The Fate of the Fish Ducks.

 For some, the New Year begins on Jan. 1. Out on our rivers, the new year begins with the emergence of the baby salmon from the gravel they were planted in last fall.

This is a cause for celebration.

After a century of over-fishing, pollution, environmental destruction and government policies that doom them to extinction, it’s not a question of what happened to the salmon, but why is there one salmon left?

The fact that the salmon have survived volcanoes, ice ages and the invention of nylon testifies to just how hard it’s been to eliminate this most important element in our ecosystem, the salmon.

Most everyone is familiar with the water cycle: how water evaporates from our ocean to form clouds that travel inland to drop water, forming rivers that flow back into the ocean.

The salmon cycle operates in the same way — exchanging energy from the ocean to the mountains and back, sustaining all life along the river, from the smallest bug to the largest tree with the spawned-out remains of their bodies.

That cycle is just beginning now.

Little schools of these tiny fish are wiggling out of the rocks to swim through the shallows on their years-long journey to the ocean and back during which everything wants to eat them.

Starting with the mergansers.

The male merganser, with his green head and large white belly, looks like a drake mallard. Instead of having a duck bill like a mallard, the merganser has a pointed, serrated beak they use to catch fish. Their feet are located toward the rear of the bird for maximum underwater propulsion.

Even the white belly is a form of camouflage that makes the bird difficult for the fish to see from below.

In comparison, female mergansers look like something the cat drug in.

She’s a boring brown, black and grey with a pathetic little red crest on top.

She’s built to blend in. She’ll be making her nest in a hollow of a cottonwood tree while the male migrates to Alaska with his pals to take care of his feathers.

Once the chicks hatch, they have to hit the ground running for the river that’s high from melting snow, where everything wants to eat them.

This is a well-disciplined brood that sometimes rides down the rapids on their mother’s back.

The chicks grow up fast on a diet of regurgitated fish.

Eventually, the mother will teach her chicks to hunt fish by swimming along with their heads under water looking for prey — a practice that some uncharitable bird watchers compare to texting while driving.

I once saw a mother merganser with 21 chicks. While the numbers of baby mergansers hatched by their mothers in a given year may not be an indication of the health of a salmon population on a salmon river, it will have to do until a better method comes along.

Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon to see a mother fish duck with a dozen or more chicks. This year, merganser broods are averaging about four or five. With the salmon gone, the animals and birds that depended on them are going away, too.

The forest itself is malnourished without the fertilization the spawned-out salmon carcasses provide.

Then, there is the human cost of the extinction of the salmon.

Much like the elimination of the mergansers, the extinction of the salmon has largely eliminated the culture of fishing among the people who depended on salmon for their food and livelihood.

With the salmon gone, people who fish for them could share the unfortunate fate of the fish ducks.

Clam Fever.

I don’t knowwhat made me say I was the fastest clam digger in the west. It must have been the COVID-induced cabin fever talking.

Unfortunately, exchanging cabin fever for clam fever is a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease.

For the first and possibly the last time this year, razor clam digging was approved after marine toxin tests showed the clams were safe to eat — causing a massive clam rush to the coast, where, in an average year, over a more than a million people throng to the beach to get their clam fix.

It’s a clam party with thousands of your closest friends all looking for the same thing, the majestic razor clam.

Betting who can dig the first limit of 15 razor clams is not illegal, but it should be. Gambling by its very nature cheapens the adventurous spirit of clamming, and it really sucks to lose.

There are many different theories on how to dig razor clams.

Some use a shovel. Others employ a clam gun, which is a tube you push in the sand and pull out with a clam inside, hopefully. Both methods involve back-breaking labor.

Razor clams move with surprising speed in wet sand by extending their foot or digger, then flattening it out like an anchor. The clam pulls itself down to its anchor while pumping sand and water out its siphon and repeats the process, digging down at a rate that is faster than some people can dig with a shovel, given the conditions.

Sometimes it’s a challenge to match wits with a clam until you remember it has no brain.

When you find yourself laying on a tide flat with your arm in a hole in the sand, feeling around for a clam that is not there, it can hurt to realize you have been defeated and outsmarted by a creature with no central nervous system. Which makes perfect sense in the evolutionary scheme of things.

Bi-valves have been around since the Cambrian Era more than 500 million years ago. By comparison, modern humans appeared on the evolutionary tree only a couple of hundred thousand years ago.

Do the math. This whole time the clams have been evolving into stronger, smarter and faster organisms with complex abilities to survive in a hostile environment.

Watch the news. Humans seem to be evolving into weaker, slower and dumber creatures with each passing year.

It takes a sophisticated evolutionary tool kit to dig a razor clam. You must dodge the full fury of the ocean surf in hopes of spotting the faintest dimple in the sand that reveals the presence of the elusive razor clam.

Spotting the clam and digging them are two different things.

As the wave retreats, you have only a little time before the next one crashes in.

You must spot the clam and dig like a banshee with the roar of the surf at your back until you’ve dug as deep as you dare.

Then you reach down into the hole to grab the fleeing clam that is digging downward at a rate that is unbelievable to anyone but a clam digger.

With luck, you grab the shell of the retreating clam, maybe with only a thumb and forefinger.

There you struggle with the clam as it tries to dig to China.

It’s usually at this point that another wave approaches.

You must grab the clam and go, or continue to hold on and face the unpleasant consequences of lying in the sand in the surf.

It’s the only cure for clam fever.

Answering Tourist Questions.

Springtime must be my favorite time of year on the Olympic Peninsula. When uncounted millions of birds fly north along our coast to their remote arctic nesting grounds. All of which signals the start of another migration to our shores, the American tourist.

Don’t panic. Please remember but for the grace of God we could all be tourists, too.

These people have suffered through hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of travel through an aging infrastructure, braving long lines waiting for airplanes, ferries and road construction while enduring seasonally adjusted fuel prices as they flood our area in a never-ending pursuit of solitude.

Inevitably, our tourists will have many questions.

This can provide all of us an opportunity to act as ambassadors of good will for the tourist industry by providing our visitors with accurate, up-to-the-minute information on the recreational opportunities available in this emerald green paradise we call home.

How you do this is anyone’s guess. I charge the tourists $5 per question, but then again, I am a professional.

Here is a sampling of some real-life questions posed by real-life tourists.

The most popular one seems to be:

• “Where are the restrooms?” This is a sensitive subject.

One person’s comfort station is another’s toxic waste dump. Given the infrequency with which our public toilets are maintained, it’s sometimes best to just hand the tourist a shovel and tell them our restrooms are as big as all outdoors.

• “Do I need a permit?” Yes. Here in Washington, it’s legal to get married if you’re gay or smoke marijuana, but chances are you cannot get out of your car to use the restroom without one of the many permits required to be on public land.

• “Is the weather always like this?” Another popular question that gives the locals the opportunity to reassure the tourists that they are always right.

Of course, our weather never changes. It’s like this all the time except when it’s not.

• “When is the tide?” A particularly confusing question from confused individuals who obviously have no idea that the tide goes in and out twice a day.

Tides are confusing to many tourists because they have never seen an ocean, and they have no idea that it is constantly changing like that other mystery, the weather.

Knowing the tides is particularly important when hiking along the beach.

Two tourists figured that out just last week when they were stranded by a high tide and had to have the Coast Guard pluck them off a cliff north of the Hoh River.

They had neglected to pick up the free tide chart provided by the Olympic National Park at the trailhead. Duh.

• “What kind of clothes should I wear?” This question is a cry for help.

Fluorescent orange fashions are a good choice for tourists. It makes it easier for search and rescue to find them once they get lost.

The downside is that the innumerable nests of hornets and yellow jackets that swarm our recreational wonderland every summer seem drawn to bright colors — making it wise to choose a more muted fashion statement. You were warned.

• “Are the bears and cougars dangerous?” Yes. Extremely. But your chances of being attacked by bears and cougars are about the same as being hit by chunks of space junk. Be very afraid.

• “When is the fishing good?” Hard to say, but generally the best fishing occurs the week before you get here and the week after you leave.

Then there is my favorite tourist question of all time:

“Why do the loggers wear suspenders?”

This mystery has never been solved.

Understanding Our Fishing Regulations.

“When does the river open?” The tourist angler asked after I told him the river was closed.

He was standing knee-deep in trouble, casting away in a river closed to fishing.

I informed him that every angler in Washington has the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, then you probably can’t afford to go fishing.

I have spent many years trying to understand the logic of Washington’s fishing regulations in an attempt to translate them into English. It’s every angler’s duty to obey our fishing regulations, but you have to know what they are to begin with.

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what the fishing laws were, I could afford to go where the fishing is as good as it was here in the olden days. That would be in Chile. Where they took our salmon, planted them in rivers that did not previously have salmon and managed them with a degree of intelligence that’s unavailable in Washington state.

Chile allows enough salmon to escape upstream to spawn and keep the runs alive.

This is a foreign concept in Washington, where we have eliminated the most important single element of our river’s ecosystems, the spawned-out carcasses of salmon that feed everything from the tiniest insect to the largest tree in an energy exchange from the mountains to the sea and back again.

Instead of rebuilding this lost biomass to bring back our salmon runs, we build log jams as an excuse for salmon restoration.

The way we manage our salmon is a cycle of abuse.

Alaska catches fish bound for British Columbia.

B.C. catches fish bound for Washington.

Meanwhile, people in Washington get fed up with the poor fishing and go up to Alaska, to catch fish trying to swim back here.

Every winter, the state of Washington and the 29 Treaty Tribes of Washington get together for the mysterious “North of Falcon Meeting.”

These top-secret meetings divide the predicted runs of paper salmon returning to Washington between competing groups of tribal, commercial and sport fishers who can only agree on one thing, banning the other person’s gear.

These secret negotiations that set the salmon seasons are based on a theory that the fish that spawn naturally in a river and fish raised in a hatchery are two different species.

It’s a theory based on a misconception.

In fact, the National Marine Fisheries service has determined that, after a 120 years of releasing hatchery fish in Washington, there is no significant difference genetically between hatchery-reared fish and the so-called wild fish which are likely to be the feral offspring of hatchery fish.

Still, the hatchery fish and wild fish are treated as two different species in our fishing laws.

This inane dichotomy contributes to the extinction of our salmon.

Hatchery salmon are routinely subjected to the brutal, inhumane clipping of their adipose fins to identify them.

Any hatchery fish that are unclipped are simply released with their fins unclipped — where they are suddenly considered “wild fish.”

Catching and releasing numerous unclipped hatchery fish to catch and keep a clipped hatchery fish endangers our salmon.

The released fish feed the hungry seals that follow fishing boats around for an easy meal.

Anglers should just keep the first fish they catch instead of inadvertently killing bunches of fish to try to get a legal one.

It would make more sense to stop fin-clipping fish. It is a cruel, failed experiment.

Einstein said repeating a failed experiment while expecting different results is insanity.

Here in Washington, we call it our fishing regulations.