Friday, March 27, 2020

The sucker fish spawn is on. Again. As it always is this time of year.

Every March.

It doesn’t matter if the winter was brutal. It doesn’t matter if the winter was mild. The groundhog could have seen his shadow or not, it doesn’t influence it. It may have rained hard the previous week, or it could be a two-month long drought. Regardless of the weather, this magic, or maybe we can call it madness since that seems to be one of the things we are lacking during this current state of being, happens.

For me and my neck of the woods, it all comes together on a small shallow creek in my hometown.

Every March, more specifically, the middle of March, a golden fish ends its spawn near the base of a dam. Bottlenecked as there is no where else to go, they splish and splash amongst the low water where pebbles and rocks are embedded in the creek bed. By doing so, they handle their mating, bouncing off the top of each other, rubbing side to side, and overall creating havoc in the creek.

The redhorse sucker fish isn’t an overly popular fish to seek. And I have no idea why. There are six main species of redhorse in North America; the shorthead, black, greater, golden, river and silver varieties. The one I am most accustomed to because of this annual pilgrimage is the silver redhorse sucker.

A quick glance from the untrained eye and you would thing this is a carp. The golden scales, and the robust body hints that way. The mouth gives it away though, as underneath a very pronounced snout which gives the fish its name of redhorse, or sometimes called horse fish, the mouth forms what looks like a sucker.

The lips are puffy, enough so that it would make any Hollywood starlet envious, and are perfect for bottom feeding. Primarily feeding on things such as crawfish, worms, and small river clams, they really aren’t as picky as you may think. Perhaps due to the mouth being angled below the head so they can’t really see what they are eating, presentation doesn’t matter much.

Legal to bowfish or fish outright, early on I bowfished a bunch. The shallow water and the tight groups make for easy targets for the most part. Over the last few years I have ventured to catch more using hook and line however.

Being accustomed to fast flowing rapids in creeks, streams and rivers, they are monstrous fighters. They will take your line wherever they wish. Sometimes they will just drop back and ride the flow of the river making the battle long and hard. Sometimes they flip and flap and jump and dive while muscling their way upstream in the currents, stripping line at will in their flight.

And they get big.

In fact, I caught my largest one on this spawn. A little over 10 pounds of muscle and scale. Bright red fins, with a gradient to orange and then gold and then silver. After a strong fight in which the redhorse finally granted me the win, he grunted his disproval.
How did I identify it as a male? Because by natural instinct he released all of his stored fertilizing fluids so that the specie can go on. Not to worry, I let him back in so that he could continue his life’s venture though.

These little quirks of nature in which fish you would never think of as swimming in the shallows that only come around for a couple of weeks each year, on a perfect calendar mind you, is one of the great things about the outdoors. There is so much to discover and experience; this bit of nature’s March Madness.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Disease affects the outdoors also. Should we react to COVID-19 with humans the way we do with diseases for animals?

I got home around 3 a.m. The day was long. I sat patiently for 12 hours making sure to capture the images I needed and properly catalog them with captions and keywords. I was told at 9:30 a.m. I would get further directives on this mission of importance.

After 6 hours of sleep I woke to the tone from my phone indicating I had a message received. I took a peek, and my task was clear. I showered, hustled to the truck and drove the two hours back to my base of operations. With 30 minutes to spare, I arrived and prepped my gear.

Then the unthinkable happened. With just 15 minutes until the moment of importance, it was announced it all had been canceled.

No, this wasn’t a top-secret operative in which I was running reconnaissance for some clandestine organization. Nor was this a seek and find mission of some rare species that only appears during a specific time.

No, this was the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament and I was credentialed photographer/media.
The 2020 ACC Men's Basketball was cancelled prior to the third round of play.

COVID-19, aka the Wuhan flu, aka the coronavirus, had reared its ugliness and may have done something much worse than getting someone sick. It caused fear.

Now, fear is warranted in some situations. This is likely one of them. It spreads quickly, it mutates, and it is deadly to the elderly and infirmed. Have we gone too far in our reactions? That can be debated. And that debate is where I am headed with this column.
As hunters and anglers, this type of thing is one of the many things that makes us valuable as stewards to this planet. We are often the equivalent of both first reporters and first responders in the outdoors.

Fish kill? We often are the ones that notice first and report to the wildlife agencies.
Diseased wildlife? Yes, that would be us as the first on the scene as well, in most cases.

Now, what are the responses to such things? Well, pretty much what we are doing with this coronavirus outbreak.

We have to limit the spread while also determining the cause. Doesn’t matter whether it is dead fish or dead mammals. The way to do those things is slightly different though.
When something such as blue tongue disease or chronic wasting disease (CWD) is detected, in order to limit the spread, animals can be quarantined to a certain area and then killed. Of course, we don’t do that to humans. However, Italy has limited to offering care to those that they deem may survive and not administering care to the elderly. But again, this is regarding the outdoors and not as much the current human situation.

The areas may be targeted by use of hunters, or wildlife agents and paid crews to eradicate any animals that may have a risk of spreading disease. For something like CWD, an equivalent of travel bans exists in order to prevent spread. There are laws set up to prohibit the transfer of body parts across state lines from states or regions that have known cases of CWD, as well as the prohibition of transporting live animals.

The main key here is what we are doing for coronavirus is what we do in nature to protect the greater numbers. And as frustrating as it may be for us to lose revenue, entertainment and experience other inconveniences, it is vitally important in controlling what could be without those measures.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Bob Timberlake. Artist and conservationist.

I was anticipating the morning. I had this planned for a couple of weeks. I was going to meet someone at the top of their field and get to have a one on one with the gentlemen.

The previous day, he was on a quail hunt. His granddaughter happens to be a crack shot herself. I had done some extra studying on his life to add to my already near-fanboy knowledge.
Bob Timberlake holds one of his paintings from the Keep America Beautiful campaign. (Bill Howard)

He owns a very successful studio/gallery and museum. His name is well known throughout the United States. He was instrumental in one of the most successful non-profit campaigns in advertising history.

I met him 30 minutes prior to the gallery opening, and he was sitting inside looking out of the window for when I drove up.

Bob Timberlake unlocked the door and welcomed me in like I was an old friend.

We had never met before, and I had only communicated with his granddaughter through email to arrange the meeting. But he was genuine and friendly. Or perhaps I should say he IS genuine and friendly. We discussed why I was there and what we would be doing.

He gave me a quick tour of the gallery and museum. If you do not recognize the Bob Timberlake name, he is an artist and furniture builder extraordinaire. His art greatly consists of rural style art in a realist approach but with a Norman Rockwell feel. So of course, we saw lots and lots of his paintings.

He was particularly proud of a chest he built when he was 14 years old that was on display, with a matching custom woven rug below, and a letter from Henry Ford congratulating him on an award.

We looked at several sizes and styles of decoys he made or designed. He carried me to a showcase with a teddy bear that he explained was responsible for over $2 million in donations for a non-profit. Another showcase displayed a rifle owned by Annie Oakley.

I was in awe.

Then we spoke about hunting and fishing. He showed me a recent article about him with some magnificent photos of him fly fishing. Then he showed me another pic with a catch that would make anyone envious.

Bob Timberlake is not just an artist. He is not just a furniture maker. He is not just a gallery owner. He is a spokesman and conservationist. He participates in the outdoors as well as capture the spirit of nature in his paintings and furniture. He has forwarded that passion to his family, including his granddaughter. In fact, she had just come back from a fishing trip in the mountains of North Carolina herself.

For those old enough, you may remember the Keep America Beautiful campaign featuring the ‘crying Indian.’ His art helped that campaign excel. He was already well regarded as an artist. To my generation, those that grew up in the 70s and 80s, it is how we learned his name.

We were in a pollution crisis during those days. While we still have pollution and debris, it is not nearly where we were headed. He made a difference. He continues to make a difference.

I can only hope to get a small fraction to help make a difference in my goal of expanding the numbers of those that enjoy the outdoors. His story gave me hope and inspiration.

Maybe, just maybe, we can get together in a cold-water stream for some casting for trout someday as well.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The first time.

Can you remember the first time you went hunting or fishing? Who took you that first time?

I grew up beside a pond. When I say beside, it was literally within 100 feet of the front door. My dad and grandfather and step-grandmother loved fishing. Once spring rolled around, it was not uncommon at all for Dad to grab a fishing rod and go over to the bank and cast for an hour or so.

My first fish came with my mom. She purchased a plastic rod that had a plastic hook and plastic fish. I was beside the bank one day with her, slamming the plastic hook into the water, yanking it out, and slamming it back in. Remarkably, a bream somehow was in the wrong place at the right time, and it snagged onto that red plastic hook. I was both excited and petrified at the same time.

But as I got older, and by older, I mean like five years old, I would fish nearly every day in which the weather would cooperate. Why? Because I had seen my dad do it day in and day out. It was what you did. If I wasn’t at the pond, I would walk to Silver Lake and fish along the banks there. Sometimes my dad would be with me, sometimes he would be at work if on a weekday. The wildlife club had a building there and Mr. Barnes ran it each day. He was basically a temporary babysitter.

Times were much different then. I guess that is how things work out after half a century. But those times were the influence to get me outdoors to hunt and fish and camp.

This is one of our first challenges if we believe these outdoor activities must continue.

We no longer have the same schedules. Our workplaces are open longer and during more days. Weekends are no longer a time of rest and relaxation. People don’t get off of work at 5pm, and if they do, many may have commutes lasting an hour or longer. We have lost those brief opportunities that once meant so much.

This is where we need to better address our time management skills. Sounds like something you would hear at a meeting at work doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is true though.

We come home tired. Heck, we often come home beat. I understand. I’m the same way. But where we once couldn’t go by the lake without seeing a dozen people standing along the shore with a cork in the water, we can’t go by the lake now and find anyone fishing. When we go to the park with friends, family, and most of all children, they are not accustomed to that. Instead they only see people walking or sitting. There is no connection to outdoors other than it being a scene, and they can find better scenes graphically created on their game console.

Even if you cannot take someone new to fishing or hunting with you, simply being out there is enough to spark conversation between others. It is what helps bring that little bit of intrigue and inquisition into what you find attractive about it. It is how a small kid that is full of questions may get to the point of asking his or her parent if they can go fishing.

We don’t get many of those opening title sequences from the Andy Griffith show anymore with Andy and Opie walking to the pond with the rods over their shoulders. But I bet you have many fond memories that resemble that form when you first started fishing and hunting.