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December 4, 2013

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December 2, 2013

Thanks and Good Luck

When my wife Catherine and I look for places to hunt, “off the beaten path” is near the top of our criteria list.  Public lands where we can backpack and not see another human soul for days are a magnet to us.  Recently we found ourselves hunting an area of National Forest which contained both the mule deer we were seeking and a popular hiking trail to a spectacularly scenic waterfall. We decided that we’d willingly share the canyon with others for the opportunity at one of the big bucks we knew were there.

Shortly after sunrise we were sitting at a great glassing spot near the trail when we heard human voices approaching. As the hikers came into view we saw a large group wearing the trendy clothing of the young and environmentally conscious; Catherine and I were in full camo with weapons in hand. I saw my wife inwardly brace for the anticipated disapproving stares and “Bambi-killer” accusations.

We made a point to be friendly, commenting on the beautiful day.  After some small talk on the trail conditions, I heard the inevitable question, “Are you guys hunting?”

“Yes,” I answered as Catherine held her breath, “We are looking for deer.”

“Well,” said the apparent leader of the group, “thanks and good luck.”  Then they headed off down the trail.

That was it – thanks and good luck. Could the complex interconnectedness between hunters and anglers, and the communities in which they pursue their game be summed up in that simple sentence? I’d like to think the young hiker we met that day on the trail understood the essential role that hunting plays in conservation and local economies, and that he was directing his thanks to us for that.

While hikers, mountain bikers and other nature lovers are able to enjoy that spectacular canyon and the wildlife it contained for free, we spent hundreds of dollars on the tags and licenses required for the opportunity to hunt there. Our money goes directly to the state game and fish agency and pays for a wide spectrum of conservation programs.

Sportsmen’s dollars are the most significant contributor to state fish and wildlife agencies and support everything from habitat improvements and fish stocking to scholastic educational programs and disease research. Through their financial contributions, hunters and anglers even support non-game and endangered species management efforts.

However, when we look at the big picture of hunting’s impact from an economic perspective, it’s not just about what hunters spend on permits. It’s also about the local motel that relies on pheasant hunters to extend their season.  It’s about the mom-and-pop coffee shop that sees a significant proportion of their business in the early morning hours as deer hunters head out. It’s about the jeweler who specializes in elk ivory, the taxidermist putting his kids through college and the second generation fly-shop owner carrying on the family business. It’s about the rancher who receives compensation when he loses livestock to predators and the countless other ways in which sportsmen’s dollars directly and indirectly bolster local economies.

In my home state of Wyoming, the hunting and fishing industry contributes $1.1 billion annually. That’s second only to oil and gas, and is no small number when you consider there are only about a half a million people in the entire state. In a state like Wyoming that is dependent upon the oil and gas industry, our abundant wildlife helps to provide a diversified economy that is able to withstand the booms and busts associated with natural resource extraction.

Most people do not realize that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has not had a hunting license and tag fee increase since 2008, even though the cumulative inflation rate since then has been 8.5 percent. They have also been required to spend more of their existing budget on legislatively mandated costs, such as health care for employees. The 2013 Legislature rejected the agency’s request for a modest fee increase, forcing a multi-million dollar budget cut. This has hit Wyoming families and the small businesses that depend on our outdoor industry the hardest.  It’s not hard to see how these severe funding cuts limit the state’s ability to actively manage fish and wildlife, which in turn reduces the number of visitors to the Cowboy State whether they are hunters, anglers, birdwatchers, nature photographers or simply conservationists.

The good news is that we have the opportunity to restore what has been lost, and with it the jobs and economic strength Wyoming derives from our outdoor industry.  Two bills have been introduced by the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee of the Legislature to provide a modest fee increase that keeps pace with inflation, and to share some of the financial burden of the Game and Fish Department with the non-consumptive user.

Both bills will need to pass the budget session in February, and I encourage every Wyomingite to contact their legislator and express your support for the bills. But it’s not only locals who hunt and fish in Wyoming – sportsmen come here from across America to experience our world-class hunting and angling opportunities. Every sportsman who has ever even dreamed of chasing Wyoming elk, antelope, bighorn sheep or cutthroat trout has a stake in how these resources are managed – contact the Wyoming state legislature today and let them know you are a sportsman who supports the bills.

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November 30, 2013

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November 22, 2013

The Many Fish of Louisiana

Photo courtesy of freepresshouston.com

Jeff Bruhl is a man who lives on the right side of life. In addition to his full-time job as a pharmacist, he is an avid tournament bass angler and manager of the popular marshbass.com website. Beyond all that, he never misses the chance to point his lightning-quick bass boat toward any number of bayous, lakes and bays across southeast Louisiana in search of hard-fighting and tasty speckled trout.

If he hasn’t yet realized it, his mantra has to be “que sera, sera,” an idiom to the Spanish loosely translated to “Whatever will be, will be.”

That’s why it was unusual to hear him mutter, albeit under his breath and all the time holding a fishing rod, some not-so-nice words after fighting 25-30 knot winds for five hours on a late-October journey into the marshes east of New Orleans.

Fishing is more than Bruhl’s pastime. More like a passion, maybe something approaching addiction, but enough was enough in the Delacroix marshes that morning.

Five minutes later, a solid seven-pound redfish filed off his rough edges brought on by fighting wind, grassbeds and trolling motor.

And that got me wondering just how many fishing folks around our country would react to this same trip.

We launched from Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix, an outpost in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. Not too many years ago, it was a commercial fishing hamlet whose residents looked at recreational fishermen like most react to a painful corn on our little toe – you know, it’s bearable, but only slightly so, and it would be so much better if it went away.

During the mid-1990s, Louisiana’s fight over banning gill nets brought confrontation between these two fishery user groups.

That’s not the case today, and Bruhl was out that windswept morning on a quest to take a Delacroix “slam.”

The “slam” starts out with the basic three species – largemouth bass, speckled trout and redfish  and we chuckled about the mix of cultures that would label these fish “green trout, spotted seatrout and red drum.”

It took just minutes to locate the bass. A pound-and-a-half largemouth inhaled a locally made Creole shrimp-colored Matrix Shad, one of the dozens of soft-plastic minnow imitations available in south Louisiana.

It proved, at least to me, that bass in the marshes will eat shrimp, something that launches fishermen into provocative discussions about a largemouth’s diet. (My answer to the guys who believe bass dine only on finfish is that I would much rather eat a shrimp than a shad, so why wouldn’t a bass have that same preference?)

A speckled trout hit the same bait in the same canal five minutes later and an undersized redfish, maybe 14 inches long, grabbed it, too.

That was the “slam.”

But there’s more to Delacroix, like the “super slam” and the “grand slam” on the same trip by catching a black drum or a flounder to get to the “super” and both to get to the “grand.”

It’s been done, not just in Delacroix, but in the nearby Biloxi Marsh as well as the marsh-draining bayous on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, along and off the Mississippi River between Fort Jackson and the oft-mentioned fishing mecca of Venice.

One day, not too many years ago, on a trip with another fishing addict named Gary Twigg, we got the grand slam and more near Fort Jackson.

Fishing the rocks lining the Father of Our Waters – we were taught at an early age that was the translation of the Native Americans’ “Mississippi” – we put eight different species in the boat on a single, middle-of-the-fall adventure.

We hit the previously noted five species and added sea-run striped bass, white bass and spotted bass.

Maybe that’s why we Louisiana folks celebrate Thanksgiving with dishes like oyster dressing, crab- and shrimp-stuffed potatoes, and redfish courtbouillion. Yes, we’ll have turkey too, fried of course.

And the common bond that links all south Louisiana fishermen is that we’re thankful that our marshes are a year-round provider of fish and other seafood for our holiday tables, even on the days when winds howl and whitecaps cover our shallow, inland lakes.

And that’s something millions of our angling brothers and sisters don’t have.

 

Happy Thanksgiving.

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November 21, 2013

The Great Conspiracy

In last week’s blog, as well as previous blogs, I have mentioned “The Great Conspiracy.” What finally dawned on me is that I have not really addressed what I am referring to in any of these blogs. I have done so in other writings.

We’ll have to start back a few years according to the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” a term popularized by then Vice President Spiro Agnew but actually written by New York Times columnist William Safire. According to the proponents of this conspiracy theory before President Obama was elected, the environmental community led by the Pew Environment Group, the Environmental Defense Fund and maybe the Walton Foundation was infiltrating the fisheries management system and positioning the likes of Dr. Jane Lubchenco to become the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Somehow they knew the outcome of the election, but we’ll put that aside. Pretty amazing stuff! They couldn’t have simply guessed right, it had to be some sort of backroom deal. Actually, isn’t there a lot of that in politics no matter which side one is on. Yeah!!!

Well, OK, I’m getting a little sarcastic, but it does take a fairly vivid imagination to pull all the pieces of The Great Conspiracy together. So the environmental nongovernmental organizations ended up on the right side of the election, which should not be too surprising to anyone, as they tend to be more liberal than conservative in politics. According to the believers, Phase 2 was put in place with the confirmation of Dr. Lubchenco, and now EDF was running all the Regional Fishery Management Council activities. I must have been on an anomalous RFMC.

Yes, we had a council member who worked for EDF, but I’d be hard pressed to find a major or, for that matter, minor, council action that had EDF’s fingerprints all over it. Too bad, actually, as some of the ideas proposed by the council member made a lot of management sense. Oh, yeah, catch shares. Well, we have to rewind the clock on that one as well.

The New England Fishery Management Council began the catch shares discussion in 2001, well before any NGO infiltration, and the rollout of more extensive catch shares was just an extension of that discussion. What happened at the NEFMC may not be typical of what happened at other councils, but I am familiar enough with other council actions to know that the NGO community was not railroading a lot of new council actions through the system. Was the environmental community part of the council process? Yes, of course it was. It is one of the three constituent groups represented on the council.

If we look at inside the Beltway (Washington, D.C., for those not familiar with the world of politics), the story is different. The NGO community has been very active in the political process. In fact, it has been extremely influential in the legislative process. Environmental NGOs were able to get much of what they wanted in the Magnuson- Stevens Act reauthorization passed in 2006 that included annual catch limits, accountability measures and the continuation of mandated rebuilding periods.

This is not meant to be a debate about the merits of those measures but a discussion about our political system. Let’s face it: the environmental NGO community has deep pockets to use in pushing for the issues it wants enacted. From my standpoint the community has been very effective at using that influence to get what it believes in. It also has been effective at working collaboratively. Is that a conspiracy? If it is then organizations like the National Rifle Association, the farm lobby and for that matter all of K Street are involved in serial conspiracies. I am not saying that I agree with all the outcomes. Unless we change the system, the environmental community is simply using it to the best advantage. Money talks and BS walks. Do we need to change the system? I tend to think so, but that is a discussion for another time.

I always have wondered what the response would be from those who think that the environmental NGO community is hell bent on eliminating extractive uses of the ocean environment, if these NGOs used all their clout to do what the conspiracy theorists want. Would there still be a hue and cry of conspiracy then? I doubt it. Folks would happily say that is just the way the system works.

Call me crazy, oblivious or naïve. I do not believe that all environmental NGOs are out to end fishing. Nor do I support all of their proposed measures. I do believe that most are interested in having sustainable resources for the future. They have some very substantial economic clout and are not afraid to use it. What the recreational fishing industry should do is to find a way to partner with them … or would some see that as conspiratorial?

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CHEERS TO CONSERVATION

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