JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Just past the mouth of the Snake River Canyon, I'm standing at the bow of a Wyoming Game and Fish Department raft as an onboard generator transmits electricity into the water through two sets of electrodes that dangle from the sides like trashy chandeliers.
In my hands — protected from the amperage by bright orange safety gloves I'm carrying a long fishing net with padding duct-taped on the end in case I accidently whack Game and Fish fisheries biologist Brian Hines as he rows us into the current.
When the fish below get zapped, the electricity inflates their air bladders and they surface for a moment, their white bellies flashing in the riffles. My job is to differentiate trout and whitefish from bluehead suckers, today's prize, net the suckers and put them in a large steel tank in the middle of the raft.
As one might guess from their less-than-charismatic name, bluehead suckers aren't exactly a prized game species on the Snake River. A Colorado State University website describes the bluehead as "an elongated, slender sucker; head short; snout bulbous; mouth large, ventral; upper lip broad; median incision on lower lip shallow, separated from lower jaw by four to seven rows of papillae."
But some scientists, Hines among them, have dedicated themselves to learning more about the species. Bluehead suckers not to be confused with their cousins, the flabby-lipped Utah suckers are considered a "species of concern" in Western states such as Wyoming, Colorado and Utah because they can become hybridized with other species.
The importance of the bottom feeders — they eat mostly algae — isn't clear. But what is clear is that they are a native species in a world-class trout fishery. The bluehead sucker is part of the interconnected web of life that forms the ecosystem of one of the most pristine river systems in the country.
"There is this population here on the Snake that is kind of weird and isolated," Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Mark Gocke said on the cold, windy morning of Nov. 18. "We don't know anything about them."
The Snake River population is thought to range from the Jackson Lake Dam to the Palisades Reservoir, Hines said.
"This is one of the first studies of them," he said. "We're trying to find out where they are in the drainage and where they go in the different seasons."
The researchers are also looking for diseases, growth and age. The researchers can take a pectoral fin and read it like a tree ring.
A parasite called black spot is known to affect bluehead suckers. Transmitted by birds, black spot is manifested as a discoloration of the scales.
"I think it can be fatal in some fish," Hines said. "We've seen some (bluehead suckers) with very severe black spot, and they seem to be doing fine."
Onshore, Hines and Game and Fish fisheries supervisor Rob Gipson prepare a couple of bluehead suckers to receive a radio transmitter that will allow researchers to document their location over the course of three years. The fish are measured one of the captives comes in at about 16 inches then submerged in a deep plastic container of river water spiked with a small amount of tranquilizer. When the surgeon (Hines) is ready, the fish is moved to another bucket with a wooden operating table — two pieces of wood joined at a right angle to form a cradle.
Hines inserts a plastic tube into the fish's mouth. The tube is hooked up to a tiny pump that shoots water over the fish's gills. Then two incisions are made through the skin of the stomach and the skin between the pectoral fins. The radio transmitter is then threaded through the two holes with a large needle. The incisions are stitched, and the fish is put back into the water to swim another day.
For the next few years, Hines and other biologists will use radio transceivers to track the sucker, occasionally catching the animal for more detailed data, unraveling the mystery of its role in the river one beep at a time.
Information from: Jackson Hole News And Guide, http://www.jhnewsandguide.com