Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Vigilantes take aim at W.Va. trout stream

Piscatorial Enemy No. 1?

Trout Unlimited, the nationwide conservation organization whose stated goal is to “restore, enhance and protect” trout and salmon fisheries, has declared war on brown trout in one of West Virginia’s finest streams.

Members of the Virginia Council of TU (and at least some West Virginia Council members) plan to hold a brown-trout rodeo June 3-5 on Laurel Fork of the North Fork of the South Branch in Pendleton County. They’re calling the event the “BroundUp,” because the goal is to catch and kill as many brown trout as legally possible.

Some background: Laurel Fork heads up in Virginia and flows through West Virginia for a couple of miles before it dumps into the North Fork. It contains both brook and brown trout, some of them sizable. Up until 2006, the West Virginia DNR supplemented the native brookies in the stream’s lower reaches with stockings of fingerling brown trout. Now all the browns there are wild.

The browns’ presence apparently bothered some influential members of the Virginia Council, who organized the BroundUp to rid the stream of a perceived nuisance.

Further background: Brown trout are native to Europe, not to the United States. They are considered an exotic species. According to the Virginia TU Facebook page advertising the BroundUp, browns are “invasive.”

Says who? I haven’t seen a declaration by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to that effect. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources doesn’t consider browns invasive, either. Many West Virginia streams that harbor wild, reproducing trout populations are brown-trout streams because browns can tolerate warmer waters and more pollution than brookies can.

Still, from June 3 through June 5, a group of fishermen will converge on Laurel Fork and do their darnedest to catch their limits of brown trout — and to kill every last one they catch. I suppose they think they’re “enhancing” Laurel Fork by removing the browns, and thus are helping TU to meet one of its objectives. But what does this say about their stated goal to “protect wild trout,” let alone their informal credo, “Limit your kill, don’t kill your limit?”

Whatever ideas these guys are sellin’, I ain’t buyin’.

In my opinion, this is the modern-day equivalent of frontier vigilantes getting up a posse to weed out an element they — and possibly they alone — consider undesirable.

Vigilante trout fishing. What a concept.

Doubly troubling is that TU’s national staff appears to be backing the event. The news release on the Facebook page listed TU’s Eastern Conservation Assistant as a source for directions and for information.

Full disclosure: Before I became a full-time outdoors writer in the mid 1980s, I was a Trout Unlimited officer at both the chapter and council levels. I backpacked literally hundreds of brown-trout fingerlings into streams throughout southern, central and east-central West Virginia. Back then we were interested in creating fisheries. Maybe the people behind the BroundUp are, too. They just have a funny way of showing it.

New season dates to affect W.Va.’s hunters

This week’s column gives hunters a heads-up about some important regulation changes going into effect this fall:

When West Virginia’s wildlife officials change a hunting regulation, they expect two years to pass before hunters grow accustomed to the change.
With that in mind, perhaps this is a good time to preview some significant changes in store for fall 2011. It’s not exactly two years’ notice, but four months is better than nothing.
The most significant change – the one sure to affect more hunters than any of the others – occurs Oct. 1, the new opening date for the archery deer season.
What’s interesting about this change is that it didn’t originate with the Division of Natural Resources.
DNR biologists usually propose season dates and bag limits, and the seven-man Natural Resources Commission votes to accept, reject or change them. In this case, however, commission members took matters into their own hands.
One or two commissioners decided that the bow season should start earlier. After a brief discussion, the issue came up for a vote and the motion carried. Just like that, West Virginia’s got a deer season that begins two weeks sooner than usual.
DNR officials didn’t seem mind the change, though. Every biologist I’ve talked to has said it wouldn’t significantly affect the deer herd.
Interestingly, the Oct. 1 opener will apply only to deer. The bear archery season will open as usual on Oct. 15.
Also, hunters who plan to purchase extra-deer archery stamps should keep in mind that the deadline for those purchases will be moved up accordingly.
So far, I haven’t heard a single beef about the early archery opener. The same can’t be said of the other major season change.
This year’s squirrel season will begin Sept. 10, almost a full month earlier than the traditional early-October opener. DNR biologists proposed the season at the commission’s winter 2010 meeting and caught a pile of flak for it.
Two retired DNR biologists, Jim Evans and Jim Pack, publicly asked commission members not to approve the early start. They argued that female squirrels would still be nursing young when the season started, and that the pups would starve if deprived of their mothers’ milk.
The dissent didn’t sway DNR officials, who countered that the September opener would create significant recreational opportunity, particularly for young hunters. Youth involvement, they said, was significantly more important to them than the loss of an indeterminate number of squirrel pups. Commission members apparently agreed, because they passed the proposal at their July 2010 meeting.
Sportsmen have known about the change for almost a year now. A few have griped, but so far there’s been no hue and cry to return to the October squirrel opener.
That’s fairly typical of West Virginia’s hunters. They aren’t shy about commenting on an issue, but don’t expect groundswells of support or opposition from them.
DNR officials believed hunters would enthusiastically get behind the agency’s recent proposal to move the final week of the fall turkey season into January. The support never materialized.
For two decades, participation in the fall season has declined – mainly because hunters have chosen instead to bowhunt for deer. DNR biologists believed moving a week of the season into January would allow hunters to eat their cake and have it too.
Hunters apparently didn’t want their cake in January. Support for the DNR proposal was lukewarm at best, and the commission voted it down.
So the turkey season won’t change. The new archery and squirrel openers are both high profile and attract plenty of hunters. Maybe sportsmen will beat the two-year curve this time.

Want to bag a gobbler? Put in the time!

Photo by Maslowski/NWTF

Contrary to what some might think, turkey hunting isn’t a matter of luck.  It’s a matter of time.

Fifty hours, to be exact. That’s the average number of hours a West Virginia spring gobbler hunter spends in the woods before he bags a tom.

That 50-hour figure didn’t stem from estimates or guesswork. It came from the Division of Natural Resources’ annual Spring Gobbler Hunters’ Cooperative Survey. Hunters keep track of the number of hours they spend in the woods, how many gobbles they hear, how many turkeys they killed, and so forth. DNR biometricians compile the data and publish the results.

And sure enough, last spring’s survey showed that it took roughly 50 hours, on average, for a hunter to score. At roughly seven hours’ worth of legal hunting time per day, that comes out to a bit more than seven days’ worth of hunting.

Skilled hunters obviously don’t require as much time. Me? By the Cooperator Survey’s measure, I should kill my next gobbler sometime in 2019…

Still a target on private land

No one was really surprised when West Virginia’s wildlife biologists proposed more conservative hunting regulations for antlerless deer. The surprise came when the people who approve those regulations actually them more liberal.

The changes were minor, but they did catch observers off-guard. Let me explain:

The state’s buck kill declined 31 percent in 2010. Under the Division of Natural Resources’ deer-management plan, antlerless-deer regulations become more conservative when the buck kill drops. True to form, DNR biologists proposed significantly more conservative regulations for 2011. The proposals included lower bag limits for most counties, and restrictions on the number of antlerless-deer permits in some others.

Details are here, in the news story I wrote for this week’s Gazette-Mail Woods & Waters page.

Hardly anyone expected the Natural Resources Commission — the seven-man panel responsible for setting season dates and bag limits — to liberalize the DNR’s recommendations.

They did, though. The changes amounted to minor tweaks, but they will result in the killing of more antlerless deer on private lands in nine counties.

DNR officials had proposed that the number of antlerless-deer permits be restricted in nine counties — Barbour, Braxton, Cabell, southern Greenbrier, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker. Commissioners considered the proposal, but ultimately decided that private lands in those counties contained considerably more deer than public lands. So they voted to continue allowing unlimited numbers of over-the-counter permits in those counties.

Paul Johansen, the DNR’s assistant wildlife chief, said he was somewhat surprised by the commissioners’ vote but added that it was entirely within their purview to change the DNR proposals.

“It’s the way the system works. We make our proposals, and the commissioners can approve them, reject them or change them. In this case, they changed them,” he said.

A spring for W.Va. anglers to forget

After two years of drought, West Virginia needed a lot of rain.

This is ridiculous, though. For weeks now, anglers throughout the state have had to battle high and muddy water as storm after storm swept dumped rain into rivers and streams.

A casual glance at the DNR’s weekly fishing report (available in its entirety here) shows most minor streams running high and all the major rivers running muddy, and a fair number of lakes either milky or muddy.

It’s been a spring to forget so far, but a couple of weeks of fair weather would allow anglers to make up for lost time during what are arguably the best four angling weeks of the year — from mid-May to mid-June.

Killing baby animals with kindness

Hands off! I'm just hiding!

Spring is indeed a time of regeneration, a time when creatures large and small insure the survival of their species by bearing young.

We who are fortunate to live in West Virgina, cheek by jowl with nature, often come upon young animals that appear to have been abandoned. We often feel inclined to try to help. While there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, plenty can go wrong if we act on our inclinations.

In short, we can end up killing the critters we seek to save. Case in point: Here in West Virginia, white-tailed deer often leave their newborn fawns unattended. The fawns, hunkered down amid grass or weeds, become almost invisible to would-be predators.

All too often, though, we do-gooding humans come along and say, “Gee, a fawn! Poor little thing must have been abandoned by its mom.” We pick the fawn up, take it home with us, decide it’s hungry and feed it a can of evaporated milk. Sounds humane, right?

Wrong. Chances are we’ve just killed the poor little creature. Evaporated milk, cow’s milk and other dairy products wreak havoc on a fawn’s digestive system. Bill Vanscoy, the former superintendent of the West Virginia Wildlife Center, used to complain about it all the time. “They feed these fawns evaporated milk, the fawns come down with the screaming scours [diarrhea], and then when the fawns get in really bad shape they send them to us to ‘save,'” Vanscoy grumped.

What’s the better approach? Unless you are 100 percent certain a young animal has been orphaned — and that means you’ve found mama’s carcass — leave it alone!

Every year, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources issues a news release urging folks to leave young wildlife alone. Here’s this year’s edition:

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources advises people to leave all young wildlife alone. “The spring season is the time of year when the woods and fields of West Virginia are full of new life,” said Gene Thorn, wildlife biologist at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in Upshur County. “People have a great opportunity to view and enjoy young wildlife during this season, but it is especially important for the public to understand the need to avoid touching or disturbing these wild animals.”
Attempts to rescue or rehabilitate young wildlife are often counter-productive.  Picking up or getting too close to wildlife greatly increases the chance of harm to the animal and/or the persons involved in this unwise practice. By touching young animals or close approach, humans leave scent that may attract predators. Wildlife viewing is an enjoyable and perfectly acceptable activity; however, the DNR recommends that this pastime be conducted from a safe distance and with the aid of binoculars.

 

“In addition to being detrimental to the welfare of young animals, handling wildlife can expose humans to various wildlife-associated diseases, parasites and other health-related risks,” said Thorn.  “Rabies, roundworms and other parasites such as lice and ticks can be transmitted to humans through the improper handling of wildlife.”

 

The Wildlife Center and DNR district offices receive numerous calls each year concerning young wildlife, especially fawn deer that have been picked up by well-meaning residents.  It is important to note that in almost every case, these young animals have not been abandoned. In fact, the offspring are often hidden as the adult searches for food, and this separation can last for a few hours or all day. Humans are poor substitute parents for wild animals, as young wildlife require special diets and learn survival skills from their parents.  Removing the young wildlife from its natural environment almost certainly leads to death of the animal.

 

Many people often mistake a bedded fawn, with no mother in sight, as abandoned.  Hiding the fawn and leaving it while the doe searches for food is an important survival tactic. The spotted pattern and coloration of fawns and their lack of scent afford protection to these young animals and make them difficult for predators to detect. If a predator happens to approach close to a fawn, the young deer will normally hold very still until the threat passes. If discovered by a predator, the fawn will wait until the very last moment before fleeing to safety. Fawns should always be left undisturbed and never be picked up by people.

 

As a final caution, remember that state laws and regulations prohibit the possession of wildlife without a permit. Under any circumstances, when you pick up a young animal in the wild you have taken it into your possession. The fines for illegal possession of a fawn deer, black bear cub, baby raccoon, squirrel or any other species taken or possessed during the closed season, range from $20 up to a maximum of $1,000 and/or up to 100 days in jail.
“We want everyone to enjoy wildlife in West Virginia,” said Thorn.  “For your own health and safety and to protect the state’s wildlife, remember these wild animals should be left alone and allowed to stay wild.”

Don’t become a turkey-hunting statistic

Photo by Maslowski/NWTF

A shotgun blast echoes through a West Virginia forest; in its aftermath, a turkey hunter lies writhing in pain.

The scenario, grim as it is, plays out every spring. And that eats at Lt. Tim Coleman, hunter education coordinator for the state Division of Natural Resources.

“You hate to see people get hurt,” Coleman said. “There’s a catchword for the main cause of accidental shootings during the spring gobbler season, and that’s ‘mistaken for game.’ Those shootings occur mainly because hunters get excited and don’t take time to positively identify the sounds or the movements they’re shooting at.”

During the deer season, when hunters are required to wear articles of fluorescent orange clothing, mistaken-for-game shootings are rare. But during spring gobbler season, when hunters dress head-to-toe in camouflage, they’re the primary cause of firearm-related deaths and injuries.

Between 2006 and 2010, a total of 15 West Virginia turkey hunters were killed or wounded by firearms. One shooting was self-inflicted. Another occurred when a shotgun accidentally went off. The rest were mistaken-for-game incidents.

Coleman believes mistaken-for-game incidents could be prevented if hunters would adhere to a few simple rules.

“We teach these in our hunter-education courses,” he said. “And they work. Before hunter education became mandatory [in 1990], we were having 18 to 20 incidents a year, with eight or nine fatalities. Now we’re down to just a handful. That tells me that most hunters are doing the things they’re supposed to do.”

For those who still aren’t, Coleman reprises the lessons he teaches his hunter-ed students.

“First, when you set up to begin calling, make sure your back is covered,” he said. “Sit against a big tree or a rock face. That way you don’t have to worry about what’s going on behind you.

“Don’t wear any clothing that has red, white or blue on it. Those colors are found on a turkey. I remember one shooting that occurred a few years ago. The victim was dressed all in black, but he had on bright red socks. Guess where he got shot?

“Most incidents occur when someone tries to stalk a turkey. It’s better to pick a spot, set up and try to call the turkey to you. If you have to change your setup, wear a blaze orange cap while you’re moving. When you get to your new spot, take the orange hat off and put your camo hat back on.

“And if you’re sitting there calling and you see someone trying to sneak up on you, shout him off. Don’t move, just shout. Don’t try to save your hunting day by trying to wave him off. Shout. Live to hunt another day.”

Today’s hunters often set out decoys to attract gobblers’ attention. Glenn Jones, president of the West Virginia Hunter Education Association, said there are a couple of tricks to using decoys safely.

“When you’re moving through the woods, don’t carry your decoys in the open,” Jones said. “Put them in a camouflage bag, or better yet in a blaze orange bag. And when you set your decoys out, don’t sit in line with them. Put the decoys off to one side so you don’t get hit if someone shoots at them.”

Ground blinds have also become popular in recent years. Jones said some of them blend almost too well into the surrounding woods.

“I’ve heard stories of people sitting in their blinds, calling, and having someone shoot at the sound,” he said. “I would recommend putting a few pieces of blaze orange tape on the blind. You don’t need much – just enough to make an approaching hunter look a little more closely.”

When hunting without a blind, Jones carries a roll of blaze orange surveyor’s tape in his vest.

“Before I set up, I tie a strand of the tape around the tree, as high as I can reach, and cut the tag ends off right at the knot. The color doesn’t seem to bother the turkeys, but it gives approaching hunters something to notice,” he said.

And for hunters skilled and fortunate enough to bag a gobbler, Jones offers the following advice:

“Don’t just sling the bird over your shoulder and start walking out of the woods. Wrap it in a blaze orange vest or bag or something. If you don’t, you’re making yourself a target.”

Prolific in W.Va.

Utah biologists are freaking out because they discovered that a sow black bear had given birth to four cubs.

Maybe that’s a big deal in the Beehive State, but here in West Virginia it’s no great shakes. Read the Associated Press story about the Utah bear, and then read on to see why it’s ho-hum news to Mountain State biologists.

From the Associated Press:

HEBER, Utah (AP) — Biologists out tracking the bear population in Utah’s backcountry have made a surprising discovery: a mother bear with four cubs.

Scott Root of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources told the Deseret News of Salt Lake City that he has been tracking wildlife for 20 years and he had never seen a bear sow with that many cubs before.

Biologists tracked a radio collar on the hibernating sow to a den on a mountainside near Daniel’s Summit in Wasatch County.

They sedated the mama as a precaution so they could examine her and her cubs. The bruins were left in the den to resume their winter nap.

Root says the mother will have her work cut out for her, but perhaps all four cubs will survive with a little luck.

Maybe that Utah bear should move to West Virginia, where sows routinely raise four-cub litters. Chris Ryan, the West Virginia DNR’s former bear project leader, said four-cub litters are fairly commonplace here in ol’ Wild and Wunnerful. What’s more, Ryan has the data to back up his assertion.

“During the time we’ve been studying [radio-collared] black bears in our mountain counties and in our southern counties, we’ve found 21 four-cub litters in the mountain counties and 14 in the southern counties,” Ryan said. “In fact, we even turned up one five-cub litter in the mountain counties and two in the southern counties.”

To show just how ordinary large litters are in West Virginia, Ryan calculated that 11.5 percent of mountain-county litters contained at least four cubs, and that 12 percent of southern litters had at least that many. The two regions’ percentages are similar, but DNR biologists have found one-third more large litters in the mountain counties because they’ve been studying mountain bears several years longer than they’ve been studying southern bears.

The reason for Mountain State bruins’ fecundity? Food.

“We have lots better food here than they do in Utah,” Ryan said. “As a result, our reproduction rate is much, much higher.”

W.Va. DNR releases 2010 Big Game Bulletin

Anyone who wishes to learn exactly how West Virginia’s 2010 big-game hunting seasons panned out can find the answers in the just-published 2010 West Virginia Big Game Bulletin.

The publication, now available in print form at Division of Natural Resources district offices and in .PDF form from the DNR website, gives a county-by-county breakdown on the number of deer, bears, turkeys and wild boar killed. The deer and bear statistics are further broken out by method of take — gun, bow, etc.

I’ve collected every copy of the Bulletin since 1987. It’s been interesting to watch how harvests rise and fall from year to year and from decade to decade. Analyzing the statistics won’t necessarily tell you where the hunting hotspots will be each fall, but they can help you spot trends.

For W.Va. walleyes, it’s a numbers game

Two of the five New River walleyes captured this winter (DNR photo)

It’s a darned good thing female walleyes produce lots of eggs.

The eggs from just eight female walleyes will likely be enough to keep West Virginia’s walleye stocking program going for another year. Last week, workers at the Division of Natural Resources’ Apple Grove Hatchery harvested 334,000 eggs from those eight fish.

Every winter, DNR biologists capture large female walleyes from the New River and ship them to Apple Grove. This year, high water kept the capture crew from launching their boat until only a couple of days remained in the walleyes’ spawning season. The first evening out, the crew caught five spawning-ready females. The next evening, they caught just two, and both had already spawned. It was that close.

Fortunately for the stocking program, DNR officials had been stocking native-strain walleyes in two lakes — Moncove Lake in Monroe County and Charles Fork Lake in Roane County — in the hope that those lakes might also provide brood stock. This year they did, to the tune of three additional fish.

Tim Swisher, superintendent of the Apple Grove Hatchery, said the survival rate for walleye eggs ranges from 20 percent to 80 percent. By that measure, this year’s harvest of 334,000 eggs should produce 70,000 to 270,000 juvenile walleye “fingerlings” for stocking by summer’s end.

Mark Scott, district fisheries biologist for the New River, said last year’s harvest of eggs produced just 14,000 fingerlings for the New. This year’s harvest should produce more, despite the low number of female walleyes captured.