Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gear Review: Shimano Stradic Spinning Reel

I was teaching my night college class (a man's gotta make money somehow) when Tugboatdude texted me, "You a-hole! You get to review the Shimano Stradic reel!"  Hee hee hee.  I almost never win anything, so it was definitely a pleasant surprise to get this Gear Review opportunity - for the light tackle Shimano Stradic 2500FI - from the Outdoor Blogger Network.  Even more pleasant was that it showed up in the mail about two hours before we left on a trip to the North Carolina border.  I was really hopeful that I could catch some fish with it and report back to the OB Nation OBN Nation  in a timely manner, both of which I've achieved. Yay!
In the Mid-Atlantic piedmont and coastal plain in March, the fishing opportunities are pretty much limited to catch-and-release striped bass fishing for very big fish (i.e. 40-50" fish) and the occasional warm day and warming water combo for smallmouth and/or largemouth bass.  Not sure that the reel was designed for the former, I opted for the latter.  I rigged up the gorgeous Shimano Stradic 2500 with light line - 6lb Sufix mono - and was instantly struck by the reel's beautiful appearance, and its interesting balance between fairly light weight and very solid construction.  There's almost no plastic in the reel.  Shimano claims that the drag gears are waterproof.  I mounted it on a fairly stiff rod, my BPS Pro Qualifier, and figured we'd give it a go. 

Ugly fish, ugly fisherman, beautiful reel.

The reel casts like magic.  Just amazing, flawless, long, straight casts.  I do a lot of finesse fishing in heavy cover, and while no reel can prevent my poor aim into a beaver lodge, or my jerky hook-set which wraps a lure around a branch, this reel came close to it.  I was sold on the Stradic's value based on increased casting distance alone.

As I mentioned, fishing can be slow and it certainly was during my first outting with this reel.  We were casting from a boat and into structure - concrete boxes, pilings, stumps, you name it.  Finally, on the dropoff right below a warm, sunny peat bed, I caught my first bass on the reel, an "adolescent" largemouth.  He never ran truly deep, but worked the dropoff well.  I really wanted an opportunity to test the limits of this reel's drag system, but the drag is so smooth that I hardly noticed, or heard, it zinging out line for me.  The retrieve of this reel is unbelievably silent and smooth.  I almost dread to keep using it because I'm sure the first dunk in the sand/mud/salt is around the corner, and I just can't imagine that the reel can stay this quiet forever!  The water was still cold and fishing was still slow, so after about four hours of near-perfect casting (my brothers might differ in their recollection), I cased the reel.  Luckily, the weather stayed mild and I got a chance to take the reel out again, a little more than a week later.

My long lunchbreak fishing, which you can read about here, gave me a step up in the "catching fish" department, as I landed about 30 fish in an hour using the Shimano Stradic on my same BPS spinning rod.  Again, the reel ran true and allowed for very long, very straight casts - important since I was fishing around beaver lodges and felled trees.  None of the fish I caught gave me the "umph" on drag that I really wanted to test, but I ran the drag out on a few largemouth and it ran flawlessly.  Cast after cast was awesome.  The only odd thing about this reel, at all, is that the bail feels extremely light - almost like it's not part of the reel. It didn't hang up at all, and I didn't end up with any bird's nests, but it didn't feel as sturdy and confident as every other part of the reel.

All in all, this is an outstanding reel.  The Stradic ranges anywhere from $120 to $189 in this configuration (2500fi).  For true ultralight fishing, I could be convinced to go to the smaller model, which I believe is the 1000, and about $40 less in price (and indeed, I'm in the market for such a reel).  While the price range is about $50-75 above what I normally pay for a reel, I can actually see and feel that price difference with this reel.  Absolutely solid construction.  Pretty lightweight. Very little plastic.  It has the makings of a reel that might last for a really long time.   If you are shopping for a spinning reel in the $80-$120 range, I highly recommend that you consider stepping up to a reel like the Shimano Stradic. 

River Mud Gear Grade:
Durability: 5/5 - bombproof.
Spooling/Bearings 5/5 -  smoothest ever.
Weight: 4/5 - Just a bit heavy.  See "durability."
Cost - 3/5 - Tough to swallow.  Worth every penny.
Overall Grade: 5/5 - buy it.

Disclaimer: Courtesy of the Outdoor Blogger Network, I received, at no cost to me, a Shimano Stradic 2500 reel to try out and review. However, this review contains no bias.

If you know me, you know that I'd tell you if it was a stinker.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Light Tackle Lunchbreak on the Patuxent

First Maryland Largemouth of the Year - Abandoned Gravel Pit, Southern MD

I had a chance to briefly get out to some floodplain ponds along the Patuxent River in Maryland.  The Patuxent is a very long river with a relatively small drainage area (wholly contained in Maryland), so it doesn't get horribly polluted.  It has a wide floodplain that was historically forested, which also aided in the cleanup of any runoff or sediment.  However, the coastal plain portion of the river and its floodplain lays over hundreds of feet of deposited sand and gravel layers, which have been actively mined for decades.  As these mines (pits, really) dip below sea level and become impossible to keep dry, they are abandoned and reclaimed by the Patuxent.  In a lot of cases, the land itself is converted into park land. 

Some high school guys showed up to fish in a canoe.  They chose to beach the boat on a beaver lodge and cast from there - I was either too nice or too mean to tell them that they'd be better off staying in the canoe and casting to the beaver lodge and all the structure underneath it.

These pits, many of which contain high water flow in and out of the River, turn into deep, gravel lined ponds with forested shorelines.   Because there is little to no flow during the summer (and the gravel helps to heat the water, the ponds tend to get totally covered in aquatic vegetation and algae.  I tried to fish this particular set of pits in the summer of 2007, right before I started this blog.  I don't remember catching any fish at all, but I remember that my fishing line was stained green with algae after just an hour of fishing. I was so disgusted that I have not returned once in almost 4 years.  Until this week!
I was working in the area and thought that maybe - just maybe - I could get a jump on the aquatic vegetation since, after all, it's March and SNOW was still in the forecast.  I tried several lures on some obvious sites - beaver lodges, downed trees, submerged branches, and gravel piles that I could see deep in the water (thanks, polarized lenses!).   I got a ton of nips, near bites, and even misses from fish flying out of the water, but not a single hookup.  I relaxed my hookset a bit, changed to this BPS goby lure (cheap version of a Yo-Zuri Goby), and changed up the retrieve.  And it worked!

Green sunfish or warmouth? Either way, there were lots of 'em.  Most a little - but not much - bigger..

I ended up using a retrieve, I don't know what it's called, that I used to snag my 19" spotted bass last summer.  It works on unmotivated fish who are just barely hungry/ornery enough to not let a free meal slip away.  Fish were not hitting on the impact, but would hit immediately after the first pop/twitch, usually missing.  I would then do an intermittent retrieve, allowing the lure to rise to the surface and roll just a bit.  I would then see sunfish and bass rising from the bottom to stalk - but they refused to strike on those short hops.   About every fourth hop, I would run the lure in about a foot and a half.  That turned out to be the killer.  Fish weren't super sure they wanted to eat it as it floated and twitched there, but there was no way they were going to let it swim away. 
There were probably 5 other anglers out and nobody caught anything.  Once I had this technique down, I was catching fish over and over again.   About an hour after I figured out the lure/retrieve combination, I had caught and released 5 or 6 (7?) largemouth, most of them 10-12", along with at least 20 green sunfish or warmouth -hard to ID them - kind of surprised not to catch bluegill, crappie or perch.  I caught several bass and sunfish that bum-rushed the lure from "the deep" as other fish were sitting near the surface, pondering a strike.

Great way to spend an afternoon - and marks the earliest in the calendar year I've caught a bass (any species) in Maryland.   I hope to get back there once more before the vegetation closes over the ponds!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The 2011 Garden is Officially Underway!

Thanks to a gift from my parents, I have my first smurf sized "hoop house" over my lettuce and spinach down at the City Farm.  Hopefully the garden fabric will take the chill off of our nights and allow my greens to grow.  Oh, and keep the bunnies out too.  The bunnies can have all the field peas (left) that they can eat.

After much hemming and hawing, I broke with my very successful tradition of using Territorial Seed in Oregon, instead opting for more regional seed source Local Harvest Collective and the heirloom-obsessed Seed Savers Exchange, who are out of Iowa.   All three provide flawless customer service and are highly recommended.   I really liked using Local Harvest, because my seeds came in individual packets from a dozen actual farms in PA, VA, and NC. Very cool to see that the seed was coming directly from the growers.

Per my February 1 "Stoicism Or Bust" schedule for late winter activities, I planted several species of veggie and wildflower seeds in peat pots, over heat and under the lights on March 15th.    Since this year I will be growing fewer varieties of plants over the same garden space, I am staging the seeding into 2-week periods to ensure that we don't end up with 0 Roma tomatoes before July 15th, 600 Romas on July 20th, and 0 after August 1st.  So we'll see how "staged planting" works for me. Crossing my fingers...

As of this posting, some of the herbs, a few okra and cucumbers, and the Roma tomatoes are coming up.  Here we go!

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Viburnum buds
Interestingly enough, "Serenity Now Stoicism 2011" is proving to be a worthwhile effort.  Most of my gear is ready for the spring, no surprises are underway in the gardening department, and I am consistently marking tasks off of the "honey do" list.  Add to those things the fact that my attitude has been great (more or less), and hey.....things are okay.   Over the last four months, we've been hit with all kinds of tribulations and setbacks, and miraculously, it's all okay. That being said, I am still really looking forward to digging into the spring and all its offerings here in the Mid-Atlantic.  
Crocus, first week of march

Crocus, third week of March
Seriously, the time has flown through my most difficult part of the year. Striped bass season starts in a month.  The shad run should peak around that time.  A few days later, spring gobbler season starts (and I have a hunting spot).  A few weeks later, largemouth bass and crappie fishing will get really hot.
Elderberry buds
I planted most of our yard in wildlife-attracting plants from 2004-2006.  Unfortunately, our dog Roan was ages 7-10 during that period and he destroyed a lot of stuff.  I'll miss him this summer, laying in my pond (now bog), chasing rabbits and squirrels, but I know he's no longer in pain and I also know my plants will have a chance to grow food for wildlife this year.
As for Hank, do you think he's looking forward to warmer weather?

Yup.  The pants-free (in this photo, shirt-free) bandit is ready for summer right now.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

OBN Prompt: Most Unworthy Photos

I take a lot of photos.  Thousands a year.  Over half get deleted as soon as I download them. Only about a third of the survivors get edited for size or lighting and ultimately end up on this blog.  That being said, I have no real reverence (or skill) relative to the art of photography.  So, in response to a request prompt from the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN), here are some true stinkers / classics from the past few years. First up, we have Hank (@ 13 months old) with my wonderful wife.  Both of them are out of focus and Hank not only has on Devil Ears, but has his eyes closed and is throwing something.  Yup. This one didn't make it on the blog.
Next, we have the only fish I caught during a snoozer of a kayak outing near our home in northern Baltimore.   I actually did post this image on my blog.  Why? I don't know.  What's worse than the tiny size of this bluegill (the lure is a 1/32oz crappie jig) is that I sight fished it from a scour hole under a stump for about 5 minutes before catching it.  No, I knew it wasn't a bass.  I was just bored and desperate. Why in the hell did I take a picture of it? Good Lord. That's all I have to say about that.

And let's not forget this timeless beauty, which was actually shot by my hunting buddy as I fell neck-deep into the ice on a 17 degree day.  I also published this photo in my blog, but 1) it's a timeless image; and 2) there's no better example of a photo that should not have been taken or shared.  Enjoy!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Clays & Catching Up at Pintail Point

I had the opportunity to shoot my favorite gun, the 20ga Browning Gold Hunter, along with an old friend from the wetland conservation world.  The weather broke just in time for our arrival to Pintail Point on Maryland's eastern shore.  I was instantly reminded of how nice the facility is, and later reminded of it again when we got the bill for 200 shots on clays.

The stations on Pintail's range do a great job of simulating real shots on birds.  Which is to say that they are really challenging and sometimes physically awkward.  This is not the place to go shooting if you need an ego boost (that place is Baltimore Fish & Game Protective Association, $20 per 100 shots on clays...the last time I was there, anyway).   At some stations, we would each hit 4 shots in a row, laugh, and then move onward. Other stations vexed us, and we stayed until we (or at least one of us) got it right.   And then I met my nemesis.  Pintail Point Station #10.  Take a look.

Doesn't seem so bad, right? Now take a look at how the clay pigeon flies. 

The picture and my photo editing skills don't quite do it justice, but the clay zooms right past your head and crashes into the ground behind the stand.  Full speed the whole way - like a landing teal, wood duck, or dove.  I believe I hit 2 out of 12.  Phil hit maybe 5 out of 16.   Getting an early jump on the shot was a gamble because we had a variable breeze.  Tracking the pigeon as it got closer was tough because we had to lead the shot and drop at the same time, and bring our aim close to our body as the clay passed us, just 10 feet to our right.  Very tough, and I'll have to return to work on that (sadly) very realistic shot.  The vast majority of misses were slightly high and slightly behind.

We eventually blew through 200 rounds, and I was able to borrow Phil's gun (a 12ga Browning Gold Hunter) to confirm that my next gun will indeed be a 12ga. Browning.  I enjoy shooting in the early spring and this was a perfect day for it.  Can't believe it's already 6 weeks since waterfowl season ended! And only 4 weeks until gobbler, trout, striped bass and more all get started!  I guess spring is here.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Award Where I Talk About Feelings is No Award at All

Ha ha! I had to start with that.  Mid-Atlantic outdoor maven LB over at Bullets and Biscuits mentioned River Mud as a "Versatile Blog." 

And this blog is that, so I'm grateful for the recognition.  My life and my outdoor pursuits seem to constantly be changing, primarily with the seasons, and so I do write about a lot of different stuff. In LB's words:

Swamp Thing @ River Mud - hunter, fisher, father,'s all good in my book. And he understands the "lower, slower" way of life in my home state.

As a standard blog-type award, it requires me to do stuff under the auspices of "improving my writing" for the purposes of increasing exposure and traffic to like-minded blogs.  This one requests a list of "things you might not know" about yours truly, as well as a list of bloggers to whom I'd award this same distinction.  Or as I call it, "Feelings and Friends."  Fine, I'm game.  I don't do these too often. 


1.  My career is what I thought it might be, back to age 16 or so. Alright, so I envisioned that I would live in an old farm house on a wildlife refuge, where I would design and build fish and wildlife habitat projects.  And in reality, I live in a city of 750,000 people and I have spent my career designing, funding, and building habitat projects on wildlife refuges.  And another half of a career driving to those far-flung refuges.  That's pretty close. I guess.

2. I spend too much time thinking about my own mortality, and that of those around me.  As I get older (just turned 37), it's easier to see just how quickly time passes and how short our lives really are, in the scheme of things.  The outdoors drive of my younger years (More! Farther! Bigger! Now!) has been replaced by a conscious determination to truly appreciate my time outdoors.  Because whatever happens to my soul for the next 5 billion years or beyond, I will never see, hear, smell, touch, or taste this world as I do in this lifetime.  The human body (I'm convinced) is a one-time experience - eternal soul or not.

3. My garden is pretty bland because I am a picky eater, especially when it comes to vegetables.  This is a work in progress, thanks to my wife. It's embarassing to spout all this "live sustainably stuff" out of one side of my mouth, while saying, "No thanks, peas are nasty" out of the other side of my mouth.  And yes, my wife reminds me of that frequently.

4. I have huge issues with people in leadership positions who refuse to lead, or at least select a leader to make the hard choices for them (and then abide - not waffle - by the results).  I have left three or four jobs in the last 15 years for this reason. My last boss's boss had the world crashing down around him and I was told, "Ya know , Bob's a muller.  He's got to mull it over.  You know, toss it around for a few weeks."  A few weeks, wtf? we were being audited and the phrase "material noncompliance" was being tossed around in reference to a $3 million initiative.  The employment of a half-dozen biologists was hanging in the balance.  Tell you what, Hoss, you can mull that shit over for maybe 90 minutes tops, then we have to fix the problem. Post-script - Dr. Bob the Muller was forced into retirement two years after this particular boondoggle.

5.  Real talk.  I am a dude. That is the deal.  I went to college (and was a resident advisor to 18-year olds who missed their mommies and couldn't hold their liquor) in the mid-90's "PC Alert" era, and got to hear for years that men are the root of our society's problems, men have a genetic predisposition to violence, and the coup de gras - "every man is a rapist or a potential rapist."  That happened! Those things were said and written! Repeatedly! For years!  15 years later, a google search for "every man is a rapist" returns 310,000 links. 
Look, there is nothing wrong with being a dude and liking dude things (which does not mean acting like a baboon and/or expecting the women in  your life to clean up your proverbial and literal messes 24/7).  Being decisive. Courteous. Strong.  Responsive. Are those things so bad?  I don't think so. Have an abusive father, boss, or spouse? That really sucks, and I will help you with that if I can.  But don't ever hang that shit on me - it's not mine.  And it's not me.

This is pretty hard, actually, because in the 3.5 years I've been blogging here, a lot of great (GREAT) blogs that I really admired have gone by the wayside, some without warning.  So if I've listed you below, please accept this award de Versatilite and post up! And even if you have to cut back on your posting at some point, don't ever totally quit!

NorCal Cazadora.  Holly is great, and this is a great hunting blog.  She comes from a writing background, so I try to learn from the way she runs her blog.  Her site is kind of at "the next level" so I don't expect her to respond to this, but you should check out her site, regardless.

Sleeping in the Dirt.  This is an example of a site that's achieved some great things and is going through some changes right now.  Aaron is a good writer and he's trying to make a living out of it.  The guy is hard-charging, and one look at his site will tell you that - from tracking down the elusive Gila Trout, to fly fishing for Northern Pike.  The stories are good, and his attitude is great.

Add it Up.  My brother A's blog.  I wasn't going to list it, but he shockingly updated it earlier this week.  A teaches robotics at a magnet high school.  He also hunts and fishes with T and I, and he has a different perspective on things than I do, which I appreciate. The blog is rough around the edges (because A thinks nobody reads it) but it's a unique look at what else is going on with our family these days.

Tugboatdude.  My brother T's blog.  Also in the mold of "rough around the edges blogs run by a younger brother" but when he updates, he includes a lot of content and great photos. T is a merchant marine by trade, so again, it's a little different look at the same things I deal with outdoors.  When he works offshore, he has no cell signal and therefore, no blog posts. 

Maine and Mainer.  I've enjoyed the Maine Outdoorsman and Downeast Duck Hunter for literally years now - they are both outstanding sites.  I cannot tell them apart, most of the time.  I bet you can't either, which is why you should visit both sites.

Brave Eagles Hunt with Antique Brownings.  Trey is about a year deep into his blog.  One thing I've been watching (and trying to learn) is how he weaves old (pre-blog) outdoor stories back into the mix, which is something I've done, but no one seems to read them when I do it.  Hmm.  The site is certainly versatile, running topics from antique furniture restoration to childrens' bass tournaments.  Definitely worth checking out.

To you folks above, don't feel obligated to push this onward, but I'd love it if you do!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pre-Migration, Pre-Spawn Fishing in the Chowan Headwaters

First fish of 2011 - he's not a giant, but catching & releasing him was the highlight of my week
It's no secret that I historically loathe the period between the end of duck season (around Feb 1) and the beginning of well, everything, around April 15th of every year.  This late winter has had all the necessary elements of a craptacular recordbreaker, as late February found me working my tail off at two jobs to pay for our new fancy gas furnace, worrying about spending too little time with my son, worrying about my dad's recent diagnosis of prostate cancer (he's doing fine now), and worrying about my dog, who I ultimately put to sleep. 
Maybe sometime this spring I will wax poetic about how I've kept my head together during this interesting period, but regardless, I kept it together and the wife and I suddenly thought it would be a good idea to head down to southern Virginia for the weekend to visit my recuperating Dad and also my brothers.   It was really, really hard not to call all of my hometown friends and announce my arrival, but I just had to keep it simple (rare that I ever invoke that phrase).  We arrived in town early saturday, and brother T already had the boat trailered and gased up.   Brother A and I followed him to his new favorite spot, a headwaters tributary of the Chowan River near the North Carolina border.  It was such a great time, in such great habitat, that I'm not going to even name the river here!
A & T, headed upriver in a cool March wind
T moved down to the area about six months ago and has been pretty thrilled with what he's seen - not necessarily rafts of dumb ducks and blind, hungry fish (his hope), but basically unfettered access to "potentially great" habitat surrounded by other relatively hospitable anglers and hunters (a truly endangered species east of I-95!).   Our plan was to target herring, shad, perch, and (fingers crossed) striped bass that we heard were slowly migrating up the Chowan to spawn.   We were as geared up as we could be to chase those species.  We failed horribly, maybe thanks to the 2" of rain that fell about 36 hours before my arrival
After about 90 minutes of putting "big plastic" very deep in the muddy, dark channel for striper, and very little shiny lures to work against structure for herring, shad, and perch, we gave up and started targeting pre-spawn largemouth bass and panfish.  We were primarily using white crappie jigs, white twister grubs, silver and white yo-zuri minnows, silver spoons, and gold spoons.   All three of us were fishing hard and we threw a lot of stuff at them.  T drew first blood, fishing a bridge piling current at 10-15' with a 3" white twister grub:

Pretty respectable crappie for 48 degree water!
We fished for another hour without a bite.  Other guys were on the river and nobody seemed to be having much luck.  Just a little too early in the spring, I guess.  We eventually moved to a second bridge, and after we thoroughly fished it over, putted into the backwater pool in the nearby swamp.   I was fishing a drop-off (from 10" to 60" - a nice ledge!) with a small golden spoon and suddenly hooked the very healthy little bass at the top of this post.  It was also the first fish I caught with the Shimano Stradic 2500 I agreed to review for the Outdoor Blogger Network.  I'll tell you right now -  that reel is silent and stout!  I do want to work it with a larger fish so I can really test out the drag.  My review will be done in a week or so.
We fished for another two hours or more without a single bite.  Upriver, downriver, upswamp, through the swamp. I honestly just think our timing was bad - too much floodwater and debris, too cool water temperatures, and a little too early on the calendar to hit the huge number of fish that should make it up the river.  That being said, the habitat is amazing and it was just awesome to spend the afternoon in it, after a really tough month at home.  It was also nice that we caught more fish on our aluminum duck boat than the guy on the river in a $60,000 bass boat with - get this - a 200hp outboard.  That glittery fiberglass boat won't look so cool dangling on the cypress stumps that are littered all over the swamp and river, but to each his own.   I am looking forward to getting back on the Chowan headwaters again when the bite picks up.  It's a beautiful place and we made some great memories with only two fish in the boat.

Cypress swamp - waiting to come back to life

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cigar Tobacco Test: Baltimore Home-Grown vs. Valle de Jalapa, Nicaraugua

These honestly may be the best cigars produced from Baltimore's 2008 tobacco crop
(I'm not really serious)
 In 2003, I grew a small plot of Connecticut and Havana tobacco.  I cured and dried it wrong. The aroma of the smoke was perfect.  The taste of the cigars was like putting your face over a brush fire.  Project - failed.
I tried again in 2008.  Havana, Punch, and Black Mammoth.  In the middle of transplanting, the plants got mixed up, so that was a botch.  But as I wrote throughout 2008, the plants lived, ultimately produced great leaves, and I somehow managed to cure and dry them correctly, ultimately rolling them into cigars and storing them in old cedar cigar forms from an old German operation in Pennsylvania.  After 6 months in the forms, I cut them and put them in the humidor, where they have been for two years.   They shrunk a bit (lost moisture) in the humidor, which I guess means that they were initially higher in moisture than the ambient humidity of the humidor (60-70%).  I'd been meaning to smoke them, and finally offered one to T during a hunt.  He appropriately responded, "No way......have you smoked one yet?"  I had not.  But now I have. 
I thought it would be fully humorous and semi-useful to smoke one of my home-grown, home-cured, home-rolled cigars alongside one of my favorite cigars, Nicaragua's Illusione #2.  Of course, Illusione makes some of the world's best cigars (#7 in 2010, #19 in 2009).  So this was not really set out to be a fair test.  

A box of Illusione 4/2s.
I started off with the home smoke.  It let well but burned unevenly.  It had very strong tastes of leather and cedar and nothing else.  The aroma was smooth, which was a surprise, and left no weird aftertaste.  It burned down to the lower third in about 20 minutes, and with another cigar still to smoke, I put it out.  The amazing thing about this cigar was that (other than the uneven burn), there was literally nothing wrong with it!   For a moment, I felt like this experiment was really a success!
And then I lit a 2008 Illusione, my first in over a year.  The contrast with my home-grown tobacco was dramatic and immediate.  The Illusione promptly burned into a mellow, consistent "rose" that was even on all sides.  The smoke was thick and slow.  It burned soooooo slowly.  The flavor seemed like a constantly changing mix of coffee, leather, and cedar - none overpowering. It was a great smoke that forced me to relax.
And I guess that's the primary difference.  For probably the equivalent of two dollars or so a piece, I had grown, cut, cured, wrapped, and aged about 30 of my own cigars.  A noble, nearly three year undertaking and a decent outcome, if I do say so myself.  However, all you have to do is look at, or smoke, the seven dollar Illusione and you see how the best in the world accomplish the same thing, with simply amazing results.
Illusione #2 (left) and my stogie (right). 
Illusiones have a surprising density of leaf veins, as you can see. 
Look at how badly my cigar's wrapper dried out in the humidor!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

That Time I Bought a Fly Rod for Largemouth

Over the last few years, I've done more and more ultralight and light tackle fishing.  I love it.  I don't even blink at the prospect of working a 4lb largemouth on 2lb test mounted on a 5'0" spinning rod.  No worries, mon.  But there comes a time of year, I think they call it "July and August" when a lot of waters near me are just plain overfished, and the fish are well fed with all kinds of bugs.  Even 1/16 oz lures and in-line spinners start to spook bass.  But the bass will still bum rush a tiny yellow beetle on the surface.  Or wait for ants to fall out of the trees.  I done seen it with ma own eyes!

So last summer, I started throwing terrestrial flies from the spinning rod - a well known gateway drug to unhealthy habits like fly fishing - and while I didn't catch any big fish, I most certainly caught more fish than I would have.   After each catch, I would think, "I should pick up that fly rod again."  And then I would immediately think, "Only a dumbass would hike into this nasty spot, with these mountain laurels, and 7' tall reeds, and stumps in the water, and try to cast that 9 foot 2-weight."  End thought process.  And I should mention that I have caught fish - even trout - on my big fly rod, when I lived in the mountains of NC and VA for six and a half years.   Big difference - plenty of room to cast. 
So I started thinking over the fall and winter, "surely, there must be a way to fly fish in confined spaces."  And I did what only fools do: I started reading.   It occurred to me that within my miniscule budget for such things, only a few serious options were available.  One was the aptly named Cabela's "Tight Quarters Rod."  It was on sale, and I begged Cabela's to ship it (a 6' 5wt) to me for free, and now it's here.  It's probably not the most amazing rod for the job (and oh-my-God is it stiff!), but I don't care.  Hopefully it will allow me to extend my fishing season far into the hottest weather, and to land fish that have seen everything thrown at them.

Oh yeah.  It's gonna be ugly.  And that's what I do best.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Learning to Hunt Ducks - The Stupid Way

Scene of the crime - January 2001.

Before I knew it, it was the new year - January, 2001.  I hadn't hunted again all fall.  Sure, in the past 8 months we had moved, gotten married, and I had changed offices and clients at my job.  And sure, we already had week-long camping/surfing/fishing trips to the NC Outer Banks (two separate trips) and the Cape Cod/Rhode Island seashore already on the calendar for 2001But still.  It marked the second FULL season I had lived in Maryland, and somehow I had not even attempted to hunt in the state.
I still had my Remington 870, torn-up Pro-Line waders, cheap steel shells, and garish looking Flambeau mallard blocks - unweighted keels - I had bought in North Carolina, where a bunch of hillbillies got me hooked on duck hunting several years prior.  But with life finally settling in, and priorities becoming a bit clearer, it was time to go hunting.   After two years of research into Maryland's public lands and hunting regulations, I thought I had it all figured out. I'd hunted ducks in NC and VA, in marsh and in mountain stream.  How different could Maryland possibly be?
I picked Millington WMA as my destination.  It's an assemblage of very ducky (though very pressured) properties at the headwaters of both the Chester and Sassafras Rivers, on the Maryland-Delaware border.  Ponds, impoundments, creeks, swamps, tons of good land.  At the time, it also didn't require a call-ahead, lottery, or reservation - you just had to sign your name at the check station and head out there.  I had scouted the August.....but at least I'd seen the lay of the land.  I remember circling the saturday on my calendar.  This would be my first hunt alone with no one to tell me "set up here," "decoys there," and "shoot now."
I drove the 90 minutes out to Millington, arriving around 430am, and was horrified to see the circus at the check station.  The blaze orange circus. I never hunted deer before moving to Maryland.  I mention that because the saturday I picked was the first saturday in January, which as it turns out, is always the "late firearm weekend for deer."  Missing that detail was kind of a botch, but not nearly as much so as my decision to not turn around and go home, rather than hunt ducks on public land when deer are in season.  That was a mistake. But I was already there.
Likewise, I had fouled up by not scouting immediately before my trip.  Even though temperatures were a bit above freezing, the wooded swamps were still locked up in ice from the previous freeze, with no ducks to be found.  As I waded off the access trail and into the swamp, I found quarter-inch thick sheet ice in waist-deep water.  I figured that in the open hole I had found in August, the sun had perhaps burned through the ice.  Turns out I was wrong, but I was already there.
Something else had changed in this swamp since August.  As I threw out decoys into my new hole in the ice, I saw headlamps directly across the swamp, maybe 100 yards away.  From the way they were flitting about, those guys were clearly not moving onward, but setting up a spread. Instead of wading out to chat with them, I just hunkered down, afraid of a conflict (stupid).  Once the sun rose, it was apparent that MDNR had come in and put in a movable (sled) blind on another treeless hole in the swamp about 100 yards from my supposed "honey hole."  The blinds (I knew) required reservations.  And guys were in it. And their decoys were out front. I was staring at them.  That should have been my second (third?) indication to leave. But I was already there.
The actual hunt, Thank God, was uneventful.  The predicted cloud cover quickly gave way to bluebird skies and howling NW winds.  Nothing but snow geese flew, and those didn't land anywhere in our area.  Nobody but deer hunters shot.  Eventually, I packed up and started to wade back out.  A sheet of ice tore a ridiculous gash in my waders right below the crotch, sending a stream of 32 degree water right down to my toes  for the remaining 50-60 yard wade.  Oh, and I was wearing jeans and cotton underwear beneath my waders. 
By the beginning of goose season in November 2001, my outlook, attitude, and approach to hunting was totally different and bordering on paranoia.  I don't know what exactly changed, except that I realized that within a 7 hour span of time that January, I had avoided taking steel shot in the cheek, almost certain hypothermia, and probably a well-deserved ticket from the game warden for encroaching on a legally reserved blind by not being prepared and by being afraid to call off a hunt.  When I prepared for this debacle - my first duck hunt without oversight by other hunters, I thought that the thing I'd miss most would be the pointers on decoy placement, calling, or wingshooting. Turned out that what I needed most was somebody to tell me, "this is not going to work. This is not safe.  You won't kill anything today. You need to bag this hunt and go have a nice, hot breakfast in town."
It's been over a decade since that day.  Since then, I have had many boring/dud hunts, and a few "debacles" here and there, usually caused by my failure to adapt to changing marine, wind, or lunar conditions.  But nothing has come close to this near disaster I've described for you here.  I hope your most ignorant or embarassing day afield was not quite as dangerous as mine.  But even if it was, I hope you remember it - and how far you've come since then -when you're feeling down on yourself for not having a good day on the water or in the woods.   We can't start off knowing everything.  Hopefully we all live long enough to change our ways!

Friday, March 4, 2011

2010 Garden Wrap-Up

Garden at its peak, early August 2010

It's hard to believe I have not gotten around to wrapping up the 2010 garden.  It happened for a few reasons. 1) It was 80 degrees until December 1.  2) On December 1, it was 20 degrees, and stayed that cold until February 1.  3) It keeps snowing and I can't take an actual picture of the garden. 4) duck hunting and sleeping seemed more fun than blogging about the garden.  But as I get ready to plant (under the lights) for 2011, let's quickly review what went right and wrong last year in the garden:

C-B is not something I consider for hunting and fishing, but I do for gardening, for some reason.    Basically, I gardened a new plot last year at our local community garden, and it was a lot of work, and I broke even (about $210 for $210 worth of food).  I should incur about half the cost ($115) this year and hopefully my food production will be even stronger, hopefully $300 or more.

I planted Rutgers (sandwich type) and Tiny Sweet Million (cherry type) tomatoes.  Both grew like crazy, but the Rutgers hardly produced any usable tomatoes (due to drought stress, water-cracking, etc).  TSM produced a ton of tiny tomatoes that were really hard to work with (big blossom leaf, thick skin), given the sheer number (dozens) I was pulling off the stems daily for about 2 full months.  In 2011 we will be growing Romas only - a tomato we can use (or store) easily for multiple purposes.

I planted Mole', Early Jalapeno, Habanero Chichen Itza, Cayenne, and Mini-Bells.   All did fantastic.  I tried to use the Mole's for stuffing and it went horribly wrong.  This year, we are growing Early Jalapeno, Mini-Bell, and Ancho Gigante (for stuffing).

I planted Beauregard, and ended up with a good harvest, despite not knowing how to grow sweet potatoes.  Plan to use the leftover slips for growing in 2011.  Also plan to use the planting space more effectively, since all of the potatoes were dug out of the original rooted area, not the vast area of vines and tubers.  That was a HUGE waste of precious garden space.

Been a long time since I grew carrots.  I stuck with Nantes coreless and they did NOT like the old clay soil under my raised beds.  There were a lot of big, funky looking carrots.  I have to say, they didn't store very well either - but the fresh ones were delicious.  Just like I remember as a kid.  This year we are doing Danvers Half-Long and perhaps also Chantenay.

Sugar baby watermelon produced cute 3" wide tiny melons that then died on the vine.  Whatever cucumber I tried got hammered by a late frost and never produced.  The crookneck squash did fairly well, but took a hit from whiteflies and mildew.  This year, will do 2 varieties of cukes and 2 varieties of crookneck squash.

I grew salad bowl leaf lettuce, double choice hybrid spinach, and regatta spinach.  Couldn't tell the difference between the spinach varieties.  They did fine, and so did the lettuce.  In Fall, 2010 I planted salad bowl leaf lettuce, space spinach, and winter density lettuce.  Depending on how they fared the winter, may have to replant in April.   Planted red onions late, and they did OK.  Chives did great.  Garlic (chesnok red) was better than my usual, but still not high quality.   Some changes coming up in that category for 2011.

My wildflowers in the farm plot did well.  Purple Phantom Joe Pye Weed, Pink Supreme Bee Balm, and Horsemint all did wonderfully.  Mammoth sunflowers were giant and beautiful, and angered the other gardeners because of the shadow (oops!).  Adding some lemon mint, more bee balm, and hyssop to the mix.

I am also putting in a native bee box.  Pretty sure that my fellow gardeners will have some comments about it, but I don't care because bees are awesome.  I'll keep y'all posted for Community Garden / City Farm Part Deux - 2011!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I Used to Surf in the Winter

Delmarva Peninsula, January 2011.  Air and water both 38 degrees.
Photo (all photos except the last three) by Chuck White, Delaware Bodyboarding Pro
There was a time when I used to look at the Navy ocean swell models in the dead of winter, see a storm swell on the way, maybe chunks of ice floating into the ocean from the nearest rivermouth, reports of seals migrating south from Cape Cod, and I'd say, "Awesome.  Let's paddle out." 

Water: 38 degrees. Air: 42 degrees.

Head to toe 7mm neoprene...

I used to surf on days like this. In college and grad school it was because I could only get to the beach occasionally, and there was no way I was going to sit out a swell. Cold or not. Sharks or not. Once I started working and could afford nice gear and real surf trips, I surfed in the winter because it was bearable, and because I wanted to be in reasonable physical condition for wherever we were headed (usually in March/April) in Central America or the Carribean.
So why don't I surf in the winter now? Good waves, no crowds, easy parking....all great reasons to surf in the winter. If a wave like this came through Delaware or Maryland between April and October, there would be 15 surfers on it. But not on this January day......
First step's a doozy!
Tempting....but it's not for me. I stopped surfing in winter for two reasons. Reason #1: soon after my 30th birthday, I changed employers and soon found out that your boss does not have to give you a day off if you request it. Nor does he have to keep his word if he agreed at first, but then changes his mind. Even worse, we had no clients at the beach, so the "slick day" rules didn't apply. By the time I changed jobs again and got adjusted to the newest job in 2006, I'd had ample time to contemplate Reason #2 - my near death in March, 2004 in 39 degree water.

Beautiful. Solitary. Deadly.

Late winter swells are tough in the Mid-Atlantic. Strong winds, tough swell angle, tough currents to battle. Two friends and I paddled out in Ocean City, Maryland. All three of us were competent swimmers and very experienced surfers. Jeff made it out to the outer break, took a 10 foot slab on the head, broke his board over his head, and sputtered back up on the beach like a dying fish. Paul somehow found a rip current amongst all the beach break chaos, which took him all the way out to the outer break. He took the first wave, and rode it all the way in, getting out of the water.
I made out easily past the shorebreak, but the inside break (about 100 yards out, 5-6' waves) crushed me. I duck dove five waves in a row, after which, I couldn't see. Anything. My eyes gradually warmed back up to see that I was now, too, caught in the rip current and being pulled out towards the outer break, which was pounding solid 6-8 -footers with larger set waves. A lull appeared and so I mustered all the strength I had to paddle out past the impact zone. I didn't make it.

Meet Reason #2 - March, 2004 (my actual photo from that day)
Outer sandbar, Midtown Ocean City.  Swell SSE 5-8' w/8-10' sets. 
Photo: 35mm Canon Rebel, 250mm zoom

Four big green walls appeared on the horizon, and with the current now pulling me up the coast instead of out to sea, I had no chance of making it.  I took a 10 foot wave on the head.  Popped up, sputtered, and took an 8 foot wave on the head.  Popped up, sputtered, and gasped at the overhead slab headed right for me.  I bear hugged my surfboard and let the impact hit me.  I thought it would tear me or the board to pieces.  I washed up 100 yards up the beach. Intact but done.  Would have never happened like that in warm water.
And that was it.  It wasn't the first time I nearly drowned. Won't be the last, either.  But the longer I thought about it, the more it seemed like it was really unnecessary.  And I decided to give it up.  Most years now find me putting on a significantly thinner wetsuit in April, when the water is in the upper 40s, or better yet, surfing the spring months in the Southeastern US, where the water is already in the upper 50s by that time.  I especially remember surfing Isle of Palms, South Carolina in April 2007.  3 foot windless, glassy waves while wearing shorts and a neoprene top.  Air: 72. Water: 62.  My kind of place. And the kind of day that reminds me to not surf in the deep winter any more.  Not in the North Atlantic, anyway.

Post-script (March 2011) - my surfing buddy who was with me that day sent me these pictures of the conditions.  Tell me you'd paddle out in this!

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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...