Monday, December 28, 2015

Parent as Outdoor Icon - Understanding and Managing Kids' Expectations

A tough evening fishing in South Florida
My son has become a rabid young angler.   At six, he's been catching fish for two years and understands more than most American adults about how fish behave and where they live.  That being said, his knots are horrible, his lure selection is questionable (though surprisingly "lucky" at times), and he has the patience of a six year old.  Because he is a six year old.

He fails more than he needs to because he insists on doing everything himself.  But the boy catches fish.  Twice in 2015, he caught fish on days when I caught none.

At some point, his laser focus will move away from fishing, and towards another conquest, hopefully also in the outdoors.  And I'm fine with that.  I love the memories and skills we're building together right now.  But in those memories and special moments, there is a pressure inside of him that I don't understand and that I hope I didn't create.  My child thinks I am a fishing icon, you see.  You may want to cheer, but please don't.  Let me explain why.

My fishing skills are squarely "adequate," something that's been amply documented on this site over the past nine years.  My fishing guide skills are abysmal, but I try really hard, and as a habitat ecologist, I do know a lot of random stuff about critters, so that helps sometimes.   My effectiveness as a teacher?  That's one of those "not enough data points to establish a relationship" kind of things.

What I struggle with is that my boy presses on, as if he has some standard to achieve, which he believes is me.  He believes I am the embodyment of Jose Wejebe, Ernest Hemingway, Bill Dance and Lefty Kreh all in one, and that he needs to achieve that every time we fish.   Of course, I am none of those men, and my son has nothing to aspire to beyond what he's creating for himself.

RIP Crappie Maxx Jr. Reel, 2014-2015.  Cause of death: thrown in sand.
Today we fished a South Florida canal where I have been unsuccessfully targeting trophy-size largemouth bass since 2010.  Hank was trying out his first full size reel (good old Zebco 33) and really struggling with it - his hands are too small.  I was bouncing some new lures, including a Koppers Live Target Bluegill, off of bridge pilings to see if somehow this time I could entice a big fish to bite.   We were both struggling, and Hank reminded me, "It doesn't matter if we catch fish."  I mean, how great is this kid?

But that's when it all went wrong.   I zinged that $12 lure off of a piling and into some lily pads and a small explosion occurred, and the game was on.  After three aerials and about a four minute fight on my light tackle setup, my easily eight pound monster Florida bass broke my 8lb mono line at my feet, escaping with my $12 lure back into the deep black water.  

My emotions went through the usual cycle, though I kept my language in check.  I almost threw my rod in the canal, which would have been expensive, so I'm glad I didn't.   Hank patiently observed my emotional trip around the world, and hung his head and said, "You caught a ginormous fish and I didn't catch anything."  The seemingly important detail that I didn't actually catch the fish didn't phase him.  Despite my massive failure in retrieval style and gear selection, or my failure to ever (EVER) pack a landing net,  my status as Daddy Fishing God clouded the events, displaying that I "basically almost caught a big fish."  It also was lost on Hank that I had been trying to catch such a fish, at that spot, several times a year, for five years, with no luck.   I was the day's winner, making him (inexplicably) the day's loser.   The emotional meltdown that followed was heartbreaking.

I don't know enough about children's minds to know how this reasoning plays out, but it's very tough when I work very hard to make sure that kids who fish with me have the best and most opportunities to hook and land fish.  But when they don't (and especially when my son doesn't) succeed, it's hard to convince them that their adult guide, mentor, or icon doesn't have plenty of those same frustrating days.   I'll be devoting some thought in the next four months to some techniques that might help break this damaging iconography in my son's mind.  

Monday, December 21, 2015

Five Tips for Hunting in the West

I've been traveling west for my career in habitat conservation since the late 1990s, for surfing and fishing since the early 2000s, and more recently, for hunting.   Along the way I've picked up some tips that sure seem to run in common among those pursuits, and I thought I'd share them with you,  wings (mine) still smoldering from a 6 day trip to hunt birds in the Nebraska Sandhills (which I recognize doesn't count as "west" for some of you).

1.  Plan on spending ample amounts of two of these three:  hours planning before the trip, hours planning locally once you arrive, and/or money to pay a person to do both of the former for you.   You know what the American West lacks? I-95.  Yes, there are interstates, but there is nothing on them that you need at 5:30am.  There is no one on them that you can consult about deer movement during the upcoming snowstorm that afternoon.  In a pinch, impromptu resources don't really exist - which is something that draws us west, no?   And true to human nature, I already know that you don't want to spend the time to plan ahead, that you'll be too fired up once you arrive to take entire days to scout, and that you've "already spent too much money."  That leads to what we call a Fustercluck.

2.   Recruit, engage, and trust local talent.  I'm not referring to strippers, although a stripper could be a landowner and that might be money in the bank...other than the money you already gave to the stripper.   To have a successful hunting trip in a relatively alien landscape, you need local knowledge.  A local address to ship ammunition is super helpful as well.   To make sure your trip is successful, especially if you'll only be in an area for a few days before moving on, you need to understand some real grit of the place that's measured in both time and place.    Since everyone reading this is already a master hunter, I'm sure you're scoffing at this suggestion.  So answer me, for the next (new) trip you're planning, what percentage of the corn is cut by the beginning of hunting season?  Will the dirt roads be dusty, or full of ruts and puddles when you arrive?  The landowner who owns three whole sections, who might just give you permission to hunt when you call many other people will have hunted there in the days before your arrival?  In what months can the creek be waded?  In what months is it dry?  Don't you think questions like these are pretty important?  A local guide,  your sister's friend's landlord in the county, or the local priest, pastor, or rabbi of your chosen faith.......all might be pretty key allies for you.   Build these relationships and respect them.

3.  Secure and transport your water supply.    The east coast, certainly I-95 and east, is humid about 9 months per year.   Once you're west of about Kansas City....not so much. Farmers and ranchers in some parts of the west seem to be in a race to determine who can extinguish the region's clean water supply first.   Don't plan on depending on streams, or even a hotel.  Where will you secure a demonstrably safe water supply?   Also plan on keeping your skin, lips, and insides hydrated.  By the time you start to feel dehydrated, it might be too late to make a water run into the next town.  It might even be too late to hike back to the truck.

4.  Prepare to dress and undress several times a day (corollary:  be prepared to repair clothing and gear).   Much of the west is obviously very open country.  For most of us, that means hoofing it across large distances to get in more favorable stalking or hiding cover.  Some days, you will end up needing to change two pairs of socks three times because of their weight or wicking ability.  Layers are so critical to the type of hunting that you'll probably end up doing.    And layering is the only way to dress when your hunt plan is  1) walk 1.3 miles through heavy cover to duck blind, 25 degrees F; 2) sit motionless in duck blind for 3 hours, 40 degrees F; 3) walk a 1.5 mile creek bottom to jump birds from loafing spots, 55 degrees F.

5.  Respect everything and everybody.   If the landowner asks you not to kill the rabbits, just don't.  If the rancher asks you not to flush pheasants next to the beef cattle corral, just don't.   If the hunters from last week rutted up the field, go get some straw and rakes that evening and fix it.  Don't leave a gut pile on a ranch road.  Don't leave a feather pile next to the hunting lodge.  Tip the lousy waitress in the lousy restaurant - you get to leave, she doesn't.   I feel like I'm typing really dumb things that obviously  no one would ever do, except that these things happen every single day.

Also respect everyone by being competent and safe with your weapon.  You know what would ruin hunting for everybody else on Ranch X?  You shooting a guy there because someone wasn't paying attention.

If you follow these tips, you're likely to have a huge hunting success avoid some of the most glaring, painful, expensive errors surrounding hunting in the west.   So many of the details simply aren't universal, like, "Always take or rent a 4WD vehicle!" and "You'll need 1600g of Thinsulate in your boots all day, every day!"  But I think the five tips I've listed above are pretty useful and universal.  Get out there, be safe, and make memories.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Into the West: Nebraska Preview

I've been to Nebraska once before, for work, in 1999.   It wasn't as flat as I imagined it (I was later told that I was thinking of Kansas), but it seemed like every square inch of the beautiful rolling hills was covered in corn.   It made me think about how a person even ends up in Nebraska, but I suppose it is the same reason a southern Virginia boy ends up in Baltimore - because that is where the work was when someone was poor.

The American West is as alien to me as the American South is to so many people on earth.   In both cases, the spaces inbetween grow and grow as you exit so-called civilization and ultimately the inbetween spaces become the landscape entirely.

Robert Penn Warren wrote that "The West is where you go when you get the letter saying, 'Flee. All is discovered.' "

Well, let's see.  Let's see if preparation and anticipation and best intentions add up to something fundamentally different than another winter in the Mid-Atlantic.  Let's see.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

2015 Deer Hunt 4: Lost One the Hard Way

She came into the swamp under my stand, about 35 yards out, right after dawn.  Another 75 degree, breezy November day meant that the bigger bucks and does would stay put in their beds, maybe all day. Rut be damned.   A small deer, probably one and a half years old, she was munching on acorns, and then on clover.    She refused to move.

In past years, I would have never taken the shot.  I wouldn't have had the confidence.  But this year, I practiced this shot, or close to it.  A 30 yard elevated shot.   I waited 30 minutes for her to either go away or move closer.  She did neither.  I considered shooing her off entirely, but then reconsidered that my lease on the property is contingent upon deer removal.  The landowner wants the deer herd reduced - that is his property management goal.  A small, skinny doe fits the bill.

I aimed and I breathed.  I aimed to put the arrow 35 yards down range, and 10 feet downhill from the bottom of my 20 foot tall tree stand.   I aimed to put it in the top of the right lung, to exit the lower left lung. She was a skinny animal, but I was confident.  I released the arrow and it flew beautifully downrange.   But in the breeze, it veered left by about six inches and struck the left lung, exited the left front armpit area, and sticking in the ground.   The doe disappeared into the swamp as I anxiously waited to track her, wondering how much work lay ahead of me.

An hour later, I came down from the stand, walking through the swamp and the adjacent highway right of way, expecting a dead doe.  I didn't find one.   I came back the next day to look again.  No dice.  Now horrified that the animal was limping around, mortally wounded, I didn't know what to do.  Three days later, I returned, hoping to put down a mauled animal in pain, but instead found a dead doe in the swamp.  She had fallen in the water just a few steps from where she was shot, in heavy briars (and a six foot deep hole of water) and likely died within two minutes, if not 30 seconds.

As frustrated as I was about losing the deer (and the meat), I was slightly relieved that the animal only suffered briefly, and that I was doing good work for the landowner's management goals.   I also feel slightly relieved about my shooting.  Had it been a larger deer, the shot would have been even more deadly, and a 220lb deer crashing into the water likely makes more sound than a 90lb doe falling into the water.

I'm still growing as a bowhunter, and I suppose this is one of the rites of passage.  I'm glad it ended as it did, instead of with a wounded animal walking around with an arrow hanging out of it.   But this does mark the second missed shot in two seasons.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Hunting Out West Experiment

A wee bit different from our usual environment
My brothers and I are going to hunt birds in the Nebraska Sandhills.  None of us have ever hunted in the west.  The three of us have never hunted together more than two days in a row.  In other words, what could go wrong?  We're all cautious, as east coast hunters who are used to battling traffic, deep, sucking mud, and briar thickets, but not used to 3 mile walks across cold, blowing sand.

We have the invitation and the guidance of a ranch owner and his dog, which should get us pretty far along.  But it's also hunting long, cold, dry days in an unfamiliar environment.  Here's my attempt to document what I think I need for the trip.  Only time will tell if the gear was the right call.     It won't be primitive hunting, as we have heated accommodations and in fact one heated duck blind out of three blinds on the ranch.  Pheasant and turkey hunts will be long walks through sage and cactus in bitter, windy cold, however.   We are not targeting large game.


  • Beretta Outlander 12ga w/Patternmaster Choke
  • Browning Gold Hunter 20ga w/Briley Waterfowl Choke
  • Bear Apprentice 2 Compound Bow @ 52lb (for turkey)
  • (Brothers)  Remington Sportsman 58 with full choke
  • (Brothers)  Mossberg 935 Autoloader with Solid gold choke


  • Hevi-Shot Non-Tox Pheasant Loads (#5)
  • Hevi-Shot Turkey Loads
  • Hevi-Metal Waterfowl Loads (#3, #4)
  • Gold Tip 3555 Arrow Shafts 
  • Carbon Express 3555 Arrow Shafts
  • Steel Force Sabertooth Broadheads


  • CLP 
  • Frog Lube
  • Multi-tool (TBD)
  • Knife (TBD)
  • Standard shotgun cleaning kit
  • Tru-Ball arrow release


  • LaCrosse Aerohead knee boots
  • Georgia Mud Dog leather/rubber pull-ons

Outer gear:

  • Columbia waterfowl shell
  • Bass Pro wool facemask
  • Camo buff
  • Browning blaze orange wool cap
  • Mountain khakis
  • Oakley tactical gloves
  • Smartwool glove liners
  • Wool glove-mitts


  • Under Armour and EMS components

Base layer:

  • Smartwool light and medium hiking socks
  • Smartwool medium base layer pants
  • Icebreaker light base layer pants
  • Under Armour cold base layer with hood


  • Canon SX710
  • Canon SX600
  • Backup batteries
  • SanDisk Ultra / SanDisk Extreme 32gb cards
  • tripod
  • GoPro 4 (not mine)

Let the experiment begin!  We touch down in the west just four days after rifle season ends for deer and antelope.

Friday, November 20, 2015

When a Simple Tool Will Do

Old Faithful
May God forgive me -  I am guilty of the love of gear.  I was into my thirties before I could even pretend to have good gear, and almost 40 before the term "backup gear" came into my lexicon. The lack of either (good gear or backup gear) made a smarting wound at times - like the time I "fixed" a wobbly spinning reel with a machine screw (15 cents) instead of the factory pin ($18.00), resulting in a sheared machine screw and the catastrophic failure - explosion, really -  of the reel while trying to haul a sting ray to the boat.  Or the time I "fixed" my KMart frame pack by hand-sewing a gash in the bottom of it, only to have the bottom of the pack tear entirely off during a weekend hike on the Appalachian Trail.  Luckily, only my entire water supply was sent bouncing back down the trail, and ultimately, down a cliff.  Good times, good times.

So now at age 41, I - like so many other outdoorsfolk - have basked in the gloriousness that is gear worship.  Let's call it what it is.  I'm not proud of it, but I am proud to have worked hard enough to own stuff that doesn't break down all the time or cause me to have open sores on my body.  Good boots, good knives, and good underwear are among my most praised deities, it would seem.     One interesting gear item has really escaped my worship, though - backpacks.

New and improved version, 13 years later
We hear a lot about the $650 billion outdoor industry; honestly we don't hear enough about it.  But I'm pretty convinced that $350 billion of that industry is in the sale and marketing of GoPro backpacks.   And there are some awesome ones!   But in 2002, about 4 years after my Kmart Pack flamed out hysterically, my mother in law asked me if I'd like a new pack for Christmas.  I pointed her to what passes for a technical pack at LL Bean (her vendor of choice), and on Christmas, I had what I thought was a passable backpack.  It's the ancestor of what's now the LL Bean AT 55 Pack (owners give it 2.7 out of 5.0 stars), which sells for $159.00.  I think mine was cheaper; then again, it was 13 years ago.

I still use this pack several times a year, and recently I somehow was tempted to replace it.  I made an inspection of the pack, only to find that there is nothing wrong with it.  Then I thought of where it's been with me:  Barbados, Costa Rica, Florida, Mexico, Oregon, camping trips in at least 8 states, and road trips to at least 15 other states.  I used it for a recent overnighter in Pennsylvania, and it will be my carry-on bag for an upcoming hunting trip to Nebraska.  And then again for a two week trip to South Florida.   Is this the best bag for all of these uses? Probably not.  But it's been a good piece of gear that refuses to give out.   And it's interesting to think that this might be the last pack of this type I might ever own.  Good on you, LL Bean.

Why choose an expensive tool when a simple tool will do?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why This Sportsman Turned Off NFL Football

Sunday fishing - not really worried about NFL scores.
I represent what was once the key demographic group of the National Football League - a beer drinking 41-year old straight white man who lives within 15 miles of an NFL stadium and within 3 hours of the home stadiums of five other NFL teams.   But every year I seem to watch less, not more pro football.    I doubt that the world's second most popular sports league will miss me - nearly 40% of the earth's adults say they are NFL fans.  But I thought it might be worth noting.  What's changed for me?

First, my life has changed.  I work in what amounts to be a COO position of a small company that grew every year during the recession.  Which is to say that I work a lot.   Around the time I started working in corporate (nonprofit) leadership, we had a son, around whom my world rises and sets.   Many families have kids who spend hours staring at digital screens or the television, and that reality has its pluses and minuses.  But we have grown an active boy who wants to engage us, to play outside, and to be engaged with his friends in active play (outside if possible).   That means when I have free time on Sunday, my son doesn't want to watch football.  At first I resisted, then I recorded games to watch later (after bedtime), and now I don't even bother.

Second, my sensitivities have changed.  Not in the politically correct way, mind you, but in the "Why the hell has the NFL been lying about brain injuries for 20 years?" kind of way.  The "thanks for showing us what you think about young men and their dedication to the sport" kind of way.    I am an "accountability" kind of guy, and the NFL's actions on things like player brain injuries, and other minor issues like employees assaulting women on camera, doesn't seem particularly in line with my values.

Third, fantasy football is possibly the most lame thing in all of 21st century life.  I mean, seriously.  Gambling on the theoretical independent play of players who you electronically "place" on teams together?   "OMG I traded Manning this week!"  I mean...seriously.  You sound like 11 year olds trading baseball cards (arguably more productive).   You know what would be even *more* fun? Going outside to play actual football!  And to the question, "But what would we talk about at work on monday?"  I don't could talk about work.  As a former boss once said during our staff meeting, "What exact billing code are you guys using for the work hours you spend on fantasy football?"

There are other, less important factors, such as the idea that a non-profit director (Roger Goodell) can make $44 million as a base salary.  For anything other than football, I would never support a non-profit with such a pay scale.  So I don't think football deserves a pass.  Notable: under scrutiny on the topic, the NFL voluntarily surrendered their tax-exempt status six months ago.  Way to go, guys.  

So I think I'll keep going outside on Sundays, and spending Mondays at the office talking about something else.  I know the NFL doesn't miss me, and as time goes on, the feeling is mutual.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

2015 Bow Hunt #3 - Getting Closer

I was ready for this hunt, two days before the hunt.  I am happy how I've grown (as an adult, really) to be able to calmly and confidently get out the door in the middle of the night, knowing that I'm prepared and that I usually didn't forget anything.  Full disclosure, though - I forgot my gun on a goose hunt last year.  True story.

But I digress.  Despite a big moon, it was as dark as it could be in the woods and I was frustrated by how many times I had to turn my headlamp on.   As always, I heard some deer move as I was getting to the stand.  Within a few minutes I was in my place, bow hanging beside me in the dark.   No big deal.  Very dark, about 45 degrees.

A doe came up the ravine below my stand and was softly bleating.  No other deer responded and I never saw her, but she was there.  All the leaves are still on the trees, which doesn't help matters.  Around 30 minutes after sunrise - roughly the time I had a deer under my stand during my first hunt this year - a 4 point buck came up the ravine, I suppose trying to find that doe.  He was off to the hard right of my tree stand and under heavy cover, including downed trees; I never felt like I had a clear, confident shot at 25 yards.  

Again, taking a cue from other situations in adulthood, I stayed cool and about 20 minutes later, he reappeared to my left - where all my best shooting lanes exist.  Time was getting on in the morning, now about 8:30am.  I hoped he would swing down the hill to the network of deer trails near my stand, but he kept  his distance at about 50-60 yards on the ridge, and slowly worked away from me.

I stayed in the stand until about 9:15am and had to go to work.  Not surprisingly, on the walk out of the woods, I encountered the 4 point buck, who was lazily working his way back to my position.  He bounded out of there pretty quickly.  Then on the drive out of the property, I saw Big Boy again - a handlebar-racked 9 or 10 point buck who I last saw under a pine tree on a rainy day in September.  He saw me and lept off, right up the trail to my tree stand.

Next time, I'll stay a little later in the tree stand. Cancel my 9:00 appointments!

Friday, October 16, 2015

I Got A New Bow, I Got the Old Weather

Packing my favorite compound bow up to be transported out to the Nebraska Sandhills (more on that to come - trust me!), I was faced with an important choice.   Although I've bow hunted for almost 15 years, I just fell in love with it last year, and I prepared well this past summer to have a successful bow season this year.  So, what to do?

Those who know me can guess.   I found a $500 bow on sale for $150 (used) and bought it.  The new bow, awkwardly purchased at the beginning of hunting season (always a bad idea), is ill fitting at 29.5" (my draw is barely 27") and 74lb (I prefer a comfy 52lb or so).   It routinely passes 29" carbon arrows right through my target block.  And amazingly,  it shoots straight.

I set out about 15 minutes late in the morning, the temperature already an aggravating 64 degrees.  A cold front was predicted to roll through around 9am, and I hoped that the cloud cover was already in place, above the warm fog on the ground.

I made it into the tree without incident and settled in for the morning.  Acorns dropped like stones.  As the sun rose, I thought "well, that sky seems a little blue," and it was.  A beautiful blue sky was revealed a few minutes later, and the woods came alive with blue jays, wood ducks, and squirrels, all staking claim on this year's heavy acorn crop.   But no deer - surprising for this forest.

The temperature rose to an eye-rolling 70 degrees before the clouds arrived and the wind blew a bit, dropping the temperature back to about 62 degrees.  And that was it.  By the time I climbed out of the tree at 9:40am, the temperature was on its way back up to 76 degrees.  The deer never moved, and why would they? Warm skies and food falling all around them.   But I'm happy with how I've hunted so far, and I think things will turn my way soon.

Monday, September 28, 2015

First Bow Hunt in the Books

Since I started using a compound bow that actually fits me (15 months ago), I've come to enjoy archery more than I have in my entire life.  Not surprisingly, that parlayed into practicing archery two months before archery season (never done that) and getting in a tree within the first 10 days of our very early bow season in Maryland (never done that).   Since I'd been so jazzed up that I'd also gotten my tree stand sufficiently ready in the weeks prior to archery season (rarely did that), getting up, and through the woods to my stand at 5:45am wasn't a big deal at all.

It was a warm morning, about 63 degrees, and I wondered if the deer would move at all.  At least two deer scattered from their beds near my tree stand, and I scampered up into the darkness, leaving most of my gear on the ground, ropes dangling from my harness to ensure a safe gear pickup once I was clipped to the tree and seated in the stand.   Once I was set up in the dark, another deer let loose an alarm call, which is a common occurrence on this piece of property.

As the sun rose, I saw the bounty of acorns all around me and wondered if it would help or hurt.  Long story made short - it doesn't help on a day when the air temperature is at 63 and rapidly headed toward 70.  100 yards behind me in the swamp, I saw a doe and her two fawns.  They never moved closer.  Around 30 minutes after sunrise, a buck came from behind me and feasted on acorns right below the stand, paying me no mind.

End of the hunt, safely on the ground.
I became excited as I strained through the branches in the understory to see how big he was.  Three points on the right side! points on the left.  I debated - and am still debating - what the right course of action was, as I let him circle my tree for 10 minutes.  On the one hand, this forest has several much larger bucks, some of whom I've spotted less than 50 yards from my tree stand (not while hunting, of course!), and so using a precious buck tag (1 of my 2) on this animal didn't seem wise.   On the other hand, as I watched this deer spend almost 20 minutes inside of the 20 yard mark from my stand, would I be doing the herd a favor by eliminating this kooky animal?

In the end, I let him walk.  Unlike past years, my dedication toward summer practice made me feel pretty confident that I could have killed that animal multiple times - I don't feel that it is a mystery at all.

I didn't see another deer in the next 90 minutes, and decided to lower my gear down, unclip myself from the tree, and mozy down the ladder (still tied into a harness loosely around the tree and ladder, of course).   It was great to have a well planned hunt also executed well, without incident or mistake.  Hope I can parlay that into the next hunt and hopefully a successful harvest!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

One hour, One fish

I hate not catching fish.  Well, worse.  I detest not catching fish.   At my best, I am a negotiator and at my worst, I am a compromiser.  On the water, that means after just a few lame casts with a big bait, I start downsizing from 6" senkos to 3" craws; from 4" broken body jerk baits to 2" pin minnows.   Not surprisingly, the result is that I catch a whole lot of 8"-12" largemouth and 6"-10" sunfish.   And a lot of mornings, I'm fine with that.

Until the minute where I see a five pound bass cruising among the floating woody debris, deftly throw a 1" Yo-Zuri four feet in front of it, and watch a 5" bass swim past the monster bass, swallowing the lure.  

At the fishing spot down the street from my office, the bass population is pretty standard for a beaver pond:  3 huge fish exist but are nearly impossible to catch.  Nearly endless supplies of 8-12" bass lay throughout the pond, awaiting a good excuse to swallow a lure.   Some biologists say this is representative of a healthy pond; others disagree.  But man, I'd like to catch one of those big fish.  Just once.

The changing weather has brought a rapid change in fish patterns.  Three days ago, my buddy Mike landed a 4.2lb bass in a pond fishing contest, earning him 2nd place honors.   He used a 6" senko and I thought, "damnit, I need to get after those big fish."  I got to the spot around 8am under cloudy skies.  I had one hour.  I started with a watermelon red flake senko which got some chases but no hits.  I downsized to an orange/purple claw which brought me some success.  After catching a 5", 8", 10", and 12" bass, I remembered why I had come there.  I tied on a new lure, a Berkley Havoc Flat Dawg (white) straight to my hook.  No jig, no weights, nothing.

I threw it as far as I could and watched it dance just below the surface of the muddy beaver pond water.  I cursed myself for forgetting my sunglasses as the sun tried to peak out from the clouds.  The lure disappeared.   The lure went deep.

I worked hard for the next three minutes, applying every hard-earned lesson from bass fishing I've learned.  Only let the drag peel where the water is open.  Kill the drag when he moves toward sunken wood.  Pick the fish up before his head comes out of the water.  I got my fish.  It set the tone for my week and I can't wait to fish the pond again, even if it isn't until next spring.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Prepping for Fall Archery Season: 5 Critical Steps

Are you one of those hunters who just rolls into September archery season - grabbing your bow off the wall the morning of your first hunt, and *maybe* washing a pair of jeans in scent-free detergent the night before?

Me too!

Well, usually.  Since my wife was pregnant with our son in the summer of 2009, I have blown off really important parts of preparing for the surprisingly taxing conditions and demands of September and October hunting.   This summer I tried a different plan, picking up the bow in July and working with it at least weekly, getting my clothing worked out (and separated) a week before the season, and getting my stands, blinds, and shootings lanes prepared far in advance of the September 11 opener.  Here's a few tips for getting ready - now's the time to start!

1.  Get legal!  Go ahead and knock out licenses, permits, and landowner permission.  Don't bait (and remove bait now) if it's not allowed.  If you need to post the property, paint stripes on trees, etc., now is the time to do that.

2.  Check your climbing harness.  See anything disturbing? Rusty? Chewed up?  This is the time to fix it, not after work, the night before your first hunt.  You know, that routine when you stop by your favorite sporting goods store....and nothing's in stock.  For example, I took advantage of a coupon to Eastern Mountain Sports and changed out my rusty carabiners for high-end rock climbing 'biners last month.  Now it's done, with an entire week to spare!

3.  Check your weapon.  All the parts present?  Bow string dry rotted? Peep sight crumbling?  Best way to determine any of this stuff is to shoot.  A lot.  Again, the night before your first hunt is not the time to be shopping for a new bow string, and we all know someone who has done just that.   In 6 weeks of practice shooting, I've learned a bunch about my now 14-month old primary bow.  I learned that $4 arrow shafts shoot as straight as $10 arrow shafts.  I've learned to take the extra 15 seconds to dig out my release, because one day while target shooting "for a few minutes", my fingers slipped, the arrow flew, and thank God nothing horrible happened with a loose arrow off-target downrange.  Most importantly (see arrow above), I learned that I have really, strongly sighted in my bow at 10 and 20 yards.  Hallelujah.

4.  Check your tree stand.  I left my two tree stands out in the weather over the last year.  Just never got around to pulling them down.  To give myself a little credit, I have no space to store them at home over the summer.  So they are rusty, loose from the tree, etc.   One stand earned another two ratchet straps and two standard straps. Another stand feels clunky to transition from ladder to stand, so I ordered a second tree strap which I'll leave above the stand.  This will allow me to quickly transition (using my new carabiner) from the strap around the ladder, to a strap around the stand, roughly 4 feet higher.   The $17 change will reduce the time I'm unsecured, 33 feet up in a tree, from roughly 40 seconds to about 6 seconds.

5.  Stash your clothes.   Get a bin.  Fill the bin with your clothes that have been washed with scent-free detergent.  Close the bin.  If you feel it necessary, add a "fresh earth" or "white oak acorn" disc from Hunters Specialties based on what's more appropriate in your hunting area.  If you don't have $11 for a storage bin, a 75 cent *unscented* trash bag will do just fine.

Here on the coast, September can be a time of swatting mosquitoes in the tree stand and wondering how hurricane winds might affect deer movement.   Waiting for the cool days of October is an art of patience, but one that might also be rewarded with a September deer harvest.  Good luck - be safe!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Fishing a Fish Passage Site on Maryland's Eastern Shore

I don't suppose that most of our federal biologists and engineers are great oddsmakers.  They are generally competent, generally well-meaning, but speak with the protection (and osbstructionism) of the labyrinthine agencies that employ them.   Those who like to do a lot of extra work are eventually instructed not to do so.  Those who don't do a lot of work aren't told much of anything.

Some of our conservation partners tried for over a decade to convince federal and state biologists and engineers that if a dam, in place since 1775, was removed and replaced with an expensive series of step pools (called a regenerative stream conveyance), that all kinds of environmental benefits would be likely - including the passage of migratory fish, several of which are species of federal concern (called "federal trust species").   But, being a risk averse bunch, los federales didn't budge for quite awhile, arguing that the project might actually be worse than the current dam (???).  Now, let's be clear that the project partners weren't seeking financial or construction assistance from the regulators - just permits to do the construction.

At any rate, the project was constructed in 2014.  I've enjoyed catching fish there this year that have successfully migrated up from the lower river, past the step pool project, and into the headwaters of the river for the first time since 1775.  Alewife, eels, and white perch are the notable newcomes.  Sometimes it's nice to be right.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

5 Reasons to Not Buy A Shotgun Right Before Hunting Season

I know, I know.  You were walking to work and a dry, red leaf landed in front of you.  There was that one cool evening two weeks ago where you could smell the dirt.   You are seeing deer or ducks or doves on the drive home at night.

And your first thought, like mine, is "I don't believe I've been putting off buying that new gun!  I need to buy it now, before the season starts!"

But no, you don't, and here are the basic reasons why:

1) You won't read the manual.   I make a habit of thumbing through the safety provisions of the manual, and that's it.......until something breaks.  But I have to say, the two times I bought guns right before hunting season, I never had time to read the manual.   After all, we're discussing a deadly weapon that came in a box.  Read the damn manual.

2) You won't adequately test fire it before taking it afield.  Hell, you *might* get out to test fire at the range once or twice, which is not really adequate to break in a new firearm, let alone get used to its quirks.  I bought my last 12 gauge in August, several years ago, and it started cycling correctly after opening day on the second hunting season I owned it.  The misfires prior to that were pretty embarrassing.   None of these even includes the issue of testing/calibrating optics.

3)  It will let you down in extreme conditions as a result of #2 above.  What happens to that scope if it gets dunked in water?  What happens to the action of that shotgun when it's 11 degrees outside?

4) You won't have enough time to test ammo.  And putting the hammer down on a turkey at 45 yards or a pronghorn at 230 yards is not the time to find out that your new gun "doesn't like" the best ammo on the market, especially if you're deep in wild game country.  What's that one slogan, "I didn't come this far to miss."  No you did not.   You have all next summer to test different loads.

5) The price is not right.  August - November is the period of the year when gun dealers know they can get the price they want on hunting firearms.   Some black friday deals exist, and more exist after Christmas, when last year's guns need to be sold to make room for the new year models.

I can say all this without remorse, yet I myself am considering a Beretta Outlander or a Franchi Affinity for the late duck season.   Either would likely be more trouble than it's worth, but I've been putting the purchase off for two years.  Will I heed my own advise and wait until January?  I guess we'll have to see.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Boy's Last Weekend Before Kindergarten

"Why are all my friends going to different schools next week?"

Our son has been attending the same preschool for 3 years, and today, he leaves it for our community's K-8 Catholic school.  Due to the complete and utter disaster that is Baltimore's public school system, all of his preschool friends and neighborhood friends are headed to several other "big sounding" schools.....not those we're accustomed to, with generic names like "North Landing" and "South River" and "Northwestern" and "Central Elementary."  

No, these kids who all live within a few miles of each other, area headed to schools with names like Immaculate Conception,  Bryn Mawr School for Girls, St. Paul's, St. Pius, Saint Francis, St. Joseph's, Immaculate Heart of Mary, and others.  The majority of these independent school systems have single-sex high schools, so the likelihood of being in class together again as teenagers is fairly low as well. So, a big change comes today in our son's life.  New friends.  New teachers.  A transition from Episcopal school to Catholic school.   It will be wonderful, but it will be different. 

We decided to let Little Man choose his activities for the weekend.  It went about as you might expect:

Friday night:  neighborhood block party with neighborhood friends

Saturday afternoon:  bouldering at our local rock climbing gym.

Saturday night:  dinner (bar with a playground) with preschool friends

Sunday morning:  brunch with preschool friends

Sunday afternoon:  Belay class at the rock climbing gym, followed by more bouldering

Late sunday afternoon:  Archery practice with Dad. 

Sunday evening:  Pizza dinner in his tree house, followed by soccer practice and earthworm hunting with Dad. 

Sunday night:  Watched Charlotte's Web with Mom. 

New chapter...incoming!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Does Nature Valley's "Rediscover Nature" Campaign Let Parents Off the Hook?

Recently, Nature Valley launched a pretty compelling ad campaign called "Rediscover Nature." The first ad of the campaign is called "3 Generations" (view, above) and purportedly asks families including Baby Boomers, Gen X'ers, and young children "What did you do for fun when you were a kid?" or "What do you do for fun?"
The results were typical - perhaps stereotypical: Boomers reported blueberry picking and long stringers of fish; X-ers reported cul-de-sac tag and baseball games played on the neighborhood's last vacant lot, and today's kids report, "phone," "Tablet," "video games," and absolutely nothing else. For extra emotional effect, Gen X parents watch their kids' responses - on a tablet of course - and start to cry when the kids spout of their usually kid-tastic nonsense of, "When I'm doing (insert name of fun activity," it's like I don't even have a family! It's great!") Of course, millions of kids have said that about baseball and fishing, have they not? Now, "3 Generations" is an ad and not a documentary, so many sins can be forgiven, but viewers (and the featured parents) are led to believe that the technology is at fault for these robot-like children, who at age six, claim to email "three hours a day." I don't want to call those kids liars, but I know my child routinely asks me for additional contextual details on whether any given unit of time (6 weeks or 6 minutes) is "a really long time."
Perhaps worst of all, Nature Valley's "3 Generations" piece tries to tell us that today's children are choosing digital devices over outdoor shenanigans and fun times in some type of informed, hierarchical decision. If you are a parent and you believe this, first of all, shame on you!  You already know that children tend to not think that way, especially when something bright, shiny, loud, or full of sugar is pushed in front of their face (you know, by their parents).   They are children. You are adults. You are supposed to be providing alternatives to the shiny, loud, and sugary whenever possible (and I admit that for me, it's not always possible).
Hey parents - quick quiz - are these
blueberries ripe enough
for your kids to eat?
(Hint they're poisonous)
Second of all, there's no child's choice here, because once again, most of today's parents could not identify a trout in a lineup of photos of 5 fish. Most parents today couldn't tell their kids how to catch a trout, or where to go to (safely) do it. Most parents couldn't show their kid where the closest blueberry thicket is to home, and how to walk there without walking alongside a highway. Most parents couldn't tell their kids how to convert an old sign into a toboggan ("but Timmy, it's rusty. It's not safe!"). Privilege, of course, plays a role, but this isn't just privilege - some of the most out-of-touch communities (when it comes to the outdoors) are the wealthiest. Youth fishing licenses are free. Most (most) of our communities have green space around, within, or close nearby that are great for at least some outdoor activities, where parking is also free. This is entirely conquerable.
Third, there's an incredible amount of memory bias here. If I were asked the "3 Generations" question (at my current age of 41), I'd say, "We built forts, we caught snakes, we dammed up the timber ditches, it was awesome!" Let's really look at that. In about a 15 year span, we built maybe SIX forts, caught maybe FORTY snakes, and dammed up the ditches (dug to drain the swamp enough to harvest the timber out of it) maybe TEN times. That means one fort every 2-3 years, about 2-3 snakes per summer, and 2 ditch dams every 3 years. What the hell did we do with the rest of our time? Well, we played a lot of baseball and soccer (like kids today, 25 years later) and we watched a fair amount of TV (like kids today), and we fought with each other almost daily (like kids today). Is it so different?
One grandmother says she loved to pick blueberries. That's great. But blueberries are only ripe for a few weeks per year, and often, the birds and wildlife decimate them as they ripen on the bush. This was a specific memory (one that you can build for your children). A grandfather described a stringer or basket full of fish, and fending off a bear. That was a specific, special memory. And you - this week - can give your kids those kinds of special memories, so perhaps in 60 years they'll answer the "3 Generations" question as, "I used to go fishing in the stormwater pond down the street. The fishing was horrible so we just caught frogs and begged our parents to keep them!" instead of "Oh, video games!" Your six year old is not going to decide that, because they don't know that it exists. But you do, and you can.
So knock it off with the, "We used to do all this cool stuff when we were kids, and now cell phones and our kids have ruined it! Oh hey cool, babe, check out these new emojis that Todd just sent me! What? Wait a sec. A work email just came in. "  Don't you get it? Doesn't Nature Valley get it? It's us. Not the kids. This is a problem that's been built gradually by adults over the last 60 years. So knock it off!
Instead, challenge yourself with, "How can I teach my kids the cool stuff I did when I was a kid?" I can tell you that it's not easy, and it's very hard to get "just right." The reason our children are on digital devices all day is because we are too. In fact, that's one of the biggest issues I struggle with as a parent - setting a good example with technology use, not letting my phone distract me from time with my son, and not letting email run my nights and weekends.  

I can do better. I bet you can too. I hope Nature Valley's next ad for #rediscovernature points the focus back on us. Who knows, they'll probably sell me a bunch of granola bars in the process.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New Outdoor Friends at 40 (And Beyond)?

These adorable little people are the main reason their parents cannot maintain new friendships.
Although, at least they are now big enough to portage a canoe for their parents. 
Aside from being exhausted and having to constantly work on my weight, being 40 is pretty cool.  When I encounter problems that just a few years ago caused me fits (and loss of sleep), I just knock them over and continue on my way.   But as most parents know, especially those without the benefit of local parents of their own, it can be a lonely time too.  All of our old friends have kids now, too, which means that most of our time together is "kid time together."   Despite the fact that many of us have known each other for the better part of two decades, have drank together and traveled together and everything else, we only get time to talk about adult stuff inbetween "DO NOT THROW BRICKS AT HIM!" and "IF YOU JUMP OUT OF THAT TREE, I'M NOT TAKING YOU TO THE HOSPITAL!"

And of course, there's the reality that most of us have changed a bit in 20 years, and if it were not for workplaces-in-common and kids-in-common, we probably wouldn't be as close as we are.   The logical next step is to admit to ourselves, "Each of us needs some new friends."  That sure sounds easy.   But of course, your new friends probably have kids of their own to manage, and probably old friends of their own to manage.   Now that most everyone at our age is either a "director-of-something" or a "manager-of-something," free time is at a bit of a premium.  So where is there to go? RETIREMENT.  At some level of seriousness, it seems like a common denominator in making new adult friends is whether you have been able to retire with a pension.   I don't have a pension and probably won't be able to retire until 75 (2049 or so), so I don't think I can wait for that.

This is where this blog post becomes basically useless - the answer is that I don't know how to do this.  The "new grownup friend" gig is not dissimilar from a romantic relationship in that both people have to be willing to sacrifice some quality time to build the relationship.   Hopefully, your kids are compatible; that seems to help.  The photo above is from a local, Sunday morning kayak trip with a new friend of mine.  "New Buddy" and I got very little real adult time together but we shared a fun memory with the kids, which is a cool thing indeed. We've known each other for years but hadn't spent time together until recently.   And I've put in less effort than New Buddy.  We make plans, I hedge toward bailing out, and he pushes me to keep my commitments.  I normally am not a flake.  I'm just busy and tired - so is he.

But as I finish writing this, I'm sending him a FB private message,

"Got any flexibility to fish this week?"

Let's see how it goes.

Monday, July 13, 2015

What it Costs to Build Summer Memories for Kids

Since I've been lacking words for awhile, I'll keep it short.  I'm reveling in my dedication (or luck) in providing great memories for my son outdoors.  Sure, I'd love it if we could float the Poudre together, or fly fish the Abacos.  But who needs all that?  On the other hand, my failure to be able to take my kid hiking in Peru doesn't mean we have to sit around and watch TV this summer.  Neither do you.

Swimming with a new friend....cost:  3 mile trip to local river put-in, $50 youth PFD, $1.59 generic Oreos.
Watching back yard fireworks with cousins and uncles.  Cost:  $40 of roadside fireworks. 
Catching white perch in a pond where federal biologists said they would never migrate into... Cost:  $3.69 Beetle Spin, fishing license, 30 mile round trip.
Hunting for tree frogs at night.  Cost:  Free sticks, warm shower after falling into funky water in the dark. 

Rainy day at the beach...who cares?  Cost:  $4 parking, $89 wetsuit, size 8, purchased for child when he was size 5 (note - rolled cuffs), $17 flounder nuggets for lunch, free ketchup, $6 for two lemonades (free refills). 

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Shenandoah Weekend I Didn't Have to Plan

Seems improbable, but this is a cell phone picture of my actual family

I've learned from observation of my personal life, as well as from some recent leadership training, that people seem to think I have decent ideas, and are willing to follow me, even if I am unclear about why my idea is good (one of my shortcomings is explaining that to others).   At age 40 (plus),  my wife and I will slap down a deposit on a vacation rental, and magically the bedrooms will fill up with friends.   Unfortunately, it's been the case that if my wife and I don't slap down a deposit, the trip doesn't happen, because everyone's busy and few people have the initiative to do such things.  I was sad and frustrated to hear at a kid's party in February, "Hey, did you guys rent that beach house again?"  I was like, "No.  We've been busy and we hoped somebody else would do it."  Didn't happen.  In alternate versions of this story, friends will rent a house with too few bedrooms, beds, and toilets, 35 dogs, and 16 kids, and hope that the adults are drunk enough that we do not murder each other.

Then I heard in March that my brother T had slapped down a deposit on a 5-bedroom house on the Shenandoah River, with the invitation, "Just come."  Strategically located 3-4 hours from each of us three brothers, it was an easy trip.  As we grow older, the 8, 9, and 10 hour road trips with kids and dogs are exhausting, and need to be buffered with a week or more of vacation, which none of us have we don't go.  

Magically, the act of reserving the giant cabin netted 3 brothers, 2 wives, a fiancee', 2 kids and a dog. It was a good time.  No one fought except kids (briefly) and we caught a lot of smallmouth, and had our fair share to drink.  My family's contribution was to lead the "food/menu" portion of the trip, which seemed to reduce confusion and keep everybody full of happy camp food.    There were many highlights of the trip, but photos talk best sometimes.  I didn't even take pictures of fish I caught.  I just kept catching fish. 2015 has been harder than it was supposed to be, and it was great to get away for a few days.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Mulberries and Dead Ends

These are black mulberry seedlings.  Every Memorial Day, purplish black mulberries rain onto our deck and yard, splattering.  The birds, opossums, raccoons, rats and squirrels feast for the first four weeks of summer.

What are left are millions of mulberry seeds, whose seedlings emerge like a carpet in our yard and garden about two weeks after the berries finish falling.   By the time they emerge, their primary root is 6 inches deep, taking advantage of every resource the soil has to offer. Getting rid of the seedlings is a chore in see, they have a nearly 100% mortality rate.  The mulberry seedling that survives is off by itself, in the shade of a garden plant, not competing with its genetic counterparts.

I work in very sensitive areas - urban, degraded ditches, streams, and wetlands.  Our team puts a nearly nonsensically large effort into treating our work sites with respect, and complying with Maryland's legendary and labyrinthine construction and environmental regulations.   When conflicts between government agencies, nonprofits, and landowners arise on these sites, the conflicts must be addressed.  I've spent almost 20 years doing just that, and yet, I was caught off-guard in January of this year by an allegation that while we had follow the letter and spirit of the law on a large job site, that it "might not be enough."

I still don't know what that means, but I spent six months at work and in my mind trying to sort out how we might rebut some very serious but indirectly delivered accusations from government scientists who don't read a lot of scientific literature and aren't interested in a debate.  Two days ago, some good actors representing the US Army Corps of Engineers came out to the site and worked with us to create a solution that would educate everyone (including me) as the site's recovery continues into the next several years.  The Corps themselves will buffer our work against the government staff who accuse us, but refuse to confront us.

The effect that this prolonged, obscure, un-solveable conflict had on my attitude, my creativity, my writing, and this blog was pronounced.  Through that period, I learned for the first time that the single emotion from which I cannot create new, good work is "fear."  Like most people, I can write in anger - though it should be advised against.  I can write from love, from joy, from confusion, from exhaustion.  But fear of an unknown resolution of a new type of (indirect) conflict.

My brain, constantly brimming with ideas that develop without much real work, turned, in anxiety and fear, to a landscape of mulberry seedlings.  Tiny ideas, most of them useless, all of them buried deep, all of them going nowhere.   Biological and creative dead ends.  I'm hoping that this week's change in political winds will bring me back to a creative place, and a place where I'm taking time off to spend outdoors.


Monday, May 11, 2015

The Boy and the Beach

I've been a dad for almost six years.  All kids are different, but mine is a pretty adventurous guy.  One of his favorite things to do is swim in open water, which is nerve wracking, but great to see.   It's also great to see that he's now at the age where I don't have to worry about him running (or drifting) miles and miles down the beach, so I can take my eyes off of him for 30 seconds at a time.  We recently spent a few days trying to burn the winter off in Charleston, specifically Isle of Palms, SC.  The boy was at his usual antics.

Not sure whether this will lead to bigger waves, but I think it's setting the stage for some big adventures - the boy is drawn to big water.  Sure will be interesting to see!

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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...