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Trout rescues start off with sweets and end with smiles

POWELL — Electrically stunned trout rolled to the top of the water, revealing their white underbellies, while volunteers hoping to save Wyoming’s prized game fish sloshed through the muddy, receding pools of the Cody Canal to scoop them up as fast as possible. 

The volunteers, who face a wet and sometimes bone-chilling task, were fueled by the sugary sweetness of donuts and black coffee as the rescue mission continued just after sunrise Friday.

It was obvious there were a lot of fish to be saved along the ditch near the South Fork of the Shoshone River. By the end of the day, 1,001 trout were counted and returned to their natural habitat by the group. 

The inconvenience of a nonlethal electrical shock is far better than their fate would have been after irrigation districts across Park County shut their head gates at the end of the area’s agricultural season. 

The race was on for members of the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited and nonmember volunteers for the past week to save thousands of fish as pools in the ditches quickly drain. 

“We’ll continue as long as the weather lets us and we have access,” said Kathy Crofts, president of the chapter. 

The effort started about three decades ago when Bob Capron, one of the five founding members of the chapter, couldn’t stand watching trapped fish go to waste as he and his uncle Joe Capron worked the ditch at the end of the season. 

Capron grabbed a net and bucket and started scooping. 

Four or five years later, he talked some friends into helping. In 1990, he formally pitched the project to fellow chapter members and the number of volunteers grew. They stretched large sheets of netting across canals to school the fish, then used dip nets to save as many as they could. 

Despite best intentions, the process wasn’t very efficient, Capron said during last year’s effort. 

Soon the organization was pouring resources into the project, purchasing electrofishing equipment and a trailer to safely move the fish back to appropriate habitat. 

“These electric shockers probably improved our efficiency by 75%,” Capron said. 

They’ve also worked with multiple agencies and private landowners to figure out ways to limit fish access to the canals. 

Capron’s dream of saving fish near his birthplace on the South Fork may soon become a reality without needing the annual efforts of volunteers. The chapter is collaborating with the Lake View Irrigation District, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and several grant providers to build a new $2.1 million upgrade to the canal, including a new fish screen at the district’s head gate. 

The screen, which is self-cleaning and doesn’t need power to operate, will stop most trout from entering the canal and allow the chapter to concentrate on other ditches. The cost of installing the screen is about $300,000. 

“Hopefully it’s a hands-off screen that we can leave out there for 20 or 30 years without troubles,” Crofts said. 

The first fish screen in the area was completed and operational last year at the North Fork head gates. The $700,000 structure allowed chapter volunteers to skip the North Fork Canal for the first time this year. 

Tests revealed the screen was effective in keeping most fish out of the canal, Crofts said. 

“We’ve gone from pulling about 800 to 1,200 fish per year from the North Fork ditch to less than 50,” she said. 

Funds to build the structure were donated from several sources, including chapter members, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Water Development Project and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust Fund, among other institutions. 

With the new screen project underway, the chapter is focusing on getting future permissions from private landowners to save more trout on land otherwise unavailable. 

Large sections of area canals are still off limits without landowners’ consent, Crofts said. 

They are also hoping to ramp up non-member volunteer recruitment after the program was stifled by COVID-19 restrictions for the past two years. 

On Friday, Buffalo Bill FFA club members helped with the rescue mission. 

Dave Sweet, one of the project leaders, took the time to educate the students about the importance of conserving the important natural resource. He said the mission would be rewarding, but not easy. 

“I know you’ll find this is fun, but it’s hard work,” he told the students before descending into the first location. 

The Powell High School natural resources class, led by instructor Wendy Smith, volunteered to help the group in the Garland Canal on Monday. They rescued more than 500 trout, Sweet said. Some of the trout were in the 21- to 22-inch size. 

“There were some big, beautiful trout rescued,” he said. 

Volunteers in the ditch are required to wear waterproof waders and rubber gloves to avoid the mild electrical shocks sent through the waterway. They are rewarded with free breakfast and lunch provided by a generous member of the chapter and the knowledge they helped save thousands of fish. 

In the past six days, chapter members and volunteers saved 3,800 trout. 

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