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|It had been a long, hot day in the saddle. Not the kind of day
that makes a man wish he was doing something else for a living,
but tough enough to make me wish I was doing it on some other
day. My 10-year-old daughter and I had moved about 250 pairs out
of a cool, lush riparian area and placed them away from the creek,
on a distant upland bench. We had gotten a late start and it was
a long ride in. By the time we discovered the cows it was getting
very warm and they really werent that interested in climbing
a mountain. We took our time, being sure to keep everybody mothered
up, and not drive them too hard.
By the time we got back down to the stream it was late in the afternoon, and I still had a couple hours of work left in front of me. We tied our horses in the shade and loosened their cinches. I busied myself with the tasks at hand and my daughter, Shawnee, began poking around at things along the creek, finding the kind of innocent fascination that leaps out at a child, but too often escapes the hardened eyes of an adult.
As I worked my way up the stream, evaluating the levels of utilization and trying to decide how much longer the cows should remain in this pasture, I heard my daughter running up through the brush, excitedly calling out my name. Dad, Dad, you should see all the trout! Theyre everywhere, come and look! My eyes may have hardened some with age, but when it comes to Shawnee, my heart is still pretty soft. I dutifully put down my gear and strode off toward the sounds of her giggling laughter. And, by golly, she was right. This little, unnamed creek was literally full of beautiful native cutthroat trout.
Shawnee and I caught a few bugs and flipped one into the stream. Immediately, a trout snatched it from the surface. We flipped in a few more bugs and as we did, trout began zooming out from every little hidey-hole in the stream and were literally fighting over the bugs. Every time we made a movement, trout began jumping into the air in anticipation of our next offering, occasionally catching the hapless insects before they even hit the water!
After the feeding frenzy, as the trout began to settle back into their cool, clear sanctuaries, Shawnee and I sat next to the stream bank, and talked about cows and trout. We talked about the need for healthy streams and the notion that if streams are healthy, and the fish are healthy, then it is likely that the entire grazing operation is healthy. Shawnee thought for a minute, quietly looked around and observed: Here we were sitting next to a stream, the same stream that had 250 pairs on it this morning, the same stream that had been grazed for more than a century, and it was literally teaming with healthy, wild trout.
I went back and finished my work and Shawnee continued to flip insects to the trout in the stream. I could see she was thinking deeply. I smiled and assumed that she was contemplating the complexities of managing a productive ranch while ensuring that the land was healthy and all of Gods critters had a good place to live too. Her thoughts, as I would soon learn, were instead occupied with the creative thoughts of a child, unencumbered by the pre-conceived knowledge of what could and could not be done.
It was getting late as I walked back down to where Shawnee was playing by the stream. I hollered at her to come and catch her horse; we were going to miss supper. With unbridled excitement, she left her stuff lying by the stream and ran up to me with a switch of willow in her hand. Tied to the end of the willow were three or four long pieces of grass; kind of a make-shift fishing line. She was so excited that she could hardly contain herself. Dad, get me some more of those big bugs from the stream, Im gonna catch one of those trout. I looked at her and at the crude fishing pole she had fashioned from willow and grass and said, Shawnee, thats not gonna work. Its late and weve got a long ride. She looked up at me, the excitement and determination still evident, Please Dad, I really want to try this.
I knew in my mind that this could never work. The trout would see the grass, it wasnt clear like fishing line, and even if they did grab the bug the fragile grass could never hold them. Without saying a word, I let the knowing mind of an adult be overridden by the soft heart of a father. With some difficulty I managed to catch about six caddis fly larvae. I thought to myself this oughtta look like a T-bone steak to these trout. I began tying the first bug onto the grass and as I tightened the knot it broke easily in my hands. I glanced up at Shawnee and shot her an I told you so look. Without saying a word I began tying another knot, this time being more gentle.
With the bug tied to the grass, I sat down and watched Shawnee bound joyfully down to the waters edge. She flipped the bug upstream, into the current, with the skill of an experienced angler. To my amazement, a small trout shot from the shadows and grabbed the bug. She fought it for a few seconds, it jumped and came loose. Her excitement now contagious, I jumped up and tied another bug to the end of the grass fishing line. She moved to another spot, deftly flipped the bug into the water and this time two trout dived for it. Again, a brief fight ensued and the trout eventually escaped with its prize.
We selected another bug, one possessing strength and courage, and carefully tied it to the grass. Shawnee sneaked down next to a big log in the stream and sent the courageous insect into the murky depths. In an instant, a large trout shot out from under the log and inhaled the caddis fly. Shawnee pulled back and the trout jumped and tail-walked across the stream. She screamed and moved with the trout, being careful to keep the pressure light. The trout jumped again and again, but it had swallowed the bug and the grass held firm. I rolled on the ground, laughing so hard that my eyes filled with incredulous tears of mirth. I simply could not believe what I was seeing. In an instant Shawnee announced, Im going to land him Dad. As the trout jumped and struggled, she slowly began to back up until, at the last minute, with a gentle touch, she heaved the flopping trout onto the bank.
Shawnee pounced on the trout, and it squirted out of her hands, back toward the stream. She squealed and lunged again, this time she had it firmly in her grasp and she stood proudly, grinning from ear to ear.
Dad, she beamed, I knew this would work.
I nodded sagely, she had been right of course, kind of a metaphor for life I thought to myself. Well, I said, its late anyway, how about if you catch us another trout and Ill make us a little fire. Well just eat supper right here.
Chance Gowan is an aquatic biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho. He helps community-based collaborative groups to effectively participate in land management decisions. Call him at 208-879-4161.