Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jeff Foiles Begins Prison Sentence For Single Misdemeanor Charge

It's done.  Duck hunting celebrity Jeff Foiles just began a 13-month prison sentence at the Federal work camp in Marion, Illinois.  A few months ago, Foiles pleaded guilty to one Federal count of profiting from the falsification of duck harvest records, resulting in an illegally killed duck being transported across state lines.  Because Foiles' guide service profited from the transaction, it was a violation of the Lacey Act, a serious Federal anti-poaching law.

Some of you may recall that Foiles was originally charged with 23 federal game violations in the United States and another 12 federal game and animal cruelty violations in Canada, as the result of a multi-jurisdictional investigation that took several years to unfold. It also obviously cost American and Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars to set up, undertake, and ultimately charge and attempt to prosecute.   The result of this investment?  Foiles was initially facing a decade or more in federal prison, forfeiture of enormous amounts of real estate, vehicles, guns, and other property, and well over a million dollars in federal fines.  So why just a conviction on one count, with a year in prison and a total of about $300,000 in fines? What in the world happened?

If you read the first USDOJ press release in December 2010, or any of the statements made by Foiles' ex-wife, former business partners, former guides, and other folks, you heard about all kinds of revolting accusations, including the infamous claim that Foiles shot geese in a park with a pellet gun, just to get the leg bands.  I read them, and I wrote all about it - trying to make a point without crucifying Foiles.  It was infuriating - the last thing hunters need is bad press from other hunters.  Eventually the charges were laid out in more detail - I wrote about that too.  About that time, it became clear that some of the initial claims being publicized were not going to be worked into actual legal charges.  Sound strange? I thought so too.  The bizarro cherry on top was the 1-count plea deal, announced in late June, 2011.

And it got stranger.  The day after the plea was announced, Foiles let loose a furious (and pretty crazy-sounding) tirade on his website about all the people who double-crossed him, received immunity to testify against him, etc.   He wisely reconsidered this tactic and removed the post from his company's message board, but (of course) not before a hundred people had posted it all over the internet.   I was pretty incredulous over the whole thing.  It certainly looked like the guy had just gotten the deal of the century (far short of being totally acquitted, of course), and here he was throwing around blame to the four corners of the earth.  I took it upon myself to deconstruct and basically rewrite his post-plea deal statement (here it is), as it would be assembled by a person with their wits about them (and a good dose of "shut the f* up while you're ahead").

So, a week later, Jeff Foiles called me.  Yup. He had seen my most recent post, absolutely hated it, but also conceded that I had made a lot of good points.  After all, he had pleaded guilty in federal court.  Open and shut.  He admitted (to the court, and then to me) that he allowed a client (an undercover federal game warden) to kill an extra duck, then intentionally falsified the farm's duck harvest log to make it seem like the duck was legally killed, and then gave the duck over to the undercover warden, who told Foiles explicitly that he intended to take it across the state line (which Foiles thought nothing of, at the time).  Foiles spoke with me about his family's heritage in waterfowling, and the admittedly "over the top" attitude about duck and goose hunting that he, his business partners, and his family all share.  He also conceded that this hardcore attitude sometimes results in game violations.  And that he got caught.

But the thing I took away from our first conversation - I hope to formally interview Foiles during or after his prison sentence - is that he is crushed.   Crushed and surprisingly introspective that his "way of life" (aggressive hunting that can sometimes result in game violations) very nearly cost him that same "way of life."  Absolutely miserable with the fact that he had (mis)placed far too much trust in other people around him, who, when they caught wind of the federal investigation, were quick to tell all kinds of tales - both founded and unfounded - with Jeff Foiles as the central character in each story.   I don't feel bad for Jeff Foiles on this count - one's business and ethics decisions should never be based on the tenet, "Shit, they'll never rat me out." And Foiles certainly knows that now.

But on the first count - the near disintegration of his entire life, family, and livelihood as the result of poaching game birds - I do feel some compassion for the guy.  He's spending a year in prison, has been banned from hunting for 4 total years, and will have to fork over $100,000 in fines.   Why any compassion at all?

According to the US Department of Justice, the average time served for those convicted of rape is 5.4 years. For DUI manslaughter? Less than 3 years.  Securities fraud (a la Madoff)? 2 years.  And yet, after spending 5 years and millions of dollars to establish a pattern of illegal activity in Jeff Foiles' commercial hunting operations, the US DOJ settled on one misdemeanor count of "illegal reporting," sending him to jail for an entire year.

I've tried, and been unsuccessful, at contacting the US Department of Justice for comment on the Foiles case. I'd like to hear from them exactly what the hell happened? ONE misdemeanor conviction?  (seems ridiculously light, given the original 23 charges)  And resulting in an entire YEAR in prison? (seems ridiculously heavy, given the nature of the actual conviction).  The federal government definitely did not deliver as advertised on this one, and at some point I have to wonder, was it ever what they said it was?

As Jeff Foiles gets used to the daily schedule at the Marion Prison Camp, it seems pretty hard to believe USDOJ's original assertion that Foiles is a mastermind of commercial game poaching, and a lot easier to believe that he's just a perennial violator of minor game laws, who, prior to this whole episode, was just too stubborn to come into compliance with the federal and state hunting regulations.   And if that's the case, it sure seems like the federal government could have saved a ton of money by just issuing Foiles a few misdemeanor hunting tickets every day for a season or two, instead of putting this case on display as an example of the feds "going after poachers."   Because honestly, if offering a plea on one misdemeanor from an original 23-count felony indictment is "going after poachers," our game populations and our hunting culture are in big, big trouble.

I've had a really interesting time covering this court case - the first time I've done anything like this on River Mud.  I can't say that it's really been satisfying, because I still can't really tell what was accomplished in this case.  Four years from now, Foiles will be guiding bird hunts again, and people will be paying thousands of dollars to hunt with him, as they were just a year ago. The federal government, as best I can tell, will still be spinning its wheels trying to understand how to regulate and prosecute illegal commercial fishing and hunting.  One thing's for sure - this wasn't a shining step into the future for anybody involved.

Marion Federal Prison

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Carolina Wolf Spider - Not Scared of Northern Crickets




Every fall, the wolf spider shows up.  In our front yard. The front porch. The garden.  She's after the fall's crickets, as they slow down and become easier and easier prey in the cool evenings.  And while the wolf spider has such unfriendly traits as, "will inject venom freely if provoked," and "has an acute sense of touch," we welcome her every fall because of the devastating impact she has on crickets, cockroaches, and stinkbugs.

So if you see one of these furry giants outside your home, let her be.  Big girl's hungry!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Maryland's 2011 Goose Opener - There's An Analogy in Here Somewhere

Northern Kent County, Maryland - 14 hours before
goose season begins
You know, let's just get right into it.  The one about "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."   In the last four November Goose Openers, I've killed exactly one duck, zero geese,  and done the calling for several other ducks and geese (maybe five birds total) for other hunters in the blind/pit with me.  The reasons for this pretty pitiful success are legion, but I'll spare you most of them.  The fact is, the cold weather is arriving later every year, and the geese are just not migrating out of Canada when it's 65 degrees and sunny in Quebec.  Why would they?



So, like a fool, I drove down to the farm that I lease on Maryland's eastern shore.  It's not just for the hunting.  Each year, the farm owner puts on a big opening night dinner for us, filled with local meat and oysters, good cigars, and better whiskey.  I try to attend every year because 1) I'm always looking for new people to hunt with, and I only know a few other "farm members" very well (this goal has been pretty successful); and 2) many of the other guys are wealthier than me, and thus have a ton of hunting opportunities I'd love for them to share with me (this goal has not been successful).   Last year, I made fun of two guys who came for the dinner and didn't stay the night to hunt on opening day.  Oops.

The geese and the ducks just aren't here yet.  The weather's been consistently in the 60s and 70s and nothing's doing.  But I recruited two hunters I knew, and two new "farm members" who happen to be young and fired up, and we concocted a plan to get on the water early (unlike last year's opening day) and at least scratch out a few local ducks.  We succeeded.

Unlike past years, we were sober when we hit the bunks around midnight, with a 4:30am wakeup call looming.  We somehow made it into the boat (up the shoreline, 2 miles across the farm) by 5:00am, and preparations began. We were all shocked again when we finished laying out decoys by 5:45am - a full 35 minutes before legal shooting time!  While we would have loved a cold, snowy morning, it was obvious that a bright blue, warm sunny day was just awhile away.


Unfortunately, the geese knew the forecast too, and we lost our pitiful 300 or so roosters to nearby mowed waterfront lawns and green cover crops by about 6:10am.  We didn't hear any ducks calling, but we certainly heard them moving.  Or at least we thought they were ducks.
Everybody do the coot scoot!

My bird for the day - he should have been 200 miles south 
After the sun was well up, a mallard passed just a bit too close for his own safety, and he was taken by our group. A little later, out of nowhere, a flock of wood ducks came straight in, just outside of range.  One last bird decided on the front row seats, and I took him with one shot.

And with that, it was all over.  No more ducks all morning.  No geese anywhere in the zip code.  Just done.   I could pretty much copy the same statement about warm weather, no ducks, no geese, etc.

But with that, it's okay to leave you with another analogy.  One of those about "a bad day hunting" and a "good day working" or "you can't kill 'em from the couch/bed/house/RV etc." Regardless, we got out, we got after them, and we even killed a few.  It was a lot of effort for a few birds, but that's what I've come to expect on the opening day of "November Goose" season.  Maybe next year if it's going to be warm and sunny, I'll go for the dinner and sleep through the hunt.  Because whether the geese like it or not, colder days are coming in just a few weeks.......and then I'll need a few days off from work and family duty for sure.


Chain drive duck boat.  Gotta love it. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shenandoah Broke Down - An Interview with Songwriter Scott Miller

As some of you have read here occasionally, I am a big fan of music about hard times and hard places.  Anything written in those conditions was made for me to listen and absorb. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought it'd be interesting to seek out some of my favorite songwriters and see what moves them.  What is it about American places, and the American outdoors, that lend themselves to these styles of writing and music?  


One of my first efforts was to track down Virginia-born (and Tennessee-claimed) Scott Miller, former member of Knoxville's  V-Roys, aka Knoxville Viceroys, and currently writing and touring solo.  He's also gearing up for the V-Roys 20th Reunion Show, in Knoxville on New Year's Eve (details below). 


I've seen Scott play several times, and also spent some time drinking and talking with him in years past.  I only remember parts of those conversations, so here's a recent conversation between us that was sober on both ends.

River Mud: Scott, thanks for taking a few minutes.  I’m a long time fan of yours, and have seen you play all over the Mid-Atlantic. We even closed down Easton, Maryland’s Tidewater Inn together a few years ago, while we griped about being sons of engineers.  


Scott Miller: Yes! Kirk. Well, my drinking days are over ( I hope) but that was always a highlight to me of playing Easton--shutting that bar down. Was that the night the wedding reception was in there and the ambulance pulled up in the hotel portico and I made a reference to the "smiling bride on her wedding day " joke...while standing beside the bride? 

RM: Yes. That was the night.  Here we are at about 11pm; unfortunately the pictures continue past 2am, and we both started drinking before 8pm.....


Scott: Then you see why my drinking days are over...


RM: Yeah. Can't fault you there.  Back to the present, though:  everybody’s heard about the V-Roys compilation and reunion show.  How’s that going, and is the show already sold out?


Scott: The show sold out in two hours. There is talk of either moving it to a larger venue since there is still demand or  possibly adding a second night. I hope people will check out the V-roys website or find us on the social media of their choosing (facebook) for details. That will be a hell of a night regardless.

RM: One of my favorite V-Roys tunes has always been one that you wrote – “Virginia Way.” It’s obviously about a young man in the Shenandoah – were you writing about a specific town? How autobiographical is it?


Scott: That song is  written from the perspective of a soldier from the Shenandoah Valley but in Knoxville, TN. (So that much is pretty autobiographical.) Lots of people don't realize ( even some that reside there) that East Tennessee was pro-union during the Civil War. Some even called it "Lincoln's Baby" and there are theories of why that is and how it STILL shapes that area but we don't have that much space here to get into that. But it is fascinating to be sure.  


Anyway, I had just moved there and found a monument for a New York Regiment near Fort Sanders downtown. Made me think of being so far from home. I felt a bit "stationed" there at first myself, although I came to love Knoxville ( and still do) more than I can say.






RM: You, Mic, and the boys are generally regarded as “Knoxville’s Best Band Ever.”  Why Knoxville? It’s been such an amazing home for all of you (musically) that I can’t believe that you just fell into town accidentally, and it just worked out.  Am I wrong?


Scott: Well, it's called "The Scruffy Little City" and we were scruffy fellas, --although Mic ain't so little--he grew up logging. I would NOT tangle with that guy. Its a good thing he has a sweet disposition....


Knoxville sits in a valley and is a watershed in every sense of the word for VA, KY and NC: culturally, biologically and you know, literally geographically: the water flows there...  It's a special town in so many ways: tough and pragmatic with a chip on its shoulder. East Tennessee was its own state for a while; the State of Franklin. 


Its always been underfunded in comparison to Middle and West Tennessee, well anyway, I got that chip too obviously. Think of it like this: Knoxville was the older brother who went off and fought in the war, came back home and worked so the little brother ( Nashville) could go to Vandy, wear raccoon coats, become a doctor  and live the cultured life. 23 Skidoo!

RM: Do you and your wife spend much time outdoors either at home in Tennessee or while you’re on the road? What do you like to do outdoors, beyond shooting stuff in your back yard? 


Scott: Well, living next to the Great Smoky Mountains makes that easy. That's one of ( if not THE) most visited national park in the nation. We are/were much more day hikers than campers. Although the first year I lived there (1990--I guess you asking about "Virginia Way" made me think of it) when I didn't know anybody I hiked and camped almost every trail in it. We since have moved back to the Shenandoah Valley in the last month  and our outdoor time is spent as labor on our family farm here. And lots of room to shoot stuff.

RM: In your travel and writing, what kind of process makes you decide, “I need to write about Antietam Creek,” and “I need to write about these people, who have a relationship with this place?” 


Scott: There is no pattern really. But if an idea persists or nags--then I'll eventually start hacking it at it. (And yes, "hack" would be the appropriate word there). Songs that I like are based more on ideas than a turn of phrase or subject matter. Although on my last hike near Pittman Center up Porter's creek--I learned of a family that was moved out of there to make way for the national park; they were relocated to Norris, TN. Then along came TVA and pushed them out AGAIN and put them....( wait for it).... in Oak Ridge...then along came the Manhattan Project...poor bastards. That's a rare example of when some thing or place drives the writing.

RM: What makes a place – the Shenandoah, Manassas, Spanishburg – worth writing about when you are working through your process? 


Scott: Like I said, I generally start with an idea and then one of these places will fit and a light bulb ( 20 watts at the max) will flicker briefly....And always remember what Townes Van Zandt said: "Sometimes reality doesn't rhyme" so you can't believe anything you hear in any song as far as I'm concerned.

RM: Have any fans told you that they learned about a new part of American geography or history from listening to your music?


Scott: For sure. When I was on Sugar Hill they put together a CD of my "history" songs and I actually played at some schools ( now that is a tough audience). I guess it might make sense and take off in other schools if I didn't cuss in most of them..

RM: What individual place has had the greatest impact on you as a writer?


Scott: Gotta be Knoxville, TN. Home of James Agee, Cormac McCarthy, Todd Steed,  and RB Morris just to name a few. For good or bad  ( and I think all the better) I learned all my chops there. Go Vols.


RM: As you noted in “Amtrak Crescent,” there is a lot of homogenizing going on out there, on the American countryside.  Is there any redemption to it (or from it), in your opinion? 


Scott: Sure. Its so much easier for picky eaters now. They can always find something they like.

"Why does everything around me have to look the same?"


RM: Not the response I expected! So, what’s so special about American places?


Scott: Well, what is so special about America? The Constitution, jazz music and Superbowl halftime...We've got it ALL and from all over. I've not travelled abroad enough to really answer that. I mean, I would think one would need to travel A LOT to be able to gain the perspective needed there without sounding like a Hank Williams Jr. song...zing!


"The Rain" is about the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (1864)


RM: Finally, since you’ve spent most of your life based out of east Tennessee and western Virginia, how does a Virginian differ from a Tennessean?


Scott: Well, you know the joke:  How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? 


FIVE: one to change it and four to sit around and talk about how good the old one was...that's pretty much spot on. Tennesseans are much more pragmatic. 


Here's an example:
I have and use my great grandfather's typewriter. 


Soon after I moved to Knoxville a piece was broken and I found an old guy (who worked out of his house) who fixed typewriters. I took it to him and left it for probably a month, and then went back to get it. He was sitting on his front porch, plugged into his oxygen and smoking a cigarette ( need I say more?).


When I asked if my typewriter was ready he said, "Aw hell, I didn't mess with that thing. I got an old electric down in the basement I'll let you have for $20 that will work better than that old thing!"


"No thank you, sir." I said. "That was my great grandfather's and it has sentimental value to me."


"Son," he said, " We don't get our ice out of the creek anymore. We use refrigerators."  


"Back in Allentown where my dad worked..."


Scott's albums can be purchased on his home page or here on Amazon.com
The V-Roys albums can be purchased here on Amazon.com; their  compilation of favorites "Sooner or Later" - just released a few weeks ago -  can be purchased (mp3's too!) here on their website.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

OBN Photo Prompt: Little Explorers in the Outdoors

Hank, second birthday......party held at our local nature center's Natural Play Space


When somebody who's an adventurous person - I'm talking outdoorspeople and urban adventurers alike - think about having kids, there are a whole lot of opinions that they can consult.  Confusing and conflicting opinions.  But I'll leave you with two thoughts, and a ton of photo evidence (backwards, by age) to back it up.  First, if you don't spend much time outdoors before you have a kid, I can't imagine you'll be motivated to do so after you have a kid.  Yup.  I said it.  With extremely rare exceptions, having a child is not going to make you the adventurous person you've decided not to be thus far in life.  Sorry. 


That being said, if you're already somebody who does a lot of stuff and goes a lot of places, having a child is no reason to extinguish that fire.  Yes, YES, it will change.  The scheduling. The intensity.  The definition of what a "great day outside" actually means and looks like.  Those will all change.    Younger friends ask me all the time, "How do you do it?" and of course one answer is "we don't ever sleep."  But how we've actually done it is just to start.  And not stop.   And that's my second piece of advice.


Now, if you actually want to learn some detailed, high quality information and tips on raising an outdoors child, then you should definitely visit the other blogs featured in this photo prompt by the Outdoor Blogger Network (click here).  Personal references I use include blogging pals at Back Country Parenting and The Kid Project.  Look, I don't know how well it will work out - will Hank care about the outdoors? Will he ever understand that we care about it (and the importance of different places, in general)? Man, I just don't know.   But for us, here's how we've been trying to get there.  Starting....now....and looking back.


23 months - in the garden


22 months - at the natural play space
21 months - in the Gunpowder River
20 months - on the MD-PA Central Rail Trail
19 months - on the Gunpowder River


18 months  - at the Natural Play Space


17 months - Catawba River (NC)


15 months - in the snow


14 months - NO, it's not too cold to play outside!


13 months - Gulf of Mexico @ Gasparilla Island, SWFL


12 months - wagon rides at the orchard


10 months - Virginia Beach


9 months - fun with poultry!
8 months - loving the backpack!


7 months - the world is mine.
6 months - lunch in Central Park, NYC


3 months - walks in the snow (48" of snow) with my people
2 months old - hike and picnic at C&O Canal National Park
1 month old - hike on the MD-PA Central Rail Trail




Two weeks old  - on the hiking path around the hospital.
Like I said, there may be some master philosophy to all of this that I just don't understand.  But here's what I do know:  when 2-year old Hank looks out our back door, down the hill, at our neighbors' homes, the trees, and the park (such as it is), he has the same 1000 yard stare as I still do.   The gears are turning and he desperately wants to be outside, to see what's happening out there.   So do I.


Since Hank learned to speak right before his birthday, our house has been filled with very loud proclamations of "I GO OUTSIDE!" and "C'mon Daddy, I go play."  That has led to more statements like, "ooooooo...stars!",  "Looky! Moon!, and Dat's not horse. Iss deer." 


 Maybe that's not for you and your family, although I doubt you'd have read this far if it wasn't.  So a word of warning, not as a dad, but as a part-time professor who teaches 17-19 year olds:  if you want your children's world to be more complex than just xBox, iPhones, and Best Buy by age 13, you're going to have to get off your ass and show them what else is out there.    Look at the photos above - city parks, rail trails, cold streams, hot salty beaches.  There's no prescription for what an "outdoors kid" has to be or learn or see to light that fire in their heart.  


The only prescription is to take them outside.


Water wasn't cloudy before the dancing/screaming began!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Last Call on the Little Patuxent

I have truly pressed my luck this fall.  I have been saltwater fishing when there was no salt, trout fishing after two hurricanes dumped 2 feet of rain on the stream in just a 9 day timespan, duck hunting on a flood tide....on open water, and bass fishing when I knew full well that oxygen levels and water temperatures were both through the basement.

I've made a good run of it, but nothing except the trout fishing has been at all productive. Still, I've really enjoyed my time on the water this fall, and I don't feel bad about getting skunked for the first time in 2011 on the Little Patuxent in central Maryland.



This sinuous coastal plain stream and its mosaic of beaver ponds and abandoned gravel pits were the first place I fished in Maryland in 2011; and where I enjoyed catching a nice number of largemouth before the aquatic vegetation took over in the late spring.  I hadn't even stopped here since May, and while I don't regret that, it took another visit to remember how special of a place it is.

I stopped by here on a day when a cold front was headed in - 64 degrees in the morning, and 37 in the evening.  Clouds pulled across the sky, and the tops of trees are nearly empty of leaves.  The aquatic vegetation has died back, which (as I mentioned) has caused dissolved oxygen levels to plummet - causing the equivalent of bass being poisoned by carbon monoxide.  Slooooooooow and unmotivated.


I worked through an enormous variety of lures for my light tackle spinning setup.  Hard plastics. Soft plastics. Everything inbetween.  A few nibbles, and one monstrous inhale of a plastic lizard bounced slowly along the bottom of the cold, black water. No fish hooked.

Everything about the outing was solitary. Leaves constantly falling.  Black ducks and mallards moving around the swamp, looking for food, well aware of the dropping barometer.

Summer has given up.  Winter is coming....and soon.  I wonder if this will be the last day I fish this year - it may well be.  Goose season begins in just a few days, and I know my mind will be consumed by it for the next 10 weeks.

I have some decisions to make about how, and when, and where, and how often to hunt this season.  As I grow older, these decisions have become insanely more complicated.   In fact, while I probably enjoy going outdoors more than I did 20 years ago (which must be hard to imagine if you knew me as a 6, or 10, or 18 year old), the act of making my outdoor adventures actually happen sometimes wears on me.  To do this means you won't be doing that. To spend time outdoors with these people means you'll miss seeing those people.  Even if I wanted to take those trade-offs lightly, I just can't ignore that they exist  - while I'm outdoors, my life is still happening somewhere else.  It's a serious concept.

Bearing that in mind, it is definitely time to get away from fishing for a few months and to focus, when I can, on bird hunting, a serious passion of mine.  Whether you like it or not, I'll be sharing with you some of my thoughts throughout the hunting season on how I'm able to negotiate some of these choices.  Curious about what, if any, mistakes I'll make.  It's almost show time, so I guess we'll find out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The View from the Conservation Sidelines - Ain't It Grand?

"Hey Bobby! Your New York habitat projects SUCK!"
Ever notice that the people who are most critical of environmental conservation efforts are those with the least possible skin in the game?  The most obvious groups are animal rights activists and anti-sportsmen groups, who take pride in re-branding nearly every voluntary conservation effort in the United States as a "bribe to hunters and anglers" and/or "Let's protect our invasive species because they are cute!"  Groan.




But there's another group who's almost as dangerous to the future of hunting, fishing, and wildlife conservation in this country - the outdoorsmen and women who


1. claim publicly that they adamantly refuse to support conservation groups, and

2. frequently move right into knee-jerking hyperbole when a conservation group asks them for vast sums of money, such as $25, or $35, with a free fleece vest, and

3.  do not appear to be interested in hearing about current research or data pertaining to their species of quarry.

What a combination.  Now, I'm not talking about the sportsman who supports Delta Waterfowl instead of Ducks Unlimited, or the businesswoman who annually underwrites a chapter fundraiser for Quail Forever instead of Quail Unlimited.  I'm talking about the other species - who I'll refer to as Mr. Sidelines.


I recently read a blog post (since this post, edited, then deleted) by a potential Mr. Sidelines, who inferred, among other things, that

1.  Brook trout populations are not, in fact, declining

2.  The Southern Appalachians do not extend to North Carolina and Virginia

3. Conservation groups raise false or overblown concerns about wildlife and the environment, just to raise money.

Yup, these are real groaners - especially when stated as fact and not opinion. But let's consider the actual problem here - it's actually NOT this blogger.


This blogger, Mr. Sidelines, seems to be getting bad information with the good.  He claims (and I believe him) that someone associated with a non-profit group told him that brook trout are declining due to overfishing, for example.  While that was true from 1780 to the mid 1900s, it's safe to say that most of us know it's not the case in 2011.  Second, I'd bet that this blogger probably questioned the validity of the overfishing statement, and if I had to guess, was probably stonewalled by whoever laid out that claim in the first place. Not helpful.

So.....the real problem.  People in our organizations - your organizations - are not effectively communicating accurate information to the people in their circles (who of course, are potential members, volunteers, and donors).  Even if just 10% of the information someone receives is false beyond the pale, you'll likely make an opponent of your group by sharing such statements, claims, or predictions with him or her.  Anyone inclined to act like a Mr. Sidelines will be compelled to SPEAK UP! about the terrible falsehood he or she heard......for everyone in his social circle to see.

In this day and age, your conservation group cannot afford these lapses of information to potential members or donors.  Some tips:

1.  Make sure that down to the local volunteers, you are providing timely and scientifically accurate information.  For most fish and wildlife resources, the truth - the data - the real information......are all plenty scary enough. Find a way to ensure that "the right message" (meaning timely, accurate, and applicable to the organization) is truly making its way down through the ranks.


2.  Make sure that the cost of inaction is phrased reasonably and accurately.  Again, Mr. Sidelines was told that eastern brook trout are facing imminent extinction within the next 20 years.  We all (and he) know this information to be untrue, but there's a fair chance that someone told him that, in the hopes of raising awareness and urging action now, not later. Not a good tactic.

3. Be able to provide real scientific resources to members, volunteers, and donors.  There should be an easy way for your members to ask a senior volunteer or staff member things like, "I heard we're not planting bayberries for quail any more.  Is that based on some scientific study....and can I get a copy?" The answer to both questions should be "yes."


4. At some point, accept that a heckler will be a heckler, and you need to move on with your life.  Some people were born to sit on the sidelines and criticize others as an excuse for failing to take action of their own, and have no interest in learning the facts about which they so ardently complain.   Remind your volunteers that at first contact, the "Heckler 4 Life" will be indistinguishable from the "potential life member who is a bit suspicious about scientific claims."  However, the difference in two such individuals becomes apparent soon enough.  Sure enough, Haters Gonna Hate, and once you identify these folks, they're best left to their own world where facts are false, pleas for action are conspiracies to get rich, and no problem is big enough or local enough that they need to bother themselves with getting informed. As a non-profit leader, you can't fix that. But you can move on...so...do!


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Getting Ready for Geese on the Upper Shore


If you've never hunted wild birds where they congregate in huge numbers, I don't know that I can explain it to you.  To call it a "fever" or an "addiction" would lend itself to t-shirt slogans and ridiculous vinyl decals. To say that it's "heritage" conjures up an absurd combination of neanderthals and DAR gowns.........depending on which type of heritage we are really discussing here.

No, like almost all outdoor activities, it's a pursuit.  And whatever the goal, it's never enough, because there are always new goals.  This is a giant hole that outdoorsmen and women try to fill with days afield, weeks of dog work, months of shooting practice, or months of physical training.  But it's never enough.  There are not enough perfect days in a person's life to fill that hole.  But we try.  Oh man, do we try.  

The offshore duck blind at the farm looks ridiculously good after two mornings of brushing.   The spectre of climate change, via Hurricanes Ike and Lee, was kind enough to bring us this great sand bar, which will improve our odds of safely accessing the blind at 5:30am on 10 degree days.


The island blind (below) looks just as good, although a bit more neglected, since the recent weather pattern has been for the water around the island to freeze solid by New Years Day.


But what of the geese? With our bizarre warm temperatures, who knows what they'll decide to do this year.  But make no mistake, they've started to arrive.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Plenty of water, no waterfowl


We motored out of the gut, out of the creek, and across the river before dawn.  The winds were high - and wrong- for October - out of the Southeast at 10kt.  Another windy, sunny morning after a flooding rain.  As the clouds raced across the sky before dawn, the moonlight showed the tops being clipped off by upper level winds coming from the southwest.   All of this made for some pretty strange conditions on the water.

Our rivers have been at record high levels and record low salinities throughout the year, so it should have been no surprise that the river was up 1.4' during our hunt.  As we tossed out the decoys, we could hear mallards carrying on up in the creek, and we hoped the wind would lay down and the sun would come out, giving the ducks the needed motivation to get moving.

Eventually, the sun came out, but the wind didn't let up.

The mallards got quiet, which means they moved off the roost, and in all likelihood, up into coastal woods that have been flooded from all the rain. They never came out.  By 8:30am, it was pretty clear that we'd been had, so we packed up and headed in to the dock.  It felt great to be out hunting birds again, but I'm really hoping for some more memorable days out this season.

Here's to low clouds, slow birds, and cold mornings this season.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Baltimore Garden Goes to Bed, and Lessons for Community Gardeners


This is one of Baltimore's Most Beautiful Gardens, two years running.  It ain't real pretty right now, that's for sure.  All the veggies, the flowers, the bees are gone.  The snakes and rabbits too.  I've planted winter peas and oats twice, in hopes of stabilizing the soil over the winter.  The rats and rabbits made quick work of them both times, leaving me with a few sprouts, and a weak hope that more are coming up behind them.  The lettuce and beets are having a rough go of it this fall, as well.

A few insects remain on the warmest and sunniest days. The swallowtail caterpillars.  The carpenter bees. The wolf spiders.  But they move slowly now, only moving when they must, to find more food.  Soon, they'll be gone for the winter, too.

We have had a warm, wet autumn, and now it appears that a particularly cold and snowy winter is beginning to draw near.   I'll lay down some more mulch, to keep my soil in place.  I'll put up my garden hoops, to keep the lettuce free of ice, and hopefully free of rabbits.  I'll cut back the last of the peppers, the wildflowers, the millet. It feels like dressing a corpse for a funeral. 

But it shouldn't.  I've already stopped spending time at the garden (located in one of Baltimore's City Farms), because there's almost no work to be done.  Most of the other gardeners have - quite foolishly - tilled their gardens in the middle of the autumn rains, but I don't.  I don't feel like giving away my soil to our local creek (Herring Run).  I want the soil more than the creek does.


There's still a tiny bit of food coming out of the garden.  Recently, it was the last of the sweet potatoes.  Now, it's the last of the tropical peppers.   This year, we did Congo/Trinidad Habaneros and the Kellu Uchu (Lemon Drop) Pepper from Peru. I love the flavor of both. And both are ridiculously hot.

I haven't had the free mental space to think about what I'll do differently in 2012, and let me tell you, 2011 was sure a mixed bag.   So maybe I'll end with a few lessons I've learned from 2 full years in a community garden:

1.   Do your best gardening and be confident in it.  There is a 100% chance that someone else will tell you that you're doing it wrong, so just get used to it. I revel in it (see: Most Beautiful Garden, 2010, 2011).

2.  Don't act like an extension agent.  If you have strong opinions about pesticide use, nobody wants to hear them while they are dumping giant piles of neurotoxin on their vegetables that haven't been attacked by insects yet.  Either leave it alone, or take the issue to the garden superintendent/manager.

3.  Don't assume that people are gardening idiots or geniuses.  Ask what they are doing.  Maybe you'll learn something. Or maybe you'll find out they are idiots.  Could go either way.  But you'll know for sure if you ask.

4. Do be committed.  If you abandon your garden in the third week of July (very common), people like me will make fun of you, to your face.  If for no other reason than I hate stepping on rats that are on their way to eat your rotten tomatoes.

5. Do revel in your successes.  Aside from the "even a blind squirrel finds a nut" deal, you'll need decent luck, timing, and skill to grow any successful crop in a community garden setting.  Enjoy it when you get it, even if you don't know what to do with 500 African Biohazard Zombie Peppers.  That's right, you're making enough jerk seasoning to supply the Japanese whaling fleet.  That's what you're doing.

6.  Do not languish in your failures.  Cut them down, compost them, and move on. As the Bottle Rockets once sang, "Hope for the best, and mop up the rest."

7.  Do be a good neighbor.  If your neighbor's garden is withered, water it a little bit. If a noxious weed pops up in his garden, kill it....before it goes to seed and the seed lands in your garden.  Pay it forward, Brocephus!

8.  Do advertise your skill and your helpfulness.  Something like, "I was picking my 2 bushels of bell peppers and I noticed your garden was all dried up, so I watered it for you" can go a long way.  Hopefully they'll offer to water yours, the next time you can't get to the garden during a hot, dry week.

9.  Do watch and remember other people's mistakes for your own education.  Bob or Karen's mistakes are easier and cheaper to learn from than your own.

10.  Don't give up.  If your entire summer garden dies off, throw out a cover crop or wildflower seeds.  Start again in the fall.

You can do it.  Don't be afraid to fail.  Take a quick look at what the garden looks like in the top image.  Again, it looks pretty sad.  Now look at the condition in which I inherited it in March 2010.

And now take a look at how it was doing in early September, 2011.

Like I said.......you can do it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Red Eye Bass in Baltimore?

So, I recently caught a couple of bass just like this in cold, cold water somewhere in the Gunpowder River drainage:

Obviously not a largemouth bass - water's too cold, too much current.  And seemingly not a smallmouth bass - here's a picture of a smallmouth bass I caught just a mile downstream:


Definitely some similarities, but the eye color is much more brown than red.  Since I haven't caught a Red Eye Bass, or Rock Bass, in Maryland in about five years, I started to think - maybe I've caught the easternmost Red Eye on record for this state!!! Then, I let the fish go.

What makes this question somewhat difficult is that many internet pictures of "red eye bass" are really just smallmouth bass with red eyes (that was my first hint).  What makes it even more complicated is that there are two very different species of "Red Eye Bass," Micropterus coosae and Amboplites rupestris.

Again, it's been five years since I've caught one.  And I'm not an ichthyologist. So bear with me.  M. coosae is common only in a few river systems in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.  Which doesn't mean it's never been stocked elsewhere...but...the Maryland piedmont (and not draining to the Potomac) seems like a bit of a stretch.  Below is a picture of M. coosae.






You have to admit, M. coosa looks a lot like my fish.  Alas, Maryland DNR is pretty adamant that there is zero chance I had an M. coosa on my hands.  Plus, the wikipedia page on the species backs this up......and happens to be based on the authoritative text on Midatlantic fish (here it is, yes, you should buy it if you fish and live here).  Alright then, moving onward.

A. rupestris, aka the "Rock Bass" or "Redeye Rock Bass" does indeed live in Maryland - unlike M. coosae.  Here's where the DNR end starts to fall apart.  The species is not recognized as existing in the state, however, a state record fish exists (and now lives in the giant aquarium at our local Bass Pro Shop), and yours truly has actually caught "Redeye Rock Bass" in the state.  Since I've seen them myself, and since local anglers obviously stock them into farm ponds (hence the new state record, caught in the same pond as the last state record).....I'll call the matter settled.  The damn fish lives in Maryland. Native or not. And it could have been stocked into this drainage - native or not, and legal or not.  But what does the Redeye Rock Bass look like?

Wow.  That looks nothing like my red-eyed fish....and there's a reason for that. A ruprestis is basically a mutant white perch. Not a bass at all (which are really mutant sunfish).  The dorsal fin is different.  The mouth is different.  The scale size is different.  Everything.  So....what we're left with is a red-eyed smallmouth bass.
Smoky Mountain Smallmouth from Trout Underground (read their post here!)

So, smallmouth bass it is.  Oh well.  I guess the thing that got me down this road is that many of our smallmouth in the Baltimore area don't look this way at all - they look more like this:

In the end, I learned a good lesson in the variability of fish coloration.  Not nearly as exciting as being able to claim that I found a mountain species in a piedmont stream.   And by the way, if anyone wants to give a shot at telling me what species or hybrid this fish I caught this summer was, by all means, fire away, smarties!

Caught in an abandoned sand pit on the eastern shore of MD, near the VA border..Spotted x Largemouth??