Dutch Salmon's Country Sports Blog

Dutch blogs about hunting, fishing, the environment, books, country living and more. If you enjoy these stories, you might like Country Sports: The Rabid Pursuits of a Redneck Environmentalist, a collection of over one hundred of Dutch's best columns published bi-weekly in the Las Cruces Sun-News. It's available here on our website. If you have questions or comments about any of these columns, you may contact Dutch at Dutch@High-LonesomeBooks.com.

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White-out – A Close Call in Winter

November 6, 2015

https://countrysports.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/snow-shoe-hare.jpg

Coming home from a jackrabbit hunt the other day, and passing through Deming, I tuned into Garrison Keillor and his “News from Lake Woebegone” segment of A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor said something like this: “On this day in November,” he intoned, “1975, three partridge hunters from the Twin Cities were caught in a blizzard up north in Lake of the Woods County and never made it out of the woods……” I was taken back some 40 years, for I lived in Lake of the Woods County at the time, and I too went hunting that day. I don’t recall any storm warnings on the radio re: weather. A congenital sleepy-eyed boy, maybe I just missed it. Or wasn’t paying attention. I should have been…

…It was abnormally warm that November morning; indeed I recall the entire fall as one long Indian summer. I’m sure I felt no need of gloves, ear-muffs, long johns and woolens, Sorel felt-insert boots, and other accoutrements of Minnesota winter garb. A pair of bib overalls and a light game jacket to carry the rabbits and ammunition seemed reasonable, considering the weather. This was going to be a lark; a morning afield with my two Bassett Hounds, Suzie and Phoebe, hunting for snowshoe hare. No snow on the ground and the hares were already turning an almost perfect white. After the first week of November, you don’t often find bare ground in Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota, hard on the Canadian border. What could possibly go wrong?

I was well armed, too: a Savage Model 24 with .22 magnum in the top barrel and twenty gauge full choke shooting #6 shot in the bottom. I drove to a remote section of the Beltrami State Forest – vast, flat, boreal woodlands – and turned loose the hounds.

We had a good hunt. Suzie, black, brown and white, a leggy Bassett, was of hunting stock and the leader; Phoebe, lemon and white, was more compact, but tireless and all heart and she had the better voice. Even with big, obvious white hares I proved I could miss my share of running rabbits driven hard by hound music. But I rolled three over in spite of myself – that was enough meat for all of us – and late morning I came out of the woods and sat on the tailgate, drinking coffee and waiting on the hounds. They were capable of running hares by the hour just for the fun of it but once she realized I was no longer in the woods backing her up, Suzie came to the same dirt road. She saw me and ran to the truck. I thought, “We could have some good running on the south side of the road here, too.” But Suzie sat there on the forest road and looked up at me like she was done. Odd! But I took her hint, opened the door, and she jumped in the cab of the truck.

Missing her hunting partner, Phoebe shortly came to the road as well. She, too, was oddly ready to quit. So I loaded her up; by this time a light snow had begun to fall and the wind had picked up. I poured more coffee and started a leisurely drive – about 15 miles – for home. With the dogs warming up the cab, steaming up the windows, and all of us happy from the hunt, it should have been a pleasant drive. But we almost didn’t make it.

By the time we were halfway there I was having trouble seeing the road. It was a mixture of falling snow and blowing snow, there was no definition between the road and the bar ditch, everything was white – a “white-out.” If I wasn’t already familiar with the road and the few turns required I would surely have driven into the ditch. As it was I crawled along in third gear and nearly missed my own driveway. Indeed, I passed it but saw the mailbox and backed up. Even then I had to get out and get a fix on the turn down the lane; there was a bar ditch there, too.

I got to the barn, got out, and noted that the temperature must have dropped 40 degrees from earlier in the day. Working without gloves, my hands started to sting and ache as I secured everything from the coming storm. The two bassetts thought this was all great sport; they played in the snow but stuck around till I was done and followed me into the house. I built a fire in the stove, made coffee and some lunch, cleaned three hares and knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere for the next few days.

In time the county snowplow opened up the county road and my driveway. I went to town and little by little caught on to how lucky I’d been. Garrison Keillor, some 30 years later, was right – two (or it may have been three), partridge hunters from southern Minnesota, hunting just a few miles from Suzie, Phoebe, and me, got caught in the same “white-out” while still in the woods. Without a compass, and totally disoriented by the storm, they never made it to the road. I doubt I would have fared much better if the hounds and I had not the luck to quit early that day and head for the barn. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Suzie, the clairvoyant bassett, I’d likely still be there, hunting the Elysian Fields on the south side of the road.

Note: This story will appear in the author’s next book – Country Sports – II: More Rabid Pursuits of a Redneck Environmentalist, due out before Christmas this year. Reach the author at: dutch@high-lonesome books.com

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My Shot at the Gun Debate

Note: The recent mass-killing in Oregon has the gun debate on the front page once again. My thoughts on the issue have not changed, but because my “solution” is not to my knowledge being expressed elsewhere, I’m throwing it out there once more……MHS

 

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

In my memory, the gun issue goes back to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, who, if you believe Lee Harvey Oswald did it, was killed with a mail-order gun. Guns have been a contentious political topic ever since, the issue currently at a war-like pitch due to the recent and almost unbelievable shooting-massacre at a Connecticut elementary school.

Only a fool consumed by self-delusion could think he might resolve this debate over gun violence with a partial page of (hopefully) well chosen words. Well, here goes!

First, I must acknowledge that I do not come at the issue from the middle of the road. I have been a gun owner for a long time and currently own a half-dozen guns, all used for hunting. I pay my yearly dues to the National Rifle Association (NRA), though I write to them from time to time when I view them as wrong-headed.

By rural New Mexico standards I suppose all this makes me a rather ordinary redneck, but hear me out — my suggestions are merely designed to work, not to please either the NRA or anti-gun lobbyists.

What set me off on this polemic was the re-reading of an old but still relevant article in the October 1999 issue of Harper’s Magazine. In a piece titled, “Your Constitution is Killing You,” Daniel Lazare summarizes his point: “The truth about the Second Amendment is something that liberals cannot bear to admit: The right wing is right. The amendment does confer an individual right to bear arms . . .”

Lazare arrives at this conclusion after nine pages of detailed scholarship that takes in the traditions of English Common Law, the social and political history of America’s Colonial period, and the writings of key Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. The crux of it is that at the time of the Continental Congress, a “well regulated Militia” and “the people” were one-and-the-same.

“If the framers were less than specific about the nature of a well-regulated militia,” Lazare writes, “it was because they didn’t feel they had to be. The idea of a popular militia as something synonymous with the people as a whole was so well understood in eighteenth century America that it went without saying . . ..”

Lazare believes that even liberal constitutional scholars are now more inclined to admit the truth about the rights of gun owners. He sees “a renaissance in Second Amendment studies” and “a remarkable about-face in how it is interpreted.”

He writes: “The purely `collectivist’ interpretation has been rejected across the board by liberals and conservatives as ahistorical and overly pat. The individualist interpretation . . . has been more or less vindicated.”

What makes Lazare’s consideration of the Second Amendment so interesting is that he is very much anti-gun. He is clearly in great fear of “the people” having the right to keep and bear arms and is looking for a way to abridge the liberty. That he comes to his conclusions reluctantly makes them all the more compelling.

Ultimately, Lazare offers his own solution to gun violence, one that is, in my view, extreme, wrong-headed, and untenable. Taking the Second Amendment at its word, and viewing modern gun violence with understandable horror, he believes we must amend or rewrite the Constitution to get rid of the individual right to keep and bear arms.

Politically, of course, this isn’t going to fly. The gun lobby is powerful and it has always been extremely difficult for anyone to change so much as a comma of the Constitution. And the Founding Fathers were prescient — they correctly saw guns as an element in protecting our individual and collective liberties. I believe they meant those liberties, and the Second Amendment in particular, to stand for all time.

All that said on behalf of gun ownership, we have got a terrific problem of gun violence on our hands and we must look beyond both the gun lobby, and the anti-gun lobby, to affect a solution. The first thing to recognize is that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right.

Nobody in the debate thinks convicted criminals or the mentally unsound should own a gun. We do not allow individuals to own bazookas, rocket launchers, or fully automatic weapons, and not even the NRA lobbys for their use outside the military.

In New Mexico, it is illegal to bring a firearm into a drinking establishment; nobody argues against this restriction.

So of course the “right” to keep and bear arms is limited, hopefully by reasonable restrictions. What’s reasonable?

Whenever government seeks to mold or correct human behavior by law, this principal should be followed: The maximum freedom possible for the law-abiding citizen; the maximum punishment possible for the criminals, violators and perpetrators.

Unfortunately, in our time, we tend to do just the opposite. We pass pervasive laws that oppress or hinder everyone, then go easy on the violators when they screw up. Only a very small percentage of gun owners ever abuse the privilege of owning a firearm. Nonetheless, the anti-gun lobby wants all gun owners to face a host of restrictions, such as outlawing cheap handguns, or all handguns, or semi-automatic rifles, or gun shows, or limiting the number of guns you can own, or can buy in a given period of time.

These regulations are not only ineffective, they infringe on law-abiding citizens. At the same time, we need to do a better job of keeping the bad guys away from guns, and instilling more responsible gun use in the populace.

The solution is not gun registration or a ban on certain guns, but the lawful licensing of gun owners on a national level.

The law, as I envision it, would allow any sane, law-abiding citizen to own, buy or sell, or use a variety of guns for any lawful purpose, once you get your gun license. Any adult gets the license (no local, state, or Federal entity could deny this) once they clear a background check, and pass a gun safety course.

Think of the sensible strictures and procedures that currently apply to anyone seeking a concealed carry permit, then apply something similar to the broader range of gun ownership and use. Anyone caught with a firearm and no license would be subject to prosecution. Likewise, any baseless or arbitrary denial of a permit would also be contrary to law, nationwide.

The licensing procedure, as I see it, would leave legal gun owners with more liberty, and a lot less hassle, than we have now, and would reassert the principal of the Second Amendment. But it would at the same time give the authorities a much better legal apparatus to weed out, or get at, the career criminals, crazed teenagers, mentally unstable adults, and others that shouldn’t own a gun. And if every gun owner had to take the safety course, there would be a lot fewer accidents.

By licensing, I suggest a gun rights law, and a gun control law, all in one package.

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Fishing for Buffalo

September 18, 2015

buffalo fish

Leave it to Bob Brady of Silver City to teach me something new about the outdoors. Fishing off the bank last week in Caballo Reservoir, he caught a 12 lb., 3 oz. smallmouth buffalo fish. I wasn’t with him but he sent the picture to prove it and based on my experience with the species, that’s what it was alright. I’ve fished Caballo and Elephant Butte on and off since 1982 and It was news to me that we had the smallmouth buffalo in our two big local lakes and adjacent Rio Grande.

“Oh yes, they’re really quite common,” said Kevin of New Mexico Game & Fish in Las Cruces, “and not only that, they’re native to the Rio Grande system. But few people fish for them, or know how to catch ’em.”

Well, I’m no expert, but I have caught a few from years ago in Texas, from the Trinty, Neches, and Nueces Rivers, and here’s what I’ve learned about them as regards natural history and sport.

The smallmouth buffalo (and it’s relatives bigmouth and black buffalo) is a member of the sucker family. They look a lot like a carp with added buffalo hump but lack the barbels at the mouth. They’ll average two to about 15 lbs. but like the carp have the potential to get much bigger. A yu-tube video had a guy along some southern river battle a 30 pounder to the net. And a Texas Parks and Wildlife report said the state record smallmouth buffalo on rod and reel is 82 lbs. ; the biggest on trotline is 97 lbs.! Further, more than one Internet site said the smallmouth buffalo is the number one commercial fresh water food fish in North America. And I just remembered I once caught one (1970s) from the Red River of the North in Manitoba; that’s a rangy fish.

Bob Brady said he caught his at night on a nightcrawler while fishing for catfish. I’d fish for buffalo same as I fish for carp — chum out some Green Giant canned corn, then put two kernals on a #8 hook and with a sliding sinker put it out there amongst the chum with the line on free spool.

I’d prepare them for tablefare same as I do a carp — filet a slab off the rib cage on either side and cut out any red or oily meat. There will still be floating bones but you solve that by grinding up the meat like hamburger, then add seasoned bread crumbs for body and flavor and either fry as fish patties or bake as a fish loaf.

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Farm Ponds and Fabulous Fishes

September 10, 2015

In the hands of wordsmith Henry Thoreau, an every-day pond and it’s fish become quite “fabulous.” This short tale, and others like it, is from my up-coming COUNTRY SPORTS – II, scheduled for publication November, 2015. — MHS

henry thoreau

At first glance, to a fisherman, a pond might seem less impressive, and less productive of fish, than a lake. And more prosaic than a stream or river. On second glance, that may just depend upon the pond.

First I guess we’ll have to take a stand and distinguish between a pond and a lake. I was going to say something like 60 surface acres seems a good separation and after looking around I’m thinking that’s pretty close to good. Henry Thoreau after all called his favorite water “Walden Pond”; he wrote that it was 61 surface acres in size, and it’s a good thing for him he called it a pond because “Walden Lake” doesn’t quite get it. Walden Pond is cool; Walden Lake? Golly, I don’t know if Henry would have ever found a publisher! Anyway, I’m here to say that for this story a pond is a small lake of less than 100 acres whose waters are essentially still rather than flowing like a stream.

In a chapter in Walden called “Higher Laws’, Henry takes on the subject of hunting, meat eating, animal rights, etc., and while somewhat ambivalent throughout the discussion, he has clearly got the vapors about killing and/or eating animals, the main objection being that hard labor caused him to have to eat “coarsely.” The coarse part of the meal, of course, being the flesh of animals. But for Henry, animals apparently were on some other level than fish.

“Fishing,” he confesses, “still recommends itself to me.” And the best fish in Walden Pond he describes like this: “I am always surprised by their rare beauty, as if they were fabulous fishes……it is a wonder that they are caught here, that in this deep and capacious spring…..this great gold and emerald fish swims…..Easily, with a few convulsive quirks, they give up their watery ghosts …..like a mortal translated before his time to the thin air of heaven.”

Written by a true transcendentalist; keep the meat, free the spirits; no catch-and-release angler was this bard of Concord! And the great gold and emerald fish native to this “deep and capacious spring” is not the largemouth or smallmouth bass, though they too can in some waters sport “great gold and emerald” colors, but the chain pickerel, a lowly species, as generally conceded by today’s angler. I can’t recall that I’ve ever seen a pickerel story written up as a feature in one of the Hook-and-Bullet magazines; no Pickerel on the Fly on your bookshelf or mine. Yet with Henry Thoreau as companion and scribe, fishing in a farm pond named Walden, this still-water pickerel is a rare pleasure and stimulates a precious literary legacy.

I’ve read Henry’s Walden Pond book early in life and again, later, in college, and every few years even now. But I’ve never fished its waters. My first experience fishing someplace like it was the Vanderkamp Pond in upstate New York, north of Oneida Lake, on the fringe of the remote Tug Hill Plateau. My cousin Hank was part of the family that owned The Vanderkamp; several hundred acres plus the pond that I’m guessing was close to 100 acres itself.

Whatever the size it was full of a very game fish that jumped, some weighing several pounds, and because it was a private pond the fish were seldom fished and vulnerable even to young teens who were just winging it on this new species – largemouth bass. Our weapon of choice was the Hula Popper.

I wonder if they still make that plug? A short, fat cigar stub in size with a hairy hula skirt round the middle; you’d throw it out there on the edge of the cattails, give it a “pop,” then see how much patience you had as you waited for a big largemouth to blast it off the surface. Fewer pops was generally better but the temptation was great to keep it moving if you didn’t get a hit right away and then the popper was soon off the habitat and a bass would rarely venture beyond his cover.

We got good at “edging” that cover though and caught some beauties, some real bruisers, in spite of ourselves, and the fishing was invariably good ‘cause me and Hank were the only ones using it……..the name Vanderkamp soon became Abandoned-kamp in our lexicon and remains so today though our time there is long past. Anyway, it was quite a pond.

We have a number of ponds in southwest New Mexico, like Bill Evans, Bear Canyon, and Lake Roberts. These sometimes produce well, and sometimes not, but they’re likely crowded on the week end. So I’m going to write about a little 15-acre pond I know that’s private and nameless and rimmed with big shade trees. Despite its small size it’s got some nice largemouth, big bluegill, and the odd warmouth bass.

The warmouth bass looks a lot like a rock bass but is prettier – reddish-brown streaks along the lateral line, yellow belly and orange spots on the dorsal fine — and is actually a member of the sunfish family. They get up to 2 lbs. or a bit more and the one I caught on my last trip to this small water was over a pound with a lot of “pull.” What they do when hooked is get that wide body broadside to the angler and the direction of the line and “fight big.” I was using a 4-weight rod and started with a Pistol Pete and it was too heavy for the leader. So I switched to a smallish wooly bugger and my landings improved though I think I only landed four fish, the warmouth the biggest.

Stephen O’Day and son Bud used spinning outfits and easily caught more than me and it was a lovely day and I got a bang out of that warmouth bass on a fly. I hadn’t caught one of those in years, and this pretty fish and place and day offered up a good example of farm pond fishing. Henry caught it just right: “I am always surprised by their rare beauty,” he said, “as if they were fabulous fishes.”

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B. Traven's Wilderness

Many read B. Traven as a proletarian and adventure writer; few as a wilderness lover with a conservation ethic. We should take another look. The following essay appeared in my 2004 book Country Sports. — MHS

Howard: We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for all the wealth she’s given us. If you guys don’t want to help me, I’ll do it alone.

Bob Curtin: You talk about that mountain like it was a real woman.

Fred C. Dobbs: She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew. Keep your shirt on, old-timer. Sure, I’ll help ya.

The lure of the wild may come unbidden. And often a mentor―or several of them―provides an introduction to the natural world that is practical, or inspirational, or both. I count my father, Theodore Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold as influences on my outdoor pursuits; they helped get me there, and taught me the joy and the respect. And there was one other man who drew me off the beaten path, who reached me as a writer as did Roosevelt and Leopold, though he was hardly an outdoorsman at all.

It was the 1960s, colleges were in turmoil over “movements”―anti-war, feminism, the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution had my attention, but otherwise on the enormous campus where I found myself I felt like a man (or more precisely a freshman) out of time. Misplaced and homesick, I took note when the campus art cinema advertised a showing of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” I thought, perhaps a “Western” will offer some reprieve.

This was no ordinary Western. As Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Curtin (Tim Holt) and the Old Man (Walter Huston) left the evils of urban Mexico for the wilds of the Sierra Madre I envisioned my own release from pain. The film offered splendid realism, made the more so by the screening in understated black and white. Everything was “on location” in Mexico. The Mexicans spoke Spanish (not the silly accented English so often heard in films), and the burros were packed as if the search for gold would take months. Which it did, while Dobbs, Curtin, and the Old Man looked increasingly scruffy, dirty, and suspicious as they considered whether they could trust each other with all that loot. And through it all was the backdrop of the Mexican wilderness. A misplaced freshman was ready to run to the hills.

In the end of course Dobbs loses his life to greed. Curtin leaves in search of a woman and a peach orchard in Georgia. The Old Man returns to the mountains to live with Indians who know happiness with few material wants. And the gold dust blows away in the wind.

Outside the theater, and back to reality, I didn’t run. Not right then, anyway. But I did make it a point to read the book upon which director John Huston based his film. More complex and complete than the film, and less tightly woven, it was written by a strange bird named B. Traven. To the end of his life, not even his several wives knew who he was.

B. Traven was the great mystery man of 20th century literature, hiding from the age of 25 behind a dizzying assortment of aliases, pen names and created personas, all carefully applied by the writer to confuse the press and keep the public (and sometimes the authorities) out of his life.

“Traven is not important; Traven’s works are important,” he proclaimed time and again from various furtive locales in Mexico. He did protest too much; ironically, the mystery of B. Traven always overshadowed his books. This mystery was essentially solved in 1980 with the publication of The Secret of the Sierra Madre by British journalist Will Wyatt. In summary, it is now known that B. Traven was a German (not an American as he always claimed), born Otto Feige in that country in 1882. Feige disappears about 1904, but the same man reappears in 1907 as . . . Ret Marut, actor, anarchist and radical journalist. In 1922 Marut narrowly escapes a firing squad during a right wing coup in Bavaria, sails the seas in search of a country for a couple of years, arriving finally in Mexico in 1924 as . . . T. Torsvan. In 1925 the writer B. Traven appears in print―though never in public―with the first of 12 novels. Meanwhile Torsvan fronts for Traven until 1946 when he, too, disappears, only to be replaced by . . . Hal Croves, who dies in Mexico, denying to the end he’s Traven, in 1969. Got it?

Anyway, Feige, Marut, Torsvan, Traven, Croves were all the same man. This man lived in cities most of his life. Yet in tracing Traven’s literary biography, we find that his principal inspiration came from wilderness.

As Ret Marut, Traven was a prolific journalist and polemicist in Germany. But he wrote nothing of lasting value and had his career ended there he would be unknown today. Shortly after arriving in Tampico in 1924 however, he joined a government agricultural expedition as scribe and photographer. For the better part of the next year he toiled with the expedition in the Mexican wilds, mostly in the state of Chiapas, assessing agricultural possibilities, natural history, and the lives and lifeways of the native peoples. For the rest of his life Traven would live in Tampico, or Acapulco, or Mexico City. His ramblings off the beaten path were quickly done. But the Mexican wilderness transformed his creative spirit; from his brief sojourn in the wilds came The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, March to the Monteria, The Rebellion of the Hanged, The Bridge in the Jungle and almost all the other novels for which he is known.

I’ve read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre several times. And every few years I plug John Huston’s film into the VCR. I know all the memorable scenes, all the good lines, by heart. The quest for gold, the lure of the wild, the scene of tired men and loaded burros breaking trail continues to inspire. When I go into the wilderness of the Gila, I backpack, or use pack goats, to carry the goods. But there’s no doubt that Dobbs, Curtin, the Old Man and those burros showed me the way. My material wants are few in the wilderness, and the irony of gold that blew away in the wind all the more clear. From my time in the wilderness, I’ve found stimulus to write some books of my own.

B. Traven wrote: “The treasure you do not think it worth the pain and trouble to find, that is the real treasure you have been searching for all your life. The gold you seek lies just beyond the rim of that hill yonder.”

It seems the gold is always just beyond the rim of that hill yonder; and even if we found it, it would probably belong to the government. But it’s still possible to strike it rich off the beaten path.

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ISC Fudges the Facts

A Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) has been signed by some 15 governing entities, or quasi-governing entities, seeking the divert some 14,000 af of water from the Gila River in southwest New Mexico. Notable by it absence from this list is Silver City, which voted unanimously in June not to join in the JPA, realizing that conservation and modest development of prodigious ground water reserves in the Mimbres Basin would secure a comfortable water future for the town at a fraction of the cost of the diversion. The New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), principal proponent of the massive dam/diversion of the state’s last free flowing river under the Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) wasn’t taking any chances when it came Deming’s turn to vote on membership in the JPA. What did the ISC/Deming do?

First, they rigged the meeting of the city council so there would be no public comment period, except for that public comment period provided to the ISC, and thus there could be not only no presentation by opponents of the dam but as well no cross examination of the ISC point of view and faulty data. This is where the ISC had free reign to fudge the facts, principally concerning the costs of the project and the amount of water available for beneficial use.

Craig Roepke, Deputy Director of the ISC, said the project would cost “only” 250 million to 450 million dollars (capital/construction costs) and implied that this was for 13,000 af of water. In fact, these figures were taken from the Bureau of Reclamation’s “Value Planning” Study and the 250-450 million figure was for “Phase One” of the project which would divert less than half of the 13,000 af (the rest being lost to evaporation and percolation/seepage) and wouldn’t even get the water out of the Cliff/Gila Valley where there are no buyers for the water due to per acre foot costs. To get the water to Deming would require the completion of “Phase Two” and “Phase Three” and a cost of upwards of a billion dollars, according to the BOR’s “Value Planning" Study.

The Deming City Council signed on to the JPA. The ISC got one of the two urban areas aboard, for the time-being, on the AWSA diversion project. It is not to their credit that they had to fudge the facts and obfuscate and manipulate  the public process to get it done.

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Squawfish on a Fly

July 30, 2015

Dutch with Pike Minnow

Of course they don’t call it a squawfish anymore and it’s just as well it is now the Colorado pike minnow. I give the nod to the new name not out of political correctness but because the creature — pike-like —  is long and lean, has a mouthful of long teeth, and gets big; to 50 lbs. and more. I joined, or perhaps created, a fly fishing elite circa year 2000 when I caught three of them on a 10-day, 45-mile, canoe trip down a reach of the Verde River of Arizona. I’d like to catch some more but the odds are against it.

It was circa year 1995 when Arizona Game & Fish (AZ G&F) and the U..S Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) released some 10,000 fingerling pike minnows into the Verde, part of a recovery effort of the fish as a listed endangered species. Concurrently, the agencies began a control program, mostly using electro-shock treatments, against the non-native predatory sport fish that had long ago invaded the Verde and now were in conflict with natives like the pike minnow. This included smallmouth and largemouth bass, channel and flathead catfish, and carp. By the time our party of canoeists put into the Verde the recovery effort was well along and agency personnel were eager to see the results. At least one of them was most interested to hear that I had caught 3 pike minnows on rod and reel.

“I got one on a wooly worm, one on a pistol pete, and one on a bait casting rig with a live hellgrammite,” I said. “They were about 15 to 18 inches long and felt like an eel on the end  of the line.”

He took notes and reminded me to keep all the non-natives while turning all the native fish loose. Well, I sure wasn’t going to keep an endangered species but I didn’t tell him I wasn’t going to keep any fish I didn’t eat, but that’s another story.

Alas, the recovery of the pike minnow is on the ropes. A survey of the Verde about a decade after the initial release turned up fewer than 100 fish, all part of that release and thus no evidence of recruitment. An occasional lunker turns up elsewhere in the Colorado drainage but despite control efforts catfish and bass continue to far outnumber the natives. Controversies continue to haunt native fish recoveries in the West; nobody can say why the pike minnow, a seemingly significant predator in it’s own right, can’t seem to equal the competition……..the answer may go well beyond conflicts with non-native fish. Those of us who have caught a pike minnow will remain scarce as well.

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Choose a Few Flies for all Seasons

 July 26, 2015

         Flies are part of the fun of fly fishing. To some people I think they are even more interesting than the fish or the fishing. I can understand that, to a point, and tying flies has come to be a hobby (or sport) unto itself.

        Each fly is different, many are beautiful, like a tiny jewel, some so much so that you almost hate to cast them out there for fear they might be never seen again. And, on the other hand, each is an invitation to fantasy; you can look at an individual fly and wonder what it might catch next time it hits the water.

        Still, one can get lost in fly selection; there are so many options. I like flies, especially the pretty ones, but to keep things manageable I put in my fly box a relative few styles that ought to work most anywhere. Here’s my choice for a few flies for all seasons.

        First, to cover the possibilities, you need some that sink and some that float; some that imitate and some that attract. And as we’ll see, there may be some overlap at times.

        The Wooly Bugger should be in any fly box and of course it’s a sinker. Black ones imitate hellgrammites or leeches, brown ones imitate crawfish, and green ones could well be a bullfrog tadpole to a fish. Dead drift them and they are imitators, but jig them and they become attractors. Use one with a bead head and you can get down deep without a split shot, and I think the bead itself can act as an extra attraction to the fish. They come in all sizes but are famous for enticing the bigger bass or trout. All said, a dandy fly.

        Another relatively large fly for larger fish is the Marabou Minnow. It does rather take on a minnow-like movement with a little help from you and they come in colors to imitate most minnows you find in your local waters. But really, I’d say color seldom matters. Fish go for the marabou more as a moving minnow lure rather than precise imitation. All those flowing feathers in flight stimulate fish to strike; it simply works.

        Is the Pistol Pete a fly or a lure? It casts like a fly, once you get the hang of it, but that spin propeller makes it a spinner too, as though it belonged to a spinning rod. The spinner works even on a dead drift, but more so when you jig it or simply strip it in. Whatever, it is an attractor fly that comes in all colors, usually on a #6 or #10 hook. Purists won’t use them but, no purist, they sure work for me.

        One could name nymphs in the hundreds but who could name a better one than the Prince Nymph? Where the above are all big, attractor-type flies that sink the Prince Nymph is usually on a #12 to #16 hook and is perfect for small trout in small streams (not that big ones won’t hit it). It must be the white wings, that make it appear an emerger, that time and again allow it to out-fish otherwise similar nymphs. I usually try an upstream cast and dead drift, then, if that fails, twitch it back upstream. It works both ways.

        Surface (dry) flies always start with the Adams, not flashy at all yet it fools fish precisely because it imitates sufficiently well a variety of mayflies, et al. And by “and others” I mean a great variety as the Adams is the one dry fly that so often works when there is no hatch on. This is often the case on the Gila streams so always have an Adams in your fly box.

        To give the same fly some flash, which sometimes works better, use the Parachute Adams. It is simply the bland Adams with a white furl on top to increase visibility, for both you and the fish. I think the well known Royal Wulff works for the same reason and is also a good addition. I regained my interest in dry fly fishing with the Parachute Adams, fishing for rainbows and browns a few years ago on the headwaters if the Little Colorado River of Arizona.

        Most trout on most streams are familiar with the caddis fly hatch. The Elk Hair Caddis in the standard tan color is often best though various shades work. Not that you need a hatch. Again, on the Gila streams, a heavy hatch that truly activates a heavy trout rise is unusual. Simply use the elk hair when the trout are hungry, which is most of the time.

        The Elk Hair Caddis, Adams, Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff should have you covered for dry flies. There are a couple of others that float that you will also want though they hardly resemble dry flies.

        Dave’s Hopper has become a standard grasshopper pattern and as summer wears on hoppers multiply, get bigger, and some of them land in the water. Trout and bass, and others, allow few to escape. When you see live hoppers on the bank assume a Dave’s Hopper will work in the water. Lay it out up-current and watch the drift, at the ready.

        Finally, you ought to have a few “popping bugs.” These float, some fish hit them when they land, but the “gurgle” the bug puts on the surface when you pop it is what activates the quarry. These are commonly used to fly fish for panfish but don’t think they won’t work on a calm evening on a local stream for trout or bass.

        Well, that’s an easily acquired handful of flies for most anything you might encounter in the streams of New Mexico or Arizona. You’re covered. It doesn’t mean you’ll score every time, but run through this list and catch nothing and the problem is likely something other than the fly!

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Some Horse Races I Have Known

July 12, 2015

Well, American Pharaoh did it; won going away at the Belmont Stakes, taking the extra quarter mile in stride over the Derby and Preakness distances to win the 1 1/2 mile race just 2½ seconds off the track record set by the indomitable Secretariat in 1973. Put another way, to win the Triple Crown of horse racing you need to be an equine who can average nearly 40 mph for three consecutive races from 11/4 to 11/2 miles in length. No wonder no horse had done it in 34 years! Secretariat, American Pharaoh, War Admiral and Seabiscuit ; these are legends of American sport; as great and laudable as Jesse Owens, Michael Jordan, or Larry Bird. For there is something about a horse race. .
And I’ve often thought, to be the jockey, the rider, of one of those major league horses has got to be one of the most physically exhilarating experiences in sport; indeed in all of life! I say that as I’ve been in a few horse races myself.
Mind you, these races were not around a track, nor were they scheduled events and they didn’t involve Thoroughbred or any other high-toned breeding of stock. But even a cow pony can run, fast, and if you’re aboard any thousand pound quadruped at 40 mph you won’t forget it any time soon. I found this out when I was seated on a horse named Red Wing when she took a run at a wild cow called Old Yeller.
I wrote this up in this column a while back but in short, I arrived at a ranch job in south Texas in 1963 (17 years old) not knowing a curb bit from a snaffle but granted the privilege of riding, at different times, every horse in the remuda, from Fino Blanco who was untrustworthy and had a hard trot that would loosen your fillings by the end of the day, to Red Wing, who was muy mancito (very gentle), a smooth traveler who knew cows and could run like the wind.
And so when we emerged from the brush onto an open flat there was the wild cow Old Yeller already in full flight. Red Wing “built right to her” with no urging or direction from me and I simply turned her loose and concentrated on not falling off. And that’s when I learned something about riding a horse at speed — although scary, it’s probably a horse’s smoothest gait.
As Red Wing came up to full gallop, her neck came slowly down and she was reaching out with head and muzzle like she could smell a fresh apple just ahead and with that, at full pace my seat in the saddle smoothed out with the length and ease of her stride. It was a race all right but not a fair one as she soon over-hauled and flanked that maverick cow, allowing the foreman, Mr. Ott, to come up on the other flank and throw a loop. Old Yeller was caught, Mr. Ott earned and got the credit and even I didn’t look too bad, thanks to the horse.
Later, in Minnesota, there was Jesse, my first horse under my ownership. Jesse was a mixed breed paint horse, otherwise nondescript and certainly nothing to match the elegance of my girlfriend’s Arabian gelding with his arched neck, finely chiseled head and muzzle, and short-coupled, muscular frame. One day when the Arab was prancing along on a dirt road in a cold wind, she said, “Let’s turn them loose to the section line road up there,” and the race was on.
Well Jesse might have been of ordinary conformation but she could sure run and she had the Arab by three lengths when we crossed the section road after about a quarter mile run. . . . . . . she split the breeze!. .
The third equine in my horse race memoir, well, I can’t recall his name. But he was a gelding owned by a fine old gentleman, Mr. Albert Hebbert (1905-1999) of Ashby, Nebraska. This was a Sand Hills pony, and Mr. Hebbert said, “He’s a top-notch cow horse and he loves to hunt coyotes.” Well hunting coyotes is what we were to do that day and I knew as I stepped on I was well mounted; he was tremendously alert, eager, and responsive. And Mr. Hebbert was right about his being a hunter; indeed, I’ll just call him “Hunter” for this story.
As we rode out over those remote, wild Sand Hills grasslands with the hounds, Hunter was constantly on the lookout for a coyote. He could see better than the hounds due to his height and he spotted two of the little wolves at very long range before I saw them myself. But they were well out of range. The third coyote that day was close enough for all to see and the race was on!
Now among those who had preceded us in hunting coyotes and jackrabbits on the plains with coursing hounds was General George Armstrong Custer, Theodore Roosevelt, and in New Mexico, naturalist Earnest Thompson Seton, and the cowboy-novelist Max Evans. All I’m sure would agree that the idea is not to race the hounds to the catch (too dangerous) but to use the horse’s mobility to keep sight of the hounds and get a good view the race. But apparently Hunter didn’t think so.
Hunter wanted to go right with the hounds, and when I tried to pull him up he took hold of the bit and went on………….when I tried harder he took to pitching about such as I thought he would throw me. I suppose a better rider would have kept him under better control but rather than getting pitched off I turned him loose……….
My gosh what a race that was, uphill and down, dodging yuccas and jumping soap weeds; and a thousand yards later when the hounds rolled that coyote, I mean I was there! When Mr. Hebbert rode up at a sensible pace I said, “Mr. Hebbert, this is quite a horse you gave me to ride.” And he said, “Oh, he’s a little fiery.”
No, it wasn’t the Belmont Stakes, but it was still quite a ride!

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The Beauties of the Three-Day Camp

Three days makes for a nice campout, especially for the fisherman. Day one is the hike in, with backpacks at their heaviest carrying all the food that will be gone three days hence. But you're fresh and eager and you forge ahead, though weighted down, to a good campsite. A good campsite this time of year means close to good fishing and plenty of shade. If there's time enough you may even cast a fly or bait that first evening, after setting up camp. At the least you will rig up your rod to be ready for manana.

You don't plan to move camp on a three-day camp-out; that's one of the beauties of the schedule. So when you wake up your only concern is breakfast and you're ready to fish. All you need is a day-pack for lunch and camera and you're ready to hike the waters, looking for the better pools and runs. In the evening you return to the old campsite, which is beginning to seem like home only now you've got some fish stories to tell.

Day three you do have to break camp. But, following breakfast, virtually all the food is gone and that backpack feels almost like a day pack when you put it on. So you stop along the way and fish a few of the better spots on the hike out. With any luck you finish with a couple more fish stories to tell.

That's the ideal and here's how it worked for Bud and I just a couple of weeks ago.

We didn't need to pick the hottest, driest time of year but there was a reason for it. Last year we waited for the cooling afternoon clouds of July and waited too long. You may recall last summer the rains came early. They didn't stop till November; the streams ran high and muddy for months. So this year we didn't wait and figured to take the 90-degree heat and clear waters with the three forks of the Gila running about 25 cfs apiece.

We picked one of those forks and we cheated a bit. I always have seven or eight big, leggy hounds and there's no reason one of them can't come along and carry part of the load. So we picked young Archie, trained him to the dog pack, and he carried the cook gear and the apples and oranges. He proved a natural pack dog and I figure took about 6 lbs. off each of our backs. And there's nothing like a good dog to keep the bears and coons out of the camp.

It was a stiff hike upstream and with us loaded down; we worked up a good sweat going in. But we found camp inside of three hours. We set up the tarp and some rolling thunder and lightning bolts kept us there till dinner. But it never did rain much and we got our rods strung up We grilled steaks, boiled some quick brown rice, put out the fire and went to bed.

In the morning I tied on a beadhead prince nymph and gave Bud something called a "crystal nymph." He said it looked like a "Christmas tree ornament." But at the first pool he caught a nice 10-inch bass. At the next pool he caught a bigger one. He has the roll cast down and hooked and lost several other fish, too. I finally got on the board with a 12-inch rainbow. All these fish made our 4-weight rods bow and throb. Then we found "the pool."

This was really a deep run with slower water at the bottom end where author/angler Rex Johnson and I had done real well a month earlier. Bud and I did well here too; he caught a 15-inch bronze bass; I got a 16-inch rainbow and a 12-inch brown.

Bud was out-fishing me but disappointed he couldn't catch a trout. After lunch, just before we turned around to head back to camp, he caught a rainbow near 15 inches. It jumped twice and he was ecstatic and said the rainbow was his "favorite fish." Then he broke his rod tip in the brush and we were down to one rod.

At camp, another false thunderstorm put us under the tarp where we napped. When it blew over I said, "Bud, there's a fair pool just below camp."

There was, but a better one had formed 100 yards downstream since I'd been here last; rivers are always changing. Again it was more of a deep run, with a slow–water pocket at the downstream end. I could just imagine a big bass sitting, and feeding, in that pocket.

He was there! And he took my nymph. But after putting a big hoop in my rod he swam straight to me. I reeled with all I had but was way too slow; right near my feet he surfaced and shook his head and tossed the fly on a slack line. That was a wild, stream smallmouth, big as a lake bass, and this day way too smart for me.

Taking turns with the rod, Bud caught another good bass out of this pool, though not the trophy I lost, and I added another rainbow. It sure was nice to know there was a hole like this right below camp. And back at camp Buddy said, "Dad, there's a rattlesnake right here."

In a brush pile not a stone's throw from where we slept a rattler had his own camp. He was a big diamondback with a thick body coiled to strike, buzzing his tail and too close for my comfort, especially with dumb Archie wandering around ignorant of snakes. My custom is to just leave them alone, but not when they're sharing camp. I confess I planned to kill this rattler and grabbed a stick. But he struck the stick before I could strike him, then went down a hole. We tied Archie to curtail his night wandering -- that's when snakes hunt in the heat of summer – and he stayed with us under the tarp all night. We humans slept with a certain unpleasant alertness but the snake hunted elsewhere, apparently, as we never saw him again.

Our packs were sure enough lighter on the way out. And we caught a couple more fish, leaving Bud, who kept score, with 8 bass and 1 rainbow; me with 1 bass, 1 brown, and 5 rainbows. Archie carried his pack like it wasn't even there, we saw a mother duck with babies, a mother turkey with babies, 2 deer, one black hawk, an angry snake, no other people, 16 fish, all released, and Bud said he didn't even miss his video games.

I am now convinced of it: America's youth needs nothing more than a fly rod, a wilderness, and the beauties of a 3-day camp.

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Wild Trout, Fish Poison, and Ted Williams

You know Ted Williams the baseball player; as a hitter, likely the best who ever swung a bat. You may or may not know Ted Williams the scribe, possible the best conservation writer in the business. A fly fisher and bird hunter in his free time, month by month Ted Williams the scribe skewers dirty industries, polluting politicians and other anti-conservation forces and individuals in the pages of Fly Rod & Reel and Audubon Magazine. He usually hits the mark and deserves an even wider audience.

He also misses on occasion, in my humble opinion. Yet this merely makes his writings that much more interesting. Our first debate goes back some 25 years.

The coyote had moved into William's native Massachusetts. Local hunters began calling for a hunting season on this expanding population, but in Gray's Sporting Journal Ted William's thought not. "Why make game out of non-game?" he wrote. As a reader, I responded that hunting coyotes with hounds in the northwoods on snowshoes was perhaps the ultimate in primitive pursuit and physical challenge and left New England grouse hunting looking rather pallid in juxtaposition. Gray's printed my letter and while I doubt I changed Ted's mind it was a fun debate.

Later, in another journal, Williams struck me as oddly unconcerned that animal rights types had used a referendum to ban cougar hunting in California. Cougars were and are extremely plentiful in California and in a letter I suggested not only that they are a legitimate game animal, but that Williams was biased against houndmen. He would respond differently, I said, if grouse hunting were banned in Massachusetts. But the buggers never printed my letter.

Lately, Ted Williams and I have had a go at fish poisons. In the current issue of Fly Rod & Reel he called me out, implying that I was among those who wanted to ban Antimycin (Fintrol) as a piscicide (fish poison) and that I believe that native trout are "good enough if, say, 80 to 90 percent pure."

This is not quite right. It is true that last August I wrote that Fintrol should not be used in Animas Creek as I preferred the wild cutthroat trout that lived there (which are roughly 90% pure) to the hatchery fish proposed to replace them. I was pleased when the New Mexico State Game Commission voted 3 to 2 to take control of Fintrol in the state, allowing its use only on a case by case basis. As it happens, one of those cases has come up.

The upper West Fork of the Gila River lost most of its fish to a forest fire run-off in 2003. Agency biologists said, "Since most of the fish are gone anyway, let's poison the few that are left and then stock native Gila trout." Though no fan of Fintrol, this struck me as a reasonable step in Gila trout restoration and considering the remoteness of the 21 miles of stream at issue, Fintrol was probably the best choice.

State and Federal biologists did poison the West Fork and tributaries in 2004. A few browns and rainbows remain, apparently, and the agencies would like to finish the job with another treatment in 2005. It makes sense to me to allow this last treatment and get Gila trout restored in that 21-mile reach. It will help recover the Gila trout and further the downlisting from "endangered" to "threatened." Under the threatened status, some sport fishing for Gila trout is anticipated and the proposal to downlist is currently in the works at the Federal level.

So Fintrol has its place. As I see it, Fintrol is a tool that can be helpful in native fish restoration but should only be used with discretion. How do we delineate this discretion? Why the West Fork and not Animas Creek? Here's how I would break it down.

First, the agencies should keep in mind how fish poisoning looks to the common man (or woman). An agency biologist says, "We propose to go into a pristine wilderness stream, poison an entire population of wild trout that are 90% pure and that look for all the world like the native fish, and replace them with hatchery stockers. Along the way we will kill all other fish in the stream plus anything else that breathes under water. Trust us!"

Not surprisingly, many observers think such policy is wrong-headed, not to mention arrogant. In some instances, poisoning streams may be seen as in conflict with religious beliefs and human health concerns, as well as being bad fish management. A more discretionary use might look something like this:

Consider the 100% (less than 1% introgression) purity standard as a goal, not a requirement. Use electro-fishing and genetic swamping where feasible to bring a population closer to the 100% goal. Where Fintrol is used, poison only non-native fish (as in the West Fork); don't poison native wild trout that are virtually pure. Once a stream is done, leave it to nature.

For example, I would bet a six-pack that some introgression of non-native trout will sneak back into the West Fork of the Gila within ten years. It has happened before, in multiple streams, in the Gila National Forest. Shall we poison the West Fork again, in 2010, because some of the Gila trout, though evolving as wild fish, show up 95% pure?

I would hope not, but I get the distinct impression that many agency biologists, not to mention Trout Unlimited and Ted Williams, carry an immutable belief in, and absolute allegiance to, the 100% purity standard. At what point can we say that the Gila trout of the West Fork have seen enough Fintrol? When does our own manipulation end?

Wherever possible, use wild stocks of native trout, rather than hatchery fish, to replace the fish removed by Fintrol or electro-fishing. The superiority of wild trout over hatchery fish is a column unto itself, but I will end with a quote from the biologist regarded as the ultimate authority on native trout, Robert Behnke of Colorado State University. In the book Wild Trout (The Lyons Press) Behnke wrote:

"In regard to the future of our trout and salmon resources, it will be necessary for fisheries agencies to shift their emphasis from artificial propagation to natural reproduction of wild, especially wild, native fish. Mother Nature is not fooled by technological fixes."

It will be interesting to see how Ted Williams, Trout Unlimited, and agency biologists respond to these concerns as the debate over native trout restoration continues.

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Wildlife Profile: The Brown Rat – Ugh!

Like the rankest of pornography, few can resist a fascination at some point in life with the lowly rat, for in either case the fascination is borne of revulsion. Get up close with a rat, or dirty picture, for the first time and the experience is there for life. How well I remember!

I arrived home from grade school one afternoon with my dog, Boots. She was a Boxer with four, white-stocking feet and she would follow me to school each day, then wait outside for our walk home. As we entered the garage her nose detected something evil lurking behind the trash cans. Her hair came up along the back, she growled; whatever it was she hated it instinctively.

Aroused myself, I moved the cans and a huge rat (rats always seem "huge") scurried down the wall. He used my bicycle for cover as he headed for escape at the open door but lost his life as he made his final dash -- Boots pounced, grabbed, and killed the rat instantly with a vicious snap of her head. I was exhilarated and displayed the critter by the tail to my horrified mother.

Thereafter, my dog and I hunted rats with passion and a vengeance, at dumps and other feed areas where rats reside. Instinctively, it was so easy to hate them, the chase aroused my nascent predatory instincts, and the kill of a rat is without remorse. Most everybody hates rats. Yet the rat continues to survive, and thrive, and its place in history is secure.

The rat Boots killed was the brown or Norway rat (Rattus norwegicus). Whence it came seems a subject of some dispute, but it was certainly in China and eastern Russia before it arrived in Europe around the 17th century, and soon thereafter to the Americas. It was preceded in both locales by its cousin the black rat (Rattus rattus), the species that served as a prominent vector during the horrific plague years.

Lore has it that the black rat came to Europe by way of the Crusaders returning from Muslim lands in the 13th century. Then, as now, such war efforts in the Middle East were doomed to failure, and along with a botched attempt at conquest the Crusaders got the black rat for their troubles, an 8 to 12 ounce scurrilous rodent that often carries the bacillus, Pasteurella pestis, source of the bubonic plague. The germ lives harmlessly in the blood of the rat but can thereby be passed by fleas to humans where it surfaces in deadly fashion.

As detailed by Brian Plummer in his curious book, Tales of a Rat-Hunting Man, there is an interesting tale of physiology behind the term, "bubonic" plague.

An early symptom of the disease is the development of swollen lymph glands in the groin and under the arms, swellings known at the time as "buboes." The swollen inflamed tissue, circular in shape, was due to the lymph glands trying to filter out the infection. The attempt almost always failed in those days of medical ignorance and the infection spread through the body, often to the lungs, where it produced a deadly hacking cough. Thus the bubonic plague often became a pneumonic plague that further spread the malady though out the populace.

The whole story is still with us today, in a deceptive 800-year-old nursery rhyme we all learned in grade school: "Ring around the rosy; pocket full of posies; ashes, ashes – all fall down."

The "ring around the rosy" was reference to the swollen buboes encircling the inflamed lymph glands; "pocket full of posies" referred to the superstition of the time that carrying flowers in the pockets would filter out the evil "vapors" that caused the disease; "ashes, ashes" tells how the dead were taken in horse-drawn carts to the outskirts of town where they were burned, en masse; "all fall down" is self-explanatory for the people were dying like flies.

The black rat did not cause the plague years but was merely an evil, if inadvertent, liaison in the deadly process.

Upon arrival, the brown rat soon dominated the black rat in both Europe and the Americas. It is larger at 12 to 16 ounces and occasionally to a couple of pounds (tales of "a rat the size of a cat" are pure fiction). It, too, can carry and pass along the "plague," along with hepatitis, leptospirosis, and other maladies. The brown rat more easily adapts to field and farm as well as town life. You can tell the so-called house or barn rat from our native cotton rat, wood rat and pack rat because the brown rat has a scaly, hairless tail.

For reasons unknown to me, brown rats seem much less common in the Southwest than back east. I do have two rat tales from the region however, one of which still makes me shudder.

I was living out on the Mimbres with a pet house cat. This guy was a hunter and one night I was awakened by a terrific ruckus in the kitchen. I went in, turned on the light, and found my tomcat crouched over a monster rat with a scaly, scabrous tail. I was proud; it's not every cat that can finish a rat of that size.

The other story, well, don't read this before lunch.

At the same house my well water started showing up smelly and discolored at the tap. Single men are famous for not taking care of themselves and I confess I let it go for a while. Finally, even I couldn't stand it. It was a hand dug well, three feet in diameter, and when I shined a light I saw something fuzzy about 20 feet down. I lowered a net and fished out a big barn rat that had been there far too long. I should have been dead already from who knows what that drowned rat might have passed along in the water but I confess I never even got the "scoots."

Of course the Boxer, Boots, is long since gone. But now I have a Jack Russell terrier, Jack. Would I be a rat-hunting man once again? Just show me and Jack a population of brown rats, evil, scurrilous, vicious and diseased. We would hunt them with passion and a vengeance.

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Gamefowl: On the Edge of the Wild

With cockfighting much in the news these days, I recall the time I viewed the chickenfights first hand. It was years ago, deep in the desert of Coahuila, near Muzquiz, Mexico. In that country cockfighting is hardly debated, it is simply practiced, and during my visit in 1970 it was practiced openly near Muzquiz at what we would call a county fair.

It wasn't just the roosters that were colorful. The crowd was animated, exuberant, and intensely involved. The avid spectators ranged from patrician hidalgos of the rico class to the most common vaqueros in spurs and down-at-the-heel boots. None of us could take our eyes off the birds.

The roosters surged with color, myriad and variegated. Their strut caught your eye; their blind courage was scary. The athleticism was too quick for the eye, flashed the colors, and usually led to the death of one of the birds. The handlers left with blood on their hands but nobody seemed to mind.

I didn't mind either. Neither approving nor disapproving, I was simply enthralled by another culture, another world. But upon reflection it is easy to see how such a practice could enrage an urban citizenry unused to a blood sport steeped in such archaic revelry. It is also easy to see how its fans and practitioners would go to the mat to save it.

For a young Anglo from across the line, the "county fair" near Muzquiz was a cultural delight – the Mexican brand of rodeo, the impromptu horse races, the smell of spicy meats cooked over open fires, and especially the cockfights. Yet I have not attended a chickenfight in 35 years and have no desire to see another.

The issues. First, is cockfighting a cultural tradition in New Mexico?

Of course it is. If you doubt that then simply attend a cockfight in Luna County (mostly Hispanic) or a cockfight in Lea County (mostly Anglo) and open your eyes. For some people – maybe not you or me – it is a way of life and goes back untold generations. It is not only a cultural tradition, it is a multi-cultural tradition.

Is it cruel? Arguably, yes –eventually it is a bloody end for most of its avian participants. On the other hand, gamecocks live well beyond a year on average, while cockerels on modern egg farms are euthanized by the millions shortly after birth (chicken infanticide). In this debate, it is easier to kill a lifeway and ignore an industry.

Of course "humaneness" has always been selectively applied. Feral horses are revered and adopted; feral hogs despised and hunted as pests.

Does cockfighting deprave its human participants? There is no evidence that cockers are more prone to violence or crime than the rest of us. At the fair near Muzquiz, I mistakenly left my wallet on the table with an empty Tecate; it was an hour later before I realized my loss. Resigned to my fate, I went back to the table without much hope. My empty Tecate had long since been picked up and discarded; my wallet was still there! With all the money!

Was Abe Lincoln a cocker? Not exactly. But there is evidence that as a young man in frontier America Lincoln used to referee cockfights, his inherent honesty and fairness already apparent and much in demand. He is said to have said: "As long as God permits intelligent man created in his own image to fight in public and try to kill each other while the world looks on, it's not for me to deprive the chickens of the same freedom." Who knows? But the syntax is certainly Lincolnesque.

I like to keep a gamecock on the place, and half a dozen gamehens. As a homesteader, this is how I came to truly appreciate these birds.

Gamefowl are the closest thing we have to the jungle fowl of Indonesia that are the ancestors of all our domestic chickens. Most domestic breeds, like leghorns, barred rocks, and Rhode Island reds, are thoroughly domesticated and have been made stupidly dependent. On modern factory farms they need not even reproduce themselves naturally, let alone raise a brood of chicks. Game fowl are still on the edge of the wild.

The game hen will fiercely guard her clutch of eggs, pecking fiercely at your hand if you try to grab a couple for breakfast. Once they're born, she keeps the chicks safely under wing till they are ready to walk about. At that point you want to give her plenty of room.

I've had gamehens flair at my face when I got too close to her brood. And she will fight to the death to protect them in the face of a predator or another, cannibalistic, chicken.

Game fowl can fly, can scratch around and feed themselves, and are predators on beetles, ants, worms, grasshoppers, and even mice.

And I once introduced a young gamecock to my chicken yard where another, larger, mixed breed rooster had control of all the hens. I thought, "I better wait and see how this plays out."

Nobody got killed, but that gamecock quickly whipped that big rooster into second place on the pecking order; when he was done winning he crowed loudly for a victory you couldn't help admire – the little guy had won.

Like most gamecocks, that little rooster had colors to match his spirit. It is no wonder that fly tiers value that hackle as part of the lure, and lore, of another sport.

As a legal pastime in New Mexico, cockfighting is almost certainly doomed. Like dog fighting, it will be forced underground. I won't miss the fights, but I hope the gamecock, and gamehen, can survive on the farm or back yard in something close to ancient form. Thoreau said: "In wildness is the preservation of the world." In an era of factory chickens, homogenizing cultures, and urban angst over blood sports, there is something inspiring in a bird that will fight to the death out of pure atavism, spit in your eye if you get too close to her babies, and live on the edge of the wild.

Note: In February 2007 cockfighting was legally banned in New Mexico. Rumor has it the pursuit maintains a furtive life regardless.

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Adopt a Hog?

It is often said that the emotions of animals are more complex than commonly supposed; at the core of the animal rights movement is the notion of "sentient" wildlife. And I recall a book titled "The Secret Life of Plants" that claimed that even trees, shrubs and tulips have "feelings," responding negatively to inconsiderate care and bad "vibes." Maybeso.

It is certain that we humans carry complex emotions concerning the animals and plants that come under our care or control. And I would make the claim here that often these emotional responses don't make much sense.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the leghold trap controversy in New Mexico. My view was that these traps should not be banned though we might want to fine-tune the regulations and educate the public about safe release of non-target animals. I also admitted in the piece that while I wasn't a trapper I did set trotlines for fish.

Predictably my leghold trap opinion pleased some, made others mad, but nobody got on me about being a trotline fisherman. Nor is trotline fishing an issue for humane groups in any state that I know of. A trotline is simply a trapline for fish – why is there an uproar in so many states over a coyote or skunk caught overnight in a trap while virtually nothing is said about a catfish or bass caught overnight on a hook?

Clearly, most people respond differently to supposed animal suffering versus apparent fish suffering. Is this varying response logical?

Some will say yes, and explain that it's because fish are more "primitive" and have less "feeling" than animals. Tell that to a fish! And even amongst animals we see varying emotional responses from humans.

Who knows how many thousands of "sentient" rats are trapped each year. I've trapped some Norway rats myself and while many are killed instantly I've had some drag the trap around till I tracked them down and whacked them on the head. But hardly anyone gets the vapors over rat trapping.

True, rats are considered to be destructive vermin, but coyotes and skunks can be very destructive and a nuisance as well. A trapped rat is good riddance; a trapped coyote will cause many to call for legislative action. Taken overall, it seems the public's response to the trapping issue is not logical.

Nor does the public's response to horses and hogs make much sense. Both are domesticated animals with a wild ancestry. Each can easily revert to the feral state. When that happens, one is esteemed, the other despised.

The general outline of America's wild horses is well known. At the close of the frontier West hundreds of thousands of wild horses ran wild on the range, descendents of Spanish barbs, lost cow ponies and plow horses, and cavalry mounts. There were so many of these feral equines they were abusing the range and in competition with cattle, sheep, and wild ungulates for feed and water.

Over the first seven decades of the 20th century their numbers were brought into a rough balance with the range by horse hunters who captured them for remounts, or more often to sell at slaughter for horse meat or simply to feed the hounds. As of 1970 there were about 25,000 wild horses in the West, about right for the available range. In 1971 The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon, giving protection to a "living symbol of the American West."

This law ended horse hunting and we've had an oversupply of wild horses ever since. Numbers have consistently exceeded 50,000 animals in spite of various horse adoption programs and recent expenditures of some $40 million per year by the BLM to get them off the range and into homes or ranches. Readers will remember reading about the big oversupply of feral horses a few years ago on our nearby White Sands Missile Range.

Contrast our modern response to wild horses with our response to wild hogs. It's jail time and public opprobrium if you're caught hunting a wild horse; it seems the hogs can't get no respect.

Like the horses, the hogs were first brought over by the Spaniards. Also like the horses, some of them got loose and, being adaptable, easily reverted to the feral state. There are now feral hogs in at least 30 of the 50 states. A recent article in an Albuquerque newspaper detailed their abundance in several counties in eastern New Mexico, plus Hidalgo County in our own part of the state.

Needless to say, there has been no bill introduced into the U.S. Congress to protect these feral hogs as a "living symbol of the American frontier;" there is no "adopt a hog" program. Indeed, I know of no state that offers them any protection from hunters – no closed season, no bag limit, no restrictions on methods (guns, bows, dogs, traps are all legal). Why are feral horses and feral hogs viewed so differently by the general public, the media, and the government?

Some would say it's because horses are more "sensitive." Try telling that to a pig! Perhaps the horse is potentially more "beautiful," but a big boar is just as impressive in its own way. The pig is arguably more intelligent. Both are interesting wildlife in limited numbers, potentially very challenging as game animals, highly edible, and both can become a destructive pest when over-abundant. Neither can be considered a native species in North America.

One extreme animal rights group says: "A rat is a cat is a dog is a boy," in an attempt to place all wildlife beyond the means of hunting or control. A more reasonable philosophy would view the coyote and the skunk, the bass and the catfish (and I suppose even the rat if you're a rat hunter), as interesting and worthwhile in limited numbers, a problem when over-abundant, and not beyond the realm of control, whether for sport or by necessity.

As for the equine and porcine races, I can see no logical reason for viewing, or managing, feral horses and feral hogs as either sacrosanct or despised. I have hunted feral hogs and would do so again. I shot a horse once but it was by way of necessity, not sport. Unlike hogs, it has never occurred to me "hunt" horses; that's my inconsistency but I wouldn't force it on the horse hunter. It seems it is as difficult to fathom human emotions as the emotions of the beasts.