• A different kind of river run

    As we flew through overcast January skies approaching the Saugeen River, I could see hydro towers marching off toward the distant Lake Huron shoreline. Below us, a red tail hawk hurried toward forest cover with a bunch of crows struggling along behind. Suddenly we swooped down toward the water far below and my view of the river seemed to fill both my small window and the camera viewfinder. As we followed an S-Bend in the river and banked sharply, I could see rocks breaking the surface just a few hundred feet below me. The tranquil part of the flight was over, we were running a river from the air and I was in for a terrific ride.

    Last week I was invited to join MNR biologist Andy McKee and pilot Aaron Wood in a survey to locate muskellunge in the Saugeen River. No, we weren’t really looking for the fish with our eyes; we were trying to locate them with a special radio receiver mounted on the right wing strut of a Cessna 172 aircraft. The fish had been caught by conventional rod and reel methods last fall by Andy and project partner volunteers from Muskie Canada , the fish were implanted with a tiny radio transmitter and released back in their home waters. The idea is to find out how much they travel and where they locate. Another part of the project involves DNA sampling to discover more about their genetic origination. A grant from the MNR’s Fish and Wildlife Protection and Enhancement Fund made this worthwhile project possible and I was able to come along for the ride to take pictures and get the story.

    To those who don’t know the Saugeen River, aerial surveys may sound unnecessarily complicated but we were trying to cover an area of approximately 84-94 kms long by 25-50 meters wide. The section between Walkerton and Southampton’s Denny’s Dam is only about 48 kms distance by road but rivers don’t travel straight lines, they zigzag all over the countryside. The fish we were looking for weighed from 2.26kg to 11.8k (26 pounds) and seem to suffer no ill effects from their part in the experiment.

    The first part of the flight was pleasant enough, providing a fine view of Bruce and Grey County. Because the trees were bare of leaves I could see the twisty paths of tiny brooks and larger streams winding their way through woodlands and farm fields into the big Saugeen River. Soon we approached our first goal where we hoped to find some of the tagged muskies. There were seven fish to find in the first area and since the big predators are often quite territorial, we hoped to find them promptly before threatening weather forced us to head for home.

    Suddenly Andy picked up a signal and spoke to Arron… the hunt was on. No more casual sky-touring, suddenly the river and trees below had my full attention. Zooming down on the river we swept along oxbows and S-Bends just 600-700 feet above the ground and the signal came in clear. Aaron banked and made a 360 degree turn to try and pinpoint the signal from the first fish while Andy struggled to locate the spot on his map, not an easy task while leaning at a 45 degree angle and turning at 128kms per hour. The trees reached up for us and we banked right over the other way as I slid across the seat with my camera trying to guess at the same time which way we would turn next. As we picked up the signals from the fish and moved on to the next area, I had to ask: “You’ve done this before Aaron, haven’t you?” “Not exactly”, my pilot replied, “ but I have flown search patterns for radio-collared bears and you have to twist and turn to find them hiding behind logs.”
    Sitting in the back, feeling the same thrill I get winding through the twisty roads in the Adirondack Mountains on my motorcycle, I had a hard time not whooping with joy. I thought this was just a photo assignment, no one said it would be so much fun.

    It was great, the search was a cross between what I would call aerial acrobatics and roller-coaster rides but to Aaron and Andy, it was just part of the job. Too soon, we had to quit our search with 6 of 16 muskies located. The weather was getting nasty and it was time to get back to the Owen Sound Airport.

    The trip was a success and I hoped I had some photos as a bonus.

    When I left Andy and Aaron I thanked them for letting me come along and I told Aaron from the heart: “What a great ride. I’ll fly with you anytime!”

    Grant Ferris
    Grey/Bruce Outdoors
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