EDITORS' PICK: Something's Fishy

EDITORS' PICK: Something's Fishy

An Angler's Look at Our Distressed Gamefish and Their Waters - and How We Can Preserve Both

  • By: Seth Norman
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Something's Fishy

By Ted Williams
Foreword by Paul Guernsey
Skyhorse Publishing: 2007
Phone: 212-643-6816
www.skyhorsepublishing.com
431 pp.; hardcover; $24.95

A year ago, I called a state forestry manager charged with monitoring a watershed where I sometimes wander an apparently fishless fork of a coastal river. Why, I asked him, did it regularly rise from 200 cubic feet per second to 9000 or more, often in less than 24 hours? How, I wondered, was it possible that such spates did not scour the stream, but instead left it buried in silt? Given these conditions, who expected a return of once-great runs of king and silver salmon, steelhead and Dolly Varden?

"Clear-cutting," he answered flatly. "Landslides, though no one will talk about them: you can't blow out more dirt than runs in." As to fish, "Nobody thinks they'll come back. We don't even bother to survey any more."

After an hour more off-the-record conversation, he was speaking in a weary, middle-aged voice, copping to a common concern. "I go home at night and wonder what we're leaving our kids."

That picked me right up. "I know all about that. But I've found something that helps."

Long pause. "I'd like to know what that is."

"I drink."

"You…?"

"Drink. Bourbon, when it's cool. Vodka when it's warmer."

Longer pause, then laughter. "I guess I should try that."

So should you, reader, before sitting down with Something's Fishy. The book is full of drama, dark humor and a thousand gritty details revealing ignorance, greed and corruption, including that special, now common-as-dirt kind, wherein money interests convince government agencies to commit what polite people describe as "a betrayal of the public trust" and intemperate types call "treason."

But first, author Ted Williams does offer brighter visions. He really does'”reveries full of keen observation, complex pleasure and simple joys, beautifully rendered, as in "Bluefin Summer" and "How It Is at South Andros." These kinds of pieces are the reason we reach for fly-fishing magazines; through them we dream.

Second, you will find success stories in this collection of the author's columns, mostly published in this magazine or in Audubon. Tales of recovery that give you hope: return of the East Coast stripers, "America's fish" (although their comeback's already compromised); recent rescues of cutthroat species (including one believed lost forever, now discovered and saved, that may soon be lost, in fact). You'll meet stalwart people, wiser and braver folk trying to do the right thing for land and water that belong to all of us, determined to protect the native fish and wildlife we need for reasons of flesh and spirit'”sometimes for survival, sometimes just because they are.

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That's heartening. Of course, many of these same folk have jeopardized and lost careers. Some receive death threats; and most, of late, seem to be losing battles to forms of "free" enterprise more parasitic than performed by lamprey and leeches, to masters of commerce whose campaign donations help them keep politicians as pets from whom a bark can remove pesky biologists and planners.

We discover such outrages over and over, revealed by barrages of sharply written, fact-filled, hard-edged evidence. While Williams's essays start with the waters fish need, it's always obvious how a river's canalized ex-oxbow links to the knee joints of our own plumbing'”to the ocean, to the foods we eat, presuming we can.

He writes about "extraction" industries, for example. In "Bringing Back the Giants," the author describes efforts to bring back bring the great "coaster" brook trout that migrate in and out of the Great Lakes, including a spawning tributary now jeopardized by a proposed massive metallic sulfide mine.

"…[A]t this writing a working group comprised of all interests is hashing out specific regulations. But regulations are only as good as enforcement; and there are few places in the nation where mining companies are much bothered by strict enforcement." Emphasis added.

That's a point Williams reiterates in "Pit in the Crown Jewels," a piece painfully pertinent today, anticipating the future of Bristol Bay given the intentions of Northern Dynasty Mines, "a small Canadian company with no track record and backed by Middle Eastern money of unknown origin."

Dynasty's lobbyist is the former top aide to Jack Abramoff'”about what you'd expect from a company with "a long record of disturbing actions, deceptive and false statements, contradictions and broken promises." But not to worry, no sir, about the $200 million of American salmon resources in jeopardy. Well, not if you're at the top of the Dynasty heap-leach, given a clause Williams excavates from the company's 2004 Annual Report: "As Canadian citizens and residents certain of Northern Dynasty's directors and officers may not be subject themselves to U.S. legal proceedings, so that recovery on judgments issued by U.S. courts may be difficult to impossible."

Williams even goes after his own allies when they breach faith'”anglers and environmentalists who oppose the use of any "piscicides," thereby scuttling the future of endangered trout; and those Atlantic salmon fly tiers who, by slavishly insisting on "traditional" materials, motivate the hunters of rare and endangered birds across the former British Empire and beyond.

Speaking of salmon (he does, in six pieces), Williams addresses the Pacific variety, where "logging, power, livestock and agribusiness interests who, for years, have tried every possible way to get threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead stocks delisted so they can destroy with impunity." I think he means coastal rivers where, you know, the cfs rises from 200 to 9000 in less that than a day…whose future, entwined with our kids, leaves some of us wondering.

That kind of connection happened often as I worked my way, haltingly, often furiously, through Something's Fishy, when issues Williams raised in an evening read roared from the headlines of the next morning's paper.

Take this morning, for example. There's a baited-breath story about what a stacked Supreme Court will do to the award Valdez victims have been awaiting for 19 years, subject (we hope not) to instructions from the president they picked for us. And another reporting that a tributary to the great Yangtze River runs "red and bubbly" with such elevated ammonia, nitrogen and permanganate that it's cut off clean water to a quarter-million people.

Let them drink bourbon. Rice wine, if they insist. But while there's still no word on what's hatching in this carbonated crimson tide'”is there a "Jim Jones caddis?"'”I do worry that no liquid spirits can raise those of so many people, so thirsty.

But wait. One question you might ask:

Why buy a book that may lead us to drink? And infuriate us'”never mind how passionate we are about fly-fishing. Let's say it's all true: why is it important to know all this? Well, consider:

We're rapidly losing the greatest of our most obvious lies'”that we can soil our own nest waist deep and still smell sweet enough that our children, properly distracted by sizzling electronics, won't realize that it was us who left them buried above the eyes in our effluent. In fact, there's a greater chance than ever that our spawn will ask hard questions, probably by e-mail or text messages. Naturally, we'll fall back to the position that works so brilliantly in so much of American political, military and social intercourse'”"Plausible Deniability."

But God help us, if our kids get hold of Something's Fishy.

Seth Norman is the author of Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman. He lives in Washington state. Look for his online column "The Freewheeling Fly-Fisher" at flyrodreel.com.