I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started as a field assistant a few months ago. I knew I would be canoeing and fishing, but I hadn’t been in a canoe for a decade and I’d never fished with nets and traps before. Nevertheless, I was eager to learn and excited for the coming months.
On one of my first days, I stepped forward into an undisturbed open wetland, ahead of me walked Petra and Mike, leading the way along a safe, elevated path. I was following them, looking up at the barn swallows darting left and right when suddenly the ground fell away beneath me. Plunging into the freezing water, I stopped a few inches short of the top of my chest waders. At first, I was shocked but then, I laughed. The clear water was refreshing, I was grateful for the relief from the heat.
The marsh was crisscrossed by an intricate network of beaver corridors, deep trenches dug into the soil beneath the water’s surface. I was still learning how to walk over them properly in waders, Mike cautioned me after I’d gotten back up, “Never take your weight off the back foot until you’ve found solid ground with the front.”
We set our traps and began looking for a place to set out the seine net. The pools behind the beaver dams made excellent candidates. As I peered into the deep water I could already see schools of coho swimming around. We stood on the shore, pointing and waving our arms trying to signal to each other how to string out the net. I was still learning how to seine, on our first haul I didn’t hold the net close enough to the shore and I felt a school of minnows brush by my legs, escaping from the net. The next time we hauled in the net I’m more careful, holding it deep to the bottom and tight against the shore.
After we catch the fish, we identify and record each species and for salmonids, we take a small clip of a fin for DNA analysis. The analysis answers questions that piece together the history of each salmon population; Where were they born? Where are the parents from? Which streams do they visit before leaving the Fraser? Clipping is a delicate procedure.
“Hold the fish in your hand with the tail away from you, like this,” Petra showed me as she snipped off a small piece of the tail and placed it in a vial. It looked easy as she deftly snatched a fish from the bucket, took her sample and returned the salmon to the water, one after the other. I struggled to even catch the salmon in the bucket, and even then they kept leaping out of my hands.
I never truly know what to expect as a field assistant, every day brings something exciting and new, each place its own unique energy and story. I still have a lot to learn but I’m excited to use new fishing techniques, perfect old ones, and finally catch a salmon long enough to get a sample without it wiggling out of my hands.