Monday, February 23, 2009

My letter to the editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal regarding the removal of the Estabrook Dam on our Milwaukee River

I wrote this letter as a rebuttal to a deceptive and disingenuous letter written on behalf of property owners eager to protect a contaminated impoundment.

The original letter to the editor can be found here.
Read it first, then my rebuttal.

Removal of the Estabrook Dam will benefit us all

By Erik Helm

The removal of the dam on the Milwaukee River at Estabrook Park, and its restoration to a free-flowing state will benefit us all with a natural asset, cleaner water, and increased recreational opportunities, but if one reads the recent letter to the Journal Sentinal by Glen Goebel of the Milwaukee River Preservation Association (MRPA) one might think otherwise.

The MRPA has some legitimate concerns, mainly regarding the river levels adjoining their properties, flood control, and property values, most which have already been addressed, but if the letter represents their opinion, they seem to have to cloak their real concerns with obfuscation. At the end of the letter Mr. Goebel writes “Don’t be fooled by selective science…” which sounds suspiciously like “Don’t let the facts confuse you.”

Uninformed citizens reading this letter would be led to believe that dams and their resulting impoundments lead to cleaner water, that the silt and toxic PCB filled ‘lake’ upstream of the dam constitutes “A beautiful historical and recreational gem”, that the removal of the North Avenue and other dams led to the outbreak of cryptosporidium and algae blooms in Lake Michigan, or that free-flowing water contributes to pollution by moving and scouring sediment.

On the contrary, free-flowing rivers cleanse themselves. The removal of the North Avenue Dam led to the river speeding up, scouring and cleaning the sediment, creating riffles and pools and natural river-flow structures. This led directly to the emergence of aquatic insect life, and a change in fish population from rough species such as carp to an explosion of clean water gamefish. With the fish came fish-eating birds such as herons, osprey, and mergansers, a true indication of cleaner water. The river in this stretch became a recreational and natural asset with the removal of a single dam. Visit the river in the heart of the city at Hubbard Park, where it flows unobstructed and free, and be amazed at the treasure we now enjoy. This is what awaits us upstream of the Estabrook Dam if it is removed.

The impoundment created by the dam, by comparison, creates an artificial pool of stagnant water, degrades fish habitat, warms the water, lowers dissolved oxygen levels, and allows sediment accumulation. Full of highly toxic PCBs, the sediments must be removed, a plan the Wisconsin DNR has in place. This toxic ‘lake’ which dates back to the 1930s was intended for recreation, but the ladies with parasols rowing boats in Lincoln Park disappeared long ago. Where they docked their rowboats sits a smelly mud flat on which nothing will grow. Dam removal and cleanup would lead to increased park area and usability here.

The implication that the removal of dams on the river contributed to or caused cryptosporidium outbreaks and algae blooms in Lake Michigan is a simple scare tactic, and disingenuous. Cryptosporidium outbreaks have been traced to heavy rains, sewer overflows, and agricultural runoff, while the algae bloom is due to changing lake conditions.

Finally there is the Estabrook Dam itself; an aging structure badly in need of repair and constant maintenance, which is a financial drain on the county and the taxpayers. It is estimated that repairs will exceed 1.3 million of our tax dollars. The PCB laden sediment must be removed according to remediation plans already written. Why not restore the river in the process instead of throwing good money after bad trying to repair and maintain a dam that’s purpose has long ago faded away? The financial costs for removal need not be born entirely by taxpayers. Funds are available from federal and state sources. Otherwise, the maintenance costs of the crumbling dam will be born by county taxpayers in perpetuity.

The special interests of the few residents concerned with motor boating and property values, and seemingly deaf to the reassurances of the Wisconsin DNR and other experts, should not outweigh the long-term benefits to the entire community of an unobstructed and free-flowing river. A river, which in places has already returned to its native beauty due to a single dam removal.

Let us all enjoy the benefits of a clean free-flowing river gracing our urban community. Call your County Supervisor and tell them that you support removal of the Estabrook Dam.

Erik Helm is a life-long Milwaukee County resident, writer, and concerned taxpayer. He lives in Shorewood.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A parable

A little story I wrote to protest the killing of wild fish. This was specifically in response to a post on Washington Fly Fishing regarding a 30 Lb. steelhead caught and killed on the Hoh river on the Olympic Peninsula.

A parable:

Once upon a time there was a great river. It ran free and wild from the glacial mountains all the way to the sea, and was filled with wild steelhead. Anglers fished it for years, and tradition and legend were powerful. Then, one year, the state decided that revenue generation was needed through increased fishing license sales. To that effect the state allowed a single wild steelhead to be harvested per angler-per day. Pressure increased, but no one was worried, after all, the river had over 30,000 returning wild fish per year. Ten years later the fishery collapsed. Everyone searched around for the culprit. Some blamed the Native Americans, others the foreign anglers. People blamed the commercial fishing boats out at sea, they blamed the cormorants, the seals, pollution, bears, etc. They decided to have a meeting in the town hall to determine what had happened. Angry and concerned anglers and citizens filled the limited seats and spilled out into the aisles. For hours people spoke, expressing their opinions. Experts showed charts and graphs. Finally one old wizened soul with unsteady hands and hunched back went up to the lectern. "I been lis'nen to ya here, and I think I can tell ya what's what. I lived on dis here river all my life. I got three pounds 'a pretty pebbles in my pocket. I'm puttin them on this here table, and I want each of ya to come up here an' take just one." The old man produced a mound of shiny polished colorful stones on the table, and each concerned citizen went forward to select just one from the pile. When they were done, there was just one semi-precious stone left. "Now I's gonna tells ya what happened to the fishes" the old man said. He slowly walked over to the single remaining stone, and grasping it gently between his shaking fingers, raised it up to the light, and then slowly placed it in his pocket. "I got mine" he said. He slowly walked out of the meet'n hall. The citizens hung their heads, and muttered protests and realizations could be heard. "But I only just took the one..."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A little poem I found

This little poem hung on the bulletin board of the flyshop I used to run. I have absolutely no idea where it came from, or who wrote it, but it sure is profound, deep, and reflective, which is why it hung where it did. Please let me share this with you. Sit back, pour a nice merlot and enjoy...

Casting Reels

You find them at flea markets
and yard sales,
old South Bends and Pfluegers,
with fancy engraving,
knurled knobs and pearl handles,
spooled with the fraying line
of long stories snarled into silence,
not just exaggerated tales of walleyes, bass, and catfish,
but of hardworking men who on Saturdays sought out
the solace of lakes, who on weekdays at desks,
or standing on ladders,
or next to clattering machines
played out their youth and strength
waiting to set the hook, and then,
in their sixties, felt the line go slack
and reeled the years back empty.
They are the ones that got away...

Monday, February 16, 2009

The pure joy of the unpretentious panfish

This last year I rediscovered the pure joy of fishing for sunfish. I had forgotten them or moved passed them in order to pursue more 'mature and intellectual' targets such as trout. In coming back to these colorful little fish, I rediscovered the innocent and uncomplicated fishing I enjoyed as a youth. It was if I had stepped into a time machine. I found again a world of pleasure before pretensions; before we wondered if we could name drop enough Latin entomology to fit in at the local fly fishing club; a time before we wondered which wine complimented a certain flyline; a time before ego, and before seriousness petrified our laughter. It was and is again, an un-pressured fishing, where you may catch three dozen fish or only a dozen, and not give a damn either way. I didn’t really care how big they were, because they were all so eager to eat pretty much anything that I threw to them and hook themselves, that I was too busy having fun landing fish to even think about it.

The little fish have character. They never stop fighting with their tiny spunk and energy. It makes you giggle.

One thing that became apparent as I floated around area lakes and ponds, was the absolutely deadliness of fly fishing as a technique to catch panfish. Again and again, I passed people fishing with sunk worms and bobbers, and picked up fish left and right of them. I began to feel kind of guilty. The little fish displayed so much eagerness for my foam bugs that several would come out of the water and dive down onto the bug to take it from above. It was sort of like teasing a kitten with a ball of yarn or a piece of string. I could cast to shore and let my fly sit still for a half a minute, then twitch it a bit and watch the water literally boil as the fish competed with each other to get to it first.

Unlimited fun. Such spunk.
A heck of a way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The evolution and de-evolution of fly fishing

Perhaps it is that I am just getting older, but I am questioning more and more the direction that fly fishing seems to be headed. I am certainly not alone, and this blog post is the result of long conversations with some of the finest anglers, rod builders, and sportsmen that I know. Each conversation has turned slowly but inexorably to this subject. Have the new emerging technologies and the demands that fly fishing extend to places never touched before, and that ease of casting, presentation, etc. allow anglers to fish with ease without having to gain expertise through time on the river?
Or, maybe I am part of a growing movement of backlash against what many see as a highjacked sport. Call us the “Misanthropic anglers.”

Here are the opening remarks from The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane:

"The sport of angling used to be a genteel business, at least in the world of ideals, a world of ladies and gentlemen. These have been replaced by a new set of paradigms: the bum, the addict, and the maniac. I'm afraid that this says much about the times we live in. The fisherman now is one who defies society, who rips lips, who drains the pool, who takes no prisoners, who is not to be confused with the sissy with the creel and the bamboo rod. Granted, he releases that which he catches, but in some cases, he strips the quarry of its perilous soul before tossing it back in the water. What was once a trout-- cold, hard, spotted, and beautiful--becomes "number seven."

I am bringing up rhetorical questions here. I am guilty of using some of the gear and tactics I am questioning. I don’t have the answers, just the questions. The answers lie in ourselves. Nor should the questions I bring up be considered my opinions. I know I am going to take some heat here, so remember that these are just thoughts.

Is the aid of technology turning fly fishing into baitcasting? Shorter and shorter shooting head lines allow us to cast easier and farther and throw ‘flies’ that have evolved into massive things that resemble lures more than they do anything even seen on the end of a flyline twenty years ago. What is worse is that this has taken over the world of steelhead fly fishing so completely that some people think that they can’t catch a steelhead using any other technique, as if the great pioneers of our sport never could catch a fish. Thinking and adaptation are a natural progression. Throwing out the baby with the bath-water is not.
When does a flyline stop being a flyline and become a bait-casting line? When will anglers lose the ability to cast and instead just chuck it out there? If we design a flyline that is just a two-foot blob of PVC, but weighs the same as a conventional line, is it a flyline? Where is the line drawn? Is there a line? Does the casting define fly fishing? What if we use a flyrod with monofilament line as is done here in the Midwest? What if we use the latest super compact flylines to throw small spoons or spinners? Does the fly make it flyfishing? One thing is for sure, If we ran into the ghost of a great angler of the past century while wandering the river, the ghost would not recognize some of what we do as fly fishing.

Spey rods are getting shorter and shorter and now ‘switch’ rods are all the rage. These are used to throw Skagit lines and giant ‘flies’ made from materials found at craft stores. The proliferation of compacted heads of less than thirty feet with slick running line make it possible for even Elmer Fudd to hit the other side of the river. (I should know…I cast like Elmer Fudd) Some anglers have never used any other system and have never learned to cast even a mid-belly speyline.
Once again, I must stress that I am being rhetorical here. I use Skagit lines too, especially in spring when the water is high and cold. It is so easy it isn’t funny. I started worrying that it might cause me to lose my actual spey casting technique.

Fly fishing has become the newest generation X/Y adrenaline sport, especially in the language used to describe it. Words like “Thrash”, or “Shred”, and “MoFo” are used to describe a day on the water. Gone is the eloquence and the appreciation of nature. Catching fish is the be all and end all. Restraint has been left on the wayside along with everything else from the sporting tradition inherited from the past. Some of these new ‘dudes’ act like they invented fly fishing sometime in early 2000. Perhaps it is the rhetoric and the accompanying tone that is the real problem. As Shane at the quiet pool blog has described it “Screw everyone else, I gotta get mine!”

Online publications such as “This is Fly” read more like a snowboard magazine. I can’t even follow what the hell they are writing about.

A sporting tradition by definition is about restraint, appreciation, and a fair game between you and your sporting quarry.

By adapting fly fishing through application of new technology, we can catch fish where we could not catch them before. Deep runs are conquered with application of deep sinking tips such as T-14, or the addition of split-shot and bobbers. Increasingly powerful graphite rods allow us to cast much farther, and may diminish our ability to stalk and read water. Is this a good thing? Is this evolution natural? I don’t know…

Vast new ranges of rods and lines available guarantee that many of us seem to spend most of the time obsessing with our gear instead of exploring new water, or just being happy to be out there. Some anglers think they can’t catch a ten-inch stocker rainbow without a super fast action $700.00 rod and matching high tech. Large-arbor disk drag reel.

One thing that seems to be lacking in the new generation of “Thrash” fly fishermen is a proper foundation in the sport. As I have written before in this blog, I divide angling into four stages: Desire to catch a fish, desire to catch the most fish, desire to catch the biggest fish, and finally the appreciation to just go fishing. Much of what I read from many online boards and magazines seems to indicate that increasingly the new wave of anglers out there entered fly fishing at stage two or three, and will forever be stuck there. Stage one is the all-important step. Learning by being skunked. Learning to read water, learning to appreciate nature. Learning to make gear a non-issue when on the water. Reading and learning that the things you have learned were also discovered by anglers in the past. The whole process of becoming a fly fishermen is key here. It is a long and winding road and really should not be hurried or cut short. Entering the angler’s progression in the middle with gear that allows one to cast and fish every run like never before without really knowing why or what one is doing is like running before learning how to walk. You may be able to run really fast, but because you never learned how to stop, stand, or walk, your journey will inevitably end when you fall on your ass. Without the proper foundation (which is disdained) when the adrenaline is gone or the envelope pushed to its limit, these anglers will have nothing to fall back on, and will move on to the next cool and popular extreme sport.

Another thing that is lacking is restraint. Fly fishing should not be about enhancing your own ego through rippin’ lips. Sometimes that fast deep slot that holds the 20 inch brown nicknamed “Bullwinkle” should be left to dusk and big drys instead of adding sixteen splitshot to our leaders and dappling along the bank with a bobber. Restraint can apply to our limitations as fishermen and sportsmen. It can apply to the accepted limitations of our equipment. It can apply to how we approach the water and the fishing experience. It can apply to how we approach life. Sometimes there is such a thing as “Enough.”

Another casualty seems to be courtesy. When one wants to own the river stretch and catch every fish, hang out with their buddies that look, dress, and talk like they do, and scorn anything different, then the mind begins to close. A closed mind and lack of foundation lead to a lack of courtesy. It amazes me how many times I cannot get the ‘time of day’ from someone in the river. We all seem to guard ‘our territory’ like so many adolescent baboons. The people who I do have good conversations with inevitably are open minded and courteous. They do not low-hole other anglers, hog runs, make fun of others, etc. There is mutual respect for the river, the fish, and other anglers. Respect. Giving and not selfish.

I don’t have the answers, but perhaps I can spur some thinking…