Every once in a while, maybe even more often than that, my job gives me the chance to do something I’ve never done before. That can be a good thing, like paddling six Nebraska rivers I might not have otherwise floated (yea, it’s a tough job) or patting the Sower atop the state capital on the head (too high, I said at first, but I sucked it up for a once-in-a-lifetime chance). But I never guessed I’d take a paddlefish for a walk.
That happened when gathering photos for Nebraska’s Paddlefish: Prehistoric Species Persisting in Missouri River, which appears in the June issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine, on its way to subscribers and hitting newsstands soon. I had bag shots from archery and snagging seasons, and could’ve gotten studio shots of paddlefish in aquariums, but I wanted something different, something natural. So I headed to the Missouri last May with our new Canon G10, a high-end point-and-shoot digital camera, a dedicated underwater housing to keep it dry, and a wet-suit I’d rented from Husker Divers in Lincoln. Crews were busy capturing paddlefish in gill nets, both for research and to use in hatchery production. The photo I envisioned was a silhouette of a paddlefish, just released from the sampling boat, swimming above me as I lay on the bottom in shallow water.
My first clue that things wouldn’t go as planned came when I hopped in the water and found that zippers on the backs of wet suits do more to hold the suit on than keep water out. When 48 degree water seeps through that seam, it gives an entirely new meaning to sending chills down your spine.
My second was when I tried to dive to the bottom. Knowing the water would be cold, I’d rented the heavy wet suit, and the thick neoprene proved to be too buoyant for the 10-pound ankle weights, umpteen-pound weight belt and the rocks I stuffed in it.
The third came when I looked at the LCD on the back of the camera. Brenda Prachiel, the UN-L grad student in charge of catching photo subjects for me, told me the water clarity below Fort Randall Dam was usually a lot better this time of year. Great, I said, trying to figure out how to work with only 2 or 3 feet of visibility. At least not being able to get to the bottom was no longer an issue: At that range, I wasn’t going to get an entire fish in the frame anyway.
I started out having Brenda and Commission Biologist Tim Porter hold fish by the tail off the back of the boat, snapping photos while watching the LCD through my mask and breathing through my snorkel. When you’re used to cameras that capture up to 11 frames per second, getting only one is painful. My bald head, the only thing not “protected” by neoprene, was getting cold, and I could see that the fish weren’t putting up a fight. “Let me see that fish,” I said, hoping to find an excuse to stay above the surface.
Paddlefish aren’t crazy about cold water, either. Normally docile in the hand, they were in no rush to get away. Holding the fish by the rostrom (that’s their nose), I simply “walked” the fish through the water with one hand, holding the camera in the other and snapping photos from every angle my arms would allow. After an hour-and-a-half in the water, permashiver set in and I hopped in the boat to warm up while Brenda and Tim set another net. I hopped back in when they pulled it and captured the lead photo for the story.
The results? Not what I had envisioned, but I think they turned out okay, especially for my first foray into underwater photography, not counting the trip to the YMCA to get the hang of the camera. In this business, you often have to adapt when the best laid plans go boom. As always, I ended up with more photos than we could use, so I’ve posted a few more here, including a “bag shot” of one of the larger fish I took for a walk that day.
Paddlefish are neat old fish. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed wriging and photographing it. Oh, I got to try something else new while working on this story: eating paddlefish. No wonder demand is so high for permits. Hope I draw mine this year.