fishing for words

(and tossing out random thoughts)


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reining in water use

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

It’s been raining here in California; something much appreciated after three years of so little. Watching the drops dance on our patio, admiring our revamped back yard, I know it’s not yet the habitat we’d like it to be but a huge improvement over water-thirsty lawns. About a year ago we decided to tear out our lawns, front and back, and being cheap decided to tackle the job ourselves.

Removing a lawn is one of those jobs for which the thinking about it is more intimidating than just jumping into the work. Jump in we did. Sprinkler heads were capped, a sod cutter rented to make quick work of cutting up the turf, which was then flipped, eventually turning the grass into compost. The bare dirt was shaped and graded with a shovel and rake and a lot of pondering during the process. Hummocks were formed and drip irrigation installed. With only an image of a favorite stream in my head, a faux creek bed was dug and rocks, stones and pebbles placed appropriately.

Although I find it a bit distressing to remove one living plant in favor of another, the over-arching motivation was curbing water used for landscaping. Any new plants, trees or bushes would have to be California drought-tolerant natives. Research led us to the Bay Native Nursery; where a bounty of native plants is inauspiciously tucked between a mix of industrial buildings, open space and recreational shoreline in San Francisco’s India Basin.

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

Faux creek bed and faux fish.

We spent more money than planned but headed home with a few varieties of salvia, a single California currant bush, a low-growing coyote brush, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus (aka white-flowered mountain lilac), soap grass, manzanita (shrub and groundcover), yarrow, checkerbloom and blue-eyed grass. The good part of a day was spent planning and planting. Another few days to spread bark. Neither yard looked like much then. (A big upside: We made money doing it ourselves since both the county and city offered turf removal rebates.)

During the first six months the currant grew from about a foot high to over five feet tall with a diameter nearly the same dimension. The salvias and blue-eyed grass blossomed. Since they were newly planted and the winter of 2015 was dry, the drip irrigation system was put to use, but only sparingly.

Like it does for many California natives, the heat of late summer left the blooms withered and leaves brown. Except the currant; that plant is a juggernaut. Much of the plants’ growth came to a standstill from October through February and a stillness settled on the yard.

Almost a year later, with enough rain to thoroughly soak the soil, the back yard is showing potential of becoming a habitat. The runners sent out by the salvias have emerged with stacks of gray-green leaves. Blue-eyed grass is blooming. Seedlings descended from the few poppies planted last spring have appeared. Their parents are forming flowers.

It’ll be some time before our all-California native drought-resistant landscaping is finished but, for now, they blossom with hope.


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on the progeny of planted parents (or, can a wild trout be a good substitute for its native cousin?)

There’s something wonderfully satisfying about the surprising fight-per-ounce ratio of a wild trout that is followed by a revelation of coloration more vivid than man might create. That’s doubly true when the wild fish is native.

There are purists who would dismiss the progeny of planted parents, but earlier this week, Mark Kautz raised an interesting thought about a possible decline of opportunities to catch wild trout on his Northern California Trout blog as the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s stocking program shifts to triploid trout.

Shelving the wild vs. native fish discussion for a bit, if I can’t chase native trouts, I’m just as happy stalking their wild brethren. Wild trout are the reason I took up fly fishing. There comes a point in every fishing career that you develop an affinity for a style of fishing, or a species, and often both. It can happen unexpectedly and unconsciously.

With me it began on a little creek in the Walker River watershed, with a spinning rod and a size one spotted Panther Martin teardrop. The cookie-cutter planter rainbows are the standard fare downstream, but my recent rediscovery of the benefits of hiking a bit farther than most weekend warriors had convinced me that whacking through dense stands of cottonwood could be worth the effort.

Trout are one species that adhere to the adage that “life will find a way,” and there’s no better example that the wild fish that often can be found upstream of the ruts created by the DFW’s live-haul stocking trucks. That day it was a cast to riffles in the shade of streamside willows that introduced me to a sizeable wild trout, at least by my standards. Until then, my familiarity of trout with parr marks had been limited to fish measuring less than six inches; this one was about twelve inches long. That wild trout was my gateway fish to appreciation of native populations.

As Mark observed, it’s likely that many folks expect to stock their freezers with trout poundage with a value equal to the cost of a fishing license; perhaps by any means necessary and without knowledge of or concern about the toll on wild and/or native trout. Perhaps it’s fed by the illusion of self-sustenance, even if for only a few days each year. It’s just as likely those fish won’t be replaced as the DFW’s triploid trout — chosen in response to a legal action challenging its hatchery and stocking operations — can’t reproduce. In the long-run, this should be a good thing for California’s native fishes. (It should be noted that the California DFW hatchery system has been gearing up production of native fish for selected waters.)

Still, it’s hard not to wonder if meat fishing, especially in a state as populous as California, would decimate populations of wild fish that have gained a foothold where native fish don’t exist. Also, with California’s now minimal sustainable populations of native fish, it could eventually impact native fish without stronger enforcement of regulations. That, or we have to hope, as Mark alluded, that meat fisherman will be more inclined to drive a few miles to grab some steaks than clamber over rocks, descend into a canyon or even walk a few thousand feet upstream.

Thank you, Mark, for the thought-provoking discourse.


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unnatural restoration of wetlands

While the most radical statement I made during the ‘70s was the purchase of a white and green-striped backpack emblazoned with the ecology symbol, I’ve always been pretty certain that Styrofoam isn’t environmentally friendly. Yet there it is; big blocks of the stuff being used in the restoration of the wetlands north of my commute on Hwy 37.

Ecology Backpack

Used one like this in Boy Scouts.

Restoration of this area, in the Napa River delta and known as Cullinan Ranch, began three years ago. According to the website, long-term farming led to subsidence — up to six feet — as the marsh dried out. This puts the area below mean sea level. The hope is to restore 1,500-plus acres of tidal wetlands in the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. But it’s estimated it would take Mother Nature about six decades to rebuild the site with sediment deposited in by the Napa and Sacramento-San Joaquin rivers.

It seems that’s where Styrofoam geofoam plays a part.

About two weeks ago, semi loads of big blocks of geofoam were offloaded while tractors of all sorts and sizes carved out a building-sized ditch paralleling Hwy 37 for about four miles. Now that ditch is being filling with geofoam. The geofoam website lists various applications of the stuff and touts its benefits.

I just can’t get my mind around it. I can understand stabilizing the embankment along the highway, but stuffing what in essence is Styrofoam into the earth as part of restoring a site to its natural composition seems contradictory.

Of course, once covered with dirt and after vegetation takes hold, no one will know.


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away from the water the gloves come off

Fly fishermen tend to be nice folks. More than once I’ve been offered advice or invited to fish an incredibly productive spot alongside another fisherman. Complete strangers have offered to give me “the fly of the day.”

But it seems that the gloves come off away from the water.

Last Tuesday was my club’s annual auction. This is an event I look forward to, even if I’m not in the market for anything extravagant. There’s always a huge selection of member-tied flies, old reels and rods, and books to peruse.

It’s an opportunity for a great deal. And if an item is bid up, at least the money goes toward substantial donations made by the club every year to worthwhile conservation organizations. Everyone ends up happy. Or so I thought.

I wasn’t in the market for too much gear this year, but placed bids on about a dozen items. Among them were a few sets of a half dozen flies, a member-crafted wood cribbage board, a couple of books and an old reel. I revisited each item at least four times, revising my bid as necessary. My expectation was that about half would be lost to last-minute bids.

One last glance at a few times suggested that I just might win a few goodies. It’s unclear if it was the fact that five minutes passed after the official closing time before an announcement was made or an indication of “sniping” was more rampant than I expected, but thoughts of losing more than a few games of cribbage to my wife quickly faded when I was handed one set of flies.

I was relieved that I didn’t overspend. But a little disappointed.

I should have known better. It seems that all fly fishermen are always looking for a deal, but are willing to open their wallets when getting gear also supports conservation. That’s a good thing.


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it’s ugly here

With our latest rain, I’m hoping it won’t be 1975 all over again. Then and now, precipitation was routed around California by a high pressure ridge for months. December of that year was the beginning of two years of drought conditions. Our reservoirs are now lower than at the same time in 1977, which was preceded by two dry years. Jerry Brown was governor back then; irony or conspiracy?

Without non-stop rain through the rest of our rainy season the coming summer will be one of dirty cars and brown lawns. Communal showering may become de rigueur, perhaps followed by an uptick in births.

Back then I wasn’t fishing as much as I do now. There are a few small streams — only shared with the most trusted — that will go unvisited this year. It’s a given that low reservoirs will push more fisherman to moving waters that remain open which, more likely, will be tailwaters.

Automatic readings last Thursday show the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is now at 15 percent of normal, up from 12 percent on Jan. 30. At this rate, we only need 28 storms of similar magnitude to reach normal levels. And that still won’t be enough.


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a different type of enrichment

In my newsfeed this morning was a refreshing article about a kind of cool plan for Native Americans to take ownership of a section of land in Northern California through which flows a wild trout stream. According to the Sacramento Bee:

A group of Maidu Indians has succeeded in its quest to be named the official owner of Humbug Valley, a 2,325-acre area in Plumas County that is the last remnant of their once vast homeland still in relatively pristine condition.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council unanimously recommended that the Maidu Summit Consortium hold title “in perpetuity” to the grassy meadow laced by a wild trout stream seven miles southeast of Chester.
Sacramento Bee

Nice.

I really don’t have much of an opinion on Native American gaming, but more than once, almost in the middle of nowhere, I’ve passed huge Native American casinos on my way to a trout stream. (I do hope that the parking garages are designed to capture any runoff tainted by the drippings from the Buicks, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Crown Vics.)

While I wouldn’t lump myself in with tree huggers, I am also aware of the fact that modern remediation isn’t always as successful as might be hoped. What’s encouraging is a plan to use indigenous understanding and traditional techniques to restore this land.

The Maidu will work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a comprehensive land management plan that includes restoration of forest and meadow habitat as well as Yellow Creek, a state-designated wild trout stream. Earlier this year, the two groups were partners in a project designed to restore wet meadows in Humbug Valley.

Charlton H. Bonham, agency director, was part of that project and has publicly endorsed Maidu ownership of the valley. Humbug Valley presents a historic opportunity to demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge can complement the modern scientific approach brought by state agencies, he said.

I fished Yellow Creek in solitude a couple of years ago and consider it one of my best experiences on a wild trout stream. It’s an intimate creek marked by undercut banks, with numerous twists and turns that reward stealth.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.


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the outdoor apocalypse: boobies everywhere

Settle down, it’s not what you think.

Blue-footed boobies have apparently adapted decided to move north, showing up north of San Francisco for the first time in almost 30 years.

From the Los Angeles Times

Blue-footed boobies, which rarely venture north of Imperial County’s Salton Sea, are suddenly “all over the place,” said Kimball Garrett, manager of the ornithology collection at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

But like Hitchock’s film, this boobies invasion could be an ominous warning:

Some scientists are wondering if the visiting boobies are somehow related to a recent series of distressing biological mysteries in Southern California’s coastal waters.

“There’s a lot of weird things happening out there,” Dan Anderson, a professor of wildlife biology at UC Davis, said. “No one is sure of what the cause is.”

If a species moves of its own accord, is it invasive?

Blue-Footed Boobies


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on the Rim Fire (and why it might be better find other places to fish, for now, and let nature heal, undisturbed)

It was long ago decided that this blog was to be guided by a few simple rules; that it would be family focused and friendly, devoid of rants or advice, and mostly my space to write about the misadventures of my life.

Today, however, things are bit somber.

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

CalFire Rim Fire Incident Report

California’s fire season is shaping up to be one of historic proportions. The Rim Fire still raging near Yosemite Valley is one of 11 major fires currently burning in our bone-dry state. Those are only “major” fires. During the last few weeks, about 150 fires were sparked by lightning strikes. CalFire figures show that through the middle of August, 4,715 separate fires have burned the state — beating by a wide margin the historical annual average since 2008 of 3,000 fires. The Rim Fire is now the largest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada and, as of today, the 5th largest wildfire in California’s history.

In this moment, all eyes are understandably on the immediate danger to lives and property. Prayers are being said for the firefighters. This is devastation on an unimaginable scale.

As a fly fisherman, I can’t help but ask questions about the long-term impact on the many streams and rivers now stripped of bankside vegetation, and the fish in their waters. The extent of ecological damage won’t be understood for a long time. The intensity of the blaze — flames reportedly reached 100 to 200 feet as they shot up canyons — left nothing behind. While the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest, the area predominately affected by the Rim Fire, has gone through cycles of intense wildfires, those fires have burned only small areas. (Decades of fire suppression and logging can be blamed.) Conjecture is that the Rim Fire, however, may have denuded up to a 1,000 acres.

The northern edge of the Rim Fire crossed the Clavey River, one of the longest undammed rivers in the Sierra Nevada, a designated wild and scenic river, and home to native coastal rainbow trout. The fire burned along extended stretches of the South and Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River as well as Cherry Creek, all waters known for fishing, whether stocked or wild fish. Many other but lesser known streams, streams I’ve found wild populations of trout, also fall within the boundaries of the Rim Fire.

The Clavey River

The Clavey River

Relatively little is known about the effect of fire on fish populations. An admittedly hasty search of the Internet offers some insight. It’s clear that the effects of fire on fish populations can be complex, with dependency on the length of the event, size of the habitat, the home range of the fish, specialization of spawning habitats and the type of fish. Of course, most studies cite salmonid fishes (trout, salmon, chars, freshwater whitefishes and grayling) as the taxonomic group slowest to recover after a fire.

That said, the effect of fire on native salmonid populations can be highly variable, with extinctions observed in some isolated small headwater streams, but a quick rebound when a species’ home range extends to multiple tributaries within a single watershed.

In affected rivers, streams and lakes, fires can most notably affect water temperature and water chemistry as well as the local invertebrates, amphibians and fish. No longer shaded by trees and brush, water temperature can rise, reducing the solubility of dissolved oxygen. Absorption of ash can increase the water’s pH and impact nutrient levels in aquatic systems. Studies document five- to 60-fold increases in phosphate, nitrate, and ammonium concentrations in streams affected by fires that have swept through larger watersheds. Conditions in these waters returned to normal with a few weeks, but were later impacted by rain flushing additional ash and soil through the watershed.

It’s likely that the smallest streams will have most dramatically impacted by the fire. Though most people dance around the issue, this has been another drought year for California, and water levels are so low that any longish exposure to the fire may have “cooked” many of those small streams.

Nature, however, can be resilient; as long as we don’t get in the way. Anyone who’s visited Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument can attest to that.

A beetle native to the Sierras, which has infrared receptors allowing it to detect fire, could be first on scene to feast on the blackened trees. They, in turn, will draw birds. New growth will sprout, creating forage for small mammals and, eventually, deer and bears.

It just takes time. Though it may not look the same.

For a while, though, many Tuolumne County fisheries will probably be best left alone.