Words and Images from Ed Felker

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In the Presence of Greatness:
The 10th Annual PHW 2-Fly Tournament

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Project Healing Waters has been doing their important work for over ten years now, and the Tenth Annual 2-Fly Tournament was part celebration of those years, and part fundraiser to successfully begin the next decade of Healing Those Who Serve. This year, a participant from each of the previous 2-Fly Tournaments was included in the field, so there were many heartfelt reunions taking place around Rose River Farm all weekend. J.R. Salzman, pictured above, fished in the very first 2-Fly, and an iconic image of him stalking trout in the gazebo pool is still used by Project Healing Waters today. In addition to being a fantastic fly fisherman, he’s also a world champion log roller and ESPY Best Outdoor Sports Athlete award winner.

We were honored to have Mr. Tom Brokaw as the keynote speaker this year. When I first met him as he arrived it occurred to me that some years had passed since last I saw him on TV. But despite being weary from travel he was warm and gracious with everyone he met. And everyone wanted to meet him. Then when it came time for him to speak, the years I noticed on him outside the tent washed away. He spoke in a strong, familiar voice with brightness in his eyes. He was in his element. He spoke of service and volunteerism and sacrifice. Of coming together as a nation, of duty and patriotism. He weaved nostalgia with relevance, humor with power. He spoke to every man, woman and child in that room and made us each feel like the focal point of his speech and the hope for the future not only of this organization, but of this nation. His words were like the Uncle Sam poster whose finger magically pointed at You, no matter from which direction you approached. He is a consummate professional. He hit it out of the park, without ever once glancing at a single note, and delivered the single best speech I have ever heard in my life. Rob Snowhite, the Fly Fishing Consultant, captured the speech in his podcast, linked here.

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Here he is speaking at the dinner. In the bottom left corner of the photo is his long time friend and fishing buddy, the legendary Lefty Kreh. In front of Lefty is PHW’s founder, Ed Nicholson.

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Douglas Dear, owner of Rose River Farm and Chairman Emeritus of the Project Healing Waters board of trustees, speaks to over 300 attendees, the largest crowd ever gathered for this event.

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This photo of Keith Gilbert (standing), who fished in the 4th Annual 2-Fly, was taken the Friday before the event. He and Joel Thompson, his guide for the tournament, got to meet each other and discuss strategies at a warmup event nearby.

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Sunday morning’s weather, for the severalth year in a row, left a bit to be desired. But these are fly fishermen. We all hoped for better weather, but I never heard a single angler complain about a little rain.

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I spewed the words to the Pledge of Allegiance like a zombie thousands of times as a young kid in school, never even giving thought to the word “Allegiance” or what it meant. The Pledge of Allegiance here has meaning. The National Anthem has power. These are not formalities, things to check off the itinerary. The words therein carry the weight of the sacrifices of the men and women saluting that flag Sunday morning, and countless more who have gone before them. I feel at once honored and unworthy to be in the presence of men like Chris Frost, who lost both legs below the knee when his vehicle was struck by an IED. In addition to his Purple Heart, Chris has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Force Combat Action Medal and numerous others. I first met Chris when he fished in the 5th Annual 2-Fly.

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Tom and Joanne have been a generous fixture at the 2-Fly for many years, and this year a new addition attended, appropriately attired for a troutcentric event.

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Mr. Brokaw was kind enough to come back Sunday to experience the tournament. Here he shares a laugh with PHW’s Director of Communications and social media guru Daniel Morgan, who worked tirelessly in the months leading up to this event to make sure everything went smoothly.

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In the first round of fishing, the weather deteriorated. But Judge Thomas Hogan doesn’t let a little rain bother him. Judge Hogan, an extremely nice man and a great fly fisherman, has been here for every 2-Fly Tournament.

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Pro Guide Jimmy Aliff nets a beautiful rainbow trout caught by Alvin Shell while the rain was still falling. Alvin fished previously in the 9th Annual 2-Fly.

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Rhonda Burleson, who fished in the 7th Annual tournament, gets a helping hand from Pro Guide Kiki Galvin.

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The weather did improve, albeit not enthusiastically at first. Mist and drizzle hung around for a while before deciding to depart for the afternoon and let some sun in.

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I love this portrait of Artist Michael Simon. All of you Virginians reading this blog who sport the specialty wildlife conservation license plates featuring bass or brook trout on your vehicle might not know that Michael Simon is the artist who created those.

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The fishing was great all day, and raincoats were shed for much of the afternoon. Here is Rhonda and Kiki again with a beautiful rainbow under sunny skies.

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World class fly fishing experts like Ed Jaworowski generously donate their time to come to the 2-Fly to give participants a chance to learn from the best.

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Lefty Kreh tunes up Keith Gilbert’s cast before the afternoon sessions.

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Rhonda tenderly releases a beautiful brook trout, rounding out her Rose River grand slam catching rainbow, brown and brook trout in just a few hours of fishing.

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“The honor is mine, to have the opportunity I’ve had to cover the big stories around the world, to try to get them right, to try to keep journalism on an even course, try to celebrate the goodness of this country and the greatness that is yet to come. Because I honestly believe that. And to be in the presence of Americans who every day wake up, and think about what they can do for their fellow citizens. So congratulations to all of you. And to the veterans who are here, in ways that we can never adequately express, we’re enthralled by sharing this country with you. Sharing this evening with you. And we will go home, and say to our friends and neighbors, ‘I was in the presence of greatness last night.'”

— Tom Brokaw, April 30, 2016, Rose River Farm

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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.


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.


Sip, Stay
Loudoun County’s Dog-Friendly Brew Pubs

I recently wrote a story for Loudouner Magazine, spotlighting dog-friendly brewpubs in Loudoun County, Virginia where I live. It was a fun story to research, write and photograph. However, there were a lot of photos I loved that just couldn’t fit in the article. So I wanted to put my favorites in a blog post.

Winnie, my 7-year-old Wirehaired Vizsla, gets a warm greeting from Ocelot Brewing’s Operations Manager Melissa Dozier.

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Mylo, a 2-year-old mixed breed rescue dog, visits Belly Love with Jake, Pauliina and Eveliina, who came out from DC. Eveliina, holding the leash, said they would not have come to Loudoun without Mylo.

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Chocky, a 4-year-old Chihuahua Yorkie mix, eyes a pint at Purcellville’s Corcoran Brewing Co., a local favorite among dog owning patrons.

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My good friend Laura Murphy enjoys a Pale Ale on the porch of Old 690 with Tracer, a very cool 4-year-old mixed breed.

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Jackie Hill, Corcoran Brewing Co.’s Events Coordinator and Lead Bartender, loves it when dogs come in. “They put a smile on everyone’s face,” she says. Here she greets my Wirehaired Vizslas Finn and Winnie (“Team Orange”) with a big smile of her own.

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Leesburg resident Rob relaxes on the porch at Belly Love with 4-year-old German Shepherd, Austin. Belly Love owner Katie Baki, who has three dogs, says people call often to see if they are dog friendly.

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Finn and Winnie take a break on a hot day to relax on the cool ground at Quattro Goomba’s brewery.

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Sweet Cheeks, an eighteen month old pointer mix rescue, enjoys the air conditioned brewery at Quattro Goomba on a hot day as Dan Saleeba watches the game from the other end of the leash.

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Roger Sultan, from Ashburn, enjoys a pint on the patio at Dirt Farm Brewing with Anna, a year and a half old lab beagle mix rescue. The Sultans are glad that Anna gets to participate in the family fun.

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Walt, a 2 year old Golden Retriever owned by Nicole Cerula from Hamilton, watches from the patio as children play on the expansive lawn of Dirt Farm Brewing.

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Dogs are welcome inside these Loudoun County breweries:

Corcoran Brewing Co. (Purcellville)

Crooked Run Brewing (Leesburg)

Dirt Farm Brewing (Bluemont)

Ocelot Brewing Company (Sterling)

Quattro Goomba Brewery (Aldie)

These breweries have dog friendly porches, decks or patios:

Adroit Theory Brewing (Purcellville)

Belly Love Brewing Company (Purcellville)

Lost Rhino Retreat (Ashburn)

MacDowell Brew Kitchen (Leesburg)

Old 690 Brewing Company (Purcellville)

Old Ox Brewery (Ashburn)

For more about Loudoun’s awesome breweries, check out Brewdoun, a great site that keeps tabs (heh) on the entire Loudoun County craft beer scene!

Visit Loudoun has also developed what they call the LoCo Ale Trail, you can check that out on the Visit Loudoun site 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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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.


Victory in Europe

“They have given their sons to the military services. They have stoked the furnaces and hurried the factory wheels. They have made the planes and welded the tanks, riveted the ships and rolled the shells.” — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, August 19, 1942.

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V-E Day. The anniversary – this year the 70th – of the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces, the end of World War II in Europe. I can hardly imagine what this date, May 8, 1945, meant to America, to the world at the time. Victory. My God, the blood and treasure spilled and spent to achieve that victory was unfathomable. I have read volumes and volumes about the sacrifices made by our Greatest Generation and they are literally beyond my grasp. But I am lucky to live in a place where I can honor them by taking part in a once in a lifetime celebration of this epic victory and the historic aircraft that helped make it possible.

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The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover included dozens of vintage WWII aircraft. The planes gathered in holding patterns along the Potomac River west of Washington, DC, eventually lining up in 15 formations tracing the path of the river to Washington, and ending up over the World War II Memorial. I chose Great Falls Park as my vantage point to see this display of history and might, and got there well before a sizable crowd joined me. The sight and the sound — oh, the sound — of these vintage aircraft is something I will never forget. But my knowledge of them is lacking. So my friend Barry Snell, author, patriot and self-proclaimed War Nerd, very kindly offered to write a bit about the planes I captured with my camera over the river. Everything in italics from here on out, comes from Barry, and I thank him profusely for taking the time to lend his passion for history to breathe life into these planes, and into these images.

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Vought F4U Corsair. The Corsair is one of the most famous fighters of the PTO. It was fast as hell—the first fighter we had to fly over 400 mph—could take a real beating, and was very distinctive with its bent wing. Did I say the Corsair was tough? A pilot once used his Corsair’s propeller to literally chop the tail off a Japanese fighter after his guns jammed. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, right? And yes, he flew it home and landed safety. Mostly used by the Marines, the Corsair is frequently associated with Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and they were made famous to the masses by the show Baa Baa Black Sheep, which featured the Hollywoodised true story of an actual Corsair fighter squadron. John Glenn flew Corsairs too.

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North American T-6 Texan. The T-6 Texan was one of the most common, and perhaps now the most famous, fighter and aerial gunnery trainer during WW2. The yellow paint schemes of the ones on the left are typical flying school colorings, presumably preferred for visibility for cadet instructors. Many fighter pilots loved the Texan and fondly remember their time as cadets flying them. Texans also have the dubious distinction of looking somewhat like the Mitsubishi Zero, and many have been modified to look like the Japanese fighter for war movies such as Tora, Tora, Tora!

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Top left: Beech AT-11 Kansan. Virtually all bomber pilots and navigators were trained in the twin-engine Kansan. The one in the photo sports Commonwealth markings and invasion stripes, and does not have the standard glass navigator’s bubble nose it probably would have had during the war, just like the big bombers.

Top right: Douglas SBD Dauntless. The Dauntless dive bomber earned its way into the history books at the Battle of Midway, when four squadrons of them sunk all four Japanese aircraft carriers at the battle, literally one right after the other, after the Japanese had held off all other American attacks throughout the day. The Dauntless was also used to good effect from the famous Henderson Field on Guadalcanal.

Bottom left: Consolidated PBY Catalina. The sub killer. The PBY was used to spot Japanese subs and is responsible for dozens of kills during the war. It was also a PBY that spotted the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway.

Bottom right: Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This baby is perhaps the most distinctive looking fighter plane of the war, and the only fighter plane that saw service from start to finish. The Lightning destroyed our enemies in both theaters, and was nicknamed the “Fork Tailed Devil” by the Germans. She was fast, tough, had a lot of firepower, could carry a lot of bombs for a fighter, and could fly farther than any fighter until the P-51 came along. She kicked ass all over, killed Pearl Harbor architect Admiral Yamamoto, and was flown by America’s top scoring aces.

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Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. Even if you’re not an aviation geek, no doubt you’ve heard of the Fighting Tigers. This was their plane. The Warhawk got famous before World War Two was even a thing, during its service with the American volunteer pilots fighting the Japanese in China in 1941. Notice the Chinese symbols on the wingtips of the right plane. Used mostly in the PTO and eventually outclassed by virtually every other airplane, the P-40 still holds her place in history as the one that made it into the air during Pearl Harbor, and as our front line fighter in the first months of the war. The old girl was notable for being a very sturdy plane that could take a lot of abuse, and performed excellently in a dive.

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North American B-25 Mitchells. This airplane answered the nation’s call when James Doolittle led a squadron off them off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, where they bombed Tokyo in response to Pearl Harbor. This baby bombed shit all over the world, but mostly in the Pacific, where it was used to great effect in all those island battles. Interestingly, they discovered that it was great as a ground attack craft too, and flew it a lot just a few dozen feet off the ground, shooting everything in sight. Deke Slayton flew B-25s.

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Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Perhaps the most modern and advanced of the bombers in its class, the Liberator never quite achieved the fame the B-17 did. The Liberator was faster, could go farther, and hold more than its peers, and had advanced radar and other technologies. Yet it was a pain in the ass to fly, sometimes caught fire easily, and had other miscellaneous quirks. Still, the Liberator did a ton of heavy lifting for us in all theaters of the war, and especially earned its name in Europe, where it made history during the many ongoing raids on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Some of the greatest casualties of the war were suffered by the Liberator crews during the Ploesti raids. Joe Kennedy, Jr. was killed in a remote controlled Liberator, which was to be used as a drone in a secret mission, when the explosives inside the plane prematurely exploded.

(Note: Fans of Laura Hillenbrand’s brilliant book, Unbroken, about hero Louis Zamperini might recall that Zamperini crashed in “The Green Hornet,” a B-24 Liberator.)

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Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 was the workhorse of the American bomber effort, and is easily the most famous bomber of the war. The skies would literally be filled with these things, as hundreds upon hundreds of them would fly to mainland Europe virtually daily throughout the war. In the months before D-Day, B-17s bombed Luftwaffe targets on a daily and constant basis, which accounted for the zero German air resistance during the invasion. And while not indestructible like the name suggests, the Flying Fortresses were an exceptionally tough and forgiving aircraft that easily earned the respect and profound love of her crews. See the movie Memphis Belle for some B-17 love.

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Left: Grumman TBM Avenger. Seeing service in the PTO, the Avenger was a big torpedo bomber. She made her first appearance in the war at the Battle of Midway, but really made a name for herself in the Battle of the Phillippine Sea, where they just slaughtered the Japanese. A few Avengers saw some good service combatting the U-Boats in the north Atlantic too. The plane was stout enough that we kept her up through the Vietnam War. George H.W. Bush was an Avenger pilot, and was shot down.

Middle: Curtiss SB2C Helldiver. The Helldiver replaced the Douglas Dauntless, however, it was not a well-liked aircraft. Using the plane’s acronym, pilots and crew often called it the “Son-of-a-Bitch, Second Class.” Others called it “The Beast” because it was a big, unwieldy aircraft. The difficulties with the Helldiver actually contributed to the closing of the Curtiss factory. That said, it did have a fine service record and according to the numbers, appears to have done just fine.

Right: Grumman TBM Avenger

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Douglas A-26 Invader. I don’t know much about these airplanes, except that they weren’t really notable during WW2. Not sure why; I do know that they were used in Korea to good effect, and we still were using them up through Vietnam. The CIA used Invaders in the Bay of Pigs too. They were fast though, and I think they were the fastest bomber we fielded in WW2. In addition to B-25s, Deke Slayton also flew a few missions in Invaders over Japan.

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Top: Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
Top middle: Vought F4U Corsair
Bottom middle: Grumman TBM Avenger
Bottom: North American P-51D Mustang

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North American P-51D Mustang. The Mustang is an aviation legend. It is arguably the finest aircraft to come out of the war. It flew faster, higher, and farther than any other airplane within the fighter class, and even many outside. To this day, the Mustang remains one of the fastest prop planes ever made, and they are routinely raced—often to victory—in the modern era. But aside from being the sexiest thing with wings during the war, she earned her reputation beginning the moment she took to the air in combat. Before the P-51, our bomber crews frequently suffered more than 50% casualties because they had to fly to their targets without air support, as no fighters existed that could go the distance. Because of this, the 8th Army Air Force lost more men than any other unit in American military history. Look it up; the numbers are staggering. After the P-51 arrived though, we quickly achieved air dominance in Europe. The Mustang could stick with the bombers all the way to the target and back home, and they just kicked the Luftwaffe’s ass all over the sky. It wasn’t very many months after the Mustang arrived in Europe that the skies were virtually cleared of any significant German resistance. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the P-51 is one of the most significant factors in the United States’ victory in Europe, and perhaps the most lifesaving machine of the war.

The middle P-51 in the photo is painted with invasion stripes, and the one on the right appears to be painted in the colors of the Red Tails, the famed and exceptional African-American fighter squadron. A horrifically bad movie about the Red Tails was made a few years back, but one thing that is true about them is that bomber losses from missions launched from North Africa and later Italy virtually stopped when the Red Tails moved in…Those boys were that good, and yes, the bomber crews did request them as escorts on their missions. Chuck Yeager flew P-51s during the war as well.

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Boeing B29 Superfortress. The biggest, baddest, highest, and farthest flying mamajama of WW2, and it dropped The Bomb. Twice. ‘Nough said!

Indeed. Another thank you to Barry Snell for his generous contribution to this blog.


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

10-2291 released March 1 2011 (1)

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.


2014, My Year in Photos

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2014 was a good year, photographically. I took a landscape photography workshop and learned a lot, I had a few things published here and there, I experimented more than usual and I made an effort to really get to know my camera and its capabilities. I take a lot of photos, and my first cut tends to be about forty images, but nobody wants to view forty images. By the time I cut that down by about half, sometimes interesting patterns start to appear. This year, out of the final 24 shots, half of them feature water, including the one above, taken at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. A tripod was used in six of the photos, by far the most yet. And this year features my first GoPro shot in my Best Of list. So, I hope you enjoy this glimpse at my year. I had a lot of fun living and photographing it.

The shot below was taken very near the last one, later that same morning.

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I continue to try to experiment and improve with low light photography. I captured a lot of deer at dawn, this photo was taken through the windshield in my driveway.

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I’ve been going to the Preakness for about twenty years, so it was a fun experience to have press credentials for this year’s event. It was hard to choose a favorite shot of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, but I keep going back to this one. Taken after the race, surrounded by throngs of fans and photographers, this horse just seemed to bask in the attention. My story and photographs about the Preakness just came out in the December/January issue of Virginia Sportsman magazine.

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Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.

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Regular readers of this blog know that Monarch butterflies were a very special part of my summer. I watched and photographed as this Monarch emerged from its chrysalis, only noticing later when I was editing the images that I had also captured a tiny spider whose web all of a sudden contained an unexpected guest.

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I took hundreds of shots of seeds floating in the air for a blog post about noticing nature’s little things. Almost all of them were no good, but I only needed one!

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We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.

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Hiking near Calvert Cliffs, MD, my wife walked into an inchworm hanging from a branch above the path. Her delicate returning of the worm to safety on a nearby leaf became one of my favorites of the year.

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Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.

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Photographing sporting events is pretty far outside my comfort zone, but I had a blast shooting this championship game for my friends, whose boys play on the victorious team.

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I include this image because I was astonished by my camera’s low light capability. This is a hand held shot with a lot less light than it looks like here. Potomac River, looking from Virginia across to Maryland.

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My favorite image from the landscape photography workshop in the Canaan Valley, WV area. I had a great time, made some new talented friends like Risha, and learned a lot from Martin, Randall and Todd.

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The next two shots feature a great new Werner paddle I bought this year, and I’m very proud that Werner is using these images on their web site here and here.

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Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.

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I brought my good camera along on quite a few kayak floats this summer. On this day I hoped to get a good sunrise shot. That sunrise didn’t produce anything interesting, but after the sun came up, this scene unfolded in front of me.

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This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.

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Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.

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I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.

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Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.

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I was out early one morning hoping to photograph a big buck I had seen the previous morning while jogging on the C&O Towpath. I got stuck waiting for a train and spotted this scene, I had to get out and photograph it.

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Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.

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And finally, one of my very favorites of the year, a GoPro shot of Winnie in the front of the kayak as we float down the Potomac River near our house. This photo was published in an article I wrote about kayak fishing for Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

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You can view my favorite photos of 2013 here, 2012 here, and of 2011 here. Thanks as always for stopping by from time to time.


Medicine for the Soul

Originally published in The American Fly Fisher, Journal of the American Museum of Fly Fishing.
Fall, 2014, Volume 40, Number 4

Every spring for the past eight years, central Virginia’s ordinarily tranquil Rose River Farm bustles with energy and purpose as dozens of volunteers and supporters come together for Project Healing Waters (PHW)’s biggest event, the 2-Fly Tournament. The national program aids the physical and emotional rehabilitation of thousands of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and associated activities, including education and outings. The annual 2-Fly, so named for the limitation of anglers to select and fish with just two flies for the entire tournament, is the organization’s flagship fundraiser.

DSC_1147A tournament participant and his guide get in some practice on the still waters of one of Rose River Farm’s ponds.

With 167 chapters in forty-nine states, the limited tournament openings are highly coveted. Nominations come from local chapters all over the country. There are only twelve spots in the Pro/Vet category, in which injured active-duty service members or disabled veterans are paired with professional guides. In 2014, one of those spots went to former Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen, Army National Guard, from Woodland Park, Colorado. When he found out he had been selected, he went through what he calls a normal progression of emotions: “Absolutely thrilled!” he said. “Then nervous. Then panicky.”

Christensen suffers from posttraumatic stress (PTS), and in his excitement it had started to take over. “I was honored to be nominated by my local chapter,” he said. “But I then got very nervous about traveling, being in unfamiliar areas, being ‘trapped.’” His wife, who would be seven months pregnant at the time he was to fly to Virginia, worked with him for days after he received the call. “She knows how strong of a medicine this program is for my soul,” he said, “and unselfishly convinced me to go.”

He began taking that “medicine for the soul” back in January 2013, when he first got involved with PHW. He started with a fly-tying class and quickly became obsessed, actually starting the intermediate class before he had even finished the beginner’s. His wife immediately started seeing a change. “She hadn’t seen me this focused, excited, or passionate since I came home from Iraq,” he said. “And I hadn’t even caught my first trout.”

When summer rolled around, he took part in a few outings, each time fishing alongside one of the mentors who guide participants for the day. Those mentors are often professional guides, and under that guidance, Christensen’s fly-fishing skills progressed quickly. “My learning curve has been a near vertical line because of PHW,” he said. He was ready for the 2-Fly.

Almost a thousand miles away in Missoula, Montana, Joel Thompson was also readying for his first appearance in the tournament. But Thompson, a professional guide and owner of Montana Troutaholics Outfitters, was flying in to volunteer as one of the twelve Pro/Vet guides. He was paired with Christensen for the tournament. Thompson had been aware of PHW for years and was excited about his first hands-on opportunity to help. “Being selected to guide in the 2-Fly was truly one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said.

DSC_0876Before the tournament begins, guide Joel Thompson (left) scouts for trout in the Rose River with Brian Christensen.

Meanwhile, back at Rose River Farm, preparations were well under way. PHW board chair and owner of Rose River Farm Douglas Dear credits the volunteers who make the event possible. “Every year the 2-Fly just seems to get bigger and better,” Dear said. “It is really a tribute to the many volunteers who make this such a great weekend for the vets.” In the final week leading up to the event, volunteers are busy preparing the grounds, organizing an impressive array of silent auction items, and putting shirts and other merchandise out for display. Food, drinks, signs, tents, chairs, lights, electronics, transportation, lodging, and countless other details all require the attention of dedicated volunteers.

The weekend kicks off with a Saturday afternoon bass and bluegill tournament at a large pond on the grounds of Rose River Farm. This gives participants a chance to meet each other and warm up with some casual fishing the day before the 2-Fly. When Christensen arrived, he didn’t know a single person. “I always feel extreme anxiety when meeting new people,” he said. “But the one thing I have found is that when I am around veterans, it couldn’t feel any more different. There is something unexplainable, unspoken that happens when I am around them. I relax. I feel more calm. I let my guard down.” For Christensen and many others, interacting with those who “get it” is one of the best things about PHW.

Saturday evening features a riverside banquet with live music and an inspirational program that gets everyone excited about the day ahead. Special guests this year included Master of Ceremonies Major Nick Warren, United States Marine Corps (USMC), pilot of the presidential helicopter Marine One; keynote speaker Admiral John C. Harvey, United States Navy (retired); fly-fishing legend and World War II combat veteran Lefty Kreh; and casting guru Ed Jaworowski. But the stars of the night were and always will be the veterans, three of whom took the podium to tell their stories.

The moving testimonies of the men reminded everyone in attendance why the success of the event and this program is so critically important. “Project Healing Waters has saved me, my life,” said Corporal Mike Escarcida, USMC (retired), in front of a rapt audience of more than 200 attendees. “I no longer have to go it alone,” he said. “I no longer have those thoughts of committing suicide.”

Stories like Corporal Escarcida’s are being told from PHW programs across the country. Christensen, who has gained so much from his experience that he now feels the urge to give back, volunteers for the Colorado Springs program. As chair of the Veterans Committee, he sets up local events and recruits vets to get them out on the water. He tells the story of a new participant, a former Marine he recently put on a fishing trip. “He called me and said he had caught eight fish on his first trip, and when his children saw a picture of him holding a trout, they said, ‘What’s wrong with your face, Daddy?’” The feature on their father’s face they did not recognize was a smile. That, Christensen says, is the gift that PHW offers. And seeing that in others has been a healing force in his own life.

Christensen and his guide met for the first time during the banquet. The two immediately hit it off. “Joel told me he had been out by the water ‘reconning’ the areas we were to fish the following morning,” Christensen recalled. “I couldn’t believe he was out there doing that while everyone else was enjoying food and drink in the tent.” Christensen found himself grinning from ear to ear and looking forward to the morning.

DSC_0859Staff Sergeant Brian Christensen (left) discusses strategy with Joel Thompson.

Thompson was already confident they would have a great time together, but it was important to him that they did as well as possible. “I get nervous before every guide trip,” he said. “There are so many factors that we can’t control, and you really want your clients to have success. That is exactly how I felt at the start of the 2-Fly.”

The nervousness that comes from even a fun competition, however, can manifest itself in different ways for someone suffering from PTS. “I normally don’t handle those feelings well anymore,” Christensen said. “My [PTS] treats both positive and negative stress the same.” When positive excitement turns into negative stress, it’s impossible to enjoy the experience. “I start out feeling a thrill for a second, but then it turns into anxiety, then panic.”

DSC_0839A vibrant sunrise blankets Rose River Farm in Madison County, Virginia, on the morning of the 8th Annual 2-Fly Tournament (27 April 2014).

But early Sunday morning, with the fading remnants of a spectacular sunrise still reflecting on the Rose River, the two men entered the water and shook off any nervousness with the best remedy of all: hooking up with the first fish of the day. Then Christensen noticed something odd: the anxiety, the panic never materialized. “I had an absolute blast during the tournament,” he said. “I can’t explain why my body didn’t react the way it normally does to that stress. But it didn’t.” For the three hours of combined fishing that day, Christensen said he felt “like a normal person.”

Thompson and Christensen were paired as a team with Kansas City, Missouri’s Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert, Army National Guard, and his guide William Heresniak. The two anglers and their guides put together an impressive morning of fishing, and when the scores were tallied, they led the Pro/Vet category at the halfway mark. Heresniak, who runs Virginia-based Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing, has guided in all eight 2-Fly tournaments and couldn’t imagine missing the event. “When a soldier says that Project Healing Waters has saved their life,” he said, “it hits home.”

DSC_1042Staff Sergeant Kevin Gabert keeps the pressure on a rainbow trout as his guide, William Heresniak, gets ready with the net.

In afternoon fishing, things slowed down a bit for Team Christensen/Gabert. But with all but one scorecard to be tallied, they still held a narrow lead. That last team, however, put up just enough points to grab first place. Winning is fun, of course. But the order of finish here is about as important as you might expect—which is to say, not very. “I could not have been more proud of our team,” Thompson boasted. He is eager to guide again next year.

DSC_1177Joel Thompson stretches out to net a nice rainbow hooked by Brian Christensen during the afternoon session.

Christensen, like his guide, feels a lot of pride in that second-place finish. He has a spot for the plaque picked out already, right above his tying bench. “Every time I see it, I will think of my teammate, Kevin, and our guides, Joel and William. And all my fellow veterans. And all the volunteers and all the donors who make it possible,” he said. “And how small I feel in all of it. But mostly,” he adds, “I will just smile and remember the sun on my back, the trout on my line, and how it just couldn’t ever be any better.”

DSC_1032Brian Christensen hooks up with the first of many rainbow trout during the tournament; guide Joel Thompson awaits with the net.

Christensen plans on continuing his volunteer work on the Veterans Committee, giving back to the program by getting others involved. “Nothing brings me more joy than sharing these experiences with my fellow veterans,” he said.

That passion and willingness to give time and energy to this program, and the bonds that are formed and lifelong friends made, are at the heart of the organization’s success. PHW founder and President Ed Nicholson reflects back on the growth of the program since he first started giving casting lessons to a few wounded soldiers on the lawn of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “I am overcome with a sense of wonder that through the passion of so many of our dedicated volunteers, an ever-increasing number of our disabled veterans are experiencing the very special healing that Project Healing Waters brings.”

DSC_1044Brian Christensen and Joel Thompson congratulate each other on a morning of fishing that put their team in the lead at the halfway mark.

Since its inception in 2004, PHW has built programs at VA facilities and military installations in all but one state. But there is more that can be done. “To have been witness to so many lives transformed has been incredibly gratifying,” Nicholson said. “The next decade holds great promise for our project to continue expanding, to serve the thousands of deserving veterans who have yet to experience our very special kind of rehabilitative therapy: a therapy based on the fly rod, the vise, and the incredible power of strong, caring volunteers, fostering a bond of friendship and deep personal relationships. That’s what we are all about.”

DSC_1329The participants and guides of the 8th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament.

For more about Project Healing Waters, or to find out how you can help heal those who serve, please visit www.projecthealingwaters.org.


From Little Things, Big Things Grow*

I was walking the dogs the other day and noticed some seeds drifting in the air in front of me. I traced their path back to the source, a single tall weed with white, fluffy, dandelion-like clusters at the top. The plant stood in the midst of countless other tall, flowering weeds, and I stopped to watch it for a bit. There was a slight breeze, hardly enough to notice. But as I watched the weed sway, I detected subtle puffs of wind that pushed the plant a little further every now and then. And on those increased swings of this upside down pendulum, one or two of the parachute seeds would break free, and ride effortlessly along the invisible current. Two seeds leaving the same cluster at the same time could land far, far apart. I thought about the process, the airborne dispersal of seeds, and how effective it is. I thought about my Monarchs, and even though this was not a milkweed plant, how the milkweed spreads its seeds the same way. I thought about how reliant the Monarch is on the success of those plants, and my mind drifted along with those little parachutes, to all the little things that add up to the big world of nature we see all around us.

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I guess I’ve always been interested in nature and science to some extent, from wildlife to geology to astronomy. But it really wasn’t until we moved to our current property that I’ve made the habit of observing as much as I can. And only just this summer, thanks to my butterfly project, have I really started thinking about the very small natural wonders that lurk almost everywhere we look. So I wanted to compile a few recent examples of Little Things I’ve enjoyed either seeking out and finding, or simply stumbling upon.

I find myself looking on the bottom side of leaves. I didn’t realize I was, but then this fellow caught my eye. A saddleback moth caterpillar with a painful, venomous sting!

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As many Monarch eggs and caterpillars as I’ve found and raised and released and given away, I can’t find them all. I happened to spot this perfect chrysalis, clinging securely to a native honeysuckle vine, despite its camouflage.

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Another wild Monarch attached its chrysalis to the bottom of a fence board. I discovered the butterfly eclosing and photographed it. It wasn’t until I saw the photos on my computer that I noticed the tiny spider, who was probably second guessing her meal choice at this point.

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While picking milkweed to feed caterpillars, I noticed this. Did you know that ladybugs shed, and that right after they shed their color and spots don’t show up for a little while? Well I didn’t, but when my friend told me about that I felt pretty lucky to have captured this little lady right after she shed.

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Every bug looks freaky if you get close enough. This thing is part dragonfly, part horsefly, part alien (hey I said I was interested in science, not that I was good at it).

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The tiny yellow pattern of this turtle shell upside down in the grass caught my eye while mowing the yard. The shell was not occupied. I don’t know how long it takes a turtle shell to grow hard, but this one was still soft and pliable. I don’t imagine the little fella lived very long before he became something’s meal. Circle of life.

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Monarchs are just one of many species of butterflies and moths I’ve noticed, particularly around my pollinator garden. This Question Mark butterfly, which I originally thought was a moth until a friend identified it for me, was eating nectar when I found him. Wikipedia says they “seek out rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, or carrion as food sources. Only when these are unavailable do Question Marks visit flowers for nectar.” Perhaps he missed the four acres of horse dung in the next paddock. There may be no such thing as a dumb question, but I’m thinking there are such things as dumb Question Marks.

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Look at all the pollen this bee has picked up! No wonder these yellow flowered weeds are so successful!

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This is a baby Northern Fence Lizard. I’m not sure how I spotted it with the amazing camouflage, but I’m glad I did. I watched him for a while. He was mellow and didn’t mind hanging out and posing for pictures for a time.

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This praying mantis on the side of our house was cool to watch. I’ve seen many this summer, and always enjoy coming across them.

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Most of those seeds will not find purchase in soil and germinate. Baby turtles are vulnerable to countless predators. Even some of my hand-reared Monarchs have not made it. But enough — sometimes just enough — of all of them endure. Success is not guaranteed, however.

What has grown the most from all these little things, has been my curiosity about them and how all these organisms and systems live and work together. I believe I am forever changed. Sure, a walk in the woods takes a lot longer now, stopping to see what, exactly, is eating those leaves, or who is darting under that log, or basking on that rock. But what’s the hurry anyway? It’s always been about the journey. Sometimes it takes a kid from the suburbs half a century to wonder why there are holes in some leaves. But wonder is an amazing thing. And if you can find it in the little things, then everything’s a miracle.

There are people out there doing big, important work, restoring streams to protect native trout populations, spreading the word about the plight of the Monarchs, working to return the Bobwhite Quail to Virginia. I’m not one of those people. But I’ve started to do a little, and it’s been a most rewarding experience. So maybe look around your property, find something cool or fascinating going on and just follow it. Google some stuff. Leave dog hair out for birds to build nests with, don’t mow down that corner of your yard where butterflies gather, help a turtle to the side of the road, leave a snake be when your first instinct is to grab a shovel. These are not big things, but they are fun and easy things. And everything has to start somewhere.

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*One of the songs I’ve been enjoying a lot lately is a live version of From Little Things Big Things Grow, performed by Australian folk band the Waifs along with John Butler. Written by Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and first released in 1993, the song has nothing to do with this post, other than I’m stealing the title. It’s a protest song, an anthem of sorts, and a thing of beauty. Have a listen here, if you are so inclined.


Paddle Upgrade – The Werner Shuna: Hooked

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I’ve been kayaking for quite a few years now and, as in any hobby, the more time I’ve spent doing it, the more my needs have changed. I have upgraded my kayak a couple of times to accommodate first the need to fish comfortably, then to accommodate a couple four legged passengers from time to time. I have a decent PFD for myself and very nice ones for the dogs. I’ve added GoPro attachments, non-slip decking material, fishing accessories and more. But my paddle hasn’t changed since the day a friend gave me a kayak and I went to the closest store that sold paddles and bought one. Paddles were more expensive than I thought they would be, so, having spent more than I wanted to on one, I assumed it was a good paddle.

Time passed, my paddle served me well in that it gave me all I asked of it: when I put it in the water and pulled back, my kayak went forward. But making new friends in the kayak fishing world and seeing more and more on social media got me thinking. So many anglers out there were intensely brand loyal not just about their kayaks, but about their paddles. What’s the deal? Don’t they all do the same thing?

While kayak fishing with my friend Cory Routh of Ruthless Outdoor Adventures recently in the Virginia Beach area, I asked him about his Werner paddle. I had seen the Werner brand a lot among kayak anglers, and was curious. So I asked him what the difference was between an “okay” paddle and a really good one. He started by trading with me. Then as we paddled, he explained some of the features of a well made paddle, and some of the shortcomings of mine, which he was now burdened with.

Cory is a member of the Werner Fishing Team, and uses the Werner Cyprus: Hooked paddle. I had in my hands the very best kayak fishing paddle Werner produces, and I could tell. In no more than ten paddle strokes I could see a world of difference. I expected it to be lighter, in fact weight was the only real difference I expected. And it is light, just over 23 ounces. But the carbon blades just have no flex at all. They really dig into the water and don’t give when you’re paddling, and they are incredibly buoyant too. The Cyprus feels like it’s spring-loaded, popping easily out of the water, eagerly awaiting the next stroke. Within fifty yards I knew I would soon own a Werner paddle.

But at $400, I also knew it would not be the Cyprus. I talked with Cory, as well as Werner Pro Staff angler Richie Bekolay about a good compromise — a substantial upgrade from my existing paddle without breaking the bank — and we came up with the Werner Shuna: Hooked. Like the Cyprus, the Shuna has a lightweight carbon shaft that is oval in the area where you grip it, making it extremely comfortable. The Shuna has fiberglass blades which add four ounces or so to the overall weight. And for $125 less than the Cyprus (MSRP $275), it’s a great combination of light weight, stiffness and durability. If I had made the decision down in Virginia Beach, I would have purchased it from Wild River Outfitters, where I bought my kayak. But Appomattox River Company had the paddle in stock, and free shipping sealed the deal. The paddle arrived in a couple days and I immediately took it out for a trial run.

I love the look of the Shuna, the pattern reminds me of a cross between fish scales and desert camo. But maybe that’s just me. I do not notice the extra four ounces at all, it’s still extremely light weight compared to my old one. And while the blades are not quite as ‘springy’ as I noticed the Cyprus blades to be, they are still very buoyant and feel efficient pushing water. I paddled upstream for quite a while on my test run, and the oval shaft is incredibly comfortable.

There are some other good reasons to love the Werner brand, by the way. All Werner paddles are handcrafted in the USA, and the company supports our Veterans through Heroes on the Water. Those things are important to me, but so is a great product, especially if it’s not exactly inexpensive. And I couldn’t be happier with this paddle. If you have been kayaking with a run of the mill paddle, do yourself a favor and see what a difference a great one can make. If every single stroke is noticeably more efficient, more powerful, imagine what that does for you over the course of a full day float. And if you’re going to spend the money on a nice paddle, I can’t recommend Werner highly enough. Cory puts it best: “If you want to convince someone that Werner is the best,” he says, “just put one in their hands.”

Thanks Cory, I’m glad you did!


Second Jewel: The 139th Running
of the Preakness Stakes

Meet Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, in Baltimore this week for the Preakness, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. I hope you enjoy some of my favorite photos of a remarkable day…

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What a difference a day makes! Twenty four hours earlier, this was Pimlico race track. Colossal rains Thursday night made for an absolute slop pit Friday morning!

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But the sun was out by late morning, and incredibly the track was perfect by the time the sun rose over Baltimore Saturday morning.

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California Chrome, just over 24 hours before his shot at the Preakness, appeared relaxed and comfortable.

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I’ve been going to Preakness for 20 years, and this may have been the absolute best weather we’ve ever had.

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The day is rich with tradition, from the black-eyed susans…

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To the beautiful hats!

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As the day progresses, seats fill up, excitement builds and bets are made. When the Preakness race nears, the excitement in the air is palpable.

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Ride On Curlin had a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, but he looked exquisite in the post parade. He would prove to be formidable, taking second. His handlers are looking forward to the Belmont, a race they feel he has a fair chance in.

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But this day belonged to one horse.

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Barreling down the stretch for the first time, California Chrome (the 3 horse in blue) was in great position.

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When they came down the home stretch, it was California Chrome all the way.

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Chrome’s jockey Victor Espinoza grins on his way to the winner’s circle.

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Back at the barn, California Chrome comes out to show off a bit.

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I’ve been around a lot of horses, and I have never seen one so eager to have his picture taken. His ears go up when he hears the first shutter click, and then he poses for as long as you want him to.

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You’ve got to polish the Chrome!

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Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn’s signature cowboy boots as he greets his horse.

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In a moment that felt intensely private, despite being closely surrounded by fifty cameras, Coburn put his arms around his champion’s neck and whispered to him.

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Two jewels down. Can he take the third? Gambling is just that, but one thing’s for sure. Such a likable horse, surrounded by equally likable people, will have much of the world pulling for him as he enters the Belmont.


From a Block of Wood: Carving Trophies

As a fly fisherman, I have seen countless trout replicas. They are on display in the homes of my fly fishing friends, in fly shops, and in every bar in every fishing town I’ve ever been in. Almost all of them are fiberglass casts, molded by manufacturers in an array of different species, sizes and positions. Then they are painted — sometimes exquisitely — to look just like that special fish an angler wants to immortalize. To make those replicas appear lifelike requires great skill. But imagine crafting such a thing from scratch, coaxing life out of an inert, featurless block of wood.

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Meet Virginia-based artist Russell Pander, who does exactly that.

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I first learned of Russell when my friend Douglas Dear, owner of Rose River Farm, commissioned him to recreate a special brown trout he caught from the Smith River in Montana a few years back. When Douglas took delivery of the carving, pictured at the head of this post, he couldn’t call me fast enough. “You have got to see this thing in person!” he said, and he was right. It is astounding.

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I asked Russell to share how he got into carving and to tell me a bit about his process. While I tell some of his story, I’ll mix in some progress photos from this Smith River beauty.

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Russell’s interest in carving goes back to an uncle who carved decoys. But he didn’t start carving until he received a gift certificate to a class at the local Audubon Society. The class, given by carver Dave Farrington, was filled with mostly retired women and a 29-year-old Pander. Students carved a Chickadee using a knife and wood burner, and hand painted them with acrylic paints. “I liked it,” Russell recalls, “and found I had the ability to see symmetry and in three dimensions — two of the most important aspects of carving.”

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He took more classes from Farrington, carving a couple decoys, a skimmer in flight, a Greater Yellow Legs and a Sanderling in flight. “This is where I learned to power-carve, using mostly burrs and stones on a rotary tool to remove wood and create detail,” Russell said. But around the same time, life got in the way a bit. His family was growing, his schedule shrinking, and he put aside carving for two decades.

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But Russell never lost interest. An avid fly fisher and fly tier, he always wanted to carve a cold water fish. The opportunity presented itself when fellow member of the International Fly Fishing Association Bill McMannis caught a record Brook Trout. Word went out throughout the organization that McMannis was looking for someone who did reproductions. “I felt this was my calling and reluctantly offered to do it,” Russell said. “I had never carved a fish, I didn’t own nor had ever used an airbrush, but considered this my opportunity.” And with that Brookie under his belt, he was off and running.

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To me Russell’s carvings show an uncanny understanding of the natural movement and posture of the animals he creates, and Douglas’s Brown Trout is a great example. “The pose and posture of the fish come from how I think the fish would move,” he said. “I do a great deal of studying. I look for underwater shots of fish, to help me understand how they move, and things like natural eye and mouth positions.”

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He has carved with Sugar Pine and Bass Wood, but his favorite wood to work with is Tupelo. “It’s the best wood for power carving,” he says. “It’s light, and doesn’t ‘fuzz’ when ground.” This brown trout is carved from Tupelo.

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When it comes to subjects, however, Russell doesn’t play favorites. “I learn more techniques from not carving the same subject all the time,” he says. “I like to switch between birds and fish.”

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Among the animals on his wish list are raptors, including a Kestrel, a Pueo Owl native to Hawaii and a Red Tailed Hawk. But don’t put anything past Russell Pander. Who knows where his drive to learn new techniques will lead? “Some day I may carve a life sized Elk,” he says. “I have always admired the chainsaw artist, as the scale they work on is so great!”

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I look forward to following Russell as he explores new horizons with his art. Just as long as when that trout of a lifetime comes to hand for me, he’s willing to go back and create another masterpiece like this one.

For more info, check out Russell Pander Wildlife Art on Facebook.


Guest Blogger Matt Reilly: Every Dog Has His Day

mattAt a recent Virginia Outdoor Writers Association conference in Charlottesville, VOWA teamed up with Bass Pro Shops to recognize some promising young outdoor writers, and this year’s outdoor writing competition produced some fantastic essays. Matt Reilly of Fluvanna County High School was one of the winners. He began reading Every Dog Has His Day and I was enthralled from the very first line. By the time he was done, I knew I had to share his essay. Matt is a gifted writer, an avid outdoorsman, and as likable a young man as you’re likely to ever come across. He writes a column for the Rural Virginian called Adventures Afield, which I’m sure has a much greater reach than this blog. But I wanted to share Matt’s wonderful story here. Once you read it, I think you’ll agree that as long as there are young outdoorsmen like Matt who strive to share their outdoor experiences with this level of thoughtfulness and skill, the outdoor writing industry is in good and caring hands. I’d like to welcome and thank Matt for sharing this with my readers, I’m honored to have him bring you this Dispatch…

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As the sun threatened to deliver morning, we abandoned the house in silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar.

Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the hardiness and sophistication that often characterize upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze, trying not to focus on his being more than was necessary.

The sun was smothered by the clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The parking lot was empty, and with reason. Woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the James seemed secure under a sheet of thick fog.

Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly; and Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, stringy ears. Few words were spoken before the morning commenced with a beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon cut corn.

The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation; but there was something more spiritual at play. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A rabbit dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.

The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun; as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. In past years, the two had enjoyed much together. From cool Minnesotan nights to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to their common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his preoccupation with filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years in the field.

Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as stories. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our family just months before I; and we shared a common age. It was he who provided much of my early transportation, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna home by the stocking feet of my pajamas and hauling my saucer sled over fresh coats of powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy; but most memorable was his playful, omnipresent attitude that established him as a childhood friend and lifelong companion.

We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The first solid words of the morning were uttered in reflexive excitement.

The shadow that had loomed over us soon returned. Our hunt was half over.

Tucker’s attention was diverted to the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing about, he uncovered a magnificently large turtle shell. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.

It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt, one filled with camaraderie and joy. Tucker zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly. His movements that followed were a series of drunken, left-handed arcs. A nervous silence ensued.

As we approached the truck by the river, the clouds seemed to lift. Conversation colored our packing and unloading as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the setting of the sun yet another grouse season would expire in the mountains. But we were not hunting for grouse. In fact, there is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three in attendance recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved companion with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a last chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.


Blood on the Pages

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Over the years, my friend Guy Neal Williams has introduced me to many things that remain important parts of my life to this day. He is the one who first put a fly rod in my hand, teaching me the basics of how to cast at a pond near his Winston-Salem home, and triggering in me a lifelong passion. He convinced me that I could create woodcut prints despite having no carving or printmaking experience. He shared books that remain on my shelf today and music that has shaped everything I now listen to. He loved music so much. The fact that he was nearly deaf was such a cruel injustice. But his greatest gift was the first thing I knew and loved about him: Guy was a storyteller.

A strong voice, an easy laugh, an infinite supply of stories and a deep desire to share them made Guy a human campfire. Friends and strangers alike would gather around his warm glow as he weaved truth with fiction, humor with sadness. His spoken words were slow and deliberate. When I first met him I was enthralled. The topics of his stories didn’t even matter. Potato guns. Cave paintings. Fish. He told me once in great detail how to prepare carp on the grill. The process entailed soaking a cedar plank in saltwater, wine and peppercorns, carefully filleting and seasoning the fish just right. He told me exactly how the coals should look and when to know the fish was ready. When it was done, he instructed, “carefully slide the fish into the trashcan and eat the plank.”

His real talent, though, his genius, was in his written word. Here, too, he was a storyteller. Okay liar. He was a liar. I was tempted to say lying was like a game to him, but somehow that doesn’t give it the necessary respect. You wouldn’t go to the Masters in Augusta and tell the greatest golfers in the world they were merely playing a game. No, lying to Guy was a sport. And he was a hall of famer.

He used to like to challenge his friends by writing three essays. Each was skillfully crafted, impeccably detailed and utterly unbelievable. But only one, he warned, was a lie. The other two were true stories. It was impossible to discern fact from fiction in these tests, as his astonishing gift of storytelling was equaled only by his impossibly colorful real life experiences.

My God he loved a story.

He had the ability to paint a scene, to put you in it, to lead you down whatever path he wanted you down, then jump out from behind a bush of his own creation and punch you square in the gut. I had never seen, or even imagined, that someone with world-class writing skills would use so much of that power to simply entertain his friends. We all wanted him to write a book. Not so much because we needed more of his stories, but I think because we felt his stories needed a bigger audience. But a bigger audience isn’t what he was after.

He once told me a story that I cannot repeat here. (Okay he told many stories I cannot repeat here, but that’s not what I meant.) It involves a tattered photograph and a legendary fish. The story is so fantastic it almost certainly can’t be true. Yet it contains enough verifiable details that it just might be. It involves a secret so sacred that it must now remain with me until I die. It’s hard to explain how, or why, he did this. But he told a Perfect Story, a spectacular story, a story he could have easily published anywhere, a story any number of people would declare the best story they had ever heard, but one that could never be shared. I instantly regretted having been told it. If it’s a lie, it’s an epic masterpiece. If it’s true, I wish it had died with him. But he told it to me, an audience of precisely one, and asked that I never tell anyone. Hell, who knows. Maybe he privately told the same story to everyone. But I’ll keep his secret, true or not, and the burden of not telling a soul will be a reminder of his gift to me.

I never thought about writing before I knew Guy. But being exposed to his words made me think for the first time about putting down my own thoughts. I found myself writing for fun, trying to find words to describe a scene or person or feeling. I wrote with more care, more effort. Perhaps most importantly, I didn’t save that care and effort for particularly important topics. I learned through Guy that there is great value in taking the time to describe the smallest observations. My early attempts were just an awkward mimicry of his writing. But I like to think that along the way, I found my own voice, my own passion for spinning a yarn, my own desire to lead someone down that path. Guy Neal Williams taught me that it is a noble pursuit to sweat over choosing the right words, assembling those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into stories, for the pure joy of it. Just to make someone laugh, or cry, or to simply relate to a shared experience.

“Books are better,” he said once in response to a movies-versus-books discussion. “Books are better because there’s blood on the pages.” Movies, he said, are creative endeavors by committee, and as such were diluted. But books, written in excruciating isolation, were painful pursuits. He wrote of pain. He wrote of burying his beloved dog, Augustine, until you swore you could feel the worn shovel handle in your hands and smell the moist clay through your own tears. There is blood on those pages. He wrote of love. I’ll never forget the first description I ever read of his wife, “a tiny engineer with ice blue eyes.” Jesus, it’s probably been twenty years and I know with certainty those are the seven words exactly as he wrote them. But mostly he wrote of beauty. The beauty of the natural world, or the human spirit, or math, or science or enduring friendship. Of music. Beauty, to Guy, was everywhere. But he wasn’t just an observer of it, he created his own beauty from whole cloth.

He loved art, numbers, music, friends, bullshit and cigarettes with limitless enthusiasm. He was a genius. A spectacularly flawed genius, but a genius. He had his share of demons, and took on a few extras to make it a fair fight. The demons are all silenced now, and I hope to God that silence is forever filled with music, clear and bright and loud.

This morning, the first of my days on an earth without Guy Neal Williams, I plugged my phone into the car stereo. The first random song that played was a Patty Griffin song I thought a lot about yesterday. I have a thousand songs on my phone and this played first. Thank you Guy for your friendship, I am different and better for it. And thank you for your words. All of mine have you in them.

The song is Goodbye.

Today my heart is big and sore,
It’s tryin’ to push right through my skin.
I won’t see you anymore,
I guess that’s finally sinkin’ in.


Fall Foliage, Brook Trout and the Company of Dogs

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The sun was just peeking over the mountains, flooding Rose River Farm with golden morning light when Team Orange and I passed by on our way to the Shenandoah National Park, so I stopped to take some photos there. Fall in Madison County, Virginia is special, and I was looking forward to immersing myself in it for a day.

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But we had a lot of hiking ahead of us, up Cedar Run and down White Oak Canyon is almost a nine mile loop, so we didn’t linger too long. Winnie, taking advantage of the missing barrier that usually keeps them in the back of the car, indicates she’s ready to hit the trail by jumping in the back and up to the driver’s seat. And sitting backwards because she is odd.

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When we arrived at the park, the lot was more full than I’ve ever seen it in the morning. There was a large group of hikers gathering at the trail head, so I flashed my annual park pass to the ranger and slipped ahead of the group. The lower elevation parts of the park are at peak fall foliage. In fact the most spectacular colors I’ve seen this year are along the road that leads to the park entrance near Syria. But on the trail you don’t spend much time at the lower elevations, climbing starts right away and continues for almost four miles.

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Sometimes I’ll rig a fly rod and carry it with me, trying different pools along the way for the beautiful native brook trout that live here. But it’s a rugged trail at times, and managing both dogs and the fly rod seemed problematic, so I packed in a rod, assembling it once we arrived at my favorite spot. Here, isolated from the busy trail, we set up for a few hours of fishing, playing and relaxing. Winnie approves. (Note to self: Why do I always pack in drinking water for the dogs when I hike along fresh, clean water?)

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I have a 3-Weight Scott fly rod that is perfect for this kind of fishing, but being a 2-piece rod it comes in a very long tube that’s hard to hike with. So I brought my 5-weight Hardy rod which packs more comfortably. I sat on a fallen tree, dogs by my side, putting the Hardy together and watching the pool. Brook trout were rising. I couldn’t see what they were eating, but I’m actually not much of a ‘match-the-hatch’ fisherman. My fly progression for brook trout goes like this: Parachute Adams > smaller Parachute Adams > Stimulator > Stimulator with a dropper > Wooly Bugger > End. But none of those worked, and the fish kept rising. I finally caught a natural with my hat, looks like a pale yellow stone fly (I have included a grey hair in the hat for scale). I had a few variations of a Yellow Sally in my fly box, tried them all. I got a few strikes but no hook sets. I wondered later if the softer set of the 3-weight rod would have made a difference on these fish, some of which were pretty small. Maybe even a subtle set with the 5-weight was just pulling the hook right out of their mouths.

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But here’s the thing. I went through many, many fly changes, even going back to some I had already tried. I’d give the fish a rest while I changed flies or had a snack of futzed with the camera, then go back and cast some more. I watched a hundred rises, including a quite large brookie come out from beneath a boulder and roll on a surface fly in the same spot a dozen times. I got strikes, maybe ten or so (none from the big fella), but no hook ups. At one point I was changing flies and I looked up to find Finn swimming around in the pool. But moments later the trout were feeding again.

It occurred to me that I don’t think I have ever been as patient as I was at this pool. I had every reason to be frustrated and discouraged, but there was a tranquility surrounding me, and I honestly think it was the dogs. I loved having them there, and it’s fun to watch their different personalities at work. Finn mostly watches me. He wants to be near me but quickly got bored of the fishing and found a spot with a good vantage point to just lie down. Winnie, on the other hand, was fascinated. She followed the fly as I cast it, and then followed it on the water. When fish would rise she would perk her head up and focus on that spot. After a while she started whimpering every time the big one rolled on the surface. It seems she sensed there was a connection between what I was trying to do and what those rising fish were doing. She didn’t know what was gonna happen, but it was going to be fun!

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But alas, nothing happened. I eventually put the rod away, with fish rising all around and swimming right up to the shallows, and decided to try to get some photos. I took probably forty pictures of these wild brook trout in their natural habitat, which is a pretty special experience. It’s okay that I wasn’t able to catch any, at least I captured a few.

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I found a can of Virginia-brewed Full Nelson in the bottom of my backpack while I was looking for a second fly box. Since it is against the law to have alcohol in the park, to be in full compliance I disposed of the beer. But before I did, I let the cool waters of Cedar Run chill it to optimal disposal temperature.

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After that most enjoyable few hours fishing and enjoying the company of my two best friends, it was time to hit the trail again. We could have gone back the way we came and shorten the hike by several miles, but I decided to push myself and continue up to do the originally planned loop. This morning my back, my right hip, left knee and both feet are questioning my judgment, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s a beautiful hike, though, and Team Orange had a blast. Here they spot a squirrel along the trail.

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I was relieved to get to the top of White Oak falls and began our descent. Even though every step of the descent is a foot-pounding, bone-jarring reminder that I am old and I’m carrying too much weight around. This panorama shows the lower falls at White Oak. Trout don’t live in ugly places. (I encourage readers to click on the panoramas in this post for a better view.)

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It was a very long day, and these great dogs deserve the sleep they fell into about a minute after getting in the car. I hope they aren’t nearly as sore as I am today.

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Rock On

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I just returned from a few days of fly fishing the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia’s Piankatank and Rappahannock rivers with my friend Douglas Dear of Rose River Farm. We were targeting mainly striper, or rockfish as they are more commonly called on the Bay, but there was a chance for redfish or speckled trout as well. Mostly, though, we were just on vacation. I’ve spent a lot of time and miles this year exploring beautiful parts of this great state that I’ve never visited before, and this place is high on the list. This shot below is at New Point Comfort Light House.

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We arrived on a windy afternoon and had an evening trip scheduled, the first of three outings with Capt. Chris Newsome. Despite a week or more of forecasts calling for clear weather, a stubborn system stuck around. But the rain stayed away and Chris found spots out of the wind for us to fish. To be honest, I had a week off and was on a boat with a great friend. I hoped that the fishing would be good, but at that point it mattered very little.

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Early on we got into some stripers. Douglas got a quick start, catching many fish before I got my first. But I got my casting down and before long we were both hooking up. At the end of that first day, we had about a half hour of the absolute best fly fishing I had ever experienced. This was a common sight, Chris removing a fly from my fish while Douglas was hooked up with his own.

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These stripers are beautiful, strong, aggressive fish that are an absolute blast on a fly rod. Most of the fish we caught were between 16 and 24 inches. Some of the hardest fighting fish were the 20 inchers.

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We fished the morning of the second day, and had an even better day than the first. And after a cloudy start the weather improved too. Here I am wearing my new lucky striper shirt from the fine folks at Covey & Paddle Clothing Company. I just love their shirt designs, “Born from Field and Water.” Check out their web site, I know anyone who enjoys this blog will appreciate their shirts.

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We spent some time that afternoon combing the shore looking for arrowheads. Indians lived here for thousands of years, and arrowheads turn up constantly. Douglas, sporting his cool Covey & Paddle speckled trout shirt, found three arrowheads. I found zero. I think, as with antler shed hunting, I’m just not very good at finding stuff.

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Our third and final morning of fishing began well, with a stunningly beautiful sky across the Bay. I took dozens of photos of this sunrise, each time assuming it could not get more vibrant, then a moment later realizing it had.

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But even the most brilliant sunrises fade quickly. Mother Nature, though, as if to signal we were in for a special day, gave us an encore to that sunrise with this amazing, full rainbow in the western sky.

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With so many fish already taken on the fly and returned safely to the water, with big laughs and great meals and cold beers enjoyed, with two nights of falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing on a sandy shore and the smell of salt in the air, with this amazing morning sky, my vacation was already complete. I didn’t need to catch a single fish this day.

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But catch fish we did, early and often. Top water, open water, subsurface, oyster beds, shore lines, docks, pilings, Chris had us on fish all morning. It was one of those magical days when fish fight over your fly on every cast. I caught a striper on eight consecutive casts at one point, and I didn’t think to start counting right away.

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Capt. Chris tying on a crease fly for some topwater fun. These fish are loads of fun slamming Clouser minnows just under the surface, but when they explode on a topwater fly it’s enough to make a couple grown men giggle at their good fortune.

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We loved this spot out in the bay, but literally caught so many fish we both were fatigued from pulling in fish and relieved when Chris said to reel ’em up, we were going to try another spot. Keep in mind, we only left after the fish “slowed down” to a couple of fish per minute.

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I am so happy that Sage got my broken 7-weight Z-Axis repaired and returned to me in time for this trip. It was a joy to fish with and got a particularly strenuous workout with absurd numbers of very strong fish on this last day.

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When the fish are relentlessly hammering your fly, you really have to force yourself to spend a few minutes taking pictures here and there.

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Douglas posing with a thick Chesapeake Bay striper.

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A bad photo of a small but special fish. My first redfish, caught on a fly. Beautiful. The camera adjusted to that shimmering silver side and must have thought I had pointed at the sun. I am very happy to have caught this little guy. There will be more, but this species had been on my wish list for a long time. Thanks to Chris for helping me check the redfish box on the ledger.

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Another double. It was so much fun to be fighting a nice fish and look over to see Douglas had one on too. This was our favorite spot of the week, long casts toward shore, super aggressive, nice sized fish. One, after the other, after the other.

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I’ve heard people talk big numbers when it comes to fishing. Fifty fish days. Hundred fish days. Whatever. I always assumed those people were bullshitting. I will not hazard a guess as to how many fish we caught that morning, because people would just think I was bullshitting.

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But this day was, by quite a lot, the most amazing day of fly fishing I’ve ever had. Or even imagined, truthfully. To have a captain bring you to the right place, at the right time, with the right fly, for such a sustained frenzy of fishing was just astonishing. I simply did not know there was fishing like this. And I’m so glad to share it with such a good friend. I could live to be a hundred and never have another day like that.

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Fumbled Fish Final Results!

fffc bannerV7Thank you to all who entered and voted in the Fumbled Fish Foto Contest, and to the generous sponsors who provided great prizes! Please visit and bookmark these sponsor sites: Rose River Farm, Spring Creek Outfitters, Montana Troutaholics, Hook1, Chesapeake Fly Co. and The Fish Grip!

So enjoy the entries in the slideshow below. We had a great time with this contest and hope you had fun too. Congratulations again to the four prize winners!

(Note: Mouse over the images to see the winners. And, sorry this takes a while to load. Once it loads, the slideshow seems to work well, but sorry for the inconvenience!)


Dove Hunting, A Beginner’s Guide

I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?

Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.

Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:

1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.

In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.

My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.

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Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.

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Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.

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Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:

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Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.

2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.

I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.

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Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:

3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.

4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.

5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.

6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.

7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.

8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.

Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.

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Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.

9. Bring a dog.

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Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

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As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.

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But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!

10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!

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I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.

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I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.

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But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.

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Smallmouth Fun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the 4th of July I spent a few beautiful evening hours on my home stretch of the Potomac River, and had one of the most fun outings I’ve ever had here. Conditions were perfect for wading. The level was low but not too low, and the water was crystal clear. Later in the summer, the grass will take over and the water temperatures will approach bath level. The fishing can still be very good, but it’s less pleasant to be in the water when it gets that way. But for now, perfect. Although the clear water has a down side. You can see below just how well the fish can see me, the camera was completely submerged here. So I find for the most part, some longer casts have good results. There is one notable exception described later in the post.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been really wanting to entice some smallmouth to poppers and other surface flies. I know lots of people who have great success on the top. But for me — and maybe it’s technique, location or both — I only catch sunfish when I try surface flies. Of all the smallmouth I’ve caught on the fly, I’d say less than 5 percent have come on the surface. If anyone has some advice on how to entice a smallie to the surface without having a sunfish feeding frenzy, please comment here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo after several sunnies in a row I went back to my go-to fly, the peach wooly bugger from Dead Drift Flies. On my first cast I brought in this beauty, and that was just the beginning. The smallmouth bite was ON, and it was a blast. By the way, this 5-weight Hardy rod is new, and I can’t get over how much fun this rod is. It throws line like a dream, but feels like a 3-weight with a fish on. You feel every tail beat and head shake. Fun, fun, fun.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was the first Potomac River outing this year where I had far more smallies than panfish. I always catch some tiny smallmouth, and quite a few were what I’d consider large fish for this stretch. But most were about this size, which you smallie hunters know, is plenty big to put up a nice fight!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nicest fish of the day, though, was the last of the day. I had waded upstream from the house a ways, and then went across the river a quarter mile or so. It was so beautiful out there, far from either bank, cool water on my legs, the sun setting upstream and fish enthusiastically biting. But, shallow or not, I like to see my feet when I’m wading, and darkness comes quickly when it comes. So I reeled up, secured the fly and admired the setting sun one more time before wading back to shore.

Along the way, now close to the bank and walking parallel with it, I passed three or four holes I fished on my way out with not much luck. I thought I saw a shadow move in the current, but didn’t have a lot of faith in my eyes at dusk. I decided to toss a fly in. I totally half-assed it, though. I never stopped walking, and didn’t even take any fly line out. I just unhooked the wooly bugger from the guide where I secured it earlier, held the rod out to the side and let the fly drop in the water. The shadow immediately slammed the fly. I pinched the fly line to the cork and set the hook, but I think the fish had already done that for me. He jumped four times under the tip of my rod — I basically had only the leader and about a foot of fly line out past the guides. What a great punctuation to a fantastic evening of fishing!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s another shot of my shadow fish. It’s hard to compose these fish shots, but some of the ‘accidents’ end up growing on me. I like this one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that was it. Another 100 feet and an ice cold beer was waiting for me. Because I am an excellent planner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you enjoy fly fishing for trout and you go all summer just waiting for cool weather to roll around again, you are missing some serious fun with your fly rod!


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