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Episode 3: why are trout vital to Wyoming’s ecosystem?

Kids Ask Why?
Kids Ask Why?
Episode 3: why are trout vital to Wyoming's ecosystem?

Joshua Burckhardt and Niko Skoric are located at Trout Creek in Niko’s backyard learning about one of their favorite activities–fishing. They interview Wyoming Game and Fish Fishery Biologist Jason Burckhardt and a graduate student John Fennell about fish biology, research, and management. These biologists help Joshua and Niko understand the importance of studying fish and their habitats, and then share some fishing tips! During this episode the group wades in the creek, turning over rocks and discussing the different kinds of insects they find.

Joshua Burckhardt

Joshua is an eight-year-old native of Cody Wyoming. Joshua is very passionate about wildlife and the outdoors. Joshua loves fishing, catching lizards, snakes and other reptiles, hiking, water sports, hunting, and taekwondo.

Jason Burckhardt

Jason earned a BS in Biology from Truman State University (MO) in 1997, and a MS in Zoology and Physiology with an emphasis in fisheries from the University of Wyoming in 2002. He has been a Fisheries Biologist with WGFD in Cody for the last 18 years. When he is not sampling fish for work he enjoys getting out-of-doors, fishing, camping, and hunting with his wife and two kids.  

Niko Skoric

Niko has lived on a creek since his birth. He began practicing fishing with a Cars fishing pole–an old tire as the bait–at the age of 2.  His fishing obsession extends from the creek to rivers, lakes, oceans, and of course frozen waters. One can find him fishing from shore, motorized boats, kayaks, bridges, even our deck. Niko’s other interests include reading, shooting, riding motorcycles, alpine skiing, hiking and biking.

John Fennell

John is a graduate research assistant pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming. His research aims to understand the dynamics of hybridization between Yellowstone cutthroat trout and rainbow trout in the North Fork Shoshone River drainage. He received his bachelor’s degree in Fisheries Management from Auburn University in 2015. Before starting at that the University of Wyoming, he worked as a fisheries technician for both the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. In his free time John enjoys fly fishing, hiking and playing golf.

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NARRATOR: Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast, where kids ask the questions. This is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

JOSHUA BURCKHARDT: I’m Joshua, and I go to Livingston Elementary School and I’m in second grade, and I’m eight years old. I live just out of town in Cody. I’m interested in learning more about fish and fishing. I like it when you’re just holding on to a pole, and then, um, I like the feeling that you get when you catch the fish. Especially, when I caught a dozen perch at Beck Lake and three big trout!

NIKO SKORIC: My name is Nico Skoric. I live in Wapiti, Wyoming. I am 10 years old. I go to Eastside Elementary. I’ve been fishing for a long time, probably since I was like three and a half. And I’m in fourth grade. I like fishing because there’s multiple ways to fish. You can ice fish, fish off of a boat, fly fish, and creek fish and river fish. Probably one of my favorite fishing memories is when my dad and his friend first took me ice fishing and I caught three fish that day. 

We are currently at the stream in my backyard. And I like it because if I want to go fish in open season I can. I don’t have to like go to the lake or anything. And it’s special to me because besides fishing, we still can have a lot of fun in it, like swimming in it. 

Today we are going to be learning about trout and other fish in Wyoming.

JOSHUA: Today we’re talking with my dad Jason Burckhardt, who works at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. And John Fennell, who’s a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. They are going to help us learn more about fish. 

Why is fishing popular in Wyoming?

JASON: It is a great place to fish we have lots of places that have lots of opportunity for people to go out and fish. We’ve got lots of public land and wide open spaces, where people can get access to fish in beautiful streams like we have here, like Niko has in his backyard.

JOSHUA: When do fish lay their eggs?

JASON: It really depends upon the kind of fish that you’re talking about. The fish that we have here in the North Fork Shoshone River drainage are rainbow trout and cutthroat trout. Both of those fish spawn in the springtime. So typically it’s going to be around late May through the end of June when the fish that are in this river are spawning and in the streams. Now other fish spawn at other times. We have, if you’re talking about trout, brown trout, and brook trout that spawn in the fall. We have mountain white fish here as well in the North Fork, and they spawn in the fall as well. So it really depends upon the type of fish that we’re talking about, but the ones that we have here on the North Fork Shoshone, they’re mostly rainbow and cutthroat and they’re spawning in the springtime.

JOSHUA: Why do different species of fish eggs look different?

JASON: So can you give us examples of a couple of different kinds of fish species? I know you’re talking about trout earlier. So comparing a trout egg to something else, what other fish?

JOSHUA: So like, how there’s a big difference in a cutthroat trout and a yellow perch?

JASON: Yeah. So we went fishing recently and we kept a few yellow perch, and they have tiny little eggs that are about the size of grains of sand, right? And then we also caught some cutthroat trout recently that had big eggs that are about the size of a pea. You wanted to know why they were different? Well, if you think about it on just a fish scale, those fish that are generating eggs that are bigger, they’re putting a lot more energy into each individual egg. And the fish like a yellow perch that can have thousands, if not 10s of thousands of eggs that they spawn when they reproduce. They they’re putting a lot less energy into each individual egg. Now what that means is, the fish that puts a lot of energy into the bigger eggs, they have a higher probability of one of those fish surviving to reproduce itself, than those fish have little bitty eggs. The fish that have little bitty eggs produce a lot more, but a smaller fraction of those eggs will actually survive to reproduce themselves.

JOSHUA: Why do fish lay eggs instead of give “live birth”?

JASON: Well, we do have some fish that give live birth, like the guppies that you have in your fish tank. Those give live birth. But it’s for the same reason, it takes a lot of energy to produce a young. You can produce fewer young if you’re giving birth to live young than those fish that lay lots of eggs. So instead of laying lots of eggs and having fewer of those survive, some fish give live birth, and they put more energy into just a few of those individuals so that they have a greater chance of survival. What an animal wants to do is produce enough young so that some of those can go on and reproduce themselves. So they have different strategies that they use.

JOSHUA: Where do fish lay their eggs?

JOHN FENNELL: So the fish species that I study- the Yellowstone cutthroat trout and the rainbow trout, the ones we’re trying to catch today- they spend a lot of their time in that Reservoir, but they come up into the river and some of these tributaries to lay their eggs because there’s flowing water. And that flowing water is important because those eggs need that to survive or else they’ll suffocate and die. So these fish come up here, starting sometime in April or in the spring, and the female fish will build a nest with her tail to lay her eggs in. 

NIKO SKORIC: How many species of fish are native to Wyoming?

JASON: There are 49 fish that are native to Wyoming and most of those fish are little minnow species that live down at lower elevations. So in the North Fork Shoshone River drainage, we’ve got two species of “salmonids” that are in the trout family that are native. Do you know which ones those are? 

NIKO: The brook trout? 

JASON: Well, actually, the brook trout is not native, the Yellowstone cutthroat is the only trout that’s native. And we have another species that’s in the trout family. It’s a mountain whitefish. Have you heard of one of those? Yep. We’ve got those here as well. We have a couple of introduced species, like you mentioned, the brook trout. Those are native to the eastern part of the U.S. from the Labrador as far south as the Appalachians mountains in Georgia. And they range as far west as the Great Lakes states. And we have brown trout, which are native to Europe. And we have rainbow trout that are native to the Western US, from California, all the way up into Alaska. 

NIKO: How many types of trout are there?

JASON: So it really depends on what you want to call a type of trout. I mentioned that the types of trout that we have in Wyoming. The most common trout that we have are rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout. We also have our native cutthroat trout, but we have several subspecies of cutthroat trout that are native to the State of Wyoming.

NIKO: What kind of trout is the smallest?

JOHN: So all trout when they’re hatched are about the same size. Remember, we said those eggs hatch and those fish live in the gravel for a little while. We call those alevin, they have big yolk sacs on their stomach that they live off of. And then they emerge from the gravel and they’re all about the same size– they may be an inch to two inches long. Then where they live determines how big a trout gets. So a fish that lives in a really tiny stream, somewhere really high, where it’s really cold and there’s not a lot of food might not grow very big. That fish might be six or seven inches long when it’s 10 years old, and we have other fish trout that live in this reservoir Buffalo Bill Reservoir that might be 18 inches long when they’re three years old. And that’s because they have a lot more space and food and they live in that big reservoir. So it depends less on what type of trout is and more where it lives.

NIKO: Why don’t fish like muddy water?

JOHN: Well, some fish do better in muddy water than others. The trout that we that we see today, they like that clean, nice clear water, right? They like these streams when they’re nice and clean and clear, because they dig that nest with their tail to lay their eggs. And the reason they they dig an actual nest is they’re cleaning off that gravel. They want all that mud and silt, brushed off those rocks so that their eggs get some flowing water and get that oxygen. There are some species of fish that don’t mind it if it’s muddy. We see that less up in these beautiful mountain streams but if you go somewhere in the south or where it’s warmer or anywhere else in the world where maybe the water is warmer and more muddy, some fish do really well there. 

JASON: It really depends on the type of fish you’re talking about. And sometimes we think that fish don’t like muddy water because we have a hard time catching it when the water is pretty muddy. So a lot of times we have lots of fish in the stream even when the stream is at its muddiest because that is when fish are moving up out of the reservoir. The reservoir is pretty clear this time of year but the fish are running up into these streams that are muddy because they’re going up way high up into these mountain tributaries to find clear water to spawn. 

NIKO: Do you put bait in your nets?

JOHN: We do not put bait in our nets that we use to catch trout. We’re relying on those fish that are coming out of the reservoir and coming into Trout Creek- into this stream here- that are moving up, trying to find that really clear water to lay their eggs. They’re moving up and we’re hoping that they find their way into one of our traps. So we don’t put bait in our traps. There are some kinds of fish that you might try and catch in the trap where you would put some sort of bait. Do you know what a catfish is? They have really good senses of smells that have these long barbells that pick up scents in the water. You might use a some bait in a trap like that. I have another graduate student in my lab who does research on one of those really small Wyoming fish. It’s called a Finescale Dace and he works in northeast Wyoming. And he puts out traps for those minnows and he baits them with cat food, wet cat food. And so, I don’t, but some people do.

NIKO: That’s all my questions.

UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Oh yeah. Look at that caddisfly!

NIKO: After learning more about the fish in Wyoming, I think they are interesting and weird. Fish and trout are important to the ecosystem because they eat bugs. They also are a food source for eagles, otters and bears. Even other fish eat them like walleye. They eat small fish and fish eggs. Sadly, though, sometimes certain trout harm the ecosystem. So we need to be aware and take care.

JOSHUA: After I spoke with my expert, I thought it was really cool how many different types of bugs lived under rocks in a stream?

Unknown Speaker: That’s another mayfly!

Yeah, let’s go put this one in the tote.

JOSHUA: It’s important to study trout populations to make sure there’s still plenty of good waters for people to fish. It’s important to study Yellowstone cutthroat trout, our native trout so we can make sure they’re still doing okay. For example, we need to know how many fish are in a stream, what things might be affecting them, so we also need to make sure non-native trout such as rainbow trout and brook trout, are not out-competing the Yellowstone cutthroats. Biologist use this information to adjust their management.

JOSHUA and NIKO: And that’s why we ask why!

NARRATOR: Thanks for listening to this episode of Kids Ask Why. If you want to learn more about trout and fish in general in Wyoming, check out our website at, where we have lots of different resources. And now do you have a good fish story? If so, go to the Kids Ask Why Facebook page or Twitter page and share it with us. And again, thanks for listening.

NARRATOR 2: This podcast is produced by Emily Buckles, Gretchen Henrich, Megan Smith, and Kirsten Arnold. Our executive producer is Kamila Kudelska. Levi Meyer and Anna Rader are our digital consultants. Kids Ask Why is a production of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Wyoming Public Media.

10 thoughts on “Episode 3: why are trout vital to Wyoming’s ecosystem?”

  1. What a wonderful way to get kids involved and also to learn the importance of preserving our rivers and lakes. Great interview and a mini look at Wyoming’s countryside!

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