a highly specialized and ritualized form of predation

Last week Patagonia’s excellent blog, The Cleanest Line published a post on my film, One in Winter. I wrote an introduction for it with the intention of setting the scene to an audience which may or may not be as geeked out as us about fishin’. Surprisingly, it sparked an impassioned dialog of comments between two writers. As far as I’m concerned, their debate strikes at the deepest of deep questions concerning the personal and social morality of our spot, with all its attendant hypocrisies and truths.

What they’ve written is amazing. Neither slings bull. They’re both right on. Yet it’s striking how their viewpoints come from essentially the same set of angling experiences to arrive at profoundly different moral conclusions.

One’s an angel, and then one’s a devil, maybe. Which is which can only be decided by you, maybe.

One things for sure, like all angels and all devils, both command massive respect. Beause they’re both inside us.

Check yourself! The Cleanest Line: One in Winter

One in Winter

A couple seasons ago I swapped fly rod for camera and followed my friend Rich as he cast for winter steelhead. Over countless days, eye traced rod’s path, over and over again. And over again. This is what came of that effort.

Through this obscure obsession–a strange admixture of art and primal instinct–the participant ironically becomes aware that catching the fish is the least important thing in the world. You see that they, like you, exist within a vaster whole. But then your gut has a fight with your brain. When gut wins, the fish does in fact show to be the most important thing in the world.

Mad respect to Patagonia for conscientiously manufacturing and supporting stuff that makes our lives more fun.

Music: The Pull, by The Microphones. Check it out at K Records.

More Kamchatka Steelhead – A Little Movie

I know this blog has been a little Kamchatka-heavy lately, and I know “lately” is probably not the best word to use considering I’ve put up three posts in like a year or something.  Anyway, here’s the kind of thing I’ve been spending time on instead.

It is a short film documenting our adventures with Kamchatka steelhead last fall. I hope you like it.

[It’s big HD so please don’t watch it all tiny here on this page. Click through on the link to its home on vimeo’s site.]

The Kamchatka Steelhead Project from ryan peterson on Vimeo.

The Moon Over Jupiter

The Kamchatka Steelhead Project of 2010 started with a 9 hour spin from Petropavlovsk to Esso in The Cement Mixer. The 400 klick transect offers travelers up-close, intimate impressions of the road’s exquisite washboard / pot-hole geology.

You find yourself in a very strange mental state when you are told, every two hours for THREE DAYS, that the weather might clear in two hours and you might get to fly to the Kvachina River to fish for steelhead, which has pretty much been on your mind every day since you first heard the words Kamchatka and steelhead used in the same sentence. In the grand old tradition of being weathered in on a fishing trip, you tie flies until you’re sick of it.

Then on the third day, the Koryak God, Kutkh intervened, gracing us with good weather and a giant mother of a helicopter.

At long last, we got to cast into the Kvachina. We casted many, many times. For seven days. But we didn’t catch much. We couldn’t understand why the steelhead were not in the river. Was it the poorest run in the 17 years our science team has been studying the river? Or were the fish taking their sweet time in the sea, as all the rest of the salmon had done in Kamchatka this summer, postponing their migration into the river for reasons known only to them? We hoped it was the later, and kept casting. Turns out just because you travel to the least touched place in the world, the steelhead there are still as mysterious and maddening as any others. It makes them even cooler.

Then a full moon came, bringing tides so high the water rose all the way to our camp, 8 kilometers inland.

 

Then this happened.

[Weird fish nerd fettish alert!]

In the two weeks I was on the Kvachina, there were more occasions to say the words “sea lice” in conversation than I have had in all the rest of my life prior. Clung to the silver hardness of the fish’s posterior, seal lice are naturally occuring evidence that a steelhead is fresh in from the sea, and thus supercharged with ocean energy. They’re a good thing.

Kirill Kuzishchen of Moscow State University (below, left) is one of the world’s foremost authorities on steelhead. Our expedition members were participants in a program whereby Kirill and his team of salmonid scientists, sonar technicians and river ecologists are trying to understand population dynamics. Through a unique partnership of academia, business and government, his work is fully funded by angling eco-tourism. In return for their cash sponsorships of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project, the flyfishers are given special permission by the Russian federal government to catch and release steelhead (a protected species under Russian law) for Kirill and his team.

One of the primary purposes of the Kamchatka Steelhead Project is to monitor fish abundance under the official authority of the Russian Red Book of Rare and Disappearing Species. Kamchatka steelhead are, on the whole, considered a very delicate species, not so much because of low abundance in the rivers they inhabit, but rather because of the limited number of rivers they spawn in. Whereas steelhead on the eastern side of the Pacific historically could be found in virtually every river from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to Baja, Mexico, in Asia they are found only in rivers along about a hundred miles of Kamchatka’s Okhotsk coast.

By recording the size of each fish caught and placing a non-harmful, numbered tag in their dorsal, and then letting them go, Kirill gathers a tremendous amount of information. If ever the fish should be caught again in the future and re-sampled, the value of the information is compounded. Using statistical extrapolation, from the tagged fish they can tell how many in total are in the river on average in a given year, as well as their individual and collective growth rates. Through all of this the fish doesn’t have to die to give up its fingerprint, as they do with old-school methods of data collection.

The scales of a fish, when looked at under a microscope, have rings uncanilly similar to those of a bisected tree. Kirill uses these marking to read the fish’s diary – how many years did it live in fresh water before going to the ocean? How many years did it spend in saltwater? How many times has it spawned? (A huge majority spawn more than once, and a few fish have spawned 8 times!)

Small tissue samples, cut from a pectoral fin, further help establish the level of genetic singularity in a population.

In return for their sponsorships of the program, the fishermen get to catch the samples/fish.

It is exciting like nothing else to connect with a creature so beautiful and so powerful in this way in this place.

Seriously.

My first steelhead from the far side of the Pacific.

I wonder what it is doing right now.

When I was in college a bunch of us climbers would gather at a certain pub every Thursday night. Coincidentally a bunch of kayaker dudes would hang out at the same pub on the same night. If you glanced around the room, you could tell the kayakers from the climbers by the different hand gestures each sport required to tell a story. Climbers would be flailing their hands above their heads and occasionally lifting a heal to a hip, while kayakers’ wrists would be somewhere mid-torso, air-paddling. Flyfishing stories require their own set of gestures .

Willow ptarmagain for the pot. If you were blindfolded and taken far out to western Kamchatka’s coastal zone, and then your blindfold was whipped off, you wouldn’t know if you were there, or the Alaska Peninsula, or any number of other spots around the globe between about 55 and 65 degrees north latitude.

The Kvachina and Snatolvayam Rivers join in a common estuary before entering the Sea of Okhotsk.

Estuary mud and pink salmon carcass. How fossils start.

Kirill Kuzishchen also happens to be a masterful flyfisherman and general all around wilderness bad ass. If he starts to draw you a map to steelhead, you’d better pay attention.

An unrelated Kirill quote:

American guy: “Kirill, how can Russian women be the most beautiful in the world, but the men the scuzziest, most out of shape ugly excuses for DNA ever?” [Apologies to all my Russian men friends. But take a look at any random photograph of a Moscow street scene before you harp back.]

Kirill: [Russian accent] “Well, let me tell you, even the most beautiful flower, can grow on a pile of shit.”

In my brief (and they’re always brief) encounters with wild steelhead, I’ve never found them to be infused with such an impressive combination of being so close to the sea, so silver in color, so large on the average, and so profoundly representative of the place in which they live as in Kamchatka. Wish I could explain that last part better. It’s like seeing a small thing that makes you understand a big thing in a way you never did before; an oh-yeah-I-get-it-now kind of thing.

On the night this photo was taken, Jupiter (small light underneath the moon) was closer to Earth than it has been, or will be again, for 40 years.

 

photographs: S. Tucker, T. Ring, J. Parrish, B. Ham, M. Umeda, J. Nemyo, R. Peterson, P. Soverel

The Kamchatka Steelhead Project

Georg Steller's sea cow went extinct within 30 years of his first describing it to science.

In 1738 a 28 year old German naturalist named Georg Steller set out from St. Petersburg with the Danish explorer, Vitus Bering on an expedition of discovery to the Russian Far East. No one in Moscow or Europe had a clue what was there and Peter the Great had commissioned the expedition with simple instructions to see what they could find. The most geo-politically famous result, three years later, was their becoming the first Europeans to make landfall in Alaska, and by extension the western part of North America. But before it sailed what is now the Bering Sea, the expedition spent two years building ships and gathering supplies. During this time Steller roamed Russia’s incomparable Kamchatka Peninsula in what must have been a euphoric haze of botanical and zoological wonder.

Everywhere he looked creatures never before identified to western science walked, flew, grew and swam. In a blitz of field notes and sketches, he described all he could get his eyes and hands on. Many of these species today bear his legacy – Steller’s sea lion, sea eagle, jay, eider and sea cow, the later a comely, graceful, manatee-like creature, sadly hunted to extinction within 30 years of Steller’s finding it. Other of Steller’s creatures have since proved to be cornerstone species, on whose existence we now know countless others depend, across international lines and throughout the North Pacific.

Oncorhynchus tshawytscha – king / chinook salmon

Oncorhynchus nerka – sockeye / red salmon

Oncorhynchus kisutch – silver / coho salmon

Oncorhynchus keta – chum / dog salmon

Oncorhynchus gorbuscha – humpy / humpback / pink salmon

Oncorhynchus mykiss – rainbow trout

Steller was the first to hold each of these in his hands and contemplate their significance to the rest of the known world. At the same time he was – atypically for his time – aware of and respectful of place, and of his status as visitor. In his original descriptions of the fish he used only the names given to them by the native Koryak people of central Kamchatka; tshawytscha, nerka, kisutch, keta, gorbuscha, and mykiss (a derevation of the Koryak, mikizha,). By convention, the Koryaks’ and Steller’s terminology has stayed in the taxonomical nomenclature.

***

Two hundred and twenty years later a brilliant young icthyologist from Moscow State University, Ksenia Savvaitova, had taken the arctic char as her first subject of study and in short order had become a preeminent expert. “The Dolly Queen,” as she was known (probably because her English speaking colleagues couldn’t pronounce her name), next took an interest in the broader salmonidae family and in 1969 began the search for a place to study them. Research quickly led her to fixate on a dagger of land slicing into the fertile, cold North Pacific on Russia’s east coast. An American colleague of Savvaitova’s remembers her explanation of the draw; “Western Kamchatka was the perfect place [for fish] because no one lived there…It was far away, it was mysterious, and it was beautiful.” She made the trek eastward.

Her suspicions were born out. It was salmon heaven. Evidence of their prolific numbers were literally everywhere. From trees and tundra, to brown bears and baby fish, to Georg Steller’s eagle, to the human residents themselves, the salmon species soundly and obviously underpinned Kamchatka’s web of life. She became interested especially in the enigmatic sea-run form of Oncorhynchus mykiss, known also as Kamchatka steelhead. Though it wasn’t nearly as widely distributed as other salmonids, utilizing only a handful of west coast rivers for its spawning runs, mykiss exhibited an astonishing number of life history patterns and survival strategy variations.

On arrival Savvaitova had only an inkling of where she might find steelhead and, on a hunch, walked 80 miles through rugged wilderness toward the Kvachina River. Like Steller, Savvaitova’s scientific method placed real value on native people’s understanding of nature, and she incorporated such knowledge into her studies. In a summer subsistence fish camp on the Kvachina she interviewed a Koryak woman who gave her a crucial piece of information. Savvaitova asked if there were steelhead in the Kvachina. The woman replied, “Yes, there are many.”

As it turned out, however, the fascinating sea-run mykizha needed study and understanding for reasons more pressing than Savvaitova’s simple curiosity: Brakoneerov – poachers – were netting the river at an unsustainable rate. Even Kvachina steelhead, it seemed, existing as remotely as is possible, were nevertheless in a dire position.

On return from Kamchatka, Savvaitova did two things. She began lobbying to have the Kamchatka steelhead listed for protection under the Russian Federal Red Book, a catalog of rare and disappearing species analogous to the Endangered Species Act. In 1983 she succeeded. She also set to work on writing a book that would become a landmark in her field, with a title that aptly summarizes her life’s work since, The Noble Trouts of Kamchatka. In the 20 years that followed, she returned to the steelhead and salmon of Kamchatka periodically, but in the instable waning years of the Sovient Union, protection of the fish existed solely on paper.

Moscow State University Academician, Ksenia Savvaitova, Kamchatka Steelhead Project sponsor, Bob Hamilton, and a Kvachina River steelhead, circa 2000.

***

In the early 1990’s, an ardent steelhead flyfisher from Seattle, Washington, Pete Soverel, was becoming increasing frustrated with established efforts to conserve sea-run fish in America’s Pacific Northwest. Despite a reasonable amount of concern and money flowing toward river and fish restoration, none of it seemed to be making a difference. Fish runs had been crashing hard for decades and there was little hope in sight of the trend reversing. Analysis showed that once a river is dammed, de-forested, mined and polluted, it verges on senseless to pour money into band-aide efforts without addressing the giganticness of the socio-political problem of environmental disrespect. Once you bake it, it turns out, a cake is very difficult to unbake.

Soverel began to formulate a plan for conservation that would come from a different angle. The idea was as simple as it was obvious and overlooked – find the best, most pristine watersheds left and do your damnedest to keep them that way. In terms of effort and money spent, all you’d have to do to keep fish stocks at historical highs in such places, is nothing.

In pursuit of this, in 1993 Soverel founded a conservation organization called, The Wild Salmon Center and began studying maps and data on the untouched steelhead-bearing watersheds left on our planet. Like Savvaitova 25 years earlier, it didn’t take him long to settle on Kamchatka. “I’d always known the fish were identified by Steller in Kamchatka, and thought, If they were there 250 years ago, were they still there?”

A former naval officer and Regan Whitehouse staffer, Soverel called on high-level connections he’d made while there to feel out his plan. He called a friend in Moscow, an ex-CIA spymaster now making a living connecting Russian and American businessmen in the post-Cold War environment of warmed relations. Soverel asked him to find out what he could about steelhead in Kamchatka. A couple days later he found himself speaking through a telephone to Ksenia Savvaitova.

She told him what she’d found in her expeditions over the last two decades – the magnificence of the land, rivers and fish. She pointedly explained too how, despite the steelhead’s Red Book listing, poaching of the species continued unabated. There was no money for enforcement, no money for study, no money for anything.

Inspired, Soverel then appealed to the US State Department for support. Through a post-Soviet program aimed at “promotion of democracy and cooperation with Russia,” the Wild Salmon Center was granted $25,000. The National Marine Fisheries Service chipped in another $15,000 to support involvement of University of Washington graduate student, Barry Berijikian. With core grant funding in hand, Soverel immediatly put together the American component of the expedition. This consisted four adventursome anglers – Maunsel Pierce, Jeff Mishler, and Terry and Denise Nichols. They helped round out the funding with personal donations, and would act as the volunteer labor force to catch Kamchatka steelhead for the scientists. In the fall of 1994 they set off to meet Savvaitova and her team on the Kvachina River.

***

Between September 24th and October 9th, 1994, the expedition found steelhead in fair numbers, and exceptional size. Moreover, both sides saw a unique opportunity for cooperation. The Kamchatka Steelhead Project was born; an ingenious program whereby Soverel’s anglers were invited to sponsor Savvaitova’s scientists and, through special dispensation from the Russian Federal Government, join in the scientific efforts by catching adult steelhead for biological sampling. In 1995, 40 anglers signed up. The next year there were more. Soverel, as a steelhead angler and a conservationist, had forged a satisfying and effective partnership between those two elements. In doing so, he “had found the most exciting thing I could do with the rest of my life.”

The Kamchatka Steelhead Project was successful from multiple angles. Over the course of it’s 15 year first phase, 20 peer-reviewed academic papers were published from data collected in its basecamps, providing major contributions to science, while anglers flipped out at the opportunity to encounter steelhead of such magnitude. The program has been portrayed in the media – notably in an article in the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, and this terrific, if bitter-sweet National Public Radio report from 2003: Fishing for Science in Kamchatka – as a unique marriage of angler passion and funding with the science of conservation. The model set by the KSP is today used at the Stanford Business School as a case study for international cooperation in the growing realm of green business.

Most importantly, for the fish themselves, the brakoneer’s nets were kept out of the Kvachina, Snatolvayam, Sopochnaya and Utholok Rivers. The positive result was on full display in 1999 when, after a single 5-year life-cycle, a second generation of protected steelhead returned in greater numbers than they had in decades. The same was true again with a third generation in 2004.

In 2003, however, a shake-up in the Russian wildlife management bureaucracy caused the angler component of the KSP to be suspended. Science and anti-poaching efforts continued independently until 2008, and then funding dried up.

No one with a conservation interest has been on the steelhead rivers of Kamchatka in two years, despite Moscow University’s desire to continue research, and despite the threat of the brakoneer, who view steelhead as money to pluck from an unpatrolled river.

Having anglers on the steelhead rivers of Kamchatka was a demonstrably good thing for fish populations.

***

I distinctly remember the first wild steelhead I ever saw. I stood on a logjam, peering down at it from above as it held in swift, clear current. It was so big compared to a trout! And it held its place with a mixture of honesty, pride, beauty, and mystery. If it had had a passport, it would no doubt be overflowing with stamps from oceanic wanderings through Canada, the United States, Russia, maybe even Japan and Korea. And yet there it was, doing it’s own thing, oblivious to its anthropomorphic qualities, in a rain-swollen creek amid cedars and spruce in Southeast Alaska. I became instantaneously obsessed, and I hadn’t cast yet.

Like Savvaitova and Soverel – in fact, though I didn’t know it at the time, through them – I first became interested in Kamchatka because of the rumors of steelhead. I had seen the pictures in the magazines and heard the fishermen’s chatter on rivers. In December of 2003 I contacted Soverel and somehow talked myself into a guide gig within his program, now expanded to include the great trout streams of Kamchatka. A couple months later the plug was pulled on the Kamchatka Steelhead Project.

Now news has come through of its revival.

Until September 15th, I’ll be the guy in the corner, collapsed, twitching in a puddle of adrenaline.

Preemptive Strike – Umpqua River, Oregon, USA

[Just in from Justin Crump. (Nice wordplay, eh? ‘just in’ and ‘justin,’ get it?)] 

Hola Amigo,
We need to do some good old fashioned grass-roots work to keep the umpqua catch and release.  Ever since the river has gone catch and release, there has been a small faction of very vocal individuals trying to get the decision overturned.  They have been calling and emailing fish and game complaining about the situation.  When we were fighting to get things back to catch and release, odfw heard tons of people’s voices telling them about how they wanted to release fish….now all they are hearing is what people dont like about the program.  There have been gravel bar rumors about changing the fishery in the next few years.  We need to let odfw know how much we appreciate the fishery the way it is.   The person to contact is Laura Jackson.  I think even a hand full of phone calls could really make a difference…  Could you post something on your blog?  The key here is to stay away from the form emails, but a real voice, which I think they will listen to better…..here is her info I grabbed from the site.  I’m going to send an email now…  Kate is going to post something on her blog, and I’m going to spread the word to others to do the same…

Laura Jackson, (541) 440-3353 ext. 247, Laura.S.Jackson@state.or.us

Happy people don't kill wild steelhead. Dawn Chou and guide, Rich Zellman represent both the personal and economic benefits of letting wild steelhead hang around with us on Earth. Photo: Brian Chou

The Dean, 1984 – 1994

john gross. kahki hat, stash, shades.

As Jim Anchower would say, hola amigos, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. I haven’t had much to report of late. I suppose I could have written about how much it’s been raining here in Redding, or about the time my rig broke down and I had to take the Greyhound home (a scruffily dressed young man got on at a stop in the town of Weed, California smelling heavily of weed, the drug – he appeared unaware of the irony), or about our sweet new refrigerator (it has an ice maker.) Apart from that awesome stuff, nothing much has happened…except for getting lucky with the video camera this fall/winter. Something should come of that in the next wee while.

Anyway, now this is happening: Ken Maimone called up The Fly Shop the other day with some questions about sea trout fishing on the Rio Grande in Tierra del Fuego. As it happened, a friend of mine was fishing there on that very day and I’d just got his report from the lodge that he’d had an 18 fish day. I related this to Ken, and, in the great tradition of fish story conversations between new aquintences, topics started bouncing from river to river and around the world.

Then it all settled down firmly on British Columbia’s Dean, a river I’ve never fished, and am not sure I ever will. Ken and his friends used to make annual pilgramages there between 1984 and 1994. As he spoke his voice was full of deep emotion, pregnant pauses and a certain dreaminess, as if he were telling the stories not to me, but to himself in an effort to re-live them. He’d been there, in the prime years of fish abundance on probably the greatest steelhead flyfishing river on the planet. I hung on every word. At the end of the conversation he said he’d send me some photographs, and he did. I think they’re amazing. We spoke again and I took a few simple notes as we talked about the photos. Both are included below.

Even if I never get to cast into the Dean or hold a steelhead from it, I’ll be happy to have visited it here in Ken’s photos, where it feels perfect.

Gary Maimone

1987 - commercial fishing strike. no nets. 76 steelhead for ken in the week. 15 fish three days in a row. Smoked two bogdan reels.

Thomas Mallory

dave franklin - elmer fudd hat. big fish.

Hugo Maimone. first dean steelhead.

Victoria Pool, sunrise, 300 yards long

double hookup on stump hole. dave franklin, van van arsdale. guy in forground has no big deal look. every day each guy waded in at same time, made cast at same time, hooked up on first cast at same time.

canyon shot overhung, from bella coola waiting rock (below photo.)

bella coolas would sit and wait for salmon to come in. petroglyphs on rocks. outlined in chalk by modern day river people.

van vanarsdale - white beard.

ken with black shirt on. chased three quarters of mile

“I’m sure you have your favorite spots. This was mine. The day I left, I started counting the days until I came back.

It was the greatest place in the world.

That place owned me.”

-Ken Maimone



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