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White Trash

By Joe Hyde, Lawrence, KS

One of nature's worst cruelties can be inflicted on people who go into retirement during springtime. A retiring person assumes that as the weather gradually warms the earth, moon, sun and planets will move into perfect alignment and the fish will begin biting like crazy. Begin biting at the perfect time, too; namely, on weekdays when the bulk of humanity that is, the younger generation is tied down at their day jobs, knocked out of action as competing fishermen.

At least, this is what I personally assumed when I recently submitted my retirement papers specifying April 2nd as my last duty day. That's right: yours truly is no longer a federal employee. After 37 years of combined military and civilian federal service under eight presidential administrations, Homie done went and R-U-N-N-O-F-T.

For two weeks prior to my last duty day there'd been wonderfully warm, humid weather combined with a string of gentle and much-needed rain showers. Surface runoff from these showers had fed my favorite fishing lake back to its design depth. Best of all, the lake rise flooded the wide band of shoreline vegetation that sprouted during last year's drought and had grown to height. All around the lake the shallows have been returned to their maximum productivity in terms of insect and minnow habitat. Anyplace tiny baitfish and insects proliferate, nearby will lurk gamefish, especially panfish.

Who could blame me, then, for assuming that the gifts of springtime were about to serve themselves up to me like a big picnic lunch? Mama Nasty, that's who. On my very first day of freedom she twisted the upper atmosphere's jet stream into a wicked horseshoe that shot down out of Idaho into New Mexico then hooked back sharply and ran northeast through Texas, across Kansas and into Minnesota. The result was a succession of severe storms, fast-moving cold fronts with overnight lows plunging into the teens, and day after day of high wind out of the north. Instead of wasting my time fishing in this high wind finger-numbing cold, I decided to spend a morning doing something constructive: picking up trash.

For the last three weeks it bothered me that the lakeshore I've been fishing is covered with trash. Bothered me in one way but, ironically, pleased me in another. At least I could SEE how much trash there was the result of controlled burning conducted by the lake's maintenance crew. Prior to the controlled burns this trash was largely concealed by dense grass and weeds. Now this vegetation is ashes, leaving hundreds of trash items clearly exposed to the sun and the sky. I saw no reason to waste this opportunity.

I'm no stranger to picking up trash. Thirteen of my federal career years were spent on the GSA janitor crew. It always surprises people when I tell them this was one of the best jobs I've ever had. I loved being a janitor: good pay, I stayed fit due to the physical labor involved, and it was rare that I took home any job-related stress. The best thing about janitor work was that I could see immediate positive results of the work I did. (Unlike what my desk job had become in the 8 months before my retirement.)

After being promoted to contract work inspector in 1988, I found myself missing the physical labor of janitor work. I asked to become a City of Lawrence parks volunteer, and this turned into one of the most satisfying jobs I've ever undertaken. I'm not a city or county parks volunteer now (I don't even know if this county has such a program). No matter; I still have one of the primary maintenance tools I used at my assigned city park a hand-held device called the "Nifty Nabber."

Nifty Nabber

With one of these puppies you can pick up trash items ranging in size from 2-liter bottles to thin dimes, all without needing to bend down and grab it. So it's not just easy but actually fun picking up trash. Indeed, I enjoy my Nifty Nabber so much it stays in the bed of my pickup 24/7. I've used it many times to police trash at city parks, state parks, private property, etc.

But in previous fishing visits to this lake I'd never seen as much trash as I began seeing this spring. One reason is because as a rule I don't fish off the bank very often; by far most of my angling is done from my canoe. But with the wind blowing so hard today and the shoreline undergrowth burned off, this seemed an ideal time to do something about this trash mess. The fishing would have to wait.

Beginning at the east foot of the lake dam I worked eastward for some 300 yards, focusing on a 30-ft wide shoreline zone then the shoulders of the gravel access road above. Just these two modest-size areas surrendered 8 gunny sacks worth of litter. I dumped each bag into the park barrels provided. Had I planned it better, I'd have bypassed the park barrels and instead hauled my full gunny sacks around to the maintenance building and emptied them into the big dumpsters that sit there; this would have saved the park crew the work of emptying the barrels I'd filled.

When I was a city volunteer, my assigned park was Riverfront Park/Kansas River Access in North Lawrence. I'd asked for it deliberately because in the last 20 years I've done hundreds of canoe trips on the Kansas River west of Lawrence. Since I use Riverfront Park's excellent boat ramp a lot I had a personal interest in keeping the place looking nice.

The problem has since been corrected, but at that time the Kansas River Access suffered greatly from being the favorite midnight party spot for high school and college-age binge drinkers. To give you an idea, many Friday afternoons I would prepare the park for weekend visitors by picking the grounds clean as a whistle. I'm saying there wasn't a speck of trash anywhere on the ground. Then I'd return at 8 a.m. the next morning and find what looked like the crash scene of a jet airliner disaster. Beer, liquor and fast food trash would be strewn everywhere; shards of bottle glass covered the paved boat ramp maneuvering area. After one such binge drinking party just one party, mind you I filled six 55-gallon bags full of party trash.

And now, this spring the shoreline of my favorite fishing lake is starting to look like a city landfill. Making it no place you'd care to stand while casting for fish.

What a mess

So with Nifty Nabber in hand, I waded in. Once I got going the bulk of the trash items turned out to be pretty much what I'd expected: empty nightcrawler cups, beer cans, beer bottles, clear plastic water bottles, fast food containers, snack food wrappers, plastic grocery bags. Most of the time I could look ahead through the weeds, spot a piece of trash that was white in color and sure enough, it'd be another discarded worm cup, or chicken liver cup. Fishermen are the absolute worst litterbugs.

Sometimes I think what the states ought to do is enact laws mandating that people who want a fishing license must first take an intelligence test and pass it with a score at least two points higher than a carrot. And if they pass that IQ test, next make them take the Minnesota Multi-phasic Personality Inventory. An IQ test combined with the MMPI would reduce littering at the nation's lakes, farm ponds and streams by identifying the ignorant sociopaths among us and denying them the permit needed to pursue fish legally.

Ah, but I'm retired now; I need to calm down, concentrate on relaxing. Find useful things to do outdoors, anything, just pass the time while the hard wind blows.

Will this lake's bluegills, crappies and red ears appreciate my trash pickup efforts and reward me accordingly? No. What about the fishermen who regularly come here; will they feel happy upon discovering that this shoreline has been cleaned up? No; the ignorant sociopaths who threw this litter could care less whether fishing spots are pristine or trashed.

No high hopes, then; just something to pass the time. But, well...maybe such work lets me tell myself afterward that I'm balancing the books a little bit? You know, making an occasional effort to stay in the good graces of an aquatic environment that has given me many thrills and hours of enjoyment the last three years? This lake is a friend I want to hang onto. ~ Joe

About Joe:

From Douglas County, Kansas, Joe is a former municipal and federal police officer, now retired. In addition to fishing, he hunts upland birds and waterfowl, and for the last 15 years has pursued the sport of solo canoeing. On the nearby Kansas River he has now logged nearly 5,000 river miles while doing some 400 wilderness style canoe camping trips. A musician/singer/songwriter as well, Joe's 'day job' is with the U.S. General Services Adminstration.

Joe at one time was a freelance photojournalist who wrote the Sunday Outdoors column for his city newspaper. Outdoor sports, writing and music have never earned him any money, but remain priceless activities essential to surviving the 'day job.'

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