Leon Boyd is a busy man: Vice President at Noah Horn Well Drilling, board member of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Virginia district chair and chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter. So when I found myself with a free day while on vacation in southwest Virginia this past spring, I hesitated to call him.
“So, I’m kind of in the area. I know it’s a long shot, but is there any chance I could come out and see the elk?” I asked. “Oh. And I hate to be a pain in the ass, but I also have my two dogs with me, we’re on vacation.” He barely let me get through my self invitation before he interrupted with his insistence that I come see him and let him give me a tour of the elk habitat he has been so instrumental in creating.
A total of 71 elk from neighboring Kentucky have been introduced to Buchanan County over the course of three annual releases. I met Leon in 2013 at the second of those releases, when ten animals made the trip across the border. Those elk were a special sight, but were only viewable from a distance in a quarantine pen. The area was large, but lined with prominent fencing. So this time I was looking forward to seeing these introduced elk and even some of their offspring in a truly natural setting.
That setting, thousands of acres of habitat rich in plentiful food, clean water, ample cover and endless quiet, is part private property and part county land. There are no fences, these elk are free to wander elsewhere. But they thrive here.
As I drove across the remote southwestern corner of Virginia I wondered if any other state had as much geological diversity as the Old Dominion. From the mountains to the beaches and bay, from coal country to the Great Dismal Swamp, with big cities, small towns, farms and wilderness filling out the inbetween, I can’t think of another.
Buchanan County is a hard, steep place. It was carved from rock removed to expose coal that fueled the economy and powered the region. Every plateau containing a school, church or a cluster of homes is there only because inhabitable mountaintops were cut off, the coal removed and the slopes below filled in. And the newly reshaped landscape, with proper planning and care, is more resilient than you could possibly imagine. In fact, much of the rich habitat where Virginia’s elk thrive is reclaimed strip mined land.
Cut into a near vertical bank alongside a steep stretch of highway I found the offices of Noah Horn Well Drilling. I let the dogs out and we all stretched our legs. When I walked in I was warmly greeted by Leon. He seemed genuinely excited to show off his beloved elk project.
He probably wouldn’t want me to call the elk restoration project his project. The amount of effort, expertise, energy, devotion and cooperation from private landowners, county and state leaders, biologists and agencies to make it happen is incalculable. But I doubt you could find a single person involved in the project who imagines it could have been done without Leon Boyd.
The original plan calls for growing the herd to a population of about 400. Beyond that number, a hunting plan would be introduced, managed and closely monitored to sustain those numbers. This may begin to happen in as little as three or four years. In the meantime, tourism is the goal, luring people to visit here to see the magnificent animals, and of course spend the night, dine and shop. A visitors center is planned with wildlife viewing and hiking trails. Hunting would see additional revenue opportunities in the form of guiding fees, taxes and tags.
Leon’s involvement in the elk restoration earned him an appointment to the board of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, where he is currently serving his second term. “It has certainly been a learning curve for a country boy from southwest Virginia to say the least, but I’ve gained so much respect for the VDGIF and the staff,” he said. “Through the years I’ve blamed them for a lot of stuff they had no control over.”
Leon was incredibly generous with his time that day. When we rounded a bend to see a big bull elk in velvet antlers stop and pose for photos, or crest a hill and see a small herd loitering around a pristine watering hole, to see these wild elk, some born right here in Virginia, happy and healthy and close up, was an experience I will never forget.
And I know the next day Leon made those memories happen for someone else, or talked to a bus of curious school kids, or perhaps chatted with donors or landowners or conservation police or someone at RMEF to get something done for this project, for these special animals.
“In the beginning, I was all about the elk,” Boyd said. “But as it’s progressed, really and truly, it’s more about the people.”
If you would like to help the Virginia elk, there is an easy way to do it, Leon says. Support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Support them. They support us. They put money back into habitat projects [The RMEF put $23,000 back into this project last year alone].” Membership, auctions, banquets and fundraisers all help.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The overlooks (there are four) along the way are spectacular. And photos are a must at the highest point in Shenandoah National Park.
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.
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.
I had never seen a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) before. Which is not all that surprising, even given my time spent in the woods. In Virginia, the wood turtle is a threatened species. It has been assigned the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rating of Tier 1 — Critical Conservation Need, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. Populations of these species are at critically low levels, facing immediate threat(s), or occur within an extremely limited range. Intense and immediate management action is needed.”
My friend, naturalist Brian Balik has seen a few over the years, and knew of their decline in Virginia. So when he recently happened across two wood turtles in the same location in Northern Virginia, at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Spotting a threatened wood turtle ranks as a top experience in my life as a naturalist,” Brian said. “It’s something I am definitely not taking for granted, especially living in an area where there are very few of them.”
He took some photos of that first wood turtle and kept hiking, only to find another less than 100 yards away. So knowing there were at least two in the area, we set out a couple weeks later to hopefully re-find them so I could get some photographs. I was less confident than Balik, as I have a history of not being able to find things, but lo and behold, after hiking a few miles adjacent to a creek bed, Brian called out. “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe he had found one again! It was an extremely special sighting.
Just how rare is the wood turtle in Virginia? I contacted J.D. Kleopfer, a Herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who was excited about the find. “Not too many woodies left in that part of the world,” he said. “So any observations are critical.”
The turtle measured around eight inches long, was gentle and even a little curious. We spent a little time observing and photographing this affable little creature who cooperated for quite a while before deciding to wander off in search of lunch, privacy or both. But we were happy with the encounter and the photos we captured, so we left her and continued exploring, spotting some toads, a beautiful skink and even a yellow jacket nest along the way. (Balik is also better at finding yellow jackets than I am.)
I shared my photos with Ellery Ruther, Lead Field Technician of Virginia Working Landscapes for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who graciously provided some information about the turtle we encountered. “At first glance, I thought this animal was a small female,” she said. “But after counting the annuli (rings on the shell) to estimate age, it looks like the turtle is a juvenile around 8 years old. Wood turtles don’t reach maturity until around 10-15 years of age.” They can live up to 60 years.
We did not closely examine our sample turtle (nor would I have known what to look for), but Ruther explains that the best way to tell sex would be to look at the bottom of the shell. “Males have concavity, and females are flat,” Ruther said. “Otherwise, females generally have smaller heads, smaller front claws, and smaller tails than males do.”
As with many threatened species, urban and agricultural development have been among the biggest contributors to wood turtle decline. “Wood turtles are semi-aquatic, so they rely on both terrestrial and aquatic environments, can occupy relatively large home ranges, and often move between watersheds,” Ruther said. “All of which makes them very sensitive to development.” In addition, these factors lead to increased predator encounters, mortality crossing roads and, perhaps most disturbingly, accessibility for poachers.
Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, warns the public about removing animals from the wild. Once he was brought a wood turtle that was picked up on the road by someone vacationing in their range and brought home. He discovered it was a gravid female. “One of the important individuals in that population had been removed,” Steele said. “It emphasizes that turtles should NOT be picked out of the wild for pets.”
And it’s not just rare and threatened turtles that are put at risk by poaching. “Box turtles in particular are taking a big hit because of removal for pets,” Steele said. “Most box turtles at rescues are unwanted pets that were originally wild.”
If you happen to come across a rare or threatened specimen like Virginia’s wood turtle, Balik recommends taking a few photos and reporting the sighting to VDGIF. “Or if you are in a park land, report the sighting to park staff,” he said. “Keep in mind exactly where you are, nearby water bodies, road intersections, date, time and a photo.”
So please just enjoy Virginia’s precious wildlife where you find it. As the old maxim goes, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
For a list of Virginia’s special legal status species click here.
To learn about all the turtles native to Virginia, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society web site here.
To check out Brian Balik’s blog, A Case of Wildlife Fever, click here.
For the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, click here.
Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.
As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.
For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.
I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.
And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.
I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.
That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.
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.
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.
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.
Monkey doesn’t like stones in the water. They all need to be removed, one at a time.
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.
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!
We get a lot of different turtles around our property. I spent some time with this cool fellow.
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.
Turkeys gather on the path ahead, C&O Canal Towpath, Maryland.
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.
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.
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.
Shortly after the landscape workshop I tried my new knowledge at Shenandoah National Park. This is the Upper Rose River in Madison County, VA.
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.
This is the same Monarch pictured earlier eclosing from her chrysalis, drying her wings in the sun.
Sunset, Potomac River, Harpers Ferry, WV.
I visited Solomon’s Island, MD twice this year and thoroughly enjoyed this quaint, beautiful and fun town.
Team Orange at Rose River Farm on a beautiful summer day.
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.
Early in the year this Sharp Shinned Hawk paused on our bird feeder while hunting our regular feeder visitors. Hawks gotta eat, too.
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.
Rifle season for deer in Virginia started last weekend. I saw a few, but didn’t take any shots with my new Browning .308 lever gun. That will come soon enough, but in the meantime, I wanted to share all the deer I have managed to shoot this year. Most from my driveway, some with a game cam, the rest with my Nikon that I’ve started keeping with me in the car this time of year. Due to the nature of the photos, I won’t bother captioning them because I don’t want to be redundant, to repeat myself, to say things over and over again. Enjoy and stay tuned…
This past weekend I spent a day wandering around central Virginia, not far from a town called Undisclosed Location. I was taking pictures, fly fishing and just enjoying the beautiful early autumn weather. I did not have much success fishing, but took a few photos I liked and did very well in the enjoying the beautiful day department.
It’s hard not to feel good on the water when you’re carrying a wonderfully crafted bamboo rod made by Jerry Nonnemacher, and a beautiful new net from Brodin Nets. Early on when the fish weren’t biting, I set up a little product shoot.
I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting, I really don’t. So I decided to leave the area and find another activity. As I was leaving, however, I stopped at one more spot and had a look in. Brown trout, just what I was after. I hiked down the embankment and set up to fish for a bit. Remember when I said I don’t mind when the fish aren’t biting? I may have meant that I don’t mind as long as I don’t see a monster trout just sitting there! The smaller trout here are probably 8-10 inchers. The one bruiser had to be pushing 20 inches. I wanted him. Bad. So I fished to him. Over the next couple hours I tried countless variations of flies and tactics. I justified hammering him with everything but the kitchen sink because it takes me so damn long to tie a new fly on, I figured I had given him ample time to rest. But here’s the thing. You can’t fish one pool for two hours. You can’t throw your fly box at one fish who has no interest in feeding. I was just about to give up, when I tried dead drifting a San Juan worm right in front of him. I’ll be damned if he didn’t take that San Juan and shoot downstream with it. He broke me off after less than three fun-filled seconds. I was proud to have gotten him to bite, though … until I saw him a minute later with my fly stuck in his pectoral fin. I had foul hooked the beast. So with his fin and my pride stinging a bit, I called it a day. I had hooked two or three small ones earlier but lost them all before I could get them in my still virgin net.
I wish I knew my trees better. I look forward to the orange and red maples of Virginia’s fall palette. But the early yellows, poplar I think, made for stunning reflections. And, fish or not, this time of year just makes me feel more alive. October in Virginia simply can not be beat.
The entire Dispatches from the Potomac staff took the three-day weekend off to celebrate this cherished American holiday by enjoying time surrounded by friends, nature and, of course, dogs. Here’s a quick photo tour of the weekend…
I’ll admit it, I’ve been pretty slack about getting these dogs out on hikes. They forgive me, but could not hide their excitement early Friday morning when they realized we were going somewhere fun. Seeing these mugs in my rear view mirror makes my heart smile.
We did an easy five or six miles on the C&O Canal Towpath, from Knoxville, MD to Harpers Ferry, WV and back. This is about a mile downstream of Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River.
(Scene Missing: Insert a blurry montage of grilling meat, lighting fireworks, viewing fireworks and perhaps enjoying a beer or two from Friday night to Sunday morning.)
The alarm was set early on Sunday, as my friend Chris and I were ready to catch some Smallmouth from kayaks before dawn. I brought my Nikon, but light conditions were challenging. Some neat fog was rising off the water for quite a while when we started, but I struggled capturing enough light to really show it. Anyway, a few turned out well, this is Chris with the great state of Virginia behind him.
Chris just got this Wilderness Systems Ride 115X, this float was the maiden voyage! This kayak seems just perfectly suited for river fishing, and Chris said it’s super comfortable too. He added a nice new Werner paddle to complete the package!
As a photographic outing, not much was going well. I had recorded a dozen or so blurry Great Blue Heron images on the memory card, and the bright sun was ruining all the river shots. But when I came across this scene I took a lot of photos, hoping I was able to capture even a fraction of the subtle shades and colors I was enjoying. This is my favorite of those shots, and a clear candidate for my Photos of the Year post at the end of 2014.
The fishing was slow. I hooked a nice smallie early, we both saw it jump and it looked like it was gonna be fun, but he spit the hook out in mid-air, and that was the last big fish I saw. This was the only fish I got in the boat, and he damn near escaped before I could take a picture.
I’ve been meaning to take this detour up Catoctin Creek off the Potomac, so we explored it a bit. The water is much colder back here, but we saw very little evidence of active fish.
After a little break, and some sad looks from Team Orange, I decided to head back out Sunday afternoon to go for a spin. My new Dead Drift Flies sticker looks great on my Native Watercraft Slayer 14.5!
Finn watching our six, and looking great in his Ruffwear Float Coat.
I had a wonderful weekend and got lots of exercise in perfect weather. I hope you all had a great and safe holiday! It’s back to reality. For now.
Fishermen who spend time in and around the Potomac River tributaries don’t all have the same opinion about the Northern Snakehead, but rest assured, they all have an opinion. And there’s a good chance it will be a strong one. Some fall in the “they’re destroying the fishery and must be eradicated at all costs” camp, others in the “they must be protected as a sportfish before it’s too late” camp. And some, believe it or not, actually fall somewhere in between.
There are four agencies who regulate the fishery and have a great interest in gathering data on the Snakehead population: U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, DC Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). These agencies are working together to gather data about Snakehead in the Potomac tributaries, and part of that collective effort includes doing shock surveys, tagging, logging and releasing fish back into the system. Fisheries biologists at VDGIF, led by Snakehead expert John Odenkirk, generously invited myself and David Coffman, editor of VDGIF’s Outdoor Report, to come along for one such tagging survey.
Fisheries biologist Mike Isel skillfully piloted the boat into some tight spots!
Mike also operated the generator and controlled the flow of electricity to the probes that dragged through the water. Once the generator, which supplies the juice, was turned on, Mike operated a foot pedal which distributes electricity into the water.
Jarrett Talley, Fisheries Technician, manned a net on one side of the boat, while Odenkirk worked the other side. In this photo you can see the probes in the water.
It was quite interesting to watch different species of fish react differently to the electricity. Snakehead have an air bladder that, upon shocking, expels air. So they tend to sink, giving the netters just one shot at them most of the time. Here Odenkirk quickly gets the net under a snakehead.
The fish are then brought into the boat and placed in a live well. Tags are applied later to all the fish collected before they are released. For a short video showing John Odenkirk netting a Snakehead, click here.
The snakehead are often netted with samples of the vegetation and food sources they like best. The Banded Killifish, shown here, Odenkirk says are very commonly found in the places Snakehead are captured. Is it just me, or is this Snakehead eyeing that one in Odenkirk’s hand?
Once the shocking and netting is done, the fish are removed from the live well one at a time (roughly in order of their level of cooperation) and placed on a board for measurement.
This sample is about 72 centimeters, or just over 28 inches.
Out of the ten Snakehead fish netted in this survey, two of them were ‘recaptures,’ fish that already contained a tag.
All the others received tags. Here Odenkirk tags a beauty, and the tag number is logged. Previously tagged fish are logged by tag number as well, then released with the others.
The high visibility tags contain instructions for any angler who catches a tagged Snakehead. You are requested to kill the fish, then report the location to the phone number printed on the tag.
Mike Isel logs the new tags, along with date, location and length of each fish.
Odenkirk tosses a tagged fish back into Little Hunting Creek.
The bright orange tag is visible even in murky water conditions. There are probably a few Snakehead targeted by everyone from Herons to bowhunters who would prefer that the tag were a drab olive.
Isel hits the throttle as we exit Little Hunting Creek. Next to him David Coffman, and Jarrett Talley stands up front.
I can’t thank the VDGIF’s great team on Snakehead control duty enough for letting me ‘tag along’ today. Dammit, I was going to avoid that pun, but it’s late. Forgive me.