Archive for April, 2013

  • Blog
  • April 18th, 2013

Killer Fish

By Joel M. Vance

A beautiful resource

A beautiful resource


It’s those damn fish again!  Causing flooding, destroying levees, making the Missouri River unsafe for barge traffic.

According to a quartet of Missouri Republican Congresspeople, the periodic problems of the river are the direct result of protecting endangered species, like the pallid sturgeon.  Consequently Rep. Sam Graves and three buddies have introduced a bill that would eliminate fish and wildlife concerns from the Corps of Engineers management of the river.

That’s the kind of thinking, if you can dignify it by calling it “thinking”, that has Congress with an approval rating somewhere near zero.  “The Corps should not have to waste precious resources on building wildlife habitats,” Graves said.  He is right on one point when he said the Corps is not suited for wildlife work—the Corps and its various projects have been about as friendly to wildlife as a cat is to a cornered mouse.

Graves and his band of environmental brigands maintain that the Corps should concentrate on navigation and flood control and forget about wildlife—the bill would, he maintains, reduce flooding.  Hark back to 1951 when a flood of epic proportions flooded the Missouri and caused huge damage—all before anyone thought of fish and wildlife enhancement and before the Corps was tasked with helping undo the damage they were inflicting on the Missouri River.

It stands to reason (a concept that eludes the Republican quartet) that if you narrow a river it forces a given amount of water into a constricted channel, increasing the force of the water and setting the table for overtopping the levees you have to build to hold the water in so you can float barges without worrying about low water.

A series of dams on the upper Missouri theoretically provide water storage to allow a measured downstream flow.  Except when, as happened in 2011, there is a huge snowpack melting into those reservoirs, coupled with heavy rains.  Then the Corps has the option of watching its dams wash out or releasing a tidal wave of water to do exactly what happened—overtop levees and cause flood damage.  In other words, the operation was a success but the patient died.

Graves was joined in his idiot bill by Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer, Vicki Hartzler and Billy Long.  Hartzler, among my least favorite legislators, said this: “While preserving wildlife habitat is important, we cannot allow these narrow interests to take precedence over the lives and activities of farmers, businesses and residents on or near the river.”

So if you discount fish and wildlife habitat as a concern, all will be well with those who choose to live and farm in a flood plain.  That’s just simple-minded.  All the Corps work of 100 years, which was mainly to benefit a barge industry (speaking of narrow interests) which never has come close to paying for itself, did absolutely nothing to prevent huge floods in 1993 and 1995.  Those bluff to bluff floods drove many landowners out of the bottoms and as a result the federal and state governments acquired (from willing sellers) the nucleus of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge and several state conservation areas.

A flood is at its least damaging when it is allowed to spread out, softly and without the scouring firehose effect of a channelized river.  Levees are a stopgap measure, as the Corps found on the Mississippi River in 2011 when it had to breach a southeast Missouri levee at Birds Point and another at New Madrid.  The blown levee flooded some 200 square miles of Missouri bottomland and did help mitigate the flood.

But it also made the point that man’s intrusion into nature inevitably gets squashed by a far greater power.  All the bulldozers and dredges and implements of the river manipulators pale when nature decides to declare a flood.

As Gomer Pyle would say, Su’prise! Su’prise!”  Sam Graves has the dishonor to be one of Congress’s Dirty Dozen, selected by the League of Conservation Voters.   He has voted against everything even remotely connected with conservation and the environment.  The highest percentage he’s ever gotten for favorable environ

mental votes was 10 percent.  Last year it was three percent.

Hartzler is taking time out from gay bashing to help her buddy bash some endangered species, but she’s a virtual tree hugger compared to Graves, with a 10 percent LCV rating.  Aside from her anti-fish stand, she thinks hate crimes are part of an “extreme agenda items of the gay movement.”  Yes and those damn fruits are all fish lovers too.  How people like this can claim the Golden Rule as a guidepost and

Duck hunting on the Missouri River

Duck hunting on the Missouri River

be so hateful is beyond me.

Lutkemeyer has a seven percent rating from the LCV, and is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Big Oil (along with his fellow Missouri Republican Roy Blunt).   Project Vote Smart, a group that tries to pin down candidates on issues so voters can make intelligent choices, says this: “Blaine Luetkemeyer refused to tell citizens where he stands on any of the issues addressed in the 2012 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart, national media, and prominent political leaders.”

But by golly he finally is taking a stand.  He’s opposed to those goddam fish!  Way to go, Blaine!

And then there’s Billy Long, the last member of the quartet (if they were a barbershop quartet, they’d be singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But Our Own”).  Apparently he’s shooting for Graves’s dismal LCV overall rating.  He’s at three percent equivalent to Graves’s three percent.  Got a ways to go, though—Blunt is only two percent and thus can claim credit as Missouri’s most Neanderthal environmental legislator—for the time being.

I’m ashamed to be from a beautiful, diverse state with the nation’s best, most progressive conservation program that consistently elects shambling knuckledraggers like this quartet of thumb-suckers.  We did get rid of Todd Akin, but only because he insulted enough women to insure defeat.  But we elect a woman like Hartzler who must be taking regressive lessons from Akin.

Overlooking the Missouri River

Overlooking the Missouri River

The Missouri River in its namesake state is a priceless resource, not the least of which is its recreation, wildlife and environmental value.  The idea that the Missouri is vital for transportation of farm goods is a fiction.  Missouri River barges carry an average of 1.5 million tons of goods, compared to nearly 100 million tons on the Mississippi River.  The Missouri ships less than two percent of the grain from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.  And according to the Corps itself, the Missouri provides annual economic benefits of less than $10 million for farm interests, compared to $1.3 billion from other sources, including recreation (of course you can legitimately argue that the Corps, when it lacks provable data, simply makes it up).

.             Aside from the river itself, a fine canoe float when the water is low, there is associated business associated with recreation along the river.  The Katy Trail parallels the River for much of its length, and there is a string of wineries that attract many tourists.  Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is unique in the state for using wastewater from Columbia to flood its wetlands, benefiting ducks, hunters, Columbia and the River.  The idea is nationally-recognized.

Another idea that could be recognized as intelligent would be to maximize and encourage recreation and tourism on the Big Muddy instead of discouraging it in favor of special and destructive interests.

But that would take intelligent legislators.  Don’t hold your breath.


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  • Blog
  • April 10th, 2013

River of No Return

By Joel M. Vance

It rests today, a rusting hulk moored adjacent to the dam that created its reason for being.  The Larry Don, one time equipment barge that hauled the materials that built Bagnell Dam which, in turn, backed up the Osage River and made Lake of the Ozarks, a place for the Larry Don to float.

Begun in 1929, finished in 1931, the 55,000-acre mid-Missouri lake is the creation of an electric company, today AmerenUE.  After the dam closed and waves began to lap the 1,150 mile shoreline of what had been Missouri’s third largest river (after the Missouri and Mississppi), the Larry Don assumed a clever disguise.  Instead of a squat and ugly old clunker of a watercraft, it transformed into the Lake’s most famous moonlight cruise ship, home to countless romantic trysts and frequent proposals of marriage, including mine—one that resulted in a union nearing 60 years now.  We opted to marry in a Presbyterian church, but many couples linked on the Larry Don.

Heyday of the Larry Don, the 1950s


The Larry Don (named for the son and brother of the original owner) was fairly new as a cruise ship in 1956 when Marty and I, moony-eyed (and I hope not listening to Fats Domino sing “Ain’t That A Shame”) pledged our troth.  The Larry Don began as a love boat in 1948 after a checkered past.  It began life as a landing craft in World War Two, ferrying invasion troops to destinations that didn’t include matrimony.  Over the years it has undergone cosmetic rehabilitation, including addition of superstructure which increased passenger capacity to 200.

The venerable boat is a symbol of what happened to the Osage River, the subject of a new, fascinating and wonderfully-done book by Leland and Crystal Payton of Springfield.  Titled “Damming the Osage,” it is a first-class recital of the river’s history and the story of the two dams that swallowed most of it.

The 304-page book (Lens and Pen Press, 4067 So. Franklin, Springfield 65807 $35) is the ultimate story of the state’s third largest river after the Mississippi and Missouri and is a must for anyone who ever has visited or fished on the Osage, including Lake of the Ozarks, Truman, Stockton and Pomme de Terre lakes, all once part of the Osage or its tributaries.  Web site is  Crystal Payton says, “We sell the book for $30 with postage paid. That’s $5 off retail. It’s also available, on and at Barnes & Noble.”

A rusting hulk today

Today the Osage River for much of its lower length is the creation of dams, hosting both the first and the last of the big dams on Missouri streams.  The  Lake of the Ozarks depends to some extent on how much water comes downstream from Truman Dam and the Osage from Bagnell Dam to its junction with the Missouri is entirely dependent on how much water Bagnell lets it have.  Those releases also have been responsible for some of the largest fish kills in Missouri history, not to mention downstream flooding (a strange anomaly for a flood control dam).

In 2002, just one of a number of fish kills below the two dams, some 43,000 fish died below Bagnell, costing an estimated $3.2 million.  Many of the fish were trophy sized paddlefish, killed by turbulence from the huge power-generating turbines.  More than 4,000 large paddlefish died, essentially battered to death by the dam’s release.

In 1978, released water from Truman Dam created a “supersaturation” problem of nitrogen in the water below the spillway.  Nitrogen bubbles in a fish (or human) create a lethal situation which, in that case, killed a half-million fish, the largest fish kill in Missouri history.

Below Bagnell--fishing and fish kills

In addition to fish kills, the river below the dams has suffered erosion and flooding from heavy releases, and the stretch that now is Truman Lake once was hosted the only known spawning areas for paddlefish.  Subsequently, the Conservation Department developed a method of artificially spawning paddlefish and that has helped mitigate the loss of natural spawning, but it still is no substitute for the real thing.

The Osage once was 500 miles long from its source in Kansas as the combined Marais des Cygnes, Marmaton and Little Osage rivers, but the two lakes have truncated “river” to the roughly 60 miles above Truman Lake and 80 miles below Bagnell Dam.  The stretch from Truman Dam to the headwaters of Lake Ozark is technically river, but really a slow-moving lake.

I worked at the Conservation Department through the controversy surrounding the damming of the Osage beginning in 1964 after years of controversy and it was not a pleasant time.  The Department and the Conservation Commission had to listen to the concerns of those opposed to dams, scenic rivers, rivers in general, lakes as well as from those who stood to profit from dams, scenic rivers and lakes—including Harry Mills, an insurance man from Clinton who also happened to be a Conservation Commissioner.  When the Missouri Chapter of the American Fisheries Society came out in opposition to the dam because it threatened the state’s unique paddlefishery, Mills threatened to fire employees who belonged to the AFS (and who were potential witnesses in suits against the dam).

That included paddlefish biologists Tom Russell and Kim Graham who pioneered research into the Osage paddlefish, the largest population in the country and second only to China’s Yangtze River in the world.  Paddlefish became the centerpiece of the fight.   It wouldn’t be the last time the odd-looking trophy fish would bring attention to the Osage—problems both with Truman and Bagnell dams would kill large numbers of paddlefish in succeeding years, another black mark against the idea of dams.

The root of the problem--the paddlefish

My boss Jim Keefe said that when the occasional Conservation Commissioner came onto the Commission with an agenda (and Mills certainly had one), the other three Commissioners would educate him or her in the tradition of Missouri’s non-partisan and independent agency and the agenda would fade.  It happened with Mills, who also heard from director Carl Noren about the probable consequences of trying to fire Department employees without cause.  He backed off.

The Paytons cover the years of controversy surrounding Truman Dam in great detail, but that sorry episode in the long history of the Osage is merely a facet of the river’s intriguing history, from the first Native American residents to today’s bass boat anglers.  Zebulon Pike traveled up the Osage en route West, as did many other early explorers.  German immigrants wrote home about the beauty of the watershed and encouraged others to come, which they did.

There was an early dam on the Osage at Osceola which created a small lake, but the Truman project swallowed it.  Bagnell Dam, built in 1929, created Lake of the Ozarks, today’s darling for crappie and bass anglers.  The Lake has 1,300 miles of shoreline and 55,000 acres of surface water.  The AmerenUE power generating project couldn’t happen now and didn’t happen then without controversy.  It flooded Ha Ha Tonka lake, a trout fishing area at an historic resort, and spawned a lawsuit.  That was but one of many controversies surrounding the lake and the Paytons again cover that project in great detail.

I’ve fished on the lower Osage below Bagnell Dam and snagged an 80-pound paddlefish above the Lake.  My parents-in-law honeymooned at Ha Ha Tonka before Lake of the Ozarks, and I proposed on a cruise on the Lake.  I’ve duck hunted at the Department’s Schell-Osage area above Truman Lake and I canoed the Pomme de Terre River before a dam on that Osage tributary flooded 7,820 acres.  The Osage River and its alterations thread through my life.

I landed an 80-pounder

Major dam building in Missouri likely is ended.  Meramec Dam was shot down in mid-flight and Pattonville never got airborne.  The proposed Jacks Fork Dam raised such a howl of protest that it died in the political womb.  Even massive floods in 1993, 1995 and 2011 haven’t created the usual outcry for “flood control” projects which, over the years, have created more problems than they solved.

The Paytons’ Osage book is a triumph of research and reporting.  I don’t get gushy about books very often, but this one is a doozie.  It’s fascinating to the history buff, to the lake angler, to anyone who ever fished the remaining Osage, to paddlefish anglers and basically to anyone who enjoys reading and likes to be entertained and informed.



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  • Blog
  • April 2nd, 2013

Time Out

By Joel M. Vance

My Aunt Vic gave me a Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch as a college graduation present.  Armed with a diploma and a Rolex I expected to bulldoze into the social circles where surnames are followed by academic designations and all wrists are branded by Rolex watchbands.

My eyes, a charming bright blue, have been likened to Paul Newman’s famous orbs (although the rest of me is closer to Alfred E. Neuman).  That was one link between me and Mr. Newman; the other that he was a fan of Rolex watches and wore one when he drove his race car in competition.  I wore mine when I drove my Hillman Minx to work.  James Bond also wore a Rolex in Ian Fleming’s spy novels, as did Sean Connery when he played the famous 007 in the movies.  We both have thinning hair and a Rolex and that ends the similarities between me and Sean Connery.

My Rolex was a status symbol far advanced from a bachelor’s in journalism and was the only status symbol I owned.  I did not have a Cadillac or a membership in the country club.  I owned no stocks or bonds.  My starting newspaper salary was $65 a week, nothing extra for overtime.  My savings account consisted of a slowly-maturing $50 War Bond, bought by my parents when I was a toddler.

But I had a Rolex Oyster Perpetual and it guaranteed I would know what time to show up for work and what time to quit.  It functioned as elegant starting blocks in the race of life, a sprint to where I would activate its self-winding mechanism through vigorous clipping of bond coupons.

And then it died.  It just quit running.

My Webster Collegiate dictionary, a relic of college, along with my degree and my Oyster Perpetual, defines “perpetual” as “Lasting or enduring forever.”  Apparently Rolex’s definition varies from Webster’s because, about 30 years into the life of the Perpetual it died in the tradition of T.S. Eliot: “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

I quoted this to a watch repair man, showing him the stilled second hand.  “It whimpered when it quit?” he asked in astonishment.

“No…that’s a literary allusion…nevermind,” I said.  “Can you fix it?”

He quarantined it for several days and then told me that he couldn’t get parts for it anymore, that Rolex did not make them for a watch not even 50 years old.  “You mean that a perpetual watch is obsolete in less than half a century?” I said.  “That’s not my idea of perpetual.”

He shrugged and said, “I’ve got some really good watches for $100.  Run on batteries.”  The Rolex went back into its original case in a drawer with old pocketknives, my passport, decorative belt buckles and lint-covered breath mints.  There it languished for a decade while the $100 watch marked time with nary a missed second.

How can a watch be “perpetual” unless it has been running at least since the time of the Pharaohs?  And I haven’t seen any hieroglyphs of Tutankhamen sporting a wristwatch.

The Rolex company is just over 100 years old.  The corporation was founded in 1905, a toddler among timepieces.  Rolex actually is English, not Swiss, in origin, although today its world headquarters is in Switzerland.  One story about the origin of the name is that founder Hans Wilsdorf thought that “rolex” is the sound a watch makes when it’s being wound.  Mine, of course, made a tiny whimper.

A Rolex watch has been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and to the top of Mt. Everest.  Mine never went higher than the highest spot in Missouri, Taum Sauk Mountain (1,772 feet) or deeper than six inches in a trout stream when I stepped on a condemned slippery rock, did an acrobatic pratfall that would have gained the envy of Buster Keaton, and the watch flew off my wrist and plopped into the shallows.

In 1927 Mercedes Gleitze was the first English woman to swim the English channel and she did it with a Rolex Oyster watch tied around her neck.  Although she nearly died of exposure, the watch was in perfect shape after 10 hours submerged.  Chances are then my watch’s short dip in Roaring River Creek was not what caused its fatal illness.

Watch doctors varied in their opinions as to what malady afflicted it.  One watchmaker took it apart and said the self-winding mechanism was worn out.  Self-winding is an invention from 1923 (introduced in 1931 on a Rolex).  A tiny balance wheel swings back and forth with the motion of the wearer’s arm and powers gears and other mysterious stuff that winds the mainspring.

I suspect that if I were operating a jackhammer 15 hours a day it might stress the self-winder into exhaustion, but I’m just your average couch potato, occasionally raising my arm to grab a Bud or another nachos.  My winder should last a thousand years (actually, being “perpetual,” it should last forever—just ask Mr. Webster).

I was reminded of the old Timex watch commercials on black-and-white television that bragged the cheap watch with the Rolex sound-alike name would “Take a licking and keep on ticking.”  The Rolex motto is “The masterpiece of watch craftsmanship.”  Nothing about licking or ticking.

Years passed and my Rolex moldered among the detritus of my life, a pearl among swine, albeit a pearl that told the right time only twice each 24 hours.  I ran across it while searching out my fifth grade report card and decided to beard the horological lion in its den.  I called the New York Rolex headquarters and spoke with a gentleman whose accent reflected advanced educational institutions where the annual tuition equaled what I spent in four years at the University of Missouri and who doubtless spent more on one sneaker than the cost of everything in my closet.

He told me that Rolex did not make parts for that watch anymore but I was too intimidated by his smarmy accent to ask why in the hell a watch with “perpetual” in its name would be outdated in half a century. He gave me instructions on mailing the watch to them in a tone that resembled the way one speaks to children who can’t quite grasp long division, a mixture of pity and resignation.

The estimate allowed that Rolex possibly could make my watch functional again though it never would keep Rolex time and who knows how long the duct tape and Elmer’s glue would hold?  Cost?  About $1,000.

That would have bought 10 of the watches I’d bought to replace the defunct Rolex, but I didn’t bring that up—had he known I’d defaced my wrist with a $100 watch he probably would have hung up on me.

The watch went back among the rusty pocketknives for several more years and then I read an article about a rural watchmaker who specializes in Rolex repair.  He is in the tradition of shade tree mechanics who are open a couple of days a week if they feel like it, but who could turn a 1923 John Deere tractor into a competitive NASCAR vehicle.

I explained my plight and said Rolex wanted $1,000 to maybe fix my watch.

“They want you to buy a new watch,” said the little watchmaker, who I think was named Geppetto, although I may be confusing him with another craftsman.

“Yeah, right after I buy the surplus aircraft carrier and renovate it as a luxury liner,” I replied with heavy sarcasm that flew past him like a Nolan Ryan hummer.

But I was paying him to fix watches, not to appreciate subtle humor and after I sent him the watch and a few dollars he returned it running with James Bondian éclat.  I’m practicing my Paul Newman chuckle

Meanwhile the refurbished Rolex ticks on…running fast about two minutes a day.  Perhaps it is trying to make up the lost years.

Afterword: The damn thing quit again after a few months and as far as I’m concerned it now is an antique, appreciating in collector value for an eventual sale if someone offers me a few bucks for it, but as a timepiece it is as useless as the proverbial tits on a boar hog.


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