Tuesday, February 16, 2016

What Does Virginia HB1329 Mean for Virginia Houndsmen?

Last week, Virginia House Bill 1329,  expressly penalizing those hunters who intentionally release hounds on "prohibited lands" - land where they have no permission to hunt - sailed through the esteemed Virginia House of Delegates with a 99-0 vote.   A companion Senate Bill will be proffered in the next week or so, and is expected to sail on to similar success in a rather atypical wave of uncontroversy.

Virginia property rights advocates, long tired over the 30 year history of unenforced hound trespass on rural lands, have bemoaned HB 1329 because it includes the word "intentionally."   Citizens testified to have the word stricken, to no avail.  And that word is important when creating a punitive statute, because it conveys intent.  In our legal system, intent is important.   At first glance, the wording seems to favor sloppy houndsmen who operate "right outside the law" by releasing hounds on a small parcel with the unstated intent to have those hounds hunt other "prohibited" properties nearby.   I'd wager that a large percentage of the rapidly growing number of annual complaints about deer hounds surrounds this type of hunter.   And if my hunting, my food plots, my peace and quiet, or my livestock were impacted by hounds in that scenario, I'd be mad too.

But I think these angry landowners, many of them becoming engaged in the legislative process for the first time in their lives (look out, hound lobbyists!),  are missing the point in their depression and frustration over HB 1329's wording around criminal intent.   These folks, new to politicking, think that "long term" means a 2017 or 2018 revision to this soon-to-be-law, ostensibly to muddle the "intent" phrasing.   And that's fairly likely to happen.

I propose a deeper and more long term view, though.    Virginia's hound lobbyists have promised for decades that their heritage and their way of hunting could not be undone.  That their hunting practices, not unlike Yankee fox hunts in DuPont country of eastern Pennsylvania, will simply never need to comply with "the laws of man" regarding private property rights.    The leaders of Virginia's hound hunting community don't want to compromise and don't believe they need to compromise.  For decades, they experienced great success in legislatively obtuse behavior toward this end.    But that changed in the last five years.

In 2013, Virginia became the 45th state to enjoy limited Sunday hunting for deer, waterfowl, and small game, over the intensive lobbying of the Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance, the houndsmens' premier lobbyist organization.  It should be noted that VAHDA's lobbying was noted openly - and with great approval - by animal rights organizations.  The houndsmen didn't care - they couldn't lose.  But they did.

In 2014,  those same animal rights organizations brought national funding to Virginia to ban fox pens, which were a keystone in Virginia houndsmens' culture.   The houndsmen again brought great resources to bear, ultimately to see a state-wide permanent ban on new fox pens enacted, and a 2054 deadline to close all existing fox pen operations, statewide.   Hound lobbyists tried in vain to call this compromise a "success" for hunters.   But in reality, the houndsmen lost big in Richmond, for the second year in a row.

Which brings us to 2016, and HB 1329.  Houndsmen have laughed off this law while lightly opposing it, because many of them are law-abiding hunters, and a good percentage of others are savvy enough to work around the "intent" wording of the law, so "who cares?" As I mentioned above, the indignation hasn't escaped the ire of landowners, which is (legally) meaningless for the moment.   But come July 1, it will be the law, and for the third year in four, laws specifically targeting hound hunting's special privileges (fox pens, lack of still hunters in the woods on Sunday, lack of penalties for obvious, intentional hound trespassers) will be passed into law.

Prior to 2015, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries did not track citizen complaints specific to "deer hounds," so deer hounds represented less than 1.5% of game warden responses in 2014.  At the request of landowner advocates, that has now changed, so deer hounds represented almost 5% of game warden responses in 2015.    Depending on whose lobbyist you're listening to, it either means that "it's just a small problem," or "the problem increased 300% in one year."

As landowner rights lobbying and continued media attention (on all sides) continues to shine light on the conflict of hunting dog heritage in a quickly suburbanizing countryside, more laws will come.  None will favor houndsmen.   And I suppose this is the take-home lesson for HB 1329.  It's a small law with limited consequence, on the heels of two big laws with enormous hound hunting consequences in 2013 and 2014.  

I'm not sure I embrace the theology of the Church of the Holy Virginia Landowner, but I'd recommend that local hound hunting leaders be ready to come to the Church's pot luck dinner and be ready to talk about compromise in a pretty big hurry.  Because the Church's next fundraiser will be a doozy, and it'll be at deer hounds' great expense.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Bigger and Better: My Changes for the 2016-2017 Archery Season

2015 was truly the year that I fell in love with archery.  All it took was the right bow and some patience.  I say those two things like they were simple, but they were not.   While I saw fewer total deer in the woods in 2015-2016 than I did the previous hunting season, I generally saw more quality deer this year.   While the harvest didn't meet my expectations, my enjoyment and overall better odds in the woods were a result of:

  • hunting solely in the tree stand, never on the ground
  • stand is located right next to a topographic draw that's a "deer highway"
  • being calm and confident with my gear, from my harness to my arrows
  • having the confidence (and intel) that yes, the deer are around....somewhere
Some reasons I was not as successful as I wanted:

  • Very tough weather (hot October, hot November, no distinct rut season, cold January)
  • Lack of a distinct rut season - many hunters were out all week, with no harvest
  • Bumper crop acorn season - deer did not have to travel to find food in early winter
  • Someone (poacher) using my stand - I found an arrow (not mine) in a nearby stump
  • Someone (doesn't have current permission, but not evicted by landowner) has a stand roughly 100 yards away, on the peak of the hill, and he baits (which is legal here)
  • Almost all deer came from behind me, causing me (later in the season) to constantly be wiggling around in the tree stand
  • tree stand is extremely exposed after leaf fall (oops)
  • had to walk through woods/leaves to get to tree stand
  • wind wasn't always favorable
  • made a few laundry mistakes with detergent, brighteners, etc. 
So where to go in 2016-2017?

  • Spring:  Move tree stand to a location where poachers less likely to see/use
  • Spring:  Get bows fully tuned (one at 52lb, one at 65lb)
  • Summer:  Build a stand or blind on the south valley cliff - easy walk in; favorable wind setup
  • Install any tree stands with coverage of a holly or evergreen on at least one side
  • Summer/Fall:  More active use of a trail cam - I had stopped in September.   When deer disappeared in late October, I felt completely blind to their activity. 
  • Summer:   Practice long range (40-50 yard) archery the way I practiced short range archery in Summer 2015
  • Make a decision early (August) on whether to bait at all
  • If baiting, do so seriously, with a feeder.  Infrequent baiting hasn't seemed to be an aid.
  • Do not bait in areas frequented by poachers

Monday, February 8, 2016

Swinging For the Fences: Goose Hunting on the Wye

Literally the only picture I took this morning.
If I could goose hunt anywhere in Maryland, it'd be on the lower Chester River.  But if it couldn't be on the lower Chester (which, at $1500 - $4500 leases per person, it can't be), it would be on the Wye River, just a dozen or so miles south.    The Chester, known as "AP Goose Ground Zero" is the first area to fill up with Atlantic Population geese, usually in November.  As the numbers grow, small groups of geese filter north to the Sassafras (where I've hunted since 2009) or south to the Wye and Choptank.

But that first big flight of geese never came in this strangely odd El Nino winter.  In the last week of the season, I was invited to hunt geese with some work friends on a farm that usually generates limits of geese.     A typical morning might have you see one to two thousand geese, and kill a 6-man limit of 12 geese.  

So we hunkered down and waited, and in the end probably saw about 60 geese total, shot and missed at one goose, and went home empty handed.   This might not have happened, had the guide not told us to arrive at 9:00, leading some of the hunters to arrive at 9:10; and of course about 30 geese had landed around the pit at 8:55, and a few more at 9:05.   I would have gladly given up another hour of sleep to have arrived at 8:00.  Sigh.

But that's how hunting goes, and that's how many hunters' seasons have gone this year on the east coast.  As one buddy told me, when I asked if they'd killed geese, "No.  We did not.  And I hope they freeze to death."    A harsh sentiment to be sure, but after watching a few dozen fickle geese toy with us in a frozen, snowy corn field, good riddance to them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Season's Last Bow Hunt

I'm not one for moral victories, but at least the only real
trail in the woods is the one that goes right past my tree stand.
I have a new fire in my belly for bow hunting, but life has been trying to put it out.  I don't know what has been the biggest obstacle:  1) my failure to take a turkey with a bow in Nebraska, 2) a beautiful, relaxing Florida fishing trip in December, 3) the bitter cold temperatures immediately upon returning from Florida, or 4) spending 7 of the last 10 days of the season either shoveling out from Baltimore's worst blizzard in history; and/or spending 7 of the last 10 days dealing with school cancellations.

But knowing there are big deer, and plenty of them, in the woods is a strange motivator.  I put on three layers on top and bottom, along with Hot Hands in my gloves and boots, and trudged through well-packed, knee deep snow out to the tree stand three hours before sunset (hoping to maximize my chance of seeing something).

Like half of my bow hunts this season, I saw nothing.  There were very few tracks and trails in the woods, which told me that the deer were likely hanging around bird feeders in nearby back yards.   It was a quiet afternoon and after awhile, I got into almost a trance state (don't worry, I wear a full body safety harness in the tree) and thought about a lot of things.  When I kind of snapped out of it, it seemed like every time I blinked, it was darker.   A pink sunset over the next ridge told me that the hunt was over, and the season was over.

After my last hunt in most years, I'm done thinking about hunting gear, hunting tactics, and 330am alarm clocks for awhile.   But unlike previous seasons, I'm excited to consider what I can do better next season.    I think next season might be a classic.   I'll be writing soon about what it'll take to get me there.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Back in the saddle - late season bow hunt

The last time I'd climbed in my stand, it was late November, unseasonably warm, and the leaves were still on the trees.  How naked I now felt, 20 feet up, with nothing shielding me from acres of land.  Granted, perception is an illusion here, because a man standing still in a tree is generally not going to be seen by anything or anybody, including deer.

I got in the tree a little late, about 2 hours before sunset, and I was hoping that the cool temperatures - predicted for the upper 30s but actually stalling out around 34, would prompt some deer movement.  I was pretty disappointed.   Of course, I made the cardinal sin of getting out my phone.  When I looked up from texting my boss, there was a spindly 6-point buck on the next ridge, staring at me.  Even if I was watching for him, I wouldn't have seen or heard him approach, and the 80 yard shot through the treetop branches would have been impossible.  But as he stared at me, now frozen stiff and staring back, I knew I was busted.  He flicked his tail and bounded off.

And that was it.  Very few birds in the woods.  Few squirrels.  And no more deer.