Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Headed South...Really South

My first week-long vacation of 2014 begins in early 2015.  I'll take it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Next Level Norway Rat Control Part II: Know Your Enemy and His Biology

This is the second part of a three part series.

Part 1 - Introduction
Part 3 - Ultimate Bloodshed!

Norway rats are very smart, very social animals that are successful because of two important principles:  1) they use their highly evolved senses to minimize their risk of being killed, and 2) they have learned how to take advantage of human beings and the places we ignore.  Let's get something out of the way really quick: you will not be "eradicating" Norway Rats from an outdoor location.   Soon after you stop harassing them, they will return.

Another bit of housekeeping:  one of the worst things you can do with your rat problem is to leave open blocks or pellets of poison out in the open for them.   First, the rats will most likely take it and stockpile it.  They may never eat it.  Second, you risk killing other animals that might eat the poison.  Third, and this is true for all poison methods, secondary toxicity to rat predators (when animals eat a poisoned rat) is a real thing.   One of my favorite previously available rat poisons was Ramik Green.  Then one day at the farm supply store, the clerk said, "buy however much you want - the EPA says it kills hawks that eat the rats, so they're banning it starting next month."   I had no idea!

As I mentioned, rats function across time and space in a risk-sensitive manner.   They prefer not to be in the open, slinking along fence lines, under downed logs, and under decks and sidewalks.  Anything to stay away from predators.    Mature, dominant rats rely on sign (rat poop) and the existing trails of juvenile rats to get from place to place.  The trails lead to food sources and back to hiding places.   This behavior pattern has to be disrupted if any trapping, poisoning, or shooting results are expected. How to disrupt their patterns - realistically?

1)  Remove as much of their favorite food supply as often as you possible can.
2) Clean up secondary food sources, like dog poop or trash bags in your own yard.
3) Investigate your hard surfaces.  You'll eventually start seeing all the shit piles left behind by rats, each rat thinking, "If I crap here, everyone will know it's safe AND IT'S MINE."
4) Exclude rats from their favorite hideouts - highly recommend 1/4" galvanized fencing under existing sub-grade holes.  In theory, chicken wire has small enough holes to exclude mature rats.  However, they will bend the metal until it breaks under stress.  Sigh.

This set of actions will confound Norway Rats.  They'll briefly become more wary or "spooky," but ever the adapters, they will settle into new routes and routines after several days.  Only in rare circumstances does the removal of a convenient outdoor food source predict that the rats will abandon their colony.  In almost 20 years of chasing rats, I've never seen it happen, though animal rights "non-lethal control" websites "guarantee" the method.  In reality, once safe burrows have been dug, the rats will simply go farther, less often, for food.   However, it might decrease the colony's size from increasing at its normal (exponential) rate.   And this is where the concept of rat "control" - not total rat elimination - comes in.

Thresholds for rat populations around humans do exist.   Indoors, that threshold is roughly "zero."  "Zero" rats are acceptable within our homes.  This is for cultural, sanitary, and economic reasons.  Something "greater than zero" is the acceptable in our gardens.  Again - food source control may not get you there, especially when your garden is a food source.   Part III of this series will deal in more detail with the concepts of thresholds for rat damage and density.

To summarize basic rat biology for your control plans:

1) Rats are sensitive to changes in their environment.  Including trap placement.
2) Rats use a system of smoothed trails, hideouts, and hidden areas to move between their permanent burrow and their most dependable food source.
3) Rats will hoard, not eat, any loose bait left out for them in their feeding areas.  It smells tasty, but it doesn't smell "quite right," and they know that.
4) Rat exclusion (electric fence, 1/4" galvanized mesh, cement fill, others) is an effective deterrent and management tool for rats' travel patterns.  However, exclusion, in itself, is unlikely to have an impact on local rat densities.
5) Rat management that does not start with open food source control is guaranteed to fail.  Secure the trash and compost.  Pick up the dog and cat poop.  Or stop complaining about rats.

Thanks for tuning in - Part III to drop shortly!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

New Plans for New Places - Nebraska Hunt 2015

I am exhausted.  My wife's exhausted.  We've been that way since before we found out she was pregnant with our son, which was around January 10, 2009 (I was on a hunting/work related trip in Virginia Beach, sitting at my brother's computer, when I read the news via email).   We used to travel to cool places all over the western hemisphere.  Now we travel to reasonable places with affordable lodging and "kid friendly" restaurant.  And I wouldn't trade it....most days.  

I've had standing invites from two friends to come hunt in Nebraska for six years - since just before we found out that The Mayor of Tiny Town was really going to appear.   Finally, in Fall 2015, I have committed to making it happen.   When I told my wife and promised her that the cost wouldn't be exorbitant, of course a few days later one of my two Nebraska buddies announced that he'd taken a promotion in North Dakota.   And one day, I'll get there too.

The simplest thought was just to go on the Nebraska trip - no other guests, no encumbrances.  Instead, I thought about it quite a bit and floated the idea to my two brothers.  Between our busy work and family lives, we only hunt with each other a few times per year.  Both were eventually convinced to join me on the trip and so we're going.  We're really going.

Our first hunting trip out west is actually going to happen.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

2014 Bow Hunt #5 - I Take Naps

As the afternoon snow was still falling, I finally broke free from the office, threw on my blaze orange overalls (it was deer firearm season), and hit the woods.  The wind was blowing like hell and the air right at 32 degrees, so there was no way I was climbing up in the stand.  I was set up quickly, and quickly noticed that the wildlife were subdued by the cold and the snow.  I glassed the valley for deer on the move and found none.  Eventually, my eyes grew heavy and I knocked off for a few minutes, arrow already nocked.

I awoke to the noise of an animal nosing through
the leaves for acorns.  Thinking it was a squirrel, I yanked my head up and startled the spike buck that was standing six yards in front of me, barely uphill.  He saw my head, and let out a weak alarm cry, jumping off into the distance as my head and eyes cleared.

And that was it.  You know, honestly, the nap was well earned, and I'm still not overly eager to punch a buck tag for a spike buck.   At least those are the kinds of things I tell myself.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

What Makes a Successful Hunting or Fishing Blog? Defining Success

Over at the Yak Angler, blogger Chris Payne recently posted an article called, "How to Write a Successful Fishing Blog."   It's full of really good advice under categories like, "Cross Promote," "Have Thick Skin," and "Write on a Schedule."  All of which are solid pointers for success.

But what is success?  I remember chatting with Mike Agneta (Troutrageous) and Owl Jones (currently of Owl Jones Art) around 2010-2011, sharing with them that a goal for my blog (the one you're reading) was for it to help line up other outdoor writing gigs, preferably paying ones.   I assumed that all bloggers wanted that, and was surprised when Mike said, "Ugh, why?" - he writes his blog to amuse himself - that's the goal.   Owl asked something like, "So let me get this straight, the goal is to write a bunch of stuff so you can a bunch more stuff?" Owl's blog at the time had a monetizing goal directly from content and ads.   He's a hilarious writer and he heard around 2005 that blogging could make you a lot of money.  And he has plenty of stories.

The point is that just the three of us similar aged fishing bloggers had completely different ideas of how to judge our blog's "success."  Let me tell you this - your blog will never be successful if you do not define what success is for you.

Success = achieving goals you define during a time period you define, while absorbing only "allowable" losses that you define.  Without that, tips from blogs like Chris Payne's are pretty useless - they each fall under the heading of "stuff I'll maybe do one day."  That's a misuse of the knowledge he shared - those tips are meant to be part to work toward a well-defined goal.  

 I started this blog in 2007 (almost 800 posts ago) after years of prodding by surfing and fishing buddies that I "should write for magazines!"  But the actual reason I started it was because I have had a blessed life full of amazing days in the mountains, the surf, the Carribean, and the prairies, to name a few, and I simply don't remember the details.  I can't.  It's a blessing.  And so, what were once pen-written "trip reports" became blog posts.  I wish I had started it 10 years earlier.   Between my work outdoors and my tendency to spend all or much of my free time outdoors, it was easy to create content - if I followed Chris Payne's advice and simply sat down and wrote it.

Blogs promote what's classically known as essay writing, and over time, I became a decent essayist. Around 2010, I changed my goals (my definition of success) and decided that through various pro staff deals, I could basically subsidize my outdoor habits.  I was sent all kinds of goodies in the mail, would use them, photograph myself using them, and blog about them.   Some turned out to be huge successes (my two posts on my Cooper AT3 tires have generated over 200,000 hits combined), while others didn't (organic pest control).   This required a lot of blog work, which annoyed my wife mightily, and then 2012 came.

Google got to thinking, as Google is wont to do, and they decided that ad revenue from blog domains wasn't significant, and conversely, search engine optimization for paying Google customers was in fact significant.   Suddenly, my posts and photos found themselves on page 4, page 7, and page 15 of various search results.  Monthly unique visits shrunk from nearly 20,000 to just under 3,000 in one month!   Comment responses stopped, and the number of people "liking" my social media pages dropped to near 0.    My immediate thought was that the gear manufacturers would lose interest in me mighty fast.  I was completely right. Around that time, the number of fishing and hunting blogs had exploded.   Some were run by people who could write better than me.  And back to Chris Payne's rules, the death knell was that some of the new blogs were run by folks who could dedicate a whole lot more time and energy to the craft....and are better writers and photographers.  Damn.

So where does that leave me....or you?  As a result of those changes, I decided to continue to use this blog to record my outdoor days, but also to attempt to use it as a trampoline to some new writing challenges.  I now pitch an article to a magazine about once a month.   Like most things in life, I experience 30 failures in a row over 2 months, and then 30 successes in a 12 hour period.  Even more exciting, I'm getting paid to write some of this stuff.  As a result, my writing keeps improving.  An even bigger accomplishment looms - my first novel, started in October 2013, sits at about 55,000 words (150 pages).  It's about 80% complete.   Will it ever see the light of day?  Who knows.  But with any luck, the writing will conclude in the first few months of 2015, and editing will begin.

A finished novel and a paid author.  For me, for 2015, that would make this blog a success.  I'll miss out on the free kayak from the manufacturer, and possibly the Toyota Truck field junket (once again), but that's all okay.

How will you define success?  How fast will you push yourself there?  

That's the question you need to begin with, before you make that first pro staff pitch or convince yourself that your New Zealand trip will pay for itself after the ad revenue comes in from your live blogging.   It's all possible - you just have to the goal in mind before you start.

Also, thanks to Chris Payne for having the stones to throw his idea out there for others (like me) to criticize.  It's easy to poke at others' ideas - far easier than it is to come up with our own.  I also highly recommend Chris' piece "Pro Staff Casualties," as it relates to this discussion of goals and success.

And as easy as it is to write a blog, 99% of web users still create no unique content aside from social media.  If you're doing it, and you enjoy it, keep doing it.  If you choose to make it up as you go along, you'll probably have a lot of fun - it may just be hard to know if you've "succeeded."

"Most of it was choices we never had to choose, the rest of it was luck but now we're out of that too." 
-Lucero, "What are You Willing to Lose?" 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Next Level Norway Rat Trapping - A Method Based on Biogeography, Behavior, and Nutrition, Part I

I'd like to think I'm reverent of animals.  I go out of my way to save bees, snakes, spiders, and other forgotten little critters that find themselves in the wrong place (often, my house) at the wrong time (ever, in my house).  And as much as I love hunting, killing is the second least fun part of hunting - next to gutting the kill.   There's mortality, staring me in the face in its full brutality.    But when it comes to rats, well, to hell with rats.  They can all die.  Today if possible.  Not slowly, because that would be cruel.  Just immediately.

I live in Baltimore, which is one of the most rat-infested cities on earth (current global rank: #3), and certainly within the United States (ranked between #3 and #9 nationally).  "Why" that's the case is a fascinating tale of human history and behavior intertwined with a rodent species (the Norway Rat in particular), and Robert Sullivan's book "Rats" is as good a place to start as any, though its focus is the Norway Rat's invasion of New York City in particular.  Here in Baltimore, we (citizens) punish rats, but we hardly make a dent.  Rats are trapped, poisoned, fenced out, cemented over, and even shot.

The bottom line with Norway Rats is that if they have a reliable food source and a place to burrow or escape the cold, they will exist.  The rats in a habitat can be fully extinguished, but within months, new rats will colonize the area if burrowing habitat and food are present.   From that viewpoint, especially within an urban context where it is impossible to change the critical mass of human behavior (particularly, not picking up dog poop and putting trash out in advance of trash pickup), it is impossible to extirpate rats.  Instead, for purposes of sanity, sanitation, and perhaps being able to safely let your kids in the yard or grow a garden, the objective has to be rat management or abatement.

Placing a few traps or a few poison (bait) blocks is an exercise in futility.  With both approaches, you are virtually certain of accomplishing a few things.

1)  You will kill a few, maybe even several, sub-adult and juvenile rats
2)  You will educate all the other dominant, reproducing rats to your plan
3)  You risk poisoning pets, kids, and other wildlife due to your random bait placement.

Understand that the Norway Rat is a strongly r-selected species, and an invasive species to boot.   I encourage you to look up both of those terms, but suffice to say, it means that biologically speaking, the Rat holds every advantage in battle against you.   It also means that population control efforts will usually produce non-linear results related to scale of effort, and results that (regardless of scale of effort) inevitably decline in success over time.

In the coming posts, I will explain how some fundamental principles of rat biology, biogeography, behavior, and nutrition interact with the urban landscape and human behavior to create an existence that is heavily tilted in favor of the Norway Rat's survival at your expense.  Within those blog posts, I'll also describe how I've used conventional and unconventional methods to intercept rats' needs and behaviors with abatement measures.   Generally, those methods would fall into three categories:

1) strategic removal of food supply
2) exclusion from habitat
3) lethal controls

However, I am going to assume that readers like you, being serious about rat control, have already wholly or strategically removed the rats' food supply if you're serious about rat abatement.  Yes, that includes dog poop, cat food, bird seed, and leftover veggies in the garden.   If you're not ready to control the rats' food supply, you are not ready for the kind of measures, specifically in the lethal controls area, that I'm going to describe for your use.   And in some cases, the food supply may not be yours to eliminate - you only need one uncooperative neighbor to ensure that you'll be doing rat control work for years to come.  Still - my studies, my test methods, and my plan will help you do that with as minimal an effort and as high success as possible.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Freshwater Hook in Salt

I diligently prepare my gear for a trip across 1140 miles.  Truck, train, truck, airboat.  South Florida - a trip I deserve.  Dozens of pin minnow lures are separated from similar sized jerkbaits, all of them thrown in together over a summer of bass fishing.  Dried grass and dead bugs lurk in the corners of each little cubicle in the gear boxes.  "Ship to store" boxes wait for me at a half-dozen locations, full of soft plastics in just the right colors and just the right glitter for South Florida's waters.   The last major piece of gear - a Penn Battle II 5000 reel for my new surf rod (Tsunami Airwave) waits in the front seat of the truck.

I have worked hard this year, and I have missed a lot.  I've not fished or hunted the way I like to, or as much as I like to go.  I've not taken my son fishing as often as he deserved to go.   I didn't take my wife out as often as she deserved.  I shouldered a 1000% increase in my department's budget at work, and with help from my staff, we succeeded.   The success will eventually pay career dividends.  But the cost was the many things that did not happen because I wasn't there to make them happen.

I heard the news today that a new friend and colleague is dying.  He is roughly my age and has led a much healthier and more successful life than I have.  I know him to be purposeful, which in my mind and heart is one of the most important things a human being can be, after being considerate and contemplative - words that also describe him.   He received a sudden and very late notice of the hand he's been given.   The impact in his social circle is significant, and I'm just on the outside.  I didn't have time to get to know him better.  I just didn't feel like I could make the time.  I could and should be better friends with some of his friends, who are devastated and trying to pick up the personal and professional pieces as they fall.   But since I haven't deployed myself into those relationships, they simply don't exist at a deep level.

I sit in my basement in December and I separate freshwater hooks from saltwater hooks.  One splash of mangrove water on the deck of the kayak will render the freshwater hooks useless.  They have to be in their place.  Everything in its place - some guarantee that proper organization will lead to a positive outcome.  It's been only a few months since my friend Brian killed himself.   I hadn't seen Brian in 15 years, or even bothered to try to contact him.  As my old friends become increasingly separate from our old camaraderie and succumb to lifelong mental illness, new friends of the same age are dying from disease.   I never thought that being 40 years old would be like this.  Absolutely untenable separation. Unpredictable death. Repeat.

 It's commendable to ensure that the freshwater hooks are segregated from the saltwater gear, its galvanized and aluminum treble hooks intact and ready.  But it doesn't matter if the freshwater hook isn't ever wetted on the end of a line.  What has been saved? I tend to make good decisions about fishing and hunting when I have a good understanding of how much time I have on a given day.  I wonder if I would make more purposeful decisions about my personal life if I know how much time I'm truly being given - maybe it would matter less what I feel like I deserve.

Tomorrow, I won't be the double-bagged freshwater hook, protected from the forces of nature, hidden away.  Maybe the salty air and water should do its worst.  Time will pass anyway, and a hook worn down with salt is more memorable for its effort and impact than a hook left in the box. See you out there.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bed Rest and Bow Test

"Stay home.  Just....stay home."  It's a poorly kept secret that moderation in the outdoors is not my strong suit.  I try to make as many things fit as possible in the very limited amount of time I have.   The problem, that is if you listen to the "doctors" and their "sound medical advice," is that I'm apparently not 24 years old anymore.   Among other things, apparently that means that when I get sick, I am supposed to take time off to recover.  And who has time for such things?

In all seriousness, I took Thanksgiving week off of work to recover after my pneumonia relapsed last weekend.  I got incredibly tired and weak and the blood work told the tale.  I had taken a few short work days, for sure, and I hadn't hunted or fished since my pneumonia diagnosis (though in the three days between my bronchitis and pneumonia diagnosis, truth be told, I bow hunted twice).

I missed my first goose opener since 2005, and missed the entire November waterfowl season for the first time since 2001.  So here I am.   What to do....what to do....

I decided to test out the Bear Apprentice II I received last summer.  It's a "large youth" bow, perhaps a womens bow as well.  With adjustable pull up to 50lb and a pull of 27" (my draw is 27.5"), I figured I could enjoy it until young Hank gets strong enough to use it in another several years.  And it weighs three pounds.  A three pound compound bow!  Once I have more time with it, I'll be posting a review.

I bundled up, and keeping with doctor's orders, stood in our kitchen doorway (one floor above ground) and took shots at a target block.   I wasn't technically outside.

But the testing had to start somewhere...first shots, bow out of the box:

Just a bit high (aimed at center target)!  A few horizontal and vertical adjustments....

Unfortunately, I was still aiming at the center target....more adjustments....

Well....we got the right-to-left adjustment pretty for more vertical tweaks....

Hooray!  At this point, I'm two inches left of target @ 10 yards. I think the vertical is correct, but my arm was getting a bit tired, so I think my shooting was a touch sloppy.  Two inches wouldn't be a huge deal except that it can make the difference between hitting the shoulder blade of a deer and hitting the lung.  I've closely tuned the bow enough to be afraid of undoing my work with the slip of a wrench.   Guess we'll see...but for now, it's back to the couch.  More bed rest.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Annual Trip Down Pneumonia Lane...

"So tell me, what do you do for asthma treatment?"

"I don't have asthma."

"You've had bronchitis for the past five Novembers, and this is your second go-around with pneumonia in that time.  You have asthma."

That's how last week ended.

One of my first memories of my life was lying in the hospital with pneumonia.  I was five.   I remember how horrible the TV shows (tiny TV mounted near the ceiling) and the food (cheap jello....barf) were.  It was 1979 and those facts haven't changed since.

I've had bronchitis at least once a year since that time, and haven't thought too much of it.  Guess the doctors haven't, either.  I was hospitalized with pneumonia again at age 22 (no insurance).  I nearly had to drop out of grad school the following year (no insurance) when my bronchitis finally beat my pride, and I went and got free antibiotics from the school clinic.  24 was a good run, near the end of which I got real health insurance and promptly got really sick with bronchitis.

Now I'm 40 and being sick for weeks on end seems less noble.  In a thoughtful turn from the standard spousal speech on my health, my wife correctly noted that this continued pattern is doubly related to the outdoors - when I first get sick, I keep going out in the woods and the water, probably compromising any slight possibility of healing myself due to.....whatever defect I have.  Then once I get really sick, I'm out of commission for solid chunks of our fairly long hunting season.  I hadn't really tied those two together.  But here we are.  It's duck season, and it will be 35 and raining tomorrow - perfect weather for ducks.  I won't be out there.

Talk to you all soon, after I schedule something called a Comprehensive Pulmonary Function Test. Can't wait.

Friday, November 14, 2014

2014 Bow Hunt #4: Clean Miss Heartbreak

I hadn't missed a bow shot on a deer in a few years.  Hadn't.  I am conservative with my shots, leaving the absolute minimum variables to chance.   Which is interesting (as I edit this text), because I am more of an aggressive tactician in other parts of my life.

I had the animal I wanted at less than 10 yards.  I was in the shadows of dusk, dressed in black, unseen.  I had time to exhale, inhale, and exhale again.  But the shot was not true.

No blood.  No fur.

This is the heartbreak of the hunt.  When there are no more things to blame, no more uncooperative universal forces in your way, when you've practiced and prepared and are fully paying attention, sometimes you still fail.  

I wanted to close the book on bow hunting this spot for this fall.  I'll return.

Monday, November 10, 2014

2014 Bow Hunt #3: Down to 8 Yards

In urban bow hunting, I'm not sure that luck exists.  Deer exist where they can, using carefully prescribed pathways under heavy cover, usually exotic vines, to slink between food sources, water, and their bedding area.  The paths vary seasonally, but within a hunting season, it remains consistent.

The urban deer highway I've been hunting this fall is one I identified while bowhunting on a sandy blufff on the opposite edge of the swamp last October.   The only "luck" involved is that I'm "lucky" to have access to both sides, privately owned and completely posted.   I keep getting closer.  

During my first hunt this season, I hunted at a pinch point in the swamp but downhill of the deer highway.  Not surprisingly, no deer crossed the pinch point during my hunt, but dozens crossed above me on the slope.  

During my second hunt, I hunted upslope of the highway, but 100+ yards from the pinch point, which gave me an excellent view of a 6-8 point buck crossing the pinch point, right past the first hide I'd used - within 2 yards of it, in fact.  So I moved to the pinch point, at which time the 6-8 point buck started feeding under a white oak 4 yards from the hide I'd been sitting at.   I waited for a clear shot at about 20 yards from my awkward stump hide, and at the exact moment I had that shot lined up, a spike buck walked in front of the larger deer, while the larger one sauntered off, away from me.

During my third hunt, I returned to the same hide above the deer highway, committed to stay there, which I did.  The winds blew in a favorable direction, but at 25+ mph, which I believe kept the deer bedded down.  Around 830am, two does crossed the swamp's pinch point and angled toward me, a small ridge hiding them in the shadows in front of me, less than 60 yards away.   One doe disappeared, while the other came toward me in the shadow of another tree, just 8 yards from my position.  She arrived at the base of the tree, turned, and in one motion, walked back in the shadow of that tree, away from me.  I saw her entire brown flank for less than a second, well within killing distance.  

This is an interesting juncture for me.  As someone who prefers the more social aspects of bird hunting to the solitary focus of deer hunting, my patience for chasing these city deer is beginning to run thin.  Plus, duck season is now in - and goose season will follow in another two weeks.  Statistics are that even in these deer-thick areas, bowhunters are successful less than 25% of the time.  I'm running right up against that statistic, and like many hunters in the same pattern, I feel as if I am a champion deer watcher.  

I have abandoned my very able Fred Bear compound bow for my crossbow - the crossbow does not miss at 20 yards.  Ever.  I am ready to kill a deer, perhaps kill another soon after it, and say good riddance to these animals for another 11 months.   Most dedicated bowhunters have now taken an animal, as the rut started four days ago.  Will I make my fourth trip count?  

We'll know within days. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

An Unusual Freshwater Skunk

I didn't have much time to fish, but I went anyway.  We have had a series of huge storms in 2014, and water quality is worse than usual.  The fish seemed to notice, as I looked for them on a day when the previous two days had seen not only a flash flood, but 39 degree air temperatures.  The warmwater fish might be done, it seems.

I tried everything, to no avail.  I found my thoughts wandering to hunting, and then to work tasks, and eventually packed it up and went back to work.

A few more days on saltwater and some effort towards trout might be about all I have left in me for 2014.  Hoping for some tighter lines in 2015!

Friday, October 31, 2014

2014 Bow Hunt II - The Art of Overthinking It

Having not seen a single deer at my first "genius" bowhunting spot in the swamp (beaver dam crossing), and having listened to an army of them behind and uphill of me during my last hunt,  I crafted up a hide behind a two-trunked poplar tree between two draws, near the top of the hill.

Once again, I hiked in, no lights, no moon.  Unlike my last hunt, I didn't hear a single deer before sunrise.  7am passed.  8am passed.  At almost 9am, I saw my first deer, stepping carefully through the swamp - a healthy 6-point buck.  He got on top of the beaver dam and slowly ambled his way across it, having to hurdle the two logs I hid behind during my last hunt.  I could have killed him with a rock!

Had I been there.

No, I was up at my genius new hideout, so as soon as I saw him crossing the dam, I stalked him down through the woods and finally got to about 40 yards.  Unfortunately, he stayed hidden on my side of the swamp, never providing an open shot, and angled away from me.   I took several deep breaths.   That excitement was worth getting up for, there's no doubt about it.  I was thinking about checking my phone when I heard a deer walking above and behind me - it was the 6 point - rooting around in the leaves about 5 yards downhill from the Genius New Hideout....where I was not sitting.   I was sitting, facing the opposite direction, about 25 yards downhill from the animal.  I slowly turned, and he saw me and flew out of there.  Hmph.

About three minutes later, I heard more hooves moving and thought, "He's coming back! He's coming back!"  Finally, after two years of walking around in these woods, I am noticing that the white oaks grow in nearly a straight/diagonal line across the slope, allowing the deer to check each one as they pass through.  Both the Swamp Log Hideout and the Genius New Hideout are within 5 yards of that trail.  If only I could sit still in one of those locations.

The deer coming into the area looked to be the same size as the 6-point, but I only saw pieces of him.  He stepped behind a big poplar and I could tell he would keep walking.  I shouldered the crossbow and when his head cleared, he was still foraging in the leaves.  Breathe in, breathe out.  18 yards, maybe 20.  So easy.  As I was about to shoot, he raised his head, displaying two 6" 18 month old buck, not the 3 1/2 year old I'd just seen there.   I exhaled, which he heard, and he ran off.  I'm glad I didn't use a buck tag on such a small male.

And that was it - the wind picked up and the deer bedded down completely.  Soon, I plan to hang a stand in that area to allow me to draw a bow or shoulder a crossbow without being worried about what the deer see.  I'll probably also build a more formal ground blind to hunt in a cross wind.

All in all, another great morning.  I think success is coming soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Back to the Woods - 2014 Bow Hunt I

2014 has been a lot of work.  I received a substantial raise right before the new year, and then was promoted in September 2014.   A lot has gone on, and my time outdoors has suffered pretty substantially.   So finally in early October, I got out to bow hunt an area swamp.

As I started down the hill, total darkness, no lights, a deer smelled me and gave out an alarm cry.  I heard them running all over.  I arrived at my pre-destined ground hunting spot a few minutes later, and waited.   The spot was at the end of a beaver dam that deer used to cross the swamp - hiding on the ground between two fallen trees.  There were always tons of tracks in the pre-season, so I figured it would be easy.   Having not hunted the spot in a year, I really had no idea.

Hello, poacher.  Found this while
scouting in July 2013.  Still here in
October 2014.  Guess the guy
hasn't been back. 
The deer were moving heavily on a trail above me, overlooking the swamp.  I heard dozens.  As the sun came up, I didn't see a single deer in the swamp itself, but was entertained by the wood ducks and beavers, all hard at work.  To my flank, three small does were eating white oak acorns.  I had no shot, and one of them was constantly looking right at me.  By 20 minutes after sunrise, the deer had stopped moving.  I never saw a buck, and never saw a large doe.

At one point before dawn, a deer was behind me, sending alarm calls to the deer in front of me.   The deer in front of me also sent out the call.  It was so dark that I couldn't see either of them - they must have smelled me.  I really hate hunting in a tree, but it might be required here.  

At 8:00 I put myself together and went to work.  I learned a lot, and I'll be back.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the Clean Water Act's Birthday, I Remember the King William Reservoir

One of my favorite places on earth - the Mattaponi River in eastern Virginia.
The US EPA gave someone permission to turn it into a 1,500 acre lake.
Photo:  Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Habitat partners everywhere are celebrating the Clean Water Act's birthday publicly.  It's a great thing, and CWA is a great law.   Its application, though, has been a bit inconsistent over the years, a point which is not lost on the apparent majority of conservationists and a large minority of Democrats and liberals regarding the pending New Rule for Waters of the US.   Some of the most environmentally liberal local jurisdictions in the country, in fact, are publicly opposing the pending Rule.

Me?  I  wish it hadn't come to this.  I wish the Migratory Bird Rule was still intact - that the Missouri Coteau had federal protection from draining and from the farming of virgin prairie.  But that's all done now.  EPA failed to negotiate a settlement with a Chicago area sewer authority, and the federal agency was taken behind the woodshed when the case arrived at the US Supreme Court - the Court never even bothered to tackle constitutionality, finding significant statutory flaw in EPA's policy.

KW Reservoir site, from
Virginia Places
But I remember the King William Reservoir.  In the headwaters of the Mattaponi River, a sacred river on which I've paddled and fish most of my life, lie a great many things.  Last known populations of several endangered species.  Pre-Columbian sacred Native American burial grounds.  Current Mattaponi Tribal lands.   And the most lush and productive tidal freshwater beds I have seen in 40 years on this earth.

In those places, many years ago, the City of Newport News proposed to flood - up to 70 feet deep - over 600 acres, then 400 acres, of this special river.   It would have been the single largest loss of wetlands and streams ever permitted by the US EPA.   And the US Army Corps of Engineers happily granted permits for the project, without any objection from EPA (an agency that currently threatens to veto Corps permits for things as trivial as voluntary stream restoration projects).

Unfortunately for the EPA, a local group of stinky hippies called the "Friends of the Mattaponi" joined into a lawsuit with the Mattaponi tribe under the moniker of "Alliance to Save the Mattaponi", and in fact, a federal judge found that the King William Reservoir federal permits were  issued based on "arbitrary and capricious"standards - aka an "abuse of discretion." Specifically, the judge found that the EPA did not exert enough material interest or input in the project to warrant their lack of intervention.  And why would they was just the largest destruction of wetlands ever permitted by the Clean Water Act?! No biggie.  Part of the federal judge's logic was obviously that EPA had vetoed permits for other less destructive reservoir projects in the adjacent county to the south.  Ouch.

So, when the judge's decision came down, clearly the EPA realized the error of its ways, right? No! In fact, they appealed the judge's decision to the federal circuit court!!!!!  EPA felt so strongly that they should be able to allow the largest single destruction of wetlands in CWA history that they appealed it! When asked by reporters about EPA's support of the massively damaging project, their project manager Randy Pomponio said the nearly 1,600 acre bathtub was, "the direction we want these folks to go," when compared to a 1980s concept that was 50% larger.  You read that right, folks.  The largest permitted wetland destruction ever authorized under the Clean Water Act was "the direction (EPA) want(s) these folks to go."   

That's right - the same agency currently begging for a Presidential Rule on expanding its legal authority wanted to fight all the way to the Supreme Court - again (they're currently 2 of 9 for CWA cases, as I mentioned in my last post) - for their right to do whatever they want with whatever water they want.    Luckily and unceremoniously, AG Eric Holder saw to it that EPA's appeal was quietly withdrawn just a few weeks later.   

Until that last sentence, you were probably thinking that this case was in the 1970s, or early 1980s.  But that "Eric Holder" thing....yeah....this federal court decision happened in 2009.

The same federal agency who has never been able to balance the books on the loss of federal wetlands and streams, the same federal agency who is currently begging Congress and the public to approve a massive increase (they tell us conservationists) in federal waters jurisdiction...yeah...those same folks.

In fact, a recent blog article by EPA's Randy Pomponio (the same guy in charge of EPA's work on King William Reservoir just 5 years ago) discusses how badly the New Rule is needed:

The proposed rule ..... is designed to clear the confusion and provide a more definitive explanation.
This is critical because the health of our larger water bodies – our rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the network of streams and wetlands where they begin.  

Well, I'd argue that the health of our larger water bodies is also dependent upon EPA not letting people flood them with 70 vertical feet of water, behind a huge dam. Ironically, EPA's New Rule for Waters of the US won't stop them from going along with another project of this type in another river (or, you  know, allowing coal companies to fill in mountain streams with toxic fill, or letting natural gas companies pump glycols into our groundwater...but I digress). The Clean Water Act didn't deter EPA, in fact, from allowing this behemoth of a project to attempt to destroy this beautiful, sacred place.  If it were not for local activists, this special place on earth would be gone by now, slowly flooding up to its new depth (deep enough for the world's largest cargo ships to float in it!).  But for the mean time, it appears as if the sacred Mattaponi is safe, still teeming with waterfowl, with menhaden and herring, with descendents of the people who arrived here three thousand years ago, with children fishing in boats.  I hope it remains so for my son and for his children.

Sacred tribal lands of the Mattaponi.  Photo: Sacred Land Film Project

Misunderstanding Ecological Engineering

Recently, I was working in the garden with my five year old son.  He craned his neck to look up at the Black Mammoth Sunflower he had planted as a seed four months prior, now past full bloom and developing the characteristic striped, swelling seeds - but many were missing already.  He had picked a peculiar spot in a raised bed, so I did my part and planted a few dozen more sunflower seeds around.  You know, just in case.   "Daddy, why are all the seeds on the ground?"  I explained to him, "Well, buddy, the squirrels have been climbing up the plant and eating them."  He looked at me impetulantly, "But you said the sunflower seeds are for the birds."  

Yeah, he had me.  I responded, "Well, they're for whatever animal gets them first, I guess."  His irritation was sustained and he repeated, "But my sunflower was for birds.  Not other animals."  I then presented him with a choice - to 1) cut and dry the seed head, and toss the dried seeds out for birds in the winter, when they are truly needed, 2) cut down the plant and dry it for burning in the fire pit so "no other animals could get it," or 3) to let it be, knowing that my young son's sole interest in growing that plant (a reasonable, achievable one at that) would be completely unfulfilled. 

He chose to let nature - such as it is in a backyard garden in an 80 year old neighborhood in a city of 700,000 people - take its course.  Days later, all of the seeds were gone, split seed coats littering the garden and sidewalk, along with squirrel, rabbit, and raccoon droppings, and I cut the plant down entirely to begin to make room for winter cover crops.  Goldfinches flitted about the other varieties of sunflowers, but my son's plant did not fulfill what he believed was its highest and best use - providing food  for our local birds.   Our collective choice was to grow out that small sunflower patch this summer, and I weeded the garden to make sure the sunflowers could dominate the area.  That choice was what we refer to as "ecological engineering."  Something lived and something died.

Every weed I pulled signified that I was selecting (or engineering) the potential value of the sunflowers over the potential value of the weeds.  A great example is the extensive number of poison ivy seedlings that I pulled.  For those who are unaware, poison ivy can intake a preposterous amount of carbon dioxide - thriving near highways and urban centers.   The poison ivy berry is very nutritious to wildlife, as well, though the plant is very much a gardener's nuisance to those of us who are allergic to it.   Likewise, the sunflower can thrive in poor soils in urban areas, and is known to uptake high amounts of metals from urban soils - that's a great thing.  And the seeds' value to wildlife is known to even toddlers.   But at the tiny scale of my garden plot, I was subconsciously making the decision that the human-calculated benefits of growing sunflowers outweighed the benefits of growing poison ivy.  Nearby, my neighbors faithfully mow their extensive lawn, ensuring that natural succession of wildflowers, shrubs, and trees never takes place in the footprint of that yard.  Again, that is a decision of assigning value to a piece of space on earth - not only what that space currently is, but what its highest value might be.  At a larger landscape level, we call this the valuation of ecosystem services, and its technical application is ecological engineering - how are those desirable ecosystem processes kept in motion, or placed in motion?  Even a toddler can understand the concept and its relative importance, and I believe that most high school biology students could grasp the broad impacts of these land use decisions on natural systems.

As I drive to work through southeastern Baltimore, I'm confronted with a landscape of pavement interrupted only by thin, stream valley parks.   These valleys, filled in 300 years ago for farming, then utilized as the pathway for sewer lines 100 years ago, and now currently a sluiceway for urban trash, bodies, and illicit sewage discharges, stretch for dozens if not hundreds of miles in Baltimore alone.  In Maryland, parkland trees are sacred, and so herbicide and management are generally not used.  And why would they be? This landscape of Norway Maples, Chinese Money Trees and Japanese Knotweed are "natural" landscapes, are they not? More importantly, the trees, many of them 80-100 years old now, are falling dramatically with each passing winter, as they are overwhelmed by English Ivy, Japanese Kudzu, Japanese Porcelainberry, and all sorts of other invasive plants that destroy existing trees and prevent young trees from growing at all.   They cover the ground, preventing germination of new native trees, and many invasives exude soil toxins to stop germination as well.  In short, the urban forests are dying now. 

The park agencies' absolute failure to protect this thin veil of urban "forest" from complete destruction tends to occur because making the decision over what species to manage or eliminate, at what cost, and toward what end goal, has turned out to be a difficult one.  It's not an easy decision to choose (or engineer) which functions of a highly disturbed ecosystem like an urban valley - or a backyard garden - will be preserved, modified, or eliminated.  However, as the now oft-repeated tale of National Park Service's 12 year delay to make a decision to remove invasive Burmese pythons from the Everglades National Park  shows us clearly, not making a decision about future ecological services of a degrading or degraded habitat is still very much a decision to "engineer" the ecosystem.  Why is this so?

Disequilibrium, a mathematical process documented at many temporal and spatial scales in highly disturbed wildlife habitats, is not a linear process.  In fact, disequilibrium and its partners degradation and entropy may not even be exponential functions, as they tumble out of control toward a dystopian conclusion we've not yet seen in most cases.  Disequilibrium exists because numerous environmental parameters are in decline in the same time and space, while simultaneously, parameters viewed negatively by human society are rising arbitrarily, without controls, and with an unknown end.  Failing to address or engineer this multivariate imbalance is a decision about ecological services, just as much as a decision to somehow intervene in and attempt to "repair" the disequilibrium might be.

Harvested oak forest "healing itself" into a gum thicket
Making a preservationist standpoint that a system in spatio-temporal disequilibrium, dissonance, chaos, or entropy (and those things are not the same) can heal itself is a childish idea not rooted in very basic science.  In urban and suburban systems that have lost up to 90% of their biodiversity, are 50-90% paved, feature water pollution deadly to many animals, and are covered with invasive plants from all over the world, there's no real mechanical or structural framework for anything to "heal itself" using natural forces and a perceived advantage of "time, which doesn't cost anything."  If the disequilibrium were to suddenly move in reverse of its own accord (a mathematical impossibility), to what condition would the urban habitat "heal itself?"  The virgin Chestnut-Oak forests of 1606? Swamps thick with Baldcypress and buttonbush?  Above is a picture of a former oak forest that "healed itself" into a 20-year old thicket of sweetgum trees roughly 30 feet tall and two feet apart.  Hint: it's not the same.  It will never grow back into an oak forest, an oak-hickory forest, or even an oak-pine forest.  This forest - its soil, trees, and hydrology - have fundamentally changed from what once was.

Some recent papers have been published in the environmental science world that decry humans' decisions to make land use decisions in urban habitats because they represent "ecological engineering."  Ironically, one such paper was published in the journal of Ecological Engineering.  These papers state that ongoing efforts to "restore" ecosystems in disturbed areas fall short of restoring pre-European colonization ecologies (of which we have no data), and instead, only restore certain ecological services or functions to these landscapes.   Even worse, these writings claim, the ecosystem functions targeted for restoration are human-valued, such as clean water, fish ecology, and migratory birds.  Can you imagine! The horror! 

We're led to believe in these articles that the alternative - to "leave nature alone," will magically bring back prehistoric ecosystems in prime health.  Of course, there's little to no evidence of that type of passive restoration working.   They say "stop the source of water pollution - that will save the stream downhill!" as human populations swell and as conventional stormwater techniques are only designed to treat the flows and pollutants carried by the smallest measured storms, not damaging hurricanes or nor'easters. 

When did we become afraid of decisions?  When did we become afraid of engineering?  While it's impossible to design our way out of environmental problems we've created without understanding and addressing the cost - that we may, in fact, never fully retrieve what we once had - deciding to preserve a monotypic maple forest with a ditch running through it is an ecological engineering decision.  Soon enough, the maples will fall under the weight of invasive vines, and invasive shrubs and vines underneath will ensure that no new trees grow.   This is ecological engineering.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Blackfish - A Hunting Biologist's View On Captive Whales

I eat meat.  I participate in activities, for work (biological sampling) and fun (hunting and fishing) in which animals inevitably die. Well, sometimes.  I don't like suffering, and I don't enjoy the fact that animals die.  But that moral weight is overcome by the value I personally feel as a result of those activities.   As a wildlife biologist, I understand that the way humans have inhabited the world means a heirarchy of things and of organisms that is not natural, or at least not natural in the way that things were natural when Homo sapiens appeared 130,000 years ago.   Much of what we've destroyed or changed can't be put back exactly the way it was - at any scale.

That being said, the opportunity exists for right and wrong.  I finally watched the shockumentary "Blackfish," knowing full well what the filmmakers intended - to shock audiences into awareness of the strangeness and perhaps immorality of keeping marine mammals, namely whales, in captivity for entertainment (research is a secondary goal).   Keep in mind that I detest the animal rights crowd, and I'm not ashamed to shoot a duck in the face, or a deer right in the heart.

The crux of the plot is that the industry, notably SeaWorld, has engaged in an awful industry of catching wild whales, and then simultaneously willfully ignores the mental and physical health of the whales while placing human employees in undue danger of being mauled or killed, all in the name of entertainment.  I'm not saying that any of that is fact or isn't, but the aim of Blackfish is to demonstrate to the viewers that it's certainly the case.  To be fair, SeaWorld has released a response to Blackfish, and it can be viewed here.

So, let's look at what's real in the film, from a biologist's and hunter's point of view.

1.  Killer whale enclosures appear to be shamefully small and biologically insufficient.  Overcrowding in this scale of captivity seems to lead to what anyone with a biology background would expect - stress, injury, and aggression.  Knowing what I know about habitat needs, I doubt that any entertainment complex could realistically build a habitat "big enough" to healthily and ethically house multiple killer would be dozens or hundreds of acres in size.

2.  Killer whales die younger in captivity.   Allegedly, 70% of captive whales die before age 10.  Since killer whales are k-selected animals, it is unusual to have a high mortality rate early in the projected life span.   I can't speculate why this is so.

3.  Catching killer whales in the wild, for entertainment, is a really dumb idea.  Killer whales are apex predators.  They are long lived, with family bonds and long periods of parental attachment.   I completely understand that domestic reproduction isn't ample to supply the industry with whales.  I just don't care.  Stop catching the stupid whales.  Seriously. But the wild catch continues.  

4.  "Awareness Creates Activism" is a Failed Model for Engagement, and a Poor Excuse for Keeping Whales Captive.   Okay.  When it comes to conservation, awareness is far better than ignorance.  That being said,  awareness has a very insignificant relationship to activism, or what social scientists call "behavior change."   That relationship, small as it is, is described as the first stepping stone.  Crucial, but just a step.
The marine entertainment industry preaches, as they have since I was a boy, that they catch and keep whales to help create "ocean stewards" or some such silliness, out of the public.  Essentially, the model is that you pay $300 to take your family to the ocean theme park. You see the whales do some tricks, and that magically transforms you into a family of people who write their congressmen about whale conservation.  Of course, scientists know different.  Here's a few quick studies, one, two, three.   Creating an engaged steward of anything requires multiple steps or "touches," because people are rarely overwhelmed with passion for a topic in a way that is 1) sustainable and 2) creates long term action by the person.

The film Blackfish only interviews a half dozen people, all but one of whom seem highly opposed to keeping captive orcas.  It's not meant to be a balanced film for documentary purposes, I don't believe.  And there are likely mistakes and inaccuracies throughout the film that only industry insiders would know.  As a hunter and a biologist, I wasn't shocked and upset by the footage of injured whales (and trainers), but I was definitely disturbed by the quotes provided, however out of context, by marine entertainment industry spokespeople, absolutely lying (to cameras and/or microphones) about various issues related to orca captivity and trainer safety.   If there's no controversy - if captive whales are such a simple, good idea, why lie about it?   Coordinating lying efforts (see: NFL) mean only one thing:  someone is afraid of the impact that the truth might have.

I grew up swimming with dolphins, and while the childlike entertainment of a dolphin show is somewhat amusing, I've never felt like dolphin shows were a great use of those animals and their lives. I have pictures of the first one I attended, at the Baltimore Aquarium in 1988.  It basically seemed like the same dolphin show they put on when I took my son to that aquarium (and dolphin show) in 2010.   When we returned to the Aquarium in 2012, we didn't pay for the dolphin show, and we won't pay for it in the future.  Regardless of how many dolphin shows I've seen, and regardless of the fact that I work as a wildlife habitat ecologist for a living, I've never called or written an elected official about dolphin and whale issues.   I didn't publicly protest dolphin-killing tuna fishing when that was an issue in the 1990s.  None of that entertainment, despite my scientific training and conservation ethic, made me do anything about whale and dolphin welfare.   What about people without scientific welfare and a conservation ethic - are they truly better off for seeing a whale show?  Are they now "aware?"  Will they change their conservation/environmental behaviors?  Color me unconvinced.

I haven't taken my son to the circus, because I think how the circus treats animals would reflect (to my son) what I think the acceptable treatment of animals is.   I had been leaning toward, and now feel solid about, keeping that pattern up for future marine mammal shows.  If Hank wants to see whales, I'll save that $300 and use it on a whale watching tour.  I encourage readers to watch Blackfish for what it is - a slanted but heavily fact-based account of things that are being done wrong in our relationship with the earth's remaining killer whales.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Zombie Looks at Five

When my son was a baby, he was so full of energy, I just wished he could talk.  He started talking - seriously talking - at two, but our conversations were short and not substantial...obviously.  At three, he started talking constantly, from the moment he awoke to the minute he fell asleep, but his thoughts were dedicated to Batman, Spiderman, and Iron Man.  At four, he started exploring, taking an interest in fishing and hiking, asking questions like, "What comes after outer space?" and "Why do people make cemeteries?" and asked about words like "genetics" and "gravity" and "architecture."

At five, he is plowing the hard fields.  "Dad, I don't want to die." "Dad, why did my dog have to die?"  He is fascinated by bones, the skeleton of anything and everything, including zombies.  When I told him recently that, "Zombies aren't real.  People can't come back from being dead,"  he simply answered, "Jesus came back.  He was in the cemetery behind the big stone, and then he was back. But I know Jesus isn't a zombie. I learned it in Chapel."

Well played, five year old.

I'm challenged by the Berzerker of five year olds who is constantly pushing his boundaries of what can and cannot be understood - the problem with that being that he doesn't have the life experience to understand it, even if he receives what he believes is a suitable answer to his query.   I taught him the parable of The Good Samaritan and he asked if the characters "were real people."  I explained, well, it was a story that Jesus was an example.  That was followed by an obtuse conversation about "Daddy, what's an example?"  When I zoomed back out and told him that the parable is an example of something that happens every day, he was horrified, and I felt awful. "People are too busy to help every day?"

He somehow engaged me in a conversation about Native Americans, and hung me up with, "Where do they live now?"  I explained forced relocation in as gentle of terms as I could summon.  Of course, he asked "Why don't they come back to their home?" and I told him the truth, "They have nowhere to go, buddy."   Hank munched on his snack (he eats almost nothing), pausing with a full mouth to say, "When I grow up, I will build a thousand of beds in my house and I will make all the food, so the Namericans can have a place to live and some food."

Lest any of you think I am singing the praises of my wonder child, we've had to revisit the "reincarnation" issue repeatedly, particularly after he told his classmates that if their pets die, he can bring them back to life "With My Science."  Of course, such talk is....frowned Christian Preschool.  Because I am a bad parent and possibly a bad person, I reinforced his behavior by letting him watch the "It's Alive!" scene from the 1931 Frankenstein film.

Five will be interesting.   The oldest in his preschool, he'll enter kindergarten in a K-8 private school next year.  He has two girlfriends, one of whom he has already kissed (!!!!).  He's on the small side, but strong and fast enough to be passable at most sports, I think.   All this is a way of saying that it's impossible to predict what he might do in the next year.  Everything he does and learns is so fast and so much farther ahead than he was just days before that it's all we can do to keep up with him.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

First Virginia Sunday Hunt for Deer in 115+ years Initiated....Towns Not Burned Down, Civilians Still Safe, Report to Work on Monday

It was astonishing this morning to watch the feed of the Facebook group "Legalize Virginia Sunday Hunting for All."  I'm not sure anyone actually killed a deer.  All I saw were pictures of tree stands, sunrises, compound bows, crossbows, and long bows.  And the word "Thanks."  Thanks primarily to the group's de facto head Matt O'Brien, but thanks to everyone who called their legislators, wrote emails, kept up to date on slanderous and untrue editorial articles ghost-written by the opposition to a free day in the woods.

What was notable, in addition to the complete lack of police or media reports of conflicts with this army of hunters across the Commonwealth, was the lack of attention paid by our staunch opposition. Several organizations  claimed to be so pointedly concerned about public safety - the safety of all Virginians, they said - that they had to spend thousands of dollars (often, based in government-funded offices like the Virginia Horse Council) warning legislators and the public of this imminent travesty - of skies blackened with arrows, dog walkers whalloped by crossbow bolts, and pedestrians (because uninvited pedestrians always need to be walking across private, posted property at 6:15am, right?) gored by expanding hunting points.

After many years and tens of thousands of dollars spent lobbying against a landowner's right to harvest game on his or her own property on Sunday, these organizations lost.  And they lost loudly, predicting, as one dullard legislator did, volleys of arrows from "powerful enough bows" zinging across property lines throughout the Commonwealth.  So with all this grave concern for other users of private property (why are other people using private property without permission while the owner and his or her family and friends are legally hunting?), surely these organizations took to the airwaves and the internet to warn the collective public about the killer arrows coming from hidden treestands throughout the Commonwealth today.  Right?  Because all of the commotion, the fake newspaper articles written by lobbyists, the complaints from "non-hunters" whose names could never be verified, and the anti-hunters in general, this commotion, it had to be real - coming from a real place of fear.   So, let's see the public warnings that these groups (the unique alliance of anti-hunters, anti-farmers, farm lobbyists, and hound lobbyists...good luck figuring that out) obviously must have been publishing to make sure the quite certain menace of private land Sunday hunting does not injure or maim any person or non-game animal:

Humane Society of Virginia (HSUS - VA) website - news page:  No update on Sunday hunting

HSUS-VA Facebook Page - Recently Deleted before Sunday hunting began

Virginia Farm Bureau website  - news page:  No update on Sunday hunting

Virginia Farm Bureau Facebook Page - No update on Sunday hunting

Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance - news page:  No update on Sunday hunting

Virginia Horse Council -news page:  No update on Sunday hunting

Virginia Horse Council Facebook page - No update on Sunday hunting

Just Say No to Sunday Hunting in Virginia Facebook page - No update on Sunday hunting

Wow.  All the publications, the phone calls, the automatically generated email messages from anti-hunters in other states....all of that combined reflected what these organizations told legislators was a very legitimate fear of public safety, not at all a war of ideas or rights for "who gets to use the woods on Sunday."

And yet, they are silent.  They are silent because they know there is no public menace.  They are silent because they know that bringing their losing issue up again will just invite those who dare to think for themselves to dig up their dire predictions of bloody horror, and compare them to the idyllic peace that was, and is still, Sunday in Virginia.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Writing About Charter Trips

I don't mind charter boats or even head boats.  You just relax and fish.  That's a great thing.  But it's hard to actually sit down and write about the trip, because all of the thought, strategy, and preparation for the fishing trip was done by someone else.   So, what to make of the story?

I've figured out that the story is whatever the conversation was about during the fishing trip.  With so many charter trips focused on work-related networking, though, there's not a lot of stuff worth sharing.

Recently, I was out on such a trip, out of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland on the Semper Fidelis III.  It was great, and there were some notable people onboard from the conservation community.  We put fish in the boat early, and ultimately limited out on rockfish.  We caught a ton of bluefish as well, always rushing in to steal the bait before the rockfish can get around to eating.   All in all, a fun trip, and completed by 2pm.  Live lining spot in the upper Chesapeake Bay...that's pretty much the story!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Plans, Plans, Everywhere Plans

It's been a hard summer to get outdoors in the Mid-Atlantic.  Rain came nearly twice a week through early July, and a near drought has ensued since then.   And I've been busy.  Big plans.  I hope.

For almost a year, I've been writing a novel about people who stay and people who go from a place that's barely on a map.  It's about 70% complete and I hope to finish writing before the holidays this year.  Editing is a different story.  That'll be a serious job.   But I love the place and I am enjoying the act of creating this very real story.

I started working when I was 15, which is 25 years ago.  While I've traveled over much of the western Hemisphere to fish, surf, kayak, and hunt, I've never had the luxury of taking two consecutive weeks off of work to travel.  Recently I booked a two week trip to South Florida for early 2015.   Hoping for some great kayaking, kayak fishing, shoreline fishing, and maybe some surfing and/or hunting as well.  It's guaranteed to be a fun trip.

Photo: Gerald Smith

A while back, I won a trout fishing trip at a Trout Unlimited event.  It's in Connecticut, which doesn't really seem like a trout destination, but I'm going in late October during a trip to NYC.  Should be a neat break from the bustle of the city over that 3-4 day trip.

At that same TU event, I won a kayak fishing trip to Savage Reservoir in extreme western Maryland. Hope to line that up for October as well.  Should be super mellow.

On top of all of that are hopefully some successful waterfowl hunts in Maryland.....

...and hopefully the opportunity to close out the hunting season with a weekend in Virginia's baldcypress swamps, celebrating our victory to gain Sunday hunting in the Commonwealth. 
Photo: Virginia DCR.

Hopefully all these efforts will pay off - I suppose we'll know soon enough.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five Surprises About Portland, Oregon

A typical day in Portland, according to Portlandia
(still from the show)
I was in Portland, Oregon for a week.  It was really pleasant.  I didn't meet a single negative person, at least non-junkie persons.  I caught a single fish, a smallmouth bass,  on the Columbia River. And I got to talk and listen a lot to the various environmental goings-on as they relate to the crappy water that comes off of parking lots and heads to streams.   Here's what was most surprising - things you won't read on tourism websites or watch on Portlandia.

1.  People are outstanding.  Even the panhandlers are polite. If you say something snarky or "east coast funny," the standard response is, "Man, I'm sorry you're dealing with all that negativity.  I try not to dwell in that space.  I truly hope your day gets better, friend."   People aren't overly touchy-feely, as it seems that the entire town is composed of introverts.  But they are really nice people.  The meanest person I met in six days was a really high junkie who just yelled "Heeeeeyyyyyyyy!" at me when I walked past her hangout, in the shadow of a strip club.  For a reality check, I live in Baltimore, where panhandlers will attack you with bricks if you look at them the wrong way or appear to be racist.  But back to the story - in Portland, Oregon, everyone will let you borrow a cigarette.  Everyone will give you directions.  Everyone will tell you that they hope your day gets better, since they can tell you're from the east coast, which they equate with eternal unhappiness.

2.  You already know it has great transit.  Did you know the traffic sucks, though?  Portland has approximately 93 major highway bridges into downtown.  No matter what time of day it is, these bridges (the ones that hold cars) are full of stand-still traffic.   Why?  Where are all these Subarus going?  Why are so many people driving to work at 1pm? Whoops...Eastern time....WAIT...why are all these people driving to work at 10am PACIFIC TIME? Anyway, just take the train.  You can buy a 7-day pass for all transit for $26!  Can you imagine this, east coasters?  $26 is what you  pay in one way tolls between New Jersey and New York City!  Despite the extreme cheapness (i.e. well subsidized) and utility (in several routes, trains come every FOUR minutes!) of Portland transit, ridership is still pretty light, and auto traffic is still pretty bad.

3.  Portland is a train town.  A quick ride into town shows you endless junctions, shop yards, timber yards, cattle yards, and yards for anything else you can put on a train track.   It makes a lot of sense, since Portland is a critical secondary port to Seattle.  It just hadn't occurred to me that freight rail is so important.

4.  Portland is not as close to the great outdoors as one might think.  Many Portland visitor guides sport pictures of Mount Hood (possibly the most scary ass mountain I have ever seen).  Problem is, it's a 90 minute drive just to the lower trails.   Other PR pieces show guys catching fish in the "local" areas of the Columbia River (2-3 hours from Portland) and Deschutes River (3-4 hours from Portland).  That's not local, in east coast terms.  Also unhelpful is that most of the fishing guides are booked up at least a year in advance.  

Now, my high school buddy Rob and I did tour around the Port of Portland, an area where decent outdoor access exists within perhaps a 40 minute drive of downtown.  The scenery of that trip was a bit spoiled by the fact that the area was, I'm told, heavily utilized by the Green River Killer.   In seven days, I didn't meet a Portlandian who was an angler, hunter, or paddler.   And despite the hundreds of tourists and visitors I interacted with, I only met one person who intended to go outdoors during their week in town - he had booked a two hour rafting trip three hours from town.    I tend to think that Portland could use some outdoor access planning and PR.

5.  Portlandians care about where food comes from...but without the east coast attitude you'd get at a locavore bistro in Atlanta, DC, or NYC.  From the absolutely ridiculous burgers and fresh fruit smoothies at Burgerville, to the well-sourced and explained Chinese fare from Seres, it's clear that people care about food.   My friend Rob told me that Oregon state subsidies aggressively target farms in Oregon, Washington, and northern California to make sure the freshest food stays local.    Again, though, Portlandians don't want to hit anyone over the head with it.  They're proud of where their food comes from - and they should be.   It was all amazing...and all without lectures about the industrio-military food production industry complex.

6.  Okay, one more.  The coffee.  Now, beer is amazing in Portland.  Or I should say "beer can be amazing in Portland."  Many Portlandians drink really, really bad beer, which is a shame because some amazing breweries are in town.  Amazing local beers are indeed available on tap at every bar (even hotel bars), but nobody really seems to care all that much.  So, let's call it a wash on the beer culture.

But the coffee.  Oh, the coffee.  Like the beer, or like any town, there's McDonalds.  And there's Denny's.  So I'm sure if you want a cup of coffee that tastes like it was brewed through a sock, you can still get that.  But unlike beer, Portland's coffee status quo was high and consistent everywhere.  Baristas in the hotel lobbies.  High end espresso inside the convention center.   I had awesome coffee every day - coffee that in most cases was roasted locally.   One of the two only establishments in Portland where I saw a line was indeed the famous Stumptown Coffee Roasters.   Oh, the coffee.

There's a lot to see in Portland.  Start with some of these ideas, and you'll be way ahead!  Just don't harsh anybody's mellow.

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