Monday, September 22, 2008

Mayfly Nation

If you want to find the most species of wildlife, go to the tropics, a fact well known among conservation biologists for years. Tropical habitats favor diversity more so than temperate climates.

To give one example: Colombia, where I just spent a month, may not be the largest country on earth, but it leads the world in the number of species of vertebrates, birds, amphibians and butterflies.

One reserve in Peru, Manu National Park in the Amazon Basin, has more bird species than the entire United States.

The United States may be a big country, but it doesn't have the most species. Unless you're talking about mayflies.
The United States has more than 600 species of mayflies, more than any other country.

It's truly mayfly nation: A fact well appreciated by fly fishers, but perhaps less so by other nature lovers. The adult mayfly is a beautiful, delicate insect with a fascinating life history. When a major hatch is occurring (as above), it's one of nature's finest spectacles, even if you don't fish.

Mayflies live as underwater nymphs for a full year, hatching (often en masse) to become winged adults. As they take flight, the mayfly's journey is coming to an end: An adult mayfly only lives from 30 minutes to a day before it breeds, lays eggs and dies.

As such, adult mayflies only have vestigial mouths, and their digestive tracts are filled with air.

Mayfly hatches can reach truly staggering proportions: Along some of the Great Lakes, snow plows clear them off the streets. They can literally blanket the surface of a stream (see Silver Creek intern Ryan Urie's photo below of a brown drake hatch, from an earlier blog post).

I remember once standing along Penns Creek in Central Pennsylvania, listening to an evening hatch of Eastern green drakes: So many were in the air, it sounded like the wings of geese beating overhead.

Silver Creek has some of the finest mayfly hatches in the country, with the brown drake (early June) and trico (July and August) being particularly famous. Those hatches are one of the reasons Silver Creek has so many trout. If you visit now, you should be able to see scattered fall hatches, especially the small olive Baetis.

Mayflies may exist in huge numbers and varieties, but they do have one requirement: Clean water. A polluted stream is quickly cleared of its mayflies. Fortunately, efforts to clean water supplies over the last few decades have meant a resurgence in mayflies in areas where they had disappeared--like the Great Lakes. As long as this commitment to clean water remains, the United States will likely remain as the capital of mayflies. --Matt Miller

Friday, September 19, 2008

Watch Some Bighorns

Anyone traveling near Salmon this fall should stop by the new bighorn sheep viewing station to catch a glimpse of one of Idaho's most treasured animals.

The viewing station is at Redrock Sportsman's Access area north of Salmon. At the site, there is plenty of parking, a rest room and now, an interpretive kiosk where visitors can read about Idaho's bighorn sheep and view the sheep through a viewing scope.

A ribbon cutting ceremony for the viewing station will be at 2 p.m. October 1. The viewing station has been in the works for more than a year. The intent is to help visitors and locals alike appreciate the local population of bighorn sheep, how they live, the challenges that face them, and how people can support wild sheep.

The public is welcome to join the Idaho Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Association, Idaho Department of Fish and Game along with many partners and donors in thanking those who worked on the project and celebrate our wild sheep.

Another bighorn sheep viewing station is in the works for an area near Challis.

In addition, U.S. Highway 93 from North Fork south nearly to Mackay and State Highway 75 from Challis east toward Clayton have unofficially been called "Idaho's Bighorn Highway." Sheep can be viewed from the road in these areas, all year long.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Importance of Volunteers

Every year, many people come from all over the country to volunteer at Silver Creek. We also host maybe other volunteers throughout Idaho and throughout the world. People who work for free!! And are usually incredibly enthusiastic about it!! These volunteers fix fences, great visitors, clear trails, spray weeds, and the list goes on. I often wonder what I would do without the amazing lineup of volunteers I have at Silver Creek. This year alone we have already logged over 1000 hours of volunteer time. These people come for the love of the place and the love of our work, and it shows.

Many of you have probably been lucky enough to meet some of our volunteers this summer. Frank Hayes (above) has been volunteering for the past four weeks at the Silver Creek Preserve visitor center. In previous years, he spent time at the Flat Ranch Preserve and also puts in time and money for the upkeep of the Hayspur hatchery (across the highway from Silver Creek Preserve, Idaho Fish and Game). He spends his mornings at the visitor center and the afternoons fishing. Jerry and Cheryl Jeffery have been coming one month every summer for the past three years. They are from southern California and look forward to the peacefulness of Silver Creek. Jerry fishes and talks fishing most of the time and Cheryl cleans, cooks, and makes the Preserve look great. These are just three of the great volunteers we have throughout the season. Come down and say hi or call to volunteer yourself! 788-7910

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Intern Experience at Silver Creek

Another Labor day has come and gone and at Silver Creek that usually means the end of an intern season. Every year I try and find interns who are enthusiastic, who are pursuing a career in conservation, and who are not afriad to work hard. I would like to think the interns will someday come to work at TNC on a more permanent basis. Usually the interns have more or less the same goals as I do, with the added goal of having a good time (otherwise known as catching fish). One of the interns, Ryan Urie, wrote the following about coming to Silver Creek as a novice fisherman and what a learning experience that was:

Prior to coming to Silver Creek I always thought fishing meant placing a hook, marshmallow, and a small handful of lead on the end of a line, hurling it into a hatchery-stocked pond, then sitting back and waiting while sipping on a beer. My knowledge of fly fishing was limited to a single viewing of “A River Runs Through It,” and while I assumed it was more of a skill than bait fishing, I had no idea of the challenges Silver Creek had in store. I had heard that Silver Creek contains some four thousand brown and rainbow trout per mile and many over twenty inches in length; what I didn’t hear is that they are some of the most selective and difficult trout on the planet.

I went to the nearest sports shop and found a $50 rod and reel combo with line, leader, and a carrying case (it was only after several unsuccessful fishing attempts that I came to learn about things called “backing” and “tippet”). I picked up a variety pack of “Rocky Mountain Flies” with no indication of what, if anything, they were meant to imitate and set off. Without knowing even the basics of fly fishing, I aimed to fish what I now know is commonly referred to as the graduate school of fly fishing.

The qualities that make fishing Silver Creek so difficult are at the same time indicators of its success as a nature preserve. The crystal clear water makes fishermen and flies easily distinguishable to the fish; heavy catch-and-release fishing by the public has created a wary, intelligent fish population; and the year-round supply of riparian habitat and resulting insect supply has made the fish into well fed, picky eaters who can afford to ignore a fly that looks even the least bit suspicious.

These difficult conditions weed out any lazy or haphazard fishermen and force one to engage deeply with the landscape. Success at Silver Creek demands attention to stream conditions, weather patterns, local vegetation, insect hatches, season, and climate. A commitment is required, and fishing here is an exercise in frustration for those concerned only with catching fish.

In addition to all the challenges faced by competent fishermen, I had to further contend with constant snags, infuriating knots, and a general lack of interest on the part of the fish. I also managed to hook myself on several occasions (once through the lip, ironically), and sometimes would launch what I considered to be a perfect cast, only to watch the top half of my rod sail through the air and follow the fly into the water.

Several successive nights with no strikes gave me ample opportunity to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the creek. In addition to lush vegetation, dramatic sunsets, and calming waters, there is an abundance of wildlife at Silver Creek including moose, elk, beaver, muskrats, and badgers. The birdlife is especially prolific with over two hundred different species throughout the year including great blue herons, sand hill cranes, red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, northern harriers, and red-tailed hawks to name a few (in one morning of birding with a local expert I was able to take my life list from zero to sixty in under a day!). Often the aggravation of yet another lost fly or impossible tangle all but vanished with the joyful appearance of a baby duck, or a mouse poking its head from the nearby sedges.

By the fourth night of the brown drake hatch I was about ready to give up. Brown drakes are a variety of mayfly on Silver Creek which emerge, mate, lay eggs, and die all within a few days, and this hatch is one of the most eagerly awaited annual events in the Picabo area (at least for fishermen). In mid-June the drakes rise in a flurry of activity which is utterly breathtaking – akin to being in the midst of a tornado comprised of bugs. As they mate and die they form a constant stream of bodies in the creek. During this veritable buffet the trout let go their usual caution and join in a feeding frenzy which local fishermen capitalize on in what can rightly be called Fly Fishermen’s Christmas.

It was toward the end of this spectacle that I finally landed my first fish – a 21” brown trout (PHOTO) – using a size 14 brown drake spinner on a 4X line. As I held this miracle in my hands I felt connected to life and the flow of the universe in a way that had previously eluded me. It helped me to realize that my passion for conservation isn’t about protecting nature for its own sake or for human enjoyment either, but is rather about these moments of reconnecting – getting out of our egocentric bubbles and being a part of the greater story.

While I did finally learn to catch fish, the real education I received at Silver Creek wasn’t about fishing: it was about patience and perseverance. By pressing through the constant frustration and discouragement I was able to achieve something lasting and worthwhile. I learned about finding the joy in what the world offers instead of narrowly insisting upon my own ambitions, and to engage and flow with my environment. I learned to pay attention, and be still. Ultimately I found a deep sense of peace and wonder, and it is for that reason that I’ll keep coming back.