Things have been a little melancholy around the Fisheries Division of the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission the past week or so. Our Division Administrator of the past 22+ years, Don Gabelhouse, retired on July 8. We are happy for him, he will have more time to fish, but we hate to see him go.
As a state agency charged with the stewardship of our state’s fisheries resources, we hear from a lot of folks with a lot of opinions about how we do our jobs. I will be the first to admit that we are always making mistakes and learning from them. Don joked about knowing whether what we were doing was “innovative” or “stupid”, sometimes we do not know until we try. I just hope folks understand that none of us do this because of the money, it is our passion, it is our life and lifestyle, and it is our profession. I have been privileged to be mentored by a couple of fisheries biologists who were darned good at all of that. One was Dr. Dave Willis, the professor under which I finished my graduate degree, and the other was Don Gabelhouse. What is really cool is those two guys were best of friends from their days of working together as fisheries research biologists in Kansas. I always looked forward to the times I could just hang out with those two together, to listen to their stories, listen to them laugh, listen to them “talk shop”. I want people to know those two were and are two of the most highly-respected fisheries biologists in all of North America. You can see both of them enshrined in the Fish Management Section of the American Fisheries Society Hall of Excellence housed at our Ak-Sar-Ben Aquarium south of Gretna.
I was going to write a description of some of Don’s contributions to fisheries science; just read the plaque. No matter where you fish in freshwater, the health of your fisheries and the quality of your fishing has benefited from Don’s work. All fisheries management biologists employ techniques and systems pioneered by Don.
Don did work in Kansas for a number of years, but he is a Nebraska native, a Lincoln native, and darned proud of it! Do not think for one second that we got some cast off from Kansas to be our head Fisheries Administrator–we got a native son who could not wait to get home! At that time I was working in our Kearney office as a field biologist. At the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission most folks jump at the chance to work someplace other than headquarters in Lincoln. I started my career in our southeast district office in Lincoln, and then jumped at the chance to move to Kearney. Then I was one of the insane, rare few that actually moved back to Lincoln where I have worked ever since. Yes, one reason I went back to Lincoln was the job was a promotion to a research biologist position in charge of the statewide Walleye research we were doing at the time, but a big reason I decided to move back to Lincoln is I thought it would be a great opportunity to work with and learn from a biologist like Don. It was!
I do not know that I ever was a very good research biologist, not nearly as good as Don and Dr. Willis, and like most folks my career evolved over the years. With the invention of the internet and social media I ended up doing more and more informing and educating and public relations work, especially with anglers, and less and less fisheries research. Again I do not know that I am any good at it, but I do enjoy doing it, and as a supervisor, Don let me run with it. In fact he eventually decided to change my job title and let me do this kind of work, including blogging, full time. The very title of this blog I owe to Don. Barbs and Backlashes was the title he came up with for a newsletter we hoped to publish at one time. The newsletter never got off the ground, but he suggested I use the title for my blog. Don’s words to me on his last working day as I left the office were very encouraging and meant A LOT.
As a supervisor for our entire Fisheries Division, Don’s philosophy was always to put good people in place, give them what they needed to get the job done, and then get out of the way and let them do it. Our Division thrived under his leadership. Being the model supervisor, Don wanted to help all of us be better employees and better people. At one time he assigned all of us to read the Fish! book. No, that book was NOT some kind of textbook for pointy-headed fisheries workers. Instead it was about a life philosophy, about a way of doing business. It was about the way business is done at the Pike Place Fish Market, how they engage their customers, have fun with them, and enjoy their jobs.
You know how you roll your eyes when your dad, or supervisor, tells you to do something that will be good for you, will make you a better person? Well, I did that, but I read the book anyway. It was a very quick read, and you know what? Don was right. I try to use that Fish! Philosophy in everything I do, especially dealing with the public; it works, and if you do not become a better person because of it, at least you will feel a lot better about yourself and what you do. It really does work for a state agency charged with stewardship of the state’s fisheries resources–we are taking care of something very important, something folks care very much about and something they love. Fishing is fun!
Fun? Working for Don was fun, he would not have it any other way. We always got our work done, but we also always had fun doing it. Yep, as a Fisheries staff here in headquarters in Lincoln, we have spent hours together in the break room just talking, Don presiding over those sessions. I know there were those who thought we were just wasting time, but I also know that in the middle of many of those casual discussions, some really good ideas would pop into people’s heads. It was also a great way to build morale, “family”, and relieve stress. Funny how others from other divisions often wandered down the hall to join some of our break room discussions.
OK, gotta tell one story. One of the funniest things I ever witnessed involved Don and his portable, “Clam”, ice shack. We were fishing Pelican Lake one day, catching a few big Bluegills, Don L-O-V-E-S big panfish. It was a warm day, melt water on top of the ice, just enough melt water to make the ice very slick. Don debated whether to pull his shelter onto the ice that day, but also fishing with us was the Mother of another of my co-workers and she asked him what he brought the shelter for if he was not going to use it? Great question, hard to argue with that logic, especially with Mrs. Satra, so he used it. In late morning a beautiful day stayed very warm, but within ten minutes the wind went from calm to howling, they call it a Chinook wind (I love it when they name things after fish). Sitting in his wind-blown shelter, Don stuck a foot into one ice hole to hold position. That worked for a minute, but it was not a permanent solution to his crisis. Eventually, he decided the shelter had to come down. This was no flip-over type shelter, it had poles and extended up into the air like a sail. When Don stood up to take it down he opened the zipper on the upwind side and it was a sail. I was sitting a hundred yards or so to the east, back to the wind, and hearing a commotion turned to see what was going on. Don was on his backside, backside on the ice outside the shelter, both feet still inside the shelter. And, the shelter was gaining speed! Dick Turpin would say “if I am lying, I’m dying” and if I’m lying, I’m dying. Don had hold of each side of the shelter and as he ice-boated downwind, accelerating each second, he was steering. A hundred yards or so in his path was a somewhat aged ranch lady who was also out there fishing–she was in peril if Don could not steer past her! He cleared the ranch lady, blew another hundred yards or so and finally stopped momentarily in the bulrushes. Don gained his footing, stood up, and holding the rope to the shelter it then became a kite, lifted 8 feet off the ice and then poles broke, crumpled and the whole thing crashed down in a heap. I sat on my bucket, laughing at the whole performance. No, I was no help at all until he came to a stop. In the 10.6 seconds that he traveled a couple hundred yards he left a chum line of buckets, rods & reels, and tear-drops strewn across the ice. I quit holding my sides long enough to help him pick all of that stuff up, and then get re-positioned where he could fish the rest of the day.
He then proceeded to out-fish me that day.
A few years later the whole affair was recounted on the back page of In-Fisherman magazine, Clam Sailing. Don has had several other humorous and sentimental stories published there, including one in this July 2016 issue.
I could go on. I was honored to fill in for Don presenting a paper at a professional meeting he unexpectedly could not attend one time. In the process I learned a lot more about him through the program he had prepared.
His favorite book is Bobby Bluegill, and that explains a lot.
That big man with huge hands can carve birds out of wood like you would not believe.
He collects Tin Lizzes and old duck decoys.
We will miss him, but celebrate that he can enjoy his retirement and get to fish even more. He has earned it. There is a cabin in Minnesota that has been part of his Lincoln, Nebraska family for going on five generations now. That place means a lot to Don and I hope he gets to spend a lot more time there now. I hope he dries off a fish or two for me while he is there.
We will go on and very much of what we continue to do in our charge as stewards of Nebraska’s fisheries resources will be the result of what Don taught us, of how he lead us. You can say Don is many things, fisheries scientist, professional, mentor, fisherman, author, artist, collector, speaker, humorist, and friend. I am proud to have called him “boss”.