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.

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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...