Monday, December 28, 2015

Dams and Ecosystems

Dams are created for a variety of reasons.
Beavers build dams in waters too shallow to protect them from predators. By backing up the water flow, the depth increases which provides the protection they need. It also allows for habitat for a number of other creatures such as waterfowl, fish, rodents, and a variety of mammals.
People build dams for several reasons. Dams create reservoirs for people to clean and use the water. The dams also provide a means to create electricity. They allow people to harness the power of the water to use for processing food, watering fields, and protecting lands downstream.
But what happens if a dam is breached or broken?
The United States has avoided major catastrophies involving dams since the Buffalo Creek Dam in 1970 and the Teton Dam in 1976 which destroyed large amounts of land and caused dozens of deaths.
Near my home area, roughly within a 20 mile radius, there are three instances in which a dam was compromised resulting in the draining of the water upstream.
One was Bunn Lake in which Hurricane Floyd caused massive flooding which was too much for the dam to handle. In all, there were 20 reported dam failures reported in eastern North Carolina from the torrential rainfall that occurred from Floyd.
Another was the lake where I grew up when the dam needed repair. Silver Lake was but a small sliver of a stream during that time although the swamp side of the lake did maintain some water from the several feeder creeks.
Fish were transported to a holding pond as much as possible, then returned once the dam was repaired and the water began filling back up.
And recently, the Finch’s Mill dam broke. Located not far from I-95, the old mill pond drained quickly. The pond was regularly fished from shore and small boat and during the summer it is an uncommon sight not to see someone there with a rod and reel in hand.
Ducks and geese, egrets and herons, they all frequented the water in search of home and food.
Beavers were common and prior to the dam break I counted no less than four killed trying to cross the road from the stream below the dam to the higher still waters above. Every year when the cold air settles in, you could count on finding roadkill beaver there.

Of course there are many other species that called Finch’s Mill home. Now they will have to find another. They move further upstream, or maybe even downstream if possible. Fish have the hardest time in relocating as when the water drained quickly it left pockets where fish were trapped.
After the draining I looked at some of the features of what was previously hidden underneath the tea stained water. There was what we used to call a ‘boom box’ laying in the mud. Plenty of glass bottles, some soda and some of the alcoholic variety. A serpentine belt was on top of an old rag which gave an eerie voodoo sort of look.
Near the dam was the front end of a car, not the whole part of the car, just the bumper fascia. As always you can count on finding an old tire here or there.
We never realize it, but our trash became part of the ecosystem there. I am sure various creatures such as fish, snakes, turtles and even crawfish and freshwater shrimp found solace in those eyesores. Still, it is ashamed that we have impacted the area like that.
Several fish lay here and there, dried out corpses at this time as it has been a couple of weeks since the dam break. You do not see many small ones. They usually can find a way as the water shallows. The bigger fish are not as lucky.
It remains to be seen whether the dam will be rebuilt. But the ecosystem that thrived there will. It won’t be the same necessarily, but it will survive.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cataloochee Elk

One of the things on my to-do list has long been to visit the elk herd in North Carolina. For a variety of reasons, I have never made my way into the Cataloochee Valley. I guess it is like a New Yorker never going over to the Statue of Liberty because they know it will always be there and never made it a priority.

I finally made it a priority. I happened to be photographing a property not far from where a large portion of the herd tended to stay, so it only made sense.

A little history of the elk in North Carolina would be an appropriate lead in. Elk naturally inhabited the state up until the late 1700’s. At that point they were hunted excessively and habitat began to dwindle. One of North America’s great beast had disappeared in North Carolina and the Southeast.

The Great Smoky National Park reintroduced an elk population in 2001 with a release of 25 elk they gathered from the Land of the Lakes area of Kentucky. The next year North Carolina received another 27 elk from a herd located in Canada.

Kentucky led the way with elk restoration. In 1997, seven elk were released in Eastern Kentucky from a herd located in Kansas. Kentucky had a long term goal of stabilizing their herd at 7400 animals with releases of 200 each year for 9 years. Due to the elk population flourishing, the plan was altered. From 1997 through 2002 Kentucky brought in 1550 total animals. The program of restoring the population through bringing the animals in stopped in 2002. Now the estimated population is around 10000 elk and the ongoing program is funded by hunting license sales.

North Carolina’s herd did not fare as well. With the introduction of the 52 elk in through 2002, the herd only stands at approximately 145 animals today, nearly 15 years after the first animals were brought in.

While the national park considers the elk restoration a success, a few years ago some battles began about the sustainability of the herd. Once the success was declared the herd was allowed to be taken of the special concern status. The question then began as to whether the Wildlife Commission should allow hunting for the elk outside of the national park.

Amazingly, hunters were the ones that stood up. Many expressed concern with the barely larger birth to mortality rate of the established population as evidenced over the decade. A population that has succumbed to parasites and predators and doubled over a ten year period is hardly a population ready to go up against even more potential threats due to hunting.

And here we are at this point in time. A small moderate herd that nonetheless consists of an absolutely beautiful creature.

Elk are much larger than our familiar white-tailed deer. In fact, a first time hunter who takes a deer is usually surprised at the small stature of the animal. Elk on the other hand, are quite impressive. Some of the larger bull elks in the park approach half a ton.

My biggest concern was locating the elk. I knew a large portion visited the Cataloochee Valley, but I was not sure if they would be like most in the wild in which a sighting may be happenstance.

As I took exit 20 off of I-40 just northeast of Waynesville and turned onto Cove Creek Road, my anticipation grew exponentially. Once I entered the park and meandered my way down the gravel and paved roads my anxiety ceased.

There they were. Massive bulls, a multitude of cow elk, and several yearlings adorned the meadows of the valley. I have seen many things across the country that inspired awe. This was added to that list. How could I have not visited something so amazing sooner?

It is hard to put into words that vision. So instead, let me suggest taking a weekend day to the Cataloochee Valley. Visit early in the morning and again in the evening. It is something you will not regret.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Texas Hunt Part 3

In case you have missed the previous two columns, I had a chance to do one of those special dream hunts. I met up with a lifelong friend who now lives in Texas. He hinted, well maybe it was more like bragged, at the number and quality of big whitetail deer there, and I was going to find out whether it was really true.

It was.

I only had two days to spend on the hunt between assignments in which I would be in Houston and St. Louis, so if they were there, I was going to need to choose my prey and be ready.

On the first day’s afternoon hunt, I arrowed a nice eight pointer from 32 yards. After contacting Bobby and Chewy who were hunting for feral hogs on another part of the land, we went over to where the arrow was lying. Blood had coated the arrow shaft and fletching and there was blood spray behind it from the pass through.

A dozen yards away Chewy spotted more blood. I have tracked many a deer with blood trails, all in North Carolina. When tracking blood spots in Texas while in a drought, things were a little more difficult. The vegetation and landscape is completely different in the Texas hills, with more dirt that plants, and the grass was basically brown, brittle cover. Instead of a bright red blood spot, it was more of an orange residue as the ground quickly absorbed any moisture.

Still, with three seasoned hunters, we were able to follow along the trail. The deer made a run up a large hill and then went into a slow walk. We were able to determine the deer settled down twice underneath some of the dried up evergreens dotting the landscape before standing and walking again. As happens with many deer that are bleeding out, he began to search for water.

The Texas drought meant there was only one place to go, a pond that was nearly dried up. Based on the blood loss, he would never make it that far.

We tracked his turn, another spot where he bedded to rest for a few minutes, and then tracked him another twenty yards.

That was it. No more blood. We worked our way into broader and broader circles. Finally the darkness prevailed and we decided to forego a morning hunt and track once more.

The next day even the large patches of blood were nearly invisible where they soaked into the parched ground. We searched in an organized manner then began random searches. All were to no avail.

Bobby and I went back out in the afternoon for one last hunt. We were in a different location that was near the one water source on the land. We figured, if the one I hit the day before was still living, he may at least try and come by this stand.

After a bit the first deer made his way into the area. It was the first spike I had seen in the two days as most of the bucks, even the young ones, were at least six pointers. A doe wandered within ten yards of us. Another buck showed up at the back side of the pond. None were the one from the day before though.

As the day neared an end, the bucks were on the move. At least ten different bucks, all shooters here in the Carolinas, made their way to the open.

While trying to catch photographs of many of them Bobby nudged me. “Look! Hammy is about to show that other buck who is boss!” He whispered it in as excited of a voice as could be told quietly. Hammy was one of the many named bucks that had shown on the cameras, this one getting his name for an abundance of white hair on his hams.

I turned the camera towards the two bucks as they stared each other down. Then my instincts took over. I slipped my shutter control to ‘continuous-high speed’ with my left thumb and proceeded to hold the shutter button down with my right index finger in one motion. The results was over a dozen photos of the two bucks squaring off and locking horns while throwing dust and dirt as their hind legs dug into the dry ground behind them.

I never found my buck, but since then Bobby has informed me he has shown back up on the trail cameras with a wound that slightly missed a fatal mark. I saw more bucks in the two days than I would see in two seasons here. I saw more trophy bucks in two hours than I would see in two decades here.

Bobby Fontanini has put together a tremendous management system fostering a healthy and abundant free range deer population and there is no doubt the record books are going to be logging deer from his land over the years. If you would like to be a part of a hunt of a lifetime, contact Bobby at (512)944-0757 and be sure to check out Diamond W Ranch in Lampasas, Texas on Facebook.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Texas Hunt Part 2

Don’t mess with Texas. That is a popular saying both in the Lone Star state and across the country. There is a good reason for it as evidenced by my recent whitetail hunt there.

After seeing more bucks in one morning’s sit than I may see in a season anywhere else, the promise was good for the first afternoon hunt of the two days. Texas was/is in the midst of a long dry spell and the days were sweltering. The activity is much different than where I am used to hunting. There, you do not have to anticipate a cold spell to increase movement as they are on the move always.

We met up with Matt ‘Chewy’ Linton, before the hunt and worked on setting up a new box stand for future hunters during the weekend. Chewy and I were friends on social media due to kayak angling, but had never met in person. You never know the stories of people until you are able to really get to know them, and Chewy was a pretty interesting person.

I knew he was instrumental in kayak angling in the state of Texas, especially towards the central and western part of the state. It didn’t surprise me he was a deer hunter since he was an outdoorsman. What I didn’t know was he was a former bassist for 3 Doors Down and Ember. As much as I thought of Chewy prior to meeting him, I was even more impressed afterwards.

After getting a bit or rest Bobby, Chewy and myself headed back out to the land. I was hunting the same area and had bow, arrows and camera in hand. Bobby and Chewy drove to a different section and were going to try to down some wild hogs if they presented themselves since gun season was not in for deer yet.

It only took about 30 minutes for me to spot a couple of does and fawns come out to my right. I fired a few shots, from the camera not the bow. I knew it was easy for deer to sneak out into the open without realizing it so I kept all my movements slow and smooth, and moved my eyes before moving my head.

That was a good decision and skill. To my front left I spotted a buck peaking from around the brush. I could not make out which buck it was or how big was the rack. The buck was not looking at me though. He was fixed on the four deer I had been taking photos of.

I was able to get a couple of photos of him before knowing this was a shooter. I quietly placed the camera behind me to avoid any disturbances. Just as I did, the buck began to walk away from the cover.

It was a nice eight pointer. Based on best calculations I figured he would net around 110 according to Pope and Young. Not enough to make book, but something I knew was a shooter based on what Bobby and I had went over and would have been my largest taken with a bow.

My issue was going to be getting set and drawing the bow without my movement being caught.

The buck continued forward moving from my left to right. As he did, the four deer to my right worked their way further and further away. Directly in front of me in the stand was an evergreen that should offer me enough cover to draw the bow as the deer passed on the other side. I just needed to hold long enough for him to get in the open.

It worked exactly as I envisioned it. I stood, turned my body and drew the 70 lbs without notice. I waited as he walked and approaching where the four deer stood prior. All I needed was that one pause in his stride.

Then it came. He stopped and stuck his head to the ground for a sniff of the landscape. Thirty two yards was what I estimated to be the distance based on previous scans with a rangefinder marking various rocks, plants and markings. Just behind the crease formed by the front leg with the thirty yard pin set firmly above where I thought the heart would be located.

These moments are the ones that you become what you are. I cannot remember breathing in and then releasing half the air in my lungs. I cannot remember moving my forefinger from behind the trigger release to the front side. I cannot remember applying the slightest touch which in turn sent a 100 grain razor donned broadhead attached to a 28 inch arrow at over 300 feet per second. I do remember seeing the arrow’s fletching spinning towards the deer and disappearing as it passed through his reacting chest.

I waited there in the stand after carefully observing the direction he ran. I bowed my head giving thanks for the opportunity and praying for as quick and painless of a death as could be for my prey. A few minutes later I pulled my camera back up, zoomed in with the 300mm telescopic lens, and spotted my arrow a couple of yards from where the deer was standing moments prior. I was able to see the fletching of the arrow coated in red along with the ground nearby.

In bowhunting, you have what is the first hunt and the second hunt. The first hunt is where you get to take the shot. The second hunt is after you take the shot.

It was now time to start trailing blood during the second hunt.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Texas Hunt Part 1

If you were to ask passionate whitetail hunters across the country for locations to target their next whitetail, you would likely get answers such as Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas. They carry the reputation as trophy states with deer growing big antlers and big bodies.

So it was only natural for me to find a way to sneak in a couple of days bowhunting while on a photoshoot in Houston.

It was going to work out well. I had a two day period between jobs in Houston and St. Louis and I had an old friend who lived and owned some land outside of Austin. I briefly saw him on a previous trip when I was in Houston and Dallas, and he tried his best to convince me that I needed to see what he had hidden in the Texas hills.

I arrived Friday night and we caught up on old times until the wee hours of the morning. We also went over trail camera shots over the past few months. I could tell he had a good handle on what was there and he had put the time in to make these deer grow to their peaks.

It is not always easy to do something like that. We experience troubles with quality deer management programs in the Carolinas for a variety of reasons. One, we do not always have a large enough parcel of land to contain the deer year round. Deer tend to stay within a few miles of where they were born, and only during the rut do the males extend the range. Even then, it is not as much as you would think.


We also have an issue regarding the deer not getting old enough. A nice eight point deer around here may only be a year and half old, but we shoot knowing that the deer will likely not make it another season.

Why? Well other hunters on adjacent lands is a factor. Another factor is we have roads everywhere, and there are a lot of vehicle/deer collisions. As beautiful as our state is, it just does not possess the ability currently to allow deer to fully mature.

The deer in Texas is a completely different story. Bobby, my friend, poured over picture after picture of Wideboy, Hammy, and Megatron to name a few. Bobby actually had nearly all of them named. He even had names for the does on the land such as Methuselah, and elderly doe with a sagging back, pronounced hip bones and nothing but nubs for teeth. She had been having two fawns each year until last year. Now she fights other does for their fawns and raises them.

He pointed out deer that were four or five years old with monster racks, but he wanted to keep them around to pass on their monster genetics. He has others that were two years old with antler bases nearly as thick as your wrist. “Last year he was a big six. Next year he will be a ten with brow tines ten inches long, just like his daddy was.” Yes, Bobby knew what was on his land.

I would hunt Saturday morning. I was not trophy hunting per se, although there are several deer that would currently make Boone and Crockett standards, and many more that would make it into Pope and Young (the bowhunter record book). I was going for my biggest buck, which would not take a lot since I have mainly culled does over my hunting years.

I watched a beautiful sliver of a moon drop just as the sun began to rise while sitting on the platform stand. Texas hill country is much different than the still hunts here. I was over the trees, not hidden amongst them. I knew the challenge would be to find the deer to take, draw the bow, and release without being noticed.

During the sunrise I spotted two jack rabbits as big as Siberian Husky to my left. It was not long before the ‘unicorn’ buck also made his way in. This was a buck on the hit list. He had one side of his antlers that looked fine. The other side was just a single branch mess. I knew if I had the opportunity I needed to take this deer as I would still be able to hunt longer.

The shot did not present itself though. Not because the deer was not in range or in the clear though. The shot could not be made because in just a matter of a few more seconds and there were another five bucks roaming in front. In all, I would estimate I saw over 20 different bucks and another 10 does and fawn. And this was just on the first morning of the hunt.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gun Control

Note: This column ran originally back in October in the newspapers. I refrained from running it on the blog, but will now in light of the latest incident.

Once again we have had a terrible thing happen at the hands of a mad man. Once again, there is a push for legislation on gun controlling measures. While this is an outdoors column, ownign and using firearms are an essential part of the outdoors as well as one of our primary rights as not only Americans, but humans.

I may be in a minority, or I may be part of the majority, it is hard to tell these days. Either way, I think it would have been refreshing to have heard a speech from our leaders worded in this way:

“Dear fellow Americans, I come to you tonight with heartache from yet another incident in which innocent peoples’ lives were taken at the hands of a gun wielding criminal. Details will immerge over the next 24 to 48 hours which will help authorities determine the root cause of act of evil that was bestowed on one of our school campuses.

I stand before you saddened and outraged all at once. WE cannot let this happen again. Other countries similar to ours, allies in fact, were able to take up legislation immediately following such an incident. England passed laws and confiscated all firearms in 1997 to prevent this from happening in their country.

Fortunately, we can learn from our allies and their moves to stop such violent crimes. Once England confiscated these weapons, their violent crime rate and homicide rate nearly doubled the year following. In fact, England has only had one year in which the rate was less than the year before acting upon this legislation.

Our very principles for establishing this more perfect union calls for the arming of the citizenry. It was important enough to list as our second amendment right.

Therefore, starting tomorrow, my staff and I will begin contacting each and every member of Congress to enact new legislation going forward to prevent these mass killings, as well as the abundance of gun related homicides and other crimes. We cannot do this without Congress’s participation, and we will see to it that they are motivated to do so.

I will ask Congress to establish legislation that requires firearm safety to be taught as part of the school curriculum for all fifth and eighth grade classes. This will help teach our children to respect what a firearm can do, become familiar with a firearm rather than scared of it, and to know what circumstances they can be used in self defense.

I will ask Congress to help fund classes for all teachers, administration, and support staff in our schools, colleges, and universities in proper firearm safety and handling, and recommend if not require teachers to carry firearms. Another of our allies currently arms their teachers, and Israel has not had these types of events happen in their schools even with the threat of constant terrorist attacks in these environments.

I will also ask Congress to pass legislation to do away with concealed carry laws. There will be no ordinance anywhere that will not allow an American citizen to carry concealed or otherwise in order to protect his or herself or others.

We have seen in such things as natural disasters that the government cannot always be there immediately to help. We even have a plan online called that teaches and outlines what to have and do in case of emergency. I will ask our Department of Homeland Security to add this website how to handle attacks such as these so that we may protect ourselves first and foremost.

Whether sane or mad, a man will not run into a group of well armed people and decide to pull a firearm. We cannot wait for the next massacre at a church, school, hospital, or establishment to happen because our people were not able to defend themselves.”