Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

That’s a honkin’ big bear!

The 620-pound bruin, tranquilized. (Photo courtesy Fla. Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Florida’s deer might be minuscule in size, but their bears — well, that’s a different story.

From the Associated Press:

PAISLEY, Fla. (AP) — The largest Florida black bear ever captured has been relocated.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Joy Hill says the 620-pound bear was captured on Monday. It had been getting into trash in the Ocala National Forest, even into secured garbage in a shed by pulling the aluminum siding off to get his free meal.

The bear was trapped in Lake County.

Before the bear was relocated on Wednesday, biologists were able to sedate him to collect hair samples and give him an exam, identification tattoo and ear tag.

Hill says this is the largest bear captured, but the largest documented black bear was a 624-pounder that was struck and killed by a car in Naples several years ago.

Wildlife officials estimate there are 3,500 black bears in Florida.

Dumb and dumber, wildlife category

Florida manatee

The late, great George Carlin used to say, “It’s hard to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious.”

Case in point: The rocket scientists in Florida who decided it would be fun to lure endangered manatees toward a dock and then cannonball into the water near them, record the stupidity on video and post it on their Facebook pages.

Beth Kassab of the Orlando Sentinel has written a deliciously scathing column about it, including a link to the disgusting video. If you possess a perverse desire to see stupid people in action, check it out.

Sleuthing out a famous fishing book

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.

New bass species found in Florida

Choctaw bass (Photo courtesy Florida FWC)

Well, maybe there is something new under the sun.

Or under the water.

Fisheries researchers in Florida have discovered a new species of black bass. It’s very similar in size and appearance to the spotted bass, but genetic studies revealed that its DNA profile didn’t match any other species.

Since the fish’s range appears to overlap territory once controlled by the Choctaw tribe, scientists have decided to call it the Choctaw bass.

Here’s more, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

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

A feel-good wildlife conservation story

Photo by Maslowski/NWTF

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.”

OK, this is cool. A young couple from Tunbridge, Maine, wanted a hunting-themed wedding, so they decided to hold it in a Cabela’s store!

Darrell and Ariel Colson wore camouflage-accented clothing, and the ring bearer brought the rings on a camo fishing pole. The complete story is here, in the West Lebanon Valley News. Cute story, nice read!

A random act of conservation

Luke King with his muskie (Courtesy photo)

Sometimes doing the right thing makes everyone feel good. Case in point: Nineteen-year-old Luke King of Burnsville, W.Va., who caught and released a muskellunge that probably would have broken the state’s length record for the species. Here’s my feature story about King’s good deed:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — How many people would catch the fish of a lifetime and release it, knowing full well it might have been a state record?
Ask Luke King, who did exactly that.
On April 15, King landed a muskellunge he hastily and conservatively measured at 53 inches in length, slightly longer than the current West Virginia record of 52.7 inches. Moments later he released his hold on the muskie’s tail and watched her swim away.
“I never dreamed I’d catch anything like that,” King said. “But there was no question I was going to release her.”
Since he began muskie fishing four years ago, King has caught more than 250 of them, and has released all but a handful.
Last year, the 19-year-old from Burnsville caught a whopping 83 legal-sized muskies, including several in the 45- to 50-inch range.
The first few months of this year had been a bit slower. King had fewer opportunities to go fishing, and by the time April 15 rolled around he had caught just 12.
And for most of that day his total remained right there. He and his fishing partner, Jake McLaughlin, spent a fruitless afternoon on the Little Kanawha River, casting their lures toward submerged logs in one of the river’s deep pools.
After they finished with the pool, King and McLaughlin guided their boat into a shallow area. What they saw there made their eyes grow wide.
“We had found a spawning riffle,” King said. “We were expecting to find pre-spawn fish, but instead we found muskies that were already paired up to spawn.”
Most of the fish were more interested in their mating rituals than in the 10-inch Red October pink tube jig King cast in front of them.
“They didn’t want to eat,” he said. “Most of them didn’t even want to look at [the lure].”
Female muskies are almost always larger than males, and King said a couple of the females he and McLaughlin saw were much larger.
“We saw one female that must have been 50 inches, and she was accompanied by a male that looked to be about 30 inches,” King said.
One pair in particular grabbed the anglers’ attention – a male in the 45- to 49-inch range, accompanied by a female several inches larger.
“I cast to the female, and she followed the lure back toward the boat,” King recalled. “She didn’t take, though. She just hovered there under the boat. I made some figure-of-eights with the lure, but she stayed down there. Then I dropped the lure down and started jigging it right in front of her face.”
That did it. The muskie inhaled the lure and nonchalantly turned to rejoin her mate. King set the hook.
“She took off down river, and peeled 50 yards of line off the reel in just a few seconds. I’ve never had a muskie pull that hard,” he said.
Fortunately for King, he had come prepared to do battle with just such a leviathan. The 8-foot, extra-heavy action rod helped him tire the fish quickly, and the 80-pound-test braided monofilament ensured a more-than-adequate connection between angler and fish.
“We used the trolling motor to help close the distance to the fish,” King said. “The fight probably lasted five or six minutes, tops. Jake netted her for me.”
As the net’s meshes closed around the huge muskie, the lure fell out of her jaw. Instinctively, King reached for the fish’s tail to make sure it wouldn’t flop out of the net.
“I couldn’t get my hand around the base of the tail,” he said. “It was too big.”
When King finally lifted the big female from the net, he noticed eggs coming out of her vent.
“She was spewing eggs,” he said. “We wanted to get her back into the water as quickly as we could so all her remaining eggs could be turned into little muskies.”
The fish was too long to lie out on a flat surface for measurement, so King and McLaughlin held her in the water and stretched out the tape.
“Her body was slightly bent, but she still measured 53 inches, and that was without a tail squeeze,” King said.
When fish are measured for recordkeeping, Division of Natural Resources officials allow anglers to squeeze the lobes of the fish’s tail together. Jeff Hansbarger, a DNR district fish biologist and muskie researcher, said a tail squeeze can add as many as 2 inches to a large muskie’s length.
“There’s a good chance [King’s] fish would have gone 54 or 55 inches,” Hansbarger said.
The current length record, held by a fish caught in 2004 from Stonecoal Lake, is 52.7 inches, so King’s fish probably would have eclipsed that mark rather handily.
King and McLaughlin also measured the big muskie’s girth at 24 1/4 inches. Using a weight-estimation formula based on length and girth, King calculated the fish’s weight at 45 pounds – huge, but well short of the state record of 49 3/4 pounds, set in 1997 by another Stonecoal Lake muskie.
“There was no question about releasing my fish, though,” King said. “I try to release all of them. I had caught a 50-incher before, and released that one too. But boy, I never dreamed of catching something like this latest one.”


Why fish just one way?

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.

The plane in Maine lands mainly in the … road?

The plane on Maine Turnpike (AP photo)

I can see the memo to the pilots of the Maine Guide Service now: “Please make sure your plane is fully fueled before taking off.” From the Associated Press:

LITCHFIELD, Maine (AP) — A warden service pilot and wildlife biologist escaped injury during their plane’s emergency landing on the Maine Turnpike about 15 miles south of the state capital Friday. At least one motorist had to pull aside to make way for the plane.
Pilot Dan Dufault had to land shortly before 9 a.m. because the single-engine Cessna lost power, possibly after running out of fuel, officials said.
No one was hurt.
State Rep. Christine Powers of Naples said she was traveling northbound when she saw the plane flying low across the turnpike before landing ahead of her.
“I thought it was strange the way it was gliding. The next thing I saw, it was coming in for an approach,” she said. “I was quite stunned.”
About a half-dozen vehicles were in the vicinity, Powers said, and one motorist pulled over as the plane touched down and approached the vehicle. The plane then taxied off the turnpike and into a former service area.
The warden service’s top officer, Col. Joel Wilkinson, said an investigation will look at a variety of factors. Noting that the airplane was able to take off again from the interstate after refueling, Wilkinson acknowledged it’s “highly likely” the airplane had lost power after running out of fuel.
A search of the Federal Aviation Administration database indicated the plane was a military trainer version of the Cessna 172.

The game that never grows old

Photo by Maslowski/National Wild Turkey Federation

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.