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Open Spaces

A Talk on the Wild Side.

Marlisa Jemison's Passion: Electrofishing

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Open Spaces is featuring monthly posts by Student Conservation Association (SCA) interns working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States. Since 1957, SCA has been connecting young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities. Learn how you can get involved at www.thesca.org. Today, Marlisa Jemison checks in from Silvio. O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, which is in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Marlisa Jemison
Marlisa on the electrofishing boat

“I love fishing.”

I never planned to say that in my life, but I’ve never found much joy in the thought of waiting hours for the mere possibility of catching a fish. I was more into the idea of letting other people enjoy fishing while I enjoyed the spoils of their labor. 

As it turns out, I just hadn’t been doing the right kind of fishing. Electrofishing is  its own glorious world of fun, a world I wasn’t privy to until my year in SCA.

As a Trail Development Intern, my main job was to design and build a trail at Silvio. O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge in Hadley, Massachusetts. I majored in Biology and I love being outdoors, so I’ve always been interested in a career where I’d be able to cater to other people who also love being outdoors. I soon found out that in addition to trail work, I would also be doing some environmental education, Hurricane Sandy cleanup and work with the Fisheries staff.  Being from Dallas, Texas, I was accustomed to the idea of fishing, but I had only made one attempt to really fish and I think after five minutes or so, I handed the pole to my stepdad and started exploring the woods instead.

Fish gathered for study.

A month or so into my term, after lots of training, I found myself preparing to go electrofishing for the first time, and hoping that it would turn out better than my previous experience with the rod and reel. I met Ken Sprankle, the Connecticut River Coordinator and head of the Fisheries staff and he explained that once we got in the boat, we would be electroshocking the water, netting river herring, and after recording their weight, length and sex, placing some in bags for dissection. Dissections were one of my favorite things to do in science lab, so things were already looking up. 

Ken and his staff were doing a population study on river herring, and dissecting a small sampling would tell us the age of the fish making their way up river. That way we could  determine if current laws were working properly.

River herring are near the bottom of the food chain. If their population dwindles it has a trickle effect on other wildlife that depend on them as a food source.

That we would be fishing with electricity, an experience I had never fathomed, combined with the reasoning behind it, had me feeling much more receptive to the idea of fishing, and I was genuinely excited to catch my first fish.

Standing at the bow of the boat, I was outfitted with a landing net, a life vest, sunglasses, a hat, rubber gloves and rubber boots – necessary to keep me safe from electrocution and shaded enough from the sun’s glare that I would be able to see the fish floating atop the water. I didn’t even recognize myself!

As I heard Ken tell Darren, another member of the Fisheries staff, to start the electroshocking, I was suddenly extremely nervous. What was I thinking? I’ve never caught a fish in my life, what if I’m not fast enough? What if I can’t see the fish? What if something goes terribly wrong and I get electrocuted?

A shocked fish.

I had a million questions running through my mind, and all but one dissipated the instant I saw three fish bob up near the surface. I yelled what was suddenly the only question that mattered, “Darren! Are these the right fish??”

Needless to say, I didn’t catch the very first fish I saw, but after that, I learned to grab first and think later. Over the year, my ability to quickly identify and grab the fish we were looking for grew significantly.

At one point, I even got to catch striped bass, which, with their advanced size and knife-sharp dorsal fins, made for an experience that was equal parts scary and exhilarating.  We had to wrangle them into the boat, and clip off a bit of their tail fins to send to a lab for a genetics study.

Electrofishing soon became my favorite aspect of the internship and challenged my previous notion that I wouldn’t be interested in a wildlife career involving fish conservation.

SCA interns Marlisa Jemison, David Rogers and Brendan Western stand in front of the podium they built for the Fort River Trail Opening ceremony.

Now, at the end of my internship, I’m thankful that I got the opportunity to participate in a wildlife management project, learn some conservation methods and finally count myself among the throngs of people who love fishing. Granted, I may never be an angler, but, pardon the pun, I do have a new angle on fishing.


That was so awesome to read! Proud of you Marlisa!
# Posted By Deedra Jemison | 2/17/15 7:12 PM

Mighty fine read. I specifically enjoyed the fishing pun at the end. Made me chuckle...I hate chuckling. This gal is going places. Best wishes.
# Posted By Kaosi Egbunike | 2/17/15 7:55 PM

I want to learn how to electrofish
# Posted By Dizzy D | 2/17/15 7:55 PM

This is the best article I've ever read. It makes me want to get outdoors and explore. I wish to see many more articles from this author who seems to love adventure and is an excellent writer.
# Posted By JK | 2/18/15 12:50 AM

The author seems to be an expert on subject and humble. It is awesome to see someone this passionate write about their experiences. She should write many more articles! Great Work! So happy you found her, she's a keeper.
# Posted By Randy | 2/18/15 12:49 PM

Tell me more! The author has a true passion for the outdoors and fish puns, which is hard to come by these days. She really has a way with words, and that goes a long way when talking about electrofishing. I felt like I was there with her! 10/10 would read again.
# Posted By Smashley | 2/18/15 1:45 PM
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