DNR on front line in protecting our fisheries

February 21, 2011 

I know I have been beating my drum like a maniac lately about the importance of keeping the government's mitts off our fishing license money and making sure the state Department of Natural Resources and the Waddell Mariculture Center have those funds to keep doing their important work. Just when I thought I might have broken my hand from smacking that darn drum, I got an invite to go out with DNR marine biologists to check fish populations -- and once again I am fired up about getting out the word about just how vital these scientists' work is.

When I think of a biologist, I tend to picture some guy with Coke bottle-thick glasses and a pocket full of pens. You know, kind of nerdy. Well, at least that was what I was expecting as I waited at the boat landing for the biologists to arrive from Charleston early Thursday.

Another Blufftonian, Charles Coker, also was invited to come along and just about the time he and I got acquainted, a caravan of trucks and boats arrived -- all with that distinctive DNR emblem on their sides. Usually when I see that emblem I get a tad nervous and think, "Let me see, do I have enough life preservers? A throwable device? A whistle?" -- but this time I was actually excited to see it.

So much for my preconceptions about marine biologists -- after chatting with biologists Bill Roumillat and Henry Davega, I could tell this wasn't going to be a boring day filled with scientific jargon or long-winded explanations about this and that.

They were just real nice guys. Bill wore this big floppy fisherman's hat, and Henry is a young gun. Both wore broad smiles as they loaded up all their gear and launched the boat. And talk about the perfect flats boat. The boats they use are about 18 to 20 feet long with the outboard engine in the middle. I guess you could describe them as being a tunnel hull design, which means the prop barely extends below the bottom of the boat, allowing it to get in extremely shallow water.

As we headed toward the mouth of the Colleton River, Bill explained the plan for the day. Using long trammel nets, which are much like gill nets except they have a second layer that acts like a pocket so the fish aren't harmed, we would sample random areas of the Colleton and Chechessee rivers for fish populations, as well as collect other data.

It sounds easy doesn't it? Yep, just drop the net out the back of the boat, go pick it up, pull out the fish and that's that. Not. These guys are nuts.

Now I know our waters and I know how easy it is to mess up if you go into the wrong places at the wrong time. You can hit oyster beds, stumps or just about anything if you go barreling along in shallow water, so I was totally unprepared when we started our first drop. Bill was the throttle man as Henry dropped the weighted end of the net right on the edge of the marsh grass. At that instant, Bill took off like a wild man as the net flew out of the boat, paralleling the shoreline for a good 150 yards before we once again ran into the grass -- effectively cutting off any chance of escape by whatever fish that might be there.

The thing that got me was they didn't even have a depth finder. It was a wild ride.

From there, we raised the engine enough to go over the top of the net so we were on the inside. We began beating paddles on the water and wooden clubs on the boat, basically herding the fish into the net. Just about the time we reached the far end of the net, I saw a big redfish shoot by us, trying to find a way out, which, of course, was futile.

Then the fun started. They began pulling in the net. Luckily, my back problems kept me from this task, but Charles was a real trooper and helped. Of all things, the first catch was a sting ray, which is pretty strange considering the cold water temperature. Next up was the redfish I had seen, and it was a beauty. Bill measured him, took a small fin clipping so they could later determine his DNA and whether he was a wild fish or one that had been reared by Waddell. Finally, he tagged and released it. Everything caught was meticulously recorded, including water temperature, salinity content and water quality.

I was only able to stay out with them during their high water drops, but having looked at the map of places they had planned to hit at low water, I knew it was going to be one long day for these guys. There was one area they had circled on their map that I fish regularly and knew there were hundreds of redfish that would have to be cataloged. So my guess is they weren't done until well after dark.

Bill's and Henry's commitment and passion toward their job made a real impression on me. Without their dedication, our fisheries wouldn't be half of what they are right now. I guess their motto should be "life is a drag." And I guess I've found some new spots I never would have thought to fish.

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