April 26, 2023

Trekking for Pumpkin Char Above the Arctic Circle

Fly fishing for the world’s most colorful salmonid along Alaska’s famed Haul Road

Thick mud flew from the truck tires and rattled against the wheel wells as I drove up northern Alaska’s vaunted Dalton Highway. Dirt-covered semi-trucks whooshed past in the opposite direction, hauling fuel tanks and heavy equipment. Other than industrial traffic, few people traveled the Haul Road. Fairbanks had just received its first snowfall of the season, and all my fellow Alaskans were rushing to complete autumn chores rather than heading out for ill-advised outdoor excursions.

The copilot on this adventure, my three-year-old black lab Dolly (named after the fish, not the singer) stared intently out the passenger window, looking for roadside grouse. Dolly and I were headed north towards the North Slope, a tundra plain extending from the northern foothills of the Brooks Range to the barren Beaufort Sea coast. The objective of the trip was to hike across the tundra to fish a pothole lake that contained wild Arctic char.

Road mileage on the Dalton Highway.
Going the Distance

October is not considered an ideal time to travel the Haul Road looking for fish to catch. Typically, snow already blankets the ground, lakes and rivers are partially frozen, and shorter daylight hours mean less time hiking and fishing. However, I was determined to catch my first wild Arctic char on a fly rod, and the North Slope was the place to do it because of the limited geographic range in Alaska where these fish are found.

We worked our way north from Fairbanks along over 400 miles of muddy, slushy road, crossing the Yukon River, passing the Arctic Circle, and stopping briefly at the Coldfoot truck stop for overpriced fuel and coffee. We then entered the foothills of the Brooks Range, and mud turned to slush and ice. Gray, angular mountains in Gates of the Arctic National Park could be seen on our left, while peaks in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were visible on our right. Slowly ascending Atigun Pass, infamous for poor weather and slippery conditions, we crossed the Arctic Divide and entered winter. Several inches of snow covered the gray shale slopes and tundra foothills north of the range. Lines of caribou stood out across the snowy landscape, some even ambling across the road in front of us.

Driving through the Galbraith Lake area, which includes lakes that hold Arctic char, I thought about the many pressures facing these fish, and how to balance the priorities of competing user groups on these public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is currently determining the future management of 13 million acres of public lands and waters in this region. As part of the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan, hunters and anglers have an opportunity to ensure that key species like Arctic char, Dall Sheep, and caribou receive adequate habitat safeguards so future generations may continue to enjoy the same hunting and fishing traditions.

Not long after passing through the Galbraith Lake area, we reached our hopping-off point where we would begin our hike.

When selecting a lake to fish, the options overwhelmed me, but I was able to rely on a skill I learned through my job as a fisheries biologist: delving through data. Luckily, if you know where to look, historic scientific reports can give you some starting points. Armed with closely-guarded GPS coordinates, I believed I had found what I was seeking.

Loading up my pack, I started hiking out across the snowy tundra. Dolly raced back and forth over the frozen grass tussocks, not realizing we had several miles to travel. We soon left the sights and sounds of the road behind. A curious band of cow and calf caribou trotted towards us, getting within 200 yards before noticing Dolly’s wolf-like shape and beating a hasty retreat. After hours and miles of hiking, we reached our lake and set up camp. Its unfrozen waters gleamed like a chunk of obsidian framed in the ivory snow.

Dolly the dog surveying the lake.
Iced Guides and Bunny Leeches

The next morning broke foggy and cold. We stayed in the tent until 10am, when the sun started peeping through the mist and the air temperature rose. Because I didn’t want to leave Dolly behind, I decided to fish from shore and work my way around the lake rather than troll in the packraft. The lake surface was calm and the water clear.

After about a mile circumventing the shoreline, I noticed the gravel shallows transitioned into a rocky dropoff. I cast out into the deep water, pausing every fifth retrieve to break ice out of the rod guides. I was fishing with a weighted black leech, suggested by a friend. Dolly was playing along the shoreline ahead, and we were both startled by a loud swirl about 50 feet down the bank. I caught a glimpse of two yellowish shapes cutting through the shallows to deeper water. We had found the char.

Arctic char are autumn-spawning fish, and like many salmonids, they exhibit several physical changes during their spawning period. These typically include a shift to brighter colors for both sexes and the development of a hooked jaw, or kype, in males. In the case of Arctic char, particularly those of Alaska’s North Slope, males can adopt an otherworldly orange or yellow color that undoubtedly wins them the title of most colorful salmonid. I had seen pictures of char in that sort of regalia, and I was after one of these orange “pumpkins.”

Finally seeing these fish brought on buck fever, and it took me what seemed like an eternity to break ice off my guides and sling an inelegant cast towards the area where the char had disappeared. I wasn’t sure what to expect—perhaps they were spooked and would not now bite?  I didn’t have to worry. As I stripped the leech out of the deep and up into the rocky shallows, a yellow submarine was in pursuit.

I saw the flash of a white mouth open but set the hook too early. Cursing at myself, I calmed my nerves and cast to the waiting char hovering by the dropoff. Without reserve, the smaller, drabber female grabbed the leech and I set the hook. After a short but active fight, I brought her in to the rocky shore and let her rest in the shallows while I set up my camera for a self-portrait. Dolly came up and sniffed at the fish, excited by the sudden activity. I lifted the char out of the water for the photo, its bright red belly gleaming like a ruby. I placed it back in, flipped the hook out of its mouth, and it slowly finned its way out into the deep.

My hands ached from the cold water, and I warmed them on my bare neck to regain function. After allowing myself a moment of celebration, I cast the leech back out in hopes that the more brightly-colored fish would return. And here he came, chasing the fly up to the shallow shelf. But he would not strike, only follow. This repeated a couple more times until the fish grew bored and dissolved back into deeper water. Disheartened, I kept moving along the bank, hoping to find more fish.

The author with a smaller female sporting a ruby red belly.


After another half hour of fruitless casting, I decided to double back to where I’d had action. I thought about another friend who had caught North Slope char on silvery, brightly colored spoons, and this inspired me to try a different fly. With faint hope, I tied on a flashy, bright purple articulated salmon streamer. Casting out as far as I could, I stripped the fly back in and held my breath. As the fly neared the shallows, I could see the big orange male char was following it.

This time, before the streamer cleared the dropoff zone, I felt a sharp tug and set the hook. The fish of dreams was on the line.  The several-pound char dove, cavorted, and pulled strongly. I took extra care to fight the fish to ensure I wouldn’t break my leader. Several times I thought he was ready to come to shore, but as his belly felt the lake’s bottom, he suddenly rushed back out into deeper water. Finally, I brought the gleaming fish into the rocky shallows.

It was a perfect, bright orange male Arctic char. The white-edged pectoral fins added an additional accent to an already-stunning fluorescent display. I took a self-timed shot holding the fish while Dolly raced back and forth on the bank, excited about the splashing but unwilling to enter the cold water. After the shutter closed, I unhooked the fish, and it shot off to join its pal in deeper water. I ran back and forth on the snowy bank to warm my body up; I was ecstatic. After years of plotting and planning, I had finally caught the Arctic char of a lifetime on a fly rod, that perfect “pumpkin spice” specimen.

Triumphant with the pumpkin! The author with a male Arctic char in fluorescent spawning colors.


Through the morning and early afternoon, I fished a nearby transition zone where the rocky shelf met a weedbed. Here, my luck continued, and I caught another half-dozen Arctic char, plus a lone lake trout, on the salmon streamer. Just after lunchtime, I felt satisfied with the day’s work and hiked back to camp. Realizing that I couldn’t improve much on a stellar day’s fishing, I decided to pack up and hike out early rather than stay one more night as planned. The goal of a Coldfoot truck stop burger loomed in my mind as Dolly frolicked through the whiteout ahead of me on our backtrail.

Essential to Happiness

The public lands extending five miles of both sides of the Haul Road—including the country we crossed on our hike, and the lake containing the char—are managed by the BLM as a critical component of our domestic oil and gas transportation system. At first blush, that may not sound like a recipe for world-class hunting and fishing opportunities.

But current restrictions on industrial mining and motorized use in the Dalton Highway Corridor help facilitate some of the wildest yet accessible backcountry fishing and hunting experiences you’ll find anywhere. Savoring the views of the craggy mountains, open tundra adorned with snow, braided creeks, and gleaming lakes, I reflected on how different this landscape might look in a few years if these public lands were opened to more intensive development activities.

Caribou near Galbraith Lake.


The future management of 13 million acres of public land in Northern Alaska—including the Dalton Highway Corridor and the Middle Yukon and Koyukuk watersheds—is currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management. The agency is in the process of revising the Central Yukon Resource Management Plan (RMP), a process that happens roughly every 20 years. The draft plan, developed under the previous administration, recommended opening approximately 98 percent of these lands to industrial mineral development.

In response, more than 500 hunters and anglers took action and urged the BLM to expand public access for hunting, angling, and other forms of wildlife-dependent recreation in the Dalton Highway Corridor. Sportsmen and sportswomen also advocated for stronger safeguards for important caribou and Dall sheep habitat in the region.

A favorite quote from wilderness advocate Bob Marshall sprang to mind as Dolly and I crossed the expanse: “For me, and for thousands with similar inclinations, the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. To us the enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” I hoped I’d be able to continue to visit this undegraded land of caribou and Arctic char, which to me is certainly an experience “essential to happiness.”



Kevin Fraley is a fisheries ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society based in Fairbanks, AK, and enjoys hunting, fishing, and rafting throughout Alaska. Click here to learn more about the research Kevin leads for WCS.


Photo Credits: Kevin Fraley

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April 25, 2023

Menhaden Agreement Between Omega Protein and Virginia Falls Short

Members of the recreational fishing and conservation community focus on next steps to conserve the Bay as purse seine sector celebrates toothless memorandum of understanding

An agreement signed last week to address the impacts of industrial menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay falls short of limiting real damage inflicted by the fishery on recreational fishing and broader ecosystem health, based on a collective initial assessment by a coalition of sportfishing and conservation groups.

Last Thursday, commercial purse seiners announced a voluntary agreement with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to avoid fishing in a small portion of the Chesapeake Bay, purportedly to avoid net spills near populated areas. However, the non-binding agreement is centered on the narrow goal of limiting and responding to future spill incidents, in which dead menhaden and other fish species released from nets foul area beaches, and does not address all areas within the Bay.

What the MOU does:

  • States that purse seiners will not fish within a half-mile of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, nor within one mile of the lower Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach regions.
  • States that purse seiners will not fish inside Bay waters on holidays, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, nor on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
  • Outlines how the VMRC and purse seiners will develop a fish spill response protocol.

What the MOU does not do:

  • Establish any buffer in the northern portion of the Bay.
  • Prevent net spills outside the most populous areas of the Bay shoreline.
  • Create enforceable regulations of the reduction fishery.
  • Reduce the amount of menhaden removed from the Bay, which currently amounts to more than 100 million pounds of fish each year.

In short, the agreement does not address the concerns of Virginians regarding user conflicts and fish spills that have plagued the Bay for years.

“The menhaden MOU is a positive step, but it falls short in several ways,” says Steve Atkinson, president of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “The buffer of one nautical mile does not extend to the Rappahannock River area, which is a popular spot for recreational fishing. The agreement also fails to address longstanding concerns about overharvest in the Bay.”

In December 2022, hundreds of Virginians attended a VMRC meeting to comment on a proposal by the Youngkin Administration that would have established regulations negotiated over months of stakeholder engagement. At that meeting, the VMRC agreed to instead pursue the non-binding memorandum of understanding with industrial menhaden harvester Omega Protein, which became final last week.

“While the memorandum of understanding covers a similar set of issues as the regulations put before VMRC last December, there is one big difference—enforceability,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “Whether or not Omega Protein abides by the agreement, and we hope they do, there is still much more work to be done to lessen the harm that reduction fishing is causing to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”

Throughout 2022, reduction fishing boats caused multiple Eastern Shore fish spills, resulting in the waste of an estimated 12,000 pounds of red drum bycatch and beach closures on major holidays, including Independence Day weekend. As recently as 2019, Omega willfully exceeded its 51,000-metric-ton catch limit in the Bay, inspiring tens of thousands of anglers, dozens of business and organizations, and nine East Coast governors to request that the Secretary of Commerce get involved.

“This memorandum of understanding with a foreign-owned, industrial-scale fishing operation in the Chesapeake Bay does little to address conservation of menhaden as a vital forage fish for striped bass and other sportfish,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “While it is our sincere hope that the Commonwealth of Virginia will work to minimize user conflicts and fish spills in the Bay, this non-binding framework relies on the state’s ability to trust cosigners to abide by the rules. The reduction fishery hasn’t earned this trust.”

Last year, more than 10,000 anglers and conservationists from Virginia and up and down the East Coast signed a petition asking Gov. Youngkin to move industrial reduction fishing out of the Chesapeake Bay until science could show that the fishery was not having a negative impact on the ecosystem or the economy. The petition was delivered to Youngkin and the VMRC in October 2022.

“It is our hope that the signing of this MOU is only the first step toward increased conservation measures for this staple forage fish species,” says Chad Tokowicz, government relations manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “As we inch toward the May openings of Maryland and Virginia’s respective striped bass seasons, it will be obvious the importance menhaden have for this keystone recreational species.”

Anglers remain engaged and anxious to see more meaningful action to safeguard menhaden, sportfish, and the Bay economy. The conservation community looks forward to working with the Youngkin Administration this September on the implementation of a menhaden study that would fill gaps in the data about the impact of the reduction fishery on Bay health and sportfish populations.

Virginia continues to be the only East Coast state allowing reduction fishing of menhaden—a practice where millions of pounds of these forage fish are turned into fishmeal, fish oil, fertilizer, or similar products—in its waters.

Learn more about the recreational fishing community’s push for better management of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and Gulf of Mexico.


Photo by Gaelin Rosenwaks. Follow her on Instagram @gaelingoexplore.

April 5, 2023

Report Highlights Aquatic Invasive Species Solutions

Recommendations focus on modernizing marine fisheries laws, making strategic investments, and improving collaboration among federal, state, local, and tribal agencies

The Aquatic Invasive Species Commission, which includes the TRCP and key partners, has released a new report titled, “Improving the Prevention, Eradication, Control and Mitigation of Aquatic Invasive Species.” In the report, the commission calls on Congress to modernize laws, increase spending, and improve coordination at federal, state, local, and tribal levels to combat harmful aquatic invasive species.

Founded in 2022 by scientists, conservationists, anglers, boaters, business leaders, and policy experts, the AIS Commission has worked to assess existing mitigation efforts and identify more effective eradication solutions for invasive species in our nation’s waters, culminating in this detailed report.

“Aquatic invasive species are a tremendous threat to our nation’s waters, causing billions of dollars in economic harm and unquantifiable—often irreversible—damage to ecosystems,” said Dr. Marc Gaden, communications director at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and associate professor at Michigan State University. “I commend the outdoor industry for taking the threat of aquatic invasive species seriously and for presenting a roadmap for effective policy. I am particularly pleased to see that many of the recommendations focus on the importance of leveraging science to affect policy. I urge Congress to act on these recommendations so that our nation can take immediate action on invasive species prevention and control.”

Many stakeholders consulted by the commission urged Congress to direct agencies to identify regulatory gaps and weak links across all levels of government. Information sharing and the development of data-driven solutions would enable the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, an intergovernmental organization, to spread costs and eradicate invasive species in an increasingly interconnected natural environment, the report states.

Empowering this task force with autonomy, staff, and resources was another focus of the report. AIS eradication efforts can cost up to $100 billion per year, and these changes would reduce the burden on individual agencies.

The report also says that laws should maintain access for boaters and anglers, balancing safe usage with the long-term health of natural resources.

“Access to healthy waters, safe usage, and the long-term health of our natural resources is always on the minds of anglers and boaters while on the water,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mark Menendez. “Ensuring the long-term health of our waterways is crucial in lessening the economic burden that aquatic invasive species unfortunately present to communities impacted by these harmful species. Control, eradication, and beneficial burgeoning industries will play a key part in collaborating to reduce many harmful species from our aquatic systems.”

The American public has a role to play in this effort, as well. The report calls on natural resource managers to maintain and strengthen public engagement over AIS issues. Coordinated, science-based education on AIS prevention is key to effectively stopping the spread of AIS in our waters. The commission recommends securing additional funding for the appropriate agencies to expand signage and work to address language barriers at boat launches and fishing access points to promote angler-led AIS prevention activities, including “Clean, Drain, Dry” decontamination actions.

The TRCP played a key role in a similar process to engage marine fisheries stakeholders in planning for the future. The organization convened and helped to lead the Morris-Deal Commission—name for its two industry champions, Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats—whose 2014 report laid the groundwork for many of the solutions secured by the Modern Fish Act in 2018.

We’re excited to advocate for the many recommendations in this latest report that will help improve recreational fishing in America.

Read the Aquatic Invasive Species Commission report here.
View the executive summary here.


Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

April 3, 2023

New Legislation Would Help Increase Walk-In Access Program Acres

Lawmakers have introduced the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act to boost an important Farm Bill program that creates public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land

The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 has been introduced by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to strengthen one of the most critical Farm Bill programs for America’s sportsmen and sportswomen: the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. It is the only federal initiative that helps to create public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land, and this new legislation calls for tripling the program’s impact.

“Lack of access is the largest barrier to hunter and angler participation, and the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is the single best federal tool to increase recreational access on private lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their leadership on the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act and look forward to working with Congress to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for all Americans.”

The legislation would invest $150 million over the next five years in the VPA-HIP, which provides grants to states and Tribes to be implemented at the local level. This increased investment was among the recommendations made by TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group in its “Hunter and Angler Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” released earlier this year.

The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act is supported by more than 30 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations.

“VPA-HIP is an incredibly important program for hunters, opening nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation over its lifetime,” says Torin Miller, senior director of policy for the National Deer Association. “Not surprisingly, interest and enrollment in the program is growing. The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 recognizes the growing interest in the program and the importance of maintaining quality hunting access across the country. The bill’s $150-million authorization will ensure expanded and continued enrollment in VPA-HIP, benefiting hunters, landowners, and local communities. The National Deer Association is proud to endorse this legislation.”

“The introduction of the Voluntary Access Improvement Act is very welcome news for duck hunters as VPA-HIP has accomplished significant increases in access for waterfowl hunters,” says John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “From the WRICE program in Arkansas to the PLOTS program in North Dakota and WIA and COOP in South Dakota, VPA-HIP is providing important access for hunters across the country. We sincerely appreciate Senators Daines, Bennett and Marshall for advancing this key priority in the 2023 Farm Bill.”

“Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has opened millions of acres of private lands and waters to America’s anglers,” says Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We thank Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their support of this program, which will expand sportfishing opportunities for generations to come.”

The VPA-HIP, once commonly known as “open fields,” has a very special place in the hearts of TRCP’s staff and supporters, as it was championed by our inspirational co-founder, Jim Range, before his untimely death. The program was established and funded through the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills—most recently at $50 million over five years—with its impacts felt across the country.

Apart from creating more outdoor recreation access, VPA-HIP funding is also utilized to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement projects. It is often layered with other Farm Bill programs that have habitat benefits, such as Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Easements. And the program allows states to address liability, alleviating a roadblock for many landowners to open their lands to the public.

Recent studies have shown that the VPA-HIP has a more than eight-to-one return on investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.

Click here to watch a video about some of the many benefits of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.


Photo by USDA

March 30, 2023

TRCP Welcomes Restoration and Habitat Focus in Proposed BLM Rule

Group encourages public engagement to ensure a successful outcome

Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership responded to the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement of a proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule. The rule intends to clarify and support the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield authority provided through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, with a focus on restoration, protection, and balanced development.

“The TRCP supports the restoration and conservation of fish and wildlife habitat on BLM lands as part of the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield mission, and we appreciate the opportunity to engage in this process,” said Joel Webster, VP of western conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “BLM public lands and habitat are under increased pressure from drought, severe wildfires, and invasive species, and the Conservation and Landscape Health Rule has the potential to improve the BLM’s ability to address those challenges.”

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres, primarily in the American West, and the agency is tasked with balancing a multitude of uses, including conservation, recreation, and resource development. The proposed rule is open for a 75-day public comment period.

“We plan to roll up our sleeves to ensure that the BLM’s Conservation and Landscape Health Rule improves management of our public lands to benefit sportsmen and sportswomen,” continued Webster. “TRCP encourages the BLM to engage with a range of stakeholder groups when refining the rule to make sure it is workable, durable, and successfully implemented.”



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

Learn More

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