Fish biologists mix electricity and water for "shocking" results

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SHAWNEE COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) We learn early on in life that water and electricity don’t mix. For most, keeping the two as far apart as possible is just common sense. However, that is *not* the case for fish biologists with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Dipping electrified cables into the water while standing in a metal boat is “just another day at the office” for those who work for the state’s Fisheries Division.

“I use it to manage my fish populations, and then give that information to the public so they know where to fish,” said Manhattan District Fisheries Biologist Ely Sprenkle.

It’s a method called electrofishing.

Since it’s impossible to check on the well being of certain fish populations while they are under water, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism equips their Fisheries Biologists with the tools and power they need to bring them to the top.

“Most bass don’t move around much and we don’t catch them very well in the nets. So this way we go out and shock them," said Sprenkle.

Anyone who has ever owned a goldfish before knows that when they float, well, it’s time to go back to the pet store. However, when a fish goes belly up around this specially modified boat, they’ll live to see another worm.

According to Sprenkle the pulse just "stuns the fish – they float up and then we net them. Once the fish come out of the field, they recover and swim off.”

The front booms act as a positive, the aluminum boat acts as a negative. This creates an electrified current in between the two, and any fish that swims nearby becomes immobile as a result.

Sprenkle plots out his plan ahead of time, choosing random areas to sweep for a diverse sample. The team is on the hunt for bass today, other species that show up during the 10 minute runs -- like channel catfish, crappie, bluegill and shad get left behind. Shocked fish typically recover anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes after swimming into the current.

In the world of science, they say you can’t manage what you don’t measure. So, after all the fish are netted, they are brought back to a quiet corner of the lake where all the data is recorded.

“We’re looking at how many fish, the size structure of the fish, we’re looking at how well they are growing, and the health of the fish, too. So, we’re getting a lot of variables with this short sample," according to Sprenkle.

Within minutes of entering the boat’s holding tanks, today’s catch is released back into the water, completely unharmed.

While the electrofishing does not harm the fish, the environment they return to is under constant stress thanks to the ever growing number of invasive species found in Kansas waters.

“I’ve heard people want to bring zebra mussels because they’ll clear up the water. Well, they may make the water a little bit clearer, but it’s also going to hurt the fish population because it’s removing the food out of the water. That’s why the water is clearer," said Sprenkle.

Sprenkle says some aquatic plants and silver carp could fundamentally change how we use bodies of water in Kansas because of their destructive nature. While most aquatic hitchhikers arrive by accident, he says one of his current challenges – at least for now – is due to shad, a popular bait fish often dumped into the water by fisherman with good intentions.

“People think they’re going to help the fish population, because there’s going to be more forage. But you saw the shad today. None of the crappie we seen were going to be able to eat those shad.”

Like any outdoors man or woman, Ely and his team love it when big fish turn up in the sampling process. At Shawnee State Fishing Lake, a body of water he manages for big bass, it’s a sign he’s doing something right. But he looks at each body of water differently, based on many factors.

“This lake does great for bass, and big bass. The smaller lake I look after, which is 24 acres, I manage for high numbers of bass."

Sprenkle is responsible for stocking fish in more than 12,700 acres of water across six Kansas Counties, including the Tuttle Creek reservoir.

While there are several legal ways to catch fish across the Sunflower state, electrofishing is NOT one of them. The process is also extremely dangerous, so please do not try it at home.