Meditation Room

While sitting in the doctor’s office one day I was thumbing through an out of date magazine about homes and home improvement. Besides the obvious thought that I needed to find a doctor that subscribed to outdoor magazines, my eyes caught an article about a trend in home design, meditation rooms. It is described as a place of “spiritual sanctuary” to get away from the stresses in life. The room is arranged using feng shui (Chinese words for “expensive furniture”) to provide flow and energy in the room. It was described as even having an altar with spiritual symbols as a focal point.

This got me thinking: What would my meditation room be like? I can tell you right now my altar would be an open fireplace with a long mantel to place my spiritual symbols on.  Not one of those with gas logs. I’m talking about build your own fire with kindling, matches and oak logs. It must be part of my prehistoric DNA. We don’t burn much wood so I cut and split my own. The smell of fresh split oak logs in the Spring is part of the anticipation of crisp Fall days and the barely perceptible sound of a bell as Ben works his way through grouse cover.

I already know which spiritual symbols will sit on the mantel. There’s the first quail my son shot when he was 12. I had it mounted with the empty 20-gauge shell he used to kill it. It symbolizes a new generation of hunter and memories over the years he and I have spent together in the fields. Next to that would be a picture we took that same day of my dad, my son, and me giving thumbs up before we left the house. It’s priceless. Also on the mantel would be an old Zebco 33 reel that belonged to my dad. That’s the only kind of reel he used over all the many years we fished together.  It symbolizes my introduction to the outdoors and memories of small farm ponds and slab crappie at Weiss Lake. Of course there’s got to be a couple of old leather dog collars lying on the mantle with reminders of days in the field with Babe, Belle, and Ginny. There are, and will be other dogs, but the memories are there to symbolize why I bird hunt: I love what dogs add to the sport and can’t imagine that I would hunt without them.

A framed print must hang over the mantle. There are several still in tubes I’ve gotten through my membership in one or another conservation organizations. One called “Watchful Monarch” of a ruffed grouse standing on an aspen log that might work. But I think the one that best fits the meditation room is hanging over my office desk right now, “Setters at Sunset”. The name pretty much says it all. “Watchful Monarch” can go over my desk.

That takes care of my altar. Now to feng shui the room to give it flow and energy. In one corner would lean the Winchester Model 42 .410 Uncle Jim gave me. There’s no telling how much game that little gun killed in its lifetime. Uncle Jim hunted everything with that gun with the exception of dove or quail when he stepped up to a 20-gauge. It was his “back door” gun. If you’ve lived in the country you know the one I’m talking about. It leaned in a corner loaded by the back door to shoot at squirrels in the bird feeder or crows in the garden as the situation warranted. The gun was in bad shape when he gave it too me and I had it reconditioned. I’ve only shot it a few since, killing a woodcock on a recent hunt. I don’t know, it just seems sacrilegious for me to use it much after the life it lived. Maybe this is the best way to retire it.

On one wall will hang the full head mount of the trophy chamois I shot in the Bavarian Alps of Germany while in the Army. It reminds me of the German hunting tradition of honoring game that is harvested and Herr Obermayer, a barrel-chested Jagermeister that took me on that hunt. There are a couple of small rehdeer mounts I also harvested in Germany that will hang beside it. They’re not trophies, but take me back to a time of high seats and the friendships developed on those hunts.

Of course there will be some fishing gear around. A couple of Dad’s old rods (with Zebco 33’s of course) are still in my possession. I wish that included his old metal tackle box to sit with them. It takes me back to the day we went winter fishing for bass at Patterson’s Lake and the picture of a burr headed seven year old grinning ear-to-ear holding a stringer of bass. Uncle Bob’s old fly rod will stand in one corner.

It’s a Wright & McGill graphite 4-weight rod and I have no idea what he used it for. Uncle Bob would buy stuff he thought he needed and never use it. He liked to fish but mostly on lakes for white bass and crappie. Knowing Uncle Bob, he went trout fishing one time, bought the rod and never used it again. It’s still in the original metal tube.

There would have to be a hall tree by the door to hang hats on. And I’ve got hats: blaze orange, camouflage, and about six or seven others which rarely get worn. One hook would hold my hunting vest. It’s got to be there so I can heft it every now and then during the off-season and sort through the pockets. Mingled in with the 20 gauge shells, dog whistle, and pocketknife are pieces of leaves and tree branch from last season. There’s probably a grouse or quail feather still in the game pouch with a pack of cheese crackers from last season. It’s there to heft and remember times past and anticipate days ahead. I just can’t figure out why the vest seems to get heavier each year even with the same stuff in it.

That will pretty much get me started in my Meditation Room. I can add to it as time goes along. On second thought, maybe I don’t need a meditation room. I’ve already got one. I’ll take Uncle Bob’s fly rod in and get the guides re-wrapped since it is old.  Hang a little 4-weight reel on it and take it out on Shelton Laurel or Upper Laurel stream during the Delayed Harvest period next year. It’s the right length at 7 ½ feet but a little stiff. With my fly-casting skills it really won’t make a difference.

Dad’s old rods are still in good shape. Maybe I’ll just oil the reels and put some new 8-pound line that Dad said worked best on the 33’s. They’re not much good for trout streams but there are a couple of friends who I may be able to coax into taking me out for crappie at Lake James next Spring or even walleye on Fontana this winter.

While writing this I can look over my shoulder at the little Model 42 shotgun in the gun cabinet. Just like an old bird dog whose heart is in hunting but body can’t keep up, it wants to be out there. I would like to bag a grouse with it to complete its life cycle. If not there’s an oak and hickory ridge in the Pisgah to find a few squirrels. And maybe my friend and his beagle will take me out for a little rabbit hunting. There’s nothing more stress reducing than a crisp winter morning accented with the deep baying of beagles ending in a crescendo at the bark of the little .410.

Shrugging into the hunting vest, slipping the gun out of the case, and as the dogs whine and tails beat against the side of the box this winter I will realize I’ve got the greatest “Spiritual Sanctuary” of all.  It is natures feng shui called the outdoors.

Giving Thanks

This week we all gather with family and friends to give thanks for Gods blessings on this country, and the bounty we enjoy. As hunters and anglers, we should be especially thankful to our forefathers’ conservation efforts for that bounty. No other nation in the world enjoys the bountiful wildlife of the United States or the bounty of opportunities we enjoy to pursue our sports. In my first life in the Army, I got to travel to different countries. In Korea, the only place you can hunt (and that’s just for pheasant) is an island off the southeast coast of the country. Gun ownership is severely restricted. Although there may be fish in the countries lakes and streams, I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of folks doing it.

Germany has a long history associated with hunting and fishing, if you’ve got the money. That history is typically associated with the landed gentry and most of the traditions that are part of the sport today started hundreds of years ago.

Hunters receive their license in a formal ceremony that is part of the tradition.

But again, gun ownership is restricted and people who want to hunt must go through a lengthy training course and then pay high fees to hunt on public land. No ten hour safety course, buy a gun, and head to the woods there. I had the opportunity to hunt in both countries, simply because of my military status, something the average citizen can’t do. Although I appreciate the traditions associated with German hunting, I enjoy the bounty and opportunities here even more.

I’m thankful for my friendships established through hunting, fishing and shooting experiences. In fact, I’m not sure I’d enjoy the outdoors as much without those friends. Sure it’s great to go hunting or fishing by myself sometimes. But doing it with a friend always brings a new level of enjoyment to the experience. As serious as the pursuit of game is, our approach is not so serious. I’ve never met a hunter or angler who takes the sport so serious that they can’t laugh at the muffed shot or big fish that threw a hook. At least none of my friends are like that. If I ever run across one of those folks it will probably be our last encounter. Hunting and fishing is too much fun to take seriously.

I give thanks every day for the wisdom of our founding fathers in writing the Second Amendment. Again we are fortunate in this freedom compared to the rest of the world. We shot skeet at a Korean range when I was there. Gun owners there must keep their guns locked up in the police station and check them out when they want to shoot. Unfortunately, there are those in this country who don’t understand the importance of this freedom and would like to take it away. We must remain ever vigilant.

I’m eternally thankful for hunting dogs, and particularly English Setters. I seriously doubt I would ever hunt again if it wasn’t for the dogs. It’s not just about the ability to find game. Let’s say dogs bring a certain personality to the experience? Anyone who has had a setter give them a woeful look after their solid point was wasted by a missed shot knows of what I speak. And anyone who has followed a pack of beagles on the hot trail of a cottontail on a cool November morning will attest to the beautiful sound their voices make during the chase. Yep, dogs make it all worthwhile.

There are a lot of other things on my outdoor thankful for list: the slim lines of a side by side shotgun (which I usually can’t afford), friends who share their venison, dove fields and lots of shells, beeper collars for thick mountain cover, and Express 7 ½ loads.  Since it is Thanksgiving let me not forget the wild turkeys that like to converse with me; just out of shotgun range. And how can I forget being thankful for the trout that is occasionally foolish enough to rise to my sloppy presentation. The list could go on.

There is one last thing we should all be thankful for and that is all the freedom we enjoy. As we sit down with family and friends to dine on turkey with all the fixings, a soldier or Marine somewhere in Afghanistan is eating an MRE. I’ve spent the holidays away from family. It’s a lonely time. Let us never forget that the freedoms and blessing we enjoy are thanks to those willing to sacrifice so that we may. Happy Thanksgiving.

Ruffed Grouse – The Figures Don’t Lie

Went on my first grouse hunt last week in my home state of North Carolina. Or as we call it: Walking through the woods behind a dog with a gun on your shoulder. Yep, on a short hunt of just under two hours I flushed zero grouse. After experiencing a flush rate of over two birds an hour in New Hampshire earlier in the month it got me thinking about what the status of grouse is in our home state. So I contacted the upland biologist for the WRC and asked for charts from the Avid Grouse Hunter survey in which I participate. Besides the fact that chasing grouse is my chosen pursuit, we need to know why grouse are important.

Ruffed grouse are what wildlife biologist call an indicator species. What is that? Many wildlife species can adapt to changes in the ecosystem. A couple of local examples are bear and turkey. If food and protective habitat are not available in one location they simply move to another. Populations of both species continue to flourish in the mountains. Not so with grouse. Their habitat needs for breeding, protection and food are very specific. Thus if their habitat decreases so will the population. In our region the the variable that can most likely affect them other than habitat is weather during the hatching season. Therefore ruffed grouse populations are an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Another reason they are an indicator species is because meeting their habitat needs also has a positive impact on other wildlife needing similar habitat.

The WRC has been conducting an Avid Grouse Hunter Survey since 1984. Participating hunters record data for each trip to the forests including date, location by county and private/public land, hours hunted, and birds flushed and harvested. At the end of each season the records are mailed to the WRC. The purpose of this study is to establish long term trends for the health of the grouse population. I’m no scientist, but I did have to take a statistics class in college (that was no fun). Individual data are important, but trend is more so. The trend doesn’t bode well for grouse in North Carolina. Let’s start out by looking at some of these data related to individual hunter success.

Chart from NC WRC

It’s best to start with a simple number, average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? As the first chart shows, in its inaugural year study participants averaged just under 4.5 grouse flushed per trip to the field. That number peaked between 1988 – 1990 to around 6.2 grouse per trip. Either one of those figures is great compared to today. In the last reported survey year that number had dropped to about 1.8 flushes per trip. But it’s not just the numbers that are important. Scientists like to look at trends. If you look at the line chart since the peak in 1990 the trend is downward. You can infer that with all other factors being equal hunters are seeing fewer grouse.

Chart from NC WRC

Now let’s look at some data to correlate to hunter success, percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed. In the first year of the study only about 10% of trips resulted in no grouse flushes per trip. That number has climbed dramatically over the past thirty years to about 48% of the trips resulting in no grouse flushed. It doesn’t show in either of these charts, but the average length of a hunting trip has not changed much, from 4.2 hours in 1984 to 3.7 hours in 2017.  So while hunters are spending about as much time in the field, their grouse contact success rate has significantly decreased. Basically, on every other four hour trip to the woods for grouse, you will have no bird contacts.

Now let’s look at a comparison of private and public land success rates, and further how that relates to timber harvests on public land.

Chart from NC WRC

First, let’s break down the flush rate by land type. The first chart here from the WRC graphically portrays that difference. Neither of them is positive. Private land is the top line and public the bottom. Despite a significant upward spike in 2011, both are trending downward since data collection started in 1989. In the most resent season, 2017, the rate hit its lowest point with about .25 (1/4) grouse flushed per hour on public land. Private land was slightly better but still below the trend at about .75 birds flushed per hour. Compare that to the better than two per hour we experienced in New Hampshire, and the better than one bird per hour when the data were first collected. This is not good news for either hunters or as an indicator of forest health.

Now let’s further look at the public land issue. And when you talk about public land in Western NC it’s pretty much the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests. State managed Game Lands in the mountains account for only about 10% of the total public lands here. Mac McConnell lays it out in a May 2016 ForestPolicypub.com article comparing data from both the USFS and WRC.

Chart by Mac McConnell

As this chart shows, in 1992 the USFS was creating nearly five thousand acres of wildlife habitat through forest management, primarily timber harvests. At that time the average grouse flush rate recorded by the WRC survey was about 1.5 birds per hour. Moving to 2016, the USFS was only creating about 500 acres of habitat and the flush rate dropped to under .5 per hour. Again, the trend is important here versus individual points. Tying these two separate data together shows a direct correlation between timber harvests on public land and grouse populations. There is no denying the science.

So why is the grouse important? As the data show, as an indicator species it points to an overall unhealthy forest; at least for most wildlife. Another non-game species in decline that needs young forest growth is the Golden-Winged Warbler. Young forest growth also provides low browse for other animal like deer.

So OK, the forest is unhealthy for wildlife. Why is this important to hunting? Hunter numbers are declining. Two key factors in hunter recruitment and retention are access and opportunity. I’d say we’ve got the access part pretty well covered with over 1 million acres of public land in the mountains. But if game populations are low you don’t have opportunity. Imagine trying to introduce a new hunter to the sport of grouse hunting. They get all fired up, practice shooting, enjoy watching dogs work. But then they get to the field and every other trip to the woods there are no bird contacts. Just how long will they stick with the sport? Grouse hunting is tough and requires commitment. They won’t stay with it long.

So whether you are a hunter who wants to see more game on our National Forests or someone who enjoys nature and likes seeing a lot of wildlife when you visit public land, this science supports the need for more active management in the upcoming Pisgah/Nantahala long range plan. Let’s remember, we are visitors to our public lands; wildlife live there. And right now living there is tough.