Nov 18, 2015

Trout Unlimited rescues 2,200 trout from area's irrigation canals

Trout trapped in drying irrigation canals got a new lease on life thanks to a lot of elbow grease from the Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited and their volunteers.

Trout Unlimited member Dave Sweet explained the procedure standing above a Garland Canal drop structure on a frigid Nov. 4 morning.

A couple of volunteers from Marathon Oil, Brian Sheets and Mike Williams, pull some fish from the Garland Canal during Trout Unlimited's recent rescue effort. Cody News Co. photo by Gib Mathers
All summer, fish inadvertently enter the canal. When the irrigation water is turned off, the fish are trapped in receding pools. He isn’t faulting the irrigation district. A $1.5 million screen could divert fish from the canal, but raising $1.5 million is not an easy task, Sweet said.

So, each fall, Trout Unlimited catches the fish and returns them to the Shoshone River from local irrigation canals using an electro fish method. A 60-pound battery pack attached to a long wand delivers about a 1 amp electrical shock, temporarily stunning the fish. The fish are caught with long nets and transfered to buckets. From the buckets, the fish are placed in an oxygenated tank. From the tank, they are returned to the Shoshone River, Sweet said.

“One thing is certain,” Sweet said. “If we don’t get them, they’re going to die.”

It’s a cold day as random snow flakes slant from a leaden sky, but the people were eager as they waded the frigid, sometimes nearly chest-deep water. Others along the canal bank waited with empty buckets to trade for buckets filled with trout.

Sweet guided his group into the and deep, choppy water, rendered a gloomy green beneath an oppressive sky. They worked diligently, probing every corner of the concrete box. Soon, stunned fish floated to the surface. But they weren’t too dazed; they thrashed vigorously in the nets.

Bob Capron, East Yellowstone chapter Trout Unlimited conservation chairman, who has been running the canal rescue for at least 20 years, prepared to ease a nice trout into an oxygenated tank.

“Brown,” he said to Linda Taylor, a Cody Marathon Oil Corporation employee, keeping a tally of the number and species of caught.

From left, Jake Blakesley (Marathon Oil Corporation), Dave Sweet (Trout Unlimited), Travis Schramm (Trout Unlimited), Gregg Bierie (Trout Unlimited) and Mike Williams (Marathon) work to rescue trout from a canal on Nov. 4. Cody News co. photo by Gib Mathers
“We’ve worked with Trout Unlimited for a couple of years,” said Mike Williams, Marathon senior environmental professional. With the understanding that Trout Unlimited would extend its search to the Sidon Canal, more Marathon employees volunteered.

There were 18 Marathon employees who had to work late or assure a fellow employee would cover for them while they saved fish, Williams said.

The Sidon Canal near Byron was the final search on Nov. 9. It was so cold that they had to break ice with shovels before the trout could be caught, Capron said.

Having Marathon employees rescue trout from Sidon was a lesson in land stewardship and to understand the ecosystem they work in. The hope is Marathon employees will bring their spouses and children to future conservation projects to better appreciate and preserve their environment, Williams said.


This year, Trout Unlimited and volunteers captured and released more than 2,200 trout. Around 4,000 were caught and released last year, Capron said.

This year, they worked the Willwood, Garland, Cody, Lake View (South Fork of the Shoshone River) and Sidon (Byron area) canals and the North Fork Ditch (west of Cody). It was a 10-day endeavor averaging seven hours per day, Capron said. He estimated they walked approximately 80 miles of canals.


Some anglers may turn their nose at suckers, but those with beaks find them edible.

Susan Ahalt, known as the Bird Lady, runs Ironside Bird Rescue, Inc. just outside Cody. For nearly 30 years Ahalt has rescued injured birds. If possible, she heals the wounded avians to release them back into the wild. If a bird’s injuries are too severe, they spend their lives in her sprawling aviary.

Ahalt accompanied Unlimited on one fish rescue day to collect the suckers. Another day, Trout Unlimited delivered suckers to her to feed a bald eagle she hopes to release soon, Capron said.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West also received a catch of suckers to feed its live birds for its raptor program, Capron said. 

Among other organizations, Marathon employees have helped the Bureau of Land Management, Friends Of A Legacy (McCullough Peaks wild horse support group) and The Nature Conservancy in conservation projects.

Releasing trout back to the Shoshone increases spawners exponentially.

“That turns into hundreds of thousands of trout the next year,” Williams said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”


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