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Field Notes

Field Notes are the monthly notes written by PA Game Commission wildlife conservation officers, about notable experiences and interactions they’ve had on the job, out in the field.  And you know that for those folks, men and women, out in the field is truly out there in the wild.  Their descriptions of encounters with people and wildlife are unique and often funny.

Field Notes are published monthly in the PGC’s Game News magazine, and for all of my hunting life (1973 until now), one person really summed up Field Notes and gave them pizzazz, making them my first-read in the magazine.

That was artist Nick Rosato, whose funny illustrations in Field Notes came to epitomize and symbolize the life and lighter side of wildlife law enforcement.  Rosato’s humorous, rustically themed sketches summed up a WCO’s life of enforcing the law against sometimes recalcitrant bad guys, while maintaining an empathy usually reserved for naughty school children, when first-time offenders were involved and a slap on the wrist was needed.

Rosato died this summer, and his art will no longer grace the pages of Game News.  I will miss Rosato’s humor and skill, because for most of my life he helped paint the human dimension of officers who are too often seen as gruff, grumpy, and unnecessarily strict law enforcers.

Speaking of WCOs, a couple years ago I was hunting during deer rifle season when I encountered a WCO I knew.  He had a deer on the back of his vehicle and we stopped to chat and catch up with each other.  Out of nowhere, I asked him to please check me, as in check my license, my gun, my ammunition.

Getting “checked” by WCOs and deputy WCOs is a pretty common experience for most Pennsylvania hunters, but the truth is, I have never been checked by anyone in my 42 years of hunting.

“Sorry, Josh, I just do not have the time.  You will have to wait ’til later or until you meet another WCO out here,” he responded.

With that he smiled, waved, and drove off to follow through on his deer poaching investigation.

I think that encounter should be a Field Note, Terry.  It is probably a first.

Maybe this year I will be “checked,” but perhaps having every single license and stamp available to the Pennsylvania hunter, and hunting only when and where I am supposed to hunt, somehow creates a karma field that makes WCOs avoid me.

Speaking of hunting experiences, yesterday morning Ed and I were goose hunting on the Susquehanna River.  Out in the middle of the widest part, we were alone, sitting on some rocks, chatting about our families, professional work, politics and culture, religion.  Our time together can best be summed up as “Duck Blind Poetry,” because it ain’t pretty, but it is soulful.  Two dads together, sharing life’s experiences and challenges, makes hunting much more than killing.

While we were noting the Susquehanna River’s recent and incredible decline in animal diversity, we suddenly saw four white Great Egrets fly across our field of view, followed by three wood ducks.  Intrigued, we began speculating on where they had all been hiding, when out of nowhere a mature bald eagle appeared on the horizon.  It flapped its way over us and clearly was on the hunt.  So that was why the other birds had quickly flown out of Dodge!

Seeing these wild animals interact with each other was another enjoyable example of how hunting is much, much more than killing.

Unfortunately, during that serene time afield, I introduced my cell phone to the Susquehanna River, and have found myself nearly shut off from communications ever since.  While the phone dries off in a bath of rice, I am enjoying a sort of enforced relaxation.  Please don’t think my lack of responses to calls and texts is rudeness.  I am merely clumsy.  Let’s not make that a Field Note.

 

PGC: Great, Old Agency Unused to Modern Limelight

If there is one take-away from my many years in federal and state government jobs, it is that agency staff cultures change slowly.  In Pennsylvania, a great example of this is one of my favorite agencies, the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  PGC is an agency that is used to doing things the way it wants, often relying on its impressive history as evidence for its present day independence and independent culture.

PGC is presently in the headlines because of a $200,000 payment to its former executive director, Carl Roe, now very recently departed of the agency.

I thought it was an amicable departure; maybe not.  PGC staff say this is a settlement to avoid a possible lawsuit.  Critics of the payment include the governor’s office, the PA Comptroller, the PA attorney general, and many elected officials.  They say this is a sidestep around the state’s prohibition of severance payments, made between a board of directors and an executive director who were actually very cozy with one another.

This is sad, because PGC is a storied agency, a trend-setter in the area of wildlife management, wildlife science, habitat management, and public land acquisition.  Something I like is that PGC has uniformed officers who stand in front of Hunter Trapper Education courses filled with 10-18-year-old kids, and tell them that they have a Second Amendment right to own firearms.  Few states in America have such a wonderful role for their uniformed law enforcement officers.  We are fortunate to have this agency with this culture, and it is for this reason that I oppose merging PGC with DCNR.  Ranger Rick and Smokey Bear are not going to purvey that valuable message.

The flip side of the culture is what is often described as a “bunker mentality” among the agency’s staff, and this payment to Roe probably fits in with that view.

Most agencies are careful to avoid controversy, especially controversy that does not have a strong basis.  This payment does not appear to have a strong basis, so it is an unnecessary controversy that is likely to damage the agency’s standing among lawmakers and executives, as well as the general public and hunters who otherwise happily buy hunting licenses to support their favorite agency.  It comes at a time when the agency is already under the gun from oversight legislation (HB 1576, which does not address actual problems, but rather imagined problems unrelated to PGC and PA Fish & Boat Commission).

Don’t get me wrong, I like Carl Roe, and PGC has also driven me nuts at times.  I clearly recall the day he was brought on to the agency as an intern.  Me, then PGC executive director Vern Ross, PGC biologist Gary Alt, Carl Roe, and senior PGC staffer Joe Neville drove together up to Bellefonte to participate in the swearing-in of a new PGC commissioner.  Carl struck me as a bright, quantitatively-oriented, inquisitive, experienced manager.  Over the years since that day I have had many opportunities to meet with Carl, and he has always impressed me as a stalwart and intelligent promoter of PGC, hunters, trappers, and wildlife conservation.  This huge payment lightning rod situation just does not make sense in that context.

But on second thought, this payment does make sense if the insular agency culture managed to eventually penetrate into Carl’s otherwise solid judgment.  That has been a phenomenon witnessed among other new PGC staff; the broad “something-is-in-their-water” observation that people’s personalities changed dramatically once they joined PGC. Other evidence of an insular culture was recently brought to my attention: Four of the agency’s biologists (all of whom have some or all of the deer program’s oversight) have graduate degrees from the same school and they studied at the same post-graduate field station.  And no, they ain’t from Penn State, or any Pennsylvania university, for that matter, dammit.

I fear for PGC, because at a time when the agency is already under scrutiny from HB 1576, this new payment debate threatens to add fuel to the flames, and add a straw onto the camel’s back.  Part of the culture driving these problems is the same kind of culture that can cause the roof to suddenly come down.  Careful there, boys, careful.

*******UPDATE:

So, as has happened before, these essays get read, and I get phone calls and emails.  People calling me usually do not want to post on the blog, being afraid of attribution, and frankly, what some other people want to post here is not always worth keeping.  So here is the gist of what came over the transom in the past half hour: Things between Carl Roe and the PGC board were not chummy.  The payment to him is seen as a real money-saver.  I am unsure how an at-will employee like an executive director has any real legal recourse, unless he is fired for his religion or political views, things that are a) hard to prove and b) unlikely.  Also, I neglected to mention that Roe had, indeed, given away about $300,000 in agency funds to Hawk Mountain (GREAT PLACE, but not necessarily deserving of big PGC money) and other groups. This unaccountable and unapproved largesse caused real friction between Roe and the board, not to mention the rest of the stakeholders whose donations to and purchases from PGC are expected to be spent in a pecuniary fashion.

For shotgun slug hunters, relief

If you hunt deer in a shotgun-only zone like southeast Pennsylvania, Long Island, or New Jersey, you know the common futility of shooting rifled slugs (Foster slugs) out of your smoothbore barrel.  Within 50 yards, odds are you’ll connect, but beyond the likelihood of bagging the deer drops like a stone.  Foster slugs are effective in close, but never real accurate. (My friend, attorney, and hunting partner George A. would like me to remind readers that he has shot many deer with his Remington 870 rifled barrel, and he can attest to its great accuracy with sabots)

After flinging about a lot of wasted lead slugs last month, most of which were within 60 or 70 yards at deer standing broadside, my frustration reached epic levels.  Instead of leaving my otherwise trusty Remington 870 wrapped around a tree in the woods like some tennis pros beat up on their racquets, I decided to join the growing crowd of shotgun hunters and buy a rifled barrel.

Rifled barrels are known for dramatically improving shotgun accuracy, and effectiveness.  Even a barrel that is nearly snap-on/ snap-off, like the Remington 870, is reported by many hunters to shoot remarkably accurately out to 100 yards.

So, scoring a brand new 12-gauge Remington rifled barrel (open sights, not the cantilevered scope ramp) for $170 was exciting, but was only step one in improving my score.  Next I had to determine which sabots (pronounced say-bo-z) would emit from that new barrel.

After extensive research (which now means reading both drivel and gold on the Internet blogs, forums, product web pages, etc.), I selected the reloading components at www.slugsrus.com.  These are the folks who invented, patented, and until recently marketed the Lightfield slug, as well as the Hastings slugs of yore.  Their proprietary wad and lead mushroom head slug (“hammerhead”) result in astonishing accuracy with 490-grain lead slugs.  Not just claims of accuracy, but demonstrated accuracy in all kinds of circumstances.

That kind of freight, moving at 1600 feet per second, is a whopper, the Hammer of Thor, a ton of bricks, a falling grand piano, and every other appellation you care to assign.  It is a stopper of enormous magnitude. Forget lil’ old deer; grizzly bears and other large dangerous game will have a tough time resisting the urge to lay down and go into the long sleep once they meet this slug.

So I spoke with Pam at www.slugsrus.com, at length, and ended up purchasing sufficient components to reload 40 shells at home.  Reloading is a lot, lot, lot cheaper than buying pre-made shells off the shelf. If you are like me, and you want to see for yourself that the new rifled barrel is indeed capable of incredible accuracy, then a good half or more of those handloaded slugs are going to go down range off the cabin porch.

If you are a shotgun shooter by necessity or choice, and you resent paying ludicrous prices for shotgun slugs, I strongly recommend that you contact www.slugsrus.com and see if they can help you both improve your gun’s effectiveness, and save you a lot of money.

You see the darnedest things while hunting

Southeastern Pennsylvania has an overpopluated deer herd of Biblical proportions. Every drive results in shots and deer scrambling across the landscape, making their momentary escape.

On a recent hunt, a midget deer presented itself to every hunter in our group. It was a dwarf deer, without question not a baby or a fawn, apparently fully developed but the size of a fox. I am not making this up or exaggerating.

Although its tail was the regular size for an adult deer, its body was tiny. We nicknamed it the chihuahua deer, and no one shot at it. It was just too cute and freakish. I wanted to adopt it as a pet, which is a big no-no, as wildlife never goes home to become a pet. But it was entertaining to think of it as a pet. I bet it would become mean and spoiled.

Hunters see the darnedest things while afield: Endless trash left by someone too lazy to clean up after themselves; hawks taking snakes and mice; animals fighting; meth labs; you name it, someone you know has seen it.

Today we saw the chihuahua deer, a first-time experience. Maybe it’s a new species. Maybe its extremely diminutive size spawned too much silliness. Maybe hunting is more than killing; sometimes it’s just the experience of witnessing God’s amazing creation.

Bless you, chihuahua deer.

Good luck today, deer hunters

Like many Pennsylvania families today, ours went afield for the morning. My son, having watched an enormous buck run past us in the early morning dark, minutes before shooting light, decided his feet were cold enough and it was time for him to head in.
None in our hunting party got a shot off, yet, but we are gearing up for an afternoon drive, usually productive.
Good luck today, deer hunters! Hunt safely!

Hunting season is here, and I’m not

Hunting season, around these parts, is an all-consuming month of shooting star-like proportions and beauty. All year we wait to hunt bear and deer, with our packs on our backs and our rifles in hand. Wild areas that haven’t seen a human in a year suddenly welcome one, two, maybe three long striders. And that’s where I’ve been the past month, living in tents in wilderness areas, climbing up cliffs, playing cat and mouse with deer that either walk in front of your car or fall to my bullet, and which provide clean, healthy, sustainable nourishment nonetheless.

With old friends and new, I’ve had some exciting adventures, learned some new things, and had opportunities to reflect on life and career topics. Hunters Sharing the Harvest received one of my deer, with a $15 donation for the processing, and two friends are splitting another deer I took. A third deer I harvested I’m splitting with a friend. Over the coming month, I’ll dole out venison treats to friends and colleagues, sharing nature’s bounty. Along the way, thirty pounds of flubber have disappeared from my torso, and my kids tell me I look like their dad again. Friends tell me I look ten years younger. That feels good.

More to come after this frenetic month ends next weekend. Until then, keep yer powder dry.

Monday: Joe Sixpack Hunts the King’s Deer

Feudal Europe provided the backdrop to American Constitutional government, a stark contrast between arbitrary laws and the rule of law.

No greater symbol represents this contrast than the King’s Deer, a wild animal whose sole existence was dedicated to royalty’s pursuit of hunting pleasure. Surrounding the forests in which the deer lived, lived poor peasants and serfs. Often starving and rarely enjoying fresh meat, any English peasant who hunted a deer to feed his family also put his life in jeopardy. Cruel punishments were handed out to those caught ‘poaching the King’s deer’, despite their wide availability.

Fast forward to Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, the cornerstone of American independence and liberty, and the first experiment in democratic colonial rule. Here, wild game was and remains the property of the citizenry. No longer the King’s deer, our ubiquitous whitetails are available to anyone who wishes to take a basic course in hunting ethics, safety, and wildlife conservation. Our game laws are the opposite of Europe’s, even today. Our wild game are available to all free, law-abiding citizens.

Long a symbol of wild places and clean habitat, the graceful whitetail deer is also a symbol of freedom, of the individual opportunity that defines so much of American life.

Tomorrow, Monday, the rifle season for whitetail deer begins around 6:45 AM, and about one million free citizens will be afield with high powered rifles and shotguns in their hands. Each of us all-American Joe Sixpacks will be pursuing not only deer, but ideas. Ideas of freedom of movement, freedom to own firearms without government approval, freedom from want. Hunting isn’t just about shooting or recreation, but about fulfilling our roles as predators in a complex ecosystem, and our duties in a politically complex Republic. Different religions have different expressions of human freedom: the Passover Seder and the Eucharist are two that jump to mind. But here in Pennsylvania, we also have deer season, a secular but nonetheless deeply meaningful observance.

Good luck, shoot straight, be safe, enjoy your family and friends, and remember that a bad day hunting is better than a good day at the job.

Northcentral PA: More Bears than Deer

Although our gang got no bears today, many camps around us did. Just one camp, Camp Orlando got five …five! That’s like deer season, except it’s actually bears. I think bear season is the new deer season in Northcentral Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Hunters: Army of The Republic

Pennsylvania Hunters: Freedom’s Bulwark
By Josh First

Like it or not, the Obama administration’s failed gun-running scheme, “Fast and Furious,” is viewed by tens of millions of Americans as the tip of the administration’s ice berg aimed at sinking the American tradition of gun ownership.

You’d only be kidding yourself if you stated that the Obama administration supports Second Amendment rights. This administration has done everything it can to hamstring legal gun ownership. Growing up in Central Pennsylvania, where Democrats strenuously, overwhelmingly, even defiantly promoted Second Amendment rights, it saddens me to see the party having lost so much ground on this issue. To tens of millions of Americans, with many regional exceptions across rural Pennsylvania, that political party increasingly represents a direct threat to the greatest Constitutional right we have, the one right that guarantees all the others.

Last week marked the beginning of another two-week Pennsylvania deer hunting season, using firearms, and about 750,000 licensed hunters are afield here during this time, down from a high of over one million twenty years ago.

Every year I am one of these licensed hunters, toting around a Remington 700 BDL in .30-06 in our steep, majestic mountains. It is extremely accurate out to hundreds of yards and it has taken countless deer, and one bear, when called upon at a second’s notice. Its open sights are designed to acquire the target quickly.

Having my rifle across my shoulder, cradled in my arms, slung over my back, clutched in my hand, or at my shoulder, ready to fire, is one of the most natural and comforting feelings I know. Along with my beautiful custom hunting knife made by John Johnson (JRJ knives, in Perry County) and bullet wallet on my belt, and a pack on my back containing food, water, drag rope, and survival essentials, I feel as ready to hunt as Oetzi the Snow Man of the Alps felt the day he died while hunting over 5,000 years ago. As we modern humans are essentially dolled-up Pleistocene hunter-gatherers in fancy clothes, it is as natural a feeling as a human can have. It is who we are at our core, like it or not.

Like many guys out there now, I enjoy hunting alone, stealthily reconnoitering remote cliffs and washes, or with one or two other friends stalking independently of one another, knowing that any of one us could connect with our quarry, or bump them to a buddy. About a zillion years of programming goes into this heightened sense of anticipation and satisfaction when it happens. Until a hundred and fifty years ago, failing to kill a deer meant the family went to sleep hungry, so there should be no surprise that successful hunting evokes the strongest feelings of pride, and happiness. Eating and living to see another day is pretty much the happiest thing a person can do. Today, we just take it for granted, and contract out the inconvenient killing to a hitman, more or less.

However, most of my deer and bear hunting is spent in the company of many friends, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Disaffected. As we move around and across the landscape, carefully coordinating with one another in long lines designed to drive game forward and to stay out of one another’s shooting lanes, I am re-amazed every year at the proficiency with which our guys move across that rough terrain, at the way they safely handle their high powered rifles, at the way that they snap that rifle to their shoulder and kill a far-off deer in only a second or two, before the window of opportunity closes. These folks are shooters, serious, excellent woodsmen. Focused. Formidable. Impressive. I’m proud to be among such company.

These are real men out there, and real women, challenging themselves to succeed in ways that most modern humans have no idea about, sadly. However, there is another group out there that can somewhat relate to how we live during this period, and that is the men and women in combat uniform.

If Pennsylvania hunters were an army, they would be the fifth largest in the world behind China, North Korea, India, Russia and the United States, the last of which has an army only fractionally made of actual shooters. Although I did not receive military training, and although most of my experience with firearms has been rooted in hunting and target shooting, my attitude about my right to own an assortment of firearms is pretty damned militant. And that same attitude is shared among the other 749,999 licensed hunters here, not to mention the other few million Pennsylvanians who stopped hunting years ago but who retain homes full of firearms and bullets. We are a bulwark of freedom, a silent army that need not say anything nor give word to what it represents. Its shadow is faint but long.

In that context, and in the shadow of “Fast and Furious,” one of the thoughts that repeatedly crossed my mind over the past few weeks in our beautiful mountains was, “Mr. Obama, if you want our guns, then come and take ‘em. Really, give it a try, pal.”

It ain’t happening. Our army is bigger than yours.