Fishery Managers Take To The Air

Waving that five-weight, you look for the same thing fish do. The better you know what fish inherently need the better angler you become.

We’re talking about cover. Fish need it. Most fish can’t live without cover, be it for spawning, resting, or lying in wait for unsuspecting prey. Some fish need cover more than others. And to say that brown trout need cover for hiding is like saying that babies need their mom and dad.

Craig Springer

Since a landmark study some 30 years ago, we know that browns rely heavily upon overhead cover to “make a living” in a stream. Biologist don the waders, grab the notebook, and with a variety of devices, measure trout habitat up close and personal. It’s labor-intensive, and you the angler foot the bill. It’s money well spent, no doubt, but successfully managing habitats in not so accessible areas either costs a lot, or doesn’t get done.

But that may change thanks to recent research done at the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Wyoming. Instead of only treading the remote mountain streams, assessing fish habitat, co-op unit biologists took to the air– aerial photographs that is. Scott Covington and Wayne Hubert used aerial photographs of segments and tributaries of the North Platte, Tongue, and Salt rivers to find an alternate way to determine the amount of cover present in streams.

Stable and healthy riparian areas contribute to healthy streams. Not only does the vegetation stabilize stream banks, it also contributes woody debris that creates cover. Using the aerial photos, the two researchers developed a riparian vegetation index model, or RVI, to make what essentially amounts to a predictor of fish habitat on the ground.

Using aerial photographs allows fishery biologists to make efficient use of their time.

It seems to have worked. After predicting habitat from photos, the two men did some ground truthing and found that in most cases, the RVI has a strong statistical correlation to existing cover in the streams.

This photographic method allows quick, large scale habitat assessments, with some draw backs — the photos must be current and should have been taken in late summer when vegetative growth is at its peak.

Using aerial photos allow fishery managers more efficient use of their time and that means two things: better fishing and tax dollars better spent.

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When not penning stories about the outdoors, Craig works in communications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is an outdoors’ columnist for the Albuquerque Journal and ESPN Outdoors, and a frequent contributor to Flyfisher and North American Fisherman magazines. He holds degrees in fisheries and wildlife management from Hocking College and New Mexico State University, and an M.Sc. in fisheries science from the University of New Mexico. He’s a candidate for an M.A. in rhetoric and writing at the University of New Mexico. He writes weekly for

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