For UW-Madison Undergrad, a Crash Course in Fish Fieldwork Leads to a Passion for Freshwater Science

by Cassie Gauthier

From left: Holly Embke, Kailee Berge and Olivia Nyffeler stand in front of their
educational display at the Trout Lake Station Open House. Photo: Cassie Gauthier

When Kailee Berge arrived at Trout Lake Station this summer, she was nervous and a little overwhelmed about all of the new experiences. She grew up in the Milwaukee area and was pretty unfamiliar with the idea of spending free time out on lakes fishing or swimming or hiking around the shore.

But, new ways to spend her free time was just the beginning of her list of unfamiliar things. For Kailee, who had just completed her sophomore year at UW-Madison, it was her first experience with scientific field work, so everything about the job was brand new.

Kailee spent her summer working for what folks on station call the “Bass/Walleye Crew,” under the direction of Holly Embke, a Center for Limnology Ph.D. student and lead researcher on a project working to improve walleye fisheries, and Olivia Nyffeler, the project’s technician.

This was the crew’s fifth year working on a whole-lake experiment at McDermott Lake, where they are exploring whether removing bluegill, sunfish, crappie and bass – a group of fish known as centrarchids – from the lake, will help walleye populations increase.
There were a lot of things about fish Kailee didn’t know. “I had to learn how to hold fish, they are so squirmy,” Kailee says. “The first time I tried to measure a fish it felt like it took me ten minutes to get one still enough to do so.”

Kailee also initially struggled with some of their equipment. To empty the traps they use to catch fish, the trap had to be hauled into the boat and the crew member would then wiggle it around and tap on it until all of the fish come out of a single hole in the middle. “The first time I tried to pull a trap into the boat I felt like I was falling over. It was awkward to hold because it is big and pretty heavy,” Kailee says.

Beyond field work, Kailee also learned a lot about lake ecology. She learned the reason for removing centrarchid species of fish from the lake is because those species compete with walleye for the same food sources. Removing them may help walleye populations rebound because there will be more food for the walleye to eat.

“I love the idea of manipulating an entire lake ecosystem,” Kailee says. “In classes we always focus on observing what is already happening in an ecosystem and it is super cool to make observations on what happens while we are actively changing it in McDermott Lake.”

She loves the hands-on learning she got this summer about the way everything in a lake is connected and thinks it is really cool how this project has shown that changing just one thing about a lake really can change everything else within – and around – it as well.

“This summer has really taught me the importance of environmental research to the surrounding communities. I had not realized how important walleye were for the tourism, [the economy], and culture of the Northwoods and that environmental research can be just as important for people as it is for ecosystems,” she says.

Although Kailee felt awkward and uncomfortable trying to hold fish and pull up the fish traps for her first few weeks on the job, she now acts and talks like a veteran field researcher. She shouts out the names of fish confidently, measures them quickly, and throws traps almost effortlessly back into the water. And, when she is talking about research back on station, she explains it clearly, with a passion that shows how much she has learned and how much she has loved learning during her first summer at Trout Lake Station.

But the biggest lesson Kailee learned from her summer is that it won’t be her last doing work like this. She fell in love with freshwater research during her time “on station.” When it comes to wrangling and measuring fish, she’s just getting started.