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The insidious Nature of Neonic Pesticides, with Michael Miller

Description: Warning—this week's podcast with biologist Michael Miller [36:28] is not exactly uplifting, in fact it's downright depressing. I feel that neonic pesticides are the main reason we have seen dramatic declines of insects on our trout streams and may be even more of a threat to invertebrate populations than climate change. But it is a problem we can remedy more easily than climate change because it's mostly a problem in the United States (Canada and the EU have either banned or greatly restricted their use). I hope this podcast makes all of you take action and raise your voices to get the EPA to ban these dangerous chemicals.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi and welcome to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast." This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer, and I've got some bad news for you. I got a podcast that's going to make you kind of depressed and kind of angry, but hopefully, it will spur a lot of people into action because, in my opinion, it's an important issue. We're going to talk with Mike Miller, a biologist from Wisconsin, about the use of pesticide, a relatively new form of pesticide called neonics. And I don't believe it's any surprise that the decline in insects that we've seen over the past 10 or 15 years is very much related, I think, to the use of these pesticides, the overuse of these pesticides. And in my opinion, we need to stop using them as soon as possible, or at least dramatically decrease the use of these pesticides.
You know, in the 1970s, we banned DDT and there's no reason that we can't find another alternative to using these chemicals on our lands and our water. So, anyway, I apologize for not bringing you something uplifting and fun, but I do believe it's really important. And so, I hope you take some action after listening to this podcast. Now, we can talk a little fishing, and let's do some more fun stuff. We'll do the Fly Box. And the Fly Box is where you ask me questions and I try to answer them. You can send me your question, either just type it in an email or attach a voice file, and the email address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. So, without further ado, let's start with an email from Michael.
"Wanted to thank you for a remark you made in last week's podcast. In passing response to some remark your guests made, you said, "I just spent three days on the Battenkill and didn't touch a fish." It may sound weird, but I really appreciated hearing you saying that. I have this vision of you just reeling them in one after the other, and it comforts me to realize you have bad stretches like the rest of us. Friends sometimes asked me, "How often do you expect to catch a fish?" And I always answer, "Every cast." It's true, and why I keep on trying. Thank you for what you do for fly fishing and the knowledge you continually share."
Well, Michael, that's absolutely true. And I hope none of you think that, A, I catch fish all the time and that, B, I handle it well when I don't catch fish because I don't. I get upset, I get depressed, I get angry with myself, I get angry with the fact that the bugs don't hatch and the fish aren't cooperating or the winds blowing too hard in saltwater and I can't see the fish. We all have those problems and that's, I think, as Michael said, why we continue to fly fish. So, Michael, thank you very much for your email.
Kent: Hey, Tom, it's Kent from Budd Lake, New Jersey, calling. Thank you for all that you do for all of us fly fishers out there. You're a wealth of knowledge and it's always enjoyable to hear your podcast every week. My quick question for you and I'm not sure if you've answered this or not is if you had five flies to put in your box, what would they be kind of your go-to flies? For most of us out there, you know, there's no hatch and maybe we have to try a pattern whatever it happens to be like a caddis or what have you. But if you had to take five flies with you, knowing that there may not be a hatch, what five flies would they be? Thanks again for all you do and have a great day.
Tom: So, Kent, I may have answered this question many times and, you know, most of the time, it's not the fly, I believe it's the presentation and where you fish and when you fish that's going to affect your success. However, the fly is the one thing we have a lot of control over, changing flies. So, I made a video, so I don't have to answer this question on the podcast or in emails or anything else. And if you go to the Orvis Learning Center and you go into Video Lessons, Advanced Intermediate Lessons, and then Prospecting for Trout and then the video called "Tom's Top 10 Trout Flies." Now, I didn't give you 5, I gave you a 10, but I don't want to limit myself to 5.
Anyway, you can go and watch that and write all the patterns down so I don't have to read them here on the air. And you'll see what they look like, so it's probably a lot better way of doing it. So, Kent, go to the Orvis Learning Center, and you'll get my top 10 trout flies. Now, don't forget, that could change every week based on what I'm doing and how successful I am with a particular fly pattern, or maybe I found a new one. But that's a pretty good list and I stand by that list.
Here's an email from Ken from Buffalo, New York. "Maybe you can answer this question for me. Last week I was camping and fishing a small creek, one you have probably fished yourself in Western New York. In the evening back at camp, there were quite a few blue-winged olives flying around. What puzzled me was that that camp was at least a mile, maybe more from the stream and lake. Why would they be there?" Well, Kent, there's a couple of reasons they could be there. One is there might be a small stream, a really tiny stream close by that those flies are hatching from. But don't forget that mayflies have wings, and although they don't want to travel too far from the stream that they've hatched on because they want to, you know, get back and mate and lay their eggs and put them back in the same stream, they're not really good fliers and they get blown around by the wind. Probably sometimes they get lost.
I remember once being tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys, maybe a half, three-quarter miles from shore, and having a mayfly land on the boat in saltwater. Now, mayflies can't live in saltwater, they don't live in saltwater. Florida does have a lot of freshwater, obviously, inland, and mayflies do live in places where there aren't even any trout living. There is no trout that I know of in Florida. So, these mayflies somehow hatched out of a creek or a lake in Florida and got blown offshore and landed on the boat. So, they can go quite a distance and it's probably a good thing because that helps them repopulate streams where there might have been an issue with the population of flies. So, yeah, they can travel a long way not on purpose, but they do get blown around.
Here's an email from Norm in London. London, England. "Last year I fished for salmon in Iceland. I started with my clear water rod and reel and a Hydros Trout Line Weight-Forward 7 floating. As is typical over there, I fitted a 9-foot leader and the size 16 Red Frances treble and was swinging the fly across the river. The water was crystal clear. The river seemed full of fish but after an hour, I hadn't had a take. The guide said that it was probably because of the bright yellow color of the line. I switched to my backup rod and reel which was fitted with the Hydros Trout Weight-Forward 6 floating line which is olive green and the same leader and fly. And after this, I started getting takes. It could have been a coincidence, of course, but to what extent do you think line color matters?
Comment. I've started tying flies. So far, I'm not very good at it. However, I recently attended a presentation by Peter Hayes and Don Stazicker, the authors of the book "The Flies That Trout Prefer." They have studied flies and feeding trout in the wild and have come to the conclusion that trout prefer to take natural flies that are injured or otherwise imperfect. So, maybe there's hope for a lousy fly tier like me."
Well, Norm, regarding your first question, I don't think fly line color matters. I know that places like New Zealand, they prefer dull-colored lines. I think that it's mainly the fly line in the air and, you know, a dull-colored line is going to be a little less visible in the air. But there's a couple of things to remember here. One is that once the fly line lands on the water and the fish are looking up at it, it's opaque and I don't think it really matters what color it is because it looks pretty dark against the sky. The other thing is that when you're fishing for fish, you really should never be false casting or putting your line on top of the fish.
Regardless of what species you're fishing for, you don't dump a fly line on top of them because it scares them. And I think it's more the mass of a fly line hitting the water which makes far more of a splash than a leader than it actually is the color of the line. So, it may have been the reason you caught those fish, but I doubt it. I think that you just had some fish move into a pool and circumstances changed a little bit. I don't think it was the color of the fly line, but who knows? It could be. But in my opinion, no, it wasn't the color of the fly line that made the difference.
Here's an email from Oren. "I'm 12 years old and lived near Kelowna, BC. I'm a big fan of your podcast and I've been listening to you for a few years. Yesterday, I was fishing one of the few rivers opened during spring closure here. I was fishing a fly that I tied at the vise the day before. The fly is basically olive marabou as a tale and rainbow body for wrapped up the shank. I trimmed the body into a cone shape. The water is still pretty high from runoff and I was fishing a seam. The fly did not sink very fast since I put no weight on it. This combined with stripping it made it so the fly was about an inch below the surface.
I was casting quartering downstream and giving it long slow strips while swinging it through the current. Five trout between 7 and 13 inches came up and hit the fly, and each trout came out of the water by a lot. My guess is the fish thought it was a bait fish and hit it pretty hard. From what I can see, they were rainbows but there are also bull trout in this river, so it could have been one of them too. I'm wondering for next time, is there a good way to hook this fish or a different technique that I should try?"
Well, Oren, there's a couple of things that could be happening here. One is that the fish were just kind of attacking the fly and not opening their mouth. Sometimes they'll do that out of aggression to get another fish out of their territory and, you know, they'll body check it or they'll splash at it to try to get it out of the way. So, that might have been one thing. The other thing is...and in that case, what I would do is I would try changing my approach. I would try a different strip or I would try fishing upstream to those fish, maybe dead drifting the streamer or giving it little twitches or just stripping it back instead of swinging it downstream. But I would experiment with...and maybe experiment with a weighted fly so that it sinks a little bit more. But, you know, if you're getting those short strikes, you do need to change something.
The other thing that might have been happening is where you're setting the hook. When you're fishing downstream, particularly with a streamer, you don't want to set the hook, you're going to pull the fly away from the fish. You want to wait until you feel the weight of the fish on the fly. And then only then, once you feel the weight of the fish or you see the line tighten, should you set the hook. So, you know, it could be one of those two things, I don't know, but those would be my suggestions. Either way, I would try to change your technique and hopefully, next time that happens, you'll be able to set the hook on some of them.
Jared: Hi, Tom, this is Jared from Missoula, Montana. Again, I appreciate you answering my last question on streamer tactics. I've got a couple of new questions for you that I don't think they've been answered in the last few months of podcasts that I've been listening to at least. The first question is in regards to how to land more fish that I have hooked on. This past weekend, I lost a lot of fish on two different setups. One was on the nymphing rod and then another was on a dry fly rod. And there were scenarios that seemed like I should the fish shouldn't have got off. I was often downstream of the fish, so the hook was pulling backwards against the fish, the line had a lot of tension, so the fish was on the hook for, you know, a couple of seconds at least, and then they managed to get off.
And I never lost flies. I get back the fly and everything, just somehow the fish is throwing the hook. And, you know, oftentimes too, I'll have the rods sideways to be putting the pressure on. So, I'm wondering what you think of how to increase that success rate of landing more fish and, you know, if something like the hook sharpness matters, you know? Does that initial hook set really determine how well that fish is hooked? Because I'm wondering, you know, even if you get, say, a flimsy hook set but you're fighting it for a few seconds, if that fighting kind of jams that further in there, or if that initial hook set really matters?
And related to that is that I've recently got the Euro, the 3-weight, 11-foot Blackout rod, which is really nice and sensitive. But that soft tip, I'm wondering because that tip is so soft, if that's absorbing a lot of the force when you set the hook. I know that can be a thing with streamers on these tight line setups with softer rods, but I wonder if the nymphs if I just have to set the hook that much harder to give a good...yeah, a good hook placement, and maybe that'll increase the number of fish that I can land. This could have just been a one-off weekend as well, but yeah, I'm just curious.
Second question is different. It has to do with where big versus little fish are in the rivers. I know that, you know, there's prime lies and places where big fish are going to prefer to be because of all the things that trout like in a lie. But I'm wondering, you know, if we're fishing some stretch of the river that you're turning up a lot of little fish, is that something where, you know, these little fish are kicked out to this kind of inferior habitat and you're not going to catch a big fish there? Or is it worth it if you end know, if you're catching a few small fish if you just keep trying and maybe there's a big fish there? I'm just trying to think about, you know, how is time best spent in terms of trying to find the bigger fish? Yeah, how I should be spending my time. So, hopefully, this makes it on. I appreciate you listening to it at least, and thanks for everything you do.
Tom: Well, Jared, it sounds like you were doing everything right. Hook sharpness does matter, and yes, those 3-weight Euro rods, they have a really soft tip because you want it to be sensitive in order to be able to see and feel a strike and it needs to be sensitive. To throw those Euro nymph flies, you need a tip that really bends to be able to make that kind of lobbing cast where you get the flies out there. So, yes, I would have set the hook a little harder than you would with a normal rod because of that really soft tip. And also, you need to make sure that you keep constant tension on the fish. And with that soft rod, you can really put a lot of pressure on those fish, you can really bend the rod because it'll handle it, it's designed to protect light tippets.
So, you know, striking a little bit harder, probably won't pop the tippet because of that soft tip, and then making sure that you play those fish fairly aggressively and keep a tight line on them, you probably will do better and land more fish. But, you know, some days they just get unbuttoned. Some days, they strike short and you'll go through those stretches where you don't land many fish. We all experience that and sometimes, it's just the day. Regarding where big or little fish are in a river, now, you know, the big fish can be anywhere, they can surprise you. But if you're catching a lot of little fish, probably, you know, you need to move to another area. Typically, the really small trout will live in shallower riffle water where they're a little bit more protected from the bigger fish. Especially if you have brown trout in a river, they're going to attack those smaller trout and eat them.
So, the smaller fish will tend to be in shallow water, shallow water with a lot of brush in it if there's brush around, but they'll tend to hang in the shallow water to stay away from the bigger fish. However, there can be big fish around if you're catching smaller fish. Typically, larger trout is going to be upstream of the smaller fish. They don't tolerate small fish in front of them where they can see them. They'll attack them, push them out, maybe eat them. So, look for, you know the most upstream area of a particular run or a pool, and often that's going to be where the bigger fish are. And also, bigger fish can be out in the open.
They don't necessarily need to be directly under a tree or next to a log or in front of a big rock, but they will be close to some sort of cover, within maybe, I don't know, 10 or 20 feet or so. So, look for areas where there's deep water nearby or some really good cover nearby. Again, not necessarily right next to it but nearby. They've learned that they need a place where they can bolt to really quickly if they get frightened. So, those are my suggestions. But just because you catch a lot of little fish, don't rule out that water, there could be a big fish around somewhere.
Here's an email from Bill from Williamsport, Maryland. "In the past, you sometimes recommended using a 15-foot leader. How is it constructed? I tried using a 12-foot leader and just scaled up the measurements for each section. It's very difficult or almost impossible to straighten out the leader when casting. Thanks." Well, Bill, no question that a 15-foot leader is harder to cast and it's especially harder to cast when you're casting a really short line. So, you have to push the cast a little bit harder, you have to kind of tighten up your casting stroke and put a little bit more aggressive snap into the cast to straighten that 15-foot leader. And the way I make a 12-foot leader into a 15-footer is I just add about three feet of butt material to a 12-foot leader and I might make my tippet a little bit longer, maybe three or four feet.
So, you know, if you got a 12-foot leader, when you buy the leader, the package will tell you what the diameter of the butt is. Just get a spool of that material, it'll probably be somewhere between 19 and 23-thousandths of an inch, and then just cut off the loop of the leader, add three feet, but a perfection loop on there, and go from there, and maybe make your tippet a little bit longer. But the way you did it by scaling up, it sounds like you're using a knotted leader. The way you did it by scaling up the measurements should work. It's just your casting is going to be a little bit more difficult. So, that's what I would suggest. Hang in there a little bit, practice your casting, put a little bit more aggressive snap into it, and you should make it work.
Here's an email from Ben from Virginia. "I'm traveling to Montana for a couple of weeks in early September of this year. This is a family trip with my wife and twin 12-year-old sons. We'll be visiting family and friends in both Bozeman and Livingston and plan to visit Yellowstone National Park for at least one full day. Because this is a family trip, I will have limited opportunities to fish and with the expensive airfare, I won't be able to hire a guide or pay for one of the spring creeks.
My plan is to wade from shore and I will likely have my two sons with me. They're relatively new to fly fishing, having only fish for pan fish, and we'll be bringing seven-foot nine-inch 5-weight rods. I have both a Clearwater 905-4 and a Clearwater 908-4 saltwater. I'm hoping to fish the Madison and the Yellowstone and possibly in Yellowstone National Park, but I may be dreaming too big. What are good realistic locations for us to fish considering our circumstances? Should I bring my 8-weight rod? Do you have any suggestions on tips for a first-time fishing trip to Montana? And can you believe that I used to live in Livingston but didn't fish at the time?"
So, Ben, I normally don't answer questions like this if I don't know the water really well, but I do know that area really well. I've fished in that area a lot. And my first advice would be to go into a fly shop and, you know, spend a few bucks on some flies and get some advice from the people in the fly shop. There are lots of fly shops in that area and they'll put you on the right spots. But that being said, there's lots of good wade fishing in the area. The Yellowstone River in the park can be really good in September. It's not as good as it used to be, but you used to be able to catch a lot of like 14 to 17-inch cutthroats. And now there are fewer fish, but they're much bigger. And if you get into the right spot, you can catch some really large cutthroat trout in September. And the river is not very crowded in September.
The Yellowstone River below downstream of Yellowstone National Park can be good in the fall. And the Madison River, although, you know, it gets really crowded during the summer, is not bad in September. The crowds tend to dissipate in September, and you won't see as much drift boat traffic. And the thing about the Madison is it's a very tricky river to wade, it's a difficult river to wade, but most of the fish are going to be really close to the bank. So, often you don't even need to get in the water or just ankle deep and fish up along the banks, and you should have some pretty good fishing. But there are lots of options in that area.
Again, I would go to a fly shop and get some advice. There are lots of fly shops in both Bozeman and Livingston, so you won't have to look very hard to find a fly shop. My other suggestion would be to leave the 8-weight home. Typically, water levels are low in September. It's mainly nymphs and dry fly fishing. Unless you have a rainy day, you're probably not going to be fishing streamers, and an 8-weight's just too heavy. Just leave the 8-weight home, take your 5-weight, and you should have a great time. So, I wish you the best of luck.
Here's an email from Frank. "Hey, Tom. I've been reading some conflicting information on releasing deeply hooked fish and would like your thoughts. I recently hooked a couple of trout where the gills attached to the lower jaw. The first one died quickly after I removed the fly. The fly was securely bedded into the fish and was difficult to remove with the forceps. So, on the second fish, I left the fly in and cut my line. The fish look healthy when he swam away. I always fish with barbless flies. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks so much."
Well, Frank, absolutely, the best thing to do if a fish is deeply hooked, whether it's barbless or not, just cut off the fly as close as you can to the fly and let the fish go as quickly as you can. That's what I do. And barbless hooks...the fish will get the barbless hook out pretty quickly. You know, it can be a matter of minutes before the fish is able to dislodge the fly. And even if it stays in there, the fish may survive. So, definitely, if a fish is deeply hooked, don't try to poke around down there with your forceps if it's hooked deep, particularly near the gills, just cut off the fly and let the fish go and hope for the best.
Here's an email from Caleb from Central Pennsylvania. "I just recently found the podcast and I've been devouring them. I recently listened to your podcast about why young people are getting into the sport and thought I'd share my story. I'm 24 and just seriously getting into fly fishing this year. But eight years prior, my mom gave me a book called "The Complete Book of Fly Fishing" by Joe Brooks. I read that through and through and was very intrigued. The art, skill, and creativity especially with tying flies drew me in, and Joe's stories of chasing after big fish hooked me. I wanted to fly fish, spin casting seems boring now.
Amazingly, my dad had an old fiberglass 7 or 8-weight eight-and-a-half-foot rod that he got at an auction years ago that I could use. After buying some new 7-weight floating line, I began learning the cast and also bought a fly-tying kit to begin tying my own flies. I tied a lot of bad-looking flies and didn't catch any fish in the two years I was interested. Life got in the way for a bit, but this year, I had an urge to get back into it. I've been researching and learning a ton these last few months and finally understand so much that I didn't before. Anyway, been fishing as much as I can and I'm finally catching bass on my local streams. Excited to fish for trout this fall.
To answer your question about what draws young people to fly fishing, I'd say this young fisherman enjoys the uniqueness and technical skills required. Learning different casts, fly selection, fly tying, searching for trout, and trying to sneak up on them and put the fly in the drop zone, I love it all, and the fly tying is a great creative outlet for me as well. Also, I gotta say I love how vocal the fly fishing community is about fish conservation. Hearing about how to properly handle fish and not fish when it's too warm is something I've never heard outside this community. Thank you all for that.
Anyway, hopefully, it wasn't too much of a ramble. I wanted to finish with a question. When I went fishing on a local fame trout stream earlier this year, I noticed a lot of fishermen casting very short distances 10 to 15 feet while fishing riffles. I would think being that close would spook the fish. Can you get that close to trout without spooking? If so, how is it done, because I've never caught anything that close to me?"
Well, Caleb, what you probably saw those anglers doing is Euro nymphing or high sticking or tightline fishing. And yes, in riffles, you can get quite a bit closer to fish. They're facing upstream, so to stay out of most of their vision, you're approaching from downstream or even across from them. And in riffles, you can get pretty close to fish. And particularly in streams that are heavily fished, it sounds like the stream is heavily fished, the fish aren't as spooky because they see anglers all day long. So, you can get a lot closer to fish where they're being pressured.
And particularly in broken water, they're not as spooky, they can't see you as well, and they just seem to feel more secure in riffles. The same thing, you wouldn't be able to get as close in a still pool to a trout probably or slower water, but in a riffle, you can get pretty darn close. And so, I think that's what they were doing and, you know, fish more riffles and fish upstream or angling upstream and you should be able to get pretty close to the fish. And also, the fish are a lot less spooky when they're actively feeding. So, if there's a hatch or something going on, you'll be able to get a lot closer to those fish. So, keep trying, you'll be able to catch some of those fish at 10 to 15 feet away.
Ben: Hi, Tom. Ben from Michigan here. You answered one of my questions a while back regarding restoring the buoyancy of a floating line when it starts sinking. As you mentioned, there's no way to fix the line. That's correct. But I was more referring to lines that have no apparent physical damage that are supposed to float but seems to sink more often than not. I've noticed this with a few trusted name brands after just a short amount of use and it's puzzling to see. In my experience, cleaning these lines doesn't seem to do the trick either. Is this just a classic case of you get what you pay for, or is there something that can be done for these lines?
Secondly, I want to give my thoughts on the terms high-holing and low-holing because I hear them tossed around in many angling circles, but nobody I've met can define exactly what they mean. I've heard them use interchangeably for general bed etiquette when it comes to a stranger fishing in the zone that someone feels they have dibs on, but I want to take a stab at their actual definitions. In my opinion, high-holing is a wading-specific term for when you're working your way upstream and a stranger leapfrogs over you to fish the next hole above you. And low-holing is a drift-specific term where someone rows quickly past you and anchors in a zone directly below you. Do you have any thoughts on this? Thanks as always, Tom.
Tom: Well, Ben, you know, if you're cleaning your line and it still doesn't float well, there's a couple of things...the line just could be old and, you know, they gradually will wear out and just won't float as well. And this is particularly common with light lines, especially like 2, 3, and 4-weight lines. The problem is that the core inside the lines is always the same diameter and 3 and 4-weight lines have less coating around the core. So, they don't tend to float as well as like a 5 or 6-weight line because they just don't have as much buoyant coating around that core and the core can get a little water in it and then the tip of the fly line in particular is going to sink.
You know, if you clean the lines really well and they still don't float, you can put like a line dressing or you can try a dry fly paste dressing or liquid gel on the line, you can rub some on the line, that'll keep it floating for a little while. You have to keep redressing the line because it does pick up dirt and it kind of gunks up your guides if you're going back through the guides. But, you know, as a last resort, putting some sort of dressing on a fly line will help with that a little bit more. The best option is, I hate to say this, but it's probably to spend more money and get the very best fly line you can.
You generally get what you pay for in fly lines and the more expensive floating lines, you know, the ones that cost around $100 or a little more are going to float better and they're going to float longer and they're going to last longer. Something like the Orvis PRO Lines or Scientific Anglers Mastery...I think it's Mastery Series, I don't know their designations that well. But the more expensive Scientific Anglers lines, as well as the Orvis lines, are going to float better and float longer.
Regarding high-holing or low-holing, I don't know if there's an exact definition. Both of those are people just getting too close to you. It's rude and it's arrogant and people shouldn't do it, but they do. High-holing is where somebody gets in the water upstream of you and low-holing is where someone gets in the river downstream of you. And it doesn't matter if you're in a boat or you're wading, that's what high-holing and low-holing are, it depends on the direction of the current. Now, if you're fishing upstream, you know, if you're fishing dry flies or nymphs and you're working upstream, low-holing isn't so bad because you've already fished that water or you're moving in the opposite direction.
They're not going to spook your fish and I guess it's not a big deal. And if you're swinging flies or you're swinging streamers or wet flies and you're working downstream, then low-holing isn't so good, but high-holing, if somebody gets in above you, since you're working downstream, really doesn't matter. So, that's the definition as I understand it, it just depends on which direction you're fishing and the direction of the current. But either way, it's not cool. You know, when somebody gets in the water too close to you is just not cool.
All right, that's the Fly Box for this week. That's the pleasant part of this week's fly cast. It's a discussion, I think, with Mike is fascinating, but it's not exactly uplifting. And, again, to reiterate, I do hope that it moves some of you to action and to start putting some pressure on politicians and on the chemical industry in general. Well, my guest today is Michael Miller. And besides being a very serious fly fisher, Michael is a scientist. Michael, do you want to...welcome to the podcast, do you want to tell people what you do for a living?
Michael: Sure. Thanks, Tom. So, again, my name is Mike Miller. I'm a stream ecologist and I work for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. I also am an instructor at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I've been teaching stream ecology there for about the last 10 years or so. And my primary work responsibilities are monitoring our stream resources statewide in Wisconsin, and also developing some of the biological indicators that we use to assess stream health and watershed health, and how to interpret that data. Just this summer, the state of Wisconsin and many states are collaborating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a national survey of streams and rivers that occurs every four years. So, we'll have 50 stream sites scattered across the state that we'll survey, looking at physical, chemical, and biological conditions of the streams. So, frankly, I grew up in Wisconsin, near my house, there's a kind of beat-up little stream, beat up by agriculture that I spent most of my free time playing in, and now I'm getting paid to play in streams.
Tom: Yeah, both of us. Nobody's feeling sorry for either one of us, right?
Michael: That's right.
Tom: Okay. So, the topic today is stream ecology and pesticides. And those people who listen to the podcast regularly are not surprised that I'm doing this podcast because it's something that keeps me up at night. I live in an agricultural valley, I have a trout stream in my backyard, and I worry about the insect population, I see it declining. And so, Michael, why don't you talk about some of the things that you have discovered particularly about neonics?
Michael: Right, and, frankly, your concerns...well, I'll back up and say that flyfishers in particular are quite observant streamside, so they're some of the best kind of citizen scientists out there that spent decades on the same streams and very familiar with the hatches and the various life on their streams. And so, your observations, Tom, of seeing declines in some of your favorite waters of certain taxa like mayflies or stoneflies or whatever, you know, that's been reported across the country. The sad thing is, unfortunately, at the kind of national and state level, we don't see very good long-term trend data to understand what's happening in great detail, but again, a lot of the observations that anglers across the country, flyfishers, in particular, are seeing are, you know, raising the alarm.
So, I'm grateful to have this opportunity to speak to your audience. I'm hoping your listeners are vocal advocates for the resources. Again, trout streams don't have enough friends, so the more you speak up, I think the better off we are in trying to protect and manage our resources. So, again, I get it that looking at your kind of list of topics covered in your podcasts, you know, tends to deal more with how to increase your angling success or opportunities and that's all interesting to us, of course, but as advocates for the resources, I think we need to be exposed to some of these issues and more importantly, be vocal about it.
So, back to the topic at hand as far as these neonics and insecticides, probably about 10 years ago, there's some studies done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, they did a study in the upper Midwest, a very intensive study of streams across multiple states and their findings showing that some of the pesticides and herbicides showing up in streams are having fairly profound effects on aquatic life, in particular, aquatic insects. That got my attention, so I frankly solicited some grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency to start sampling streams in the state of Wisconsin to better understand what the concentrations of these chemicals are and how it varies across land use types or stream types, that sort of thing.
So, for the last two years or so, much of my work has been focused on surveying streams across the state and interpreting that data, not only for neonics, but thinking of hundreds of other agrochemicals that are showing up in our streams. So, again, in 2021, I started sampling, just hand-picking stream sites in part of the state with heavy agriculture. At that time, I didn't have an understanding of whether or not we'd even detect these compounds. You know, they're measured at the parts per trillion level, and they have effects at those concentrations. So, my fear was that go and sample dozens, if not 100 streams, and then get a bunch of data that was not too informative.
So, I purposely went out and handpick sites in heavy ag, got those results back, and again, a very high proportion of those streams are having detectable levels of neonics. And so, back then in 2022, it was kind of more systematic, where you use a random sample stream sites across the state to better quantify the concentrations and again, how that might vary by land use type or stream type. And some of that data is still being reported by the labs, I don't have that written up just yet, so my goal is to better characterize the concentration of these chemicals and then relay that to our resource managers in the legislature and hopefully affect some change in the state with just kind of, frankly, raising the alarm about the occurrences of chemicals. So, Tom, I don't know if you want me to provide any backstory on the chemicals themselves or if that'd be helpful for your audience.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Michael: Okay, so neonicotinoids doesn't really roll off one's tongue, so let's use the term neonics probably for the rest of this discussion. But again, they're insecticides and in essence, they're a synthetic version of nicotine compounds. Plants like tobacco or tomatoes or potatoes, they all naturally produce nicotine, and that ward off insect pests. And so, when a human, you smokes a cigarette or whatever and they ingest nicotine and they get nervous stimulation, whereas when insects which are much more sensitive to these chemicals, when they're exposed to these chemicals, they undergo paralysis and death. So, again, the insects are extremely sensitive to the neonic compounds, and the effects on the animals themselves are...these chemicals are neurotoxin, so they disrupt the nervous system communication from, you know, nerves and muscles and organs. So, that's the kind of mode of action.
And this insecticide, some key facts about these chemicals are that, one, you know, they bind permanently to the neural receptors in insects and other animals. So, the point being is if you're a baited mayfly that maybe lives for four months in the stream before you emerge as a winged adult, you're gonna have a certain exposure timeframe, whereas if, for example, a longer live mayfly like Hexaginia that may live in the larval stage in a river or a lake for maybe two, three years, they get much more bigger exposure to those chemicals. And another issue is that on the marketplace, there's probably four or five major neonic compounds being sold for crop usage but they all have the same physiological effect on animals.
So, it's an additive thing where, you know, if one farmer is using one neonic compound for one crop and a different one for a different crop, again, an additive effect with these chemicals flowing into our streams can be very substantial. And again, they're marketed as being safe in terms of mammals and humans and there's some evidence that suggests that may not be completely true. So, again, mammals, vertebrates in particular, are less sensitive but the invertebrates, you know, in our streams and elsewhere are extremely sensitive to these chemicals.
Tom: One of the things that...I watched a video that you presented, I think it was at a Trout Unlimited presentation.
Michael: Right.
Tom: And one of the things that just scared the hell out of me was you're saying that...what was it? Ninety-five percent of the seed corn sold in the United States is treated with neonics?
Michael: Yes, yeah, mean closer? Yeah, certainly, 95% or thereabouts. And, you know, frankly, what's happening is these large chemical companies are actually buying up a lot of the seed producers. So, even if an ag producer or a farmer wanted to choose not to use these chemicals, effectively, they don't have a choice or very few options. Again, a lot of these smaller seed-producing companies are being bought up by these multinational corporations and they apply that neonics to the seeds. And so, then the farmer is kind of taken out of that process as far as choosing whether or not to use those chemicals.
Tom: So, even if the farmer doesn't want neonics on his or her field, they don't have a choice, right?
Michael: Exactly.
Tom: Now, if someone's an organic farmer, let's say...I have a neighbor who actually was an organic dairy farmer, but he had to stop his operation because it wasn't profitable. But if he's an organic farmer, would he be able to get seed corn for his fields? Because he couldn't use the standard corn, right?
Michael: Right, right, right. Yeah. And I have sort of limited kind of understanding with kind of this market, but certainly, there's still...I don't want to call it niche, but small seed producers in various states. You know, I know there's someone in the state of Wisconsin as an example. So, no doubt, you search and kind of look fairly hard, I think, to find some of these companies that produce that are not treated. So, again, it's out there but I think for these larger ag operations where they're planting hundreds of acres of corn or something, they need large quantities of seed. So, for the vast majority of corn producers out there, and this holds true for soybean and wheat and a number of other grain crops as well, you know, you're gonna be pretty hard-pressed to find untreated seeds.
Tom: No, sorry, go ahead.
Michael: Well, I just want know, we can talk about kind of risk-benefit of using these chemicals. There's a very interesting study done by Cornell University in 2020, the report is released, the first author was Grogio [SP]. But they did a massive search of the literature of various studies and they took data from hundreds and hundreds of studies of corn production and soybean production. And they found that for corn, they'd get these pair test plots where...again, Cornell didn't do it, but a number of different agencies and universities did and I think 13 or 15 different states were involved and at least one or two Canadian provinces were involved in these studies.
And they'd have test plots where they planted corn, for example, that had neonic-treated seeds and then a test plot that did not use the treated seeds. And, again, it is upwards of like 333 different studies for corn that they followed that, and in 85% of these studies, again, the plots that use the treated seeds did not see any increase in crop yield. And the same holds true for soybeans, a very extensive summation of the literature where again, the same deal, where they had hundreds and hundreds of studies of paired test plots and they showed that in using these chemicals, the farmers were not benefiting from the use of these chemicals, they did not see any major improvements in crop yields. And for some of the studies where they did see increases in crop yields, typically it's fairly negligible and it was not enough to offset the cost of the chemicals themselves.
So, you know, one has to pose the question of, "Okay, if the ag producers are not benefiting from this and certainly, the environment is not benefiting from neonics, who is?" And you folks should answer that question for yourself. So, in some of the European Union...and again, this is kind of on the fringe of my knowledge. But, you know, the European Union has banned the use of these chemicals for the most part. I believe Canada and a number of other countries have as well. It's kind of curious that one of the major producers of these chemicals is situated in Germany and they can't use the chemicals in their own country, they, you know, market them in the U.S.
So, again, it seems like kind of curious situation that there's widespread use of these chemicals and they seem relatively ineffective, but I just feel like that's something that needs to be addressed. And then another key issue is, you know, currently, right now these chemicals are used, they represent, I think, upwards of...certainly, about 3% of all pesticides used on planet Earth are these neonics. So, there's really very widespread usage across the planet. So, the question is, "Okay, it's one of the most widely used pesticides, certainly in the United States, so how much are these chemicals are we using?"
And the reality is that, frankly, the Environmental Protection Agency is not tracking the use of the quantities of these neonics across the U.S. There's a loophole in some of the pesticide regulations where it's termed a treated article exemption where, again, these are insecticides, but since they're applied to the seeds, somehow they are no longer considered pesticides. So, it's just...I wouldn't say comical because it's kind of a sad situation, but we're using these chemicals, they're being shown in a number of studies showing the impacts these chemicals are increasing rapidly as far as the impacts to the environment. Yet, we really don't know how much these chemicals are being used or were tracked up until 2015 or so. And I should back up and say that, you know, they first became commercially available in 1994 and if you look at the trend line of the use of these chemicals, it's just exponential growth. But since 2015 where you really don't know how much of these chemicals are we applying to the landscapes, I find that really disturbing.
Tom: Yeah, and it seems like in the past 10 years or so, you hear so many fly fishers complaining that the hatches aren't what they used to be. And I've seen that myself, you know, it seems to be a dramatic decrease in insects since neonics became popular. And, I mean, it's just so scary because you gotta believe that 98% of the population thinks, "Oh, insects, you know, mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, whatever, I don't care, I don't want insects around, so that's good that insects are declining." I mean, you hear about the honeybees, the dramatic decline in honeybees, but that's the only thing most people care about, right? Or butterflies.
Michael: That's right.
Tom: But people don't realize that insects are such an important part of the ecosystem. You know, It's a cascade from the insects go down, the fish go down, the birds go down, the mink go down, you know, everything is affected by it.
Michael: Right. There's a Harvard...he's an entomologist, E.O. Wilson, unfortunately, passed away like two years ago. He's like the world's authority on ants. But it is a quote that I vaguely remember that he said that, you know, people don't have this understanding that invertebrates are the movers and shakers in the natural world. You know, they make up 80% or 90% of the biomass of all animals that are in the environment. So, again, if we start losing those organisms, that's gonna have very profound effects, as you just pointed out, Tom, as far as it affects higher up in the food chain.
So, again, as you just pointed out, you know, people tend to dismiss the insects and find them more of a pest than anything else. But, you know, anyone that has some level of understanding of food chains or food webs should appreciate the fact that if we lose the base of the food web, that's going to have real profound effects higher up in the food chain. And we're seeing that now with like insectivorous birds and other animals that rely heavily on winged insects as an example, so we're starting to see the effects of that. You touched on, you know, most people have not heard of neonics but many people or more people have heard of colony collapse in honeybees.
And just put into perspective the toxicity of neonics, the lethal dose of neonics for a single honeybee is 5 nanograms, so that's 5 billion with a B of a gram of neonics is enough to kill a honeybee. Now, to put that into perspective, when you have your sugar packet that you pour into your coffee or tea or whatever, one single sugar granule weighs 635,000 nanograms, but the point is that the quantity of neonics the size of that sugar granule is enough to kill 125,000 honeybees. One granule worth of neonics, 125,000 honeybees. How many tons of this chemical are we applying on the landscape? We don't know. I'm going to continue with that analogy.
A sugar packet, again, one of those little paper packets holds somewhere between three and four grams of sugar. That comparable of neonics is enough to kill 600 million honeybees. Six hundred million honeybees killed by, again, a sugar packet's worth of neonics. And again, we apply this widespread across the landscape and, you know, it's being used for not only corn and soybean production, but in urban areas for...we apply the granular versions of it on green spaces or rec fields or golf courses or, you know, lawn care supply company uses chemicals. You know, so the list goes on, so it's not just an agricultural issue, but an urban issue as well. And the sampling I've been during the last couple of years shows these chemicals are showing up in high concentrations in our urban watersheds as well. So, again, it's, you know, pretty ubiquitous in the environment.
Tom: So, what can we do, you know, as just ordinary citizens? What can we do to reverse this or turn this around? Are there any organizations...I think National Resource Defense Council is doing some lobbying for banning of neonics, I believe. Do you know who is...?
Michael: Yeah, I'm kind of in the fringe of my knowledge here but, yeah, certainly, as you just mentioned, Natural Resource Defense Council. I would offer that there's a Pesticide Action Network and they recently...well, not recently, probably about a year ago now, they brought a lawsuit against the EPA that forced them to start reporting the fact that, again, the most common use of neonics in the U.S. and probably worldwide is, again, seed treatments. So, given the fact that we're ignoring the tracking of the use of these chemicals via seed treatment, that's just not right. So, again, this Pesticide Action Network has brought a lawsuit.
So, I think in general, number one, you know, neonics most people are not, you know, aware of the situation. So, I think, you know, frankly, it's folks like us that are in the streams observing the aquatic life and changes in the invertebrate populations, that's our thing. You know, if we don't speak up, frankly, I'm not certain who will. But, you know, there's certainly other group for this. The Audubon Society is concerned about the loss of songbirds because of the loss of their food base, that sort of thing. So, you know, I'm not certain the best mechanism to become active or how to best do this but perhaps...again, I have no affiliation with this Pesticide Action Network and I don't know the details on their mission, but I do know they did bring up a lawsuit against the EPA to kind of force their hand on this. So, perhaps that's a good starting point.
You know, not to sound too pessimistic here, but I'm not particularly optimistic about our state or federal legislators becoming too active here. So, I think some sort of, you know, kind of grassroots-level type efforts are necessary just to raise the awareness and kind of press the federal government. I suspect that, you know, by and large, the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency kind of recognize the concerns here, but they're, I would think, somewhat hamstrung by Congress, so that's kind of a tough nut to crack. But, you know, historically, things like DDT, you know, frankly, citizens became active, they put up yard signs saying, "Ban DDT," that sort of thing. And just for the record, neonics are thought to be about 7,000 times more toxic than DDTs. So, if we're concerned about DDT, perhaps we need to kind of ramp up the level of awareness on these chemicals as well.
Tom: We need a new Rachel Carlson.
Michael: Exactly, that's right.
Tom: So, I was just kind of thinking out loud here. If someone is like on the park board, local park board or, you know, have some influence in their local golf course, do you think that they could, you know, question the use of neonics and, you know, turn that around, at least on a small scale?
Michael: Yeah, yeah, I think that...again, for better or worse, I've kind of always shied away from kind of policy and advocacy issues other than just kind of general trying to educate the public, that sort of thing. So, yeah, I think that's a good starting point. I think making the case that, one, these chemicals are widespread, two, they are highly toxic, three, at least for things like many of these crop species and this may hold true for turf and other applications as well, but the fact that they're found to be relatively ineffective. But one thing I failed to mention with the issue with seed applications, at least for corn, is upwards of about 90-plus percent of the neonics that are applied to the seeds washed off before they're even taken up by the plant. So, again, we're applying vast quantities of chemicals in the seeds, a very small percentage is actually taken up by the plant.
It's water-soluble, so the theory is the seed starts sprouting and it will take up some of the chemicals into the body of the plant itself, and it gets distributed throughout the plant. The reality is studies have shown or provided evidence that by the time pest species like's kind of common pest species for soybeans and I think corn to some extent. By the time the aphids are...their populations are expanding in mid to late summer, those chemicals are pretty much washed out or diluted out of the system of the plant. So, again, we're applying chemicals that are found to be, you know, for the most part, you know, vastly ineffective. So, you know, why are we doing this?
So, you know, I just think just making the case of, okay, these things are highly toxic, there's little demonstrated benefit to the ag producers. You know, I'm not certain how that holds true for turf management or some of these other applications. But it doesn' know, it just seems very illogical that, okay, we're applying these toxins to the landscape and there's no demonstrated benefit, at least for the vast majority of the crops like corn and soybeans and wheat, etc. So, just common sense of what really should prevail here, and make for a pretty strong case that, "Okay, we need to change our management in the use of these chemicals."
Tom: Let's name some names here. I mean, it seems apparent that the chemical companies themselves are the ones who are pushing this upon agriculture.
Michael: Right.
Tom: What are some of the companies that produce these neonics?
Michael: Sure, so Bayer Crop Science and they're an Indian company that's a subsidiary of the Bayer Chemical Corporation rather in Germany. Then Syngenta, which is based in Northern Europe...I'm going blank. They're now, in essence, a holding of like a Chinese company. So, Bayer and Syngenta are some of the two biggest producers. Actually, Syngenta is based in Switzerland. So, I don't know the exact percentage but I'm pretty confident saying that those two companies certainly had the vast majority of the neonics market.
Tom: Well, I imagine if someone has one of those companies in their stock portfolio, they might want to change their mix there.
Michael: And start to reconsider a little bit.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. How about, you know, I mean the little things that we can do? Buying organic produce, are we helping at all by buying organic produce and food instead of, you know...?
Michael: Yeah, I think at the consumer level, and again, that's not my world, but I know there's been pressure from citizens to kind of...well, for lack of a better term, kind of force Walmart and some of these other like Home Depot or some of these other home stores that sell plants, there's been some pushback. And now as I understand it, again, Walmart and Home Depot, and I think Lowe's and others have discontinued the selling of plants that are pre-treated with neonics. And I don't know the extent of whether or not they've taken those chemicals off the shelf as far as, you know, the pesticides themselves that they market or whatever. So, I think in some respects that might be perhaps slightly more effective than the kind of organic food market. But again, that's just my speculation, I just don't have real knowledge on that.
But again, I just feel like individuals need to speak up in organizations, whether it's trying to eliminate it at every local TU chapter or others. Again, you know, we anglers are again seeing this decline in mayflies and caddisflies firsthand, and again, the vast majority of the public has no idea what a mayfly is or a caddisfly. And you pointed out earlier that, "Oh, these are just kind of little pesky things that fly on our lights at night or something, you know, the fewer the better." So, again, I just feel like if we don't speak up, then frankly, I'm not certain who will. And I know there's opportunities to, again, build a coalition between bird enthusiasts and other people concerned about wildlife or whatever it is to create a larger voice versus each one of these individual entities trying to kind of take on this battle. And I'm not a strategic planner in all this, but that just comes to mind when you pose the question.
Tom: Yeah, I mean, people want to know...I mean, I'm sure people are gonna be enraged when they hear this because a lot of people aren't aware of it and they want to know, "What can I do? What can I do as an individual, as a citizen?" Can I go to the local hardware store and buy any products that have neonics in them right now?
Michael: Yeah, I'm sure you can. You know, there's been a couple of states, I think Vermont and perhaps...there's been some minor efforts to, for lack of a better term, ban the sales of some of these chemicals or restrict their usages or whatever, and sometimes they're restricted via certified pesticide applicator and that sort of thing. So, that's a minor effort. And so, it might be informative to learn what the state of New York or Vermont or a few of these other...I think New Hampshire might have made some efforts to restrict their usage as well, and just kind of emulate what they've done and learn from how do they affect these changes and can we apply that in our respective states to make a difference.
Tom: Yeah, Vermont might have banned it at the retail level, but there's a lot of agriculture here and I'm sure that that's been exempt from any kind of regulation.
Michael: Right. So, yeah, just again kind of getting the word out and the fact that and the experts have read that 90% of these chemicals are applied as seed treatments. So, again, if we can win those battles of, one, reversing the legislation that know, suggestions or reports that since they're applied to seed that it's somehow magically not an insecticide or toxic the environment, if we can kind of get that nonsense resolved. And then this idea that, okay, the challenge with trying to reduce chemical usage of agricultural industries as well, you're gonna impact the bottom line and we need to have a strong food network or system, whatever, I get all that.
But the fact is that there's very strong evidence in this Cornell study and others show that, again, we're not seeing any improvements in crop yields when we use these chemicals. So, it seems like it's a pretty straightforward situation that the environment is not benefiting, the producers of corn, soybeans, and other crops are not benefiting, so, you know, let's resolve this. So, it seems like that's the kind of area that we should focus on given the vast usage by, again, seed coatings of these chemicals.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Wow, it's a big problem.
Michael: Right, right. So, I much rather talk about my favorite nymph pattern but again, if we're concerned about supporting the health of our cold water resources and getting something, we need to take up...I mean, like I said a number of times, I just feel like if not us, who is going to address this?
Michael: Yeah. So, what is your favorite nymph pattern? Let's end it on a positive note.
Michael: Pretty boring stuff. Probably like Beadhead Pheasant Tail. Nothing exotic but, you know, it works for me.
Tom: What size?
Michael: Yeah, so I'll say like an 18 or so. A little on the smaller side or something.
Tom: Yeah. Well, you know, it's interesting you mentioned the beadhead mayflies because they're multi-broods, they have short lives as a larva, and, you know, you still see good beadhead hatches in most rivers, which tie into the effect of neonics because you don't see as many of the bigger mayflies, the longer-lived mayflies and the bigger stoneflies that are maybe, you know, living underwater for a couple of years.
Michael: Yeah, just to that point, kind of tie it back a little bit more of interest to the audience. So, the Hexaginia mayflies, so many of your listeners are familiar with the Hex hatch or whatever. For example, in the Upper Mississippi River, one, Hexingenia are burrowing mayflies, so they live in environments as larvae where there are soft sediments and they create this little U-shaped burrow, and that's where they live in for two, three years. In the upper Midwest, we used to have these...well, back in the '50s, I'd say, perhaps earlier, there's the phenomenal hatches of Hexaginia and then they dropped off for a few decades. And they started to resurge perhaps about 30 years ago in these phenomenal hatches, and now they're starting to drop off again.
They actually use weather radar and I suspect many of your audience have seen these video clips showing the Hexaginia hatching out in such great numbers and it looks like a big storm blowing up on either Western Lake Erie or the Upper Mississippi River or wherever. And so, they are now using LIDAR radar to quantify these emergences and there's been some recent studies showing that at least in the Upper Mississippi River and the Western Lake Erie Basin that the Hexaginia mayfly hatches have declined by upwards of 50%. So, once again, that's pretty alarming. And whether we can tie that back to the advent of neonics or not, that remains to be seen, but we're seeing those changes as well.
And to get, you know, these emergences in a perspective, again, it'll look like a snowstorm here in the upper Midwest when they hatch out in late June, early July. And based on these estimates with the radar, upwards of 80 billion mayflies emerged in one emergence, and your audience knows that there's multiple emergences throughout the mid-summer and that equates to, I think, like three tons of biomass, kind of getting back pre-emergent. So, a lot of animals, whether it's bats or birds or spiders kind of time their reproduction, their reproductive cycle to the emergences of some of these insects. So, if we lose these, again, you know, we touched on this idea of food chains earlier, you know, that can have real profound effects on these other animals up and down the food chain.
Tom: And, Mike, you were saying that you want to do some more exhaustive studies and you're actually looking for grant money. Do you want to describe that a little bit, and maybe some people can help with that?
Michael: Sure. I'm not comfortable groveling for money, but here goes. So, in the Netherlands...well, let me back up. So, for 100 years, 100-plus years, entomologists have used something called light traps. So, they take a bedsheet, hang it on a rope, and then with an electric lamp or a gas lantern that shines the light on these bedsheets at night, and then they sit there throughout the night and they're looking for certain specimens of certain insects, mayflies or caddis, whatever it is. Pluck them off the sheet and put them in their collection or they drip the sheet in like a vat of ethanol or whatever and the insects, many of them would kind of flutter and then fall into the ethanol and get drowned and then in the morning, they had to sift them out and then they spent the next two weeks sorting and identifying all these insects.
But now with pretty low-cost company called Raspberry Pi makes these little computers that cost 100 bucks, about the size of a deck of cards, it's extremely powerful. But now with these microcomputers and very low-cost computers and low-cost cameras and the advent of artificial intelligence, the Netherlands have developed this network of monitors these lighted insect traps where they deploy them in fields or long streams or whatever, and they autonomously turn on at night, they have a lighted screen, they have UV lights that attract the insects. The insects are attracted to a screen and their photograph was taken, and then they use this artificial intelligence to identify and confirm the insects of interest and then they use a cellular link, so they actually pump the data to some scientists sitting at his desk or her desk of what was fallen in that trap that night.
So, again, the fact is that the Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Geological Survey or the National Park Service or others, they're not tracking insect trends. And so, my plan is...and I'm not the first person that thought this, but actively looking right now for some university engineers and entomologists to develop our own light trap.
And we have a prototype, and again, I've yet to deploy it, that's kind of my task for the next month or so, but it's going to turn on at night, photograph insects, and then capture those images.
The heavy lifting in all of this is to get enough images and what you do is you have an image of a mayfly and you annotate the image saying, "This is a mayfly," and, "This is a caddis fly," and, "This is a stonefly," and you feed those images and the identifications into a computer and then a computer learns how to identify what those animals are, and then ultimately count them. So, again, the Netherlands and the UK have the systems up and running now, and my hope is we can establish something like that in the U.S. So, as far as any real support, I have, again, like five graduate engineering students working on this project. And so, I'm just trying to keep them funded as far as when they need new hardware or additional hardware.
And then ultimately, what I want to do is that we developed something that's open source so anybody that wants to build one of these things can and then develop it in a way that you can use them. This is not my world, but like CNC machining where you have a computer-controlled milling device that can cut out the parts for the light trap and add the camera and the microcomputer and the lights and that sort of thing. So, the point is to build this network of people deploying these devices, and then we can crowdsource that image information to more quickly develop this artificial intelligence to identify the insect.
So, the end goal would be to have a low-cost device like under 100...excuse me, under $1,000, maybe like 600, 700, 800 bucks, and you deploy it out on the field next to your favorite trout stream. It's battery powered and perhaps it has a solar panel on it. It's got a timer in it, it turns out at night, it turns on the UV LEDs, tracks the insects, takes their photographs, and then shuts down. And it's ruggedized, so it can withstand rain or whatever. But the point is that we can start developing this network of stream sentinels or you could apply it in the forest or the brush or whatever, and start getting a better understanding of what we have for insect life out there. Again, I think this would go a long way towards getting at this question of kind of what kind of impacts are we seeing on the landscape.
So, that's what I've been working on. Again, as far as sort of financial support, I'm still reaching out to some federal agencies that I think should be the ones, you know, supporting this. But if anybody wants to kind of buy into this, I'd be more than happy to entertain any and all offers. You know, the plan is to just set up a fund with the University of Wisconsin and again, we're not looking for a ton of cash, I'm looking to develop some kind of money-making enterprise here, but more developing this network of camera traps so we can start better quantifying what's on the landscape and centralized it.
Tom: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. Is there a way that people can contact you so that once you get some kind of fund set up, they can then donate?
Michael: Sure. Either one, they can...well, my email address is michaela, one word, my middle initial is A, so michaela.miller, M-I-L-L-E-R, @wisconsin, entire word, .gov, as in government, or they can go to the State of Wisconsin State Employee Directory and look me up. But again, if there's folks that want to get involved, my plan is also...kind of more at the local or state level is to get a few TU chapters deploying a few of these devices, just to, you know, test them out and kind of field test them. And presumably, there'd be some interest know, everybody's got their home waters and I think it'd be interesting kind of knowing what's emerging and, you know, I see there's direct relevance to matching the hatch and kind of knowing what's happening as far as the timing of the emergences, that kind of stuff. But, again, my greater interest here is just getting better information on how insect populations vary across the landscape and, you know, their geographic differences because of land use differences or whatever, so that's the plan.
Tom: Okay. Yeah, we're not going to get any movement on this until we can quantify the decline in aquatic insects.
Michael: Right, right, and part of my work here, again, you know, we go and collect hundreds of kick samples as we call them, where we take a net, a kick net, and you kick the stream back and you dislodge larval, insects, or whatever. So, we have a long-term data set for Wisconsin but unfortunately, the reasons we're collecting samples often varied at a time when you're looking at sampling below the barnyard or where some habitat restoration work was done or whatever. So, we have data from thousands of stream sites and these samples are not quantitative, they're qualitative, we can't offer the percentage of mayflies fallen or whatever.
But the point is I've been pulling my hair out over the last year or so working with some groups, smart analysts trying to tease out some trend data from this data set and, you know, we certainly have been hearing in the State of Wisconsin, like you folks have been observing, that we're seeing declines in some of the emergences over the years. So, we're trying to see if our data that we have in hand can show some evidence of that just because, frankly, the data is so messy, we're really struggling to do that. So, my hope is with the light traps, we can develop a broad network of people collecting this data that we can have a much better understanding of what's happening across the landscape.
Tom: That is great work, and I want to want to thank you for all the work you've been doing and also for sharing your time with us and educating us on this scary subject.
Michael: It is.
Tom: Mike, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, really appreciate it, and I want to wish you the best of luck with your ongoing projects.
Michael: Thanks for that and I appreciate the opportunity. And again, one last plug for your audience that, again, we need to take it upon ourselves to make a difference here and I truly feel like, you know, if we don't, I'm hard-pressed to think who will. So, as advocates for these cold water resources in particular, we need to speak up. And I know TU and other organizations have been very active over the years in a number of different topics, but I think this is one that we need to kind of ramp up our efforts on.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Thanks again, Mike.
Michael: My pleasure. Thanks for taking the time.
Tom: Okay. Thanks for listening to "The Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast" with Tom Rosenbauer. You can be a part of the show. Have a question or a comment? Send it to us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. in the body of an email or as a voice attachment. You can find more free fishing tips at