Stephen M. Coghlan, Jr. - About Me
I am originally from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. During high school and my first year of college, although I loved to hike and fish, I had set my mind on a career in investment banking (yikes!) and a life of certain stress and endless material acquisition. I am very fortunate to have “seen the light” in time to turn my life around after an epiphany. One glorious autumn day many years back, I had skipped school and was enjoying the beauty and solitude of my favorite trout stream (I won’t divulge its name or location – but it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out if you are really curious and do some investigating), fishing a little, hiking a lot, and not having any luck catching. I sat by the edge of my favorite pool, just relishing the crisp, fragrant air, the calming babble of the stream, and the brilliant autumn scenery, when a flash caught my eye. As my eyes adjusted to the glare and I developed the correct search image, the stream bottom suddenly came to life. A dozen or so lake-run brown trout (and perhaps an Atlantic salmon or two, but maybe that’s wishful thinking!) staged over the gravel in a pool tail-out in full reproductive vigor. Suddenly I realized I was witnessing an event worthy of a National Geographic special. Males fought and courted, females dug and cleaned, kypes gaped, gills flared, bodies arched, tails beat, bellies quivered, and gametes flowed! I was amazed and enamoured, and although I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know why, I knew immediately that my life would be incomplete without trying to understand and conserve these glorious fish.
The rest, you might say, is history. I discussed my revelation with my biology professor at my community college, Tom Steenburg. Tom (who since has passed away) was an inspirational educator who absolutely lived for making a difference in his students’ lives, and helped me get started along my new pathway. I took science and math classes, volunteered with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (special thanks to Jeff Robins and his crew), and conducted an independent study on lake trout demography using NYSDEC data. I forsook a scholarship in Finance from Ithaca College and instead transferred to the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where I majored in environmental and forest biology with a concentration in aquatic ecology. Occasionally I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn’t seen the light and stayed on the same trajectory. Perhaps I would have already jumped off one of those tall buildings on Wall Street after that mysterious entity to which we are enslaved (known as “The Market”) started tanking. Certainly I would have been of the mindset that society is designed to serve “The Market” rather than the other way around, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic…..
At ESF I realized my niche (I felt like I was in the center of my optimal gradient space), and found a community to which I belonged and could contribute. At the risk of generalizing, most ESF students are extremely motivated, progressive, bright, dedicated, and possess a love for the outdoors and a passion for understanding nature both empirically and aesthetically. In turn, the professors strove to provide an atmosphere in which students could capitalize on both their passions and their intellect and contribute to science and society. As an undergraduate, I immersed myself in all aspects of my education. I was fortunate to not only take excellent and challenging courses, but also spent countless hours in the field and even contributed to several graduate students’ research projects. It was only natural that my undergraduate experience led me to pursue my graduate aspirations at ESF.
Graduate school was an eye-opening experience for me as I strove to make the transition from “fish squeezer” (as Charlie Hall called me) to “ecologist”…and am still striving today. So many aspects of aquatic ecology fascinated me, and perhaps I took on more side projects than was wise, but I loved every minute of it. Aside from conducting research on juvenile ecology of Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario tributaries, I was a fish- and insect-collecting fanatic, searching for and checking off species on my master list, much in the same way a philatelist or baseball card aficionado does, recounting the story behind every acquisition (“Oh, I remember that green sunfish, catalog number 1873…he came from that logjam upstream of the bridge on Red Creek…”). Some of my favorite finds were a spawning aggregation of American brook lamprey in Sterling Valley Creek, a school of longhead darter in Olean Creek, and a single creek chubsucker from the Salmon River floodplain.
I also was fortunate enough to meet and work with three professors who affected my life profoundly in many ways. Charlie Hall opened my eyes to new ways of thinking and solving problems. He has convinced this “fish squeezer” of the importance of energy in ecology and economics, and of questioning established, yet largely untested, theories. He also turned me on to the concept of energy balance along multiple environmental gradients, which seems to me the closest thing to a unifying theory that ecology has today. I only wish my conversion to Hallism had happened sooner in my career. The world would be a much less perturbed and more equitable place if more people thought like Charlie. Don Stewart shared with me his complementary, but equally groundbreaking, perspective on energetic ecology; his work on taxonomy, systematics, biogeography, conservation biology, bioenergetics, and life history theory demonstrates that he is a modern-day “renaissance man”. He always was willing to share his advice and thoughts, and showed great patience as I wrestled with complex ideas that seemed to come so easily to him. I miss our collecting trips in pursuit of the wily brook stickleback and the ever-elusive shield darter.
As my major professor, Neil Ringler influenced me more than anyone else throughout my academic career. As an undergraduate, I was drawn immediately to his style of teaching. He infused enthusiasm, excitement, humor, passion, and immense knowledge into his lectures, and several years later, I found myself consciously and unconsciously adopting his style into my teaching; I could not have asked for a better role model. While taking his course in Functional Diversity of Adirondack Ecosystems at Cranberry Lake Biology Station, I discovered how challenging and rewarding aquatic ecology could be; while conducting research and writing the final project report, I found myself working harder and more enjoyably than I ever had before, not only because I was impassioned about the subject material, but I also wanted to impress my mentor. When I decided to remain at SUNY-ESF for graduate school, it was in no small part because I felt that I could learn so much from him, and have so much fun, in the process (at the time, it hardly seemed possible that two people on the same campus could get so excited about stomach contents and salmonine sex!). I was honored when he invited me to teach alongside him at CLBS, and later encouraged me to teach on my own. When struggling to develop a research project, I was always amazed to find out that many of my ideas (which I had thought innovative and timely) already had percolated through Dr. Ringler’s mind decades earlier; what I perceived to be critical gaps in the literature were filled instantly with obscure references that came so easily from his memory. Whenever a crisis materialized (such as any number of problems associated with transporting tens of thousands of Atlantic salmon fry through 300 miles of backwoods in a less-than-reliable truck equipped with a less-than-reliable aeration system), there was no better ally than he. The only persistent tension I would note between us was whether to call the immature forms of hemimetabolous aquatic insects “naiads” or “nymphs” (I suppose it is the aquatic ecologists’ version of “great taste” vs. “less filling”). I still am in the “naiad” camp.
I was fortunate enough to have many experiences teaching while relatively young, and many opportunities to improve with age. As a grad student, I TA’d courses in fisheries biology, aquatic entomology, ichthyology, genetics, and comparative vertebrate anatomy, and taught several courses in Adirondack Field
Ecology at CLBS. One of the most fulfilling and rewarding moments I could experience is watching that lightbulb come on over a student’s head, and knowing that I helped to facilitate it. Teaching at CLBS was probably my most cherished memory of ESF, as all these wonderfulinteractions with students occurred in such a phenomenal geographic locale. Plus, more lightbulbs seem to turn on while on the banks of Sucker Brook, the shores of Darning Needle Pond, or during the late-night study session in the dining hall than they do in stuffy Illick Hall.
After grad school, I made the most significant move of my life – to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where I took a post-doc position studying the life histories of fish via otolith chemistry. I really had no idea of what to expect, other than a few preconceived ideas about the South and the certainty that it would be HOT. My boss, Robyn Hannigan, is an amazing geochemist, and seems to accomplish more in a month that most people do in a year. I am very thankful that that she took a chance on hiring a complete novice in otolithology such as myself, and I’m amazed at how much I learned after two short years. We studied trout populations in the Little Red River tailwater (which, incidentally, is home to the world-record brown trout), and used chemical signatures in otoliths to identify spawning locations and distinguish hatchery-produced from wild individuals. I can say now, with complete certainty, that I made the right choice moving to Arkansas. I experienced many things, met many people, listened to many opinions, and saw many places that otherwise would have eluded me. Sylamore Creek in the Ozark Mountains is an incredibly beautiful and unique place, as is Collins Creek in the Little Red River. The faculty and students at ASU were diverse, interesting, and offered myriad perspectives on so many issues, and I learned a lot about my self through interacting with my new-found friends and colleagues. Most of the locals in my small-town of Harrisburg, and in most other places, were colorful and friendly. That said, it was HOT. And when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any hotter, it did. And then it got so hot that I thought I would ionize. And then the locals said, “Heck, summer ain’t even here yet. Wait until July”. So, after two summers in Arkansas, I confirmed what I had long suspected – I much prefer cold climates to hot, and maples and firs to oaks and hickories.
And so here I am at the University of Maine. In my 3 years here so far, everything about it is great – the students, the university, my colleagues, the atmosphere, the landscape, the state and federal agencies, and the weather. I see many similarities between the wildlife students here and the biology students at ESF, which is probably why I feel so at-home. Again at the risk of generalizing again, the UMaine wildlife students seem incredibly eager, smart, motivated, involved in the college and the community, and want to be hands-on doing fieldwork and making a difference in the world. And I’m happy to be at a land-grant institution in a small, rural state, that gives many students an opportunity to go to college that otherwise they wouldn’t have.
A bit about my non-science life: As expected, I absolutely love to hunt, fish, and tie flies. I think of myself as lousy hunter (probably because I don’t put enough time into it), a mediocre fisherman, and an adequate fly tyer. I enjoy hunting small game (grouse and bunnies) more than anything, because I like covering lots of ground and not having to worry too much about being very stealthy and unobtrusive in the woods. I do hunt deer and turkey, but my attention span and patience is too short to really stick with it in lousy weather, or when there’s absolutely no sign of game. I find duck hunting fairly enjoyable, although I wear chest waders so much for my research that I’m pretty sick of wearing them by the time duck season rolls around.
As far as fishing, I could spend every waking moment doing it and never get bored. I love spin fishing, bait fishing, and ice fishing for just about any species, but I feel most comfortable with a fly rod in my hand, so I seem to gravitate towards fly fishing for trout when given the option. As a teenager, I taught myself how to fly-fish on the small streams of Central New York, and in many cases, the trout were plentiful and stupid and hungry enough to give me some confidence. I spent many enjoyable spring and fall days skipping the first few periods of high school and getting a better education on the stream. I was very fortunate to have met Mike DeTomaso, the owner of the Royal Coachman fly shop in Skaneateles. He was always very generous in giving me advice when I came into his shop looking to buy the magic gear that would turn my luck around, and he was very patient in doing so. Eventually I got to the point where I could figure out what was going on in a few streams – what flies to use, how to present them, when the major feeding activities began and ended, and when to expect a major hatch. As a teenager, I fished one stream particularly hard, almost always dead-drifting a bead-head Hendrickson nymph or prospecting with an elk-hair caddis, but my favorite dry-fly fishing was a particular hatch on a nearby stream. Every year,sometime between the middle of June and the first week in July, I would drive down to the Owasco Inlet almost every day at about 6 pm, park at a particular turnout, and walk to a particular pool in a particular bend in the stream. I would wade to the middle of an upstream riffle, and swing nymphs across the head of the pool and catch a fair number of wild rainbows and browns. However, at about 7:30, I would start to see these yellow- to cream-colored duns coming off the water, and the trout soon shifted to splashy surface feeding. At the time, I didn’t know exactly what mayfly species they were, but a size 14-16 Yellow or Cream Cahill, or a size 12 Grey Fox tied Catskill-style never failed. In retrospect, I suspect that there were both Sulphurs and Yellow Cahills emerging, and perhaps some gray-winged yellow quills as well, but I was never really good at identifying mayflies on the wing. All I knew was that I could catch fish on almost every cast, and I was never dissapointed by the fact that the fish were almost always 12″ or smaller. However, the important part was that I thought that I must have been doing something right . If I had known about fishing emergers back then, I might have done better with the larger fish, but I was happy. By the time dusk gave way to darkness, the emergence was in full force. By that time, I couldn’t really see my fly on the water, but I’d cast and drift, and any time I heard a rise, I’d set the hook. About 50% of the time, I’d have a fish on. If it was still light enough to tie on a new fly after ruining one from catching several fish, I’d continue fishing, but I was always heartbroken when it got so dark that I couldn’t see to do so. And that’s how I spent about 14 evenings every summer. Still, I’m not sure why I never thought to bring a headlamp….
Fishing for fall-run browns (and some rainbows), as well as spring-run rainbows, migrating upstream from the Finger Lakes into spawning tributaries, ranked a close second to dry-fly fishing these same tribs for resident fish in the early summer. I graduated from using small pieces of orange sponge soaked in tuna oil, to salmon egg sacs, to yarn eggs, and then finally to my go-to rig: a large black stonefly nymph with a tiny bead egg trailing as a dropper. There’s nothing like having a small stream all to yourself in the middle of a sleet storm or lake-effect snow squall, working every inch of holding water thoroughly and methodically, chipping ice out of your guides and off your line, for the chance of hooking into a large migratory trout. And of course, there’s the time-honored Finger Lakes tradition of mid-winter fishing from shore using a worm and marshmallow for hungry trout and salmon.
I also enjoy playing guitar and bass, and singing when tolerated; I have a feeling that I play a little better than I think I do, and sing much worse than I think I do. Some of the more famous bands I’ve played in include Snap Crow Legs, The Four of Us, Classic Rock Overdose (perhaps the most accurate band name ever), and Benthic Groove. I actually made $50 in grad school playing two gigs sponsored by ESF, although generally the compensation was free beer at parties, or free coffee at coffee houses. So technically, I’ve relinquished my amateur status.
I’ve been married for 5 years to my best friend, who also happens to be an entomologist studying fungal pathogens of agricultural and forest pests. Jen and I have 3 wonderful dogs: Nerka, a 7-year old husky-lab mix (who, incidentally, is the best dog in the world) we adopted from a rescue while spending New Year’s break in the Adirondacks; Hyla, a lab-border collie-pit bull mix that we found eating out of our compost pile in Arkansas; and Baetis, a Great Pyrenees-border collie puppy that we adopted from a rescue shelter in CNY. We also have 3 cats: Harrison, Ringo, and Paul. As a family we enjoy camping, hiking, backpacking, and organic gardening. When the dogs and I want to give Jen and the cats a break, our favorite activities are finding and chasing squirrels, rabbits, grouse, and woodcock (and if I’m lucky I can get a shot off before Nerka catches her quarry).