Friday, February 27, 2015

Hunting Late Season Lawn Geese in Maryland

With duck season finished, and only a few days left in goose season, I felt like I needed another good hunt.  Though there was some ice on the river, the true cold hadn't yet arrived.   My buddy Joe, a fellow habitat restoration nerd, was reviewing bids for a wetland construction project, and so we used the morning sun (and a sky free of geese) to roll out construction plans and examine some contractor proposals.

The spot was interesting enough - a protected farm with a burned out historic mansion on top of the hill, looking down upon what used to be acres of tobacco and the riverfront.  Since that house was abandoned, and others erected nearby by the family, much has changed in Maryland.  The state offered a tobacco farming buyout, which roughly 90% of farmers accepted.  The local soil conservation districts now frown upon growing crops all the way to the river's edge, as it's a significant route by which water becomes polluted.    And while the farm is protected (by easement) from subdivision and development, eventually someone will buy it, demolish the abandoned mansion, and build something on the same footprint, as they're allowed to do.    But on this day, we were simply hunting geese.

With a moderate sized decoy spread in front of us, we waited patiently, until shadows flew over us.  The birds banked, hovered overhead, and decided to put down outside of the decoys, about 50 yards away.   Joe and I both shot, downing two birds, a third sailing just offshore (to be retrieved later).  The two birds on the lawn had fallen dead as stones, despite the wingshots we took on them at 50 yards (and 10 yards off the ground, fading away from us).  

Our friend John joined us shortly after, but Joe and I both suffered from mental messaging that "we should be at work."  A little after 12pm, we packed up and headed in with the three geese we had taken on the lawn.

It's been a strange winter and a strange hunting season, but I'm glad it ended the way it did.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Questions about the North American Model of Wildlife Management (Part III)

The North American Model of Wildlife Management is that wildlife populations are managed to levels consistent with scientific sustainability, and if possible, to levels desired by the public. 

Under this paradigm, Wildlife are classified as game, non-game, or imperiled (threatened, endangered, etc), and based upon the population's sustainability, a species can move between those three categories periodically to ensure the species is sustained indefinitely.   Funding for all three categories of wildlife and the protection and restoration of their habitat is provided largely through the taxation of hunting and fishing goods and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, permits, and tax stamps.   

In Part I of this series (click here), we discussed the origins of this model of wildlife management, and the abandonment of commercial hunting in the United States.  In Part II of this series (click here), we discussed how science, regulations, and funding interact to fill out the "body" of this model of wildlife management.

What about park entrance fees? Park entrance fees, while important, generally go towards basic public access improvements, like paving entrance roads and cleaning toilets, not purchase of additional land or intensive habitat management projects.

What about my state taxes?  At the state level, "general fund" investment in state wildlife programs usually approaches 30-40% of the department's operating costs.  The remainder is composed of matching federal excise funds (10-20%) and hunting, fishing, and boating license revenue (50-60%).   Nonprofit investments in fish and wildlife habitat and access typically bring in another 10% in federal matching funds, and approximately 10% in nongovernmental funds, though these projects may occur on private lands where the public does not directly benefit.

Fully funded, most states' wildlife departments would represent less than two percent of any state's budget.  Instead of investing in these programs to create the opportunity for even more revenue from fishing and hunting licenses, most states rely on this revenue to simply "break even" in fish and wildlife conservation.

But non-hunters pay too!  Non-hunters do in fact pay for conservation through their state taxes.  That means that the 83% of Americans who do not fish or hunt account for roughly 20% - 40%  of wildlife conservation efforts in most states.  The remaining 60-80% of the work (federal excise taxes on fishing/hunting gear, fishing and hunting license revenue, matching funds from hunting/angling nonprofits) are derived from the 17% of Americans who fish or hunt.  Several years ago, I read that the average deer and duck harvest per hunter per season were 0.9 and 4.3, respectively.  That doesn't seem like a heavy toll for funding 60-80% of fish and wildlife programs year after year, for the past 80 years.

If there are too many deer, why can't we sell deer meat?  The free market commoditization of wildlife and wildlife parts from 1880-1918, along with several revolutions in firearm manufacturing during that period, is the most obvious and indisputable cause of the extinction of some game species and the near-extinction of many others.  While hunters need to be open to a variety of deer management techniques in areas where it's difficult/impossible/illegal to hunt, venison sales are not one of those.  

First, the administrative nightmare placed upon both game wardens and food inspectors would be significant, as this is a de-centralized harvest of animals.  Second, the indirect effect would be a massive reduction in recreational deer hunting opportunities, because a profit-based approach would give venison producers first dibs on hunting grounds.   In fact, this is what some anti-hunters want - especially those within the equestrian community:   fewer deer and fewer deer hunters.   That's a precise antithesis to the North American model of wildlife management.

In conclusion, the North American Model of Wildlife Management is based upon several premises:
1. Commercial hunting devalues the resource and demoralizes subsistence and recreational hunters
2. Recreational hunting is sustainable when it is scientifically based and sustainably funded
3. All users should pay, and some users must pay, for the sustainable management of wildlife resources
4. Americans value the native assemblage of species in each region.  Due to human disturbance, this natural assemblage can no longer work independently of human restoration and management efforts.
5.  If hunters and anglers can no longer sustainably fund landscape scale conservation efforts, then other resource users must be compelled to pay at the same or greater scale.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Hunting Tough Late Season Geese in Chestertown, Maryland

The challenging waterfowl season continued, with mild weather and bluebird days.  My trip to Florida had really killed my ability to scout the property that I lease outside of Chestertown, so I accepted an invite in nearby Worton (actually closer to Chesterown than my lease).   As I've written about many times, Chestertown is important because it's on the Chester River.  The Chester River holds more wintering Atlantic Population Canada Geese than any other body of water.  In the world (really, the Atlantic Flyway, but may as well be the world).

Dawn came mildly enough, scattered clouds again and temperatures relatively comfortable in the 20s.  I'd remembered to bring everything I needed for a hunt.  Except for my gun.  In 20 years of hunting, I've never ever forgotten my gun.  But this was the day.  My host, Paul from Hunting the Shore, lent me an 870, which I'm comfortable enough with.   We were set up early enough to watch a commercial guide set up a blind right on the property line of Paul's lease.  Sigh.

The geese flew predictably, but did not come particularly close, hanging up on the edge of our spread, about 50 yards out and 20 yards in the air - edge of shotgun range, but almost motionless.  On our first volley, we wounded three geese which then sailed directly into the range of the commercial guide and his clients (just 200 yards away) - their first three birds.   On the second group of geese, we killed one goose and wounded another, which was killed by the nearby commercial guide as it tried to land while dying.

A frustrating but not fruitless hunt.  Had the commercial guide not been there, we would have had to go knock on the neighbor's door to pick up our dead geese.   The next day, a limit of geese pitched into the decoys less than 10 yards from the pit, and all three hunters were done in 5 seconds.   Ah, hunting.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Kindergarten Signing Day in Maryland

I grew up in a pretty bucolic spot on the earth, though if I were to describe it, it would sound a lot like a swamp.   It was the kind of place where children used to, and still go to school based on whatever public school district overlays their home.  To be sure, there is gamesmanship in the real estate industry based upon this reality.

But we live in Baltimore, Maryland.  One year's worth of Baltimore murders:

The public school for which we're districted for commands a lofty "3/10" rating on, but perhaps more disturbing is that two drug dealers dueled it out in broad day light recently on the school grounds; one was killed.   Charter schools exist but are unpredictable in every way, including "making the budget" and "paying the teachers ontime."   Long lists of politically active parents exist for every "good" public school in the City, which after all, are just "passable" public schools by my generation's standards of public schools (roughly 65% graduate, 40% college acceptance).

That leaves private school.  Baltimore has a long history of prestigious "independent" day schooling, much in the way that Philadelphia has a long history of prestigious boarding schools.   And while those schools are not diverse socioeconomically, they are certainly racially diverse, and almost all of them command 100% graduation rates and 95-100% college acceptance rates.  What do you pay for that?  Somewhere between "a good chunk" and "a fortune."   The price range is from $7500/year to $22,000/year.  For kindergarten.  There is no mathematical scenario that involves us being able to pay more than $9000/year, at least in the next two years.   High school prices are higher:  $17,000 - $27,000 per year.  Luckily, we are eligible for financial aid.  For kindergarten. In fact, one school's admissions staff did not believe that we could possibly have salaries as low as we do (our salaries are quite normal), and demanded to see copies of our pay stubs.  This could be a long 13 years.

We have visited several schools, filled out extensive application and financial aid forms (remember:  this is Kindergarten), watched our son be evaluated for his "fit" into the academic program of several schools (he usually tells stories about how our dog is dead, or how my stomach is ginormous because I make bad food I'm sure a scholarship will be forthcoming!), and in two cases, sat through parental interviews as well.   We initially looked at five schools, and applied to three.

On February 20, all Baltimore private schools release their acceptance letters to potential students.  I call this Kindergarten Signing Day, just to make it sound more ridiculous than it is. These letters include final offers of financial aid (or lack thereof).   By March 10, we'll have to choose and send in a hefty deposit on next year's tuition.   Having come from a rural public school background, this is all very stressful.  My reality was that you live somewhere, the schoolbus shows up, you get on, and it takes you to a school.  This reality is very different - private schools are jostling for "the best" students, and jostling for money.  They're (and we're) concerned about "fit" and whether the "culture" is the best for our son.   The level of thought is like what I experienced in choosing a college.  But this is kindergarten.

This is kindergarten.   Where, depending on what happens in the next 10 days, he may set upon a path towards Catholic high school and college.   Or he may choose a different route, inexorably leading him to explore his love of robots and technology.  Or he may end up at a school that propels him into an ivy league college (that we also cannot afford).

It is hard to know what we'll do, when we don't yet know what the true choices are (a tuition bill for $21,000 kindergarten is not a real choice, based upon our income).   It is also very worrisome to consider the possibility of making "the wrong choice."  Since I have never sent a child to grade school, I don't know what "the wrong choice" even means.

So, very soon, February 20th will arrive, and with it, feverish phone calls from private school admissions officers trying to seal the deal with our son, and lock us into what they hope is a 13 year commitment to Hank's education and a longer commitment to charitable giving to the school.   What will the choices be?  It's hard to tell.

We'll have to wait until Kindergarten Signing Day to find out.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Foggy Hunt for Diving Ducks

As the lackluster duck season lurched past its mid-point, aerial waterfowl surveys revealed what hunters already knew:  geese and ducks concentrated at major river mouths, not making significant upriver forays for food or shelter.  

Well, although we were less than six miles from three of those mega-flocks (tens of thousands of ducks and geese), that was about five miles too far.  We hunted two days in a row, hoping that Canvasbacks and geese would move upriver for us.  A few ringnecks Canvasbacks.  Only the wariest geese were around, and they wanted nothing to do with us.  We increased the decoy spread to almost 200 blocks.....still nothing.   An interesting January to be sure.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why Maryland's "Rain Tax" Won't Go Away....or Get Cheaper

Rain is harmless! Why tax it?
  Photo by Gerritt Carver,
U. of South Alabama
I believe in the swinging pendulum of American politics.  And since I'm an Independent voter in a Democrat-dominated state, that means I have to simultaneously rejoice and cower when Republicans are elected, especially on "change" based platforms.    Hooray for gun rights!  Boo for reduced habitat funding!

A particular fight continues to brew as Governor Hogan (R) settles into office, centered on Maryland's stormwater utility program requirement (HB 987), passed in 2012.  That law requires Maryland's 9 largest counties (and Baltimore City) to implement a specific funding "tool" (aka tax) to fund runoff reduction projects.   As those county taxes went into effect in 2014, election-year Republicans pounced, calling them "the rain tax," even though the fees are based on impervious runoff, not the amount of rain.   And now that people are hearing about this Rain Tax (typically about $40/year in America's most affluent state), they are mad as hell.  And they ain't gonna take it anymore!   Except they are.  

To understand why this cost to taxpayers isn't going away, let's start from a standpoint of basic civics here.

  • In 1972, the (federal) Clean Water Act (CWA) went into effect, requiring the EPA to clean up all of America's waterways by 1984 at the latest.
  • CWA gives EPA a particular tool, called the TMDL (total maximum daily load) to regulate private and government discharges of pollutants into water.  The TMDL is basically a pollution "diet," and when exceeded, the health of the waterway suffers (based on actual science).
  • EPA successfully (on a weekly basis) fines municipalities, counties, states, and private companies for violating TMDLs already put in place. 
  • EPA is overseeing nearly 75,000 TMDL programs nationwide. 
  • The TMDL can be levied upon any EPA permittee (including states and counties).
  • In December 2010, EPA passed the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, requiring the Bay's six states to clean up all waters connected to the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. 
  • In 2012, EPA opponents failed to derail the Chesapeake TMDL in federal court. 
In 2011, Maryland's Democratic legislature tried to levy a statewide stormwater fee (or "rain tax"), and fell immediately under attack from conservative rural counties who claimed, "We don't have the pavement, don't tax us."   So in 2012, the legislature passed HB897, requiring all urban/suburban counties with a joint EPA/MDE municipal stormwater (MS4) permit (9 counties plus Baltimore City) to implement a program to raise their own fees.   Was this based on science (more citizens = more pavement = more runoff) or political expediency (existing MS4 permit vehicle to act as the hammer - a compliance law didn't need to be created separately)?  That's a good question.   Maybe that matters and maybe that doesn't. 

But...back to "Repeal the Rain Tax!"   What will the impact be?

  • Maryland residents will save, on average, $39/year on their tax bill from 2015-2018.
  • County governments will reneg on hundreds of millions of dollars of multi-year stormwater abatement contracts, costing taxpayers (arguably) more than the fee itself (tax bill will increase).
  • In 2016, Maryland will not meet its two-year EPA milestones for the TMDL
  • In 2018, Maryland will not meet its two-year EPA milestones for the TMDL (or the 2016 milestones)
  • In early 2019, EPA will prohibit MDE from issuing MS4 permits, meaning that during the year's first rainstorm, each county will be cited for millions of dollars in federal fines for polluting federal waters.  A federal court case will ensue.
  • In 2020, Maryland will not meet its five-year EPA milestones for the TMDL (or the 2016 or 2018 milestones).
  • In 2020, the federal case will go to court, and EPA will enter into separate arbitrations, called "Federal Consent Decrees" with MDE and the individual counties with MS4 permits. 
  • Each consent decree will lay out the period (2020-2025) for the County to comply with the TMDL, as previously required.  
  • Counties will sign the consent decrees to obtain their new MS4 permits.
  • A new tax (or tax increase) will be levied upon taxpayers to comply with the now-imminent Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
  • Maryland residents will spend, on average, $400-$600/year on their tax bill to fund 10 years of projects within the last five years of the federal TMDL timeline, as inflation has carried the cost of labor and materials to their highest point since before the 2008 recession.
Bay Cleanup Prior to TMDL (red = none)
Image:  Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Maryland, at over $70,000 median household income, is America's wealthiest state.  In short, keeping the stormwater fee (or similar tax) in place until 2025 will cost the average taxpayer approximately $400.00 (2015-2025) .     

Repealing the stormwater fee (or its associated state mandate) will cost the average taxpayer $3,000.00 (2020-2025).

From a standpoint of moral obligation, cleaning up the water that we and our ancestors polluted for profit seems like a basic concept.  From a standpoint of fiscal discipline, cleaning up those waters is now a non-decision as a result of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.    I encourage you to do some basic reading on the topic.   We've - you and I -  bought this cost through 400 years of cheap food, cheap land, and a landscape of highways, which were cheap to build through the woods.   Now the water - water which we need to live - is sick, and we have to fix it.   Admirable though it is to continue to pass the burden of cost and duty down to our children while we enjoy the benefits, it's pretty clear that the time has come to do something different. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Five Things I Learned by Meeting State Lawmakers on Maryland Blaze and Camo Day

Photo:  Maryland Hunting Coalition
Last week, I attended the Maryland Hunting Coalition's "Blaze and Camo Day," where about 100 hunters from mountain hollers and big cities; black, white, and Hispanic, Democrat and Republican, showed up to thank Maryland lawmakers for considering the huge positive impact that recreational hunting has on the state budget, to say nothing of the state's economy.    We also sought to show our opponents (namely, anti-hunters) that we intend to have a presence in the legislature.  Time will tell if our signal was received.   Although this was not my first time engaging in this daring act of...well...being a responsible citizen, I learned a lot, including:

1.  Hunting and fishing hold a special place in the hearts of a surprising number of Americans.   Though it was bitterly cold outside as we greeted lawmakers, you could their eyes light up when they saw the small army of camo and blaze orange.  Many of them couldn't get a commemorative blaze orange hat from us (thanks Bass Pro Shops!) fast enough.   Being politicians, they quickly launched into why they loved hunting, and their favorite hunting memories.  Being politicians, they then were quick to announce which pro-hunting bills they were sponsoring, loudly endorsing, or in many cases, quietly endorsing. You couldn't have predicted which lawmakers would initiate these conversations - black and white, rural and urban.  Just like the advocates attending our rally.  It was great to see.

2.   When you establish a political presence, lawmakers will take interest.   Several non-hunting Delegates stopped by to ask us about hunting, pending legislation, and our opinions on a wide range of topics (water quality, land protection, etc).  They were very open and one even said, "I know nothing about what you guys do.  Tell me about it."   I don't expect that these folks will sponsor pro-hunting legislation, and may not even vote for pro-hunting legislation, but when the debates on hunting policy arise, they will remember their time with us as very rational, civil, and engaged taxpayers.   That memory won't jibe with the anti-hunters' claims that hunters are drunken, angry fools who habitually break the law and try to hurt other people.

3.  I learned about pending laws I wouldn't have known about.   The Hunting Coalition is pretty strongly focused on a few major bills for the 2015 session, however there's interesting pending legislation across the state that at a minimum, could set good or bad precedent for more local issues to where I hunt and fish.

Photo:  Maryland Hunting Coalition
4.  I can definitely tell a lobbyist in a crowd.   Almost none of the hunting and fishing lobbyists can actually identify me in a crowd.  That's good and bad.  However, they're easy to spot.  First, they have the best clothes and perfect hair.  Even in camo, the lobbyists wear high-end, locally branded clothes (Under Armour's headquarters are about 20 miles from the State house).   Some firearm lobbyists stopped by, and they looked like consummate professionals.  Truth be told, they looked like catalog models.

Most notable about the lobbyists is that the lawmakers recognize them and pursue them.   It seems peculiar, but obviously there are long term relationships there and mutual benefits.  The ease with which the lobbyists can connect lawmakers in a crowd with advocates in their district is worth watching.  It is very high skilled people management, and obviously we hope it turns into effective representation of local voters in legislation.  The benefit of visiting your state capitol with a lobbyist is that he/she has the skills and relationships to actually get you into a meeting with your local elected officials, and to set up a meaningful (if short) conversation with people of great influence.   This is a benefit, and arguably a responsibility, of American citizenship.

5.  Finally, I learned that some lawmakers don't want to listen.   When I first got involved in "engagement" at the state level (in Maryland) two years ago, I was shocked and depressed to see how many of my phone calls and e-mails (100%, actually) to my Baltimore delegates went ignored.   Their lack of interest showed me that they don't believe that they represent me.  And so I stopped voting for them, and contributed to their political opponents instead in 2014.

And while our crowd in Annapolis was black and white, and included several City voters and City business owners, to say nothing of a good number of Democrats, the entire Baltimore City delegation (all Democrats) chose to take the "emergency tunnel" underneath the courtyard where we were standing, rather than having to even walk past us.  Let alone talk to us.   So much for representative government.   Rather than dwell on that ridiculous reality, I'll focus my memories from the day on the positive engagements with pro-hunting, non-hunting, and even some anti-hunting elected officials who cared to stop and talk to us, figure out why we care, and better understand their voters.

If you can take a day this spring to visit your elected official in Annapolis, or Raleigh, or Richmond, or Harrisburg, I highly recommend it.  You'll be pleasantly surprised at the attitudes and interest level of some lawmakers and their staff, and in other cases, your suspicions about certain lawmakers will be confirmed.  I encourage you to take a day, pack a lunch, and go downtown.  See you there!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Surf Fishing Southwest Florida

Fish are exothermic species, meaning cold blooded.  When you've lived most of your life surf fishing water that's 45-75 degrees in the Mid-Atlantic region, you get used to a certain regularity of action.  That's a nice way of saying "sitting still for hours and waiting for one giant fish to wake up, get motivated, and bite."   Sometimes, action on smaller fish like croaker, spot, and undersized flounder can make up for the lack of bites on bigger fish like drum, sharks, and striped bass.  That minor good mojo can just as easily be broken by such phenomena as "catching three 14 inch sharks on three consecutive casts," and "Look, Giant Stingray...incoming!"

Everything in the water is different in Southwest Florida.  "Bad days" here can rival "pretty good days" in the Mid-Atlantic.   The "worst days" end up with catches of delicious permit, sheepshead, and flounder.  Sounds horrible, doesn't it?    The best spots on islands like Boca Grande are relatively packed with anglers on the good days (favorable moon, wind, and tide), but my experience has been that people are pretty pleasant, unlike the attitude of Mid-Atlantic surf anglers during striped bass runs.  Here are some major differences between surf fishing islands like Boca Grande / Gasparilla and what you're accustomed to in the Mid-Atlantic or chilly North Atlantic.

1)  Your luck.  "Can't kill 'em from the couch!" is an especially apt motto for really any hunting, fishing, birdwatching, kayaking, or anything outdoors in Florida.   If you're prepared for the conditions (and insects), you're probably in for a pretty great time.  For surf fishing, this means you're probably going to catch fish.  Choose a decent spot at a decent time of day/tide, and based on my experience, your odds of getting completely skunked are almost zero.   In my limited time surf fishing the outer islands, I rarely ever set my rod down.   I had bites (and much stolen bait) on nearly every cast on some days.  Were they 54" redfish? No, but it beats sitting in the sand all day with no bites, waiting for that 54" redfish.

2) Casting distance.  If you're like most North Atlantic anglers (i.e. my father), you have developed a highly skilled technical "running down the beach and hurling a 6oz pyramid weight into the sea towards oceangoing vessels" approach to surf casting.    Of course, this is done to overcoming the multiple sandbars and rolling waves up to 100 yards out to sea.  And since Southwest Florida is full of transplants from the Northeast, guess what, they brought that technique with them, which is still as funny to watch as it was when I was 10 years old.

However, the offshore habitat in Southwest Florida is quite different.   Due to very different wave and tide dynamics compared to the Atlantic Coast, many beaches feature underwater grasses, ridges and troughs just yards offshore.   And instead of running in and out of the surf, as fish do in the Northeast, the fish run longshore in these troughs.   Boca Grande's trough is about 10 yards wide, and is 20-30 yards offshore.  No need for the acrobatic "into orbit" cast or the 12' surf rod, huh?  In fact, my most fun surf fishing was done with much smaller gear, rigged for big fish (discussed below).  There's no need to sling your bait out 200 yards into a rip tide.....the big fish are less than 50 yards from shore.

3)  Structure.  There is very little structure nearshore on the Gulf.   There are various pilings, piers, and the odd navigation channel, but as I mentioned above, the majority of the surf fishing is focused on the deepwater trough just a few yards offshore.  There are relatively few living shorelines, breakwaters, and other structures around, and in fact, destructive bulkheads are still legal and being installed on a daily basis.  So unless that changes culturally or legally, your structure fishing is primarily going to be from a boat, not the shore.  It's also worth noting that because of the (usually) calm surf, boaters have no qualms with coming shallow and fishing structure within 20 yards of the beach.  So you'll have competition and a disadvantage.

4) Live bait.   I'm sorry to say this, but due to the average age of many of these island communities (62-69 generally), live bait rules in Southwest Florida.   Fiddler crabs, live shrimp, dead shrimp, and all varieties of small mullet and whitefish, live or cut, serve as very handy, stinky, and effective baits.   During my recent trip, I indulged, using both live and dead shrimp.  I caught fish readily on both.  The worst performance was using live shrimp that had died in the bait bucket...the pre-packaged "stinky dead shrimp" performed far better.

5)  Lures.  Southwest Florida is the kind of place where you could rig a hook to a child's action figure or lego mini-figure and eventually catch a fish.  And by all means, knock yourself out.  However, five types of lures will serve you best in Southwest Florida, all up for further discussion in a future blog post here.   All five are reasonable calls for surf fishing in Southwest Florida and places like Boca Grande, though each requires a slightly different technique, obviously.   1) soft shrimp lures in white or brown, 2) paddle-tail lures in chartreuse or brown with a chartreuse tail, 3) gold, white or silver pin minnow lures (2" - 8"), 4) mirror-type suspending/topwater baitfish lures, 5) fat topwater lures in white, black, or silver.

6) Circle hooks.   I don't enjoy using circle hooks, but I enjoy releasing dying, gut-hooked fish even less.  Over the last five years, I've gradually increased my usage of circle hooks for this reason.   It's unquestionably the right thing for the resource.  Florida is ahead of most of the rest of the country in the adoption of circle hook requirements - specifically in-line circle hooks - for certain zones and certain species.   Please, please, please read the regulation book before your trip to make sure that when you decide to target a species that requires inline circle hooks, that you actually have a packet of them in your tackle bag.   On my recent trip, using circle hooks in the surf saved several sharks that otherwise would have ingested an entire J-hook/Aberdeen.  A good look into different circle hook types for Florida reef species can be found in this blog post by Mike Wilson. 

7)  Rigging.  I haven't found a species of saltwater fish in Florida that lacks massive teeth.  Do yourself a favor and rig up with 20lb braided line and a 20-50lb mono leader.   For live bait, a Carolina rig works just fine, and I highly recommend it for these waters with a 1.5 - 3oz weight, no more.  I've seen anglers using the standard east coast 2-hook bottom rig, which is fine but with clear water and actively feeding fish, I'm not sure that two baits are totally necessary. And of course....the tangles.

8) Rod and reel.  I had not bought a new surf rod since the 1990s, so for my recent trip, I hauled a new 10' Tsunami Airwave surf rod and a new Penn Battle 5000 all the way to Florida with me.   In fact, I brought 6 rods and 7 reels with me, which is in addition to the 6-7 rod and reel combos in storage at my in-laws' place in Charlotte Harbor.   So out of all of those rods (Tsunami, Penn, St. Croix, others) and all those reels (Penn, Shimano, Pflueger), the combo I used most for surf fishing was a 8'0" Shimano Terramar Rod ($110, Bass Pro) w/ Shimano Symetre Reel ($100, Bass Pro).  I believe a fishing guide (or salesman) had recommended the custom combo to my father in law.  It was a good recommendation.

This drive to the beach sucks!
9) The beauty.  Aside from the warm water, warm air, and readily biting fish, the most amazing thing about surf fishing in Southwest Florida is the beauty.  I mean, check out this horrible drive to the beach to surf fish! In my case, I definitely felt better about not being able to afford a Bahamas or Caribbean trip because Florida was cheaper, easier, and almost as beautiful as the amazing, world-class destinations we all read about in other countries.  And truth be told, Southwest Florida can still be a world-class fishing destination, if the sportfishing community, commercial watermen, and government regulators can find a way to sustain the populations.

Grass beds like this one in Boca Grande may die
when the watershed upriver hits 10% pavement coverage.
It's at 4% and rising. 
There's a warning in there as well - while Florida holds more saltwater fishing world records than any other country or American state, that list is shrinking.  Only two world record fish have been caught in Florida within the last 20 years, and none have been caught in Florida in the last 17 years.  Southwest Florida in general, and Boca Grande in particular, are spectacular destinations with spectacular fishing.   Whether the angling community and the state and federal regulators can figure out a way to sustain this high quality resource is still to be determined.   For the meantime, the resource as a whole is highly variable but not yet in significant decline.  If you have the opportunity to visit and to toss a line out in the Gulf, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What is the North American Model of Wildlife Management? Part II

There's been a lot of policy talk lately about "The North American Model of Wildlife Management."  Essentially, recreational hunters and anglers love "The Model," and everyone else has never heard of it, but is suspicious of it, as if it's a Magna Carta for hunters to kill unlimited numbers of everything across the landscape, forever.

In Part I (click here), we looked at American wildlife before meaningful regulation, and during the tough intersection of when American weapons manufacturing was advancing faster than regulations on killing, buying, and selling wild animals.  Beginning in 1900 with the Lacey Act and moving past 1918 with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, killing or "taking" of some species of wildlife for some reasons was banned or regulated.  On the heels of those laws, a young American biologist named Aldo Leopold published the world's first scientifically based, multi-species wildlife management text, called simply "Game Management" in 1933.  The book, among other things, discussed then-revolutionary ideas like "food webs," and "habitat management," as well as the concept of "reserving" portions of wildlife population for future seasons, rather than simply hoping that hunters would be unlucky and miss a few shots.

Beyond Leopold's scientific approach to "wildlife systems" and their protection and sustainable management, he also encouraged a philosophy that drew heavily from America's first major conservationists:  Muir, Pinchot, and Roosevelt.   Those three men, and the agencies that were created by their work (US Forest Service and US National Park Service) believed in varying degrees that land resources, and by default, the fish and wildlife in them, belong to the American people, and for varying reasons, that public ownership needs to be held in trust by government agencies to ensure proper management for future generations.   Of course, this is the Public Trust doctrine.

In addition, with the passage of the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940, we see that the forefathers of "The American Model" recognized that some species, whether for scientific or cultural reasons, should have extra protection from harm.   This means that some species are designated as "game," and others are designated as "nongame."

So this is really the beginning.  The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is based upon five principles:

1. Regulation (and strict limitation) of commercial wildlife trade 
2. Regulation of recreational fishing/hunting via bag limits and licensing, revised periodically based upon field data, to ensure the resource is sustainable
3. Scientific tools and methods to best assess population and habitat trends and needs to better inform #2
4. Consideration of multiple types of users across multiple years
5. That distinctions can and should be made between "game" and "nongame" species for scientific and cultural purposes. 

Of course, all of this sounds great until one realizes that it's a bunch of relatively unfunded ideas, in a nation where no one has ever really paid for fish and wildlife, save private hunting and fishing clubs.  Well, non-hunters, this is where hunters begin to get indignant about that whole, "anti-hunting thing," because hunters have essentially funded conservation (including endangered species habitat work and research) since the 1930s.  Beginning with the 1937 "Duck Stamp" Act, 1937 Pittman-Robertson (Excise Tax) Act, and countless other state-level funding programs that target only hunters and anglers.   So let's add a fifth leg to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation

6.  Users willing to pay high taxes and fees to enjoy the public resource, ensuring that it is funded sustainably. 

Outdoor gear retailers have lobbied hard to make sure that kayaking, biking, and birdwatching gear are exempted from the excise taxes, and that non-hunters don't have to purchase the federal duck stamp to entire National Wildlife Refuges (which are purchased through the revenue raised by federal duck stamp sales).   As a result, while the number of non-hunting outdoor enthusiasts has increased, the funding for wildlife conservation has actually declined. 

So then, the North American Model of Wildlife Management is that wildlife populations are managed to levels consistent with scientific sustainability, and if possible, to levels desired by the public.  Wildlife are classified as game, non-game, or even imperiled (threatened, endangered, etc), and based upon the population's sustainability, a species can move between those three categories periodically to ensure the species is sustained indefinitely.   Funding for all three categories of wildlife and the protection and restoration of their habitat is provided largely through the taxation of hunting and fishing goods and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, permits, and tax stamps.  

In Part III of these series...we'll examine some questions and answers about The Model.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What is the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation? Part I.

We're only five weeks into 2015, and across the country, state-level policy debates are raging over the role of recreational hunting and fishing in the public-funded management of wildlife species.   Anti-hunters include Maryland horse enthusiasts who wish to commercialize the sale of deer meat, and thereby reduce the deer population and Maryland hunters' numbers simultaneously.   Other anti-hunters include New Jersey liberals opposed to Sunday hunting - they believe that faith-based governance is unconstitutional, except for the Sunday ban on hunting, which was a parochial law intended to get people into church pews and out of the woods.

In the corner of more sane opinions on these topics are the hunting advocacy groups, who keep referring to how these anti-hunting positions are invalidated by "The North American Model of Wildlife Management."   While this sounds very good and official both to those who actually understand wildlife management (I happen to have a college degree in that field) and to conservative hunters who believe hunting is great, no matter what, we as hunters and wildlife ecologists have to understand that phrases like "The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" sounds like this to anti-hunters and the like:

Not sure that Put Some Pearls On It's Vision is in Concordance with the NA Model of WC.....
Now, 53% of you see that picture and you're thinking, "HELL YEAH!"  Unfortunately (??), 47% of you are not.  And that's why spouting off nifty terms like "The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation" is counterproductive without some actual facts.   So what the hell is this model, anyway?

Market hunting ducks. Photo: Ducks Unlimited
First, let's go back in time, to an era before The Model.  Other than being banned on Sundays, hunting and fishing were generally unregulated activities (like today's target shooting, for example) prior to 1900.   Market hunting, also known as large scale commercial hunting, was rampant across the country.  Market hunting saw the decimation of the genetic stocks of many species from bison to American Robins (no kidding), but fortunately only definitively wiped out one species, the Passenger Pigeon.  Other species, including most fur-bearing mammals, Whooping Cranes, Canvasback ducks, Canada Geese,  many shorebirds, alligators, American Crocodiles, and many others, were brought to the brink of extinction by the ridiculous industrial-scale wildlife trade.  

Almost too late, state game laws (besides the Sunday hunting/fishing bans) began to address the public's distaste for the massive slaughter, shipment, and re-sale of what they understood to be "publicly owned" fish and wildlife. The laws were readily ignored and difficult to enforce, since market hunters simply iced their kills (sometimes in barrels) and put them on railcars for interstate shipment.    Frustrated by this development and the lack of change,  a Republican Congressman named John Lacey sponsored a successful law banning the interstate transport of illegally killed wildlife.  That law, now known as the Lacey Act, is the primary prosecution tool of the US Attorney General when pursuing federal-scale poachers or wildlife importers/exporters.

The highly endangered Whooping Crane, once slaughtered
for its feathers alone.  Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service,
Region 6.
Other laws followed fairly quickly, including the Weeks-McLean Act, which prohibited spring hunting of birds and the feather trade (for fashion), and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected birds, eggs, and bird nests from both destruction and "harassment," subject to annually reviewed exemptions for sustainable recreational hunting. Starting in 1940, bald eagles enjoyed separate protection under the Bald Eagle Protection Act.

So those are cool laws, but as we've seen in the realms of narcotics and firearms, making something illegal and actually stopping it are two very different things.   As the science of wildlife biology started to build in the 1930s, tools became available for politicians and bureacrats to periodically adjust laws and regulations to the reality of wildlife populations (and hunters).   The legal backbone of wildlife protection allowed this periodic re-calibration to occur, and that's really the basis of the North American Model for Wildlife Conservation, which will dive into in Part II.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Boy Who Only Swims

Me in the cold North Atlantic, somewhere around 2004
Water is my life.  It's my livelihood, sure.  But it's my life.  Some of my best memories of this life are of fishing our local mill pond, baldcypress trees dangling overhead at age 7.  Memories of the fresh brine air of the Atlantic Ocean.  The first wave I ever caught.   Years later, the first truly big and scary wave I ever caught.  Catching buckets full of fiddler crabs with my friends all summer.  Remote coastal islands with tough sand beaches and scraggly vegetation.   Catching blue crabs off my neighbor's our technique improved from age 6 to age 16.  My first beach bonfire.

My son is not me, which is to say that he is fond of animals but not terribly interested in
them.  He takes calculated risks in the outdoors, but doesn't go overboard like I did for my first 30 years.  He remembers the things he sees outdoors and can tell the story in greater detail than I could at his age.   He is a different person.  One thing we share is a love of the immersion and weightlessness of water.  It's an addiction of his that I am always excited to feed.  When we arrive at any waterfront, it is inevitable that Hank is going in.  All the way in.   I was always that way.  Staying dry was for suckers, as far as I was concerned.

While swimming lessons have provided mixed results, Hank seems to have taught himself how to swim with his face in the water and to use his hands to search for seashells and rocks.   There's no sitting on the beach with this one.   I screwed up in preparations for our Florida trip in not ordering him a wetsuit.  I don't know what I was thinking.  Luckily a local surf shop in Venice Beach, FL (Windflight -check them out!) had what he needed.

Every day in Florida, Henry swam for an hour or more.  Up and down the beach.  Out to sea, and back again.  I generally stayed really close, and he likes the company.   More and more, he gets his back to the surface and lays out a nice form to keep floating.  One problem we keep having is that other parents put life preservers and floaties on their 5, 6, 7, and 8 year old kids (parents, please don't do this unless there's a specific medical need).  This creates two problems, which I've personally witnessed numerous times.

1.  The parent becomes inattentive and the child blissfully floats out into deep water, oblivious to the fact that she is in deep water.  This is really poor parenting (there, I said it) and your child could die.  Your child is learning that they can float without effort in water, and that is obviously not true.

2.  Due to this obliviousness, the child will call to other children like Hank and yell, "I'm swimming! You don't know how to swim, but I can!"  I guess that's the nature of kids, but Hank (who can actually swim) tends to get upset because he can't float as good as they can in their PFD.

These things present a parenting challenge, but I suppose it's like anything else in life - you handle it and move on.   I'm proud that my son is five years old and has a reverence for water and its ability to harm him.  I'm terrified that he doesn't mind jumping over the line of what's safe, but again, I suppose that's normal.  More than anything, I'm ecstatic that my boy has discovered that he can find refuge for his little mind and spirit in the saltwater.  I'm excited to see what form that takes (please, no jetskis).  Time will tell.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Kayak Fishing and Flats Fishing Gasparilla Island with Capt. David Martin

Capt. David Martin is a guy after my own heart - he does too much stuff.  Inbetween outdoor and survival writing, instructing NRA courses, and supporting his son (a USMC officer), Dave gets around to guiding fishing trips sometimes.   We almost didn't get together.  Our first call was across the Pacific Ocean as we tried to set trip dates, and left it vague.   When Dave returned, severely jetlagged, he said the words that are (to me) like manna from Heaven when a guide speaks them,  "Hey, if you don't mind, can we put this trip off one extra day to make sure I've got everything perfectly scouted? I want to make sure you have a great trip."

That was a great way to start, but again, it almost didn't happen.  On his way to meet me, Dave was rear ended at 75mph on the interstate by a driver who had fallen asleep at the wheel.  We lost some time there.....but no major issue.  We unloaded the yaks on Boca Grande (Gasparilla Island) and talked about my goals for the trip - I wanted to learn the water and catch a few fish.   As we were prepping gear, Dave threw out a line into the morning fog and gave me the line.  As he was passing it, a fish hit the lure and I retrieved the fish with very little run on the first Permit!  Of course, my camera was packed up in the kayak next to no photo.  When I threw it back in the water, a great blue heron appeared out of nowhere and nearly snatched the fish before the fish dove out of sight.  Interesting.

We set out around the mangroves of Boca Grande Pass.  It was astonishingly beautiful.  Clear water with about 80% seagrass cover.   About 20 minutes into our paddle, I wondered why we didn't see fish.   Dave pointed at a mangrove island in the fog, "That's our redfish spot."   As if on command, a pod of dolphins emerged right in front of the island and started flapping furiously.  Dave's paddling didn't break stride, "And there went our redfish."    I started to realize that we were seriously competing with other predators for these fish.

We ended up on an open pass with several "bowls" of unvegetated sand in about eight feet of water.  We fished for about an hour with no bites, and honestly, my arm started to hurt from the constant long-distance casting.   I started to second-guess my "artificial lures only" attitude, thinking that we'd probably be overrun with biting fish in this lush habitat, if only we were using live, stinky, twitchy bait.   But....that decision had come and gone.  No live, dead, or cut bait today.

Finally, Dave lit into a decent speckled trout.  And three more on the next three casts.  He let me maneuver my boat into his spot and try it - I lost the tail of a lure, but failed to hook the fish.  The fog started to lift and doubt started to creep in - would this be the fishing day I hoped for?  The wind started to pick up and so we started alternating long paddles and drifts across the open water between two points near a dredged channel.  Finally, no fishing guide in sight, I picked out what I thought was a good hole in front of me based only on how the waves moved over top of it...and boom! First cast...16" speckled trout.  Now I really felt like I was on the board, with a permit and a trout.  I told Dave I was sick of getting pushed around in the wind and we moved onto the leeward side of another mangrove island.

The water on the leeward side was gin clear and warm - a strange combination for this east coaster.  Little grass existed here, but large mullet, some well over a foot long, ran in diagonal patterns away from my boat.  I looked for the telltale shadows of spooked redfish and saw none.   After a quick pow wow with Dave, we paddled around to the windward side and took lunch.  The area featured an amazing flooded beach full of live conchs scooting around.  Near sea urchins.  And sting rays.  Ouch.  The water 20 yards out was thick in turtlegrass and also less than waist deep.  Given the lack of fish on the leeward side, I figured that there was no way that fish would be sitting in the waving seagrass on the windward side.   I was wrong.

What followed was the most fun 30 minutes of fishing I've had in the last 18 months or more.  Snook and redfish were mauling our lures much like bluefish do in the Atlantic.  Lots of short strikes! We finally started landing fish, and as if it were an omen, the bite immediately stopped when Dave had prepped and queued his GoPro camera to his forehead.  Thanks, Dave.

At that point we had been out for five hours and I decided to call it.  We enjoyed a steady paddle back to the launch over clear, azur water.  Sheepshead had moved into the shallows and were zipping about. At the launch, we figured out that we had not closed the van doors tight, and Dave's battery died.  With my wife in the truck on the island already, we attempted but failed to charge him up.  We left poor Dave there, awaiting a new battery from the auto supply store on the mainland.  What a trooper.  What a day he had.

At the top of my list for our next trip to Florida will be another fishing day with Capt. Dave Martin.   Can't wait!

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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...