Monday, January 30, 2012

Icy Guides, Icy Trout

Icy guides were a frustration all morning.
Review coming up on the GlacierMending & Stripping Glove
It's been a weird January.  Been working hard at the day job.  Working hard at the night job.  Working hard to get a little movement on this Sunday Hunting issue in Virginia (Pennsylvania's next).  It's been 60 degrees and sunny for 5 days in a row, then 30 degrees and snowy (ideal hunting conditions) for 45 minutes, then 25 degrees and sunny for 3 days, then back to 60 degrees. Dandelions blooming.  Weird.

In the midst of the chaos, I blocked out a few hours of my schedule to hit "my" trout spot for a few hours.  The unfortunate part of having a busy schedule and having to schedule outdoor time is that you totally lose control over your usual ability to play the conditions.

Such was the case on this day.  Morning temperature? 24 degrees. Sunny. Oh well, I had two hours to burn, and I was going outside, end of story.  I geared up my ultralight spinning setup - very sure that I'd not be able to fly cast icy floating line - and set down the road. I hadn't been trout fishing in true winter conditions in about five years, and the last trip was miserable - 13 degrees, 4 hours, one lousy rainbow trout about 10" long.  Of course I wanted to catch fish this time, but I had simpler goals: stay safe, take it slow, relax.  I pulled into the spot's lone parking space, and, whipping out my own copy of my directions to the spot, got into the creek and started working.

I'd last fished here in early November - and what a great few hours that was!  I was unprepared for how much the river would have changed in just a few short months.  The water was higher, but I had already noticed that by checking the gage before my trip.  It was just stunning how much gravel has moved around.  This pool below the bridge looks different every time I visit.  The changing bottom profile doesn't make it any easier to fish.

This pool (to the left) has been a fun one for me - it was about 8 feet deep last summer, and about 6 feet deep (and lined with gravel) in November.  Now it's 4 feet deep, with tons of silt laying around.  Bah humbug!

I was throwing a variety of inline spinners - oh wait - the offical trout angling jargon is "french inline spinning flies" - that were a mix of gold and silver spoons with a variety of metallic, white, chartreuse, red, brown, and black flies.  When you call them "french inline spinning flies," they cost $7.99 each instead of $2.99 each. If you call them  "rooster tails," well, then, they cost $1.67. And that's one to grow on.

The flies themselves were a mix of patterns.  They included woolly buggers in chartreuse, red, brown, and black, some metallic nymphs in black, red, silver, and gold, and a black nymph for good measure.

The water wasn't the highest or fastest I've fished it, but it was definitely high.  Because I like to complicate matters at all times, I was using Nano-Braid (I can't remember the product name yet) for the first time, which was not really ideal.   I'll fish that line again soon, and review it here soon after, but at $20/150 yards I don't know that it was a great deal.  It's responsive, but you can't tie it with regular knots (the bloggers who got sent the Press Package of Nanofil got a note to that effect, but if purchased at the store, you get no such warning).

Between gravel nicks, gravel hang-ups, and icy guides on the rod, I lost several $4-$5 spinni...excuse me....french inline spinning flies (How ya like me now!).  It was frustrating but because the conditions were a little unusual for me, I at least felt like I was really learning a few things.  Luckily, the outing wasn't totally without fish bites.

On such a cold day, you'd expect that trout wouldn't be cruising in shallow runs and riffles.  And you'd be wrong, as I was.  I saw several 8-12" rainbows just cruising around in water less than 2' deep.  I did see one cruising around in a shallow eddy (the photo above this paragraph), and tossed him a brown woolly bugger and silver spoon.  On the fourth or fifth cast down from my boulder, I got a strong strike, but no hookup.

In all I got about 4 solid strikes and another 3 or 4 bite-n-carries, but no trout to hand.  The go-to lures were black, brown, and chartreuse buggers in a size 12 (that tip is for my memory, but feel free to use it!).

This spot is off of the DNR stocking list, and I'm curious to see if they'll put it back on this year.  I've never seen anyone fishing there except me.  How strange. Soon enough, it was time to get back and back to adult productivity.  Not a perfect fishing trip (on its own merits) to start 2012, but maybe a perfect start to a good fishing year.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Directions to My Secret Trout Spot

Man, what is it with trout anglers? In conversation, they'll ask you a very standard, "Where ya fishin'?," to which I usually respond with the name the of the river system I'm fishing. If it were hunting, paddling, surfing or any other kind of fishing, that would be sufficient for friendly conversation, "Oh that's great, I used to go up there. Have fun up there!"

But a few times per week, I run into a bona fide trout angler.  And they want to know it all.  "Ooh.  That river.  Which fork? Above the bridge? Where do you park? Are you talking the third pool or the fourth pool? What flies you throwin'? Where ya buy 'em?"  And of course, I waver between telling them useless, ambiguous information aaaaaaaaaaaaand.....flat out lying and saying I was somewhere else.  Heck no, I won't tell you where I keep catching fish!  Not unless we fish there together!

But I just can't fight it any more, and so here are the directions to my favorite trout fishing spot.

Go north until the air begins to reek of kettle chips, Ben Rouethlisboerguer and the Amish. 

Turn left at the frog.

Turn right at The Rock.  You know, "The Rock!" 

Well, now you do!  Finally, go under the Icy Troll Bridge!

And you're there!!!! Good luck fishing "my" little spot! 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hiding from Ducks in Plain Sight on the Nottoway River

There are no secret spots anymore. Not east of Interstate 95, anyway.   But there are spots that exist right under your nose that you'd never think would hold fish, ducks, or anything else of much value.  In our case, just a half mile off a state highway, a set of cool springs floods the headwater woods of the Nottoway.   

Years ago, the state highway department found this place, a failing cotton field, and excavated it to create a gigantic replace wetlands filled for a highway project.  The new wetland was designed to hold only  a few inches of water over several acres.  After monitoring the site for the required number of years, the state moved on with their work elsewhere.  

Around that time, beavers moved into the wetland, quickly determining that the flooding was not sufficient for their own work. Several years and about five hundred feet of beaver dam later,  the place is filled with a few feet of water, aquatic grasses, and lily pads - not at all what the wetland restoration gurus intended.  In this case, we had also lucked out because the wetland is still privately owned, and we had permission from the landowner to hunt (in exchange for any and all bird meat).  A few steps through the swamp will tell you that the wildlife sure are happy that such a big wetland has been left for them, in plain sight but very much out of mind.  

Tug tells the story of our arrival in the beaver swamp in embarrassing detail, but essentially it went like this: 

1) boat a mile down the river in the pouring rain, two hours before dawn.  
2. Pull the boat up on shore.  
3. Haul all hunting gear up a muddy 20 foot tall man made berm, in the dark.  
4. On the other side of the berm, walk (with chest waders) through 7 foot tall brambles and fallen trees for about 100 yards. 
5. Wade into flooded cypress swamp that rings the beaver swamp, for about 100 yards.
6. Accidentally walk back to the river, downstream of boat.
7. Argue in the woods, in the dark.
8. Try to figure out directions by looking through tree tops at "sunrise" though it is still an hour before sunrise. Idiots.
9. Wade back into flooded cypress.
10. Stumble into beaver dam.  Piss off beavers.
11. Walk into beaver wetland. 

Not my most attractive pose
Finally, we had arrived.  As soon as I had taken about two deep breaths, wood ducks began streaking over our heads in the dark.  A few of them were swimming out in the wetland, about 100 yards in front of us. 

As the sky began to glow pink, the wood ducks' flight became furious.  Always left to right and overhead.  Tug had the distinct advantage of having seen this flight pattern across this wetland before, and his shooting showed it.  Wood ducks on New Year's Eve. In Virginia. Hard to believe. 

Tug, staring at the "Wood Duck Dispenser"
area of the swamp
Right at sunrise, the ducks stopped moving.       I'd love to say that the wetland was silent but for the work of beavers and songbirds, but it was actually a little loud, with trucks thundering down the highway about a half-mile from our position. And since it was deer season, which in southern Virginia means monster trucks full of beagles, the average noise of 18-wheelers was occasionally punctuated by the wonh wonh wonh wonh wonh of 48" Mickey Thompsons at 60mph. 

The sun came up quick.  It got warm quick.  Our pre-dawn flight was a treat of clouds, rain, and birds, but now we were forced to acknowledge, again, that this is just not a good winter for duck hunting.  I thought back to goose hunts around New Years where air temperatures were near, or even below zero, and how we'd have to just stay flexible until the geese flew, which could easily be 11am. Not this year! The temperature quickly got into the mid-60s.  Another beautiful April day in December. 

We were waiting for a big flock of ringneck ducks to fly in - ringnecks typically winter south of the VA-NC border on big reservoirs and freshwater lakes across the wide coastal plain.  A week before our hunt, Tug and his buddies found a flock of about 200 ringnecks on this wetland. A few birds came in at 830am, but landed 150 yards from us in open water.  They were quiet but aggressive feeders, and we kept waiting for the big flock, which never came.   We were treated to a pretty tame display of pairs of ringnecks arriving, feeding, and then leaving, never giving our decoy spread a look or coming within about 80 yards of us. 

My chariot arrives
Around 930am, we called it quits, knowing that we had a long walk back to the river still ahead of us - this time, in warm weather, while covered in cold weather gear.   We found our way out with no problem, retrieved the boat and headed back upriver to the ramp. 

It wasn't a bad hunt, despite all the factors working against us.  And as we motored back upstream, I started to get excited for spring.   That's absurd for me - I have never gotten that feeling in the middle of waterfowl season.  But I think for the last few weeks of this waterfowl season, it's going to take some serious weather, serious birds, or the opportunity to rekindle a special friendship to get me back on the water without a fishing rod.  

Will any of those opportunities come to pass? I don't know, but I'm already checking stream gages for trout fishing.  And that's not a hopeful sign for additional hunting days!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Unwelcome Guests in the Baldcypress

The more time I spend here, the more I can only conclude that the River is done with us.  And you too. The people who lived here for a thousand years, the Nottoway Indians, still exist in the margins.  Their language, an Iroquoian dialect, was dead by 1838. Their name is a ghost in itself - "Na Da Wa" was a hateful Algonquin slur passed from the Powhatan scouts  to the English colonists within months of their arrival at Jamestown.  The English apparently thought it was this southern tribe's proper name, the "Nottoway."  Their real name? The Cheroenhaka.  Two hundred years of incursions, segregation, and racist census laws nearly drove the tribe extinct.

White people, and black people, came and cut down the trees - 500-year old Baldcypress and 200 year old Chestnut and Oak, and then went about the work of being people.  Tobacco, cotton, peanuts.  Sawmills. Factories.    And in 2012, much of it is gone.  Factories closed because Virginia's minimum wage, $3.50 per hour just a few years ago, was "too much burden" on factory owners, who prefer less expensive child labor in India.  Sawmills closed because the state forestry department said, "you probably shouldn't de-forest a thousand acres of swamp without planting some trees there."  Tobacco farms have grown up with trees since the state government offered a buy-out to get farmers out of the tobacco industry a few years ago, when it was clear that tobacco was an unsustainable crop for Virginia soils.  This place is not for people. This is the margin of where people can exist.

Cypress Cone
But the Eastern Baldcypress remains.  It lives where people won't, or can't.  Ditches. Swamps. Rivers. In some places on the Nottoway, it seems to grow in endless stands.  Yup, baldcypress is a tree like no other.   A member of a dying evolutionary tree that pre-dates the dinosaurs, it thrives in dank, acidic water in the American South.

Now, creeping through the cypress stands in Nottoway swamp in the dark is not for the faint of heart, or light of gear. there are tilting cypress trees, floating beaver fall, and a submarine navy of soaked logs just below the surface.  The birds are here too.   Ducks of course- mallards, wood ducks, and ringnecks, but also woodpeckers.  More than I have ever seen.  Ladder-backs, downy, redbellied, red-headed, flickers, and the kingly pileated. All pecking away at rot-resistant trees that died years ago, but still stand 60 feet tall.

We were set up an hour before dawn in a new meander that the River is building.  I had never seen so many cypress knees. A very weak show of wood duck pairs flew by in the dark, over the course of 40 minutes or so, calling to our decoys only to say, "Join us. Leave here."  Before light, the far bank of the River was scattered with hooded mergansers.  It was great to actually see birds using the habitat and not flying by us at 70mph.   Like every other species of duck in this failure of a waterfowl migration, the birds were paired, and not in flocks at all.

A Hoodie Falls
At first, we could only see the white head patches on the male hooded mergansers, but as the sun started to rise, we could see how many birds we were dealing with in our little river bend.  Two eventually flew, and the male was killed for our cause (a fried bird sandwich that tastes more like a fried oyster sandwich).

On cue, the birds stopped flying.  A warm, winter (?) sun was upon us again and the swamp's waterfowl went back to loafing around, safely out of our reach.  We set about on another task - collecting baldcypress cones for my wetland restoration work in Maryland (the trees last widely inhabited the state prior to our most recent ice age), and wondering when, if ever, the flyway's waterfowl might migrate south.  As Tug maneuvered the boat under low-hanging cypress branches full of fertile cones, I plucked them one at a time and put them in my hunting pack, while the thick, heavy cypress sap covered my fingers and let me know, "it's time for you to leave today."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Damn Dog, Damn Quail, Damn Gun! : A Southern Virginia Quail Hunt

There are a lot of ways to hunt bobwhite quail in Virginia.  All are designed to exhaust either your legs, your dog, your wallet, or some combination of the three.  But each of those tribulations can teach you a lot about silence, solitude, and humility. Still a bit shifty from my overnight ride down the fall line, and our early duck hunt, Tug, Whitey and I rode out to a managed quail preserve on the Virginia - North Carolina border.

Now, to say this hunt did not go to plan just would not do justice to the debacle that unfolded.  But I'll get to that.

What I'll truly remember about this hunt is the near perfect silence.  Despite the close quarters with my two brothers, a noisy ass useless dog, that odd south wind, and the constant chatter of quail and other birds in the pines, what I remember is the sound of my own deliberate, slow breathing as my boots snapped through piles of quail cover, pine needles, and little branches. Looking to either side and seeing my brothers walk with me - the first time we've all spent outdoors together since March, 2011.  

Breathe in, breathe out.  Listen for wing beats.  Look for flushing birds.  Listen for the dog.  Watch the other hunters. Eyes open. Ears open. Mouth shut.

That silence was punctuated, rarely, by a deadly shot on a flying bird.  And we did kill several. More often, though, that quiet serenity was punctuated by our cursing, when the dog (a guide's dog, mind you) ran ahead of us and flushed quail at 100, then 200, then 250 yards. Or by our guide's explanation that "she's gonna do a partial retrieve on this one," and as if on command, the stupid dog spit out the quail 25 feet in front of me, and the dog stared at me as the quail hauled ass out of there, behind her, so I couldn't shoot.

After some chiding from the guide for missing shots on birds, finally Whitey asked me, "doesn't it seem like the dog is chasing the bird right after the flush, and running like 1 foot under the bird in the middle of our shooting lanes?"  And I laughed, because, yes, that's what was happening, and it was the reason I shot about a third of the ammo I usually do on this type of endeavor.   There is no way I'm accidentally shooting a dog.  Not gonna happen.

The hunt became an exercise in keeping my mouth shut, my temper in check, and trying to pay close attention to any possible wild birds that had not been spooked by the dumb ass dog. It was a good exercise.
Such a nice dog!  Useless.  But nice.

The dog refused to go in the briars, but
Tug wanted that bird.
It's been awhile since I complained about guides and guiding on the blog, but I've gotta tell you, when our guide stated, "Y'all's gonna be okay, because y'all's got tha attitude of true bud hunnahs, not a bunch of yankeh shootahs," I knew we were screwed.  I sighed and shook my head.  Insert other classic guide quotes like "I take you fishing - not catching" and "You're paying for the experience - not a bag limit."

If we were Yankee Shooters, could he have at least run out there and put some dumb farm raised quail around for us, instead of these busted up, mega-spooky wild birds that have obviously had some kind of past dust-up with the guide's busted ass bird dog?   Yeah - in that case I definitely want the Yankee Shooter package! 

Yankeh Shootah Package includes Pro Staff gear
and 100 deaf, blind quail

I mean, let's go double down on this Yankee Shooter thing. Perhaps our guide could have had pen-raised quail with tiny confederate flags bombard us with tiny cannons in our sleep, and then as they tried to retreat across a tiny quail bridge, we could have blown it up and slaughtered them mercilessly.  Our guide's dog could have played the role of General Sherman, just tearing through the whole damn setup and leveling it without doing any good in the process.

At any rate, when it was all said and done, it sure was a fun way to spend a balmy afternoon.  Loblollies, millet, sorghum, and acre upon acre of CREP buffers, funded by your support of the USDA Farm Bill.  Great bird habitat, and a great place to be, and ten times out of ten, I still wouldn't trade the experience.
Go, Dumbass, Go!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Gear Review: 5 Great Ultra-Light Rods Under $50

I love ultra-light fishing.  The challenge and accomplishment of throwing tiny tackle at big fish, often in tight's like fly fishing for the lazy.   But since ultralight rods are.....ultralight....they tend to get snapped, pulled apart, and stepped on with great frequency, so it seems like I am always on the lookout for a new one. And God Bless Field and Stream, but I don't need to read another article entitled, "5 Great Ultralight Combos Under $1,200."  So on that note, I give you: 5 Great Ultralight Rods Under $50:

Bass Pro Shops Microlite Spinning Rod ($49 $35):  Easily the strongest rod of the bunch, this rod has accuracy trouble with lures below 1/8 ounce, but does just great with anything up to about 3/8", believe it or not.  This is the stiffest and least sensitive of the rods on this list, and probably not a great choice for the panfish or small trout enthusiast, although I've caught many of both on my Microlite.   This rod inspires confidence when you know you have a bigger fish on the line.
Best length: 5'6" or 6'0".
Recommended species:  largemouth, smallmouth, steelhead
Recommended fishing style: boat, wading, tight structure, open water.  Not a great shore chucker caster.

Bass Pro Shops Crappie Maxx Sig. Series Spinning Rod ($45):
Just so I'm honest about my bias, this is my favorite ultralight rod of all time.  Originally manufactured by BPS as the "Wally Marshall Crappie Special," Wally and BPS parted ways in 2010. Due to customer demand for the rod, however, BPS continues to manufacture it, in the same exact metallic forest green paint scheme, as the "Crappie Maxx."  The sensitivity and strength are a near perfect balance, which I don't believe you'll otherwise see in an ultralight rod below $90 in price (and that rod is a St. Croix).  This rod casts very well, and has the sensitivity to get the job done with skittish or small fish.  I advise you to buy two.

Best length: 5'0" or 5'6", although the 4'6" is good from a boat.
Recommended species: anything between 8" - 16" long. This rod, like the Pflueger Razor Tip, can be overwhelmed by bigger, stronger game fish.
Recommended fishing style:  shoreline ambush, wading tight spots, close-in work on structure, from a boat. Good long range accuracy, especially when paired with a good ($60+) reel.

Pflueger Razor Tip Microspin: ( $49 $22):  This was an outstanding rod, while it lasted.  The tip magically broke off and vanished in the bed of my truck after a heavy 18 months or so of use, which, if you read reviews on the rod, is about on par with other anglers' experiences.  Given the abuse I put it through, it was more than worth the $20 or so that I spent on it - some fishing outlet websites offer it for even cheaper.  Perhaps because of the "vanishing" razor tip, Pflueger recently pulled the rod from its product lineup, and replaced it with their new Microspin rod.  Even though I haven't fished that rod, I recommend that you give it a shot, if you find it on sale for maybe $30 or less.  Still a better "feel" to it than the standard stock Shakespeares and Berkeleys, although it has a pretty similar field life span of those crappers.

Best length: 4'6" or 5'0"
Recommended species:  anything less than 12" long
Recommended fishing style: shoreline ambush, short casts, wading small water.  Not highly accurate casting beyond short range.

Quantum Xtralite XT Spinning Rod ($19):  This is the only rod in the bunch that I've never owned, but I've borrowed one twice, with pretty satisfying results on small panfish and smallmouth. It's also the only rod in the bunch with an MSRP under $25.  It's very sensitive - almost too sensitive for me - and if you hook a big fish, you almost feel like the rod is just "hanging on."  The owner of this rod loves the feeling, kind of an extreme - ultra-light, I guess.  But again, at $19, it's cheaper and probably a better rod than many of the standard cheap rods at your local sporting goods store.  Trust me, because I've broken many of those and left them in access point trash cans up and down the east coast.

Best length: 5'0"
Recommended species:  anything bigger than 12" long is a roll of the dice!
Recommended fishing style: shoreline ambush, short casts. Not a finesse/accuracy rod.

Quantum Triax Spinning Rod ($35):  This is a great rod that I haven't used enough.  After a half season of abuse, I transferred it to my gear storage spot in South Florida....and have had no chances to use it since.  Like the BPS Microlite (reviewed above), I am 1000% confident working big fish with this ultralight rod - I intended to use it on Oscars, small peacock bass, and giant bluegills in South Florida.  Hopefully that trip will happen in 2012!   This rod is a little more sensitive, especially in the tip, then the BPS Microlite, so in time, I  may just fall in love with it.

Best length: 5'0", 5'5", 6'0"
Recommended species:  whatever your reel is up for! Big panfish and aggressive largemouth for sure.
Recommended fishing style: boat, wading, tight structure, open water. Good long range accuracy.

Honorable Mention: Shakespeare Ugly Stik Ultralight ($29) : 
You didn't honestly expect me to write up this list without a mention of one of the sturdiest, best-selling ultralight rods of all time, did you?  My relationship with Ugly Stik goes back about 16 years, when my Dad gave me one (casting rod, medium/fast) as a reward for living to age 22, or not failing out of college, or not getting some girl pregnant, or something.   I still have it, too, and actually fished it last year! (thanks, Dad!)

 The UL rod, though, has lasted longer than any rod described on this page, no matter how you measure "longer."  It has absolutely not caught the most fish, or the biggest fish.  But it didn't cost a lot of money, it has actually caught fish, and it and my Ugly casting rod have lasted longer than any other single rod I have ever bought for freshwater fishing. If you normally have guests fishing with you, and they want to fish light tackle (or don't know any better), how can you not have an Ugly Stik on hand for them? Hell, they ain't gonna break the  bank....or break the tip off, that's for sure.

Best length: 5'0", 5'5"
Recommended species:  whatever your reel is up for!
Recommended fishing style: boat, shoreline, or wading in open water. Not super accurate beyond about 8 yards.

I hope you found this list useful - what are your favorite rods under $50?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Virginia Cypress Swamp Duck Hunt #1 - Neither Hate Nor Envy Nor Want Nor Need

Winding late night through the headwater swamps of the Nansemond, the Nottoway, and the Chowan, I could feel my grip loosen on what's real........those things slipping away like a jellyfish inbetween my fingers.  Maybe they're just the things I thought were real.  There's no chasing them now. There are no street lights in these places.  In fact the only reflections come from the eyes of deer, raccoon, fox, and owl.   All are comfortable in the swamp at night, alone.  But me? No.

I pulled southeast, south, southeast, south, following the 17,000 year old Clovis Indian trails that took the shortest distance crossings through these swamps.  Those trails became the Nottoway Indian trails 1500 years ago, which became the English colonists' trails 400 years ago, which became logging routes and eventually roads 150 years ago.   

As the miles passed,  the darkness grew, and the only things consistently visible were the tops of trees against the light of the stars and moon.  Cypress. Sweetgum. Sweetgum. Pine. Pine. Pine. Oak. Cypress.  The tree tops, like some silly old Disney cartoon, pulled away at everything else on my mental balancing beam - work, home, and money worries all plucked up and replaced against my will.  But I have things to think about! Important things!   In the moment, it was impossible to consider who or what was responsible for my mental reshuffling.  Something in front of me, or behind me? But things are different here, and the rules are different too.  As Pat DiNizio once wrote, "Things that used to matter are no longer on my mind."

Eventually, I arrived, squarely in the middle of the night.  Two hours later, we put the boat in the cold, swirling black water of the Nottoway and slowly moved up river.  Boom.  submerged log.  Bang skeeeeeerape.  cypress knee.  Pop thwwwwap pop snap.  overhanging branches.  Oh yeah boys and girls, this is luxury duck hunting.  Eventually we arrived at my brother's (the tugboatdude) blind, in an improbable timber slough along an ancient oxbow of an ancient river.   I was relieved to see the sun rise. 

Unfortunately, when my brothers built this blind in September, the morning sun was arcing front to rear and to the right (north), and of course December's shorter days have brought the sun's golden swing directly in front of the duck blind.   "Blind" being the operative word.  While the morning air was a bit crisp, we had no illusions that ducky conditions would prevail, given the prediction for clear skies and 60 degree air temperatures.   And then there's the issue of the stalled waterfowl migration, now being discussed by hunters throughout the eastern half of the United States. 

Hunting a place like this breeds a different kind of hunter, because the wildlife here are not like those of nearby farm fields, residential ponds, and open marshes.   No, the cypress swamp is a pretty demanding place that doesn't allow for a whole lot of second chances.   One quick glance around at all of the epiphytic plants growing on cypress trunks, stems, roots, and knees will tell you that.  This is life on the margins.

But there is safety in isolation as well, and animals know it.   That means that they are occasionally - briefly - exposed.   This place has predators too. Bald eagles. Coyotes. Big snakes. Big fish.  Life on the margins means no cameraderie. 

Before the crush of dawn slammed over us, we were absolutely covered in wood ducks.  If you have been in the marsh or swamp before, you know the sound.  Fih fih fih fih fih fih fih.......wing beats.   Wood ducks by the pair, and as the sun rose, ring-necked ducks by the pair.   Every pair on a mission to a pre-determined feeding spot in the swamp.    Not interested in a change of plans.  And let me tell you, every duck hole in the swamp looks the same.   Eventually, the swamp's heavy hitters came out to play.  First, the geese (lazily moving from a factory pond to a nearby grain farm across the swamp), and then the deer. Gracefully creeping through a swamp that features no hard ground, just wet, rotting leaves that are many feet deep.

 We didn't even get to shoot - a paucity of dumb and/or hungry birds.  And of course, it didn't matter.  I made it here to hunt.  After two years of promising and four years of trying.  The last time I hunted with Tug in Virginia, 3 years ago and 40 miles northeast of here, my life was completely different.  And that next morning, while preparing for work-travel meetings at my other brother's house near the beach, it changed forever.  I received a curious email from my wife, with a picture of a positive pregnancy test. 

Life can swing on such minor days and events. And why shouldn't it?  I consider myself blessed to have been able to return so close to home once again, and again to smell and hear the swamp like I did as a child.  Granted, at 58 degrees, it was more like a spring day's memory than a late December's!  

 Just like the swamp's residents, my memories tied to these sights, smells, and sounds are on the margins of my heart and mind, where I keep them.  And then they are suddenly upon me.   This awareness comforted and haunted me for the rest of my trip - this was more than duck hunting. 

We spend our lives improving ourselves, which is another way of saying that we are artists in escaping from our own ghosts.    If you come to this place, be assured that your ghosts will find you.  Quickly. But if you are to hunt, you cannot let that affect your mind, or your eye, or your trigger finger.  Those old ghosts will have to wait until after the geese leave the roost, follow the tree line, and bank into the decoys. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Real Goals for a New Year

Rediscovering ultralight / fly tackle trout fishing was a highlight of 2011
In 2011, I had some neat and kind of flowery annual goals that sounded good at the time.  Depending on the mood in which I read them, now a year later, I can infer that I either totally failed at achieving them, or I absolutely crushed them.  In other words, they were not great goals.   So let's set some better, more specific ones for 2012!

1. Find three new high quality fishing spots within an hour of work or home.
2. Catch a 20" trout on any artificial tackle
3. Catch a brook trout on any artificial tackle
4. Catch any trout on artificial fly
5. Catch any bass over 9" long on artificial fly
6. Fish in a state other than Maryland or Virginia
7. Keep and eat a trout, preferably a rainbow.
8. Fish at least twice with at least one new fishing buddy.

1. Honestly evaluate current leasing setup, which is 1h 45m from home.  Consider any similar opportunities closer to home or work, even if they cost more. Or, consider not leasing at all until finances improve.
2. Sell whatever gear is necessary to purchase a lightweight Browning 12 gauge for ducks, clays, and small upland birds prior to 9/1/12.
3. Shoot target archery at least monthly, all year.
4. Kill a buck with a bow.
5. Take or at least financially commit to a hunting trip outside of MD, DE, VA.
6. Secure at least 1 new private waterfowl hunting spot and 2 new private bow hunting spots.

Outdoor Parenting
1. Enroll Hank in his second round of swimming classes
2. Enroll Hank in an outdoor/nature summer camp for one of the weeks he's out of day care
3. Stop being lazy -  teach Hank the proper words for things outdoors, i.e. "sunflower seed" instead of "Birdie Snacks" etc.
4.  Have one overnight outdoor experience with Hank, i.e. involving a tent or something similar.

1. Become active in a new sport or new gym by 4/1/12
2. Lose 20 total pounds by 6/1/12 and keep it all off until at least 11/15/12.
3. Get a checkup, either medical or dental, ideally both, but at least one.

1. Do not waste my time on websites where my input is not wanted. It just causes conflict.
2. Post at least one gear review per month, all year
3. Finish the "business plan" for the blog by 6/1/12.
4. Successfully write at least one article/post for a site or blog that has a print version in circulation.
5. Submit at least one post to a literary magazine or website.
6. Average 15,000 pv/month throughout 2012 (@12,000, have never topped 13,000), reach 200 google followers (@115) and 100 FB followers (@51).
7.  Find a web designer to do some revamping to the blog's functionality and basic appearance.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hemingway's Whiskey, The Most Interesting Man in the World, and Other Re-Brandings

This article won a "readers' choice" award
from the Outdoor Blogger Network

This is not an album review or a book review.  It wouldn't be fair.  You see, I've read most everything that's been published by Hemingway and about Hemingway. The outdoorsman. The writer.  The undependable human being. The loose cannon.

 I have read detailed accounts of his good times, and even moreseo, his fascinating and horrible last years, culminating in his brutal suicide.  I remain amazed at how sick the gifted mind can be. I've also marveled at the way advertisers, and human beings in general, can mythologize about such conflicted characters in history - reduce them to a cheesy tag line, or an advertising slogan.  Ah, yes.  Our idols.

Which brings me to Kenny Chesney, pop country celebrity, who named his most recent album "Hemingway's Whiskey."  He didn't write one song, and only co-wrote one song on the entire album, so for the most part, Kenny just plays the songs.  Since he didn't write the title track, I dread to think that Kenny just bought into a romanticized idea of Hemingway - like Kenny, Hemingway loved beaches, drinking, and women, and had a hard time balancing the three.  The parallels basically end there, in my opinion.  One man was a tortured, mentally ill genius and champion outdoorsman, who ran from the darkness his entire life, until it swallowed him whole, via his own shotgun.  The other is a wonderful and well-marketed country-pop performer from Tennessee, who had a bad break up with a pretty girl about 5 years ago.  The two are not the same.

In the bigger picture, why do we so easily dispose of accurate, complex descriptions of  historical figures, and instead distill and photoshop those figures into a Dos Equis ad and say, "Awesome - I can relate to that!"? You may be asking, "Dos Equis? What in the world are you talking about?" Well, how about this redux of Hemingway, that pre-dates Kenny Chesney's album by a few years?

When the Dos Equis "Stay Thirsty My Friends" campaign came out, a slew of marketing folks noted that, "Wow, it's like a sober Hemingway."  One review offered up that Dos Equis' character was like a hybrid of "Hemingway, Burt Reynolds, Bill Murray, Royal Tenenbaum, and Don Draper."  Funny!

In so many ways, it's a re-manufacturing of a real human's life, to help their image fit a certain corporate product. Think about how scary - and sad - that is.  Now think about how often you (or people you know) let these false personae into their lives, only to feel bad about not "measuring up" to the fake idol?

So........what of "Hemingway's Whiskey" particularly? Did Hemingway even drink whiskey?  Well, it seems pretty certain that Hemingway drank anything and everything put in front of him, at some point during his life.  Numerous sources (here's one) talk of his early love of wine, then rum "grog," then brandy, then wine again, then rum (the early Key West years), then more rum (the Cuba years), then Scotch and Soda (the later Key West years).   And absolutely, there were gallons and gallons of whiskey mixed in there for good measure.

But in everything I've read, Hemingway never seemed to prefer whiskey.  Which tells me that the song and album "Hemingway's Whiskey" reflect one of two things:

Hemingway's Daiquiri - frowned
upon by the Nashville
Music Establishment
1) "Hemingway's Whiskey" songwriter Guy Clark (from Texas) and performer Kenny Chesney (from Tennessee) honestly think that a manly man like Hemingway could have only drank a manly liquor - whiskey.    Basically, a really dumb assumption.


2) Perhaps Guy and Kenny came to the realization that their fans do not want to hear a poignant and tragic song about "Hemingway's Fruity Rum Drinks with Extra Whipped Cream and Triple Maraschinos."  That makes "Hemingway's Whiskey" a marketing ploy for a specific group of people - not an honest song about hard times and a troubled mind.

Real life is significantly darker than some beach bum tunes...

Hemingway was an amazing human being and an outdoorsman of significant accomplishments.  The dumbing-down of his story into a pop-country tune featuring a socially-acceptable liquor is a real shame, but it's no worse than a million other marketing ploys (or genuine public misunderstandings) that re-cast historical figures everyday.  And in an era when the words "celebrity" and "outdoors" are increasingly written together....this is just the beginning of the rebranding.  I urge you all - don't buy into it.  Keep reading, keep learning why men and women in history did the things they did.  Don't expect Hollywood and Nashville to give it to you straight.

Hemingway and son, 1941.
If you ever want to write a song or a story about Hemingway, there's plenty of real evidence of the real man.
It may not sell as many copies as the made-up version, but it'll be a real story that people will be happy to read or hear.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Back to Reality - New Year's Edition

I am still cooling my heels on the back end of my hunting trip to southern Virginia - my first since January, 2009, and first serious one since November, 2007.  "Cooling" is the operative word because we suffered (not really) through near-tropical hunting conditions, waiting on a waterfowl migration that has yet to take place.  I did kill a few ducks and quail with my brothers and a few other new swampy friends, and the time away from work and family responsibilities was priceless.

Work starts on tuesday, and it is going to be "game time" seriously, with several important deadlines in the next 10 weeks.  I don't know what to do about the end of waterfowl season (we have another 3+ weeks) - I'm ambivalent about it (perhaps because I got up at 4am to hunt 3 days in a row last week??? Or because work needs to come first for a while....).   Part of me just wants to put the hunting gear away and get the trout fishing tackle out of the gear shed.  Decisions, decisions.

I look forward to telling you all the stories of my trip.  The sights, sounds, and smells were rejuvenating...... like friendly visits from ghosts of old memories.  It was good to be back.  Until I get my storytelling (i.e. hunting lies) straight, I'll be sharing some other posts and gear reviews that have been pending for awhile.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Outdoor Blogging Retrospective - All the Cool Kids Are Doing It!

"Yes, of course you're interrupting -
I was just blogging about wildlife management!"
Man, I am seeing an insane number of outdoors blog "annual wrap ups" over the past week.  It's actually really cool.  I'm happy to say "I did it first" (...uhh...maybe?...probably not...) with 2009 and 2010 retrospectives already on file, but unfortunately that doesn't diminish the fact that some other outdoor bloggers, namely the Unaccomplished Angler and Lunker Hunt , have raised the bar on these types of posts with their 2011 write-ups (linked to their names in the line above - go read them!).  And raised the bar far enough that the formats I've used in the past just can't even keep pace.  Hrrmmmph.. model! here's 2011.....

January: End of the 2010-2011 Waterfowl Season:  Another nutty fall migration ended up with smart, old geese hanging around the farm where I hunt, and my possible new hunting spot being burnt up by other idiot guests.  I got smart too, and gave up hunting at both spots for the season, and instead begged for an invite to one of the best goose farms on the eastern shore (one hunt worthy of one two three posts), and also accepted a standing invite to hunt geese and canvasbacks offshore (once twice), less than an hour from home.

February: Loss of an Old Friend: On February 26th, I sat next to my old hunting dog and held his head as the doctor put him to sleep.  I haven't come to terms with it, and it's an enormous weight.  I miss him.  He deserves much more of a tribute than I can bear to write again here, so I'd consider it a favor if you read what serves my obituary or epithet for Roan.  Miss you, buddy.

March-November: Bass Fishing:  I had three main goals for bass fishing this year.  1) extend my season beyond my historic May - October; 2) target smallmouth intentionally, and 3) actively fly cast for largemouth.  I did OK on all three - catching bass steadily (except during spawn) from early March to early November.  Specifically targeted and caught smallmouth (none gigantic).  And I purchased a short 5wt fly rod for bass, and have caught sunfish on it, but no bass...yet.

July-Nov: Trout Fishing:  I hadn't been trout fishing in at least three years, and hadn't caught a big trout (>20") in five years. A weird set of circumstances led me to catch my first trout of the year (a small, wild brown) at a stream restoration site.  An even weirder set of circumstances accidentally led me to a reach of trout water that keeps producing holdover rainbows and holdover/wild browns in the 12-14" range (the trib is no longer stocked). I've got the fever and I plan to fish for trout in January, 2012....even though duck season will still be in.

Sept-Dec: First Half of the 2011-2012 Hunting Season:  Another crazy weather fall, and another absolutely weird fall migration.  Went out for doves and actually killed a few, went bow hunting twice, duck hunting once, and killed a wood duck on the opening day of goose season.   Luckily, the peace, quiet, and scenery have more than made up for the largely pitiful harvest opportunities.

Fitness:  Ugh.  I stunk it up in the "not dying of a heart attack" realm yet again.  I changed jobs in October and made a pact to eat smarter, if not better.  I have, sort of.  I've lost 7 lbs of the 20 I pledged to lose, which is only half of the 40 I needed to lose.  With two jobs, a 2-year old, a wife, and an outdoors obsession, fitness is a priority on only the rarest of occasions.  Plan for 2012? Still working on it.  :(

Outdoor Parenting:  Speaking of "areas for continued growth"...(professional code for "fix this or you're fired,")......Hank is now an atomic toddler.  He is literally unstoppable, except at nap time.  Now, if he would only wear a hat or gloves when it's cold outside.....

I worked really hard to get Hank outside this year, and I did an OK, but not great job of it (my standard is ridiculously high in this department).  It's becoming easier, and way more fun.   Another two years and he'll be joining me on (real) fishing trips.  Another 8 years and he'll be hunting with me.  It's really happening.

Blogging:  Ya know, 2011 was good to River Mud.  We're past 250,000 all-time visitors, approaching 500 posts (182 in 2011), and had a single new post go for 25,000 views this year.  Six different months clipped out at over 10,000 page views, with three of them over 12,000.  I rejected more corporate offers than I accepted, and again survived with no advertising.  I moved more aggressively into informational posting about outdoors stuff, which increased blog readership quite a bit.  I blogged about hunting celebrity Jeff Foiles' legal drama - a new type of writing for me.  This is all good stuff!

2011 was also the year that I developed blogging "sideboards" for the first time - basically, using a list of the most effective and least effective outdoor websites I know of, and a written understanding of what makes them "amazing" or "useless" to help guide my writing, photography, and blog management.  I'm proud of a dozen or more efforts to reach the higher standard.  I'm not proud of two instances in 2011 that more closely mirrored the type of immature activity I see on the "most useless" list.  My list of "least effective" contains a few "loose cannons," so let's not go public with that right now, but my "most effective" include sites as disparate as Mysteries Internal (Erin's a frequent reader here) and Mouthful of Feathers (whose writers do not know this blog exists).

When my blogging hits "the next level" (hint: it involves more professionalism, more travel, and some actual money...stay tuned!!!), perhaps I'll share both lists, with my notes on some of the best and worst outdoor sites around.  Until then....well, there's 2012.  I don't know what it will bring to my life or to River Mud.   But I guarantee you'll read about it here.  Thanks for stopping by - always thrilled to hear from you.

Kirk@ River Mud

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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...