When the going gets tough

…the tough plan ahead.

Field biologists are often faced with grueling work in unforgiving conditions. Being responsible for planning that work can be daunting, especially for new grad students or crew leads who may not have as much leadership experience. The following article was written by Eli Lamb, who is a second year grad student, and has learned a lot from his days dragging jon boats and electrofishing barges over miles of shoal in the harsh Alabama sun. Here are some of his strategies for making a day of hard work a little easier.

From Eli:

When I started working in fisheries, field preparation was never discussed in onboarding or orientation programs and it wasn’t until this past spring that I started being fully intentional about it. Fast forward a few months, these are some of the strategies I’ve adopted. If you’re a new grad student or team leader, take a look and consider implementing some of these strategies as you develop your own habits. If you’re more experienced in the field, perhaps this will serve as a reminder to be thorough and not fall into a rut.

Pre-departure:

We may not look like athletes but consider preparing like one. Eat, hydrate, and sleep. Remember, attention to detail is paramount when it comes to collecting quality data. Drinking some more water before bed and getting those extra winks can make the difference between a great day and one full of #FieldworkFails.

Not every trip requires a written plan, but it is important for all crew members to know the objectives, the location, and the timeline for the day’s work. Communicate with coworkers about the logistics, because they will likely have valuable input. Checklists are valuable for staying on track, and crossing items off the list builds momentum and boosts morale. Plan your clothing according to the weather forecast, always assume it will be hotter than predicted in the summer and colder than expected in the winter. Keep an extra rain coat in your car so you never forget it at home.

Get your mise en place: program the coffee pot, set out the (non-perishable) ingredients for your breakfast, and load equipment the day before. For multi-day trips, take your time – there is not much worse than realizing you’ve forgotten something hours away from your base and losing valuable time to retrieve it. Staging allows everything to run smoothly when it’s go-time.

In the field:

Allocate time for breaks. Working continuously rarely yields higher productivity. Taking breaks is a proven way to restore motivation and maintain productivity.  

Hydrate. This one speaks for itself; hydration is absolutely critical especially when working on the water. Bring extra water for the crew member who always forgets theirs. I have little doubt that a dehydration headache is the single best way to ruin an otherwise-pleasant day outdoors.

Eat well: this one gets tricky. Some people are picky about their field snacks. While beef jerky, granola bars, or GORP (good ol’ raisins and peanuts) might get you through the day, the best way to keep energy high is to pause for an actual meal. Consider bringing a small camp stove (my favorite is the MSR Pocket Rocket) to heat your lunch; basic cookware is lightweight and takes up virtually no room – a hot meal will improve your day exponentially. I like finger foods, because there’s less clean-up – you can frequently find brätwurst or spicy Conecuh sausages sizzling away in my work boats.

Post trip:

Treat yourself! Have something to look forward to upon completion of the tasks at hand. This could be as simple as dry shoes/clothes or a [appropriate] cold/hot beverage waiting at the truck. Build traditions within your team – in pre-COVID days, stopping for a bite at whatever local restaurant was near a study location was one of my favorite parts of the day. On any given day during the field season, you could probably find somebody in an auburn fisheries hat at JB’s Butthouse in Waldey, AL, Big D’s Butts ‘N Stuff in Monroeville, AL, or Barbeque 65 in Greenville, AL.

Try to avoid exit fever aka “get home-itis” (the rushing and haste that accompany being nearly done), keep the mindset that the day’s work is not complete until all equipment is cleaned and put away. This is personally challenging, but the satisfaction of being fully done with no loose ends to tie up is worth it.

Tell us about your strategies in the comments below! What do you pack? How do you prepare? What’s your favorite place to eat after a long day?

Eli is a second year master’s student at Auburn University studying the effects of hydropeaking on fishes in the Tallapoosa River. He earned a BS in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from Clemson University in 2018, and has worked for SCDNR as a hatchery technician, and volunteered on stream projects throughout southern Appalachia. When he’s not busting his back in the field, you can find him casting a fly rod, tying flies or editing sweet drone footage. Follow him on twitter and instagram for awesome photography, and fascinating naturalist observations.

instagram: @the_lamb_fish
twitter: @LambdaLambda33

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