Such information is key to the coaster recovery. The study is finding, for example, that the non-native coho salmon and non-native rainbow trout have proliferated in the river and dominate the juvenile brook trout: should the non-native populations be reduced in the tight quarters of the Salmon Trout? And if the coaster is shown to be a distinct breeding population, should even more emphasis be placed on protecting the habitat of the remaining breeders?
With the a.m. sun barely above the tree line, photographer Aaron Peterson and I meet Baker in the lot of Cram’s General Store, in Big Bay, and we drive the couple of miles to the guard gate at the Huron Mountain Club. The club, founded in 1889 by a group of industrialists, including Henry Ford, owns 100 percent of the land surrounding the coasters’ mainland U.S. spawning waters. Club members, in addition to being party to the original petition to list the coaster, have been central to helping start and fund coaster research, an effort led by Peter Kryn Dykema, a club member since childhood and now an attorney in Washington, D.C.
Baker chats with the guard to get clearance for Peterson and me, and he waves us through. Soon we are walking through chest-high sedge and thimbleberry, the August dew soaking into our shirts, on the way to the banks of the Salmon Trout. Huckins is already in the river with three interns tying nets for the sampling work. Around them, mosquitoes swarm the water surface, each insect a shard of careening light under the early sun.
The researchers are sampling a stretch of river that they sample each year—one of five stretches they test on the Salmon Trout. They seal off the section by tying a fine-mesh net across an upriver point and stretch another at a downriver point—about a quarter mile apart. Then four of the men, two with shockers, wade the river as a team, stunning fish and catching them with nets when the fish go sluggish, but not dead.
As it shocks, the device sends out a near-continuous high ringing, so out of place amid the soft gurgle of the river, the quiet splash of the wading researchers and the occasional caw of a crow. The team doesn’t talk much, but fragments float up the bank. “How about this guy?” “Hey, a nice brook trout.” When a muskrat splashes loud and flees, startled by electricity, everybody laughs. At the end of each pass, Baker and an intern kneel under a tree on a streamside trail with buckets, digital scale and ruler to catalog the catch.
Fish by fish, the intern states the species; Baker writes as they go. Coho, longnose dace, burbut, creek chub, sculpin, brook trout, rainbow. They caught 19 brook trout on the first pass and will take a speck of tissue from the caudal fin (tail) of each that will go to a genetics laboratory at Michigan State University for DNA analysis. Nearly all of the brook trout are 2 or 3 inches long, with only a couple in the 6-to-8-inch range. There’s no way to tell with brook trout this size whether they are coasters or just plain brook trout. The process is slow, and it takes till late afternoon to complete the three passes the researchers require.
The following daybreak, we meet the team again, this time heading farther up the river, to a deep valley of ancient trees near the waterfall that blocks the coaster’s upstream movement. The fish population counts are similar to yesterday’s: lots of invasive coho and invasive rainbow, few brookies. “This is the land of the coho and rainbow,” Huckins says. Peterson and I leave late morning. A few weeks later, Huckins emails a photo to me. “We got this beautiful coaster just minutes after you left,” the message reads.