Field Notes: Southern California- home of Disneyland, action movies, and rainbow trout”

Working for Cramer Fish Sciences in Sacramento, California, I have been able to conduct field research in many of the California’s river systems and help inform fisheries and natural resource issues. Our primary study species, rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) need these anadromous (river to sea connected) waters throughout their various life stages to spawn, feed, and migrate.

Just north of Los Angeles lies Piru Creek, a tributary of the Santa Clara River and native waters to Southern California coastal steelhead trout, a subspecies of rainbow trout. As part of a multi-agency collaborative effort, I was going to their native waters to participate in a mark-recapture study. This study allows us to mark the sampled fish with electronic tags that can be detected by receiving antennas we have installed in various locations throughout the creek. Our goal with the mark-recapture study is to get a better understanding of their life-history, population demographics, and behavior. This species of trout is unique in that they develop differently depending on their environment, those that stay in the freshwater system are considered rainbow trout and data will allow us to have a better understanding of the migration patterns of the rainbow trout, as they use different water systems at different life stages.

Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

In the car on the way down, I didn’t quite know what to make of doing field work outside of such a large metropolitan area. Common questions among co-workers included: “How close will we be to Disneyland? Does it rain in Southern California? Do you think we’re going to see a movie being filmed?” I had my questions too. For the amount of times I have had the displeasure of making the long drive, I did not have high expectations of going anywhere with breathtaking scenery.

After a brief five-minute drive from the interstate, we arrived at the trailhead leading to our field site. While most of our Central Valley field sites are located in flat, rural areas with a large agricultural presence, I was immediately taken aback by what this new landscape offered. The small creek meandered through a deep canyon composed of layered sedimentary rocks. With cottonwoods lined up along the riparian corridor, flaunting their vibrant yellow leaves undergoing senescence, how could we possibly be close to Los Angeles?!

Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Our sampling and backcountry gear went from loaded trucks to distributed weight on our backs so we could hike in to our field sites on foot. By the time I was in my waders (essentially waterproof overalls for trekking in water), packed up and ready to go, the amount of gear I had to carry led to an internal conflict in deciding whether to bring an extra water bottle or not. Decisions were made, and I decided against it.

Geared up and hiking out!
Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Contrary to my expectations, the hike in to our field site was stunning! Wading through the steep canyons offered spectacular views, and it was hard not to admire the biotic diversity that Piru Creek offered. My favorites included various sage scrub, whiptail lizards, and black bear…poop. While I didn’t actually see a bear, the abundance of scat let us know that they were indeed there.

Whiptail lizard (Aspidoscelis tigris munda) soaking up the sun .
Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Although there was no definitive trail to our site, our handheld GPS offered navigational and mental ease to help us find our backcountry site. We began surveying shortly after our arrival, eager to tag 300 rainbow trout. It was a rough start. Besides losing my water bottle (yeah, I really regret not bringing the second one), we caught a fair share of non-targeted bass and sucker species. For the purpose of our study, we were not interested in collecting data on these species.  However, we rejoiced every so often exclaiming, “RAINBOW!!” whenever we were fortunate enough to land our target species in our nets.

As the week went on, we shared plenty of laughs, played group games at night, and ultimately enjoyed each other’s company. I drastically underestimated how much fun there was to be had, how little privacy I actually needed, and how much beauty can be found five minutes from I-5. By the end of the week, we were proud to put out 222 tags on some gorgeous trout! With these tagged fish in the system, we are hoping to see what sort of migration patterns can be detected through our antenna receivers that can then inform us how they are using their unique habitats.

Tagging and recording data.
Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Having the opportunity to be involved in this study inspired my interest to learn more about the interdisciplinary world of aquatic ecology. While I am not anywhere near an expert in the field… I can attest that fish are pretty cool!

Sunrise over Lake Piru.
Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Note to reader: We actually did see a car chase being filmed “Fast-and-Furious”-esque type of movie.

Note to self: Always bring the extra water bottle.

Rainbow and me.
Photo Credit: Devin McHugh

Devin McHugh received his bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences and Management from UC Davis in 2017. He is currently a biological technician at Cramer Fish Sciences interested in using geospatial and analytical tools to study hydrologic processes that shape fish habitat.

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