Hands-on Experiences at Pigeon Lake

Students enjoy hands-on-scales experiences at Pigeon Lake

July 18, 2012

On the shore of Pigeon Lake in Bayfield County, a group of University of Wisconsin-Stout students huddled around a large bag seine on a sunny summer morning.

The white seine net had just been dragged through shallow water by biology Assistant Professor Michael Bessert and students. Once the water drained, a deposit of thick, dark sediment was left in the net on the beach.

Class members pulled out a few small sunfish, which would be dissected that afternoon, but they saw much more. Dragonfly larvae began to emerge seemingly everywhere from the pile. “It just starts to move,” one student said, as she and the others stared intently at the pile. “They’re all over.”

Bessert, a fish biologist, kneeled and slid his hands over the sediment. “Aquatic insects are amazing. It would be fun to do a class just on those,” he said.

Biology 260, Ichthyology, or the study of fish, was full of discoveries as it wrapped up with six days of field trips, labs and other experiences in June in northern Wisconsin.

The final week of the four-credit general education summer course was based at Pigeon Lake Field Station near Drummond. Students were on the move all week. Along with accessing the lake for study, they toured a fish hatchery in Iron River and Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minn., did more seining in a wetlands and in Lake Superior, set minnow traps and dissected fish in the field station lab.

They stayed in cabins on the grounds, taking a short walk each morning through the parklike setting to the dining hall and then to the classroom building. In the lab, a knotty-pine paneled cabin with fluorescent lights, Bessert instructed them surrounded by jars with various species of preserved freshwater fish. The smell of formaldehyde occasionally filled the air.

Pigeon Lake Field Station was a Civilian Conservation Corps camp from 1933-42. The UW System owns it now, with campuses offering classes in a variety of disciplines.

To see a video of the students at Pigeon Lake, go to the YouTube site.

Field experience at the field station

Students, a mix of traditional and nontraditional, began the Ichthyology course several weeks earlier with online lessons.

“The computer and videos and pictures don’t do anything for the vibrancy of the colors of the fish. It’s cool to me to touch the fish,” said Katie Thoma, a senior from Neillsville majoring in art with a graphic design concentration. “It’s nice to be out in the water.”

Lisa Short, a process specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, is working on her undergraduate degree in management. She was excited to take a field-based class, plus she was learning more about one of her husband’s favorite hobbies, fishing.

“Fish are interesting, and I’m finding them a lot more interesting the more I learn,” said Short, who helps her husband with their 200-cow dairy farm near Bloomer. “Like Dr. Bessert said, with experiential learning you get a well-rounded experience.”

Prior to seining, students piled into three vehicles and drove down back roads to check minnow traps they had set the day before in out-of-the-way wetlands. A coyote pup scrambled up a hill as the vehicles passed.

In the trap at one site, they found a minnow called a northern redbelly dace, but Bessert told them the belly was yellow because it was breeding season. Nearby, students spotted what was left of a turtle nest, with white eggshell casings on the ground. Butterflies flitted by. Students checked themselves for ticks.

Chris Mackey-Natz, a middle school science teacher in Fall Creek, and Andy Arthur, a science teacher in Drummond, were taking the class for recertification. “This will make me a more effective teacher,” Arthur said.

Mackey-Natz said he has taught on invertebrates in his program but after this class he can teach students about fish too. “With seventh- and eighth-graders you have to be doing something to get the kids excited,” he said.

Sondra Atwood is a senior majoring in applied science with an eye on medical school. She previously worked as a paramedic for the Eau Claire Fire Department. “It’s a really good opportunity to see some different things and get out of the classroom,” Atwood said.

A natural fit in Wisconsin

Bessert said the annual class is popular because the subject matter interests students; the outdoor setting engages them; and it’s an intense but fun way to condense a four-credit, lab-based course into four weeks.

He thinks the course is important because fish and fishing are a big part of Wisconsin’s economy and culture. “The subject matter is relevant to most people in the state. It behooves our citizens to know a bit more about the organisms,” he said.

Bessert, much like Wisconsin’s fertile lakes and rivers, had plenty to offer students. As he lectured, he told them such things as: Wisconsin has 15 darter species; trout and salmon have an extra fin; gar have diamond-shaped scales; catfish have taste buds all over their bodies; burbot are the equivalent of freshwater cod; the dorsal fin on the musky, a lie-and-wait predator, is farther back than on other fish; lamprey do not have hinged jaws like fish.

Daily themes for the week were fish anatomy and morphology; Great Lakes fishes; fishery management; applied ichthyology; and natural history of fishes.

Matthew Wegner of Watertown, an art major with an industrial design concentration, participated in commencement a month earlier but needed the course to make his degree official. “This is a great way to finish my classes,” he said.