Tag Archives: Blair

Carp-o-Rama

April 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

“Are you ready to see some flying fish?” asks Rich Porter, tournament director for the Bowfishers of Nebraska. Porter steers toward the river’s confluence, and we nock arrows on bowstrings. We are ready. Or so we think.

Cruising the banks of the Missouri River, we are hunting for Asian carp—the invasive fish wreaking havoc across Midwestern waterways.

As we glide into the mouth of the Little Sioux River, Porter revs the boat’s outboard motor. It’s as if he flipped a switch, sending an electrical current through the water. The noise startles hundreds of silver carp, suddenly airborne in an explosion of shimmering scales and bulging eyes.

“Shoot them, shoot them!” Porter yells, laughing as he shields his face from floppy carp-missiles leaping in every direction. Carp launch themselves into the boat, crashing into our bodies, flip-flopping across our gear, bouncing over the steering wheel.

Omaha Magazine creative director, Bill Sitzmann, lets a barb-tipped arrow fly from a specialized “lever” bow (rigged with fishing reel and 200-pound test line). But the wriggling wall of flying fish proves to be a more difficult target than isolated underwater carp, which we have been stealthily approaching all day along the riverbanks.

Silver carp, grass carp, and bighead carp are three varieties of Asian carp that infiltrated the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. All three species are firmly established in Nebraska waters. They are different species than common carp, but they are all bad news.

Rich Porter displays a grass carp caught by bow.

Why are they bad? Silver carp, in particular, are notorious for jumping when scared. Most weigh between 10 and 25 pounds (and grow upwards of 50 pounds) and have been known to jump eight feet. Boats traveling at moderate speeds can suffer broken windows from collisions with the fish. Passengers on boats have reported cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions.

Bigheads don’t jump, and grass carp seldom jump, Porter says. Both grow much larger than silver carp (Nebraska’s state bowfishing records for bighead and grass carp each weighed about 80 pounds). But all carp varieties have proven themselves disastrous for the North American ecosystem.

They are prolific breeders; a single carp is capable of laying millions of eggs each year, and they disrupt food chains by crowding out native fish. “The biggest problem with silver and bighead carp is that they are filter-feeders. They eat the plankton and zooplankton that all other fish fry [i.e., baby fish] rely on,” Porter says. Grass carp, on the other hand, feed on aquatic plants.

Common carp—also known as German carp—were introduced to North America in the 1800s. They are also considered a pest (and a target for bowfishers nationwide). Their bottom-sucking omnivorous feeding disrupts aquatic habitat, increases water siltation, and contributes to algal blooms.

Silver and bighead carp arrived in the United States around the 1960s. Aquaculture farmers in Arkansas introduced them into catfish ponds. After floodwaters breached the fish farms, Asian carp escaped and proliferated in the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

“The first bighead and silver carp that I remember being shot was at Gavins Point Dam in 1993,” Porter says, adding that fisheries management officials worldwide have introduced grass carp in lakes to control aquatic vegetation. But he says grass carp have become a nuisance in rivers, too.

Major Mississippi River floods during the 1990s helped Asian carp migrate upstream to Nebraska. When they arrived, Porter was ready. “I’ve been shooting carp for 30 years. Invasive carp are a national problem, really,” he says, noting that he got started with common carp.

Porter makes a weighty contribution with his bow and arrow. “Last year I probably shot 20,000 pounds of fish, and my very best year was pushing close to 30,000 pounds,” Porter says. “Bowfishing is a great method for selective harvest of non-game fish. We removed close to 15 tons of invasive species fish during Nebraska tournaments in 2016, and that was just five tournaments.”

On May 13, the Bowfishers of Nebraska will host the 30th annual Carp-o-Rama. The tournament is open to the entire Missouri River Valley system (which includes the Missouri River itself and nearby lakes). Weigh-in takes place at Cottonwood Cove Marina in Blair at 5 p.m.

“Last year we had more than 60 teams, and this year we’re expecting 75-100 teams,” he says.

The months of May and June, Porter says, are the best time of the year for bowfishing carp, when warming water temperatures drive carp to spawn and feed. But we set out late in the season, on an overcast day in mid-August.

We meet Porter at a gas station in Tekamah, Nebraska (roughly an hour north of Omaha). Following him to the nearest Missouri River access ramp, we board his flat-bottom boat and embark on our mission to save the environment (and slaughter as many Asian carp as we can manage).

Porter’s camouflage-painted boat is the perfect seek-and-destroy attack vehicle in the war against invasive carp. It’s a 20-footer outfitted with an elevated platform for bowfishing anglers to scan the water for invasive prey.

The Missouri River’s water looks like chocolate milk. Recent rains have disrupted visibility, making it difficult to identify carp hovering underwater. Polarized sunglasses help cut glare from the sky’s reflection. Luckily, the river’s surface remains relatively calm. Porter says conditions are not optimal, but he is confident we will have plenty of action.

We start with some instructional target practice. The first carp we come across is a silver. Scared by the approaching boat, it jumps onboard with us. We don’t have a chance to shoot.

Porter offers a quick tutorial. “Look for shadows or backs sticking out of the water, or fish jumping,” he says. Upon identifying a shadowy form, Porter shows how it’s done. He draws fast and releases. He pulls in a large silver carp. Then, he effortlessly snipes a few more.

I miss over and over again. But, soon enough, we are all landing fish.

Turning off of the Missouri River, Porter steers his boat into an intersecting canal lined with homes and docks.

A local resident waves from her canal-facing porch. From her deck chair, she yells a greeting: “Shooting Asian carp?” Porter responds in a friendly drawl, “Yup.” She shouts back, “Great! Shoot ’em all!” as we float down the canal.

Ripples have begun forming about six feet ahead of the boat, like the wake of a hidden submarine. “Can you tell where the carp are?” Porter asks. We are herding them like a fish stampede. At the end of the canal, the carp scatter in all directions. We retrace our route, hunting back to the canal’s entrance.

Over the course of the day, the three of us fill the boat’s cooler with silver carp, grass carp, and gar. Gar are another species of rough fish popular with bowfishing anglers. Although native to Nebraska (not invasive), they are fun to catch with bow and arrow. But their armor-plated exterior makes their meat difficult to access.

In Nebraska, there is no particular season for bowfishing carp or other unprotected “rough fish” (any fish that is not game fish, such as carp or gar), though there are some practical limitations. First and foremost, a valid fishing license is required to bowfish in Nebraska waters.

In shallow bays during the spring, spawning common carp boil to the surface in massive piles that bowfishers target from shore or boat (this can be found statewide in waters). The most popular destination for shooting Asian carp, however, is Gavins Point Dam on Nebraska’s border with South Dakota (about three hours north of Omaha, where the Missouri River curves west).

Nebraska regulations prohibit bowfishing of game fish (e.g., trout, panfish, bass, pike, etc.) until after July 1, when bowfishing gear can be used to target both rough and sport fish. Using a bow and arrow makes catch-and-release impossible, so bowfishermen are responsible for being able to identify the fish species they target.

An often-discussed threat of environmental and economic catastrophe involves Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes via Chicago canals that connect Lake Michigan to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been sunk already into research, electrical gates, and various safeguards protecting the Great Lakes’ $7 billion commercial and sport fisheries.

It has been said: “If you can’t beat it, eat it.” Asian carp demonstrate the axiom with mouth-watering results. Unfortunately, carp have a bad reputation with many American diners due to the large quantity of bones in their flesh.

Porter has a secret recipe (and, no, it doesn’t involve baking carp on a wood shingle for 10 hours, then discarding the fish, and eating the shingle, as the jocular folk recipe suggests). He uses a dishwashing machine to poach fillets:

“Take a fillet of Asian carp, wrap it in aluminum foil with your favorite seasonings and butter, place it on the top rack of an empty dishwasher—believe it or not, I’ve told people this recipe, and they’ve tried it while doing dishes—run a full cycle, and when you remove it, the meat flakes off the bone and can be used in fish tacos, fried for fish sandwiches, or used in crab cakes. Once you poach it, you can use the meat for any recipe that calls for fish. Blackened fish tacos are my favorite.”

On a successful early summer day of bowfishing on the Missouri, Porter says he might take home 500-1,000 pounds of carp. Since he usually has more than enough at home, he donates the meat to the community.

Whenever he finds himself with a literal boatload of carp, he makes a call to a friend in the North Omaha neighborhood where he grew up. He pulls up to the house, and a crowd gathers around his boat trailer. Porter climbs up and hauls carp from the cooler until everyone is satisfied or the cooler is empty—whichever comes first.

“The guys I’m giving fish to know, but the general population does not realize how good these Asian carp taste,” Porter says. “It’s the association with the common carp. People don’t realize they are two different species.”

One of the best known Omaha establishments to serve carp is Joe Tess Place (5424 S. 24th St.), famous for its deep-fried carp, where the fish is cooked at such a high temperature that the bones dissolve. The carp is harvested fresh from lakes in Iowa.

“In Illinois, the government has started up a fish processing center for Asian carp, and on a national level, there is already one state that is trying to utilize a surplus of edible fish,” Porter says. “My understanding is that fishermen will bring them in, and they are selling them back to Asia or to the Asian markets.”

Aside from winning taste buds, Porter says hooking youths on the sport of bowfishing is the next best means of controlling the invasive species.

Carp-o-Rama’s family festival atmosphere offers one method of attracting future carp-hunters. The Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program, established by volunteer organizer Nick Tramp, is another lure.

The mentorship program is entering its fourth year. In 2017, Tramp (based out of Allen, Nebraska) will take students of all ages to Ponca State Park and Gavins Point in July. Meanwhile, Zac Hickle of Elkhorn will focus on Omaha youths with trips to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in May and June.

“We’re just doing it to get kids off the couch and away from video games and teach them some life skills,” Tramp says, adding the program starts with a bow tutorial. All the gear will be provided, and Bowfishers of Nebraska volunteer as instructors. Youths under the age of 16 do not need a fishing license in Nebraska.

Carp is not considered a “sport” fish, but the fight is comparable to many larger game fish in faraway locations expensive to reach from Omaha.

“If you stick an arrow in a 20-pound-plus river carp, you better sit down and hold on, because it’s going to strip your reel; you’re going to have a strong fish that has grown up fighting the current,” Tramp says. “They are going to pull you right around the river.”

Porter demonstrates the fight when he lands the biggest catch of Omaha Magazine’s bowfishing trip. He sinks an arrow into a massive carp. The fish runs. Ten minutes later, Porter lands the 25-pound grass carp.

By the end of the day, my arms are sore from shooting fish and hauling carp into the boat. I head back to Omaha content, with a pile of Asian carp fillets ready to deep-fry at home (or poach in my dishwasher, if I’m brave enough to follow Porter’s advice).

Visit carp-o-rama.com for more information about Carp-o-Rama. More information about the Nebraska Bow Fishing Mentor Program is available on the group’s Facebook page.


Dishwasher-Poached Fish

Rich Porter’s Favorite Recipe for Asian Carp

  1. Take a fillet of Asian carp.
  2. Wrap it in aluminum foil with preferred seasonings and butter.
  3. Place it on the top rack of an empty dishwashing machine.
  4. Run a full cycle (without any dirty dishes).
  5. When the dishwasher turns off, the fish is poached in the aluminum foil packet.
  6. The poached meat flakes off the bone and can be used any recipe that calls for fish.
  7. Rich Porter’s favorite: blackened Asian carp tacos.

This article appeared in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch

September 24, 2013 by
Photography by Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch

The Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch in Blair, Neb., is a family affair. Daughter Haley Bledsoe has designed the 10-acre corn maze (opened for the fall on Fri., Sep. 13) since its first season six years ago. “It’s hard to do,” says her mother, Maria. “I’ve tried.”

This year, the maze’s design showcases sheer complexity rather than an actual image to be seen from above. “You will absolutely get lost,” Maria assures, stating that she still can’t go through this year’s maze without getting turned around.

And that’s saying something because the Bledsoe family has been tending the maze since the beginning of summer. “We use twice the amount of seed as other mazes,” Maria explains, adding that most cornfields are planted in just one direction. “We plant in two directions for a really thick corn maze, so you can’t see your neighbor on the next row.” The field is entirely organic, and cultivating the maze involves old-school techniques.

“We map it on a grid, and then we count the rows, using stakes and chalk spray,” Maria says. No GPS here. “After the corn is two or three inches tall, we mow the paths with a riding mower.” A dragger rides behind the mower, getting rid of any stalks. Continued mowing and dragging throughout the summer makes for smooth, compacted paths.

“We wanted to be known as the most manicured maze around,” Maria says. “You think of a corn maze, and you think of ruts and bumpy ground and how you can’t take your stroller over that. We wanted to do something different.”

When the corn is 13 to 14 feet tall, all seven Bledsoes take corn sickles to the maze, trimming leaves that have grown into the paths and hand-pulling any stalks that might have been missed. At least, it used to be that way. Maria says they’ve had to hire help for the last three years, what with the growing business and some of the children going to college and overseas.

But some traditions never die. Saturday nights, for example, are always haunted at Skinny Bones. Brave guests traverse the maze guided only by moonlight (“We confiscate flashlights,” Maria says), knowing costumed actors roam the maze ready to deliver a good scare. Nothing is sacred, not even the hay rides. Is it kid-friendly? “That’s up to the parent,” Maria defers. “Some kids absolutely love it.”

For parents who think their children might appreciate a tamer atmosphere, Maria suggests Friday nights. Flashlights are welcome, no scarers are present, and there’s even a children’s maze this year. It’s about a 10th the size of the original.

For a full list of attractions and pricing, visit skinnybonespumpkinpatch.com.

Booming Blair

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In tough economic times, growth typically becomes stagnant if not nonexistent for many communities regardless of population or location. However, the city of Blair has not suffered from such an effect. In fact, the business community in the city of just over 8,000 has seen significant growth in recent times.

The community is home to numerous national chains and caters to a wide range of niche markets, such as shopping at Country Gardens and Bra-Ta Boutique, in addition to numerous thrift stores and dining at Our Specialtea (which also holds high tea), The Driftwood Inn, and Blair Marina. Another unique area is the Healing Garden Railroad at Memorial Community Hospital, were visitors can sit outside and dine between May and November. Blair is also home to the 18-hole River Wilds Golf Course.

Harriet Waite, executive director of Blair Area Chamber

Harriet Waite, executive director of Blair Area Chamber of Commerce

Recent additions to the area, which have aided in the growth within the business community, include Skywerx Aviation, a fixed-base operation at the Blair Municipal Airport focusing on serving airplanes, charter flights, and airplane hangar space. Blair is also now home to a premier conference and reception space, the South Creek Conference Center. A first-class reception hall, South Creek can host up to 600 guests for a sit-down event (including tables) and up to 1,000 if seated theater-style. The facility will help to serve the Greater Omaha area as an option for large private or corporate events.

Tristan Gustafson, left, with Sam Kremke of Skywerx Aviation

Tristan Gustafson, left, with Sam Kremke of Skywerx Aviation

“Blair is really growing and has become a such a wonderful community,” says Harriett Waite, Executive Director of the Blair Area Chamber of Commerce. “We have long-established businesses that people want to go to and have been able to integrate new and different companies.”

And while small communities often shy away from welcoming large corporations to the area, Blair has been able to use the addition of national names to their benefit. “The larger retailers who have come into town have helped the local business grow their specialty brands,” Waite says. “The continued support of local businesses has really helped to keep our local economy strong.”

Marilyn Neff, manager at the South Creek Conference Center

Marilyn Neff, manager at the South Creek Conference Center

The ability to attract national corporations, including Wal-Mart, Cargill, and Evonik at the Blair BioCampus, is a credit to the city administration and their vision for economic development, says Waite. “The larger businesses have helped us to attract people from a larger market as people have seen what else we have to offer, which has helped us promote the great local businesses we have. We meet lots of niches.”

Not hitching their wagon to one business has also allowed for economic success, according to Executive Director of Gateway Economic Development, Paula Hazelwood. “Since Blair hasn’t relied heavily on one business the community has been able to grow,” Hazelwood says. “The mixture of new and existing businesses, have also meshed well, and businesses have done a nice job of preparing and updating their marketing. We’ve had a diverse business base for some time now, but have recently experienced a higher influx of retail service. Customer service has been and continues to be a key for local businesses. Blair is really a hot community right now.”

Sandy Carmichael, owner of Country Gardens/Blair Florist with staff

Sandy Carmichael, owner of Country Gardens/Blair Florist with staff

Hazelwood adds that government has also been integral. “Our local government is extremely pro-business and does a great job in helping to recruit and expand business in the area,” she says. “Dealings with government can often help or hinder progress, and we are so thankful our government is there to help and wants businesses that are successful.”

Blair City Administrator Rod Storm cites similar factors, while also indicating the benefit of the city’s proximity to the Omaha Metro. “Blair has benefited from a vast amount of industrial growth, while retail has continued to expand,” Storm explains.

Rod Storm (right), Blair city administrator with Mike Lewis, vice president of corn milling with Cargill.

Rod Storm (right), Blair city administrator with Mike Lewis, vice president of corn milling with Cargill.

“A lot has to do with the location. Being as close to Omaha as we are, you can kind of get the best of both worlds. There’s a good, solid economy in the area, and the growth has provided jobs in and around the area.” Blair remains active in economic development, which has “created a good public-private partnership and made it successful for our community,” explains Storm.

Forward thinking has also benefited Blair, comments local resident Mike Mackin, who has lived in the area since 1975 and was the co-owner/manager at SE Smith and Sons Hardware in Blair for 18 years. “When I moved here it was an old river town,” Mackin says. “It’s become a very progressive community, and the Gateway Development has done a great job in helping the area grow.”

Amy Hanson, owner of Bra-Ta Boutique

Amy Hanson, owner of Bra-Ta Boutique

Any number of individuals, organizations, and factors are to credit for the current state of the business community in Blair. And each one is quick to offer praise to the next, which shows yet again why the area has achieved such success and prosperity. With that blueprint, Blair should only continue to flourish.

The Troy Davis Story

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Leading Omaha hairdresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.

“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.

“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.

Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair-care brands.20121130_bs_6230 copy

These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.

“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.

A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.

From their first meeting, Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”

Within four years, he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.

“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned.”

“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”

The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on Fringes’ West Dodge site.

For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.

“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways, our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other, and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually, it’s one of us misunderstanding something, and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”20121130_bs_6095 copy

Davis has moved fast within the industry. While still in his 20s, he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hairdressers the use of the international distributor’s haircare products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends. It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.

All the while, his addictions progressed.

He was prepping for the always-stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.

“By the time I hit bottom, I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake-up call.”

He’s now actively working a 12-step program. “It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”

He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs. “I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life, and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”20121130_bs_6028 copy

He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts, he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones—Twitter and tattoos.

As his recovery’s progressed, he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances. “It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that, we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”

He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee, and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.

For more information about Fringes Salon & Spa, visit www.fringessalon.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.