The Longest Silence – Protecting What We Love

Tom McGuane, for those who may not know of him, is an American writer. He has written ten novels, five screenplays including Rancho Deluxe and The Missouri Breaks, and numerous short stories and essays. And he is a fly fisherman – recognized for his contributions to the sport by the American Museum of Fly Fishing.

I was recently reminded of something he wrote in an essay published 17 years ago in The Longest Silence: A Life in Fly Fishing:

We have reached the time in the life of this planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out. We must make holy war on the enemies of aquatic life as we have against gillnetters, polluters, and drainers of wetlands. Otherwise, as you have already learned, these creatures will continue to disappear at an accelerating rate. We will lose as much as we have already lost and there will be next to nothing, remnant populations, put-and-take, dimbulbs following the tank truck.

It is long past time to adopt that ethic if we are to protect what’s left of our natural world. And it applies whether we are fishers, hunters, hikers, or just urban types who walk in the park.

Memory and the Return of the Chum Salmon

Donkey Creek Chum Salmon

Distractions abound in contemporary society with the increasing depravity in most aspects of public life – think big time business, entertainment, politics, and sport.

And now that it’s December, the endless ads for luxury cars, snooping servants masquerading as home electronics, and Christmas music that has been playing in most malls and stores since August have driven out the joy of the season. Even Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present has said enough already.

In all of the above, there is no past or future – there is only the Now for only the Now has commercial or political utility. But even the cynical use of the Now as distraction can not, and must not, destroy memory: memory of cherished past; memory of history, and memory of one’s self.

And there is another type of memory. That is the memory of the natural world and its cycles that stretch back farther than human memory.

All it takes is looking outside.

Here in the Northwest, the annual salmon return is one such cycle. December brings its own gift with the return of the chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) to Donkey Creek.

The name of the creek has its origin in a lumber mill. After the nearby Austin mill was built in the early 1900s, a donkey engine transport system was used by loggers to move timber downstream to the mill. The building used for the engine was demolished in 2002 but logs from the building were salvaged and used in the siding of the restroom constructed in 2004.

Today, the park of the same name joins by a path to the Harbor History Museum. The path allows easy viewing of the creek. And it is in the creek in late November and December where there’s the best chance of seeing a returning chum salmon.

On their return and out of sight of the public, the fish are captured, bucks and hens are separated, and milk and eggs are extracted – the fish are dispatched with a quick bonk on the head. And then the life cycle of another generation of chum salmon begins.

Their life journey begins in the Donkey Creek Remote Site Incubator System (RSI). The RSI was installed by local fishermen in 1974 in cooperation with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The purpose was to restore the chum salmon run that had been severely depleted by road building and urbanization.

The RSI processes 1.3 million eggs every year — 1 million eggs are planted in Donkey Creek and about 300,000 are divided up between Meyers Creek and Purdy Creek.

The eggs and milk are mixed together in incubator buckets, with incubation lasting four months until about mid April. When they hatch they are called alevins. They spend six weeks maturing in the incubator buckets before losing their egg sacs. They then leave the barrels through a small pipe and go into a bigger pipe that runs in Donkey Creek. When they enter the creek they are called fry.

The fry slowly move into Gig Harbor and out into Puget Sound – finally reaching the open ocean in late summer. They move northward along the British Columbia coast until they reach their destination in the Gulf of Alaska, where they will remain for at least three years, with most returning in years four and five.

Their journey out and back means a journey of over 2000 miles plus the miles spent in the Gulf of Alaska. It is an incredible journey out of sight to us except at the very end when we can watch a salmon swim with all its remaining strength fight to reach its spawning ground for the singular purpose of creating the next generation. It is truly awe inspiring to watch.

Standing along Donkey Creek also provides an opportunity to see the cycles in our own lives – particularly when we understand that others stood where we are now.

The S’Homamish band of native Americans spent winters in a village known as Twalwelkax meaning “trout” at the mouth of Donkey Creek. The chum salmon migration was a source of food during the long cold winters. While they spent their winters along Donkey Creek, it’s probable the band migrated during the summer months to Vashon Island for there is archeological evidence of them there.

Little is known of the S’Homamish, except they were one of the bands that signed the Treaty of Medicine Creek in 1854, which exchanged 2.24 millions of land belonging to nine Indian tribes and bands to the United States for three reservations, cash payments, and recognition of fishing and hunting rights. By all accounts it was a swindle, just like all treaties signed with Native Americans.

The fishing rights were in dispute for over 120 years until the Boldt Decision of 1974, which reaffirmed the rights of Indian tribes and bands to act as co-managers of salmon and other fish as well as continue their harvesting according to the original treaties. By that time, the S’Homamish appear to have disappeared as a distinct band. Hopefully they joined another larger tribe and their descendants live to this day.

If they do, they preserve the memory of the life cycle of the chum salmon – as we should for it is a reminder of the great cycles of nature and our own place in it. I take comfort in that when the Now attempts to crush all memory.

Thompson River Steelhead: Climate Change and Gill Nets

Steelhead

The Thompson River is the largest tributary of the Fraser River, which is the tenth largest river in Canada and the largest river in British Columbia.

Though the 1990s, the Thompson was one of the premier steelhead fishing rivers in North America. In the late 1980s, the steelhead run was estimated at over 10,000 fish; these were large fish with the average male weighing over 16 pounds with some as heavy as 30 pounds. Steelhead are aggressive fish with streamlined bodies and large tails; catching a steelhead is an unforgettable event – something I hope to experience at some point; they are not called the fish of a thousand casts for nothing.

Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) are anadromous rainbow trout, spending several years in the ocean before returning to spawn in their natal rivers. Unlike salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can return to the ocean, spending a year or two before returning to spawn a final time – if they are successfully able to migrate out.

Spawned steelhead are exhausted and their outward journey is complicated by competing fish, angling pressure, reverse osmotic chemistry and biological fatigue. Any obstructions on the journey doom them. So it’s vital that the first spawn include large numbers of steelhead to continue to propagate the fish.

Unfortunately the Thompson River steelhead fishery has collapsed. In 2016, the run was estimated at 400 steelhead. The estimate for 2017 for spawning Thompson River steelhead is 175 out of 240 entering the Fraser River.

There are several causes for the collapse.

The first and most apparent cause is climate change. Numbers of returning steelhead and other salmonids are declining significantly in multiple river systems due to warming oceans. This is another example of the ongoing Anthropocene extinction – with the possibility of large numbers of animal extinctions occurring in our lifetimes and the high probability of the same in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

A second cause of the collapse of the Thompson River steelhead is the use of gill nets in the Fraser River by both commercial and First Nations fishers. Steelhead have no commercial value – it is a sport fishery only.

Unfortunately for the steelhead, their journey up the river occurs at the same time as that of chum salmon – which is a commercial fish. While slightly smaller than the chum salmon, steelhead can still be caught in the nets and be fatally injured even if released after capture.

The impact of the collapsing fishery has been recognized by the small communities along the Thompson who rely on the dollars spent by visiting fishers. And the Cook Ferry First Nation did not participate in the Fraser River chum season this year out of concern for the Thompson River steelhead.

Saving the Thompson River steelhead is dependent on the actions of the British Columbia government and there is a petition campaigns underway to pressure it to act.

But this isn’t just an issue of fly fishing for Thompson River steelhead. Whether one has fished there or hopes to do (and I’m in the second category) or whether one has any interest in casting for any fish, the primary issue is one of saving the wild things on this planet. The return of the Thompson River steelhead and the emergence of mayfly nymphs on the Henry’s Fork in Idaho are connected.

They are both threads in the web of life on Earth that sustain other species. The Henry’s Fork mayfly feeds the rainbow trout; the decay of a steelhead after its death feeds microbes, stream invertebrates, mammals and birds – as do salmon.

Life propagates when all processes of natural systems work together.

The plight of the Thompson River steelhead is another example of the combined impacts of human arrogance and ignorance. But taking action to save those fish is one opportunity to commit to the natural processes that sustain life on this planet – including ours.

Here is the link to the petition.

The Tempests of Change

It has been difficult to watch the reporting of natural disasters this summer without feeling a sense of dread that dramatic climate change is not a resigned future for some unknown progeny, it has begun.

The forest fires burning across the West reflect the damage already visited upon the forests by years of drought and the pine bark beetle. While the total number of acres burned this year is less than in some previous years such as 2012, the acres burned are greater than the ten-year average.

Forests across the west have burned every summer. But for many in places like Puget Sound they were always happening elsewhere – eastern Washington or Idaho or Montana. But this year, a different wind pattern brought smoke and ash from fires in British Columbia, Oregon, and eastern Washington. And that smoke and ash came to an area experiencing 90 F weather.

When I came to this area in the early eighties, summer temperatures were in the mid seventies; a day in the eighties was an exception and remarked upon. Now, in the last twenty years, eighties and nineties have become common.

Western Washington went from the wettest winter on record (2016/2017) to a summer of drought and setting a record for days without rain. The wet winter fed the rapid growth of brush that became dry tinder as the summer progressed. A number of homes near Grand Mound were destroyed in late summer from a fire that spread from near Interstate 5. Similar fires closer to Seattle were stopped before homes were destroyed.

As we move into the first of the autumn storms, it can be hoped the worst of the fire threat here has passed. But sooner or later, a tossed cigarette, fireworks, careless burning, or other causes will ignite a fire that spreads out of control into forested hillsides and into housing communities. With a prolonged drought and the right winds a fire similar to the Oakland firestorm of 1991 may only be a matter of time.

Hurricane Harvey dumped up to four feet of rain on the Houston area. It was difficult to watch without feeling a sense of empathy for the population who watched the literal drowning of their homes and communities.

Efforts to recover have begun but the fetid waters will bring disease, further threatening a population suffering from mental and emotional exhaustion. This recovery is going to take months to years for many. And the television crews have already moved on to other storms (see below) and news stories.

No one – understandably – during the deluge commented on the irony of a hurricane made worse by climate change dumping on the Emerald City of the petroleum industry. But much like the fabled wizard of Oz who admonished Dorothy and her crew not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, Scott Pruitt, the director of the “environmental protection”agency, is another phony who doesn’t believe climate change should be mentioned, as it’s insensitive to those who lives are being wrecked by climate change.

While the administration doesn’t want to talk about climate change, its supporters in the petroleum industry already knew it was real. Exxon for one knew about the effects of climate change as early as 1977, having funded a good deal of its own scientific research – research it then concealed.

And for the last forty years, the rest of the petroleum industry and its supporters and stooges have claimed the science isn’t settled or that it’s just a figment of imagination. Worse, they’ve spent millions of dollars working to prevent any public discussion of it.

Unfortunately for them, nature doesn’t rely on donations from the Koch family. And it provided a second hurricane in Irma.

I had a personal interest in Irma. I had lived in Tampa many, many years ago and was concerned about the friends I had had who I assume still live there. And more than that, I have a brother who lives in Miami.

Fortunately, both Miami and Tampa were relatively spared. In my brother’s case, he and his family spent the storm in a shelter, and came home to find no damage to their house and the power still on (his trees and fence didn’t fare as well).

The Florida Keys were hammered as was parts of southwest Florida – not to mention the many islands in the Caribbean as well as the coast of Cuba. Again, it’s difficult to watch television and see the devastation and havoc created for the residents of those areas.

And now there is another hurricane – Maria, now strengthening and on a path that will take it over many of the Caribbean islands savaged by Irma.

It may be insensitive to Scott Pruitt, but there needs to be not only mention, but discussion and action on climate change now.

We may be out of time, and will certainly be if dramatic action is not taken immediately.

Don’t Tread on the Redd

Fishond Don't Tredd on Me

Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig Montana has an excellent post today related to recognizing and protecting trout redds.

A redd is a spawning nest cleared in gravel by the female salmonid (salmon, steelhead, trout). The female forms several depressions in the gravel forming egg pockets into which she deposits her eggs – with the size of a redd dependent on the size of the fish making the nest. While they photograph well from above, they can be difficult for a wading angler to see. Caution and care are the watchwords during spawning seaon.

You can read the post here.

Let’s Kick the Habit of Plastic Fly Containers

AFFTA

Do you ever think about how you add to the waste stream when you buy flies?

I’m talking about those little plastic containers used to hold the flies you buy at your local fly shop.

It may not seem like much, but you’re part of a big, big problem. The American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA) estimates fly shop retail sales use bout 3.5 million plastic containers annually. That’s a lot of plastic that’s eventually going into landfills.

Now AFFTA has announced new initiative to reduce that waste stream by offering recycled paper fly boxes for sale to its members.

Your local fly shop can do its part.

And we can do our part as individual fly fishers. We can use old containers the next time we go in to buy flies rather than use a new container – whether paper or plastic.

May the Rivers Never Sleep

Book cover

Many people – most perhaps – see time as linear. A year begins; months pass; and then the year ends. It then recedes into the past, remembered only as an incrementing number on one’s decrementing life journey. Infrequently, a year will be remembered for some significant achievement or tragedy.

Fly fishers, hopefully more wise than most, have evidence of the cyclic nature of time as seen in the annual hatches and return of treasured species of fish. And to be fair, evidence of the cyclic nature of time is shared certainly with hunters and others that chase fish with plugs or bait.

Depending on the river, fly fishers eagerly await the Skwala hatch, Mother’s Day Caddis, hopper season or October Caddis. On other rivers, autumn is the time for brown trout. Fishers, both fly and spey, on the coasts wait for the return of salmon and steelhead.

Whatever the month or season, it is a time for being outdoors with a fly rod in hand; an occasion to reflect on fond memories of past outings as well as look forward to the possibilities of the next hatch or the return of salmon or steelhead.

There are a few, a relatively small few, who put aside fly rods to look for the deeper revelations of fish and the world they inhabit. Once such person was the deservedly revered Roderick Haig-Brown. Among his books is the enduring A River Never Sleeps published in 1946, in which he uses the calendar year to write of his experiences on rivers, streams, and estuaries – using the calendar year to mark his journey.

Haig Brown

Now following along in the writing of Haig-Brown are the father/son team of Bill and John McMillan. Bill is well known in the Northwest for his writings on salmon and steelhead and was one of the founders of the Wild Fish Conservancy. His son John leads the Trout Unlimited Wild Steelhead Initiative.

Their book, published in 2012, is May the Rivers Never Sleep. Their river calendar takes place on the salmon and steelhead rivers of primarily Oregon and Washington.

Similar to Haig-Brown they’ve often traded rod for snorkel and mask. This is a large format book with plenty of photographs of salmon and steelhead taken underwater as well as surface photographs of well-loved streams.

Their prose is full of reflection and insight.

There are surprises, such as when the McMillans observe male rainbow trout mating with female steelhead on Olympic Peninsula rivers. They also cite recent studies that indicate that male rainbow trout may father more than 50% of steelhead in both Oregon and Washington in some years.

Their writing also reveals the extent of what has been lost. Whether due to loss of habitat due to logging and dams or the impact of climate change, populations of salmon and steelhead are in decline.

They observe the Grande Ronde river in Oregon. It was once considered one of the most prolific salmon and steelhead rivers in the Columbia basin as late as the 1940s and 1950s. Now those fish must traverse eight Columbia and Snake river dams to reach their natal streams. Further, many are confused and unable to find their natal streams; as juveniles they were collected and barged 200 miles downstream.

But this is not a book of pessimism. They see hope in the adaptation of pink salmon, whose number have increased, to warmer North Pacific temperatures. They note the depletion of char in British Columbia, but note the Skagit River holds sizable numbers of bull trout, one of the three species of char found in North America; the other two are Dolly Vardens and Arctic Char.
Given bull trout are nomadic they could spread to other river systems in Puget Sound if water temperatures are conducive and if salmon recovery proceeds – the bull trout feed on salmon eggs and fry.

This is a book to be read, and then reread a second time, with the second reading occurring over the months of a year – one chapter for each month. Each month of the river year then provides an opportunity to reflect upon the wider (and deeper) perspectives of what it means to chase salmon and steelhead.

Smolts, Safe Journey

Today was a reminder of why fly-fishing in Puget Sound can be a source of awe and perspective.

I had gone down to fish the beach at Purdy. The large falling tide meant strong ebb current and a good chance to find a cutthroat trout. I got one strike. Unfortunately, it felt like the fish spit it out or couldn’t get a strong bite in the heavy current.

But that wasn’t the reason today was a day of wonder. The Coho smolts were heading out to the ocean.

Everywhere, there were small salmon jumping as they moved out of Burley lagoon into Carr Inlet and then on into Puget Sound on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Most I saw looked to be three to four inches in length, with a few somewhat larger.

Near and far, they were jumping seemingly for joy as their big life adventure had begun. While I continued to cast and strip line, I found myself doing it just for the chance to share my small bit of water with these magnificent fish.

Their future lives started in late summer or early autumn of 2014, when their parents returned through Burley lagoon to Burley Creek or Purdy Creek, which are the natal streams for Coho. Their parents in their final act of life deposited and fertilized the eggs in the creek gravel.

This generation of Coho then emerged as fry in late winter or early spring of 2015. They spent all of last year in the slow moving water of their natal creeks. Then sometime this spring they began the process of smoltification, where their physiology changed from living in fresh water to living in salt water.

And now they are on their way to spending the majority of their lives in the Pacific Ocean. Most will stay out for two to three years before returning to their birth streams to start another generation of Coho salmon on their way before ending their lives.

The majority of smolts I saw today likely will be returning in 2018 or 2019.

In all that time, they will live their lives forgotten or unknown by the majority of people who live around the shores of Puget Sound.

And the concerns of these same people over these two to three years – the 2016 election, football seasons, urgency manufactured by marketers and bosses, the daily drudgery of life and work, and the minor tragedies and comedy of being human – will for the most part be forgotten by the time these fish return to Burley lagoon.

The fish will have a much more real urgency and that will be to propagate the next generation of their species and then finish their life cycle.

And maybe their departure today is a chance for us to remind ourselves that our great life cycle should be focused on the important things.

No Coho Salmon Fishing in 2016?

The Seattle Times today is reporting the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) will decide whether to close the Coho salmon 2016 season at its April 9-14 meeting.

There is alarm at the dramatically low rate of Coho returning for spawning. For example, last year only 242,000 Coho (out of the expected 700,000) returned to the Columbia River system. As the PFMC stated on their website, “…but expectations for wild coho runs to the Washington Coast and Puget Sound areas can only be described as disastrous.”

Commercial fishers and guide services will suffer economic loss to be sure. Recreational fishers of all equipment types will miss out on the annual chance to hook a fighting Coho. But it is necessary to give the Coho stocks a chance to replenish if it’s not already too late. At the same time, temporary bans do not solve the problems of urban runoff, industrial pollution, over fishing, and climate change. All those factors have, and will continue to have, impacts on the survival of all life in Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

I hope the PFMC receives universal agreement from the tribal managers and state fisheries managers (California, Oregon, and Washington) to make the hard, but needed, decision.

Washington residents may submit comments to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife here.

The Blob and Coho Salmon Runs

The Seattle Times reported on the fall 2015 Coho salmon run on the Skagit River. The news is not good.

The Skagit 2015 run was 12 percent of the average return for the last decade. Beyond that, those that made it to spawning weighed only three to four pounds – half of the normal range of six to eight pounds.

Fisheries scientists put the blame on what they call “the blob” – an area of warmer water (up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer) that has been in place off the Pacific coast since 2013. This blob has been responsible for the winter weather patterns seen over the last couple of years.

There is a strong debate as to whether the blob is a result of climate change, but whatever the causes last year’s Skagit run suggests a similar pattern for Coho runs this year – there is no indication the blob has dispersed.

Pink salmon venture farther out into the Pacific and are not impacted by the blob -as evidenced by last year’s Pink Salmon run. But if the blob is a result of climate change, then sooner or later the Pink Salmon will be impacted.

I fear we are seeing the beginnings of a new normal – and a future that will become increasingly grim.

Read article here.