GRAND LAKE STREAM — There is a knack to this fin-clipping, or “fish-marking” game. That was readily apparent on Thursday as experienced fisheries personnel joined forces with volunteer anglers, knee-deep in the raceways of the Grand Lake Stream Fish Hatchery, to prepare this year’s crop of landlocked salmon for their release into the state’s waters.
You can muckle on to the fish, but a firm, gentle hand is better, the experts will tell you.
You can grab ”em tail-first, but that would make a slippery job even tougher. Head-first, belly-up, is the preferred method.
But you can’t effectively mark fish without the proper gear. And getting your hands on that gear is half the battle.
“There’s good equipment and there’s bad equipment,” said volunteer fin-clipper Phil McPhail of Lincoln. “The clippers that I have in my pocket [are the] best clippers.”
Sharp clippers, McPhail can tell you, are crucial. And when you’re standing in cold water for hours on end, other equipment is also essential.
“Don’t tell the guy that I stole his fleece-lined gloves,” the 46-year-old McPhail confided, conspiratorially. His top-secret tip for a successful fin-clipping experience: “Don’t take off the good, warm gloves.”
Otherwise, someone like — well — him might end up borrowing them.
Thursday marked the second and final day of fin-clipping at Grand Lake Stream Fish Hatchery, one of three state facilities that raises landlocked salmon used to stock waters around the region. Gregory Burr, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s regional fisheries biologist for the Down East region, said the assembled crew — a dozen men in the morning, with 20 college students from the University of Maine at Machias due to show up in the afternoon — will have clipped the fins off 42,000 salmon during the two-day session. Another 5,000 to 6,000 brook trout were also scheduled for marking.
The fish are placed in tubs, anesthetized, and the clipping crew works steadily on the drowsy fish, chatting with each other as they perform the amateur surgeries. Then they drop the fish back into raceways, where the salmon quickly recover.
Marking those fish, a time-consuming process that is repeated at the state’s hatcheries, is essential in the DIF&W’s fish management efforts, Burr said.
“We’re marking them because when we see them, and when our anglers [catch them] … we’ll know automatically how old they are because their fin clip corresponds to that particular year that they were stocked,” Burr said.
On Thursday, both ventral fins were removed from each fish, lopped off using clipping tools that look like a cross between pliers and toenail clippers. That same set of fins won’t be clipped for identification purposes again for five years. In other years one or the other ventral fin will be clipped, or the adipose fin will be cut off. That makes identification in the field simple.
“These are 1-year-old fish, so when we see them a year older we’ll be able to look at how well they’ve grown for their age and what condition they’re in,” Burr said. “It tells us a lot.”
And despite the fact that 42,000 salmon will be swimming around without a couple of their natural appendages, Burr said the fish aren’t affected too much. Mortality is extremely low, even if the fin-clippers draw a little blood.
“The pectorals, the fins up front, are the ones that are the most crucial for the fish yaw, pitch, and roll in the water,” Burr explained.
Those fins aren’t among those that are removed.
The ventral fins, which may be clipped, contribute more to “steerage,” Burr said.
And apparently, landlocked salmon are a bit like aging autos: They still fare well even when they can’t corner as well as they might have when they were new.
Each year a group of volunteers pitches in to help fisheries staffers clip fins. On Thursday, Gerry Laird of Lincoln joined McPhail and another friend, as he has for several years.
“[The DIF&W] is one of those departments that doesn’t get a lot of funding or the funding’s going up or down or whatever,” Laird said. “We utilize the resource. So [clipping fins] is my little, tiny part [in helping out].”
Burr said the effort is appreciated, and said the social atmosphere that prevails during a fin-clipping session allows anglers to pick the brains of biologists, and vice versa.
During nearly 15 years of volunteering, Laird has learned a few tricks of the fin-clipping trade. Such as getting your hands on sharp clippers. And stealing — “borrowing” — warmer gloves if you can.
And being careful where you stand, and what you wear.
Fin-clipping is a messy business, you see. When workers get elbow-deep in salmon, the fins start to fly. And those flying fins stick to nearly anything they hit.
“[Some of the veteran fin-clippers] get very good about aiming the fins where you don’t particularly want to get them,” Laird said. “Like your face. Your back. Down the hood of your coat.”
Despite his years of volunteer service, Laird admits there are a few things that he ought to do differently. Eventually.
“What you should do is wear your old raincoat and your old stuff, but I don’t do that enough,” Laird said. “And when you dig your gear out [later], you’ll find fins all over the place.”
McPhail has learned that lesson well over the years, he explained, taking a break from clipping, salmon fins plastered to the front of his coat.
“Some of those [fins] might be from last year,” he said, inspecting the carnage more closely. “This is the only thing I use this jacket for: To come down here and clip fish.”