My Home In The North

Whew! It’s been a little crazed around here with time in BC, then Ventura, then hustling to try to make up all the work and chores that accumulated while I was away. In short, I’ve been a little busy. But now I’m back and cranking up the blog again. Starting with British Columbia, and the Skeena in particular, which feels as much like home to me as where we actually live. That’s what it looks like, above.

We started with a few days of boat tinkering and party prep at the Hill house in Terrace. By Saturday, we were ready, and people poured in from all over the province to celebrate our great friend, Bruce Hill, on the anniversary of his passing. That’s my buddy Aaron Hill and Dr. Jacko prepping the lamb, above. What a feast! As if the lamb wasn’t enough, we made dozens of pizzas in the outdoor wood-fired oven, piled on the salads and veggies and desserts and wine, and wrapped it all up with a late-night bonfire. I think Bruce would approve.

Next day, Yvon, Rick, Aaron, Colin and I packed up our fish gear and headed up to The Shack. For more huge meals, more incredible wine (one older than me, and one older than Yvon), more fantastic stories, too many dogs to count, and more great friends stopping by to chat and eat. I should add that there were five gorgeous, pungent, fresh, black truffles from France that made their way into almost everything. That’s Yvon, above, demonstrating that his roast-lamb-and-barley soup could indeed support a spoon on its own.

Good thing the food and friends were good, because the fishing was not. We experienced historically low water–the Kispiox wasn’t even really fishable–and brutally chilly temps. We battled lines freezing up solid in the guides, and sheet ice forming on waders. We felt lucky to find even a few fish aggressive enough to chase down our flies. That’s a nice one from way up the Skeena, below. As someone said, “Fishing is just what we do to pass the time between meals.”

And yet, it was a time to be treasured, one I will savor for years to come. To Anne, Aaron, Julia, Yvon, Rick, Colin, Greg, Shannon, Gerald, Gail, the Clays, and all the rest of my northern family, a huge and mighty thanks. You are a blessing in my life.

Sunday Evening Fish

After a long afternoon of sitting on the couch watching football–yes, the Seahawks actually won–and stuffing ourselves with nachos and jalapeno poppers (thanks, Morgan!), we were in dire need of some outside time. Better yet, on-the-water time. Luckily, the tides were lining up just right, the wind fell out, and blue skies prevailed. So we loaded up the crew into Smarty’s party barge. That’s Pete, Weston, Skyla, Morgan and Halo preparing for a serious fish session.

Of course, we took turns on the rods, ensuring a peanut gallery of comments with every attempt. After working out some “casting issues,” we started putting flies in good spots. That’s Skyla on the bow trying to ignore the hostile crowd.

And yes, we even found a few fish–gorgeous, fat sea-run cutthroats that came up to eat our flies and make the peanut gallery cheer. Crisp, autumn air, blue skies, plenty of fish, and good friends. On the way back in, a huge, almost-full harvest moon rose to the east. Awesome. Thanks, Smarty!

Pie Time Again

We can’t let summer slip into rain without one of the best parts of the season: blackberry pie! Especially when my mom comes up to teach the technique, and my brother brings his kids to help out and partake. That’s my niece, Nora, Mom, and Skyla teaming up to perfect the lattice crust, above. One of the benefits of slacking off on yard maintenance around here is that the blackberries–a hated, thorny, aggressive, invasive species 11 months of the year–now make for easy picking without leaving home. The kids teamed up to gather a bucket of berries, then Mom showed us all the secrets to the light, flaky, savory crust we love. The masterpiece, below. So good. The best dessert around, and potentially even better for breakfast. If we’re lucky enough to enjoy another dry stretch, should be one more push of ripening berries. Make and eat as many pies as you can! And don’t forget the vanilla ice cream.

Puget Sound Kings: Orca Survival

Photo: John Durban/Oregon State University

Our southern resident killer whales, the local, salmon-eating orcas, are starving to death. Literally. And my last post, about the small size of the king salmon we boated this summer, and how we ate them, has me thinking a lot about the whales we see on a fairly regular basis around our home waters. There are currently 75 SRKWs left. Not seventy-five thousand. Not seventy-five hundred. Seventy. Five. Period. They haven’t had a live birth in three years. And the nation was transfixed last month by the story of a mourning mother whale who carried her stillborn baby for 17 days and a thousand miles. Heartbreaking, to say the least.

These whales mean a lot to me personally. Like me, they are salmon fisherman, with a strong preference for the fatty flesh of large Chinook salmon. I’ve fished around them, watched them, and once, spent a night in a tent on the west shore of San Juan Island, listening to them breathe as they slept not more than 100 feet away. But more than any personal connection, the southern resident killer whales, as the apex predator of our Salish Sea, are the canary-in-the-coal-mine of our local waters.

Unlike the healthier populations of transient, marine-mammal-eating killer whales, SRKWs not only prefer Chinook salmon, they need them to survive. Specifically, the scientists tell us, they need large, fat-laden wild Chinook salmon. But over the last century, the size and fat content of these fish has decreased precipitously–before 1920, the average size of an adult Puget Sound king was about 25 pounds. In recent years, the average has fallen below 10 pounds per fish. This summer, at least for us, the average was probably closer to seven.

The overall numbers have plummeted as well: Today, we are at less than 10% of the historical population of Puget Sound wild Chinook. There are a number of factors involved, but the dominant forces that have shrunk the population–and the individual fish themselves–are an intensive open-ocean, mixed-stock commercial fishery, exacerbated by heavy reliance on hatchery production. In short, the only fish that survive the harvest are those that spend as little time as possible (i.e., mature quickly) in the kill zone off the coast of British Columbia. We are selecting for fish that mature at a younger age and smaller size. Add the inbreeding, domestication and lack of diversity–which result in poor overall survival–found in hatchery salmon, and it’s no wonder the orcas are starving.

If we want to save the last of our southern resident killer whales, we need both short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, simply put, the whales need more king salmon to eat. Right now.

That leaves two options to feed the whales immediately: We can either ramp up hatchery production, or reduce open-ocean harvest. Not surprisingly, Governor Inslee has recommended a large increase in hatchery Chinook production. This means nobody needs to stop fishing, and theoretically, there will be more fish for sport fishermen and commercial fishermen as well. It also means more money for the hatchery industry. In other words, a “painless” and politically popular decision.

The other option, to curtail ocean fisheries, would be incredibly unpopular by people who vote. It would hurt commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and tribal and government-run hatcheries. But hatcheries are a part of what got us to this point in the first place. More importantly, science shows that the addition of more hatchery fish frequently results in fewer fish available for harvest, by humans or whales. And, since we know that the presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild fish recovery, Governor Inslee’s recommendation could actually work counter to the desired goal of providing more food for SRKWs in both short- and long term. Shooting ourselves in the foot, as it were. And it puts us in the uncomfortable position of choosing to further endanger one endangered species (wild Chinook) to save another (SRKW).

So the only real short-term solution is the painful one. We need to fish less. That would involve shifting open-ocean fisheries to areas closer to river mouths (the salmons’ destinations) so we can know which fish we are harvesting, and allow the orcas to have the “first shot” at larger numbers of Chinook salmon. No extra money for the hatchery industry. And probably an overall reduction in sport and comercial fishing opportunities. This would clearly upset a fair number of voters, making it more difficult for elected officials who support such a plan to be reelected. But it’s the job of responsible government to make unpopular decisions for the greater good. Especially when a vast majority of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies support those unpopular decisions. If saving southern resident killer whales is truly what we consider to be a greater good, this it the time for our officials, including Governor Inslee, to listen to the science and do the right thing.

And that’s just the beginning. SRKWs feed off the mouth of the Columbia River in winter to take advantage of the highest-fat-content salmon of the year–spring Chinook bound for Idaho’s Snake, Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. Those fish, like Puget Sound summer kings, have also shrunk dramatically in size and number. Last September, I spent days traveling up and down those rivers in Idaho looking at miles of empty gravel riffles. Habitat that should have been packed with spawning spring Chinook. But the four lower Snake River dams have taken a brutal toll on these fish, as well as the prized wild B-run steelhead. We need to redouble our efforts to remove these obsolete dams. But I’ve also recently learned that there’s a quicker potential option, and since the state of the orcas is dire, I think we need to consider it: Opening up the locks at these dams and allowing the reservoirs to drain and the river to run freely through them. It’s not in lieu of removing dams, just a quicker way to gain similar benefits in a much shorter period of time.

Anyway, these are the options I hope Governor Inslee, and the task force he’s assembled to address the SRKW situation, will consider. And implement. But given the unpopular nature of what I’m suggesting, and a politician’s need for reelection, I’m not holding my breath. Look at climate change: A staggering majority of scientists tell us it’s happening, we caused it, and the effects will be catastrophic. And yet we elected a President and a majority in congress who not only refuse to act, or even believe the science, but are in fact working to deconstruct even the smallest efforts to stop heating up our planet. If our governor wants to be seen as the rational, scientifically driven politician, which I believe he does, I suggest he study up on the science of salmon and not make hatcheries his own version of climate denial.

Puget Sound Kings: 2018 Season

We wrapped up our local king season a couple weeks back, but we’ve had our hands full with Skyla’s high-school volleyball tryouts and practices, a huge family reunion, book events, and all the usual summer fun. So just finding the time to post now. In short, it was a surprisingly decent season, with good numbers of fish around, at least in the places and times we fished. The majority of fish we boated, saw and heard about, though, were exceptionally small this year–perhaps a result of an ocean still recovering from The Blob hot water event. They did, however, provide some fantastic eating for us. King chunks and belly strips, pre-smoke drying phase, below.

My standard late-night, just-out-of-the-smoker shot. Gotta vac-seal and freeze as much as possible for kids’ favorite school lunch!

And king caviar as part of a “deconstructed” ikura sushi bowl, below, with a mix of white, brown and wild rice and toasted, crumbled nori on top. Once again, much as I love smoked king, the eggs are my favorite part of the fish. At the rate the kids are plowing through our cured eggs, I think they agree.