Another Kenai River Adventure

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 4, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I was explaining to Homey that, while the Upper County fishing hike would be one I have wanted to take for some time, I could not join him. I had to be in Alaska during that time.

“What’s this HAVE to be in Alaska business?” “Well, I have to go to the Kenai for sockeye salmon,” I explained. “There are a couple good reasons. First, if I do not get my new nine-weight rig onto the Kenai River, it may never behave properly when I take it elsewhere. Secondly, I go with Homey Bill Boyum and his son, Honorary Homey Jon, the thoracic surgeon. They depend on me for comic relief. I have to go fish in Alaska with them.”

I’m not sure he bought the story, but he did finally acquiesce. Maybe he understood the importance of honoring the tools of our outdoor pursuits. And perhaps the value of tradition and deep friendships. Be that as it may, Alaska called.

We convened a bit over a week ago, on a late Monday night, at Anchorage International Airport. We piled into a simple and significantly overpriced rental car and found our way to a night’s lodging. Early the next morning, we pointed the vehicle more-or-less south, skirting Cook Inlet and moving through forests and mountains toward the town of Soldotna on the Kenai Peninsula.

The two and a half hour drive took us to our cozy cabin – home for the few days – at Steve and Lea Stuber’s Red Fish Lodge on the Kenai. Since it was too early to check in, we piled our luggage on the office deck, grabbed our gear and headed to a salmon-likely reach of the river.

Somewhere in there, Bill reached out to John Wensley, a friend from his early DNR days, now retired from teaching and living over in the town of Kenai. John had a couple suggestions for less crowded fishing.

As you may know, these sockeye do not hit a lure in the traditional sense. It seems a mystery, but somehow a hook with a bit of brightly colored floss bounced along the bottom gets us fish. The sockeye move up the river in relatively shallow channels rarely more than 10 or 12 feet from the gravel bars or shorelines along which we stand. One casts 15 or so feet out, and swings the flossed hook in an arc across the channel. If you hit a snag, but it moves, you attempt to set the hook. Any fish hooked outside the jaw, or behind the gills, is foul-hooked and released. My vision of all this is that the fish snap at our floss as it tickles their noses or jaws and as they “breathe,” moving water over their gills. These are beautiful, shiny, and delicious six to 15-pound red salmon. Once you find the groove, and present your hook successfully, the whole experience is seductive and habit-forming.

We added some new experiences this year. For starters, Dad Bill caught his limit of three salmon before Son Dr. Jon Thinks-Like-A-Salmon for two days in a row – some sort of new record.

We hired a fishing guide (Alex of Chasing Tales) for a day: partly so we could get to new places and learn new techniques; partly for some trout fishing; and partly to see more of the river. The day yielded limits of salmon and some very enjoyable catch and release trout fishing for Dolly Varden (a char, really) and rainbows up to 16 inches. Somewhere in there, however, Dr. Jon caught a stunning 25-inch, five-pound-plus rainbow. And we all upped our skill levels.

We hiked in to several new reaches of the river. We never found the crowds (walking by 70 to 80 fishers to find a spot, for example) of past years, but there were still fishers everywhere – easily 1,200 to 1,500 along the Kenai’s banks and islands on any given day.

At one point, Bill and I were working a very productive channel. In walked a young fellow with his apparent squeeze, and as he explained his expertise to her, he walked directly into the channel, and the sockeye moving upstream. I bit my tongue for a short time, but when he moved directly in front of me, within my cast distance, I explained in a quiet, but clear, way that I would not do that to him and he shouldn’t be standing in the fish’s channel, and maybe a couple other things. Bill, fishing on the downstream side of them, was chuckling and tempted to tell them that I was just a cranky old #@$& and he would take me home. As we wrapped up and worked our way to dry ground, I stumbled over a slippery rock and took a wader-filling header – just as we had been noting that none of us fell in this year. Some sort of karmic moment, I suppose.

On our last day, we hiked in to one of our favorite spots with Bill’s old friend John and a fellow teacher, Jeremy. Not wanting to hike our nine salmon back through the woods, Jeremy opted to filet them at the river. He laid the stringer of fish up on the gravel. As he worked on the first two, a speeding boat pushed a big wake up onto the gravel shore, and the seven remaining fish, with stringer, headed down the river – sort of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. During our hike out with our now two fish, we noted that no one got hurt, no one died, and the bears would likely find the fish. Bill mourned the loss of his all-time favorite 69 cent stringer.

Even with that loss, we brought back more than 100 pounds of filets, plans for next year, new friendships, warm memories, and plenty of laughter.

I think that’s why we went.

[Photos of Jon and Jim, and Jon and Alex, by Bill Boyum.]

Of Abbagoochie and Burrowing Elk Farces and Scams

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 28, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

For some reason, as former Homey Bob Kuhlken (made famous by his search for the “Ghost Trout of the Potholes Lakes”) was sorting and clearing books for his return to current home in Virginia, I started thinking about those Abbagoochies again.

The whole story is well-documented in Alex Boese’s 2003 book, Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions. (Alex founded the Museum of Hoaxes in 1997 in San Diego.) Be that as it may, while I loaned my copy of Alex’ book to a forgotten someone years ago, I still have notes on the somehow-ever-alive Abbagoochie scam.

I admire a good tongue-in-cheek story relating to wildlife. If a farcical story turns into a scam, so much the better, since the success of such scams reflects the lack of outdoor and wildlife education of too much of our public. It is always my hope that such obvious prevarications will stir folks to more study of Mother Nature and her vagaries, but it rarely happens.

I have played in this “tall stories of wildlife” realm a bit, myself, but admit to amateur status. An elk-hunting homey a week or so ago asked, “Whatever became of those Utah ‘burrowing elk’ you reported several years ago?” Hmm. You may recall that I reported brother-in-law Jerry Johnson’s discovery of a new subspecies of wapiti (elk) in his southern Utah stomping grounds. This elk actually dug, or Ashook@ itself into soft, sandy ground to escape detection, leaving only brushy-looking antler tips above ground. As you know, the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association holds several of the finest minds in the West – often at the forefront of wildlife science – and we were excited to break the news about Jerry=s Aburrowing elk@ discovery. Jerry=s elk became officially known as Cervus elaphus johnsonii – sort of.

Shortly thereafter, I was in discussion with Idaho family members who spend large amounts of time outdoors. They fish, they hike, and they climb mountains. They do not hunt or intentionally watch wildlife. When the story of Jerry=s elk came up, and I talked about local hunters who enjoyed Jerry=s humor, they wondered what the big deal was. “Why wouldn=t the elk just run away, like they all do?” “Frankly,” the younger said, “I just don’t get that one.” A farcical spoof taken seriously is often both problematic and diagnostic.

Then came the reports from several outdoor magazines, including Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, about the “Abbagoochie.” This strange, terrible creature incited fear and panic in much of West Virginia.

According to the story (with a photo of something like a cross between an owl, a fox, and a deer) in the weekly Webster Echo, published in Webster Springs, West Virginia, wildlife officials had imported the critters from Costa Rica (where they were called “dry land piranhas”) to deal with coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and other nuisance species. Apparently, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials traded 372 possums for 13 young of the Tasmanian-devil-type animals. The plan awry.

Reportedly, the 13 carnivorous, chimp-sized Abbagoochies were devouring everything and anything they encountered. It was said that they had eaten everything from squirrels and rabbits to deer and a black bear. People claimed to have heard the pack screaming at night, many actually saw them, and one man called authorities to let them know he had run over one of them with his car. The FBI and state officials were reportedly assigning missing persons to death by Abbagoochie.

No one, of course, wanted to cross paths with an Abbagoochie – said to be willing to frantically consume itself with its own teeth and claws when cornered. People sat up, armed, to guard their livestock, and nervous parents escorted kids to and from school buses.

The whole thing, of course, was a farce. Columnist Jim Wilson had taken a photo of a taxidermist=s creation – a head fabricated from the butt of a whitetail deer, with the intense yellow glass eyes of an owl and the snarling muzzle of a fox. Once Wilson had the photo, the rest was so obvious he made up the story. (This is the kind of guy with whom I would have loved to share a few cool malt beverages.)

The reaction and panic Jim Wilson stirred, in my opinion, is evidence that large numbers of us have too little understanding of wildlife and wildlife communities around the world – or even our own back yards.

Once the regional panic became obvious, the Echo=s editors published a story about the hoax. Google “Abbagoochie scam” today and you will find a continuing interest in these critters. Even in the last year or two bloggers have claimed tracks, sightings and other proof of the existence of these nasty animals which – despite all the stories to the contrary – still exist in the backwoods of West Virginia.

You gotta love a good tongue-in-cheek wildlife farce.

Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels – Tiny Fun

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 21, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Sometimes, topics just become obvious.

I was weighing options for this week’s column, and was about settled on that old standby about the conflicts between moral values and day-to-day living. I especially enjoy thinking about the conflicts relating to those sudden magic moments when veganism, spiders, rattlers, birdseed, plastic, leather and fruitcakes all merge. Sadly, that will simply have to wait. Again.

You may recall that Deborah Essman – the Bird Whisperer of Paradise – recently presented her program on birds and wildlife of the Quilomene. The event was the July joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA). Her photos ranged from excellent to spectacular, and what really caught my attention was her correct identification of a tiny ground squirrel. This was to the consternation of a couple audience members who had instantly, and in error, whispered, “Chipmunk.” Time is always spent wisely with a well-prepared and well-presented nature program.

In line with how the universe usually puts these things together, a couple homeys stopped me in front of the Ellensburg Pet Center the next morning. They had been enjoying a number of great day hikes and picnic lunches in the hills around us, and were curious about all the little chipmunks they encountered. (“Or were those little squirrels?”) As chair of the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I am sworn to set aside all other interests to settle such confusions.

This is important stuff, really. After all, what is a picnic or camping trip without ground squirrels? Their friendly hustle, bustle and scurry delights children of all ages. To most of us they are just “chipmunks,” but only three of the eleven ground squirrels in Washington are the real deal.

One ground squirrel or another will be found most anywhere in our state. It could be a tiny least chipmunk (four inches long, one ounce), a hoary marmot (30 inches and fifteen pounds), or one of the in-betweens. Whichever, it will eat seeds, nuts, berries, flowers, grasses, leaves and insects.

All eleven are ground squirrels, but not all the striped ones are actually chipmunks (which all do have stripes). So which is which?  We can easily eliminate our three marmots, as well as the spotted or dappled ground squirrels. Simple, now, to separate chipmunks from lined ground squirrels; chipmunks all have “masks.”

In addition to the masks, there are other, less obvious, differences.

While they seem to hibernate in some locales, chipmunks generally put away food for mid-winter snacking in between several-day-long underground naps. In some Native American cultures, this trait is a teaching – a reminder – of gathering and preparing for winter. The chipmunks of Paradise are the least, Townsend=s and yellow-pine, and are quite similar in appearance (even experts can have trouble differentiating one chipmunk from another). The Townsend=s is most widespread, but any one of them could race up to your table during your next picnic or camping trip.

Our three marmots are found in rocky pasture areas from the lower foothills to well above timberline. They do not store food; they lay on masses of body fat to see them through winter’s hibernation.

The remaining five of our ground squirrels (California, golden-mantled, Columbian, Cascade golden-mantled and Townsend=s) are also generally hibernators, living off body fat reserves.

In keeping with the by-laws of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I offer the following scientific names for our ground squirrels. Marmots: yellow‑bellied (Marmota flaviventris); hoary (Marmota caligota); and Olympic (Marmota olympus). Chipmunks: yellow-pine (Tamias amoenus); least (Tamias minimus); and Townsend=s (Tamias townsendii).  Ground Squirrels: California (Spermophilus beecheyi); golden‑mantled (Spermophilus lateralis); Columbian (Spermophilus columbianus); Cascade golden-mantled (Spermophilus saturatus); and Townsend=s (Spermophilus townsendii).

To learn more, check out the National Audubon Society=s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest or another good field guide. You may be interested in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson.

Our little ground squirrels will find you at most any picnic. Look closely, laugh and enjoy. Resist the urge to feed them, as they may carry fleas – or bite – and they must still survive after you leave.

And remember, chipmunks have masks.

All about Pygmy Rabbits

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 14, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

The discussion on the floor of the impromptu meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was the recent press coverage of the pygmy rabbits which died in Douglas County’s lightning-sparked Sutherland Canyon fire a week and more ago.

The first question was, “Do we have those pygmy things here in Kittitas County? (“No, and there is no clear evidence that they ever lived west of the Columbia.”) For a moment thereafter, the conversation shifted to our local rabbits, and the fine eating several homeys enjoyed growing up in Paradise. In our region, we have two rabbits – the little (two or so pounds of white meat) Nuttall’s, or mountain, cottontail and its similar-size cousin, the eastern cottontail (both with little bushy white “cotton” tails. Nuttall’s is our only local native rabbit. As it was largely confined to the riparian areas of the Columbia River and its tributaries (such as the Yakima), several high‑minded souls imported eastern cottontails during the 1920s and ’30s, and released them all across Washington. (At the time, demand around the West was such that kids across the country were being paid to raise eastern cottontails for release.)

And. of course, we have hares in Paradise. Snowshoe hares are also called “varying hares,” since they turn white in winter in most of their range, or “Washington hares” in areas where they do not turn. We also have a few black-tailed jackrabbits (hares) on ag ground. (White‑tailed jackrabbits are now found in only a few places like the Okanogan country.) Hares, however, are fodder for another discussion.

At some point, Don’t-Use-My-Name Homey, gave me one of those looks. “Okay, if we don’t have these runt bunnies here in the valley, why do you give a #@!?” “Well,” I allowed, “right after the turn of this Century, several locals went out with biologists Tom McCall and John Musser into the big sage of Douglas County, searching for pygmy rabbits, and it sort of rekindled an ancient relationship in me.”

The way it was, growing up in East Wenatchee in a family of extremely limited means, a lot of my youthful (late ‘40s and early ‘50s) meat gathering had to do with rabbits. I box-trapped and hunted cottontails in the orchards (Nuttall’s and easterns, no doubt) and often wandered at dawn and dusk into the big sage home of the pygmy rabbits. We ate a fair number of both, although my mom preferred the bigger cottontails. When I first learned that they were disappearing, I had to remind myself that loss of habitat was the issue – there were plenty of the mini bunnies in abundant habitat at the time I was after them. “Besides,” I said to Homey, “these are very cool and unique little mammals. Think about it…”

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. An adult weighs from 12 ounces to slightly over a pound, and is from nine inches to less than a foot long – one would fit on your hand. Its distinguishing characteristics include its small size, short ears, a white spot by its nostril, gray color, small hind legs, and lack of white fur on its one-inch tail. When it spooks, it is running – scampering – rather than leaping. On top of all that, it is one of only two rabbits in North America which digs its own burrows (although it will occupy others, as needed).

Pygmy rabbit’s scientific name is Brachylagus idahoensis. It is most active at dawn and dusk. Litters average six babies, and a pair may produce three litters annually by the end of June. (Photo of the pygmy eating owl clover by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Kourtney Stonehouse.)

Pygmy rabbits occupy a very unique habitat, and therein lies the problem with their future. They are found primarily in habitats dominated by big sagebrush and rabbitbrush, and, to a lesser extent, in areas with abundant greasewood. Year around, nearly 90% of their diet is sagebrush leaves. Much of this native habitat has gone to agriculture and urban development. Burrows are generally into slopes at the base of big sage plants, facing north to east, and may have several three-inch entrances, with trails leading about. In poor burrowing areas, the rabbits may occupy holes in stone walls, around volcanic rocks or burrows made by other animals.

Pygmy rabbits have apparently lived in the shrub-steppe of central Washington for at least 100,000 years. By 2001, only 16 individuals were known statewide; by 2003, pygmy rabbits were listed as endangered at both state and federal levels. There are other, less isolated, populations in the Great Basin states, as well as Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Learn more about these interesting bunnies and their future, and find photos, on line.

While 70 rabbits died as the fire swept through the Beezley Hills breeding compound in Douglas County, a number survived, and were moved to one of the other breeding facilities. There is still a fair number of the rabbits making more. Just during this decade, DFW has release hundreds of pygmy rabbits into the wild – all part of a determined restoration effort involving USFWS, universities, zoos and outfits like the Nature Conservancy. The goal of all players is to return populations to sustainable levels.

Here’s to their successful efforts.

Kokanees, Rimrock Lake and Life Priorities

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 7, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

For some reason – I think traceable to Rimrock Lake and Ron Nelson – summer always feels like time for kokanee fishing and consideration of life priorities. I have caught kokes (those little landlocked sockeye with the brilliant red and delicious flesh) in a couple states and several lakes, but got hooked, so to speak, 60 years ago on Rimrock.

My folks had split the sheets and my brothers and mom and I had moved from East Wenatchee to Yakima. September of 1958; my junior year of high school. Jackie was beautiful, with a stable, loving and outdoor family. Her father, Ron, was a fisherman and hunter with a cabin on Rimrock Lake…and a water‑skiing boat we could use anytime.

On school mornings, I’d get to Naches (where I was attending high school), have breakfast with the family, then walk to school with Jackie. I always felt welcome, and had liked Ron the moment we met. A funny guy, he always had a crack about how my early morning appearances overflowed his cup of life. I loved my time with them. I never thought about the impact they might have on a lost kid who had headed outdoors on his first legs.

That same fall, Ron had invited his brother Bob out from the East to find work. Times were tough, but Ron figured Bob might bloom out here, even though jobs were very scarce nationwide. I watched Bob start day after day of looking for work. Each morning, THIS would be he day. He was the most optimistic man I’d ever met. He was a hunter.

After weeks, Bob found a perfect job and sent for his wife and kids. Shortly thereafter, he told his new boss he needed a week or two off to go deer hunting with his brother Ron. The owner/boss told him he was the best machinist he’d ever hired, but no time off yet. At a very quiet breakfast just after that, Bob was musing about the tough year he and his family had just come through, and said something like, “I don’t see why he couldn’t let me go. I didn’t ask for pay, just time off. Told him I’d hafta quit, then, ‘cause I always go deer hunting. And now, for the first time in many years, I can hunt with my brother. I don’t know… It seems a damned shame to quit a good job just to go deer hunting.” But quit he did. After the hunt, there was a note from the aging boss, who said he had to know if Bob was truly a man of his word. A very few years later, Bob owned the company. That whole thing changed forever the way I look at priorities.

Anyhow, the following spring, Ron took it upon himself to teach me about kokanee catching and eating. It didn=t escape me, either, that I was captive in his boat. He was teaching me about life, and making sure I understood that my 17-year-old hormones were to stay in check.

On a given Saturday morning, we might catch a couple dozen eight- to twelve-inch kokes. I always cleaned the fish (necessary, Ron explained, because he had to concentrate so deeply to find just the right size aspen limbs, and properly fire up the smoker. When the smoke-cooked kokanee were just right, we would invite the women out to share the bounty of sweet red-fleshed kokes. To this day, I’ve eaten no better, nor in finer company.

By that fall, mom had moved us to Boise. Jackie and I corresponded for a time, but destiny had other plans. Some years later, I wrote Ron, thanking him for taking me in the way he did. In 1995, I learned that he was catching kokes in some clear, cold lake in the sky. Last I heard, Jackie and her family were in the lower valley.

I guess we have to set outdoor priorities for ourselves, but kokanee fishing is readily available to all of us through fall. Most folks talk about Chelan, Rimrock, Banks Lake, Sammamish and Lake Roosevelt, but Kachess, Keechelus, Cooper and Lost Lake have them , too. And Rimrock is not that far down the road. It’s pretty simple fishing really.

Trolling, still fishing, and jigging are all good ways to catch these most delicious fish, ranging in size from eight to 20 inches, depending on food and water. Most trollers use strings of blades or dodgers ahead of spoons or spinners with silver, red, or orange. Still fishers often use size eight to 12 hooks tipped with juicy maggots, kernel corn, or pieces of worm. The jigging method works over a school of kokes, with a ¼ oz. to 1 oz. jig.

For a list of waters, instructions, a pretty good video and general information about kokanees in Washington, check out wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/washington/Species/9008/. Google “kokanee fishing in Washington” and find everything else you need to know.

Happy koke fishing. Happy eating. Happy summer.