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A fish tale

What I enjoy most about the summer time is spending that time with my family, my wife and kids. Especially outdoors. Hiking, fishing, boating, target shooting, camping, and cutting firewood with the promise of grilled meat and cold beer at the end is all part of the family experience here.

So here is a fish tale, or the tales of two fish, a punny phrase if ever one swam.

First one up is high school and college friend Jeff called out of the blue.

“Come down on Tuesday. Paul will be here with his son. It will be a fun reunion and we will all have our boys together, out on the boat, fishing.”

Jeff was a varsity wrestler from our arch-rival school, one weight class below me. In college we were separated by three weight classes. Now we are both fat and happy dads, coaching our boys through life the best way we know how – in the outdoors.

An invitation to salt water fish hardly ever goes neglected, especially with two other friends from high school and college, and within 24 hours my boy and I had rolled into town, found our hotel, gone to sleep at 4AM, and risen at 7:30AM ready to spend the day in the salt and sunshine with old friends. Paul and his son showed up from across the country, and we piled food, cold drinks, ice, and gear into the boat and headed out. Jeff is an old salt hand, and was a masterful captain. His friend Brian served as first mate and heartily complimented the wolfed-down sandwiches we brought, while Paul threw his overboard, complaining that they were soft. Some things just never change.

“You are a spoiled princess, you know that?” I scolded Paul. “We were up all night making these delicious sandwiches.” He asked for another sandwich; dry this time, he said.

Aside from catching up among the three of us, and introducing our boys to each other, we caught a pile of mackerel, some bluefish, and we lost one or two large cobia. Here is how the mackerel were prepared.

Captain Jeff, a friend since 1979

 

Happy and proud dad, tired and satisfied son

Fileting fresh mackerel

Brining filets and whole fish for smoking

Brined mackerel on smoking rack

Smoked mackerel…for dips, treats, scrambled eggs, yum

Fast forward a week later and the boy and I are fishing in Pine Creek, which is still running high, for two years now. This means that trout are not only holding over in great numbers, but are thriving in a big freestone stream that nonetheless usually hits 80 degrees and gets skinny by July, an environment where trout are normally picked off by eagles, mink, otters and herons this time of year.

I cast the Rebel Crawfish across a familiar riffle and hooked a large fish, which turned out to be a fat 16 inch rainbow trout. On a tiny ultralight spin rod with four pound test, it felt like the proverbial whale. He came to hand after a noble dispute.

“Do you want to keep him,” I asked my boy. “We haven’t kept a trout out of here in I forget how many years.”

“Yes,” he said, firmly and without hesitation.

This is a kid who really enjoys eating fresh fish, so setting aside my usual aversion to killing trout, I slid it into a small pool of cold spring water cascading down the bank, where the fish could breathe and stay fresh, and also remain within eyesight. That heron kept circling, and I wasn’t about to lose my prize to him.

The boy was admiring the beautiful trout, which had the healthy fins and magically vibrant colors of a native fish, or at least a hatchery fish that had spent an unusually long time in wild water. A fierce, or jealous, look came over the boy’s face and he asked which lure it had been caught on. Instead of tying one on to his rod, I just handed him my rod. One trout among the dozens splashing for emerging mayflies was enough for me, enough for the year. Watching my son catch fish is better than me catching them, and so I stood in the cool shallows with the current tugging at my Crocs, and supervised his casting. The late hot sun beat down harsh and merciless.

“Where did you catch him?” came the unexpected question.

Normally I advise where to cast, and since he was about nine, the boy will cast in the opposite direction of where I suggested. Even if it means getting tangled in a tree or snagged on the bottom. He has been improving on his independence for years now, if not improving his fishing skills. This time, however, he was on a mission. He cast a few times to where he was directed, gaining his bearings, and on the third or fourth splash the plug went exactly where it needed to go, over the fast current and just upstream enough to get a drag-free drift with some natural wobble. He immediately connected, and gently fought another perfect 13-inch rainbow into the shallows.

“Do you want to keep this one, too?” I asked.

“Yes. One fish for each of us. Or both for me – One for dinner and one for breakfast tomorrow,” he replied. Without a hint of irony.

Sound logic it was, and so we placed this trout next to its confined but quite alive mate in the little spring pool in a hollow of rock up on the bank.

With a fine trout under his belt, now it was his turn to sit in the cool shallows and watch me, as I went back out to catch a few bass lurking in the deeper current below the ledgerock. A couple came to hand and were released, and a couple got away. The sun then set over the valley, illuminating the Camel’s Hump and Trout Run in a magical Summer glow. The kind of day’s end that is so beautiful and perfect that you are sure you will remember it clearly forever just as it is experienced in that moment. And we probably will remember it clearly, mostly because the next morning he ate that fish down to the bare bones and then went outside to shoot his flintlock with true professional calm, hitting the distant bulls eye over and over and over. He made his dad proud.

A brace of fresh trout

Perfectly pan fried trout with butter and herbs

Someone really likes fresh trout

Bear and Deer Seasons in the Rearview Mirror

The old joke about Pennsylvania having just two seasons rings as true today as it did fifty years ago: Road construction season in the Keystone State seems to be a nine-month-long affair everywhere we go, a testament to how not to overbuild public infrastructure, if you cannot maintain it right.

And the two-week rifle deer season brings out the passion among nearly one million hunters like an early Christmas morning for little kids (I doubt the Hanukkah bush thing ever took off).  All year long people plan their hunts with friends and relatives, take off from work, spend lots of money on gear, equipment, ammunition, food, and gas, and then go off to some place so they can report back their tales of cold and wet and woe to their warmer family members at home. These deer hunts are exciting adventures on the cheap. No bungee jumping, mountain cliff climbing, jumping through flaming hoops or parachuting out of airplanes are needed to generate the thrill of a lifetime as a deer or bear in range gives you a chance to be the best human you can be.

Both bear and deer seasons flew by too fast, and I wish I could do them over, not because I have regrets, but because these moments are so rare, and so meaningful. I love being in the wild, and the cold temperatures give me impetus to keep moving.

One reflection on these seasons is how the incredible acorn crop state-wide kept bear and deer from having to leave their mountain fortresses to find food. Normally animals must move quite a bit to find the browse and nuts they need to nourish their bodies. Well, not this year. Even yesterday I was tripping over super abundant acorns lying on every trail, human or animal made.

When acorns are still lying in the middle of a trail in December, where animals walk, then you know there are a lot of nuts, because normally those low-hanging fruits would be gobbled right up weeks ago.

After still hunting and driving off the mountain I hunt on most up north, it became clear the bear and deer were holed up in two very rugged, remote, laurel-choked difficult places to hunt. Any human approach is quickly heard, seen, or smelled, giving the critters their chance to simply walk away before the clumsy human arrives. All these animals had to do was get up a couple times a day, stretch, walk three feet and eat as many acorns as they want, and then return to their hidden beds.

This made killing them very difficult, and the lower bear and deer harvests show that. God help us if Sudden Oak Death blight hits Pennsylvania, because that will spell the end of the abundant game animals we enjoy, as well as the dominant oak forests they live in.

The second reflection is how we had no snow until Friday afternoon, two days ago, and by then we had already sidehilled on goat paths, and climbed steep mountains, as much as we were going to at that late point in the season. With snow, hunting is a totally different experience: The quarry stands out against the white back ground, making them easier to spot and kill, and snow tracking shows you where they were, where they were going, and when. These are big advantages to the hunter. Only on Friday afternoon did we see all the snowy tracks up top, leading over the steep edge into Truman Run. With another two hours, we could have done a small push and killed a couple deer. But not this year. Maybe in flintlock season!

And finally, I reflect on the people and the beautiful wild places we visited.

I already miss the time I spent with my son on stand the first week. He was with me when I took a small doe with a historic rifle that had not killed since October 1902, the last time its first owner hunted and a month before the gun was essentially put into storage until now.

And then my son had a terrible case of buck fever when a huge buck walked past him well within range of his Ruger .357 Magnum rifle, and he missed, fell down, and managed to somehow eject the clip and throw the second live round into the leaves while the deer kept moseying on by. When I found my son minutes later, he was sitting in a pile of leaves where the deer had stood, throwing the leaves around and crying in a rage that we needed to get right after the deer and hunt them down. The boy was a mess. It was delightful to watch.

I miss the wonderful men I hunted with, and I miss watching other parents take their own kids out, to pass on the ancient skill set as old as humankind.

It is an unfortunate necessity to point out that powerline contractor Haverfield ruined the Opening Day of deer season for about three dozen hunters by arriving unannounced and trespassing in force to access a powerline for annual maintenance in Dauphin County. We witnessed an unparalleled arrogance, dismissiveness, and incompetence by Haverfield staff and ownership that boggles the mind. I am a small business owner, and I’d be bankrupt in three days if I behaved like that. Only the intervention of a Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officer saved the day, and that was because the Haverfield fools were going onto adjoining State Game Lands, where they also had no business being during deer season.

Kudos to PPL staff for helping us resolve this so it never happens again.

Folks, we will see you in flintlock season, just around the corner. Now it is time to trap for the little ground predators that raid the nests of ducks, geese, grouse, turkey, woodcock, and migratory songbirds. If you hate trapping, then you hate cute little ducklings, because the super overabundant raccoons, possums, skunks, fox, and coyotes I pursue eat their eggs in the nests, and they eat the baby birds when they are most vulnerable.

 

Hunting licenses, 1976 and 2015

Since my first hunting license adorned my back way back in 1976-1977, a lot has changed in the Pennsylvania landscape.

For example, wild game then so abundant that you could go out and shoot a couple for dinner is now practically extirpated.

Why pheasants and quail disappeared from Pennsylvania is a big debate with no clear answers. Loss of farmland to sprawl, low density development is one. Changes in farming practices is another; fallow fields had the best habitat. A plethora of winged and four legged predators cannot be discounted. Successfully rebounding populations of raptors like hawks and owls for sure ate a lot of plump pheasants. But why a sudden and dramatic crash?

Conservation successes since 1976 are plentiful and say a lot about wildlife biology. Wild turkey populations, fishers, bobcats and other animals once thought completely gone are now firmly in our lives, whether we see them, or not.

An interesting dynamic is playing out at our hunting camp. This year we have a virtual carpet of oak and hickory seedlings unlike anything we saw over the past 15 years we’ve owned it. Why?

Conventional wisdom is the deer population is low, and it’s true that it’s lower than it has been in 15 years. That is, deer are known eaters of acorns and tree seedlings. Fewer deer means more of both.

However, another factor seems to be playing out with these newly abundant tree seedlings. Where we once had an incredible overload of tree rats, aka squirrels, the new fishers have eaten them all. Like all of them. Not one tree rat remains in our carefully cultivated forest of white oaks. We see fisher tracks. We neither see nor hear squirrels.

As squirrels are known eaters of acorns and hickories, it stands to reason that their absence means more acorns and hickories hatching into baby trees.

Add a long icy winter that appears to have crushed our local wild turkey populations, also known for eating nuts, and the right conditions emerge to help a forest rebound and grow some new stock, a huge challenge we aggressively tackle every year.

So, my son getting his first hunting license yesterday is now entering a landscape that in some ways is just as dynamic as the one I began hunting so long ago.  What a difference these landscapes were and are, and who would’ve guessed the fishers would be responsible for oak and hickory forests regenerating?

A lot has changed in our wildlife landscapes, and yet not much has changed in my lifetime. Different animals, same kind of population changes, variations, pressures. One thing I keep reminding myself: It’s all natural, these changes. And while some are painful to see, like the loss of pheasants, other opportunities open up. Never would I have imagined in 1976, nor would any PA Game Commission staff, that in 2015 my son would get a bobcat tag and a fisher tag with his license.

Totally different opportunity than chasing pheasants in corn fields, but still good.

A Father’s Pride

I admit that I am feeling mighty proud this morning. It cannot be helped.

A big milestone in Central Pennsylvania life was achieved last night when my son passed his Hunter & Trapper Safety Education course and received his orange certificate.  He’s now permitted to purchase a hunting license and begin hunting and trapping as his own self-directed person.  Yes, he is young and he must be accompanied by other, older hunters for some years to come, which makes sense.  Nevertheless, he studied hard, attended the classes after school, and passed the exam with a 100% on his first try.

Along with my boy were 70 other students at the Milton Grove Sportsmen’s Club, which is standing room only.  Thank you to the club for providing the venue and thank you to the educators who donate their time to help recruit the next generation of hunters, trappers, and safe gun owners.  Lowell and Tracy Graybill did an especially fine job, which should not be a big surprise given that Lowell is presently president of the PA Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and the two of them have been a major power couple on conservation and sporting issues for decades.

Honestly, there were a couple of awkward moments in the two nights of training, some opportunities for improvement.  There’s got to be more hands-on and more demonstration of how the different firearms work.  I recall when I was a ten-year-old kid taking the same exam, we all got called up to the front of the room so we could handle the different actions and see for ourselves how they operated.  In a room as big as Milton Grove Sportsmen’s Club’s main meeting room, it must be impossible to see the guns much less imagine how the unfamiliar actions work from the middle and back of the room.

Another awkward time was at the very beginning, when a very nice local Deputy WCO made the opening remarks.  He had a pleasant demeanor and seemed easy to talk with, so he elicited a lot of audience questions and back and forth on the PGC regulations book handed out with all licenses.  He referred to WCOs as “game wardens,” an appellation every WCO I know has tried hard to shed.  He also seemed unfamiliar with basic regulations, like shooting above roadways and public trails.  To his credit, his lack of familiarity seemed to stem from the fact that he appears to pursue charges for serious wildlife crimes and not penny ante, picayune mistakes.

The winner of awkward moments, however, was when one of the educators, Tim, stated that semi-automatic shotguns can only be used for small game and waterfowl hunting, and not for deer hunting.  When it was pointed out by an audience member that semi-auto shotguns can be used for deer in the Special Regulations area around Philadelphia, Tim demurred, openly irritated.  When the audience member tried to hand Tim the regulations book, opened to the page stating that semi-auto shotguns are allowed for deer in that one area, Tim snapped “I don’t care, and I don’t hunt in the Special Regulations area.”

That was in front of the whole class, early on the first night.  It undermined Tim’s credibility and made him look foolish.  He never went back to correct his mistake that night or the second.  It raised the question about qualifications for teaching these courses, not just knowledge, but personality.  Nearly all of the audience members and students were from the southeastern region and quite a few probably do hunt in the Special Regulations area around Philly.  They are entitled to an expectation that they will be provided only accurate information, and that their teachers will have the strength of character to admit when they have mis-spoken or made a mistake.

And no student or audience member should be treated disrespectfully or belittled by a teacher.  It damages the entire purpose of the course.

All that said, it was a wonderful experience for me and my son.  We sat together both nights, and watching him soak up the knowledge was pleasing.  Only forty years have lapsed since I was in his seat….and to me, his rite of passage was much sweeter than my own.

It was also pleasing to see more girls than boys in the student body, as well as many single women and married mothers.  Women are the largest and fastest growing demographic in hunting and firearms ownership.  Now, what would really be exciting would be to see a class like this in downtown Philadelphia, filled with young African American kids and their fellow citizens.  Who will take up that gauntlet, men?

An outdoor lifestyle, halfway through the season (to hunt is human)

Most of the readers who visit this blog are not outdoors folk. Feats, exploits, and the inevitable tales of woe, cold, and misery from the field would naturally bore, or at best morbidly fascinate, the non-hunter.

Nevertheless, here we go, for the first time here, on a midway retrospective of a singular hunting season still unfolding.

Hunting for most hunters is a way of life literally built into our genes. We do what humans have done since the rise of Homo Sapiens upon Planet Earth: Hunt animals that we eat, wear, and admire. While the Pleistocene ended only 20,000 years ago, it is marked by the full arrival of adept hunter-gatherers who had spent tens of thousands of previous years perfecting their lifestyle.

Humans have been hunters and gatherers for 100,000 years, or 60,000 years, depending upon how long one believes Homo Sapiens has been human.

We have been agrarian for what…10,000 years at the most generous definition of the sedentary lifestyle, but closer to 5,000 years for most humans.

After that, the most modern, most technologically advanced, most “civilized” humans have lived through the Industrial Revolution (400 years), the Technological Revolution (150 years), the Information Revolution (50 years and ongoing). Combined, that’s a total of 600 years out of a total of 60,000 years.

At our core we are all hunter-gatherers. Scratch our civilized surface, and right underneath we are all spear-toting, skin-clad hunters.

To hunt is innately human. Hunting makes us human.

In other words, although many people today look at our current effete, energy-intensive Western lifestyle and think of it as being the peak of human civilization, some of us see this civilization as becoming complacent, detached from the reality of natural resource management necessary to support this modern lifestyle, hypocritical.

When someone believes it is morally superior to have an assassin kill their meat for them than to kill it themselves, you’ve got an unsustainable logical break. Similarly, people want “the government” to protect them, and they want to prevent citizens from protecting themselves, and those same citizens cannot hold the same government accountable when it fails.
Western civilization is full of this weak thinking. In my opinion, Western society is becoming hollow, a shell, full of contradictions.

The hunting lifestyle is a powerful antidote. It is a dose of reality inserted into a cloudy drugged up dream.

So far, this season has been marked by time afield in the most beautiful places in several states with long time friends, new friends, my young son, other kids, and by myself. Like our Pleistocene ancestors, the feeling of the pack on my back and the game-getter in my right hand is about the most natural and satisfying feeling possible.

A number of deer have fallen to various firearms, a Fall turkey, a colorful pheasant; there’s a bunch of photos commemorating the times for the results-oriented. My best moment was late at night, checking a trap with my boy, and finding a large bobcat. There for about four hours, it had really no taste for humans and represented the wilderness in all its wildness.

Catching a bobcat is a real achievement in the world of hunting and trapping, and I confess it was with great mixed emotions that we dispatched it and brought it to Butch at Blue Mountain Taxidermy. Even if a bobcat is again in one of our traps during the short bobcat season, we will release it. One is enough for a lifetime.

One bobcat trophy represents a lifetime of time afield, or 60,000 years.

We aren’t all “in this together,” but most of us are

As the “United Nations” and its ally Barack Hussein Obama demand that a sovereign nation immediately cease defending its citizens from incessant rocket attacks, Westerners can and should wake up.

Do not think that America will not be held to the same bizarre standard.  Beware of what is behind that.

As illegal invaders are now bussed into the American interior and given free taxpayer-funded benefits, be aware that future attempts to remove these squatters from our soil can and probably will be met with the accusation of committing a “crime against humanity.”

The UN will probably make that accusation official.

Already, Americans who want our borders to be maintained in an orderly way are being falsely accused of racism, as if the trucking in of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens – in violation of American law – is an act of caring and love to the people who actually built and run America.

Across the Middle East, Christians are being hounded out of their ancestral areas.  Bethlehem, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey….you name it, these areas that once held large populations of Christians are seeing a growing refugee problem as these believers are chased, beaten, burned, tortured, and robbed to the point where they have no choice but to flee or perish.

Very little press is reporting on this crime.

Recently, the Jews were similarly driven out of the Muslim countries, and even once-Jewish places like Hebron and Tzfat, to the point where by 1958 a million refugees had mostly arrived in Israel, their homes, farms and businesses stolen and (still) occupied by Islamic supremacists.  Populations that had lived peacefully for a thousand years before Islam was even created were suddenly attacked.  That canary in the coal mine is being attacked again, now, from Gaza, and the world has turned against the canary.

If American and European Christians do not recognize what is in store for them both at home in America and Europe, and abroad, then they will eventually suffer the same fate as their Middle Eastern brethren.

Gotta make a stand against evil, folks.

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!