All posts by Chris Cocoles

An Upland Bird Bonanza In California

The following is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

The holidays begin early for many California hunters with the Saturday, Nov. 9 openers for pheasant, wild turkey and the second dove season.

Ring-necked Pheasant

The pheasant opener on the second Saturday of November remains a strong tradition for many families. The flush of a wild, cackling, rooster pheasant is one of nature’s most thrilling moments.

The good news is that some of the best pheasant habitat in California is found on state wildlife areas and federal wildlife refuges open to public hunting.

Several CDFW Type A wildlife areas are especially popular with wild pheasant hunters, including Upper Butte Basin, Yolo Bypass, Los Banos, North Grasslands, Grizzly Island and Gray Lodge. These areas are all open to pheasant hunting on their normal Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday waterfowl shoot days during the pheasant season.

In addition, all three units of the Upper Butte Basin Wildlife Area – Little Dry Creek, Howard Slough and Llano Seco – along with Gray Lodge Wildlife Area will be open to a special pheasant hunt the first Monday of the pheasant season – Veterans Day, Nov. 11 – to provide additional hunting opportunities.

Type A wildlife areas in the San Joaquin Valley – Los Banos, Mendota and North Grasslands – will be open for pheasant hunting only on waterfowl hunt days during the pheasant season.

Several federal wildlife refuges are also popular destinations for pheasant hunters, including the Sutter, Colusa, Delevan and Sacramento national wildlife refuges. These refuges are open to pheasant hunting on their normal Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday waterfowl hunt days during pheasant season. Additionally, Colusa, Delevan and Sacramento national wildlife refuges will be open to a special pheasant hunt in their spaced waterfowl blind and assigned pond areas the first Monday of pheasant season.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County will open a portion of its Freitas Unit to pheasant hunting on opening weekend only, Nov. 9 and 10. The spaced blind area within the Kesterson Unit will open for a special one-day wild pheasant hunt on Monday, Nov. 11. Pheasant hunting is permitted in the free roam area of the San Luis Unit on the regular Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday waterfowl shoot days during the duration of the wild pheasant season.

At the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, hunting is not permitted on Sundays. Pheasant hunting at this refuge is available on the free roam waterfowl hunt areas on Saturdays and Wednesdays beginning Nov. 9 and continuing through the duration of pheasant season.

The Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern California are home to some of the most robust wild pheasant populations in the state. They are open daily for pheasant hunting throughout the season.

The 2019 general pheasant season runs from Saturday, Nov. 9 through Sunday, Dec. 22. The daily bag limit is two males per day for the first two days of the season and three males per day thereafter. The possession limit is triple the daily bag limit. Shooting hours are from 8 a.m. to sunset.

Wild Turkey (Fall Season)

The chance to provide a wild turkey for Thanksgiving dinner is strong motivation for many fall turkey hunters. The fall season runs from Saturday, Nov. 9 through Sunday, Dec. 8, and – unlike in the spring season – both males and females may be taken. The daily bag limit is one turkey of either sex with a season and possession limit of two birds.

For the first time, fall turkey hunting will be available to the public at several northern California national wildlife refuges.

Turkey hunters have several new opportunities in 2019 as the Sutter, Sacramento, Delevan and Colusa national wildlife refuges will open to fall turkey hunting for the first time. Turkey hunting will be permitted in the waterfowl free roam and pheasant hunting areas only at the refuges during their normal Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday waterfowl shoot days during the turkey season.

Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.

Second Dove Season

California’s second dove season runs from Saturday, Nov. 9 through Monday, Dec. 23. The second dove season offers cooler weather, fewer crowds and the chance for a mixed bag of species – quail and rabbit, for example – that often share the same habitat.

Limits remain the same as the early season: Mourning dove and white-winged dove have a daily bag limit of 15, up to 10 of which may be white-winged dove. The possession limit is triple the daily bag limit. There are no limits on spotted dove and ringed turtle dove. Hunting for Eurasian collared dove is legal year-round and there is no limit. Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.

In addition to public hunting opportunities available at state wildlife areas and federal wildlife refuges, CDFW offers special hunts at the Upland Game Wild Bird Hunts page and through the SHARE program, which provides public hunting access to private land or other landlocked properties. New hunters should visit CDFW’s Apprentice Hunts webpage for additional pheasant hunting opportunities.

Additional Requirements

Both a valid hunting license and upland game bird validation are needed to hunt pheasant, turkey and dove. An upland game bird validation is not required for junior license holders, but all hunters are required to have a Harvest Information Program (HIP) validation when hunting migratory game birds such as mourning dove and snipe. A wildlife area hunting pass is required for adults to hunt on a Type A state-operated wildlife area and national wildlife refuge. Please check with the individual property for specific details and regulations on each area.

Please note that nonlead shot is now required when taking any wildlife with a firearm anywhere in California. Hunters need to plan accordingly. For more information, please see the CDFW nonlead ammunition webpage.

 

Coalition Sends Letter To Raise Concerns Over Delta Discharges

The following is courtesy of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Association:

San Francisco, Calif. — November 6, 2019 – Today the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations led a coalition of fishing organizations, tribes, and environmental groups in sending a letter to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board condemning plans to extend permitting of the Grasslands Bypass Project (GBP).

After two decades of promises to cease toxic discharges of selenium and other contaminants into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Regional Board are poised to sanction a quarter century of continued toxic discharges into the Delta via the GBP. These discharges frequently exceed numerous water quality criteria. Allowing decades of relaxed standards will impact the entire aquatic food chain, endangered and commercially harvested salmon, migratory birds, recreational fisheries, and communities that rely on the Delta for drinking water.

The GBP commenced operations in 1995 as a two-year program. Its initial federal use agreements have now been extended three times, and the project has been granted numerous waste discharge waivers. All of the permits, environmental reviews, and findings that supported these use agreements were predicated on zero discharge at the end of each agreement’s term: first for 5 years, then 10 more years, and then 10 additional years. All that time—25 years in total—polluted discharge from the GBP confirmed to exceed toxicity thresholds was either entirely exempt from meeting protective water quality standards, or only required to meet relaxed, greatly reduced standards. Furthermore, over that 25-year-period the GBP steadily reduced both its monitoring of polluted discharges and its record of compliance .

The Newsom and Trump Administrations’ non-compliant proposed action comes despite a court ruling at the 9th Circuit earlier this year, which found that commingled stormwater and agricultural discharges are not exempt from the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System.

“Fishermen and coastal communities have been dealing with the mess from upstream polluters for decades. The result is poisoned waterways, fish stocks at a fraction of historic levels, and losses to salmon fishing jobs and California’s own seafood resource,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of PCFFA. “Meaningful solutions for these agricultural discharges are adequate wastewater treatment and implementing the land retirements that have been called for by federal agencies for decades, not continued dumping into public waterways. Governor Newsom has a real opportunity to avoid cementing a toxic legacy for the Delta and California’s fishing communities that rely on clean water by abandoning this course of action.”

A public hearing on the RWQCB’s proposed action will be held on December 5th.

About PCFFA

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is the largest commercial fishermen’s organization on the West Coast, representing 17 local and regional associations from Santa Barbara to Southeast Alaska. As a major commercial fishing industry trade association, PCFFA represents the interests of commercial fishing families who make their living harvesting and delivering high-quality seafood to America’s tables.

Snake Fungal Disease Detected In Amador County California Kingsnake

The following is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has confirmed the state’s first case of Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) in a California kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae) from Plymouth, Amador County. The snake, which was emaciated and suffering from severe skin disease, was found by a member of the public on the side of the road and submitted for rehabilitation to Tri County Wildlife Care. Given its poor prognosis and the potential presence of SFD, the snake was humanely euthanized by CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory and sent to the University of Illinois, where post-mortem examination and testing confirmed it was infected with the Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola fungus that causes SFD. In addition, this week the fungus was detected on the skin and in tissues from a Florida watersnake (Nerodia fasciata pictiventris) found deceased and collected by CDFW from Folsom, Sacramento County, suggesting the original case was not isolated.

SFD is a newly emerging disease in snakes. Cases may be mild to life-threating. Visible signs may include scabs, skin ulcers or nodules, crusted scales, discolored scales, cloudy eyes and a swollen or disfigured face. The infection may cause the upper layer of infected skin to shed repeatedly. Affected snakes are often emaciated, possibly due to decreased ability to capture prey, and often rest in open, unprotected areas where they are exposed to adverse weather and predators.

Florida watersnake with Snake Fungal Disease
Florida Watersnake with Snake Fungal Disease

The Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola fungus lives in soil and can be transmitted to snakes through skin abrasions or through direct contact with other infected snakes. SFD can also be passed from mother to offspring at birth in some species. Snake species that share dens may be at higher risk than solitary species.

First characterized in 2008, SFD has been detected in more than 30 snake species in the U.S. and Europe. The fungus is present in at least 23 states, primarily in eastern states and the Midwest, although in 2018 it was also detected in Idaho and in southern Ontario, Canada. This detection in California is the furthest west the disease has been confirmed.

Although SFD has caused significant mortalities in species of conservation concern, such as the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) and federally threatened Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus), other species may only exhibit mild infections.

It is unknown if SFD will impact snake populations in California. CDFW will be working with wildlife rehabilitators, academic and agency partners, and others who work with snakes to increase surveillance for SFD in California and implement appropriate precautions to minimize risk for human-caused spread among snakes. There is no evidence that SFD is transmittable from snakes to humans.

Although members of the public should avoid directly handling or disturbing snakes, they can assist CDFW’s efforts by reporting sightings of snakes with skin sores or unusual behavior.

As a reminder, releasing any animals that have been in captivity, even temporarily, requires prior written approval by CDFW.

More information on SFD is available at:

Recreational Dungeness Crabbing Opened Today; Commercial Season Delayed South Of Mendocino/Sonoma

The following  press releases are courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

As thousands of recreational anglers await the start of the statewide sport season for Dungeness crab on Saturday, Nov. 2, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is advising anglers not to consume the viscera of crab caught in two coastal areas due to the presence of domoic acid.

In a health advisory issued today, CDPH advises recreational anglers not to consume the viscera (guts) of Dungeness crab caught from Shelter Cove in Humboldt County (40° 01.00? N. Lat.) south to Point Arena in Mendocino County (38° 57.50? N. Lat.) and from Point Reyes in Marin County (38 ° 00.00? N. Lat.) south to Pillar Point in San Mateo County (37° 30.00? N. Lat.).

Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin produced by a naturally occurring marine diatom (algae). Under certain ocean conditions large blooms of these diatoms occur and then accumulate in Dungeness crab. At low levels, domoic acid exposure can cause nausea, diarrhea and dizziness in humans. At higher levels, it can cause persistent short-term memory loss, seizures and death. Please remember to eviscerate any crab caught in these regions prior to cooking. This reduces the risk of domoic acid poisoning. Check the CDPH Domoic Acid webpage for the latest crab test results.

Beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, recreational crabbers are limited to a daily bag and possession limit of 10 crabs that are at least 5 ¾ inches in width as measured by the shortest distance through the body from edge of shell to edge of shell directly in front of and excluding the points (lateral spines).

Dungeness crab may be caught using hoop nets, crab traps, crab loop traps (crab snares) or skin and scuba divers may take them by the use of the hands only.Crab trap buoys must display the owner’s “GO ID” number as assigned by the Automated License Data System and the trap must contain at least one destruct device. Whenusing another person’s trap, written permission, including permission transmitted electronically (i.e. email or text), from the owner of the trap must contain the GO ID number that matches the GO ID on the buoy and must be in the operator’s possession in order to operate the trap.

Minimizing the risk of whale and turtle entanglements remains a top priority of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW). CDFW recently requested the Fish and Game Commission consider regulations to reduce the risk of entanglements in recreational Dungeness crab fishing gear. The Commission’s Marine Resources Committee will discuss and consider possible management recommendations at its meeting on Nov. 5 in Sacramento.

CDFW strongly encourages anglers to follow the Best Fishing Practices Guidedeveloped by the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group. Voluntary actions anglers can employ include keeping the line between the pot and main buoy taught and vertical, reducing the amount of vertical line at the surface, avoiding setting gear in the vicinity of whales and turtles, and marking gear consistent with regulations.

More information:

 

CDFW Director Issues Preliminary Determination to Delay Commercial Dungeness Crab Season South of Mendocino/Sonoma County Line

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton H. Bonham has issued a preliminary determination that the Nov. 15, 2019 start date for the California Dungeness crab fishery south of the Mendocino/Sonoma county line poses a significant risk of marine life entanglement. The anticipated management response is a delay of the opening of the commercial Dungeness crab fishery in that area from Nov. 15 to Nov. 23, 2019.

Under the authority of section 8276.1(c)(1) of the Fish and Game Code, the Director may restrict take of commercial Dungeness crab if there is a significant risk of marine life entanglement due to fishing gear. As required in Fish and Game Code, section 8276.1(c)(4), the Director is providing 48 hours’ notice to the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group and other stakeholders.

“In making this determination, we considered the input of the Working Group and its advisors through a structured decision-making process in which diverse interests were represented including fishing, environmental and management agencies,” said Director Bonham.

Before enacting the proposed management measure, Director Bonham will consider any recommendations or new information provided by 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Anyone with recommendations and information related to this preliminary determination should submit it to whalesafefisheries@wildlife.ca.gov by that deadline.

In addition to this preliminary determination of delay due to a significant risk of whale entanglements, additional delays are possible due to human health risks or poor crab quality. Through the course of the crab season, CDFW will engage regularly with the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group to review scientific information and monitor and adapt to the risk of whale entanglements. Based on that process, CDFW could take future management actions. For more information related to the preliminary determination of delay please visit CDFW’s Whale Safe Fisheries page.

For more information on Dungeness crab, please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/crab.

Youth Essay Contest Winner Can Score A Hunting License For Life

The following is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife: 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the California Wildlife Officers Foundation are again co-sponsoring the annual “Passing on the Tradition” essay contest for young hunters.

The California Wildlife Officers Foundation will recognize one grand-prize winner with a lifetime California hunting license with a bird hunting privilege package valued at up to $1,250. Second and third place winners will also be selected and prize packages will be awarded.

This year’s contest challenges kids to answer the questions, “What can CDFW do to get more people involved in hunting? And what can you do, personally, to get more people involved in hunting?”

CDFW is actively expanding its efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate anglers and hunters in California. These efforts – known as the “R3 program” – are currently a high priority of the department, and the Hunter Education Program in particular. “It will be interesting to read about the R3 ideas these young hunters present in their essays,” said CDFW Hunter Education Program Administrator Capt. Robert Pelzman.

The essay contest is open to all junior hunting license holders, as well as youths under 18 who have earned a hunter education certificate. Essays should be no more than 500 words, double spaced.

Entries should be submitted via email to Capt. Pelzman at robert.pelzman@wildlife.ca.gov by 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13. Along with their essay, entrants must also provide their date of birth, place of residence and a contact telephone number and email address.

Essays will be reviewed and scored by CDFW wildlife officers and other CDFW representatives. The winners will be notified by telephone on or near Dec. 24.

AWARDS CEREMONY: The grand prize will be awarded during a special ceremony at the International Sportsmen’s Exposition (ISE) show scheduled in Sacramento on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, at 11:30 a.m. Contest winners must be present and accompanied by a parent or guardian.

For information on becoming a Hunter Education Instructor to help “Pass on the Tradition” to others, please visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/hunter-education.

Nimbus Fish Hatchery Set To Open For Chinook Viewing On Nov. 4

The following press release is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife: 

The salmon ladder at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova will open Monday, Nov. 4, signaling the start of the spawning season on the American River. California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) hatchery workers will open the gates in the ladder at 10:30 a.m. and will take more than a half-million eggs during the first week alone in an effort to ensure the successful spawning return of fall-run Chinook salmon.

The three major state-run hatcheries in the Central Valley – Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Sacramento County, and hatcheries on the Feather River in Butte County and the Mokelumne River in San Joaquin County – will take approximately 24 million eggs over the next two months to produce Chinook salmon for release next spring.

Each hatchery has a viewing area where visitors can watch the spawning process. The visitors’ center at Nimbus Hatchery includes a playground with replicas of giant salmon. Nimbus Hatchery is open to the public free of charge from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. For more information about spawning schedules and educational opportunities at each hatchery, please visit the CDFW website at www.wildlife.ca.gov/fishing/hatcheries.

There are eight state-run salmon and steelhead hatcheries, all of which will participate in the salmon spawning effort. These spawning efforts were put in place over the past half century to offset fish losses caused by dams that block salmon from historic spawning habitat.

Once the young salmon reach 2 to 4 inches in length, one-quarter of the stock will be marked and implanted with a coded wire tag prior to release. CDFW biologists use the information from the tags to chart their survival, catch and return rates.

‘Save Our Fisheries’ Fundraising Dinner Is This Saturday In Yuba City

 

The Northern California Guides and Sportsmen’s Association is hosting a fundrasing dinner this Saturday, Nov. 2 at the Yuba City Fairgrounds’ Main Hall. Besides the catered dinner there will also be a raffle and silent auction to raise money as part of the NCGSA’s “Save Our Fisheries’ campaign.

For more information and to buy tickets online, click here.  

 

 

Opening Day Approaching For Deep-Water Season In California

The following is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

Ever wanted to catch a widow rockfish? The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is pleased to announce a new recreational fishing opportunity for groundfish north of Point Arena (38° 57.5’ N. lat.) from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 2019.

For two decades, recreational fishing for groundfish species in deep waters off the California coast has been completely off limits, driven by the need to protect certain stocks that have been overfished. This marks the first time anglers off the northern California coast will be allowed to fish for groundfish without needing to abide by fishing depth limit regulations.

The all-depth fishery will take place only in November and December 2019, and only north of Point Arena. The newly open areas will allow anglers to target groundfish species in the midwater column, such as widow and yellowtail rockfish, as well as species found on the bottom. There are no special gear requirements, though unless otherwise specified, regulations require anglers to use not more than two hooks and one line to target groundfish. All other season dates, bag limits, size limits and other special area closures still apply.

“We’re hoping there will be calm weather windows on the north coast, so anglers can get out and try their luck with a different variety of rockfish and other groundfish species that are found in deeper depths these next two months,” said CDFW Federal Fisheries Program Manager Marci Yaremko.

While the all-depth fishery has been proposed since 2017, encounters with yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) in 2017 and 2018 exceeded the federal limit. In-season regulatory action in those years was needed to restrict depth limits in most areas of the state and also prevented the all-depth fishery from occurring. Following the outcome of the most recent yelloweye stock assessment indicating the population is rebuilding much sooner than expected, the federal limit increased in 2019, allowing the all-depth fishery this year.

California’s rugged north coast offers many opportunities to fish for groundfish from vessels. Launch and harbor facilities for private vessels are available from Fort Bragg to Crescent City but may vary by port and time of year. For those wishing to take a fishing trip on a party or charter vessel, there are multiple businesses offering fishing out of Fort Bragg, Shelter Cove, Eureka, Trinidad and Crescent City. An internet search for a specific port and “rockfish fishing” can quickly provide business contact information, scheduling details and cost of trips and gear rentals.

Anglers who take advantage of the deeper depths during November and December may encounter yelloweye rockfish. CDFW continues to recommend anglers avoid fishing in areas where yelloweye rockfish are known to occur. If encountered, yelloweye rockfish should be immediately returned to the water using best fish handling practices, and anglers should use a descending device in order to minimize injury and mortality. CDFW also encourages anglers who encounter yelloweye rockfish to change fishing locations to prevent catch of the species.

For more information regarding groundfish regulations, management and fish identification tools, please visit the CDFW Marine Region Groundfish website.

Dana Wharf Halibut Derby Set For Nov. 1

Photo by Dana Whaf Sportfishing

The following press release is courtesy of Dana Wharf Sportfishing:

12th Annual HALIBUT DERBY Starts Nov 1, 2019!

Two ways to enter:

Halibut Drift Days: Fridays and/or Sundays 7:00am – 4:00pm. Limited load 25 passengers. $69 per person, $5 entry fee included in price. These are specific halibut drift trips that solely target halibut. Final Drift is Sunday, April 5th, 2020. (No discounts of any kinds accepted on drift trips.)

Enter on any open party 1/2 or 3/4 day trip! Cost is $5 and will be taken at time of check-in. Entry must be paid before boat departs. An entry is only valid for the day it is purchased. To enter on a different day, an additional entry ticket must be purchased. (Charters not allowed in Derby.)

Click here for more information.

 

 

From The Urban Jungle Of L.A. To The Alaskan Wilderness

One of Tom Walker’s shots in Alaska. He’s now spent over 50 years there after growing up loving the outdoors in Los Angeles. (TOM WALKER)

The following appears in the October issue of California Sportsman:

“I’d pined for a home like this my entire youth, visions of a life lived close to nature and wildlife,” author Tom Walker writes in his new book about, as part of its title suggests, “A Photographer’s Life in Alaska.” Walker grew up in Los Angeles, and in his urban youth some of his best days were spent trout fishing with his dad in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Range. Having lived more than half a century living adjacent to Denali National Park, Walker found a connection with the Last Frontier’s fauna he’s captured with a camera over years of interactions with everything from bears to salmon. 

The following is excerpted with permission from Wild Shots: A Photographer’s Life in Alaska (Mountaineers Books, September 2019) by Tom Walker. This excerpt has been edited for length.

By Tom Walker 

Once, I dreamed of a life at sea, on a sailboat or an island, wearing little or nothing at all. I had visions of crystal water, endless sunshine, lush ports of call and Polynesian beauties, fantasy nights cooled by tropical breezes. Memories of these teenage dreams always bring to mind one question: How the hell did I end up spending more than 50 years in Alaska?

I grew up in Los Angeles, smothered by smog, assaulted by heat and ceaseless traffic. The one great wilderness known to me as a boy, the sea, stretched west to far horizons, with distant sails hinting at mystery and adventure.

Reading The Sea-WolfComing of Age in Samoa, and Mutiny on the Bounty fired my desire to be somewhere with pristine air and water and unspoiled environment. Places where wildlife – whales, porpoises, sea turtles, and albatrosses – flourished and a person could forage for food from sea and shore. Places where living meant more than a nine-to-five grind. Seeking cool offshore winds, I explored coastal tide pools and watched pastel sunsets, lured by the siren’s song of the distant unknown.

The urban landscape, the tracts of identical houses, the importance placed on glitzy cars and fashion repelled me, a child raised by parents who’d passed on their simple Midwestern values. My grandfather was an alcoholic, a mean drunk, who took his son, my father, out of the third grade to work in a coal mine. They migrated to California in the 1920s building boom to cash in on the need for labor.

My mother was 40 when I was born in 1945, my father 43, a construction worker, and neither had the inclination to guide me through the shoals of adolescence. We were poor, limited by my father’s education, living on the edge of an affluent suburb that was home to Hollywood stars like John Wayne.

Unable to blend in with others my age, who mostly enjoyed material advantages, I sought escape in wandering along the coast and among the chaparral hillsides. Studying the journals of Lewis and Clark, I became convinced I had been born in the wrong century.

The aurora borealis lights up Walker’s cabin. (TOM WALKER)

EACH SUMMER MY FAMILY went camping at Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern High Sierra. Trout fishing was my dad’s cherished pastime. Twice a year, beginning when I was 2 years old, my father, mother, older brother and I made the long drive north on Highway 395 to campgrounds in the Sierra. When old enough, I dutifully flogged the water of lakes and streams, mostly without luck, all the while my eyes fixed on the distant granite spires, longing to know what stretched beyond.

Closer to home, the Santa Monica Mountains, which we simply called “the hills,” separated Los Angeles proper from the San Fernando Valley. Alone, or with [friend] Jim [Voges], I explored the rocky drainages and chaparral thickets, finding caves, a few adobe ruins of unknown origin, and one or two oases of springwater that attracted all sorts of wildlife. Today the area is part of a national recreation area, but then it was largely unprotected and threatened by development.

My first few encounters with coyotes and deer in the hills left indelible impressions – each sighting a moment of excitement in an otherwise sterile urban setting. More than one neighbor warned me that the hills were “rattlesnake infested” and to stay out. A popular horror story at that time was about a toddler bitten six times as she lifted a rattler into the air while yelling, “Look, Dad, what I found.”

With each telling the number of strikes increased, eventually to 12. By then, I had spent innumerable hours in the hills looking or snakes, trying to capture them, rarely with luck. Jim caught several Pacific rattlesnakes, which he brought home and kept in an aquarium in his room – including one specimen measuring 5½ feet – then, the biggest on record. Most of the time our snake-catching expeditions came up empty, except for loads of blood-sucking ticks.

A surprising variety of wildlife abounded in the chaparral: gray foxes, mule deer, raccoons, striped and spotted skunks, bobcats, badgers, and lots of coyotes. California quail, horned owls, phainopepla, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, and kestrels were common bird species. Most people living in tract homes near the edge of the chaparral had heard the yodeling of coyotes or had a deer or snake wander out of the brush and into their yards. Those animals were just a hint of what lived nearby.

Other, rarer critters lived there too, including ringtail cats and possums. In the summer of 1961, Jim captured a coati mundi, an animal far from its native range, and brought it home in a cage before releasing it a few days later. Twice we came upon the huge pugmarks of a mountain lion pressed into the canyon sand, one touch hot enough to burn the imagination. But we never saw one.

Just to the north of the valley, in the Sespe Wilderness, I saw some of the last truly wild California condors. Once while hiking I rounded a bend in the trail and surprised a condor feeding on a deer carcass. Its wingtip seemed to graze me in its panicked escape … and such a wingspan, almost 10 feet!

In junior college, I gave a presentation on the desperate efforts to save the last California condors, and was stunned when a student expressed a fear of such a “giant ugly bird” and two others muttered, “Who cares?” The comments saddened me, and I learned that most people held little concern for wildlife. (With certain extinction facing the species, in 1987, scientists captured the last 27 remaining condors for a controversial captive breeding program. Today over 500 condors fly free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja.)

In one remote canyon in the hills, a friend and I found a sandstone cave, 20 feet high at the mouth and tapering into darkness, but the dry buzz of a rattlesnake echoing from the shadows sent us packing. The next day we returned with flashlights, a gunnysack and a crude snake stick. Searching to the narrow back of the cave, we saw only tracks and trails in the sand, no snakes or mammals.

Halfway in, our lights fell on short, deep, parallel grooves cut into the wall, some over seven feet off the ground. My friend said they looked identical to the scratchings of a bear that he’d seen on a tree in Yosemite. My splayed fingers barely spanned the scrapes. “Too big for a black bear,” my friend said. In the dim light we stared wide-eyed, both thinking, grizzly.

A Katmai National Park brown bear gets a salmon treat. (TOM WALKER)

GRIZZLY BEARS HAD BEEN extinct in California since 1924, but we believed we’d found a relic of the past. We’d learned in school that grizzlies were once common, and the state flag predated statehood for the golden bear republic. Early vaqueros, we were told, roped bears for sport and staged fights between bears and bulls. Like elsewhere, the great bear fell to westward expansion, gone the way of the wolf. I still cling to the notion that we found the claw marks of a grizzly in that cave.

Grizzlies and wolves seemed to be lost treasures of North America’s marvelous megafauna and gone for good from California. In a stunning turn, in 2011, a radio-collared wolf – designated OR-7, nicknamed “Journey” – wandered into Northern California after an epic 1,000-mile trek, the first of its kind since 1924.

The Yellowstone wolf recovery project had succeeded beyond any expectations, with the canids spreading across the west. OR-7’s arrival in California was greeted with the mix of delight and loathing that the species provokes everywhere. In 2015, researchers released photos of the Shasta Pack, the first wolf family group in California in a century.

No one believed me when I described the things I saw in my wanderings. My interest in photography was born of a need for evidence – as proof of the bucks I stalked, the snakes we caught, and the raccoons that peered down at us from live oaks. Whenever I got the usual “Right. Sure thing, kid,” I’d pull out a stack of prints and point. It would be years before I could afford a good camera, but even those grainy snapshots were invaluable treasures.

Tom Walker in Wood River, Alaska. (TOM WALKER)

FROM MY SCIENCE TEACHERS and my own readings, I had formed a clear image of early California. Two hundred years ago Southern California was a compelling natural landscape, home to wildlife as diverse as elephant seals and grizzly bears. You could look one way at snowcapped peaks, look the opposite way and see surf pounding rocky coastlines, where the warm desert winds were cooled by sea breezes. With a temperate, almost Mediterranean climate, the soil, when irrigated, would grow just about anything – cotton to cantaloupes.

As I was growing up in the 1950s and early ’60s, the building boom that had begun in the 1920s was roaring full tilt. Bulldozers turned chaparral-covered hillsides into terraces for tract homes, developing a sprawling metropolis of concrete, steel, and asphalt spiderwebbed with new freeways.

In the era before the federal mandates of the Clean Air Act of 1970, smog often rendered the summer air unfit to breathe. The ugly brown haze seared our eyes and lungs. With the temperature frequently above 90 degrees, summer conditions were usually intolerable, the only escape the beach or the distant Sierra. The frequency of bulldozers knocking over live oaks and manzanita, scraping the land flat and bare, disgusted me. There seemed to be no hope for the natural landscape that I had fallen in love with.

On my last visit to LA, in the wake of my mother’s death, in need of solitude and an escape from grief, I drove into the hills to my most treasured sanctuary, a perennial stream we called Stunt Creek. Fearful of what I’d find, I almost didn’t go. In high school I’d spent hours on the creek looking for owls and quail, lizards, king snakes, and salamanders, the summer heat cooled and freshened by the dense vegetation.

Turning onto Cold Creek Road, my heart fell, my worst nightmare confirmed. Terraces of California ranch-style houses, with typical red-tile roofs, crept up the hillside – the chaparral, sumac, chamise, and scrub oaks bulldozed away. I slowed almost to a crawl as I rounded the last bends to where the creek crossed the narrow road.

Negotiating the last curve, I was confounded – the slopes on both sides of the drainage were untouched, dense chaparral and live oaks choking the lower riparian zone. I parked in a pullout opposite a padlocked chain-link fence that spanned the canyon mouth. The sign on the gate, across our old foot trail, read:

NO TRESPASSING

MANAGED BY THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS CONSERVANCY. THIS PROPERTY PROTECTS THE COLD CREEK WATERSHED, PERHAPS THE BEST PRESERVED AND MOST BIOLOGICALLY DIVERSE WATERSHED AREA WITHIN THE SANTA MONICA MOUNTAINS.

Out of relief that this treasure had been spared, on top of my grief from my mother’s death, I cried. CS

Editor’s note: For more on Tom Walker’s book Wild Shots: A Photographer’s Life in Alaska and how to order a copy, go to mountaineers.org/books/books/wild-shots-a-photographers-life-in-alaska. The book is also available on several retail online outlets, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. 

Tom Walker found his purpose in Alaska.

 

Q&A WITH AUTHOR TOM WALKER

California Sportsman editor Chris Cocoles caught up with Wild Shots author and photographer Tom Walker to learn more about his California roots, love of wildlife photography and experiences in Alaska.

Chris Cocoles Congratulations on this latest book. It’s fantastic. Was Wild Shots maybe more sentimental for you than some of your previous work?

Tom Walker I would not say sentimental at all. Maybe reflective would be a better term. At this point in my life, my goal was to record what I think were some fairly unique incidents and insights. Previous works have been how-to, biographies and natural histories, with this work in the latter category.

CC You’ve been in Alaska for 50 years now. What was your early experience like in the Last Frontier?

TW Fifty-four years now. In a word, the experience was invigorating. With so much new and so much of intense interest, I could not soak it all in. Wishing for a few years, I had a must-do list of places to see and experience. The list is longer today.

CC I’m pretty envious of you that Denali National Park is almost your backyard. What’s that been like for you?

TW Heartbreaking. To love some terrain so much and see it change so much in a negative way, it has been difficult. Climate change is very real and to watch the effects on the wildlife and plants that have evolved over millennia is difficult. Here in the Far North, the concept is not abstract but a real ongoing process that people who look to nature can readily see and experience.

CC Tell me about growing up around Los Angeles and how the outdoors shaped your life.

TW The outdoors was salvation. I think some people are just cast into places they are not geared for or supposed to be. At heart I was a country boy and living in the city was for me the proverbial square peg. Once I could wander freely into undeveloped spaces, deserts, shores, and mountains, did I find a measure of peace.

CC You write about your dad’s love of trout fishing and the trips you took in your California days. Can you share a memory of fishing with your dad?

TW Hiking to an alpine lake with my dad, just he and I, to fish for golden trout was a memorable trip complete with a close look at two big mule deer bucks. Fishing a shoreline of a crystalline lake with no one else around was a peerless memory.

CC What’s the biggest challenge about photographing wildlife?

TW Not drowning, dying of hypothermia, falling off a cliff, or crashing in a small plane. The wildlife, if you have studied your critters, poses the least risk. Alaska – and it’s true of northern Canada as well – is difficult country with challenges of weather and remoteness.

CC Do you have a favorite species of animal that you’ve really savored interacting with and taking photos of?

TW Dall sheep. I love the high mountains where they live, the vista they savor every day, and their ability to thrive in such inhospitable (to humans) terrain. Imagine living where the wind shrieks, the thermometer drops to minus 60 or more, and the night can be 24 hours long in winter. They are tough but gorgeous creatures.

CC What has been your fishing experience like since moving to Alaska?

TW Mostly salmon in both saltwater and fresh. Silver salmon and red salmon offer great freshwater fishing. The best sportfishing has been for sheefish, the so-called “tarpon of the north,” which are great fighters and wonderful eating. It may be my weird thinking, but I never fish for king salmon. I worked on a rehab project for this species and don’t want to kill one.

CC You have a chapter about polarizing grizzly bear personality Timothy Treadwell and the relationship you had with him. Can you sum up what his legacy will be?

TW He did more harm than good. He had a true gift in reaching out to children and giving a conservation lesson. But in the end, when he died it was all undone.

CC Obviously, hunting is such a huge part of the fabric of Alaskans. What’s your take on hunting in the state and how it can be better or more effective in terms of conservation?

TW All I will say on this topic is Alaskan wildlife resources are finite and there will never be enough to meet the demand. Overharvest has been a problem in the past and as the population grows, careful management will be needed to guard against future depletions.

CC In terms of climate change, California suffered through an extended drought and though the state did see a huge improvement of rainfall in the last couple years, so many wildfires and mudslides have affected communities seemingly everywhere in the state. What will it take to convince more skeptics that climate change is a legitimate concern?

TW Can’t really answer that, except to say the issue is so political that some people will never see the light until Des Moines is a coastal city.

CC Salmon in both Alaska and California are under siege for various reasons. Do you have a hunch on what might happen to these remarkable fish in the future?

TW Again, beyond my expertise. (But) here (in Alaska) we have a proposed Pebble Mine that will threaten the greatest wild salmon runs in the world. Imaging risking a pristine food source that feeds thousands, if not tens of thousands of people, for copper. Crazy.

CC You’ve seen a lot in the wilderness in your time exploring. Is there something you haven’t seen that you hope to accomplish someday?

TW Anything to do with wolverines. I have seen about a dozen but would like a closer, longer observation. It’s perhaps our least understood critter.

CS You also touched on the extinction of grizzly bears in California and also about the wolves that have found their way into Northern California. As a conservationist, is it kind of bittersweet and ironic now that the grizzly bear is literally a symbol for California but nowhere to be found?

TW Very much so. Perhaps it is pie in the sky to believe a potentially dangerous animal can coexist in an area so densely populated, but education is the key along with a forbearance by the public. Bears have proven to be way more tolerant of people than vice versa. CS