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."
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.
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
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