Friday, November 28, 2014

Sporting Goods: An Alternative Gift Guide

It's that time of year for holiday shopping. While the sporting goods section is filled with toys, don't overlook the value of experiences and memories over material possessions. While it might be tempting to wrap up the newest Madden NFL game for an Xbox, there will be a new one out next year. Instead opt for items with longevity, like cleats to encourage participation in the game and physical fitness, or tickets to a game that will create a memory even the largest game system data card can't record. Here are my top three suggestions from the "Sporting Goods" section.

I don't remember what I gave my father in 2007,
but I do remember taking him to see Alsea Falls
on his visit to Oregon.

  • Give gifts for the long-haul
I don't remember the first rod, reel, lure, rifle, hunter orange or camo apparel that my father gave me. I do however recall many hunting and fishing trips into the woods and on the water. While it's a tough sell to tell the kids that the experience itself is the real gift, it never hurts to remind them. The few items that last long enough to become family heirlooms and relics gain that sentimental value from the experiences and memories, not just their durability. When making your purchases, avoid cheap plastic crap and keep quality in mind to increase the potential that what you buy will last. Handing down your own possessions also gives longevity to the gifts you're giving.
  • Choose gifts that reflect experiences/values/knowledge
I don't remember what I got my girlfriend in 2009,
but I hesitantly recall her out-fishing me during our
visit back home for the holidays.
Each year I show gratitude for my family raising me to be an outdoorsman by giving them gifts from my outings. You may find a great deal on an item from a Black-Friday sale, but how interesting is the story of you camping outside of a Wal-Mart in comparison to camping out in the woods and wild-harvesting mushrooms, berries, deer or salmon? Is there more labor of love in the hours pined away at work as there are getting dirt under your nails in the garden to grow vegetables? I live a long-distance from my family and send them as many canned vegetables and fruit, vacuum-sealed smoked salmon and dried mushrooms and herbs as possible. The gifts may be temporary, but my family takes pride in the stories behind them, sharing those things with their friends and witnessing the values and knowledge they passed on to me coming full-circle. Instructional how-to reference books and videos are also timeless items that may not have the same mass appeal as gimmicks and electronics, but even someone with a short-attention span can refer back to them if their interest is not piqued right away. Never underestimate the power of a professional guided trip either. The pressure of producing the experience is eliminated when you fork over the pay for someone else to deal with the hassles of rowing and baiting hooks, or laying the groundwork for a productive hunt or outing of any kind. The end result is not nearly as meaningful as the duration of the experience, and paying someone else that makes a living of creating positive experiences for their clients is well worth the extra money, even if you and the person(s) you're purchasing the trip for all have the skill-set and knowledge of what you're doing.
    I don't remember what I got for Christmas in 2008, but I do remember
    my mother mocking this sign warning tourists about pushing
    the limits of their endurance on a trail through the Grand Canyon that year.
  • Don't just give presents, be present
If you could turn back time or own a watch, which would you choose? This attitude should be reflected in your gifting as well. While a camera might be a great gift for an aspiring outdoor photographer, taking them somewhere to capture the photos is more memorable than removing the bow and tearing gift-wrap off a box. The memory of a hike together will outlast a new pair of boots and a family fishing trip will easily outlast a good rod tip.

This article was published by The Good Men Project on December 17th, 2014:

Big Elk Creek - Opportunity Lost?

Changes in the Coastal Multi-species Plan include discontinuation of planting Alsea hatchery fish in Big Elk Creek and a new plan for Wild Steelhead Retention...

Anglers Andre Sampier and Russell Wright search for a spot
to fish on Harlan Rd. Much of the river flows parallel to the road.
Big Elk Creek, a tributary of the Yaquina River that flows through Harlan, is a bankie's paradise. The first two to three miles is tidally influenced, bringing in fresh chrome to nearly 20 miles of water that is not only accessible, but clearly visible from the road. Excluding a few short stretches of private property postings, there's plenty of spots to crawl down the bank and wet a line. With several major surrounding rivers drawing most of the winter fishing, this tributary is often overlooked, presenting a great opportunity to get away from crowds. However, as appealing as this may sound, there's good reason this body of water draws less local traffic than it's counterparts. The deadline for salmon on the Yaquina is at the confluence of Big Elk Creek and special bait restrictions apply during the fall. Steelhead on the other hand are open year round, although the Alsea hatchery only plants 20,000 winter smolts into Big Elk Creek a year... or at least they used to.

The final planting of traditional broodstock Alsea Hatchery winter steelhead smolts were released in the spring of 2013. As part of the Coastal Multi-Species plan, the fish planting program that began in 1969 was eliminated due to a number of reasons according to ODFW Mid-Coast District Fish Biologist John Spangler. In an effort to better understand why the program was cut as part of this plan, I visited John's office in Newport for some Q & A.

The author with a 2014 Big Elk Creek Hatchery Steelhead
Spangler says the status of the Alsea hatchery broodstock program is good. Anglers are happy, the fish return, but there is a lot of volunteer work that goes into collecting fish for the wild broodstock program. There's no information about wild populations on Big Elk Creek, and with only trap catches and survey information to go by, there are no hard numbers for the population of Alsea wild steelhead either. A cause for concern of the wild and hatchery interaction on Big Elk Creek is due to the lack of a trap to collect the returning hatchery fish. However, in a South Coast district meeting held in Bandon for comment on the CMP, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Dick Stroud said the plan was held on an unproven premise, stating that "I think the jury is out on this whole concept that hatchery fish are incompatible with wild fish," Coos county commissioner Bob Main agreed, saying that "There is no significant genetic difference between hatchery raised salmonids and naturally raised salmonids." The commissioner then went on to ask the crowd in attendance "How many oppose this plan for the South Coast?" nearly everyone in attendance raised their hands.

The information gathered on steelhead populations from spawning surveys calculate the fish per mile expanded by the river miles of habitat. For example, if a one mile survey has ten redds, assuming there are two fish per redd, there are twenty fish for that mile. Expand that by twenty miles of steelhead habitat and you get a "fairly loose estimate" of four hundred wild steelhead. When asked if there's any possibility to provide a wild broodstock program on the Big Elk, Spangler says, "Anything is possible, the problem is resources, utilizing volunteers and developing trapping operations."
Wild salmon provide an exciting bycatch. Marc Vangorden holds a Coho
caught and released on a blue fox spinner from the middle section of Big Elk Creek.

Spangler explained that the current number of required wild steelhead for the Alsea Wild Broodstock program is 70, although a week later during a discussion at an Alsea Sportsman's Association board meeting, that number moved up to 80. The 20,000 smolts that were historically placed into Big Elk Creek are being converted from traditional hatchery broodstock to wild broodstock and placed in the Alsea River. As part of the Coastal Multi-Species plan, the Alsea hatchery would produce 80,000 wild broodstock and 60,000 traditional broodstock. The ASA is actively seeking volunteers to provide line-caught wild steelhead not just for the broodstock program but the Alsea Hatchery Research Center's "Biter Study." Spangler, an advocate for wild broodstock, explained that the program produces returning fish for harvest at a survival rate of 3 to 1 to traditional hatchery stock and that "Without strong wild stocks, our hatchery programs will decline."

Sport fishing catch statistics for Big Elk Creek have historically shown good numbers, breaking a thousand twice in the early 1980's. In recent years, the number has since fallen to around a hundred, with 109 fish being recorded as caught in the 2011-2012 winter steelhead season. The harvest numbers of wild steelhead 35 years ago, (prior to the development of the hatchery planting program) are roughly about the same at 100-200 fish annually. Without a consistent increase in harvest numbers, it's difficult to justify the cost of continuing the program.

Conservation being identified as a priority for Big Elk Creek played a role in it's hatchery program closing, but the system's lackluster to anglers makes it a weak link in the chain of recreational fisheries along the mid-coast. Spangler says, "The discontinuation of the (Big Elk Creek) winter steelhead program is a good call when looking at the broader coastal basins and where we have good boating/bank access that can provide a stronger economic benefit to coastal communities." The out-of-basin stock being used in combination with the lack of a trapping operations also allows for a high probability of hatchery strays and interaction with wild fish. One of the most common issues with the hatchery stock straying is that a significant number of hatchery smolts being planted in the Big Elk tend to return to the Alsea River. A 2012 creel check revealed that 96 Big Elk Traditional Hatchery broodstock were harvested that "strayed" from where they were planted back to their river of origin in the Alsea. With roughly a hundred hatchery fish harvested from the Big Elk that season there's almost an even split between the two waters. It's not just traditional broodstock that stray either. Eighty fish from the Siuslaw River's wild broodstock program strayed to the Alsea River last year as well. However, those broodstock are spawned at the Munsel Creek facility in Florence, then transferred to Willamette hatchery near Oakridge. Once hatched, they are transferred to Roaring River hatchery, and once they hit smolt-release size, they are trucked back to the Siuslaw. Needless to say, they are well traveled, much like the Big Elk's traditional broodstock from Alsea Hatchery. Trucking fish from one river to another, only to have them return to their point of origin rather than where they were planted creates a costly program that was hardly supported by the number of anglers fishing Big Elk Creek in recent history.

Healthy populations of Sea-Run Cutthroat occupy Big Elk Creek.
Marc caught and released this Trout from the upper area
of the creek on a 10mm bead under a float.
As a compromise to Big Elk Creek anglers losing the opportunity to harvest hatchery winter steelhead, the Multi-Coastal Species plan offers new regulations that will allow retention of wild steelhead in Big Elk Creek. This part of the plan has become another target for criticism. In a CMP Facilitator's Report published by ODFW, some of the concerns with wild retention include the potential for illegal wild harvest from adjacent streams due to some of the areas already being difficult to monitor and enforce the fishery. There's also serious concerns about accurately quantifying sustained wild populations before opening them to harvest.

Spangler explains that the intention is to not only provide the opportunity to harvest a wild fish that may be mortally wounded, but to maintain a wild steelhead fishery. "We want people to be able to take a wild fish in the right locations. Historically, we used to harvest lots of wild fish. It will not impact their population with conservative and daily bag limits." He insists that the changes create a fishery that allows for a "cost effective" harvest program, but also says habitat restoration is another priority for Big Elk Creek. "The more habitat we have, the more smolts can be produced," says Spangler. Using the ESA listed Coho as an example, he explained that we spend millions of dollars on habitat restoration. "If we always tell people they'll never be able to take a wild fish again, will they care about them? It's habitat we really need to focus on."

Big Elk Creek Fishing Tips & How-to's for the final run(s) of returning hatchery fish:

  • January is typically the best time of year for returning hatchery fish, although many of the wild fish tend to return later and into the spring.
The Grant Creek bridge is the Angling Deadline for Big Elk Creek
  • Elk City Park campground sits on the corner of the confluence of Big Elk Creek and the Yaquina River with bank access to tidewater. There's also Big Elk Campground near the deadline of the Grant Creek bridge with bank access within the campground. The Grant Creek bridge is Southwest of the campground on Hilltop Road.
  • The first major obstacle is a riffle and shelf spilling into slackwater between mile marker 4 and 5 on Harlan Road. Be aware there's a farmer just down the road with a very friendly border collie that likes to jump into the water and fetch your bobber when you're casting. If you bring a friend, one person can easily distract the dog while the other wets a line.
  • Big Elk Creek is just that, a creek. The water narrows higher into the system, and presents unconventional obstacles. Fish will hold near any shelf that stretches the width of the river from bank-to-bank. Some of these shelves will be downriver of long stretches of shallow water and drop at 90 degree angles into deep water.
  • Fish that are lower in the river will move quickly, pausing in deep holes mid-river and holding near spawning habitat in the upper river.
  • There's lots of bedrock, boulders and shallow water riffles making drift fishing difficult. While jigs and pink worms under a bobber may produce in deeper areas, single egg patterns and spinners tend to snag less.
  • Be aware and respectful of private property postings.

    This article was featured as the cover story of the January 2015 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine. The photo was taken by Andre Sampier.
    You can purchase a digital subscription to the publication at the link below: 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of Henry Winkler's "I've never met an idiot on the river"

My grandfather explained the difference between the words "fishing" and "catching" to me at a very young age. This was after an outing in which the only thing I hooked that day was a tree limb. I was 5 or 6 years old, and my grandfather tried to untangle the hook from that limb, and instead he turned over the boat, dumped out all our gear as well as both of us. He never panicked. He turned the boat over, picked me up, and put me back in. He taught me another important lesson that day. "Never stand up in a small boat." As he pushed the boat a good 300 feet across the pond in chest deep water to the shore, he never got angry at me for hanging up in the tree. He was a quiet man that demanded attention anytime he said something because he would rarely open his mouth unless he had something hilariously profound to say.

"If you will it, it is not a dream." - Theodor Hezel, Old New Land

This quote appears more than once in this book. At under 150 pages filled with photos of picturesque scenery, this book is a light read you can enjoy a little at a time or easily finish in an evening. Winkler begins with an opening introduction written by his wife, titled "Stacey Winkler's Side of the Fish Story." Chapter one talks about his personal battles with dyslexia, academic struggles, and self-esteem. He tends to approach all of these subjects with a realistic insight of the fear, anxiety, and depression many of us face as we continue to age. The quick mention of these items is closely followed by triumphs, personal victories, and of course, "Happy Days." Patience, persistence, and learning are a great deal of what it takes to not only enjoy, but be successful at fishing (or catching). Both are thought intensive practices. When a fly is tied, thought goes into weather patterns, seasonal hatches and spawning runs. The conditions of the water are considered to apply different color scenarios that will attract or avoid spooking the fish. Special adhesives finish the wrap of thread that holds everything in place to avoid unraveling the fly when it bounces off the cobblestones on the river bottom. The excitement to get on the water when preparing for an outing the night before feels a lot like the night before Christmas. The river creates a creates a strange release from everyday anxiety that no benzodiazepine can compare to. Henry Winkler puts this release into words in chapter two of this book: "The River Is a Washing Machine for My Brain." He explains that "If you allow your mind to wander anywhere else, you will neither catch nor land your trout." The meditation that stems from focusing on the water and the task at hand is why people go fishing. Catching is just a bonus.

"Go With The Flow," (Chapter 5) describes Winkler family outings that don't go exactly as planned. There are many moral lessons to be taught in a day of fishing, but I can speak from my own experiences that the values that are instilled during these outings last a lifetime. There's an old saying that you can "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day or teach him how to fish and he can feed himself the rest of his life." This only scratches the surface of divine inspiration the river (or pond or lake or ocean for that matter) provides. When the rivers are high and so are your tensions, this book is a spirit lifter. The only anxiety you will experience from this read will be to get to the river.

Commentary from the back cover:

"...he covers a lot of emotional territory with humor, wisdom, and visual beauty." - Ron Howard, filmmaker

"The most entertaining and introspective fly-fishing memoir I have ever read." - David Ondaatje, filmmaker and owner of R.L. Winston Rod Co.

"When I first met Harry, we were working together in Florida. There were easily ten lakes within driving distance and I think Henry fished every one of them at least twice. That being said, this isn't just a book about fishing. Henry has written a book about life, family, relaxation, and love. And the only reason he has never met an idiot on the river is because he refuses to take me with him." - Adam Sandler, actor

This article was published by The Good Men Project on November 29th, 2014:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Coastal Conservation Association opens a Corvallis Chapter

On November 6th, several members of Oregon CCA gathered at the Holiday Inn Express on the Willamette riverfront to discuss the opening of a new chapter in Corvallis and conservation efforts to increase fishing opportunities from the valley to the coast. Oregon CCA Executive Director Chris Cone led the meeting, giving a background of the state's involvement with the organization, it's mission, purpose and direction. Bruce Polley, head of government relations spoke about CCA's involvement with lobbying for conservation efforts, and ran through a list of regional accomplishments, such as passing a bill to remove non-tribal, non-selective commercial gill-netting practices on the Columbia River. Among the room were a diverse age group of men and women, including younger anglers such as Marc Vangorden, a self-proclaimed "fishbum" and retired fish biologist Nancy McHugh, several recreational anglers and professional guide Grant Scheele. Cone also concluded by introducing Ty Wyatt as the interim chapter president for the next 6 months until a board could be elected.

The goal of the meeting was to build a membership base for the local chapter, signing up 7 new members, but it wasn't all business. Each attendee received a raffle ticket and a filet knife was given away at the end of the end of the night. Cone mentioned that bringing free beer to the next meeting might ensure that others would show up and join the group. Discussions of banquets, demonstrations on curing eggs for bait and rigging tutorials were suggested for future meetings, asking the room what they wanted to see from guest speakers. The meeting was short, over in under an hour and many stayed afterwards to make introductions and shoot questions back and fourth. The next meeting will be at 6pm on December 4th at the same Holiday Inn Express on the Willamette riverfront.

This article was published in the Corvallis Advocate on November 20th 2014

Coho Populations Rebounding in 2014, a Golden Year for Silver Salmon

The Author with a 2014 Coho harvested from the Alsea River
Photo by Eric Martin
All along the coast, an abundance of Coho are returning to rivers to spawn. The return predicted for the Columbia River was originally projected at 638,000 fish, but biologists now say it will reach a million before the season is over. Bill Monroe reported in the Oregonian that while coho were being caught in the estuary in the beginning of November, thousands continued to pass through Bonneville Dam each day. In spite of most quota systems in Oregon being replaced with annual limits, similar reports of wild fish on the Siuslaw and Alsea rivers are being caught in good numbers both in the estuaries and upriver late in the season. The North Fork Nehalem reported record returns, and a surprisingly good return of wild coho have appeared in the Kilchis, in spite of only 400 returning to 5 different rivers in the area a decade ago. The Trask River even opened new water to fishing for salmon near their hatchery due to the high returns and Big Creek opened it's season early due to an excess of broodstock fish returning early.

ODFW's fish counting station at Willamette Falls has had some of the highest counts in nearly 20 years, making this year's return one of the top 3 in the history of it's records, which began in 1946. The previous high was near 18,000 returning fish, but that was in 1971 when millions of smolts were being released to support commercial fisheries. That practice ended in 1998 due to concerns about interaction with chinook and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. Coho are not a native species to the Willamette Basin, but have naturalized a run mostly comprised of the progeny of those past hatchery fish and some that may have strayed from the Clackamas River. Tom Murtagh, district fish biologist for ODFW’s North Willamette Watershed was quoted in an interview in the Columbia Basin Bulletin as saying "It's phenomenal, they are doing really well as a population." Murtagh said he expects angling for these fish will be best in the mainstem Willamette, around the mouths of the Tualatin, Yamhill, Santiam and Molalla rivers. As the season continues to progress they can be expected to be found upstream and in tributaries to those rivers. 
Ty Wyatt holds a Kilchis Coho for a photo before being released.

Even Crystal Springs Creek in Southeast Portland gained media attention after receiving it's first unexpected returns in recent years after extensive watershed restoration projects. Good news for visitors of Westmoreland Park that will benefit from new features of a nature playground for families and a raised walkway above a restored wetland that is a popular walk.

Perhaps even most impressive of the extent of returning fall Coho are the appearance of large numbers of fish reaching the Clearwater River in Idaho. Runs determined to be extinct due to the building of dams have been restored by broodstock from the Columbia that have been replaced with it's own broodstock of returning fish to the Nez Perce tribal hatchery. The operation first opposed by state officials due to a fear of introducing diseases from the Columbia River broodstock has now given it's blessing to the state to open a sport fishing season for it's returning hatchery fish. Idaho Fish and Game director Virgil Moore was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying "I give the tribe huge credit for being persistent and picking up this coho program and making it successful." The day after the season opened, angler Ethan Crawford caught a state record 9.4 pound Coho, prompting a discussion for Idaho Fish and Game to separate sea-run and freshwater Coho into two categories, as the previous record was a fish from the Cascade Reservoir that spent it's entire life in freshwater. Joe DuPont, regional fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Lewiston claims there are likely larger fish being caught, but people are not focused on obtaining the proper documentation, instead harvesting the fish and taking them home for dinner. The race to break the current record continues.

Regardless of location, Coho are making a great comeback to the Pacific Northwest. A combination of wild, naturalized and hatchery salmon are providing anglers with greater opportunities for fisheries with catch and release or outstanding table fare.

This article was published by The Good Men Project on November 8th, 2014