Backcasts archive: Through March 7, 2008


Blog calendar: March 8 | March 6 | March 5 | March 4 | March 3

posted March 8, 2008

Thar she blows: Great, white whale surfaces again off the Aleutian Islands

Gotta give props to Mary Pemberton, she of the Associated Press who always finds the best stories. Certainly it must have much to do with the setting. Her dateline is out of Anchorage, as is the case with her latest missive on a great, white whale.

Make that killer whale, which, as we know, isn't a whale at all, but the largest member of the dolphin family.

But we like to say great, white whale. Call me Ishmael, but it conjures up visions of Captain Ahab, the Pequod and Moby-Dick. Ah, the tale of the hunter and his relentless pursuit of the beast, the ferocious white denizen that on a previous endeavor had destroyed the cap'n's vessel and taken his leg. No matter how unhealthy his obsession, revenge would be his and …

Well, that's another story, as they say, and the current news is that a rare, white orca – described by the AP as nearly mythic – has been spotted around the Aleutian Islands. Healthy, up to 30 feet from flukes to snout and weighing more than 10,000 pounds, the killer whale is, indeed, very real.

It seems, however, to be documented only every seven or eight years, like an aquatic comet, streaking through the northern Bering Sea near St. Lawrence Island in 1993, then cruising around Adak in the central Aleutians in 2001. (Though apparently there have been other sightings off the Russian coast, according to the AP.)

So when the orca and its white saddle breached within view of those aboard a research vessel last month, shutters started clicking.

"I had heard about this whale, but we had never been able to find it," said Holly Fearnbach, a research biologist with the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle who photographed the creature.

Sound familiar?

The Seattle Times, wittingly or otherwise, used in its headline for the wire story, "A novel sight," but nary a hint of the Herman Melville classic was offered in the body of the news piece.

The Whale, in this case, is replaced by a dolphin … and harpoons by cameras.

But the big dolphin, which classically features black and white markings, has its own romantic monikers; indeed, Orcinus orca is less frequently called blackfish or seawolf.

We like seawolf, a lot.

And the great, white seawolf is very much alive and kicking, in the Aleutians.

"It was quite neat to find it," Fearnbach said.

We'll say!

And for fans of killer whales and "Moby-Dick" alike, note that, thankfully, subtle yellowish or brownish pigmentation on other part's of the white orca's frame indicates it is not a true albino and, accordingly, not subject to health issues and a shortened life span.


posted March 6, 2008

Sea lions hurt fishing, now fishing hurts sea lions. Some may say, "Touché"

We know from exhaustive research how seal lions impact fishing. The Columbia River is rife with tales of these pesky marine mammals poaching salmon and sturgeon.

But in what some might suggest is a turnabout-is-fair-play scenario, fishing in Alaska appears to be putting sea lions at risk, the Associated Press reports from Anchorage.

Of course, the issue north, to Alaska, revolves around commercial endeavors, and the situation on the grand waterway that bisects Oregon and Washington is a recreational issue.

And, to be sure, sea lions have their place in the world … so long as they stay away from our hooks, lines and sinkers, am I right fellas?

Seriously, though, a federal recovery plan for Alaska's Stellar sea lions points to commercial fishing as a potentially significant threat to the mammals in the competition for food, the AP reports. Also being examined is the impact killer whales and changes in climate may have on the sea lions.

While the estimated cost for recovery efforts for the western population of Alaska sea lions is $430 million, like efforts revolving around the eastern population, which swim from southeast Alaska to California and points between (read: Columbia River), would cost but $1 million. That's because the eastern numbers (again, read: Columbia River) actually are increasing at a rate of 3 percent a year, according to the AP.

We just have to ask if that means 3 percent fewer salmon and sturgeon each year for anglers targeting the game fish downriver from Bonneville Dam or are there other elements in the math that would result in even fewer fish available?

In either scenario, it's time to once again break out Backcasts' salmon and sturgeon recovery plan. Just see the illustration above.

Finders keepers? Maybe, maybe not when it comes to guns

They were lost at sea when the USS Shark sank off the Oregon coast in 1846, so naturally officials in the Beaver State assumed the two small cannons beachcombers found last month would become state property.

Not so fast.

The Navy explains that even though the 86-foot-long schooner sank 162 years, outbound from the aforementioned Columbia River, its guns remain Navy issue, the Associated Press reports from Portland.

The encrusted cannons revealed themselves on exposed bedrock in mid-February after storms and low tides had removed sand. They were the second and third that have been recovered from the Shark. One of the schooner's cannons was discovered in 1898, became the namesake for Cannon Beach, Ore., and now is in the town's history museum, according to the AP.

The Shark was built in 1821 to suppress slave traders and pirates. It spent a month in the Fort Vancouver area – near today's Vancouver, Wash. – with orders to "obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag."

No word on if or when the military will come for its arms from the Shark, but if we know the Navy it can smell blood in the water and soon will be circling. Actually, we have no idea about that last part, but for now, at least, Oregon has two more rare and priceless artifacts to add to its gun collection.


posted March 5, 2008

Next big outdoor activity? Fishing in space

When you're fishing in space the question beckons, how do you adjust the drag for weightlessness?

If only we could have such problems.

We read with keen interest the recent news about fish being launched into space. Indeed, the Associated Press reported from Stockholm, Sweden, that researchers were attempting to determine how swim patterns might help in the fight against motion sickness – in humans, we presume.

The next logical step (remember, this is Backcasts logic) is to introduce angling as a perk to space travel.

Of course, we'll have to get accustomed to sightfishing. We figure casting may be an issue (think sloooooooow motion). And we don't mind whether the targets fin inside the capsule or out.

But how does an angling astronaut overcome extreme line shyness in such an unforgiving environment?

"Houston, we have a problem bass."

Last month's experiment did determine that fish, in this case cichlids, can survive a rocket ride and land safely. But goldfish are definitely out.

"Goldfish are a little bit fat and messy, while the cichlid fish is a well-trained, sporty fish with muscles," said professor Reinhard Hilbig of the Zoological Institute at the University of Stuttgart, who was in charge of the space project.

Sure, your subjects may have been thumbnail-size this time around, but we're wondering, professor, how big these celestial cichlids run and what they're biting.

Meanwhile, in what amounts to be the polar opposite in motion (a lack thereof) and location (bottom of the sea), British scientists announced today they have discovered a fish in the Antarctic that hibernates like its landlocked brethren, Reuters reports from London.

(Wonder if bears dream in their dormancy of fish dreaming in their dormancy of bears dreaming in their dormancy?)

Antarctic fish were already familiar to researchers for having antifreezelike chemicals in their blood. But the discovery of a hibernating cod, Notothenia coriiceps, is further evidence of extraordinary environmental adaptations during the long southern winters, according to Reuters.

Apparently the cod fuels up during the short summers, then conserves energy to survive the lengthy winters by becoming inactive, according to Keiron Fraser of the British Antarctic Survey.

Alas, my inactivity during the long Northwest winter, also by choice, falls well short of being remarkable to anyone but my wife … and of course she remarks on it frequently.


posted March 4, 2008

Editor's note: My Back Pages recalls previous columns penned by the author.

My Back Pages: The spawn is on
And there's nothing quite like watching a big bass bite bait

OAK VIEW, Calif. — Some call it "robbing the cradle" and scoff at the notion of luring bass from the spawning grounds they are programmed to safeguard.

Dangling a bit of plastic and a camouflaged hook before the snout of a largemouth five feet away is far too easy, they say.

Sacrilege, they cry; let the fish do their thing in private, without interference.

For others, it's a ritual that offers rare and immediate satisfaction – witnessing what they cast to slam the bait.

This is bed-fishing or nest-fishing, and when the spawn is on, like it is at many area reservoirs, bass anglers who have no qualms sight-fishing are overcome by spring fever.

"It's bedmania out there," said Aaron Martens, a West Hills, Calif., angling guide who has enjoyed great success nest-fishing on professional bass circuits (and has since gone on to fame and fortune on the BASS tour). "Bass are everywhere on beds."

There have been reports of bucketmouths on spawning nests at Casitas, Piru, Castaic, Cachuma and Perris lakes – considered by many the top bodies of water in southern California for sight-casting.

As a member of the bed-fishing camp, I can think of no better thrill than eyeballing up close a feisty black bass take a tube jig in its shallow nest.

Play it, boat it, photo it and release it right away so the bass has the easiest time returning to its nest, and you should be OK.

The state Department of Fish and Game seems to agree.

"At this point, we do not believe that (bed) fishing effort is causing a decline in spawning success in largemouth bass fisheries," said Fish and Game associate fishery biologist Mike Giusti.

"That goes back to the large number of fish that are spawning at one time versus the actual number you get to see and may catch in any given day."

After shunning the activity for much of his career, Mission Viejo, Calif., bass guide and pro angler Troy Folkestad become a believer in bed-fishing four years ago.

"My opinion used to be that it was unsportsmanlike," he said. "I thought it was an easy way to fish. But I changed my attitude when I found out how difficult it can be. The challenging aspect is catching the female bass."

Folkestad doesn't even pitch a lure until he spots a bass he guesses to be eight pounds or larger, which is usually a female.

While even biologists have trouble differentiating the sexes, females are larger and less aggressive, therefore tougher to hook. They are also tougher to locate, instead preferring to hang out in deeper water – 20 to 25 feet – and search for a suitor under the cloak of darkness in early morning or late evening.

Yet there are some exceptions to the rule, and those bass – the ones that are actually feeding when not reserving energy for egg production – are the ones that make anglers drool.

Most often, however, the male is in the spotlight. In one of nature's classic "Mr. Mom" scenarios, it tends to the spawning bed and protects the fry for their first month of life.

"The female produces the egg but has no parental care," Giusti said. "There is no long-term commitment. It's basically a one-night stand."

Males defend the nest zealously and will munch on a twitching lure thinking it is a predator in what is called a reaction bite, not because they are hungry.

Bass don't forage much during spawning season, which usually takes place from mid-March through April (though some spawn through June or later) in water temperatures of 58 to 65 degrees (though 62 or warmer is considered optimal).

A bait with less movement might still get hit, but usually because the fastidious male considers anything that falls into its lair debris and deftly moves it off the nest with its large mouth. Swing the rod quickly and you've hooked a bass.

Martens took me on a recent nest-fishing jaunt to Ventura County's Lake Casitas, dubbed by Fishing & Hunting News "king of the big bass lakes."

Here's what I learned from my 24-year-old nest-fishing mentor (when I wasn't babbling on about the bobcat we saw take a mallard from the tules on the lake's west shore):

Don't cast to bass that aren't on the nest; they don't have territory to guard and generally won't hit.

"Some fish have been pressured too much or have been caught before. Some are really spooky," Martens warned. "They are the ones that move off the nest quickly."

Practice your casting, pitching and flipping marksmanship. Tossing the bait in line with and behind the nest is absolutely critical to enable it to float down and finessed directly onto the bed.

Study the nest to find the sweet spot – where the bass hovers most. Let the bait settle and twitch the line slightly to irritate the bass into striking. If it loses interest, move it – but always keep the lure in that strike zone. When it strays, recast.

Select a lure color that is easiest for you to detect, like a light red or a chartreuse. Don't worry about what the bass might prefer; they are less reactive to color.

When you do spot a female, pitch larger baits.

"Smaller baits aren't threatening to the females like they would be to a little male," he said.

Have two setups handy, each armed with 8- to 12-pound line. One should be a 6½- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod and matching reel and the other should be a like-length, medium-heavy, bait-casting outfit.

Select an assortment of artificial baits – 4- to 6-inch plastic worms that can be retrieved from thick cover easily for hard-to-get-at nests; 3-inch grubs, curl-tailed and flat-tailed, which, if Texas rigged, can be fished weedless; and 2- to 4-inch tube jigs that can be cast accurately, sink well and grab the fish's attention fast.

Practice catch and release; a bass is too pretty and sporting a fish to kill.

This article originally appeared April 3, 1997, in the Los Angeles Daily News.


posted March 3, 2008

For this Maryland pageant, think "Beauty and the eviscerated beast"

As an old newspaperman, I always find it fascinating how different editors craft the important headlines of the day, and the Washington Post's feature on Saturday was certainly breaking news for sportsmen and sportswomen everywhere – a real beaut, in fact.

Its own headline read, "Fur flies at beauty pageant (but it's not what you think)."

The Atlanta Journal Constitution handled it, "These beauty queens are expert muskrat-skinners."

United Press International: "Pageant competitor shows talent for skin."

But the best was the Seattle Times' "Beauty and the eviscerated beast."

And the header that one independent news Web site decided on revealed the bottom line, that "Beauty pageant contestants engage in competitive muskrat skinning."

As you can see above, there's certainly more than one way to skin a description of the National Outdoor Show, staged for the 63rd time last month in Golden Hill, Md.

There, believe it or not, contestants in the Miss Outdoors pageant share a stage with a muskrat-skinning competition. And this year, the Washington Post reports, two young ladies gutted as well as strutted.

Full makeup, sparkly earrings … and separating an animal from its hide. Does it get any better than that?

Seventeen-year-old contestant Samantha Phillips finished the group's dance number, then changed into hip waders, a plaid shirt and jeans and hit the stage with a muskrat that had been taken that morning from a nearby marsh with a spring-loaded trap, according to the Post.

"I'm going to show you how to get a muskrat from his house to yours," she told the crowd of some 700 people.

On a piece of cardboard Phillips made an incision in the animal, peeled the hide back, made a few additional cuts around the head and freed the pelt from its former owner.

Alas, Phillips did not win, but she did have the best quote in the article: "It's not weird. You can be graceful and beautiful and well-poised, and skin a muskrat."

But the gal who did win, Dakota Abbott, 16, on the strength of her singing, would go on to enter the separate skinning contest in her gown and tiara and, after changing into well-worn jeans, win the women's junior world championship, too!

According to the Post, No Miss Outdoors in recent memory had ever won a skinning championship.

Fabulous story, simply maaaaaaaarvelous, and crowns off, er, hats off, to reporter David A. Fahrenthold and the Washington Post for bringing it to us.

  • Got a similar take or differing view? Post on our Message Board or our Mailbag. And if you have a news tip, send it our way.

    About the author: Brett Pauly spent nearly six years editing and publishing ESPNOutdoors.com before moving on to produce the ESPN.com Sports Travel site. He is a national award-winning writer and editor with 14 years of experience in the newspaper trade, including stints at the Los Angeles Daily News and Seattle Times. The Evergreen State is where he now makes his home. Click here to email him.

  • Check the Backcasts archives for previous blogs.