Tenkara on the Selway and Meadow Creek, ID

It has been far too long since we have been out fishing, or camping, or otherwise. On top of that I just replaced the fishing vest I've had since 5th grade with a more modern Patagonia Atom sling pack from Backcountry Lark in Moscow...and new gear deserves to be tested!

So, off we went up the Selway River to find somewhere I could fish and Katie could relax, swim and explore. The drive up the Selway to a campsite above the Falls turned out to be just the ticket. The fishing was phenomenal, and despite recent fires that came right up to our camp the area is gorgeous.
Part of the rugged Selway Falls

Selway Falls is an incredible jumble of giant boulders that looks like it would be stellar to watch at medium to high flows. As it was the low water let us see the incredible rock carved basins (carved by smaller rocks spinning in a water vortex until the carve a hole out of the surrounding rock). Flows were also low enough to let the summer Chinook ascend the falls, so we were treated to seeing them resting in the pools above the falls.
Look closely, along the shore there are multiple large salmon resting in the eddy above the falls

Some of these salmon scared me to death as I was fishing the confluence with Meadow creek. Two scared me as they slid back downstream, half their body out of the water, after failing to ascend the riffle into the creek. Both times they noticed me and started splashing right next to my leg as I was wading. They are amazing animals!

They also attract the bald eagles and at least one fell victim to the group of adult and juvenile eagles we saw multiple times during our stay.
Dead salmon with an eagle pinfeather that was laying nearby. This gives some perspective on just how large the eagles are, the fish was probably well over 20"

Our camp was perfect, with a grove of cedar trees perfectly spaced to hang two hammocks, and a family of deer that seemed monumentally unconcerned with our presence.

As I said, the fishing was stellar. I brought my tenkara rod as well as my western style rod, but the western rod never made it out of the case. The creek was cold, and the perfect size to wade and fish with a bit less than a rod length of level line and a six foot tippet. Fish were lined up like cordwood in the pools as well as in the cold water at the confluence.

I probably only fished 100 yards of stream but was catching a fish with every second or third cast in the pools. Ironically, the smallest fish were in the Selway below the confluence, apparently the big dogs had claimed the best territory in the cold holes of the creek and kicked out the little guys to the relatively warmer river (and it was noticeably warmer outside the plume of the confluence). All the fish I caught in the creek were over 10 inches, with some up to 16".

I didn't intend to become a "one fly" angler, but after tying on a couple varieties of flies without much luck I tied on a size 12, green bodied kebari that suddenly made clear just how many fish were in the stream! I used that fly for the rest of the weekend, losing one to a big cutthroat that got away and one to the top of a hawthorn bush.

The Stealth Atom sling pack was awesome. I still need to get used to using it, but the fold down worktable pocket makes it easy to store and tie on flies without losing them. The tippet spools and nipper are really well placed. I'm still befuddled as to why it goes over the right shoulder...it leaves the net on the wrong side of your body, requiring a hand switch while fighting a fish, and also makes your casting shoulder a bit tired if you carry a full water bottle. But, overall, it's a huge improvement over my old vest. The waterproof pocket is a nice touch and it carries everything I need plus a touch more if I really wanted to fill it full.

Top of the Line Fishing Net from a Racquetball Racquet

As you know, I'm not much for spending money on gear. I buy my basketball shoes on the cheap, and I'm even more stingy when it comes to fly fishing. Why? Because anything sold with "fly fishing" on the box is priced twice as high as it would be in the spin fishing aisle and I don't buy the claims of superiority that companies make.

After all, I remember when IM6 was the gold standard and people still caught tons of fish...now manufacturers are making 'throwback' style super-slow action fiberglass rods as if technology from the 70's was some gold standard...and no matter the technology people are still catching tons of fish. 

So, clearly, the amount of money you spend on a rod doesn't correlate to the number of fish you catch. It might correlate to your comfort while doing it, or your sense of prestige...and a good warranty is a good idea...but it isn't the key to catching fish.

With that in mind, when a fish swam through my net via a giant hole, I decided it was time to replace it. I wanted to replace it with a good rubber net because I do believe the hype that slippery wet rubber does a better job of keeping the fish from losing scales and it's slime layer than mesh fabric. But, those nets are ridiculously expensive! There are cheaper rubber nets in the spinning aisle (imagine that!) but they were too big for wearing on my back while wading around. So...what to do?

A trip to Goodwill got this idea started. I saw a racquetball racquet on the shelf for $4 and got to thinking that it looked an awful lot like the design of quite a few nets out there. A quick look online showed that it's pretty cheap to buy a replacement rubber net. A tape measure made clear that a medium sized flyfishing replacement net would fit just right with the dimensions of a racquetball racquet frame.

Done! I snapped up an atrociously ugly Wilson Titanium racquet and went online to find a net. Here's what it became:

Ugh, that thing is ugly, but it's the right size!

Racquetball racquets also have a wrist strap connection that is nice and strong...perfect for a net keeper. 

Injected foam handle means it might float. De-string and take off the plastic rash guards. 

I used a dremel to take the handle down a bit and round it. 


Used some paint stripper from the garage to take it down to bare metal, since the paint didn't stick to the original finish. 

Nice bare metal. Doesn't look or act like titanium to me, I think it's mostly aluminum. 

Painted with some enamel stray pain. 

Knotting on the handle out of paracord. My pioneering merit badge came in handy!

Cut down the string guides so the net will be recessed once it's attached. 

Nice Turks Head knots on each side of the handle. 

I went with a Fishpond net because at $25 they are decent deal for a good net. The net is lightweight, unlike some on Ebay and ones I saw in stores that look awfully chunky and heavy. 

Also, the kit has everything you need, including a needle...but just barely enough. I had less than 6 inches of dacron left at the end. 

Snap the rash guards back on the racket. 

Sew the net in with the dacron thread. Loop in to attach the net, stitch through every hole with a running stitch to keep the plastic guard in place. 

Here's what a good attachment looks like. They won't all line up this well, do what you have to to make it work. 

Looks pretty classy from the outside. 

And there you have it! A medium sized net, super lightweight and looks very classy. Possible for $30...much less if you go with a cheaper Ebay rubber net (a nylon net is even cheaper) or find a deal on a used racquet.

I'm not gonna lie, this cost a bit more than $30 if you count the stuff I used that I just had lying around. A package of paracord is $6, spray paint is $4, a dremel is pricey but you could just as easily use a knife and sandpaper...but it's pretty cheap all told. If you went with a cheaper net this could be a $15 net...even less if you don't really care what it looks like.

Big News! PLOS Ecology Community Blog Editor

Hello all. Sorry for the long delay in posts. I have a couple in the pipeline but I wanted to alert you to some good news on the blogging front.

I have officially been selected as one of three PLOS Ecology Community blog editors. I've already posted two posts with them on a freelance basis; 

The position will entail a couple posts a month on the PLOS Ecology blog, engagement with prominent ecology bloggers and writing collaboration with other ecologists and leaders in the field putting PLOS papers into context and creating a community for ecologists on the web. 

Wish me luck and keep your eyes open for new posts!

My Music Monday - New audio, a successful gig, and album plans

It's been a long time since I posted a New Music Monday post. This one was spurred by my recent gig at the Palouse Music Festival. It was a blustery day but the set went really well and I had lots of people asking me afterward for recordings of my music…which I don't really have. So, that set me to work giving them something to listen to. This necessitated a beer meeting with a recording engineer friend which has led to talk of a legit album in the future. I'll keep you informed. Until then, here are some things I have drug from the depths of my hard drive.

Here is a video I made at the last minute for the NPR Tiny Desk Contest. It is one of the only recordings of a favorite song I wrote, Love Like a Ballgame.

I also published a few tracks on SoundCloud:

I just love the song Goodnight Irene and this isn't bad for an iPhone recording.

These last two are songs I wrote and self-recorded back in 2003 for a performance demo.

Have fun! Email me if you are interested in other bootleg recordings. I have some to share, but not on here.

New Post at PLOS Ecology Field Reports

For those of you who are so inclined, please take a look at my first blog post on PLOS Ecology Field Reports.

What Will You Do When You Get There? Making Sense of Climate Change Induced Range Shifts

I am looking forward to more and frequent blog posts with PLOS after they asked me recently to take part in their rollout of the PLOS Ecology Field Reports Blog for ESA100 as a PLOS Ecology Community Blog Editor.

Watch for another post this month during my trip to the 145th National Meeting of the American Fisheries Society in Portland, Oregon next week!

Mai Tais for Europa

Yesterday my lovely wife was notified that she, along with a whole group of collaborators, will be funded by NASA! They will be to studying the recently discovered tectonic activity in the ice on Jupiters moon Europa. Getting funding is always welcome news, and doing something so cool deserved celebration…which in our house usually means a fancy mixed drink at some point.

A confluence of events sent us towards making up the original Mai Tai. First, our minds are turning toward the tropics and our upcoming honeymoon to Costa Rica. Second, we recently received awesome tiki glasses as a wedding present. Third, I've had a bottle of home made orgeat syrup sitting in my fridge for over a year and I'm always interested in finding new ways to use this amazing and perennially mis-pronounced nectar of the gods. (It's Or-zjat, not Or-Gee-ot). After being told by a friend that we should have a blog to document our drink mixing adventures I figured I had better post about these epic Mai Tai's, so here you go!

If you've never had a real Mai Tai you need to mix one up right away. It is epic! I had never had one despite how much the history of cocktails was influenced by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic. These drinks are all about rum, good rum, and lots of it, in different varieties. When I think of Tiki drinks I think of rum mixed with fruit juice, but most of the classics are mostly booze with some fruit thrown in for taste. The classic Mai Tai is no different.
Here is the recipe I used, which borrows a bit from the Trader Vic and Don the Beachcomber versions as well as this one from the Washington Post. These two feuded a bit over who invented this drink.
  • 1oz - Pyrat blended rum (mostly Demerarra apparently)
  • 1oz - Depaz Rhum Agricole
  • 1oz- Cruzan light rum (it was in the bar…)
  • Juice from one lime (~3/4 ounce)
  • 1/2 ounce Triple Sec (no Cointreu or Orange Curaçao on hand)
  • 1/2 ounce Orgeat syrup (essential for this drink, home-made is WAY better here)
  • 1/2 oz Velvet Falernum (this stuff is awesome)
  • 1/2 oz White grapefruit juice (I made it with and without, I like this addition a lot)
  • 1/2Tbs powdered sugar (I didn't have simple syrup)
I was lazy and didn't use crushed ice. I put all the ingredients together in a blender, dropped in ice cubes and pulsed it a couple times until the ice was well cracked. DO NOT make this into a smoothy, that would be a tragedy! I garnished it with a stick of fresh pineapple and a lime wedge stuck with a fancy toothpick but a mint sprig and lime is traditional. This thing packs a serious punch and you can really taste the rum, I would avoid using cheap rum at all costs, it would ruin the smoothness of the drink. 

Romancing the Open Source GIS Monster

Do you need to do GIS work but don't have the money for ArcGIS or the required extensions to do what you want to do? Have you heard about QGIS or GRASS and thought that they might solve your GIS woes with a free, open source solution? You might be right…or you might be very wrong. It all depends on what you hope to use them for and what your background is in programming languages.

I am a huge proponent of open source software but, before you start using a new open source package it is well worth your while to know how much time you are willing to commit. How far down the rabbit hole of coding and scripting you are prepared to go to get what you want? In some cases this isn't an issue and things work right out of the box, but it's worth it to know your limits ahead of time. This is particularly true for the open source GIS packages available out there.

I use multiple open source software packages and some are absolutely vital to what I do as a scientist. If there were one piece of software that I couldn't do without as an ecologist it would be R, the open-source statistical package that has become ubiquitous over the last few years. Open Office and specifically Libre Office have saved multiple files from Excel and Word that have been corrupted by their own office suite. I've been using Libre Office primarily for a couple months now.

Open source software promises a future where everyone can get what they need out of the software they use, rather than having features added only when it makes monetary sense for the company making it. It also provides, at least in theory, a very approachable and ever changing help system where questions can be answered by other users and problems can be reported and quickly fixed by those with the interest and skills to do it. The idea is great, and in the case of the programs I listed above it has worked out really well. But, for less developed software this isn't always the case.

I've recently been tearing my hair out trying to complete a GIS project that should have taken hours and instead has taken days. Because I'm a stubborn bastard who believes in open source (dammit!) and I didn't have an available license for ArcGIS and Arc Hydro Tools I have refused to back down, thinking that if I could only learn a bit about Python or a bit more about bash shells for Unix I could get done what I want to get done. It didn't work. What I wanted to to do is possible, but it's further down the rabbit hole than I have time or skills to go right now.
The interface of ArcMap 10.2, the industry standard GIS software
I should provide a bit of important background information. During my masters I published a paper showing that from relatively simple geologic maps, and some knowledge of the water chemistry in your study area, it is possible to predict what the strontium isotopic ratio will be anywhere along the river. This is hard to communicate over the thump of electronic music, and doesn't even go down well at refined cocktail parties. It's super interesting if you study where fish go using the isotopes in their ear bones, which is what I do as a PhD student.
Interface of ArcMap 10.2, the industry standard GIS software.
To do this work I used ArcGIS, the "industry standard" GIS platform. Personally, I dislike ArcGIS quite a bit (file names have to be less than 13 characters? This is 2015). So, for an upcoming paper on the migration patterns of giant Amazonian catfish I used a combination of QGIS and GRASS, two open source geospatial packages that inter-relate with each other and provide almost all of the functionality available in ArcGIS. Once I learned how to use them, these packages worked fine for fairly simple manipulation of maps, analysis of watersheds and geology, and creating really nice maps for publication.The vast majority of the tasks are automated and run through interactive windows like any other program. Where the problems cropped up was in trying to do anything more complicated.
Interface of QGIS 2.0. Notice the similarity to ArcMap.
QGIS in particular is a great platform that I think has tremendous promise. The interface is similar to ArcGIS but much more intuitive in my opinion. It accepts files of all kinds and is flexible about map projections. It also brings almost every other open source GIS resource into its toolbox, allowing you to use the tools available in all of them under one interface. I'm very excited about the future of QGIS, I think it will be the future. Just as R is supplanting expensive SAS licenses in academic publications I see QGIS doing the same thing to ArcGIS in the future.
Interface of GRASS 7.0 is very different, as is the functionality.
GRASS is a more picky beast, like a 70's muscle car, you can feel the power under the hood but the entertainment system and seats aren't quite as snazzy as a new Ferrari. If you don't know much about map projections GRASS will teach you like an angry stepmother, with beatings behind the woodshed until you get it. For those of us who have been coddled by ArcGIS or QGIS and their "on-the-fly" projection it can be hard to make sure each new GRASS import is in the correct projection and that the import parameters are correct to make a functioning file. Then, once those files are in GRASS they disappear into a database and can't just be copied around like a .shp file, they must be exported. Figuring out the difference between a "Location" and a "Mapset" (the names for the database locations and the organization within them) is not well explained. Further, if you require overlapping polygons in one file GRASS cannot do this, it uses a different type of vector representation that doesn't allow it. This attention to map projections and reliance on a database has an upside though. Once the maps are input you can be sure that the calculations you do aren't introducing errors because of the way the layers are projected.

Both of the software packages are fairly mature, but the way they evolved has made QGIS much more intuitive and user friendly. While QGIS seems to have focussed on usability and GUI development, GRASS grew out of a command line interface in UNIX and has only recently released a somewhat polished GUI. Much of it's functionality is still accessed through scripting. You have to drag a Mapset folder onto the app to start the GUI, a double click doesn't work on my Mac. The GUI starts as a wxPython icon via a terminal window…it isn't what you expect but it work. The script languages you must use seem to depend greatly on the operating system you use and the window you pick to enter scripts. For instance, one can enter commands directly into the terminal window in bash script (who's grammar varies it seems), or you can enter GRASS scripts into the command console of the GUI using a language that seems very similar to R, or you can enter Python scripts using the Python Shell that is integrated into the GUI…or you can use the GUI interface. Making sense of the online documentation with this mess of input languages is difficult at best.

That brings us to the factor that sets good open source software apart from the rest, the online documentation and the user community. Programs like Libre Office are so mature that the documentation is very similar to MS Office and anyone can get going with it right away. The R statistical package has a steeper learning curve but the user community is huge, and growing, so there is plenty of documentation. They also have a very strict documentation requirements for packages on the CRAN repository so that it's easy to figure out what each new add-on package does and how to use it (assuming you are familiar enough with statistics to understand the concepts being used). Also, R has a single input language so every command is intelligible. That isn't the case for the open source GIS packages yet.

QGIS is making a good start, with a polished website and some good documentation. But, if you are interested in anything beyond the basic functionality it can be really difficult to figure it out. The user community seems to be pretty small, and the program relies on integrating the functions of multiple other GIS packages…most of which I was unable to make work in my installation. Because each of these other packages is built on different code bases and uses different inputs, figuring out how to make add-ons work is really confusing.

GRASS has even more problems, in my opinion. The program itself is very powerful. Unfortunately, the way the program has been developed means that the range of input languages, and even the grammar of each, depends on your operating system as well as the add-ons you use within the program. The website itself does a terrible job of introducing this coding complexity. The user community compounds the problem by doing a terrible job of specifying in their posts what script languages they are using, and on what system it is meant to operate on. In R you can pick a snippet of script and play with it until it works. In GRASS you can't be sure that the example script you find is even runnable on your machine. It's incredibly frustrating unless you have a deep understanding of multiple scripting languages and the GRASS program itself. It is not for the faint of heart and this rabbit hole is deep.

So, if you are a poor graduate student looking at the money you could save using an open source GIS package here is my advice. If you are just doing fairly basic vector editing, overlay type analysis, or basic raster analysis then install QGIS and you won't be disappointed. If you need to do quite a bit of work with rasters, watershed analysis, or other terrain based analysis then GRASS will do the job. But, remember that neither of these packages do more complex analyses easily because you will need to script anything that requires repeated analysis of different features across a map. Some of this probably isn't hard if you have a background in Python. If you don't already have that background, and sometimes even if you do, then expect to spend a lot of time learning from mistakes and trying to piece together information from cryptic message board posts. I think the future is bright for open source GIS and in a few years I expect it will be very user friendly. Until then it isn't for everyone.