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.

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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...