Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Hammerhandles for Supper, Barbless Hooks and Megafires

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By Shawn Perich

Every spring I fish a scenic, shallow lake on the edge of the canoe country. Years ago, a neighbor told me the lake was a great place to catch jumbo perch. He brought his kids–now adults–there and slow-trolled with crawler harnesses to catch them. The trick, he said, was to get in there early, because once the weeds came up the lake was tough to fish. I gave it a try and discovered he was right–about the perch, the crawlers and the weeds.
While I go for the perch, my catch is usually a mixed bag that also includes pike and an occasional walleye. I tie my own crawler harnesses with 20-pound-test Maxima Chameleon and #2 octopus hooks to handle the toothy pike. The harnesses are surprisingly durable.
This is one of the few places where I consistently catch and keep my limit of three pike. After reading in Outdoor News that most anglers prefer to keep pike measuring 24 inches or more, I decided to measure my keepers on two trips to the lake this spring. The first time, I came home with a 28-inch pike, a 17-inch walleye and two 10-inch perch. I fileted the pike and cut out the Y bones, ending up with three sizable chunks of fish from each filet.
On the next trip, I came home with two 20-inch pike, a 19-inch pike and a 10-inch perch. A “24-inch or longer” pike got away next to the canoe. I fileted all three pike and removed the Y bones. I suppose you could call the results finger filets, but we had enough for a meal and froze a package of filets for my Mom. My point? There’s plenty of meat on a 20-inch pike. If keeping pike that size can improve the pike fishery statewide, doing so won’t be a hardship to anyone hungry for fish.

The bigger question may be whether there is enough demand for pike dinners to make a dent in the state’s overabundant small pike. As I already mentioned, my spring sojourns to this particular lake are about the only times when I catch and keep pike. While many Minnesota anglers bring home pike for the table, many others do not. Like me, they are unlikely to change their ways.

*****

This year, I’m making a point of pinching down the barbs on my hooks, because doing so makes it much easier to unhook fish and matters little in my ability to catch them. I’ve pinched the barbs on my flies for many years without noticing much difference in my fishing success. But I’ve always worried that I would not be able to hold vigorous fish like steelhead or smallmouth bass with a barbless hook.

Fishing for steelhead last spring, I went barbless, although my hooks were made from a hard alloy which made it difficult to completely flatten the barb. As always, I landed some steelhead and lost some others. But I can’t blame barbless hooks on the ones that got away.

One supposed complaint I’ve heard about barbless hooks (actually, I read it in Outdoor News), is that walleye anglers can’t go barbless because leeches will wriggle off the hook. Last summer, I fished with barbless jigs and never had a leech make an escape. Perhaps we should encourage anglers to pinch their barbs (and move away from live bait) on primarily catch-and-release fisheries such as Mille Lacs.

Does this mean I’m calling for regulations to Ban the Barb? Absolutely not. Nearly all of the fishing tackle available for purchase is festooned with barbed hooks. It takes just a few seconds to pinch the barb with a pair of long-nosed pliers. To me, it’s worth that miniscule effort to have hooks that are more easily removed from fish (or my flesh), are less likely to become hopelessly tangled in landing nets and don’t really have a downside for anglers.

Minnesota is behind the curve compared with many other areas when it comes to encouraging anglers to use barbless hooks, which are required in national parks, some Canadian provinces and in many waters managed for catch-and-release fishing. There doesn’t seem to be any uproar anywhere from anglers complaining barbless hooks make it harder to catch fish…or keep leeches on the hook.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by former USDA head Dan Glickman and former U.S. Forest Service overseer Harris Sherman called upon Congress to come up with a better disaster funding scheme to help the USFS cope with the escalating costs of fighting what they termed “megafires.” Currently, the USFS spends over 50 percent of its budget on firefighting. Before huge fires became prevalent across much of the West, firefighting consumed less than 20 percent of the agency’s budget.

Glickman and Sherman listed the reasons why there are more large fires—devastation of forests due to pine beetle depredation, the build-up of brush and other fire fuels, increasing human development in fire-prone areas, and a hotter and drier climate. They said firefighting now absorbs so much of the USFS budget that it siphons away money intended to make forests less fire prone. They wrote that techniques such as brush and dead tree removal, forest thinning and controlled burns can help prevent fires or make it less likely for a wildfire to become an unstoppable inferno.

Conspicuously absent from the op-ed were a few key words, like “logging,” “forest products” and “timber industry.” Reading the essay, one might assume the USFS no longer practices traditional forest management. Perhaps if we did—as occurred before “megafires” began consuming our western forests—maybe we’d have fewer fires. One reason the USFS no longer sells as much timber as it once did is because much of its local staff on national forest is away during the summer on fire duty. While the USFS can’t create demand for forest products, which evaporated during the Great Recession, they could at least say the word “logging” out loud.

While the Glickman/Harris piece essentially pleaded to Congress for more money, perhaps we should ask for a critical accounting of how present firefighting money is spent. Bureaucrats have an open checkbook when a fire is burning, which may mean they spend first and do the accounting later. I’ve been close to a fire or two in northern Minnesota—including ones managed by the USFS and the Minnesota DNR—and, like others, have been struck by the way fire managers seem to burn through money…like wildfire.

Yes, we need more money to fight massive blazes and it shouldn’t come at the expense of forest management programs. But we also need to see fiscal transparency so we know the money is well spent. Also, while firefighters may be able to quell a small blaze or take steps to protect property in a major fire, one truth seems to prevail. Simply this: Man or Nature may start a wildfire, but Nature, not Man, always puts them out. It takes a good rain or a favorable shift in wind direction to extinguish a large wildfire. We may battle the blazes, but we never defeat them.

Golden Eagle Lodge

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