Sinking deeper and deeper into the Pryor Creek mud, Mike Schilz and Zach Farrand hauled in a long fish trap from the murky water.
After gathering up the sections of green netting, Schilz and Farrand pulled their wader-clad feet out of the muck and pulled the trap wriggling with more than 100 small fish to the creek bank.
Schilz, a recent Rocky Mountain College graduate, is trapping fish this summer along Pryor Creek south of Huntley with the help of a grant from the Yellowstone River Research Center.
Farrand, a current Rocky student, is helping Schilz courtesy of an internship with the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
Farrand also received a YRRC grant this year for his own research on bats along the Yellowstone River.
The projects are among several student research projects funded by the center recently created by RMC professors.
Schilz’s study is documenting what kind of fish now swim in Pryor Creek after last year’s massive floods wiped out two manmade irrigation structures that kept most fish from coming into the creek from the Yellowstone River for 100 years.
The damaged structures were replaced by an irrigation siphon that runs under the creek and doesn’t create a barrier to the fish like the previous ones did.
Earlier this month, Schilz — with the help of the FWP — captured 800 fish in the Yellowstone and tagged them by injecting them with Passive Integrated Transponders, tiny devices smaller than a grain of rice that allow information to be retrieved when electronically scanned.
As he traps fish this summer, Schilz will check them to see if any are the ones he marked from the Yellowstone.
But his study goes beyond that to document all fish swimming into his traps and how they move along Pryor Creek.
One morning this week, his traps at different locations along Pryor Creek yielded catfish, shorthead red horse suckers, white suckers and flathead chubs.
Although most were small to medium-sized, Schilz captured one whopper of a channel catfish 22 inches long.
Working gingerly around the wickedly sharp spikes protecting the catfish’s sides and back, Schilz made a small hole in the fish’s anal fin near its tail with a paper punch and injected PIT tag along its spine.
He has been pricked by those pointed spikes and it hurts “like being stung by a bee.”
The study will help those managing fish at other streams along the Yellowstone where there are fish barriers, said Kayhan Ostovar, RMC assistant professor of biology and environmental science who got the YRRC off the ground.
The Yellowstone River Research Center is not a physical structure but an entity to bring people with an interest in the river together and give students more research opportunities.
RMC provided start-up money to get the YRRC going.
The YRRC is made up of several RMC professors who started talking more than a year ago about creating a center with a scientific focus on the Yellowstone River.
The ExxonMobil oil pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River near Laurel last summer spurred things along because it illustrated the need for more baseline studies of the basin before a crisis hits, Ostovar said.
There’s plenty to study.
The river and its watershed are vast, covering more than half the state.
Although still relatively pristine, the area is influenced by resource extraction, agriculture, industrial activity and human development, according the center’s website.
“The Yellowstone is remarkably understudied” considering its length as the longest undammed river in the United States and its importance to communities along it and downstream, said Derek Sjostrom, assistant professor of geology.
Projects funded through the center are meaningful, graduate-level research, said Lucas Ward, RMC visiting assistant professor of environmental science.
This year, the center gave students six grants ranging from a few hundred dollars to about $4,000. In addition to Schilz’ fish study and Farrand’s bat research, other student projects were: Brad Gwaltney, geological mapping of an area in the Paradise Valley; Jobe Traywick, geological study in Mongolia; Robert Walker, trout’s impact on amphibians in the Beartooth Mountains; and Cameron Sapp, osprey study.
The projects should help students in the future.
“Our hope is these students will go on to graduate school,” Ostovar said. “These projects will give them a leg up to do that.”
In addition to funding student research, the center promotes multidisciplinary collaboration between Rocky and conservation, state and federal groups that will benefit the Yellowstone.
“Everyone can do more research by cooperating,” Ostovar said.
Agencies may come to YRRC and ask for student help with field research projects or the center may go to them for help with student projects.
Other RMC professors involved in the center are: Toby Anderson, physics; Tom Kalakay, geology; Ulrich Hoensch, math; Jennifer Lyman, botany; and Emily Ward, geology.
The center’s steering committee includes Susan Gilbertz, a professor of geography and environmental science, and Neil Suits, assistant professor of geology and earth sciences, both from Montana State University Billings.
In the future, Rocky professors hope to bring MSU Billings students in on YRRC research. RMC and MSU Billings deans also are talking about an exchange of classes.
Those who started the YRRC hope student research projects will have implications beyond a student’s individual study.
Schilz’s study could help those managing fish on other tributaries of the Yellowstone.
In the meantime, the YRRC grant has helped Schilz, who grew up in Red Lodge, do what he loves, being outside working a physically demanding job as well as extending what he learned in the classroom.