A VETERAN'S DAY RETROSPECT

A VETERAN’S DAY RETROSPECT

 

I was seated at a table in the local pizza place drinking a cold one and waiting for a large pepperoni to take home after an afternoon of chasing stripers from my kayak. It just happened to be Veteran’s Day. Lost somewhere in the recollections of a fun fall of fishing in the Bay and the longings for late season steelheading in New York, a voice from behind asked, “Mind if I sit and wait with you?” Turning, there was a tall, lean young man wearing a ball cap holding a bottle of Yuengling. ”Please be seated!” I said. Extending his hand and introducing himself, he took a chair across from me. His name was Jim.

 

Engaging in small talk, he told me that since he had just moved into town and was yet not set up to fix dinner at his new residence, he was waiting for take-out Italian dinner. A pensive appearing fellow in his mid-forties, Jim wasted no time telling me that he was an administrator at the VA Hospital in Perryville about nine miles away. Since I was well aware of the building complex sitting on the shoreline of the renowned Susquehanna Flats, I told him that I use its water tower as a marker when kayaking to locate a place on the flats that is usually quite productive for striped bass. Jim replied that he loves to fish and to kayak, but he never combined the two. In fact, he continued to say that he usually just fly-fishes the streams of Pennsylvania. At that point, we connected.

 

After telling him he should try to fish the Flats with a fly, he replied that sometimes he takes a few patients at the hospital to the dock over looking that vast area at the mouth of the Susquehanna River and they cast lures with varied success. That then led to a discussion of the therapeutic value of fishing in any form. Jim related that at the VA Hospital in Pennsylvania where he was formerly employed he worked with Project Healing Waters taking Vets fly-fishing as a means of treating their damaged bodies and psyches. Unfortunately, he said, a similar program at the local VA is so mired in political red-tape that it has withered on the vine. Jim’s frustration with the system there was palpable.

 

It turned out that Jim was a former Marine once deployed in Iraq. He was quick to state how messed up the government is when it comes to providing aid to the Veterans. He noted that there are many good people at the hospital willing to do the right thing, but the bureaucratic bullshit it takes to get needed assistance for many of the Vets is stifling. As a painful example, he then told me about his best buddy from the war who had just died from a heroin overdose in June – another neglected soul lost in the sea of forgotten victims of the system. Beyond the fact that he was alone on Veteran’s Day, there did seem to be a pall of sadness engulfing Jim that night. Now the reason was apparent.

 

In all honesty I told him I was not a believer in war, but I also emphasized that I was very much a believer in helping our Vets overcome atrocities no human being should ever have to experience. In that light I reiterated my belief that the magical powers of fly-fishing can definitely heal ailing spirits. So, on that note, Jim and I agreed to try to bring a fly-fishing program to the local VA in the near future. Before parting ways, I sincerely thanked him for his military service, and, as I grabbed my now luke-warm pizza, he gave me his card. As we both left with our dinners in hand, I watched Jim walk away into the world of his solemn thoughts.  

 

 

 

 

 

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1988

1988

For those of us who fly fish, Montana has always conjured up dreams of a land where trout thrive in rivers cold and pure. In fact, rarely do we ever consider the inconvenient truth that these waters are not immune to natural or man-made disasters capable of rendering any one of these cherished treasures impotent for years. What many folks don’t realize is that behind the scenes the health and welfare of Montana’s waters require much tender loving care so as to maintain the habitat within which its prized trout dwell. And though it may be a divine experience to fish in a state of delightful detachment from life without giving much thought to this reality, every now and then this same reality exposes its slimy underbelly as if to wake us all from the mesmerizing trance of our bliss. For me, this was the case almost three decades ago.       

a1sx2_Original1_fallpt4-043_20161028-220024_1.JPGOccurring after several very dry years began to suck the life from Montana’s rivers during the mid-80s, the sustained drought of that decade literally hit rock bottom in 1988. As Yellowstone National Park was ravaged by historic fire and Montana’s big sky filled with choking smoke and ash, the beleaguered rivers in the southwestern portion of the state teetered on the brink of total devastation. It was ultimately the mighty Jefferson River that suffered the biggest blow in the region when long sections dried up leaving only a corridor of river rock with a remnant trickle flowing between the exposed cobble. If it seemed like hell on earth, for many of us, it was.

As if the conditions imposed upon the Big Sky State by Mother Nature weren’t bad enough, it was the man-enhanced element of the drought that raised the extreme ire of sportsmen far and wide. Although it has been well established in Montana law that ranchers own most of the water flowing within the state’s rivers, the attempt by the agricultural industry to squeeze out every last drop for their fields at the expense of the fishery and the bordering riparian shoreline was judged by all non-irrigators as excessive. While fish died, cottonwoods withered, and the future of the local resource looked bleak, the ensuing battle between sportsmen and ranchers resembled the re-enactment of the Hatfields and McCoys. The meetings that followed between the groups engendered much finger pointing and intense shouting, but in the end the ranching community agreed to release a portion of the water diverted to irrigation ditches back into the contiguous system of upstream tributaries in order to restore a meager base flow to the
Above photo: Drought Plan Managed Flow on the Big Hole River                            Jefferson for the remainder of the summer.  

On a personal level, I could not have been more distraught. After growing up on the Niagara River during the pollution era of the 60s and then moving to the logging decimated forests of Northern Idaho responsible for the demise of westslope cutthroat and bull trout in the 70s, I naively thought those days of abusive resource management practices were in my past upon relocating to Twin Bridges in 1983. But 1988 was a rude awakening. And after attending several heated meetings about the crisis, I realized that I could no longer do nothing. I immediately joined Trout Unlimited (TU), and that following winter attended the Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) State Council meeting in Helena. Many others did the same.

Subsequently, MTU along with other local sportsmen groups and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (MFWP) worked with ranchers to keep some water in the rivers during the dry years that followed 1988. Though relations between sportsmen and ranchers remained tense, it was important for the ranchers to maintain an image of good stewardship in local communities that depended upon fishing tourism. Subsequently, a somewhat disorganized effort by the Cattlemen Association allowed for minimal flows when needed at the sacrifice of cooperative ranchers along any affected stretch of river. This unofficial resolution worked until the fall of 1994 when a release of sludge from the rancher controlled Ruby River Reservoir killed many fish for several miles below the dam. Again tempers flared.

Consequently, then governor Marc Racicot appointed a Task Force empowered to come up with compatible solutions in a consensus forum to resolve the flow crisis on the Ruby, Beaverhead, and Big Hole Rivers. Naturally, since they all flowed into the Jefferson River, the Jeff would benefit greatly from any resolution. As a result, watershed committees were formed on the Ruby and Big Hole River with the foremost intentions of establishing cooperative relations with all stakeholders on these rivers. MTU, MFWP, sportsmen groups, ranchers, Chambers of Commerce, businesses, etc. all had input. In the end, irrigation systems were updated, river drawdowns were timed better, dam releases were monitored, and more consistent minimum flows resulted as a consequence. Most importantly, good relationships were cultivated.

In 1993 several concerned local anglers formed the Lewis and Clark Chapter of TU in Twin Bridges. The chapter worked with the Ruby Watershed Council while also implementing watershed committees on both the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers later in the decade. Along with the long-standing George Grant TU and other sportsmen groups from Butte, Lewis and Clark TU was integral in advancing access opportunities on the Ruby River in the aftermath of the Ruby River Access Task Force in 1995. In time respective watershed committees drew up comprehensive drought plans while enacting strategies to deal with the whirling disease quandary affecting the rivers throughout the 90s. And though it may have taken a couple decades, the Jefferson River eventually returned to its former prominence.

Thus, arising from the ashes of the 1988 drought crisis was an organized grass root effort to do something positive for the resource. An environmental infrastructure was established to deal with subsequent concerns facing the rivers of southwestern Montana. This collaboration of groups also nurtured many river projects while working together to establish policies throughout the entire system intended to improve riparian habitat and enhance fish reproduction. Importantly, this network remains in place today. I have long believed that it is essential for anyone who fishes these rivers to understand the blood, sweat and tears it takes to keep them vital. It is critical to get involved as well.

Noted fishery conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown once entitled one of his books A River Never Sleeps. I would have to add that the problems threatening our rivers never sleep either. The drought of 2016 and the PKD outbreak in the Yellowstone River are stark reminders that we can never take our resources for granted. Add to this the Saprolignia fungus fish kill on the Big Hole River in 2014 and the proposed hydropower project at the dam on the Beaverhead, and it is consoling to realize there is a framework in place today to comprehensively lead the way in dealing with distressing issues. For those of us concerned with rivers, at least, thanks to these organizations, we may be able to sleep a little better… even if the rivers never do.

 

 

 

 

 

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TEN YEARS OF SWEETGRASS

     10yearanniversary.JPGIt is hard to believe that ten years have passed since Sweetgrass Rods was officially set up for business in April 2006. The company’s formation was more an unintended consequence of the untimely departure from our previous employer, however, than it was a well thought out plan. From the moment Glenn announced that he was moving on from the company he once owned, sold, and then helped nurture for a total of three decades, there was a groundswell of support for this quiet man who dedicated his lifetime to the integrity of fly fishing, and, ultimately, the crafting of fine bamboo rods. Additionally, when it was realized than one of several reasons he and the rest of us called it quits was to protest the shipping of jobs off to China, the word got out. Subsequently, one by one, unsolicited orders of support streamed in as if having a rod built in America by Glenn would somehow take the sting out of the disturbing trend in the country responsible for losing more and more jobs offshore.

     For Glenn, a decision had to be made about how to deal with the volume of orders; and so, within a few months Sweetgrass Rods was born. The “list,” as it was reverently called, grew to an incomprehensible number of orders that at one time numbered between three and four hundred. Originally there were four of us, including Glenn, who a1sx2_Original2_new_boofade.jpgmoved into the renovated garage on the banks of the Beaverhead River in 2006. That number, though, dwindled to just Glenn and me within a year and a half. At that point it became our sole mission to work seven days a week to make this phenomenon successful, if only to honor those who expressed a belief in our principles as well as our dedication to American craftsmanship.

     Initially, it took several months to have a milling machine built, and then many more to get the custom-made mill up and running sufficiently enough to produce a few rough blanks to put together prototypes built on tapers of Glenn’s design. Our task was to make four-sided, five-sided, and six-sided rods in all lengths and line sizes. It took an incredible amount of effort to piece together rods that satisfied our expectations, and during that time we added an employee, and then another, and then another, while our devoted supporters stuck by our side waiting for the first completed work to be delivered.

     Eventually, after two years it happened. Through many sleepless nights, endless weeks, and many hardships in both our personal lives, we began to deliver rods that not only were true reflections of our dedication to trout waters, but also devout manifestations of our souls as well. To those who waited, we will always be deeply indebted for your patience during that prolonged period. In the end, slowly but surely, all rods were delivered.

    a1sx2_Original1_p44.jpg When we were evicted from our shop in February, 2009, a month before my wife succumbed to her four year bout with ALS, it looked like fate had finally dealt us a blow too difficult to overcome. But then, friend Bill White came up with a plan to build a permanent home for Sweetgrass. Consequently, by the end of the year, the company had transformed itself from a ragtag band of gypsies scattered about in temporary quarters throughout Twin Bridges to a legitimately defined business located in a beautiful new shop on a perfect corner at the edge of a town known for its world-renowned trout fishing. Thanks to Bill’s vision and commitment to keeping Sweetgrass alive and well, the company weathered the economic downturn of 2008 to live on for its first ten years.

     Around the country there are many wonderfully talented artisans working in basement and garage shops preserving the craft of the individual maker one rod at a time. By replicating the tapers of masters like Garrison, Payne, Young and several others from the past, they keep tradition robust, and some of their completed creations are truly works of art. On the other hand, Sweetgrass directly links back to the small production shops of old when varying numbers of rods were produced to satisfy the demands of the day. Taking its place in history, Sweetgrass is the last of this style shop in the world.

   Maintaining a high standard of quality while producing a modest quota of rods for a broader base of clientele requires a production pace that is a challenge for many craftsmen. But for a decade now, our boo crew has been up to the task. With continued support from those throughout the fly-fishing world who believe in the value of an American made product that matches the beauty of the outdoors to one’s inner passions for the sport, the tradition will continue on for years to come. It is our belief that every serious angler should own a bamboo, and we hope that one day it will be a Sweetgrass Rod.


To honor our ten-year anniversary we are offering a 15% discount on any order placed in April.

Also, we are proud to offer our first limited commemorative collector’s series edition to celebrate the occasion as well. This will be a unique three-piece 7’9” 4/5-weight seven-strip rod in an Arne Mason leather case. Only twenty will be made and they will be numbered accordingly. The price is $2895.

 

 

 

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HOLY WATER DESECRATED BY MICHIGAN'S DEQ

The tragedy occurring on the Flint River cannot be diminished in anyway. The horrible impact on unsuspecting families is incomprehensible, and the flawed science behind the decisions that allowed this atrocity to happen is inexcusable. But in this new age of regulation-be-damned politics, the Flint catastrophe may serve as the crystal ball of what the future may look like if the stewardship of our nation’s fresh water supply succumbs to the pressure of unregulated forces intent on either making or saving a buck while public health and welfare pays the price.

It is not that this disregard of our water resources is new. Montana’s Clark Fork River once flowed orange in the days of the twentieth century Copper Barons as its headwaters flowed from the city of Butte. The rehabilitation of the river has cost hundreds of billions in tax dollars. The same can be said of the entire Great Lakes system in the 60s when Lake Erie was declared biologically dead at the same time ninety percent of the biomass in Lake Michigan was alewives. The ongoing cost of cleanup to the taxpayer has been staggering. This story has been repeated time and again throughout the country, and while there is no historical precedent that could ever support degradation of any waterway as beneficial, it would seem that history should have taught us all a great lesson by now.

But no! The same Michigan Department of Environment Quality (MDEQ) and State Administration responsible for the Flint River fiasco has recently approved a proposal that would allow a commercial fish farm utilizing the old Grayling State Fish Hatchery to dump 8.64 million gallons per day of raw untreated wastewater into the pristine headwaters of the upper Au Sable. Long considered a natural treasure to both Michigan and the rest of the country as well, the effluent containing a staggering 3,540 pounds of phosphorous and 274,234 pounds of solid waste per year would enter the river below the city of Grayling and just above the nine-mile acclaimed section referred to as the Holy Water. Known as a Mecca to trout fishermen near and far, this revered portion of the Au Sable sets the standard for water quality and blue ribbon fly fishing, but more importantly, it is considered to be the ultimate retreat for those seeking to replenish their souls in a setting of peaceful solitude.a1sx2_Bigger_graylinghatchery2.png

Under what some might regard as a misguided allegiance to the agricultural lobby, MDEQ admits that the water quality of the river will undoubtedly suffer by allowing the discharge, but the agency also states that this collateral damage is necessary to support “important social and economical development in the area.” The owner of the fish farm Dan Vogler is dismayed by the voices of opposition to the plan and expresses disdain for the mean-spirited individuals with “two-thousand dollar fly rods” who are intent on destroying the livelihoods of hard working farm families. His operation will employ four workers.

The bigger question might be whether it is ever justifiable to allow one person to benefit financially from the intentional degradation of a valuable resource at the expense of so many other individuals and long standing businesses that depend upon a clean river. Josh Greenberg of Gates Au Sable Lodge employs thirty people and is troubled that this discharge could impact his business. Also, there are canoe liveries, four fly shops, guides, restaurants, motels, and many other concerns that provide goods and services to sportsmen, recreationists, and even those who buy two-thousand dollar fly rods. Not only does this MDEQ decision potentially threaten the stability of these businesses, but there is no way to predict the deleterious long term effects this policy may have on the public health and welfare of everyone associated with the river.

As a sacred sanctuary for so many, there is a reason that the hallowed section of the Au Sable is referred to as Holy Water, and its potential desecration would be like allowing a herd of goats to roam the aisles of the Sistine Chapel. It is ironic that the state department in charge of environmental integrity would be the agent of such egregious environmental defilement, and its decision ought to outrage fly anglers, nature lovers, and all who believe that there are far too few of these special places of environmental quality still left on the planet.

In a recent statement by Governor Rick Snyder after the firing of two mid-level DEQ officials for their perceived roles in the Flint incident, he said, “Some DEQ actions lacked common sense and that resulted in this terrible tragedy in Flint. I look forward to the results of the investigation to ensure these mistakes don’t happen again.” The friends of the Au Sable can never let the Governor forget his words.

Five months before his death, Grand Rapids native, environmentalist, artist, and friend Dr. M.C. “Bud” Kanouse sent me a delightful story he wrote about his memorable experiences on the Holy Water. In response to a book I had just written, his final letter to me concluded: “Your writing takes me to the unconscious, constant presence of the trout, the fly and to the excellent environment of the trout. As Michigan author John Voelker (a.k.a Robert Traver) said, the attraction of the trout is for the most part, ’the environs where they are found.’ Unfortunately, the very part of the world we are trying so hard to destroy.”

In the name of all that is Holy, sportsmen and citizen’s alike need to stand up and tell those responsible for the callous disregard of facts leading to the health disaster on Flint River that the willful pollution of the Au Sable, or any other river for that matter, can no longer be tolerated.

Jerry Kustich

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DUCKS UNLIMITED TAKES A STAND AGAINST PUBLIC ACCESS IN MONTANA

Recently, Ducks Unlimited magazine dismissed noted Montana outdoor writer Don Thomas from his long-time contributing editor position. It seems that Thomas wrote an article for another publication criticizing billionaire Montana landowner (and Ducks Unlimited member) James Cox Kennedy for his overt attempt to undermine Montana’s stream access law particularly as it pertains to the portion of the Ruby River flowing through his property in Twin Bridges. This challenge has been settled several times on behalf of the public in Montana’s courts, and Mr. Kennedy’s position is a matter of public record. However, Thomas was let go by DU because, as stated by DU editorial director Matt Young, “we simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation’s most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists.” Apparently, when it comes to criticism, certain people, as deemed by Ducks Unlimited, are off-limits. One can only assume that this has to do with James Kennedy’s wealth.

No one can deny the good work Ducks Unlimited does for waterfowl habitat throughout the country, but on another level the organization would be well advised to do a bit of collective soul searching. Although its membership is made up of average individuals who depend upon public access opportunities for hunting, one of DU’s “most ardent conservationists” is a big-time anti-access proponent that has caused years of on-going consternation among the residents of Montana. To this point Ducks Unlimited could learn a lesson from Trout Unlimited.a1sx2_Original1_4Jerry010916b_20160114-194908_1.jpg

When National Trout Unlimited advised its Montana membership to back off active opposition to the stream access court challenge by Mr. Kennedy a few years ago, there was a vigorous protest throughout the state and around the country among its grassroots members. Many suspected that the national edict came from the organization’s wealthy backers. TU’s national board of directors eventually relented when it got message – loud and clear - of how important the access issue was to the general TU membership. In the same spirit I would urge Ducks Unlimited supporters to protest the silencing of this veteran DU writer for speaking out in support of their public access.

Make no mistake, Montana’s Constitution clearly establishes that the state’s fish and wildlife belong to the people. Also, the state has helped define legal points of entry where the people can gain access their resource. The bone of contention is that Mr. Kennedy and his ilk have embarked upon a concerted effort to take away these legal points of entry for no other reason than to enhance their own private interests. But whenever these challenges to the people’s Constitutional rights do occur, there is a moral imperative that individuals, recreationists, Chambers of Commerce, and groups like Trout Unlimited, Audubon, Ducks Unlimited, etc. raise a strong voice of protest. And speaking out freely about what is right should be done without fear of repercussion.

Until something changes, Mr. Kennedy will continue to be criticized for his unpopular position on public access. He should expect no less from passionate sportsmen and concerned citizens. It is said that 90% of the nation’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population, but that should not give the 1% the power to assault the public’s rights without any expectation of accountability. And if an outdoor writer cannot write about all issues that affect the outdoor experience, including access, then what’s the point of any outdoor publication? In this matter Ducks Unlimited has shamefully sold out its credibility. The fact that Don Thomas was censured by the apparent influence of big money is the kind of silence none of us can afford.

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Sweetgrass Rods ~~ P.O. Box 415 ~~ 501 North Main Street ~~ Twin Bridges, Montana 59754
406.684.5440 ~~ booboys@3rivers.net

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