Problems crop up from time to time. Not long ago, a fisherman caught and kept one of the tagged fish. Three of the original nine passive receivers have malfunctioned. Curiosity seekers have found receivers' anchor cables and hauled the units up onto the riverbank. Still, Phillips believes she's getting plenty of usable data.
DNR officials hope her study will help them restore the New River's once-vibrant walleye fishery.
The river once was renowned for its oversized walleyes, but a combination of environmental factors set the fishery into decline. The DNR tried to rebuild it by stocking Great Lakes-strain walleyes, but the stocked fish never seemed to thrive.
In 1999, researchers at Virginia Tech discovered that the New River had two distinct strains of walleyes - a native strain that had been there for millennia, and the stocked strain from the Great Lakes.
Armed with that knowledge, fisheries officials in Virginia and West Virginia switched their emphasis to the propagation and stocking of New River-strain fish. Since 2003, nearly 69,000 young natives have been stocked in the New between Bluestone Dam and Hawks Nest.
Producing thousands of juvenile walleyes each year isn't easy. DNR crews must first capture mature fish as they're preparing to spawn, identify whether the captured fish are of the native strain, strip eggs from the females and milt from the males, fertilize the collected eggs, allow them to hatch, and stock the resulting fry back into the river.
So far, capturing brood stock has been a major bugaboo. The New River in late February - the walleyes' prime spawning period - can be a hostile place. If the river is running high, its swift currents prevent biologists from collecting walleyes as they queue up to spawn.
Phillips' research might ultimately help biologists to more effectively gather brood fish.
"If we know when the fish are going to show up [at the spawning grounds], we can time our collection efforts accordingly," she said. "We'll be able to collect fish closer to the time when they would actually spawn, which will put less stress on them. Also, there's a chance we'll identify other spawning areas."
After Phillips completes her study next spring, she'll incorporate the information into her master's thesis for Ohio University. She'll also share her findings with other biologists.
"I intend to share the information with fishermen, too," she added. "When they see me on the river, they ask me where I'm finding the fish. Maybe my research will help them find fish, too.
Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231, or johnmc...@wvgazette.com.