Thursday, 29 November 2007

The American Chestnut

All right, so my last post about global warming sounded a bit cranky. Well if the truth be told the whole discussion has me a bit irritated.

I like practical solutions to problems rather than knee jerk reactions. Here is a case in point.

There is a beautiful tree called the American Chestnut that is endangered and has been since the 1950’s.

This tree, once called “The Redwood of the East” produces an edible nut and was once the most common tree species in the Eastern United States.

Although Nova Scotia is out of its natural range we do have a handful of these magnificent trees.

Speculation is that when the United Empire Loyalists emigrated here after the American War of Independence they brought the seeds of the American Chestnut with them. You can see from the picture that these trees are big, capable of growing to well over one hundred feet tall with trunks ten feet around.

The lumber is light and strong with a lovely straight grain. It was used to make everything from shingles to furniture.

 Because of the amount of tannic acid in the wood it was especially useful for outdoor applications like making telephone poles.

We have all heard the song lyric, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” well these are the nuts they are talking about. The nuts fed not only people but woodland creatures such as bears, deer, squirrels, raccoons, birds and more counted on their bounty as well.

In the late 1800’s chestnut trees from Asia were imported into North America. I’m not sure why, probably for ornamental reasons. In 1904 a fungus was found to be killing American Chestnut trees in New York. By 1950, about three and a half billion American Chestnut trees were dead. That’s 90 per cent of the species –gone.

Late in the 1980’s a group called The American Chestnut Foundation began working on a way to bring these trees back. They cross bred seed from the survivors with fungus resistant seed from China and then bred the fungus resistant hybrids with pure American Chestnuts.

 By this backcrossing they now have a tree which is a fungus resistant American Chestnut. Well, to be precise I guess its 94% American Chestnut and 6% Chinese Chestnut but still what an amazing accomplishment.

I admire the folks who did this work. Others may have spent their energy pushing for a ban on all ornamental trees or feeding the squirrels displaced by the lack of nuts, I should specify edible nuts when discussing possible reactions.

These folks at The American Chestnut Foundation thought the problem through, decided on a practical and more importantly possible solution, and then quietly set about the work.

They have saved a species. Because of their quiet dedication we, or our children, will someday see the restoration of the natural forests of North America.

They are the sort of folks I'd like to hear more from on issues such as climate change.

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Saturday, 24 November 2007

Provoking the Consumer Frenzy

"supper at the lodge"
 I know this is supposed to be a fishing blog but with the season over and having gotten into the habit of writing, I find my thoughts turning to current events.

We apparently have an obesity crisis in North America. The fear of lawsuits is forcing fast food restaurants to change their menus and include healthier alternatives to their burgers and fries.

What a burden that must be for them, after all if there were money to be made in fast, healthy alternatives wouldn't there be a McHealthy’s on every corner?

Why should there be a penalty for a merchant who sells a product that is legal, the risks are known and the public wants?

Here is the thing; it is not the fast food guys that are the problem.

 We are demonizing the wrong people. Have you ever finished dinner and sat down to watch some television for the evening?

By bedtime you have been exposed to more food, snack and candy advertising than the average person can resist.

Just try not to have a snack during an evening of television. It is almost impossible.

 I can go for hours without thinking of food in my daily life but a couple of hours in front of the tube can have me craving everything from chocolate to popcorn chicken, whatever the heck that is.

You want to cure the obesity crisis in North America? Get some control of the advertising agencies that are engaged in psychological warfare with consumers every day of their lives.

 Think about it. If you advertise a product simply by telling people what it is, what it can do and where they can get it, people who want the product will buy it.

 People who don't want the product won't buy it. Simple right?

Advertising in North America today though is not about offering a product for consideration. It is about convincing people that they want the product by manipulating psychological triggers from fear to hunger to sexual drives.

 It would be interesting to know how many of our brightest and best thinkers make their livings developing the science and art of manipulating the rest of us into this consumer frenzy.

One has to wonder what the world would be like if they spent their time trying to solve real problems like feeding the hungry rather than tricking the already well fed into eating more.

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Thursday, 22 November 2007

Global Warming or Just More Hot Air?

fossil fern
Here is a picture of a beautiful fossil I found in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia.

This fern grew and died in a tropical jungle right here in Nova Scotia over 350 million years ago. Between its germination and the time I picked up its fossilized remains, this small bit of the earth has gone through some astonishing changes.

Here is a quick overview: 350 million years ago Nova Scotia was covered with thick, tropical, swamp forests.

It was the Carboniferous Age when the thick coal beds were laid down that are still mined today.

The province itself was a lot closer to the equator and slowly drifting toward its present position.

 100 million years later saw the Age of Dinosaurs. Many significant dinosaur fossils have been found here.

5 million years later saw the first of a series of extinction events: One at 245 million years ago another at 208 million years ago and a major extinction event at the beginning of the age of mammals, around 66 million years ago.

Nearly 65 million years ago is when the continents were near to their present shapes and locations.

Nova Scotia’s climate was hot and temperate. Around 4 million years ago the ancestors of man, mammals known as Hominids begin to appear on another continent far from Nova Scotia. The climate continues to be hot and temperate until just under 2 million years ago when we enter an Ice Age.

As far as I know, no one has actually declared the last Ice Age to be over quite yet.

I think that when I consider the current news about global warming my reaction is tempered by the knowledge that change is the only constant so far in the Earth’s history.

I also expect as we emerge from an Ice Age that temperatures will vary and weather patterns will become erratic.

In its simplest form, the engine that drives weather is the energy transference between cold air masses and warmer ones, ocean currents are driven by the same forces. So our present, somewhat chaotic weather patterns make sense to me.

 I have no doubt that man can make a terrible mess of his immediate environment.

I do have some doubt that we can cause an ice age to begin or end.

I guess my overall take on the current “crisis” is best summed up in a quote from Andrew over at Green Fatigue, “There is a technical term for this kind of projection of various unrelated ideas onto an ill-defined goal; it's called a pile of bullshit.”

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Saturday, 17 November 2007

The Doc Spratley and Kamloops Trout

Doc Spratley fly
 The other day I was thinking about a fly called the Doc Spratley. The fly is named after a dentist who happened to be in the shop when the fly was being tied for the first time by Dick Prankard, who originated the pattern around 1949 in Mt Vernon, Washington.

It is a deadly pattern I first used in Postill Lake, British Columbia for Kamloops trout.

Kamloops trout are rainbow trout. They are well adapted to the clear, rich waters of Canada's west. They eagerly take a fly, fight with lots of jumps, grow to an impressive size and are great table fare too.

If ever "Intelligent Design" advocates need an example to prove their point, the Kamloops Trout sure seems like it was custom built for the fly fisherman.

I was just beginning my fascination with fly-fishing in those days and we fished the lake by trolling a black Doc Spratley slowly around the edges. We regularly caught a bunch of fish.

My main fishing buddy in those days was Nick Palmaruk. Nick is a great guy with a wicked sense of humour. At the time, he was the chef at a downtown hotel in Kelowna. One of the traditions that evolved early in our fishing trips was that we would take fairly elaborate lunches.

I only mention this because when I was in my twenties I'd regularly fish all day on a can of Pepsi and a chocolate bar. I'd barely stop for a pee, let alone for lunch. It was a completely foreign concept to me.

 A typical day's outing would involve meeting in the pre-dawn, loading the lunch and gear then heading up into the foothills of the mountains in my old Nissan pick-up. The narrow logging road was an adventure in itself. Every blind curve, of which there were plenty, could reveal a fully loaded logging truck barreling down upon us.

As a chef, Nick when it was his turn to provide the lunch, would provide an incredible feast, foi gras stuffed cold pheasant breast with an aspic glaze sort of thing complete with a three-foot baguette and a very good bottle of wine. Of course I felt obliged, when it was my turn, to at least match his effort so I'd get extra crispy on the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and never diet cola, only the real thing was good enough.

Postill Lake BC
I remember one particular day as we were trolling along with mixed success. I was holding the motor control arm with one hand, eating a drumstick with the other and watching my rod tip carefully as I listened to Nick expound on the importance of good food.

Apparently this particular bucket of chicken didn't exactly represent the state of the art of culinary expertise, at least as practiced in the better restaurants of the day. I calmly finished my drumstick and carefully brought his line in hand over hand across the transom, cautious not to alert him to anything unusual going on in the back of the boat. As his fly came into my hand I hooked the well-cleaned chicken bone onto it and then, just as carefully, let the line back out. When it reached the end I gave it one good tug.

"Hello", he hollered and started an epic battle to land what he expected to be another good trout. The fact that it wasn't jumping convinced him that it was in fact a big fish, bigger than any I'd caught that day anyway.

That’s when I learned an important lesson about delaying the bragging until you have the fish in your net. Nick hadn't learned it yet so he kept up a steady stream of chatter until it slowly dawned on him that this was too strange and one-sided a battle to be a fish.

He fell silent and continued to reel in line until he was holding his leader. Dangling below his hand was the beautiful Doc Spratley fly with a well-stripped chicken bone firmly attached.

He slowly turned and gave me a cold stare. "Damn" he said. "He got my bait."

image of fly from

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The best Nova Scotia fly fishing site

I received a wonderfully interesting and informative note the other day from Pat Donoghue.

He is the author of one of my favourite websites. It is all about fly-fishing in Nova Scotia and some interesting thoughts on life.

I visit it often, sometimes for inspiration, sometimes for amusement and more often lately for reference.

My first visit to the site was at the recommendation of ‘Brad of the exploding reel’.

He told me about an online chart of the major hatches that come off here in Nova Scotia, a “who, what, when, where and why” of the insect world as it relates to a trout’s appetite.

Pat’s fishing log is a great read too, full of information, observation and studded with superb photos.

 All in all, visiting the website is a lot like sitting down for a chat with a good fishing buddy who also happens to be a great story teller and guide.

 It is going to take me a week to absorb, process and respond to the massive amount of information in his note. Here is how to get to his site:

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Sunday, 11 November 2007

The serious business of salmon fishing

Here is one more story from this year’s salmon season.

My fishing partner had just hooked and lost a big, big salmon. Out of courtesy, I had reeled in my line and cleared the water to give him room to play the fish before his line had gone slack.

Standing on the shore, I was well positioned to offer an observation on his technique, the size of the fish and more, even a bit of sympathy. He just shrugged, stepped back into the pool and after checking his fly and leader proceeded to hook another fish.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. He didn’t do much more than grunt to let me know he was hooked up again. With a very deliberate motion he made sure of the hook set. The first run was blistering. The salmon had him into his backing within seconds. Not too many seconds after that Brad was running down the shore trying to recover some line.

After four great jumps and as many runs the salmon was nearly into the next pool down stream, still putting up a good struggle. Brad was making his stand on the last gravel bar before deep water. I was a couple of hundred yards away and ambling in a slow walk towards him.

My pace was timed to put me there when he was ready to land the fish. A salmon has to be on my own line to make me run nowadays.

I was pretty close when the fish made a run directly towards Brad from about fifty feet out in the pool. He raised his rod smartly to pick up the slack and started reeling as fast as he could. I guess he somehow hit the spool release because the next thing I saw was his reel exploding. It just flew apart!

exploding reel
 His rod arm extended out far to left. His right hand flashed and grabbed the spool in mid-air. When I think of it now it was like watching a big league shortstop picking off a line drive. He somehow slammed it all back in place only to realize he had jammed the line between the spool and the frame when the fish, which had turned by this time, started to arc his rod again.

By now this was getting pretty exciting and I expressed my support and concern by laughing until the tears came.

As the fish tightened his tackle to the breaking point Brad grabbed the jammed line and by brute force alone managed to free it. The reel screamed as it released the tension. The salmon took off on another impressive run. But one more jump and some sulking were all that remained of the brawl.

Late Fall Nova Scotian Salmon
 I managed to tail the fish without too much trouble even though I was weak with laughter.

You know, my impression of Atlantic Salmon fishing when I was young was that it is a serious thing, one of the mysteries of grown men, practiced only by elite specialists who solemnly played out their dramas in the hallowed, pristine wilderness.

There may be places where this is true. This place on this day was certainly not one of them.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Fall Salmon Fishing in Nova Scotia Means Big Fish

There is nothing like bragging about a big fish to almost guarantee getting one-upped.

Check out these pictures from H.R. Dobson of a fall–run salmon. This fish was caught last year.
Big Nova Scotia Salmon
He is holding the fly in his right hand but it is suspiciously out of focus. I can just make out a yellow tag but can’t see what the fly is. Darn. I’d be working like a demon at the tying bench this winter to put a handful of those in my kit.

A few days after he told me he’d caught this phenomenal salmon, knowing there were big fish in, I headed to the river.
None of the usual suspects could get away so I went alone. As usual I started fishing far above the pool, working the undercut banks. Taking a couple of casts then a step I worked my way along toward my favourite pool.

Fish on!
I was using the same rod and line set up I’d last used on a trip to Newfoundland earlier in the year. I was even using the same fly, still tied on from the last cast of that trip.
I know, I know; I should have tied on a new leader or at the very least checked all of the knots. I was just too impatient to get on the water.
So instead of a #4 Cardinal or Ally’s Shrimp, I was casting a #12 Blue Charm with just a couple of Crystal Flash fibers tied into the hair wing.
Within minutes I was firmly into a two sea-winter fish. I got one other as I approached the pool.

There were a few fellows working slowly into the main holding area so I just walked around them and went back into the river about a hundred yards past the pool.
The water was deep and fast as I gingerly shuffled along the bottom. I was searching with my feet for the submerged gravel bar that angled across the river making it possible to wade to the other side and fish the undercuts on this bank.

It was getting pretty deep.
As I became more buoyant my footing became less secure against the pounding current. I looked back to see if I had reached the point of no return or should retreat.
At that moment, out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw the back fin of a large salmon about five feet away, slightly above and in back of me.

I wasn’t sure it was a fish but I unhooked my fly from the keeper and with the just the line hanging out of the rod tip flicked the fly over the spot.

The fly landed sloppily and didn’t move more than a couple of inches when an enormous head poked out of the water and slowly took the fly.

Nova Scotia Fall Salmon
There was no turn or slashing strike, it simply engulfed the tiny fly then sank from sight. I couldn't believe it had really happened.

I didn’t set the hook, just held the line in positive contact with the fish.

I was in a bad situation. Barely able to keep my feet and Jimmy-legging my way along the submerged bank until mercifully, the water began to get a little shallower.

I was holding light pressure against the fish, feeding line as needed. As I felt my weight come back on my feet I re-tightened my drag and started looking for a place to play what had looked like the fish of a lifetime when he took.

About five feet from the shore with my feet well set on gravel I deliberately set the hook. Then remembering I was using a tiny fly compared to the usual fall rig, I set it again.

That’s when all Hell broke loose. The salmon roared up out of the black water and thrashed in mid-air before falling on his back with a tremendous splash.

His first run was short, ending in another nerve shattering jump. The fish played in short, powerful runs all ending in spectacular leaps. He never took me into my backing.

The runs gradually slowed. The leaps had less and less height until they were just swirls and boils on the end of the line.

I really didn’t have clue how to land this fish. I’d never tailed a lunker like this single handedly.

It turned out to be fairly straightforward. As soon as I got his head up I just raised the rod bringing the fish towards me like a torpedo. As he turned away from me I slid my hand along his back and the wrist of the tail was too big for me to miss.

The problem then was that I couldn’t reach the fly to un-hook and still hold his tail. I ended up having to grab the leader and pull the fish towards me until I had the fly in hand. A quick twist and he was gone.

I don’t know how big that salmon was, probably not as big as I think but it was an amazing experience. I climbed out of the water, vibrating with excitement and walked back to my truck.

That was enough for the day. I love Fall Salmon fishing in Nova Scotia.

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Sunday, 4 November 2007

When the rights of sportsmen clash with the rights of Aboriginal hunters or fishers

NS Salmon Fishing
I had an interesting experience the other day while fly-fishing for Atlantic Salmon on a well-known Fall run river.

 It was a great morning and I've posted earlier about the success of the trip. What I didn't mention was that shortly after landing the first fish of the day I was standing on the gravel bar taking a breather when a fellow walked out of the woods carrying a heavy spin fishing outfit.

 He was set up with the gear I would use for Bluefish or Stripped Bass fishing except for what looked like a one ounce, lead, Shad Dart on the end of the line.

I should preface this story with the information that the fraternity of anglers that frequent this river and its pools are steeped in the traditional courtesy of salmon fishers. Pools are rotated and peer pressure is brought to bear on those that don't know the unwritten rules or decide not to follow them.

 Pools are fished from the entry point with a pattern of a couple of casts and then a step, a couple of casts and then a step. If you raise a fish you take a few more casts or tell the fellow behind you that you've raised one and he should go around and ahead of you through the rest of the pool.

It is not a bad way to fish and very democratically shares a limited resource. If you start to feel crowded just fish on down through the pool and continue to fish your way down the river until you find a more isolated spot.

 My friend says the best fishing is always a hundred yards further down river than the other fellow is willing to hike.

To get back to my story, there I was face-to-face with what looked to be a poacher. He was surprisingly cheerful and seemed oblivious to my eyeballing his fishing gear with horror.

 As he was asking if there were any fish around, a salmon gave a crashing leap in the tail of the pool. It was actually kind of funny as he waved a dismissive hand at my gear, "You wouldn't want to get into a fish like that with what you're using. It might be alright for trout but this is what I use for everything."

We had a chat about his gear and it turns out that he was an Aboriginal person with the right to harvest ten salmon for food. He was under no or minimal gear restriction so could proceed to fish when, where and how he liked.
As he got ready to take a few casts another fish showed in a slow motion porpoise on the far side of the pool. There were lots of fish here and only three of us fishing. I suppose it could have gotten tense or confrontational but we were all simply exercising our right to fish on a glorious day in a magnificent setting.

Experience has taught me that there is fishing and there is catching. The two do not always go together regardless of the apparent advantages of tackle or technique.

 He wasn't geared up to fish the runs into or out of the pool only the deepest parts of the river so rotating the pool was as normal until we got to where he stood then simply went around him and continued to the end.

 He kept up a steady stream of banter and jokes. In a way it was like fishing with Jimmy Flynn, the famous comedian, lots of laughs and wry commentary.

Because the river was very low for the time of year it would seem likely that the fish would hold tight in the deepest holes and be easy prey to a deep dredged hook but that was not the case.

The river was also quite warm and the fish seemed to be lying closer to the broken, highly oxygenated water where the current tailed out into the pool.

 Brad and I had good fishing while he touched one fish that briefly hooked up and was gone within seconds.

 I found it pretty interesting to fish with this guy. There was the potential for conflict no question, but I quickly realized that the apparent disregard for the conventions of the sport even to the courtesy of rotating a pool were not out of mean spiritedness but simply cultural difference.

 His whole attitude toward the fishing was a little different. He was there to enjoy the day and did, but fundamentally he was there to harvest food. There was no selfishness about him. If a fish rose he'd point it out. If one of us hooked one he was enthusiastic in his observations of the skill or lack of it displayed.

At one point he gave me a fly he thought would increase my success because that pesky Brad was out-fishing me.

I've heard stories of negative experiences when the rights of sportsmen clash with the rights of Aboriginal hunters or fishers. In thinking over my recent experience a few things stand out.

The first is that even if there were no gear restrictions I'd still choose to use the lightest fly-fishing equipment possible to fish Atlantic Salmon for sport. If I were fishing for food on the other hand, my tactics would change instantly.

Secondly, the nature of my life and work is such that when I go afield for recreation it is alone or with select companions to enjoy a respite from the enforced sociability and collegiality of a highly structured corporate environment.

If I was hunting or fishing for food rather than sport my attitude would change. I would certainly try to create a team and seek to offset one's weakness with another's strength.

My gut feeling is that my ignorance of Aboriginal culture, social conventions and attitudes is typical not exceptional.

I would never choose the present system of two sets of rules and regulations for different citizens of the same country but that’s what we have. It is what it is so let’s make the best of it.

Crystal flash Blue Charm
I enjoyed meeting that fellow from Truro and fishing with him. It was a unique experience. He gave me some interesting things to think about and a darn good fly too.

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