| Boundaries Contents
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage, Visible Bones and The Collector.
A World Swimming with Fish
Fish work to tell the story of anyone's life. The single image of my Uncle John Ed, with his meaty forearms and oddly humped shoulder, casting his favorite green and red Hula Popper plug out over the muddy water of a South Carolina pond brings back my own entire youth: the way the popper landed between the roots of an upturned sunken stump in exactly the right position to be reeled in without a snag; the moment the lips of a largemouthed bass accordianed around the plug's skittering bright colors; the strength of that monster's scaly girth to my tentative hands, the greasy delight of its white flesh rolled in corn meal and frying in a hot skillet; the dense humidity of a July evening; the shrill rasps of cicadas masking our greedy bites.
In the same way, Kalispel elder Alice Ignace never got over watching her uncle guide his hoop net carefully along the rocks at Kettle Falls until stopping directly beneath a clump of clambering eels. The arm-length wrigglers were resting in the torrent before flicking forward to take the next small advancing grip on their long trip up the Columbia. When the uncle whistled a single sharp note, those eels released their sucker hold and dropped like writhing snakes into his net. It was the aunties and grandmothers who cleaned the catch, stretching each eel's rubbery body out so it would dry evenly. In time they offered the oily nutrition up to Alice in a meal that lasted forever.
On a larger scale, the fish of the Columbia drainage and all its myriad tributaries relate the story of the river itself across the vast expanse of time: from unnamed creatures swimming in the primordial sea to fingerlings boiled alive as massive basalt flows bent the young Columbia's course north and west across the basin; from spawning sturgeon blocked by ice dams to people lined up along the shore to observe, for generation after generation, the way that food moved through the water. When early fur trader David Thompson spent two weeks at Kettle Falls in the summer of 1811, one of his journal entries paid a fisherman's compliment to the tribes gathered for the summer salmon run: "Experience has taught them the delicate perceptions of the fish."
In the two hundred years since Thompson wrote those words, nothing in the North Columbia landscape has been so drastically altered as the movement of water and the makeup of the fish populations. The dynamic mosaic of species to which local cultures adapted over thousands of years has been buried beneath a crush of introductions and hatcheries, dams and irrigation canals, family feuds and international political scuffles. In such an emotionally charged atmosphere, most of the core issues still circle back to what lies beneath the surface of the water.
Dennis Dauble's Fishes of the Columbia Basin: A guide to their natural history and identification (from Keokee Press in Sandpoint) offers a starting point to address some of the basic questions about what fish are here now, how they have changed over time, and what their future might look like. It's an ambitious project, built on records of tribal usage, historical research, and biological field studies by people who were all very invested in their work.
Dauble certainly has the qualifications to take a shot at his chosen subject. Growing up in northeastern Oregon, he spent much of his youth trout fishing in the upper reaches of the Walla Walla and Umatilla drainages. He earned a doctorate in fisheries from Oregon State University, then returned to the Columbia Basin to work at Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, where for the past 35 years he has watched the largest remaining interior run of fall chinook salmon out his office window on Hanford Reach. Still an avid fisherman, he ponders the elements that comprise a fish's world with both a broad perspective and a deft touch for details.
Between the covers of his new book, Dauble reconstructs the Columbia and its feeder streams between Celilo and Kettle Falls from the ground up. The first chapter explains how geology has determined the look and feel of the fish's universe. He rewinds time from tribal culture to the period of contact, from opportunistic naturalists like Meriwether Lewis and Alexander Ross to the legendary initial scientific survey conducted by Charles Gilbert and Barton Everman in 1893. He summarizes the environmental factors that have so violently altered that initial picture, and is not afraid to challenge curious readers with cogent explanations of the baseline technical measurements that determine which fish can survive in our present conditions.
The meat of Dauble's book is the key he has developed to identify all the fishes likely to be caught within the limits of this territory, followed by accounts of the natural history of each species. The key would have allowed Alice Ignace to count the three distinct kinds of teeth inside the oral cavity of her uncle's jawless catch and identify them as Pacific lamprey, Lampetra tridentata. The species accounts, besides relating the life cycles of fish both familiar and strange, are peppered with surprising facts, humorous asides, and many nods to all the descendents of Isaac Walton who still want to outwit what's in the water so they can enjoy it for supper. "I hope this book will be stored in you tackle box as a ready guide," Dauble writes. "It should be taken along during excursions to rivers and lakes, similar to a favorite hat."
A quick glance at the way Dauble treats our native bull trout reveals the breadth of his approach. He begins his account by separating this inland species from the anadromous and more northern Dolly Varden acknowledging their similar appearance, and touching on the polka-dotted dress pattern that for years was applied to both of these char family fish. He explains how habitat fragmentation and degradation have ground away at traditional bull trout range, and names the rivers that still maintain viable populations. With a fisherman's eye, he reconstructs the deep, cool pools littered with woody debris favored by adult bull trout, and the slow side channels and shallow near-shore gravel bars frequented by young of the year. He lists the Washington and Oregon sport records for length and weight, at the same time making clear that since bull trout are relatively easy to catch, they can be subject to over-harvest. Ethical fishermen, in other words, must be aware of what's around them.
Within the same account, Dauble employs a biologist's precision to mark the water temperature required for successful bull trout spawning, then the period of egg development, growth rates, and how as individual size increases, their food intakes shifts from aquatic insect larvae to fish. In conclusion, he combines all his experience to stress the need for an effective conservation plan that includes this threatened native species.
It doesn't take too many detailed life histories like this to leave even rank amateurs anxious to count scales along the lateral line of the next trout that falls into their hands. They might want to ponder why cutthroats, unlike rainbows, rarely become established outside their native range, or to nod their heads in slow comprehension when absorbing the fact that a greater rod-to-cone cell ratio in the retinas of brown trout, which allow this species to see more clearly in the slow, muddy water of their native European rivers, might work as an advantage in many of our own altered drainages. With his multiple sources, clear organization, and confident pen, Dauble has created a guidebook for anyone who wants to peer into the liquid soul of the Inland Northwest. "Life is too short," he insists, "for anyone not to have a book on fishes."
Illustration: Pacific lamprey, by Emily Nisbet.
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