Upper Columbia Steelhead Troubles

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 21, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

If you are a semi-regular with this weekly peek into the outdoors, you are certainly aware that Homey Kirk Johnson and I, along with various and sundry close family, have a thing for the steelhead of fall – especially on the Upper Columbia.

Thus it has been that each fall for the past several years Homey, boyfriend-in-law Brian Smith (POSSLQ with a daughter) and I have found ourselves driving into Pateros at somewhere around 6:30 a.m. We would meet up with Shane Magnuson for our annual steelhead adventure on the Columbia and one or two steelie-looking tributaries. We have been looking forward to late November with great anticipation and expectant conversation.

We know that, in this fishery, we will be allowed to keep hatchery steelhead – those with a missing adipose fin – and will be releasing all wild fish. Most years, something around two-thirds of the fish that come to play with us are hatchery-origin steelhead. And the limit of those keepers has ranged from one to three fish over the years.

We might talk about how Shane will get us into position at the head of a good stretch of ripe water, and ride through as we skillfully wield our spinning gear – dropping our drifting lure or bait into just the right spot in the transition zone at the edge of the river’s thalweg (the fastest water at a given point on the stream). All this to elicit a strike from a strong, red-streaked, bright-sided fish. This we will do hour after hour; casting, drifting and casting again, with just enough action to keep our blood pressure at a healthy level.

Now and again, Shane will decide we need to hit a more promising stream. During that short transition we will compare notes on earlier years and other streams. We will talk about the brilliant chrome steelhead Homey Bill Boyum and Kirk and I may have brought home from the Lower Columbia – or some other regional steelie action. And, Brian will remind us that he usually has the hot hand with steelhead. We will dutifully suggest that this year will be our year, and he must simply accept that he is about to be skunked.

By mid-morning, we may be wending our way up the almost-too-shallow Okanogan. There will be fish everywhere, and many strikes.

What a great trip this is going to be!

But, Alas. It ain’t going to be this year. And – we’ll see – it may be awhile.

Jeff Korth, Washington Fish and Wildlife’s Northcentral Regional Fish Pro has just announced that there will be no fishing season this fall and winter for steelhead on the Upper Columbia. Blame a sudden deep and sharp drop in the numbers of fish heading up the river.

At this point, the run is only one-third of the 10-year average of steelhead counts at Priest Rapids Dam. Run timing is right on the ten-year average, so it is very unlikely that the fish are just running late. The forecast at this point calls for about 6,300 steelhead at Priest Rapids Dam, well under the minimum of 9,550 fish required by NOAA-Fisheries before a fishing season is allowed on the mainstem or tributaries of the Upper Columbia River. For a successful spawning season, all fish possible – both wild fish and hatchery produced (from wild stock) – must reach the spawning areas.

Korth notes that the last time Upper Columbia steelhead runs were this low (in the 1990s), the result was a 1997 federal “endangered species” listing. The steelhead run to the Upper Columbia was later re-classified as “threatened,” as returns improved. Only time will tell what this weak run will bring.

Interestingly, Jeff said the weakest component in the current steelhead run is “one-salt” fish (those that stay in the ocean for just one year). One-salt fish are likely to be a bit over a third of the run passing over Priest Rapids Dam – slightly over half of the average run. The fish returning will, therefore, be a bit larger on average, but the impact of that on spawning success remains to be seen.

Steelhead fishing on the lower river is closed effective October 22, from the Pacific Ocean to Highway 395 south of the Tri-Cities. The one remaining steelhead fishery in the Columbia River above Highway 395 will be at Ringold, where anglers may keep two hatchery steelhead (identified by both a clipped adipose and left ventral fin). Jeff expects the Ringold run to amount to just a fraction of its usual size.

Bummer. Let us hope this is a one-and-done Upper Columbia year, not a harbinger of things to come – again.

Finally – Deer Season

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 14, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those Washington state personalized license plates you wish you had imagined first. I’ve been thinking about it because this is the weekend for which it was created. The weekend before us is the biggest opening weekend among the various openers for wildlife big and small, feathered and furred. The plate read “BUXNDUX.” Perfect.

They will not all be afield, but this weekend will find somewhere around 120,000 Washington deer hunters with licenses in their pockets, and more than 40,000 duck hunters who purchased migratory bird permits. Over the course of the seasons opening tomorrow, among them, they will harvest as many as 40,000 deer and 550,000 waterfowl.

(As an aside, I have long been intrigued by wildlife biology and biologists. I once read the work of a prominent waterfowl researcher whose name was Duckworth Fowler. …but I digress.)

Given that most of our closest hunting is for deer, allow me to focus on those seasons. We have three generally recognized species: mule deer, white-tailed deer and black-tailed deer. Deer being deer, one readily stumbles across various hybrids and subspecies.

Under by-laws and several resolutions of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA), I am now duty-bound to share the below information.

White-tailed deer (named for the white underside of their large tails) are largely in our east and northeast counties, and down along the Columbia River. Columbian black-tailed deer (for the black upper side of their tails) are generally along the coast, but wandering over the Cascade crest in a few spots. Rocky Mountain mule deer, or muleys (for their huge ears), are found in much of the habitat east of the Cascades. They are the primary deer we see – and hunt – here in Paradise.  Of course, it is never that simple.

Blacktails were long considered to be descendants of ancient love affairs between muleys and whitetails. Over a decade ago, however, biologists apparently identified mitochondrial DNA (tracing mothers) suggesting that mule deer may have actually sprung from a blacktail/whitetail cross. (An interesting introduction to this, and a reference to Valerius Geist’s book on muley life history, will be found at www.blacktailcountry.com/html/blkpage.htm.) Our Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, continues to identify muleys and whitetails as species, and blacktails as subspecies, within a thorough discussion of deer foods and habitats at wdfw.wa.gov/living/deer.html. Other subspecies and crosses are discussed there, too. It is generally agreed that mule deer are the largest and black-tailed deer the smallest of the three.

Given that our local deer are mostly muleys, the RCRGWD&OTTBA Science Education Committee requires the following. Mule deer’s scientific name is Odocoileus hemionus. It is a medium‑sized mammal, from 36 to 40+ inches at the shoulder, weighing 100 to 250 pounds (bucks are largest, of course). Its summer color is reddish, becoming brown‑gray with its longer winter coat. Look for the large ears, a scrawny black‑tipped tail and white rump, and a trademark “bounce” when escaping. Favored foods include shrubs, forbs, alfalfa and fruits.

Locally, we see a couple interesting crosses. First are probably the piebald, or “pinto,” deer, with large white patches (some sort of genetic mutation), occasionally seen down the Yakima Canyon, and rarely up the Taneum. Then there are the “striped‑tails,” on the west side of the valley, up into the Taneum and Manastash areas. These deer look like muleys except for a black stripe running the length of their narrow tails, resulting from a blacktail‑muley relationship.

Over the past 100 years, North American mule deer populations have suffered wide swings in population, with harsh winters, habitat loss and shifting climates. A good summary of issues affecting muleys is found at www.muledeer.org/hunting/mule-deer-facts. You may also find interesting WDFW’s Mule Deer Management Plan at wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/mule_deer/.

In Washington, we generally have well over a hundred thousand muleys, with larger numbers of whitetails and a smaller population of blacktails. Of the more or less 40,000 deer in this year’s harvest – feeding families well for the coming year – one-third will be mule deer, more than a third will be white-tailed deer and less than one third will be black-tailed deer.

In general, over the coming weeks deer will be foraging from dusk to dawn, but may be seen most any time of day as they put on critical fat for winter. You may see mule deer almost anywhere in Paradise, but check out the Yakima Canyon, or drive the back roads up the Taneum or Teanaway, or around Cle Elum and Upper Kittitas County.

Whether you hunt or not, there’s something about finding and watching deer that can change the light in a fall sky.


Here’s to More Outdoor Schools

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 7, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

You probably know how much I appreciate the Roslyn Outdoor School (now Washington Outdoor School), and the work KEEN (Kittitas Environmental Education Network) has done to bring real outdoor education to kids in the Lower Valley at Helen McCabe Park.

You certainly know how much this “kids outdoors” stuff interests me, so you can imagine my excitement when NWPR and Homey turned me on to “Into the Woods: Outdoor and Nature-based Preschools in Seattle, the Eastside and Tacoma.” This very interesting article is in the October issue of Parent Map (www.parentmap.com) – a Mercer Island-based monthly news magazine and online resource.

When I was a kid, my folks would just step to the door and hold it open whenever I got what the Old Man called “that look.” I did everything I could to get my own kids outside, and for some years I’ve been writing about Richard Louv’s world-wide Children and Nature Movement devoted to curing what he calls “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” A number of us have been working to get a Washington Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights established in the state (Senator Judy Warnick is sponsoring the bill this year). This business of getting kids seriously and joyfully outdoors is important.

You don’t have to look far or hard to find research about the highly positive health, life and general well-being impacts of outdoor time and activities for kids and adults. The Danes and Swedes started outdoor kindergartens in the 1950, with Germany not far behind. There are now hundreds of “forest kindergartens” across Europe – all devoted to building the future health of their citizens and their countries.

The education and health side of this is particularly interesting to me – especially when it comes to vision. In the early ‘70s, an ophthalmologist buddy and I were discussing what seemed like an epidemic of nearsightedness in kids across Denver. “Well,” he asked, “what do you expect? Suddenly parents think their kids will be smarter and better if they can read by the time they are four years old, so everywhere you look kids have books on their noses – and it is pushed more in kindergarten! If you want kids to have healthy and strong eyes, get them out in natural light looking at distant things – then really limit the time they are focusing up close until they are eight or nine… Sadly, in this society and this education system, I expect to see more and more young kids’ eyes. If you want it better, get your kids outside…”

It is really starting. In Paradise, we now have the Washington Outdoor School Fridays at Helen McCabe, and three mornings a week in Roslyn, with a few other outdoor classroom activities on late start days and other opportune moments. With enough support and the right outdoor-savvy teacher(s), our local outdoor school could become a daily school and even add a kindergarten.

Kudos to Sibyl Maer-Fillo for making it happen here. After 20 years of teaching and working at all levels of education, she is living her dream of getting young students immersed in the natural world – outside. Her belief that a child’s interaction with nature helps develop a sense of place, awakens curiosity, and creates healthy minds and bodies reflects the important work now spreading across the planet. This work of connecting kids with Earth helps build stronger communities and a life-long commitment to the proper functioning of our natural world. Take a look at some happy youngsters and find out more – or get involved – at www.roslynoutdoorschool.org.

And what about those Seattle-area preschools? There are now more than two dozen organized outdoor preschools in the Greater Seattle area, along with a number of private and city-sponsored outdoor play groups. Run through the names of them, and you may start wishing you were a rugrat again. Consider the possibilities with names like Wind Gatherer Nature Preschool, Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten, Tiny Treks Preschool, Playful Hearts Little Sparrows Forest School, Nurture in Nature Preschool, Fox in the Forest, Froggy Holler Outdoor School, or (my personal favorite) Nature Nuts Outdoor Preschool. Many of these are private schools, but some of the outdoor preschools, apparently, are attached to public schools. These schools make a great step into the outdoor future so many of us are working to create. Start with the online article in Parent Map magazine at www.parentmap.com/article/into-the-woods-outdoor-preschools-in-greater-seattle, then see what’s happening across the rest of the world.

So, if outdoor schools are so good for youngsters and our future – and save a significant amount of money over traditional classrooms – what will it take for our local school districts to get on board?



The Song Dogs of Fall

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 30, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

You’ve probably been hearing them too; coyotes have been doing their evening yipping all around (and in) town over the last couple weeks. Several homeys have asked about the little wild dogs and the pitch and volume of their yips, yaps, barks and howls. (And, no, I’m not sure that it is that unusual; we’ve heard it in other early falls.) My year-and-a-half-old grandson Jonas really got me thinking about them. We were on the back deck, wandering toward the workshop, when a family started yapping in the field north of us. I said, “Those are coyotes. A lot of people call them tricksters.” Jonas instantly announced “Doggy!” and joined the yapping fracas – cracking himself up in the process.

Watching him, I remembered again how I laughed at the young pups playing on our Colorado foothills driveway a few decades back. And those hours I spent watching milk-laden females turning rocks for grubs and digging for rodents to feed their babies – all the while making quiet yipping sounds.

Somehow it is never surprising when homeys suddenly want to talk about our small wild “song dogs.” How often do we run into someone smiling wistfully as he or she talks about watching young and old tricksters chase gophers and mice, or tip-toe around deer out on some patch of Paradise. “I love watching them play,” an Upper County friend once said, “and I just wanna go help ‘em dig when they go after those %$!?* gophers in my garden…”

I guess I enjoy coyotes. A couple decade ago, on the Roslyn Cemetery-Ronald Road, I set up my spotting scope, and watched three of them dancing for field mice. Oblivious to my presence, each caught at least one mouse with that amazing and funny stalk. First, the little dog would freeze, ears cocked toward the ground. It would tip-toe a few inches, leap stiff-legged into the air, pin its prey to the ground, snatch it and toss it overhead, then catch it. There seemed such satisfaction as it then crunched its fresh entree. Years later, I still have that scene of seeming joy in my mind.

So, what is it about coyote? What is it that stirs us so deeply? And whose story is more amazing?

Ancient stories and traditions weave coyote into the whole tapestry of human history. Coyote, once fully human and paving the way for the rest of us, figures in virtually all Native cultures. His name (the one we use anyhow) comes from the Aztec “coyotl,” or “barking dog.” To the Yakamas, he is “Spilyi.”

In most Native American traditions, coyote is the trickster. His medicine is almost guaranteed to make us laugh, even as we are made the fool. In these traditions, he challenges us to learn, to grow, as he exemplifies our good and bad qualities – even in our Euro-American way of seeing.

Since 1915, in the United States, bounties have been paid on something over 2,000,000 coyotes.  Several states still have coyote bounties on the books, with Utah, Minnesota, Virginia and Texas among those recently active. We have shot, poisoned, buried, drowned, blown up and trapped him. Yet his numbers and range have grown; find him in New York City’s Central Park, in the alleys of Los Angeles, and from North Dakota to the fence line between us and Mexico.

In wildlife communities, there are specialists and generalists. Coyote is the quintessential generalist, surviving (thriving, really) virtually anywhere. He makes his home in every habitat type in our state: eating mice and snowshoe hares in the mountains; mice and birds in the marshes of the Columbia Basin; jackrabbits and mice in the sage and ag lands; and trash, cats or small dogs, as available. At various times and places, fruit, berries, melons, tomatoes and carrots are eaten. An opportunist, coyote will eat almost anything.

Coyote is intelligent. While generally hunting alone, he and his kin are masters of teamwork. A “tag‑team” technique of chasing antelope and jackrabbits has been observed, and it is suspected that he may, under some conditions, hunt deer this way. He often trails along with elk as they paw the snow to get to the grass underneath. (Apparently the elk expose‑‑or startle‑‑ enough mice for coyote to make a living some days.) Coyote is clever enough to kill a porcupine without injury, and has learned the art of eating the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. Animal behaviorists use fondness for play as a measure of animal intelligence, and coyotes have been widely observed playing with each other as well as other birds and animals.

Is it any wonder that coyote may live for a decade or more? And how can we wonder that Native peoples believed that coyote would be walking long after wolf and grizzly were gone? Coyote may yet inherit the earth.

In keeping with the guidelines of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association Science Education Committee, I am duty-bound to tell you that coyote may reach 40 pounds and 26 inches at the shoulder, and live for 10 years in the wild. Coyote has superb senses: ears to match most any animal; a nose almost as good as a bloodhound; and excellent eyesight. Mostly nocturnal, he is often seen in full daylight. His scientific name is Canis latrans. He is our song dog.

Wyoming – A Twentieth Anniversary

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 23, 2016. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey Steve Kiesel and I rolled into Sheridan, Wyoming, bright and early on rainy Monday a week ago. Later that day, son-in-law Chris Kolakowski arrived from Denver and we set up our week of making antelope and deer meat for our families. 2016 was year 20 for me, 13 for Steve and year 10 for Chris. “Twenty years,” I was thinking. “This has to be a special year, somehow.”

We first picked up our leftover antlerless deer and antelope tags at the Big R, then made rounds to say hello to now-old friends. When Chris pulled in, we got his licenses (we eventually had six whitetail and three antelope tags), and checked in with Oscar Rucke (pronounce it “Roosky”). I congratulated Oscar on 20 years and asked him what he wanted for our anniversary. He couldn’t quite find the flattering words I know he wanted to say. Clearly, we were right at home.

I first met Oscar and his buddy Bob Haugen in mid-morning of September 14, 1996. Brother Tom Fontes and I had decided to check out the Sheridan area because the antelope season opened early enough that we could hunt, get some of the beloved meat back to our folks in Boise, and then get home in time for my fall quarter classes at Central. We had camped overnight in Livingston, Montana at Osen’s Campground (“Welcome to Tom Osen’s Drive-Thru Retirement Home. Camp anywhere you want. I’m the only thief in the campground, and I stole everything I needed years ago. That’ll be ten bucks!”). We drove to Sheridan the next morning.

After Tom and I talked to Oscar for an hour or so about where we might hunt, he allowed as he and Bob would be busy the next day – the antelope opener – but gave us some directions and handed us the key to the gate into six sections of his hunting ground. That was Tom’s only trip, as his leukemia caught up to him within a year and a half. I skipped ’97, given Tom’s failing health, and returned in ’98. I have not missed a September hunt since. It is at Oscar’s that we clean, cool and process our game meat so that it might come back to Paradise perfectly. Over years of phone calls, occasional summer or winter visits with him and his wife, and those regular hunts, Oscar has become a treasured friend.

That first trip, Tom and I were joined by three of his buddies from Washington and Oregon. Over the course of the 20 years, 16 different hunters have joined my annual Wyoming safari. Five of those 16 have gone on – I hope – to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Homey Steve, Son-in-law Chris, and Last of the Hucklings Edward have been most steadfast.

Initially, and for the first eight years, we made antelope meat. In 2005, Wyoming opened an antlerless deer season on September 1, to thin out deer herds which had become problematic. We began adding deer to our safari – mostly whitetails, but a fair number of muleys as well. With a couple exceptions, we bought only leftover nonresident tags at prices ranging from $80 each in the last century to $34 today.

Over the decades, we’ve gained permission to hunt eight different ranches to match several parcels of public ground. Some owners and permission-granters moved, sold or passed on. Some years we scrambled to find hunting ground with critters on it, but we always went home with meat to sustain our families. Over twenty years, my safari hunters have purchased 154 antelope and deer licenses, filling 143 of them (most unfilled tags were antelope). The last few years, our hunting has focused on three ranches.

Amazing, really, seeing so much history and change in my 1996 – 2016 spreadsheet. Still, isn’t that the world in which we live and thrive?

So, back to last week. On Tuesday, the 13th, we went deer hunting in the off-and-on rain on one of – arguably – the most beautiful ranches in Wyoming. By Noon, we had skinned, cleaned and hung three deer. After a quiet lunch we headed back to the ranch. Given the muddy roads, we hiked the mile and a half to the alfalfa bowl where the deer were hanging out. I had filled my one tag, so my job was rickshaw driver with the two-wheeled cart Homey Buzz Chevara had loaned us for the trip. We were back at the truck by dark, with three more deer aboard the rickshaw – pulled and pushed by a rotating pair of us. All deer tags were filled.

The next day, we processed some of the deer meat and waited – over cool malt beverages and a great BBQ dinner at the Big Horn Smokehouse and Saloon – for Thursday’s antelope opener.

Thursday dawned wet – again. By afternoon, thanks to careful stalks and good shooting, three antelope had been carted to the truck, skinned, cleaned and hung up. Antelope tags were filled.

Friday, we processed meat for the trip home, did a bit of souvenir shopping, and relaxed over a couple more cool malt beverages.

On Saturday morning, we finished processing meat. Then I presented Oscar and Bob with twentieth anniversary gifts: each received a specially wrapped “20” hand carved from a two-inch thick block of the best fudge in Wyoming. After a warm round of thanks, and several disparaging remarks, we noted that this was indeed a special year. Never before had we filled all our tags on the first day of hunting for each species. And in the muddy wet, yet.

By dark, Chris was back with his family in Denver and Steve and I were in Montana, heading for the barn.

Happy fall…