Trip Report – Fish photography

27 July 2014

Trip permit number = 1407-1

Several months ago I was introduced to Bob Hrabik by both David Ashley and Shelly Colatskie.  Bob is working on a revision of the book “The Fishes of Missouri”.  Among his goals are to get really good photographs of every species of fish found in Missouri.  He has teamed up with Lance Merry who is a professional wildlife photographer.

Bob and Lance have worked out a system for small fish (up to about 10 or 11 inches length) which immobilizes the fish while Lance takes photos.  In some cases the fish is euthanized and saved for a museum specimen.  Their gear is a bit wieldy and not suitable for use in a cave.  Among other things, they have a glass tank which breaks too easily to be compatible with caving.

For the Southern Cavefish found in Carroll Cave, we agreed that the fish would not be euthanized.  They would be photographed live and then returned to the cave.  After much discussion about dates and procedures, we finally settled on Sunday July 27 for the trip.

The participants were Bob and Lance, myself, DJ Hall and Jack Peters.  Bob and Lance arrived at the schoolhouse shortly after 9:00 am.  Jack and DJ were in town at Walmart getting replacement boots.  DJ blew out a pair of boots the day before during a restoration project trip.  I led Bob and Lance up the hill to the silo where they started setting up their gear.

Rick Hines was interested, so he came up the hill to see what their setup was like.  Jack and DJ arrived a few minutes later.  We discussed plans for the trip including how to get Bob and Lance down the ladder safely.  The plan we came up with was to have Bob and Lance use the steel cable with ascenders borrowed from Rick.  Jack, DJ and I would go in on rappel using a rope DJ left in the shaft overnight.  We also loaned helmets and lights to Bob and Lance.

We all were geared up shortly after 10:00 am.  Jack went down first, then DJ.  I helped Bob and Lance get attached to the cable, then rappeled right behind them.  Everyone was in the cave by 10:30 am.

We first went over to Thunder Falls to see the tourist sight.  Bob and Lance were suitably impressed.  From there we started searching upstream for fish.  The first fish was found under the natural bridge.  We easily found and captured a total of nine fish, and we let another half-dozen go by for being too small.  The fish were placed in old 1-pound plastic peanut jars with screw-on lids.  We ended the search at the first tile station.

Back at the ladder we all climbed together.  Everyone was out of the cave by 11:45 am.  Bob set up the two jars of fish to acclimate to the surface temperature, then we all took 45 minutes to have lunch.

Bob and Lance brought a cooler of killifish with them that they wanted to photograph.  We decided to photograph the cave fish first so they could be returned to the cave rapidly.  Three of the fish were placed in the photography tank.  It was pretty obvious they were not very happy.  Lance immediately went to work.  Cave fish present an interesting problem for immobilzation.  They have broad and almost flat heads.  When trapped between two plates of glass, they just turn sideways.  Lance has some jigs that trap a fin, forcing them to remain upright.

The first fish was a bit of a struggle, but Lance managed to get photos of it.  By the time he got to the second fish, it was obviously in distress.  Unfortunately it only survived a few more minutes.  All three of the fish in the photography tank died, so Bob “fixed” them with formalin.  As an employee of Missouri Department of Conservation, Bob has authority to do this.  Lance completed his photography work on these three fish.  They have been preserved and will become museum specimans.

The remaining 6 fish were still in the peanut jar and doing fine.  Rather than endanger them, Bob and Lance decided to use the photos they had.  I made a quick trip down the ladder with the fish and returned them to the stream.  They all swam away from me when released, so I think they will be fine.  It was about 1:30 pm when I returned the fish to the cave.

When I got back to the surface, the cave fish photography was just wrapping up.  Everyone changed back into street clothes.  DJ and Jack decided to take off.  Bob and Lance had brought a tank of killifish that Bob collected a few days earlier.  We moved the photo gear outside the silo.  I stayed around for a couple of hours while they worked through photographing the killifish.

When everything was complete, we packed up Bob’s truck.  It was about 3:30 pm when we started back down the hill.

Before the trip permit was pulled, Rick Hines expressed concern about the fish not surviving a trip to the surface.  He thought temperature shock would kill them quickly.  Bob said he had use the same technique to photograph Ozark Cavefish (an endangered species) and they all survived.  I think two things contributed to the problem in this case.  First, it was quite warm at the surface.  The temperature was in the middle and upper 80s.  When Bob photographed the Ozark Cave fish, it was middle 60s.  Second, the tank used for photography was not filled with cave water.  It was filled with water from the killifish tank and from a well.  If we had brought up a bucket or two of cave water to use in the photo tank, and if we had not waited until after lunch, the fish probably may have survived.

The attached photo shows the gear used by Bob and Lance.

Other photography by Lance can be seen at

Bob expects to take another two years to complete and publish the book.  The current edition of “The Fishes of Missouri” is available at Amazon.



Fish photography gear