Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Requiem for an old, old bear

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This fall marks a sad milestone here in West Virginia.

For the first time in almost three decades, the black bear known as Quagmire will not  roam the woods.

Quagmire got her name when she was a young bear. Division of Natural Resources biologists trapped her and put a radio collar on her. To differentiate between her and other radio-collared bears, they gave her a name. The naming system in place at the time called for a moniker that started with “Q.” They settled on “Quagmire.”

Quagmire lived a typical black bear life. She got pregnant and bore litters of cubs. Year after year after year, biologists tracked her comings and goings by following the steady beep-beep of her collar’s radio signal.

After a decade or so, her followers began to notice that she had lived far longer than the average bear. They celebrated her 20th year, and then her 25th.

“She bore her last litter of cubs at age 25,” said Chris Ryan, the DNR’s former bear project leader. “Over her lifetime, we estimate she contributed about 20 cubs to the state’s bear population.”

Quagmire dropped off the DNR’s map last fall. Ryan said her collar showed that she was alive just before the deer firearm season, but she dropped the collar not long after.

“One of our biologists went out to investigate,” Ryan said. “He talked with some guys who had trail-camera pictures of her. They said she had lost a lot of weight, and that her collar was just flapping around loose on her.”

Ryan doesn’t know for sure, but he speculates that Quagmire went into hibernation in late November or early December and never woke up.

“We checked some of her known dens, but we never found her,” he said. “We can’t officially say she’s dead, but that’s the assumption. She lived a mighty long life for a bear. She was 29 when her collar dropped off. If she’d lived until February, she would have turned 30.”

Hunting deer with spears? Cool!

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Throwing with an atlatl

Deer hunters in Missouri will have an interesting choice this fall.

In November, the Show-Me State will become the second state in the Union to allow deer hunting with atlatls, ancient throwing sticks used to hurl fletched, broomstick-length spears called “darts.”

Don’t laugh. Ancient North Americans used atlatl-hurled darts to bring down mastodons and woolly mammoths.

As one might expect, the advent of the atlatl has created quite a buzz. The Columbia Missourian outlines the entire story in a nicely written feature.

I’ve thrown atlatl darts before. With just a flick of the wrist, I was able to send a modern aluminum dart flying more than 250 feet. I’ve had shoulder surgery since then, and my throwing arm is much stronger. It would be fun to give it a try now.

It would take a ton of practice, though, to throw accurately enough with an atlatl to hit an object as small as a deer. Getting within effective range — 25 yards max — would also be difficult. But for primitive-weapons purists who want an ultimate challenge, atlatl hunting would be hard to beat.

Woman strangles attacking fox

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Rachel Cohen after the attack (Pocono Record photo)

Desperate times can call for some highly desperate measures.

When attacked by a fox near her home, Rachel Cohen did what she had to do — she strangled her attacker with her bare hands. And no, she’s not the blood-and-guts type. Before her encounter with the fox, she’d never before killed an animal of any kind.

Now the Stroudsburg, Pa., resident must wait to learn whether the fox was rabid. Authorities suspect it was. If so, Cohen will need to undergo treatment for the disease.

The Pocono Record has Cohen’s full story.

Hat tip: J.R. Absher at The Outdoor Pressroom.

Rhino poaching surges in South Africa

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Poachers' prey

The battle against wildlife poaching is a lot like an arms race. Poachers find effective methods, and law enforcement officials discover effective countermeasures.

It appears the pendulum in Africa has swung the poachers’ way again. South African authorities report a twenty-fold increase in rhinoceros poaching in that country.

It’s easy to understand why. Rhino horns, prized in Asia for alleged medicinal qualities, can sell for as much as $30,000 a pound. The average horn weighs about 5 pounds, so there’s plenty of economic incentive to poach.

The Christian Science Monitor has a complete story on the situation, and it makes for an interesting read. Disturbing, but interesting.

‘Jump shooting’ works for W.Va. duck hunters

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Early season quarry

My Gazette-Mail column for this week gives hunters hints on how to succeed at early season duck hunting here in good ol’ Wild, Wonderful West Virginia:

When most people think of duck hunting, they envision camouflaged blinds, large spreads of decoys, chill autumn mornings and eager retriever dogs.

It certainly can be like that, but during the October segment of West Virginia’s waterfowl season, it’s usually different – quite a bit different, in fact.

“A lot of early season hunting is done by floating small rivers, or by walking the banks of those rivers and shooting any ducks that are flushed,” said Steve Wilson, waterfowl project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources.

Given the quarry, those tactics make perfect sense. Most of the ducks killed during the October season are resident wood ducks and mallards, and most of those birds live in the state’s extensive network of small- to medium-sized streams.

“At bends in these streams, or in small sloughs or backwaters, wood ducks and resident mallards tend to congregate,” Wilson explained. “By floating down the stream in a canoe or a small boat, hunters can often get within easy shooting range. Same goes for hunters who walk the riverbanks. If you know where the best spots are, you can walk from spot to spot and easily get a few ducks during a morning’s worth of hunting.”

Waterfowl hunters call the practice “jump shooting.” Wilson said one of jump shooting’s prime benefits is that it provides blessed relief from the early morning regimen waterfowl hunters must ordinarily endure.

“At any given time of the day, ducks will be loafing along streams, either in the water, on the banks or sitting on logs. As far as flying is concerned, ducks are more active at dawn and at dusk, but during they day they’ll be found somewhere along those streams. If you get a few people out stirring them around, you might be able to get them as they move back and forth.”

Slower-moving streams – Wilson specifically mentioned the Hughes and Little Kanawha rivers as examples – tend to harbor more ducks more consistently than smaller, swifter streams. Based on Wilson’s recommendations, prospective hunters might also want to check out the upper Meadow River, the Mud River, the Tug-Big Sandy complex, the lower Buckhannon River and Middle Island Creek.

“Really, though, you can find small pockets of wood ducks and mallards just about anywhere,” Wilson said. “You could even find them on a little brook-trout stream if the stream had beaver ponds along it.”

DNR officials have scheduled the early segment of this year’s waterfowl season to begin Oct. 1. That first segment won’t last long; in fact, it closes Oct. 9.

The short season makes sense because the wood ducks that nest and rear their young in West Virginia begin to migrate south as the month of October wears along. Wilson expects hunters to find “pretty darned decent” numbers of ducks.

“We had good rainfall through most of the year, and the water levels were good during the nesting season,” he said. “I don’t expect a monster increase over last year, but we should have a few more birds to hunt.”

Competition from other hunters shouldn’t be a problem.

“We don’t have a lot of waterfowl hunters,” Wilson said. “We sell about 1,100 federal duck stamps each year. The guys and gals who enjoy waterfowl hunting are really into it, though. They definitely look forward to the opening of the season, and they go after the ducks pretty enthusiastically.

“One of the things they probably enjoy most about the season is that they can head for their favorite spots without having to worry whether someone has gotten there first.”

In West Virginia hunting circles, that’s a rarity. And it’s yet another factor that makes the state’s October duck season just a little bit different from other seasons.

Today is one of two National Hunting and Fishing Days, both celebrated this weekend.

For those who might wonder why we should celebrate hunting and fishing, consider this: By the late 1920s, wildlife populations were at an ebb. Deer were hard to find. So were elk and pronghorn antelope. Ditto wild turkeys. Ducks numbers were falling steadily.

Then the hunting community came up with a novel idea — an essentially self-imposed excise tax on guns, ammunition and other hunting equipment. The federal government would collect the taxes and return the money to the states for wildlife restoration programs.

Congress put the idea into law in the form of the Pittman-Robertson Act. Not long afterward, the Dingell-Johnson Act imposed a similar excise tax on fishing equipment, with the money going to fisheries-restoration projects.

Today’s hunters and anglers enjoy the fruits of their forebears’ foresightedness. Celebrate? You bet!

Fresh blood fuels panthers’ bounceback

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Tough cookies

For decades, biologists watched as the Florida panther subspecies ebbed closer and closer to extinction.

They’re doing much better now. The population has tripled, and biologists attribute the change to 1995’s desperation attempt to deepen the big cats’ gene pool. Figuring a “dash of the mongrel” might help the species survive, wildlife officials imported eight female cougars from Texas.

Today’s panther cubs are, as researchers put it, “Schwarzenegger tough,” a marked difference to the genetically fragile, weak-hearted cubs being born a decade and a half ago.

Here’s the complete story, from National Geographic News.

Woman fends off black bear — with a zucchini

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Bear repellent?

I can see it now; hikers in bear country will start carrying zucchinis instead of pepper spray…

From the Associated Press:

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana woman fended off a bear trying to muscle its way into her home Thursday by pelting the animal with a large piece of zucchini from her garden.
The woman suffered minor scratches and one of her dogs was wounded after tussling with the 200-pound bear.
The attack happened just after midnight when the woman let her three dogs into the backyard for their nighttime ritual before she headed to bed, Missoula County Sheriff’s Lt. Rich Maricelli said. Authorities believe the black bear was just 25 yards away, eating apples from a tree.
Two of the dogs sensed the bear, began barking and ran away, Maricelli said. The third dog, a 12-year-old collie that wasn’t very mobile, remained close to the woman as she stood in the doorway of the home near Frenchtown in western Montana.
Before she knew what was happening, the bear was on top of the dog and batting the collie back and forth, Maricelli said.
“She kicked the bear with her left leg as hard as she could, and she said she felt like she caught it pretty solidly under the chin,” Maricelli said.
But as she kicked, the bruin swiped at her leg with its paw and ripped her jeans.
The bear then turned its full attention to the woman in the doorway. She retreated into the house and tried to close the door, but the bear stuck its head and part of a shoulder through the doorway.
The woman held onto the door with her right hand. With her left, she reached behind and grabbed a 14-inch zucchini that she had picked from her garden earlier and was sitting on the kitchen counter, Maricelli said.
She threw the vegetable. It bopped the bruin on the top of its head and the animal fled, Maricelli said.
The woman called for help from a relative staying with her. They found the collie outside, unable to move, and took it to a veterinarian.
The dog appeared to be fine on Thursday, but the vet was keeping it for observation, Maricelli said.
The woman did not need medical attention for the scratches on her leg, though she got a tetanus shot as a precaution, Maricelli said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials set up a trap in an attempt to capture the bear, the agency said in a statement.
Besides the nearby fruit trees, there wasn’t anything on the woman’s property that would attract a bear into the backyard, like garbage or livestock feed, wildlife officials said.
Maricelli interviewed the woman, but said the sheriff’s office was complying with her wish not to identify her.
“She was very, very shaken, and it kind of took the humor portion out of it for me,” Maricelli said. “She said it had this horrific growl and was snarling.
“(But) she can see the humor in it, and she wanted the story put out so the local residents can take precautionary measures,” he added.

Popular W.Va. fishery to close temporarily

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The Winfield access piers

One of West Virginia’s most popular fishing spots will be closed for two weeks beginning Sept. 27.

The fishing-access piers at the Kanawha River’s Winfield Locks and Dam will be closed while construction crews install new handrails.

The fishing-access area on the Winfield side of the dam is the only one affected. Anglers will still be able to fish on the Eleanor side.

All facilities on the Winfield side — including the parking lot and the handicap-access ramp — will be closed during the construction. The work is expected to take roughly two weeks. Officials expect the access area to reopen Oct. 9.

The Winfield Locks offer some of the best mixed-bag fishing in the state. Species include largemouth, smallmouth, hybrid striped and white bass; sunfish; channel and flathead catfish; freshwater drum; gar; and sauger and walleye.

Rafters at the Gauley's Pillow Rock Rapids

This post might seem out of place on a blog that primarily deals with hunting, fishing and wildlife, but it struck me pretty close to home.

Two whitewater rafters have drowned in the past few days on West Virginia’s Gauley River. Their deaths confirm that no matter how commercialized an adventure sport gets, there’s still an element of danger.

The body of the first paddler, a woman, was found under an undercut rock in the river’s Iron Curtain Rapids. The body of the second victim, a man, was found in a rocky shoal near Fingernail Rapids.

Both deaths had the earmarks of classic “entrapment” scenarios. Essentially, those occur when an arm or a leg or the paddler’s entire body gets wedged between rocks. The force of the current holds the victim under and he/she drowns.

Entrapment drownings are more of a problem on the Gauley when flows are relatively low. This fall’s flows have been nice and high. I guess this goes to show that even when conditions are perfect, bad stuff can happen.

In my younger days, I greatly enjoyed whitewater canoeing and kayaking. My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims’ families.