Friday, January 30, 2015

Baltimore's 2015 Fiscal Cliff: The Coming Storm (2 of 3)

Baltimore, where I've lived for most of the last 20 years, and have owned a home for the last 11 years,  has survived the recession.  That is to say Baltimore is not Detroit.  The reasons for this are legion but I believe the most three significant positive drivers are as follows:

1.  Baltimore is a city whose residents have a "grass roots" positive mentality and culture. 
2.  Baltimore is significantly bolstered by its proximity to Washington DC.
3.  Baltimore has enjoyed, for the bulk of the last 40 years, a friendly legislature and governor.

Despite these factors, Baltimore remains a very poor city with very serious problems.  Here's a look at the present - why hasn't Baltimore prospered in an era of heavy state and federal funding?

1.  Failure to grow employable or college-ready students in public schools. 
2.  Ineffective Laws on Violent Crime. 
3.  Prohibitive Tax Rates. 
4.  Environmental Disasters.

It's clear that unfortunately, "more money" and "more laws" are not the only solution to Baltimore's problems (if only it were so). Simultaneously, some realities have been operating in the background that bear some serious consideration in the name of figuring out "what is Baltimore to do?"  My next essay on the topic will examine those, as a legislative and fiscal preview to 2015 (and FY16).

1.  State fiscal disaster.  Outgoing Governor O'Malley recently announced that after eight years in office, his administration is leaving behind a $1.2 billion structural deficit.  That's a minor amount for a nation, but an inexplicably high number for a state government.  As a result, incoming Governor Hogan will have to slash the state budget by roughly 20% for two years just to keep the state's credit and bond ratings intact.   Significant amounts of those moneys (hundreds of millions of dollars) would have come to Baltimore directly (grants and allocations in state budget) and indirectly (grants to city-based nonprofits, budgets of state agencies located within the City).   Many planned projects, both social and capital, simply will not happen in the next two years as a result.

2.  State's loss of political interest.  Baltimore City's Democratic Party could not deliver the City's vote (92% registered Democrats) for the most recent state election (roughly 33% voted, and only 68% for the state Democratic ticket).   The main reason according to polled voters:   the lack of economic recovery in the City over the 8-year period of Democratic rule (the state has elected two Republican governors in the last 40 years - including 2014).    This tells the state's new Republican administration that while there's little they can do to produce big votes from the City, there may be little they can do wrong by reducing state spending in the City.

3.  State fiscal cost/benefit.  The new Republican administration is taking this all to mean that the hundreds of millions of state dollars flowing to Baltimore City have not led to meaningful improvements in City life.   Both truth and fallacy exist in that line of thought - it's so much money that it's impossible to generalize what funding is a "success," what "requires more time and money," and what is a "failure" without devoting reams of paper and thousands of hours to properly study it all.   But lacking time to study it all, the likely short term result is that the funding will be sharply reduced.

4.  First City agency audits in history.  To the significant objection of City agency directors, Baltimore City agencies will begin their first external fiscal audits since....well, since ever.  The largest agencies in the City have never been audited.  After citizen outcries, the City's Parks and Recreation department was audited in 2012.  The auditing firm reported that fiscal mismanagement was so severe and systemic that the audit itself could not be completed.   Let that sink in for a minute.  There was no audit finding because insufficient financial records exist on which to base the audit paperwork.   I bet that money's being spent well!

As a result, an angered City Council passed a law authorizing and requiring city agency audits starting in 2015.  Three major city agencies will be audited in 2015, and almost everyone acknowledges that the results of the audits will show significant findings that result in criminal charges.   In 2016, the Mayor's own Office of Finance will be audited.  Again, the result will likely be politically shattering.  Impacts will be described in better detail in Part 3 of this series.

5.  Environmental Compliance deadlines.  Baltimore City, paved well before even the most archaic American stormwater or trash laws were in place, serves as a singular point source of trash, water pollution, air pollution, and vector (rat, bed bug) production.   Until well into the 1990s, regulatory agencies at the state and federal level ignored these issues as "irreconcilable."  City agencies said, "Too bad, we don't have any money, suck it up, it's just trash/rats/sewage/bed bugs."  However, as city advocates, activists, and non-profits began suing those agencies to enforce their own regulations against the City, assessments were made of the true impacts of these problems.  Those were groundbreaking and unsettling.  Legal action against the City ensued.

In 2002, the US EPA successfully signed a "consent decree" (a legal contract) with Baltimore City, requiring a comprehensive overhaul of the City's sewer system by 2016.  In 2013, the City pleaded to the EPA that it could not meet the 2016 deadline.  EPA agreed to push the deadline to 2019, with Baltimore's pledge that it would surely be able to raise more funding in 2015-2019 than it had in 2002-2013.  Of course, political fortunes in the meantime have made that impossible.

In 2010, the US EPA was forced to enforce its own Clean Water Act, requiring a vast cleanup of pollutants (trash, nutrients, sediment, bacteria) from Chesapeake Bay waterways.  Watershed Implementation Plans were due from local governments by December, 2012.  Baltimore City submitted theirs for review in January, 2015.  Can you see where this is headed? Reviews of what the City has submitted to MDE and EPA thus far indicate that not only did Baltimore not meet the majority (in pollution reduction) of its goals for the 2014 year, but in all likelihood, Baltimore will not meet its 2014 goals by 2020, primarily as a result of its failure to raise enough money in enough time to put enough contractors to work (bureacracy plays a part in this, but it's largely a fiscal issue).   The entirety of Baltimore's watersheds are required to be "cleaned" by 2025.  This was always an impossible goal without significant political interest, which is lacking in Baltimore.  Federal action - of the most intrusive and expensive kinds - will result.  We'll discuss that in Part 3.

Two weeks ago, US EPA approved a trash TMDL (pollution limits) for trash entering Baltimore City's Patapsco River.   Again, this plan involves city action (money), monitoring, and potential fines and federal takeovers if the city fails.   With the fiscal cliff looming, what will happen?

In summary, the fiscal outlook for Baltimore's 2015 (FY16-FY17) looks bleak if not disastrous.  The combination of a governor suddenly not looking for City votes, a record-breaking deficit left by the outgoing governor, increasing federal and state demands for cleaner water and air, and politically explosive fiscal audits of previously "untouchable" city agencies will lead to a break in political strength away from the City's historic core of political power.  In Part 3, we'll take a closer look at how that might shake out.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bad Neighbor Duck Hunting on the USS Thunder Island

We enjoyed a suburban duck blind for the better part of a decade - fifth generation landowner and all.  The blind was a spot for tall tales and occasionally good hunting, and many, many sad stories about how healthy the Chesapeake Bay once was.  Two years ago. some rich folks bought part of the peninsula and it just so happens that their McMansion is fifty feet above the duckblind and 124 yards away from it.  We tried to make peace with them, possibly negotiating for later shooting times on certain days to not wake the lady of the home, and things of that sort.  The duck blind, as it was, could only be used to shoot away from their house, making a minimal acoustic footprint for those folks.  They wanted none of it, believing that they could force the 5th generation landowner off of the property if they could get our duck blind deemed "illegal."  You see, it's illegal to have a duck blind within 150 yards of an occupied dwelling without that occupant's written permission.

Well, they did just that (had our blind deemed "illegal"), except the landowner retained his duck blind license.  So we built the USS Thunder Island, a 15' x 15' pontoon duck blind that works as a jonboat-driven barge, and used the existing duck blind license to park the new blind 151.5 yards from the neighbor's shoreline (an even more conservative placement method, to ensure we stayed legal).  Now we can shoot ducks that fly between the duck blind and the McMansion, which I imagine is pretty loud.    We also installed a solar power navigation beacon on top of the blind (for safety's sake), which unfortunately blinks at the McMansion every six seconds, 24 hours per day.  Here's what they now see when they look over their majestic, million dollar waterfront (the former shoreline blind was invisible to them).



On a balmy January day I got to enjoy my first hunt on Thunder Island.  A few fat mallards lazed about but didn't move offshore towards us.  The game warden, who checked the blind and hunters during the USS Thunder Island's first five hunts, sped by and waved from her boat.   The geese and diving ducks, our intended prey, stayed out at the rivermouth, not needing to aggressively feed in creeks like ours.   We talked about the coming end of the season, my recent trip to Florida, and work plans for 2015.  It should be a good year.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Virginia HB 2345: Liberal Hound Retrieve Comes Under Fire in Virginia

Uncollared deer hound, no owner in sight,
stops traffic on Virgina 4-lane highway. 
I have hunted in Virginia for over 20 years, and in fact, I possess a Lifetime Hunting License in the state (actually a commonwealth).  I've learned many things about hunting and property rights during those two decades.  I've learned that if I shoot a deer and it jumps a fence before dying, I cannot legally retrieve it without obtaining the neighbor's permission.   If my retriever (RIP, Roan) goes bonkers and runs across the property line to the neighbor's duck blind, I owe my neighbor an apology, then I need his permission to access his property, and then I need to hope he doesn't have me prosecuted for trespass via animal after my dog screwed up his hunt.

But if I'm hunting deer with hounds, I face no such hurdles.   I have no legal requirement to keep my dogs on the 30 acre parcel I lease, and prevent them from running onto adjacent farms, past other hunters, through herds of livestock, or into a neighbor's chicken house.   And when I get around to retrieving my wayward hound, I don't need to ask anybody.  I can pull up in their driveway and just help myself to their property.  That's the legal side. To hear it that way - the way the houndsmen tell it - one might think that Virginia HB 2345, currently under consideration in Virginia's House of Delegates, might be "too much medicine for the patient."  HB 2345 would repeal Virginia's bizarre legal standard "right to retrieve hounds without permission," commonly referred to as "liberal retrieve."  Could it really be that bad, if it's just unarmed guys collecting hounds?

Maybe not......but maybe.  That was the legal side of liberal retrieve.  The illegal side is harder for Virginia landowners to swallow - though swallow it is what they're required to do every year, as they contact game wardens about situations like the one below, to hear the game wardens say, "Sorry, we've had 5 calls like this already today, and we're investigating #2 right now."

The illegal side goes like this:  15 hounds get released on CSX railroad right-of-way (trespassing, hunting without permission).   The hounds wander onto the two posted private properties on each side of the rail bed (trespassing, hunting without permission).   Half of the houndsmen post themselves up and down the public road with loaded weapons (illegal), even though they have no permission to shoot any game animals that might approach them from the adjacent properties (illegal).  The other houndsmen walk down the railroad tracks (illegally), spotting a man in a treestand who happens to be one of the landowners.  A conflict ensues wherein the houndsmen scream that "we hunt this land until we say we don't."  

No deer are flushed but the hounds do not return.  The houndsmen leave.  They return at 9:00 at night with spotlights and loaded guns to "retrieve their hounds."  To better accomplish this, they drive (without permission) through the neighbor's fields on ATV's, destroying his cover crop.  They stay out all night, retrieving 13 of their 15 hounds.  They return the next day, without permission, and still armed, to "retrieve" the last two hounds.  They leave mud tracks up and down the neighbor's farm road and into the county road.  

That's a fictional story composed of real cases encountered by Virginia game wardens.  It's the worst case scenario (besides a landowner getting shot by an uninvited houndsman), but it's representative of what the worst 5-10% of houndsmen put their neighbors through every year, all without permission to enter others' property.  Despite a 20 year-old standpoint of "These things never happen!" with a secretive background murmur of "Damn, we have to stop doing this!" the hound hunting community has totally failed at policing the behavior of their own.  

The houndsmen have a tough ideological hill to climb, and one that inarguably deceives logic.  Are private property rights important, or are they not?  Should any member of the public (or the government) be able to enter your property at any time?  What if an ATF agent is simply retrieving his hound from your private property 10 minutes after you drive away and go to work?  Surely, that's not an issue - right?  And there's no requirement that you successfully retrieve your hound, so who's to say that Johnny ATF didn't release one (accidentally of course) on your private property.  

When houndsmen claim that "we're the good ones," one has to ask, "Do you know any lawbreaking houndsmen?" because the truth is, they do.  The next question must be, "How have you tried to mentor him to get him to stop breaking the law or being discourteous to landowners?" and the only answer I've found in that conversation has been, "Well, we don't really talk about it."

Unfortunately for the hound community, Virginia landowners decided to talk to some folks about it. We'll be watching HB 2345 to see how it progresses.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Kayak Fishing the Peace River

A few days after our arrival in Southwest Florida, I locked in a trip with Capt. Mike from It's Time! Kayak Fishing in Port Charlotte.  We met at Ponce de Leon Park in Punta Gorda and paddled around to try a variety of different fishing techniques, from trolling topwater tackle, to bait fishing the edge of the navigation canal.  Capt. Mike provided a great history of the area's fishing and the current state of the resource, which he estimates to be pretty poor.  A retired commercial powerboat fishing guide from the Florida Keys, he admitted, "I was part of it.  I've killed my share of fish."    His guide business now focuses on catch and release fishing, though he doesn't object if clients keep their fish.



As we pulled up into a shallow flat outside the mouth of the Peace River, I admit that I was a little disappointed at how little seagrass was in the water - I'd guess 10-20% coverage.   We got into a few small redfish using live shrimp, but the current and building wind on the open water were a little distracting.  Catching my first Gulf Coast redfish was a moment of excitement I was too embarrassed to share.  It felt great!  

I admit that I was relieved when we paddled into the mangroves for some more targeted fishing against structure (my favorite way to fish) - tight quarters but little current and no wind.    Capt. Mike mentioned that the lack of current would hurt our search for snook but redfish might still be found.  I hooked up really quick with a saltwater (hardhead) catfish which ran out the drag really nice and gave me a fight without ever jumping.  After getting barbed in the finger and releasing the thing, I caught two more.   I learned on a subsequent trip that once hardhead catfish start biting, you have to leave the area....redfish and other game fish will never get to the bait.

After four or five catfish in two separate parts of the mangrove swamp, one catfish measuring almost 18 inches and easily two pounds, we decided to move on back with the changing tide and a favorable wind into the mouth of the Peace River.   The changing tide found a moderate amount of boat traffic at the ramp, and we continued paddling up the canal to chase snook with the now ripping tide funneling through the mangroves.  This was the only negative part of an otherwise great trip, as the boat wakes (boats coming out of residential areas, into this feeder canal, into the Peace River) and heavy tidal current made it very difficult to stay put and fish a spot, even with an anchor deployed.  I ended up tangling a stationary rod's lure in a mangrove while throwing a windknot from my active rod, and getting swamped by a boat wake all in about 8 seconds.  That pretty much ended it for me.  Capt. Mike caught up with me as I paddled back out to the mouth of the Peace River, and upstream to our put-in at Ponce de Leon Park.  We broke down the gear and then enjoyed a quick beer together before saying adios.

What a great introduction to Florida flats and mangrove fishing - leaving me hungry for more.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Baltimore's FY16 Fiscal Cliff: The Setup (1 of 3)

Baltimore, where I've lived for most of the last 20 years, and have owned a home for the last 11 years,  has survived the recession.  That is to say Baltimore is not Detroit.  The reasons for this are legion but I believe the most three significant positive drivers are as follows:

1.  Baltimore is a city whose residents have a "grass roots" mentality that I've not seen well-portrayed in Detroit (or at least, the media fails to show it).  People in Baltimore's communities care - at a meaningful level - about Baltimore.   From Anarchist collectives to faith-based community initiatives, it's all there - and vibrant - in Baltimore.

2.  Baltimore is significantly bolstered by its proximity to Washington DC (25-35 miles, depending on which landmarks are selected for distance).  Matching federal funds and grants comprise over 8% of the City's annual budget.  

3.  Baltimore has enjoyed, for the bulk of the last 40 years, a legislature and governor that are friendly and (at various levels) committed to the success of this aging port city.   State grants, tax allocations, and other line items produce between 13-15% of Baltimore's annual budget. 

Despite these factors, Baltimore remains a very poor city with very serious problems.  Here's a look at the present - why hasn't Baltimore prospered in an era of heavy state and federal funding?

1.  Failure to grow employable or college-ready students in public schools.  Over 30% of students fail to advance to 9th grade.  Nearly 25% of those who do advance, still fail to finish their high school education by age 20.   25% of high school students, as reported recently in the Baltimore Brew, miss a month of school or more every school year.  40% of first-time 9th graders miss 20 school days or more (the historical cutoff for grade repeat or expulsion was 10 days).  The result of all of this is that the median student in Baltimore City is marginally prepared for work or higher education at the time of their high school graduation.  That's a poor standard, and despite the revolving door of school system CEOs and the influx of millions of dollars of federal and state money, improvements are limited to only a portion of metrics, and measured in single digit improvements.

2.  Ineffective Laws on Violent Crime.  On the adult crime front, serious challenges remain.  Despite the City's bloc of delegates' instrumental assistance in passing Maryland's Firearm Safety Act of 2013, which the mayor, governor, and gun control advocates promised "would save lives immediately," the law (arguably America's most restrictive) appears to have had little to no impact, as monthly and annual homicide rates since the law's effective date (October 1, 2013) have not differed statistically from those prior to the law's passage.   Indeed, the Baltimore Police are investigating 13 homicides (almost all via handgun) that have occurred in the first 17 days of January, 2015.  The last January before our new gun law saw 12 total homicides, compared to post-gun law Januaries of 2014 (27 homicides) and 2015 (likely 25 homicides).  Interestingly, and perhaps positively, Baltimore Police have reported repeatedly that the most common reason for shootings is not the narcotics trade, but "common disagreements."  There is hope that a more civil, educated, and employed/non-impoverished society can help minimize the impact of this half-century epidemic of violence.

3.  Prohibitive Tax Rates.  Economically, substantial barriers to successful urban society remain - Baltimore's property tax rate is 2.25%, over 20 times the rate established by the state of Maryland (0.11%), and two to three times the rates of surrounding suburban counties.  This is a significant and obvious disincentive to locating a business or residence within Baltimore, especially given some of the other key factors, such as quality of public education and public safety, both described above.

4.  Environmental Disasters.  The City is under increasing federal and state pressure to reduce its impact on state and federal natural resources.  You know, "air" and "water."   Like many major cities, Baltimore's geography shows that the worst water and air quality exist in the most impoverished communities.  However, the scale of such pollution is so massive that Baltimore's environmental impacts are felt across county and state lines.  Baltimore is a party in numerous legally-binding environmental cleanup programs with state and federal agencies.  In all cases, the City is irrevocably behind schedule and over-budget on these multi-million dollar projects.   Federal and state fines, and perhaps federal and state agency takeovers, loom for 2019 and beyond.   Let's point out here that this is more than a fiscal problem.  The city's residents and workers (from the poorest to the richest) deserve to live an urban habitat that's more than a living hazardous materials dump.  Yet, go to most community parks and that's exactly what you'll find.    Given the City's lack of action in the face of continuously higher legal stakes (and funding), it is not a stretch to call this a human rights issue.  If it were Mumbai or Mexico City, that's what we would call it.

Summary:  It has become clear that unfortunately, "more money" and "more laws" are not the only solution to Baltimore's problems (if only it were so). Simultaneously, some realities have been operating in the background that bear some serious consideration in the name of figuring out "what is Baltimore to do?"  My next essay on the topic will examine those, as a legislative and fiscal preview to 2015 (and FY16).


Monday, January 19, 2015

How to Fish Southwest Florida's Canal Systems

If you came to Florida looking for surly alligators, fire ants, and chiggers, then the region's drainage canal system is the place for you!  Seriously though, the generally high and sandy acreage of Sarasota and Charlotte Counties provides precious few "natural" freshwater fishing opportunities.  Natural ponds and lakes that support freshwater gamefish just don't seem to abound.   That changed in 1590, when Ponce de Leon enslaved thousands of native Americans and forced them to dig what is now the current canal system to help him grow the best tapioca in the Spanish Empire.

And with that, I just made 400 eighth graders fail their history paper.  Suckers. In all seriousness, the region's canal systems grew somewhat organically - in the human sense - over the course of the 20th century, starting from "clearing out" the mangroves in the coastal areas for improved boat access, extending the mangroves (in the form of canals) away from the coastline in an effort to create more "waterfront - Gulf Access" real estate, and ultimately, as a way to drain the relatively rare pesky wetlands in the areas as far as 10-20 miles from the upper limits of high tide.   It's hard to drive more than two miles without crossing a canal, and depending on the time of year and time of day, you're likely to see people fishing them.

But all canals are not created equally.   You can pretend they are all great fisheries, like I did recently, or you can read this information below and save yourself some effort.

Dead Canals.  Some canals drain uplands from golf courses and residential areas, and as they have relatively little baseflow, tend to be overwhelmed with nutrients from fertilizer.  These canals, until they reach an area where either groundwater (springs) or tidal water mix in, tend to result in the nasty chemistry of "hypoxia," or the starvation of oxygen from the water.   Good clues that you've encountered a "dead canal" are rings of dried algae at different water levels on surrounding bridges and pilings, suspended chunks of algae noticeable in the water column as you're retrieving a lure, and water that appears to be cloudy for no apparent reason (hasn't rained in quite a while).  Another clue can be the presence of fish breathing at the surface.  

Canals with Dams.  In an area that doesn't seem to have slopes above 2%, I can't think of any amazing reasons to build dams in drainage canals.  Yet, they exist, and these serve as popular fishing spots for a few reasons.  First, cascading water creates oxygenation.  That's important.  Second, cascading water tends to create a plunge pool (scour pool) of deeper water, which is important in a place with hot weather.   Third, the dam itself serves as a physical barrier to fish, which is bad for the fish but quite handy for anglers.   Depending on the salinity of the canal downstream, this can be a hangout for catfish, bass, or even snook.

Canal outlets to salt marsh / mangrove.  Oh man.  Here's the money.  Play the tide right, and you're talking snook and redfish all day long.  Well, until slack tide hits.  Be mindful of bait that you see moving in the current, and select a lure accordingly.

Weather.  I've fished in 25 states or so, and I don't know that I've seen fish more sensitive to weather than I have in Florida.   The fishery still turns off when it gets hot, but due to the high relative temperatures, the fish are sensitive to "cold" (i.e. sub-70 degree water) as well.  In the winter, you'll see most canal fishing happening in the afternoons, with the highest number of anglers out an hour before dusk.  In the summer, folks are out as the sun arises, calling off many trips by 830am.

Lures.  Pick your poison - these fish bite.  Strong plays include any type of stickbait, pin minnow, or Rapala if the fish are near surface.  For cloudy water, spoons are the play for almost every species.  Don't forget about soft plastics - the favorite of many Florida anglers.  Consider plastics with good movement, suspension, molded in dark colors with a chartreuse tail or tip (the killer flats minnow comes to mind).

Get out there and good luck!  Watch your step. 




Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My South Florida Fishing and Drinking Challenge

This abandoned railroad dock in the Gulf of Mexico holds approximately 300,000 small sharks based upon the amount
of bait they stole from me here. 
Standard 2014 Day
So, I didn't take a full week off in 2014.  And now I'm taking two weeks off.  I very much need a change of perspective.  It was great to be completely "in the groove" for 2014, and a lot was accomplished, but the sustainability of that kind of professional production is....dubious...at best.

So I've made another commitment of dubious sustainability for my two week trip.  To exercise? Meh, some.  To finish my novel? Well, I'll get closer.  No, dear readers (an average of 89 of you will read this, after all), my commitment is to fish and drink every day.  Yes, it is a challenge.  But I will pursue it faithfully.


Day 1:
Fishing:  Brackish suburban drainage canal
Drinking:   Pale Lager from Florida Brewing
Assessment:  Weird, dark water.

Day 2:
Fishing:  Kayak fishing the Peace River mangroves
Drinking:  Fosters Oil Cans
Assessment:  Caught fish! Saw beautiful birds! For the win!

Day 3:
Fishing:  Scouting / high wind
Drinking:  Rum Runners, some kind of crap called a Tiki-Rita
Assessment:  Water's still in the 60s, but fish are acting "cold."

Day 4:  Family Day
Drinking:  Orange-Cranberry Margaritas
Assessment: Noticing that no one fishes before 11am

Day 5:
Fishing:  Spring-fed freshwater lake
Drinking: None
Assessment:  Stupid to fish in the morning.  Lots of fish.  No bites.

Day 6:  Kid sick

Day 7: Christmas, kid still sick

Day 8: Surf fishing
Drinking:  DFH 60 Minute IPA
Assessment:  Fun surf fishing! Bites on every cast! Caught fish!

Day 9:  Scouting Myakka River
Drinking:  Skinny Margarita
Assessment:  Surprisingly good access...where are the fish?

Day 10:  Scouting Longboat, Siesta Key
Drinking:  Dirty Banana
Assessment:  Very expensive. Big mullet in shallow water means sharks or big reds.

Day 11:  Scouting Myakka River
Drinking:  Sangria

Day 12:  Kayak fishing Boca Grande
Drinking:  Green Flash (mixed drink)
Assessment:  Gulf Coast Grand Slam!

Day 13:  Scouting Naples, Marco
Drinking:  Watermelon Soda
Assessment:  This place is so weird.

There you have it.  I'm back in Maryland now, where it is 9 degrees compared to the average high temperature of 81 while we were in South Florida.  Bah humbug.   Detailed reports coming soon, though it's fair to say that my favorite drink was the Dirty Banana (don't judge) and my favorite fish was a 17-18" speckled trout I caught on artificial lure, in the kayak, by myself.

New Year's Day, South Florida


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Do's and Don'ts for Hunting and Fishing Guides

In our society, business transactions reflect the differential valuation of something across some type of barrier (time/distance/rate).  This is also known as "supply and demand."   Although demand can be artificially manipulated, its power is that it defines the valuation of the current and foreseeable quality and quantity of almost anything.  In the case of hunting and fishing guides, the supply and demand revolve around things like:

1) guide's skill and knowledge
2) guide's local knowledge
3) guide's access to good habitat
4) guide's ability to teach
5) guide's business practices
6) guide's passable (or better) gear
7) guide's relative availability (real or perceived)

I have a highly varied experience with hunting and fishing guide that spans decades, states, and game species.   I paid a premium for my last guided trip, and it was phenomenal.  I paid a bargain for my previous guided trip, and it was pretty good (I wasn't disappointed).  The guided trip before that was a near-failure, and I'll be honest here.  It was the guide's fault.  Well, his dog's fault.  Which was the guide's fault.

Now, I know that many of you have read Kirk Deeter's bit that "guides are the stewards of the rivers," and blah blah blah.   That's like saying "Cops are good guys" and "Americans are amazing."  All of those statements are true some of the time - perhaps most of the time, but generally one wouldn't state them for the record as an absolute fact.  I was surprised to see earlier this week that Gink and Gasoline's Louis Cahill took up Deeter's mantra on the infallibility of guides (perhaps inadvertantly), wondering how it's even possible that clients can have a bad day on the woods or water, because 1) clients should be decent customers (he's 100% correct), and 2) (inferred) guides are infallible (I estimate he's 60% correct).   What follows after the inferred question of "why can't you give the guide your money and just have a good time?" is actually a very good list of suggestions that clients should always evaluate prior and during their trip.  It really is a good list.

The problem is that it's not the only time that a list like this has been published, and yet, there's never any apparent interest in developing a similar list of do's and don'ts for professional fishing and hunting guides.   The only really fair assumption I can make about that is the fact that a large number of hunting and fishing bloggers are also hunting and fishing guides, and as any writer is inclined to do, they are more likely to write about how they were frustrated on the water, as opposed to how their actions or mistakes frustrated someone else.  I am not a guide, but I promise that the nearly 800 posts on this blog continue unexamined experiences of that nature - how my outdoor mistakes or bad luck impacted others negatively. Edit: that's a circuitous way of saying that I whine about my own situation while ignoring how it affected others' situations.

So after you've read Louis' list of client do's and don'ts (which is required reading, honestly), here's a list of Guide Do's and Don'ts from Your Next Most Likely Customer.

1.  Be aware of your differential - your market value. Your gear should be better than your client's.  Your skill (duck calling, knot tying, etc) should be better than your client's.  Your knowledge of the local target species and local habitat should be better than the client's.  If those things don't exist, you are not a guide, you are a paid fishing or hunting buddy.  I am not paying you $200-700 to use a wood paddle, paddle a leaky kayak, hunt over decoys with pellet holes, or watch you spook fish as you fish ahead of me, at a fishing hole where I already fish by myself for free.  No.  That's called "hunting and fishing with my brothers," and it's free.  Except for the beer, because they drink it all. Jerks.

2.  Leave Your Asshole Dog at Home.  If your dog is an asshole, your clients won't want to hunt over him/her.  So just don't.  If I want to hunt over a dog that barks when ducks are tolling, that flushes quail 90 yards in front of me, that shits in the bed of my truck for no reason, that eats the head off of a goose instead of retrieving it, or who eats rabbit turds instead of flushing rabbits, I could call any of my buddies and have their dumb dogs come out with me for free.   On multiple occasions I have had guides ask me to pay for such a privilege.  To Hell with your dog's pedigree.  Get Chief Wampanus Colussus VII x Magnolia Ebony Southern Beauty XXIV trained before you ask people to pay for its work.   I mean, seriously.

At this point, let me say that if I am paying to fish with you, do not bring your damn dog either.  I literally had this happen once.  Another story for another day.  Sigh. 

3.  Do not take your clients to spots they could easily access otherwise (unless previously agreed); do not take clients to burnt out spots.   I once had a kayak fishing guide escort me less than 10 yards from the boat ramp to "the secret spot" across the inlet, across from the public fishing pier.   TEN YARDS. Mile upon mile of creek were immediately available.  Bad experience.  Yet, when discussed prior to the trip, I've had great experiences on remote (>10 yards from put-in, ha ha) public waters that I hadn't previously fished.  In those cases, I had decent outings and more importantly, learned crucial things about the dynamics of those particularly waters and the fish that live in them.

It's also important not to take clients to burnt out spots out of your own tiredness or habit.  Scouting should tell you whether water or woods are ready to accept more hunters or anglers.   Savvy clients will know if you are taking them to burnt out spots by the nature of apparent human use (put in, footprints in sandbars, spent shells, monofilament in the trees), as well as the obvious spookiness of game species.  Just don't do it.   The impact to your reputation will be significant.

4.  If hunting, do not take your client to public land or water where any (real) chance of other hunters exists.  This relates to #3, but adds a safety component.  If we are hunting, I am paying you good money to put me where the target species is "likely" to be, and a place where other human beings are not likely to screw it up.  Also for $150-$600 per day, I prefer to not be shot in the face by a hunter who is legally hunting and minding his or her own business on public land/water.   There's no telling whether deer, ducks, bears, boars or bunnies will actually materialize where we hunt (while we're there), or whether I will shoot straight at the moment of truth, if the moment arrives.  If I was expecting those, I would be an unreasonable client.  But I expect that when the sun rises on our "perfect setup," that I cannot see Cousin Delbert across the creek with his 8 mojo ducks, 200 floating decoys, and 6 hunters, right across from us.

5.  Always scout.  And if you didn't, do not lie.   By far the worst guided experience of my life came as a result of a guide lying about his extent of scouting an area and the frequency with which he took parties to hunt the area (that guide also violated tips #1 - #4 above, as well as #7-#9 below).   This guy was literally wrong about everything.   At one point we demanded that he put away his duck call and not use it anymore.   Our setup was 100% wrong and we spent the day watching ducks and geese fly exactly opposite of the way our guide said they would....and we (by ourselves) found the mother lode of geese by ourselves after the trip, less than a mile from where we hunted, and in clear view of the public road.   Our guide didn't scout, and rather than delay or lose the money from our trip, he took us on an absolutely awful hunt.  Then he lied about it, which was just ignorant.

6.   Have your shit together.  If you're the consummate, error-free professional that Kirk and Louis profess that you are, then do not be late.  Do not forget to pick up flies (or bait or your own ammo).  Do not forget a rod.  Do not forget to provide directions.  Do not forget to pay any access permit fees ahead of the trip.  Do not forget how to get to your site.  Don't plan on asking your client for a jump start.  Many of your clients work in the pressure cooker of corporate life.  Whether they are 23 or 73, they are expected to act professionally all the time they're on the clock.  They (we) expect the same of you, our paid guide.   Having an outdoors job in the fish and wildlife field is not an excuse for this stuff.  Trust me, I know.  Sigh.

7.  Err on the Side of Canceling (or Not Scheduling) a Potentially Bad Trip.   My most recent guide told me, "You know, we could go tomorrow, but I'd like one more day to scout.  I know that's your day, but do you think you could wait one more day for a possibly better trip?"  I nearly peed in my pants.  If you ask many guides, "What's the best day next week?" they will answer, "ANY DAY YOU CAN GO!"  If you say, "No, I mean, what day are we likely to have the *best* experience?" they respond "EVERY DAY IS AWESOME!"   They want to book a trip, and I get that, but when you book inherently bad trips (i.e. unfavorable weather is headed in, stream flows are poor, water clarity is poor, ducks aren't flying, etc), it just means that client will never be your client again.   If you take me trout fishing and the water is chocolate milk, or you insist that goose hunting on a 65 degree will be "epic," I'm going to be disappointed (see #1 and #4 above).   I'm flabbergasted at how many guides appear to be OK with a business model that involves 100% new, one-time clients.  Really?

You might lose my business this week if you say, "Sorry man, there's not much going on and I don't want to take your money, let's schedule something for next week after the cold front passes," but the reality is that I will assume that you're a professional, you have your shit together, and you're honestly interested in putting me on the target species to the extent possible.  That simple act of pre-emptively canceling a bad trip means that I'm probably going to book with you multiple times in the future because I trust your judgment and your respect for my time and money.  Thank you.  I'll tell all my friends about you, too.

7.  Book the trip with realistic, solid expectations.  I'm a good client.  When I book a trip, I share my expectations and skill level with the guide.   The good guides tell me generally what they hope to expect, "Well, x species is not working well, but y species is pretty hot, we can chase that if you'd like, and kind of take it from there...North Creek is blown out but West Creek might work, we'll have to see."  The bad guides tell me, "It's gonna be epic!"  "Oh we're gonna put you right on top of 'em!"  "GEESE IN YOUR FACE BRO!" (actual quote).   Guess which expectations aren't disappointments?  Guess which guides get referrals from me?

8.  Do Not Try to Adjust Expectations During the Trip.    Son of a gun, if I hear one more guide say, "That's why they call it fishing, not catching, nyuk, nyuk!!!!"  I might just....well....nevermind.  A suitably annoying alternate is "That's why they call it huntin', not killin'!" There are valid (and not so valid) reasons why our trip might not be great.   A steady, open line of communication during our trip (something Louis Cahill correctly advocates for on the client's side) will outline these issues, ranging from "I made a mistake with this tide," to "Damnit, the wind forecast was wrong," to "See that spot?  That's our spot.  Now see those dolphins? They just ate our fish"  will allow your clients to logically come around to whatever the reality of the day may be.

Don't succumb to the temptation to either spout of corny one-liners or alternately, to start haggling for future "half off" bookings because "it's not working out."  Give your client the experience that you discussed prior to the trip, to the extent that it's possible (if the fish don't bite and the ducks don't fly, there's nothing to be done about that).  After the client calls the trip (#9 below), you can discuss future deals if you think it's appropriate (the good client won't ask you to do so).

9.  Let the Client Call the Trip (Within Reason).   I have yet to see this one handled really well, despite the alleged infallibility of fishing and hunting guides that I've been reading so much about lately.  It's actually a very complex and sensitive thing, so there's no wonder it's hard to handle. When I'm having an unproductive (note I didn't say "bad") trip with a good guide, sometimes I'm just done with it.  The guide, at that moment, has a lot of things to handle.  One is that he/she knows I'm not satisfied with the trip's outcome (even though it may have been a good experience overall).  Two is that the guide likely has the confidence (and experience) that perhaps the target species will pop up "at any minute," so as a result, he/she doesn't want to end the trip on a whim.   Data supports the guide on this one.

But in general, if the client is ready to go, then saddle up and end the trip.   If time is up on the trip, or if another party is waiting to start their guided trip, then this is a non-issue.  But I'd like to see clients be more active in deciding when the guided trip ends, and I'd like to see guides honor that.

10.  Your Personal Business is Not Financial Leverage.  At the end of two very different guided trips - one amazing and one horrible, I've had the two very different guides - one great and one awful-  lay on me their personal trip about how bad their finances are, and how they need a generous tip to keep going.  In one case (the good guide) this seemed to be potentially true, but I felt like it was fairly inappropriate (after all, the price is the price, and the tip is the tip, right?).  In the other case (awful guide), we were standing inbetween my 15 year old Tacoma and his brand new, $60,000 F350 while he talked about he couldn't make his daughter's private college tuition bill on his pension (note, I have no pension).  No lie.

It would be inappropriate for me to leverage a lower guided trip cost by describing my student loan debt and how I work for a charity, right?  I think so.   The same applies to the other side of the equation.  If you need more money, charter more trips or charge more money.   Or do what I had to do until age 40 - work a second job, get the money, and stop complaining.

In conclusion......Writing this post was an interesting exercise - I know that guides know other guides who do bad work.  And I could provide a pretty hilarious list of the serially-convicted guides who abuse our fish and wildlife resources on a regular basis (so much for being "teachers of the river").  I think that guides and guiding can be better, and should be better - just as their clients should be better.   I'd like to think that as a result of that, we'd see more successful guides and more happy clients. 

Thanks for stopping by.



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fishy Greetings from Southwest Florida

Mangroves in Boca Grande Pass

Sometimes, life takes me to places that live up to the expectations, the stereotypes, and the stories that have been long-attached to them.  For me, the coastal American South is such a region, and in fact I'm a product of the place (southeastern Virginia).  Southwest Florida particularly fits the bill on all counts.  What do I mean by that?

In Southwest Florida, a "young" county has a residents' median age of 62, compared to the "old fogies" county next door, with its median age of 68.   No one is from the area, as very few islands or towns were built prior to the 1980s.  But the throngs who have arrived have very predictable, if varied, politics, based largely on the area from which they came.  Strong statements about "The Damn Tea Party Idiots" clash with vitroil about "That Damn Muslim up in DC" depending on whose table is the scene of the conversation.  Generally, though, folks are exceedingly politely and are disproportionately carrying handguns.   Very few people of color are present, but that doesn't eliminate the crime that has come with heroin, oxycontin, and methamphetamines, all three hanging like the smoke of a burning trash barrel over poor white communities in the region.  However, since the development of the area is still quite new, people are spread out, and the odds of running into a bad person are fairly low (although we witnessed a very high junkie with his kids at a public playground one day).  He had a heroin lean and could barely speak, so to be fair, I do not think he was planning any property or violent crimes.

What still remains is water.  Or more precisely, clean water full of aquatic vegetation and healthy populations of fish and migratory birds.  As I told a colleague today, it seemed like stepping back in time in the Chesapeake Bay to roughly 1945-1955 - before pavement increased from 5% of the landscape to 60% of the landscape. Before the Chesapeake died.  Of course, there are very specific plans to accomplish just that in Southwest Florida.  The recession has indeed ended, and I saw construction starting everywhere - largely on huge developments that were halted in 2008, many of them possessing a labyrinth of roads through forest slated for hundreds or thousands of homes for retirees and seasonal tourists.

But me, I came to fish.  I learned that Floridians are spoiled, as catching a grand slam of game fish from a kayak on artificial lures was deemed "a slow day" since it took six hours.   Powerboat charters that return with less than obscene piles of fish (the redfish limit was 10 per person/day until recently!) are referred to as wastes of money.  I'm not sure if folks know how good they have it, and how sensitive the resource truly is.   I really hope they figure it out in time.

But at least for now, it is a place of beauty.  I got to explore the Peace and Myakka Rivers by kayak, and got to fish them both.  I fished historic Boca Grande on the flats, from the beach, and from the kayak.  And we caught fish, including two new "life list" fish for me:  permit and bonnethead sharks. I learned to ignore the spooky  sunrise calls of sandhill cranes in the drainage canals, which is something I never thought I'd accomplish.   I'll be sharing my stories in the coming weeks.

Thanks for stopping by.

Peace River Mangroves