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Catching a Career in Fisheries

By Tara Roberts

When Michael Quist was 9 years old, he helped his uncle, then a conservation officer in Mountain Home, Idaho, tag fish for research. By the end of the trip, Quist knew he wanted to study fisheries.

“From then on, it was just a done deal,” says Quist, who is now an associate professor of fish and wildlife sciences at the University of Idaho and an assistant leader of the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.


Devil's Hole, Nevada. Mike Quist research. Kokanee kootenai river Mike Quist and Walleye priest lake, Mike Quist research priest lake sucker

Quist earned his bachelor’s degree in fisheries resources at UI in 1996 and returned as a faculty member in 2010. He was drawn back in part by the small, personal community the university offers – as well as its reputation for fish and wildlife research.

“This is one of the best universities for what I do, plain and simple,” he says.

Quist’s research focuses primarily on the population ecology of various fish species, which is important for agencies whose roles include setting fishing regulations and managing fish habitats. Through the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, he works closely with state, tribal and federal agencies to provide support and solve problems related to fisheries management.The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Cooperative Research Units program recently named Quist the winner of its Excellence in Science Award.

Quist juggles a broad range of research projects, most of which take place in Idaho.

“Almost everything I’m doing is being conducted in Idaho or has application to natural resources in this state,” he said.

For example, he’s currently working with Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) biologists to understand fish population dynamics and determine guidelines for stocking and harvest of channel catfish, a sport fish found in several northern Idaho lakes. Other research includes projects on the lake trout population in Priest Lake, fish assemblages in the Kootenai River, and cutthroat trout in the South Fork of the Clearwater River system. Much of his work involves conducting research with and mentoring his seven graduate students.

“I’ve been fortunate to have really good students who are productive,” he says. “I have very high standards for myself, as well as my students. I think if you raise the bar, they’re going to meet it.”

For one of his current projects, he’s working with graduate student Steve Whitlock to understand factors influencing survival of kokanee eggs in Lake Pend Oreille in a project funded by IDFG. They’ve been surprised to find that downwelling associated with the recharging of underground aquifers can play a critical role in survival rates.

“It’s changed how we’re thinking about kokanee spawning ecology, and how IDFG manages the system,” he says.

In a research project funded by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe at Lake Coeur d’Alene, Quist’s student John Walrath is studying westslope cutthroat trout, a species native to northern Idaho. The fish spawn in tributaries, move to the lake and head back to the tributaries to spawn in an inland version of salmon spawning patterns. But few of the fish have been returning to tributaries as expected – and it may be due to non-native predators that live in the lake, such as smallmouth bass and northern pike.

“There’s concern these non-native fish are just sitting there, waiting for these cutthroat,” Quist says.

Walrath has spent the summer catching the predatory fish and pumping their stomachs to see what they’ve been eating. As he better understands their habits, he can recommend adjustments to fishing regulations in the lake to better control the predators.

Recent UI alumnus Josh McCormick, one of Quist’s former graduate students, said his mentor’s dedication, high expectations and emphasis on real-world research applications helped him achieve success as a UI student and now at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Mike will be the first to tell you that his students are his first priority, and it’s completely true,” McCormick said. “He always made time to discuss ideas and provide feedback on my work.”

In addition to preparing his students – most of whom plan to work for fish and wildlife agencies – for successful careers, Quist’s goal is producing information that is valuable for agencies to make science-based management decisions. 

“Making sure that the work we’re doing results in changes on the ground – that’s what I’m all about,” he said.