Blue Thumb Program checks in on longtime friends/creeks and streams through Fish Collection and Physical Habitat Survey

It wasn’t just a wade in the park.

There was a purpose to the work the Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s Blue Thumb staff and volunteers were conducting in Fourmile Creek as it weaves through Adams Park in El Reno.

On a sizzling summer’s weekday, the park was alive with activity – not near the soccer goals or the disc golf baskets, but rather in the creek.

OCC’s Blue Thumb staff and volunteers are shown conducting a Fish Collection and Physical Habitat Survey in Fourmile Creek as it weaves through Adams Park in El Reno. Those participating in the survey that day included: David Moyer, Blue Thumb intern, from left; Becky Zawalski, Blue Thumb Field Educator; Kim Shaw, Blue Thumb Quality Assurance Officer; Rebecca Bond, Blue Thumb Director; and Jonathan Kubilis of Redlands Community College.

The group was here for a Fish Collection and Physical Habitat Survey.

How many species would they find? What would this tell them about this creek? How did this compare to fish surveys of the same quarter of a mile stretch covered in 2009 and 2014? Had the physical qualities of the creek itself changed at all over the years? Was there more or less bank erosion? Was there any shade from vegetation over the water?

Those were questions Kim Shaw, the Blue Thumb Quality Assurance Officer and five others had in mind when they pulled the seine out of the back of the pickup that day.

Regardless of the fact that the water was only about 5 to 6 feet across most of the way, or that it was only about ankle to knee deep or that the creek bottom was mostly unstable silt and clay, there was aquatic life and lots of it in this creek.

Fourmile Creek is just an example of those surveyed across Oklahoma. Blue Thumb will complete about 20 habitat assessments and fish collections this year.

“We don’t know what kind of species of fish we’re going to catch,” Shaw said. “We don’t know what we’re going to come across. It’s always an adventure.”

More on what they found on this particular day in a minute.

What is Blue Thumb?

Oklahoma’s Blue Thumb is a statewide citizen science program that trains volunteers to monitor creeks and streams and share their knowledge of water quality with others. The goal of Blue Thumb is to empower people to protect water in their region from nonpoint source pollution. Over 75 Oklahoma streams are being monitored by Blue Thumb volunteers. The goal of Blue Thumb is to provide stream protection through education. This is accomplished by empowering citizens across the state to monitor a local stream and teaching them how to educate others about Oklahoma’s water resources. The first step to becoming a Blue Thumb volunteer is to attend a volunteer training. The Blue Thumb program holds several training sessions throughout the year in different parts of the state. Those interested can check out their Facebook page or website for a list of trainings.

Kim Shaw, the Blue Thumb Quality Assurance Officer, shows a Longear Sunfish that was among the hundreds of fish seined during a Fish Collection and Physical Habitat Survey in Fourmile Creek as it weaves through Adams Park in El Reno.

So back to the creek in Canadian County.

A structured approach

Shaw said they have conducted a Fish Collection Survey on this site at least three times in about a 10-year-period. Each time they went in the same direction, upstream, starting from the eastern most foot bridge and going west back into the park.

After determining the exact starting point with a GPS location, they used a range finder and stopped every 20 meters to fill out the physical habitat form. With this, they are looking at depths of the creek, width of the water at that point, and the makeup of the bottom of the creek. As they walk that 20 meters they look for fish habitat. They note the bank elevation and determine how much of the banks are actively eroding. With that in mind they do look for healthy riparian vegetation such as trees, shrubs and grasses to help reduce stream bank erosion.

After doing that for about a quarter of a mile, they brought in the seine, a vertical fishing net, and two individuals at a time started working their way downstream, encircling the fish in short distances. The water was murky and Shaw and the others said they weren’t expecting many species. But the fish were there, hundreds of fish.

During the survey they will release the majority of the fish, but keep a few to take back to OCC for Monitoring Specialist Nathan Carter to identify.

“This one blew our minds,” she said.

Of the fish seined and then released, there were 679 fish representing about 12 different species. There was Largemouth Bass, Channel Catfish, Crappie, Longear Sunfish, Bluegill, Green Sunfish and Orangespotted Sunfish to name a few.

Shaw said it’s a good sign, “Just as a rule of thumb,” if there are five or more different Sunfish species, those with Sunfish in the name plus the bass and crappie.

“That’s because each Sunfish species likes to eat something different and like their habitat/home a little bit different,” Shaw said.

Another factor that really stood out that day, were the bright “male breeding colors” of those such as the Red Shiners and the Orangespotted Sunfish.

Shaw is not sure of the reason behind this sizeable number of species for such a small creek, although she doesn’t rule out the significant rains Oklahoma has experienced this year.

Also in August, KFOR Television reported that in another area of Fourmile Creek, City employees in El Reno, while working to repair a busted pipe, discovered a 45-pound catfish. The story said the city workers believe it swam from Lake El Reno into the creek.

In 2009, Blue Thumb’s Fish Collection Survey in this park brought in 263 fish representing nine species.

In 2014, during a period of significant drought, there were 192 fish made up of four species.

Again this is an example of what happens across the state on a rotational basis according to ecoregions in the state.

“As far as Blue Thumb sites in general, since we’ve been active for 20-25 years or so we have sites that aren’t actively monitored right now,” Shaw said. “So once people have gone through trainings, we hope to maybe set them up on some where we’ve had past data but don’t have any current data. Other times people come to the training with a site in mind whether it’s on their land or near their home or something. Sometimes, if it’s in a new area where we haven’t had much Blue Thumb activity either they go out or we will  go scout around and try to find an accessible site for them to get established and get going with.”

Shaw said, “It takes some time to compile all the data, so it is not immediately available on our website,” Shaw said. “However, it is entered and over time can be found on the Blue Thumb website. If someone sees a report on there and wants more information, they can contact us.”

For a direct link to see the clickable map that has the fish lists and volunteer written reports, please go to . Or, for more questions regarding Blue Thumb, please contact