Truchacabra

Conversations About Fly Fishing and the Outdoor Life

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 14 – Is Fly Fishing History?

McCoud

I forget where I first read that fly fishers are optimists by nature. Of course I didn’t need to read it anywhere, having on many occasions been the beneficiary of one more cast, a pinch more of split shot, or a fly change that caused a previously dead run to erupt with the wrath of a lunker trout. How many of us have arrived at a blown out stream where the blizzard hatch ended yesterday and earned a surprise fish instead of taking a skunk? Ask a good steelheader why he perseveres through a days-long losing streak. He’ll tell you his next swing will get a grab.

Columbine Hondo, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Columbine Hondo, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Even in 2014, one might take comfort in the notion that fly fishing has faced existential threats and come out on top many times since the days of Theodore Gordon and Charles F. Orvis. Rivers and lakes, we optimists might argue, possess obvious sacred value embodied in the mountains that hold them and in the trout that swim their waters. Not everything, trout streams especially, has a price. I first learned this in the 1970’s, when talk of damming the Yellowstone led to nothing. Some time later, Denver tried to put another dam on the South Platte. Fly fishermen were among the loudest voices telling Denver where to shove it.

Embargo Creek, Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

Embargo Creek, Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

Alas, anyone with a functioning brain can see that our society no longer offers safe haven to spiritual practices like fishing. Our government – due in part to a population that has grown by 100 million since the 70’s – has become clumsy, overbearing, and mean. We know the government we now hate is but a foil for that which truly rules us. We understand that corporations not only keep the lights on around here, but are willing to turn them off for the sake of the exclusive enrichment of the self-annointed deserving. In the eyes of the Supreme Court – aka, the known universe – corporations are persons now, although, unlike real people, they are not sent to jail or unfairly disrespected for accepting government assistance and skipping out on their bills. Like real people once were, corporations are the government.

Another evil that has evolved since the 70’s (or 1980 if we’re to mark a specific year) is the notion that money, like God, is inherently good and benevolent. Thus, even as we might despise the corporatocracy and its most objectionable impacts, we are loathe to do too much in protest. Regulation of any kind has become sacrilegious and can invite retribution.

I’ve said it many times, this pickle we’re in is our own damn fault. We have allowed agendas to endure without accounting for their negative effects. We allow conservatives to wield power without demanding that they conserve, and we suffer progressives who won’t deliver progress. Mesmerized by our televisions and cell phones, we’ve let the powerful abduct our language, to the point where their definitions have no relationship to the lives we actually lead.

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Taking our language back would be a great first step towards ensuring the survival of our beloved sport. For example:

“Good” – Money is a good, it’s true, though not an unqualified one. For it to be good, it needs to be in more pockets, not fewer, a concept that does not require the redistribution of wealth so much as an adequate distribution from the start. Healthy food, clean and ample water and land, roads, bridges, libraries, family health, time away from work, and activities (outdoor recreation?) on which to spend it must receive equal billing in our definition of what’s good.

Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River, New Mexico

Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River, New Mexico

“Personal Responsibility” – As currently touted by pundits and politicians, this concept applies mainly to the less fortunate (oh, would that a predatory lender might receive the same jail sentence as the single mom shoplifting a loaf of bread). Under a more empathic definition, personal responsibility would mean doing our best to help our neighbors make out as well as ourselves, or at least not turning their hardship to our advantage.

In their purest forms, our religions mandate this ethic, which is not an excuse to blame others for not helping, but an encouragement to follow the most beautiful of human instincts. Catch and release fishing is a perfect acknowledgement of how blessed we should feel for our interdependent world. We release so that others may catch.

There is no way I will ever see this cutthroat again, though I hope he's even bigger when someone else does!

There is no way I will ever see this cutthroat again, though I hope he’s even bigger when someone else does!

“Courage” – While soldiers are certainly brave, the people who put them in harm’s way are not brave by association. The parent working three minimum-wage jobs, the miner toiling in unsafe conditions, the steelhead guide blogger tapping into the night for wild fish and unpolluted rivers, the 9 to 5 cubicle jockey with a mortgage and good kids, the 7 to 7 elementary school teacher, the pro bono attorney, the doctor and the nurse – we must honor their courage as well. All too frequently, folks like these are viewed as money left on the table, even as they mop up messes of the cowards that be.

“Freedom” – Relatively speaking, freedom is still prevalent in America. Believe it or not, if you’re gay, muslim, poor, female, a minority, indigenous, a market, or of another category routinely jacked up in this country, your liberties are less infringed upon than in many others.

The problem is that the corporation has come to possess grotesquely more freedom than the rest of us. In exercising its freedom, this “person” restricts our own in almost every aspect of life. It controls our government, health care, food, water, the safety of our towns, schools and workplaces, our elections, information, technology, energy, transportation, bank accounts, our love lives and education, even the climate of our planet. If its motivation were different, if the corporation was fueled by a desire to safeguard freedom instead of usurp it, the power it possesses would be a wonderful thing indeed. But this monster is as insatiable as cancer.

Castle Crags, northern California

Castle Crags, northern California

One freedom it does not yet control is our ownership of the actual dirt of America, our public land. Make no mistake though, the corporation is coming for it as sure as night follows day. In legislatures across the west, efforts to transfer federal lands to the states are being driven by corporations. If these efforts succeed, states won’t be able to afford to manage such a windfall and will be forced to liquidate. That’s the plan, and if it happens, adios.

The future of fly fishing depends on our land remaining ours. Or public lands model, the likes of which is found nowhere else on earth, is the physical contract signed by generations of mothers and fathers who built our cities, fought in and paid for our wars, who in their turn, sacrificed their own children for crisply folded flags. What the wars were about hardly matters in this context. What matters is that ordinary Americans have held up their end. Now they get to fish.

Brother Pete and nephew Sammy, public lands owners.

Brother Pete and nephew Sammy, public lands owners.

It seems cute to define freedom as the right to watch a trout eat a dry fly on your favorite mountain stream, but I’m serious as a heart attack. This, my friends, is our final stand.

Truchacabra’s History of Flyfishing in America, Part 13 – We Elect A Black President Who Wrecks Everything

MissMeYetThis meme of George W. Bush popped up almost immediately after Barack Obama was elected. Presumably, it was intended to take us back to a time when things in America were better, when Obama’s deficit did not exist but W’s did, when we weren’t mired in wars but were righteously dreaming them up. The picture was intended to be funny. Tragically, it is.

At home and abroad, fiscally and morally, we had spent eight years running up costs and shrinking revenues. To give you a parallel of how well this worked out, I operated a fly shop during the Bush years according to a similar plan and experienced similar poor results, though in our defense, our shop hadn’t shrunk revenues on purpose like Bush had. The 2008 election was to be a referendum on failure. Obama and his opponent, a courageous war veteran and former champion of campaign finance reform, proposed a major change of course.

May John McCain be remembered as an earnest and hard-working senator and not the chump who brought a bag of hammers to a nail gun fight. Many, including me, believe this famous blunder was not McCain’s choice, and that the masters of his party preferred glorifying Bush’s cynicism to repudiating it. Perhaps the best evidence of this is Sarah Palin’s enduring celebrity, and the amazing fact that there are human beings who actually want to be like her.

How can we miss you, George, when you won't go away?

How can we miss you, George, when you won’t go away?

Now we knew, as though there’d been any doubt, that they were serious. Who “they” were became clearer as well.  The evil socialist Obama gave Wall Street a stern talking to, sent it to the corner for a time out, and that was kind of it. One wonder’s why, if only rhetorically. Why did Obama’s EPA equivocate when a majority of government-hating Alaskans didn’t want a copper mine at the Bristol Bay headwaters, especially when the science and due diligence were solid?

And why did the president give only lip service to climate change? Did he believe that 95% of climate scientists agreeing on its existence (and we all know how scientists love falling in line with each others’ theories) constituted a hoax, as the remaining 5% claimed? Or might he simply have achieved “Rapture readiness”, and had a jones to bring about the end of days?

No, he saw things as straight as anyone. Obama simply understood that he was but a brick in a command structure, one that allowed him to rock boats but not tip them. If we examine his presidency, this is less a critique of him – or even of his patrons – than an indictment of us all. Hope is fine. Change, not so much. Change hurts.

obama-trout-fishingIn 2009, Trout Unlimited turned 50. This organization of over 150,000 members had dedicated itself to improving trout habitat, the tacit assumption being that trout fisheries generally existed along a continuum of poor to good quality, but that they were nevertheless permanent. In the new millenium, however, it became clear how easily trout habitat could get knocked off of this continuum, that it could actually get extinguished.

It’s one thing, as TU is adept at doing, to halt the progress of invasive trout into native trout habitat. It’s quite another to keep stream temperatures from rising when no one can decide on the nature of the threat, if one even exists, or “screw it, the whole thing’s so scary, let’s pretend it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes!” Perhaps, due to more immediate threats such as the Pebble Mine, we should be excused for not knowing how to tackle climate change.

But only partially. For one thing, if Canada’s tar sands aren’t immediate, I don’t know what is. Consider also the fishing industry. Gear companies are now corporations operating according to the standard supply side model. Great for consumer choice, though one worries about sustainability.

Like all Americans, fishermen are willing victims of capitalism’s success. If our rods are to be capable of dropping an Adams into a thimble at 50 feet, if they are to remain affordable, there must be large scale consumption and waste. To have reels, fluorocarbon, Gore-Tex, sparkle yarn and hooks, our three hour drives for trout and cross country flights for steelhead, we must drill and excavate and burn at the expense of what we love.

Gone Fishin' Photo from WyoFile

Gone Fishin’
Photo from WyoFile

Welcome to Bummer Theatre. There are some seats down in front, kind of tattered and sticky. The show’s still good, great in fact. As always, we’ll leave better people than when we came. Might at least try, though, to go easy on the popcorn.

 

 

Native Trout: I Was Born Here My Whole Life – Part 2

Speaking of trout in the modern era, consider how rare it is for a state to harbor anything endemic. To the Mogollon people of the Gila region, the glistening flanks of their native trout mirrored the gold of autumn willows, a pale yucca flower sky at dawn, the pastel cliffs where these people built their dwellings, all beneath the fertile darkness of a monsoon sky. I take for granted that I could trek into the Gila Wilderness tomorrow for the pleasure of seeing one of these endangered treasures, a luxury not available to a great many of the earth’s trout lovers.

Photo: Garrett Veneklasen

Gila Trout   Photo: Garrett Veneklasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Panza Colorada (“red belly”), as Spanish settlers called the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, reflects New Mexico’s northern landscape in the same, if less subtle, manner as the Gila trout does the south. Most cutthroats are colored a shade of pinon green along the back, are flanked in blooming chamisa, and bear a scarlet stroke of Indian Paintbrush beneath the chin. In full dress, the Rio Grande cutthroat is an aspen grove or a cottonwood bosque in the peak of autumn change.

To my eye, the cutthroat’s colors speak to the diversity of the Land of Enchantment: multicolored maize harvested from pueblo gardens; caliche adobe plaster; huevos rancheros with lots of garnish; calabacitas con queso. During spawning season on the Rio Hondo, turquoise-backed cutthroats are almost perfectly camouflaged against the creek’s blue tint. I love the coincidence of the cutthroat being New Mexico’s state fish and turquoise being our state gemstone. I love thinking that, along with being biologically and aesthetically miraculous, the Rio Grande cutthroat is a legitimate cultural treasure. If that weren’t enough, consider that the cutthroat wears the yellow and red of our state flag.

HappyCamper

Photo: Michael Rearick, Truchas Chapter Trout Unlimited

These two colors, it must be said, are also prominent on the brown trout, certainly a cutthroat killer, but also a long-trusted friend to New Mexico anglers. In current times, browns own this state as undeniably as overgrazing does, and energy exploration, real estate development and, most recently, drought. We’re tired of the low water, but even in red, yellow, or bare dirt brown, New Mexico is beautiful yet.

So is the brown trout, an animal that has contributed much to the sporting pursuits we so cherish in these very dry times. Brown trout and, – in the case of the San Juan, Vallecitos, and Rio Grande – rainbows draw anglers from around the globe to fish here, not to mention to our restaurants and hotels. Turning back the clock to pre-brown trout conditions would be unrealistic, expensive, and impossible. And even if we could eliminate the non-natives, most of us wouldn’t want to. If the cutthroat is our red chile enchilada, the brown trout is our Lotaburger, always there, always good, and on special occasions, you get double meat and bacon.

And bacon............

Depending on who you are, being born n’ raised New Mexican is either a blessing, an honor, or a curse. Sometimes it’s all of that: life’s wonderful here, it takes a unique sensibility to appreciate that, but dang if getting by isn’t harsh in this high desert. If only we would accord our native trout the same kind of respect for representing our rugged landscape and hardscrabble culture. I have difficulty believing that there are still people who would see the Gila and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout go off the cliff of extinction. They see natives and non-natives as existentially exclusive, which is a crying shame.

Brown trout and rainbows are necessary and they are relevant. They represent where we are in time and as a society. As natives, Gilas and cutthroats add a deeper layer; they recall our history, thus our essence as New Mexicans. These dual concepts needn’t conflict. Rather, they should be as inseparable as Chaco Canyon and lowriders and fry bread and ranching and Zozobra and cell phones, and that inevitable March sadness whenever the Lobos make the dance and choke in the first round. Seriously, if we New Mexicans are good at preserving one thing, it’s our heritage; where else in America is fresh green chile roasted in supermarket parking lots?

All of New Mexico’s trout contribute to our sporting culture. I like to think they symbolize that long drive home from a trip outdoors, when we’re hungry and not quite sure how to take care of it. Hatchery fish are the Fritos that tide you over until a roadside eatery, which, like a brawny Rio Chama brown trout, usually does the job. Sometimes, though, that growl in your gut is just a little too loud and can only be quelled by the innate and the ancestral. Forever may we honor this hunger and keep it.

Where I'm from, with extra garnish!

Panza Colorada!

Native Trout: I Was Born Here My Whole Life – Part 1

As a boy fishing Big Tesuque Creek, I dapped Reverend Lang dry flies over many a sighted brown trout. I hooked and landed them with one stroke, and dispatched my fish quickly before threading them onto sticks. I felt like a hero bringing my prey home to Mom, until I realized that she – having practically subsisted on bass, perch, and bream during the bare cupboard years of World War II – was less than enthusiastic about reintroducing fish into the family diet. I also came to realize that I enjoyed eating trout less than she liked cooking them.

Gila Fishing

Photo: Garrett Veneklasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Another thing I discovered was that I simply loved to look at trout. When lying on a sunny patch of grass, a fresh-caught trout took me places I didn’t yet know existed. Every scale consisted of an infinite array of colors. Upon close scrutiny, I could see green or even purple on a rainbow trout’s belly, which at arm’s length might appear merely white. I stared at trout alive, on my stringer, even gutted in the kitchen sink. I remeasured them as though they might possibly have grown since I’d killed them. At night, I pulled them from the freezer as though to discuss my day at school.

Eventually I noticed the stark difference between a living trout and a dead one. I came to feel life’s instant departure after I broke a trout’s neck. I didn’t like how the colors drained away, how it happened in blotches like a disease. The stiffening body made me sad, as did the centered pupil staring out at nothing. There was something buoyant about a living trout. Much like one feels about a beloved dog, a living trout’s eyes seemed to tell me things. “Maybe you should let me go,” they seemed to say.

Over a lifetime devoted to trout, I developed many preferences. Decades ago, I decided that I hated stockers, probably when I realized that they didn’t seem to care what kind of toilet they lived in, that they’d as soon eat old underwear as a bare hook, or that, speaking of old underwear, they were saggy and gray, abraded and torn at their functional parts. They had a strange, almost industrial odor to them. Hatchery trout were gross.

Mom, have you seen my boxers?

Mom, have you seen my boxers?  Photo: Garrett Veneklasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Streamborn trout, in contrast, were perfect in every way. Over time, this sentiment of mine evolved to the point where certain wild trout – native trout to be exact – were more perfect to me than others. In New Mexico, we are blessed with two native trouts, the Gila from the rugged mountain mass of the same name, and the Rio Grande subspecies of the cutthroat, prehistorically present from Colorado to southwest Texas. Now that each occupies such a small fraction of its former range, seeing one in habitat it has occupied for tens of millions of years is nothing short of a transcendent experience.

Gila Trout

Gila Trout  Photo: Garrett Veneklasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Like pretty much all of North America, New Mexico still bears scars from over a century ago, when resource extraction and its associated infrastructures crippled ecosystems that had spent eons evolving. By the turn of the 20th century, decades of heavy mining, logging, grazing, as well as consumptive and commercial wildlife harvesting had left many native species hanging by a thread.

Registering the expanding absence of trout, we filled the void with brown trout from Europe and rainbows from the west coast. The browns and rainbows ate and otherwise dominated the natives. In an almost diabolic twist, rainbows were genetically close enough to cutthroats and Gilas to be able to breed with them and create viable, if taxonomically diluted, offspring.

Even in these more progressive times when people of conflicting ideologies can and often do agree on the value of unpolluted water and healthy habitat, New Mexico’s native trout continue to slide. The greatest threat to the continued existence of Gilas and cutthroats – equalizing for climate change – is competition from non-natives. Browns, rainbows, and often brook trout colonize more native habitat each year; every day, it seems, natives are harder to come by.

But is that really so bad? So what if catching a Gila or cutthroat depends on going deeper into the backcountry? Shouldn’t we just load up our backpacks or horses and hit the trail? More exact, shouldn’t we accept that native trout simply can’t cut it in our modern world? It’s a hard pill to swallow, but we might do well to admit what’s been obvious for years. Many fishers I know have made peace with this. I, for better or worse, have not.

But at least I’m right.

cuttface

Rio Grande cutthroat trout  Photo: Garrett Veneklasen

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 12 – Year 2000, The Unclear and Present Danger

When the clock ticked over to the year 2000 the world did not end as many had predicted. Computers made the shift with ease, reminding humankind that we maintained mastery over our domain. Still, disappointed doomsayers would have plenty to cheer about by the end of 2K’s first year, when both George W. Bush AND Al Gore won the presidency.

In September of the following year, eleven days before my wedding, my fiance’s Manhattanite sister called to assure us that she was fine. Registering our confusion, she told us to turn on the television, where we saw the smoke pouring from one building, right as the other one was struck by the second plane.

UnknownWe were living in Berkeley, and the wedding was in Canada near Niagra Falls. We had intended to fly there, of course, but everything was grounded. So we packed up the car, headed out a few days early. Pretty much everyone came and had fun in spite of a solemn undercurrent. Staunch Democrats and Republicans, of which there were plenty, seemed only to want to be where there was love.

On the way back to California, we passed through Yellowstone and fished the South Fork of the Snake with a stone cold moron of a guide. Like many a country music star in the aftermath of the attacks, this guy had become an overnight visionary on modern geopolitics and was determined to share his genius. Thanks to this ass, the happy dream of our nation’s shared destiny was dunked in the Snake. Basically, this mastery of our domain stuff, the feeling like our human situation was under control, was now a leaky boat in a shark-filled sea.

That November, we flew to Montana to fish with some friends. We spoiled ourselves with dark spawner browns on the Ruby, and my wife, in an unusual fit of fishing prowess, caught a two foot Madison rainbow on a sculpin. On the way back to my friend’s house after our day on the Missouri – as I maintained a white-knuckled vigilance for whitetails leaping out of the night into the car’s path – the sky began to lighten.

Alaska Winter

Alaska Winter

It took me a moment to remember that the moon was in a dark phase, at which point I suspected that the aurora borealis might be coming out for a show. By the time we got home, the eruption was in full force, red and purple from horizon to horizon. I don’t remember how long we all lay there, but I remember the detoxifying and reassuring effects. Our upheaving world would right itself just like it always had. Life was cyclical.

As a salve for the soul, that worked for about a year, by which time nature’s cycles seemed unremarkable in comparison to its accretions. In the late fall of 2002, Homeland Security created no trespass zones around the bases of large dams. Since my teenage years, the shadow of the Navajo Dam had been one of my favorite places to midge fish. No one was ever there, for some reason, and there were always rising fish. Now and forever, it doesn’t exist as a fishing spot for me. It’s as though it never did.

littlecuttAlong with such realities, the accumulation of incremental slights had seemingly created a numbing effect on our fly fishing consciousness. Quite possibly, the pollution and silt, mines, logging and overgrazing, and other threats had fatigued us to the point of paralysis. Combined with our post 9/11, “if xyz, then the terrorists win,” rationale, this exhaustion had formed us into a herd of cuddly lambs.

Fear had replaced common sense at the national steering wheel, as the stinking smoke of betrayal began to rise from the hood. I remember around then having difficulty explaining why cutthroat trout should be protected and restored. After the attacks, demanding more than bare minimums was frowned upon. A trout was a trout, the thinking went, a real patriot shouldn’t ask for too much.

Then, in 2006, we had a son, a surprise reminder that the cumulative was also a blessing that made the outdoor life worth defending. So the enemies of fishing were legion, but when was that not the case? Once again, laying down was not an option for me, for the future my boy would occupy was at stake. Since the dawn of the new century, the credo of America seemed to have become that whatever was not death was life. It was a good time to remember, however, an alternative worldview, the truth that had brought us this far….

....whatever isn't life is death.

….that whatever is not life is death.

The Past, Our Present, Their Future: Volume 1 – The Spawnlight

Dearest Truchacabrones,

With great pride and pleasure, I introduce you to Gregg Flores, accomplished flyfisher, devoted husband and father, stalwart conservationist, and the creator of Where the River Runs, a blog about northern New Mexico fly fishing that I’m sure you’ve enjoyed every time you’ve read it. Gregg is a powerful voice for preserving New Mexico’s unique wild heritage, a distinction we are sure to benefit from as long as he keeps writing stories and shooting pretty pictures of pretty fish. I hope you enjoy the following piece by Mr. Flores. Gracias, Gregg!

“Wow! That’s a giant,” Tony said. We were walking the Rio and had spotted a huge Cutbow quietly suspended in only 8 inches of water within a mere 3 feet of the bank. The kype on this male was unmistakable and his lateral line was decked out in some of the brightest reds I’ve ever seen on a New Mexico trout.

“Great colors,” I responded. “ANY angler in New Mexico would proud to get a shot at a fish like that. Shall we move on?”

He looked at me puzzled, maybe even slightly offended. “Huh? We’re passing him up?”

“Look a little closer. Behind the fish.”, I advised. Tony fixed his eyes behind the male, and then he saw her. It was the buck rainbow’s female companion. We were only ten feet from these trophy-sized ‘bows and the angle at which we were facing them allowed us to clearly see the female’s oversized belly.

Having seen my fair share of actively spawning fish I simply told him, “Check this out.” The female, as if on cue, then gave Tony his first-ever look at fish sex. She turned so that her lateral line was nearly parallel with the water surface (giving us a clear view of her generous girth) and began slapping her tail against the unblemished gravel beneath her. Then, returning to facing upstream she relinquished her precious cargo; tiny peach-colored beads carrying with them the hope of sustainability on what is arguably New Mexico’s greatest river.

DSCN1442

Giant Cuttbows don’t happen by accident. It takes the efforts of many people over generations to assure that these fish continue to thrive in their natural habitat. Gregg Flores photo.

I’m sure at one time or another all of us have taken advantage of actively spawning fish and it wasn’t until I developed a deep sense of gratitude for the past and a strong sense of vision for the future that I myself began to pass these fish up. Let me elaborate. I have the privilege of fishing the same waters that my great-grandfather, my grandfather, and my father have all fished before me. Although the quality of fishing has without doubt lost some ground on many waters over the last 100 years (just ask an 70 year old angler how good the fishing used to be on the San Antonio for big Browns) there would be absolutely no fishing had nobody began to consider the future of our rivers. I am literally catching fish in the same pools that my Grandfather did but only because there were anglers dedicated to the future of our land and fisheries long before I was even a thought in this world.

e;i

My daughter Elliana (12 weeks old here) and I dry fly fish the upper Rio Pueblo near Tres Ritos, NM. Elli’s firs summer on earth had her on the Jemez, Pecos, Costilla, and San Juan Rivers, among others. Ann Flores photo.

When I hold a giant Cuttbow on the Rio a deep sense of gratitude comes over me. Gratitude first of all to my father, Gregg Flores Sr., for introducing me to this sport as soon as I could pick up a stick, and gratitude to the anglers before me who had enough sense to treat the land, its waters, and their inhabitants with enough respect that sustainability even had a chance.

Big browns are diamonds in the rough.

Big browns are diamonds in the rough. This gorgeous hen was caught and quickly released with the hope that my own children will one day enjoy the bounty of her offspring. Ann Flores photo.

I now have children of my own and I believe that the importance of sustainability and conservation is greater now than it has ever been. Development of lands and disregard for nature is increasing and those who actually care seem to be a dwindling minority.

But we are passionate! Monuments are being erected, lines being drawn, and the hope for continuing sustainability on these lands and waters is on the rise. Tony gladly passed those giant cuttbows up that day and I gained a great deal of respect for him. Trust me, after miles of hiking the abyss that is the Gorge it takes a finely-tuned conscience and no small measure of self-control to pass up giant wild fish. But we do so with the hope that one day our children and our children’s children will catch and release fish in these same waters we have and if they do then we would know that the descendants of those fish we passed up not only survived but thrived in wild rivers.

My son Caleb

My son Caleb (4 weeks old here) and I enjoying a moment on the Costilla. My children are being raised on the water and in the wild. Only through the intentional conservation efforts of our current generation will they be able to provide their own progeny with the same opportunities. Ann Flores photo.

 

Hatchery Trout: Unsung Heroes of the Apocalypse?

Will-1

As hatcheries became commonplace in America, trout fishermen came to depend on them for their sport. For starters, non-native trout were simply filling ecological vacuums created by progress. In the east, urbanization and pollution had pushed the eastern brook trout toward the abyss while overgrazing, logging, hard rock mining, and flood irrigation had done the same to western bull trout and cutthroats.

Proving to be adequate replacements for the natives, brown trout and rainbows also hurried their demise, which was of concern to no one. What mattered was that fishermen were happy. Furthermore, stocked fish generated license revenue for state fish and game agencies, which were loathe to terminate such an arrangement for existential reasons. Besides the State of Montana, which hasn’t stocked a stream since the 1970s and only has the earth’s lamest trout fishing to show for it, no lower 48 state has had the temerity to challenge this orthodoxy.

Stocker #

Stocker #1

Stocker #2

Stocker #2

Most hatchery trout are ugly and compete fiercely with resident trout for food and space. They don’t survive well and have dubious value outside of a dinner plate, where their being little more than reconstituted fish feces can be a problem if neither salt nor ketchup is at hand. To intentionally fish for stockers is to act in a cartoon in which whiskey and weed aren’t adventure-enhancing luxuries, but rather prescriptions for keeping your lunch down. In many cases, stocker trout are like terminal meth addicts, deserving of sympathy yet utterly ill-equipped to redeem themselves.

Stocker #3

Stocker #3

Sure I’m piling on, because we know all this, and have for some time. I suppose a search for mitigating factors might be more constructive.

If planted at an early age, stockers mature according to the law of the jungle. Survivors of catchable size, therefore, are essentially wild in nature and often in appearance. Where executed judiciously, and in streams without wild or native populations, stocking fingerlings has created exciting fisheries – I’m thinking of certain tailwaters and Great Lakes tributaries – where none existed before. The Guadalupe Chapter of Trout Unlimited boasts the organization’s largest membership and is one of the its most effective and generous chapters. Thanks to strategic stocking on its namesake River, the chapter has created a catch and release fishery that promotes its exemplary conservation ethic. In Texas.

Stocker #4

Stocker #4

To the degree that it resembles a fish, a stocker is fun to catch for the novice angler. In urban centers where outdoor opportunities are limited, stockers provide underadvantaged people, children especially, with a way to interact with nature. A hatchery owner I know delivers to Kansas City and Kingman, Arizona. Imagine the positive difference trout fishing might make in such places.

Stocker #

Stocker #5

Speaking of kids, let’s not underestimate the impact soccer parenting may someday have on the relationship – or lack thereof – between children and nature. Say at a birthday picnic, a couple kids sneak away during the 3:15 piñata slot, dig their own worms and bait their own hooks (without disinfecting their hands afterwards), and soon they’re feeling nibbles from some leadheads. In this fashion they discover the joy of spontaneity and begin to imagine other mysteries in other worlds. If humankind is going to make it, I firmly believe that kids will need to achieve such intimacy with nature, on their own terms instead of through their parents’ iSphincters.

Stocker #6

Stocker #6

Above all its other attributes, the stocker trout is a cipher of unqualifiable cautionary value, and we must view this animal with the utmost seriousness. At the same time, we must never accept it, for in doing so we allow the bar to be lowered from where it was lowered after it was lowered by the construction of hatcheries in the first place (Editor’s note: Truchacabra’s 20/20 hindsight meter is redlining).

There is always the risk that – while we might always recognize the hatchery trout’s nub of a dorsal fin – we might someday lose sight of its almost complete artificiality, at which point the unraveling of Mother Earth will accelerate – by unfallen inches of rain and snow, by acre feet, board feet, feet of barbed wire stretched across previously accessible streams, by miles of high fences, pipelines, and user-created ATV trails, by acres of grass becoming dirt with every animal unit month. Today’s chopped off mountaintop becomes tomorrow’s pit at the Bristol Bay headwaters. Billion becomes million in our groundwater, as in “parts per”.

The stocker trout, bless its heart, is but the messenger. May it never die in vain.

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 11 – Beadheads.com

 

Screen shot 2013-10-08 at 3.33.26 PMA River Runs Through It made those blue lines on road maps a lot more attractive to a lot more people. The strike indicator was here, the movie, and the beadhead nymph, making the 1990s and beyond a living hell for trout. Borrowing, at least accidentally, from Gary Lafontaine’s observation that nymphs and emerging insects trap air bubbles against their bodies, – he designed his Sparkle Pupa to create this effect – beads attracted fish that perceived real life in our flashy offerings.

By making tiny flies shine, beads also shrunk the needle-in-a-haystack obstacle to many an angler’s development of mental confidence while fishing small flies; during the 90s, most of my fishing was on very large rivers, and I can attest to the power of this. Metal beads allowed tiers to wrap thin abdomens without sacrificing the sinking capability of lead in the body. I often wonder how effective Mike Mercer’s classic Micro-Mayfly pattern would have been without the bead, or Hogan Brown’s Military Mayfly.

Leopard rainbows in Alaska: almost as popular as Newt Gingrich.

Why I love Alaska.

Beadheads changed the fly fishing landscape in at least two other respects. First, the beadhead fly is really a lure, especially when adorned with flashy and technicolor synthetics. I think being perceived as lure fishermen instead of fly fishers has changed both pursuits, though I’m not yet sure how.

Since we started fishing two, three, and even more of these fish magnets at one time, fly fishing also became a gauntlet for trout that – and this is important – we tortured and released instead of culling them from the population. With the increasing angler population, these sea changes in methodology affected trout on a genetic level. The DNA of trout that learned from contact with humans expanded their representation in every watershed. We were educating our trout.

As much as I had fished throughout my life, my passion for fishing and life surged in those years. I fished all around the west, met lots of wonderful people and lived a carefree and airy existence. To pinpoint why the time was so special compared to others – for I had been devoted to my fishing always – I fall back upon my weak understanding of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I think holds that it is difficult to simultaneously measure complementary variables in  an equation without each affecting the other. In other words, certain events during the decade probably influenced each other while contributing to my bliss.

Consider the following:

  • The end of the Cold War was the removal of a colossal weight from the national chest. Not to diminish the horrors of Rwanda, the Balkans, or Oklahoma City, but I had never before lived in a time of relative peace, or at least in the absence of a boogey man.
  • Although the dot com explosion didn’t affect me directly, – I was in grad school, guiding fishing trips and running a tree crew to make ends meet – I’m sure it was a subconscious boost my outlook. Almost everyone had a job. General happiness and income levels were high. On second thought, I guess this had plenty to do with keeping me in hackle feathers, gasoline, and hamburgers.
  • Like Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton showed how one might heed conservative values without completely sacrificing compassion for his fellows. To our benefit and frustration, he overwhelmed us with his ego (“Testify, Mr. Gingrich!”). Then again, ego had never been in such vogue as in the 90s.
  • Michael Jordan’s domination of his field was so complete that it transcended basketball and made many an atheist believe in God. I can still call up that feeling of invincibility by association: being his age, in the best physical condition of my life, and stuffing an 8-foot hoop with authority. I was still strong enough to hit the water at first light, fish hard all day, and trudge back to the car after dark.
Speaking of an airy existence.

Speaking of airy existence.

  • My nymph rod was a 10 foot, 5 weight Sage RPL, and my dry rod was a 9 foot, 4 weight Sage LL. When I’m nothing but a bowl of ashes, I’ll still remember how those two rods fished.

At a cursory glance, one might conclude that life in the 90s was all sex, gold, and roses. But cracks were inevitable. As the end of the 20th century approached, fundamentalist extremism had sunk roots in many first and third world cultures, and many, like ours, were unable to adapt. From the Middle East to Captiol Hill, ideological hyenas nurtured end games that were really the End Times, or at least their private fantasies of such. In one popular view, the chosen faithful would spend eternity with virgins; in another, with dollar bills.

I’d also been reading for some years that a layer of carbon dioxide – due to the combustion of fossil fuels – had formed in the atmosphere and was thickening. Research suggested that this layer would begin to trap the earth’s radiant heat and alter weather patterns in unpredictable and possibly devastating ways. In one scenario, scientists hypothesized that warm winter storms would drop large quantities of snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and follow them up with deluges of warm rain. The resultant flooding would cripple the Californian agriculture, and such floods would become commonplace.

In January of 1997, a single Pacific storm dumped 10 feet of “Sierra cement” and then up to 30 inches of warm rain on top of it. The Sacramento River swelled to over 600,000 cubic feet per second (10,000 is a normal summer flow). Levies breached or broke, and the Central Valley became an ocean. June of the same year, I met a sheriff on the east slope of the Sierras. He told me how the West Walker River had gouged the highway out of the mountainside like it was so much warm ice cream, and how he’d aimed his speed gun at a log the length of a semi-truck racing by on the flood. Forty five miles an hour.

You know what they say about all good things.

Before

Yuba River before…….

After

……and after.

 

 

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 10 – The Day the Music Died but not Really

MoviePosterI tried to act surprised when A River Runs Through It was made into a movie in 1992. I had loved the book, but who would watch a movie about fly fishing? Then again, father and sons angling the themes shared with more conventional human experience – camaraderie and solitude, spirituality and religion, tragedy and redemption – was the life story of pretty much everyone I knew who threw the fly. I suppose the only real surprise was that someone hadn’t done a movie sooner.

The film resonated with people who had never thought about fly fishing before. Robert Redford made moviegoers see themselves in the pastor father, the narrator (Norman Maclean), or his passionate and self-destructive brother. Many men, me for example, already felt they had lots in common with Brad Pitt as a celebrity (heck, two decades after the film was released, fly fishing sex symbols Gary and Jason Borger still remind us that Jason was Pitt’s fly casting double). The movie just pushed us over the line.

When they think about what Brad and I have in common, my friends usually agree on this shot.

When they think about what Brad and I have in common, my friends usually agree on this shot.

In all seriousness, Redford’s greatest success was with the story’s true protagonist, the practice of fly fishing itself. If we connected with the movie, it was because we experienced something akin to seeing our reflections in the rippled surface of a trout stream. As in life, the person gazing back is easy to identify most of the time. At other moments, we try to recognize ourselves in the undulations, become dizzy, and fall. So many of us turn to fly fishing because it goes so extremely far towards establishing equilibrium as a normal state of being. Failing that, as happens, fishing chases away vertigo like quasi-religious pastimes are known for. I don’t see how one could explain this concept in a movie, but Robert Redford hit pretty close to the bullseye.

It seems that many who liked the movie were not content to have their departure from the theatre be the end of the experience. I’d meet people who’d hear I was a fly fisher, say they’d seen “the movie”, and would just have to try it. I started guiding in Alaska, and most of my beginner clients said the movie was the reason they were there.

Like playing catch on the lawn.

Like playing catch on the lawn.

Thanks to A River Runs Through It, lodges, tackle companies, retailers, and travel brokers saw their fortunes take a steep uphill swing. Fly shops sprouted up all across the west, and ranchers saw the trout on their property – as represented in river frontage – become more valuable than cows. Many of them subdivided and got rich. I’m sure others became realtors and continued to spread the good news.

To many, this overnight commoditization of fly fishing signaled its gruesome death. I’m being dramatic, to be sure, but I remember like it was yesterday my fishing buddy’s “Oh shit” as we sat in the theatre watching the credits start to roll. Sure enough, some of our streams blossomed with people (full disclosure: income from guide trips and fishing clinics helped me get through grad school). The fly fishing you see today – logo this and that, five hundred dollar guide trips and eight hundred dollar rods, nose-pierced posers and their supposedly secret fishing holes that were in fact discovered by grandfathers – would never have happened if not for that stupid movie.

Yeah, stupid movie.

Yeah, stupid movie.

Which is bull, of course. Sage and Simms were established before 1992, as were Dan Bailey’s, Michalak’s Fly Shop, Kaufman’s, Orvis, and Cabela’s. Frontiers had been doing trips, and computers were quickly becoming lightspeed mailboxes and billboards. King Kong was already in the room; A River Runs Through It was merely the lighted match that exploded the windows out when he farted.

It can’t be denied that the movie brought and continues to bring new people to rivers, which is perhaps its greatest legacy. Many of these folks are arguably the wrong types representing the wrong interests. Since Maclean’s story has been told, however, these same people might draw lines in the sand where they wouldn’t have before. They try to change policies and write personal checks for wildlife and their favorite streams. Decades ago, there were plans to dam the Yellowstone and put another one on the South Platte for Denver’s unslakeable thirst. Fly anglers from all quarters killed these projects before they were born, as they will again with the soulless effort to dig a gold mine at the origin of the world’s most prolific salmon fishery (see Truchacabra – Illiamna Shore and Gold, What is it Good For?).

Thanks, Sundance Kid!

Thanks, Sundance Kid!

Fly fishermen now comprise a formidable and often effective army, and Robert Redford should be given his share of credit.

 

 

 

A Western Governor Invests in Water

rio hondo

According to Ryan Flynn, Secretary-Designate of the New Mexico Environment Department, approximately 30 percent of his state’s streams fall short of one or more standards for acceptable water quality. Rivers display impairments associated with erosion and associated turbidity, organic contaminants, water temperature, poor floodplain connectivity, and colonization of riparian zones by invasive and hydrology-disrupting plants. These problems – particularly in the Gila, Pecos, and Jemez drainages – have been exacerbated by ashflows and flooding wrought by the devastating wildfires over the last few years. Salting the wound is New Mexico’s dubious distinction of being the nation’s most drought-stricken state, and the most authoritative data on climate trends predict a continued dearth of precipitation in the southwest, without a foreseeable end.

Hats off to Governor Susana Martinez for taking the reins on New Mexico’s water situation. On August 15, she announced that she would request 1.5 million in capital outlay dollars to fund New Mexico River Stewards, a program to restore troubled streams. If appropriated, these funds can leverage federal and local resources, providing New Mexican communities with the ability to construct the best projects possible.

As exciting as this moment appears, one might reasonably ask how 1.5 million dollars – even optimally leveraged – can put a consequential dent in New Mexico’s dire predicament. Most immediately, as Governor Martinez stated, local projects can produce local jobs for contractors. I think of the village of Pecos, whose recreation-fueled economy was pummeled by the 2013 Tres Lagunas fire, and how many families are suffering. In Pecos and elsewhere in drought-stressed New Mexico, every penny spent locally makes a difference.

The governor’s investment will also yield long term benefits, particularly in rural communities whose economies depend on the health of land and water. Healthy rivers can simply do more than impaired ones can. They produce bigger yields of alfalfa, chile, beans, and corn. They sustain more trout and wildlife, which fill freezers and sustain families through seasons of low income. Trout and wildlife also draw visitors from outside the villages, among them anglers and hunters who hire local guides, buy meals, supplies, and hotel beds, who go back home and gush to their friends about unforgettable experiences. The friends visit, then tell their own friends. Most visitors are content to keep supporting local businesses on their trips; a handful of others buy real estate. In the right circumstances, a healthy stream gives rise to all this economic activity. Tax bases grow, villages are able to meet the needs of their residents and armor themselves against hardship.

What healthy rivers don’t do is at least as important as what they do. A healthy river does not make people or animals sick. It doesn’t bust from its channel with an inch or four of rain, because its meandering course slows the current and allow water to soak into thickly vegetated and absorbent banks (I always think this is why we call them banks) for subsequent release in times of scarcity. Healthy streams do not accumulate sediment beyond what they can use; they move it toward its highest purpose, be that to narrow a widened tailout or to nourish a side channel wetland.

Healthy rivers are resilient and adaptable, and with time and minimal disturbance, they become more so. In other words, if even modest steps are taken to heal an ailing stream, it will develop the capacity to heal itself. The more it heals, the faster it heals while becoming more resistant to injury. This is why Governor Martinez’ seemingly small investment, if managed prudently, is likely to deliver restoration results that are durable, efficient, self-sustaining and, in light of all this, of significant economic and social value.

This is a golden opportunity. Susana Martinez has packed us a big snowball. All we need to do is roll it down the hill.