Monday, January 25, 2010

dividing up the worlds gradients

People love to divide things up into categories. Why? Because continuous gradients are hard, if-not impossible to think about at times.

The world seems to divide itself up into discrete categories of 'things', yet these things share characteristics, making them more like gradients of one variation to another variation. One of the fundamental tasks of Ecologists and Natural Historians is to understand and characterize how the world seems to be both categorical and yet continuous at the same time. This is what Darwin thought about, it is what drove Linnaeus to developed a classification scheme for the worlds plants, and believe it or not, this is what is at the root of most debates on racism (we are different, but we are similar).

Take for example two fisherpeople, a bait fisher and a fly fisher. We can separate the two based on the type of lure they use, but does that truly make the two different on the whole? After all they are both fishing. On the one hand, they share a number of attributes, they typically have rods and reels. But on the other hand, the type of rod and reel that they use are different. So on the one hand, we could devise a scheme that would describe these two fisherpeople as a continuous gradient of characteristics (some shared, others varying) but on the other hand, we can call them two different classes (bait and fly). If I filled the room with my friends, we could debate the differences and similarities of bait and fly people all night. But we would just end up ripping on bait fisherman (which is ironic because we all bait fish at times). But that's not the point. The point is that the complexity of the world shows up everywhere as a juxtaposition of what appears as different classes of things, classes that are separated from each other by gradual differences. Recall that Darwin's theory was based on the premise that species share traits and that some traits vary almost continuously among species because we all share a common ancestor. Given enough time, species morph into what appears as different and classifiable but what is really similar and gradual when look more closely.

Thinking about this hurts the brain, which makes the people who think about this stuff reach for a bottle of whisky. After a couple of drinks, they end up thinking about it all over again, but from a slightly different perspective.

This was exactly what happened when a few folks got together at a conference in Scotland devoted to classification. After a few glasses of single malt scotch, they got to thinking about a classification scheme for scotch. What resulted was a great paper describing both the methods used in classification and descriptions of different scotches as well. Remember, there are definitely different types of scotch, but what makes one different from another is not so simple to describe. For everything you have ever wanted to know about Scotch, and for more than you would ever want to know about classification methods, check this out:,%201994.pdf

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some favorite Steelhead pics

I like being able to fish for trout on spring creeks during the winter now that we live in the driftless. But I miss the steelhead of the north. Looking back....
Dan with a big ol nasty steelhead

This fish was caught when the water was muddy-brown water after a huge storm. Few people were fishing, and the guys that were fishing couldn't get their eggs and spawnbags down deep enough in the very deep and fast water. I took a number of fish that day, including this one and another within 5 minutes by swinging leeches on a super heavy sink-tip.

This is a special fish for me because of where I caught it and who I caught it with, enough said.

Hooking up with a 7 mo-old on my chest

I'm not sure if this was Tyler's first steely, but he sure was happy.

Tim from Riverblends with a special fish. We thought we had fished most of the water that there was to fish on this particular river. Then we went for long hike up river and found some fresh fish. Very nice to find new spots on old rivers.

Andrew had a banner day. We only saw a couple other folks on the water that day becasue it dumped 12" of snow the night before. Andrew was determined to fish, and he landed a number of nice fish.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

on ecologists and environmentalists

Note: This post has been edited from its original content to reflect less gender-bias.

-Robert May (an ecologist)

A friend of mine once told me that when he sits next to strangers on airplanes, he no longer tells them he is an ecologist. Instead, he tells them that he teaches biology. He said it is amazing how differently people treat him when he simply places the emphasis on teaching instead of practicing and on biology rather than ecology. While I've never had anyone accuse me of being a tree-hugger, I know how to read people's eyes pretty well. The problem is that I'm really not a tree-hugger, I'm a scientist. It just takes too long and gets too confusing to explain the difference to most people.

Ecology and the role of ecologists in our society are often confused with the environmental movement. While it is true that those of us who study the natural world would rather that our subject not be replaced with parking lots and strip malls, we study nature in order to understand it better, and in turn, learn what role we as humans play as part of local and global ecosystems. I think Schneider and Kay (1994, Complexity and thermodynamics: towards a new ecology, Futures 26: 626-647) have a nice way of explaining various aspects of this. Get ready to be educated on the role of ecologists and that of environmentalists.

Ecology is the science of the interactions of living organisms with each other and
their interactions with the physical and chemical components of their enveloping
environment. Ecology is a misunderstood, underfunded, orphan branch of science.
The sciences of the macroscopic, astronomy, and the microscopic, particle physics,
are the darlings of the funding agencies as we spend billions of our tax dollars on
Hubble telescopes and bigger and bigger supercolliders. It is interesting to know of
an astronomical event thousands of light years ago or to know that one subatomic
particle comprises eight or ten smaller particles. These scientific facts, however,
seem to intersect us in the peripheral aspects of our lives. Ecology, however, is a
science on the human scale. We humans are part of our ecosystems, and the
environment with which we interact is on a scale that is a part of our daily lives.
Those of us who study the dynamics and functioning of ecosystems are amazed that
a science that seems so important to mankind receives so little money, and that
minimal attention is paid to understanding processes that may influence the future of
humankind and the future of our biosphere.

Part of the problem is that many people confuse the science of ecology with the
environmental movement. When one of us tells a new friend, ‘I am a theoretical
ecologist’, they often think that we are members of a fringe political movement or
that we spend time lying in front of bulldozers in national forests. Even the well
known journal The Ecologist is not a journal about ecology but a journal about
science, politics and socioeconomic issues related to environmental management.
The environmentalists’ goal should be to encourage management of the local
through global ecosystems so as to maintain or enhance environmental quality.
However ecologists as scientists should advise society on ecological interactions and
the potential impact of human activities on natural resources. Ecosystem
management is about trade-offs, and the role of the ecologist should be to identify
these trade-offs. Which trade-off we decide to make is a political decision which
environmentalists can seek to influence.

Nicely put, eh. You see, the environmentalist typically doesn't care what type of management or restoration actions are taken-just so that something is done (usually everything that can be done). This results in a lot of money spent on a myriad of activities aimed at a particular natural resource concern. But the ecologist sets up experiments that reveal just what should be done about a particular environmental problem, thus saving time, effort, and money that would have been spent on the 'do everything' approach' that is usually relied on in absence of science. Underfunding of science agencies costs way more money in the long-run.

At any rate, now when you sit next to someone on an airplane and they tell you they are an ecologist, you can treat them like you would a particle physicist or an astronomer-only you can consider the ecologist a bit more socially relevant.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Outing #2

Howdy folks,

I don't have a ton of experience fishing for stream trout during winter. But the more I do it, the more I'm finding out that there are two basic ways to go about catching fish: 1) casting to 'pods' of hundreds to thousands of stagnant fish (probably recently stocked), and 2) stalking smaller groups of more 'wild' fish on smaller water with more structure (rocks, trees, etc...).

I have to admit, I have more experience with #1. This is the approach I took on my first outing of the year. I know a few spots that I think have some springs which supply warmer water during the cold months. Hundreds to thousands of fish stack up in these glassy pools. When you walk up on them, you can see them bolt. But if you just stand still, they all eventually come back. The lesson in winter is this- fish are where they want to be, and they will come back even if you initially spook them. Note: the bigger fish may not come back.

At any rate, it is amazing how many fish you can catch from these pods. It as though they are all in line to take a fly, get reeled in and released back to the group. This type of fishing is what we all need following a month or so of not fishing, and it is what I was after on my first outing of the year. It turns out I didn't get enough of it because I went right back to the same pool on Sunday and landed ~12 or so small trout in a half hour before getting bored.

The second way to catch trout during the winter usually results in fewer trout, but sometimes some larger fish. It also requires walking longer distances. For this approach I target smaller waters with some good trout habitat. Instead of looking into the water to actually see fish, I just approach the water the same way I would in the summer-cast to structure, look for surface activity, etc...

After I got bored of casting to fish I could see, I went in search of some smaller water (one additional thing about smaller water with good habitat is the potential for midge hatches). On Sunday, I took a number of fish from riffles and pools on small midge larvae. The fish were noticeably darker than the fish in the pods, reflecting their recent spawning activity. I caught a few fish that were very slender and looking 'spawned out'. This is what I like to see, because finding where fish spawn can lead to finding bigger fish. It didn't on this day.

I experienced my first midge hatch of the year. There was enough surface activity to convince me to re-tie my leader for dry fly fishing-but not enough activity to bring the fish back to the surface after my casting put them all down. Note: this is how I define a 'good' hatch. If fish are so keyed in on surface feeding that they are not permanently put off by my casting, then it is a good hatch. If they spook and don't come back to feeding on the surface, then the hatch really isn't all that important to them.

I got two photos before my battery went dead. I landed one real nice fish (~13 inches) that was dark and spawned out. The rest were in the 10 inch range. There are some bigger fish in this stretch of river and I'll get one. Unless it gets real cold again and I don't fish for a while, I'm not going back to fishing those big pods of fish-there's no mystery to it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Woodpile as of 1-14-2010

I'm halfway through my woodpile as of Jan 14, 2010.

Brent (previous owner) used to burn two rows of wood in a single winter. I had these four rows stacked and ready to go back in October. I burned a little wood in October, some in November, much more in December and early Jan. Although I have plenty of wood for this and next year, I'd like to save the two rows on the left for next year and just burn the rest of the two that I'm already into.

What do you think, at the rate I'm going, how much more wood will I go through?

First outing of 2010

With temperatures rising above freezing for the first time all year (and much longer than that) I did some rearranging of my work schedule and hit the water for the first time in 2010. I got on the water at about 10:00 and the sun was already out, by 11:30 I had already stripped a layer and ditched the gloves. With the sun beating down, it might just as well have been summer.

By noon I stumbled upon a pod of several hundred fish. Note: winter fishing is strange, all the fish pile up in huge slack-water pools where you would never find them any other time of the year. It makes catching fish really easy and boring. I took a number of fish from this first pod, and moved on. I soon found another area with a bunch of fish, but they were more difficult to cast to. After fumbling around there, I doubled back to the spot I was first at. When I got there, two dudes from the MNDNR were standing nuts-deep in the hole where all the fish used to be, great. I spent the rest of the day trudging through knee-deep snow and looking for fish. Next time out, I'll have a handful of spots where fish are likely to be holding-nice to have some options.
One large pod of fish was holding along the bend at the top of the photo.

First trout of 2010. Nothing noteable about it-or any of the other fish I landed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A few memorable moments from 2009

Early spring risers
Fat fall browns


Samuels first fish

Johnny's fat brown

Tiny creeks loaded with small fish

Huge largemouth


I know, just what the world needs, another blog, another useless piece of someone's minds, their activities, their opinions, etc...

This has been a long-time in coming. I was posting too many recreational photos and sciencey stuff on my family blog and finally got the official boot from my wife. Hence from this point forward, our family blog will be for family activities and keeping family and friends up to date on the growth and development of our kids-which is what most folks care about these days anyhow. But here, at this blog, you will find my recreational activities and perhaps my thoughts on different 'things'. Think of this as the 'man-cave' and the family blog as the 'family room'.

Things you can expect to find me blogging about:
1) Flyfishing
2) cutting, splitting, and burning wood
3) home improvement projects
4) philosophy of science
5) Beer
6) Anything else men might discuss in the man cave