Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

pokemongoYes, it’s true. The Pokemon Go craze is taking the world by storm.

Newspapers (the Gazette-Mail included) have run stories about Pokemongers wandering the streets of the city while staring intently into their cellphones. There have been reports of people trespassing on private property to collect Pokemon. Pundits beyond number have decried the game because it keeps players even more inseparably tethered to their mobile devices.

I think the inimitable Sgt. Hulka from the movie, “Stripes,” said it best: “Lighten up, Francis.”

At least the Pokemon players are outside. In this day and age when kids and adults spend far too much time vegetating inside their homes, anything that gets them outside into the fresh air and sunshine should be viewed as a godsend.

Are people doing dumb things because of this game? Yes. Do a few people get so wrapped up in it that they put themselves (or others) in danger? Yep. But at least they’re outside. And while they’re outside, they’re getting a healthy dose of what recreation specialist Kim Hawkins calls “Vitamin N” — nature. Those who don’t walk off cliffs or stride headlong into lampposts are walking miles and miles in the good ol’ outdoors. It’s an example all of us should follow, whether or not we play the game.

Sleuthing out a famous fishing book

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I am an unabashed fan of Norman Maclean’s classic book, “A River Runs Through It.”

Not only is the story achingly well written, it centers on a family of fly fishermen. Maclean’s vivid scene-setting helps me imagine what those long-ago scenes on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River must have looked like.

And apparently I’m not the only one.

Other fans of Maclean’s superb novella have made a pastime out of locating the exact spots described in the story simply by matching the written description with features along the river. A reporter for the Missoula, Mont.,- based Missoulian newspaper wrote a fascinating feature story about those angling sleuths. If you’d like to check it out, here’s the link.

Why fish just one way?

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This week’s column takes a look at how we, as anglers, sometimes sentence ourselves to the same old same-old:

Jeremy Wade is a fisherman after my own heart.
Wade, who hosts cable TV’s “River Monsters” show, values results more than technique. He’s interested in catching big fish and doesn’t much care how he goes about it.
I’ve seen him use lures to catch Eurasian “pike-perch” from the cooling pond at Ukraine’s infamous Chernobyl nuclear site. I’ve seen him fly fish the headwaters of India’s Ganges River for mahseer. And I’ve seen him use live bait to catch everything from African tigerfish to giant Mekong River stingrays.
It’s almost as if the mind of Al Davis, the late Oakland Raiders coach, has made its way into a world-traveling angler’s body. Davis’ motto was “Just win, baby.” Wade’s seems to be “Just catch fish, baby.”
These first few paragraphs might confuse those of you who know me or have followed my weekly columns for the past 33 years. Yes, I prefer to fish with a fly rod whenever possible, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy fishing hardware or bait.
The top shelf of my fishing closet contains tackle boxes filled with crankbaits, buzz baits, spinnerbaits, grubs, tubes and twitch baits. It also contains a small box filled with small spinners and all the necessary gear to fish, like worms, minnows, salmon eggs or PowerBait for trout.
There are fly rods, sure, but there also are spinning rods in several actions and two or three casting rods. And the collection is by no means complete. Before I cash my chips, I plan to purchase (and make good use of) a muskie rig and a spinning rod heavy enough to be used for big catfish and hybrid striped bass.
One of the best things about living in West Virginia is that its angling opportunities are so very diverse. From tiny headwater brook-trout streams to rocky smallmouth rivers to deep-channeled inland waterways where monster catfish lurk, there’s something for everyone.
People have preferences. I get that. Heck, I have them too. My personal preference is to use a fly rod to cast for trout, largemouth or smallmouth bass. But I’ll happily use minnows to fish for crappies, dough balls to fish for carp, plastic grubs to fish for sauger, chicken livers to fish for channel cats, or strips of baloney to fish for creek chubs.
I know people who fish using only one kind of tackle for only one species. I’m not about to criticize them, because they’re doing what they enjoy and they’re doing it in a way that makes them happy. Personally, though, I don’t like to limit my options.
I also like to learn new things, and the best ways I’ve found to learn more about fishing are to fish for different species and to try different baits, techniques, rods, reels and lines.
A good friend once invited me to go bass fishing. He knew of my reputation as a fly angler, and he knew that I preferred to fish for trout. When I showed up carrying a bait-casting rig, he did a double take.
He did another double take when I fired cast after cast without a single backlash. He did a third double take when I cast a spinnerbait over a sunken log, teased it up to the log and let it fall as soon as it crossed over.
“You’ve done this before, I take it?” he asked, grinning.
“A time or two,” I replied. “Hey, man doth not live by fly rod alone.”
The goal of fishing, after all, is to catch fish. The more or bigger fish anglers catch, the more they tend to enjoy the experience.
Perhaps, then, we should all take a lesson from Jeremy Wade and start caring more about catching fish than how we go about doing it.
We’d probably catch more fish, and we’d certainly have more fun.
Clearing a Sylvan Pass avalanche (Park Service photo)

National Park Service officials want to spend roughly $300,000 a year on avalanche control at Yellowstone Park’s Sylvan Pass.

Sounds reasonable, right? After all, the Park Service needs to protect the public, and wants to do so by shooting howitzer shells at snow-laden avalanche chutes.

Consider, though, that only about 500 visitors — snowmobilers —  attempt to cross Sylvan Pass in winter. The pass lies along spine of the Absaroka Range in the relatively undeveloped eastern section of the park, and is closed to passenger vehicle traffic from Nov. 1 to April 30 due to heavy snowfall. It is highly prone to avalanches.

Critics of the Park Service avalanche-control plan point out that the anticipated $300,000 expense amounts to approximately $600 per visitor. They argue that it isn’t cost-effective, especially at a time when parks are so apparently underfunded.

Seems to me that Park Service officials are running scared — scared of potential liability. The precedent of allowing snowmobilers through the pass has been set. Should one get killed by an avalanche, his or her relatives could conceivably win a lawsuit by arguing that Park Service officials should have addressed the avalanche hazard.

A sign of the times, I suppose…

Blasting away at the rhetoric police

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Rhetoric in the crosshairs

As a responsible firearms owner, I have watched with interest political pundits’ pleas to remove gun-related imagery from public discourse. At first I was amused. Amusement has since turned to disgust.

I haven’t written about the subject because I believed others would express similar thoughts far better than I ever could.

Turns out I was right. Case in point — M.B. Carey of Lavalette, W.Va., whose delightful letter to the editor appeared in the Jan. 27 edition of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. Carey wrote:

In the aftermath of the recent appalling attack in Tucson, a number of our legislators and many media talking heads, in particular Chris Matthews, seem to believe the best way to deter this type of incident is to “soften our rhetoric” and purge our language of any words or phrases which could be perceived as a reference to guns.
If the attack itself was not so shocking, this idea would be ironically laughable. Matthews thinks that by controlling language we can somehow control behavior and thought.
Applying this dimwitted logic, we could no longer advise our young people to “shoot for the stars,” or “set their sights high.” TV and movie producers (coincidentally the main source of our real exposure to guns and violence) could no longer “target” their viewing audience. Legislators themselves would not be able to “zero in” on a specific bloc of voters. No individuals could go “full bore” at any endeavor, and businesses would no longer “aim to please.”
Matthews and his media colleagues have been telling us since the bailouts began that the American people are dismayed, angry, frustrated and fed up with Washington waste, corruption, indifference and gridlock. The Tucson shooter expressed the same emotions felt by most of the country, but he did it with violence and murder because he’s psychotic, not because someone said “crosshairs,” “bulls-eye” or “bang.”
We don’t need Chris Matthews (or anyone else) to censor all the idioms in the English language or offer uneducated opinions on social behavior. In the future, he should refrain from “going off half-cocked” and “shooting off his mouth.”

This week’s column pokes gentle fun at those who criticize the way biologists manage deer and other wildlife:

As the calendar flips from 2010 to 2011, the last person I’d want to be is a West Virginia Division of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
The state’s deer seasons have ended. Hunters who didn’t bag a buck have had the entire holiday season to become even more disgruntled. Human nature being what it is, they’ll likely take their frustrations out on the people they think are to blame.
Some will vent their spleens during telephone calls to the DNR. Others will wait until the Natural Resources Commission’s midwinter meeting, or until DNR officials hold their annual sectional meetings in March.
The DNR guys will listen politely, as they almost always do, and will patiently try to explain why they managed the deer herd the way they did. The critics, in turn, will walk away convinced they know infinitely more about wildlife management than any DNR employee could ever hope to learn.
This is not a new phenomenon.
The late Jack O’Connor, longtime shooting editor for Outdoor Life, characterized the mindset in a letter to the editor of the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune in early 1967:
“In my day I have been in a fair number of states and I have yet to be in one where the game department was not under fire and where there was not a strong movement under way to get rid of the director, to hang the biologists, to have the head of the law enforcement division torn asunder by wild horses, and the chairman of the commission beheaded, drawn and quartered, and his head exhibited in front of the state Capitol on a pike,” O’Connor wrote.
“I long ago found out that if I wanted to get all the correct answers to the problems of game management I was wasting my time if I went to see the game department biologist. These poor slobs have only studied the various aspects of game management in universities for from four to eight years. They only spend about 250 days a year or so in the field and in the laboratory.
“They only know something about ecology, biology, chemistry, and various worthless subjects. As a consequence these biologists are all fatheads and their opinions are without value.
“If I want to get all the answers but quick I just go to any bar, barber shop, or sporting goods store. I quickly find out that many people know exactly how all the problems should be dealt with, and that all this wisdom comes to them through a sort of osmosis – through having bought a hunting license, having spent two weekends hunting deer, or having talked to old Hi Jenkens, who used to be a market hunter and who came here in 1908.
“For my part I set little store by these swivel chair experts in the game department or any other quacks with modern scientific pretenses. If I want to know how the weather is going to be I wouldn’t think of getting in touch with the weather bureau. Instead I stop some little old lady on the street. I ask her how she feels. If she tells me that her corns are hurting, I know it is going to rain.
“When I feel lousy I wouldn’t think of consulting an M.D. Instead I pull a hair out of my head, send it to an old barber I went to when I was in college down in Arkansas. He burns the hair in a darkened room, notes the color of the flame, and tells me what is wrong.
“The fact that I am still alive and relatively frisky at my advanced age shows the old boy knows his stuff.”
In another part of the letter, O’Connor wrote that if Idaho’s governor “fired every member of the [game] department and staffed it with St. Peter, the Angel Gabriel, Sir Izaak Walton, Nimrod, Diana, Daniel Boone and Charles Darwin he’d still get more criticism of the game department than any other.”
Times haven’t changed much, have they?

Are today’s hunting videos bad for hunting?

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This week’s column takes a hard look at today’s hunting videos:

Question: Just how realistic are the hunting videos that turn up on cable TV and on the Internet?
Answer: Most of them aren’t realistic at all. In my opinion, those that aren’t do more to harm the public’s image of hunters than they could ever hope to advance it.
Almost all of these videos are taped on private game ranches or hunting preserves. Some of them are even taped on so-called “high-fence” preserves where the animals are herded into 1- to 3-acre pens to be shot. And even on unfenced preserves, the animals are often lured within shooting range with bait.
As someone who once worked in the television industry, I completely understand why hunting-show producers choose such locations for their video shoots. Video crews are expensive. The sooner the necessary footage can be secured, the lower the production costs.
Why send a crew out for a week on heavily hunted public land, where the host/hunter probably won’t bag a trophy-sized animal, when they could spend a day or two on a private preserve and videotape a true trophy hunt? The show’s host pads his or her “street cred” as a hunter and the producers save money. It’s a no-brainer.
As successful as that approach appears to be, I see at least six problems with it.
One, it results in an ever-escalating “arms race.” If Show A’s host bags a heavy-antlered 10-point buck on his show, rival Show B’s host feels compelled to bag a 12-pointer or larger to avoid losing face. In the process, viewers are subjected to an endless procession of hunts they could not remotely hope to experience for themselves.
Two, the hunts in their final, heavily edited versions seldom reflect what actually happened. In an effort to create flow and continuity, producers and editors often take a snippet from here and a snippet from there and patch together idealized versions of what they conceive trophy hunts to be.
Three, the videos often create unrealistic expectations, especially among inexperienced hunters. Face it, real-world hunting is usually much, much more difficult and time consuming than the Fantasy Island hunts depicted on videos and TV. Hunters who aren’t wealthy – or who aren’t privileged TV hosts – sometimes spend entire seasons perched in their tree stands without getting a single shot at a trophy animal.
Four, consumers are starting to wise up. Jimmy Houston, a popular fishing- and hunting-show host, lost a ton of credibility several years back when word got out that one of his trophy-buck hunts was taped in a small enclosure on an Indiana high-fence preserve. Houston had depicted the hunt as fair chase when it was anything but.
Five, hunting-show producers’ emphasis on canned and baited hunts cost hunters a ton of good will with the non-hunting public. Anti-hunters will always be against hunting, and little can be done to persuade them otherwise. Most non-hunters take a more neutral stance. As long as hunters abide by the law and subscribe to fair-chase practices, the vast majority of non-hunters will continue to tolerate hunting as a pastime.
But as soon as they perceive hunters as wanton or unsporting, the jig is up. They’ll join forces with the antis, and hunting as we know it will become as extinct as the passenger pigeon.
Finally, producers’ slavish dedication to inserting “impact shots” or “kill shots” into their videos has become downright offensive – at least to me. I understand that those images help create the impression that the host’s participation wasn’t staged, but I also believe that non-hunters find them offensive.
We hunters are used to seeing them, and they don’t bother us. But they sure might turn off some youngsters who, with careful nurturing, might otherwise have become hunters.

My Gazette-Mail column this week deals with an unfortunate byproduct of the political silly season — the ever-growing number of candidates eager to earn the sportsman vote:

As Election Day 2010 grows ever nearer, candidates far and wide are taking up arms in the name of political expedience.

It has become a cliché.

The latest politico to show up with a firearm in his hands is West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who just this week released a television ad in which he strolls serenely through the woods holding a scoped hunting rifle. As he walks along, Manchin turns, fires and blows a neat hole in the center of the federal cap-and-trade bill. The ad’s apparent dual message: I’m a hunter (or at least a shooter) and I’m distancing myself from President Obama’s environmental platform.

Well, at least Manchin used a hunting rifle. Carl Paladino, the current Republican nominee for governor of New York, chose a semi-automatic assault-style rifle for a recent photo op.

As I sit shaking my head at the video of Manchin and the photos of Paladino – with both candidates so obviously pandering to pro-gun voters – I couldn’t help but think back on other examples of politicians’ attempts to garner the shooter/sportsman vote.

In the spirit of this column’s theme, I offer them in bullet-point format:

  • During the 2004 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry traveled to Ohio for a much-publicized goose hunt. The patrician U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, renowned for his formal and stilted speech, went into a sporting goods store and actually asked – in his best Massachusetts interpretation of what he’d expect a plebian goose hunter to say – “Now where can I get me a huntin’ license?”

No photographers were allowed along on the hunt, but Kerry came walking proudly out of the hunting area with a dead goose in hand. The Republican Party apparently wasn’t sold on Kerry’s goose-hunting prowess. They later produced an ad of a fancy French poodle in a Kerry For President sweater, with ad copy that read, “That dog don’t hunt.”

  • During the 2008 campaign, Republicans distributed the now-famous photo of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin posing with a caribou carcass. Palin is a bona fide hunter, but the photo saddled her with the “Caribou Barbie” nickname that has stuck with her ever since. Since then, Palin has conducted her own photo ops in which she, like Paladino, was photographed shooting military-style assault rifles.

  • Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise was an enthusiastic but not terribly skilled hunter. On one hunt, he killed a small buck and posed for a photo. Unfortunately, the plaid “Elmer Fudd” hat he wore opened him up to far more ridicule than his success as a deer hunter might have earned in respect.

To his credit, Wise did later earn his sporting stripes when he went to a local range to sight in his deer rifle. No photographers were present, but soon afterward Wise showed up with his eyebrow bandaged. He’d misjudged the eye relief of his rifle’s scope and suffered a cut when the scope banged into his forehead.

  • The most egregious West Virginia example came from former Gov. Gaston Caperton. By all accounts, Caperton’s most adventurous forays into the outdoors came when he walked from the Governor’s Mansion to his limousine. Yet he, in a mawkish attempt to curry favor among sportsmen, posed for a campaign-brochure photo wearing an appointee’s obviously empty fishing vest and holding a borrowed spinning rod upside-down in his hands. Voters weren’t fooled.

Hint to candidates: If you want to appeal to sportsmen or to gun owners, go hunting or fishing or skeet shooting or target-practicing sometime other than during the final few weeks of your campaign.

But if you do, make sure to keep your muzzle pointed in the right direction and remember to obey all the local licensing laws.

Right, Dick Cheney?

Pa. Game Commission photo

Has anyone ever noticed that discussions of really, really good trout streams always seem to include the words, “The fishing’s great — but watch out for the rattlesnakes.”

I know of at least four or five superb West Virginia trout streams that never — ever — get mentioned without someone issuing that warning.

Maybe I’m just lucky, but I have yet to see a rattler on a Mountain State stream. I heard one once, back in 1982 or thereabouts, on Shavers Fork of the Cheat. Interestingly, Shavers is not one of the streams allegedly infamous for its rattlesnake hazard.

Perhaps those who spread tales of reptilian danger are more intent on keeping their favorite fishing spots from becoming too crowded than they are on protecting fellow anglers from harm. Just perhaps…

An Earth Day admonition

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earthTomorrow is Earth Day. What do you plan to do about it? Recycle a few cans, maybe? Plant a tree? Bicycle to work?

While any of those things would be fine and noble, I believe the best thing a person could possibly do during Earth Day is to venture outside and experience some of the resources our marvelously diverse planet has to offer.

Take a hike through the woods. Go fishing. Head to a local park and bask in the sun. Rent a canoe or a kayak and spend a few hours cruising a lake or a river. Grab a camera or a pair of binoculars and head for the nearest wildlife preserve.

To truly appreciate the earth, we must be part of it. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, we can’t feel the earth’s pulse unless we first place our hands on it.