I spent much of my childhood looking for outdoor adventures. I didn’t grow up in a hunting and fishing family, but one that camped a lot. I spent as much time as I could in the woods, along the creek, and at the lake. I was more like Lewis and Clark than Daniel Boone because I was more of an explorer. If there was a path, I wanted to see where it went. If I encountered wildlife, I wanted to look at it and get as close as I could before it ran off. I never really felt the urge to hunt or kill the animals. On a few occasions I went on hunting trips with friends, but was never good at it and enjoyed the trip more than the hunt.
I fished a bit more, but never developed a love of it. Consequently, I wasn’t that good, but that didn’t bother me. I was happiest when I was on or around the water. As a family that camped a lot, I had the opportunity to be out in the wilds a great deal.
Dad was always very upfront with his intent that I become a minister. He was ok with me trying other professions or fields of study, but he would always say that in the end he knew God would catch up with me.
So of course, I went the opposite direction. I went in the direction of natural resources and conservation. I knew that I wanted to protect the outdoors which I loved so much.
As a reult I ended up double majoring in Biology and Criminal Justice when I went to college. Dad wasn’t happy about my choice. He never told me he hated it or disagreed with my choice. He was much more subtle.
He ignored it. He never asked about my studies or the many seasonal jobs I had as I went through college before I landed my first fulltime job.
He’d never admit it, but he started me on that pathway by taking me on trips across the state, the US, and even Canada. I saw beautiful and wild places and got to meet the people who protected them. The Park Rangers, Wardens, Biologists, and Managers of those wild places. They were my super heroes.
Keep in mind that I began this pathway when I was just a sophmore in high school. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a mentor program for gifted students. Our local fisheries biologist with the Kansas Fish and Game Commission went to our church. So when I asked him if I could mentor under him, he was kind enough to agree.
Basically it meant that I got to go out in the boats on our local lakes and rivers and assist him in test netting, fish stocking, and lots of other activities. I didn’t get paid, but whenever we trapped and transported Walleye to a new lake there would always be a few fish that didn’t survive the stress. At the end of the day he would pull off the highway and get the leftover fish out of the tank. He’d then filet out the fish and put the meat in a plastic bag for me to take home. I’m sure he partly did it to be nice to the minister, but at least I can say my first wildlife job paid me in fish.
In the early spring we would run the Walleye traps and squeeze the eggs from the females large wide pans. After that we’d squeeze the males and force their semen into the pans of eggs. I then got to gently stir the mixture till be had thousands and thousands of fertilized little eggs. It sort of looked like an odd colored tapioca pudding. The fertilized eggs then went into jars and transported to the state fish hatchery. The mom and dads got a ride to a new home lake in a big tank in the back of our truck.
It was on the Walleye expeditions that I began to refer to the rubber rain gear we wore as “fishstick suits” because we’d have chest waders, rain coats, rubber hoods and gloves. It reminded me of the picture of the fishermen on the fishstick boxes at the grocery store. It was still cold when we went out in the open boats with outboard motors. As we bounced across the waves in the cold breeze, the water spray would freeze on our clothes. it didn’t take too long for ice to begin to form on my clothing. It is one thing to be cold, but cold and wet is an entirely new level of miserable.
This was when I learned why fisheries biologists are jokingly referred to as “fish squeezers” in the wildlife conservation field.
Later in the spring when it had warmed up, the US Army Corps of Engineers had decided to shut down the outlet at Perry Lake so that they could inspect the huge gates holding back the lake water. Since this was a large lake it had a large concrete outlet structure with a stilling basin between the outlet tunnel and the downstream river. The stilling basin is sort of like a swimming pool with huge cement blocks protruding from the floor of the pool. The water would flow through the huge outlet tunnel and into the stilling basin where it would hit the concrete blocks. This would cause the water to boil upwards and dissipate its energy before continuing down the river channel.
The outlet tunnel is a place that many millions of people see each year across the US, but very few get to see. On this particular day I was fortunate to have a chance at seeing the inside of an outlet tunnel.
When the Corps shut down the outlet, there was still water and fish in the stilling basin. This had to be pumped dry which is called “dewatering”. As the water level went down, the Fish and Game had the responsibility of salvaging as many of the fish as possible. This was when I learned how to hand-fish or noodling for flathead catfish. Of course handfishing was illegal in most situations, but since we were salvaging the fish in an official capacity, it was allowed. In fact it was the only way to get most of them.
We used long seine nets at first to sort of herd them into a corner or against the shore. The large 30-40 pound fish would ram into the net to try and break through to freedom. It was sort of spooky at first becuase the water was muddy, so you couldn’t see any of the fish in the water. I just stood there holding the seine and suddenly I’d get smacked in the shin by the huge fish trying to get away. When the day was over the shins on both my legs were bruised from my knees to my ankles from the fish head butting me.
We’d get the fish into a corner or against the bank and reach into the murky water. I’d feel the large fish and stick my hand into his mouth up to my elbow and grab the gills from the inside. I’d then pull this monster fish out of the water as it violently flailed in an attempt to get away. Many times you’d end up falling down in the water as you tried to wrestle the huge fish. At times it looked pretty comical as you fell in the water while trying to control this fish nearly as long as you were tall.
A large group of onlookers had gathered on the shoreline and everytime one of us pulled up one of the large fish, people would cheer or hoot in delight. These were the really big ones that all of them dreamed of catching and few actually did.
I think it also tickled them with the irony of watching the Fish and Game personnel catching fish in a manner which was normally illegal.
The game fish were kept in live tanks and then delivered to other lakes. The less popular nongame fish were thrown in a pile on shore. The people were then allowed to pick them up and take them home. Soon there were dozens of people picking through the pile of fish and filling their buckets.
At the end of the day, after the water was all pumped out and the fish had been removed. It was then that I was allowed to walk into the oulet tunnel. It was mossy, cold and dark. There was always a trickle of water leaking through, so I had to take great care not to slip and fall. I walked a long way back until I came to the closed steel gate that held back the water.
As I stood there it dawned on me that I was at the bottom of the lake staring at these huge gates. All that incedible force of cold water just sitting feet away and ready to blow through there at any chance. I suddenly realized that I had just psyched myself out and was getting a little scared. I turned around and as quickly as I could, without running and screaming like a little kid, I walked back down that tunnel. it wasn’t until I could feel the warmth of the sunshine on my face that I felt calm again.
One of the adventures I enjoyed involved a large contraption called the “shocker boat”. It was a large boat with electrodes on the end of arms and which extended into the water. In the middle of the boat was a big electric generator.
One of the best ways of sampling for bass populations is by electro-shocking them. It is the same principle with the old guys who used old telephone cranks with wires in the water. They turn the crank which generated and electric current. The electricity would go down the wires and into the water where it would stun the fish and they would float to the surface where you could grab them with a net.
We were doing the same thing, but on a much larger scale. The electric field would extend out from the boat for 20 foot of so on either side. As the stunned fish floated to the surface I would reach out with a net on the end of a long pole and retrieve the fish and put it into the live tank. Then when we had a chance we would take them out one at a time and record length, species, and other information. We would then return them to the lake no worse for the experience.
The ones I felt sorry for were the ones along the shore and just far enough away that they got shocked, but not hard enough to stun them. They would literally jump out of the water and into the air as the boat passed by.
Of course the number one rule was “Don’t fall out of the boat”.
I’m thinking back on that mentor program when I was just 15 years old. There I was in a little town in the middle of Kansas, but I got to do some pretty cool stuff. At the time it was just an adventure, but I had no idea that 40 years later I would be writing about it. I had no grasp of how fondly I would remember those times.
Dad is gone, but there is still time for God to catch up with me. As I think about my time out in the wilds, I like to think that God did indeed catch up with me. He was my companion and guide as I got to experience many of the wonderous creatures and places he provided.
Come to think of it. The disciples were in a boat fishing and the lord told them where to cast their nets for fish. The one critical verse that was inexplicably left out of the bible was, “And the Lord commanded his Disciples saying saying unto them, Safety tip everyone, Don’t fall out of the Boat.”