OKLAHOMA'S STREAM TEAM
Jim Burroughs is in charge of Oklahoma's stream team.
It kind of sounds like an all-star team, and they may be, considering the important and unheralded work the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation crew is performing across the state.
Burroughs' team of two biologists and two technicians work statewide, sampling Oklahoma streams to identify and learn more about fish in Oklahoma's streams and what those species need to survive and thrive. It's a large job for a five-man squad.
“We are definitely looking at a large number of streams,” Burroughs said. “There is enough of them that you can't get around to them for several years.”
In the past, the Wildlife Department's stream work has focused mostly on bank restoration, like the projects on the Lower Mountain Fork River's trout fishery.
“We don't do so much of that anymore,” Burroughs said. “One, it's very cost prohibitive. You can't afford to do a large enough stretch of stream that you have a very large impact.”
Today, the agency's stream management efforts are more ecologically based. For the past three years, the stream team has been identifying what fish are in Oklahoma's streams and where they are. They also are learning about their habitat requirements and determining what conservation efforts may be needed.
While the focus on streams might seem less important to anglers than on the state's lakes, where there are many more public fishing opportunities, they are connected. The lakes, in many ways, depend on the streams for life.
Many fish in Oklahoma reservoirs — sand bass, paddlefish and striped bass, for example — go up into the streams to spawn. And water from the streams flow into the reservoirs, so both the water quality and quantity of streams are important, Burroughs said.
Plus, the smaller non-sport fish that live in the streams are prey for the sportfish, he said.
Burroughs' crew performs what they call “community sampling” of river drainages, a project that examines fish communities in streams and rivers across Oklahoma.
The agency has divided the state into 17 sampling areas based on watersheds, and it will take 12 years to complete one sampling rotation of the entire state.
In the past two years, the stream team has sampled the Red River drainage and the Arkansas River drainage both above and below Lake Keystone.
In northeastern and southeastern Oklahoma streams, the crew also has been conducting black bass sampling, collecting data to learn how to best manage the smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass populations that live there.
To learn more about smallmouth bass, they conduct snorkeling surveys in the streams during the spawning season to identify the best water conditions for reproduction and how much is needed for spawning.
Stream team personnel also are regularly collecting age and length data on black bass from five of the more popular fisheries (Baron Fork, Upper Illinois, Glover, Blue River, Upper Mountain Fork) to better manage those populations.
“It can be very hard work depending on the habitat,” Burroughs said of the black bass sampling. “We might use a boat or we might use a tow barge. The tow barge is an interesting piece of equipment when you think about it. It's boat electrofishing while you're standing in the water wearing your waders.”
Where it is too shallow for a boat, the stream team will wade the waters and push a small electrofishing “tow barge” to shock fish to the surface. One person behind the the boat pushes it along the stream while two people in front of the boat operate the electro-fishing poles.
When the fish are shocked to the surface, the Wildlife Department biologists and technicians then net the fish, collect data and release them back in the water unharmed.
The stream team also is conducting catfish sampling on 11 Oklahoma rivers to learn more about the blue and flathead populations.
“We can use this data to answer questions such as what environmental conditions are related to the strongest year classes of flathead and blue catfish,” he said.
The Oklahoma stream team has its own Facebook page that people can follow for updates on the work.
In addition to the scientific study of streams, the Wildlife Department also is trying to provide more fishing opportunities on them.
The agency is in the process of buying land on the Baron Fork River in southeastern Oklahoma so more anglers can have access to the stream experience.
“Stream fishing offers a better opportunity to get back to nature, if you will, than the traditional reservoir fishing that most are accustomed to,” he said. “Of course, that's just my slightly biased opinion.”