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Dry down under: University of Montana fisheries students check out trout
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Dry down under: University of Montana fisheries students check out trout

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Pro tip: When you’re trying to find fish while snorkeling in a shallow creek — look sideways, not forward.

“It’s a lot better than looking straight up and down,” said Trout Unlimited project manager Rob Roberts. “That way, you don’t get a crick in your neck.”

And you might see the rainbow, cutthroat, brown, brook and cut-bow trout, along with some lunker mountain whitefish, in the pools where Rattlesnake Dam used to be. The former reservoir has been reconstructed to create a floodplain and several fish-friendly bends with deep pools.

“I grew up in Missoula, and never had any sense of its potential,” said Vinnie Hughes, a senior wildlife biology student at the University of Montana and president of the American Fisheries Society student chapter. “All my friends who grew up a few hundred yards from the dam never got to get a look at it. There’s some awesome habitat they’ve got up there.”

Hughes and Roberts helped five other students get familiar with dry-suit snorkeling, a basic skill in fisheries management. The waterproof suits go on over regular clothes and keep the occupant dry, assuming the wrist and neck gaskets are sealed properly.

“You’ve got to learn how to vent the air out of the suits,” Hughes said. “Otherwise you balloon up like a big marshmallow.”

Among the notable finds on Friday’s outing were a congregation of whitefish in one pool that might be preparing to spawn, and a cutthroat trout with a research tag indicating it had been caught at the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek two years ago.

Even though the water flow was down to 14 cubic feet per second (about half what Rattlesnake Creek was pushing in August) Hughes said the fish concentrations were greater at the former dam site than when he did another underwater survey in Greenough Park two weeks ago. That may indicate the habitat restoration work at the dam is taking hold after more than a century as a manmade reservoir.

Incidentally, angling is prohibited between the former dam and 3 miles up Rattlesnake Creek in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. Fishing is legal (although not very productive) on the creek from the Lincolnwood neighborhood down to the confluence with the Clark Fork River, and in the upper reaches of the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area.

“It’s a great way to get some experience,” Hughes said of the outing. “It lets students know there’s a potential job field in the world of fisheries. It’s not a hobby. People make a living out of it.”

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