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The Incompleate Angler...

The Incompleate Angler...

Posted by Dr. Cleve Trimble, MD, FACS on Jan 24th 2019

Trout were never “native” to Nebraska. In the late 1880’s, a ‘Board of Fish Commissioners’-- precursor of today’s ‘agency-that-sells-permits’ -- directed several truckloads of trout (records are scant, and the species weren’t noted) to “Valentine, Cherry County”. Although the Schlagel, Minnechaduza, Boardman, Gordon, or Snake Creeks could have been the sites of release, these initial stockers were likely deposited in the Niobrara – far healthier in that era -- and left to migrate into its connecting tributaries. The Snake was subsequently stocked with rainbows (1932), brookies (1934), and browns (1956); its warmer, sandy water required that trout surviving these early seedings adapted to the cooler streamside seeps and springs. But upon Merritt’s completion in 1964, the downriver habitat improved considerably because the reservoir retained inflows of silty, warm waters from the upper Snake, Powderhorn, and Boardman that otherwise would have compromised the lower Snake, thus allowing the inherently pure, cool groundwater intrusions downstream from the dam to create “spring creek” conditions all the way to the Niobrara.

In the 1980’s, ‘Lake McConaughy’ rainbows -- a strain tolerant of warmer water – were introduced above the dam in hopes they would run upstream to spawn and then return to Merritt; in a few years, however, few were found in Merritt or its tributaries. Some may have come downstream in the dam’s effluent, and either they or the direct stockings into the lower Snake are ancestral to today’s rainbow population. Brookies never survived the stream’s episodic warmth, and today’s browns are residual from the stockings of the 1880s or 1956, likely both. 

That initial stocking of the late 1880s certainly included brown trout because a photo taken in 1952 – discovered in the local courthouse archives -- shows a rancher with a stringer of huge browns taken from the upstream Boardman. And because both rainbows and browns now reproduce naturally -- the fundamental characteristic of being a “wild” fish -- every trout presently abiding in the lower Snake has been spawned and developed here. This stream is an angling treasure.

A brown trout exceeding 20 pounds was once a denizen of the lower Snake, as was a rainbow exceeding 13 pounds. Although ‘catch-and-release’ with artificial flies is practiced on the ranch’s waters, neither of these state records were fly-caught or turned loosed: both were killed to hang on somebody’s wall, one as a plastic replica. The vanity photos of smug men holding these and other dead fish can be viewed on the web site of the ‘agency-that-sells-permits’.

A survey conducted upstream from the ranch a decade ago compared electroshock counts with creel counts (anglers in that reach didn’t necessarily release what they caught, and still don’t.) The overall population of rainbows greatly outnumbered that of browns, yet the percentage of browns in the stream was significantly higher than the percentage of browns actually caught when compared to the similar ratio for rainbows. This suggested that the browns’ century of adaptation has led to a remarkable wiliness; or, perhaps they simply feed primarily at night and thus avoided the daytime creel. Nonetheless, for this biological sustainability to ever be forfeited is compelling reason to rue any practices anywhere in the watershed that could compromise the fishery---ever having to restock this stream would be shameful testimony to its mismanagement. Wild brown trout are the ecologic ‘canary-in-the-mineshaft’ for the lower Snake River.

This coldwater segment from Merritt to the Niobrara is a year-around fishery due to continuously ‘open’ water. However, from November through June, once the reservoir is filled to capacity its inflows are released from near the dam’s base, causing turbid, vigorous downstream volumes which, when combined with cedar encroachment and deadfall, make wading perilous. Places are few to safely enter or exit the stream, and just getting to it can require a crawl through vegetative tangles. Its year-around fishability is thus limited to all except the inveterate or foolhardy---here, there is no trout ‘season’, just irregularly spaced and unpredictable intervals of semi-sensibility.

But from July through October the dam’s outflow is ceased as a result of the irrigation drawdown and subsequent refilling of the reservoir. The lower Snake is then fed solely by springs and seeps, becoming low, cool, and crystal-clear, which makes for remarkable dry-fly fishing. The terrestrials, crustaceans, and insect hatches are similar to most other western streams, and when this water is languid, presentation of a fly becomes sufficiently technical that any errancy puts nearby fish on lockdown. So it is best to work slowly upstream, honing in on slurps or swirls; and in the absence of a target, water likely to hold trout yields to sequential drifts from center to bank over lanes a foot apart. In this quiet stalking, crayfish scatter from one’s feet, and occasionally the inside of one’s waders become a bit damp when a bank beaver or river otter, casually swimming downstream, suddenly rounds a corner. They startle no less than we do.

The bank beyond the angler shows where the undercut created during high flows of the prior winter lies significantly above the minimal flow of present summer, vivid evidence of the river’s extremes of fluctuation. Absent the overhanging grasses that provide cover for fish, this present moment is one of extreme vulnerability in the stream’s life. The rainbow trout, soon to be released, was appreciative of only being exercised and admired; its existential risks lurk farther upstream.

The lower Snake’s fishery has been misleadingly characterized by superlatives such as ‘blue ribbon’, ‘gold medal’, or ‘world class’. At first encounter we are taken aback to find trout in a non-traditional environment, a low-altitude, flatland stream chilled mainly by aquifer, not snowmelt. A half-century earlier these fish were larger and more plentiful because they’d been unmolested, because getting to them was problematic. But when a few ranchers discovered that hefty trespass fees could be charged, and when creel-focused fishermen got wind of it, pressure on the fishery mounted. To ranchers it made sense to simply take the money because few cared about trout to begin with, and fishermen had been sneaking in anyway; so as long as payment was timely, individuals or clubs were allowed to concoct their own rules. To some urbanites, a batch of fish needed to be taken home to prove they had actually been on an adventure; but to the creatures of the canyon, the neighborliness had changed---a once-serene atmosphere had been altered.

Here the impact of man has been different than when the grand watersheds of the intermountain west were discovered. Unlike those big rivers, this small stream has no reserve, no margin. Its diminutive waters are fixed in place and amount, which means it’s not a ‘system’ but an easily overwhelmed waterway that has but a single bank side path within its narrow canyon. A dose of pollution at its headwater -- in whatever of many forms -- is quick to taint its entirety. Heading that list are a few men who would kill the last wild fish as thoughtlessly as those who would kill the last rhinoceros, if only to saw off its horn in pursuit of a fanciful erection. How tragic, that the biologic moment of some humans, happily embellished with money and firearms, is used to diminish the collective good of the planet. If I ever went gunning in Africa -- which I won’t, but if I did -- the only creatures I’d pursue with lethal intent would be poachers and bwanas.

All the while, efforts to prevent exploitation of the river have actually fueled the opportunism that abuses it. Too often a few self-styled ‘advocates’ are eager to build a list of good deeds for their obituary by touting open public access to an as-yet unspoiled place, failing to realize it has remained unspoiled because it didn’t have open public access. Their effort is more to create an appearance of ‘giving back’ to their community of residence, which is always somewhere other than Cherry County. Urban fishing clubs feign interest in the well-being of sand hills watersheds when what their membership truly wants is unfettered access; and the ‘agency-that-sells-permits’ panders to them by chiding the private stewardship that has intentionally kept that very agency at bay. Every trout stream in the state within their managerial purview is ‘put-and-take’, and that agency has long-viewed these now-wild trout as an anomaly it yearns to exploit.

Apart from this overview of the lower Snake fishery, any trailing commentary about my personal fishing practices requires an outright apology to Isaac Walton. I’m not a serious fisherman: I don’t tie flies; I seldom get up early; I have no rain gear or bug repellant; I keep no ‘log’. If examined by a purist I’d be found not of that ilk, and if by the standards of genuine trout bums I’m an imposter who’s out only in fair weather, only when the water is low, only with dry flies, and only with a companion. I’m such a slapdash angler I’ve never caught a fish that has taken me to the backing, even though I use a 3-weight rod. Friends ask “How’s fishing?” and I always reply “Great, come”, no matter whether true or not (‘fishing’ is always great, ‘catching’ always isn’t). To me, fishing is just a feeble excuse to be on the river, to study the complex water I love but don’t understand, like former spouses. So I have rod in hand infrequently, preferring to host and watch, vicariously reveling in each of my guest’s hook-ups. When I do join in, though, the hatch somehow matches whatever fly is tied to tippet, an added clue we’re in what’s left of paradise.

One other confession: despite my reverence for the art and ethic of fly-fishing, and devotion to the biota, I’ve allowed trout to be taken with a worm. Yes, a worm. But these anglers were children, kids who needed to have the joy of catching their first fish, feeling it fight back, seeing its beauty, and touching its icky slime well before they were required to learn about taxonomy and knots and line sizes and drag, things that would quickly quell their interest were they required to start with a fly rod. There have to be building blocks to teach an ethic, and the initial relationship has to be between a kid and a fish, not a kid and frustration. A parent who fly-fishes needs to have the child want to come along, and after that first tug and wiggle the youngster becomes attentive. Next, they see the fish as a friend they don’t want to harm, that they want to see again, that they’d never eat. Then the dialogue can begin about a better way, but it has to begin with that first fish. Sacrificing a few trout to begin the journey to genuine sportsmanship saves a whole lot more in the long run. Yeah, I’ve allowed worm-fishing. Enough about that.

Perhaps the summary is better left to someone whose piscatorial credentials are authentic. An old friend, now gone, was Charlie Kroll whose colorful autobiography Pools of Memory --- The Sixty Year Odyssey of a Devoted Fly Fisherman describes his pursuit of wild trout the world over. In a chapter entitled “Pools of Oz”” he likens the lower Snake to Dorothy’s adventure, being plucked by a tornado from the featureless plain and dropped into a place of wonder and mystery. In a chapter that follows, Charlie describes his three favorite fishing spots in the American West, two being private tributaries of the Big Hole in Montana, and “the third is the lovely little river in Nebraska, whose entire length is, again, through private ranchlands and thus largely unknown. It yields better fishing for large rainbows and browns than any other western river I know of, including such giants as the Yellowstone, Madison, Henry’s Fork and the Missouri.” High praise, indeed, from a credible, seasoned observer---and perhaps the only time that exceptional wild trout fishing and ‘Nebraska’ have appeared in the same paragraph.

Sorry, Charlie, but I feel no contrition for being thankful that your book wasn’t a best-seller.