Wading with the Stream Team

by Amber Zonca

In high school I fell in love with science. As an undergraduate research student, I fell in love with genetics and wearing a lab coat. Now, being an SCDNR Freshwater Fisheries Research Intern, I fell in love with something more humbling — the beauty of nature.

Since the day I graduated from high school, I’ve been focused on earning a Bachelor of Science in biology. It was my junior year at Francis Marion University when I began doing undergraduate research. I used molecular techniques to characterize parasites that infect burrowing mayfly nymphs in western Lake Erie, Michigan with Dr. Malakauskas. I started working on the project because I was excited to learn the genetic techniques, which are invaluable for a career in biology. However, over time, I developed an interest in the mayflies and studying natural resources as well. My professor suggested that I apply for a summer research internship with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) to gain some experience in field biology, and that is when I took my first step into nature.

I began my first internship with the SCDNR at the end of June. I was anxious to get my waders on or even jump in a boat! On my second day, I went to Steven’s Creek Reservoir, which is a part of the Savanah River drainage. I tracked tagged largemouth bass and striped bass using radio telemetry, and I’m positive that I heard those pings the rest of the night. It was a long drive to the field site, and I soon noticed we crossed the Georgia state line, my home state. I was curious about where we were surveying, and when we got on the boat I decided to look on the map. The body of water we were on separated the two states, one side being Georgia, the other being South Carolina. I felt at home. I moved from Georgia to South Carolina in 2008, and now I call both of these two states my home.

The most thrilling day was the first time I went backpack electroshocking with the “stream team” at the Clemson DNR office. It was an early morning, and when I arrived at the survey site, Big Pine Tree Creek, I met the stream team for the first time. It was an awkward site on the side of the road by a bridge. After we put on waders and made our way down to the creek, fisheries biologist Kevin Kubach explained to me that the team surveys small streams where boats will not fit. It was a muddy and slimy creek, and we didn’t get many fish during the survey. However, Kevin offered encouragement and said that this was one of the more difficult sites.

During the second trip, we caught a great number and diversity of fish. We surveyed the Lynches River, which was a favorite place of mine to go kayaking when I attended FMU in Florence. We were further up river than I had ever been, and the water took on a completely different character. The riverbanks were very high and steep, and the cutting of the river in the red clay was gorgeous.

As my time with the stream team continued, I was becoming familiar with identifying sunfish, chubs, bass, suckers, shiners and catfish. I learned to take notice of the smallest details to identify fish, such as the sunfish’s green anal fin compared to the bright, blood-orange chest of a redbreast sunfish, or the straight lips on a brassy jumprock compared to the indented lips of a notchlip redhorse. As I noticed the beauty and uniqueness of each fish, I began to grow an appreciation for the fish that live in our state’s waters.

Not only have I gained knowledge in identifying fish species, I also was educated about Bartram’s bass, which is one of South Carolina’s native bass species. I had seen largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, Alabama bass, and redeye bass, but never a Bartram’s bass. During the Bartram’s bass survey, we were able to collect several bass and take fin clippings to send to a genetic lab for further research. They have a unique vertical striped pattern along their abdomen that is very different from other bass in the state. The Bartram’s bass population has declined due to competition with other bass species and has even began to hybridize with Alabama bass.

Although most of my days were spent out in the field, I was able to get some hands-on experience in the lab working with otoliths from redbreast sunfish. Otoliths are hardened structures in the inner ear of fish, and you can age a fish by counting the number of rings in an otolith, like aging a tree. Removing otoliths from fish was literally an inside job. Once the otoliths were removed, we then had to embed them in a resin, then make a one millimeter cross section cut of the focus point in the otolith. After that, the cross section was mounted on a microscope slide using a special epoxy and buffed to remove blade marks. Then the otoliths slides were viewed under a microscope with an arc lamp attachment to look for special oxytetracycline (OTC) markings from the fish hatcheries.

My goal was to gain real world experiences from this internship and, all-in-all, I did! I cannot adequately express my appreciation to the SCDNR Freshwater Fisheries Research Program for an amazing summer internship and guiding me toward discovering my passion. As I am applying to graduate school for next fall, I look forward to gaining more techniques and skills to apply to freshwater fisheries research.

For more information about South Carolina’s lakes, waterways and fishing opportunities, check out http://www.dnr.sc.gov/lakes/search.html.