Words and Images from Ed Felker

Nature

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.


The Project Healing Waters 11th Annual 2-Fly

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The Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament is held each spring at Rose River Farm, PHW’s Home Waters. It has always been a weekend punctuated with powerful moments, and the eleventh annual event was no exception, with temperatures and emotions both running a bit higher than forecasted. But, Project Healing Waters is a family of sorts. In fact it has never felt more so to me. And as always, everyone involved came together in mutual support and camaraderie. The 2-Fly is also a celebration, though, and friends old and new were issued generous doses of friendly ribbing at any and every opportunity. To sum up with a cliche: We laughed, we cried. Here are some highlights…

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Saturday evening’s program includes plenty of time to catch up with those we haven’t seen in far too long. Hopefully now that Eivind and Tara Forseth have moved to Virginia, I can see them more often! That’s Mark Eustis in the background hogging the oyster bar. Mark runs the PHW Stars and Stripers tournament in August on the Chesapeake Bay.

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Former Miss Virginia Tara Wheeler was the Master of Ceremonies for the Saturday evening program and did a wonderful job. Tara has been a friend to Project Healing Waters for many years, and I hope she makes a habit of making the yearly trip from Charlottesville where she anchors the evening news for CBS19.

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Judge Thomas Hogan has been a fixture at the annual 2-Fly since its inception, so it is as fitting as it is exciting that he agreed to be the evening’s Keynote Speaker. Hogan is a skilled and patient fly fisherman, a distinguished and highly respected federal judge, and one of the very nicest men you’ll ever meet. I have not read Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River, but it jumped to the top of my list when Judge Hogan spoke about its themes of the destruction of war, and the healing powers of nature. His words were pitch perfect for his audience, and kicked off a wonderful weekend of fun, fish, friendship and healing.

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Even Project Healing Waters’ highest honor, the Patriot Award, seems inadequate when it comes to the organization’s founder Ed Nicholson. Introduced wonderfully by Chairman of the Board Bob Fitch to a sustained, standing ovation, however, Nicholson had to feel the love and gratitude in the room. Through tireless devotion to the cause of healing our wounded servicemen and women, Ed has touched more lives than he can count, and saved more than he can imagine. I couldn’t be more proud to call him my friend.

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The last few 2-Fly weekends have been cold and rainy. But as anglers geared up early Sunday morning it was already warm, and an early fog burned off, leaving behind its humidity for the rest of the day. Here Eivind is looking for the right two flies to use for the day. If they don’t work (or if he loses them), his tournament is over, so these are important decisions.

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A permanent plaque remembering Brian Mancini, a big part of the Project Healing Waters family, was dedicated before the tournament began. The pool where Brian first fished with a fly rod, where he first felt the healing power of standing in flowing water and casting to a trout, will from this day forward be known as Brian’s Pool.

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Brian’s absence was palpable. And those feeling the weight of his loss found the comfort of an understanding shoulder to lean on.

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With the last of the morning mist burning off the Rose River, Chris Rowland was among the first to fish the pool newly named for his dear friend.

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Rick Warrington, guided by Gavin Robinson, smiled big after catching this stunning brook trout.

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Jason Baker must catch a lot of trout to ooze such nonchalance with a huge rainbow on the line!

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The prize for biggest fish of the day went to Rob McKennan for this gorgeous 22-inch monster. Rob and Jim Graham, guided by Jimmy Aliff and Ira Strouse, respectively, came in first place among the Pro/Vet teams.

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Robert Bartlett, like a lot of fly fishermen, enjoys being on the water whether he’s catching fish or not. This is a photo of him not.

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Rob Snowhite, who was guiding Lee Barbee on Sunday, tenderly releases a rainbow back into the river.

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Tom Stark and Joanne Hopkins have been fishing in the 2-Fly for many years. If you think they might be slowed down by a new baby, you’ve never met Tom and Joanne before.

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What do you get when you combine a great group of participants, tireless staff, dedicated hard working volunteers, generous donors and a little cooperative weather thrown in for good measure? You get a family reunion, and the best weekend of the year.

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The Man Behind Virginia’s Elk

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Leon Boyd is a busy man: Vice President at Noah Horn Well Drilling, board member of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Virginia district chair and chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter. So when I found myself with a free day while on vacation in southwest Virginia this past spring, I hesitated to call him.

“So, I’m kind of in the area. I know it’s a long shot, but is there any chance I could come out and see the elk?” I asked. “Oh. And I hate to be a pain in the ass, but I also have my two dogs with me, we’re on vacation.” He barely let me get through my self invitation before he interrupted with his insistence that I come see him and let him give me a tour of the elk habitat he has been so instrumental in creating.

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A total of 71 elk from neighboring Kentucky have been introduced to Buchanan County over the course of three annual releases. I met Leon in 2013 at the second of those releases, when ten animals made the trip across the border. Those elk were a special sight, but were only viewable from a distance in a quarantine pen. The area was large, but lined with prominent fencing. So this time I was looking forward to seeing these introduced elk and even some of their offspring in a truly natural setting.

That setting, thousands of acres of habitat rich in plentiful food, clean water, ample cover and endless quiet, is part private property and part county land. There are no fences, these elk are free to wander elsewhere. But they thrive here.

As I drove across the remote southwestern corner of Virginia I wondered if any other state had as much geological diversity as the Old Dominion. From the mountains to the beaches and bay, from coal country to the Great Dismal Swamp, with big cities, small towns, farms and wilderness filling out the inbetween, I can’t think of another.

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Buchanan County is a hard, steep place. It was carved from rock removed to expose coal that fueled the economy and powered the region. Every plateau containing a school, church or a cluster of homes is there only because inhabitable mountaintops were cut off, the coal removed and the slopes below filled in. And the newly reshaped landscape, with proper planning and care, is more resilient than you could possibly imagine. In fact, much of the rich habitat where Virginia’s elk thrive is reclaimed strip mined land.

Cut into a near vertical bank alongside a steep stretch of highway I found the offices of Noah Horn Well Drilling. I let the dogs out and we all stretched our legs. When I walked in I was warmly greeted by Leon. He seemed genuinely excited to show off his beloved elk project.

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He probably wouldn’t want me to call the elk restoration project his project. The amount of effort, expertise, energy, devotion and cooperation from private landowners, county and state leaders, biologists and agencies to make it happen is incalculable. But I doubt you could find a single person involved in the project who imagines it could have been done without Leon Boyd.

The original plan calls for growing the herd to a population of about 400. Beyond that number, a hunting plan would be introduced, managed and closely monitored to sustain those numbers. This may begin to happen in as little as three or four years. In the meantime, tourism is the goal, luring people to visit here to see the magnificent animals, and of course spend the night, dine and shop. A visitors center is planned with wildlife viewing and hiking trails. Hunting would see additional revenue opportunities in the form of guiding fees, taxes and tags.

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Leon’s involvement in the elk restoration earned him an appointment to the board of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, where he is currently serving his second term. “It has certainly been a learning curve for a country boy from southwest Virginia to say the least, but I’ve gained so much respect for the VDGIF and the staff,” he said. “Through the years I’ve blamed them for a lot of stuff they had no control over.”

Leon was incredibly generous with his time that day. When we rounded a bend to see a big bull elk in velvet antlers stop and pose for photos, or crest a hill and see a small herd loitering around a pristine watering hole, to see these wild elk, some born right here in Virginia, happy and healthy and close up, was an experience I will never forget.

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And I know the next day Leon made those memories happen for someone else, or talked to a bus of curious school kids, or perhaps chatted with donors or landowners or conservation police or someone at RMEF to get something done for this project, for these special animals.

“In the beginning, I was all about the elk,” Boyd said. “But as it’s progressed, really and truly, it’s more about the people.”

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If you would like to help the Virginia elk, there is an easy way to do it, Leon says. Support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Support them. They support us. They put money back into habitat projects [The RMEF put $23,000 back into this project last year alone].” Membership, auctions, banquets and fundraisers all help.

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A Special Visitor

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I was running the dogs on our property along the Potomac River when a cluster of feathers on the ground caught my eye. I love feathers and find them all the time here. Hawk and turkey feathers are common and easy to spot because of the contrasting bands usually present. But these – a cluster of two primary flight feathers and a smaller, secondary feather – didn’t look like any I had ever seen before.

I snapped a photo and posted it to Instagram (follow me @dispatches_potomac), and didn’t give them much thought after that. I love to try to identify feathers, skulls, tracks and anything like that I come across, but didn’t think these would prove to be anything remarkable. Then I got a compelling comment on my Instagram photo.

Emily Renaud has been interested in ornithology for some time, sparked by her studies as an undergrad earning a BS in Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Rhode Island. She suspected the feathers came from a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and followed up with some online resources and a birding pro friend before suggesting the match.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever seen peregrine feathers in person before, but the slender structure and overall dark color tipped me off,” Emily said. “These feathers are so sleek because the species requires a super slim and aerodynamic build to pursue its prey.” Peregrines dive for prey, reaching speeds in the 200 mph range, earning them the title of the fastest animal on earth.

I recently attended a talk about vultures given by Katie Fallon, chair of the board of directors of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia. I emailed photos of the feathers to Katie and she agreed about their origin. “Peregrines are on the move this time of year,” she added. “So the feathers are perhaps from someone on migration.”

Katie has kindly allowed me to share this photo of Tundra, an Arctic peregrine falcon that was injured in West Virginia during her first migration and unfortunately cannot be returned to the wild. Tundra now helps in ACCAWV’s educational efforts.

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With this exciting news, I returned to the site along the river and found several more peregrine feathers and a handful of feathers from what I believe to be a red shouldered hawk. I don’t have the ornithological forensic chops to recreate what happened along the soft banks of the Potomac that day, but an encounter between falcon and hawk occurred, and it was violent.

Peregrines are not endangered or even particularly rare, thanks to highly successful reintroduction efforts following their near decimation due to pesticide (DDT) use in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But I have never seen one, and only hear of them in this area once in a great while. This summer, though, part of the rock face of Maryland Heights at Harpers Ferry, popular with climbers, was closed to protect a nesting pair of peregrines.

Just last week I was at Harpers Ferry and photographed some rock climbers on the very face that was closed earlier in the year. This gives you an idea of the type of terrain where peregrines nest, and also that rock climbers are insane.

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There are countless varieties of animals on this vast and diverse planet, each evolved over eons to specialize in the things they need to ensure their survival. To think that our property was visited by the one animal that is, by a considerable margin, the very fastest on earth, stirs the imagination. I feel very lucky to live where I live, and to observe evidence like this of a very special visitor.


Musician Teddy Chipouras

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I don’t photograph people very often, but when local musician and friend Teddy Chipouras asked me, I was excited to photograph this extremely talented and photogenic rising star. These are a few of my favorite shots from a really fun day. Please visit Teddy’s web site here and check out his music. And if you get the chance to see him live, don’t pass it up. He’s just wonderful.

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Finally, A Fishing Trip!
(Alternate Title: Finally, a Blog Post!)

My extended break from blogging here was not intentional. My break from getting outside with a fly rod wasn’t either. Life, work and an amazing new puppy, among other things, just got in the way and before I knew it, a whole summer had gone by and I hadn’t done either. Meanwhile, my buddy Matt has been busy doing the important work of raising twin girls, working hard and recently dealing with an extended mandatory evacuation from their Georgia island home courtesy of Hurricane Matthew. So it was a good time for both of us to get away to eat and drink and laugh, to try to remember how to fly fish, and most importantly to just truly relax for a couple days.

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We began the relaxation right away, with a stop at Black Walnut Brewery, where we enjoyed a couple delicious beers while watching a big Redskins win from the dog-friendly porch. Then, because we’re smart, instead of going through and organizing our fishing gear, we decided to drink more back at the house and talk about how unorganized our fishing gear is.

Matt is holding Winslow, by the way, the aforementioned amazing puppy that I will have much more to talk about soon. A truly special dog.

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The next day, fueled by Anita’s breakfast burritos, we headed down to Rose River Farm on an absolutely beautiful morning. It of course took us far too long to get geared up, but we had all day and were in no hurry. Conditions were fantastic on the Rose River, great water level and flow, and the river was crystal clear. Stepping into moving water with a fly rod felt like reuniting with the second dear old friend in as many days.

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Matt hooked up first and outfished me the whole time. He took advantage of the gin clear water, dead drifting small, sinking flies without a strike indicator and just watching for the take and setting the hook.

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But I caught my fair share too, including this beauty that Matt captured with his iPhone if you can believe it. This is one of the coolest iPhone fish photos I’ve ever seen.

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I had to include this portrait of Buster Brown, a red heeler mix who helps out around the farm. We enjoyed hanging out for a bit with Buster and Earl, the farm manager. I’ve watched this dog grow up from a pup (he’s 3-years-old now), and he has become just the coolest little dog.

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A day of fishing is best followed by more food and drink, preferably with a fire. We stayed at one of Rose River Farm’s luxury yurts, where we grilled burgers, enjoyed various seasonal beers, went through a generous supply of firewood and listened to some great music. The fishing was even better the next day, and Matt closed out his trip with a stellar morning of fishing. He’s back home now and I’ll be back at work in the morning. But time spent with friends always produces indelible memories. Plus, in addition to reheated Anitas breakfast burritos and the technique of tumbling flies indicatorless along the riverbed, Matt introduced me to something else I will now enjoy forever: the music of Mandolin Orange. I can’t stop listening to their new album, Blindfaller. It is an astounding, near flawless collection of lyrics, strings and voices. Just beautiful from start to finish.

It has been a great few days. I hope it’s the beginning of a fall with more time spent outdoors in the company of old friends, cool dogs and Mother Nature.


Art of Nature

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I am encouraged by the young men and women I have met recently who defy the trend of their peers and immerse themselves in the outdoors, and particularly those who communicate their passion for nature through art.

Isabelle Sweeney, 17, has been crafting, painting, drawing and sculpting since she was little. “It started as something I would do with my mum and siblings, and over time it became something I would do to escape and unwind,” she said. “Painting has always been one of my favorite ways to do this.”

But she has always loved being outdoors. “I feel at peace in nature,” she said. So when her friend, naturalisit Brian Balik, suggested painting a deer skull, it seemed like a great way to combine those interests. Balik gave her a doe skull he had found, they cleaned it up and she set out to turning it into art.

Deciding on black paint because she liked the contrast on the white skull, she sat down one evening, turned on some music and started painting. “I never have a plan when I start,” Isabelle said. “I love the natural symmetry of the bones, so I let them guide me. I let the shapes I see in the skull come out in the black paint.” She finished that first skull in one sitting. “I didn’t stop until it was done late that night.”

I loved that first doe skull when I saw it, and asked Isabelle if she would paint the 6-point buck skull I used for my blizzard time lapse video earlier this year. She was excited to work with the additional interesting features of the antler bases, and came up with an absolutely beautiful design.

“I relish being able to take something from nature, something that had died, something that would have been wasted, and giving it new life as art,” Isabelle said. “To make it beautiful in a new way.”

I am so proud to have this work of art hanging in my office as a reminder of the beauty of nature, and of those who embrace it and find creative ways to express themselves through it.

Photo by Jodi Sweeney

Photo by Jodi Sweeney


Great Essays from Two Young Outdoor Writers

Since its inception, the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) has encouraged young writers from across the state through its collegiate and high school outdoor writing contests. At this year’s annual conference, I loved two of the entries so much I wanted to share them here.

Lynn Wormeli from Virginia Tech’s essay was the Runner-up for the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. She is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to following her path.

Countering Insanity

Hypothesis: lead girls on a hike for two summers and become bored by familiarity.
Independent variable: the way, the mountains, and the time.
Dependent variable: the hiker.

A strange thing happens when you walk the same path many times. Presumably it becomes familiar; with enough frequency, the leaves earn names. My trail held the Pine Tree Forest, the Hill of Doom, and the Lightning Tree, each a rite of passage on the 10-mile hike through Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains. But if you repeat the same trail of the same mountain at the same time over different days, you realize that nothing stays the same. In May, there are flowers. In June, there is green. In July, you fear the Lightning Tree will multiply. And in August, you notice that what was hot is now warm and what was green now glows with yellowed fringes.

The first time we forged our own way. The trail had gone unused from September to May and each passing season had left it less distinguishable from the untouched around it. That first time was a thick, forested march, rather than a confident, concrete hike. Machetes hacked, frustrations garnered sweat, and we often found ourselves rerouting. Curiosity propelled us, and the pauses reminded us of our purpose. “What have you noticed today?” one young man with us, Ryan, asked us all to share. The responses resembled the diversity of a swimmer speaking to a marathoner. So personally colored were each of our experiences that if you were not paying attention you may entirely miss the common ground. The ground was, of course, what we had in common.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

Lynn (right) hiking with friends.

We were workers of the enthusiastic and exhausted kind: camp counselors, preparing adventures for the joyful bundles awaiting their summer session to begin. A few weeks after that first time came another first for me. I led the hike, surrounded by backpack-slugging girls 12 years of age who appeared to be hiking not towards the campsite but in fact away from their own pinpointed Comfort Zones. I learned from them that even the Lightning Tree, scarred from its underdog victory against a lightning strike some years ago, could be seen without my same fascination. I tried to explain myself, and some joined my captivation. But this captivation was not for those girls whose heads travelled separately from their feet. Some girls were already in the middle of other monstrous mental climbs, and this hilly detour was an additional woe to complete. For those girls, it was the destination campfire that smoked them out of their heads and into community. I learned in the clouds of roasting branches that it is not only our eyes that provide us sight.

That summer I hiked the trail each month and took note of the mountain’s arboretum calendar. Any paper calendar would bow to the timekeeping of its natural source. The next summer I led other counselors on their novel hike. They wowed. That time the trail took me by surprise when the iconic field of flowers greeted me instead as plowed mounds for us to wade. Feeling embarrassed, as if I had forgotten the profession of a longtime friend while making their introduction, I clung to the path I remembered and mourned the petals and stems. My ears perked up after the discovery, and I questioned the year that had passed. Had a year really passed? I could not deny it. Finding myself in the same place at the same summertime beginning could not mask the differences evident in the forest and in me. Common ground builds and erodes. Familiar is not forever. And the newbies would not have known the difference.

Later that summer I took a man on the hike. He had big plans to convert my rites of passage into a paved bike trail. His company specialized in such demolition and creation. A bike path would be accessible to more, enjoyed by more, and appreciated by more. Perhaps the path could even evolve into an attraction, a desperately needed draw for a rural economy that runs on the fumes of summertime ice cream shops. Bike paths are safer for emergency rescues too, like a paved runway pointing to the injured instead of a maze of evergreens delaying aid. The path would pave through the wilderness, changing the category of the land. Camp was excited; now the girls 12 years of age could bike instead of walk! They would enjoy that. I knew I would enjoy that too.

I would like to counter the oft spoken idiom of physicist Albert Einstein who once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps this applies well to the scientific method. The outdoors, however, host a battle of entropy and equilibrium. I walked my path over and over again. The map never changed, and many of the same trees remained. But it was in fact my sanity that became defined, and I became a different result.

Natasha King attends the College of William & Mary, her essay won the VOWA Dominion Resources Overall Best Essay. I really connected with Natasha’s thoughts on the solitary pursuit of the wonders of nature.

Encountering Orcas

I am on a small boat bouncing on a choppy grey ocean, in the waters of the Puget Sound in Washington, searching for whales. The captain, who has obtained the location of a small orca pod from an earlier tour boat via radio, points out the tiny fins of the pod in the distance¬–two females, one male, and a calf. From this distance we can see only the small black points of their fins, like tiny blunt teeth appearing amid the waves.

The pod hugs the rocky shoreline of the nearest island, skirting the jagged shallows where water crashes and heaves against the stone and sand. As they recede towards the west, the captain turns the boat and we speed in a wide intercepting arc, easily overtaking the orcas. Wind rushes up the sleeves of my jacket, tears like cold fire through my thin pants. Too late, I realize that I am woefully underdressed for the occasion.

After a few minutes we stop and wait, the boat rocking on the waves. Regulation calls for us to maintain a minimum distance of two hundred yards, so we will have to let the orcas approach us. Currently, however, that seems unlikely to happen; they are continuing to make their way along the shore, ignoring us.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

Natasha at Puget Sound.

I am on this boat, shivering and alone, looking for killer whales, because of my deep-rooted and inexplicable need to experience nature face-to-face, in solitude.

Growing up, I loved hiking and exploring with my family. Together we walked the winding trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains and combed the shores of too many beaches to count. It was my father who taught me to search for secure footholds in the craggy surface of a steep rock face, my mother who caught dragonflies nimbly between her fingers and showed them to me and my siblings.

As I grew older, however, I found myself more frequently craving the peace and introspection of being alone with nature. I sought out the exhilaration and thrill of a one-on-one encounter, whether it be with a heron, a beetle, a vole by the side of the road, or a pod of orcas.

This particular endeavor, then, is one more in a long line of attempts. Here in Washington, far from my home, I am again seeking out contact, seeking out the sudden sense of wonder I achieve when the natural world confronts me. The tiny dark blips of those fins near the horizon are more thrilling than any high-resolution, close-up photograph. They are real, concrete, present; it is only a distance of a few hundred feet, only a metal rail and a short expanse of choppy water, which separate us.

I remember, as a small child at the zoo, trying to climb up the side of the chain link fence surrounding the snow leopard exhibit, in an attempt to get closer to the majestic silvery cats. I slipped and scraped my hand, but kept the injury to myself–it seemed private, a secret thing, a part and parcel of this quiet, personal encounter, this questing.

Suddenly the male orca breaks away from the pod. We see him heading in our direction, and in a flash everyone is at the rail, straining their eyes, searching. Someone calls out–they have caught a hint of his fin, cutting through the sea. We all rush to that side of the boat, scanning the water hungrily. So I am at the rail of the ship when the orca surfaces.

Only for an instant is he visible, moving in a slow, smooth slide through the boundary between sea and air, between the iron-grey water and the pale pewter sky. I am at the rail, sniffling, my hands chilled to the bone, my skin frigid. I am at the rail, standing, praying to see him, and yet when the orca surfaces, without warning or fanfare, pretext or reason, I am wholly unprepared.

I watch the water roll away from his body in opaque ripples. The black and white pattern, well-known from images I saw as a child, is as familiar as a bedtime story, but triggers some ancient reflex of fear and awe that causes me to grip the rail more tightly, lest I become unhinged at every joint, fall trembling in a heap of bones and sinew.

I hear the rasp of the orca’s exhale, a thick rush of sound which is accompanied by a burst of mist out of its blowhole. The rasp echoes and re-echoes in the chilled caverns of my skull, and I stand transfixed at the rail, blood pounding in my ears. The orca and the ocean are suspended in perception for one reverberating instant: the chiaroscuro patchwork of its lustrous skin, the blended water and wind, the elements all breached and fading together at their fraying seams. That rasp. That rush of breath. I might never need to breathe again. My lungs, I think, will pump forever on the infinite remembrance of that single exhale.

The orca is gone as quickly as he appeared. And I am still shivering and shaking at the rail, though not, any longer, with cold. I slip into the boat’s heated cabin, out of the wind, and huff warm bursts of air upon my chilled hands.

This, then, is the culmination of my efforts. The search, the quest, the morning spent freezing at the prow of the boat as it cut through wind and water–all for this, for one instant when I stared into the orca’s dark eye, heard the ancient whisper of its breath. Hours traded for one second, one encounter–it is worth it.

My nose is running; my skin stings with the cold. I am still breathless. I close my eyes and see again the black and white curves of the orca’s sinuous shape, hear the crash of the waves rolling off its back, taste the cold salt spray of the surrounding sea on my chapped lips.

I want to thank Lynn and Natasha for allowing me to publish their wonderful essays here. For any Virginia high school or college students interested in next year’s contests, please visit VOWA’s web site for more information.


Blizzard Time Lapse

With winter storm Jonas threatening to dump two to three feet of snow on Loudoun County, Virginia, I thought it would be fun to set up a time lapse of the entire storm. I set up my Nikon DSLR to take a photo every four minutes, and focused it on a log outside my office window with the Potomac River in the background. A 6-point deer skull on top added to the composition, and 484 frames later, it was all over. Jonas left us with close to 30 inches of snow, with drifts more than twice that. Wind direction, drifting and timing made for vastly uneven snow totals around our property, though, and this stump was spared the full brunt of the storm. Still, it’s a peaceful, mesmerizing look at a storm that, when viewed in real time, was a powerful, sustained, dangerous winter storm. Enjoy!

CLICK HERE OR ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO VIEW THE VIDEO.

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2015 Photos of the Year

I enjoyed going through my photographs of 2015 and picking out my top twenty. The annual exercise serves as a reminder of special places, fascinating people and amazing wildlife encountered over the past twelve months. All but two of the photos this year were taken in Virginia. One of the exceptions is the first image, below, showing Patrick Fulkrod of the South Holston River Company releasing a brown trout into the cool waters of the Watauga River in Tennessee.

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While I didn’t hand raise any Monarch butterflies this year, I watched dozens of these beauties go through their magical life cycles on my milkweed plants. I caught this female emerging from her chrysalis, and watched her with my camera as she unfolded wings of flame.

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Dove hunting with friends has become a favorite new tradition each fall. And when the hunting is slow, as it was for me this year, you can always work on your still life photography. A well used Winchester Model 12, a fine Orvis case and the only dove of the day combined for, to me anyway, a calming blend of textures and colors.

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This copperhead ventured a little too far out into the travel lane to soak up some early morning warmth stored in the asphalt. He is deceased. But it’s the first one I’ve gotten to see up close, so I felt compelled to photograph him.

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Ed Clark of the Wildlife Center of Virginia released this red-tailed hawk after many, many months of rehabilitation. The bird, ill with severe lead poisoning, by all accounts should have died. But when Ed and his staff encounter an animal with an extraordinary will to survive, they join in the fight, and are committed to doing everything in their power to help.

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At a birthday party for my friend, these kids jumped around under an amazing evening sky.

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I saw more black bear in 2015 than in all other years combined. This youngster watched traffic go by along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

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The Washington, DC area was treated to a unique spectacle this summer as dozens of WWII era war planes gathered in formations and flew over the region in the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover. I have much closer shots of the planes, but I thought this image of a couple watching the distant plane had a vintage feel to it that suited the day.

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Naturalist Brian Balik and I spent some early fall mornings cruising Skyline Drive in search of wildlife. But even when the animals aren’t cooperating, the scenery never disappoints.

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While photographing the Middleburg Hunt before the Christmas parade, I was lucky to capture Devon Zebrovious making this elegant turn, resulting in one of my all time favorite portraits.

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Speaking of models, my friend Joel Thompson of Montana Troutaholics is the most photogenic person I know. I loved this relaxed shot of him taking a break from brook trout fishing along the Rapidan River. That Pelican cooler has traveled all over Virginia this past year, which is particularly cool because I just learned that Pelican is actually a Virginia-based company.

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I spent a lot of time looking for reptiles to photograph this year, but I spotted this beautiful northern water snake while trout fishing. Luckily I had my camera handy and captured this image in early morning dappled sunlight.

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My wirehaired Vizsla, Winnie, reflects on her reflection at Rose River Farm. There are more favorite dog photos of the year in this earlier post.

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This five-lined skink, warm from the sun, moved very quickly. But I lucked out and got this cool shot of the beautiful critter.

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This was a great year for turkey sightings where I live. These two composed themselves perfectly for a nice shot along our driveway. Carrying a camera in the truck almost every day has resulted in far more photographic opportunities this year.

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On assignment covering the dedication of a home built for a combat wounded hometown hero, I quickly walked past this cool scene of waiting escorts and kept thinking about it. I was glad they were still there when I went back to photograph them.

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Frog eggs, probably from a wood frog, sit just below the surface of a vernal pool.

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Low light is the bane of my photography. But every now and then I capture an image I really like, and sometimes it only takes a couple hundred snaps of the shutter to get a keeper. Dominion Power lines create an interesting composition on this lightning shot.

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Owl sightings are rare for me, so any time I see one is a special occasion. I spotted this Great Horned owl at nightfall and was thrilled to have my camera with me at the time. The light was obviously limiting, but every now and then a silhouette is just what a scene calls for.

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I struggled shooting this sunflower field with photographer Martin Radigan, but love the mood of this one keeper from the evening. I look forward to trying this again next year.

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I am thankful for everyone who takes the time to read this blog, and I hope you enjoy this collection of my favorite shots of the year. Let me know your favorite in the comments!


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.


Reflection

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I won’t pretend that my 24 hours off the grid this weekend even remotely resembled a backcountry excursion into peril. No, this was camping in comfort with my two best friends, Wirehaired Vizslas Winnie and Finn. It was fly fishing for pond bass, a roaring campfire and ice cold beer. It was a wood fire grilled New York Strip steak at dusk cooked to perfection and big enough to share with the dogs. It was perfect weather, a star filled night and a steady breeze. This was glamping, plain and simple. But even setting up my truck tent on the familiar grounds of my friend’s Rose River Farm puts me far enough away from civilization that I was able to (okay, forced to) disconnect from my phone for a day. And as I get more and more dependent on that connectivity — from constant texts, emails and calls to Googling questions the moment they pop into my head instead of taking the time to sit and ponder a thing — the more value there is in unplugging for a bit.

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Speaking of pondering, Winnie immediately took to the pond not to swim and hunt toads and do whatever it is normal dogs do, but to simply stand there. It’s her thing, her zen. She stood here the entire time it took me to set up camp and then for a good hour beyond that. She’ll turn her head toward a rising fish, but has no interest in further investigation. I do not know what’s on her mind, but I figure it can’t be all that different than what’s on mine when I step into a cool stream with a fly rod.

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Fly fishing for bass with poppers is a blast when the topwater action is on. And in the evening, it was on. Nothing too big, but lots of splashy fun all around the pond edges. Finn and Winnie watched with great interest. I actually have to keep Finn in a ‘Stay’ a fair distance away from me as he can not be trusted with a fish on the line. If he’s too close, the splashing fish sends him into a crazybananafrenzy and he can not help but dive in after it. (Pro Tip: Make sure you do not have a dog like this before you try kayak fishing with him.)

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But the pond will be there all night. It was time to lighten the beer cooler a bit and get the fire started. I don’t think I would have any interest in camping if I couldn’t have a fire. It was through the first wafts of wood smoke that the initial oddness and that dull, background anxiety of not having a cell signal started to feel more like a benefit than an inconvenience. And from that point on I was no longer interested in who was trying to contact me, what was trending on facebook or even what time it was. It was simply time to start a fire and open a beer.

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Dogs, like people I suppose, are very routine animals. The whens and wheres of eating and sleeping are a big part of their lives, so I wondered how they would react to a complete changeup on this, their first camping adventure. Turns out they literally could not care less. They ate their dinner around the fire while I grilled my steak, then they shared some of mine. They were comfortable and utterly relaxed the entire evening. After dinner, Winnie fit in some more pond standing time, I did a little night fishing and the beer cooler got lighter still. We watched the stars for a bit, all silently agreed this was a fine way to spend a weekend, and we called it a night.

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I mentioned this Napier Outdoors truck tent and Airbedz air mattress in an earlier review and I stand by what I said. Both these products perform extremely well, and it’s just an extraordinarily comfortable setup. The dogs loved stretching out but still being next to me, and we all slept like logs. Until, in the middle of the night, we were awakened by what I would describe as a Blood Curdling Cacophony Of Odd And Terrible Animal Noises. Before I even realized I was awake, the dogs and I were kneeling in front of the side window of the tent, staring into darkness. In the hazy, jittery half sleep that comes with abrupt awakenings, my brain could not make sense of the sounds. Later, in the light of day my brain told me they were coyotes, but the cackling, crying and screaming was definitely not what I thought a pack of coyotes would sound like. The dogs never barked, and I was glad for the low tech brand of radio silence not to give away our location. We went back to sleep easily and awoke at dawn, happy, rested and not surrounded by coyotes.

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The agenda for the next morning was to explore Skyline Drive and find a new spot to hike. As we entered Skyline Drive I purchased an annual pass. Shenandoah National Park is one of my favorite places and I happily support it.

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Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in the entire park. The hike to it, even when taking the longer loop, is only about three miles, with a moderate elevation gain enough to get your heart pumping. With a long drive back home still ahead of us, this looked like a great way to get a little exercise and not keep us out all day.

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The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.

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Coming home from camping trips with my Dad as a kid, we always stopped at Whitey’s, a North Arlington, VA mainstay with a big sign out front that read: EAT. It was just a few miles from home, but my Dad always stopped there no matter the time of day or night. He would have a Budweiser in one of those thick, heavy, frosted mugs, and I’d have an identical mug of A&W root beer. We would order burgers. Back in the day, Whitey himself was sometimes there in the last booth along the wall, under the deer mount with Christmas lights on the antlers. My Dad would pretend to calculate how much grief my Mom would give him for keeping me out late on a school night, then order us another round. We would, each in our own way, embrace those little extensions of our weekend. Done with fishing and camping and canoeing and sunburn and mosquito bites, done with cleaning and loading and securing and double checking it all, but not quite ready to be home. It’s there, it’s close. But not yet. On this camping trip, the role of Whitey’s was played by Shawn’s Smokehouse BBQ in Culpeper. This time my mug was filled with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, and while I ate every bite of my pulled pork sandwich, the mac and cheese was split three ways.

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But delaying the trip home doesn’t mean you don’t like home. It just means you found something special while you were away, even for just a day. And if you take the time to reflect on it a little more, maybe you’ll remember it better. Or bring a bit of what you found home with you. So we ate slowly, savoring the last morsels of our first camping trip together. And when the time was right we headed north, with full bellies, full hearts, and all the windows down.

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Backyard Wildlife: Snowberry Clearwing Moth

I spotted this bright green caterpillar on my native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and did some Googling to figure out what it was. I was very excited to learn that it was a Snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), and some further searching uncovered three more caterpillars. I have seen the adult moths before, but they are extremely fast flyers and very elusive. They, along with wood ducks and a few others, have long been on my list of Things I Wish I Could Photograph.

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Unlike the Monarch butterflies I have been hosting and observing, these caterpillars pupate in cocoons on the ground. So I got a container, put some soil in the bottom and added fresh honeysuckle from the host plants for the caterpillars to eat. In a few days they all disappeared underground to make their cocoons.

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One by one, the beautiful moths emerged. And while I could observe them inside the container, they were still difficult to photograph. This is the second one and I caught him immediately after he emerged, his wings still pumping full of fluid and unfolding. So I put some milkweed flowers in the container and sure enough he climbed aboard long enough to pose for some photos. This moth has not yet used his wings, those crystal looking scales shed with the first wingbeats and appear clear. But once they learn to fly, they’re gone so fast I can’t even raise the camera to my eye.

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This photo of the first of the four shows the clear wings that give this fascinating little creature its name. They are commonly called hummingbird moths, but more closely mimic bumblebees in size and behavior.

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The simple little pollinator garden I planted last year to attract and sustain Monarchs has been a constant source of natural wonder in many forms. If you are looking for a beautiful, robust, native plant (in the eastern half of the U.S.) that pollinators love, consider coral honeysuckle. You’ll find that hummingbirds and butterflies love it. And if you happen to notice a large bumblebee drinking nectar, take a closer look. You might have a very interesting visitor.

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Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuaries

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This fawn stopped by my Audubon At Home Wildlife Sanctuary sign and posed for a photo this morning so I thought it would be a good opportunity to share a little bit about that program.

Natural habitat for native flora and fauna is being steadily diminished by development in high population regions all across the country, and Northern Virginia is certainly no exception. Audubon at Home is a National Audubon Society program that promotes citizen participation in conserving and restoring local natural habitat to help offset the impact of development. Audubon’s Northern Virginia chapter certifies properties as Wildlife Sanctuaries, but it’s really the animals who decide. I am very lucky to live in a place that animals seem to love to begin with, and with some help from volunteer Audubon At Home Ambassadors, with just a few simple changes I have been able to transform my property into a certified haven for birds, butterflies and other beneficial wildlife. I added a small garden with native plants to attract and sustain butterflies, bees and other pollinators, constructed a couple brush piles that provide habitat for all kinds of critters, and transformed a spot of previously mowed lawn back into a natural meadow.

To find out how you can make your home, church, school or business an animal friendly, certified wildlife sanctuary, visit the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia.


Gear Review: Sportz Truck Tent and Airbedz Mattress

I don’t camp. I love being in nature, but I also very much dig the comfort thing. Growing up, I used to camp with my Dad. We never camped in tents, but always in some vehicle based setup — either a trailer of some sort or in a cap on the back of the truck. So when I decided to look into comfortable, portable camping options, I settled on the Napier Outdoors Sportz Truck Tent.

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When the tent arrived I was anxious to set it up right away and see how it worked. I found this video a lot easier to follow than the written instructions that came with the tent. I unpacked the contents of the surprisingly small duffle bag the tent was packed in, and using my phone, followed the instructions in the video, pausing the video after each step so I could follow along. All the poles are color coded to match the sleeves you slide them through, and setup went quite smoothly, far easier than the frustrating mess I had mentally prepared myself for. Here it is set up in my yard. I forgot to time it, but I think it only took twenty minutes or so. Not bad for someone who has never set up a tent before.

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I’m six feet tall and was really surprised when I got inside that I could actually stand up straight in this. I don’t see how this would really come up in a camping situation, but you need to get inside for a brief part of the assembly, and it’s just great to generally not feel cramped in it. There is a large window in the front (Okay a note here: The front of the tent is the back of the truck, according to the instructions. This makes sense of course, but for me it was confusing. Once you install a tent in a truck bed, I feel like the orientation of the truck now rules, so when I say the front of the tent, I mean in relation to where the truck is pointed), large semicircular windows on each side, and the door is very large. All windows and the door have either a screen option or you can zip closed a privacy window.

The tent also comes with a rain fly, which I installed backwards initially (see my note above). I haven’t tried it in the rain, and am not anxious to. But it’s nice to have, and to know it could be installed very quickly, especially with a second person. Here is what the tent looks like with the rain fly installed.

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Having a dry roof over your head is only part of the comfort equation, however. I had heard about Airbedz air mattresses from Pittman Outdoors made for pickup truck beds that have cutouts for the wheel wells so you can utilize the entire truck bed area. My Chevy Colorado has a six foot bed but is not as wide as a full size truck, so knowing I would most often have my two dogs with me (55 and 70 pounds), I was going to need all that area. (Note: You can purchase the optional wheel well inserts so this mattress can be used inside your home.) I purchased mine from AutoAnything, and chatted with someone there for a while before deciding on the heavier duty mattress to hold up against dog claws.

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The Airbedz has a built in, rechargeable pump. I’ll be honest, I was a little skeptical about this. It just seemed like the sort of thing that simply wouldn’t work the way it was advertised. But it absolutely does. If I had one complaint it would be that there is no indicator light on the charger, and the plug doesn’t give you any feedback that it is plugged in all the way. So the battery (which comes out of the pump for charging) sat there in my kitchen for several hours and I had no idea if it was actually charging. I installed the (hopefully) charged battery and clicked the pump on just for a second to see if it powered up. Then I put it all back in the bag until my first camping outing.

My first test run was at my friend’s farm in beautiful Madison County, VA. I set the tent up with the help of the video once more, but at this point I will not need the instructions again. The color coding does it all. Here it is all set up on my first time out. I was really only using it as a place to crash, rather than a camp site to hang out in. So I opted not to bother with the awning this time. Here it is all set up, backed up to the soothing sound of the Rose River.

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Then I unrolled the Airbedz mattress and flipped the switch. In about a minute the mattress was fully inflated, firm and comfortable!

It was very warm that day and evening, so I opened all the windows, zipped the screens closed, and left it for much of the day. I half expected the mattress to be deflated and the tent to be filled with bugs when I returned. I expect these things because I feel like nothing performs as advertised these days. But I slept in 100% bugless comfort all night and the mattress held all its air for sixteen hours. The battery on the pump had all the juice it needed to deflate it the next morning. And it did a great job at deflating it, too — the mattress rolled up to the same size it was out of the box.

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So if you have a pickup truck and want to get out in nature but also want to haul some of the comforts of home with you like a comfy mattress, a cooler with beer and ice, maybe a camp stove, dog food, etc., you might want to give truck tent camping a try. If you do, these two products will get you on your way. They come in sizes to fit any truck bed, and in my experience, they both perform exactly as they should.


Sometimes Nature Just Punches You In The Gut.

This is an Eastern phoebe, hovering over her nest that was, until just minutes before, filled with chirping chicks waiting for an insect delivery.

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What came next is a scene that unfolds countless times every second of every minute of every day in every corner of this planet. Even under the protective shell of my back deck. Predators prey. Nature eats. Life is a circle. This is a rat snake, replete with phoebe chicks. My phoebe chicks.

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My mind tells me, snakes gotta eat too.

My mind tells me if I had gotten home a half hour earlier like I usually do, I probably still wouldn’t have been able to stop it.

My mind tells me the Phoebes who raised the chicks are simply confused. That they are chirping, hovering, searching, out of instinct. That they still go search for, capture and deliver insects for their former brood, out of the pure mechanics of nature. Out of something other than grief or despair. That the concept of hope is infinitely beyond their grasp, so it is not theirs to lose.

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My mind tells me that four surviving birds out of ten total eggs in two broods is actually pretty good.

My mind tells me that any ‘bond’ I’ve built with the Phoebes who inhabit and populate the nest outside this office door is a creation of that very mind. That though I am vigorously protective of them, they neither sense nor rely upon this.

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My mind tells me that the chicks will help sustain a strong, beautiful snake, and as she rests and digests in that hole in the cool earth beneath the deck, she may someday make her own eggs with the help of those nutrients. And that I will encounter the healthy offspring of this snake for generations to come.

My mind tells me that nature, while often violent, is not cruel. That snakes do to birds what birds do to insects. And birds do to insects what insects do to whatever insects do that to. Snakes are not the beginning, and birds are not the end.

My mind tells me that by tomorrow my phoebes will lower their gaze from their empty nest and resume hunting insects for themselves. Not out of courage or bravery, but simply out of survival. And that by tomorrow I, too, will be going about my normal routine.

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My mind tells me all these things, and that all these things are true.

But my heart? My heart flat out aches tonight.


Virginia’s Threatened Wood Turtle

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I had never seen a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) before. Which is not all that surprising, even given my time spent in the woods. In Virginia, the wood turtle is a threatened species. It has been assigned the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rating of Tier 1 — Critical Conservation Need, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. Populations of these species are at critically low levels, facing immediate threat(s), or occur within an extremely limited range. Intense and immediate management action is needed.

My friend, naturalist Brian Balik has seen a few over the years, and knew of their decline in Virginia. So when he recently happened across two wood turtles in the same location in Northern Virginia, at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Spotting a threatened wood turtle ranks as a top experience in my life as a naturalist,” Brian said. “It’s something I am definitely not taking for granted, especially living in an area where there are very few of them.”

He took some photos of that first wood turtle and kept hiking, only to find another less than 100 yards away. So knowing there were at least two in the area, we set out a couple weeks later to hopefully re-find them so I could get some photographs. I was less confident than Balik, as I have a history of not being able to find things, but lo and behold, after hiking a few miles adjacent to a creek bed, Brian called out. “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe he had found one again! It was an extremely special sighting.

Just how rare is the wood turtle in Virginia? I contacted J.D. Kleopfer, a Herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who was excited about the find. “Not too many woodies left in that part of the world,” he said. “So any observations are critical.”

The turtle measured around eight inches long, was gentle and even a little curious. We spent a little time observing and photographing this affable little creature who cooperated for quite a while before deciding to wander off in search of lunch, privacy or both. But we were happy with the encounter and the photos we captured, so we left her and continued exploring, spotting some toads, a beautiful skink and even a yellow jacket nest along the way. (Balik is also better at finding yellow jackets than I am.)

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I shared my photos with Ellery Ruther, Lead Field Technician of Virginia Working Landscapes for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who graciously provided some information about the turtle we encountered. “At first glance, I thought this animal was a small female,” she said. “But after counting the annuli (rings on the shell) to estimate age, it looks like the turtle is a juvenile around 8 years old. Wood turtles don’t reach maturity until around 10-15 years of age.” They can live up to 60 years.

We did not closely examine our sample turtle (nor would I have known what to look for), but Ruther explains that the best way to tell sex would be to look at the bottom of the shell. “Males have concavity, and females are flat,” Ruther said. “Otherwise, females generally have smaller heads, smaller front claws, and smaller tails than males do.”

As with many threatened species, urban and agricultural development have been among the biggest contributors to wood turtle decline. “Wood turtles are semi-aquatic, so they rely on both terrestrial and aquatic environments, can occupy relatively large home ranges, and often move between watersheds,” Ruther said. “All of which makes them very sensitive to development.” In addition, these factors lead to increased predator encounters, mortality crossing roads and, perhaps most disturbingly, accessibility for poachers.

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Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, warns the public about removing animals from the wild. Once he was brought a wood turtle that was picked up on the road by someone vacationing in their range and brought home. He discovered it was a gravid female. “One of the important individuals in that population had been removed,” Steele said. “It emphasizes that turtles should NOT be picked out of the wild for pets.”

And it’s not just rare and threatened turtles that are put at risk by poaching. “Box turtles in particular are taking a big hit because of removal for pets,” Steele said. “Most box turtles at rescues are unwanted pets that were originally wild.”

If you happen to come across a rare or threatened specimen like Virginia’s wood turtle, Balik recommends taking a few photos and reporting the sighting to VDGIF. “Or if you are in a park land, report the sighting to park staff,” he said. “Keep in mind exactly where you are, nearby water bodies, road intersections, date, time and a photo.”

So please just enjoy Virginia’s precious wildlife where you find it. As the old maxim goes, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”

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For a list of Virginia’s special legal status species click here.
To learn about all the turtles native to Virginia, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society web site here.
To check out Brian Balik’s blog, A Case of Wildlife Fever, click here.
For the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, click here.


Backyard Wildlife: The Eastern Phoebe

When we first moved to our current house I started noticing the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) each spring, with their “phoebe” call and the twitching of their tails both making them easily identifiable around the property.

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This spring I noticed a Phoebe scouting out nest locations underneath our deck, which happens to be right outside my office. Here she is looking directly at the spot where she eventually built her nest.

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Late one night I flipped on the porch light and opened the office door to let the dogs out. One of the Phoebes, confused by the light, flew right into the open door. It was comparatively so much darker outside than inside, so she just kept flying around in circles inside the room. She would fly right up to the door but turn back to the lit room at the last second. Luckily my dogs obeyed my repeated “Leave it!” commands every time she circled right above the couch where they were sitting. She eventually found her way out, and although I was sure she had been traumatized enough by the experience to find a more quiet spot, I left myself a reminder to not use that door for a while just in case.

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Despite the scare, nest construction continued. Mud, moss and grass are the most favored building materials, but I also found dog hair I leave out for birds to use, horse hair from the barn and a few feathers all mixed into the beautiful nest. Only the female builds the nest.

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Eggs were laid once a day, early in the morning it seems. Phoebes lay between two and six eggs, and this one laid five. This photo taken after the fourth egg shows a blemish on one of the eggs. Ultimately only four birds hatched, and I wonder if this blemished egg is the one that didn’t make it.

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For a little over two weeks she spent much, but not all, of her time on the nest. By now I think she was used to my presence and allowed me to get rather close with my camera.

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Couch dogs in your flight path are not the only threat to the Phoebe population. I observed this Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) watching the Phoebe nest with great interest. Cowbirds don’t build nests, they lay eggs in nests of other birds and let them get raised by foster parents of a different species (often Phoebes), usually at the expense of at least some of the host bird’s chicks. But as often as I saw Cowbirds in the immediate area, the Phoebe nest remained Cowbird free.

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Another threat to the eggs and very common in the area is the Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). This particular egg-loving neighbor was found on the deck just above the Phoebe nest. With four dogs running around, I imagine the reason for risking the visit had to be that nest. We moved him to the nearby woods, but I was certain he was aware of the nest and each day for the next week I came home expecting the eggs to be gone.

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But four of the five eggs avoided the threats and beat the odds. You can see the unhatched fifth egg still in the nest, but it was removed soon after.

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Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the first days of life for these young Phoebes.

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Everything I’ve read says that most mated pairs of Phoebes do not spend a lot of time together, but that is not what I observed. The male seemed very active in gathering insects for the chicks.

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And as fast as they grow, I can’t even imagine how many insects have to get crammed down the throats of those chicks every day!

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Before long there was no room in the nest for mom. She fed them while standing on the rim of the nest.

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The helpless, ugly babies were transforming into beautiful little birds before my eyes.

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And then one day I watched as one of them began to test his wings. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.

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And it wasn’t. I observed the parents calling to them from a nearby fence, enticing them out of the nest. Two left the nest that evening. The remaining two waited until the following morning. Tails not even long enough to perform the telltale twitch, the fledglings spend a bit more time with the mother, learning how to be a Phoebe.

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I felt honored to have the opportunity to easily observe a process that happens constantly, all around us. All the birds that visit our feeders, that roost in our trees and build nests in our birdhouses are special. But the Eastern Phoebe will always be a favorite sign of spring. And every time I see one I will fondly remember the one that flew laps in my office, and the four that left a few weeks later.


Healing Those Who Serve: The 9th Annual
Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament

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The 9th Annual 2-Fly Tournament, held April 25-26, 2015 at Rose River Farm in Syria, VA, raised over $205,000 for Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Many of those in attendance declared it the best event yet, despite some meteorological challenges. When the forecast looks like this 24 hours before the weekend-long event, countless details are impacted. But as always, volunteers and PHW staff stepped up and made sure everything still ran smoothly no matter the weather.

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Early Saturday the rain kindly held off for the Bluegill and Bass Tournament at the pond. But as the evening festivities were just getting started, the skies opened up. This did not deter the Virginia Patriot Guard, however, who each year — rain or shine — escort the participants to the Saturday dinner program. This has become a beloved tradition in the 2-Fly.

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Inside the main tent, guests were treated to great food from Gentry’s Catering Service. Wine was provided by Luna Vineyards, and dozens of amazing items were available to bid on in the silent auction.

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Karen Jonas and her band warmed up the tent on a cold evening with an outstanding performance.

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More entertainment came in the form of Master of Ceremonies Eivind Forseth, pictured here from Sunday’s tournament. Eivind, one of the very first participants when Project Healing Waters began over ten years ago, is extraordinarily funny and just happens to have the best voice you’re likely to ever hear.

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The keynote speakers were Lee and Bob Woodruff of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. In 2006, Bob Woodruff was in Iraq reporting for ABC’s “World News Tonight” when he was gravely injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle. His traumatic brain injury nearly killed him. Miraculously he recovered, and 13 months later he was back at ABC News, but forever changed. Bob and his wife, Lee, were driven by a mission to ensure our injured Veterans had access to the very best support and resources available, and the Bob Woodruff Foundation was born. There are tens of thousands of nonprofits serving veterans, and their foundation works extremely hard to find the best, most innovative programs to help fund. Organizations supported by the foundation must meet the very highest standards, and four important criteria must be met: The organization must produce results, they must be responsible stewards of money, the model they use must be replicable (for instance PHW now has 180 programs in all 50 states), and the organization must work where Veterans live. Project Healing Waters meets all those criteria, and is honored to be supported by the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The Woodruffs were both wonderful, powerful speakers. Veterans in attendance surely could relate to Bob’s story. But Lee’s testimony of the difficult journey of the Woodruff family resonated with the loved ones, the caregivers of injured and disabled servicemen and women. That perspective was most appreciated.

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The rain continued throughout the night but the Rose River handled all the water Mother Nature poured down her throat, and awoke Sunday morning running clear and strong. Then, in defiance of every forecast from the previous day, the rains pushed out, grey skies turned to blue, and by late morning the sun was shining on this great event.

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The Woodruffs were kind enough to come back on Sunday and try their hand at fly fishing. Here Dusty Wissmath gives Bob some instruction on the water…

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…while Lee gets some guidance from Elizabeth Noyes.

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Josh Williams of Dead Drift Outfitters has been fishing in this tournament for many years, and he almost always goes home with a plaque. He ties amazing flies and is a great fisherman, friend and family man.

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The man who started it all, Project Healing Waters founder and president Ed Nicholson.

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The river wasn’t exactly throwing trout into the nets, but the right fly and a good drift were often rewarded. Here a rainbow is released into the strong current of the Rose River.

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If you’ve seen the long running ESPN show Walkers Cay Chronicles you’ll recognize Flip Pallot. The consummate outdoorsman was on hand to teach casting and share stories the way only he can.

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Year after year, over a dozen distinguished professional guides enthusiastically volunteer their time and expertise to guide the Veteran participants. Here Jimmy Aliff (right) shows off one of Frank Ortega’s catches.

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Kimberly Smith fished in last year’s event and is now a volunteer with Project Healing Waters, helping bring in new participants. This beautiful trout, below a tattoo honoring her father, is a new addition and even covers up some scars.

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Gerry McKay releases a catch from the afternoon session while guide Joel Thompson, who flew from Missoula, MT to guide in the event, looks on.

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Enjoying a break in the action are, from left to right, Elizabeth Noyes, Michael Brittin, Dusty Wismith, Thomas Hogan and the owner of Rose River Farm and PHW Chairman of the Board Douglas Dear. Douglas co-chairs the 2-Fly committee with Jerry Nonnemacher, and they put in countless hours all year long to make this event the great success that it is.

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Nicky Dayton, left, gets a helping hand from guide Kiki Galvin. Nicky was one of the three participant speakers during Saturday’s program. Her humble, powerful message of pain and healing brought a standing ovation.

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In the end, after months of planning, countless volunteer hours, dozens of sponsors, thousands of miles flown to bring participants from all over the country, a whole lot of trout with sore lips and a little bit of divine intervention on the weather, it was over. On Sunday evening the handshakes are firmer, the laughs are easier, and the goodbyes take a little longer. And promises are made through open truck windows to not let a whole year go by without wetting a line together. I made a few such promises myself, and I intend to keep them.

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The 10th Annual 2-Fly Tournament will be held April 30-May 1, 2016. This was a tough act to follow, but there are people already working on making it the biggest and best yet!

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Shenandoah Brookies: Cracking the Code

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Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.

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As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.

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For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.

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I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.

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And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.

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I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.

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That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.

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Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia

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The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.

“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Online!
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Cost: $20

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Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.


Antlers, Birds and Exercise

It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.

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We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.

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Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…

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We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.

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So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.

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While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.

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I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.

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You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.

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So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.

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The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.

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And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.

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Winter Fishing at Rose River Farm

When I packed the truck and headed for Rose River Farm it was nine degrees out and the main roads were still covered with packed snow from the previous day’s storm. I wasn’t fully convinced this was a good use of a vacation day until I was almost there. Driving south in brilliant morning sunshine, the roads eventually cleared, traffic thinned, and finally the Rose River came into view. A clean, dark, glistening ribbon meandering through the snow covered landscape, frigid water tumbling over rocks and logs, leaving behind brilliant ice sculptures along her banks. I had forgotten how much I love winter fishing. Hell, I had forgotten how much I love winter. But I remember now.

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I love having a truck. This was my first foul weather outdoor adventure with my Chevy Colorado, and it’s great fun. I love the workspace of a tailgate as I’m getting ready. While the temperature was quite cold, there was virtually no wind, and the bright sun reflecting off the snow made it fairly comfortable. I decided my ultra warm neoprene waders would be overkill, so I put on my Redingtons and a warm hat and met up with a friend who had been fishing all morning. Bob is a great guy, a fantastic fly angler, and he travels with more flies than I have seen in almost every fly shop I’ve ever been in. “Hare’s ear,” he told me. “They’re killing it.”

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A hare’s ear nymph? This is not a fly I use very often. I think maybe because it’s kind of nondescript. Unremarkable in color and vague in shape, a single example sat in the corner of my fly box, long ignored like that drab sportcoat in the closet with patches on the elbows. You can’t remember the last time you wore it, but won’t throw it out because there has to be some occasion it’s perfect for. Well I can’t show you a picture of the hare’s ear I used, because it was in fact the perfect sportcoat for the occasion, and the trout hammered it until it unraveled. Then I trimmed the material that had come undone and they hammered it some more. Finally, the hook literally broke off of it. This is an example of a healthy hare’s ear nymph, courtesy of my buddy Joel of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters. Joel describes it as a “great and often overlooked nymph.” He also said in New Zealand they call it a ‘hare and copper,’ and it’s an extremely productive fly down there too.

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The first fish of the day came quickly, as did my realization that wetting your hand to handle a trout on a 20 degree day is uncomfortable.

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Catching fish is fun no matter the temperature. But when toes get cold, wading becomes clumsy. And when hands get cold, everything else gets clumsy. Removing a fly, releasing a fish, tying a knot, untangling line. Everything takes longer. I tried a few times to add a trailing fly behind the hare’s ear, but cold fingers and bad eyes (I was wearing a warm hat without a brim so I was without my usual clip-on magnifiers) made tandem rigs just too cumbersome to tie. In addition, trout spinning around in the net tangling in the trailer added a new dimension of frustration. So I abandoned that and stuck with the single nymph.

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Anyone who fishes in cold weather has experienced their guides icing up. At first it happens gradually, ice building up from the water on the fly line gliding by. But once they ice to the point the line doesn’t move, you have to dip the guides into the river (which is warmer than the air) to thaw them. This of course means now your rod is totally wet, and in a couple minutes you’ll have far more ice than before. It’s just a part of winter fishing.

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Once my hands froze, I tried my best to remove hooks with hemostats while the fish was still in the net. But some fish are worth the pain of wetting your hands for a photo. This fatty was my biggest of the day.

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You can just make out this fish in the upper right as I released him. I was a bit late with the photo — did I mention my hands weren’t working very well? — but I thought the swirl of water he left in his wake was pretty cool.

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By late afternoon, the temperature had risen to the high twenties and things began to thaw out. I love this curl of snow slowly sliding off the warm, tin roof of the gazebo.

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The hare’s ear worked all day, until it didn’t. They just shut down for that fly for both Bob and I. Luckily, he had another winning pattern in his fly box and gave me an extra. It was tiny and pink, hard to really see and damn near impossible to tie on at that point in the day. I told myself I would fish it for another thirty minutes or until I broke it off and then I would be done for the day. But this fly too was extremely effective, producing another half dozen fish in that last half hour. This beauty wanted to pose with my beautiful bamboo rod by Jerry Nonnemacher.

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I spent the drive from Madison to Loudoun County smiling about a simply wonderful day of winter fishing. And right around the time I reached Gilbert’s Corner, the feeling eased back to the last of my toes. With warmth and sunshine in the forecast for more than a week taking us into mid March, I think it’s safe to say the worst of winter is behind us. Unfortunately, so is the best of it.


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