Hal Mahnke used to spend his spare hours hooking steelhead. In recent years, he’s spent a lot more time climbing into chilly hatchery tanks to net fish and pitch smelly salmon carcasses along streams.
The Longview outdoorsman’s current leisure hours are spent as a volunteer for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I’ve caught a lot of fish over the years,” he said. “I feel like I’m giving back.”
And, he said, “I’m having fun.”
Mahnke’s hundreds of hours of service have earned him a prestigious award. WDFW has honored Mahnke, 68, as one of two Volunteers of the Year statewide.
“That’s a pretty big deal,” said Wolf Dammers, a WDFW fish biologist. “He was up against some pretty tough competition statewide.”
The agency cited Mahnke’s volunteer work on several projects in awarding him the prize, but his attitude and generosity were especially important.
“One of the things is the incredible amount of time he spends,” said Pat Hulett, another WDFW biologist. “And he’s an extremely easy guy to get along with. Here’s this really nice guy.”
Mahnke can add the award to a resume that includes more than four decades of serving the public as a Longview police officer and in other volunteer work.
Police patrolling wasn’t the first career for the soft-spoken Mahnke, however. After graduating from R.A. Long High School in 1962, he worked as a part-time announcer at KBAM radio. Mahnke then joined the Air Force, studied Chinese at Yale University and worked in Da Nang, South Vietnam, monitoring Chinese MiG pilots flying over the South China Sea.
Mahnke was accepted to the Air Force Academy, but left after one year. One of the reasons a military career didn’t appeal to him was the prospect of having to live away from home. In 1969, Mahnke lost a run for Longview City Council - but found his career. A police ride-along he did as part of his research into the city led to him joining the police reserves.
He became a Longview police officer in 1971 and retired as a captain in 1999.
Mahnke had already started volunteering for WDFW a decade earlier. In 1988, the department needed to collect wild broodstock steelhead to reintroduce to the devastated North Fork of the Toutle River.
“We formed a team of half a dozen guys and we caught a bunch of steelhead” from the clean-flowing South Fork Toutle, Mahnke said.
As soon as he retired, Mahnke expanded his volunteer efforts on the Toutle. Since then, every Friday for seven or eight months of the year, he goes to the Toutle Fish Collection Facility, where adult fish are collected. Mahnke dons waders, climbs down into a holding tank and nets wild coho and winter steelhead. The fish are trucked above the Sediment Retention Structure to several tributaries of the North Fork Toutle, where they can spawn naturally.
Usually Mahnke works with a WDFW employee, but for six months, he said he virtually ran the facility when the agency was short-handed.
Without Mahnke, “we’d be struggling even more up there,” Dammers said.
Eight years ago, Mahnke started helping out at the Kalama Falls Hatchery once a week. He, other volunteers and hatchery employees will process up to several hundred fish in a day. On the Kalama, Mahnke’s job is to record data. Though it’s not physical work, “that information is what you’re out there for,” Hulett said. “He’s been exceptional at doing quality data recording.”
Mahnke is an enthusiastic proponent of nutrient enhancement, the practice of spreading dead surplus hatchery fish in spawning tributaries to mimic what used to be a natural process when the runs were larger.
“I like to equate nutrient enhancement with fertilizing your lawn,” he said.
In 2002, he asked Dammers for a permit to dump fish and started spreading carcasses on the upper Toutle. Despite the seemingly unappealing work, Mahnke enlisted other helpers from the Lower Columbia Flyfishers club. “I had guys standing in line to help out,” he said.
WDFW provides the tote bins and trucks to haul the carcasses. One thing volunteers have learned is, “You don’t stick your head in the tote and take a breath,” Mahnke said. Also, it’s not a good idea to wear waders with felt soles, which soak up the essence of decaying fish.
“Three years ago, I started the Coweeman” on nutrient enhancement, he said.
In addition to his work in the field, Mahnke is also a regular at meetings about fish. He’s president of the Lower Columbia Fish Enhancement Group, which receives grants for a variety of habitat improvement projects in the area, and on a WDFW committee coming up with a plan for steelhead recovery on the Coweeman, Kalama and Toutle rivers.
Mahnke also belongs to the Coastal Conservation Association, a sport fishing group which favors alternatives to gillnets for Columbia River commercial fishing.
Loves to get in the woods
He’s also active in non-fishing projects. He’s been on the board of Community House on Broadway since it opened in 1987, and is also on the Longview Civil Service Commission. He’s in the Kiwanis Club and teaches driving safety courses to seniors.
For most of his fishery-related work in Southwest Washington, Mahnke has to pay his own expenses, including gas for the drives to Toutle.
“I don’t mind that,” he said. “I get out in the woods.”
All of his volunteer work hasn’t gone without its paybacks.
The summers of 1999 and 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Fish and Game Department paid for his expenses to study rainbow trout on the Kenai River.
“My job was to go out and catch rainbow trout,” he said. “I got my two summers in Alaska with expenses paid for by the government. It was all because I volunteer.”
Closer to home, perks have included helping researchers catch big rainbows in Spirit Lake, which is closed to the general public.
An intangible benefit is keeping up on all things fish-oriented through his contacts with biologists. Actually, these days Mahnke isn’t taking advantage of their knowledge of fish runs. Despite his “STLHEDR” license plate, he hasn’t gone fishing in 18 months.
“The main reason is the challenge isn’t there any more,” he said. He said he used to shake with excitement when he got to a stream.
“I’m kind of burned out” on fishing. “I’m into golf now.”