Thursday, December 24, 2009

Getting it Right - Against All Odds

View from the Pit
So, indulge me while I rattle off the reasons why my most
recent hunt should have been a disaster. First, I visited the duck club / farm the day before my scheduled hunt to determine if the farm lane was accessible, and if the boat "ramp" was accessible (sneakboat towed by 6W gator), given the variable amounts of snow (5" to 28") in the area. That was actually a good move. I walked around the farm a little bit and took stock - a few geese standing on the frozen pond. 500 to 1000 geese sitting in the lagoon at the bottom of the cliff. It all turned bad when I drove the Gator into a snowbank that I couldn't see (looked flat & level on top, but snow depth went from 5" to 30" in about 2 seconds flat), about 20 minutes before sunset. I spent an hour trying to dig it out, but it was an impossible task for one person. Humiliated and frustrated, I might've called off the next day's hunt, except I knew I'd have to return to pull out the Gator anyway. 6" to 30" of snow in every field. No corn stubble exposed. Pond frozen. Geese roosting in an area inaccessible by land and with the boat itself covered in snow and ice, on the boat lift. Not good.
Then add in the weather. Thick snow cover, cold temperatures, and high air pressure are causing the geese to flock up and head south into Virginia, looking for food. There is no cloud cover in the area at all- no fog, no clouds, no rain. Very few hunters are having good outings. Any hunt would require walking ALL of one's gear out to the hunting spot, through the snow, from the nearest plowed farm lane or public road. It's just "not good." Not for December. Not for waterfowling. A recipe for failure.
How many times have I "known better" and tried to force a hunting/fishing/surfing trip in dicey conditions - only with disastrous results? Too many times.
But this is where "friends" come in. I called my friend Rich and invited him to hunt with me, and by the way, help me pull the Gator out of the snow, please. We talked about the only two "realistic"scenarios for a goose hunt, based on the weather conditions alone:
  1. hunt the few areas of open water with 3-5 dozen floater decoys and a few full body decoys on the shore. An ideal setup - but impossible since most boat ramps are covered in ice and snow.
  2. scrape the snow off of a corn/soybean field to make it "look" like the decoys are feeding on grain that's been exposed by snowmelt or cattle. We didn't have time to mobilize a tractor for this task. But it got us thinking: could we shovel enough snow by hand to make it work? The answer was a very exhausting, "Yes."
About 50% of the decoy spread, seen from the goose pit
With 2 rakes and one shovel, we scraped out areas that looked like "corn rows" and "holes" of exposed dirt and corn stubble. We used 4 dozen silhouette decoys and 1 dozen bigfeet, and put them in tightly to mimic geese that are feeding very aggressively (hungry birds). The goose pit had very little snow on top of it, so we used that to our advantage - placing decoys around and even on top of the pit itself - to try and make it look like a feeding area.
Around 930am the birds started moving to feed, and a few medium-sized flocks (8 to 20 birds) took a look at us, and (I think) decided that there was not enough "open ground" for them all to land. Around 10am, a flock of four geese fully committed to the decoy spread, and tried to land within 15 yards of the goose pit. And that was basically the end of the hunt.
A daily limit of geese in snowy, sunny, 24 degree weather = proud of myself!
I was really proud that the two of us - both of us goose hunting only since the Atlantic Flyway reopened in 2002 - were able (under these conditions) to think this through, execute a good, legal, and safe hunt, and actually harvest our limit of birds. We knew how and where to set up, we called "decently," and we shot "well enough." Maybe I need to give myself a little more credit sometimes.

And speaking of getting it right against all odds - here's me and my buddy - 3 months old today. Guess I'm having a run of good luck.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maybe next time, "a little" snow.

Compare today's snow cover map to the last one I posted. We're now under 1.5 - 2.0' of snow. Not sure if the ducks and geese have left us, or are starving in the ice & snow. Plan to visit the farm tomorrow and figure out which of those two it is!
I'm planning on a waterfowl hunt of some variety later this week. Lots of factors to consider!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Socked In

Now I know why the geese were acting so crazy 3 days ago. They were flocking up and preparing to get the heck out of Dodge! No hunting for a few days now, since the farm lane is socked in & the boat has 2 feet of snow on top of it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Too Smart For My Own Good

A few geese on our spot, 12 hours before our hunt.
Got an opportunity to go out with Rich & Mike to hunt a goose field near the duck club I joined for opening day of late waterfowl season. It did not go as planned. About 1,000 birds were sitting on the field the afternoon before the hunt. Weather was pretty standard - 26 degrees (-3C), no clouds, 10-20kt NW wind, and no moon. We thought the next morning would be great.
I was really confused by what unfolded. At first light, ducks were flying - a welcome sight after many warm months. A few flocks of geese, 10 to 30 birds each, moved off of the nearby creeks as the sun rose and the wind increased. Most flocks flew between us and another group of hunters, gave us a look, and kept going. None of the geese seemed to be coming from or going to the same place. There was a steady trickle of geese for the first two hours of daylight - not large numbers that one would expect this time of year, but significantly more birds than were present just one week before. By 9:30am, the birds had stopped flying, and we hadn't shot.

Outer edge of our decoy spread - 4 dozen silhouettes and 2 dozen full body decoys - what we thought was a convincing layout really failed for us.
We hung around until 10-something o'clock and packed it in. On my drive down the eastern shore back to work, I saw bored hunters in field blinds everywhere....honestly it made me feel a little better. I also passed several farm ponds surrounded by cut corn / soybeans. Each pond had 300 to 500 geese sitting on it or around it. How did we miss this call? On a day when the geese should have been in the fields early, they spent the day on the water (which is what they do when it's about 20 degrees warmer).
We have a gigantic nor'easter headed up the coast, bringing 2 to 3 feet of snow to our area. I'm looking forward to getting out for some hunts as soon as the roads are passable again.
Snow cover map - making progress!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Learning to be a Parent

At age 11 weeks, Hank is all about....Hank.

This is a basic guide (so far) for those of you who haven't had the joy - and it is a joy - of trying out parenting. Also, you older guys will laugh at me. And that's fine. Glad you're here.

How's it been so far? It's hard to describe. Hank is a REALLY happy baby so that has been a huge help. But still, the worst of it is the lack of sleep. The amount of sleep I get rivals my most intense weeks of graduate school. Meaning that I sleep in my car, office, couch, basement...really anywhere and any time I can. Up until Hank was about 8 weeks old, I was getting 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep per night. A month later, it's 5.0 to 6.5. Which would rival "normal," if it were not also hunting season. Still, we are making it work. And those hours of sleep - that's not all at one time. I often take a nap from about 930pm to 1030pm, get some sleep between 1am and 3am, and usually from about 4am to 7am. And sometimes, not that much.

The feeding (at birth, every 2 hours; now, every 4 hours and sometimes longer at night) has been pretty intense but it's just one of those things where you do the best that you can. You ask, "intense? how?" Let's put it this way. A baby goes from "konked out asleep" to "starving hungry, flailing, and screaming bloody murder" in about 40 seconds. It takes about 8 minutes to heat up a bottle. You do the math. 40 seconds warning at 4am...that's what I'm saying.

The good stuff is better than you can imagine. I am not sure if Hank recognizes me, personally, or if he just smiles that big for everybody, and is playing us all for suckers. His smile makes me want to give him anything he wants. I would get it for him. Luckily he cannot talk. The sounds he does make (other than the Hunger Scream) can make your heart melt. He is growing quickly and it's hard to explain my inner conflict between loving how he is right now, and being eager for him to grow to the next level.

One thing that continues to be really tough is making myself do things that are indirectly good for Hank. Like staying in shape and not eating every meal like it's 11:55pm on Death Row, and I'm up next for Old Sparky. And trying to schedule some outtings & hunts (not at the pre-baby regularity) to keep my head straight and feel like a real person who continues to have an actual life. It's so easy for me to just sit on the couch and just watch the baby all day. You feel like you're supposed to be there, but at some point (especially if you have a partner), I know that kids need to know & recognize that while they are the most important part of your life, they are not the only part of your life. I think this would be much harder if I was a single dad, or if I really enjoyed going out to bars. Luckily, I just want to sit out in the saltwater and tell tall tales.

Being a parent has been the single biggest science experiment of my life, and yet I feel like the best advice I get is from coworkers and outdoor buddies who have had kids - not the American Pediatric Association or the AMA or anybody else. As a scientist, that's hard to reconcile.

For all the sore knees, dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and baby bottles, being a parent is already one of the funnest things I have ever done. Hank doesn't comprehend much, and his only understanding of the outdoors is based on his mixed feelings about the giant bright light in the sky, and his very serious fascination with staring at the winter treeline against the sky - the contrast of the branches, I guess. I am looking forward to getting on the water with him next summer, and for many summers after that. You'll be reading about it here - you can count on that much.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Duck Migration Still On Hold

This week's ice cover map of the eastern Great Lakes. One bay's shoreline is 1 - 10% frozen. A lot of open habitat remaining for waterfowl!

The corresponding western GL ice cover map for this week. Not much more promising. If you're still not convinced that regional air system patterns affect the migration, take a look at this picture of me taken on or about January 17, 2009:

Yeah, it was 12 degrees F that day. Freaking cold to be laying on your back in a cut corn field.

I posted at the time that some folks were reporting our first big flights of ducks from upstate NY and a staging area in Southeastern PA between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers. Ducks were coming south right as the frigid winter weather was starting to freeze up our marshes. Here's the corresponding Great Lakes ice map from that week:

That's a LOT of ice. I have to thank the French Road Connections blog for grabbing and posting that image. Just 2 weeks before, around January 6, we were sweating in Virginia, trying to chase divers in 55 degree, sunny weather. The ducks were there by the thousands - but they were well-fed and not motivated to keep feeding.
As I've discussed before, there are many more factors involved in predicting the duck migration. The Atlantic Flyway migration is made up of over a dozen species of waterfowl who have different nutritional needs, feeding habits, and survival strategies. And news came from the USFWS early this summer that late snow and ice on the nesting grounds severely limited the hatch of Canada another factor emerges. However, the fact remains that most of the ducks that winter in the Mid-Atlantic and the coastal Southeast come from the Great Lakes and the eastern Canadian provinces, and these animals are driven by a need to expend the minimal amount of energy while consuming the maximum amount of calories. That means that birds will stay local as long as they can.
Two great (related) examples of this from last season were the late December staging of ducks in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the mid-January migratory bypass of Maryland and northern Virginia by those same birds. Several flights (perhaps 100,000 ducks or so) settled into eastern Pennsylvania at the end of December, due to cold weather in Canada, New York, and the Great Lakes. Those ducks flew an average of (let's say) 1,000 miles in 4 days. They then stayed put in Pennsylvania until around January 10th - 15th, when that thick, deep, freeze forced them quickly (2 or 3 day flight) through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia (where most ponds, creeks, and marshes were frozen) into the more southern (and unfrozen) Great Dismal Swamp area on the NC/VA border and the shallow Sounds of North Carolina. A post from Tugboatdude along the Great Dismal Swamp confirmed it, unfortunately!
The word in our neck of the woods - even from global warming skeptics, is that "Maryland duck hunting is in the past." For the past 10 years, hunters in Maryland and Virginia have had stable but low harvests of ducks due (in my opinion) to longer-lasting warm conditions in the north, followed by a quick onset of brutal winter weather right at the end of waterfowl season, forcing birds quickly through our area (and back out of our area) in a 2 or 3 day period, or at most a 14 day period.
In the end, I feel like I've done all I can to adapt to this reality. While I strongly prefer hunting in the marsh, the majority of my hunting is now in fields, for geese, because those hunts are far more productive. I harvested one (ONE) duck in the 2008-2009 season, and with the 2009-2010 season 40% over, have harvested none. I'm proud that one of my first blog posts (October, 2007) referenced low numbers of local ducks "due to mild weather," and that my 2008 "Wish List" included a goal of only "going where the ducks are - whether that's north or south." So it's not like a new revelation (to me, anyway). Without making a trip out of the flyway (Arkansas and Saskatchewan come to mind) or trying to get a standing invite or membership at a farm that has flooded corn (aka duck crack), I don't know what else to do to improve my duck harvest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2009 Gear Review

I have never done this before, so bear with me. Also keep in mind that I have not received any kind of discount or promotion for listing anybody's products here. Like most people, my gear selection are driving by the moving target of quality vs. price; and so much of what I have to discuss lies in "the middle of the road" in both categories. I think you'll enjoy my list, and feel free to chime in with your favorite gear - especially for the types of gear where I have yet to find satisfaction (at the bottom of the list).
KEEPING WARM: As I get older, and slower, keeping warm and dry are at the top of my list for keeping safe and comfortable in and around the water. Between work, surfing, kayaking, hunting, and fishing, I spend easily 75 days per year on, in, or around the water. This is where I spend the most money (per item) on gear, so there's a lot I've experienced. Here we go.

  • Waders - purchased the Cabela's Light Mag Waterfowl Waders ($139 on sale) and I have been very pleased with them so far. They aren't so heavy that you will overheat while setting up for a hunt, but they are sufficiently thick and armored to deal with cold temperatures, briars, and the usual stuff that non-rich guys like me need.
  • Waterfowl gloves - I'll get back to this at the end of the post, but here's my 2 cents on what I've found so's CRAP! I need my gloves to do 2 things: keep my fingers warm and be thin enough so I can comfortably shoot without feeling like I have marshmallows taped to my fingers. I started the year with Avery's Neoprene Shooting Gloves ($19.99 at Mack's), and first of all, the sizing was atrocious. I am only 5'7" and the fingers of the "large" glove only came down to my second knuckle! I called Avery directly and they kindly exchanged for an XL pair, which barely fit. They are good shooting gloves, but provide absolutely no thermal protection. Useless in temperatures below 45 degrees. Next attempt at gloves was the Gander Mountain Guide Series Waterfowl Glove ($14.99 at Gander Mtn). This is a typical waterfowling glove, I picked them up in a pinch because it was too cold for the Avery gloves. What a mistake. I can't even feel the gun through the thick, pre-formed, stiff neoprene and what's worse, the very first time I put my hand in the water, I found out that the stitching inbetween the fingers leaked! A lot! I was pretty disgusted.
  • Base layering: on this whole theme of "keeping warm," I have finally moved away from cotton clothes and wearing 6 layers underneath my waders / bibs. And if you think it's trivial that I'm talking about underwear in a "gear review," obviously you've never been cold ...I mean...REALLY cold!!! I was surprised at what I found, though. The best value for my money has been with REI's store brand mid-weight performance underwear ($25 - $40). I've also been fairly satisfied with Gander Mountain's Scent-Lock top (price varies widely from month to month)- it's very warm and I'm sure the bottoms would just roast you to death. Likewise, cheapo-technical underwear by Champion at Target ($15 - $29) has been very effective at keeping me warm, but does a horrible job at wicking away moisture. Swampy! The biggest disapointment of this group? Patagonia's baselayer products ($45 to $65) which got shredded in the wash. My patagonia stuff was expensive and effective....but only for about 6 months, when the material started fraying and falling apart.
  • Bibs - I've bought 3 pairs of waterproof bibs (Walls, Field & Stream, and Cabelas) over the last 18 months, but I'm still trying to figure out what I like & don't like about each. Nothing notable to report so far.
HUNTING: This is a shorter section, since (thank God) I have gotten to the point where I have what I need and I know what I don't need....sort of.
  • Game calls: This is just a "best and worst" category. The best call I purchased this year was the Primos Timber Wench ($21). Dollar for dollar, you CANNOT beat this duck call. It is as raspy as all hell, and the volume control is much easier than with other similar "sub-$50" duck calls I used. The feeding chuckle is not great....but hey....for $21 you can still carry your other call with you for chuckling. Now, the worst call I purchased this year is the Primos Honky Tonk short reed goose call ($35). It is crazy high pitched, and very difficult to establish consistent back pressure. The fact that I'm still learning to call well with a short reed doesn't help, but I can say for sure, "this is not a good call to learn on."
  • Ammunition: nothing exciting here. On the nontoxic side, I continue to have good luck with Kent Fasteel; shooting 3" #3's for ducks and 3.5" #1's for geese. The loads are consistent, and the shells do not easily corrode or rust when exposed to rain/snow/water. I've had very mixed luck with Black Cloud, and will likely try it again this season, even though they have jacked the price up about 25% over 2008's price. In the 20 gauge, I've enjoyed luck with both Winchester Texas Heavy Quail Loads ($7/box) and B&P F2 Legends ($9/box). I'm a very "average" shooter so it's hard for me to tell a lot of loads apart. In fact, the only load I consistently stay away from is Winchester XPert, one of the cheapest loads on the market.

FISHING: I've been doing more freshwater and less saltwater fishing over the last few years, and here are a few thoughts:

  • Spinning rods: I continue to have lots of success with my Wally Marshall light spinning rod ($35, $38 w/reel, Bass Pro). Purchased in March 2008, I've used a variety of reels on it and have found it to be very responsive and "just strong enough." New to the quiver this year were two other spinning rods: the Pflueger Razor Tip ultralight ($49 - $69) and the Berkeley Amp light rod ($29). The two rods couldn't be more different. The Berkeley rod felt very strong and steady, and casts farther than any L / UL rod I've owned. It just doesn't cast where you want it to go. It also broke in two while trying to pull a 1/4oz jig on 4lb line out of a tree. If the tug wasn't enough to break 4lb line, it should not have broken that rod! So, I will not be buying another Berkeley rod. The Pflueger is a finesse rod, and I'm having a little trouble getting used to it. It's very sensitive, which is nice when the fishing is hot, and annoying when the fishing is bad, or you're fishing in a current.
  • Reels: I use a variety of reels, but the positive standout is definitely my Okuma Hardstone ($39, Cabelas) that usually sits on my Wally Marshall rod. The absolute worst reel I've dealt with this year (I've owned it longer, never had a good experience, but keep trying!) is the Shakespeare Low Profile Baitcast Reel. It is such a nightmare that it's not even worth describing. If your choice is to buy this reel or not go fishing, don't go fishing. I'm currently shopping for low-price baitcast reels, and thinking about this Okuma ($44), the Pflueger Cetina ($89), the BPS Mega Cast ($40), or the BPS Tourney Special ($49).
  • Lures: I use a huge diversity of lures, but far and away the most successful lures per cast in 2009 have been Joe's Flies. These little lures are fantastic for using in over-fished areas where smallmouth and largemouth have seen every senko worm and crankbait in town. Their product line is pretty expansive and obviously can handle trout and panfish quite easily. Seems like a good company and I encourage you to check them out!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Migration Wait - Hunting the Patuxent River

Low tide exposes thick mats of aquatic vegetation - in this case, widgeongrass
So, my buddy Mike invited me on a hunt on the Patuxent River in a state blind. I was a little skeptical, but appreciated the invite, especially since Mike has the boat, and also because I knew that our duck club on the eastern shore would be overrun with Dads and kids on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
It was one of those days where we did everything right - everything. Everything was playing in our favor - the weather, the tides, you name it. And yet, we still came up empty. We saw a few scattered birds during our hunt (mallards, teal, and some geese), but all were long-time residents of the marsh who were not at all fooled by our decoy spread and calling. In fact, most of the birds did not give us a second look - they were clearly on their way from Point A to Point B, and we were located somewhere around Point F. How, in late November, could this happen?
Well, once again, we are having an early winter with temperatures significantly warmer than usual to our north. Birds of all kinds are not motivated to migrate when they have dependable access to food and unfrozen water......both of which are still in plentiful supply in southern Canada, New York, and the Great Lakes states.
And then, in mid-January with less than 10 days of a 60 day waterfowl season remaining, it got cold. Really cold. So cold that we received a huge flight of ducks and geese in just a few days, and then lost most of the ducks (to southern Virginia and North Carolina) because many of our marshes were literally frozen over. We spent the rest of the season hunting geese.
I really enjoy the experience of being out in the marsh (vs. a cornfield waiting for geese), so I hope that history doesn't repeat itself. Hopefully some migratory ducks will find their way down the Atlantic Flyway and hopefully they will stay put for a while once they have arrived. If not, I guess we'll have to do something else!

Tidal creek along the Patuxent River in southern Maryland

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Adventures in Wild Game Prep - Goose Edition

Wild goose breast in a red wine & cherry marinade - ready for the smoker on Thanksgiving morning (2009)

I've been actively hunting geese since 2001 - the first year any harvest in the Atlantic flyway was allowed since the 1995 closure (a result of the poor management & extreme over-harvest that occured in the early 1990s). That was a short season - 30 days, with a 1-goose bag limit. I remember setting up what seemed like hundreds of goose shells (it was really only about 3 dozen) and thinking, "Wow, this is a lot of work for one goose." Well, fast forward 8 years, and throughout the flyway, we have a 2 (sometimes 3) goose bag limit and around 45 days to hunt them, and hunts now generally require silhouettes or full body decoys numbering at least 5 dozen. Geese no longer respond to goose shells (except by flaring and flying off in the opposite direction). So we've doubled our potential harvest, tripled our workload, and quadrupled the amount of space needed to store the gear. Brilliant!

So over the last 8 years, I've tried a variety of methods to preparing goose. Some have been a smashing success (crockpot barbeque), and others...not so much (breakfast sausage). Also during that period, the internet has exploded with recipes and concoctions to make these sometimes gamey birds more pallatable to hunters and non-hunters alike. Here's what I cobbled together - my most successful goose prep to date - Smoked Goose in Red Wine & Cherries (4 day recipe):

  • breasts of 2 geese
  • 2 lbs sweet cherries (fresh or thawed - pitless if you intend to eat the cherries)
  • Sea salt
  • White pepper
  • 1 bottle Dry Red Wine (Spanish, Australian, or Argentinian would do)
  • Enough apple or cherry wood chips to fuel your smoker for 3-4 hours

  1. Remove all shot from fresh goose breast. Stack breasts in container and submerge (slightly) with red wine
  2. Refrigerate immediately and leave for 2 days
  3. On day 3, add the cherries. Submerge/soak as many in the wine as possible
  4. On this same day, soak your smoker chips in water, wine, whiskey, or whatever you prefer. It is important that the chips you use are not overpowering - I'm specifically thinking of mesquite and hickory.
  5. On day 4 (cooking day), gently remove the breasts from the "marinade" and rub them thoroughly with sea salt and white pepper. This is important to round out the sweet taste of the wine and cherries
  6. Place the breasts on your smoker, or on a grill NOT OVER DIRECT HEAT. I've found that keeping the temperature between 250F and 350F is optimal to getting these suckers smoked in 3-4 hours.
  7. Heap the cherries on top of the breast filets.
  8. Periodically drip excess marinade on the cooking breasts until the meat begins to increase in temperature, at which point (for sanitation) you should keep the meat moist with water or some additional wine
  9. When the meat's internal temperature starts to creep above 140F, use your best judgment as to when to remove. Technically, the lean goose meat should be done at 160F.
  10. Slice julienne-style and serve immediately - the individual slices will lose their moisture quickly - this is something I'm still working on! The individual slices are quite attractive - bright red on the exterior (wine staining), and dark and lean on the interior.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at the Great Falls of the Potomac

Top of Mather Gorge at the Great Falls of the Potomac - boundary between Virginia (left) and Maryland (right). Downstream is the coastal plain and in about 90 miles, the Chesapeake Bay. Upstream is the Piedmont, Appalachian Mountains, and Appalachian Plateau.
In Maryland, we have to create our own Sunday adventures in the fall months. Why, you ask? First of all, hunting on sundays is illegal, except for archery hunting of deer on select private properties in very rural areas. Second of all, Pro Football sucks. Well, at least the Ravens and the Redskins suck. So...let's go do something else.
We drove down about 60 miles to the Great Falls Tavern section of the C&O Canal Trail National Historic Park. I've written about the C&O Canal a few different times, like here and here, and probably some other places, but here's a background of this 185 mile long National Park along "The Bloody Potomac." The C&O Canal aka "The Grand Old Ditch" operated for almost 100 years from the 1830s to the 1920s. It covers 600 vertical feet of grade change over its length, which basically describes the necessity for the canal - George Washington thought it would be an ideal way to move extracted resources (coal, timber) out of the Ohio River Valley. When canal construction reached Cumberland, Maryland (a coal center), the upstart Baltimore & Ohio Railroad had already reached the town, rendering the Canal a little obsolete....and ending all plans to extend the Canal the final 180 miles to the Ohio River. As I wrote about in the above-linked blog entries, the Canal and its aqueducts were frequent targets of sabotage (from both sides) during the United States Civil War, depending on who controlled the Canal at that moment.

Boats were moved upstream through a series of flooded locks. Here is Lock 20, at the Great Falls Tavern. The "Canal Trail" is the trail on the left - when the canal was in operation, they called it the "Tow Path," used by the mule teams to tow the barges through the locks.
One of the largest access points, and most convenient to I-495 outside of Washington DC is the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center ($5/car access fee). If you don't care to see the Visitor Center or use the bathrooms, other public access points are nearby, and very visible. NPS has a great write-up on the history of the site, so it's just worth mentioning that it started as a housing for the lock-keeper, then the growing numbers of canal workers, and right before the Civil War - a lodging for Canal tourists.

Mrs. Swampy and Swamp Jr. - enjoying another warm autumn day. Swamp Jr. is 8 weeks old and is up to 13lbs and 24" long. Whoever his daddy is, must be a tall man (joking).

There are a lot of great things about the C&O Canal Trail - it's incredibly well-maintained, the scenery is beautiful all year long, and you can use it to your own limit. I mean, if you don't feel challenged after 1 mile, there are another 184 miles for you. Likewise, it's easy to handle with kids & babies because there is almost no vertical grade, and the trail has been compacted by 100+ years of mule teams. If you find yourself in Washington DC - take this detour, you'll be thrilled that you did.

Now, if you want to do some dumber stuff outside than old Swampy, you gots to try pretty hard. Here is today's winner. A for effort, F for scrambled brains...there's a 40' waterfall about 100' ahead of him....just around the bend.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Maryland Goose Opener 2009

View from the pit - geese eat fresh greens when it's warm outside
Opening day was not as big of a bust as predicted, but it was a challenging day to hunt. I hunted geese in a field of green barley at the duck club I joined near "Goose Ground Zero", just northwest of Chestertown, Maryland. The club members had a big feast the night before, which I missed, and I arrived at the farm around 12:45am. Now, the farm has three residences: The Big House (off limits to club members), the Tenant House (club members by invitation), and The Lodge (an old beach house with power, heat, but no running water). After last week's hybrid hurricane / nor'easter, the fields, forests, and marshes were all sopping wet. The sandy spit access to The Lodge was probably underwater totally - access only by boat. I parked up at the barns....nobody around..... and walked over to the Tenant House.....saw the sign for "bunk assignments," and there was my name, and "Lodge." I couldn't get a cell signal, and I knew better than to try to drive my new truck on an underwater sandbar, so I spent the night in my new truck for the first time! It was a little chilly (39F / 4C) to sleep in the bed, so I kicked it in the Crew Cab. Let me just say that sleeping in the 2010 Tacoma far surpasses sleeping in the 1996 Tacoma!!! I felt totally fine, except for my left foot, which I guess I had crammed underneath the brake pedal for about 2 hours of sleep time. Ow.
I set my alarm for 4:45am (shooting light was roughly 6:30am), and I knew that my comrades would have to show up at the barns to pick up decoys for the morning hunt. Right on cue, ATV's started arriving up from the Lodge around 5:10am, and the Tenant House emptied out.
Due to the warm weather (predicted weather was clear, windless, and 55F), everyone wanted to hunt out on the water, since the geese would be unlikely to be aggressively feeding in the fields. I didn't really want to deal with all that drama, so myself and two other guys decided to hunt in a concrete pit in the farthest field from the river.

First retrieve of the season!

We were set up and just BS'ing when legal shooting time passed. This moment, in this part of the world (shooting light on the opening day, which is always a saturday), every year, is usually a good replication of the invasion of Normandy. However, only a few volleys were fired, and quite a distance from where we were. Throughout the whole area, shooting was very light all morning. I was politely informed by my 2 new hunting pals that neither one of them can call geese. Anyone who knows me, and can call geese themselves, also know that I cannot call geese. However, I had both of my goose calls, so I called the geese. In fact, I did all the calling, and only shot one round all morning, at a goose going away (it died of fright).

Wrap it up!
I am still having a lot of trouble with the short reed goose call (I am currently using a Primos Honky Tonk but I'm switching to either an RNT Goozilla or a Foiles Meat Grinder, both of which sell for under $50 - $150 goose calls for me. In the meantime, I had to go with what I know, which these days is a Ward Game Calls Persimmon Goose Flute. It has a very round sound which was "good enough" for opening day, but will either need to be improved (my skill) or upgraded (the call) by the time late season starts, roughly December 15th.
We ended up harvesting 3 birds of a possible 6 bird limit, and we didn't feel bad about it. Had my calling been better, or the other guys' shooting been better, we probably would have left with 5. Maybe next time! It was really neat to call instead of shoot. A very different kind of stress. I enjoyed it, and wonder if I'll get the opportunity to call for other folks again.
Waterfowl season is definitely not off to a "bang," but with good company in the goose pit, and some birds on the smoker for Thanksgiving, it's all good.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Opening Day is Nigh!

Geese over the blind, January 2009
Well, tomorrow marks the opening day of Maryland's 2009-2010 goose season. I am reasonably well-prepared and somewhat relaxed, although I'll be spending tonight and tomorrow at a hunting club I only joined recently, with a dozen folks I hardly know. Curious to see how the hunting arrangements, workload, and conversations will go. I have a feeling we may be successful - the weather is dreadfully warm, but the club has pits over green barley as well as blinds on the water. Regardless, I'm very excited and I hope I shoot well, if given the opportunity.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Chesapeake Landforms - Sandy River Bluffs

American Holly
One of the interesting parts of my job these days is to oversee projects associated with the restoration & long-term stabilization of tidal shorelines in the Chesapeake Bay. One of the landforms on which this type of conservation work is frequently done is at the base of sandy river bluffs on small tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Several processes are occuring that are eroding tidal wetlands at the base of these bluffs, including sea level rise, freeze/thaw erosion, wave action from power boats, unattenuated wind wave action resulting from a lack of bay grasses (seaweed), and extensive runoff and erosion from the top of the sandy bluffs themselves. Whooo...that's a lot of stuff....and we'll tackle it sometime later!
Typical eroding sandy bluff on the South River in Central Maryland
But these bluffs, and their constant erosion and movement, have a really interesting history to themselves, as well as a very important ecological role to play in what has become a highly developed part of the earth.

Based of a sandy bluff - the beach sand is eroded off of the slope. These beach habitats are very important for Diamondback Terrapins and Horseshoe Crabs.
I wanted to tell the story of these unique landforms, but since I am not a geologist, I thought it might be best to contact some geologists. I was able to get in touch with Bob Conkwright and Dr. Jim Reger, both from the Maryland Geological Survey, and ask them a bit about their landforms. Not surprisingly, I got a taste of my own medicine - way more information than I was expecting - which is what folks get when they ask me, "What's wrong with my plant?" (which coincidentally, is the name of a great book).
According to Bob, most of the sandy river bluffs in the Central Chesapeake Bay tributaries are (geologically) recent features, ranging from 3.5 million to 65 million years of age. In the coastal plain (where the rivers are generally affected by the tides), there is no bedrock within the top 100 or more feet below the surface. So where did all of this sand come from? And keep in mind that the Chesapeake Bay, which cuts rivers and creeks through these sandy cliffs, is largely a product of natural global warming & sea level rise over only the last 10,000 to 12,000 years.
Bob Conkwright calls these sands "lowland deposits," which means that surface water brought the sand to its approximate current location in horizontal layers, causing extensive shelves. International Geological Congress Field Trip Guide T211 (Elk Neck, MD) shows that some of the sources for the deposits of this age were "upland gravels" and "bay and river fill." We can presume that "upland gravels" were washed down from the piedmont and mountains as eroded pieces of bedrock, while "bay and river fill" are layers of sediment laid down during long term (thousands of years) or short term (perhaps just a few hours) flood events.
In fact, a trip up just seaward (east) along the Fall Line boundary from Georgia to Delaware, between the piedmont and coastal plain geologic provinces will show us just that - significant efforts at sand and gravel's really just sand and gravel digging, since the desired materials are at or near the surface, not buried like a true "mine."
One thing I teach my physical geography class is that glacial rock deposition occurs at the retreat of a glacier - not during its construction. According to The Geological History of the Chesapeake Bay (Hobbs, 2003), this is also true for sandy river bluffs (hence, the "bay and river fill"). As the higher sea levels began to recede (oncoming ice ages and global cooling periods), significant layers of sand, silt, and clay were left behind. At the same time, piedmont rivers began to adapt to this lowering sea level, and with gravity, carved directly into the sand, forming the series of interspersed creeks and cliffs that we see today in the central Chesapeake Bay region.
Sandy river bluffs are important areas today for an interesting set of reasons. Due to their instability and steep slopes (and resulting environmental & insurance regulations), many of these bluffs can only be partially developed for real estate purposes. Often, the steepest area is the eroding cliff closest to the waterfront. In effect, a band of wildlife habitat occurs in an area (waterfront) that is normally heavily impacted by human activities and development. These areas are generally left alone for wildlife - and their heritage as rich marine sediments - though sandy - provide some great native plants to support wildlife. These plants are very hardy and withstand one of nature's common ironies - near desert conditions just a few feet away from flowing fresh water.
Let's take a look at some of these plants, in addition to the American Holly at the top of the post.

Virginia Pine - the seeds from its cones are eaten by doves, quail, turkey, and other birds. Some songbird species prefer dried needles for their nests.

Pokeberry is a pesky "weed" whose berries are eaten by birds as soon as they are ripe

Blackhaw Viburnum - berries are treasured by small mammals and birds during the winter months.

The acorns of the Post Oak help fatten up wildlife for the cold winter months. Post Oak is susceptible to the Chestnut Blight Fungus, responsible for eliminating the American Chestnut from the forests of eastern North America.

The leaves of the Mountain Laurel are poisonous to deer and other hooved animals (a very specific evolutionary adaptation!), but the high-protein berries are important food for wildlife in the winter.

Greenbriar is one of many thorny woody vines that inhabit sandy river bluffs. Greenbriar also produces a very high protein berry that is nutritious for songbirds.

The Shad Bush mainly reproduces mainly by cloning, but also provide high quality food for songbirds. The plant gets its name from the time of year that it blooms, which roughly coincides with the time of spring that shad migrate from salt water to fresh water rivers to spawn.

Red-Cedar (a juniper) is a shrub used for living fences, wildlife plantings, and even furniture. The needles and berries of the plant are highly edible to a very wide variety of wildlife species, from deer to songbirds. The berries maintain their nutritional quality throughout the winter months, providing a great emergency source of food for late winter birds.

Over 60 species of songbirds eat Poison Ivy's waxy white berries, which are extremely protein-rich and available through the first half of the winter. In fact, this is why poison ivy mysteriously shows up in your garden - having passed through the digestive tract of a songbird. Unfortunately for humans, we now know that Poison Ivy thrives in air pollution and high CO2 environments, and in fact, produces even more poison than usual.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Guides and Guiding, Revisited

Leisurely afternoon stroll through the game plots at Pintail Point Plantation
So, with this whole "newbornbaby situation," and my resulting current sleep schedule (1030-1130pm and 4am to 7am), let's just say I was not motivated to organize any duck hunts leaving my home at the usual early season time (230 to 315am). However, I really wanted to blow off some steam, and I knew that brother T was coming into town, so I thought, why don't we try something different? So, against my own best intuition, I looked around for an upland bird shoot (if the birds are domestic, PLEASE don't call it a hunt!). Upland bird hunting, except for doves, is basically a dead tradition in the Mid-Atlantic, as a result of land use changes, farm management changes, lack of fox trapping, and the explosion of the coyote and feral cat populations in rural areas. A great subject for a future blog post!

I finally settled on a place on the eastern shore of Maryland, only an hour from Baltimore and Washington DC, called Pintail Point Plantation. Shooters pay for the birds, and the Preserve provides the fields, a guide, and dogs. Sounded easy enough - and with this little sleep, EASY is what I need - but I was wary about my last two (only two) outtings with guides. Let's summarize those really quickly:
  1. In both cases, we were deceived ("lie" is such a strong word) about the amount of preparation the guides had put into the hunt;

  2. In both cases, we asked the guides to reschedule our hunt date (for extra $$), if it looked like the birds or conditions would not cooperate. Both declined, leading to a 70 degree, full moon hunt in October and a 45 degree full moon hunt in February. Both assured us, "we're on birds....BIG TIME!" Between the two hunts...I shot 5 shells? With a total bag limit of 6 ducks and 10 geese.

  3. In both cases, we were assured that the guides were "on top" of the migration and local hunting pressure, and we would be taken somewhere that took advantage of both. Don't want to use the "l" word, but let's just say they were not being as honest as they could have been about their level of hunt preparation & local knowledge.

  4. In both cases, we were "taken" by licensed guides who were SIGNIFICANTLY more concerned about getting paying warm bodies on site, than whether we turned into repeat customers or references for their business, or God Forbid, have an actual good hunt, or even a good time. Both have expressed "shock" that we have not referred more customers to them. Amazing that they didn't think of this before or during the hunt....

My expectations for professionals - of any field - but particularly of guide services - remained unsatisfied, and for the record, were:

  1. Preparation - knowledge of "how things have been working lately"

  2. Gear - should be of higher quality than that of a non-professional

  3. Customer Service - customer safety & satisfaction should absolutely be the #1 and #2 goals...the money will follow.

  4. Vested interest in repeat business...this should go without saying, but has been ignored by most folks I've met in the hunting/fishing guide business, from Florida to New York.

Oh, and for the record, those two lists were definitely not gleaned from hunting trips with these guys or these guys. I'm sure they are both two awesome guide services. Like, seriously.

SO, obviously, the decks were obviously stacked against the guys at Pintail Point. We were paying less for this Preserve Shoot than we would for a hunting guide, but still....we had low expectations, and we still assumed they would not be met.

Boy, were we wrong. Two days before the hunt, the Plantation Manager, Stephanie Whiteley, called us to confirm our shoot, and gave us a rundown on when to show up, what to bring, and the other activities (trap shooting, golf) that they had going on, and ran through their "bird packages" ($xx for 30 chukar, 10 pheasant, etc). I was undeterred in my cynicism ("they just want to sell us more crap"), but the call was nice and very professional. When we arrived at Pintail, we checked in with the receptionist, who called our guide to kennel up the dogs. Stephanie then came out and greeted us, told us to make ourselves at home, and of course, asked us if we needed anything. We hung around and looked at the various bird guns for sale (including, of course, the ubiquitous Silver Pigeon...what a dream!), and all of the Orvis and Beretta items for sale in the upscale "gear shop." Not really our scene, but whatever. Always fun to look at nice stuff.

About 15 minutes later, our guide, Jack Turner, showed up. Jack is also Pintail's Kennel Manager, so I was starting to actually get excited about having a fun and professional shoot. Jack drove us out to one of the fields, which was planted in 12 row strips of alternating corn, millet, sunflower and sorghum, with paths mowed through it. The birds had been released into the field earlier in the day. Jack explained to us how the afternoon would work, and the differences between the techniques of the two dogs he'd selected for the afternoon. Tug and I set out with Jack and the dogs, and within 10 minutes, we were shooting. Jack was diligent about working the dogs and making sure that we were working the field safely and effectively....and suddenly....I realized that I was relaxing. WOAH. We worked the area thoroughly, and Jack entertained a lot of questions from us about upland birds, preserve shooting, and working dogs in uplands (again, this is something we know very little about). Ultimately, we got up 8 pheasants (we paid for 10), got shots on 7, and killed 5. Besides our poor shooting and very tall heavy cover, I think I was hampered by my choke selection (extended improved on my 20 gauge Gold Hunter), particularly on some longer shots going away. But one of the 2 escapees was just a poor miss - I sent tail feathers flying and nothing else...and forgot to put a 3rd shell in the chamber. Oops.

Near the end of the shoot, one of the Pintail staff rode by in a Jeep and asked if we wanted our birds cleaned & bagged for $2 each. On a 70 degree brainer! Jack and the dogs continued to work the field with us in search of "our" last two birds, working for over an hour with just 1 flush (a runner, at that). When it was clear to everybody that we had done as much damage as we could, Jack called the shoot and we rode back up to the lodge. The lodge staff (again) was very friendly, and both Stephanie and Jack seemed like they were highly interested in whether we had enjoyed our afternoon at Pintail Point. Paying them was very low key and they made it feel like it was of minimal importance to them (of's NOT!), which is similar to fishing guides I've had in the past, but VERY dissimilar to hunting guides I've had... The next day, Stephanie called to follow up and see if she could help book another shoot for us, and about a week later, we received a thank you note in the mail (who does that anymore?), thanking us for our business.

So let's review our previously unattainable goals for guides and guiding:

  1. Preparation - no question here. The folks did what they were supposed to do PRIOR to the shoot, which is the first time I've experienced that (other guides have lied to us and said they were prepared) . As a result, I didn't have to think/worry/obsess about it, which is a main reason why I hire a guide. We had no "expectation" to harvest birds, and yet, Jack had every expectation that we have numerous opportunities to do so.
  2. Gear - again, no question. The fields were in awesome shape - some of the best bird habitat I've seen - and the dogs, while not perfect, worked really hard and ultimately, did their job better than my old retriever could have ever done. I would say they met, but didn't necessarily "exceed" my expectation. It could have been better, but I was pleased!
  3. Customer Service - very clearly, the staff's goal was for us to have a safe and fun time, and they worked hard to make sure we did. My expectations were exceeded.
  4. Interest in Repeat Business - this was clearly another main goal of Pintail's staff, and they will be successful. We will be going back to Pintail Point at the River Plantation. They far exceeded my expectation, and I have already spoken to other friends about shooting at Pintail this winter.

I feel compelled to thank Jack Turner, Stephanie Whiteley, and the rest of the staff at Pintail who worked with us, simply because they "did their job" and did it very well, unlike many of the charlatans and hooligans I've come across in the guiding industry. I left their property relaxed, happy, and excited to return and give them more of my hard-earned money. Isn't that the way capitalism is supposed to work? And no - they neither paid for, subsidized, endorsed, or have approved this post!

This is what a good afternoon looks like!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Goals & Dreams for the 2009 - 2010 Waterfowl Season - Part II

Someone in our party cannot be accused of shooting early...I think that goose was probably pretty low!


So, after a little bit of reflection about the 2008-2009 season, I can say that it was successful, but it definitely did not go how I believed it would. I think that statement speaks to my naivety and my wisdom at the same time. Being flexible really worked for us last year.


So, what's changed in a year? A few big things:

  1. I have a baby in the house, and I'm getting 4-5 hours of sleep per night

  2. I joined a hunting club (primarily goose) on the Eastern Shore of MD

  3. I have a new job with more money, but a tight leash re: time off

So.....those are not insigificant things! I've really had to think over the last few months about how I can successfully manage my life and priorities, and also strive to have an enjoyable hunting season. So what type of goals should I aim for?

1. Make a point to "be present" when I am at home - be happy to take care of the baby all day on a sunday so my wife can do her thing....knowing that later (usually in the same week), I'll be afield. Be happy to be a father, even when it means staying home on an ideal hunting or fishing day.

2. Keep it safe. This should be on the top of everybody's list. No crazy risks.

3. Conduct hunts in the most stress-free ways possible. Plan well, execute well, have a backup plan.

4. Get to know my new hunt club and its members, and share significant time afield with them at the club. Try not to overextend myself by accepting invitations to hunt on other members' property. Grow the relationships for benefit of future years.

5. Be more openly gracious to the property owners who allow me to hunt on their land.

6. Follow up on last year's successes hunting where/when the birds are (and the correct species), instead of wasting a morning on an accessible duck hole where no ducks are hanging around.

7. Evaluate my current (excessive) gear load, and be prepared to sell/donate some of it prior to the 2010-2011 season.

Goals & Dreams for the 2009 - 2010 Waterfowl Season...Part I - Assessing 2008-2009

Waiting for geese foolish enough to cross the PA/MD border, January 2009
To answer your first question, no, I do not have enough energy to work up an original blog post right now! But it's that time of the year where I spend a lot of time outside...pursuing fish, birds, waves, and sometimes deer, so let's get our priorities in order.
As part of this effort, I realized that I never re-visited my goals for the 2008-2009 let's take a look:
1) Avoid any preventable serious injuries or damage to hunters, dogs, and gear.
2) Be conscious of my shooting - avoid lapsing into bad habits.
3) Follow the birds, instead of following my own habits and favorite spots. Be willing to travel as far north or south as required, especially during the late season.
4) Evaluate invitations a little closer - don't waste a day off on a horrible hunt. It's OK to graciously decline.
5) Take advantage of waterfowl hunting on state forest properties. Regulations and hunting pressure are far less than they are on nearby wildlife management areas, and the habitat isn't all that different.
6) Enjoy the hunt. Don't go just to go. Make real memories. Be patient and make it count.
OK, so how did I do?
1. We had a safe season. Only a mojo decoy (broken foot) and a cell phone (fell in the drink, same day) were busted up. We hunted some extremely cold days, but were well equipped.
2. I shot OK, but not great. Since last season started, I bought a used 20ga. Browning Gold Hunter and have shot that extensively to work on my lead-in (I frequently shoot behind birds).
3. We did this to some extent, but late open water on the Great Lakes prevented a serious migration into PA, MD, or VA, until a severe freeze in early January sent all the birds from NY, MI, and Canada straight to the NC/VA border and beyond. At that point, we decided to forget duck hunting and focus on geese for the rest of the season, which was not what we really wanted to do....but it was an excellent decision in retrospect. We paid attention, and it paid off.
4. I got burned a few times by hunting with buddies (their rigs) on warm, moonlight mornings, and then started to stick to my guns. I hunted in the rain, hunted in the snow and ice, hunted in the cold, and tried to avoid hunting during the full moon and during warm spells. Seemed to work, as our harvest was much better in poor weather.
5. Refer to #3. We didn't really go chasing ducks like we had planned, because we never had a significant flight of ducks to really take up residence in Maryland for any significant length of time. So pursuant to #4, instead of "pushing the issue" and trying to hunt places were "ducks should be," we paid attention to the migration maps, weather maps, and others' hunting reports, and stuck with geographic areas and species (namely: geese) that we thought were most likely to produce.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Two Full Weeks of Parenthood

Hank is not easily bothered
So, if you stop by occasionally, you already know that my beautiful wife gave me a son a little over two weeks ago. Being 35, and with most of my friends already "with children," I tried really hard to anticipate what my life would be like. After two weeks at least, it seems like I had it nailed down, to some degree. What are some things that I didn't anticipate?
  1. How the #1 goal in my life suddenly became "to grow this baby," especially given how horrible I felt when the pediatrician says he's not gaining enough weight so far.
  2. How much coffee I actually need to survive day-to-day. Mind-blowing!
  3. How "sleeping inbetween your baby's feedings" is a joke, if you have a baby who squeaks and mumbles in his sleep, like ours.
  4. How productive I actually am with 3, 4, or 5 hours sleep. I thought I would be a zombie.
  5. How excited I am to go home from work and find out what Hank did that day, even though his activities are generally confined to sleeping, barfing, pooping, drooling, eating, and going wherever Momma wants to take him.
  6. That I have rarely felt as useless as when (luckily this is only about once a day) Hank is upset and there's nothing that he "needs" to make him un-upset...and there's nothing I can do for him.
  7. How about the sick amount of sports I am watching on TV - since half of the time I am saddled with a sleeping 10 lb sack of potatoes on my chest? From "Spanish Fly" light tackle salt water fishing to college football (GO HOKIES), the NFL, World Cup Soccer, and of course the MLB playoffs (Go Bombers!)
  8. The amount of love in my heart.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

So You Think You Can Garden, Part II - Adapt or Die (your plants, anyway)

Hostas love shade and poor soil, while deer love shade, poor soil, and hostas. Picture from a Michigan blog called Stitches of Violet.
In my first large post about gardening, I discussed how to "start gardening, and stop worrying about failing at gardening." I discussed the need for any gardener to establish realistic but desirable goals for planting and managing garden beds, food plots, and other planted areas. I also spent quite a bit of time describing some of the common "sideboards" that serve as common sense limitations to plantings, including soil pH, USDA zone, and pests.
As a summary, I also wrote that, "in some cases you will learn that your primary goal(s) may not be achievable, given outside adaptable. Change your objective, change your budget, or if possible, select a new site that could help you meet your original goal." Those are the topics I'd like to delve into today.
So let's talk about failure. You established a goal for your piece of land - whether it be a 10 gallon pot, a 10' x 10' cold frame, or a 10 acre woodlot. You solicited professional advice on how to best achieve your goals. You followed the advice...or your best instincts (often, just as valuable). And you failed.
The first instinct of most gardeners and wildlife managers is to do one of two things: try the same thing again, or immediately try something different, no matter how ill-advised. Both of these actions fall under the heading of, "I can't afford to lose this growing season!" And both of these actions can be time. After a failure, the first thing you need to ask yourself is "why didn't this work?" The most common answers to that question are:
  1. planted / fertilized incorrectly
  2. did not anticipate pest, bird, or herbivore damage
  3. freak conditions during growing season (flood, drought, late/early freeze)
  4. poor site selection

Regardless of your answer to "why," once you have a good answer, it's important to move on fairly quickly and decisively to do one of two things:

  1. change your methods to achieve your original goals/vision for the site
  2. revise your goals/vision for the site to reflect the reality "on the ground."

This approach, often called "Adaptive Management," is gaining a huge amount of popularity in wildlife management circles. While it drives bureacrats and project budget managers insane, it's often the only way to guarantee a positive outcome for a garden or habitat site. The reason why is a virtual Pandora's Box of philosophy and ecology: traditional "static" management does not work in most locations because natural systems have been altered so significantly that wilderness / pioneer-developed theories about plant production no longer apply, and resources (time and money) do not exist to study the "new ecological reality" of most places.


This is basically reflected in the US Department of Interior's Adaptive Management Initiative, which allows agencies to "make complex land management decisions...with uncertain or incomplete information," as opposed to the traditional decision-making process, which is entirely based on long-term comprehensive plans that may be 30, 40 or 50 years old. If the old plan shows that "Field 101C" is a "deer plot," and the geese eat all the deer food every year, that's too bad, because The Plan tells us we must manage it as a deer plot. Under adaptive management, the managers could choose to aggressively manage the geese to limit their ability to damage the deer plot, or plant an experimental food plot that might not be of interest to the geese, or admit that the site should not be managed for deer at all.


So, back to gardening and small plot management. And back to your failure. Here's the bottom-line series of questions for you to answer, before moving forward:


  1. How important is it for you to achieve your goal, whether it's to grow pumpkins for Halloween, or to grow turnips for deer food?
  2. Will there be a significant cost (time, money, opportunity) to trying the same thing again (see #4)?
  3. If solving the "problem" requires more time or money, are you willing to invest it?
  4. Are there small changes you can make to improve your site's performance? Particularly things like innoculation of legumes, addition of organic material to soil, etc.
  5. If the answer to #3 and #4 are "no," have you thought of another site that might produce your desired benefits? And can you think of another "site objective" for your failed site?

There are a lot of other ways to ask these questions, but the important part is that you critically evaluate what you did, how hard you're willing to work (or spend) to make it a reality, and whether you should explore some other options for gardening and wildlife management.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

" 'This is Our Baby, We're So Freaking Tired' is not an acceptable message"

Henry, 7lb 13oz, born 9/24/09...more info to come!
The title of this post comes from a gem of an email sent to me from some site called "The Baby Center, LLC." I do appreciate the site, and the emails, because they appear to be written by folks (primarily) women under the age of 75, and the helpful tips (and what not) are phrased in ways to make it a little more comforting - the chic term is now "more accessible" to young parents. So, here's what they had to say about baby announcements:
What to put on a birth announcement:
• The birth date.
• The baby's weight.
• The baby's "length." (Yes, this is the same as "height." No, we don't know why it's called "length.")
• Chocolaty smudges from the three full-size candy bars you ate while you were sitting on your little doughnut pillow thingy and addressing envelopes.
• Your own weight is not a conventional addition. Nor is the number of nursing pads you've soaked through in one day, the number of meconium poops the baby had, or the measurement of her fossilized belly-button stump.
• "This is our baby. We're so freaking tired." is not an acceptable message. Be sure to include one or all of the following words: "joy," "blessing," and "miracle."
Their full-length, more informative article on the topic can be found here.
And since I'm quoting so liberally from their information - here's a good summary of what Baby Center (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) is all about:
BabyCenter, the Web's #1 global interactive parenting network, has nurtured more than 100 million parents since its launch in 1997. Our purpose is to support parents through their journey of parenthood with a blend of expert advice and user-created wisdom.
In the U.S., BabyCenter reaches over 78% of new and expectant moms online and has garnered numerous
prestigious awards, including six Webby Awards. In March 2007, BabyCenter captured the #7 spot on Advertising Age's "Digital A-List" and has been a featured expert on NBC's "Today" show and ABC's Good Morning America.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tricking Murphy - Paddling & Fishing on the Most Unlikely of Days

End of the line - entering the riffles and bars on the Jones Falls
So, as some of you may have noted from the 3D Baby Widget, we are expecting a baby...well...yesterday. The doctors believe he's a biggun, so they will be inducing sometime during the next several days. This is a cause for quite a bit of anxiety at our house, and the little guy is showing only minor interest in out-of-womb residence, so I thought, "Maybe I can make Murphy's Law work FOR me." I took the day off of work and decided to go kayak fishing - out of cell phone range - with a baby who could decide to come, literally, at any time. Perhaps then, my wife would go into labor sooner rather than later, and we could get on with the child-rearing (which we are very excited about). This "waiting" crap is for the birds.
So, I selected my most local spot - the 80 acre (or so) abandoned reservoir near our house. As I've written about previously, the fish habitat at this spot is highly compromised due to pollution, sediment, carp, and rampant poaching by Americans and immigrants alike. It is an urban American lake whose shorelines have returned to forest. Downstream (Jones Falls) is highly polluted by roadway runoff and sewage contamination (although rumors exist that smallmouth bass do exist along the 10 mile reach between the Lake and the Falls' mouth at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Upstream of the Lake (and into the old English Land Grant farms from the 1700s), some pollution does exist (fertilizer, manure, road runoff), but according to Trout Unlimited, self-sustaining populations of brown trout and brook trout exist....less than 15 miles from downtown Baltimore. Who'd a thunk it?
Consider me a skeptic. I've been fishing the Lake (and the tailwaters below the dam) for about 7 years. I have had some fun days, landing 40, 50 or more panfish, catfish, carp, etc. and seeing some amazing wildlife (like the first and only time I saw a Baltimore Oriole). I rarely get skunked at the lake, but I had never caught a bass at the Lake before now. In fact, on this blog, I had theorized why the Lake was not sustainable bass habitat (carp and pollution, primarily).
To make matters significantly worse, the City of Baltimore (geniuses that they are) DRAINED THE LAKE to clean woody debris off of the dam....IN FEBRUARY (2009) (I believe their though was that no one visits the lake in the winter, so they would receive fewer annoying phone calls from visitors). In what was a surprise ONLY to Baltimore City DPW, the over-wintering fish became highly stressed and a early spring fish kill resulted. As a result, fishing on the Lake has been miserable in 2009. So imagine my surprise when I was casting an extra-long gold, yellow, and black rooster tail against a cliff in the lake (where I caught my first fish from a kayak, ever, in 2006), and landed this 10" largemouth (who looks like a smallmouth). Amazing catch? No....but given the circumstances, I was amazed that he was alive, healthy, and in the Lake at all!

After 7 years of fishing this urban first largemouth.
He was caught along a rock drop-off below some overhanging branches in dappled sunlight. I continued to paddle upstream, hoping to find the "navigable" limit at the dam's current capacity. I found it, and there were very few fish up there, but it was nice to have to think through some kayaking "problems" with submerged wood in riffles, overhangs, sandbars, etc. On my way back down, I stopped at another area in the Lake closer to the dam, targeting a group of several sunken trees with a steep dropoff and overhanging branches. I was getting hung up on every other cast, but I was also catching some decent size panfish, so it was all good. At one point, I was working the lure very closely along a sunken tree and hooked up with this guy:

Not a monster....but nice to see he's healthy & happy in our local Lake!
As the sun worked its way up into the middle of the sky, I figured it might be time to get out into the open lake and try to get cell service....I did...and no calls! I made the decision to pack it in and go home and help out the wifey...since her wait for the baby is far more tedious and anxious than mine!

The new ride: 2010 Tacoma Crew Cab, TRD Sport, Long Bed, Off-Road (ignore my cheesy tires) & Tow Packages.
The major, ironic difference from my old Tacoma......this is also compatible with a baby seat.
This is my last child-free post!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fall Plantings

Well, it's that time of year, and with the baby on the way I knew I'd have to get my fall plantings in early. I'm almost done! Here's what's in store for winter/spring 09-10:
Cover Crop (2 plots): generic white clover

Spinach, Double Choice Hybrid
Radish, Cherry Bomb Hybrid II
Giant Crocus:

Flower Record (dark purple)
Jeanne d'Arc (white)
Vanguard (purple+lavender)
Snow Crocus:

Blue Pearl

Golden Oxford (late yellow-mass planting!)
Bleu Aimable (late purple)

Money Maker (yellow+white center)

Giant Allium
Italian Arum

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...