Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Our Public Lands- Freedom on the Brink

We rode off the ridge as the snow and darkness closed in. The wind howled overhead, driving the snow ahead of it, and I paused to cinch down the hood of my wool parka. We had followed a herd of elk high up onto the flanks of this mountain only to have them dump off into the valley below. Sure. Easy for them. Now we were headed back to our remote camp, 11 miles from the nearest trailhead. My horse was old and slow, due to be retired the next season. He refused to keep up with the horses ridden by our guide and my friend Larry, and I watched their headlamps disappear ahead of me into the darkness. 

After a while I realized I was spooking my own horse with my headlamp, so I switched it off and rode on, praying the whole time that we wouldn't bump into a grizzly bear. No worries- my horse knew the way back, and when we got within a half mile of camp it was all I could do to reign him back from a full gallop to get back to the corral and some high quality hay. It had been a great day- we had rode up after elk, and instead had a pair mountain goats strut not 40 yards from where we stalked. The whole day, from the ride up the mountain past the excavated stones where bears had dug for squirrels, to the clatter of hooves on rock as the elk moved ahead of us, the far off lonely bugle of a bull signaling their descent into the canyon, the mountain goats parading past at close range and realizing too late how close they were to us, to the long eerie ride home alone in the dark and snow, was all one great adventure, played out on America’s public lands.

This adventure, an outfitted elk hunt, took place in the Scapegoat Wilderness, which adjoins the more famous Bob Marshall Wilderness to the north. It is a gorgeous landscape of high peaks, breathtaking lakes and waterfalls, abundant game and predators, and all of it is yours to enjoy and explore. Why? Because it belongs to you and me. It is public land administered by the federal government.
Our Public Lands are under threat.
There are people out there who would rob you of this opportunity and adventure. They want to take our public lands away from all of us and give them to private interests. They do this in the name of States Rights, a red herring if ever there was, as they know full well that the states, cash strapped as they are, will divest them to private interests, or allow the exploitation of their resources at the expense of everyone and everything else. The fire fighting budget alone on these lands would break the Western states. Those who push for states rights know this, know it’s just a matter of time before all that juicy, resource rich land is theirs to exploit, mine, log off, or turn into private ranches and hunting and fishing clubs.

I first became aware of this issue about a year and a half ago, but I mostly ignored it. I felt that our public lands were an integral US institution and American birthright, so fundamental to the American way of life and landscape as to be beyond question. The idea that our lands would be given to the states to do as they pleased with seemed laughable. But at this moment state and Congressional lawmakers are attempting to do just that.

The States Rights advocates exercise, or promote, a very selective false memory. The Federal Government owns over 640 million acres of public land, mostly in the West. They act as if that land was wrested from them by the Federal Government against their will, a birthright stolen from them, and that now that same government imposes irksome regulations and bureaucracy, robbing them of the full and free use of what is rightfully theirs. This tale, popular in the West, is untrue, a fable perpetuated by those who want that land for private profit rather than the public interest.

The truth is that land never belonged to the states. Not ever. The states didn’t exist in some statehood fairyland until the federal government came and took over. It was the Federal Government, which purchased (think Louisiana Purchase, in which the US bought lands that extended into Montana and Wyoming among others, and thus held title to those lands) or conquered the West, and then opened it up in an orderly fashion to settlement. Hell, they gave tens of millions of acres away to settlers and to local governments under the Homestead Act, and then as a condition of statehood and all its benefits, those states relinquished all rights and title to unsettled lands, the lands that became our federal public lands today, administered by a variety of agencies.

Even then the federal government was a fairly generous landlord, giving away mining claims, allowing ranchers to run their cattle rough shod over the terrain. When the range was so overgrazed and nearly destroyed they begged the federal government to step in and arbitrate, which they did. Limits were placed on the amount of cattle or sheep that could be grazed on any given range. These limits were not however, just for the benefit of the ranchers. Federal land managers also looked out for other interests, such as balancing grazing against water use, wildlife needs, recreation and timber management.

I grew up with this notion that our public lands were one of our best ideas, up there with and in ways better than our National Parks. They were part of what made us free. They make America special. You didn’t have to be a rich landowner in order to enjoy wild places. You didn’t have to hold title to a private estate in order to fish, hunt, camp, float, hike, and otherwise recreate in the wild.

I fished in Austria a couple of years back on a visit to my daughter. It was nothing like here. They have some astonishing fishing, but good luck getting to it. Her one friend had family with title to some of the best fishing in the Innsbruck area, so he inquired if I could fish there. Turns out they did have title, but it was non-transferable, and even though they didn’t fish themselves, they were unable to simply allow a guest to fish their rivers, or so I was told. After many inquiries that went nowhere, an outfitter friend of theirs said we could go and fish an alpine lake in a park. When we arrived we began to unload, but as another friend and I took our rods out, he explained that his license was only good for one rod. We put the other rod away. We would both be able to fish, but only one of us at a time, and it wasn’t legal to bring multiple rods. Having talked to many others about the fishing in Europe, it is a similar hodgepodge of archaic regulation, difficult or impossible to access, and largely the realm of the wealthy and privileged.

There is a lot of talk out there about what would happen if all that land were turned over to the states. It’s hard to say exactly but the following are inevitable:
  • Much more of it would be opened up for resource exploitation by private interests (the ultimate goal of the political forces behind this movement).
  • A lot of it would be leased to private interests or sold outright, to generate revenue for the states. The costs of firefighting alone on these lands would bankrupt the western states. This isn’t in question.
  • Unified management plans that benefit fish and wildlife, recreational use, grazing, and forest management, would be dismantled, or so fragmented as to be ineffective.
  • Recreational access by all parties would be greatly reduced or eliminated.

The taxpayers, including those who now support “States Rights” and public land divestiture, would not see the benefits promised under this movement. Their rights to access the land would be cut off, grazing sold off to the highest bidder, timber and minerals sold to outside companies whose only interest is exploitation. Everyone except those companies would lose.

I believe in free market concepts, but not at the expense of freedom. Public land isn’t a socialist concept, it’s a concept of freedom. It was the retention of those public lands that expands the freedoms of all of us. And this isn’t just for hunters and fishermen, though they would be greatly impacted by the loss of public lands. It’s for campers, hikers, birders, climbers, and sightseers. It’s for retirees who criss-cross this country in RV’s and stay at the campgrounds. It’s for the waterfall enthusiasts who use federally maintained facilities and trails to see these wonders of nature. It’s for the wildlife in the National Refuge system. It’s for the hikers who get to go hike a trail without seeing the mountainsides razed off by loggers. It’s for mountain bikers who want to ride trails in the wild, for canoers, kayakers and rafters who want to float in a pristine setting. It’s for parents who want to go for a drive and show their kids some wildlife. It’s for anyone who wants to see a landscape without fences or power lines. While hunters and anglers certainly contribute to the economics of public lands, it is largely supported by the everyday people who load their families into their cars and embark on a road trip, spend money in the surrounding communities, and enjoy the rivers, lakes, oceans, mountains, forests, trails, beaches and campgrounds that are found on public lands. It is all of us who would be impacted, shut out, our experiences diminished, and economies altered in order to benefit private enterprise, all under the pretense of States Rights, in the name of protesting “federal overreach”.

What recourse will there be for the common, everyday Westerner who has “federal overreach” replaced by state overreach? Will the state be any more sympathetic to their pleas and complaints? When the state sells off the land once administered by the feds and Westerners are shut out of it, where will they hunt, fish and recreate? When the states, compelled by their constitutions to maximize profit on this land, raises grazing fees to a fair market rate rather than the cut-rate offered by the BLM, how many Western ranchers will be forced out of business? How many families who keep and graze a few cows on the side will be forced to quit?
"Once this happens, good luck stuffing this genie back in the bottle. . ."
Here’s the problem, the really, really, really BIG problem. Once this happens, good luck stuffing this genie back in the bottle. When the good work of the wildlife refuges, the comprehensive range and forest management, the coordinated firefighting efforts, the regulatory system on western rivers that limits the amount of recreational traffic in order to preserve a wild experience, when all that has been undone- good luck. When you can no longer access your favorite wild lands to hunt, fish, camp, photograph, or just breathe clean air in silence and solitude. When small-time ranchers are forced out of business in favor of wealthy or corporate ranch operations. When all the streams and good hunting are privatized, turned into McRanch subdivisions or destroyed for resource extraction. When all this happens then congratulations, they will have achieved their state’s rights, anti-federalist, anti-public land goals. And every one of us will be poorer, less free, and the greatness that was America, that everyone keeps talking about restoring, will be forever gone.

What You Can Do:

Sign a Petition:

You can also contact your local person of congressional persuasion and let them know you oppose the transfer of federally held lands to the states.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Monday Morning Coffee- Conservation Week Edition

Yyyyyerrrrggghttppppphhhhttt!!!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat- it's Monday, and I have some things to share, so let's have some coffee shall we?

As the title implies, I have had some conservation issues on my mind of late, and I have a post coming out tomorrow on the issue of public lands, so please tune in to that if you can. I have also coordinated with several other blogs to do the same thing. Public access to public land and waters is important to all outdoor enthusiasts, to a major share of the American public as a matter of fact, but right now those lands and some fundamental American ideals are under threat. Tune in tomorrow to learn more. If I can I'll share a couple posts this week including info on what we all can do to protect our heritage.

It seems like I'm slowly but surely cracking the fishing code here in North Georgia. For most of the summer it has been far too hot to enjoy a lot of fishing, and we've experienced some fish kills as far as trout are concerned. A lot of the streams are far too warm to consider trout fishing, so I've largely left them alone. I had a day off last week, however, and went up and fished the Chattooga river for Bartram's and redeye bass.

Looking downstream

The Chattooga River is an un-dammed system that delineates the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. A week ago we hiked into the Ellicott Wilderness to see Ellicott Rock which marks the meeting point of those two states plus North Carolina. I saw a lot of trout up there, but didn't bring a rod due to the length and difficulty of the trail. So on Thursday I drove up and stopped into the Chattooga River Fly Shop in what is a rather remote corner of South Carolina, bought some flies and got some advice. Then I drove into what is more or less a canyon to fish.

The fish weren't as aggressive as I would have expected but I still managed to land a couple dozen bass plus some redbreast sunfish. The water is crystal clear, and you're fishing rapids (they call them shoals here) and in and around waterfalls. The water, flies and conditions were a lot like fishing late summer brook trout, and the bass were similarly sized. I hooked up on a couple better fish that came unpinned, and even had a couple catfish have a look at my flies. It may not be trout fishing, but I'll take chasing native fish in pristine settings over stocked rainbows any day. The markings on these fish are absolutely beautiful and it is really cool adding new species to the personal list.

Then Sunday we floated the Chestatee River. We bought some twin hulled kayaks earlier this year that you can stand up and cast from. I spent a very pleasant long afternoon catching largemouth bass, sunfish and bluegills, and saw quite a few hybrid bass and stripers in the river. There were a ton of baitfish in the river and I'm sure the hybrids were after them, and the stripers are a summer run that should be ending any day now. Toward the end of the day I had a very large bass eat right in front of me and take me on a wild ride, but my tippet was a bit light and probably worn from all 'gills I had been catching. On his second run he broke me off. He was pushing 5 pounds.

Well, my coffee is gone and it's time to go to work. Let's get after it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Monday Morning Coffee- July 25 2016

Yyyyyerrrrrgggggpppphhhhttttt!!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat- It's Monday so let's have some coffee.

Well, I've been back from Labrador for a week now. It has taken this long to catch up on sleep, do my laundry, air out my car and collect my thoughts. I had a run-up post for the trip on Gink and Gasoline, and I'll be sharing a follow-up post there soon.

Suffice it to say that we caught fish there from the first few moments that we started fishing until the last moments of daylight of the last day. Our first fish was an Atlantic salmon that hit a dry fly, and my last fish was a fifteen inch brook trout that took a large mouse pattern tied by Zach Ginop. We caught fish all week long, and there were times we changed tactics in order to catch fewer, or bigger fish, or to target specific  species.

Due to the constraints imposed by such a trip my fishing was severely limited in the weeks leading up to it. I had too much work to do, too much to do at home. I was also on a tight budget and spent considerable time tying flies for the trip. The crazy part was that I actually had sufficient materials to tie everything from dries, to the streamers I needed for the trip. I'll probably do a post soon on the flies I tied for the trip, all of which caught fish at some point. You know you've bought too much tying materials when you can look at a pattern, walk upstairs, and find everything you need to tie a reasonable representation of the fly in question.

What is sad looking back, is the dearth of good photos from the trip. I didn't shoot nearly enough, and with Dave being on assignment, when we got a good fish I deferred to his need for photographs. We treated all of our fish with the utmost care, and when Dave did a photo session with a good fish I was reluctant to haul out a second camera and put a fish through another round of manipulation, dunkings and time in the net. I'm sure you'll be seeing a variety of shots from the trip through Dave's social media and published outlets.

So we went, we caught a ton of fish. We caught landlocked Atlantic salmon, Northern pike, brook trout, whitefish and lake trout. To be honest, the salmon were the most fun, the brook trout were the most challenging and the pike were the most plentiful. You could catch Atlantics by trailing a fly over the side of the boat, and catch pike by making a cast to the wrong spot. Brook trout took work and dedication. The Atikonak is a big river, a half mile wide where we were fishing, but we didn't really get into the trout until we got out of the boat and started tearing apart the water piece by piece, working the shoreline like a small stream, parsing it out until slowly the trout began to show themselves. We were also fighting exceptionally high water for the time of year.

a decent landlocked Atlantic. I could catch these all day long
The folks at Riverkeep Lodge were excellent- they overfed us hearty home-cooked meals and desserts each day. The guides were knowledgeable, and affable, the kind of guys you want to be with 100 miles from civilization, where anything can and does happen. We had thunderstorms blow up daily out of a clear blue sky, and one day lightening started a forest fire a few miles from camp. Luckily the wind was blowing away from us, and a couple days later a water bomber showed up, landed on the lake to fill up, then doused the fire in a few runs. It was quite a show.

Well, I don't know much else. Look for my follow up post on Gink and Gasoline. My coffee is done and it's time to go to work. Let's get after it. Here's a couple more photos for the road.

gateway to the backcountry

Dave with a decent pike. Note the look of astonishment

What we came for

landing a fish at sunset

Monday, May 23, 2016

Monday Morning Coffee- May 23 2016

Errrgggggppphhhhhttttt!!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat. It's Monday so let's have some coffee.

It's crazy how fast time flies when you're busy, and crazier when I look at the blog and see it's been weeks since I posted. To be fair I have written several pieces for Gink and Gasoline (you can check them out here and here) and I'm working on more.

I also have started a new job and business opportunity, one which makes this Georgia move feel a little more sane, something that now feels sustainable and able to fuel other adventures and goals in life.

You may (or may not) notice I've removed the Jealousy Counter from the sidebar. It was how I tracked all those days I spent fishing while you were stuck at the office or in city traffic. Things down South are different- I don't cross half a dozen steelhead and trout streams every day to and from work, and don't have a trout stream five minutes from the house. So that's a downside, the fact that I have to work harder to get to fishing. The upside is the stunning mountain scenery I get to fish in, the beautiful mountain streams, many of which cascade endlessly down the rugged ravines, and the opportunity to explore a whole new region. The trade-off is less fishing, which made the Jealousy Counter a bit superfluous.

I still have yet to catch a bass down here, which is simply for lack of concerted effort. I've been informed that the striper run is on down here and we'll be going out after them soon. I also have an epic, EPIC brook trout adventure coming up, one I've been keeping under wraps, but I can tell you it doesn't involve small streams and six inch fish. Keep an eye out for it here over the next couple months.

I did get out with Marsha (my girlfriend) a couple weeks ago to hike in to a pretty little waterfall, and caught a few nice rainbows in the process, so I'll leave you with a couple pics from that trip. My coffee is done and it's time to go to work.

Let's get after it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hillary Clinton Unable to Enter Fly Rod Giveaway Due to Email Questions

Hillary Clinton testifying about her contest entry.
Vermont- In a stunning move, the Pembroke Company has announced that Hillary Clinton is ineligible to enter their rod giveaway due to questions surrounding the legality of her email server at home. Pembroke is an outdoor lifestyle company specializing in outdoor lingerie, fly fishing, and high end cat litter boxes. Their contest to give away an expensive fly rod was designed to gather emails for marketing purposes. You entered by submitting a valid email address.

According to Pembroke spokesman Pete Schoenauer “We really regret having to make this decision. We really wanted Secretary Clinton to be a part of our contest. But rules are rules, and not only does the email address have to be valid, but it also has to be from a legal server. Her home email server does not meet up to the high standards we set here at the Pembroke Company. She is hereby disqualified.”

When reached for comment Mrs. Clinton seemed sad but resigned. “It’s all part of being a political figure. You’re a target all the time. It’s a shame too- I know it’s campaign season right now, but the bull reds are in down in Louisiana, and I have a couple campaign stops to make there.” 

She continued “I really would have liked to win that rod. Bill and I were broke after we left the White House, and the rod rack is pretty bare.”

We also reached Bill Clinton for comment. “The questions you should be asking,” he said in his trademark rasp, “aren’t whether her home email server is legal, but whether she thought it was legal at the time she signed up for the contest, and the answer is ‘yes, absolutely’, and I back Hillary 100%. She deserves a fair shot to win that rod.”

When asked if he had entered the contest the former president answered “I love spring break as much as the next guy, but every now and then you just need to get offshore and throw deceivers.”

We also contacted rival presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “I know what I said about her emails, but you have to draw a line somewhere. She deserved to be disqualified.” said the self-professed Socialist. When asked if he had entered the contest he winked and said “Somewhere in Vermont there’s a brook trout pond named after me.”

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager Levi Feinstein added “We really just want to get all this behind us. It would have been nice for her to win that rod AND the presidency, but we would have been happy with winning the fly rod.”

All may not be lost for Hillary Clinton. In a stunning change of fortune, when it was discovered she is a fly angler, over a dozen companies stepped up and added her to their pro staffs.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Monday Morning Coffee- March 28, 2016

Eeeeeerrrrrrrrpppppphhhhhhhttttt!!! Yawn, stretch, scratch, repeat- It's Monday, and I don't have to start work for a couple hours, so I thought I'd give the Monday Morning Coffee a stir. Go on, have yourself a cup.

Well, as you all know, Jim Harrison died this weekend, which makes me kind of sad. He looked to me like he had one foot in the grave anyway so I guess we knew it was coming, but even looking old as dirt, smoking like a chimney and drinking like he stole it, he still exuded a vitality that you couldn't miss. I may be partial to Mr. Harrison's writings due to the fact that he's from Grayling Michigan, or that his Brown Dog Novellas so accurately captured the northern Michigan and UP haunts I love, but to be sure he was a damn fine writer and poet, a national treasure, someone who will be missed, whose writings will be forever treasured.

If you can't tell from my last post I got out fishing last week (the ONLY benefit of unemployment) and caught a brook trout. My girlfriend Marsha and I went back up to the Coleman river on Saturday and I caught a few rainbows and browns. The Coleman is a tributary to the Tallulah River. The Tallulah had been stocked last week and was a total shit show, the kind of circus I associate with the Pere Marquette or Tippy dam during the steelhead and salmon runs. The nice thing was that the "Artificial Lures Only" sign at the entrance to the Coleman thinned the herd out to just me. We hiked in to where the trail ends in a steep gorge at a thunderous waterfall. Now I need to go back and figure out a way around that.

I'm on a bit of a tying tear lately as my boxes are sadly depleted. My last round of ugly misshapen pheasant tails and soft hackles caught a lot of fish. This round looks a lot better - I could almost sell them. I need to tie up a bunch of Clousers for the local bass, and have some other trips to tie for too. My streamer box looks like hell and I've found muddler minnows to be hyper-effective here in Georgia, so I need to tie those too. I'll try to share some pics.

I lived most of my life in Northern Michigan, but all my grandparents were from the South. My Grandma Tucker used to tell me that what she missed about the South was spring- the fact that they had a nice, long, pleasant spring. I understand what she means now. It's full on spring here in Georgia and I'm loving it. Hopefully the summer doesn't beat me up too bad.

Well, my coffee is done and I need to hit the vise for an hour before work. It's going to be a great week. Let's get after it.

Friday, March 25, 2016

From One Stream to Another

Up, up the gravel mountain road. Onward and upward. Both are good right? Like most human endeavors, rivers are cleaner, more pure, BETTER at their source. As they, and we, wind through our respective courses, we grow, expand, pick up tributaries, impurities, baggage. I figure now I'm the equivalent of a valley stream, no longer clear and cold and babbling, but well defined, log-jammed and dirty. I'm never going to leave this place.  I'm definitely not the Mississippi, or even the Ohio, just a mid-sized stream meandering, but set in its course, no longer clear. It's a metaphor you can ride too hard. People are not rivers. Rivers aren't so simple.

These mountain streams are heart-breakingly beautiful; endless cascades beset by mountain laurel and rhododendron, both evergreen but dormant, waiting for their chance to flower, to shine, like actors waiting in the wings to play their bit part before fading into the background. This particular stream is also beset by people, and about every half mile I slow my pace. Almost all of them carry spinning rods. A woman stares at the place where her line disappears into green water, her thumb on the button of her reel, staring so intently, as if her universe has compressed into that tiny sphere and I'm just a passing comet.

A couple miles up the road I discover the reason for all this frenetic activity on such a tiny stream- a truck blocks the road, forcing me to stop. A man standing on the back, eyes me suspiciously, so I get out and greet him. He takes a net, scoops deeply in a tank on the truck, and then hurls a dozen or more ten inch trout into the stream. He is the fish stocker.

My ensuing interrogation uncovers the following facts. He stocks this river once a week with between 2500 and 2800 trout. The fish are mostly 10-12 inches long. That's about 11,000 trout stocked into this tiny stream a month. It's a feed trough that people line up to partake of each week, a grand tradition of the oldest entitlement in America- hatchery fish. I hope the State of Georgia buys quality pellets.

I resist the urge to ask him to scoop me out my limit of fish.

I ask the man how far to Buckskin Creek. He says that not only is the road closed, but that you couldn't get a tank up it. Only mountain bikers and hikers go there. Sounds good to me. Part of me- that part tainted by silty run-off from muddy creeks, actually considers staying there and fishing, but fishing for stocked fish has as much appeal to me as roping newborn lambs.

Onward and upward, hoping to find some purity.

I'll save you some miles and switchbacks, the dead end, a hiker named Crunchy, and others on the Appalachian Trail seeking purity on their own terms. By the time I figured out where I was not and reconnoitered it was afternoon. I followed a path alongside the wild stream I wanted to fish, and when it veered far from the river I followed a tributary rill into a steep gorge to the stream, where it roared from pool to pool through vertiginous jungle. Just once, while crossing the top of a waterfall, I saw a wild brook trout holding in the current.

I followed the stream back up, fishing where I could, bushwhacking where I couldn't, sweating in the cold humidity, hoping that sound I heard wasn't thunder. It was.

Then, in a pool where a single rock split the flow into mirror images, I caught my first Appalachian brook trout, it's colors dull with the season, but still beautiful. It was the only trout I caught, though I saw many more. Perhaps they sense that I am tainted, a visitor from the valley, a rude voyeur.

When the skies opened up and the rain finally came I stepped out of the stream, found the trail, drove out over the pass and down, down, downward, back to my valley.