Posts Tagged ‘fishing’

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling

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Tuesday, October 9th, 2012
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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

Fishing for the Arctic Grayling by Lisa Densmore

Location: Delta Clearwater River, Alaska

As I savored another fork-full of the succulent silver salmon at the Black Rapids Lodge south of Delta Junction, Alaska, the innkeepers, Michael and Annie Hopper, nodded knowingly as I recalled my first encounter the day before with a different salmonid, native Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus).

“Did you taste any of the grayling you caught?” they asked.

“No. Reiny, my guide, mentioned possibly keeping a small one as an appetizer while we camped, but he never did,” I said. Reinhard Neuhauser, an Austrian racer who came to the University of Alaska to compete then never left, revered Arctic grayling for their look and their fight. He fished only with barbless hooks and immediately released whatever anyone on his raft landed.

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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website calls Arctic grayling, “one of the most beautiful freshwater fishes of Alaska.” While grayling are certainly intriguing for their oversized dorsal fin, I personally find spawning brook trout the Miss America of the inland piscine world. It’s hard to peg “most beautiful” on a species that has such a wide range of colorations from location to location. The ones in the Delta Clearwater River were silver and gold with pale speckles between the golden strips on their telltale “sail”, but others might have red, aqua and purple markings on their dorsal fin, and their sides might be black, silver, gold or blue. They might have black freckles or not on their sides and head, but they all have that huge dorsal fin.

I wondered why Artic grayling developed such a large appendage on their back compared to other salmonids, so I took a number of underwater shots of this North American native, so rare in the Lower 48 yet so popular among anglers in Alaska. It appears that grayling use their dorsal fin as a stabilizer which they can raise or contract as needed. The fin also flexes with the current, rarely completely straight up, but that’s the limit of my observations. The dorsal fin on other coldwater fish species also acts as a stabilizer but they aren’t nearly as large or showy. Do you know why an Artic grayling’s dorsal fin is so large?

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Arctic Grayling © Lisa Densmore

Wyoming’s Cutest Cutthroat

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Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Wyoming’s Cutest Cutthroat by Jack Ballard

Cutthroat Trout © Jack Ballard

One of the few native trout species to the northern Rocky Mountains, Cutthroat Trout are named for two elongated patches of skin on either side of their lower jaw colored in red or orange. Four sub-species of cutthroats range across Wyoming: Yellowstone, Bonneville, Colorado River and Snake River. The various sub-species evolved in particular watersheds across the state. Anglers who catch a specimen of each is eligible to receive a certificate from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in commemoration of their “Cutt-Slam.”

My oldest son completed his cutt-slam as a 10 year-old. Although I’ve caught all four sub-species, my Colorado River specimen came from Colorado, not Wyoming. Along the way, I’ve paid due diligence to the natural history and genetic development of the different variations in Cutthroat Trout. These analyses have led to one scientific conclusion. Snake River cutthroats are the cutest.

Also known as “Fine-Spotted Cutthroats” or “Snake River Fine-Spotted Cutthroats” this sub-species differs from the others in appearance due to a profusion of tiny dark dots covering much of their body. Other sub-species of cutthroats exhibit just a smattering of larger black spots that aren’t nearly so cute.

Besides being cuter, Snake River Cutthroats are unique for a couple of other reasons. They’re much more inclined toward vertebrate prey (mainly other fishes) than other sub-species. Although they share portions of the Snake River drainage of Wyoming and Idaho with Yellowstone Cutthroats, they don’t frequently hybridize.

It’s always an angler’s treat to catch a native Cutthroat in its historic environment. Such a feat is doubly rewarding when it involves the Snake River sub-species, the cutest cutthroat.

Out-Fished

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Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Osprey by Jack Ballard

While futilely attempting to tempt a trout from the Clark Fork River, I notice an osprey winging upstream with a foot-long fish secured in its talons. Why, on this lovely spring morning, can a bird catch a trout with its bare hands and I’m unable to get a bite with my several hundred dollars of fly equipment? As it turns out, when it comes to fishing tackle the bird is better equipped than the angler.

From the tips of their talons to the point of their beaks, ospreys are uniquely equipped for fishing. Their feathers are dense and oily, allowing them to shed water like water-dwelling birds such as ducks and geese. Compared to other raptors, their legs are long, which facilitates snatching fish from near the surface of a lake or stream without become completely submerged. However, unlike bald eagles whose fishing repertoire consists primarily of plucking fish from the surface of the water, ospreys may become fully submerged when diving feet-first in pursuit of a fish. When diving, valves on the nostrils of ospreys seal to prevent them from breathing water. The opposable third toe of an osprey aids them in grasping wriggling fish, as do tiny spines on the bottoms of their feet known as spicules.

A host of adaptations equip ospreys for fishing, but even so, successful predation per attempt ranges from 25 to 75%. The depth at which their prey is swimming and surface conditions affect osprey’s efficiency. Deeper dives in choppy water result in fewer fish. Individual ability also varies from bird to bird. Researchers have found that some ospreys routinely exhibit higher success rates per predation attempt than others. When transporting prey, ospreys learn quickly that it’s easier to fly with the snout of the fish forward and almost invariably orient their burden in this direction.

As the bird wings out of sight beyond a curtain of cottonwood trees, I’m a little jealous. Maybe a 25% catch rate is on the low end for an osprey. But it sure beats getting skunked.

Too Warm, Too Soon

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Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Brown Trout by Jack Ballard

By now the record-breaking warm temperatures of March is old news. By March 22 over 6,000 record highs were toppled across the United States for the month, 710 falling in a single day. Here in the northern Rockies we didn’t see quite as dramatically hot temperatures as in the Midwest or the East. Nonetheless, daytime high temperatures ranged from 10 to 20 degrees higher than average for March.

Golfers, anglers, joggers and tennis players are loving it. Evidently migrating birds are too. By early March I’d spotted my first bluebirds and meadowlarks. Red-winged Blackbirds came even earlier.

Red-winged Blackbird, adult male© Greg Lasley/VIREO

Those birds, like humans, may be living with a false sense of security. A quick look at record low temperatures for my home town of Red Lodge, Montana, reveals it can still plunge below zero (F) well into April. Such a devastating cold snap could have dire consequences for small songbirds and the budding trees whose sap is already running freely.

But thus far, the most troubling aspect of the unseasonably warm temperatures involves the snowpack. With nights barely reaching freezing or not creating frost at all, the snow banks around town have all but disappeared. The mountain snowpack is diminishing as well, something that generally doesn’t occur for another couple of months. If the snow goes early, mid to late summer may see little water in the creeks and rivers. The rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout of Montana’s rivers are particularly vulnerable to low water. Less water in the streambed means what’s left is warmer. In years of low flow, the water can become so warm as to become lethal to trout.

In reality, it’s too early to worry. April and May can bring substantial snow to the high country. Everything might turn out fine, but I’m guessing the trout have their fins crossed.

Bald Eagle

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Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Bald Eagle by Lisa Densmore

Location: Saranac River, New York and Bighorn River, Montana

Two summers ago, while paddling a canoe down the Saranac River in the Adirondack Park, I glided under a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in a tall oak tree by the riverbank. I was so excited! I grabbed my camera and began snapping pictures. It was my first chance to photograph this iconic symbol of the United States. A Bald Eagle was a rare sighting in the Adirondacks when I was a kid in the 1960’s, and though population levels are increasing, it is still a treat to see one there.

My partner, a Montanan, in the back of the canoe was less enthusiastic. He had just hooked a five-pound bass, and I was shirking my paddling duties in favor of what he termed a flying rat. In his home state, Bald Eagles were common scavengers. Now that I live in Montana too, I understand his side of the story. Bald Eagles are more common here, though they are more apt to eat a rodent than to act like one. In fact, these bold-looking symbols of freedom are really regal scavengers. They commonly survey riverbanks and open fields for their next meal, which might be fresh fish or a field mouse they’ve nabbed in their impressive talons, but they’re just as likely to fend off the Ravens from a road-kill carcass. If I were a Raven, I wouldn’t mess with a Bald Eagle. Its hooked yellow beak is specially designed for ripping into flesh.

Bald Eagle adult and nestlings © John Hunter/VIREO

Last week, while fly-fishing on the Bighorn River, I spied two Bald Eagles in a cottonwood tree. The pair was content to watch me cast a line for over two hours. Fishless, I eventually hiked back to my car, but I wondered whether they would have swooped down for a closer look if I had pulled a feisty trout from the chilly water.

Great Blue Heron

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Friday, December 9th, 2011

Great Blue Heron

Location: Ausable River, Adirondacks, New York

As a wildlife photographer, I spend a lot of time hoping to catch a frame or two of an interesting bird every time I’m in the field, even if I’m not specifically on an assignment to photograph birds. When I took this photo I was supposed to be catching trout on the Ausable River near Lake Placid, New York. The fishing was slow for me, but not for this great blue heron (Ardea herodias) which I spotted on a log on the opposite shore. He stood motionless, peering into the water. Several minutes clicked by, then suddenly he lunged into the lightly churning river. When he straightened up, he held a 5-inch rainbow trout in his bill. Another second later, the entire wiggling small-fry disappeared down his long graceful neck. The process repeated itself three times before Mr. Heron spread his massive 70-inch wings and glided away down the river.

The largest wading bird in the heron family, standing up to 55 inches from head to tail atop spindly long legs, I’ve always had a fascination with great blue herons. I’ve seen them in the Rockies, the Adirondacks and in Florida along both freshwater and saltwater shorelines. A subspecies (A. herodias occidentalis) in South Florida wade through the water in graceful all-white plumage, though the more common great blues are not exactly blue. Their flight feathers are slate-gray. They have a rust-gray neck and nearly white face with a black stripe from the eye to the back of the head.

For such large birds, great blue herons sure blend into their surroundings. I’ve had a couple take off only a few feet from me, causing a near heart attack. I’ve reciprocated as well. Several years ago, I was sitting in a blind on the Mississquoi River in Vermont when a great blue heron almost landed on my head. I’ve had friends complain that a heron moved into their neighborhood and cleaned all the fish out of their pond. Perhaps this one had harvested all of the trout in the Ausable River, or maybe I was standing on the wrong side of the stream.

Black Hills

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Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

What’s there to do in the Black Hills? Pose that question to most Americans and you’ll get one of two answers. Many will tout the merits of Mount Rushmore, a big cliff on a mountain where likenesses of four U. S. presidents were carved into the stone with dynamite and jackhammers. Others will likely drown your ear with memorable tales of Sturgis. Sturgis is home to what I believe is the largest motorcycle rally in the country, a place where upstanding dentists from Seattle trailer a pair of clattering, obnoxious Harley-Davidsons to South Dakota, rent an expensive motel room, then ride around acting equally obnoxious. If you love being annoyed by excessive noise from internal (infernal?) combustion engines, Sturgis is for you.

But these human-contrived attractions don’t tell the whole story of the Black Hills. Get beyond Sturgis and Rushmore, and there’s an incredible array of natural wonders to lure lovers of nature and solitude to the Black Hills. Custer State Park abounds with wildlife. Elk, mule deer, antelope, bison, and whitetail deer roam the among the park’s pines and prairie. Hiking trails and a handful of crystalline lakes are also found in the Black Hills.

I love the wildlife, but I’ve also recently discovered another diversion in this isolated range in western South Dakota. The trout fishing is outstanding. A couple weeks ago, my son and I idled away two days fishing Rapid Creek and Spearfish Creek. Our efforts were rewarded with numerous rainbow and brown trout, many caught in an unspoiled forest setting.

Visiting or passing through the Black Hills? There’s more than Rushmore and Sturgis. It’s a great place to get back to nature. It’s too bad more folks don’t realize it.

Brook Trout

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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Location: Horse Creek, WY
My normal fishing waters are in the mountain streams of the Vermont, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks where a big Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) measures 12 inches and weighs a pound. For the record, I’ve never caught one that big, so when I hooked the 18-incher in one of the ponds at the Horse Creek Cattle Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming, I would have fallen out of my boat if I hadn’t been in one of those super stable Hobie kayaks. The fish was so strong it towed my boat through the water as I concentrated on preventing it from snapping off the delicate tippet. Fifteen minutes later, when I finally landed the fish, I was ecstatic when I saw how big it was and how vibrant the color.
I can always tell identify a brook trout by the white line on the leading edge of its lower fins, which, on this goliath, was nearly a quarter-inch wide. Just past the spawn, the ruby red in this hefty square-tail’s sides and fins glowed like a flaming band on the horizon just before the sun sets. Its spots looked like mini multi-hued bull’s eye. And the worm-like squiggles on its back were mustard yellow rather than the light pastel typical of the smaller stocked brookies that I usually catch.
Brook trout are not true trout. They are part of the char family. They like the coldest clearest water, which is why I found this one at 7,200 feet above sea level in a pond that’s ice-free for three months per year. Brook trout cannot survive when water temperatures get much higher than 60 degrees. No danger of that here.
The world record brook trout weighed almost 15 pounds. This one was only a third that size, but it was a personal record. As I released it back into the chilly depths, I knew I would remember this fierce fighting fish forever.

Carp: Worth Carping About?

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Thursday, January 27th, 2011

We walk along the water’s edge at a lake near Boulder, Colorado. With each laborious step, my boot presses into a slick sheen of monochrome muck. As I lift my foot for the next stride, a glistening glob of gray goop clings to the sole. It smells of sewage.

Just ahead, my companion has spotted a pod of fish. Trout can’t survive in the murky, heated water of this urban reservoir, but it’s ideal habitat for carp. In fact, they’re at least partially responsible for its muddy character. Carp feed by rooting around on the bottom. The action of their snouts and the wallowing of their bodies stir up dirt and debris, clouding the water and covering rocks and plants. Silt stirred by carp can smother the eggs of other fish and contaminate habitat for a host of aquatic insects.

Transported to the United States in the mid 19th century, carp are native to Asia. They grow quickly and tolerate high water temperatures. Female carp in their prime may produce as many as two million eggs. It’s little wonder they often crowd out native minnows and other species of fish. Considered a delicacy in parts of Europe, carp were released in American waters in hopes they would become a commercially valuable resource. But few people like to eat them.

My guide has hooked a carp with his fly. The brute runs toward the middle of the lake, its stout, strong body bending his rod in a severe arc. He smiles widely. Though a master hunter of trout, he’s a carp dude, one of a small cadre of anglers who, despite their academic disdain for this interloping transplant, relish the challenge of fooling a crafty carp with a fly and bringing its bulk to hand.

Like many non-native species with a deleterious impact on native life, carp are here to stay. The decision to scatter them, willy-nilly across North America waters, can’t be undone. They can be managed, but not eradicated, cussed but not conquered. Carp all you want, but we’re stuck with carp.

Fish in Fall Colors

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Thursday, September 30th, 2010

It was a lovely afternoon to drive through the hills, dressed in their finest autumnal colors, beneath the brilliant sun and indigo skies of Indian summer. The road I had chosen paralleled a small stream, bounded on either side by browning grass and golden willows so lush one often could not see the water. Near its end, as it slowly and sinuously poured itself into a reservoir, I noticed people wandering its banks, occasionally pointing excitedly down at the stream and calling to each other. I ignored them. My eyes were only for the large flocks of birds feeding in the bay created by the stream’s inlet. But as I wandered its banks toward the lake, binoculars around my neck, spotting scope over my shoulder, eyes on the birds, I could not help but notice an occasional flash of scarlet out of the corner of my eye. Finally yielding, I looked. Kokanee salmon were racing up and down the stream at my side, as brilliantly red as the oak in the surrounding, sheltering hills.

The kokanee are land-locked Sockeye salmon. In most cases they are an introduced (nonnative) specie, living in the cold water of a few deep lakes scattered across the western states. Like their oceanic kin most reach maturity in three or four years. They undergo a color change, from silver fish to creatures with scarlet bodies and green heads. Males also develop humped backs and fearsome dagger-like teeth.

As adults they spawn. Some kokanee will breed in the shallows along the lake shores but many return to the rivers and streams of their parents, their flowing hydrological heritage. A female prepares a bed in the stream bottom by scouring it with her tail as a male actively and aggressively patrols the area, protecting it simultaneously from intruders and other potential suitors.

And then they die. Here and there on the stream bottom I saw the casualties of this final creative act, like fallen leaves. The young will hatch in a month or so, assuming the shallow water does not first freeze. While their parents will not be present to protect or nurture them, they will give their young a final gift. As the newly hatched fry make their way to the lake their first meals will be of zooplankton, many of which will have fed on the remains of the recently deceased. Even in death, the kokanee provide life for their children.