About the Wild Pacific and Unreachable Tuna

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 7, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Last weekend – Labor Day Weekend – was Ilwaco Tuna Adventure-Seventh Edition for Hucklings, family, homeys and former homeys. Planning started when I again booked all ten tuna rods on Captain Rob’s Katie Marie right after he returned us and our fish to port a year ago.

This has become a habit, this chasing of albacore tuna with Captain Rob Gudgell on the Katie Marie (named after his daughter). In February 2012, I met Milt and Sarah Gudgell (Rob’s folks) at their Pacific Salmon Charters booth at the Central Washington Sportsman Show in Yakima. How do you explain that instant sense of meeting an old friend for the first time? I don’t know, either, but we were immediately into tuna talk, and within a few minutes, I’d signed on for several family albacore tuna fishing spots aboard the Katie Marie. That first year was so much fun, I have reserved the whole boat each Labor Day Sunday since.

Every year is different, but our faith in Captain Rob, the Tuna Whisperer, never wavers. If we get out to the tuna grounds, Cap will find fish. That first year, we brought 88 tuna aboard, filling the boat. The next year, we ran out of time at 50 fish – but all bigger than the first year. The following year, we worked hard to get three nice big fish apiece. In year four (2015) family and friends descended on Ilwaco from as far away as Los Angeles and Denver, but exceptionally stormy weather kept us from reaching the tuna schools – we turned back about 12 miserable miles out. 2016 was rainy, but manageable, and 70 25- to 33-pounders filled the boat. Last year looked like a shipwreck – for a little while – but an available Monday trip for which a few of us could stay over yielded a good many 35 to 40 pound tuna (our biggest yet).

This was a pretty special year for our gathering. While two of our fishers were kept at home because of serious family or personal health issues, the other eight (and folks who came for the campground play and cameraderie) made it in Saturday afternoon to prep for Sunday’s cruise out to tuna-rich waters. Last-Two-of-the-Hucklings stuntman Edward and actress-model Anna drove up from Los Angeles; adopted Huckling Jonathan (Edward’s kid brother) flew in from Colorado; former homeys and fishing nuts Brandon Rogers and Margo Aye drove from the Tri Cities area; Cousins Debbie and David Yount arrived from Tacoma; and daughters Katie and Arcelia, with grandson Jonas in tow, made it from Renton and Ellensburg. Diane and I worked our way down from Paradise.

We figured on a great tuna catching adventure, as our Sunday trip looked better and better. On most of the days leading up to our day, the weather had been near perfect: sunny, comfortable and mostly calm. Regularly, Captain Rob brought the Katie Marie back to port early, full to the gills with fat tuna up to 40 pounds. What a year it would be!

Sunday morning, we rolled out of the campground at 2:45. Under calm and lightly overcast skies, the morning promised perfection. After a couple late office check-ins we were all aboard the Katie Marie by 3:30. We met Tony and Gregorios, the two guys who filled our vacant fisher spots, and Cap gave us his morning safety and rules chat. He loaded live anchovies for the big fat tuna awaiting us, crossed the bar into the Pacific and pointed the boat west.

No rain and not much wind, but the ocean was restless. By the time we were 12 or 13 choppy miles out, a couple of our ten fishers were chumming the ocean with whatever they had eaten over the previous 24 hours. I was relaxing, enjoying the rhythm of the bumpy ride and thinking about big tuna, when Captain Rob came into the cabin. “This is a lot rougher than forecast,” he said. “Look,” he said, “it’s not better out ahead. In these pitching seas, it’s just too dangerous. I’m not willing to get someone hurt or overboard for any fish, so we’re turning back. Pacific Salmon Charters will refund your money, of course, and there are some closer-in salmon and bottom fishing spots available – but they will be pretty rough, too. There are also tuna spots available later this week. I’m sorry folks.” That was that.

So, now what? We got back in the office by 7 a.m. and collected our refunds. After rounding up coffee, we convened at the campground for a confab. Bottom line was that none of us came for salmon fishing, nor could we stay around for a days-later tuna trip. We settled on the number of ttuna filets we might buy for canning, smoking and searing (Well, we were there, weren’t we?). After a collective prayer of thanks for a captain keeping us safe, I went back to Pacific Salmon’s office and ordered a dozen or so sets of four filets.

As I finished ordering, Cap walked up and said, “Jim, I’m so sorry we couldn’t get out there.” “Stop that Cap,” I smiled. “While I expect you to walk on water, I don’t expect you to control it!” Then I booked the boat for Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, 2019. (After all, what could possibly go wrong?)

Great food, laughter, walking beaches, a helmeted 3 ½ year old racing his tiny bike, and catch-up time with family and good friends… Maybe that is the highest purpose of our annual Ilwaco Tuna Adventure.

See you 7 p.m. Monday evening at Hal Holmes. I am now ready to learn more about the status and value of our I-90 Snoqualmie Pass wildlife crossings.

Happy almost-fall.

All about Wildlife Overpasses and Underpasses

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 31, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

The conversation on the floor of a recent off-Reecer-Creek meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was the upcoming video and discussion of our Snoqualmie Pass I-90 wildlife crossings. This is co-sponsored by the 99+ year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Ellensburg Public Library, and happens Monday evening, September 10 at Hal Holmes. The presentation will be made by folks from the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition of Washington.

At any rate, Homey just looked at me. Finally, he shook his head and asked the most common question I hear about these crossings, “Do critters actually use those overpasses and those places where they go under highways?”

“Yes. And yes,” I replied. “There are hundreds of wildlife crossings around the world, and they are credited with saving thousands of two-legged and four-legged lives. One or two of them have been developed for animals you probably never even considered…”

Probably the most widely-known and photographed crossings in North America are those around Canada’s Banff National Park in Alberta. Our Snoqualmie Pass crossings are the largest wildlife crossings project in North America. They will, I think, be as celebrated and discussed – and as popular to tourists – as those around Banff.

Wildlife crossings – overpasses and underpasses – have been built all across the world. In the U.S. you will find them in Montana, Colorado, California, Florida. New Jersey, Nevada, and several other states. In Sublette County, Wyoming built the first overpass designed specifically for pronghorns – to protect a couple thousand antelope which migrate 160 miles each way – with special vegetation and a very unique design. Across the globe, wildlife crossings are found in (among many others) The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, South India and Australia. Google “wildlife overpasses” and you will find photos and videos of worldwide animal bridges, and links to an amazing variety of studies which support the value of these crossings.

While we think mostly about preventing human-animal collisions, a primary motivation for finding crossing solutions has been the fragmenting of wildlife habitat – the division of contiguous wildlife ground – by ever-increasing numbers and sizes of highways, and the traffic they carry. Crossings allow animals of all sizes and species to move more freely – and safely – through historc range.

Of course, the cost of vehicle-animal collisions is significant both in terms of property damage and deaths/injuries to human drivers and passengers. Wikipedia (under that “wildlife overpasses” Google) cites dozens of studies, with some mind-boggling numbers. In 1996, Bruinderink & Hazebroek estimated annual European human/ungulate collisions at more than half a million, with 300 human deaths and 30,000 injuries. In the U.S., Donaldson’s 2005 study cited one and a half million traffic accidents involving deer, annually, causing more than one billion dollars in vehicle damage. Other studies cite up to 30,000 injuries, with more than 200 fatalities, each year in the U.S.

Wildlife crossings are not cheap, but arguments are made that planning and construction costs are trumped (word used in its traditional meaning) by wildlife population and habitat protection, reduced vehicle and property damage, and lives saved by fewer collisions. (A Virginia Department of Transportation study estimated that underpasses for wildlife become cost effective if they prevent between three and nine car-deer collisions annually – depending on the cost of building the crossing.)

Add all those costs to concerns about wildlife mortality and habitat fragmentation, and it is easy to see why biologists, engineers, and transportation pros have been looking at mitigation tools to reduce conflicts between roads and wildlife. It appears that, while proper siting and proper design for species, habitat and so forth is critical, wildlife crossings have been most successful at meeting those concerns.

On September 10, you will have a chance to see where our I-90 corridor fits in this worldwide work. Cascade Crossroads is a 30-minute documentary film chronicling the work over and under Interstate 90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass over the Cascade Mountains. These crossings grew from the work of the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition, formed in 2004 by more than two dozen organizations and businesses. The Coalition’s mission was “to advocate for high quality wildlife connectivity measures in the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project, while ensuring the habitat adjacent to these structures contributes to their success.”

Find out more about the I-90 project at www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/i90/snoqualmiepasseast. And find more about the film at i90wildlifebridges.org/cascade-crossroads/.

Washington State is now fully in the wildlife crossing game. Our overpass and underpass crossings will be as successful as they are striking. Join the I-90 Wildlife Bridges folks for a beautiful video and fascinating discussion. Hal Holmes, Monday, 10 September, 7 p.m. Come learn the things you will use to impress friends when they visit Paradise.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Budget – Our Challenge

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 24, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Cousin Ron and I, as do most folks who grew up hunting and fishing in Paradise in the 1940s and ‘50s, take frequent trips down Memory Lane. We all see how expensive things are these years, and there is certainly little argument about many of the things we need. But how many costs are actually comparable to – or cheaper than – the late 1950s?

I like to start with context – and gas prices. In the late ‘50s, I made anywhere from 80 cents to a buck an hour for full-time work. A gallon of gas ranged from 19.9 cents (in gas wars) to 29.9 cents day to day. Today, we see gas prices ranging from 10 to 12 times that – still about the same percentage of lower-wage incomes – and most of us make well over 10 or 12 times those 1950s wages.

What about our hunting and fishing licenses? In the late 1950s, a resident hunting and fishing license, with deer and elk seals (tags) cost $13.50. This year, for the same licenses, I paid $126.55 (with dealer fee). Yes, there are other permits and fees we often add, but do the math and you will see that, apples to apples, the out-of-pocket cost for my tags is cheaper now than when I first started hunting and fishing.

So, what’s the total cost of operating our Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), today? And that $30+ million hole it is facing over the next biennium? How did it happen, what has been done about it, and how will it be filled? Again, I like looking at context. This is complicated, since until the early 1990s, the State Department of Game and the Department of Fisheries were two different agencies. Those 1950s budget numbers are hard-found. Still, with the help of folks at DFW, the Washington State Library and Oregon (ODFW has an excellent history online, and its budgets follow a similar trajectory to ours), we have a starting point. Understand that the numbers I pass along are approximate, intended to provide a general picture of the challenges facing us. Remember, also, that all the state natural resource agencies, combined, get well under two percent of Washington’s total budget.

In 1955, the Washington Department of Game operated on a budget of just over $3.5 million and the State Fisheries folks were somewhere around $3 million. In 2017, DFW expenditures for managing terrestrial wildlife (lands, habitat, hunting, etc.) were just under $100 million, and on the fisheries/aquatic side (hatcheries, fishing, habitat and species work) added up to about $160 million. Obviously, there is some overlap of fish and wildlife expenditures in both those numbers. (Double these numbers to get the biennial – two-year – budgets.)

What has driven these budget increases so far beyond my “context’ of 10 to 12 times the costs of the 1950s? Consider only a few of the hundreds of changes in the last six decades. In 1976, the US extended its control over Pacific Ocean fishing out to 500 miles – adding several hundred thousand square miles to Washington’s responsibilities. We have seven and a half million people – well more than twice as many as 1970 – in the smallest western state, with a relatively small amount of public land. We have a great diversity of fish and wildlife in a wide variety of habitats – wet mountains, dry mountains, desert, semiarid and humid lowlands, temperate rainforests, open pine forests, salt water, small to large streams and lakes of all sizes. Add the 24 treaty tribes with rights to fish and wildlife and their management. Each combination of place and species and rules requires one or another level of specialists to manage it.

That looming $30 million budget shortfall? Several factors are involved. DFW is still struggling from cuts imposed during the recession, yet our Legislative approved expenses without funding. License sales and general fund allocations have fallen behind management costs. Several one-time funding band-aids are expiring. The Department has eliminated several positions and curtailed a number of fisheries and other operations. [Note that everyone with whom I discuss this has a deep and genuine concern about agency priorities – ranging from fish hatcheries to the diminishing statewide number of enforcement agents over the past couple decades. These battles will, and must, be fought through the various public wildlife and budget advisory committees. Still, if we can’t keep our agency functioning, those arguments will be moot.]

After a lot of public ourtreach, DFW is asking for more legislative help this year. Without it, $30.5 million of services will have to be cut, beginning next year. DFW is asking the Legislature for the ability to raise license fees (last increase was in 2011), keep the Columbia River Salmon and Steelhead Endorsement fee, and for more money from the General Fund. (The Wildlife Commission has yet to settle on that fee increase request, but look for something between five and twelve percent,) Together, these will keep the agency on track managing our wildlife.

You will much more detail about DFW, its budget, and the future in the “Draft Long-Term Funding Plan” at wdfw.wa.gov/commission/meetings/2018/08/aug0918_02_plan.pdf (or Google “long term funding plan WDFW.”)

This budget challenge belongs to all of us. This is our wildlife on our lands. This is our agency, staffed by folks we have asked to keep wild things and wild places for those who come after us. When the Legislature takes up these budget questions, we need to have our voices heard. And we must continue to help our agency develop its priorities.

Our DFW Budget, Changing Times and Game Bird Psychology

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 17, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

I remember thinking that The Old Man (my father) had some sort of magic power, the way he could look around and describe changes new decades would bring. Now that I’m him, I see it’s just the way the world works – change is the only constant we can count on in our lifetimes.

Cousin Ron and I grew up together. He was in Yakima, Washington. I was in East Wenatchee, Washington. We were inseparable for months of every year. We often lament that we had, in the 1950s, the best hunting and fishing Washington ever enjoyed. When I remind him of the changes we’ve seen, his standard response is, “Well, if I was in charge we’d just roll back the game and fish regulations to 1955 and everything would be fine!”

It isn’t that simple, of course. In the decades since our youth, the state’s population has exploded, federal and tribal relationships have become integral parts of wildlife management, cost of that management has steadily risen, less ground is left for wildlife habitat, woodlands have become surrounded by humans and water quality has suffered. Maybe someone has a way to roll us back to “simpler” and cheaper times, but I have yet to meet that person.

Our liveliest discussions, I think, are around the great bird hunting we found across the state. Yes, there are good opportunities today to hunt chukars, quail and pheasants, but they pale in comparison to the days when farmers could spare some cover ground and Washington’s Fish and Wildlife had hatcheries rearing and releasing birds into that good habitat. Ron is still cranky about the closing of hatcheries (both bird and fish operations), and with the annual $30 million-plus deficit our Department of Fish and Wildlife is facing next year, he’ll have more to chew on.

In the late 40s and early 50s, there were lots of birds – not because Game and Fish had decreed that there would be lots of birds, but because there were places for the birds to hide and nest and live. Orchards still had brush piles no one got around to clearing, and field fence rows were tangles of brush and weeds perfect for nesting. There were wild berries and roses. A good many, if not most, of those birds were wild-hatched birds.

In the late 50s, The Old Man and I would grab his old J.C. Higgins bolt-action 12-gauge, wander off into the orchards around the East Wenatchee home we had so lovingly built, and within an hour, we’d have a couple roosters and quail for the table. His powers of prognostication still left me wondering a bit. “This will be very different when you’re grown up, son…” [Yeah. The house we built is now under Costco and most of the orchards and fields have transmogrified into single-family homes…] Our lives and pleasures change with time; it’s as true now as it was then.

As human populations and habitat changed, bird numbers dropped. That “rearing and releasing” stuff became a big activity for states all over the U.S. Today, it simply isn’t economically feasible. The rearing of game birds is now handled by a limited number of bird farms. For decades, the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club raised game birds for release around Paradise, but that stopped at the end of the last Century. For a time, the Club bought and released hundred of birds from select hatcheries. No more.

Still, I enjoyed working the waning years of the Club’s rearing efforts, taking my turns feeding pheasants, Huns and chukars at the game farm. I saw much of that time as a course in bird psychology. I miss feeding and studying those birds. Interesting critters. Some, I thought, were fully capable of stacking the deck against predators or hunters.

Here, then, are my thoughts on the psychology of the birds I fed, and the little California quail outside the pens..

The quail, I thought, were little snots. They would stand just outside the pens, daring any bird inside to fight them. They would pick up loose feed, staying just out of reach of a peck through the fence. As I moved up, they would melt into the weeds with that patented smooth hustle.

Before I even touched the entry gate, the Huns were at the far end of the run, and nervous. This caution, I figured, would help them make more Huns over the years.

As I entered the pens, the chukars would scoot away, in an ant-like single file. At a safe distance, they would calmly stand until I left. They were almost imperturbable, but always alert to my movements. I sensed that they had decided, before I even drove up, which way they would go if I got too close. These guys had my number; they were hatched with it.

The pheasants, on the other hand, were mostly goofballs – and nervous wrecks. I always moved slowly and cautiously, but it did not matter. (They are, after all, just long-tailed chickens.) Any false move and they=d be off and flying in any direction. They never seemed to think about where they were going, they just went. Consequently, there were numerous fence-jousts. And, maybe, that pheasants-going-any-which-way thing is why we enjoy hunting them.

As chair of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Bird Psychology Subcommittee, I’m required to share those observations. I leave it to you to assign value, although it seems beneficial to have a handle on the psychology of wild things – even if it is just game bird pop-psycho-babble.

Oh, yes. That “change” business. DFW is facing a big hole and we are going to have to help fill it. We’ll discuss how that might happen next week.

Happy summer.

Coming Up on Swift Time

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 10, 2018. Posted in Uncategorized

Chimney swifts, common in the central and eastern portions of the US, are widely celebrated for their habit of nesting in chimneys and spiraling “home” at dusk. In the western US, we have our Vaux’s swift, which uses chimneys at migration time, but prefers hollow trees for nesting. Our smaller swift occupies the Pacific Northwest up into northern BC, and it is every bit as entrancing as its eastern cousin. With its communal spirals into evening roosts during migration, it is now preparing to head south. My birding homeys calling these coming weeks “swift time.”

The Bird Identification Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the information below. Its name is English, with a hard “x” as in “box,” in honor of William S. Vaux, compliments of John K. Townsend, a contemporary of Audubon.

The scientific name for Vaux’s swift is Chaetura vauxi. It is the smallest swift in North America. Both sexes are about 4.3 inches long, with narrow wings spanning 11 inches, weights to three-quarters of an ounce and a wide mouth. It is generally seen only in its rapid flight and is widely described as “a cigar with wings.” Both sexes are brownish-gray overall, with lighter rump and breast areas. Its short tail is squared off at the end, not notched. It forages in flight over clearings and ponds and streams, on flying insects and the occasional spider.

The birds arrive here in late April and early May. Nesting is often communal, by the hundreds or thousands, in coniferous or mixed forest, although they will be found below the lower tree-line in residential areas here in the east. The dramatic, spiraling, headlong rush into the roost tree or chimney at nightfall is what enthralls birders and observers.

Cupped nests are of small twigs or evergreen needles broken off in flight and glued to the walls of hollow tree snags (rarely in a chimney) with sticky saliva. Our small swifts can only perch vertically and must cling to hollowed out trees or old, generally pre-1940, chimneys (newer chimneys have linings which do not allow good claw holds). Those strong sharp claws enable the birds to easily move around on vertical surfaces to manage nesting and resting. Both parents will brood the four to seven white eggs (just under three-quarters of an inch long). Young will hatch in two to three weeks and will leave the nest at three weeks. Both parents – and other swifts – will feed the youngsters small balls of insects.

Vaux’s will winter south in California and on into Central Mexico, leaving the eastern portion of the state over the next few weeks. By late October, they will be gone from the other side of the Cascades, too. Our swifts are just now at the beginning stages of gathering numbers and spiraling into temporary roosts at dusk all over the Northwest. THAT is what makes this “swift time!”

This swift time is a big deal on several levels. People are dazzled by those spiraling roosting birds, of course. The birds eat significant numbers of insects we see as pests personally and commercially. And those old chimneys are disappearing; with their loss comes serious concerns about the apparently shrinking numbers of our western swifts.

Since the 1980s, perhaps the largest celebration of Vaux’s swifts happens in Portland during the September-long “Swift Watch” at the Chapman School. As many as 2,000 people will gather of an evening to watch thousands of the tiny, noisy, birds “swooping and swirling like a cloud of pulsating black ink as they circle a tall brick chimney silhouetted by the fading light.” Folks from as far away as Europe will sit or lie with blankets and picnic baskets, cheering a flock of swifts pouring into the school’s chimney “like water spiraling down a drain!” The tradition is so embedded in Portland lore that the little Vaux’s swift is the Chapman School mascot. Find more, including counts of birds (by date) and info about the Portland Audubon’s activities during its Swift Watch at audubonportland.org/local-birding/swiftwatch.

Learn more about the swifts of Paradise and where to watch. Larry Schwitters, with Rainier Audubon, has a “Vaux Happening” site with several ways to learn and play. Check it out at www.vauxhappening.org/. Seattle Audubon, at www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/, is worth your time, too (just punch in “Vaux’s Swift” and hear the sounds of these birds). For a broader view, see www.allaboutbirds.org (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology page). For hardcopy resources, check out The Birder’s Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, Birds of North America by Robbins, Bruun and Zim, or any good field guide.

For many years, here in Ellensburg, Washington, we celebrated and counted Vaux’s swifts swirling into the chimneys of the old hospital (torn down – no more chimney) and Morgan Middle School (gone, also, with the remodel). You can still be dazzled by them as a few dozen spiral into the old chimney on the southeast corner Fitterer’s Furniture at the corner of 4th and Main. (See Monica Fletcher’s YouTube video from last October: “Vaux Swift Gathering Ellensburg…”) Watch from the Main Street sidewalk or that classy private parking lot, but be respectful of the private ground there. There are rumors of the swifts finding other chimneys here in town, but I can’t confirm them. There are, apparently, a couple good watching sites in Yakima – to be passed along in future columns.

We are witnessing first-hand the regional and national trend of lost and capped-over old chimneys. Many are looking for solutions, and that is another week’s discussion.