Wednesday, April 10, 2013
-Ruffed grouse society
Watch and listen here
The first grouse I remember busted between us and whirled like a sideways bottle rocket between some spruce in a Minnesota river bottom and the boy who had taken me along lifted his .410 and sent a flame and a charge in the general direction of the bird, then chased it as if by chance a BB had struck home.
There was none. No chance. No feathers. No quarry. Just some emptiness where the bird had been and a sky that slowly colored red like an autumn sunset.
That fall, or maybe one subsequent, my friends and I followed bird hunters on the trails they used through the poplar woods picking up offal, the striped tail feathers of ruffed grouse and sometimes the hairy feet where hunters who downed birds cleaned them leaving everything in the woods but the meat.
We caressed the feathers and brushed them against our skin, admired the black billowy ruffs that shone purple in autumn’s light and invariable stuck banded tail feathers into the air holes of our baseball caps. If we found a head, we pushed cap quills against the grain so they stood like Robin Hood’s hat on the dead bird’s pate and looked into small shining pebbles of eyes that turned opaque.
Our love for ruffed grouse was sealed. From those early days we became engrossed in a culture of birds – the only upland bird in our neighborhood woods –that included, eventually, scatter-guns, leather Irish Setter boots and a game bag with a canvas hunting hat bought at the hardware store for a buck.
Once, when I was old enough to hire on as a farm hand, I was met on a forest road by a grouse whose spring mating territory I and the Farm-All had encroached. I throttled down the tractor and the grouse strutted, its ruffs blazing, a look in its small black eyes like a comic book David meeting Goliath and confident of the outcome. In this case, I sat on the steel seat and watched in fascination as the ruff fluttered up and slammed the tractor with its feet, once, twice, then having accomplished whatever it thought necessary to keep this giant steel beast I rode from mating with its hens, the ruffed grouse strutted back into the forest, and I throttled up – the tractor’s engine sounding a lot like a drumming grouse – and went on my way.
I returned often that spring in the early morning before school to listen to that and other grouse drum, and I found their logs, crawled near them in an effort to shoot film of a drumming ruffed grouse in a Minnesota woodland as the trillium bloomed, but failed each time as school and the threat of tardiness waited.
From a high school teacher who worked closely with grouse biologists, I learned about drummers and satellite drummers, of color phases and cover, habitat and how those grouse where I lived depended mostly on the male buds of mature aspen trees for food especially in winter. A cold, wet spring can stymie a grouse population. Only 40 chicks of every 100 make it to fall. Of those just 18 survive the winter and 8 may live to mate the following year.
Numbers ticked like verb conjugation.
Hawks, owls, fox, skunks, coons and boys with shotguns all kill grouse, some more fluently than others. Hunters take the fewest compared to predators, and habitat, or the lack thereof influences survivability.
Hard grouse facts that I recounted as I filled trembling aspen leaves with BB holes and skidded the silver bark of poplars in often vain effort at bagging birds each autumn, until I left.
It was many years later on an Idaho back road in spring that I was reacquainted with ole ruff. The road went past a farm gate and climbed a mountain as it narrowed and eventually ran through another gate, this one locked. I explored and stopped the pickup and smelled the perfume of cottonwoods that rose on warm air from the river. Robins and a varied thrush piped. I looked for turkey tracks. Then the sound like a lawnmower engine slowly starting until it whirred, and pumped through the trees. I climbed after it.
I still am.
Each spring on my acres I await the drumming of grouse. I know their logs, at least on my property, and some on the neighbors’ too. I built a blind one year to take pictures, but just as when I was a boy, the male ruffed grouse resorted to drumming on a secondary log and I got no photos.
You have to rise early to shoot pictures of drumming grouse.
My high school teacher did it often, and well.
“The grouse moved out when the turkeys moved in,” a neighbor said.
I think some of that is true. Idaho Fish and Game doesn’t bother much with ruffed grouse, prefers to call the bird “forest grouse,” in a move that mixes apathy with the economics of the game tag and the game bag. Merriam turkeys provide more opportunity the department likes to say and charges 18 bucks for a gobbler tag while, for grouse, same limits apply no matter the species. This gives the impression to grouse hunters – the few that exist in the Gem State – that spruce, blue and ruffed grouse are just a mix and match bag, just fool's hens, so they ground sluice them, or blast them from a tree for the pot.
As kids we were taught to wing shoot. It was a new phrase and we grew into it. Anyone shooting a bird on the ground or from a limb was thoroughly castigated, even though in some ways we secretly envied them their lack of scruples since our dads, uncles or mentors wouldn’t let us do it. The birds had to be shot on the fly because that we learned later, made us wing shooters, it honed our senses and intuition, it kept us on our toes and made us react with a drawn gun, a click of the safety and a pumped shell all in a fraction of a second, whether we hit bird or not. Ground blasters were something akin to dopes, the lesson went. They were the saliva spitting knuckle draggers of the one brow school where single syllable words met Hubba Bubba.
Because of this, we often hunted for days without killing a bird not without having the begeezus scared out of us as we blasted 7-shot wads through the trees at knee slapping, we assumed, ruffed grouse.
It’s late evening in spring. Tomorrow, down by the creek, the drumming of a ruffed grouse will whirr over the steady sound of rushing water. The grouse will start early, in the tick of night, and he will drum until 9 or 10, long after the school bus has gone and the clanking of the log trucks going for a second load passes on the road nearby.
I may go out at first light, walk across the dew wet field. I will move only when I hear the drumming and then stop when it stops. I will walk to the woods edge and then cross the creek. My shoes will be wet by then, my hands cold. The last stars will flicker in a sky getting blue.
The grouse will drum and I will push away brush, dogwood and the iron like whips of ocean spray. Syringa buds and catkins of cottonwoods will stick to my wool shirt.
When the grouse drums I will move toward the sound until I am very near the bird. I may hear it quietly cluck, or it may flush with the whirring thunder like muffled pyrotechnics. If I kneel, I may see it through the maze of brush on its log. May see it cup its wings and then pump, pump, pump like a lawnmower firing up.
I have done this a long time, and I plan to keep on.
A spring woods without grouse I have come to re-learn, is no spring woods at all, and a fall wood too needs grouse to test our reflexes and break us of epicurean habit.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
We said the same thing for a long time. We mimicked others who said it. We were silver arowanas – water monkeys – that pretend to be tarpon but live in the Amazon.
In this northern region we have only read about arowanas, or tarpon for that matter, usually on long winter nights. We are better versed in calibers for ungulates, and don’t use that word because no one knows what it means. In this northern region we had – at one time - just two choices, neither of them very good as the eye doctor says: We could forego chasing elk in the high country in fall. We could miss watching from a distance as herd bulls bugled above tree line in the early day, steam rising from their backs with the mystery of Yellowstone while we fished the rivers that were empty but for the sound of one’s screaming bail when big fish, molested by few in September, pulled line to the backing.
Or, we could spend still-hot autumn days in the hills chasing bulls while secretly dreaming of cool and unmolested rivers and the kype-faced trout pulled from them.
It was a dilemma. Either this way, or that.
It was like Dante but spelled differently.
… Spelled like quandary. Out here in the hollers of North Idaho we look for similarities and find them.
Then something unusual happened. The game department used intuition. It went all pragmatic. Someone, somewhere in an office down a hallway behind a door partly closed under a fluorescent light, said screw it anyhow. This government official, perhaps plagued by indigestion or the hollow ring of a coffee headache used the eraser on the end of a pencil to peel little pink rubberized flakes onto paper expunging some letter or line. The official added a hash mark to a computer modeling program, which in turn showed the affect of the change exponentially as the official sighed loudly enough for another official in a cube nearby to mimic the sigh. Yes, like an arowana again, and there followed a domino effect of rebellion, of paper cuts and paper airplanes and a lot of small yelps – civil servants raising cain - pencil leads broke, someone cracked a Mountain Dew.
The glorious expulsion of human virtue passed and things got back to the nitty gritty of number crunching, frugally spent tax dollars and steel doors echoing down long, two-toned hallways where empty elevators went ding.
The next thing a few of us North Idaho anglers knew, we were knee deep in a March stream catching big cutthroat trout on streamers as motorists drove up alongside the road, rolled down the windows on their trucks and kindly informed us, "This river is closed to fishing in spring, you numb nuts!"
We thanked them and fished on, of course.
What had really transpired was an act of attrition. Idaho Fish & Game decided to simplify the Panhandle’s fishing regulations, opening the stream season on trout all year, but requiring anglers release cutthroat. Bull trout were on the endangered list and although seemingly common, could not be kept, and mountain whitefish could.
Brook trout and rainbows, where they were found, could fill a creel because they were non-natives and not wanted. Not by the game department, anyhow. Not really.
After what seemed a tradition of winter and spring stream closures many anglers failed to either take notice of the new regulations, or they approached them with suspicion and then disbelief, hence the many helpful motorists who pulled alongside the road near streams to edify the few who had bothered to acquaint themselves with the state’s fishing rules.
“Get out of that river, you Bumpkin, before I call the fish cops!”
After a while passers became accustomed to us in the river. We were government, they divined, and this a conspiracy of some sort. They nervously searched the sky for helicopters like checking the weather and generally left us alone.
This went on for years.
We, the few of us who kept our calendars open each spring checked the latest regulations as if we anticipated the fish and game folks would be apprised of this aberration - someone's deliberate miscalculation - that they called a winter fishing season. We giggled quietly to ourselves like giddy farm children when we saw no change in the regulations year after year and watched the thermometer to make sure the rivers in March, when the fish bit the best, ran clear and high enough to form sploosh pools, deep shelves and buckets.
And then we fished.
The guides of course knew the regs too. The winter season was a Godsend to these beasts of driftboats and driftless snow days spent in shops dusting inventory.
In their fly shops all winter old men sat in the mornings for coffee telling memoried stories of familiar rivers as the calendar days ticked away with little variation except for the color of the sweaters the old men's wives made them wear. The guides nudged them toward new memories, ones filled with snowbanks and gray trees. They encouraged they charge a handful of flies on winter discount accounts and hit the water. Mostly though, it was the guides, weary of snow and the snips of yarn and feathers piling around their tying benches, afraid of finishing the familiar stories aloud as they already had in their heads, weary of coffee and snow and unmoved inventory, who plied the water when they could. Often alone.
After all these years the winter river fishery is catching on, somewhat.
The fly guides are a little happier because of it. The more rubber pants, designer shades and big hairy bugs slapped against opposite snow-crusted banks, the less lonely the water even way upstream where the road is covered in ice and the two-tracks begin.
You don’t need to go that far. The guides know this, and the shorter the drive for their clients the happier the clients are too.
North Idaho’s winter fishery despite a bump in popularity is still relatively anonymous. That may be because it seems a peculiar time to catch trout for many who equate salmonid fishing with dappled daylight hatches of summer bugs that aren’t really bugs but ancient insects whose 4 silvery wings twinkle over water, who make minute flotillas in splash pools as July sun warms pavement and beers left too long on car hoods. It’s different in winter, let me explain.
The water is black, the banks are white, the gravel bars, skinny and you must wade to them sometimes under trees whose heavy limbs seem belatedly wrapped against last night’s cold. The rivers for a time run clear and cold as tap beer and the trout lethargically grab streamers thrown by novices who know enough not to toss dries. Watch the night temperatures because as long as they dip to freezing, even if daytime highs hit 60, the rivers won’t run mud. This is a special time and the window isn’t all that wide. It’s frosted sometimes in the morning and the car’s exhaust belches as it would on New Years, but don’t be fooled. The fishing is good and the fish unmolested.
That’s because few fishers read the regs at all. Despite our mimicking the game department, aping over the ease and beauty of winter fishing, they are staunch counselors of the past. So, we attack March with determined rigor. We jump and frolic like tarpons, or better, like arowanas, those snaky fish with faces like tarpons that fight like bulls with the bucking strap cinched.
We do this, but old habits like barn cats don't die.
“You can’t fish there, the season’s closed,” a prosecuting attorney and his deeply local friend said over beers.
“No, it ain’t.”
“Always has been and if you fish, the warden will snap cuffs and spit on your shoes.”
“No worries, they’re rubber.”
As passers on the road look up for signs of helicopters we drag fat cutts to the net and release them.
We mime a wave.
That’s like a mimic, but spelled differently.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
All that remains of The Golden Star, a former steamer that was beached in 1955 at Springston.
SPRINGSTON--If you motor up the Coeur d’Alene River from the lake it is best, if you’re a novice, to do it early in the summer before the water warms and weeds climb up, curl and wave like maiden hair from the depths, constricting the channel and choking the prop.
The late season channel isn’t a bother to jet boaters who can be heard miles away burning fuel and gliding over the lake like a water skimmers.
The workers at Harrison Dock Builders too are well versed in the river’s ins and outs because their headquarters, moorage and paycheck is a mile upstream, so follow them.
Being on a river in a boat is a lot of what North Idahoans take for granted. The rivers here have always been working rivers. The Coeur d’Alenes used the rivers for navigation, their wildlife for sustenance, placed fish traps in the waterways, and carved bones onto hooks to catch the river’s trout and salmon.
Settlers floated logs on them and as their population grew the rivers became waterine highways for steamers, tugboats and brails of logs heading for the sawmills from St. Joe City to Post Falls.
A couple decades ago, even as late as the late 90s the men who skippered the steamers, working the rivers, hauling logs and material up and down to St. Maries, Springston and Winton could tell of the olden days on the water, but the bulk of them are dead and what remains are what we remember them telling us.
It’s always like this, only now, there are no visible remains of what these men knew, or rode or piloted. Not like the steel wheel tractors rusting in fields, or hay bines with the faded names of ag companies from the Midwest sunk half deep in erosion dirt in the draw of a wheat field. We have photographs of sleek boats with names like Pine Cat and Flyer, but they have for the most part been burned to the hull and sunk off some rocky point in deep water where only scuba divers glimpse them through bubbles of expelled air.
We don’t have the equivalent of rails or engines or cabooses next to fish ponds for travelers to ponder, or bucket chains and head stalls with information signs and rest areas.
So what did they say, the old skippers?
"I started out in 1925 as a lineman on the St. Joe Boom Company steam tugs," Gil Roe, who I talked to 12 years ago when he was 90-something said. His clear voice trailing his direct gaze like a wake from a vessel's prow. "I operated most of them."
There was the Pinecat, a tugboat owned by Lafferty Transportation Company, one of northern Idaho's premier tugboat companies. Lafferty Transportation towed logs on the Shadowy St. Joe River that runs from the Bitterroot Mountains west into Coeur d'Alene Lake, from 1918 until the 1970s when the outfit was sold.
The Cougar, another boat Mr. Roe piloted, was known 75 years ago as the cream of the crop among northern Idaho steam powered tugboats. He operated the St. Joe too, and the St. Maries, towing logs to mills mostly from lumber operations in the St. Joe River drainage.
The logs bore the brands of lumber companies and many were sawed and hauled from the mountains on trucks with water cooled brakes to landings along the river. They were dumped into the current and when the bobbing wood reached slower-moving water downstream, the logs were corralled and sorted by tugboat men and their crews.
The brails were towed from places such as Ramsdell on the St. Joe River, St. Maries and St. Joe City to Beedle Point at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, a trip of more than 24 hours.
From there, they were towed 48 hours to the north end and the sawmills around the city of Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls.
"You take in them early days," Mr. Roe said. "They would drive 200 million board feet of timber out of Marble Creek and float them free, and the company would take them down river from slack water."
On the St. Joe River, slack water began 13 miles upstream from St. Maries at Ferrell where the St. Joe Boom Company stored some of its logs. The town is gone now, alive only in the memories of people like Gil Roe, if the men and the memories still exist.
There were a variety of jobs available to men who wanted the work.
Those with savvy, and good balance often started out walking on floating logs with a large pronged pole - called a pike pole - used to push or hook logs.
It was Gil Roe's first job.
"It was caulk shoe work," he said.
Men wore nail-soled boots to keep from losing their footing. They stayed on the logs as they were towed down river using the pike poles to ensure the logs didn’t snag or slip from the brails.
Lunchtime was spent on the tow, or the tugboat, which could only be reached by a tightrope walk on the towline.
"When noon came and lunch was ready, why, you either walked that, or you stayed back there," Mr. Roe said. "But you had a pike pole that you balanced yourself with. The pike poles were about 10 or 12 feet long. We shimmied up them ropes and think nothing of it."
Hap Murphy was a former skipper too, who towed logs on the St. Joe River for almost two decades before the Second World War.
"It was the most beautiful place on earth," he said, thinking back at 90.
Although it still reflects some of its beauty, sometimes, the river now is just a shadow of its former paradise, he said.
Motorboat traffic and water backed up by the Avista Power dam has eroded its banks causing the once magnanimous cottonwoods to topple into the current, discoloring it with the mud and dirt they dislodge when they fall, he said.
"It's all one big puddle," he said. "It breaks my heart to go up the St. Joe River now."
There was a time, though, when a younger Hap Murphy spent his days, and many nights, piloting 50-foot steam tugs and diesel powered boats around the bends of the Shadowy Joe.
"The steam boats were wooden boats," he said. "They had 12 gauge iron on them so they could go through ice."
When the ice got too thick - about 18 inches - work ceased for a season.
But it is the summer and fall on the slack water of the St. Joe that Mr. Murphy recalled with a fondness of one who once knew the bends and sandbars in his sleep.
"In the fall, the fog would rise off the water and the sun would break through like opening a door or something," he said.
You can still motor your boat up and down the St. Joe and in the early mornings, especially in fall, you will see what Mr. Murphy was thinking about.
The river is lonely for the most part and once, a while back, I idled up on a cow and bull moose feeding along a bank displaying the slow ethereal grace of eons ago, as if I was in a pirogue with the sun at my back.
Last summer, I motored up the Coeur d’Alene River as well, to the Springston bridge and floated there just long enough to watch the sun tip through the cottonwoods and flicker on the shell of a boat on the bank.
The former mayor of Harrison, a lifer of the lake and river had a particular grace when speaking of the olden times. Glenn Addington was a skipper of the steamers too, and it was the boat he ran aground on the banks of the Coeur d’Alene River at Springston that got me going on this.
When I first came into the country I thought the Golden Star was a mishap, or a feat of malfeasance. Its wooden skeleton – there was more left then – was carved more or less into the sandy bank under the steel bridge where the community of Springston once sprawled to the mill, which is gone too.
I knew little of the area's history, and especially this, until I dug around and talked with old timers and knocked on the door of the Harrison museum.
I didn’t hear what Glenn Addington said about the boat he beached on the bank in 1955 after piloting her for 18 years, pulling log rafts down the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers.
Instead, I read it in a newspaper from 1981, so here it is:
“There was always an oily, steamy, hot smell,” Mr. Addington told the Spokesman Review. “I can still smell it…You never get cold on a steam boat.”
The Golden Star was 63 feet long, 14 feet wide and drew seven and a half feet of water. It was built in 1937 for the Russell and Pugh Lumber Co. and its operation at Springston by a man named Andrew Knudson, who had a reputation for “building his boats with a hatchet.” The marks from the blade could be seen on the hull of the boat before they were weathered away.
The Golden Star was converted to diesel in 1945 and its steam engine was used in the Springston mill to run a conveyor belt, a fate that Mr. Addington compared to “putting a racehorse out to pasture.”
“Steam is different than diesel,” he said. “You take the energy from the water, from the lake. You pump it into a boiler, build a little fire under it and you have energy. Can you beat that?”
And the only sound a steamer made was the huffing in the stack, like a horse doing work.
“The water was free. All you had to do was convert it to steam,” he said.
He recalled the olden days along the river, when he tied up along the bank under the stars and the quiet huff of the engine, the humm of swarming bugs and fish rising to them were the only sounds.
At 74, he lamented that he hadn’t jerked the boat off the shore, tied it to a couple cedar logs and floated it to Harrison where it could have been made a showpiece, like those tractors and trains at roadside attractions, instead of letting her rot on the riverbank.
After so many years under foot, rocking him to sleep, and churning him awake, he still felt an attachment to the craft and its machinery.
“It’s like an extension of your body,” he said. "You get so you have a sense about how far you can go with it. You develop a sixth sense.”
Ralph Bartholdt/ Skookum Photography
Friday, August 10, 2012
Three daughters throwing bugs on the Bighole near Glen.
GLEN-It starts on a river and mistakes are made, as is common on any river regardless of the avocation.
We have all the tools: Fly rods, reels, line and floating bug imitations.
But, one kid says she doesn’t want to.
She can cast mind you, but she is the oldest and carries whatever uncertainty seniority brings.
Another is a pleaser. She doesn’t like doing things wrong or being criticized however lightly. She hears criticism all day long thanks to her siblings, so she abhors being told, taught or guided because it makes her feel like the youngest then, although she isn’t.
She is the one, however, who backlashes the line in the reel as we head to the river from our shady parking spot at a campsite with bear warning signs.
The backlash is a result of reeling a garble of line backwards and it is such a wild nest of bends and hitches that, in haste, because others, including a 2-year-old, are by now standing in moving water, I cut the fat, green $25 fly line on her $5 reel with a pocket knife.
This scars her.
My display of impatience and grumpiness at this predicament – being in over my head as it were – makes her feel she has done wrong; an unpleasant thing, and from now on she associates it with fishing in rivers for trout.
Another watches while standing on a sandbar in her diapers beside her oldest sister.
She is amazed at the goings on, and the moving water.
The other stands near a log knee deep in a swirling pool of white foam and sunlight flashing. She casts, gets snagged on grass, hooks the bank and, undeterred, she casts some more.
She is less subservient to her surroundings and her own feelings and catches a trout, her first, in a fast run.
I, the father, am the guy with the big idea, the plan, the misguided semblance of all things you can fit in a cooler in the back of a summer-hot, 4Runner without air conditioning.
That is how I think.
What do you do with four daughters on a summer’s day? Fishing!
Although our destination is more than an hour away along a winding blacktop highway in the stagnant heat of bone dry August I can come up with no better plan to spend a couple hours with my children, then fishing.
The drive is long.
We have our windows down.
Boredom crackles in the air like wet toast.
When we smell firs, I mention it.
Then the cool of the river washes in.
Wow, I say, what do you think of that?
Can we get ice cream? Don’t we need worms? Where is my rod? I think I have sunburn, dad.
We’re going fly fishing I tell them. We can get ice cream later. Rub this in. Let’s go.
This is a trip whose memory I have painfully tattooed to my psyche: A father, four daughters and a river.
What could be more placid?
A farm pond, I suppose. In the cool evening, after supper with the children asleep on their grandparents lap.
Or, monster trucks.
This small Saturday trip, taken on an unmarked day 5 years or more ago, has become to me an epic tragedy of Lilliputian magnitude, if that makes any sense.
It is a saga of emotions, false casts, barbless hooks and misconstrued ideals that still needs translation, but I think I can live without the expenditure.
The daughter who caught a fish eventually caught another and she seemed to like this thing called fly fishing.
I was wrong, of course. She just thought it OK.
The one who back lashed her line and was emotionally scarred eventually drowned the day’s events in a big ice cream cone and stayed away from fly rods and rivers for quite some time.
The oldest watched and took mental notes on what fathers shouldn’t do at all costs.
The smallest, eventually learned to fly cast, caught several trout on another outing on the same river, much later. She is 7 now, owns her own Triple Fork outfit and calls it fly rod fishing, as in “I love fly rod fishing, Dad.”
She is too young to remember.
Last week, the same cast was assembled on a river in Montana with different fly rods, different reels, different line, and larger clothing.
The quarry was relatively the same.
It wasn’t the fish necessarily.
It was Zen of some sort.
It was my attempt as Pops to get these girls standing in the same current waving sticks, which I supposed, barring another translation, could be interpretted as the fabled metronome of The Movie: Time passing, passing time together, a moment in time long ago where we all stood equally as sisters in the current of life.
I wanted them to catch a trout.
Instead, I caught one. A super rainbow that wiggled and zig-zagged and that I held in the cool of a seep under a bank on the Beaverhead until it revived, and scooted itself into a dark hole next to a rock wall.
On the Bighole, though, after finding a path to a run that didn’t cross private land, my daughters slipped into the current one at a time and cast.
Probably out of boredom.
The daughter who was scarred, threw nice loops, and impressed me. The scabs from that day long ago had apparently fallen away.
The oldest threw a hopper imitation gracefully and often into the last cool current of the run that stepped down a gravel bar, crashed into a bank before flowing and bouncing under high cottonwood trees.
The other daughter, not the youngest – she swam and splashed loudly downstream – threw tight loops not too impressed by herself, the day, the locale or her own feelings. She paid little heed to form or function and hooked a fish.
I tied on her tarantula earlier and told her to reef it in.
She muscled and the fish scrambled. I said bring it over here, and she did.
Then it broke off at the hook.
She didn’t mind too much.
Neither did I.
Something else had been accomplished, something more unfathomable.
Three sisters in the same run waving a stick.
I won’t ask what it means.
It needs translation, I suppose, but I think I can live without that expenditure.
- Ralph Bartholdt
Friday, July 13, 2012
Birthday party boys, all 7, competing in the pugilistic arts in the front yard in July/Ralph Skookum
NORTH IDAHO-I grew up with a framed photograph of Max Schmeling dressed in a suit and bowler hat.
It was shot at a studio in East Orange, New Jersey during the short period while Schmeling was champ, either before or after the first Joe Louis fight.
My grandfather was a young sports reporter at a newspaper in New York City and because of his German immigrant status he befriended the champ and the photograph’s inscription is to Peter Bartholdt, signed by Max.
It hung in a cheap, gold-colored frame and when I got older, I moved it out of the sun and into a darker room in our house fearing the rays would turn it brittle as our past.
It is in my son’s room now, next to a red Everlast headgear signed by Livingstone Bramble when after a long career his fights were relegated to small casinos like the one in Idaho where I met him. The leather headgear bears the permanent scribble of Shannon Briggs who I portrayed in a story when I was a newspaper reporter, and Todd “Kid” Foster, who refereed a kickboxing match of mine at Montana State University.
From Schmeling to Foster, these fighters are reputable, stalwart exemplars of the pugilistic paradigm: Glory is fleeting, and –
as Napolean said – obscurity isn’t.
When I was a boy my father signed me up for a smoker.
A smoker is a boxing match outside the confines of regulated boxing events. Many smokers are pay-to-watch fights in bars, legion halls or Eagles clubs. They are meant as entertainment for club members and the word was derived in the day when boxing was frowned upon at best and illegal at worst. It was, however, allowed at clubs outside the purview of public events, and yes, the fights were held in elevated boxing rings in a cloud of cigarette and cigar smoke that turned the room blue.
I didn’t like it much.
I did, however, like when Denny Duame let us use the leather gloves that earned him a Milwaukee Golden Gloves light heavyweight title in the 1950s. We used them to spar with school-age kids in our neighborhood 20 years later and I remember the sweat, the smell of the leather and swinging a lot. We were 8 or 9 or 10, enjoying for the most part these intermittent after school boxing matches until our mothers, or older sisters, put an end to them.
We weren’t given a reason. They just stopped.
As part of a Golden Gloves team in high school and college, I remember a fight against a guy who had 80 matches behind him. It may have been 8 matches, or 20, but 80 stands out probably because of the hype that is inherent in boxing, even at the amateur level (my coach urged me to come up with a “ring name,” a notion for which I felt a certain dis-ease).
We boxed in North Dakota at an armory for three rounds and were bloodied the both of us, and when it was over, the crowd stood up cheering and ours was awarded “fight of the night.”
I left with a silver medallion. It was a quiet ride home on snowy roads in a friend’s VW beetle with a Baja kit. I still have the medallion, and a bunch of others, somewhere, probably in a box.
In college I fought a Montana Golden Gloves champ who hit so hard I thought he would loosen my teeth and I was ready to tell my coach to toss the towel.
My coach ‘s name was Rocky – such is the fight game . He had been a Florida kickboxing champ and wasn’t much older than me. Instead of letting me quit to save my brain pan, he uttered four words.
“He drops his left,” he said.
Every time my wiry opponent was ready to teach me the First Commandment with a hard, straight right thrown from the end of an unimpressive arm that bore neither a tattoo, nor a sign of muscle, yet shot out like a titanium piston, he shrugged a shoulder.
By throwing my own right when the shoulder dropped I beat him to the punch.
I was Pavlov’s dog:
Shoulder drop, throw a right, and you won’t get hit.
I made him quit.
He didn’t come out for the third.
He was a mulatto kid from Polson and afterwards he told me that I hit harder than he had ever been. That made me happy somewhere deep in my gut, I think, although I didn’t tell him or anyone. I beat the champ, I thought, and to this day I still admire him for quitting. Until then my record was mediocre as barbed wire tattoos, or the blue skin stains of Chinese lettering, because I had lost fights to unimpressive boxers who I thought I had beaten, and wanted to fight again.
I still bear a mark on my left temple from a right hook that knocked me off my feet, stole the pigment from my skin and may have damaged brain cells.
It didn’t hurt however, and it didn’t stop me. It was thrown by an airman who was bucking for MP; a friend, he had fought professionally.
As most boxers learn, walking through hard punches triggers synapses, however imperfect, and it intimidates opponents, which eventually leads to Ws on your record sheet.
When I was in my 30s I tutored a big kid from Ohio, letting him toss jabs and rights as I bobbed and weaved in defensive posture and it became apparent that those blows I had sustained back then had planted the boxing bug in me.
The bug says you can still do this. It tells everyone who has worn gloves in the ring the same thing no matter how ignominious their careers, or glorious.
It whispered the same to Frank Tweety of Sandy Water and Bill Gleason of Sherman Hills whose names aren’t found anywhere and whose boxing records aren’t remembered by anyone. It grew legs and eyes for George Foreman, and probably spoke to Livingstone Bramble who smoked ganja before fights, summoned the spirits of chickens killed in voodoo fashion and whose autograph I gleaned at the Worley casino almost 20 years after he lost his championship belt.
It said you’re still the man to Joe Louis not too many years before he was wheelchair ridden, broke, and still fighting in exhibition matches. And it allowed the big kid from Ohio the opportunity to hit an old guy with a power shot kinking vertebrae that still hurts, some days, and makes me tilt my head like a mina bird.
So why did I ferret the gloves out of the garage during my son’s 7th birthday?
Maybe it was because the boys were bored, or I wanted to get them out of the house, or because I had seen them playing games akin to sparring and fighting and warring, and I thought boxing is a good way to show them that being tough had less to do with bluff and rowdiness than resolve.
So there they were, the lot of them, all 7 years old, all shirtless in the front yard taking turns at wearing red boxing gloves and squinting through headgear that tilted and shifted as they lathered each other with leather soap.
They each had their own styles, their own ways of dealing, as it were, with adversity.
Some of them punched in flurries and then turned their backs as leather from their opponents’ mitts found the mark.
Others fought through, quietly, looking for the opportunity and equalization that a haymaker affords. Others, learned maybe by watching Friday night fights, or from a smattering of coaching by an errant uncle or aunt for that matter, to punch straight and kept their chins down. They were either felled for their untutored courage as Patton remarked, or they toppled the boy in front of them.
Others fought with a vengeance and didn’t pine.
And one or two displayed a poise not found in TV or video games, by watching cage matches, or elicited by the memory of a father’s unskilled attempts at instilling spunk.
They were born fighters, and if God was watching, he will make them basketball players, or golfers or ballerinas.
There isn’t much about the fight bug that is conducive to productivity in one’s adult life.
The same I think can be said of basketball, and the same criticism can be applied:
One teaches teamwork, the other self-reliance but that’s just what pamphlets claim.
Losing a boxing match means your team is further away from a trophy, and power forwards, it can be argued, often play for themselves.
So there it is.
Despite tempers and flare-ups on birthday day, the next morning the boys wanted again to strap on the gloves. One young man who I hadn’t let fight because let’s say, he was from the neighborhood, whereas the others were not and their parents didn’t have a chance to watch, pleaded to be given a chance.
He was small as a terrier, but seemed timid.
Then he stopped two seasoned opponents and asked for another go round.
Can I, Ralph? He said.
I looked down the block at his driveway and seeing the SUV was not in sight, said OK, 30 seconds … Let’s box.
It seems to me, although this comes from a man who drinks Miller 64 because fewer calories means I can still wear my old suits, that these boys, the lot of them, walked away from that swath of urban front yard knowing they could take a punch, field a few and that whatever their skill set or strategy, it likely needed work.
All of them wanted a next time:
Another day with the gloves and leather headgear, another day toe to toe with maybe more straight punches, chin down, hands up and moving forward, or side-to-side movement, but not backwards.
They didn’t know yet about the boxing bug.
Maybe it is already in them.
Maybe it’s in all of us. We’re born with it, and as the Founders said, we have it as long as we want to keep it.
Maybe, it’s a metaphor, for not giving up.
And all those older fighters we shake our heads at, the ones we would tell, you're all washed up.
Maybe they know something we don't.
They could tell us, perhaps, that as long as you feel it, you can be sure that you haven't dealt it in.
A good friend of mine, who is dead, and who coached a lot of fighters in his day, some with lousy ring names and some who fought professionally doing well, said before he died that knowing now, what he didn't know then, he would not have coached young boxers.
Let them play violin, he said.
I don't think he meant it.
He wouldn't have traded it for anything, I believe.
And neither would Max Schmeling, who was friends with Joe Louis until the latter's death.
And neither would Bryce Hancock who beat Alex "Caveman" Stewart in a rubber match in Foley, Minnesota in 1986.
Don't worry, it wasn't televised.
They both went out for beers at the Mustang tavern afterwards.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
A native Coeur d'Alene mountain cutt from "No-Name Creek" (scoff)/Ralph Skookum
FERNAN-We found a secret fishing spot.
It was over the mountains and down some narrow roads where meeting another vehicle heading the other way could only spell disaster.
It was a 50-minute trip from town through a slate colored morning. First we stopped at the Tesoro station for coffee in paper cups. The attendant waited for her replacement, her hair displayed the sheen of someone up all night and her eyes said who cares. We drove around the golf course at the edge of the lake where the lawn guys fired up the mowers before the first tee-off. Then we headed into the hills. This is where men had driven log trucks for decades before the federal government decided tax revenues were bad and letting forests die on the hill by beetles and mismanagement was better than providing jobs and income to pay for libraries and schools and box lunches.
The new policy says it's better to go bust than bump knots. this morning we took advantage of this policy and more:
We sped along empty forest roads built by timber dollars, meant now for recreation instead of log hauling. At an even 37 mph, we sent dirt and muck flying from chuck holes, skirted caved banks and thumped over erosion rills – once maintained by logging operations charged with road care – in our efforts to get to the stream we called the honey hole.
Secret fishing spots are nothing more than places others haven’t visited in a while. They are places often fished, but not this week, or last, for that matter, or maybe even for a year or more.
They are places where ethics have played their part, where anglers have done what their conscience has asked of them: pack it in, pack it out, catch and release, and leave no trace.
Those are the three commandments of backwoods, westslope cutthroat trout fishing, and we have all, at one time or another, maybe in our back pages, or just out of a spree of youthful ignorance, sought repentance for angling against them.
At this hole, a sweet spot with a long narrow run against a bank under a river birch and past a series of rock outcroppings, the pool curled almost etherized and deep as a dream. We had for days here caught cutthroat trout forearm long and thick and that is why we once again choked down the coffee that tasted like cigarette butts, scratched the grist on our faces and called in sick.
It was why we came back again.
We had cast at the upstream riffle, where the water caves into a pool and runs out of it just as fast. The trout there flashed out full body chasing the fly and the ones we hooked were heavy as truncheons and we dragged them through the water to shore after they were spent.
The fish were golden with few of the characteristic mottled, black spots - most of them on the tail like an hourglass set upright, or as if the fish had been fighting hard currents that pushed the spots down stream on their sleek bodies like pebbles in a bottlenecked. Red gill flares gave the fish their name.
One, a cutthroat trout of 18 inches or more was scarred on the dorsi but seemed to grin nonetheless when we let it fin water and slip back into the dark pool under a craggly limestone wall.
We came back for days and then the woods filled up.
An old timer we knew who had packed a .45 around Europe when the world was just young enough to have a war, and who spent most of his summer days in those mountains chasing trout from waters few had tested with a fly, said he left the woods during holidays.
“I don’t know why people have to go to the mountains to drink,” he said.
We came back afterward again.
We followed the routine, draining our coffee somewhere around the second or third intersection where one gravel strip met another on those empty forested highways as the day dawned gray then white, foretelling heat and morning sun dappling the stream bank.
This time our secret spot had tire tracks.
A campfire ring was broad and cold under a cedar. In its ash were buried empty cans of gas station beers, crunched, some whole.
The streamside too had an air of something akin to lost innocence, like a kid whose bail you posted.
Flour wheeler tracks had spat rocks here and busted brush, tore syringa from the ground, tramped mint and fireweed. Bobbers and barbed hooks hung from the river birch under which the current ran dark and the fat fish last week had launched for flies.
We cast for an hour without a take or rise.
A while later we hooked a mid-range cutt, and let it go.
Then we changed flies, used droppers, streamers and small surface bugs.
The fish were gone.
It’s unfair to blame in this case.
We don’t know with any certainty what happened here, although, being fly anglers, the kind that pinch their barb as the law requires, we had a guess or two at what caused the sudden change in the river’s attitude.
According to a report by Idaho Fish and Game published before cutthroat trout were a catch and release species in the Panhandle, more, bigger fish were the inevitable result of limited harvest. In addition, most anglers wanted restrictive regulations for cutthroat trout if it resulted in a better fishery, although few anglers (35%) in the 1978 study wanted streams “closed.”
In a 2005 study after catch and release regulations had been implemented for many years on the St. Joe River, IDF&G biologists concluded, “Appreciable numbers of cutthroat trout in the 12-inch-plus range were not observed in the St. Joe River until the regulations were set to catch-and-release.”
The Idaho Panhandle’s catch and release rules for cutthroat trout have resulted in a fatter and better cutthroat fishery in the St. Joe and in streams in the Coeur d’Alene range where catch and release is the modus operandi.
Westslope cutthroat trout are a native species. Unlike trout in many put-and-take fisheries, these cutthroats have genetics that are fostered in the same streams they fin today; spiraling alpha-helixes that imprint tributaries, springs and the acidity of undercut banks their ancestors knew for hundreds of years. To catch a cutthroat in one of North Idaho’s streams and check markings that include spots near the tail with little spotting below the lateral line in front of the anal fin is something I didn’t appreciate until I caught what I considered a real Westslope cutt years ago. Many of the cutts I had previously caught had enough rainbow characteristics for one to argue that they were the progeny of mixed genetics – something akin to cuttbows.
The fish we caught and released at this, once, for a week or more, our secret spot, were all pure strain westslope cutthroat trout. They were beauties with ancient bloodlines. In my opinion, and according to law, they were of a significance that should exclude them as a main ingredient in campfire hash.
There are many streams where an angler can hook and keep a pot full of brookies. Brook trout here can be caught and kept by any method with a limit of 25 fish. Not long ago we found such a stream and brought home a half dozen brookies for the broiler. Rainbows can be kept too, as part of a combined trout limit of 6 trout where applicable.
The state fishery department hasn’t dumped rainbows into North Idaho streams for more than a decade because of fears they were polluting the gene pool of its westslope population, but a few native fish are found in some Panhandle streams.
To illegally use worms and barbed hooks to catch native trout with the intention of letting them smoke in a fire pit shows a lack of appreciation and character. It is thugishness and stupid.
Dumb as a 10-cylinder truck in a land of $4 gasoline, as a three-inch magnum 12 gauge for grouse, dumb as falling down drunk and liberal Democrats and Montana Tea-partiers(except for a couple of both ilks I know personally who display good intentions).
It’s dumb as a dry dipstick.
We scratched our heads over this.
It was after all a dilemma:
Who would be so dumb?
Then we pressed the windshield wiper blades against our fly rods and drove home, wishing for more coffee, and we didn’t return.
Maybe next spring, before the summer holidays. Before the barbed hook bandits rob the undercut banks.
We will return to our secret spot, establish a new routine, one of quiet awareness and realization that purity ends, that someone’s hallowed ground is another’s hash and that Carpe Diem applies too, to fly fishing.
-Ralph Bartholdt is a former journalist who sells real estate in North Idaho, fishes and freelances
Friday, June 8, 2012
Ruby River rainbow caught on a fearless day of fishing with guide Sancho nourished via a canvas satchel of pulled pork sandwiches/Bartholdt
Our guide Sancho carefully drew a map in the air with his index finger, uttering words that cause fly anglers to scratch their chins with a measure of dignity, before scratching themselves.
He spoke quietly of off-color water, of salmon flies and big rivers. He self-consciously pontificated about spring creeks, rubber rafts and tailwaters, backroads, cutoffs and weather, then left it all hanging fog-like, the menagerie of words and geography, while we discussed among ourselves.
It was spring in Montana and if the fishing didn’t hook you, the pulled pork sandwiches would.
From our starting point in an established neighborhood – as the real estate magazines like to call places with mature trees and grossly outdated homes – in arguably the most Western of Montana cities named after copper king graveyards and geological features that are a tribute to the Charlie Russell country to the north, we loaded up the carry-all and drove south and east.
Pronghorns grazed in this the land of fences, cottonwoods and gurgling streams. The vista was conducive to historical reflection unless you live here and then you just ask for a beer, tip the bill of your ball cap with a forefinger and wonder if you’ve got enough rubber leg bugs for everyone.
“How about a cold one?” You say, as you press your flip-flopped toes against the gas pedal. “There’s gotta be one colder than this.”
So we drove over a pass and under one too, swept grand curves listening to John Prine the newer version, the one that stomped the crowd at the Mother Lode theatre a while back, and we stopped in a place where a young guide named Cracker, a cross between your doctor and the kid who cuts your grass, sat behind a counter with one hand on the cash register and another on your self-image.
We bought a handful of flies and some things we forgot in the many hours of preparation for the few hours of fishing on a river called Ruby.
Where you headed? Cracker asked.
We told him.
That should be fishing fine, he said. We got some bugs in that bin over there that have been heavy hitters.
OK, we said and fondled a few.
You from around here, or out of state? Cracker asked.
The customers whose shoulders we brushed as we passed in the doorway packed sacks of fly fishing shirts, Patagonia sombreros and fleece-lined undergarments to their BMW with Florida plates. They were from out-of-state by any measure. We considered ourselves from a neighboring state. One that has its own gold medal fisheries, as well as its own ties to hilljacks and trout:
Idaho, we said, and he seemed unimpressed.
Welcome to Montucky, he mused, a regular 19-year-old Milton.
He spooled line on a reel for us intimating that neither the line nor the reel were worthy of our destination. He recommended some fly line hanging over there on the peg board because it was pocked with microscopic craters that cut friction like moon boots and had a life expectancy of a young elephant in the Bronx zoo.
"As much as you fish," he said. "You’d never have to buy another fly line."
And we crooned. Fawned actually. Wow, we said, then wondered about its $80 price tag.
Not that 80 bucks is a bad deal for some outstanding fly line, but we had 30 bucks between us and that was supposed to go for hand crafted burritos at a caravan in Dillon if we made it there.
We bought a set of out of state fishing licenses too, and Cracker said, Good Luck, and we said OK, thinking we already had it, because our guide had a name grounded in the hallowed halls of literature, not alti-rock, the self indulgent neck tattoos of the new world as the bell above the door went ting-a-ling. We headed further east toward sunset in the land of milk and honey, our fly rods now fully loaded and bending in the wind outside the windows like harpoons.
That sounded like good floating line, we said as we headed south.
It’s crap, said Sancho, our guide, who had one hand on a sweating bottle of brew, and the other lacing a wading shoe, the steering wheel neatly tucked into his lap.
“Ridiculous!” He moaned.
You can get it for 20 bucks on eBay. He cried. And don’t worry about leaders, he continued. I’ve got some 20-pound Stren to use. I don’t want you’all losing my rubberlegs on brush and such.
We motored south now, past historical markers and the place where a triple crown winner was born in 1886 or so. Our guide, Sancho, a horse aficionado, said Spokane was the horse’s name and he was born in that round barn.
If this seems absurdly redundant it probably is.
We had all been here on numerous occasions in various shades of inebriation only today, we started the morning with tea and had resisted compulsion the night before to liquidate our limited assets in the fine taverns of this sterling state, so everything, from the horizon to the rubber traction of the radials seemed awfully new.
I was born in Western Montana. I have lived here all my life.
Both of those statements are brazenly false. They are lies. I am not sure why I uttered them.
Except maybe as a way to say that many of us, maybe the whole shooting match, from the sperm and eggs who sprouted here by way of Wisconsin or New Jersey or even God forbid Californian ancestry who now drive the tunnel vision roads of Montana’s hinterlands with “Native” bumperstickers slathered to cab windows, to the newbies who are careful not to be too proud to live Big Sky – and even the Louisiana parish reports who have embraced this state as only theirs – the mill run, we get it.
All of us.
Montana rocks on that many levels.
Especially in summer.
Winters here would suck. We get that too.
So, we enjoy the time our pocketbooks afford us to drive the sweet grass back country looking for trout in June, or May, or sometimes February and on into the rest of the year, yes, October too, to catch fish and wonder about living here year round, even though we have lived here year round, but today…
We’re here for fish and the weather is tick tock, clouds and sunshine, back and forth and we walk trails to the river’s edge and Sancho leaves us so he can catch fish of his own. When he returns we have made neat little dream catchers of fly line, flies and alders, quilted them out of back casts, quaint contraptions netted with feathers from a sandhill crane and a robin's nest, and he scoffs.
We lose all of his rubber leg bugs and dig into our own stash for wooly worms and grass hopper patterns that we drown with lead sinkers and eventually we catch fish, big rainbows that run and jump and splash and Sancho starts sticking closer to us.
The day gets dark.
There is lightning, and thunder growls like a belly overhead.
Sancho hangs tight and pulls a bundle of pulled pork sandwiches from a backpack.
We sit on the river bank in the grass watching the sky.
We sit on the river bank in the grass watching the sky.
Eat up for soon we will die, he says, but I have misunderstood.
“Kill these and let’s sack some fish,” he says.
We trudge the trails back to our vehicle as daylight fades and later, sit around a pine table in a small house in Butte drinking icy Millers and knocking down the rest of the pulled pork sandwiches. Sancho, his eyes droopy now and his face dark, his skin like saddle leather on a new saddle, corroborates the could-be tall tales of the day's outing.
He understands the necessity of this and for that we are grateful.
He understands the necessity of this and for that we are grateful.
“That was a big fish,” he says. "They were all big fish."
We feel blessed.
We feel blessed.
And we go to bed.
Ralph Bartholdt — Skookum