Friday, May 31, 2013

Pledging Fealty to the Silver King

Longtime blog readers (i.e., Suburban Bushwacker and my mom) may recall that back in 2009 I took a trip to New Jersey in hopes of realizing my lifelong dream of catching a bluefin tuna, only to strike out on tuna while accidentally bumbling my way into realizing another lifelong dream of catching a blue marlin.

It was a fantastic, once-in-a lifetime experience, and I'm glad I finally got a taste of true big-game fishing. Having said that, I doubt I'll ever do it again. Not that I don't want to, but the fact is, offshore big-game fishing is way, way beyond my means, and likely always will be. I lucked into the one trip. I won't be lucking into another. For the same dismal financial reasons, my prospects of catching a bluefin before that magnificent species disappears are also fading quickly into shouldacouldawoulda territory.

But the last two points of my saltwater Holy Trinity+1 are inshore species, within reach (just, both physically and financially) for those of us with big dreams and small budgets. They're both still beyond my means, but unlike marlin and tuna, I can at least imagine the possibility of someday being able to catch a big New York/Jersey coast striper or a Florida Keys tarpon.

Especially the tarpon. Probably no other fish (including marlin and tuna) haunts my imagination like the tarpon. Maybe it's the fact that unlike offshore fishing, the process itself of fishing for tarpon seems somewhat familiar to me. Or if not familiar, at least not something utterly alien, like being strapped into a fighting chair on a sixty-foot yacht ninety miles out in the open Atlantic, cranking on a huge Penn International 80 with a pit crew of deckhands all around me.

But tarpon? The tackle, the tactics, the boats, the setting, they're not entirely unlike what I'm used to. It's a true big-game fish species, but one you can reasonably expect to catch on relatively normal-sized tackle, in relatively normal-sized boats, in relatively normal-sized waters.

And the fish itself. Wow, what a fish. When my wife and I visited the Florida Keys a few years ago (one of those ramen noodle shoestring budget vacations that didn't allow for us to go out on a real fishing trip) I remember looking over the edge of a dock on Islamorada, just watching and dreaming as those impossibly large, half-tame tarpon cruised around the pilings like rippling, muscled quicksilver. Norman Maclean may have been haunted by waters, but I am haunted by the memory of a monstrous tarpon with its head hovering in the gin-clear water a foot or so below mine, which was hanging over the edge of the dock. Eyeball to ping-pong ball-sized eyeball we were, until I, producing no tidbit, was summarily dismissed with a flick of a tail that boiled the water's surface like an outboard.

And that's as close as I've ever come to a tarpon. These days, hoping to avoid stoking currently irrational and impossible dreams, I try to stay away from tarpon-related stories. Best not to think about it until I can think about affording it, right? But last night on my local PBS station, I got hooked by this excellent hour-long documentary on tarpon and the birth of modern big-game fishing.

It's called "Silver King: The Birth of Big-Game Fishing" and it's pretty damn cool. If you're at all interested in fishing history, it's a must-see (there's a streaming video link, I believe). Lots of awesome vintage tarpon-fishing footage. I haven't yet seen the "Tarpon" DVD,  that ode to Seventies-era Key West weirdness, mainly because it's a bit pricey. But now I'm afraid I must order it, because that damn "Silver King" show  has gotten me all worked up and dreaming.

Right now, raiding the kids' meager college fund, throwing the kayak and a tent in the back of the pickup and heading for Florida sounds like a perfectly rational thing to do for a 42-year-old looking for a midlife crisis that doesn't involve Vegas, Corvettes and/or fake tits.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Ogallala Is Ogaleavin'...

This is a long read for a blog post, but I think it's worth it...

A few years back I was commissioned by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the
Playa Lakes Joint Venture to write a feature story about playa lakes. If you don't know what a playa lake is (and most people don't), please allow my melodious words to edify you...

Like everything else on the arid, windswept plains of western Oklahoma, these shallow prairie basins ebb and flow on the random tide of the weather. Ephemeral is how they are most often described, and indeed, playa lakes are the spectral phantoms of the plains. They come and they go. One year they’ll be so numerous that when seen from the air the prairie seems covered in shimmering pools of quicksilver. The next year they will be utterly gone, ghostly brown circles of parched clay the only evidence of their existence.
Biologists – a group chronically prone to dry understatement - call them a “highly dynamic environment.” But this, too, is part of what they are. Playas are contradictions, but if you listen closely there is a cadence to the dichotomies of their cycle: They’re lakes, but found only in the driest part of the state. Their locations are permanent, but the water in them isn’t. They support a vast and staggeringly diverse amount of life, but often seem dry and lifeless. Most are so shallow you can walk across them, but they sit on top – and are largely responsible for - the greatest concentration of underground water on the continent.

Playas are easy to define, but hard to understand, which may be expected of something the vast majority of us have never heard of, never seen and most importantly, never cared about.

But as we’ll see, perhaps we should. Nature never created anything that didn’t have a purpose and place, and as we learn to pay more attention to what the playas are telling us we’re slowly beginning to realize these insignificant little mudholes are a crucial part of our plains ecosystems and that all of us: landowners, hunters, birders and anyone concerned with habitat loss, have something to gain by protecting them.

OK, big deal, right? So other than being glorified toad puddles and giving wetland-challenged high plains duck hunters like myself a place to hunt, what are these "lakes" good for? Please, read on...

It is not hyperbole to state the Ogallala Aquifer is the lifeblood of the plains. In a region generally devoid of surface water and receiving less than 20 inches of precipitation a year, the Ogallala is the primary water source for thousands of farms, ranches and municipalities. Covering some 174,000 square miles in eight states from Texas through Oklahoma to South Dakota, the Ogallala contains an estimated 3 billion acre-feet of water.   
The noted historian Walter Prescott Webb didn’t have much to say about playas or the Ogallala in his seminal work “The Great Plains” but he understood perfectly the importance of water. On the plains you take water where you can find it, and with the aid of an invention Webb considered just as profound as the six-shooter and barbed wire, early settlers found it in abundance. What’s more, unlike surface water, they didn’t have to worry about it being there from year to year.
The windmill introduced us to the Ogallala Aquifer, and we’ve been mining that vast underground sea ever since. It’s taken the ensuing 100 years or so to realize two very important things about the Ogallala: First, we’re using it up a whole lot faster than it’s being replenished, and second, there’s a direct link between the playas in the fields and the water in our wells.

Of course, windmills didn’t hasten the decline of the Ogallala. Technology did. It wasn’t until the widespread use of gas and diesel-powered irrigation pumps after WWII that aquifer levels really started to drop. It was during this same timeframe that playas were being plowed under and filled in at a record pace. No one suspected the two outwardly disparate water features had any link whatsoever, but recent research has yielded a startling and sobering fact: you can’t have one without the other.

...Just how big a role do playas play? Research by the U.S. Geological Survey suggests that upwards of 90 percent of the annual recharge filtering down to the Ogallala is occurring on two to five percent of the land. Guess which five percent that is? Playas. Ironically, what spurs this abnormally high recharge rate is the dry part of their wet/dry cycle combined with their unique clay bottoms.

Clay is what differentiates a playa from a garden-variety water hole. As they dry up their clay linings crack deep into the earth, forming a subterranean aqueduct pointed directly into the aquifer. When the rains return and water rushes back into the basin, it doesn’t just seep into the earth, it pours. On a typical playa you may have 10 acre-feet of water disappear down through the cracks before it ever starts to fill up.

Even after the clay swells and seals the cracks, water continues to percolate around the edges where the clay is thin or absent. Playas are, in essence, the aquifer’s sponges, soaking up precious water that would otherwise be lost and storing it deep underground for our and our children’s future use.

The implications of these findings are profound for anyone living over the Ogallala and especially for the thousands of landowners and ag producers whose properties contain playas. Playas can’t be viewed as simply nuisances to be plowed around or filled in. The vast majority of playas are located on private land, and those landowners now find themselves not only the environmental stewards of their own water source, but the economic engine that drives the entire region. As the playas go so goes the aquifer. As the aquifer goes so go the countless communities big and small that depend on it.

And lo and behold, here in the May 19th edition of the New York Times, is an update on one of the great underreported slow-motion environmental disasters of our time...

From this story in the
New York Times
Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute. Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past. “That’s prime land,” he said not long ago, gesturing from his pickup at the stubby remains of last year’s crop. “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help.” Now, he said, “it’s over.”

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers. And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

Sadly, this is not news to anyone who's been paying even lukewarm attention to what's going on across the plains states. I was first introduced to the politics of the Ogallala (forget that "High Plains Aquifer" shit, it's the Ogallala) when I was a newspaper reporter covering the corporate hog farm wars of the mid 90s in Oklahoma and Kansas. The long-term prognosis was grim even back then, and it has only gotten worse as hydraulic fracking (an unbelievably water-intensive activity), ethanol mandates, insanely high commodity prices, long-term drought and even more CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations, basically huge corporate hog farms and feedlots) combine to literally suck the Ogallala dry. I shudder to think how many playas have been filled in, graded out and planted to crops over the past seven years since I wrote that story.

It's obvious to anyone not congenitally delusional that if we stay on the same path, doing things the same way, that we are well and truly fucked. Something's gotta give, and in that eternal tug-of-war between us and the rock we inhabit, we are always going to lose. Always. We most assuredly need the earth in its present incarnation to survive, but she damn sure doesn't need us for the few billion years the solar system has left before the Sun dies and goes all white dwarf on everything.  Much like that famous YouTube honey badger, Gaia  don't care, Gaia don't give a shit. Unfortunately for us, neither do we.

Geez, Louise, how fuckin' stupid can one species be?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Walk in the Woods, With Popcorn

I know that he's considered a bit too breezy and mainstream for some of the more serious literati out there, but I am a huge and unapologetic Bill Bryson fan. He's long been one of my favorite authors, and if you've never read any of his many books, "A Walk in the Woods" is as good a place as any to start. Rumors of the film version have been floating for years, but now it looks like it's finally going to happen, and it also looks like it will star and be directed by Jeremiah Johnson.

From this story on

A devoted admirer of Bill Bryson's memoir A Walk in the Woods, Robert Redford has been trying to get a movie version made since 2005. However, the actor-director has run into repeated troubles getting the adaptation moving. But after nearly eight years, Screen Daily reports Redford is making it happen by taking on the reins of director, producer, and star himself.

This is a surprising announcement since it was only last month that Richard Linklater was lined up to direct the film, hot off of praise for Before Midnight. There's no word on why Linklater has since left the project, but that's about par for the course for this Walk in the Woods. Redford has been having repeated troubles getting the film going.

It was first mentioned as a possible reunion piece with his recurring co-star Paul Newman. Sadly, the Butch Cassidy to Redford's Sundance died in 2008. By then, Barry Levinson was in talks to helm. Then three years went by before the movie made headlines again. This time it was to announce Nick Nolte's involvement, but by then Levinson was out of the director's chair. Basically, it has been a long road for Redford, but with the film's distribution rights going on sale at Cannes, he seems closer than ever before to getting this movie made.

Adapted by celebrated Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndt, A Walk in the Woods will be a comedy that follows an aging author (Redford) seeking to reinvigorate himself and his career with a treacherous trek of the Appalachian Trail along with his out of shape, alcoholic childhood pal (Nolte). There's no news on when this comedy might kick into production.

 I love Richard Linklater, especially his earlier stuff like Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, but I have to say I think Robert Redford is probably a better choice, especially if it turns out as good as that other pet project that Redford pursued for years, which is, of course, A River Runs Through It.

Hope this one makes it to the screen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fish On The Brain

My reading list for the next couple weeks...

The Founding Fish. McPhee, of course, needs no introduction. He's John 'Effing McPhee.

Something's Fishy. Likewise, Ted Williams. No one, and I mean no one working in outdoors journalism today has a pair of balls half the size of Ted Williams'. Big brass clankers. I don't see how the dude walks. He speaks and writes exactly what he believes and sees as the truth, regardless of who it may piss off. I wish we had a few more hook-and-bullet journalists like him around.  Sadly, with a few exceptions, we don't.

An Entirely Synthetic Fish. I've sort of half-ass skimmed through Anders Halverson's natural and cultural history of the rainbow trout, but this time I'm going to sit down and truly read it. Should be fascinating.

Sowbelly. Monte Burke is a staff writer for Forbes magazine, but I won't hold that against him, because he's a wonderful writer. I've read some of his stuff in the Drake and in other publications here and there. Sowbelly is a book I've been meaning to read for a few years, but for whatever reason I just haven't gotten around to it until now.

So there you have it. I've got fish on the brain. Now I just wish I had a few on my line...

Friday, May 10, 2013

Abercrombie & Fitch Then and Now...

Abercrombie & Fitch then...

 A sweet little 50's-60's vintage A&F-branded Beretta 20-bore ASEL, widely regarded as one of the finest boxlock shotguns ever built and one of my dream guns (albeit in a slightly different configuration). Just one of many A&F-branded shotguns from many different makers over the years.

And Abercrombie & Fitch now...

Nope, no pics of half-nekkid, slightly homoerotic pretty boys. We all know what Abercrombie and Fitch is today, so no need. However, that scary, animatronic-looking dude above is the current CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, and there is a pretty fascinating - if utterly repulsive - profile of the man (link above) on Salon that chronicles the evolution of how, exactly, A&F went from that, to that. It's worth a read, followed by a good crying jag and a stiff drink...   

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Chad's First Law of American Wilderness

It was a damp, lovely, storm-cooled morning, so I decided to drag myself away from the desk and take a long, silent walk in search of 'shrooms, sheds and sanity. One out of three 'aint bad, if it's the right one. I walked far, far off the trail, pushing my way deep into the wild, lonely and rarely-visited corners of a nearby piece of public land.

And as I walked, and sometimes crawled through these hidden, overgrown and utterly forgotten areas, I ruminated -  as I am wont to do - on many things, and in doing so posited the following:

No matter how far off the beaten path you think you've trod, no matter how deep into the wilderness you think you've ventured, no matter how bold or adventurous you think you are, no matter how isolated, lonely or rugged the country, and no matter how arduous or lengthy the journey may have been, there will always, always be someone who has been there before you. With a beer in their hand. Because that's the American Way.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bass Surgery

"If our father had his say, nobody who did not know how to catch a fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him"

                                                                      Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It"

"If I had my say, any dickhead who had no respect for a fish, and would kill it for no good reason, wouldn't be allowed to disgrace a fish by even picking up a fishing rod, much less catching a fish."


 Eating fish is a damn good reason for killing fish, to a point, and when my wife asked me this morning if we happened to have any fish in the freezer, I thought it might be a good excuse to run over to our nearby park pond, which I hadn't fished at all this year (in fact I've been fishing exactly once so far this year...) to see if I could surprise the family with a few perch fillets.

So I grabbed the three-weight fly rod, and almost as an afterthought, also grabbed the baitcaster I use most often for throwing light jigs (for you gearhounds, it's a Shimano Calcutta 50, the best small round baitcaster ever made, spooled with eight-pound Trilene XL and paired up with a G. Loomis GL2 PR 844C medium action saltwater popping rod). I thought if I couldn't catch any perch I might try to catch a few crappie.

I gave myself a strict 45-minute time limit, which means I had to be back to the house by 8 a.m. to get to work. As luck would have it, the pond is already starting to moss up with weeds and algae, so flyfishing was largely an act of frustration. So was casting jigs for crappie, and after a mere thirty minutes I was done and walking back to the car. The bass are spawning right now, however, and as I walked around the pond I noticed a decent-sized female sitting on a bed, shadowed by a smaller male. I hadn't brought any bass tackle with me, but rummaging around in the bottom of the tackle bag produced exactly one loose worm hook and exactly one mangled plastic lizard (which, coincidentally, is my all-time favorite plastic bait for pitching to bedding bass).

I thought what the hell, tied it on, cast past the bed, and slowly twitched that lizard right across her nose. It disappeared, I set the hook and I was fast on to six pounds, 12 ounces (I weighed her later) of pissed-off bass. It was fun. That tiny little Calcutta handled her like a champ, and as I brought her out of the water I realized that this was the largest bass I'd ever caught on that reel. No camera, of course, and no scale, either. I very rarely kill bass, and never kill large bass, so I figured this one would just have to live on in my mind. I opened her mouth to extract the hook, and that's when things started going to hell.

The hook had penetrated the area directly in front of her gullet, way back in the very back part of her throat, and it was deep. It was basically as far back as it could physically be without being swallowed. I tried, repeatedly, to get it out, but there was simply no way I could get enough leverage with the pliers to loosen it. I could either cut the line and let her take her chances with the hook, or kill her and take her home. If I cut the line, she'd probably live long enough to spawn, but the way the hook was situated in her throat, every time she tried to swallow it would come up almost like it was on a hinge and block whatever she was trying to swallow. She'd eventually starve to death long before the hook rusted out. So that wasn't a very attractive option.

Then again, neither was outright killing her. I've never kept a trophy bass, and certainly didn't want to start now. I was in a quandary. If I could just get to a pair of wire cutters I could cut that hook, but my wire cutters were at home. Home was, literally, only two minutes away. If I could keep her alive until then, I just might be able to save her. So I took out the one tackle box I had thrown in my big tackle bag, filled it with water, laid her in it, grabbed my rods and started running like hell for the car. I looked a sight...

I threw everything in the car and took off, hoping not to run into the park ranger as I sped through the park. I wondered what he'd think if he stopped me and found a live bass sloshing around on my floorboard. Some eighty seconds later I pulled into the driveway, grabbed the tacklebag (technically a waterproof gear bag, so it still had most of the water in it), ran to the back yard and put the big female into our water garden.

I slowly moved the old girl back and forth, and was greatly relieved to see that her gills were moving, she was staying upright and overall seemed to be as well as could be expected under the circumstances. I let her go and she immediately disappeared into the water lillies. I gave her an hour to make sure she wouldn't die, then grabbed a pair of wire cutters and a big-ass dip net...

The hook was still there, obviously, so I grabbed the wire cutters and went to work...

I pushed the barb through, then snipped the shank of the hook, took it out, and then eased out the rest of it. It only took a second, and she was good as new...

I weighed her, held her for a few seconds, then let her swim back down to the bottom of the water garden...

And here's the offending object, post-surgery...

Right now she seems to be doing well. My wife's goldfish, on the other hand, are terrified. I'll keep her in the pond for a little while to make sure she doesn't end up a delayed-reaction  floater, then take her back over to the pond and release her.

I just hope I don't go through all of this trouble only to have some asshole catch her again, probably on a big hunk of bait hurled out there with some Wal-Mart bubble-pack rod and reel combo, and kill her for good this time.