Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Kid's a Natural

The kid’s a natural. No doubt about it.

That kid is a great-nephew, one of my brother’s grandchildren. Young Nicholas Vang doesn’t have a lot of mileage on him, but he has talent and inclination for the great outdoors, and with his uncle Dan showing him the way, I see a lot of great outings in his future. This spring, Dan called in a wild turkey gobbler for Nicholas, and now he’s taking him fishing at every opportunity.

In April I wrote about the first Earth Day and the landmark environmental legislation that followed, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. American waters responded to cleanup and rivers and streams that were all but dead when I was a kid now run clear and nurture abundant populations of game fish. The Zumbro River, which runs through my hometown of Zumbrota, Minnesota, is definitely one of them.

My nephew, Dan Vang, lives on the banks of the Zumbro River, just a mile out of town, and just down the hill from where one of my uncles (this story, it seems, is all about uncles and nephews) lived most of his life. Dan is an outdoors enthusiast, and his home is filled with antlers, mounted deer heads, and sporting art from a lot of ducks and pheasants banquets. There’s a pheasant pen in the back yard and then there’s Gus, Dan’s big yellow Labrador retriever.

As for the river, there are not only smallmouth bass in the stream; there are trout and even muskies. I looked forward to fishing the Zumbro until heavy rains turned the stream high and muddy—just like our Montana streams are right now. When Dan and Nicholas came to pick me up, he suggested we put a canoe into a tailwater, a stretch of the river downstream from a hydro dam.

It was raining when we launched the canoe into the river, but the water was crystal clear and running swiftly over gravelly riffles. Dan and Nicholas were casting lures with spinning rods while I used a flyrod.

Smallmouth bass are notorious for liking warm, sunny weather for working up a good appetite, and this definitely wasn’t a great day, but it didn’t take long before Nicholas called out, “I’ve got one!” He held up a juvenile smallmouth that flipped off the hook before I could take a picture.

Drifting a streamer across a riffle, I felt a little tug on my fly, and then landed a smallmouth of my own, which set a personal record for me, as undoubtedly the smallest bass I’ve ever caught. It was all of two inches long.

A little later, Nicholas called out, “I’ve got another one!” He held up another bass, this one obligingly staying on long enough to be photographed, before Nicholas expertly released the fish back into the water (a catch-and-release area for smallies).

Nicholas was wearing knee-high rubber boots and a rain suit, though it didn’t keep him dry as he waded into waist-deep water to cast towards a seam in the current on the other side of the river. After we finished our float downstream to the takeout point, he just laughed as he dumped a couple quarts of water out of each boot.
That evening I suggested a short lesson in flycasting. Nicholas watched intently as Dan hesitantly made a few casts. When I handed the rod to Nicholas, there was no hesitation. He made a false cast or two and then proceeded to make powerful 30-foot casts without a bit of difficulty. “We’ve got to start flyfishing,” he informed Uncle Dan.

Flyfishing, of course, is one of those specially paved and highly polished routes to perdition. You start off just wanting to catch a few fish and then, before you know it, you’re tying flies and bass bugs, building rods, studying aquatic entomology, and going to Trout Unlimited meetings. It’s a life that’s suddenly more complicated.

Though the distances between Montana and Minnesota will make it a bit difficult to watch Nicholas learn these new outdoor skills, there’s no doubt he’ll do well. The kid’s a natural.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fish Gaza and Achieve Peace in the Middle East!

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Chinese proverb.

This old proverb, commonly attributed to Confucius or Lao Tsu, has spawned a number of parodies, such as, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish, and he will sit in the boat and drink beer all day.”

Here are a few more.

“Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Unless he doesn’t like sushi—then you have to teach him to cook.”

“Teach a man to fish and you can sell him fishing equipment.”

“Teach a man to fish; and you will not have to listen to his incessant whining about how hungry he is.”

“Give a man a fish, and he’ll probably look at you very oddly and say something like, “I’m sorry but you’ll still have to pay the speeding fine.”

Vice President Dan Quayle got in the act. “If you give a person a fish, they’ll fish for a day. But if you train a person to fish, they’ll fish for a lifetime.”

You get the idea. But what would happen if you taught a hungry Palestinian how to fish?

In the news the last couple weeks, Israeli commandos have been intercepting ships attempting to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, that poverty-stricken strip of land along the Mediterranean between Israel and Egypt. Naturally, Israel’s politicians defend their actions as necessary to keep dangerous materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

That makes sense, of course. The Middle East, after all, is a snake pit. It’s a region where there’s no such thing as a true friend; just temporary alliances of convenience. It’s an area where personal relationships are often summed up as, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

So what sorts of things are prohibited from the Gaza Strip? According to a list from Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, there are a lot of dangerous items, such as spices and herbs, including sage, cardamon, cumin, coriander and ginger. The forbidden list also includes jam, chocolate, potato chips, fresh meat, size A4 paper (the European standard business letter, 8.3” x 11.7”), toys, goats, and chicks. Plastic chicken cages are okay; chicks aren’t.

Also on the banned list are fishing rods, fishing nets and ropes for fishing.
Certainly, potato chips should be banned. It’s just junk food, anyway. If you have thousands of hungry people you don’t want to tease them with junk food.

But fishing rods? It seems to me that if Israel’s perceived problem with Gaza is that the place is full of restive people intent on armed revolt and terrorism, then they should not only be allowing fishing rods to be brought in; they should be subsidizing importation of fishing rods. They should be hiring some of those people on American TV fishing shows to come to Gaza and give fishing lessons.

The way I see it, if we get all those people without jobs and constructive things to do out fishing, then all of a sudden, instead of sitting around and plotting terrorism, they’d be out on the long beaches of Gaza fishing and hopefully catching fish to take home to their families.

It wouldn’t stop there, of course. Pretty soon the more successful anglers would be creating TV shows and exclaiming, “Gollee! What a hawg!” Hmmm, they’d have to come up with a less-offensive term for a big fish, though. There would be people clamoring for special regulations, or advocating catch and release of game fish. There would be new cottage industries creating new fishing lures. There would be new fishing magazines—though, of course writing paper and writing implements are banned, so scratch that idea.

No, instead of banning fishing rods, Israel should be doing all it can to encourage sport fishing. That’s how I’d achieve lasting peace in the Holy Land. A ridiculous idea? Perhaps. On the other hand, consider the current policy. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sums it up, “That’s not security; that’s a travesty,”

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cottonwood Trees - blessing and nuisance

Cottonwood trees enrich our outdoor experience. In summer they provide wonderful shade along Montana’s rivers. In the fall, Montana riverbottoms are ablaze with brilliant yellows of cottonwood trees’ fall foliage. When Lewis & Clark came through Montana, they built dugout canoes from cottonwood trees, and fed horses cottonwood bark. In fact, some people assert that cottonwood trees are what made their expedition possible.

On many western rivers, such as the Missouri River, that have been deprived of seasonal flooding by dams and diversions, many cottonwood groves have lost their vitality, as mature trees age and don’t get replaced by new growth. It’s another reason to enjoy the Big Hole River where nature still rules the river’s flows and cottonwood forests are dynamic.

Yet there are times when it’s difficult to fully appreciate those cottonwood trees. Our Memorial Day weekend is a case in point.

We camped on the lower Big Hole River, intent on fishing and relaxing. While setting up camp I saw my wife scraping some stuff off her shoes. At first glance it looked like an exquisite mixture of doggy-doo and tar. “What did you step in?” I asked.
“It’s cottonwood sap,” she responded a bit testily, as scraping proved only a temporary fix. With every step we picked up more sap, along with gravel, leaf buds, dead grass, twigs and anything else in the path of the dripping trees.

Dealing with cottonwood sap was a continuing theme throughout the weekend. We agreed to leave shoes at the trailer door and not walk around inside the trailer with our gooey shoes. At least that was the theory. The reality was that no matter how hard we tried, we tracked in stuff constantly.

While we didn’t appreciate the cottonwood sap mess, it was not unexpected. Neither did we appreciate the role cottonwood sap has had in folk medicine through the years.
According to Lori Harger Witt, an herbalist from Genesee, Idaho, in an article on the website of the Moscow (ID) Food Co-op, there are a number of folk medicines based on cottonwood sap. Cottonwood buds infused in olive oil make useful massage oils. The buds contain salicylates, aspirin-like compounds which have anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. To make infused oil, gather enough cottonwood buds to fill a canning jar and pour in enough olive oil to cover the buds. Place the jar in a pot of water and heat just below simmering for about an hour. At that point you can strain the oil off the buds, or continue to let the oil steep for a couple weeks.

In another on-line article on Natural Life News, Elnora Old Coyote, who has made a lifelong study of native plants and their uses, says Montana Indian tribes traditionally used cottonwood bark and sap as a sweetener in teas, pudding and syrup. They would cut out a piece of bark and wait for sap to collect in the cup-like holes, and then they’d collect the sap, similar to collecting maple sap. She also notes the healing properties of cottonwood buds, and offers her own recipe for a cottonwood bud/olive oil infusion, with the added suggestion of adding beeswax to make a salve for burns and other skin irritations.

There are also references to making a cottonwood bud tincture by soaking cottonwood buds in rubbing alcohol.

While cottonwood sap has a surprisingly long list of folk medicine uses, that same sap that oozes from a cottonwood leaf bud can make a mess of a car, truck, or recreational vehicle. I certainly agree it’s hard to get off. Ordinary car wash detergents barely make a dent on those sticky brown spots left by the leaf buds. According to some on-line bulletin boards, bug and tar remover products do a good job with cottonwood sap. In earlier encounters with cottonwood sap, I found Dawn Power Dissolver effective.
It’s also a good idea to not leave a vehicle or RV under a cottonwood tree for an extended period, or you may have a mess that’s almost impossible to clean. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mother''s Day Caddis - Still Waiting

Mother’s Day is observed the second Sunday in May. That much we know. Mother’s Day came right on schedule on May 9, this year, and we duly observed the protocols for the day.

What we’re waiting for now is the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch, that explosion of insect life that seems to get the flyfishing season going in earnest.

There are many kinds of caddisflies, and trout depend on them for a big chunk of their diet. The late Gary LaFontaine, in his landmark book, “Caddisflies,” cited scientific studies that estimate that caddisflies account for 44.7 percent of aquatic foods eaten by trout, significantly more than mayflies and stoneflies, though mayfly and stonefly imitations usually take up more space in a flyshop’s cases.

Caddisflies are of the scientific order of Trichoptera, and, according to LaFontaine, there are more than 1200 species in 142 genera and 18 families known in North America, and over 7,000 species known world-wide, and about now I’m wishing I remembered more from those high school biology classes.

The scientific name for the Mother’s Day Caddis is Brachycentrus, and a common name for them is Grannom. The caddis hatch happens on most western rivers. The trick is being around when it happens, as well as having fishable water.

The Mother’s Day Hatch, when it finally happens, can be impressive. The hatch on the Yellowstone River is famed for profuse hatches, when large rafts of insects float along the river’s currents, and an angler trying to get in on the action may find caddisflies crawling all over his/her face and into ears. On the Big Hole River, where I do most of my fishing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any hatches that dense, though when there are clouds of insects buzzing around trees and bushes it’s still impressive, especially when they crawl inside your glasses.

On the other hand, by the time these masses of bugs appear on the water’s surface, as well as buzzing around trees and bushes, the trout may have already filled their bellies with emerging caddis trying to make their way from the stream’s rocky bottom to the surface. In fact, a good strategy, during the hatch, can be to use an emerger-type fly such the sparkle pupa patterns developed by LaFontaine, or a green-bodied soft-hackle fly.

As for fishable water, in most years that’s the real trick. All too often, the Hatch happens when spring runoff is really getting going, and while there are lots of caddisflies buzzing around, the trout are hunkered down, and not spending a lot of time looking up at adult insects on the water’s surface. I know I’ve had my best caddis action in years when runoff was more on the tame side.

There can be a fine line for optimal caddis hatch conditions. I specifically remember one spring on the Big Hole the water was running on the high side, though it wasn’t blown out. Shoreline willows were partially submerged, and trout were hanging right in the willows, in position to pick off caddis bugs dropping on the water. I had a banner day, even though the wading often seemed adventurous.

There are many caddisfly imitations available, whether you roll your own or buy them at a flyshop. Caddisfly imitations generally fall into several categories, depending on whether you’re trying to imitate a cased larva on the bottom of the stream, the pupa swimming through the water column, or the adult winged insect.

As mentioned earlier, green-bodied soft-hackle wet flies or LaFontaine sparkle pupa are good pupa imitations. The Elk Hair Caddis, developed by long-time Dillon guide Al Troth, is certainly one of the standards. I’ve also had a lot of success with a Renegade, a simple fly that possibly suggests a pair of mating caddis to a hungry trout. A small Humpy is also effective, especially when there are both caddisflies and mayflies buzzing around. If you don’t mind tangled flies and tippets, this may also be a good time for a dry fly with a wet fly dropper.

Best of all, once caddisflies show up, fish will be looking at caddisflies until fall.