The catch, however, was that I was being offered a job during my fall semester of senior year. There had been a mix up in my application and the dates were submitted for the wrong internship period. I painfully told Phil, the Yellowstone Lake NPS branch supervisor that I was going to have to decline as I needed to finish school.
After hanging up, I called my parents and told them the exciting news that I got the job, then the disappointing news that I declined it due to the conflict with my semester at school. Then they surprised me, knowing that it was a dream opportunity for me, and told me to consider taking the semester to do the internship instead. After talking with my academic counselor I learned that I could earn credits for my time out West. I called Phil back a few days later and accepted the job.
Traveling To Yellowstone National Park
Driving from Ohio to Yellowstone is no easy feat. My dad, brother, and I packed up my Jeep Wrangler and did a little sightseeing on the way there. The changes in Landscapes were so drastic that you felt like you were driving through different countries. As we arrived in Yellowstone, the first thing I had to do was see the lake.
This was my home, my workplace, for the next two months; not bad at all.
I took a few days to get acclimated to the area. The elevation I was living at was over 7,000 feet! The air was incredibly fresh and nature overpowered civilization. I can say I have never been somewhere that has felt as wild as this park.
The Work Begins At Yellowstone
The first day of work was our training day. I learned that Native Trout Conservation Intern was a fancy way of saying “Gillnetter”, a title that much better fit the job description. If you don’t know anything about the Yellowstone invasion, here is the quick and dirty run through. Yellowstone is home to the native Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout, one of the most beautiful trout species of all.
However, around the mid 1990’s Lake Trout appeared in the lake and began decimating cutthroat.
They are voracious feeders that eat and reproduce like crazy. In response to the invasion, contracted gillnetters have been in Yellowstone for years on the water every day following lake trout patterns and removing thousands a day. Through the Lake Trout’s decimation of cutthroat, many other animal species suffered as the system experienced a trophic cascade.
Gillnetting Lake Trout At Yellowstone
My job was to get on the NPS boats and assist in gillnetting operations, help perform research on Lake Trout breeding, and assist other groups with their native conservation efforts along with a list of other duties. The learning curve for gillnetting is a steep one. When you first see that net and how it is ripped out of the water, you think there is no way a fish tangled in it can come out and there is no way the net will stay intact… yet after pulling each fish from the net it almost always magically untangled itself.
These gill nets were impressively tangle free… even though it never looks like it!
The basic process of our work was to locate the general areas where the Lake Trout were based on expected depth, substrate type, and time of year. We would then drop our quarter mile long nets in meanders to the bottom of the Lake, let them sit for a few days, and pull them out. As we pulled the nets out, we removed fish caught, opened up each fish to determine maturity and size for research purposes, and replace our nets elsewhere. Every day we would lay three sets of 9 nets and pick up three sets of 9. The amount of net and fish that I touched that fall was incredible.
During my most productive day, I personally handled over two thousand fish.
Using The Lake Trout For Research
After catching all of these fish, we would then use a built-in grinder on one of the boats and actually grind the carcasses of the Lake Trout on top of Lake Trout spawning beds. This was part of the research that graduate students were doing in the lake with the intent to smother the bedding habitat.
There were three other main projects that I participated in during my time in Yellowstone. The first was working on locating Lake Trout spawning habitat using a ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle).
It was like hitting play on a very expensive video game as we sent the device to the bottom of the lake in hopes of finding specific substrate types.
This was just a quick project that I was lucky enough to get hands on experience with. The second project was using a dredge to bury spawning habitat. This was hard labor but was a rewarding process as you got to watch the changes happen right in front of your eyes. The final objective I had was a backcountry project where we removed all fish from an entire water system to restock it with only grayling in hopes to keep it a pure and leave healthy grayling population.
Overall, my time working in Yellowstone opened my eyes to the incredible opportunities that there are in the field of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. You can really set your mind to one area that you are passionate in and focus on that specifically or you can take a broad approach and explore multiple internships in different areas like I did and let your experience narrow your future plans. Yellowstone is a place where I feel like I belong and plan on spending much more time in the future.