Friday, February 26, 2010

When's a bull trout not a bull trout?

When it makes life a little more challenging for a high-desert cattleman, apparently.

A rancher in the Little Lost Valley of east-central Idaho says he's on the verge of challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's efforts to protect bull trout in the Little Lost River because, he says, the bull trout isn't native to the drainage. He might be right--it's possible that bull trout were transplanted to the Little Lost from the nearby Pahsimeroi River over a century ago by Nelson's predacessors in the valley. It's also possible that bull trout from the Pahsimeroi ended up in the Little Lost thanks to some ancient geologic event that separated the two rivers that were, at one time, presumably connected.

The rancher, Garrett Nelson, has some anecdotal support for his claims from local fisheries biologists who concede the former of the two theories is likely correct. Early pioneers to the Little Lost Valley likely put bull trout in their own river because, as was historically the case with other streams in the Idaho Sinks (Big Lost River, Birch Creek, etc.), trout weren't native. Only mountain whitefish were present. Bull trout were introduced likely as a source of food, and certainly as a source of recreation.

And Nelson's predacessors weren't too picky. Today, the river and its tributaries hold bull trout, rainbow trout, brook trout and holdover whitefish. It's a great recreational fishery, and its upper reaches flow through some of the area's most beautiful alpine country.

Nelson's big complaint? The presence of the federally protected bull trout hinder his and others' ranching capability. Because of the bull trout present in the system--and they're there in good numbers in the pristine headwaters of the river--he has to move his cattle off the range earlier than he would like and then provide hay for feed while the bull trout are spawning.

In recent years, any astute angler has come to the conclusion that grazing, while certainly a worthy use of public lands in moderation, can be detrimental to trout water if cows are allowed to linger and wallow. For ranchers, moving cattle on public leases is simply good practice--the fact that ranchers have had to remove cows from the river at certain times has, from an anecdotal perspective anyway, helped the Little Lost River on its public land reaches. If we, as anglers, have the "exotic" bull trout to thank for that, so be it.

I realize ranching and grazing is a historical use of public lands in the West, and in the Little Lost in particular. But it's not the only historic use. The area is well-loved by folks who fish, folks who hike (the ascent to Mill Creek Lake is remarkable) and folks who ride their ORVs and motorbikes on legal trails in the area. It is public land, after all. If we can thank Nelson's forefathers for introducing bull trout to the drainage and creating this wonder recreational resource, think how ironic it would be for the land to become less valuable to all others by the same folks who helped make it what it is today.

Weird juxtoposition, I suppose. But from a recreational fishing standpoint, the introduced trout in the Little Lost--bull trout or otherwise--deserve better. Let's keep it like it is. I, for one, am more than happy to pretend the bull trout in the Little Lost are there thanks to the whims of nature. But I'm just as happy to pretend Nelson's late neighbors in the drainage plopped the fish in the river so they, like us, might be able to spend a day with their kids casting for wild trout in a great place.

Bull trout--all bull trout--deserve federal protection thanks to their precarious condition these days. 

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sentinel Duty

Sometimes you have to push the season, if for no other reason than to protect your sanity.

For a committed fly fisher, casting through frozen guides while it snows sideways isn't unusual--winter fishing can be quite productive. But it takes commitment and discipline, like sticking to a diet ... or a budget.

Winter's long in the Rockies, and most of us will cast aside better judgment in favor of stretching some fly line in inclement weather. Success is hardly guaranteed. Gearing up is a process, and you often wonder if it's worth the ordeal of donning layers, and fingerless gloves and tying tiny, tiny flies to tiny, tiny tippet.

Oh, for a summer day, 3x and a Chernobyl.

But then, after you've post-holed through thigh-deep snow to the river, and you've worked up a good sweat under your layers of fleece and Gortex, the just-above-freezing water embraces your ankles and your shins. The water seems ... thicker. And, save for the sound of the river moving reluctantly downstream, it's quiet and calm. It's cold.

Somehow, before that first length of line is pulled from the reel, before the first tentative tug from a February trout, things feel balanced again. Centered.

Then the snow starts, light at first. It arrives whimsically, almost playfully. Fat flakes settle on the dark water and wistfully disappear. Just minutes later, the wind starts, and flakes turn to BBs of ice that sting the face and hands upon impact. Then it stops, and the sun bores through the clouds pushed by a patch of blue sky. Winter in the Rockies.

Chasing trout this time of year is more of hunting endeavor. Like a Midwestern whitetail hunter, sometimes it's best to park it in a stand and wait for the quarry to come to you. For fly fishers, that means settling over a likely run and waiting for whatever it is that triggers trout to move and feed during this austere season. Sometimes it's a dose of sunshine. Others, the snow does the trick.

This sentinel duty can be a lonely job, and there's no guarantee the fish will bother to awaken from their cold-induced slumber to do battle. There are diversions, though. Mallards and goldeyes cruise the bottoms looking for slow water on which to land. A bald eagle soars over the river, perhaps watching those ducks, hoping they get careless. A moose crashes through the river, spies the waiting angler and eyes him carefully before moving on. Then the fish come to life, and a slick starts to boil with feeding trout plucking midges from the film. The time spent waiting and watching pays off.

Now it's time to wade quietly into the water below the feeding fish. Rises are random, but they're frequent, so a target isn't vital. It's fly fishing horseshoes. Just get it close.

That first cast is emancipating. It's been weeks, maybe months, since the last time. It feels ... foreign. But as the rod loads, and the line carries through the guides with a cold hiss, the familiarity returns. When the tiny dry fly lays out on the calm water amid the rise rings, you're ready. You're a drawn bow.

Then the sip--because that's what winter trout do. The light tightens, the rod lifts. There's life at the end of that tiny tippet, and it feels good.

You can't wait for spring. It'll come on its own. You have to fish.

Friday, February 12, 2010

TU's Sportsmen's Conservation Project

Check out the latest video from Trout Unlimited's Sportsmen's Conservation Project. The SCP consists of hunters and anglers who work with fellow sportsmen and women to protect intact fish and game habitat in the West.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

My Kind of Guy

I just read John Corrigan's piece in the Concord Monitor about Tim Savard and his talk to the Basil Wood Jr. Chapter of Trout Unlimited last month. Passionate brook trout anglers will recognize Savard's name--after all, he wrote the book on brook trout. Literally. The book is titled, "Brook Trout" (sadly, Corrigan reports, the book is out of print).

Corrigan attended Savard's talk to the local TU chapter (seriously, folks, if you're interested in trout or trout fishing, wherever you live, get your tail down to a TU meeting and just sit in--you won't be sorry), and notes that Savard "talked about brook trout for nearly an hour and a half without using either notes or a PowerPoint presentation." Oh, to have been in Concord on Jan. 28.

Many closet brookie anglers have taken the time to get to know their favorite quarry, so much of what Savard had to say wasn't new information. But for casual anglers, especially those of us out West, brookies are nothing more than an introduced pest--a stunted, easy-to-fool fish that's hardly worth chasing. They probably know very little of the natural history of brook trout, including that, prior to the European invasion of the New World, brook trout thrived happily on Manhattan Island, where they likely migrated to and from the Atlantic via the East and Hudson Rivers. The only brookies on the island today are in the Museum of Natural History.

If you're lucky enough to find a copy of Savard's book, snatch it up, especially if you're interested in learning more about the brook trout and how it came to be the much-loved/hated fish. In many was, it is America's trout (or char, should you be a taxonomy stickler).

Great job, Mr. Corrigan--good to know you're lurking around  TU chapter meetings. Your work is spreading the gospel. Keep it up.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Fitting Tribute

This just in: The Colorado Wildlife Commission will consider renaming a stretch of the South Platte River between Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Eleven Mile Reservoir after the late, great Charlie Meyers, the former outdoor editor of the Denver Post.

The commission meets Feb. 11 in Denver. To see a map of the area proposed as the Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area, click here. To contact the state commission to support this worthy project, please drop them a line. Charlie was a huge advocate for conservation, and his voice will be sorely missed. Just as important, Charlie was a true gentleman and a hell of a fisherman. He was an unassuming man who was as comfortable with the average sportsmen as he was among the glitteratti.

Please contact the Colorado Wildlife Commission and urge swift approval of the name change honoring Charlie and his legacy.


Monday, February 1, 2010

New Voice in the Rockies

As newspapers continue to scale back their operations and their budgets, we in the West have become much more dependent on online news sources, blogs and other "Web 2.0" tools in order to stay informed.

Unfortunately, newspapers, which were once poised to rule the online flow of credible information, were slow to react to the rapidly changing and ever-evolving digital climate--they've sadly become dinosaurs, and they are quite literally on the verge of extinction. It's distressing.

And, even more distressing, is the latest news out of Summit County, Colo., where regarded environmental reporter Bob Berwyn was recently canned from the Summit Daily, apparently because he had the stones to challenge a large ski resort operator in Vail when it came to accurately reporting actual snowfall. The newspaper, in what looks like an effort to appease an advertiser, summarily dumped the writer on his ass. And, according to Berwyn, the paper offered him $3,000 not to discuss his termination, an offer he brazenly refused. Clearly, advertisers are more important than readers in Summit County, and that's a shame.
Coming from a newspaper background, this sadly doesn't surprise me--I endured a similar situation a few years back, only my nemasis turned out to be car dealers. Five months after my run-in with the car dealership cadre as editor of a daily newspaper here in Idaho, I escaped and found a job focusing on one of true passions, much to my relief. Berwyn wasn't so lucky--he was simply fired.

But Bob's not giving up his journlistic roots, and he's evolving a bit faster than his former employer--he's started a new web-based news magazine, Summit County Citizens Voice, that already shows promise. His idea is to run the site as a non-profit in hopes of providing good, solid journalism without the corporate influence (this idea has been floated for newspapers, as well). We'd like to see him take the site to the next level, and perhaps expand beyond the Summit County sphere of influence. The Southern Rockies could use a high-quality, free-from-influence news source that isn't afraid to push the journalistic boundaries in which newspapers now find themselves.

Bob's project shows promise, and we wish him the best of luck. Please check out his new site and, if you're able, send a donation his way. Losing his voice in the Rockies would be a tragedy.