Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on trash fish and fishermen

Last week, I took a couple of fellows out to teach them how to flyfish, and then ditched them to hit a hot spot just downstream in my kayak. The guys were perfectly okay with my leaving, and were focusing hard on just how to wear their flies and line, which means they have become quite accomplished flyfishermen, if I am any standard for the sport.

And so, after a bit of teaching and observing, I left them to flail the water at a nice tailout, jumped into my kayak and headed downstream after what had become a near-mythic creature in my life: American shad.

At the put-in on a nice stretch of the American River, I slipped past a group of shad fishermen cooking under a canopy, with full gas grill, ice chests of beverages, and conversations about darts and flies, rods, and the general gripes about work and/or not finding work. Shad fishermen, like most fishermen, are a rough lot, out to be themselves fully on the river. I passed trailers attached to trucks, and a drift boat coming in and one going out. And I noted, yet again, my surprise at the completely different experience with shad fishermen here from salmon fishermen.

I'll be blunt: Salmon fishermen are mean and not at all fun to fish around. "Combat fishing" is the term used to describe the lines of folks along the stretches where salmon come to spawn or stack up before heading further upstream. People rarely talk outside of their little cliques, they push and jockey for spots, and they grudgingly pull in their lines to give room, often with grumbles, at the "fish on!" holler from one lucky enough to hook into a beautiful chinook. They usually end the fight with the fish by dragging it up onto the bank, filleting it then and there, and throwing the carcass back into the water. To beat all, many folks in boats floating the deeper holes along the river tend to employ quite a bit of jigging action to their fishing...

I have fished for salmon along central California rivers for ten years, and although I am devastated by the crash in population, I am a tad relieved that I won't have to snuggle up to the crowds along the river.

So it was a shock when, Memorial Day Monday, I walked along the crowded shoreline and noted rows of shad fishermen, at times much closer to each other than salmon fishermen would have tolerated, talking rough but jovially to each other. I asked about the run, and was given very specific advice, "get right in between those two boats at the channel down there." When I showed up with my fly rod, nobody cared. One boat even pushed over and invited me in.

My luck that day was not with the fish, though I saw one man pull fish after fish up to his boat and gingerly remove them without letting them leave the water. I was there for food, but I was very appreciative of his respect. When I got back to my car, it had been broken into and my radio stolen (I thought for a second I was back in 1992), but I know it wasn't a shad fisherman who did it.

So Wednesday night I was more eager than ever to get out on the river. After setting up the fellas, I jumped in my boat.

I did mention that this fish had reached near-mythical proportions in my mind. Years ago, a fellow flyfisherman had told me that folks go out after shad here, although a "trash fish" for food, because they were the freshwater tarpon. They fought unlike any other fish in the river, he explained, a distant look in his eye. We never were able to get out after them. A couple of years later, when I had bought my first really nice fly rod, I hit the water with another veteran, who explained that these fish would tail walk, throw your fly, run your line completely out. They were amazing fish. However, that day it rained frozen rain upon us, and in his first cast trying out my new rod, it snapped just inches above the grip... so again, no fish.

Last year, I picked up John McPhee's book, "Founding Fish", and again read about the power and grace of this fish. But something more was there, too. The very name of the fish, Alossa sappidissima, means "most savory herring." McPhee had opened up a new world to me - this was an eating fish of unsurpassed taste! Recipe after recipe included in his book sealed the deal for me, but I had missed the run yet again!

This year, I was bound and determined to get out on the river.

New fish always pose the problem of confidence. I know when I hit the river for trout up in the Sierras that I will catch something. I'm pretty sure about my bass and bluegill spots. But, even worse than trying new places, new fish pose many questions, and if you aren't catching fish, then you don't know which to tweak - method, depth, fly? Is it the spot? Is the boat bothering them? Am I right over them instead of upstream? My first casts had this anxious feeling about them, but I had tried the one cure that had worked in the past, a trip to Bill Kiene's fly shop for great advice and a confidence boost. They had also given me a tip I'd have never thought up: A two nymph rig.

Just as I started to get nervous, I felt a good, solid, double tapping on my line. I set the hook, but missed. That's okay. I re-cast, the same amount of line, and within a minute a tap again. I set fast, and fish on! Only, this fish fought like no other fish I'd caught here, not even stripers. It ripped my line out, and I new it was going to break me off, but it stayed on. It ran every which way. It shook like a chinook. I imagined for an instant a giant steelhead, but I couldn't imagine anything going from zero to sixty as quickly as did this fish. After a few minutes, I thought: Alright, time to bring this in. I'd employ my tried-and-true rod technique to thoroughly confuse the fish, and net it quickly. This involves turning the rod parrallel and just above the water, perpendicular to the fish, then when I feel it turn, flipping my rod the other direction, keeping it perpendicular to the fish. Usually, I can have a trout lolling on the surface and in my net within a minute.

I flipped my rod, perpendicular to how I felt the fish on, and also keeping him perpendicular to the river flow. It didn't budge; in fact, if felt like it was tied to the river, like it owned the river. I immediately thought of a barndoor halibut, planing in the current. Then I was worried, and my confidence left me. The legend of the shad made flesh, and I a mere mortal. I thought, alright, I'll let this fish run its course.

Five minutes or so later, I landed my first American shad, a buck of about 2-3 pounds. I was elated, and shaken, but the most amazing part was yet to happen to me. As I pulled the fish in, I saw it: It was an ocean fish, here in my river! Iridescent blues, greens, and a silver like you see on mackerel or anchovies or other beautiful ocean fish. I thought of lines from a Mary Oliver poem: the slow pouring off of rainbows.

I pulled his gills and placed him in the floor of my kayak, took a breath and thanked. And I cast again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Man and Fire

last week, a small, once-controlled brush fire outside of Santa Barbara exploded into a house-eating inferno, fueled by 100 degree temperatures and the Shakin Shakin Shakes, those Santa Ana winds. As of today, it is 80 percent contained, although additional winds are probable.

California is blessed with many natural wonders, and cursed, as well. We have mountains so full of snow that they were named it - Sierra Nevada. We have a two-river Delta (one of only a handful) that supplies 20 million people with drinking water. We have a gigantic coastline, huge, rugged, highly variable terrain, and our state claims multiple climates with dozens of microclimates. In the Summer, we are a desert, and in the winter, we are often inundated with deluges. But, we have changed our natural wonders to a great extent, and in these changes comes an increase in variation and intensity. The Sierra Nevada may one day be renamed the Sierra Seca. That river system's wildlife is quickly crashing, and the wonderfully varied and beautiful terrain can't seem to keep folks from wanting to build on it, to better enjoy its beauty, yes, but with the result that we find ourselves living by the whims of fickle Mother Nature.

We have also changed much of the flora of our beautiful state, and the effects of this paradigm-shift are felt most directly in the new nature of our wildfires.

Prior to Europeans, California's flora and fauna developed with a particular relationship to fire and each other. Most of our herbivores were browsers, pushed by a considerably large number of large predators, primarily wolves and very large brown bears, but also mountain lions, bobcats and the like. Our primary flora, therefore, were wildflowers and slow-growing bunch grasses. The animals seeded large areas of land, and many plants only seeded once every few years. Fires regimes, caused by lightning and people, usually burned with a low intensity, because the slow-growing bunch grasses kept green all year, and protected their roots with tight "bunches" of grass blades. Forests of huge oaks, pines, and redwoods required these fires, as their seeds needed heat to open, and their seedlings needed light and nutrients.

This habitat regime changed dramatically with the arrival of Europeans. We brought livestock that ate entire plants, and we kept them protected and in the same places for longer periods of time. We also fed them grass seed from our native lands, grasses which had developed a relationship with very different animals. The new grasses, which grow, seed, and die within a few months, quickly replaced the slower-developing native habitat, which wasn't used to being eaten completely down to the roots. Within a short period of time, much of California changed completely, giving our state its golden hue during the Summer, and bringing on a dramatic shift in the nature of fire.

The new grasses and weeds die quickly, creating fuel from the tip right down into the soil. Fires set in this fuel often burn far hotter, burn soil habitat and seeds, and leave a scorched waste. They also burn into the upper canopies of the trees, killing many adult trees that had survived the previous fire patterns for hundreds of years. This is why we instituted a fire-suppression program over 150 years ago, and in so doing we allowed the buildup of deadwood, leaves, and other combustible materials. Consider this in light of projected hotter and drier weather patterns, and we have a serious problem.

Now that many more of us are living close to these wild and altered landscapes, it is imperative that we do something to both improve habitat and fire. Right now, many are under the impression that a completely barren "defensible space" as far as you can make it is the best thing to do. But, wildland firefighters know that the best thing we can do is to eliminate the non-native grasses and forest duff that fuel these monsters, and build houses that don't catch fire so easily. No amount of defensible space could have saved most of the homes in Santa Barbara, because 40 mile-an-hour winds will carry sparks well past any clearings, and even over large freeways and the like. However, if those sparks land on green plants or metal roofs, and the fires from which they came were burning low and through the underbrush instead of licking hundreds of feet into the air, we would all be much safer.

The answers are easy, but expensive. They also have the great upside of improving ecological habitat as well as human safety. The alternative, however, is a complex series of ever-more-useless attempts to postpone the inevitable, also expensive, while encouraging further ecological degradation. Which way shall we go?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A neat way to look at things

Phillip Loughlin has another great post over at Hog Blog, on an ethical conversation that comes up from time to time over there, specifically referring to high-fence hunting operations, but more generally on the idea of ethics, the law, and hunting practices. I hope I haven't driven Phillip to distraction with my commentary there, but it is such a great place to get good, thoughtful debate that I can't resist.

However, it's actually a comment from NorCal Cazadora at that post that really got me to thinking. Referring to the concept of sport hunting, she wrote:

"...I still disagree on the notion of “sport.” True - I don’t have to hunt for food; I could go to the grocery store like my neighbors do. But that really buys into my neighbors’ perspective as the right and true perspective. I prefer to turn the tables and say my neighbors don’t have to go to the grocery store - they could hunt, forage and garden for food. Some people enjoy convenience of driving to the store; I enjoy the fulfillment of the hunt."

This idea blew me away. I had been grappling with the notion of 'sport' in hunting and fishing for some time, understanding that I don't have to do so to eat. However, one reason I choose to hunt is to provide a bit for my family (jokes about my prowess aside), and because I don't like the mass production process we use to acquire meat in California.

What Cazadora did was open up that choice to those who do not hunt, give it equality and credibility, and blow open the whole notion of food for everybody. She also removed some of the elitism, both fatalistic and natural, I've felt creeping more and more into hunting.

I thought about this idea: People could choose not to buy beef and pork from huge, concentrated feedlots; they could, instead, pop squirrels or get to know their farmer better, or raise their own. Many people who argue that sustainably-raised food is prohibitively expensive also pay for cable TV, a cell phone for each of their kids, a station wagon on steroids (oh, I mean a sport-utility vehicle), etc. Not that any of those are wrong in each case, just that they are choices. Each of those choices has impact, too, and those impacts should be considered along with their benefits (the economist in me, I suppose), but a choice in acquiring food does seem to me deeper than a choice to play tennis.

If I were any good at either tennis or hunting, however, this opinion may have been different...

Now, this doesn't completely get at my discomfort with hunting as "sport", although I do understand it and believe that it is a concept to keep close, and not completely to disagree with. However, whenever I think of it, I immediately think of this quotation from Chief Sitting Bull, that, "when the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters, and we want our freedom." I can't see it the same if it were said, "and when the tennis balls are gone, we will play tennis with pingpong balls, for we are tennis players, and we want our freedom." There is a notion of freedom in hunting that goes beyond mere choice to include acquisition of food, interaction with the world, a connection to other things here. It puts us directly in touch with sacrifices made on our behalf, and makes us aware of our power and responsibility...