Conversations About Fly Fishing and the Outdoor Life

Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Wolf at the Door

CattleRangeThe room was packed, wall-to-wall cowboy hats and New Mexico’s native tongue – the blend of Spanish and English I refer to as “Chinglés.” These folks are almost unanimously against the designation of new wilderness, part of why I attended this meeting of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association. In hard to reach, high altitude locations, forage and water abound in most years, and thanks to generations of government-funded predator control, few threats exist. I wanted to learn more about why someone might take exception to that.

We watched a film, “Losing our Land,” about New Mexican ranchers’ struggles against Mexican wolves, profiteering environmentalists and the government. Though I knew it wouldn’t, that it couldn’t (the film was produced by Glen Beck after all), I wanted the story to turn over the next stone, to provide some context behind the challenges of rural living. A rancher was pictured crying. His tears and pain were palpable.

Ranchers fear that their way of life is as threatened as the numerous species – the meadow jumping mouse, prairie chicken, cutthroat trout – they have driven to the brink of nonexistence. Notwithstanding the irony in this, their desire for relief must be insuperable. If it’s not the greenies crawling up their asses, it’s the price of fuel and feed, interest rates, tuitions, government cutbacks, aging equipment and bodies, rain that refuses to fall, and wolves.

Fortunately, help is on the way. State Representative Yvette Herrell and Senator Ron Griggs intend to pass legislation enabling New Mexico to assume ownership of America’s public lands. By Herrell’s own admission, this would be a step towards privatizing those lands.

Herrell and Griggs believe the state will manage public land better than the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It’s a bold claim, complete conjecture if one relies on substantiating evidence. Maybe the logic is that the state is too benign to commit the type of overreach characteristic of the feds, that the state treats cattlegrowers better than the scoundrels from back east with their below cost grazing fees.

Let’s look at those fees. Currently on public land, a rancher pays $1.35 per AUM (one month of public grass for a cow and calf pair). Compare that to what my family pays for just one night at a Forest Service campground. Sixteen dollars, the equivalent of one month’s foraging for 22 animals, or two pairs of cows through an entire grazing season.

Put in human terms, one night of camping on public land costs less than a nickel for a cow and her calf. All in. Unlike my family, cattle don’t gas up in the nearby town and buy fishing gear and licenses, beer and marshmallows. They essentially chupa the public udder for free.

Amazingly, to many at the stockman’s meeting, this is still a raw deal. In fairness, ranchers acting in good faith often encounter agency resistance when trying to access forage, improve efficiency, or reduce red tape. The smart approach might be to push for better agency funding while engaging more diligently in the planning process. Incremental progress is certainly less risky than betting the farm on a fantasy.

And what a fantasy it is. As Herrell and Griggs picture it, as it “manages” its land, the state won’t succumb to environmentalist crap. Cows once imprisoned will be freed unto a world of grassy lushness where they will wallow in cool creeks, jackhammer the banks, and gush torrents of green slurry unto the water. Wolves and elk, ever insatiable, will be destroyed as suits the cow. Roads, fences, and watering troughs will be built and maintained.

Forests will be thinned heavily, logs sold to a market that always needs them, and counties will be reimbursed their opportunity costs. In the unlikely event of wildfire, the state will deploy adequate resources to subdue it, along with the cheatgrass and knapweed that erupt in its wake. The state will also reimburse the rancher for impacts to stock from fires and other disasters. Verily, the rancher will thus prosper.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the public lands cowboy would be the first log on the fire of public lands transfer. The State of New Mexico is a perennial national leader in child poverty, inadequate education, and other metrics reflecting on its “management” skills. I’m incapable of imagining that ranchers would be immune to whatever lies at the root of all this, or why they don’t recognize they’re being played.

In these times when almost every other land use bests the economic output of ranching, will the state float the ranchers like the feds have since the Taylor Grazing Act? I’ve seen private land grazing fees as high as 11.50 per AUM, probably because that’s the true cost of grazing. I don’t think the average rancher could afford to pay anywhere close to that, or that the state would pick up a lot of slack.

Do we know which lands will be sold when the inevitable day arrives (Hint: choice parcels will have grass, nice views, streams, lakes of oil beneath, and it will probably be expensive)? Would the ranchers be able to buy? To be clear, I’m talking about the people who raise cattle for a living, not the tycoons who buy land and put cattle on it to duck taxes.

So yeah, the ranchers are screwed. The wolves are at the door sure enough, but it’s getting clearer every day that they walk on two legs.





Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Our Place in the World

Christmas Evening, Santa Fe lights, from Santa Fe National Forest

Christmas Evening, 2014. Santa Fe lights, from Santa Fe National Forest

Christmas and I do not get along. In America at least, I hate how the season seems to come at such a high cost in nature and humanity so that we in the so-called first world can buy our special someones the latest iPhone. I hate mountains being chewed off for coal we waste lighting trees and houses through millions of hours of sleep, coal that could be used better by filling a few more stockings. I hate that Christmas seems at once cause and penance for a materialist culture that consumes so much of our work, thoughts, and health. Christmas cheer is too often false. Like a bellyful of eggnog, it leaves me groggy and bloated.

Contrary to what Bill O’Reilly might think, the band of grinches to which I belong is a miniscule one. Most people I know love Christmas, and I understand why. They like being surrounded by loved ones, the giving and receiving of gifts. My wife enjoys singing, making presents by hand, scribbling to-do lists, even baking cookies for Santa. I admire that she is so heartset on keeping favorite traditions alive; it doesn’t matter what we eat for Christmas supper, but if lox and bagels aren’t for breakfast, the Son of God may as well not have been born.

Many of my friends love Jesus Christ, and people of other faiths feel similar stirrings that are equally profound. Theory has it that so many spiritual traditions celebrating contemporaneously may have had something to do with pagans, whose focus on the winter solstice had been powered by eons of wondering about their places in the cosmos. Beat them or join them, as the case may have been. Although I’m no longer religious myself – I was once a hardcore Catholic – at least this much seems clear: a majority of people ever to have lived have recognized a time in early winter when quests for meaning feel natural and good.

It’s taken me forever to realize that I do a lot better by not expecting Christmas lovers to see things my way. I’ve wished they would, at least insofar as withholding their scorn at my scrooginess, but it simply seems easier for me to try and take joy in theirs. More than that, at a time most people consider holy, it seems mandatory for a-holes like me to join in the reflection on how the universe shapes our lives.

John Hasted, wonderful man, wetting a line.

John Hasted, wonderful man, wetting a line.

In recent years, this has entailed a solo Christmas walk in the woods. This year my walk was painfully necessary, because on Christmas Eve morning, a friend passed away unexpectedly. I’d known him just a few years, but long enough to understand that I’d always welcome seeing him or, much better, fishing with him whenever the stars so aligned. He made me laugh a lot, and through our conversations, we came to realize that in the quite possible event that we were both deemed officially insane, we would feel blessed for each other’s company. As I walked the trail that late Christmas afternoon, I was consoled by that thought and felt him with me yet.

I grooved with that silver lining for as long as I could, but I was unable to ignore the unfairness of his sudden death, for death was one of the very last things one could associate with such a jolly and living soul. In this season of meaning, what meaning could possibly exist if such a treasure could be taken from us? What god but a cruel one would allow us to be so needlessly injured?

During my Christmas walk, in addition to mourning John, I tasked myself with confronting my feelings about the day. I required myself to perform this practice on public land, somewhat in response to the greedy teanderthals trying in several western states to steal Americans’ land. Otherwise, this just seemed a natural pairing to me, placing oneself in the cosmos, doing the same on solid ground.

America’s public lands are literally our place in the world (or universe, if you prefer), places that are OURS, as in, they belong to us. As the sunlight drained from the sky, I realized that our land not only gives space and place to me and my countrymen, but to every human being on earth. Sure, a citizen from India can’t vote here or expect a Senator’s attention to an email, but there is nothing barring that person from standing in an American national forest if she abides by our laws.

What an incredible gift! I wonder if the architects of this nation’s public lands experiment ever considered that they would actually change the global human condition for all time, that every person born would eventually have at least 643 million acres of planet surface to go and just be, that my friend, though not with us anymore, retains a stake in so much water, trees, grass, and dirt. It’s a comfort to look at the mountains near my home and know they remain his. John Hasted lives.

Big John, fisher of public lands, during his Take a Heathen Fishing Day.

Big John, fisher of public lands, during his Take a Heathen Fishing Day.




Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Frustration All Around

Sad Froggy Cowboy By: Gus

Sad Froggy Cowboy By: Gus

“We’re going to start playing by our own rules, because theirs don’t work, and they don’t know how to follow them.”

So says Yvette Herrell, state representative from Alamogordo, New Mexico, in defense of her radical fringe movement to privatize public lands via transferring them to the states. Even in written form, for all their muscle and victorious tone, these words scarcely veil Herrell’s frustration at the deplorable imperfection of the federal government and its management of the citizens’ estate. I have a lot of empathy for people who are frustrated. There is sincerity in their anguish, a belief that they’ve been betrayed in spite of their most heroic efforts. They want everything to work out for the best. Shouldn’t that be enough?

It should, but then again, who would believe such nonsense? Wanting everything to work out doesn’t mean squat. Actually working to make it happen does, which is why, when it comes to public land use and management, there is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs.

A case in point is a stream restoration project I’ve been involved with in one way or another for several years. The creek is located on the Carson National Forest, the project entailing various treatments to reverse the innocent and yet significant ecological devastation from about a century of mining, logging, grazing, and overharvest of fish and wildlife.

Despondent Amphibian Rancher By: Ethan

Despondent Amphibian Rancher By: Ethan

There have been challenges to be sure, not the least of which being the magnitude of the destruction being addressed. In the heyday, our project area was essentially shaved to the nub and then given an enema, and the habitat lost to erosion is heartbreaking still. Add the federal NEPA and permitting process, which has been its bureaucratic headache self, sometimes to the point of seeming like the Forest Service has no interest in the project being successful. Finally, as phases of the project have been completed – yielding almost immediate positive results in sediment reduction and stream channel function – a grazing leaseholder has repeatedly allowed his stock to stomp through treatment areas and reverse all the gains.

It’s appropriate here to address Herrell’s comment that the government’s rules don’t work and that it doesn’t know how to follow them. In the case described above, it’s really impossible to know if the government rules work or not, precisely because A) the rules are not clear, and B) even if they were, cattlegrowers don’t seem to know how to follow them any better than the government does.

Which makes the other part of Herrell’s statement – that government haters are going to start playing by their own rules – beg for closer examination as well. The New Mexican landscape, though of breathtaking beauty, bears the deepening scars of laissez faire management in the past and today. The degraded condition of our land is, at a minimum, plausible evidence that playing by their own rules is all that Herrell and her ilk have ever done. If it were not, we might talk seriously about raising user fees without unfairly burdening grazers, miners, loggers, hunters and anglers, and yes, hikers, bikers and birdwatchers. But we never talk seriously; methinks there’s an age-old reason for it.

To end on an up note, it makes me proud that the Forest Service, the grazing leaseholder, and the stream restorers have persevered through their mistakes and have learned how to make the stream project a broader success. The leaseholder has committed to resting pastures near stream treatments, and the restoration crews and Forest Service are trying to fence in pastures and establish upland water troughs for cattle. Even private landowners have contributed financial resources in keeping with their own deep stewardship values. Everyone tries. Everyone wins.

Beginning as an effort to mitigate erosion and stream damage, the project’s emphasis has expanded to include range health and cutthroat trout recovery. Fattening cows and making fishermen and elk happier, it’s called multiple use.

Look for other public lands collaboration success stories in future posts.

Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – “All we want is to privatize it.”

Evil Clown By: Gus

Evil Clown By: Gus

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a self-described nonpartisan think tank that promotes conservative points of view in service to corporations and their fellow United States citizens. According to the group’s website, ALEC still believes in the existence of something called “the free market” and favors federalism, although, if ever a state government became a bit too uppity, ALEC would no doubt exercise its considerable influence to put a stop to such monkey business. It has been averred that ALEC generates and lobbies for model bills in state legislatures and helps fund the campaigns of its loyalists. The organization hasn’t tried terribly hard to dispute any of this.

If I were a corporation, I would definitely see the value in a $7,000.00 to $25,000.00 ALEC membership (though Google, citing ALEC’s dishonesty on climate change, recently severed ties). It would be in my interest to shoulder that so as to reduce others such as employee pay, regulatory compliance and taxes. Although it is unpalatable to many, the fact that politicians can be bought and sold would have tremendous appeal to me if there were a corporate-friendly bill I needed passed.

Thanks to an ALEC-fomented anti-government campaign, a vocal fringe is demanding that the ownership of federal lands – mainly Forest Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife properties – be surrendered to the states. The feds are out of touch with local needs and values, the rhetoric goes, and states are well able to manage these lands better for environmental and economic health. Proponents of this belief are unfortunately hamstrung by a colossal lack of credible supporting data, if one doesn’t count recent studies conducted in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. Evaluating a host of possible scenarios, these studies showed that states might indeed profit from a windfall of federal lands, assuming the following:

  • Even in states with strong tourist industries, drilling, mining, and logging were sharply increased.
  • Oil and gas prices were high, and remained so.
  • Oil and gas companies were willing to pay higher royalty rates, and/or the federal government relinquished its share of royalties so that states would receive 100% of payments.
  • States reduced land holdings by selling land to private or corporate entities.
  • State taxes were raised anyway.
  • In an ever hotter and drier climate, large forest fires magically stopped happening, and, if not, fire fighting crews and equipment fell from the sky.

Obviously, land transfer would require broad acceptance, if not significant suspension of disbelief, among the citizenry of a state interested in participating in the experiment. Petroleum prices, for example, are currently falling due to high supplies, a condition which might be exacerbated by more production. And as I look outside at a recent dusting of snow being gobbled up by yet another 50 degree December day, the thought of a fire free summer is almost laughable.

No matter, Yvette Herrell, a New Mexico state representative from Alamogordo, intends to introduce a land transfer bill in the 2015 legislature. Herrell was awarded ALEC’s 2014 State Chair of the Year honor and appears confident that enough of her fellow legislators will be morally or intellectually corrupt enough to vote for her bill. One of her arguments for state control of Americans’ lands is that a third of New Mexico’s budget comes from the federal government. She also cites the success of Texas resulting from its faith in the free market and from limited federal involvement in its economic affairs.

These arguments are best viewed from a context-free perspective, one that ignores the fact that New Mexico and other western states are not given, but actually earn the bulk of their government booty from economic activities taking place on federal lands. That much of this activity is subsidized by the American taxpayer should be factored into the cost/benefit analysis of federal ownership, but it rarely is by modern day sagebrush rebels like Yvette Herrell.

It’s also worth noting that in many key aspects, Texas is an apple and New Mexico is an orange, which, as far as public and not public land is concerned, is expressed in the symbiotic relationship between the two states. Texas, possessing almost no public land, relies heavily on its neighbor to the west for outdoor recreation. Blessed with an abundance of beautiful and yet multi-use public lands, New Mexico is grateful for the economic boost out of state visitors (including huge numbers of Texans) provides. In 2011, tourism generated 7.8 billion dollars in revenue for the Land of Enchantment, as well as 1.2 billion in taxes, of which 565 million went to state and local governments. Tourism-related jobs numbered around 86,000, many in rural locations.

I’ll grant that states should always seek to develop other economies besides tourism, but the fact that Yvette Herrell is willing to bet New Mexico’s second biggest industry on her pipedream (pun intended) suggests a couple possibilities. Either she believes a car with its engine removed can still get you from place to place, or she doesn’t care about tourism. Evidence for the first is everywhere. What about those jobs in the hinterlands? Is there enough grass, fracking water, and marketable logs to sustain small town cafes, auto shops, hunting outfitters and lodging establishments into the indefinite future?

The second possibility is indicated by a smug statement Herrell made at a recent ALEC policy summit. A real estate professional, she dismissed the notion that she might stand to gain personally if federal lands were transferred to states and subsequently went on the block.

“I buy real estate contracts, and now I’ve been accused of apparently wanting to buy a national forest,” she said. Well, even though I truly believe that public land is the birthright of every American, if there is a sell off and I’m Yvette Herrell, I might hope to play some inside baseball.

But no, she’s a better person than I. “All we want is to privatize it,” she said. OK, I feel better now.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.