St. John's Snore Cop turns in his badge
Among his many talents, recently retired St. John’s sleep lab wrangler Joe Burke is a superb fly tier. Joe’s chocolate-colored foam ant with a merlot body attracts cutthroat trout on a regular basis. PAUL BRUUN / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 21, 2012
Most Green Bay Packer-involved events find local cheeseheads glued to their latest wide-screens. Since the Packers were in Detroit, Sunday was a perfect opportunity for phone catch-up with a Green Bay disciple and endearing character known to friends as the “snore cop.” As usual, he was fretting about the refs.
On Oct. 31, Joe Burke retired from wrangling the American Academy of Sleep Medicine-accredited lab at St. John’s Medical Center and wrapped up a proud 30-year-plus medical career dedicated mainly to respiratory and sleep therapy. Friends agree Joe deserves the chance to prove his familiar answering-machine message wrong and go fishing now rather than working. Tragically, replacement apparatus has not been instituted to seamlessly continue the healthful local process Joe pioneered.
With the arrival of my favorite holiday this week comes this column’s tradition of highlighting a special person for whom I’m thankful.
For a long time I’ve recognized Joe Burke’s fine influence over me. Wherever I’ve traveled during the last dozen years, it is not unusual to be asked, “How do you know so much about sleep disorders?”
Wisconsinite by choice
The answer is simple. By osmosis! Anyone spending long day’s journeying or fishing with Burke is guaranteed to retain volumes about the numerous sleep issues plaguing our “caffeine-driven society.” The guy is a walking Dr. Oz about all the factors — diet, physical, mental, sociological, airway obstruction and stress — that ruin nearly everyone’s sleep and thus sap our society of needed productivity.
Away from medical business, Joe is a loyal pal who strives to minister to his friends and support his community. His colorful past is entertaining, having begun in Illinois. However, because he went to college in Stevens Point, he’s gradually adopted Wisconsin for its heritage. He humorously imitates the dialogues of that state’s foreign ancestors and talks pickling bullheads, Friday night walleye fish fries, gulping brandy and beer and, naturally, old Milwaukee Braves (he treasures his Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron autographs) and Packer heroism. Past jobs have included beer truck driver, bartender, U.S. Coast Guard hospital corpsman, raw materials procurer for Simms and Life-Link International, production manager and editor for Jack Dennis’ Snake River Books and videos, and longtime Idaho guide coordinator for the Jackson Hole One Fly.
Perhaps first and foremost Joe is an enthusiastic (long-suffering) Chicago Cubs fan, a condition he uses to explain various physical and mental disorders — from depression to short-lived euphoria — that he diagnoses in similar Cubs habituates such as Jeff Currier, Dave (Sammy) Samuels, Gavin Fine and A. J. DeRosa.
Not only is Joe accomplished in medical fields, his other skills include cooking, gardening, fly-tying and hoarding. His cookbook collection is extensive, and he regularly enjoys grocery shopping with coupons for the best sales and meat specials, which he carefully freezes. Then he prowls through a monumental recipe collection and delicately re-creates barbecue, baked, braised and sauteed dinner items. He’s always on the lookout for spices, flavored sauces, new rice mixes and just that perfect fried fish-chicken batter or breading. Never ignore an invitation for his barbecued ribs and chicken gatherings on the porch by Flat Creek in the summer.
I never thought very much about the decor of Joe’s Willow Park townhouse in a subdivision where he’s accomplished extensive upkeep efforts as homeowners association president. Upon closer inspection there is a lifetime supply of movies (DVDs and cassettes) as well as enough CDs to keep KMTM’s play lists nonrepetitive for several years. He must watch and listen to this entertainment when Cubs and Packer games aren’t on TV.
Recently, his pride and joy greenhouse that faces south underwent a major remodel. Joe is never happier than when he installs his first batch of small tomato plants in the spring and carefully nurtures them throughout the summer to succulent maturity.
Fishing — from frozen lakes to perch jerking, saltwater and especially fly — is another of Joe’s passions. We’ve made a lot of fishing trips together, and Joe always wraps up some creative new fly patterns for every outing. His vise techniques are sound, and his flies don’t come apart. He eagerly embraces new materials, synthetic and natural, and is comfortable creating anything from jumbo saltwater popping bugs to the most delicate nymphs, midges and dry flies.
In recent times Joe has settled into preparing several personal patterns that carry him through most seasons. His chocolate and merlot foam ants in a variety of sizes are especially productive. A handsome container of foam ants that Joe presented to Jean and me as a wedding present are sparingly called upon whenever action slows. Regardless of what river system on which this fly is presented, cutthroat take a shine to it, especially when a pinch of action is added.
Working with Jack on his last major fly book, “Tying Flies With Jack Dennis and Friends,” brought Joe into contact with a variety of expert tiers around the world. Joe studied their methods as he and Jack assembled the chapters. Today he delights in replicating many of these techniques in everything from emergers, stillborn mayflies and underwater stream and lake patterns.
A fishing education
In addition to Joe’s fine foam ant specials, he is never without his shocking orange and white rabbit fur Playboy Bunny streamer with a tungsten bead head and the Snake River Muddler, which he and Jay Buchner collaborated to refine. Like many of us, Joe totes enough flies for several years of fishing on any day trip he takes.
Fishing with Joe Burke is always an education. His memory for details about places, people and catches is encyclopedic. But more than the fishing, he recalls insect biology, water chemistry and barometric activity that all affect immediate conditions.
Of course, even with such a substantial educational understanding of the surrounding environment, Joe’s special reoccurring Achilles’ heel sometimes prevents success. I’ve never deciphered whether he becomes too anxious and keyed up when fishing or he repeats this same behavior just to kid around. But given the slightest chance, Joe can snatch a dry fly, nymph or streamer away from even the fastest fish.
“Nothing that low on the phylogenetic system is going to be quicker than I am,” he says as his fly streaks into the air and another fish returns empty-mouthed to its haunt.
When we joined Peter Carty in New Zealand for a go at some South Island trout, it was important to me that Joe have the first shot at our initial rising brown. As Peter moved Joe into position and equipped his leader with a now-famous Carty General Terrestrial, I remember whispering to Joe that I would thump him with a rock if he yanked that fly away from that fish.
“Whaddya mean, no Joe Quick on this guy?” he laughed.
“We flew thousands of miles to catch these fish, not exercise ’em,” I said.
Happily, Joe let the brown gobble the fly while Peter and I rejoiced.
Be aware of several questionable topics during an outing with Joe. A lifelong professional Democrat, he has little patience for discussion of current GOP behavior. This subject is trumped only by furious criticism of NFL referees who perform obvious weekly conspiracies against the Packers.
In the coming months, everybody will be seeing lots more of Joe Burke, especially during his long walks about Jackson. Tell him hello, and make sure your pooch gets a free Milk-Bone from his stash.
Joe loves people and pets equally well.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.