The Kelp of August

Kelp Under Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Fly fishing in Puget Sound in August often means high temperatures (as has been true the past weeks) and hazy skies from distant forest fires (as was true last year). But there is another consistent issue in parts of Puget Sound in August and that is the kelp forests that often cause casting from the beach to become a source of frustration due to frequent hookups of the bull kelp floats.

For some time, I had been thinking a sinktip line would work from the beach in the deeper waters under the Tacoma Narrows bridges during the high and low slack periods. I wanted to get the fly down to fish that might be lurking several feet down in the slack waters.

I had looked at a number of sinking and sinktip lines and bought the Rio Intouch 24 Foot Sinktip in 200 grains (for a six-weight rod). The line has a 35 foot head with a 24-foot sinking section. I thought the line would work both here and as a streamer line in Montana. In comparison to other lines, once I started casting it in the backyard I recognized it was also easy casting. But casting in an actual fishing situation is really the only way to see how a line works.

Wednesday mid morning there was an extra low slack on the ebb, meaning I could get out before the day turned hot. I brought my net along just in case some fish – hopefully a coho salmon – decided to jump on whatever fly I was using.

As expected, there were fields of bull kelp along the majority of the beach up to and past the Narrows Bridges. But I was there and I decided to look for places I could cast between patches of the kelp under the bridges.

The line worked perfectly. I found none of the kick I’d found in other lines. With the heavy sinking head, shooting line was effortless. About the only problem, as is typical of Rio lines, was the running line tangled. I had brought my stripping basket, so that might have eliminated at least some of the tangles. Unfortunately, there were no fish – well at least none that were interested in my chartreuse and pink woolly buggers.

Then as I started working my way back to Narrows Park I found no patches of clear water and decided to call it a day. Along the way I did catch one empty plastic water bottle (with cap on) that was floating in the tidal current. Someone must have been careless. I tossed it into a trash can.

As I looked back down the beach, I knew it would have been a good deal more fun if the kelp hadn’t been there.

But then I remembered reading an article about how bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) in Puget Sound is in decline. Scientists are concerned because the kelp provides habitat for juvenile salmon, rockfish, sea urchins and other species. It is an annual plant – meaning it starts fresh every year. Starting as a microscopic plant in spring, bull kelp can grow to 30 to 40 feet tall by mid summer. The bull kelp then begin to decline and disappear in early to late autumn.

The causes for its decline are the same many of the other threatened species in Puget Sound – warming water temperatures and toxic pollution. In addition, changes to the shoreline and sedimentation are also suspected.

The bull kelp is another reminder that the chain from microorganisms to humans is long and complex. Disturbing the kelp imperils the salmon, which as can be seen in local news, imperils the resident Orca population.

Ultimately, it will be humanity that pays the price for its actions.

You can read more about efforts to restore bull kelp here.

The Last Orca

Orca with Dead Calf

The above picture was posted online in the last several days. It shows a dead newborn Orca calf being carried around on its mother’s back near Victoria, British Columbia.

As heart-breaking as the image is, it’s even more disturbing when one realizes this was the first Orca calf born in three years to the three pods of what are called the southern resident population that swim in Puget Sound waters. Normally, four to five new calves are born each year.

The three pods (J, K, and L) now number 75 whales – down from 98 in 1995, with 8 members lost in the last two years. A related, and ominous threat is that reproducing females are ageing out of their calf rearing years. Some researchers believe that within five years there will be no longer any female Orcas within the pods capable of giving birth – spelling extinction of the southern resident Orcas.

Resident Orcas are different from other more transient Orcas that eat marine mammals. Resident Orcas eat salmon – specifically Chinook salmon. Historically, they follow the salmon in the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Strait of Juan DeFuca, and Puget Sound in Washington) from northern British Columbia to as far south as Seattle – in summer, it has been a common occurrence to see them in our local waters.

And Chinook salmon they follow and eat are also in decline. It’s estimated a mature Orca eats 30 Chinook salmon a day. Without those fish, they starve.

But it’s more than just salmon decline, which in itself may be another symptom of a marine ecosystem in collapse.

Puget Sound waters are incredibly polluted – no matter how pristine the waters look in photographs, from shore, or from a ferry boat. The waters around Seattle, Tacoma, and other urban areas are contaminated with industrial and municipal waste. Given the basin structure of Puget Sound, it’s not possible to believe all that waste is swept out to the Pacific Ocean. That in itself begs the question that even it was, what is that doing to the ocean.

And as I mentioned in another post (see here), salmon in Puget Sound swim through a toxic soup of pharmaceutical drugs.

Those drugs are absorbed by the salmon and then concentrate in the tissues of the Orcas that consume them. The result for the Orcas are compromised immune systems. It’s also likely the concentration of the toxins are resulting in reduced fertility in female Orcas.

Add the stress of tour boats, which inhibit the sonar capability of the Orcas and it’s not difficult to see why they are in crisis.

Jay Inslee, Washington State’s governor, convened a Southern Resident Orca Task Force in March 2018; the task force is composed of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials, and is tasked to find ways to stem the decline of the Orcas.

It is too early to say how successful the group can be. But if history is any indicator, any proposals made will be either watered down or face stiff opposition from various vested interests. And even if strong proposals are made, a good part of the required actions will require Federal action – something not likely given the Trump Administration’s hostility and willful ignorance on environmental issue.

The loss of Puget Sound Orcas may be little noticed beyond the Pacific Northwest. But the loss of these awe-inspiring mammals should be a tolling of the bell in terms of human extinction for many of the same reasons as their decline.

The Fish That Destroyed the Yellowstone Ecosystem

Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout

National Geographic has a troubling article on how one fish has, and is, changing the ecology of Yellowstone National Park (YNP).

The introduction of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake has led to the demise of the native cutthroat trout (see photo above). That in turn has led to a cascading effect in various food chains.

The absence of cutthroat that no longer swim up creeks to spawn means grizzly bears, that used to feed on them, are now killing more elk calf – more than are taken by wolves. Also impacted are river otters, as well as bald eagles and other fish-eating birds.

The presence of osprey has decreased dramatically. In the early 1990’s there were 62 osprey nests documented around Yellowstone Lake; last year (2017) there were three. Scientists believe the osprey, being fish eaters, left the area and have gone elsewhere.

But it is the bald eagle that has had the devastating impacts on YNP’s birds. As opportunistic feeders, they have turned to eating various species of native birds such as cormorants, loons, pelicans, swans, and terns. And the local extinction of some of their prey species appears to be near.

The number of loons has declined by 50 percent since 1990. Just 18 breeding pairs remain in Wyoming, with 70 percent of those in YNP.

Efforts have been underway to reduce the numbers of lake trout; elimination appears to be impossible. The result has been to somewhat stabilize the cutthroat populations. However, it could take decades – if even then – to increase cutthroat population to the point they can again be a food source for bears, eagles, and other animals.

Combine that with the increasingly obvious impacts of climate change and the future does not look bright. And this is Yellowstone National Park, where efforts have always been about preserving a complete ecosystem.

A question might be how did the non-native lake trout get into Yellowstone Lake? Evidence suggests they were illegally introduced sometime in the 1980s. No one knows who or why. But the suspicion is that someone decided they wanted to increase the numbers of fish for fishing.

Perhaps it was only one bucket of lake trout fry; maybe more. But in any case, that single act has led to a cascade of effects that may forever have changed a major ecosystem.

Our individual actions do have consequences.

You can read the article here.

Twelve Minutes to Life

Plastic Bags

Twelve Minutes.

That’s the average length of time a single-use plastic bag is used.

Five hundred years or more.

That’s how long it takes that single-use bag to biodegrade. And even that might be overstating it.

And what’s left after any biodegradation?

Plastic particles that exist in the environment indefinitely.

Plastic particles that accumulate up the food chain.

Plastic particles that humans may now be ingesting in seafood.

The plastic in the world’s oceans that may outweigh all the fish by 2050.

Recycling is not going to do any good if single-use plastic continues to be used.

Think about that, and next time you go to a grocery store bring your own re-usable bags.

Read more here and here.

Montana Fly Fishing and Climate Change

Montana is the iconic face of fly fishing.

Trips to its famous rivers are the on the bucket list of many, if not most, fly fishers. What exists in preconception – to those who dream of fly fishing in the state – is more than matched by the reality of vistas of distant mountains, wildlife, and superb fishing for species such as cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout. I’ve been a number of times and can’t wait to go back.

And yet, Montana more than other states may now be seeing adverse impacts of climate change that will threaten, if not destroy, the storied fisheries. For example, Montana’s average temperature in 2016 was 3.5 degrees F above its 20th century average – that’s double the planetary average for the same year.

Montana, and nearby states, have recently seen winter temperatures rise rapidly in early Spring to those more common in summer – resulting in rapid snow melt. For those not aware, in the West the slow melt of mountain snowpack is what provides the late summer stream flows of colder water needed to keep water temperatures at a tolerable level for fish.

Those who work the rivers daily, fly-fishing guides, observe the snow melt (called runoff), changes in water temperatures, and the timing of insect hatches and see the effects of climate change.

Yet, as is true of most Montanans, most of them are hare-core Republicans and Trump supporters who do not acknowledge the impacts of humans on that change. At the same time, there a few – though of similar politics – who have listened to scientists and have come away with an understanding that climate change is being caused by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.

But one wonders: what causes people, whose livelihood depends on cold-water fisheries that are at risk from climate change, to refuse to acknowledge even the possibility that human activity is a causal factor?

I believe it’s due to one of the most destructive trends I’ve seen over the last thirty years. That is the embrace of political ideology as self-identity. Ideological values are internalized and substituted for critical analysis. News organizations and other mass media reinforce one’s prejudices to the exclusion and the demeaning of other points of view.

It is the embrace of a death cult.

Some studies indicate that almost half of trout fisheries in the interior West, including Montana, will be gone in the next 60 years. Many fish species will go extinct.

And it will not only be fish and the wildlife that depend on them. Montana is also iconic as the land of the Big Sky, the land of ranches and cattle. Climate change may cause that way of life to go extinct also.

High Country News has republished an article from InsideClimate News that interviews a number of guides and fisheries biologists on the state of fisheries and climate change.

Montanans refer to their state as the Last Best Place. I wonder if that slogan may ultimately become ironic.

You can read the article here.

A Wedding Message for Kayte and Nate

Last weekend, Terri and I traveled to St. Louis to attend the wedding of my niece Kayte to her fiancé, Nate. While there was no opportunity to offer my thoughts on their marriage there, I decided to write them here.

Kayte, the first time I saw you I think you were almost two years old.

You were at your Aunt Sharon’s where she was babysitting you. As I came up to meet you for the first time, you assertively announced that you did not want to be picked up. Sharon saw my disappointment and said it wasn’t me as you did not like to be picked up by anyone (by anyone, I assumed, but your mom and dad).

I suspected even then that you had a strength of character that meant you were going to become someone very special.

I know I was only a sporadic presence in your life. I regret that I wasn’t able to see more of you and get to know you better at each stage of your life as you grew into the beautiful woman, and I mean both inside and out, you are today.

Everyone has regrets – the older one gets, the more you have. Anyone who tells you they have none are deceiving themselves or else have been dead for 20 years and have forgotten. The secret is to accept regrets as part of the cost of being human.

I always knew you were the greatest joy of your mom and dad. And I followed your growth as they kept me up to date on Nerinx, Loyola, St. Louis U. law school, protests outside military bases, and everything else.

Through all of it your increasing commitment to social justice was clear.

And as I saw at that first refusal to be picked up, you have become a force to be reckoned with.

Nate, I’ve only talked with you a few times – starting with Matt and Jen’s rehearsal dinner.

I liked you immediately – your honesty and decency were apparent (and after meeting your dad and hearing the words spoken about your mom, I can see the source of those qualities).

You also embody the saying, in various forms going back as far as Cicero, that the eyes are the window to the soul – yours show both confidence and vulnerability. They both represent your strengths.

Life has thrown you some curves with pain and real loss – and sorry to say, there will be more later. But know that hardship and pain in life can bring wisdom.

In academia or industry, you will encounter, if you haven’t already, self-absorbed jerks who will do what they can to crush your spirit. Don’t let the bastards win.

And I guess that’s a segue to the point I really wanted to make.

John Gierach is a prolific Colorado author of books related to his fly fishing adventures – the latter is of importance only to those of us who love fly fishing. He has spent years experiencing memorable companions and guides, fish caught and lost, and various adventures and mishaps; all have given him keen insights into life and people.

One of the comments in his latest book has stayed with me. He said people spend their twenties and thirties reinventing themselves; their forties and beyond are for becoming the best of what they’ve become.

Both of you are incredible people, each possessing an obvious sense of purpose, a commitment to justice and society, and a love of family and friends. You have great careers and bright futures. From where I sit, I think your time for reinvention is about over.

Now as you take your first steps together as a married couple, you each have the capability and power to help each other become the best of what you’ve become. And together, you can live exceptional lives filled with shared accomplishment and joy.

The years will pass quicker than you can imagine – don’t allow them to do so without continually building on the commitment you made to each other last Saturday.

One other thing.

As you’ve already lived together, you know a shared life can be difficult at times. I think fly fishing can be a source of inspiration for handling those times.

I’m talking about its ethos – not its technique. At its best, fly fishing is about slowing down and focusing.

It’s the same with those difficult times: slow down and focus on what’s important. And one thing I’ve learned is that you generally won’t go wrong keeping your mouth shut.

I wish you both a happy and long life together. May all your dreams and hopes come true.

With love,

Uncle Tom

Social Security Scare Tactics for Younger Workers

The owners, the rich elites who own this country and have been waging various wars of terror on the American people since this country’s founding, are doing what they’ve always done of playing one group off the other while they increase their already obscene amounts of wealth.

One of their latest efforts are the claims that Social Security and Medicare are going broke with no way to save them, and they will not be available for younger workers (those 40 and under) as they reach their retirement ages.

It’s been somewhat successful as I’ve read articles by young writers who have internalized those claims and have written scathing articles about retirees and their supposed excesses.

Those claims are bullshit.

Both programs (Social Security and Medicare) can be saved by changes to spending priorities; increasing limits on, and types of, certain taxes; and doing what every other civilized nation has done in terms of providing healthcare.

All it takes is political will.

That will must come from young people working independently of the two major political parties.

The Republicans are cruel and odious on this issue as they are on everything else.

But don’t believe the Democrats either.

It was Barack Obama who proposed putting both Medicare and Social Security on the table as part of his “grand compromise”; fortunately the Republicans wouldn’t work with him on anything – including something they really wanted.

And it was Obama and the Democrats who gave us a healthcare system based on for-profit health insurance.

Nope – just like the kids from Stoneman-Douglas high school who are working to bring effective gun control to this country, you are all going to have to get involved with something that affects all your futures.

You might be surprised that your older relatives who love you would likely join in the fight to help you.

Dave Lindorff is an investigative journalist who has written on this subject. You can read his latest article here.

Pebble Mine Consortium – the Beast That Will Not Die

McNeil River

I’ve written about the Pebble Mine in a number of posts.

It had seemed that the consortium’s efforts to build an open pit mine that would have threatened Alaska’s Bristol Bay were over after the final major partner pulled out.

However, it appears they’re planning another environmental disaster.

Now the consortium has applied for a permit to mine gold, copper, and molybdenum in land 200 miles south of Anchorage – the sought permit will be in an area as close as several hundred yards from the boundary of the McNeil River State Game Reserve and Sanctuary.

If you’ve not heard of the McNeil River you’ve undoubtedly seen photos of tourists safely watching nearby large Alaskan brown bears hunting and feeding on salmon. For 51 years humans and bears have been able to develop a sense of trust in the other as humans can get very close to bears that would tower over NFL defensive tackles – in all that time no human has been killed or injured by the bears.

Now this proposal, if approved, could destroy the sanctuary as the mining and roads will destroy habitat, increase pressure for legal hunting and certainly increase poaching.

There is still time to fight this. The Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment until June 29th.

You, or I, may never visit the McNeil River sanctuary. But as Wallace Stegner noted, knowing that wild places exist – whole and untamed and apart from us, is sometimes just enough.

You can read more here.

EWA Fly Fest

Last Saturday I drove to Me-Kwa-Mooks Park in West Seattle for the Emerald Water Anglers (EWA) Fly Fest. This was the first time I’ve attended – and wound up driving as waiting for the ferry up in Port Orchard would have taken longer than driving.

Me-Kwa-Mooks, meaning “shaped like a bear’s head” was what the Duwamish tribe called the West Seattle peninsula when the first European-American settlers landed at Alki in 1851.


The park is across the street from Puget Sound – the view from the beach is incredible. While it’s an undeveloped park with only a porta-potty, it was enough for a group of enthusiastic fly fishers.

The EWA Fly Fest is about seminars, casting fly rods, and a guide’s cook-off. For me, the main thing was to cast fly rods. A number of fly-rod companies had their reps there with rods for casting: Hardy, Loomis (Tom Larrimer), Reddington, Sage,Scott, Thomas & Thomas (Jon Covich), and Winston.


I got to cast a number of rods, including the one I was very interested in: the T&T Exocett. While much more powerful than the Avantt (which I really like, as can be read in my previous posts), it was still easy to cast while having tremendous line speed.

One of the best things about events where there is shared interest is that everyone is friendly. While waiting to get some lemonade, a young father in front of me was filling a glass for his very young daughter. He turned and asked if I’d like my glass filled.

I had to leave before the guide cook-off, and all the free food. While I hadn’t gotten to attend all the seminars I wanted or sample the free food, it was a fun and worthwhile trip. I’ll add it to my calendar for next year.

And hopefully with a bit of better planning I will be able to cut down on the driving by riding the ferries.

A Belated Remembrance

Doug Volgenau

Everyone we know or have known, at least for more than just a casual acquaintance, touches us in ways that we may not always understand at the time. Memories of those we have known fade into dim recesses, remaining forgotten until an event or circumstance triggers a flood of memories of an earlier time.

Today I had such a flood of memories.

I was doing a search on Google and found myself looking up the name of my first commanding officer in the Navy. I found his obituary and learned that he had died four years ago. More troubling to me was learning that he died of complications from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Douglas Volgenau was his name. Born outside of Buffalo, New York in 1937, he graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1959.

I first met him at Navy Nuclear Power School at Mare Island, California in 1975 where he was commanding officer of the school. He was little seen after he met with our class for a question and answer session, except by those unfortunates who wound at academic review boards for failed courses; given the nuclear Navy, all I knew who went to those boards wound up doing something else.

After further nuclear power training and submarine school, I reported to the USS Billfish (SSN 676) in April 1976. By coincidence, he had reported earlier to the same boat where he was to be the commanding officer.

As he took command I started my journey on learning what it really meant to be an officer. The journey was not easy as I was full of myself and had a great deal to learn. Needless to say, the education came in the form of being yelled at frequently – many times by him.

He was a big man, having been a heavy-weight wrestler at the Naval Academy. He had a dark complexion and when he was pointing his big finger in my face I knew I was in trouble.

But to his credit, he gave me time to grow and over time I learned to keep my mouth shut and become what I had been commissioned to be.

I still recall the first watch I stood after I was qualified as officer of the deck (OOD). The boat was scheduled to go to periscope depth at night, which can always be a dangerous evolution due to risk of collision if there are nearby surface vessels, and more so at night due to reduced visibility.

I made my preparations, called down to the wardroom where he was at dinner, reported the status, and requested permission to go to periscope depth. He gave me permission and remained at the wardroom table – trusting me to do my job without him needing to oversee what I was doing – something he had done for other new officers of the deck.

It may not seem like much, but at that moment I learned what trust really meant: if I had made a mistake he would have been held responsible and his naval career would have been ruined.

His and my time on the boat wasn’t as happy as it probably could have been. There was a decided chill between the senior officers and the junior officers. Many officers in our wardroom left the Navy, and when I was younger I thought a great deal of it had to do with him, given his sometimes overbearing personality. He wasn’t a perfect man by any means as none of us are.

But as I grew older and more reflective, I started to understand he had been a victim of his predecessor who had burned out the officers and crew in a brutal shipyard period. The resentments and hostility toward the Navy were passed on to those who reported onboard over the next year – including me. Of the many regrets I have, one is that I wasn’t mature enough at the time to understand the interpersonal dynamics.

After my tour on the Billfish, as I was getting to go to my next command, he told me something I have always treasured: “I wouldn’t have said this to you two years ago, but I’d be glad to have you as an OOD on any mission.”

I knew even at the time that he was a decent man – loving and proud of his children and tolerant of their teasing even when we officers were in his house, and in love with his wife Sue who he remained married to for 53 years.

I remember the day he was to take command. He arrived in his dress blues with his rows of ribbons. It was only when he showed up that he learned the uniform of the day was dress blues with medals. As I was the most junior officer present, he asked for my single medal and hurriedly took off his ribbons – to be replaced by my single medal. Sue laughed the whole time, and I liked her immediately; I saw the strength of their marriage in that silly moment.

Life is fragile as I learned last year and we all face our mortality. Learning of his death was sad, but learning how he died made it so much more difficult.

I can’t imagine what his last two years were like as ALS took his strength and he lost all movement. I have to believe he would have endured it, with Sue and his children beside him, as he did with life – face the problems and do the best he could.

So, while it’s four years late in coming, Admiral – you had a profound impact on me, and on who I became. I will never forget you.

Sunset and evening star,
      And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
      When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
      Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
      Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
      And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
      When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
      The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
      When I have crost the bar. – Tennyson

His obituary is here.