Friday, March 30, 2012

Wake Up, Bass! Part II. Bigger than It Looks!

Nick casting over calm water full of non-hungry fish
After some challenging and partially successful mid-day fishing at Governors Bridge Natural Area, Nick and I skedaddled over to my new spot for the season, Fifty Dollar Lakes.  Access is tough here because the permit costs $50 per three months, in addition to your regular fishing license.  And it's catch and release only.  And they only sell 30 permits per quarter.  And yes, you could try to sneak in, but it's surrounded by fences and no trespassing signs, and the game warden lives in the old caretaker's house on the property.  So there.

It's interesting what money does to public access.  There's less trash.  Less fishing line hanging around.  A perceptible lack of used condoms.  And everyone who can afford a permit tends to be a friendly person.  They'll tell you what they caught, where in the lake, and what lure they used.  Hooray for nice people!  But what such a high access fee also does is excludes a large sector of the public - those who can't afford the permit, or just don't make fishing one local catch-and-release lake a $90 per year priority.  Which certainly makes some sense.

But I bought a permit for the spring months.  May buy one for the fall, too.  This summer, I hope to spend more time chasing striped bass out in the Bay.  We'll see if that happens!  For now, it was just Nick and I on a nice, private public lake outside of Annapolis.

In the roughly one week since I'd fished here, everything had changed.  Small panfish schools were now scattered throughout the shallows.  Bass weren't shallow, but would rise to take lures that were 2-4' below the surface.  I fished some tough structure really tight and had some great strikes but no hookups (maybe that was for the best).  Nick was throwing every fly he could think of, but the bass just weren't moving for him.  Despite the huge number of panfish, none - not even the tiny ones - would rise to take a surface lure or fly.   It was giving Nick a fit, for sure.  I kept changing lures, changing lures, trying to pull a big bass or pickerel out of the cloudy depths.

Finally, I was working the crown of a fallen/dead pine tree with a 2" rapala minnow (about 18" down) when I picked up this guy.  He ran out the drag, hit the air, and just generally put on a great show.  When I picked him up, I could not believe how heavy he was for his size!  He had the trademark "flat head" of a southern largemouth and man, he just felt like a hog!  In the picture below, you can see a 15" or so largemouth, and you can see my hand straining to hold him up - I thought my thumb would break! Easily 3.5lbs 3lbs 2.5lbs!  Imagine my disappointment when I saw how "big" he actually looked on camera:

No! Now, the angle of the photo isn't doing him any favors, but still, it's a small fish for such heavy weight. Maybe if I show it in black and white, it'll look bigger.

Woah! It actually does look bigger!  These lakes are known for heavy metal and PCB contamination so maybe that's it?  Maybe he literally has an iron stomach?  Regardless, he was a heavy fish and I sure worked hard to catch him.  Nick ended up getting blanked again on the fly rod, and I didn't have another single bite after this (luckily Nick managed to catch a dozen fish on the Patuxent a few days later).   We grabbed some fresh seafood and commiserated about work, well, more accurately, the working life.

I don't pretend to be a guide.  I work really hard to get fish for myself, and I haven't learned enough to be a great fishing coach for my son, let alone other least yet.  I was stressed about putting Nick on some fish and really felt bad that he didn't catch anything but it seemed like he was enjoying the change of pace from his usual travels and getting a taste of the South North, well, whatever the Mid-Atlantic is.  The good thing is, he did catch fish on his trip, and the fishing is now heating up.  It's all good.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hank Gets a Fishing Rod, and Other Notes

Playground Boss. February 2012
Toddler Boss is in the house.  Hank never was a wallflower, but as he moves through the Terrible Twos, he's found great joy (and numerous Time Outs) in being bold, friendly, and charge of everybody and everything.

Like most kids, he reaches some developmental milestones early for as age, others "on time," and others..well...take their time to come along.  Hank started speaking "on time" but picked it up very quickly after the intial run-up. From the time he was born, we made a point to speak clearly to him, and to speak to him often, and so he picked up on sentences very quickly.  As his vocabulary keeps increasing, he's been able to say things like, "That's Daddy's fishin' pole" and "Where's my fishin pole?" and most heart-melting of all, "I wanna go fishin with Daddy."

Now keep in mind that Hank does not understand what fishing is.  He just knows that it involves the big bendy poles in the basement that Mommy tells him are "very dangerous,"  and that the big bendy poles go in "Daddy's truck," and "Daddy goes fishin."  Sure, he's seen fishing on TV, and he's even ridden in the backpack with me to fish, and last summer, hucked rocks into the Gunpowder River as I tried to ambush bass (I failed).   But he still fails to grasp it.  But I don't care.

We decided to go out for a bite to eat after work one night and when we were done, I thought it'd be entertaining to take Hank into the big-box sporting goods store right across the parking lot.  I found a section of rods with closed-face reels for kids, and Hank actually did select a 36" red and black Ugly Stik combo.  He was pretty excited about it.  But then, on our way out of the fishing rod area, Hank saw it.  The ultimate rod.  The Spider Man rod.  
"Woah, cool! It's Spiderman!"

The Ugly Stik was unceremoniously dropped on the floor, and the Spider Man rod (Shakespeare, 30" or so) was clenched with the kind of force most often used by "the last soldier out," dangling from the landing gear of a helicopter, while taking hostile fire.

I wasn't thrilled - we typically shy away from "character gear" at our house ( I say that, as I show you pictures of my child wearing an Ewok shirt and holding a Spider Man fishing rod) - but Hank's two minute victory dance / mosh while yelling, "Yay! I go fishin' with Daddy! Yay Spider Man Fishin' Pole!" was really all I needed to hear.  $15 and change and I (we) suddenly owned a Shakespeare Spider Man fishing combo.

I'll be honest.  I don't know when, how, or if Hank will take to fishing. But it was memorable and a lot of fun to go out and enjoy this moment together, as opposed to me just buying the thing for him and bringing it home one day.  I don't even care that it's a closed face reel and that I'll be chunking it up with live bait.  Looking forward to the best fishing days ever!

Gotta toughen up those knees if you're gonna fish my spots!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wake Up, Bass! Part I.

Small fish, big mouth.
Nick recently informed me that his exciting world travels were bringing him to the DC area, and while he spends a lot of time there for work, he's never gotten to fish the region.   I started feeding him some detailed information about our area's rivers and public land (and of course, our fishing pressure and poaching), and at the last minute, I was able to cash out a few overtime hours and join Nick for an afternoon.  He's in the second year of trying to convert his significant light tackle skills into pure fly fishing (for all species of fish), so I really wanted to put him on some fish.

While it's true that the trout were being stocked and the perch were running, all of the successful fishing reports seemed to be coming back from live bait anglers - not exactly my bag or Nick's.  "Lots of luck this morning on largemouth, trolling 20-30' deep with live shiners!!!"  When fishing for food? Definitely.  For catch and release? No thanks. I had started catching bass the week before, and so we figured we'd try that - air temperatures were in the upper 60s and about 15 degrees above normal, which has led to water temperatures in the low 50s - about 8 degrees above normal.

Our first stop was Governors Bridge Natural Area.  I hate to name my fishing spots, but if you read last week's post on GBNA, you know why I'm naming it.  For the first time in 2012, I saw shallow-running bass and sunfish - a welcome sight!   We saw a 15"+ largemouth cruising the lily pads right as we walked in - another great sign.  The fish were incredibly spooky, which is to be expected at a spot that is overrun with poachers.  We set to work with all varieties of ultralight tackle, flies, poppers, inline spinners, minnow lures, tadpole lures, beetle spins, you name it.   We fished for over an hour with no solid hook-ups - I'm spoiled I'm not used to that!  Every cast resulted in a school of panfish following the lure or fly back to the shore - at a safe distance. Nothing seemed to provoke a strong strike.
Fishing snobs should stop reading right now.  It was time to grovel.  I hooked up an Uncle Buck's rubber dragonfly (black with glitter wings, ha ha!!!), and wouldn't ya know, 30 seconds later I had my first bass of the day.  And now, for a big picture of a small fish!!

I usually, but not always, go fishing with a certain quarry in mind (yeah, I just used the word "quarry" in that way, so what?).   When I do, it's always exciting to get my first fish of that species to hand or net - it means I've got 75% of the equation figured out, even if the fish is tiny.  That was the case on this day - largemouth bass were the target - there was no question about that.  I opened my fly box and gave Nick an olive and a blue dragonfly fly (is that the right way to say that?), and went back to work on a sunken tree that crossed a vertical drop from 18 inches to 6 feet or so.  About a minute later? WHAM!

A respectable fish! I was really excited and starting to relax a little bit.  The "game" pattern was to drop the unweighted rubber lure right at the drop off, twitch, and just let it drop, with a twitch every foot on the way down.  Very few casts made it past about 4' or so.   I caught a third, smaller bass a few minutes later (memorialized in this photo), and then landed a fourth.  I'll pause the text here for dramatic effect.

Allow me to introduce you to Heavy D.....

Heavy D (okay, he wasn't even two pounds.....but just go with it) ran out my drag pretty well, and as he wound my line around every structure in the entire lake, I was thankful that I'd just switched out the line on my bass combo (BPS Tourney Special + Shimano Stradic) to 8lb Sufix monofilament, from last year's 6lb Sufix mono.  In the end, I was really satisfied with the fact that I figured it out and caught and released some decent fish - from shoreline, at 1pm, on a sunny day, at a spot frequented by poachers.

Nick? Well, the fishing gods were punishing him for leaving his spinning gear at home.  His flies were chased, harassed, popped at, and oogled by hundreds of fish, but the spooky guys did not want to come to the surface to eat (obviously I had the same issue until I moved to naturally sinking rubber...).  With the sun high in the sky and the air temperatures now topping 70, we decided for a change of venue.   Would Nick's luck change? Would mine?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stop the Poachers at Governors Bridge Natural Area!

I work very hard to keep a modicum of vagueness (not secrecy) about the outdoor places I fish, hunt, surf, and paddle.  Many of them are lesser known "public" spots, so it's not a matter of real secrecy, and in fact, if you believe in "secret spots" along the I-95 corridor, then....well I guess there's nothing I can do for you. Still, I do try to maintain a tiny bit of "mystery" about many of these places, because I'm not the only one who goes there, and for some folks these may be their local spots, and in fact, the only spots they have access to on a regular basis.

Given that disclaimer, I'm outing Governors Bridge Natural Area.  It's a beautiful place - a set of sand and gravel pits reclaimed as aquatic bed wetlands and deep, groundwater-fed pools in the floodplain of the Patuxent River.  The ponds, wetlands, and lakes range from about 1/4 acre to 8 acres in size.  It's an hour from downtown Baltimore, 20 minutes from Annapolis, and about 40 minutes from Washington, DC and it is a beautiful place full of tree frogs, wading birds, waterfowl, bald eagles, and fish -lots of them.  The place is managed by the Prince Georges County Parks and Rec Department as a catch and release property for largemouth bass - anglers are encouraged to take home unlimited numbers of panfish of any size.   As an ecologist, I'm giddy over the fact that a County parks department (anywhere) is using adaptive management via anglers to manipulate the fish population dynamics.  I love it!

So why am I telling you all this?  From my dozen or so visits to the property over the last few years, it seems like a huge percentage of the property's visitors are bass poachers. The exact number? I don't know.  30%, 40%, 50%?   How do I know?  It's the groups of men (with no fishing rods) who will walk onto the lake trail and immediately turn around when they see other visitors.  It's the heaping piles of pond weeds laid up on the banks - a result of poachers seine-netting spawning bass off of their beds each spring.  It's the guys who put everything, including bass, into 5 gallon buckets and then stare at me, daring me to say anything to anybody about it.   In all my visits to Governors Bridge, I've seen one ranger one time.  They (being gender neutral here) drove around the main lake in their truck one time, and then left.

You may ask, how can anglers - including Spanish speaking anglers - know that keeping bass is illegal on this property?  Luckily, the Rec and Parks Department thought of both of those concerns.

When people say, "Education is the answer!" I just chuckle and shake my head.  You pass at least two of these signs at head level on your way to the lake trail.  It tells me two things: 1) a large percentage of visitors to Governors Bridge do not think that laws apply to them, and 2) they perceive their chances of getting caught are very, very low.  And so, they just keep all the bass they want. 

So what can you do?  I want you to go fish at Governors Bridge.  Catch all the bass you can.  Release them.  If you email me, I'll even tell you which lures work best.   It will mean that I probably catch fewer bass the next time I go there.  I don't really care.  But I beg that you also add the following two phone numbers into the contact list on your phone:

Maryland DNR Catch-a-Poacher:   1-800-635-6124

PG County Park Police: 1-301-459-9088 (non-emerg.)

Please go there. Fish.  Have a great time.  And report anyone and everyone who is poaching.  Let's be realistic - the poacher you see probably won't get caught this time.  But a backlog of complaints about poaching on the property is likely to generate more interest by the Parks Police to send a ranger down there more than once per day for 30 minutes (I'm just guessing).  And an increased police presence will certainly make an impact on these poachers, who generally, I'd suspect, do want to spend any more time with law enforcement officials than they absolutely have to.  Please do your part - make those two phone calls!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Uh Oh - Early Algae Bloom on the Little Patuxent

Salad, anyone?
It's here! Green filamentous algae, or string algae, if you prefer. We never had a real winter here in Maryland this winter, so not much died.  Not animals, not plants, and most certainly not the microbes that run thick through our soil and surface water.

Usually, filamentous algae first becomes noticeable in ponds and wetlands in mid-April.  This year? The second week of March.  And it's thick, too. But algae isn't just a plant.  Filamentous algae, strands of one celled plants that receive their energy from the sun and the water simultaneously, are the basis of an entire food web and ecosystem.   However, unlike ecosystems dominated by soil and aquatic fungi or bacteria, an algae-dominated system is a volatile, temporary system that can act unpredictably and have fast-acting, far-ranging impacts.

The algae itself isn't the problem.  Algae, like all plants, inhale CO2 and exhale O2.  That's a good thing.  The problem is that the algae begin to reproduce very rapidly as soon they can sense that excess pollutants are available in the ecosystem.  In the case of stormwater ponds and most of the east coast's rivers and creeks, the algae are often right, as rainstorms bring in lawn and farm fertilizer, livestock manure, wildlife and pet waste, and even septic system effluent.  But as the immediate pollution source (the algae food) is depleted, the algae begin to die.  And that's a problem.

The primary decomposers of filamentous algae are about a dozen species of aerobic bacteria.   The more algae they have to eat, the more oxygen they inhale and the more they reproduce - giving rise to more oxygen-stealing bacteria.  What's left after just a few weeks is often a low oxygen (hypoxic) or unoxygenated (anoxic) zone in a pond, creek or river.  Do you live in a place where every year there's a fish kill sometime in May or June? Well now you know why!  Fish swim into these low oxygen zones, don't know how to get out, and quickly die.  Due to filamentous algae's main growth season (early spring), its die-off often occurs right when fish spawns/migrations are peaking in small, polluted rivers and creeks.  Perfect recipe for fish kills.

This filamentous bloom on the Little Patuxent River is peaking about 6-7 weeks early in 2012.

The white beetle spin is usually killer in early spring.
On this day, it just killed some algae and whatever else
lives on the algae. 
What does this mean for fish survival (as well as fishing) in 2012? I can only guess that the lack of winter kill on several species of algae, bacteria, amoebas, fungi, etc. is going to lead to explosive growths and near-atomic scale die-offs of entire groups of species throughout the water column in many of the east coast's creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds.

At this point it's so warm that I really feel like there's no killing this stuff, no watering it down with nor'easters.  It's going to take its toll.  Will it make the national news? Hard to tell. A few predictions, though:

Fish kills will be above average to record highs.  This has a lot to do with luck and timing at this point.

Beach closures along the interior waterways (Chesapeake Bay tributaries, Delaware Bay tributaries, lakes and ponds) will be at record highs. As soon as this first algae bloom dies, I'd bet that bacteria counts will start to exceed the EPA "safe beach" limits up and down the coast.  Notice I didn't mention ocean beaches - that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

Water clarity will be at or near record lows for the months of March - July (August brings "hurricanes" into the equation, which can tend to muddy up the water a bit).

So hang on to your hats.  And check the water quality report before you go water skiing, swimming, or anything else fun in east coast waters this summer!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why Poachers Still Matter

It's 2012.  We're now almost 15 years removed from the Mid-90s, when public opposition to hunting, trapping, and fishing each reached historic levels.  The face of hunting has changed, partly because of generational shifts, and partly out of necessity.   Hunters face stricter group norms and regulations about handling game, hunting hours and tactics, humane kills, and waste of animals.  Anti-hunters/anglers also face strict and enforceable regulations that protect hunters and anglers from most conflicts in the field, when a legal hunt or fishing outing is underway.  Things are not so bad.  Of course, that's led to a new problem.  I'll jump right into it - the last time you saw someone who was "likely" poaching fish or game, did you call a game warden?

I didn't think you did.  And neither did I.  There were the el Salvadoreans who were illegally seine netting spawning bass off of their beds at a catch and release lake (signs are also in Spanish).  When I saw "some" el Salvadoreans there, they were just pointing out the nests, not netting them.  But I saw all the rotting pond weeds up on the bank from the last netting that someone had done, a few days prior.  I didn't call the warden.  After all, I didn't "know" it was these two guys who were netting.   In the end, I don't know if the wardens found out about any of the poaching that was going on there.

This winter, my brother and his hunting buddy ran into a guy who had killed two pied billed grebes (not a legal game bird) - the hunter thought he had killed two "juvenile black ducks". My brother and his crew just wanted this guy to go away and not come back, and so they let it go.  They figured the birds were already dead, and the game warden was stationed nearly an hour away, and there was no chance this guy was going to hang around that long on the boat ramp.  So the warden still doesn't know that anybody was down there killing grebes - regardless of whether a ticket could be issued to one person on one given day.  What if the guy did come back and he killed more grebes?

In both cases, luckily, anti-angling and anti-hunting groups didn't know these things happened.  But recently, that wasn't the case.  Waterfowl hunter and photographer Charlie Long had been visiting Delaware's Prime Hook NWR to photograph the spring flocks of snow geese.  There is no kill limit on snow geese. USFWS wants us to kill them all.  Or most of them.  And we're not doing a good job.   That being said, USFWS and the state natural resource agencies still expect us to abide by basic protocols to kill snow geese.  You need some type of license, and probably a bunch of stamps.  You need non-toxic shot.  And you need to be in a legal place to hunt.  Prime Hook NWR is not one of those places this year, unfortunately.   And one afternoon, Charlie heard a BOOM.

Standing there, watching an animal die.
According to Charlie, this man had parked next to a Refuge road, walked inbetween a group of photographers, and lit into a flock of snow geese with a Browning A-5 loaded with lead shot.   The man, with a dozen witnesses, stood over a dying goose, not wanting to touch it until it was dead, and he watched several very crippled geese stagger into the hedgerow - no chance to recover them.

Charlie and at least one of the birdwatchers got on the horn to the federal warden, who showed up, arrested this idiot, confiscated the gun, and impounded his vehicle. The man was pretty indignant that he was not breaking any laws, but alas, he's been charged with a dozen or two federal crimes.   What if a birdwatcher had been in a blind in that field? Someone could have been killed!

When stories of this encounter hit the internet (Wildfowl has since published a story about it), the reaction was very interesting.  Local condemnation from other hunters was nearly unanimous.  However, hunters from areas (Mississippi, Arkansas) with fewer anti-hunters had a slightly different take, making statements (to local hunters) like, "you tree huggers are havin' a PETA convention at this ole boy's expense!"; "He shot a couple of sky carp, who cares?"; "You guys wet your panties over this guy killing two snow geese?"

Luckily, the local e-response was quick, "It's not about when the refuge is open to hunting.  It's always closed to parking your truck on a road and just blasting away!"; and "I wonder if he has some sort of mental health issue...or is from Arkansas."; and the classic, "I didn't realize that poaching had so many fans!"   Ah, waterfowlers.  Such jokesters!

The bottom line is this.  Poaching wildlife, whether an endangered butterfly or a bucket full of undersize crabs, lobsters, or bass, is bad for hunters and anglers.   As our numbers continue to fall annually, we simply can't afford to fight P.R. battles that result from such ridiculous behavior.  There aren't enough of us, acting well enough in public, spreading enough good messages, to fight poaching after it happens each time.  So, other than the perceptions of non-hunters and non-anglers (i.e. at least 2/3 of the public), why does it truly matter?

Poaching is a violation of the public trust.  Many of you may bend too far to the right to believe in "the public trust," but I assure you, it exists.  It exists when a non-hunter gives you permission to hunt their land.  When a non-hunter accepts your offer of venison, duck, or goose meat.   They want to believe that you - we - act in a way that is safe, responsible, and ethical.   To lose this trust creates a situation we all fear - one in which hunters are assumed to be outlaws and poachers.  Such was the case (in our part of the country) through much of the 1990s, and I don't want to go back.

Poaching makes hunters look insincere about wildlife conservation because they make hunters look like thieves.   If you ask an average American (the 90% who do not hunt) "why do people carry guns around?," the first answer will always be, "To commit crimes."  Many will then add, "Well, I guess, hunters too."  When poaching is added into the lexicon of the non-hunter, that distinction may very well become blurred.  Trust me on that.  Because of that, I ask you this: the next time you see a poacher, think very carefully about what you will do, and what you should do.  

If we continue to act as the eyes and ears of wildlife law enforcement agencies, as hunter/photographer Charlie Long did in Delaware, there's a great chance that the American public will continue to trust us to be heavily involved in wildlife policy decisions at the state and federal level.   If we, as a community, fail to keep acting as a strong trustee of wildlife resources, you can bet that anti-hunters will try to take our seat at the table.  And the general public might just let them.

Poacher recently busted in Oregon

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Toddler Hiking, v. 2.5

Not much different from doing a
rock "problem" - he's figuring it out
Hank is crazy.  It's that simple.  He is a bustling, busy, outgoing 35" tall blazing star in our otherwise.. .....mehhh.... ....universe.  He is not, in other words, the type of little boy who walks calmly down a prescribed woodland path and will safely duck out of the way of oncoming bikes, runners, park rangers on bikes, or dog walkers.  Regardless, Hank loves to spend time outside.  Just like his Daddy, he will stand and stare out of a glass door, looking at everything happening outside.

But we've made many attempts at "toddler hiking" which have resulted in everything from Hank being hit by an oncoming (toddler's) bike, Hank getting in the river in his non-river clothes, and Hank playing in poison ivy.  In short, it has not gone well.

This presents a serious challenge.  Over the last 10 months or so, we've spent a lot of time at our local nature center's Natural Play Space.  It's about a quarter acre of rocks, stumps, and logs, safely fenced in (mostly).  The place also has several miles of trails through meadows and woods, which Hank appreciates, but can't stay on for more than a few minutes, which means he's off in the ever-present poison ivy.  What makes us keep trying?  Good luck bottling this up inside the walls of a house:
No, the headgear's not the game.  The game is running
blindly into furniture as fast as you can. The basket is
just the uniform for the game. 

So.....outside it is! Now the good people over at blogs like Family Wilds and Backcountry Parenting have like, no problem, ever, getting their small kids to do awesome things like ice climbing and rescuing baby dolphins (okay, I'm exaggerating), so despite their occasional encouragement, I've decided to go my own way on this.

I had to find Hank a place where he could go explore at his own pace, without us legitimately worrying about him getting run over, drowning, breaking a leg, or getting enveloped by poisonous plants or stinging insects.  A tall order anywhere along the I-95 corridor.

But a run down city reservoir in our area, closed for 100 years now, was recently turned over to the County for a little better shot at managing the property.   Much of the wooded property is denuded because the city never bothered to regulate dogs or motorbikes (or heroin users, although their impact on soil stability is less well documented) on the 300-some acres of property.  It's been open for six months now, so I figured I'd take Hank down there.  Maybe he'd be able to have his own space and explore the outdoors his way, and not mine.  Here's how it went:
Very interested in getting to the top - we don't have a lot of hills in our area

More problem solving.  This time, climbing a wall of roots.  I was so proud that he simply wanted to figure it out!

Not afraid.  Glad Mommy wasn't here for this.  Long way down.

This trail was tough.  Hank could hear the gurgling stream 120' below us,
and desperately wanted to fall/bounce down the 45 degree incline to go see it. 

Learning to duck under branches instead of pushing through them, as he tends to do in our back yard

Trying to find a quick ride down the hill
I don't know what the next steps are, or what I might be doing wrong or right, or what the correct answer to "NO Daddy! It's NOT dangewous!" might possibly be.  But spring is here, and maybe by the time the leaves are back off the trees, Blond Ambition II might be interested in staying on a path for more than 30 seconds.  If not, we'll keep going outside anyway.

Monday, March 12, 2012

501st Post, and a Trip to Fifty Dollar Lakes

New spot: deep hole.
Hard structure.
Good current.
Love it.
Hmm. How to tackle this.

The combination of reaching my 500th blog post on River Mud, catching my first (and more!) fish of the year, catching a new species of fish (chain pickerel), and having good luck at a new fishing spot I'd been eyeing up for 5 years is a lot to tackle in one blog post.  Some other outdoor blogs would be prone to writing 5 individual posts, posting them one hour apart, all 3-8 hours after the fishing occurred.  My reaction was the opposite.

Writer's block. 

I guess we'll start with the big one.  500 blog posts - and it doesn't count all the blogging I've done for work over the years, guest posts on the Outdoor Blogger Network or other blogs, nope, none of that.  Other bloggers have achieved that metric in a year or two compared to my 4.5, but I'd like to think that, especially over the last two years, my posting has been a lot more deliberate than writing a post about a facebook post.  Or whatever.  But that's me.  And at the risk of sounding like I take myself seriously (I actually don't), I do enjoy some meaningful content.  Mine or others'.

I have a series of posts coming up here, pursuant to my "goal setting" blogger tips on the Outdoor Blogger Network, that will look at where River Mud started and has ended up, and where I'd like it to go.  It will require me to actually follow some of my own advice, and if you know me in real life , that statement will make you chuckle.  But I ruminated over this whole issue a bit over the last few days and had a totally obvious realization:  this little fishing story is actually what River Mud is all about.  Getting out. Being unconventional outdoors. Making it happen.  Trying your luck.  So here we go.  Here's my first fish of 2012:

He's not a giant but he's a good fish.  He took a #6 Mepps (brown and gold, extra deep) in a spot with a good, deep current.  He was solidly hooked, but only once, and was back in the water after about 30 seconds.   The sun glare and wind were horrible - it felt good to have caught a fish using only my theories about where he should have been.  So let's back up a moment.

This spot is called.....well......I'll call it "Fifty Dollar Lakes."  Fifty Dollar Lakes sits on that fine line of  fishing spots between "the city wants to publicize this as a public resource," and "the city really does not want to have to send more police officers up there, so it's better that nobody knows it's there."  I first "discovered" it by driving by it in 2007 or so, and then looking it up on Google Maps.  The place is surrounded by "no trespassing" and "keep out" signs, plus a healthy dose of chain link fence with razor wire.   I drove around its extensive, forested drainage which basically is like a woody castle - there's no way in that offers someone the deniability of "Oh, I didn't see the no trespassing signs."  In 2010, the park totally closed again (without, of course, impeding the neighbors' access), and in 2011, the City decided to actively advertise their permit system for the park.  In late 2011, I took a new job that includes the long-term habitat management of Fifty Dollar Lakes as an actual work-related consideration, and so in 2012 I bought a permit.  This was my first visit there - just a week after the park opened for the spring.  I was not happy with the conditions that day.

This is what happens when you decide you'd rather be hungry and go fishing at lunch.  The wind blows. Horribly.  In fact, it even swirls (I'm surprised by that fact every spring.....why?).  A brief walk down the banks showed no shallow fish anywhere.  No panfish. No minnows.  Oh, great.  But I put my thinking cap on and quickly figured that the fish were still in their winter holding spots.   To a better angler than myself, this is not a problem.   But me? I hate even thinking about the tedium of chasing bass 30 feet deep.  Not my style.  But in this situation, I knew I had to do something to plumb the unknown depths (without a fish finder or depth finder).

Since everything was really working against me (only a lunchbreak to fish, middle of the day, bad wind, cool air, cool water), I decided to try to anger fish into striking instead of fooling fish into striking.  That proved to be a good attitude, as I ran multiple inline spinners as deep as I could, and got several strong strikes from angry, sleepy bass.  As the winds kept swirling, I had to vacate my new fishing spot - a breached earthen dam with a deep channel and eddy against the remaining structure - and try to get leeward of some trees...or anything.  

For no apparent reason, I picked a quiet corner of an impoundment that was completely muddy.  I don't even know what I was thinking.  On the first cast, I saw a big sign of silver.  Hrmph.  Probably gizzard shad.  But I cast again, giving a slow, twitching retrieve back through the green knuckles of pickerelweed, and SLAM! This happened:

At first I thought it was a redfin pickerel (haven't caught one in several years), but I'm pretty sure now that it's a chain pickerel. I maybe catch 3 grass pickerel and 1 pike per year, so go easy on me!  He was lip-hooked and I released him before he could bite my thumb.   A few casts later, an even bigger pickerel, easily 20", latched on for a second.  At the exact moment I nervously whispered, "Woah, big fish, big fish!" he rolled and rolled and eventually threw the hook.  That was exciting...but fruitless.

So there you have it.  This blog summed up in one post.  Wordy. Fish. New spots.  Taking chances.

Thanks for stopping by - hopefully I have a good run of fishy outings ahead of me. It's almost spring.

Friday, March 9, 2012

First Fish of 2012

First fish of 2012 - and almost the same date as first fish of 2011.
I didn't have enough time to go fishing.

The time of day was all wrong.

Water was brown-green and cloudy.

Wind was blowing at 15-25mph right down the face of the lake.  10" waves.

I was fishing a new spot I'd never even laid eyes on.

And somehow I still caught a few fish.

Hey 2012 - it's on.

More on Monday! 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Let Me Clear My Throat - Complaining Edition

This is bad karma. I know it.  This post was completely written, and I sloppily hit some function keys with my hand and then it was deleted. I'm rewriting it, and am bound to be struck down for doing so.

I rarely (a few times a year over the last five years) use River Mud as a bully pulpit because it's just not my style.  Sometimes, though, I get aggravated.  And I have a few/eight gripes to share, none of which warrant their own blog post.

1. To the loose cannon bloggers:  I am so tired of the overused, ridiculous meme of "here on my blog,  I pull no punches."  First of all, who the hell are you, Dirty Harry or something? Wolverine? No. You're some dude who works a 9-5 gig in an office, probably drives either a Toyota, Subaru, or Jeep, and who happens to have an outdoors blog.  Stop taking your opinion so seriously.

"I pull no punches!" Do you know how dumb that sounds?  Here, I'll tell you.  It sounds like, "This is my blog, and I act like a four year old boy being told he is going to Princess Camp this summer!"

Most precisely, it sounds like, "If you sponsor me or my site, I will most definitely embarrass your brand at some point."

If you write for Fox News or MSNBC, those are all good things.  Otherwise, they are not, and readers are almost always put off by the braggadocio.  So please, don't not pull any punches on my account.

"I have no special skills and have
never seen the places you blog
about.  So hell yeah I'm leaving a
useless and nasty comment!"
2. To the message board/blog bullies:  The statements that follow phrases like, "In my humble opinion," are no more humble than the statements following the phrase, "I mean no disrespect, but..." are respectful.  And, in my humble opinion, they are no more intellectual than a statement that follows the phrase, "I don't want to sound racist, but...."

Of course, this is merely the tip of the "live from my mom's basement couch" aggression, moving well past the, "Only an idiot would do that ...I woulda handled that situation better."  and into the "I do what I want.  Nobody tells me what to do.  You're dumb for having a job that won't let you hunt 300 days per year.   That's why I made the choices I have, like living with my parents, working at Easton Pizza Hut, and driving a Yaris with the spare wheel permanently installed. Signed, Hardcore X-Treem Hunter Deluxe." 

Whatever, dude.  For every one of you who goes away, three more message board bullies show up.  It's unending. But it sure is entertaining!

3. To Hipster Mommy:  Your 1-year old's "favorite band" is not, in fact, "Belle and Sebastian," any more than my 2-year old's "favorite stock analyst" is "Richard Sylla."  If, at age 10 (or 6), your kid loves quality music, I'll celebrate that fact with you.  If, however, she likes the modern equivalent of N*SYNC or NKOTB, I'll be happy to share a drink and a laugh with you.  Let your poor kid find her way, before you get her pre-fitted for custom hipster Ray Bans. She is not you - she is of you.  Definitely expose her to good music......but don't project it on her, as if it is hers.  You know, I started listening to punk rock at age 11. On tapes. It's in my blood forever.  And yet, I'm happy to sing along with my kid to "The Fresh Beat Band." FTW!

My child is soooo gifted,OMG!
Now where's my ambien?
4. To Uber Mommy:  Your 1-year old is not, in fact, "definitely going to skip a grade."  That is a blindingly moronic claim. The world's best child psychologists could in no way predict that claim, and more importantly, they could not predict whether that accomplishment would lead to success and happiness (or even graduation from high school) in a mid-21st century society.  Neither can you.  Stop predicting and enjoy the ride.  Enjoy your child's youth and innocence, rather than trying to push them ahead (4 years before the beginning of kindergarten!!!!) so you can brag about how smart they are.  Celebrate your kid's successes.  Help her understand her failures.  And give her (and yourself) the wisdom that success and failure are sometimes very narrowly separated.

"Hey man, don't tell my kid not to bite.
We're teaching him to learn his own
rules, and not depend on society's
norms like "don't eat poop."  Leave
him alone, he's not a robot, dude!"
5. To Daddy-Too-Cool:  Yeah, my 2 year old kid shares his toys and says "please" and "thanks." Not asking for a reward for that fact.  But for comparison's sake,  your 6 year old is running around acting like "Sloth" from "The Goonies," stealing toys from 2 year olds after pushing them down, and you can't be bothered with it.  Don't give me a tough guy look for stepping in and trying to straighten it out.  Right. I'm the cretin here.

And heads up - none of the mommies at this birthday party are going to sleep with you, as you spend the party lurking in the background, picking at your hipster beard, and acting too cool to chase your kid around.  Your son will be in sports soon.  He'll find out what happens when he pushes around a kid his own size.  You'll have another opportunity to be a good parent then, and I hope you use it wisely.  If not, and you decide to tell me all about it anyway, I might straight up hang you with that stupid scarf.

Clearly superior tactics and quarry,
compared to catching a 20lb steelhead
on a spinning rod
6. To the Fly Fishing Snobs:  How anyone feels about pretentiousness in fly fishing is well-reflected by comments they leave for lesser fly anglers and spin fishermen (me, on both counts). I enjoy fly fishing.  I know lots of people who fly fish who are wonderful people.  But a few of you still think it is 1940 and you are the President of a sportsmans club in Long Island, along with the Rockefellers.  The creme de la creme of sportsmen.

Oh Orvis Jesus, forgive me, you are so far superior to me because we use different types of $200 fishing reels made in the same factory, and made of the same exact materials, nearly identical rods made from the same blanks in the same factory, and nearly identical lures to catch the same fish in the same river.  How can I even sleep at night, faced with such inadequacy in myself?

 Look, now, fly fishing's license to act snotty ran out about 70 years ago. Regardless of the fact that it requires more skill than baitcasting or spin's still just another way to get a  hook in the water.  Love it. Embrace it. By all means.  But don't chastise others for not caring about $200 floating fishing line.

Farm Bureau sees no conflict between
their mission to sustain American
farming and their lobbying to allow
farmers to subdivide and develop
their land at the highest possible
7.  To the Farm Bureau "in some states":  I hope you see the maelstrom coming, you good ol' boys.  You publicly support farmers' right to sell their property to developers, yet lament the resulting conversion of farms to subdivisions.  You also lobby against farmers' rights to sell their property to local government under some terms that you don't like (i.e. to make way for public infrastructure in areas where ALL THE FARMERS ARE SELLING THEIR LAND TO DEVELOPERS), while claiming to be an advocate for farmers' rights to sell to anybody.

You lobby against real estate taxes on farms, yet complain when ample funds for farm conservation (funded by real estate taxes) are not available.  You claim to support voluntary pollution reduction on farms, yet when the opportunity arrives, tell your farmers that enrolling in such voluntary programs is inadvisable and will lead to "government control."  You claim to support landowners' rights, but spend tens of thousands of dollars in lobbying every year to retain blue laws preventing landowners from hunting their own properties on Sundays, even when it is legal and safe in 44 states to do so.

You guys have been winning battles from a long time, so I'm sure you don't see the end coming, and don't care.  I've pulled up a lawnchair to watch the inevitable crash.

Yeah bro, I hunt 40 days a season because I'm willing
to take my commitment and sacrifice to the
next level, bro.  Simple as that. You just got
to make hard choices, bro.

Oh, and my mommy said my three kids
could stay with her for two months.
For free.

That too. 
8. To My Kid-Bearing Friends with Local Parents:  I'm jealous.  There, I said it.  Now on to you.  Please don't complain to the rest of us because your free day care for 4 years isn't available 3 days per year.  Please don't complain because your parents can "only" watch your kids for free for "the first two weeks" of your vacation (who gets a 3 week vacation anymore?). Please don't complain that you "only get two date nights a week" and one of them, one week, got ruined (ruined, I tell you!) because your parents couldn't take your kids (for free, again) one night.  Here's a reality check: most of us have to spend $8K - $12K per year, per kid on day care.  Most of us have to pay a babysitter $50 a night (plus her dinner) if we want to go out with our spouses for dinner and a movie.  Each time.  Yup.  That's what it costs.

So please don't act like a tough guy because you get to go piss around at a mountain cabin for the weekend and ride on a forest road in a Subaru "good thing for the AWD!", with no prior notice or planning, all possible only because your mommy can (and will) watch your toddler who poops on himself every 6 hours.

You are not, in fact, a tough guy (or girl).  You are fortunate to have a wonderful, positive, and local support system.   When you blog or post about your totally gnar-core mountain weekend, I want to read that guy/gal's report - the one who is conscious and thankful of everything they have.....gracious.  Not Capt. X-Treem who happens to have free day care and free babysitters for life, and forgets that poignant detail less than 30 seconds after dropping off his kid with his parents, for free, again, for a week.

Well, thanks for reading my complaints.  Hopefully it'll be another six months before they queue up again! And no, none of this is about you.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The First Fish I Remember - Fishing Timeline Part I

Another fishing blog, Windknots and Tangled Lines, had a writing contest recently and I thought I'd play, since it involves a little stroll down memory lane. However, my own story got a little out of hand, and the challenge ended.  The topic - "my fishing timeline" was a neat one, and I've read several great entries to the challenge, including one that's eerily similar, and yet better written than mine will be.  But I do love a good story.  And I have one for you.

Pretty standard saturday at our house (I kid, I kid)
My memory of all things early childhood, including fishing, is hazy at best.  I grew up in a bustling household of three boys (I'm the oldest), and while our childhood home was bounded by swamp and marsh on two sides, we didn't fish at home. At first.   By the time my youngest brother was about 4, my dad would take all three of us up to the nearest reservoir (4 miles or so from  home), rent a jonboat with oars, buy some minnows and worms, and try to knock loose a few fish here and there.

Given our overall behavior from about 1983 to 1990, that must have been a huge pain in the ass, and I definitely remember it being a debacle almost every time.  Pops, at that time, was definitely not the most proficient angler in that era (by the way, he will read this), but he was particularly patient with us, our snagged lines, lost fish, hungry bellies, and assorted little-boy-antics-in-a-small-boat. "He hit me!" ....need I say more?  One particular memory sticks with me from around age 11, though, from a hot spring afternoon, with just my Dad at our local reservoir - a baldcypress swamp flooded for grain mill operations in the 1800s, and later, for municipal water supply.

Photo: Jeffrey Pippen

Not me, but I had this
exact hair cut, and

numerous equally
ugly surfing shirts
I was having a hard time in general (being the typical hot mess that a fifth grader can be), and particularly frustrated with the day's slow fishing.   We were using my Dad's favorite tackle, which basically meant baitcasters and minnows, or occasionally the odd purple rubber worm in a dirty, funky ziplock bag.  Due to the fact that baldcypress never rots, the place was loaded with sunken woody debris, and it seemed like we spent the majority of our time (as always) retrieving everything from the black watery depths.  I remember wanting to give up after about the 400th piece of nightcrawler was stolen off of my hook

Then, a strike and pull - the kind I now instantly recognize as a perch.  I reeled it in, and it was a big yellow perch, swollen with eggs.  Now, you've gotta realize that Pops will keep and fry any fish that can be caught, more or less.  And yellow perch are high on the list, let me tell you.  But he presented me with a tough choice, saying, "Now Kirk, this is a really good fish, and we can take her home and eat her.  Or you can throw her back, so her babies will live."  It was the first time I ever released an edible fish.
Just like this one!
The moment stuck with me. 25 years later, I almost exclusively practice catch and release fishing, and I've dedicated my career (and much of my personal time) to cleaning up the area's waterways for fish and for people alike. I tell myself that it's (my catch and release antics) a direct result of the pervasive water pollution we have here in the Chesapeake Bay region, but there's something else deep within me, when I catch that 15" crappie or that 14" rainbow trout, that says, "let him go."  And I usually do.

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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...