to grow to trophy size.
Scott said he would be be interested to hear if anybody has noticed a change in the insect hatches over the last 8-10 years, and what those changes might've been. In theory, the turbine ramping (starting generation with one turbine followed one hour later with the second turbine) should lead to better hatches, but he doesn't know if that's the case or not. Any impressions from folks that keep track of these things would be useful. You can contact Scott at Scott.Smith@dgif.virginia.gov
DGIF asked me to pass on their thanks to all who helped with the sampling this week. Never think you're in the way or intruding on their work. They welcome your help and are always eager to answer questions.