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Commitment to conservation leads volunteers to extreme locations in effort to save trout

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POWELL — An effort that’s saved hundreds of thousands of fish from local canals began with a fisherman with a big heart accompanying a ditch rider on the Cody Canal.

Bob Capron, one of the five founding members of the East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited, couldn’t stand watching trapped fish go to waste as he and his uncle Joe Capron worked the ditch at the end of the season. Bob grabbed a net and bucket and started scooping.

Four or five years later, Bob talked some friends into helping. In 1990, he formally pitched the project to fellow Trout Unlimited chapter members and the number of volunteers grew.

They stretched large sheets of netting across canals to school the fish, then used dip nets to save as many as they could. Despite best intentions, the process wasn’t very efficient, Capron said. Soon the organization was pouring resources into the project, purchasing electrofishing equipment and a trailer to safely move the fish back to appropriate habitat.

“These electric shockers probably improved our efficiency by 75%,” Capron said Tuesday, as a cold rain gathered steam.

They’ve also worked with multiple agencies and private landowners to figure out ways to limit fishes’ access to the canals. Modifications to head gates can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take years to properly plan and implement.

Knowing that upcoming alterations to the head gate just south of Castle Rock on the Lakeview Irrigation canal will prevent the loss of fish — without chasing them with a net — warmed Capron on the soggy Tuesday.

At 78, it means a lot to him seeing a permanent solution within sight. But Capron is humble. Pulling a brag out of him is harder than accurately landing a midge fly on a windy day while fishing high mountain creeks.

Yet Capron fessed up to the soft spot in his heart that made him grab a net instead of just watching fish pile into the quickly shrinking pools after the faucet was shut on irrigation canals for the season.

“I just decided it was the right thing to do,” he said, supporting Tuesday’s effort less than 2 miles from where he was born.

“The best part is seeing this head gate project right here that we walked through [future plans] this morning,” Capron said. “You know, after we’ve been doing this for years, soon we’ll have an answer.”

He is no longer forging through the super saturated mud, steep banks and hidden obstacles of the canals. Instead, he helped lug the many heavy buckets of captured fish to safety.

In one small remnant of pooling water, hundreds of fish can be fighting for their lives. Each has to be relocated by hand back to the organization’s aquarium on wheels or moved hundreds of feet away to the nearest wild stream or river.

It’s not easy on the body, no matter the age of the volunteer. Crews even head into underground siphons, braving slick banks and feelings of claustrophobia to rescue fish.

Siphons are a loop in the ditch that go underneath the creek, said David Sweet, a longtime leader in the chapter and 2014 inductee into the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Outdoor Hall of Fame.

“It’s the low point in the ditch. When they drain the ditch [the siphons] stay full of water,” he explained on the ride out. “The fish naturally migrate to that low point, so they hold a lot of fish.”

Irrigation districts pump water down to a level where crews can get in relatively safely. The cement and rock foundations are covered in snot-slick sediment and the long tubes are tough on anyone taller than 4 feet high.

Sweet is thankful for cooperation by irrigation districts.

“It’s been important for the rescue efforts,” he said. “We cooperate with the irrigation districts beautifully. This is not an adversarial role. It’s really important that they get all the credit for saying, ‘Hey, come on in and let’s rescue these fish.’”

Sweet also points to Capron for his decades of passion for conservation.

“Bob was critical,” Sweet said. “He convinced the rest of us that it was a major drain on our trout populations and that we should do something about it.”

Though the crews work many long days every fall racing evaporation, they cover less than 10% of the hundreds of miles of canals that spread out like a great cement spider web in the Big Horn Basin.

This year was tougher than usual because they lacked help from local youth groups due to the COVID-19 pandemic; most of the Trout Unlimited volunteers are retirees and the organization felt it would be safer to avoid unnecessary cross-generational exposure. The loss is felt more in the hard-fought battle to inspire new generations of conservationists than in the number of fish saved, said chapter president Kathy Crofts.

“It’s important for future generations and their wildlife resources that they get started now. Right now is very key for environmental issues,” she said.

Sweet echoed her sentiment.

“It’s a process of not only saving fish, and getting them back into the river systems, but also an educational effort to try and make people aware of the losses,” he said. “And it leads to additional projects, which keep the fish out of these ditches.”

The diminished volunteer crew rescued 1,734 trout in four days this year. Considering a single female will lay between 400 to 3,000 eggs, depending on her size, the effort is responsible for helping propagate millions of trout over the life of the project. They also rescue other native fish, including thousands of native whitefish and suckers.

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