Words and Images from Ed Felker

Autumn

Black Water, White Dogs and Timberdoodles

If you give me a week in late October, a few tanks of gas and a friend (and his dog) to pass the drive time with, I will point the truck North every time. On this occasion, the passengers were my friend Douglas Dear and his pointer, Vic, and our destination was the north woods of upper New Hampshire, not far from Maine. We met our dear friend Ed Nicholson and his pointers Stella and Ruby for a few days of hunting the odd and challenging American Woodcock, known in some circles as the Timberdoodle. I’m told that people also hunt grouse, but while we did see or hear several in two days of hunting, I can’t imagine how it’s possible to shoot one. In any event, to follow are my favorite photos from my trip, which took a detour after bird hunting to do a little fly fishing in the Adirondacks before I headed south, leaving Douglas and Ed to more birds in Maine…

Douglas gearing Vic up for his first shift afield.

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This custom Aya side-by-side Douglas shoots was a favorite photographic subject of the week. Absolutely stunning.

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The first reports echoing through the dense New Hampshire cover were intended for a woodcock who escaped this volley, and gave me a look at just how challenging these birds, and this cover, would prove to be.

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Conditions have been very warm and dry for many weeks in this area, making for tough scenting conditions for the dogs.

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Ed bagged the first woodcock here, and the biggest of the week.

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Here Vic is on point on a bird I shot first with my Nikon, then with my Winchester.

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Douglas also shot at this bird, and if you’ve ever been around hunters before, you can imagine how much discussion there was about whose pellets brought the bird down. I have shipped the bird and ammunition samples to a forensics lab to settle the matter decisively, but since it’s my blog I’m going to call this my first woodcock.

I love my 1950s Winchester Model 12 16-gauge, but the juxtaposition alongside the masterpiece Douglas shoots is almost comical. Still, they both will kill birds, plus I get a third shot with mine!

The next morning I rushed outside the Mahoosuc Inn where we stayed to try to capture this sky.

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Our guide, Craig Doherty of Wild Apple Kennel, brought some of his fine pointers as well. With unseasonably warm temperatures, it was important to keep the dogs fresh.

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Ed, Douglas and Craig heading back to a nice tailgate lunch.

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Douglas picked up a hitchhiker along the way.

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Another look at this gorgeous shotgun. That is his boy Vic depicted in the engraving.

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As with any other type of hunting, gathering around a tailgate recounting the day with a beverage is always a highlight. Even if you’re just drinking cough syrup, like Ed is here.

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We enjoyed cold beer, hot food and warm hospitality at the home of Craig and his wife on the evening of our second day of hunting. Ed fried up some of his famous breaded woodcock breasts as an appetizer, and they were cooked to perfection and just delicious.

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Tim, another guide and dog trainer, demonstrates that just because you have very serious bird dogs, doesn’t mean they have to work all the time. At one point in the evening there were six or seven dogs in the kitchen.

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The next day I left my friends and their dogs behind for some relaxation in the Adirondacks. Many years ago I drove through Lake Placid up to Saranac Lake in the peak of fall and just fell in love with the area. Getting there and finding a decent meal were the only things on my agenda for the whole day, so I took my time and stopped at interesting spots along the way. I toured the Cabot cheese factory, photographed a couple of covered bridges, and stopped at a fish hatchery on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. It’s fun being a tourist with a whole day to burn.

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The moose population has been decimated in recent years, our bird guide told us, largely from tick infestations. While we saw plenty of moose sign in the woods, and even some fairly recent scat, we didn’t spot any actual moose. I did stop at a house near our Inn that had a sign in the driveway advertising moose antlers for sale. The man selling the shed antlers (yes, I bought a small one) told me the same story of drastically reduced numbers of moose in the region.

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I got to the Wilmington/Lake Placid area in time to scout the West Branch of the Ausable River a bit before dark, and returned to this spot the next morning. What struck me most about this place the first time I passed through it was the black water reflecting autumn scenery like a mirror. Standing in this river for the first time I can tell you it is strikingly beautiful. And a huge pain in the ass to wade. What it lacks in accessibility, it makes up for in treacherous footing once you get there. But I spent the day exploring, slipping, turning various ankles and knees, and going back and forth between cursing the place and standing in awe at its raw, rugged beauty. Those who have fished with me know that while I prefer to catch at least one fish, I am content to be in a pretty place, watching things like this cloud plume hugging the contour of a mountain on the horizon.

Another place I found while looking for trout that morning seemed a perfect spot to return to with lunch. I found a gourmet sandwich shop in Lake Placid and did just that. As delightful a nonproductive fishing morning as I’ve ever had.

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Late that afternoon the skunk was extracted, kicking and screaming, from the boat, as they say. Nymphing from a steep bank into a deep hole, this pretty little brown fell for my antics. Anxious to secure photographic proof of the thing, I scrambled down and almost slipped into the chilly Ausable. This fish, by the way, was the only one I got to the net. Whenever I work hard for a long time and catch a single fish, I always feel kind of sorry for it. The future can’t be bright for the only trout dumb enough to be caught by me when I am so obviously doing all the wrong things.

The next morning was beautiful but windy. Fly fishermen: Ever have one of these days? Wanting to get a fresh start, I stood at my tailgate and painstakingly re-rigged everything, making sure knots were secure. I decided to go with a double nymph setup to give me a better chance at attracting another idiot trout or two. The first nymph is tied on, then I cut another length of tippet for the second nymph, tied that to the first, then tied the second, smaller nymph to the end. I picked up my rod and somehow while I was doing all that, with my rod lying on the tailgate, the first nymph had become irrevocably tangled around the rod. Hopeless. I struggled for a while and then had to cut both of them free and start over. I should have quit right then, but I subjected myself to several more hours of aggravation before I decided to just do some sightseeing. I went to the Lake Placid ski jumps and saw them up close, but this view from the golf course just at the edge of town was by far my favorite.

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Finally, after an absolutely lovely lunch and a couple delicious regional beers at a place called the Pickled Pig, I walked across the street to the Olympic Center, home of the Herb Brooks Arena, where there was a kids hockey tournament going on. I asked at the gate if I could go in and see in person the 1980 rink, where the United States team of amateurs beat the Soviet team in the Miracle on Ice. (Although I wonder why the game was never nicknamed ‘The Cold War.” Just me?) There is a real weight to the place, you can feel it still. I very much appreciated the opportunity to see where the magic happened up close.

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So it’s been a great, long week. I drove 1,500 miles, and after stretching six days of clothes into a seven day trip, still got an enthusiastic welcome from my wife and all the dogs. I love trips like this, but I’m always, always, glad to be home.


One Dog Short on a Three Dog Night
and Other Adventures

Not since the first day I met each of my dogs when I drove them home to Virginia from Illinois — Winnie as a pup during Hurricane Ike, and Finn as a 3-year-old a few years later — have I asked them to join me on a longer journey. And they have never been away from home for an entire week. But months of planning, preparation and waiting were behind us, the truck was packed, and we were ready to go. The plan was two nights of roughing it, camping in a couple of Virginia’s state parks, then a few nights in a fantastic cabin in Bristol, Tennessee. Fall foliage, crisp air, fishing, exploring, relaxing, recharging. But it’s funny, you put two dogs in the back seat of the truck and they don’t know if they’re going to 7-11 or Montana. All road trips start exactly the same to them. So I felt the weight of the responsibility. Obviously they need me to take care of them, to provide for them, to not put them in danger and to not do anything stupid.

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Our first stop was a lakefront campsite in Virginia’s Douthat State Park. The forecast was for a very cold night, and I’m not a very experienced camper. I got plenty of firewood, warm clothes for me, Winnie’s winter coat and two warm sleeping bags zipped together. We set up camp, fished a little in the stocked lake there, went for a hike, took pictures, lit a fire, cooked, ate, opened a beer and relaxed. But as soon as the sun set, the cold pushed down from the cloudless sky, and I wanted to get settled while we were all still warm from the fire. We all got in the sleeping bag and I just waited for the temperature to drop. I did not have to wait long, and only slept in fits and starts. I kept checking Winnie, who is more sensitive to cold than Finn. She wore her coat in the sleeping bag at my feet and seemed plenty warm. During the night, however, Finn hooked a leg outside the sleeping bag and as he moved, the bag unzipped. His restlessness woke me up and when I figured out what happened, I could feel cold air just pouring in on him. I got him zipped back up and we slept a little bit, but by 5 a.m., we had all had enough. The inside of the tent was covered in ice, and all the warmth saved in the sleeping bag was gone the instant I unzipped it. After a quick and cold bathroom break (it was 20 degrees), I turned on the truck, put the dogs in the back seat and turned on the heat. After a while we ate some breakfast to warm us up. I sat there between them as they ate and their tails wagged as I talked to them. We had made it through a pretty uncomfortable night, but we were all fine. I felt the temperature dip a bit, as it always seems to before dawn, and I looked up to see more stars than I can ever remember seeing in my entire life.

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The plan for the next night was to camp at an even higher elevation with a similar forecast, setting up a tent that is now lined with ice, over a wet sleeping bag and air mattress. We held a team meeting and decided we would not do that. Instead, we would push farther southwest, go for an afternoon hike, and find a warm place to stay that night. We hiked to the Great Channels of Virginia, a vigorous, 6 mile out-and-back with a big elevation gain, beautiful and well maintained trails through steep and rugged terrain, and a hand written sign on a kiosk at the entrance announcing bears had been seen in the area. Every blind curve in the trail had the potential of surprising a bear, so I talked to the dogs the whole time to make some extra noise in the wind. They must have been thinking, “has he lost his mind? Yeah, we get it, we’re good dogs. We heard you the first four hundred times.” It’s also archery season there, so my deer colored dogs tried out the Ruffwear Track Jackets I ordered especially for this trip. I am really impressed with them. Walking, climbing, running, shaking, leash, no leash…these vests never budged from their intended position.

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After that first frigid night, somewhere between two and four hours of sleep and a strenuous hike, all three of us were pretty happy to cancel our camping reservation near Mt. Rogers and camp at the Days Inn Bristol, VA instead.

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The next day we stopped and talked to the fine folks at Mountain Sports Ltd. I wanted to see some beautiful scenery but none of us were in the mood for a big hike that day. The staff there recommended a pretty stretch of the Virginia Creeper Trail near Damascus, VA. What a gem this trail is, 35 miles of former railroad bed transformed into a trail for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

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There are definitely trout in the beautiful Whitetop Laurel River that parallels the Creeper Trail, but I had my hands full with the dogs, camera and tripod so I didn’t bother trying to fish.

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With the exception of the first night being twenty degrees colder than I was really prepared for, the weather the entire week was simply spectacular. Fall foliage was stunning everywhere I went.

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Speaking of the Days Inn Bristol and Mountain Sports, Ltd., where the dogs were welcomed, I want to acknowledge the other establishments along the way and in Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee that welcomed the three of us. Starting on the top left, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Queen City Brewing, Staunton, VA; Redbeard Brewing Co., Staunton, VA; Burger Bar, Bristol, VA; Holston River Brewing Co., Bristol, TN; Bristol Brewery, Bristol, VA; State Line Bar & Grill, Bristol, TN; and the brand new Cabelas, Bristol, VA. I am always very appreciative of businesses that allow and welcome dogs.

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Walking around Bristol was fun. It’s a cool town best known as the birthplace of country music. I stopped to admire one of the many murals on the sides of buildings there and the dogs sidled up close to me as they do on city sidewalks. Then Winnie stood on my foot. I include this photo here because I love moments like this, even though I can’t really explain why.

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It was time to check in to the cabin where we would be staying for the rest of the week. And oh my, what a cabin it is. I unloaded the truck, spread the tent and sleeping bag out to dry and then we just relaxed. More perfect weather, a few tasty local beers, a great local pizza and an early night made for a perfect evening.

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The next day we met Orvis fishing guide Patrick Fulkrod who took us out on the beautiful Watauga River. This was an amazing day that I chronicled in more detail in my previous blog post, Brown Trout, Orange Dogs.

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I love my dogs, obviously, but one of the main reasons I genuinely enjoy their company in all sorts of situations is that they are well behaved and under control. We don’t do any formal training anymore, but every day is filled with “teachable moments,” and spending the time required to have dogs that listen and respond to commands is absolutely one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Reflecting on the trip so far, it has been neat to watch how differently they each respond to new situations. Sometimes predictably, sometimes not, but always differently. Finn typically wants to know what is on my mind, what I expect of him, what we are going to do together next, while Winnie is usually off dancing to the beat of a drum only she can hear.

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The cabin at dusk. Shortly before this photo, I was leaning on the tailgate messing with the timer on my camera when the dogs barked. I had been seeing deer all day so I didn’t give it much thought, and just told them to stay. When I looked up, just off to the right of the chairs in this photo was a Momma black bear and two cubs. The dogs had never seen bears before, and even I was impressed that they stayed. But, safety first, if you haven’t gathered yet by now, so I put them in the back seat of the truck, quickly went back to the camera and tried to get a photo. But it was too late. Literally every setting on the camera was wrong — manual focus, timer, long exposure, low ISO — so I just watched as the mother turned back toward the woods and left, cubs scampering quickly behind. It was exhilerating to see them so close, and another proud moment of dog ownership.

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I didn’t get to fish the South Holston on this trip, but before we hit the road home I walked down to take a photo in the morning mist. Next time, SoHo.

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We had all day to get home, so when I saw a sign for Hungry Mother State Park, a park I’ve heard a lot about, I decided to swing through and check it out. It. Is. Stunning. What a beautiful, serene lake. I really want to come back here with the kayak and camp for a few nights.

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Still feeling like we were approaching the end of the vacation too quickly, I detoured off the mundane, terrible Rt. 81 and enjoyed a stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway from about Roanoke to Lexington. My God, the foliage was astounding. The best I have ever seen in Virginia, in fact.

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But it’s a good life, I think, when home calls as strongly as the beautiful new places we discover, and we were all anxious to get there. Back on the highway, I put the windows up and the hammer down. I turned music on for the first time in over 300 miles, never having noticed its absence. And from the back seat, dogs smelling of wood smoke snored, and dreamt their very different dreams together.

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Brown Trout, Orange Dogs

During the planning phase of this trip, which started over eight months ago, I knew I wanted to fish with veteran guide Patrick Fulkrod. Patrick was named the 2014 Orvis-Endorsed Guide of the Year and has worked hard to earn the reputation as “The Man” in the area of Tennessee’s South Holston River. All summer long I’ve been admiring the stunning brown trout he was putting his clients on. But having my two dogs with me was the most important aspect of this vacation, so I told Patrick maybe we could just wade fish somewhere. He said nonsense, the fishing is much better from the drift boat, and told me to absolutely bring the dogs. I gave him many opportunities to change his mind on this, but he knew it was important to me, and insisted. On the morning of the float, the flow on the South Holston was less than favorable, so Patrick opted to take us out on the nearby Watauga River.

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Finn and Winnie are good dogs who tend to take new experiences in stride, but I had no idea how they would react to a drift boat. They kayak with me regularly, and from those experiences I had a concern. I can not fish with Finn in the kayak. He gets so excited when he sees a fish, he just loses his mind. So I had visions of Finn jumping out of the boat, and Patrick having to row downstream after him, stirring up fish in the process. My dogs wear Ruffwear Float Coat life vests while on the water for safety, and also for ease in lifting them back in the boat if they do end up in the water. So I got their vests on and headed to the boat. Winnie couldn’t wait to get in, and immediately settled into her spot to my right in the front of the boat. Finn is kind of clumsy and awkward and bull/china-shoppy, but we got him situated to my left, and were ready to launch.

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Before long, the first test arrived in the form of a little rainbow trout. Patrick showed the fish to Finn and explained the custom of kissing the fish. Finn was excited but gentle, and from that moment on I knew I didn’t have to worry about the dogs. They were having as much fun as we were on this picture perfect fall day.

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When I caught the first brown trout of the day I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Browns are my favorite, and these are the most beautiful I’ve ever had the privilege to see and hold.

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Underwater photos are hit and miss, and the ratio is extremely heavy on the miss side. So I was thrilled with this, the only underwater shot of the day, of Patrick releasing a beautiful brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga.

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Finn and Patrick spent a lot of time admiring each other, and we weren’t ten minutes into the float before the bond was permanent.

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Winnie, being Winnie, spent the float by my side, leaning on the gunwale, soaking in the sun and the sights. Observing. The personalities of these two dogs are so very different, they complement each other in ways I never could have anticipated. They were an absolute joy to have along on this vacation.

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One of the many things about Patrick as a guide that I admire and appreciate is that he understands how important photographic memories are to clients, and he works hard at making sure he captures quality images for every angler he guides. When the drive home is behind you, when you’re back home in your routine and the alarm starts going off early for the office instead of the river, when the colors of Tennessee trout have faded in your mind and the azure blue sky and water of autumn shift to the cold grey of winter, all it takes is a photograph like this one to bring it all back.

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Brilliant sunshine and brown trout go beautifully together. These are just stunning fish.

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I don’t know anything about rowing a drift boat. But I do know that this is a lot of weight in the front of the boat, and I’m not talking about that fish on the line either. But Patrick was focused entirely on making sure I was happy and the dogs were comfortable. If the rowing was made more difficult as a result (Hint: It most certainly was), Patrick never gave me the slightest indication.

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At one point, Patrick pulled the boat to the shore so the dogs could go pee. I don’t have photos of the goat rodeo that ensued so just admire another brown trout as you try to imagine it, but it was comical. As is their way, Finn was clumsy and Winnie was odd. Together at one point Finn was doing that thing you’ve seen in cartoons where his front legs are on shore and his back legs are on the boat, of course pushing it farther and farther away. Meanwhile, Winnie is in the water, swimming an orbit around the boat. We aborted this attempt and opted for a more friendly shoreline downstream, but not before those Ruffwear Float Coat handles were effectively utilized. I was able to easily bring the dogs back under control, securing Finn and lifting Winnie straight out of the water and into the boat. Ruffwear puts a lot of practical thought into the design of their products, and I will not trust my dogs to any other life vest.

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Taking dogs out of their normal routine is very tiring for them. So Finn and Winnie slept hard every night, whether in a freezing sleeping bag, a dumpy hotel room or a truly wonderful cabin in the woods. In between they napped in the truck, on the floor of several brew pubs, in front of campfires, on sunny leaves and shady porches, and even here in the boat. It meant the world to me to be able to have these dogs with me on this float, and I can’t thank Patrick enough for his hospitality in that regard. It was easily one of my all time favorite float trips.

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To book a truly enjoyable, memorable float on the South Holston or Watauga River with Patrick, contact Mountain Sports Ltd. in Bristol, TN by clicking here.

To learn about and order the Ruffwear Float Coat, click here.


Yellow Leaves, Brown Trout

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This past weekend I spent a day wandering around central Virginia, not far from a town called Undisclosed Location. I was taking pictures, fly fishing and just enjoying the beautiful early autumn weather. I did not have much success fishing, but took a few photos I liked and did very well in the enjoying the beautiful day department.

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It’s hard not to feel good on the water when you’re carrying a wonderfully crafted bamboo rod made by Jerry Nonnemacher, and a beautiful new net from Brodin Nets. Early on when the fish weren’t biting, I set up a little product shoot.

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I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting, I really don’t. So I decided to leave the area and find another activity. As I was leaving, however, I stopped at one more spot and had a look in. Brown trout, just what I was after. I hiked down the embankment and set up to fish for a bit. Remember when I said I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting? I may have meant that I don’t mind as long as I don’t see a monster trout just sitting there! The smaller trout here are probably 8-10 inchers. The one bruiser had to be pushing 20 inches. I wanted him. Bad. So I fished to him. Over the next couple hours I tried countless variations of flies and tactics. I justified hammering him with everything but the kitchen sink because it takes me so damn long to tie a new fly on, I figured I had given him ample time to rest. But here’s the thing. You can’t fish one pool for two hours. You can’t throw your fly box at one fish who has no interest in feeding. I was just about to give up, when I tried dead drifting a San Juan worm right in front of him. I’ll be damned if he didn’t take that San Juan and shoot downstream with it. He broke me off after less than three fun-filled seconds. I was proud to have gotten him to bite, though … until I saw him a minute later with my fly stuck in his pectoral fin. I had foul hooked the beast. So with his fin and my pride stinging a bit, I called it a day. I had hooked two or three small ones earlier but lost them all before I could get them in my still virgin net.

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I wish I knew my trees better. I look forward to the orange and red maples of Virginia’s fall palette. But the early yellows, poplar I think, made for stunning reflections. And, fish or not, this time of year just makes me feel more alive. October in Virginia simply can not be beat.

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