Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

A kid in a candy store

LAS VEGAS — Howdy! As you can see by the dateline, I’ve been traveling. That’s why you haven’t seen any new posts the last couple of days.

As I type this, I’m sitting in the Press Room at the SHOT Show — the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show, an event that draws literally thousands of vendors and tens of thousands of attendees.

The last three hours have been like running a marathon — touring both floors of the cavernous convention center, talking to industry representatives and meeting up with friends in the outdoor writing business.

I’ll post some photos later today after I’ve had a chance to get back to my motel and download the images from my camera. If there’s a piece of equipment that’s used for shooting or hunting, I’ve seen it. I’m worn out already, and I still have a few hours to go. Later…

The primary hazard of being an outdoors writer

The newspaper biz giveth, the newspaper biz taketh away.

After the untimely death of John Husar, the Chicago Tribune went more than a decade without an outdoors writer. That drought ended recently when the Trib’s editors named Don Dziedzina to serve as its free-lance outdoors columnist.

About the same time, however, the Washington Times pink-slipped veteran outdoors writer Gene Mueller.

I’m really fortunate to work for a newspaper in a market where hunting and fishing are wildly popular.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I’ll be opening presents, enjoying family and eating myself blind tomorrow — like most of you, I suppose.

So — Merry Christmas!

Hope yours is the best ever. I’ll be back with more posts on Saturday.

A Christmas greeting

whitepine.jpgChristmas is a time of family, and of remembering all the good parts about Christmases past. In that spirit, I offer this week’s Gazette-Mail column:

The surrounding hills, gray and leafless when I left the house, had started turning white by the time I reached the little grove of pines tucked back into a narrow hollow.
Snowflakes dusted the shoulders of my high-school letterman’s jacket. They contrasted sharply with dark blue wool, and they clung wetly to my bare hand when I brushed them away. My family had grown tired of putting up an artificial Christmas tree every year, and I had volunteered to cut a real one. It seemed only fitting that I do so.
Mom and Dad had gotten the artificial tree several years before, mostly because they feared real ones would make my allergies worse. I was a puny, sickly kid, allergic to seemingly everything. The allergies triggered frequent asthma attacks. One year I missed 37 days of school.
The tide began to turn when I discovered four things, all at roughly the same time – fishing, hunting, the Boy Scouts and athletics. In a few short years, they transformed a sedentary bookworm into a healthy, active teenager.
A series of allergy shots helped, I’m sure. As the allergies eased up, the asthma attacks became less and less frequent. Hikes in the woods and basketball games in the backyard built up my lungs and put meat on my frame.
The snow fell a little harder as I scanned the pine thicket for a suitable specimen. It needed to be between 6 and 7 feet tall. Any shorter and it wouldn’t fill the corner of the living room always reserved for the tree; any taller and there wouldn’t be room for the cardboard-and-glitter treetop star Dad had made years before when money was especially short.
I smiled as I remembered how Dad had used a compass and straightedge to draft a perfect five-pointed star. He had forgotten most of what he’d learned in his college geometry class, but he remembered how to construct that star. We had long since been able to afford a store-bought tree topper, but “Dad’s Star” helped us appreciate what we had by reminding us of a time when we weren’t nearly as well off.
The ax’s handle felt reassuringly warm as I planted my boots in the snow and prepared to cut. One swing. Two. Three. A final blow, and the tree toppled to the ground.
I grabbed it near its top and swung it back upright. Like most young white pines, it had a long, bare stretch of trunk just below the topmost branches. It would have to do, though. Fraser firs, Scotch pines and other “traditional” Christmas-tree species didn’t grow wild in southern West Virginia. White pines and hemlocks were the only evergreens that were free for the taking, and hemlocks weren’t the right shape.
Snow cascaded from the tree’s branches as I slung it over my right shoulder.
A few years before, that much weight would have seemed an impossible burden to lift, much less to carry a mile and a half to the house. Now its heft hardly seemed burdensome at all. A vigorous adolescence, spent mostly outdoors, had seen to that.
The pungent aroma of pinesap filled my nostrils as I started toward home. The wind picked up. Swirling snowflakes transformed the nearby hills into looming ghostly presences.
I should have felt cold, but I didn’t. God had blessed me with good health and the strength to do something special for my family. This would be a special Christmas indeed.
And it was.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone

I hope each and every one of you has a chance to pause with family and friends and give thanks for your blessings. Enjoy the food, the fellowship — and if you have a chance to get out and do a little deer hunting, all the better.

Say hello to Khloe

khloe.jpgWelcome to the world to my brand-new grand-niece, Khloe Addyson McCoy. She was born Tuesday at 1:50 a.m. (don’t babies ever get born during business hours?). She’s a petite little thing: 5 pounds, 13 ounces, 18 3/4 inches long. Mom, Dad and baby are all doing well.

Know where I can find a nice camouflage sleeper, newborn sized?

A tribute to a friend

In my column this week, I pay tribute to the late Charlie Heartwell, one of the finest fly tiers West Virginia has ever seen:

When anglers “match the hatch” on West Virginia’s trout streams, they owe a debt of gratitude to Charlie Heartwell.
Heartwell passed away Oct. 19 at the too-young age of 72. The state’s trout-fishing community mourned his loss.
Some fishermen knew Charlie because of the years he spent as the Division of Natural Resources’ trout-hatchery supervisor. Most, however, knew him as a creator of exquisite trout flies.
On evenings, weekends and holidays, Charlie would hole up in the basement of his Beverly home and tie dry flies, wet flies, nymphs and streamers – 20,000 to 25,000 of them a year.
Like many commercial tiers, Charlie worked at lightning speed. From the first wrap of thread to the final whip-finish, he could fashion a standard winged dry fly in about 2 1/2 minutes.
Few tiers can manage that kind of speed, let alone do so while turning out perfectly proportioned, perfectly balanced, perfectly elegant flies. Charlie could, and did. Each of his flies was a tiny work of art.
I first met Charlie 30 years ago at Trout Unlimited’s Fly Fishing School. Charlie was there to give a fly tying demonstration, and to talk about trout-stream insects and the flies that imitated them.
When they introduced Charlie, the camp’s organizers went over his bona fides – a Ph.D. in fish diseases, the man in charge of all Mountain State hatcheries, supplier of flies to tackle shops around the country, etc. The buildup had me expecting some impossibly highbrow lecture filled with Latin scientific names and loads of entomological jargon.
Then Charlie spoke. “I’ve come to talk about ‘critters,'” he said.
Charlie had a remarkable talent for taking complicated, highly technical material and expressing it in words anyone could understand. He went out of his way to help fledgling fly fishermen, especially those who attempted to tie their own flies.
We became friends. He critiqued the flies I tied and showed me how to make them better. He gave me lessons on proportion and balance that I use to this day. He helped me build speed and efficiency.
Steve Brown, a DNR colleague of Charlie’s, enjoyed a similar friendship with him. In the 1970s, Charlie spent a great deal of time working out a “hatch chart” for the Mountain State – a chart that would tell fishermen when certain insects hatch, and which flies to use to imitate them.
“Charlie developed the hatch chart, and I got to be there to watch as it happened,” Brown said. “We did a lot of kick-seining to collect nymphs. We carried jars of alcohol around to preserve the bugs in. Charlie developed a whole series of trout flies based on the insects we collected.”
On one of those fishing-cum-research expeditions, to the headwaters of the Elk River near Slatyfork, Charlie and Steve enjoyed a day they’d long remember.
“We must have caught 50 fish that day, from mid-sized brown trout to rainbows in the 16- to 17-inch range,” Steve recalled. “The fish just wore us out. I visited Charlie in the hospital a few weeks before he died. We talked fishing the whole time. He asked if I remembered that day at Slatyfork. I said I did. Charlie looked me in the eye and said, ‘Best day of fishing I ever had.'”
People who don’t fish think fishing is all about the fish. It isn’t. It’s about the people you fish with, and the memories you collect together.
For those of us who knew Charlie Heartwell, the memories are warm. And rich. And lasting.

An apology

My sincere apologies for the last three days. I haven’t posted here since last Thursday. Trust me, it couldn’t be helped.

Late last week, my wife and I discovered a number of items missing from our home. We reported the losses to authorities. We suspected the items had been stolen by one of our autistic son’s caregivers, an employee of a local social-service agency.

Turned out we were right. The suspect was arrested and is awaiting trial for at least one felony and at least three misdemeanors. Investigators tell us more charges could be filed.

My wife and I spent our entire weekend going through our house trying to determine exactly how many items had been stolen. There simply wasn’t time to post. Things are getting back to normal now; investigators located a few of the items at local pawnshops. We retrieved those items earlier today.

I’ve often wondered why crime victims describe themselves as “feeling violated.” Now I know. My wife and I trusted the alleged perpetrator (sorry for the non-judgmental label, but journalistic habits die hard) to enter our home. Now we feel violated too.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be on vacation until next Wednesday.

Don’t stop checking in, though; I’ll be making blog posts between honey-do projects (yeah, it’s one of those vacations).

I hope your week includes more hunting and fishing than mine is going to…

Ah, nature — always teaching us something!

gatorgar.jpegI was cruising the Internet looking for fresh material when I happened upon an article by a British gentleman.

He had spent a day hunting for alligator gar in Texas. I say “hunting” because he used a crossbow instead of a fishing rod. In the article, he described the gar as “the largest freshwater fish in North America.”

That line set off alarm bells in my head. Sure, alligator gar get large, but white sturgeon get even larger. So I burned a few more electrons and did a little more research.

Turns out we were both right. Among fish that live exclusively in North America’s fresh water, the alligator gar is indeed largest. White sturgeon, on the other hand, can live in salt, fresh or brackish water. They’re most often caught in fresh water, mainly in the Columbia River watershed of the Pacific Northwest. And they do, indeed, grow substantially larger than the alligator gar. Gar can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh more than 350 pounds.  White sturgeon max out at 20 feet and can weigh more than 1,700 pounds.