Thursday, September 30, 2010

Three Years and 251 Installments of River Mud

A fall, 2008 picture - hanging out on the Maryland - Delaware border,
waiting for sunset / judging the fall drought / scouting for wood ducks
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Bear with me - we'll soon be back in the thick of real outdoor adventures and real conservation issues. In the meantime, humor me for one more trip down memory lane. Three years ago today, I published my first post on this blog. Interestingly, it was a pro-habitat restoration rant, and when I set up the blog just weeks before, it really wasn't my intent for the blog to serve that purpose.
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You see, I have a notoriously shabby memory when it comes to my outdoor adventures. I'm very sad to say that when it comes to the details of some of my best periods of outdoor adventures, the experiences just run together. First, let me say that I recognize that this is a blessing. It is a gift of Providence to have a life where the daily routine is mundane instead of hungry, chaotic insanity, and on top of that, a life wherein the mundacity is bookended by some of the most amazing sights, experiences, and adventures that humans can have on earth. That is just good stuff.
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And in not taking this all for granted, I've always thought that it was worth chronicling, one way or the other. In 2000, I started keeping detailed excel spreadsheets of surfing and fishing adventures so I could remember what gear worked where, when, and what I'd do differently. It was no less primitive than a field journal with a few digital pictures sprinkled in to spark some memories. Once I started traveling extensively for work and for hunting and surfing in 2002, this system totally fell apart. For the next 5 years, I depended only on my windows folders of digital pictures to remind me of the great times I'd had. But so much information was missing.
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So has the River Mud Blog solved that problem? Well, it has and it hasn't. The blog format allows me to keep a depth of information, observations, and casual details that I would never remember otherwise. On the other hand, in the interest of (blogging) time, I have been known to combine experiences (say, on consecutive days), omit experiences that were exceptionally boring, and other typical field writing tactics. What didn't make it into blog posts or digital photos, in many cases, has also escaped my memory. That's incredibly depressing.
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That being said, I have learned a few things from blogging. One relates to my last point - not everything is worth sharing. I continue to believe this, and it's the thing that makes me want to hang myself when I read some other outdoor blogs. There are other things that are simply too personal to share in this semi-anonymous environment. I try to walk the line occasionally, but I find it pretty stressful and only slightly therapeutic. Another lesson I'm still learning is how to properly balance photography and storytelling, while trying to constantly improve my quality of both. I continue to see it done wrong, and I can't figure out the formula myself. I'll keep trying.
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A few goals for the future:
  • Keep improving my writing skills, syntax, and attention to detail
  • Post often for my frequent visitors
  • Explore possibilities of writing (and going afield) with other bloggers in my region
I've read several times that less than 1% of internet users generate new content (URLs or site depth). I continue to enjoy being in that group, although I couldn't have predicted that this is what it would look like. I hope you all stay tuned and let me know what I could be doing to better entertain or inform you.
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Thanks for coming around and sticking around!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nothing Subtle About Nicole....


Well, it really looks like unless I can somehow make some time to go outdoors in the next 5 hours, which isn't going to happen, I will be stuck inside for the mother of all Tropical Storms.
Nicole is coming up the coast right now and is bringing a gift of 4-9" of rain in the next 48 hours. The storm, and the resulting floods, will quite assuredly shut down fishing and pretty much anything I'd like to do in the garden for another 4 or 5 days. I saw this map and was reminded of the noreaster that socked Charleston during our last visit down there (prediction here, storm here).
Is it too much to ask for a simple cold front from the north? Seriously, tropical storms on the coast are not going to convince game birds in NY, PA, and Ontario to fly south and east!

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Weather Breaks....Subtly

Austrian Field Peas Comin' Up
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Amongst all the party planning at home and insanity at work, fall may have really decided to set in. Now, I was surprised by this event for a few reasons. First and least surprisingly, the forecasters did not predict it at all. Second, just 5 days ago, we had three more consecutive days over 90 degrees - as my fall crops are sprouting! Now, it's been raining for 48 hours and temperatures have not eclipsed 75.
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I have tried three times in the last 5 weeks to plant lettuce and spinach in the garden. The first two times were both beset by blazing temperatures and a lack of rain. The third time seems to have taken. Both the lettuce (Winter Density) and spinach (Space Spinach) have germinated, and since then, it's rained for 3 days straight - and prior to that, I was watering heavily. After my first sowing of Mammoth Red Clover struggled in the heat, I broadcast some more seed, and I hope the clover will finally do what it's supposed to do. Afraid of the heat, I planted Austrian Field Peas on September 15th, and they had germinated by the 23rd.


Winter Density Lettuce (left) and Space Saver Spinach (right)
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My spinach and lettuce plantings are about 10% of what I plan to put in the ground, but I'm just happy that something is growing again. I didn't include a picture of the garden because it's in what we ecologists call a "transitional state." The difference between late July and late September is pretty shocking, though. Yes, the okra and squash, the sunflowers and cucumbers, all of them standard bearers of summer, are gone - harvested to death, and composted.
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Fall is coming.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday to My Buddy

Hank celebrated his 1st birthday recently...more pics soon!
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I have been a dad for a year. The best analogy I can think of is that it's been like riding a roller coaster in the dark. Overall it's been a huge amount of fun, but exhausting, and at any given point, it's been impossible to tell what would happen next - good, bad, or barf. I look at Hank and I see the best parts of my dad, my father-in-law, and my grandfather. Hope they see the same. Being a dad is the most consistently joyful (while thankless) things I have ever done. And by far the most rewarding job I have ever had.
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It's really not how I thought it would be, and I struggle to try to explain that. I guess the best way to put it is that being a dad quickly became more entwined with how I define myself than I thought it would. Some days, I look forward to what's next in his development. Other days (lately), I kind of wish he'd stay the same for awhile, because I love him so much just the way he is.
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All this exhaustion and love and mushy stuff has definitely affected my outdoor work and play. Again, not quite in ways I expected. I seem to have developed an internal clock that sometimes tells me it's time to wrap up my time afield or on the water, and get back home to see what Hank is up to (primarily, stomping around the house after Roan, yelling "Daw Dee, Daw Dee!!!" (doggie)). But seriously, I seem to get just as recharged by taking Hank to the state fair or "Fall on the Farm" type activities as I do by sitting out in the bugs and weather by myself. I look forward to having Hank join me, although I know it's several years off at this point.
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Along with the little guy has come the requisite "lack of money" and "lack of free time." Those two have affected my outdoor efforts in a few ways. First of all, I remain focused on the "ethic" I started to pursue last year: to spend my limited free time on only the highest quality outdoor adventures available to me, and to focus on work, home, and family when I'm not directly planning/mobilizing/de-mobilizing from an outdoor adventure. Second, it's imperative that I give up some otherwise "free time" to allow my saint of a wife to recover from all of her duties and obligations. Most days, we could both really use a nap like Hank takes - the two hour, snoring variety before lunch and before dinner.
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I can't imagine a greater blessing, and I'm interested to see how homesick I get this waterfowl season!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In the Land of Giant Creatures

Female Differential Grasshopper on Millet "Purple Majesty"
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Wow, it has been a challenging few weeks. Several big deadlines at both jobs and Hank's first birthday party coming up on saturday. I've had my nose to the grindstone, but every time I pick it up, it seems like another gigantic creature is about to attack me. The above grasshopper was hanging out in the garden. I'll be getting afield again soon, but enjoy the gigantism in the meantime!
The Norway Rat we had been calling "Mega Rat" from last November until just the other night
There's no reference for size here, but this hunting spider in family Gnaphosidae was about 2 inches long and hunting crickets on our neighbor's sidewalk. I saw him from about 100 feet away, in the dark!
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This collection of absurdly long creatures is an indication that an uprising against "The Man" will happen soon! Or not, you know, because The Man has a good health plan and flex time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Getting the Most Out of Public Land & Water Part III - Timing

Let an empty boat ramp be your goal - not your fear. Photo from the Oregon Fly Fishing Blog - a great read.
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In the first two posts on this topic (one, two), I've hit two "secrets" of the successful public land user - know what public land exists, and don't be afraid to go deep to have a high quality experience. But the next (perhaps, last?) part of the equation is the most common sense and somehow still the most elusive to actually master.
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Time. If you access public land or water at the same time everyone else does, your odds of having a successful outing will be drastically reduced. When do most people get out and enjoy public land? Reams of wildlife management literature have been dedicated to the topic, and generally speaking, people get out when work and family constraints will allow them. One universal common time for crowding is Saturdays.
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I hope I'm not breaking your heart here, but I might as well say it. If you want to have a high quality outing on public land, you need to stay home with your loved ones on saturday and fire up that weed eater. Depending on your area's general religious persuasion (and hence, blue laws), Sunday may or may not be significantly less crowded in your neck of the woods.
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Note: if your personal situation lends itself to a "weekend warrior" requirement, you probably need to go in a different direction than my posts are sending you. Specifically, you either need to buy/lease some private access so you can enjoy your weekend, or you need an extreme attitude self-adjustment (something I am utterly incapable of) so that you don't have an emotional meltdown when your saturday afternoon boat trip is...umm....not aided.... by 10 guys from the local bass "tournament" swamping your boat every 15 minutes as they zoom up and down the river.
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But let's just say you have a flexible schedule (more or less), 7 days a week. I didn't say "dream schedule" so I am thinking more of those of us who can pick and choose our days off, a few weeks ahead of time (although if you're like me, your schedule eventually gets locked down and you have no flexibility when "the day comes"....groan). Let's take a look at when other people will be using the public resource, so you know when to steer clear:
Hunting:
Any opening or closing saturday - 50% of all hunting occurs on saturdays!
Any 2-day season
Holidays and the day before holidays
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Fishing
Opening day / opening week (40% of all fishing, 25% of license purchases)
Saturday mornings, sunday evenings
First 60 days of season (gradually declining throughout)
Warm weekend days in the fall
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Surfing / Kayaking
Weekends when gloves and hood are not required
Days when easily predictable large swells/flows will max out
College holidays
Warm days when park fees are not collected (off-season)
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Given those things, I bet you can chart some possible "days off" on your work calendars. Obviously, you don't know what the conditions will be. While it causes me great anxiety, it's exciting to know that I have a tuesday off, and my options include wood duck hunting, bow hunting, bass fishing, trout fishing, and kayaking. On almost all occasions, the weather conditions will be perfect for one of those activities. Although, I've written before about missing the mark! Here, recently, is where I hit it.
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The bottom line is that - at least on the coasts, and within 90 miles of big population centers elsewhere in the USA - it is becoming impossible to expect public land, beach, or water to produce high quality memories if one doesn't widen their options of public access, go as deep as possible on the site, as far from other users as possible, and make a real effort to do some "Tuesday Morning Fishing or Monday Goose Hunting." Figure it out, know the laws, do some scouting, and then GO!!!
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I hope each one of you has a day this fall or winter when you first think, "I just can't believe that no one else knows about this place!" Then you'll remember portaging the canoe, belly-crawling through briars, and the 3 mile paddle with 4 dozen decoys in your lap. Your next thought will be more accurate, "I don't believe I'm the only one who's not too lazy to search, scout, take a day off work, and paddle/hike my butt off for this great hunting/fishing spot." And then, as you collect your birds, fish, or photos from the day, maybe you'll actually be proud of what you accomplished.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Shooting Tecomate Bucks in the Knee - TV Worth Watching?

So, Hank and I were up early this morning (our usual saturday morning outside of waterfowl season - so Ms. Swamp Thing can get some sleep) and as a matter of ritual, I turned on Vs. Outdoor Channel to watch whatever hunting and fishing shows they decided to put on, before we turn it over to ESPN for College GameDay around 11am. I enjoyed, for the second time, watching Sean Mann and friend hunt redheads and pintails at Laguna Madre's Pintail Lodge, as featured on Sean's show The Waterfowler's Edge. Laguna Madre is a dream hunting and fishing trip for me. It was great watching the guys talk about hunting, conservation, just letting birds land (don't worry, they killed plenty), and even discuss the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (and N.A. Migratory Bird Treaty Act!).
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So contrast that to the following show, the Bucks of Tecomate. I have never really watched the Bucks of Tecomate, because honestly, I'm not interested in watching a show about casually shooting well-fed deer, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy....just....not my speed. I say that with total acceptance of what Tecomate does in the field - from innovating new deer management techniques and technology, to providing the opportunity to shoot gigantic trophy animals. And I, myself, enjoy shooting domestically raised critters - here's the evidence. Guess I feel like it's food, even if it's shooting less than wild critters.

Let's note that in the above paragraph, I used the word "shoot" 4 times, and the word "hunt" zero times. I've watched some great hunting shows over the years that show the trials and tribulations of getting a classic hunt in during the 4 or 5 day window that TV hosts have to film. I think it's great for the new hunter, or any hunter, to watch an accomplished guide say, "Alright, this is my 3rd day here and we haven't shot yet. Let's see if today is our day." Wow, real hunting!


Compare that to the episode of Bucks of Tecomate I saw today. First, I watched host David Morris hide - standing - behind a single, scrawny bush, about 15 yards downwind of two 10 point bucks who were out in a mowed clearing. His guest shooter was behind another bush that did not conceal him (or his shiny, polished-nickle barrel rifle-on camo stock of course) either. When the guest decided that those animals were too small (his right, as a customer), the two men stepped out into the clearing, in broad daylight, and walked away from the bucks, who motioned like they would run, but didn't. All of their actions are totally legitimate (for a deer shoot), but why would you televise that kind of behavior that just shows how "not quite wild" the animals are, and notably, would you dare to continue to call it a "hunt" after a display like that? David Morris does.

A few minutes later on the show, the men decided to get a better view from two box stands. I thought this was hilarious because I could already tell that there was no chance they would shoot a deer in the brush, but I guess it made for good TV. Imagine my amusement when I watched the guest climb into the box stand with one hand, while holding his rifle in the other - a breach of basic stand-hunting safety. Yeah, let's get that on tape!

The film cuts to the men set up in the box stand, but then cuts out to a nice 12-pointer in the middle of a field. So the deer is in a clearing, the box stands are in a clearing, and the men walked through a cleared road to get from the last clearing. I was baffled, then, to see footage of the two men...I don't know what they were doing...."scrambling through the brush" is too generous....pretending to comb through the bushes, and even some closeups of their boots. Of course, the closeups showed low-mowed grass.

Miraculously (ha ha), they suddenly appear in the same clearing as the giant buck (you see, it was much quieter to climb through 7 foot tall brush, than it would have been to creep up the mowed path). That's when I got furious. The men set up on the edge of the field, in what I would consider plain view of the buck (turned out to be an 11-point atypical, I believe), and of course, the deer did not move. The guest took what should have been a textbook front quartering shot (deer standing still, looking at the shooter) from the knee (on shooting sticks, no less) and BLEW OFF THE DEER'S KNEECAP. The kind film editors even showed it again in slow motion.

The deer, apparently suffering no other injury than a blown off front leg, ran the hell off into the brush to suffer a slow, painful death - probably through infection or blood loss. Admittedly, David Morris looked a little displeased by this turn of events, and they use the opportunity to talk about shot placement....oh wait, no they don't. Unbelievable. What a waste of 100lbs of meat. A leg shot? Who does that? And who films it?!

It's often said that the folks responsible for the end of hunting in this country will be hunters. And for fun, I'll name you a few other people that would enjoy televising footage of a hunter blowing off a deer's leg at 60 yards: PETA, H$U$, ALF, IDA, FfA and so many more (sorry, I won't give them the courtesy of a direct link). Wow, televising that knee shot suddenly seems like a bad idea, huh?

If you enjoy watching TV shows that feature the harvest of trophy bucks on managed preserves, I urge you to contact Versus and Bucks of Tecomate and ask them to consider filming only deer shoots and shooters that display basic (or better) ethics, safety skills, and shooting skills.

There's not much they'll care to do for me. I remain convinced that Bucks of Tecomate is garbage TV for my family and I - our personal choice, as it is yours.

Postscript: Maybe, as one commenter has already noted, the show doesn't even accurately reflect how guided deer "hunts" go at the Tecomate properties. Maybe their film editor is 65 years old and believes that "this is what hunters really want to see...how EASY it is!" And I am sure there are still some hunters out there that just want to harvest one giant buck in their lifetime. Their dream. If it's not totally wild....so be it. I refuse to judge that person (when it comes to deer and birds). Tecomate might be a great option for them. Hopefully they don't film it, and if they do, they don't distribute it.

Me? As long as we have an unlimited harvest antlerless archery season that extends from September to February, and 10 and 12 point bucks walking through peoples' lawns up and down the east coast, I think I'll keep my captive-reared shooting limited to upland birds. Between my language and my shooting, trust me, no one will want to televise it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Getting the Most Out of Public Land and Water, Part II

With all due respect to author / game warden Mike Bradshaw (RIP) and his colleagues everywhere, I have absolutely NO intention of spending my next day off by becoming the next edition, chapter, or even a footnote of your Chronicles
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Alright, so you've read Part I, my most recent post. You've got a list of public properties in the area where you fish, hunt, kayak, birdwatch, or whatever. You've done a little homework and confirmed that they are more than municipal bus lots, or the school board's desk storage warehouse. I'm confident that you have not heard of or seen all of the properties on your list, and once you've looked at online mapping to see what the land use "might be," you might be getting excited. But you know disturbingly little about the property, whether or not it's truly public, what the access may be, and what activities are expressly prohibited, expressly encouraged, and all of the activities inbetween that are neither prohibited or encouraged (my coup de gras).
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Let's review our goal: to identify high quality public access that allows us to have a safe, legal, high quality outdoor experience. And to go out and do it! So what does high quality really mean? Again, let's take a step back and look at the major reasons why people avoid using public land:
  1. Safety concerns (not knowing who's out there and where they are)
  2. Quality of facilities (neglect, vandalism, overuse vs. overly restrictive access)
  3. Quality of habitat (concerns about overuse, no funds for restoration/management)
  4. Concerns about other users' ethics & restraint
  5. Higher likelihood of getting ticketed for a minor infraction, i.e. trailer lights, PFDs
  6. Above factors make it difficult to plan an outting based on changing weather conditions (tides, winds, cold fronts, offshore winds, high flows, etc)
Does that about sum it up for you, when you choose to go to private land (or stay home), rather than try out the local state park or WMA? To give it a try anyway - to access these properties that your tax dollars helped pay for, you really have two options to deal with the 6 major bummers listed above:
  1. Accept it and plow through
  2. Accept it and find away around that issue

The first option really applies to things like facility quality/access quality and the likelihood of having a friendly encounter with a Conservation Officer. The second is really what I'd like to focus on - how can we plan public land outings based on variable conditions, unknown or high user pressure, safety concerns, and poor habitat (or the perception by other users that poor habitat exists)?

Get smart. That's the answer. First - and this could be a post unto itself - find out if your planned activity is expressly allowed, expressly prohibited, or something inbetween. I've surfed, fished, and hunted in many public places where the land manager had never conceived of seeing a surfer, angler, or hunter. Admittedly, I've had mixed results ranging from outstanding to debacle to pure rage. Many instances of the latter two types could have been avoided by a quick call ahead to confirm (or convince) that my activity is allowable. At this point, you should know what's legal and where the "gray area" is.....and whether you want to tread there. It gets easier after this point.

Do some additional research on the properties in which you have an interest - one of my key questions is always "Can I get public access to a sweet looking area where other people will be too lazy to go?" Successfully answering this question often eliminates the "safety" and "habitat quality" issues.

For instance, does accessing a public hunting area require you to wait out the tide to boat under a low road bridge? That's promising.

What about a public beach with miles of shoreline but only one parking lot? You got something against walking?

What about a county park where nobody fishes because you have to have an extra County fishing license for $5. Or because it costs $5 to get into the park. I guarantee you that such a place will have better fishing than the public spot with free access. My brother found that out for himself last year by paying $12/hour for a county boat rental. $25 got him the best 2 hours of fishing he had all summer.

All in all, folks, I'm talking about work. This is radically different than the way that outdoorsfolk usually consider public land, which is, "Hey we show up, load our guns/cameras/rods/etc in the parking lot, and walk down that well-signed gravel path into the field/water, right?"

Nope. At least not here on the east coast. Don't get me wrong - people - thousands of them - do just that. But do you really think that the best surfing, fishing, or hunting is in the first/closest spot to the parking lot/boat ramp, and always on saturdays? Apparently, many of us do!

If you want a high quality experience on public land, you'll need to put in some time before you ever show up, and you need to be prepared to go where others dare not........to walk 3 miles down the beach, kayak upstream .75 miles to a duck hole everyone ignores, or to stalk 2 miles into a public property to find the perfect fallow field surrounded by giant oak trees.

In Part III, we'll talk about amplifying your efforts by going when others don't. See ya then!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Getting the Most Out of Public Land and Water, Part I

This is why many people avoid public land....from the Fail Blog
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A lot of outdoorsfolks, bloggers, and other writers have asked the question, "Why Public Land? Why bother?" It's a daunting question, and one that I will intentionally avoid here! Instead, I'd like to discuss "how to reach your outdoors objective on public land and water," which is a topic that few have chosen to bother with - notably among the few is Ben from Ben G. Outdoors, with his series of posts about hunting on public land for upland birds, deer, and maybe one day, waterfowl. Although I read those posts when Ben originally wrote them, for the purposes of this series of posts, I'm writing without referring back to them. When I finish, I'll make some comparison's to Ben's work and see on what points and pointers we agree and disagree.

Before we try to tease out the prospect of "how to have a good experience on public land," I really believe we need to start by considering who uses any given piece of public land, in general terms:

  1. locals who have no access to private land or water
  2. locals who have detailed knowledge of "where to go" on a large piece of public land, water, or marsh, and want a quality experience similar to other local public and private lands, and
  3. non-locals who are looking for better opportunities than they have in their own locale

That's a huge variety in people, attitudes, and motivation for going afield on a piece of land that may be just one giant marsh, one lake, or a set of corn fields in the middle of nowhere. Now let's consider those users on the standard wildlife management area, which may feature forest, ag fields, grasslands, marsh, shoreline, and ponds or impoundments. And let's consider a time of year like April or October, when multiple uses are bound to impact one another, and conflicts will absolutely occur.

That sure got complicated in a hurry! This diversity in users, ethics, and priorities gives rise to an entire list of reasons why many outdoorsmen and women - from birders to hunters to surfers - avoid public access points like the plague. I'll cover that in my next post - but I bet that you've either thought them or yelled them at one time or another, as your public land experience was "ruined" -sometimes an exaggeration, sometimes not - by another member of the public.

So where should we start, as we try to extract more out of our public land experiences? I'd argue that the first exercise, which is overlooked by easily 50% of outdoorsfolk, is to actually know what public land is available. In my state, the state and counties are constantly adding public land via real acquisition, easements, and leases. These properties, which can be anything from stretches of beach to 10 acre woodlots surrounded by (private) ag fields, make it into the state hunting properties list after a few years of ownership, if ever. Do you know who the largest landowner in the United States? Did you answer the Department of Defense? That's right. If you or your spouse have a military ID - on some bases, you don't need one, you just need a base fishing/hunting/recreation license - you should be able to get on post for some outdoor activities. This is especially key for low security annexes or outposts where few other folks are liable to tread.

How do you get a reliable, high quality list of public properties that may or may not allow hunting, fishing, or other activities? You've got to do the homework. Part 1 of said homework is to find out what public land is even out there.

  1. Consult a state list of real properties (created annually for Federal tax purposes) - not just WMAs - look for state parks, rec areas, natural areas, "preserves," "open space areas," "natural heritage areas" and the like. Be ready to read about nearby state properties you've never even heard of! Many of us merely go to areas we already know, or areas that we happened to learn about while doing an internet search. If your area is anything like mine, though, you'll need to go beyond that level to enjoy public land.
  2. Find a list of county/city parks and recreation areas, areas owned by the Department of Public Works, and others.
  3. In some areas, you'll want a list of Federal properties too. Don't overlook US Forest Service (who add land regularly, often in disconnected patches) and the US Department of Energy. At this stage, don't be too concerned about what activities are/not permitted.

Part 2 of your effort - go ahead and cyberscout, I mean, virtually groundtruth, those properties with Google Earth or similar imagery - maybe a property is a paved lot full of schoolbuses, and maybe it's an overgrown site with a tiny pond in the back. It's absolutely critical that this step precedes, not substitutes for your actual scouting and calling work (to be detailed in my next post). At this point, you should either be working on a list or a spreadsheet with the following columns:

Property Name/Address Distance from Home Possible Activities?


Once you've started to get this basic information - it's time for Part 3 of this exercise - learning what's clearly legal, what's clearly not, reading between the lines, and not being afraid of "going deep and dark."
See you then!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

If it's ugly, is it worth doing?


Impersonating someone with fishing skill
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I have begun a crazy stretch of professional and domestic chaos that doesn't look like it'll let up for another 3 weeks (or, you know, 17 years), culminating with Hank's first birthday party! I'm trying to be as zen as possible about the absolute dissolution of any free time to do anything, but it's definitely challenging.
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This week, I had a long day of meetings on the road, splitting my time as usual between conversations about wetland design and how the hell do we pay for these wetlands that we've designed, and I intentionally crafted myself a window in the afternoon to get afield. That my time window was designed to find me 5 miles from the farm I lease was not a coincidence, although organizing your schedule this way is plenty stressful - there is plenty of work to be done, and you may be just one site visit or one "extra" cup of coffee away from not being able to slip away and have a little fun.
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Oh, the fish? You want to hear more about the fish?! Well, I called around and figured out that very few doves or geese were in town, so I grabbed my fishing rod and headed over to a very secluded pond on public land that I'd been meaning to fish for years. The clock was ticking before my next appointment. Due to drought and heat, the pond was a mess - down 2 feet and very dark (anoxic) water. Fish were hitting the surface, so I knew that somebody was around. I fished for about 25 minutes, trying at least 10 lures, and finally caught the tiny pumpkinseed below on a hi-viz beetle fly. I was pretty disillusioned at that point, but also was aware of the fact that I had another 30 minutes to kill, so I kept working a variety of lures.
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As a last resort, I tried the 2" BPS black/white/red popper that I used to catch this monster (a trophy spotted bass) in July. I kept working the edge of the pond, which was lined with cattails and Phragmites. After 5 minutes or so, the water exploded, my reel's drag ran, and I ended up with the guy above. Got a few photos and slipped him back into the pond - never touched any part of him except his gill. Fun retrieve and it might have just made my week.


Embarassing and desperate!
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But that brings me back to my larger point. As we get older and take on more responsibilities and burdens - many of them with long term rewards - what do we do in the short term? Be content to be unsatisfied? Throw caution (and risk aversion) to the wind and blow off "today" and its list of responsibilities?

I guess I find myself in the middle, and it's a tough tightrope. This time, getting out for one hour and catching a fish of this size, at a spot I've never fished, made it a no-brainer. I still worked a full workday, got home at a reasonable time, and enjoyed a beautiful hour outdoors, as the temperatures here have dropped into the mid 70s.
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Was it worth doing? And are these "quickies" worth doing on a regular basis? I'm not really sure but I know what my attitude is like when I have the opportunity and I don't go. Those little regrets have kept me on this treadmill since I first worked on the beach in 1995 and thought "you know, I could probably surf before work...."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pond to Bog Conversion, Phase I

Neglected 300 gallon pond
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I've taken on a new type of project at home - something I've never done before, but it's popular, so what could go wrong? God, I am going to be a great parent. In 2005, I dug out and lined a roughly 300 gallon pond in our backyard - fed through a dry creek bed, from a piped gutter, and also by direct rain (obviously). I dug it deep enough (>24") to allow fish to overwinter, put mounds of sandy soil around the edge to allow frogs to hibernate, and ran electrical (above ground - I know - stupid) to pump (250 gph) and aerate. I envisioned a tiny urban aquatic habitat. Hmmm. Dreams.
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How can I quickly list the biggest problems of such a small urban pond? First, the black liner would heat the water, causing awful algae blooms in the spring and a resulting fish kill in the early summer. I stopped replacing big fish in the pond in 2005, only adding guppies, suckers, catfish and frogs after that. In 2008, it became evident that rats were using the pond as a water source and pooping all over the edge of the pond. In addition, they were living in the flexible ribbed pipe that ran from the gutter downspout to the dry creekbed, which routinely then needed to be flushed of rat feces, rat skeletons, half eaten trash/rat food, etc. I pulled the pipe in 2009, robbing the pond of about 50% of its hydrology and probably 80% of its flushing. I got sick of constantly flushing the pump and filter apparatus in 2008, and at that time, the pond was mainly inhabited by guppies (who ate mosquito larvae...very handy!) and green frogs. I kept the pond aerated, which worked great until fall 2009, when rats/raccoons/opossums chewed through the 100' supply wire. As a result, no fish survived the winter.
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With Henry being my #1 personal time activity in 2010, the pond just did not get managed. The frogs (I guess) did not survive the winter and I only noticed 1 shell from a dragonfly nymph on a pickerelweed stem, causing a horrible mosquito problem. Embarassing. Well, Henry started walking 2 weeks ago (at 11 months old!) and suddenly, the pond is an enormous liability. These days, I do a lot of work with urban wetlands, rain gardens, and bog "creations" and I thought, "What if I empty the pond and keep the liner in place?" I called a colleague who has designed many created bogs over the years (a wetland restoration/creation specialty I do not have) and he gave me some basic tips.



I drained the pond.
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It's bigger than it looks, and I originally built it to have "benches" at several depths, which will not serve any purpose once the site becomes a bog. I also slipped on the liner several times and got covered in mosquito-y nasty goo while completing this process.

Adding Sand
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The value of bog wetlands is in the fact that unlike most wetlands, they occur in organic sandy soils that allow groundwater to move around slowly but constantly within the bog area. Pollutants can be processed by bacteria this way, and these bacteria form the basis of a very unique food chain. Since my pond is a little shady and I won't be planting shrubs or trees in it, I filled the deepest part of the pond with 200lbs of sand.

50/50 organic / sand mixing
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For the "shallow" parts of the pond, I mixed (per my colleague's advice) 50/50 sand and peat moss. If you look around on the internet (which I did), you'll see recommendations from 70/30 to 30/70. This took a half-yard of compressed peat moss and another 100lbs of sand.


Starting to look like a real bog!
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Since it's September, and on the heels of the hottest Maryland summer in recorded history, I think that I'll let nature adjust the bog over the winter before I plant anything. Right now, the soil elevation is a little below the pond's outfall, which means that ponding will eventually occur - something I do not want (at least for now). Once the winter rains set in, I plan to continue to add more sand (my mix in the top 12" is somewhere around 60/40 organic/sand, instead of the prescribed 50/50). That way, the top of the soil is just barely above the pond's outfall. This should created saturated conditions throughout all of the soil, and should keep the wetland plants happy.
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Tune back in around February for Phase II of this tiny habitat project!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Blanked for Early Doves

All dove food, no doves
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At another one of those great moments where being a hands-on restoration ecologist intersects with being an outdoors fanatic, I had the opportunity to get out and spend a late afternoon talking about work (i.e. money for habitat), life, and hunting with the owner of the farm I lease (with others) on the eastern shore of Maryland. It was technically the third day of dove season, but honestly, I was happy to get out that close to the opener.
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Hurricane Earl gave the shore a glancing blow in the morning, with a little bit of rain, a nice breeze, and a reduction in air temperature from the 93-97 range to something more in the 83-87 range. We wrapped up the serious work in the mid-afternoon and headed afield.

No boat? No insulated anything? No 10-dozen decoys? Must be upland!
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The farm's owner heard from his son, who had a successful dove hunt nearby, in Delaware. Examination of the birds' stomachs revealed that the doves were not eating the pre-ordained sunflowers and sorghum planted for them (or really, their demise), but instead, overgrown giant foxtail grass, and neglected/never harvested winter wheat, which had dried up months ago. Having neither of those things in abundance on the farm where I hunt, and hearing no reports of birds in the area (a very heavily hunted area for migratory birds), we simply took a walk around the perimeter of the 350 acre farm, each armed with a 20 gauge and a pocket full of shells.
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The only game birds we saw were turkeys - the flock has not been hunted since turkeys returned to the farm circa 1995 - and we saw a few finches as well. Still, it was great to relax, see the farm at a different time of year, and chat with the owner about all things personal and professional. It made me the tiniest bit more confident in my understanding of the farm's geography, and kept my spirits up for the next opportunity to go afield.



This was in front of a hunting store on the eastern shore that sells $3,000 goose guns and $600 wading jackets. Something tells me that the giant inflatable deer head speaks to a slightly different hunting demographic, but maybe that's just me.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Landforms of the Chesapeake: Eroding Coastal Wetlands

Severely eroded tidal wetland in Southern Maryland
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Tidal wetlands are very important to the Chesapeake Bay. They act as a last line of natural filters for land-based runoff and sediment, and provide an extreme diversity of fish, wildlife, and invertebrates in the zone between low tide and high tide. However, these wetlands are being lost (converted to unvegetated mud flats) at an alarming rate due to...factors unknown! So let's back up a minute.
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As the sea level has gradually risen since the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago), areas that were once marginal land were submerged. Dry land was saturated and in large areas of the Bay, turned into coastal wetlands. These areas are very dynamic - they change with tides, and with erosion and deposition from storm events. Beginning in the early 1800s, Americans filled large areas of this marginal, waterfront land to create the type of land-harbor interface we all see in the ports of New York, Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Charleston, etc. Basically, so you could pull a horse up to a boat that drafts 15 feet of water. Hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands were lost this way on the east coast of the United States. This direct loss of coastal wetlands probably peaked between 1880 and 1970, and has been decreasing rapidly since then, as tightening regulations and enforcement make it increasingly unprofitable to fill in coastal wetlands. Yet, wetlands continue to be lost every year. How?
Moderately eroding tidal wetland in Southern Maryland
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That's where it gets complicated. Known factors include:

1) the subsidence of coastal marshes - basically sinking under their own weight, 2) increased boat traffic, average boat speed, and wake size/force, and 3) Accelerated volumes and speed of runoff from waterfront farms and developments

Additional possible factors include:

1) the loss of SAV beds that used to attenuate stormwater flow, wave energy, and boat wakes. This loss has been ongoing, but was accelerated hugely by the impacts from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 2) continuing and/or accelerated sea level rise

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The interesting thing is that even biologists can't agree on the problem or the solution. The National Marine Fisheries Service, on the one hand, funds the restoration of these coastal wetlands in the Chesapeake Bay through what's called the Living Shoreline Initiative. Seems like a good (although costly) approach, right? On the other hand, they have a regulatory biologist on staff who thinks that unvegetated mud flats - one of the only increasing habitats (besides concrete) in the Chesapeake Bay - is more valuable to fish than coastal wetlands. And of course, anyone who has either done fish research or spent one day of their life fishing can tell you that saltwater fish prefer structure. This biologist's actual argument is that "when you look in the water on a mud flat, you can see fish - but you can't see fish in the marsh." This brilliant fisheries biologist is interested in curtailing or stopping the restoration of coastal wetlands because he can't see fish in the marsh. I guess it's not occurred to him that the fish use structure in the marsh to avoid detection.
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In Maryland, we've made slight progress on restoring lost coastal wetlands by having it turned into law. When a landowner wants to install rip rap or bulkhead (both of which have low shallow water habitat value), they are now required to justify why a "living shoreline" wetland was not feasible on their property. It's a small step - and I'll take it. Look - just for a moment - at my picture of a healthy coastal wetland in South Carolina, and contrast it to the two pictures above.
Stable tidal wetland on Folly Island, South Carolina

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