Fish Tales with Monty Currier
by Phil "Flip" Akers
I recently caught up with Monty Currier, Environmental Scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). Serving the Northern Region, Monty’s duties include Aquatic Education (Fish in the Classroom) /Public Outreach, Fishing in the City Program, reservoir research and fish stocking allocations for Shasta, Tehama, Modoc, Lassen, Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino, Trinity, and Siskiyou Counties. Also the district Fishery Biologist for Tehama and Shasta Counties, Monty will tell you he is very privileged to work with stakeholder groups to enhance and protect aquatic habitats and improve local fisheries.
Please join me on a visit with Monty.
Flip: So, many of us anglers believe you have a dream job. What inspired you to choose such a cool career path?
Monty: Growing up in Tennessee, I loved the outdoors, fishing with my mom and exploring the wonders of local creeks and woods. These childhood experiences motivated me to pursue a career in aquatic and fisheries science. I wanted to be able to spend a big part of my job traveling and being outdoors. I wanted to promote ethical, sustainable angling and encourage adults to share outdoor experiences with their children.
Flip: What education, skill sets, or qualifications are required?
Monty: I have an Associate’s Degree in Biology and a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife and Fisheries Science. Other requirements are a desire to work outdoors and have patience with governmental practices.
Flip: Any intern or student aide opportunities?
Monty: The CDFW does have a Natural Resources Volunteer Program and seasonal jobs are available.
Flip: Please describe the steps through the selection process.
- Decide on the position/area of interest.
- Fill out State application and apply to take an exam for the desired position.
- Once you meet the qualifications for the position, take the exam and wait for the results.
- Receive rank or score from the exam taken.
- Look for job postings on the CDFW career page or receive job announcements by mail.
- Be selected for an interview…get hired.
- Pass one year probation and then gain experience, apply to advanced positions in time (repeat testing process etc.).
Flip: I know you bass fish. Is bass your favorite fish? If not, what’s your favorite fish, and why does it deserve the highest rank? Table fare? Sport?
Monty: I do fish bass tournaments locally and have gotten my sons involved in bass fishing, but my favorite fish to catch is Crappie. I enjoy Crappie fishing with my daughter and niece. Crappie fishing is fast action and my kids and I love having a good old Cajun fish fry.
Flip: Moon phases and changes in barometric pressure are excuses often used by anglers following a day of slow fishing. It does seem trout fishing is best when pressure (either high or low) has been consistent for a few days. What’s your take?
Monty: I do believe these pressure changes affect fish activity and feeding. Fish are sensitive to slight changes in barometric pressure. A fish’s body uses its lateral line as a sensory organ to feel the movement of predators or prey. Fish have to be in tune with their surroundings for survival. All aquatic systems change as a result of a low or high-pressure system. A storm event likely will cause windy, water chop and increased turbidity (cloudy water). Often times, this change in weather conditions stimulates increased feeding behaviors of baitfish. Predator fish species also increase feeding during these changes in weather, making better fishing conditions for anglers. It makes sense that this type of situation makes sport fish less “line shy” and do not “spook” as easily. Bad weather usually equals improved fishing. Weather patterns usually result in changed water temperatures, often exciting or slowing fish feeding behaviors. Moon phase and day length (photo period) often trigger feeding or spawning behaviors in all fish. All of these factors surely play a role in fish activity or inactivity.
Flip: During barometric pressure swings, are there noticeable changes in the behavior and feeding habits of fish in a captive, hatchery environment?
Monty: I have not noticed a drastic change in captive/hatchery fish because the environment and feed is held consistent and strictly controlled. Water volume/flow and regimented feeding negates the effects of barometric change. Fish raised in these conditions do not have to adapt since their environment is steady. Food consumption/growth, water temperature and day length (photo period) can trigger sexual maturity, but changes in activity during weather change varies little.
Flip: While participating in the Kokanee Power derby at Whiskeytown Lake last year, I noticed you and some colleagues were at the weigh-in, taking samples of the Kokanee salmon. Precisely what were you sampling, what testing is performed, and how is this information utilized to better manage the fishery?
Monty: The samples taken at a derby give managers a snapshot of fish age at harvest, fish length, fish condition, fish health (look for disease or parasite infestation), and how the fish size compares in various waters. Fisheries staff can ask anglers questions. This type of data collection gives managers immediate feedback. It gives anglers the chance to make suggestions or express opinions about the fishery. Fisheries staff ask questions like:
- Are the anglers happy with the fishery?
- What do the anglers want from the fishery?
- Do anglers have information to share that could assist in better management for the lake?
This type of interaction is important. It aids us in fisheries management practices, with the goal of providing a better fishery to the public.
Flip: What major considerations determine planting allotments?
Monty: CDFW looks at a variety of environmental and social factors before determining fish planting allotments. All waters must have a Pre-Stocking Evaluation before fish can be placed into receiving waters. Evaluations consist of the following factors:
- Water body size/location.
- Species present at the water, and if fish stocked by CDFW will endanger the longevity of any threatened, listed, endangered, or species of special concern.
- The amount of fishing pressure.
- How many and what size of fish should be stocked?
- Does the water to be stocked connect to anadromy? If so, only sterile fish are stocked to minimize rainbow trout interbreeding with Steelhead trout. Using sterile trout reduces competition with native fishes.
- Does stocking interfere with any prior management plan? If so, fish are not stocked.
Flip: After decades of stunted Kokanee salmon in Trinity Lake, some larger, hot-tempered, silver bullets are showing up. Is this because of the massive die-off a few years ago, or are there other factors?
Monty: I’m not clear of the cause of the increase size in the Kokanee salmon at Trinity Lake, but I believe the larger salmon are a direct result of the recent unprecedented drought in California. The drought affected spawning tributaries and Kokanee salmon spawning success, reducing fry survival. This resulted in reduced reseeding of Kokanee to the lake. The density of Kokanee salmon was less in the reservoir, reducing competition for food, which in return increased the average size/length of the Trinity Lake Kokanee. This increase in size was observed at many other Kokanee reservoirs in the state. Also, the reduction of inflow in the reservoir and the increased water temperatures may have stimulated algae blooms and phytoplankton increases. With this increase in phytoplankton, Kokanee took advantage of the increase of food and increased growth occurred.
With the return of heavy rains last winter California found itself in an exceptional water year, resulting in better spawning conditions at Trinity and elsewhere. I expect a return to normal conditions over the next few years. We should see a return of smaller-sized Kokanee being caught at Trinity Lake. If the drought returns, we will see possible die-offs, reductions in Kokanee populations and reproduction, leading to larger average Kokanee sizes.
Flip: Shasta Lake is fishing rather well these days. Will we ever see Kokanee salmon in Shasta? If not, why?
Monty: Not anytime soon. Kokanee salmon at one time provided a recreational fishery at Shasta Lake. Kokanee were stocked in 1951 and remained good until the late 1960’s. A late summer run Kokanee (run time July-Sept) once inhabited the lake and made a spawning run mainly up the McCloud River. At one point CDFW collected eggs on a tributary of the McCloud River, named Chatterdown Creek. These Kokanee were raised at Mt. Shasta Hatchery and were distributed throughout the state. This egg take facility was abandoned shortly. This was due to the remoteness of the site and the difficulty of transporting the Kokanee eggs to the hatchery. The Kokanee populations were good at Shasta Lake until the construction of McCloud Dam in 1965. After the dam was built the water temperature became unsuitable for these early run Kokanee and conditions did not provide cold enough water for successful reproduction. The management of Fish and Wildlife do not want to re-introduce Kokanee salmon into Lake Shasta for the fear of affecting the primary baitfish, which is Threadfin shad. Both Kokanee and Threadfin shad are filter feeders, primarily phytoplankton, and this feeding overlap is expected. Management does not want to introduce another filter feeder and risk the reduction of Threadfin shad. As many understand that the shad is the primary forage fish at Shasta Lake.
Flip: Since the introduction of Spotted bass in Shasta Lake, these river bass have been caught as far upstream as Dunsmuir. Being a wild trout angler, I'm not particularly thrilled. Is there any way of un-stirring this bucket?
Monty: No way of stopping the Spotted bass from entering the river for their native habitat are rivers. Spotted bass are native to the southeastern United States, evolved in rivers, and given the choice, would prefer moving waters to inhabiting reservoirs. Spotted bass are very adaptive and are successful in a variety of aquatic habitats. Spots thrive in fluctuating reservoirs and usually out-compete all other fish species. The Spotted bass will also hybridize with Smallmouth to create a “mule” bass. Once a body is stocked with Spotted bass, it usually becomes the most dominate fish species. We do not encourage stocking Spotted bass anywhere in the state. Spotted bass do provide an excellent fishery, but can negatively affect the management of waters if introduced. I have seen illegal introductions of Spotted bass in a few northern California lakes. Recent years, Spotted bass have been illegally stocked in Lake Britton and Ruth Lakes. Changes to increased bag and possession limits might be a strategy to discuss and may reduce the overall number, but never would eliminate Spotted bass. Once these bass are stocked they will be there forever.
Flip: Until native salmon are returned to the McCloud River above Shasta Lake, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe suffers tremendous remorse and damages to their religious and spiritual beliefs. They are hosting a GoFundMe account to raise money for DNA testing of certain New Zealand salmon (where native McCloud salmon eggs were shipped in the late 1800’s) to verify they are direct descendants. This is the first step in their re-introduction plans. There was talk about an elevator, assisting native salmon upstream across Shasta dam, and the salmon being trucked back below the dam following spawning. While this is a successful practice elsewhere, what are the challenges here? Is there a chance of this actually coming to fruition?
Monty: Pilot studies are being conducted regarding the effectiveness of trap and hauling Chinook salmon back to the watershed above Shasta Lake. A multi-agency task force is developing a strategy to assist the endangered Winter-run salmon. This does include genetic testing of Chinook salmon from New Zealand. Many challenges to the project are present and many are being researched. Winter-run Chinook are in real trouble and some think the fish can be helped by this project. Some say yes, others disagree.
The first experimental step in this plan is to place several hundred acoustical tags in young Fall-run Chinook salmon, a small release, above the lake in the McCloud River. These tagged salmon will be released into the lower McCloud River. The goal is to detect the tagged salmon with antennas placed strategically around the reservoir. These tags send signal for several days, this will help researchers document migratory patterns. Researchers want to know what the young salmon will do in a reservoir. Will the salmon die or get lost trying to navigate downstream toward Shasta Dam? That is a big question.
The second phase would be to test a collection device at the mouth of one of the rivers to see if young salmon can be captured before reaching Shasta Lake. If trapping and hauling of young salmon is successful, young salmon or eggs will be placed in the McCloud River. The plan is to collect and move young salmon around Shasta and Keswick Dams, where they will be released into the lower Sacramento River. The next step is to capture adult salmon at Keswick Dam, transport to either the McCloud or Sacramento Rivers, where natural spawning would occur. The focus is to increase the number of winter-run Chinook available in the basin. By moving Chinook above the dam it will give the fish more security in case of another drought or natural catastrophe. Many pieces have to be worked out regarding environmental and cultural reviews before operations can start. Plans and options are being investigated at this time. Some early data has been collected by the Bureau of Reclamation scientist and is being analyzed.
Flip: I participated in the CDFW Heritage Trout Challenge program, loved it so much I didn’t stop with the six species required for the certificate. I experienced catching them all, except for the native Bull trout which went extinct in California. Are there any proposed projects to re-introduce Bull trout to its native California range? If not, what prevents re-introduction efforts…the Shasta Dam, not sure of the exact native strain (DNA), water, or a combination of things?
Monty: No plans are being discussed at this time. The reason for the demise of the Bull trout was attributed to the construction of dams (Keswick, Shasta and McCloud) that cut off Chinook salmon runs to the McCloud River. The Bull trout's primarily food source (Chinook salmon) were no longer available, hence the decline and extinction of these amazing trout. The remnant Bull trout populations were further impacted by the increase in summertime water temperatures. In addition, the introduction of Brown trout to Shasta Lake helped extirpate any remaining Bull trout.
Flip: What is the current status on inland Chinook and Coho? It seems their size and numbers are down? Are baitfish numbers down?
Monty: Due to the reduction in returning adults, the inland Coho program is no longer. The most recent plants have been at Lake Oroville only. Further information about decisions to abandon Coho salmon plants should be referred to CDFW’s Kyle Murphy, Senior Environmental Scientist at 916-323-5556. The Inland Chinook Program productions have changed locations. For the past decades, all the Chinook for our reservoirs came from Klamath River stocks. The Chinook used in the program come from the Fall-run. The reason these Chinook are used is that they are normally the most plentiful and do not express diseases. All fish used in the inland program have to be screened for disease before being stocked in inland waters. Recently, drought and poor ocean conditions made it difficult for Iron Gate Hatchery (Klamath River) to meet its own in river mitigation goals. The Inland Chinook Program has seen reduced Chinook available for our reservoir fisheries. In 2017, CDFW decided to switch production from Iron Gate Hatchery to Feather River Hatchery. For the time being, all reservoir Chinook salmon will come from the Feather River.
I have no indications that the baitfish numbers are in a decline. As of spring 2018, three of the six regions covered by the department currently do not have a reservoir biologist. Thus, no one assigned to conduct reservoir research.
Flip: Are you still involved in creel counts? How is this information utilized?
Monty: I am not currently involved in a creel census. Typical information gathered by these types of surveys include:
- How often does someone fish?
- How many hours do they fish per trip?
- How many fish did the angler catch?
- How many did the angler keep or release?
- What type of lure used?
- Where is the angler from?
- How much do they spend on a trip?
- Is the angler happy regarding the fishery?
All of this information gathered can help fisheries managers adjust fishing regulations (examples: bag limits or size restrictions), and address habitat needs or stocking allotments. This data can help fisheries managers create different types of fisheries such as “fast action” or “trophy” waters.
Flip: You’ve been instrumental in many habitat restoration projects such as placing Christmas trees and Manzanita clumps into lakes. The purpose of this, from what I understand, is fish will spawn near this structure, and it promotes algae growth which attracts larger aquatic life. It also provides safety. Knowing Christmas trees and Manzanita clumps float, how are they anchored? How can the public be aware of these projects and volunteer?
Monty: The habitat projects help in these ways:
- Create habitat for young fishes.
- Create spawning and feeding spots for adult fishes.
- Provide known spots for anglers to concentrate efforts.
The trees have holes drilled at the base strung together in bundles. These piles of trees/bushes are cabled together with a steel cable and anchored to the lake bottom. The habitats are secured by the use of multiple weights or often secured to a tree stump. Most habitat projects occur during winter drawdown.
Flip: A few years back, Sacramento Perch were being considered for introduction into Mountain Meadows. Did this ever come to fruition? What other inland lakes (north of Lake Crowley) have Sacramento Perch?
Monty: Yes, we did relocate approximately two-hundred and fifty Sacramento Perch to Mountain Meadows. CDFW has plans to introduce a total of five-hundred perch over the next two years. Northern California Lakes which have Sacramento Perch include:
Clear Lake Reservoir (Modoc)
West Valley Reservoir
For other waters contact CDFW’s Environmental Scientist Max Fish (916) 916-327-8849.
Flip: I wish I could have made it up to the Shasta hatchery recently while you were on-site sterilizing rainbow trout eggs. My understanding is sterile (triploid) rainbows are being planted in waters where there is a chance of downstream incursion and interbreeding with native Steelhead trout. But natural (diploid) rainbows are being planted in some lakes such as Shasta. Please explain the current policy regarding the planting of triploid and diploid trout.
Monty: Triploid trout are stocked in waters with immediate conductivity to anadromy, where the potential of interbreeding with Steelhead trout is possible.
Flip: What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
Monty: Public outreach, youth fishing programs and attempting to improve local fisheries.
Flip: To date, what’s the most epic project you’ve worked on?
Monty: The treatment of Lake Davis to remove Northern Pike.
Flip: Right on with the right on, Monty! Many thanks for taking time with me and everyone reading this rambly discussion. Please continue the wonderful work protecting and enhancing our aquatic habitats here in northern California. Almanor, Shasta, Trinity, Keswick, Whiskeytown, Siskiyou, McCloud, and Iron Canyon (merely naming the most popular...there are many more) are all top-notch fisheries in their own unique, special way. Backcountry lakes are teeming with life...opportunity for wild and native trout abound – thanks! I’m confident the angling community recognizes your modern-day challenges, appreciates the efforts of you and your colleagues, and supports your well-thought decisions.
With that, we’ve reached the end of this piece. It’s time to address the premise – Fish Tales. What you got?
Monty: A funny fishing story. Several years ago I took my two young sons creek fishing. We get out to the creek and I look upstream and see my youngest son casting his baseball cap out into the water and repeatedly reeling it back. He kept doing this, so I decided to ask him “What are you doing?” He replied, “Casting this hat!” I asked him why? He said that he hooked himself in the back of the head. His hat was hooked and he did not want to bother me while I was enjoying my fishing. I thanked him for his courtesy then handed him my fishing rod. As most dads do, I took his tangled mess and sat down on a log to try to get the two treble hooks of the lure out of his hat. As I yanked and pulled with pliers on the hooks, the lure came free and buried deep into my index finger! Therefore, I proceeded to try to pull the lure out of my finger to no avail. With blood streaming down my hand, I cut the lure off the line, retied another lure, and continued fishing. I proceeded to fish the remaining of the trip with a lure stuck in my left hand. My boys thought I was crazy! I thought to myself; my fishing time is valuable and I will not be impeded by a lure stuck in my hand!
Everything was good, fish were caught and my sons and I were having a nice day, until I got an itch in the seat of my shorts. At that time, I decided without thinking, scratch the itch. When I did scratch, the lure became stuck in my shorts, in a spot where the sun does not shine! A big problem! At the time, I was driving a manual stick shift car and if I could not remove the lure from my shorts, we could not go home!
That is when I had to convince my oldest son to remove the lure. He did not like the sight of blood, so it took him time to take a pair of pliers and pull the lure out of my butt! He refused at first, but I had to explain that if he did not step up and help us out, it was going to be a long day indeed. Finally, after twenty minutes of him pulling and gagging, the lure came free from my shorts! The lure still buried in my hand, we headed for home.
On the way, my sons were hungry. The workers at the restaurant drive-thru window were surprised to see a person giving them money with a bloody lure in his finger. I briefly told them why, laughter broke out and we got our food. After arriving home and several shots of tequila later, I was able to pull the lure out of my finger! My sons still talk about that fishing tale today.
Flip: That’s a fish tale right there!
Phil "Flip" Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 25 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue. Phil Akers can be reached at email@example.com.
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