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From ‘trout bum’ to PhD; ISU prof solves resource managers’ quandaries

July 2, 2007
ISU Marketing and Communications

Idaho State University mathematics associate professor Robert Van Kirk, PhD, used to fly-fish as much as 150 days a year or so when he worked seasonally from 1981 to 1987 at Henry’s Fork Anglers in Last Chance, Idaho. He extensively fished Idaho’s famous Henry’s and South Forks of the Snake River and surrounding waters.

Now Van Kirk, 44, is lucky to fish 150 hours a year, but that hasn’t diminished his devotion to these fisheries. His work as a mathematician potentially affects every angler who wets a line in the South Fork of the Snake River below Palisades Reservoir and could continue to do so for years to come. Additionally, his work analyzing the effect of selenium on the trout populations of the Blackfoot and Salt Rivers, which are part of the Snake River drainage, drew widespread national and international publicity earlier this year. He also has completed numerous studies on the Henry’s Fork.

Rob Van Kirk Van Kirk, who grew up in Arcata, Calif., where his father was a fisheries biologist, came to Idaho for the first time at age 17 to work at Henry’s Fork Anglers, operated by well-known fly-fishing guide and author Mike Lawson. Van Kirk worked in the shop, guided, tied flies commercially and eventually managed the shop while going to college, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics, magna cum laude, from Humboldt State University in 1984. He stayed on at the shop following graduation. Along the way Van Kirk became solid friends with the Lawson family and towed around and fished with Lawson’s sons, Chris, the current assistant manager of the shop, and Shaun, manager of South Fork Outfitters. Tales of Van Kirk’s fishing skills even ended up in some of Mike Lawson’s books.

Mike Lawson recently relayed one story about how Lawson had fished the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork in Harriman State Park, a piece of river known for its difficulty. “I’d seen a huge fish in the water and I came back into the shop and told Rob about it and where I’d seen it,” Lawson said. “He had the next day off and Rob went to the Ranch and caught that fish on a streamer. From the picture, it’s the biggest fish I know of that has been caught on that part of the river.

As good of a fisherman as Van Kirk was, Lawson was more impressed with Van Kirk’s work ethic. “Rob was an extremely intelligent young man and really had a passion for fishing, and he really liked people. He was just a great fit,” Lawson said. “He started working for us when he was clear back in high school and pretty soon he pretty much ran the whole show. About the only complaint I had about Rob is he worked too hard and too long. He was kind of like the horse you ride too hard and it drops dead because it didn’t give you any sign it was tired.”Rob Van Kirk

Van Kirk transferred his work ethic from the fly fishing and guiding businesses to his higher-education career, although he continued to tie flies commercially, about 1,000 dozen flies per year to help put himself through graduate school. He went on to earn a Master of Science degree in environmental systems at HSU in 1990, and then earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Utah in 1995. He was research director for the Henry’s Fork Foundation from 1994 to 1998 before coming to ISU in 1999.

On his vita, his academic work résumé, Van Kirk lists 14 peer-reviewed publications and 15 technical publications focusing on interdisciplinary watershed-related research that incorporate information and techniques from biology, geology, hydrology, engineering, mathematics and statistics. Van Kirk recently returned to his “northern California roots” and completed a study on effects of climate change on late summer flows in the Klamath River watershed. This research was conducted for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of efforts to restore threatened coho salmon runs.

“My research is applied to problems managers are having on the ground,” Van Kirk said. “I don’t do a lot of theoretical research: I develop methods for solving specific problems. I have always incorporated the human dimension in my research, acknowledging and accounting for the needs and effects of humans in the watershed setting.”

A prime example of this type of work is a technical report, “Hydrologic Alteration and its Effect on Trout Recruitment in the South Fork Snake River,” that Van Kirk and Sarra Moller of the ISU Department of Biological Sciences completed for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in 2003. A major conclusion of that report was in rivers with high spring runoff, rainbow trout are less likely to displace native cutthroat trout. Since completion of the study, the IDFG, in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation, have tried to have high spring release of water out of Palisades Reservoir for an extended period near the first of June to mimic spring flooding. This action, for a variety of reasons not fully understood, reduces the rainbow trout population to the benefit of the cutthroat trout population, a management goal.

“Rob not only is an extremely competent mathematician, he is one of the best biologists you’ll come across,” said Jim Fredericks, regional fisheries manager for the IDFG’s Upper Snake Region. Fredericks has worked with Van Kirk on the South Fork of the Snake River project.


“Van Kirk does high-quality work,” continued Fredericks, “and effectively communicates with all stakeholders. From our standpoint, his work and involvement with the South Fork management has been key to the success of the whole program. He has a grasp of all the scientific issues and can convey that and express it using layman’s terms, whether he’s talking to an irrigator, water manager or a fisherman.”

Though he doesn’t fish as much and works as long as 16-hour days when he’s finishing a paper for publication, Van Kirk said he still loves his chosen vocation.

“With each new project I have, I’m faced with learning a new set of knowledge and new methods, but I really enjoy that,” Van Kirk said. “I’m constantly having to learn. Each research project is almost like putting together a new master’s thesis in a different area.”

For a review of his works and studies, visit Van Kirk’s ISU faculty Web site at www.isu.edu/~vankrobe.

“Although the University of Idaho is the land grant university in this state, ISU is doing its share of work on issues like my watershed research, especially in eastern Idaho,” Van Kirk said. “We have several faculty in geosciences and biological sciences who are doing similar types of projects.”


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