A Last Moonlit Night Fish Story for October

WHomerleapingtrout-web

Leaping Trout by Winslow Homer, 1889

Fish Plan

Lillian, the administrative assistant, said the regular audit of the Fisheries Division had taken weeks. What could take weeks in the cramped Division office or the regional offices, which share space with parks and wildlife people? Checking management plans, budgets, inventory. What would be their main asset? Fish, of course, trout in particular! There are other fish in Montana, but precious few other trout territories in the world, one reason their numbers carry weight with fisheries managers. How many they have, where they are, and what they are up to. To count and plan for a moving inventory must take a little doing.

Fish biologists have a number of means of conducting a census—such as seining, gill-netting, and electrofishing—but none of these methods gather all the fish in. And while electrofishing at low voltages does not injure fish, it irritates them. They are not about to count off after being electrified.

If field technologists round them up in boats, using nets and the banks of lakes and streams as corrals, there is still the line problem. Even when they are feeling good, trout don’t swim straight for any distance. One unfortunate trout with whirling disease can throw the whole parade into a stampede. Add the fact that trout will watch many a meal fly by to avoid hooks and lines. Fish biologists must have a difficult life. They want to get this count done and there is no practical way to do it. No wonder they use estimates.

They use estimates, too, for an inventory essential to the well-being of trout—bug counts. Caddisflies, salmonflies, stoneflies, blackflies, among them. Since the 1940s, the Fisheries Department has hand written, cut and pasted, and typed their numbers into thick bound stacks of crinkly paper, and smooth laser printouts. Diptera/mosquitoes appear in these counts, but because they like warm waters, they have little status in trout plans for coldwater lakes and streams. Wherever there are plenty of choice invertebrates, there are trout in quantity, and big. As with trout, the numbers are the thing—the more the better!

Lately, the rising popularity of walleye as a fighting predator and tasty dinner has led to many new records of them and their diet of choice—other fish. Although not natives, they are found in lakes and reservoirs in Montana and expected to stay there. It’s been thought that walleye wouldn’t swim into cooler trout habitat in the little streams that feed lakes and rivers. But no one knows for sure, because wildlife combined with habitats’ myriad variables are most difficult inventories to track. They not only move, they change.

In Montana’s early years, fish and game managers, a hardy breed and few, stocked streams and lakes to give anglers an even chance against trout and to make up for lost populations. Some dropped fish out of airplanes into every available mountain lake in the Beartooth range. If they could get to a stream with packhorses and buckets, they stocked it that way. As they learned more about Montana fish, they determined that matching them with congenial habitats was an excellent way of keeping fish populations healthy and growing. So, they began to look at returning streams which had been altered by mining, logging, flooding, and other activities to their former condition. They also began returning native fish to their former home streams and lakes.

Just what happens when landowners, agencies, and groups restore habitat depends on the site and resources they have. Gathering more than enough water to float a toothpick is the #1 priority. Riprap, which used to be old tires, or even cars and dryers, but is now, for aesthetic and health reasons, rocks, covers and weights down banks to keep them from eroding into the water. Riparian fences prevent livestock from trampling down stream edges and leaving muddy footprints. Planted metal barbs that look like upside-down skeletons of ships’ prows with little curved hooks sticking out here and there hold banks together. They keep waders alert and make floaters’ days interesting too.

And then there are tree or is it root wad revetments? Just try to guess what that means. Heavy, wrapped bundles of tree trunks and limbs, or brush, plunked down alongside sagging streambanks to buck them up and create little nooks and crannies for trout. The person who drops one in the wrong spot has a ton of soggy lifting to do. Bulldozers push the dirt around to put kinks in streams that run too straight and fast. With enough devices and plantings of shrubs and grasses, planners and laborers can makes a creek look as if it had never had a bad day. It will turn and sparkle under the sun; it will have swirls and eddies and pools; and where it races, it will not carry dirt and gravel, but will jump cleanly over and around boulders in the streambed.

With habitat restoration on the way, all counts in hand, and the audit completed satisfactorily, we can make an objective comparison of walleye and trout to assess their futures in Montana’s famous fisheries.

There is mainly one kind of walleye—ugly, without finesse. Representing trout, let us have bull trout—plain as trout go, not bright, no music at all in the name. A good match. Oh, you query with a skeptical look, lack of finesse and brightness in fish? Walleye eat anything crunchy. Bull trout lack a sense of caution. They don’t cagily swim about in plain view, from rock to rock, and watch flies for hours, while fishermen die of old age. If something moves into their space, they bite it.

Walleye have dead-looking eyes and spiky fins. They tend toward yellowish-grey, not a good color next to boulders. Walleye pretty much stop eating bugs when they reach 1 1/2 inches and feed on other fish for the remainder of their lives. If they didn’t have other fish to eat, they would probably feed off the bottom, on unidentifiable dead objects and gravel. They can shoot past 28 inches before their third year. They are limber or timber, as the mood takes them, and heavily armored. Given their spectacular teeth sets, sharp gills, and raspy skin, extreme caution is called for in handling them. Some combination of tongs, heavy leather, and a chain and pulley apparatus or chain mail might be useful – whether or not they play dead. Walleye like quiet, murky, warm waters. They prefer the dark, wouldn’t you know?

Bull trout have marbley eyes, hence a scared, vulnerable look, and scarlet spots. It would be unfair to bring up rainbow and cutthroat trout with their wonderful pinks and greens, silvers, and orange and scarlet slashes. They all will feed on insects. Most stream trout live on invertebrates, with occasional snacks of passing fish for variety. What trout eat in lakes is another story. Bull trout, it must be admitted, scrape their bugs off streambeds and snack often, on slimy sculpins and whitefish.

Little brown trout, which are suspected of eating other trout on a regular basis, would eat walleye if they could. They can’t grow large enough, fast enough, to swallow them. Brown trout are potentially one of the longest of trout, but their battlecry is “divide and conquer.” They raise so many families so successfully that the food supply in streams often can’t meet the demand. Any trout under, say, 14 inches swimming back into its old home lakes and reservoirs is at the mercy of prowling walleye.

In Montana, trout must be aged grandfathers to reach 18 inches in streams, and are rare sights at 39 inches, even in lakes. They must have exact right water temperatures, brushy willows and dogwood, clean gravel, fallen logs in streams, gentle side pools, and narrow, deep, meandering channels. For this habitat they will migrate, spawn, linger and grow. Unless a bull trout can stay in a healthy, deep stream minus heavy competition or make it to the far offshore waters of a lake and survive a couple of winters, it can’t flourish and raise families. You can see the stringent requirements trout must meet, and their dilemmas.

This does not mean that each species will keep to its place and that no other measures are required to keep trout and walleye away from each other. Will you note well the differences between the species’ needs? And do not, for pity’s sake, try to say walleye need help. Walleye can survive and flourish in rusty bathtubs. Walleye will swim back and forth through a long, muddy tunnel if there is food and someone will warm the temperature now and then. If trout can’t have clean water, creative turns, and woody debris, they disappear.

What about Darwin’s theories now? The native has all the variations and little tolerance. The basic prehistoric model seems to thrive under difficult circumstances. How will it do in an excellent environment? Before saying that the habitat preferences of the two species will keep them apart, let us extrapolate on how they might adapt to habitat improvements, and what changes habitat restoration has effected.

The walleye may be advancing into streams stabilized, narrowed, and deepened for trout. They may not like, but they tolerate temperatures down to 0° F., well below trout stream limits. They may be slinking around rock vanes and finding shelter under the same log deflectors intended to give cutthroats and bull trout air-conditioned cover in the summer. The more trout, the easier hunting. The invisible boundary of coldwater temperatures that should ward off walleye could be moving swiftly upstream.

Now, because of habitat restoration, not only the trout have problems. What if the lowly mosquitoes ignored in trout plans adapt to coldwater habitats too? What if they learn to like mountain streams because the vegetation newly planted by Trout Unlimited and Flyfishers, Int. hangs so invitingly thick and green over them? Then improving trout habitat may be aiding and abetting both invaders, one going up and one coming down.

Mosquito populations may be growing larger and larger—leaving long nests of huge larvae primed to hatch and grow one of these springs when the right combinations of riparian habitat, gravel, moisture, water temperature, and high streamflows occur. Ready to rise from their shaded, damp dwelling places, maybe even earlier than spring—on some late October night! There in the perfect trout/insect habitat, swirling, buzzing chants, rubbing their pointy probosces on serrated legs, putting a fine edge on. Knowing instinctively that within the flying distance of no more than a generation, 50 short miles, are helpless people donating time, money, and effort to conservation. They may not smell blood, but they count on it. They’re too big to swat; they can’t even sniff mosquito repellent: it’s too weak and far away at the tips of their two-inch noses. And then it happens—living inventories, planning and work, past and present, and the unforeseeable converge.

One last full-grown mosquito hatch of the year rises under the harvest moon, black and speckly against its soft apricot glow. Millions of mosquitoes draw a collective breath of confident anticipation, bank between bare twigs overhanging the stream and turn as one entity in formation, toward the distant lights of human habitation. As the cloud suspends itself above black waters, there is a joyful rushing sound—a million splashes thrash and boil the waters; the stream lifts 5 feet—there is a glimpse of flashing, twisting. striking silver—tails, fins, shimmering curved torsos doubled, then gone, part of the murmuring waters. . . .

Nothing remains above the dappled grey and white surface. Every mosquito has disappeared. A shocked silence usurps the night sounds of chirping and rustling. Beneath the reassuring gurgle of the stream, a vision of shadowy banks of trout grows clearer through the wavering moonlight and rippling flows. Huge, huge, YOUNG trout, not one smaller than 18 inches, packed so closely together they seem to move as one entity in formation. Eager brown trout kept at a safe distance by rainbow herders. All of them hovering, finning the waters gently with their tails as they glide swiftly downstream, with sidelong glances at next year’s mosquito larvae. Adding numbers and momentum from tributary creeks, they stream over boulders and spill down evergreen mountain slopes, coursing as the river between widening banks, racing toward warm water and walleye! The bigger, the better.

by Kathleen A. Curd Rau, Helena, Montana
Copyright © 1998, 2002 by Kathleen A. Curd Rau. All Rights Reserved.

“Cedric”

The Moose Hunt by Frederic Remington, ca. 1890

The Moose Hunt by Frederic Remington, ca. 1890

“Cedric”

       What is the world is coming to? They took him under the white glare of 240 pairs of 10-foot fluorescent lights. It could have been revenge, but none of us knows. That’s the way it is here. They never tell us anything. So we have to piece things together.

We learn a little more each time a shift changes, via quick visits at the time clock. “Cedric” is the foremost topic of conversation right now, and the front-end workers summarize the known facts during afternoon lulls.

“Well, our robbers were pretty amateur compared to the ones that took Cedric the First,” said Brenda, as she scrubbed down her checkstand.

“You mean the one that belonged to that couple from Boulder?”

A once willowy girl from the East, and a solid, hunting store owner who had met and married 50 years before. The fragile elderly woman had said our elk mount reminded her of their moose head, something about the expression, no doubt. And the stretch mount which made him look long in the nose.

Elk heads are usually mounted to look upright, but our Cedric leaned out over the main flow of traffic in the front end. Most of us thought he looked just too immediate, with his mouth two feet above people’s heads.

The Boulder lady told us that even though “I came late to marriage and the West, I made up my mind to learn to love the things that made him happy.” She named his trophy “Cedric” with a long -e- and mourned when it was stolen. “We never saw it again,” she said, and her husband nodded his head and looked wistful, but not tragic. To gain a wife and lose a moose had not been terrible for him.

“But he said it was a moose, with a 12-foot span of antlers. How big was our elk, Barry?” said Ellen.

“Oh,” said the meat cutter judiciously as if everyone in the meat department had not settled the question down to tenths of inches, “that looked to be about a 4-foot rack, tip to tip.”

Will, the store manager, had arranged to borrow Cedric from a taxidermy studio to headline a Western promotion for the store. Three weeks beforehand, the mount arrived in the sagging arms of his owner and three men from the studio.

“The spike those guys hammered into the front wall wasn’t strong enough to hold him,” said Ellen. Cedric was a record 135-pound trophy mount. “They had to drill two holes into the metal on the back of the frame and fasten him with ‘super bolts.’”

“You should have seen those three men weave around under the spike trying to set that head in place,” said Irene, “The owner was afraid they were going to drop it any minute, and everyone else was giving directions.”

“The nose and antlers went up and down and the ears wobbled every which way. It was like trying to match a mural to a tack on a wall,” said Brenda.

The thieves who captured him were consummate planners, but they had to be near panic the Friday night Cedric came back down. There’s the broken glass in the top door window and the dent in the center door support where Cedric’s lowest points would have jutted out from their shoulders.

“He was at least five feet tall from the neck up because of the way they stretched him out to make the mount,” said Alan, the assistant manager. No matter how they turned him, he would have been an awkward package.

“How’s Will?” Brenda asked Alan. When Craig showed him the empty spot on the wall that morning, they said he went white and had to go up to his office to be alone.

“He says he wouldn’t have a stuffed goldfish in the store,” answered Alan. “He had to talk with the owner over the phone right after the police showed up. They’d never even heard some of the words that guy used.”

“Will got there before the police? He lives in Fairwood.”

“ Yeh, he almost drove his pickup into the store.”

“The police heard the owner talking?”

“I wouldn’t call it talking.”

“How many did it take to steal Cedric?”

The boxboys pondered about two seconds. “There had to be at least four.”

“Three to steady him while another guy unbolted him from the wall.”

“Jim said they heard the door buzz two times ,” said Chance.

There had to be at least one accomplice for a lookout and possibly another to hand up tools. A couple of the poachers could have skulked at a fast pace, in and out together.

The video rentals had kept Craig running from stocking the milk cooler to the camera bar until 2:30 a.m. He was helping out while Ed took his break and just wanted to put a few consecutive gallons of milk on the shelf before they began to warm.

The robbers must have spent nights patiently timing the night crew and charting a routine. They knew that Craig would work ten minutes before he checked the front, because most people don’t wait at the front for a checker to appear after 12:00 a.m. They come walking down the aisles ready to lecture the first person they see wearing an apron and a name tag. They don’t know the extra jobs each crew finds listed on the schedule every night.

“Notes! Notes! Notes! The bane of late-night work,” as Craig says.

You can’t talk reasonably with a note and explain that a busload of high-school basketball fans stopped by on their way out of town just before some telepathic message flashed through the collective subconscious of all those who did not attend Friday night games—saying, “Rent a movie. Stop by for a free cookie sample and cruise the aisles.”

Add in the overflowing-cart coupon shoppers, the regulars picking up a few small things, and the petty cigarette filchers, and when does anyone have time to finish a list of jobs, not to mention guard a six-point bull elk head?

It’s likely things don’t go any smoother for thieves than for the “poor working stiff.”

“They had to bring in stepladders,” said Pat, who works in produce, “and Ed and Craig found a bag of doughnuts on the front desk.” Evidence of one or more gang members having trouble staying on task. “The doughnuts were so oily the officers couldn’t even take fingerprints from them or the sack.” The boxboys snickered.

“They weren’t from our bakery!” said Ellen.

Ed said the snacking marauders were now a quart low in more ways than one, and he was surprised that Cedric hadn’t slipped out of their hands or they off the ladders.

You’d have thought it would have bothered the robbers to have Cedric eyeing them the whole time, but there’s no conscience in that type. To add to their difficulties, the front door of the store was blocked open as it is every February when its electric mechanism falters in -25-degree weather. This meant a constant flow of icy air numbed the faces and fingers of the burglars.

“What a circus!” said Irene.

“I almost feel sorry for them, whoever they are.”

“That’s only the tip of the iceberg of what goes on here after 2 a.m., said Ellen in an aside to Irene. She checked to be sure the assistant manager was out of hearing distance. “Ask Brenda about the night crew throwing fish over the aisle tops at each other. She came in one morning and the cereal and baking aisles smelled like a cannery. The new ones were mopping the floor like their lives depended on it.”

“They did. If he caught them, Alan would make them reface the entire store.”

“Wherever that head is, it’s probably in good condition,” said Pat. “If it had fallen on top of them, they wouldn’t have been able to move.”

“Wouldn’t their friends have helped them?” Barb asked.

“Are you kidding?” Elizabeth laughed. “There would have been a crash you could hear clear around the block. The ones that were still standing would have kicked up their heels and run.”

“That’s right,” interposed Irene. “They’re never going to find that thing for the same reason the thieves would leave their friends behind. They’d rather be shot than go to jail for helping to steal a bull elk head.”

One of the box-boys chimed in, “ Anything over 500 dollars is a felony.”

Chance walked up with a stack of large bags, shook his head as he filled a checkstand, and said with a pleasant grin, “The owner would prosecute to the max.”

It’s kind of sobering to imagine facing a prison population of armed robbers and frequent assault perpetrators in a hunting state, with the story that you were captured when you dropped and damaged a trophy head. . . . They’re right. Cedric is gone for good, lost forever to the Stuffed to the Gills (and Ears) Taxidermy Studio.

The crime might have had repercussions for the night crew’s jobs—except that they are a special breed. Which leads back to notes. Notes are inflexible. You cross off the job as done or you don’t go home. It’s amazing how easy it is for a fellow just finishing his day to list twice as much work as he can do into the next guy’s night.

This rests on the principle that if there isn’t enough time to finish a job, or if the day crew for one reason or another doesn’t want to cooperate with management, someone else will do it. The someone else is the night crew. They are the tie-up-loose-ends, fix-mistakes, do-the-rest-of-the-job people.

How does a night crew retain its dignity when something like this happens on their shift? We’ll never know for sure. They seldom give their opinions to any but fellow stockmen and when they do, it is with caution and reserve. They are outside and somewhat above the roiling foment of store gossip and intrigue, and prefer to stay there. Do they admire the nerve and ambition of the scoundrels? Possibly. Are they shaken by the successful incursion? This is not likely.

They stand alone, away from the world of props and promotions. Their part in grocery is essential. They get the product on the shelf or none of us makes a living. No mere instance of grand theft can affect their status. If they meet the bereaved owner of the elk head, they will commiserate in low, gentlemanly tones over the loss and might be led to talk a little about hunting and other great trophy heads they’ve seen.

It will be up to the day crew to pass final judgment on the event and to miss Cedric. He was a great topic of conversation and enlivened the daily routine by his arresting presence. The marauders now carry a double weight of guilt and suspicion.

A Cedric is an object of envy. Who knows how many walls he will grace, how many times he will change hands, what myths and legends will surround his history?

Unlike a diamond, Cedric will show wear and eventually lose value along with his hair. He may end up a prop again, like the old elk head Elizabeth keeps in her basement, something to dangle cat toys from for the amusement of manic kittens and languid tabbies. But until then he has, as the lady from Boulder perceived, a dignity befitting his name.

by Kathleen A. Curd Rau, Helena, Montana
Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Kathleen A. Curd Rau. All Rights Reserved.

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