Chasing Torpedoes with the Tuna Whisperer

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 6, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Sometimes great fun is hard work.

At 3:25 a.m. last Sunday, ten fishermen, two deckhands (Brian and Tyler), and Captain Rob Gudgell were having a briefing aboard the Katie Marie.  Mostly it was safety stuff and reaching an agreement about how the fish—should we catch any—would be divided among the fishers.  Then there was the reminder.  Those of us who’d fished with Captain Rob already knew what was coming, but the newbies needed to hear it; it was Cap’s admission of passion for finding and catching fish, and an admonition to not take personally anything he might say in the midst of fishing chaos.  That settled, we left the Ilwaco Harbor and headed into the Pacific.

Of the ten fishers on the boat, seven were Homeys of one stripe or another; Kirk Johnson and I traveled from Paradise.  Kirk’s son-in-law Ben, my boyfriend-in-law (one day a son-in-law) Brian, and his buddy James gathered from the Puget Sound area.  My son Edward and son-in-law Chris flew in from Denver.  It was a much-anticipated day.

We hadn’t anticipated such a slow start, however.  The 14 to 40 pound albacore race around the ocean searching for giant spherical schools of small fish (“bait balls” they are often called) at up to 50 miles an hour.  On our morning, these schools of a few dozen to several hundred tuna were racing in some other part of the ocean.  Finding—and catching—was slow, slow, slow.

Finally, at some point, someone yelled “Tuna!” and the chaos began.  …And ended.  We had one fish on the hand line, I brought in the first fish of the day on a rod, and that was that.  After another couple hours, Cap found another school, and four or five more fish came aboard.  Then, we spent more hours searching the ocean for any sign of feeding frenzies—flocks of seagulls, small fish leaping out of the water, whatever.

The water was pretty quiet, the air was perfect and the skies were off and on clear.  And, by 1:30 in the afternoon, the ten of us had managed to bring fewer than a dozen tuna on board.  They were beautiful big tuna, for sure, but few in numbers.

Captain Rob is a life-long fisherman and boat nut.  He was a deckhand as a kid, fully licensed in 1981, and is a full-time captain since 1998.  In 2002, he brought the use of live anchovies for tuna fishing to Ilwaco, supplementing the use of jigs.  He is known for his intensity in coaching his fishers to success.  He has good juju.

Anyhow, just about 1:30, Deckhand Brian’s eye and Captain Rob’s skill, experience and magic kicked in.  We were suddenly up to our aching muscles in a very big school of good-sized tuna.  The chaos began in earnest, rising to a crescendo, in a great joyful and wild dance.

Cap circulated with live anchovies, cajoling and pleading, “Watch your lines!  Jim, follow your fish—if it goes that way, go with it!  Go under Brian…  Scott over that guy and under her!  Come on people, pay attention!  No tangles!  Don’t let anybody cut your line!  Get them on board, bait up and get back out there!  Hey!  No slack line—no bird nests on your reel!  Pay attention guys!  Keep your footing!  Over!  Under!”  …And so it went for a couple hours of arm-wrenching struggles with big tough fish.

Somewhere in there a homey observed that Captain Rob was a kind of tuna missionary, unwavering in his determination to talk albacore tuna onto the boat.  Hard to argue with such logic, but I liked Boyfriend-in-law Brian’s take on it more.  “Think about it a moment, Jim,” Brian smiled at me, “the guy is a ‘Tuna Whisperer…”

He was right, of course.  Cap would skillfully hook a live anchovy, and it would quickly hit the ocean as the fisher stripped line.  As the fisher focused, Cap was almost whispering instructions.  “One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Now drop the drag… Six… Seven… Tighten it slowly… Eight… Nine… Ten!  There he is!  Now don’t lose this one!”  With that, he was on to the next tuna wrangler, continuing his mission to get tuna on board the Katie Marie.

At one point, Cap was helping me replace gear I had just lost to a nice fish.  “You suck at this,” he said.  When I quickly reminded him I had caught a couple tuna, and whined that others’ lines had crossed and cut my line and that was why I had just lost a 20 minute battle with the biggest albacore in the ocean, he half-smiled.  “Well, they suck at this, too…  Now don’t lose that one running with your bait.”  And off he went on his endless mission, leaving me to a new battle.

Near the end of our tuna fishing frenzy, after a half-hour battle, I brought in the biggest tuna I have yet caught; a flashy 30.4 pounds.  Others in that size range were aboard, too.

At 4:00, we had to quit and head back.  By then, we had about 50 tuna aboard—all big tough Pacific torpedoes.  Everyone had aching arms and big smiles.

Hard work, but the day became exactly the day we had all anticipated.

All about People and Their Limits

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 30, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Monday morning, following a long Cascade Crest weekend filled with 100-mile runners and 36 hours of ham radio operation, Homey just didn’t get it.

“What’s the point?  A hundred and some people try to run 100 miles over dirt, rocks, downed trees and gravel roads.  And you and 40 of your radio buddies try to keep track of them from place to place while a hundred other people provide food and first aid at those places up there around Easton.  What’s in it for you?  What’s the point?  It’s crazy.  I don’t get it.”

Still lagging a bit from a weekend of all night and day radio work, I struggled for a moment with his consternation.  How do you explain the privilege of supporting men and women who are testing the boundaries of their spirits and their bodies?  How do you explain the determination of a runner who has made almost 74 miles and just can’t continue through the pain of feet and muscles, but does…or the joy of someone who has completed that 73.9 miles for the first time and smiles his or her way up and over the hill to the finish?  Finally, I turned to him with his own history lesson.

“How many times have you told me about you and your boy spending two days getting a big elk out of the bottom of that deep draw in the L.T. Murray?  Six or eight?  And how does your story always end?  You say something like, ‘Boy, that day we learned what we could accomplish if we stuck to it…’  Well, I think that all of us, at some point, need to know the limits of what we can accomplish.  There are countless ways we seek and find those limits, and runs like the Cascade Crest 100 provide one of them.  As to why we go play radio while the runners push their limits, it’s pretty simple for me; ham radio is fun, of course, but it’s the same sense I had when I was teaching at Central—it is an honor to support people who are figuring out why they came to the planet.”

This was a great year for the run through some of the most beautiful scenery in Paradise.  155 people started the race.  117 of them finished it.  This was the largest field of runners in the 15 years of the endurance run, and the percentage of finishers has only been matched once.  New race coordinator Rich White and his crew of race officials and aid station personnel, working in concert with the ham operators controlling the net from the Easton Fire Station and all the hams out in the hills did a great job of keeping runners safe and counted.  It takes a lot of people to manage an event like this and it came off without a troublesome glitch.  We got lucky.

Diane and I worked the Mineral Creek Aid Station (milepost 73.9—one of 15 stations along the 100 miles), as we have each year since 2007.  Aside from the wild berries, the runners and the camaraderie of the aid station crew, there is something about spending a crisp late August night in the Cascades that draws us back.  Then, too, there are the individual stories.

The story I share most often goes back to our first year working the race.  A woman, likely in her early 40s, jogged up to our food table, grabbed a handful of candy, a piece of fruit, poured down a half cup of warm potato soup and took a sip of Coke.  At that point she stepped back, looked at our sign saying she was at 73.9 miles, half-smiled and said, “Cool… only a marathon left.”

Every runner has a story of course, but two of this years’ are iconic, I think.

Hans-Deiter Weisshaar, is a German runner who has competed for years in the Cascade Crest Ultramarathon.  More than that, he has completed over a hundred of these 100-mile races.  He finished this year’s race in around 31 hours, 109th of the 117 finishers.  Oh, yeah.  Hans is 73.

Runner number 44 arrived at Mineral Creek a few hours before daylight.  He could hardly move.  His feet were blistered and raw, he hurt, and he was cold, cold.  There seemed little likelihood that he could go on, but we left him to make that call.  He would wait for daylight, he insisted.  The aid crew wrapped him in blanket after blanket, gave him warm sustenance and handed him several hand warmers.  He leaned to one side in the folding chair, eyes closed and still in his cocoon of covers, for an hour, and another—and another.  At some point, as daylight filled our draw, he stirred.  He looked around and said something about needing to work on his feet.  I turned to handle a radio call, and when that task was finished, I heard “Runner 44, out,” meaning he was leaving the aid station.

We watched him head up the hill, looked at each other, and knew he would make it.  He had been on that chair for three hours and 31 minutes.  Several hours later, back at Easton, at the start and finishing point of the race, we watched #44 Allan Dushan, of White Salmon, cross the finish line.  He was the 90th runner to do so.

It is an honor to share time with people fully experiencing their lives, outdoors.


All about Today’s Bigfoot Interest

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 23, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey was nosing into our sockeye trip to Lake Wenatchee.  “So, that’s where your brother Brad saw those ‘Bigfoot’ guys years ago, right?  And that’s your interest, right?  And you guys were at the head of the lake, near the White River, so didn’t you really go to look around?  So…  Did you see any tracks?  You went to look, right?  When are you going to write about them—the Yakamas’ ‘stone throwers,’ huh?”

I so badly wanted to tell him of some secret mission up our sleeves, and crank up his blood pressure a bit.  I hated to disabuse him of the notion that Brandon and I were chasing Bigfoot, but I just didn’t have the time to properly exploit his interest.  “Sorry,” I finally said.  “We were just fishing.”

Still, I certainly have an abiding interest in Bigfoot and the rapidly growing body of both serious and silly research surrounding its existence.  The TV series, published research and dozens of YouTube videos about the critter surround us. I grabbed my current files.

If you have thought about this stuff at all, you probably know about Jeff Meldrum, an anatomy and anthropology professor at Idaho State University.  His Pocatello lab arguably holds North America’s biggest collection of footprint casts, hair samples and other associated evidence.  He often says that the Bigfoot work came to him—he was not looking for it.  His lab did extensive animal testing for species identification, so maybe it was inevitable at some level.

His interest in the Bigfoot mystery was triggered by an apparent hoax involving footprints near Walla Walla at the end of the last century.  He returned on his own to the tracks in question and made casts of other nearby sets of prints.  With the eye of an anatomy pro, he found unique marks on his plaster casts which suggested the tracks were not part of a hoax.

Then Jimmy Chilcutt, a crime scene investigator from Conroe, Texas, heard the story of Meldrum’s foot casts, and came to look for himself.  Chilcutt was a prints guy, with an expertise in fingerprints developed over an 18 year career.  He had, for several years, been studying foot prints of humans and primates in hopes of developing new tools for distinguishing individual footprint patterns.  After Meldrum turned him loose in the foot cast collection and left, Chilcutt quickly decided that the prints were indeed from some actual primate—not faked.

Meldrum, with a bit of trepidation, started down a serious Bigfoot research path, with Jimmy Chilcutt as a strong and expert ally.  Thus, Meldrum’s very thorough collection of footprint casts and hair samples, as well as some body fluids collected from various sightings and interactions.

In late June, Meldrum was in Portland, raising money for The Falcon Project.  This project involves outfitting an unmanned and highly maneuverable helium-filled airship with a platform of thermal-imaging and high resolution wireless video gear.  The project will feature a sleek, quiet Aurora Mk II airship, able to approach and observe critters with minimal disturbance of their natural behavior.  It can survey in dense forest with a vertical look, and can move quickly enough to keep up with a subject.  The gyro-stabilized camera mounts and remote operation equipment are specifically designed for such tasks.  Given the nocturnal, reclusive and wary nature of the species, Meldrum has high hopes for this novel high-tech approach.

Meldrum has been at his task for nearly two decades.  His book “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” was published in 2006 by Forge Books, with a paperback in 2007 from St. Martin’s Press.  He’s published numerous papers and now edits an online journal, The Relict Hominoid Inquiry (at  He is fully committed to the research.

Others are serious, too.  Professor Bryan Sykes, a human geneticist from Oxford is conducting a critical DNA study of hair samples said to be from Sasquatch as part of the Oxford-Luassane Collateral Hominid Project.

You may recall that, in January of this year, veterinarian Melba S. Ketchum reported on her team’s five-year study of more than 100 DNA samples that she believes are from the elusive hairy beast.  At DNA Diagnostics, Inc., in Nacogdoches, Texas, they tested mostly hair, but also blood, urine and saliva samples.  She is a believer.  Based on the DNA testing, her team concluded that Bigfoot may be the result of a cross between Homo sapiens and some unknown primate—a cross that happened some 15,000 years ago.  The research is now said to be under the scrutiny of independent researchers.  Time will tell.

Robert Michael Pyle speaks seriously of his experience.  A Denver friend tells her Sasquatch story with elaborate detail.

Brother Brad is the coolest person I have ever seen under pressure.  He has been credited with saving lives on mountains and ice that were about to collapse.  He saw Bigfoot crossing the White River decades ago.  I would take it to the bank.

The interest will keep growing, I think.  Check the web.  Happy late summer.

National Parks–Here and over There

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 18, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey was explaining about his upcoming drive.  “We are going to spend some time in Yellowstone… Do some National Park things and see some wild stuff.”  “Cool,” I said, “Just stay on the roads.”

I love Yellowstone.  I still savor the times my now-grownups and I camped, fished, hiked and looked there.  That brief conversation, however, got me thinking about the last national park I was in—it was Pribaikalsky National Park.

Pribaikalsky National Park is in Siberia.  It was founded in 1986 with the intention of preserving and protecting Lake Baikal’s western shoreline, including storied Olkhon Island.  That national park designation pairs with the region’s 1996 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As Diane and I and friend/colleague Elaine Glenn planned schedule detail after schedule detail of our train trip across Russia, Mongolia and a piece of Northeast China, we set aside enough time in Irkutsk to make an overnight trek to Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island.  What geographer would miss that chance?

Lake Baikal is the oldest (about 25 million years) and deepest (nearly 6000 feet) lake in the world.  It is also, by volume, the largest lake in the world, holding about 20% of the fresh liquid water on the planet.  It is deep, is amazingly clear and is cold, cold.

Olkhon is the biggest island in Lake Baikal and, actually, the biggest “lake” island in the world. It is about 45 miles long and nine miles wide.  There is not a paved road on the island—most of them are what we might call jeep trails—especially after a rain.  It has no landline phones, but reasonable cell service and fairly reliable electricity.  There are five villages on the island and a year-round population of about 1,500, swelling to thousands during the peak of tourist season (we were a bit early for that).  We would overnight in Khuzir, the largest village, and explore the island’s steppe and boreal forest (taiga) landscapes, bays, capes, cliffs and sandy beaches from there.

There is a good variety of wildlife in the region, including elk and white-tailed deer, bears and unique critters like the nerpa—the Lake Baikal fresh water seal.  Several couple dozen fish species are found in the lake, including lenok and taimen—large Asian trout/salmon species—and grayling, pike and sturgeon.  We were most interested in the iconic food fish of the region—the Baikal omul, a type of whitefish—and did enjoy a rolled and filled omul filet in Irkutsk.

Long story short, we booked a couple days with an English-speaking guide and his Toyota Land Cruiser.  There are dozens of B & B options in Khuzir, and we picked Olkhonskaya Terema Guest House.  Once off the Trans-Siberian and settled into our hotel in Irkutsk, we piled into Ivan’s Land Cruiser and headed north.  250 km later, we were queued up for the hour or so wait for our ferry ride to the island.

Olkhon Island is an ancient shamanistic land of the Buryat People.  There are certain rituals associated with a safe and happy journey there.  Thus, we stopped at a hilltop shrine, made an offering, tipped a sip of a Buriatia balsamic liqueur, and headed to Khuzir.  At our B & B, we ate fresh bread, cereals, vegetables and grayling cakes—simple and tasty meals.

Our 20-mile trip to the northern tip of the island was a great adventure.  We picked up our entry permit for the journey (it was Pribaikalsky National Park after all).  As we left Khuzir, we passed a large colorful sign similar to what I might expect at the entrance to a national forest or park in the US.  It included, among others, a picture of a vehicle with a red line through it.  A hundred yards later was a propped open gate.  We, and several other touring SUVs, went on.

It had been raining for a couple days, and whether we were crossing the broad steppe grasslands or churning through the taiga forests, we were seriously four-wheeling.  On the grasslands, we might slip and slither our way down a slope, cross the creek and tear up the other side on one or another of ten recently cut tracks up the hill.  In the forest, it the road became too rutted or muddy, Ivan simply found another way through the trees.  Amidst my inner conflict about the road business, we stood in fog atop amazing cliffs, hiked steep rocky trails, looked across the biggest lake in the world and had a great cookout at the extreme end of the island.

I hoped to see wildlife.  We saw two ground squirrels, a large number of free-ranging Buryat cattle and a couple dozen Mongolian horses.  We saw a few birds and fishermen with omul.  Ivan said there were elk on the island, but the closest we got was a five point shed leaning up against an old house at one of the Soviet Era prison camps we drove through.  We talked about humans and their use of such beautiful country.

As we drove out past that sign, I turned to Ivan.  “You know, Ivan, in the US that symbol of a car with the line through it means ‘no vehicles’ and they would shoot us for tearing up the trails and making new ones.”  “Yeah, same here,” he smiled, “that’s why we pay for the ‘entry permits.’  And the gate is what they close if the parks guys need more money—then we have to pay again to get out.  We are doing better now but it is still Russia, you know.”

That’s what I know about Russian national parks.

Of Sockeye and Brandon; Of Yakamas and Salmon

Written by Jim Huckabay on August 9, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

During last Saturday’s classes of ’58 through ’62 Eastmont High reunion picnic on Lake Chelan—in the middle of a reverie on dozens of such picnics as a kid—Brandon Rogers called.

“Jim,” he said, “I’m fishing sockeye on Lake Wenatchee, and could stand some company tomorrow morning.  Wanna come fishing?”  Brandon is a sockeye nut.  He had just shifted his focus from chasing the sockeye returning to Baker Lake to the just opened fishery at Lake Wenatchee.  One of the things about sockeye fishing, of course, is that wherever you pursue them, the scenery is spectacular—and there are fish.  Arm twisted, I said, “Sure.”

By 5:08 Sunday morning, we were heading up the lake.  Within minutes, we had a nice salmon in the net.  Soon after that, we managed the first double of the times we’ve fished sockeye on Lake Wenatchee.  By 5:50, we were finished fishing for the day.  We cleaned our fish and settled the boat down, then drove down to the Squirrel Tree Restaurant to wait for the opening bell.

I’ve known Brandon, and wife Margo, since they were geography students at Central.  They were always (probably still are) about one breath away from bolting for a stream or a lake or the hills.  If they weren’t hitting books, they were studying afield; that put them in my “heroes” category.

Margo has developed a career helping scientists solve problems by understanding the spatial relationships of the issues which vex them.  Brandon is a fisheries guy, managing salmon habitat projects for the Yakama Nation.

Over breakfast, we caught up a bit on family, old professors, careers and retirement, and then returned to our long-standing conversation about fishing, salmon and the role of the Yakamas.

30 years ago, Chinook in the Yakima were gone.  In response to diminishing returns, the four tribes which carried out subsistence fishing in the Columbia System—led by the Yakamas—had already voluntarily quit fishing the spring and summer Chinook runs.  At the insistence of the tribes, commercial Columbia River fishing for springers and summer kings ended.  Biologists mostly agreed that heavy commercial fishing, poor irrigation water management in spawning areas, and the last of the Columbia Basin dams had pretty much wiped out the salmon stocks.

Around 1980, many biologists spoke out for shutting down all salmon fisheries to rebuild stocks, but large-scale ocean fishing and non-Indian fishing continued well into the ‘80s, as did year-round seasons for anadromous species on the Columbia.  The weight of the threatened runs overrode the political value of keeping the seasons, and changes were made.

During 1980, the state sued the Yakamas to stop all subsistence fishing not already voluntarily stopped.  The state used “conservation concerns” to support its case, and remaining tribal ceremonial and subsistence fishing was shut down for two years.

Then, the Klickitat irrigation district announced plans to essentially drain the river for its needs, thus wiping out another “usual and accustomed” Yakama fishery.  This time, the Yakamas used the “conservation concerns” argument to sue and stop the complete removal of the water.

During the same time period, Cle Elum dam was shut down to preserve irrigation water.  That closure virtually destroyed the redds (salmon spawning “nests”) in the Yakima, and killed any smolts (salmon young) which were trying to move down river.  Watching this was Bob Tuck, a Central grad and fisheries biologist for the Yakama Nation.  He argued for keeping the Cle Elum open to protect the redds and smolts, and closing off other dams which did not hover over critical salmon habitat.  In response, the state and feds refused to release water and withheld salmon eggs—future salmon—from the Indians.  The Yakamas put their treaty rights on the line.

Those treaty rights were upheld by the courts, all the way up.  Appropriate flows were kept in the streams and salmon eggs were shared.  The Indians committed to “gravel to gravel” management, protecting salmon through their complete life cycle.  Better management of impounded irrigation water proved more than sufficient.  Our salmon story changed.

The Yakamas= Cle Elum hatchery facility has returned spring Chinook salmon.  The Coho which were gone from the Yakima and extinct in the Snake River system are returning, along with populations in the Clearwater of Idaho.  The Yakama, Umatilla and Nez Perce work closely with state and feds and each other.

Sockeye salmon are coming home.  The offspring of the fish released in Lake Cle Elum in 2009 returned this summer, after four years in the ocean, to make more sockeye.  Other lakes will see them, too.

Together, irrigators, power districts, sport fishers and Indians are restoring this missing piece of the life web to our river basins.  There are still those who don=t like splitting the salmon harvest between Indians and sport fishers, but the bottom line is this: if the Yakamas hadn’t put their treaty rights on the line, we would have no anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin to share.

Scenery, sockeye and good conversation over breakfast in the hills; it was a great morning.