SULA - In the crystal clear waters of a restored reach of Camp Creek, Billy Brann is doing his best to coax a trout into a net waiting just downstream.

Wearing a heavy 40-pound generator on his back, the University of Montana fisheries student explores the undercut banks of the small creek with a long handled yellow wand that emits a low-grade electrical charge.

As the brook, brown and cutthroat trout bob to the surface, U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist and Brann's mentor, Mike Jakober, is there to scoop them up.

On this afternoon, the two men work beside a second two-person crew from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to collect the trout. Over the course of an hour or so, nearly every fish in the stretch of bubbling brook end up in holding nets waiting for the count to begin.

Today the team is doing its recapture run.

When the fish-capturing portion is complete, they'll take turns taking measurements and recording the species of each captured trout. They'll also look to see if a small bit of fin has been clipped.

If it's gone, they know the fish has been through this before.

The biologists then take all the information they've gathered this day and use a mathematical formula to estimate the fish population in the stream.

Along the way, they provide Brann with invaluable experience that could help him land a job after he graduates next spring.

And that's just one day of a summer filled with experiences for this year's recipient of the internship sponsored by Bitterroot Trout Unlimited, the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Over the course of the summer, Brann donned a snorkel and fins to inspect trout lairs, hiked into mountain lakes to help with surveys, and repaired fence to keep livestock out of riparian areas.

Along the way, he built relationships that could lead to a career of preserving cold-water fisheries.

That's exactly the goal for the members of Bitterroot Trout Unlimited.

"Trout Unlimited's main mission is to protect, conserve and restore America's freshwater fisheries," said Bitterroot Trout Unlimited president Cassie Buhl. "Being able to put a person into an internship like this one helps us achieve that mission. Beyond that, it also helps that person continue to work in the fisheries field."

This is the second year the Bitterroot organization has helped fund a fisheries intern in the Bitterroot Valley.

Last year, Buhl said the club came up with $5,000 to pay for an intern who worked with both state and federal biologists.

This year, the Forest Service came back and asked the club if it could do it again.

After the club learned that internship funding from other sources was being curtailed, they formed a partnership with both the Forest Service and FWP to create this summer's program.

"We knew Mike (Jakober) and the work that came out of the internship last year," Buhl said. "We had a lot of confidence that this intern would be out in the field working and making a productive contribution to fisheries in this area."

Jakober said that's exactly what happened this summer.

"He was invaluable to our effort this year," Jakober said. "We expect a lot from our interns. We don't baby them at all. They hit the ground running."

This year's applications for the internship program were superb.

"The quality of applicants has been super high," he said. "In the two years that we've done this, there have been about 20 apply each year. Most are from Montana. All of them are very good."

As federal and state budgets dry up, a lot of seasonal work that young biologists need to gain experience has disappeared.

"These type of opportunities are a foot in the door for interns," Jakober said. "They make good contacts that could help them land a job somewhere. Someone might see Chris Clancy's name as a reference and that will make a difference."

Clancy is FWP's Bitterroot fisheries biologist.

Each summer, Clancy tries to do population estimates on 10 to 15 different creeks around the Bitterroot in conjunction with the Bitterroot National Forest.

"When the Forest Service doesn't have as much summer help, that puts in a bind too," Clancy said. "There are only two of us. We can't get to all the work that needs to be accomplished without their help."

The two agencies work together to monitor about 150 different sites on streams around the Bitterroot.

"We've been doing that for about 20 years now," Jakober said. "We've always worked together. We share data, use the same data forms and use the same methods."

The information the biologists glean helps paint a picture of the fisheries health of the watershed.

Camp Creek, which runs just upstream from the Sula Store right next to the highway, is a good example.

For years, the portion of creek the crew monitored ran in a ditch next to the road. About 10 years ago, the creek was moved to its restored historical channel as part of a highway construction project.

Over the course of the last 10 years, the biologists have found that fish were growing larger due to better habitat. Perhaps as important, they also found brown trout were moving upstream over the past two years.

"We track changes in that way," Jakober said. "We can detect impacts on management actions too, like timber sales or wildfire."

Brann has come away with a whole new view of fisheries science.

"I've learned quite a lot about managing on a large landscape and the politics of it all," he said. "A lot of this work requires willing and interested landowners to have good success."

This year's Bitterroot Trout Unlimited banquet will be held Friday, Sept. 23. Tickets are available in Hamilton at the Fishaus and Western Flies and Guides and in Stevensville at Osprey Outfitters. Riversong Catering will prepare the meal.

"This is the only fundraiser that we do," Buhl said. "It's where we make the money to do projects like this one."

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or


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