Truchacabra

Conversations About Fly Fishing and the Outdoor Life

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

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?

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

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

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.

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 9 – A View to a Gift Horse’s Mouth

RubberPants

One of the biggest sea changes in the history of fly fishing occurred in the 1980s with the invention of the fly fishing bobber. With that decisive stroke, thousands of flailing nymphers had cause to dance in their rubber waders (if they didn’t have the means to buy the newest in neoprene technology).

For me, the 80s framed perfectly that period in all lives when coming of age is nearly constant. I graduated high school and college, and gained the requisite acceptance that most animals reach an age when they cease to live with their parents. Along the way, my youthful energy expressed itself through channels of a bouncy nature: soccer balls and basketballs, bumpy ski slopes and dirt roads, dry flies and, of course, boobies.

I attended a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where my younger brother joined me the following year. On occasion, we would make the short drive to visit our sister at the women’s college known as Smith. During these trips, our sister seemed to view her school as a museum of sorts, of which she appointed herself curator in charge of preventing my brother and me from laying hands on the exhibits. For three almost poontang-free years of my life, she did that, in the one (1) and only circumstance I’ve ever experienced where getting girls might have been easy.

On the right: rooster obstructionist par excellence.

My sister’s an attorney now, in spite of her history of obstructing justice.

I say “almost” because I was in love with a girl who went to Georgetown, where I would trek when I could afford it. In other words, “almost” never. When I graduated college, I moved to D.C. to be with her and began to suspect that being in the daily company of my sweetheart was more difficult than I’d fantasized. The heat and humidity angered me, and having never lived in a big city, I was terrified of the ruthlessness and speed. I couldn’t find a job that I liked, and I’ll say it again, screw the weather. I held the east coast and my girlfriend responsible, which was not completely fair.

From perspective gained over the subsequent decades, I now understand that the real problem lay in the fact that I didn’t fish during college or immediately afterwards. A few miles from Smith College, the Deerfield River is an everlasting riffle with lots of bugs and brown trout. The nearby Westfield fishes well too, as does the pocketwater stream in the town of my college. The Potomac River near D.C. is supposedly awesome for smallies and shad, and you can take a long lunch in Georgetown and catch carp. Through my years as a fishing guide, this is what my clients have told me.

That I know none of it from personal experience still hurts deeply, as does the realization that my minimal fishing explorations were less a function of where I lived than a pathetic case of youth being wasted on the young. Exhibit B: in the summer after college and before my move to D.C., I embarked on my first adventure to Alaska, where I and some college cohorts stayed too drunk and lazy to get out of Anchorage more than a handful of times.

...or pass out in a floodplain full of rocks?

July 4th in Seward, passed out in a floodplain full of boulders.

In ’87, my hometown best friend and I spent six months in New Zealand under the sole mission of fishing the crap out of it. Instead, we painted houses and lived with a heroine-addicted Bible thumper. Katarina Witt was on TV every night, and it was fun to watch our roommate rage against Americans and fornication, as though what he certainly did afterwards in the privacy of his bedroom was the fault of Katarina or the country she wasn’t from. Oh yeah, the fishing: it was fun when we could actually do it, when rare periods of money coincided with even rarer minutes when it wasn’t raining buckets.

NewZealand

New Zealand on the the day the sun came out.

San Francisco followed New Zealand, and I landed a job investigating hazardous waste sites. Having been through eight years of Reagan and James Watt, I was familiar with the concept that even in a country so aesthetically stunning as ours, there were plenty of folks who abhorred the mere thought of nature. Well, I’d worked for a senator on Capitol Hill, dammit, and I was going to reverse the tide! So in San Francisco, I collected data that I plugged into formulae, which I summarized in really thick documents. These documents, to my naive amazement, were not used to benefit the environment, but to cover (or wipe, as it were) government and corporate ass.

To compensate for this popping of my idealistic cherry, I cooked up site visits to logging mills on California’s steelhead coast, pesticide warehouses near the Feather, Sac and Yuba Rivers, abandoned mines on the vaulting Sierra slopes. Though I didn’t find much in the way of environmental devastation, I discovered a lot of great fishing.

My friend Joe sampling for dioxin on California's Smith River. And steelhead.

Friend Joe collecting water samples on California’s Smith River.

Ultimately my employer discovered something as well, that it would get a better product if I practiced my bullshit in my cubicle or, even better, on someone else’s dime. Perhaps seeing a similar light after nine long years, my girlfriend from Georgetown finally left me.

At my next job, I studied the impacts of 1860s copper mining on the environs of Anaconda, Montana. I lived within a bike ride of the Big Hole River, and my aching heart welcomed the distraction of daily fishing after work. Over the first few months, I contrived a theory that if I kept having so much fun and stayed away from San Francisco just long enough, it would be my sweetheart, not I, who would beg for another chance.

All of Montana’s gifts were laid at my feet. I fished every river I’d heard a word about – the Madison, Jeff, Ruby, Beaverhead, spring creeks, Rock Creek – and learned their hatches and moods all the way to their headwaters. Houses in Butte went for nickels on the San Francisco dollar, and pretty girls asked me out for cocktails. Idiot that I was, I kept an eye toward California instead of the here and now.

When I returned to the west coast, I got an immediate offer of permanent work in Montana. Proud and expectant, I rejected the offer and relayed this joyous news to my ex, who didn’t pause in the slightest before asking me why – given my great love for fishing and the fact that I was single – I would even consider not taking the job.

It would take me another couple years to completely get over her, but that moment looms large as a push I badly needed. Before hearing her words, I could have imagined tears and desperate whining, the letting of more blood. Heck, maybe that’s what actually happened, but I honestly forget how I felt or what else she might have said.

What I will absolutely never forget, however, is elk hair caddis being slashed at, rainbows catching air, and brown trout putting kill shots on sculpins. I can still feel salmonflies scratching across my neck and the nerves that would wrack me as I tried not to blow yet another sipping fish on the Missouri. If a tear was ever shed, it could certainly have been over my girlfriend, but it could just as easily have been over my dumb crazy luck at having worked in trout heaven and the cache of living memories I brought home.

It is arguably tragic that through the 80s, my life had steered way too much of its own course without interference from me. One of these days, I will promise myself that I’ll never let that happen again.

On the Missouri, on a break from cooking meth.

Gonna burn your house down later.

 

 

I Can’t Believe I Get Paid For This, Volume Eleventy Seven

Springer Lake

The other day, I had the pleasure and distinct challenge of meeting with the board of a watershed organization in hopes of putting some water in their main stream during the winter, a time when the mountain reservoir controlling its flow is completely shut off so that water can be stored for irrigation season. During the three months the dam is closed, the ecosystem below the reservoir subsists on the meager seepage from the dam and riparian water table. Trout, their eggs and food organisms all struggle as the streambed dries and freezes.

I knew that finding a solution to this problem would be a tall order, since New Mexico has been in some form of drought for the past eleven – if not eleven thousand – years. So not even the sky is giving up water. If that weren’t true, it has never been easy to convince someone with a right to water to relinquish or even relax that right in any way or for any length of time. Anyone born in New Mexico is born also to this knowledge, me included. Ergo, I almost expected that the audience at my meeting would come armed with torches and pitchforks.

It's May, and the grass is supposed to be green.

It’s May, and the grass is supposed to be green.

This idea turned out to be embarrassingly ridiculous. It wasn’t that the board members began giving out thousands of acre feet of water or anything (indeed, the group has no authority to do so), but there was such a creative and progressive intelligence among them that a couple win/win options were brought immediately to the fore. A nearby town with significant water rights might be convinced to call for water in winter if the pumping cost (the town lies just outside of the stream basin) could somehow be covered by the fish people. This move would not only benefit trout, but it would lighten the summer burden on the town’s other water source, a small uphill reservoir that doubles as one of the region’s favorite playgrounds.

Plan B was to ask a downstream, in-basin community that fills their reservoir via a ditch off the stream’s mainstem to do so in the winter instead of late spring. In Plan C, money might be raised to line all or part of this ditch, after which any realized efficiencies could be applied to winter flows below the mountain reservoir.

I left the meeting almost boiling with optimism, for it seemed it would take every manner of missteps to derail some kind of solution. I decided to drive around the watershed to see how our ideas might play out on the land. I passed a small herd of mule deer nibbling at an elm sapling, the only visible green on the gray and dusty plain. Elsewhere I saw the odd antelope trying to scrape a bite out of the dirt, as well as plenty of abandoned evidence of long gone farmers trying to do the same. I felt a pang of guilt that I was trying to bring water to trout at a time when so many living things hadn’t a drop.

This feeling stayed with me for some time, until the moment I drove the earthen dam of our Plan B reservoir. A splash close to shore caught my eye, then another. Suddenly splashes were everywhere along my shoreline and continuing around the lake. They were carp by the thousands, swimming aimlessly in a collective trance of lust. I had a 6-weight in my duffel and figured, “Someone had better do something about this sh**, and pronto.”

Carpin' a feel.

Hot carp on carp action.

Whenever I have shamed myself for shirking work to go fishing (which I have done even as a fishing guide), the damning sentiment is always that my time could be put to better use. This certainly could have been the case that day at the carp hole, which, to be charitable, was the aesthetic equivalent of an open sore on a tumor on a hemorrhoid. But with every carp I caught, with every whiff of the fetid shore mud and every one of my steps I wrestled from its gooeyness, I realized that I was in a very literal sense doing what I was supposed to.

The southwestern U.S. is in the middle of what is expected to be a trend of ever worsening rainlessness, and there I understood that to do my job well, it made perfect and urgent sense to witness my landscape in its throes. Yes, we must read about these things and study them, but sometimes to cure suffering we must get as close to it as we can.

These revelations were in hindsight, of course. I must try to justify my incredible good fortune of being allowed to make positive change while having so much fun along the way. So far, I can’t justify it, not yet, not until I see the water in that stream. It will come, though. Someday, it will come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Columbine Hondo and the Ancient New Mexican

RGCT Tusas in H20

As a fly fisherman with a weakness for small, high mountain creeks, I imagine sometimes that whoever designed New Mexico’s state flag was inspired by her state fish. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, of course, is from a more spectacular palette than the flag’s simple red and yellow. Panza colorada (red belly), as the fish is known in Spanish, nevertheless seems to show every possible way the two colors can blend together. Stare at a high quality photograph of a cutthroat, scrutinize the olive back and the scales, and tell me you don’t see mutations of yellow or red in all of it. I guess one could say that the cutty is but one reflection of sunny-hued New Mexico and the flag that flies over it. Consider this the next time you see a cactus flower, horny toad, the Piedra Lumbre near Ghost Ranch, or a volcanic summer sunset.

Michael Calhoun from Goose Creek

Kaboom! Michael Calhoun from Goose Creek

Near the village of Pecos, New Mexico in 1541, a scouting party of the Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado discovered a Rio Grande specimen in Glorieta Creek, becoming the first Europeans to lay eyes on a New World trout. When I was a boy, it was possible to catch one in the Rio Chiquito near my grandmother’s home in Talpa, New Mexico. Not true anymore. Since Coronado, the fish has tracked an inexorable and narrowing orbit around the toilet hole.

Michael Rearick, President Truchas Chapter Trout Unlimited

Michael Rearick, President Truchas Chapter Trout Unlimited

This has been due to a host of reasons. Human agriculture with its livestock and its flood irrigation silted and warmed cutthroat waters a lot faster than the species was able to adapt. Cutthroat trout were plentiful and yummy, the Spanish settlers, hungry. Whole landscapes were grazed, mined, and logged to the nub. In the late 1800s, rainbow and brown trout were stocked around the country for their sporting qualities and to replace depleted ancestral natives; these introduced fish flourished at the expense of what natives remained. Then roads penetrated cutthroat habitat, and subsequent development took a horrible toll on the fish. The most recent nail in this gorgeous trout’s coffin has been the rapid warming of our planet.

One of the few places where the Rio Grande cutthroat remains strong is the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area northeast of Taos. Essentially the roof of New Mexico, this block of steep mountains stops a lot of storm clouds and extracts enough precipitation to feed three cutthroat stream systems. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of support for ceasing to study the Columbine Hondo and permanently protecting it in its most sustainable ecological and, yes, economic state. Federal legislation has been introduced to designate Columbine Hondo as a wilderness area; all you Truchacabrones should hope the bill will pass ( more info, http://www.columbinehondo.org/) .

rio hondo

Rio Hondo running out of the Columbine Hondo, cold and clear.

Societally beneficial reasons don’t seem to exist for opening Columbine Hondo to development or resource extraction. In spite of being surrounded by two ski area towns and a molybdenum mine, the area is extremely rough and unfragmented country, indicating a water cycle of the highest possible value to downstream villages, irrigators, and Rio Grande cutthroats. Also, wildlife managers hoping to fortify and expand cutthroat metapopulations see promise in the fact that rainbow and brown trout are still somewhat at bay. These and other factors make the Columbine Hondo a powerful economic engine for northern New Mexico, especially in current times as tourism grows ever more important.

As of this writing, cutties in Goose Creek (tributary to the Red River), Columbine Creek, and Rio Hondo are doing their part to help their own cause. Females are flapping their tails over snowmelt-washed gravel, digging nests and laying eggs for the brilliantly-colored bucks to fertilize. A landlside in the Columbine Hondo – by introducing huge silt loads into streams – would eliminate a generation of fish, if not two or three. Generally speaking, however, the most likely and pernicious threat over time would be road construction, which, though not doing its damage in one shot, would gradually degrade spawning habitat and drive the cutthroats off the cliff of oblivion.

columbine

There are some who do not understand why this would be such a tragedy. Time marches on, they might think, our destiny is reached at a price. Though difficult to deny, this statement is strangely easy to argue with in the context of what the northern New Mexico landscape represents to all the life forms that reside there. Like the rest of the state, this region is unique for its history and, perhaps more important, the high value we place on it as a source of material and spiritual sustenance. I feel in my gut that we are correct in doing so, if only for the simple fact that a leaf can not exist without a root. Our history and destiny are inextricable. We destroy one at the expense of the other.