John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
Cathy Addington of Winfield, W.Va., achieved an enviable hunting benchmark recently when she killed a black bear in New Brunswick.
It was the 20th bear she’s killed — every one of them with a bow — in the past 28 years or thereabouts.
The 70-something grandmother of two has been traveling to the wilds of eastern Canada since the late 1980s with her husband Frank. Much more often than not, she’s returned home successful. This year’s milestone achievement drew the attention of celebrity bowhunter Ted Nugent, who was hunting out of the same camp as the Addingtons. “The Nuge” had his video crew get some footage of Cathy with her bear for use on his “Spirit of the Wild” television show.
On Feb. 4, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill that made it legal for hunters to wear fluorescent pink — aka “blaze pink” — instead of blaze orange during the state’s hunting seasons. A similar measure is moving smoothly through the Louisiana Legislature. From the Associated Press:
The Louisiana House voted 95-5 Wednesday to add the fluorescent color “blaze pink” as an alternative to the traditional “hunter orange” that hunters are required to wear under state law.
Bogalusa Rep. Malinda White, a hunter who sponsored the bill, says she thinks the addition would encourage more women to hunt. The Democratic lawmaker, who wore a pink shirt and glasses to debate the measure, says Wisconsin has passed a similar provision.
Rep. Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat, worried about the safety of wearing pink, questioning if it would be visible enough.
The bill, supported by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, heads next to the Senate for debate.
Rep. White’s assertions aside, some women’s groups are steamed about the bill because they think it casts female hunters as shallow beings who would let themselves be swayed to hunting simply because they could wear a “woman’s color.”
The bottom line, to me, is whether the color prevents its wearer from being mistaken for game. Studies have shown that fluorescent pink shows up slightly better than orange, especially under low-light conditions. Fluorescent chartreuse shows up even better; that’s why road and construction crews wear it.
If lawmakers would detach themselves from gender politics and vote solely on the merits of the colors’ visibility, hunters might have their choice of fluorescent orange, pink or chartreuse clothing. My only question is what they’re waiting for.
Sport hunting for elephants in Zimbabwe has become quite a political football.
A recent report in UK’s Telegraph, for example, all but pillories a German hunter who killed an elephant reported to have the largest tusks taken in 30 years. The man reportedly paid a $60,000 trophy fee in exchange for the ability to hunt and kill the animal. Wildlife preservationists and photo-safari owners reportedly are livid over the killing.
At almost the same time, a report about an outbreak in elephant poaching appeared in the Washington Post. It quoted Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Oppah Muchinguri, as blaming the United States’ 2014 ban on importation of elephant trophies for the outbreak. Without the trophy fees paid by hunters, Muchinguri said, Zimbabwean wildlife officials can’t afford adequate patrols to deter poachers from wreaking havoc.
So on one side, you have a faction that believes that eco-tourism dollars should be perfectly sufficient to maintain wildlife populations, and on the other side you have a faction that believes sport hunting is the better way to go.
A North Carolina deer hunter made quite a stir a short while back when he checked in a buck with a gigantic rack that measured more than 208 inches — a potential new state record.
Then the truth came out.
The man, Nick Davis of Elkin, N.C., reportedly had purchased shed antlers from a Pennsylvania deer farm, screwed them onto the skull of a 3-point buck he shot (out of season) with a rifle, and then disguised the graft with some clever taxidermy.
Davis almost got away with the deception. A veteran scorer from the state bowhunter association measured the rack but didn’t detect anything suspicious. Only after other hunters raised questions as to whether such a small deer could grow such a gigantic rack did authorities decide to investigate.
Ultimately, Davis confessed to the subterfuge. He now faces charges on four separate wildlife violations, including two allegedly committed during the 2014 season.
West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation apparently have finalized plans for the state’s elk restoration (read: stocking) plan.
They’ve sent out invitations to government and media types for a Sept. 11 shindig at the Chief Logan Conference Center, at which a formal announcement will be made. According to the invitation, the creation of a new wildlife management area will also be announced. My guess is that the new area will be rather large. Elk are big critters that require lots of room, and if the new area will be used to launch the elk-stocking program, it stands to reason that the area would be several thousand acres in size.
An announcement also would seem to indicate that DNR officials have found a source for the elk they plan to import. That’s interesting, because Kentucky — the most likely source — is currently sending its surplus elk to Wisconsin. There had been talk of asking Kentucky’s Fish and Wildlife Commission to allocate some animals to West Virginia, and perhaps that’s what has happened.
I guess we’ll all find out on the evening of Sept. 11.
By now, West Virginia’s deer hunters must be shaking their heads.
Weather for the state’s whitetail seasons has hovered somewhere between rotten and atrocious. Wildlife officials haven’t yet collected and counted game-check tags, but when they do, expect the tally to turn out equally rotten and atrocious.
Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the Division of Natural Resources, said heavy rains on the second day of the buck firearm season and snow on the third day has hunters playing catch-up.
“The first three days of the season are historically when the bulk of the buck and antlerless-deer harvests take place,” he said. “We had nice weather on opening day, but after that it got bad in a hurry.”
Many hunters head home after three days to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. After that, weather on the season’s two Saturdays usually determines how many more deer get killed. This year’s weather was far from good enough to bring hunters out in droves.
And now the muzzleloader season has started with snow on the ground, rain in the air, flooding in rivers and streams, and more snow on the way.
We West Virginians haven’t (yet) had a widespread public-versus-private debate over hunters’ access to wildlife.
In Europe, wildlife belongs to landowners, and access to that wildlife is reserved for those wealthy enough to afford it. Traditionally in the United States, land can belong to landowners but the wildlife can’t. The “North American model for wildlife management” says states own the wildlife, and hold it in trust for the public to enjoy.
Out in Montana, the appointment of a former private-land game biologist to the state’s game and fish commission has triggered a vigorous public debate over the issue. The Helena (Mont.) Independent Record has a fascinating article about it, an article all hunters should read.
I had a lot of fun writing this Sunday Gazette-Mail feature, mainly because it was a chance to tell what I believe is one of West Virginia’s all-time wildlife-related success stories. It tells how, in just a couple of decades, wildlife workers managed to spread the state’s turkey population from just 16 counties to all 55:
It’s been two weeks since West Virginia’s spring turkey season got underway, and thousands of hunters have already bagged a gobbler or two.
Most of those birds wouldn’t have been there had it not been for countless hours’ worth of work on the part of the state’s wildlife biologists and game managers, who quite literally spread the state’s turkey flock statewide by trapping wild turkeys and relocating them to counties where they hadn’t been seen for decades.
Jim Pack, the Division of Natural Resources’ turkey project leader from 1970 to 2005, presided over what has become known as the state’s “trap and transplant” program.
“What we did was very effective, but we were only able to do it because [earlier DNR biologists] had laid the groundwork for it,” he said. “In the years between the 1940s and the late 1960s, they had figured out which [management techniques] worked and which ones didn’t.”
West Virginia’s first statewide turkey census, conducted in the mid-1940s, painted a bleak picture. Turkeys, which thrived statewide when the state was settled, were almost gone.
“By the 1940s, the population was down to about 4,500 birds, and those were concentrated in just 16 counties, mostly in the Monongahela National Forest and the Eastern Panhandle,” Pack said.
To reintroduce the popular game bird to its original range, wildlife officials at the time tried stocking turkeys hatched and pen-raised at the West Virginia Game Farm in French Creek. The effort failed.
“That was tried several times, from the late 1940s to as late as the early 1960s,” Pack said. “I don’t remember any of [the stockings] ever being successful.”
Biologists figured — correctly, as it turned out — that pen-raised birds simply lacked sufficient survival skills to make it in the wild. One DNR employee, the legendary Wayne Bailey, started trapping wild birds and stocking them in places where game-farm birds hadn’t yet been placed.
Bailey trapped the birds by building wire cages and setting out long bait lines that led turkeys into the traps.
In a 2001 interview, Bailey admitted that not all the transplanted turkeys came from West Virginia.
“I often trapped on Allegheny Mountain, along the Virginia-West Virginia border, and I always put the [trap] site on the West Virginia side. But I ran the bait lines way down into Bath County, Va. Virginia was transplanting turkeys and didn’t even realize it,” he said.
The first trap-and-transplant stocking took place in 1950, in Preston County near the Mason-Dixon Line.
“That was kind of an interesting stocking,” Pack recalled. “As it was told to me, the birds crossed the line into Pennsylvania, got started there, and then expanded from there and came back into West Virginia.”
The cage traps Bailey used weren’t very efficient. They seldom yielded more than four or five birds at a time, which often wasn’t enough to start a flock. Pack said those small stockings seldom had a chance to work.
“In some instances, the [hunting] season got opened on them too soon,” he recalled. “At other times, not enough birds got put out. It was a learning process. The stocking program got carried up to 1962, but was stopped because it wasn’t getting the job done.”
It wasn’t until biologists began using “cannon nets” — nets that could be flung over entire turkey flocks by explosive charges — that trap-and-transplant became truly viable. Pack said former DNR assistant wildlife chief Jim Ruckel was the official most responsible for resuming the stockings.
“Jim deserves a lot of credit. He said we wouldn’t put out five or six birds like we had in the past. We started putting out 30 to 50 birds in every stocking. From the time we restarted the trap-and-transplant program in 1970 until we made our last stocking in 1988, not a single stocking failed.”
Though biologists get a lot of credit for the restocking effort, Pack said the true heroes were the DNR’s wildlife managers.
“For the most part, they were the ones out there doing the trapping,” he said. “They did the grunt work. Turkey trapping is a hard, seven-day-a-week job, and they were the ones out there getting it done.”
Pack and his colleagues had a simple formula for making the stockings work.
“Our policy was to put the birds in the most suitable habitat first, and to work our way down the list to the least suitable habitat,” he said.
Despite concerns that politicians would dictate where the stockings got made, DNR officials were mostly able to stick to their plan.
“In all those years, we only made one political stocking,” Pack said. “Fortunately, it was in a county with suitable habitat, and the birds did just fine.”
The last trap-and-transplant stocking, near the Logan-Mingo county line, filled in the final blank in the DNR’s map of turkey-populated counties. From the original 16 mountain and Eastern Panhandle counties, biologists had conducted stockings in 32 counties. Pack said the remaining seven counties didn’t have to be stocked because nearby populations had expanded into them.
In 1989, just one year after the Logan-Mingo stocking, hunters killed turkeys in all 55 counties for the first time in decades. Pack considers the stockings to be “one of [the DNR’s] biggest wildlife successes.”
“The stockings greatly speeded up the process of reestablishing turkeys statewide,” he said. “Their range would have expanded naturally, but with natural expansion we might not have birds in every county even today.”
This week’s column celebrates the many challenges of spring gobbler hunting:
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Well, it’s time once again to play “advanced cowboys and Indians.”
One of my favorite hunting partners, Jeff D’Agostino, used that phrase to describe spring gobbler hunting. I can’t imagine a better way to put it.
Turkey hunting is, more than anything, a battle of wits. To be successful, hunters must persuade tom turkeys to do something that goes completely against their nature: Go looking for a hen with which to mate.
Like high-profile movie stars and professional athletes, turkey gobblers are accustomed to having females at their beck and call. Toms in the mood for feminine companionship advertise their availability by gobbling. Hens that haven’t yet mated hear the gobble and come a-running.
Hunters face the daunting task of turning that paradigm on its head. They sit in the woods, yelping, clucking and purring like hens, and hope they sound sexy enough to pique all the nearby gobblers’ curiosity.
Obviously, it helps to be a good turkey caller. Hunters who best imitate all those hen sounds enjoy the greatest chance at success.
But just as there’s more to making music than just knowing which notes to play, there’s more to turkey-calling success than knowing how to reproduce the sounds.
Experienced turkey hunters take several factors into account before they make the first sound. They gauge the distance to the gobbler, which tells them how loud or soft they should call. By paying close attention to how frequently the gobbler gobbles, hunters can divine how desperate for companionship the gobbler might be.
Smart hunters assess the surrounding terrain to determine where best to set up ambushes. They look for places that afford commanding views of the surrounding woods but provide enough concealment to avoid gobblers’ sharp-eyed scrutiny.
Once the calling starts, the real game of wits begins.
Hunters fortunate enough to hook up with 2-year-old toms have it relatively easy. Birds that age are only just beginning to understand the mating process, and they haven’t yet gathered enough experience to be fully aware of hunters’ tricks.
Three- and 4-year-old gobblers are a different story. Gobblers old enough to be considered “boss birds” or “longbeards” have almost certainly heard hunters’ calls before, and have almost certainly been spooked by inappropriate calling, excessive movement, poor decoy deployment, bonehead blunders and worse. To say they become cautious would be a gross understatement. “Freakishly paranoid” would describe it much better.
Well, maybe not. Paranoia is a human attribute, the product of a large and highly developed brain. Turkeys’ brains are about the size of a walnut, so to call a turkey highly intelligent would be gilding the lily more than a little.
It’s more accurate to say that turkeys have exceptionally strong survival instincts aided by an almost supernatural ability to see and hear what’s going on around them.
Their eyes are located on opposite sides of their heads, so they have almost a 270-degree field of view. Like most birds, they have exceptionally keen vision and seem to notice even the slightest of movements.
Their ears can detect and pinpoint sounds from up to a mile away. Hunters who walk loudly through the woods, rattle the contents of their turkey vests or chat on their cellphones most likely will go home empty-handed.
If all this sounds discouraging, it truly isn’t meant to be. Keep in mind that thousands of hunters each year manage to play the game well enough to bring home a bird or two.
There’s no way to know for sure, but I’d bet that as kids, most of those hunters played cowboys and Indians. I’d bet they were good at it, too.