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While sitting in the doctor’s office one day I was thumbing through an out of date magazine about homes and home improvement.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.

The Yellowstone Wolf Myth

Yellowstone National Park sign at the North Entrance;
Jim Peaco; October 1992

There is a recently released documentary video that is gaining steam. It’s called “How Wolves Changed A River”. You may have seen it. Heck, it’s had over 39 million views on YouTube. Good chance some of you are those viewers. I mentioned it in a previous blog post Lost Connection with Nature.  Lately I’ve been seeing more references to it. It’s designed to tug at the heartstrings and is being used by animal rights groups to show why wolves should not be hunted. The problem is, the concept presented in the video is myth. It has been debunked by numerous scientists.

Photo National Park Service

The documentary video is based on a scientific theory, Trophic Cascade. I’ll avoid getting down into the scientific weeds here, but the theory says reintroduction of one animal species at the top of the food chain into an environment totally changes the ecosystem. In this case, the video producer contents that reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 totally changed the ecosystem. To the point it changed the flow of the Lamar River through the park. That’s heavy stuff!

I first became aware of the video when a friend shared it on Facebook and, knowing I’m a hunter and do some wildlife habitat reading, asked my thoughts. While watching the video my Spidey senses began to tingle when the narrator referred to elk as “deer”.

That started me on my research journey. I thought the theory interesting but needed more information. Turns out life isn’t that simple. As Aldo Leopold contends in “A Sand Country Almanac” the natural world is connected in ways we know, and ways we don’t yet know.

The first thing I learned is Yellowstone suffered massive wildfires in 1988 burning nearly 800,000 acres. That’s seven years before wolves returned. Due to the destructive nature of wildfires, significant impact was made on the Yellowstone ecosystem. Native plants were destroyed, new plants regenerated, wildlife species relocated, and subsequent rains on a vegetation barren landscape could have changed river paths. The fact is, the ecosystem was in its early stages of natural regeneration when they dropped the truck tailgate to release the wolves.

We have to look no further than where I live here in Western North Carolina to see the visible evidence of wildfire. We had two massive (for our region) wildfires in 2016: the Silver Mine Fire in Madison County in the Spring and numerous wildfires in the Nantahala NF in October-November of that year. Anyone who has visited those areas in the intervening period can see the results. The environment has changed there hasn’t it?

The video has other glaring omission errors, probably intentional. An article from the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum says some of the key footage showing habitat improvement is not from Yellowstone, or is from parts of Yellowstone not part of the normal wildlife habitat.

Also, the video contends the wolves reduced the elk, bison, and deer population to allow the natural regeneration. Yes, wolves are predators on those species. But elk and bison also learn to adapt to predators, and herds simply scattered or relocated and soon returned. The habitat is now much as it was pre-wolf.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Scientists who have actually spent time on the ground in Yellowstone largely call the video hype and say it is myth. Current research shows that beavers have a greater impact on Yellowstone’s rivers than do wolves. A scientist at Colorado State University suggests that changes in precipitation, stream flow, floodplains and water tables are also contributing factors to ecosystem change, probably more so than wolves.

I guess my point here is nature isn’t that simple. We have been scientifically studying wildlife and ecosystems in this country for nearly a century. Yes, we have learned a lot. But there is still much we don’t know. We know what kind of habitat wildlife desires and needs to survive. Carrying capacity for wildlife is based on several factors including a variety of cover and food sources. And either an overabundance or reduction of a species in that habitat can impact the ecosystem. Unforeseen events like wildfire, floods, and disease also changes an ecosystem. Did the chestnut blight decades ago change our mountain habitat? You bet.

In our instant information society we would like to attribute everything that happens in nature to a single event or magic bullet. Nature is too complex for that. When we are presented with a simple solution to a natural phenomenon we should question its precept. Our society has largely lost connection with nature and we still have much to learn. The answers can be found in science, not emotion. Let’s keep learning and studying to improve our understanding of our earthly home. I know that every time I visit nature it is a learning experience.

Why I Hunt

It’s been so much a part of my life I’ve never stopped to ask the question: Why do I hunt? But then spending time in self-reflection is not my cup of tea. I don’t remember the first bird I shot. But I do remember when I knew I was a bird hunter. As a burr headed boy of about 12 I was walking with Uncle Jim along a field edge in Alabama hunting rabbits behind a couple of beagles. The sudden eruption of a covey of quail not only startled my nerves, but drew something up from deep within that said, “This is who you are.” I’ve now been a bird hunter for fifty plus years.

Want to know how serious that makes me? Growing up in Alabama, a state with a three month deer season with one deer a day, I never went deer hunting. Never killed one, never had the desire. But give me a cut corn field in September for dove, or a soybean or cornfield edge for quail and I was in heaven. Unfortunately my early quail hunting opportunities were limited until I got out on my own and the Army sent me to some pretty good places for quail hunting: Forts Campbell, Benning, and Bragg, come to mind. And of course bird hunting means bird dogs and they’ve been there with me through the decades. It’s true: I wouldn’t do it without the dogs.

And then I was introduced to the King of Gamebirds, the lordly ruffed grouse. After leaving the Army we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. I went to a local sporting goods store and asked where to go quail hunting. The guy behind the counter said, “None around here. If you’re a bird hunter you’ll have to hunt grouse.” And so it began. I don’t remember the where and when of my first grouse flush. But do remember the look on my setter Belle’s face when it broke cover. That look of wonderment as if to say, “Hey, these birds don’t play fair. What’s this about not holding for my point?”

So here I find myself, with grey in my beard and in the winter of my years my thoughts turn to why I hunt birds. What is so captivating about that brown blur to draw me back to the forests and fields every year? For me it is the un-measureable. It’s something to not put a number on. Yeah, we count flushes of grouse or quail in the bag. But those are long forgotten when the memories hold our mind:The setter corkscrewing into a point; my hunting buddy dropping the hammer on an empty chamber on a straightaway grouse; field lunches on a truck tailgail with friends. You just can’t measure those.

Bird hunting releases me from a life full of metrics to simply experience the my connection with nature. Like many others, my everyday life is full of numbers:  sales goals, profit/loss statements, survey results, and counting the number of Twitter and Facebook followers. Yes, I know some folks keep a gunning log recording flushes, birds in the bag, where they hunted and the weather. More power to them.  I’m sure for them that’s part of the hunting experience.

I don’t, simply because it is an experience I don’t want to put a number on. How do you measure the look your 12 year old son gives you when he shoots his first quail? Tell me how to put a number on the anticipation when the sound of a dog bell goes silent in a Wisconsin aspen thicket? Where is the spreadsheet column to record the smiling eyes of my setter when he passes in front of me on an Appalachian mountain ridge on a crisp Autumn morning? Somebody please tell me how to transfer to numbers the laughter that follows your hunting buddy muffing a straightaway on a grouse down a logging road . . . with both barrels. At the end of the day, whether there are birds to clean or not, and the flush counter on my whistle lanyard is reset, the memories will always be there. That is why I hunt.

I guess David Petersen in his book A Hunter’s Heart says it about as well as any: ” To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. Fore the glimpse in offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closest thing I’ve known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can’t help myself . . .because I have a hunter’s heart.”

Lost Connection with Nature

An old high school friend I connected with on Facebook recently posted a video about how the re-introduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1994 completely changed the ecosystem. Down to the point they attributed the course change of a stream to the wolves. The first thing I noticed in the video was they referred to elk as deer. And that’s where our civil discussion started. I noted the producers didn’t know much about wildlife if they didn’t know the difference. She allowed as how despite that editorial glitch the concept was the same.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Well, no it’s not. I then pointed out that six years prior to the wolf re-introduction Yellowstone had a massive wildfire, largest in its history, that profoundly affected the ecosystem; more so than the wolf population. The landscapes recovery from the wildfire simply coincided with the wolf introduction. To attribute ALL changes in the ecosystem to one apex predator was a bit of a stretch. After our online discussion ended it got me thinking: This is what we face as sportsmen and conservationists. An uninformed populous that doesn’t understand nature and falls for “feel good” publicity.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but generally speaking the American population has lost touch with nature. And just so you don’t think I’m just pointing fingers at environmentalists and animal rights folks, there are hunters who don’t get it either. Prior to the above internet exchange I was talking to a fellow clays shooter about grouse hunting. He allowed as how his friend in Vermont didn’t hunt grouse anymore because the grouse in his favorite cover were gone. I expressed that it wasn’t the grouse were just gone but the habitat had matured to an age that it was no longer suitable to grouse. They just moved.

Nature’s landscape is beautifully dynamic and impacted by many events. No one knew that more than Native Americans prior to colonization. We’ve been taught to believe those early North American dwellers had a light footprint on their environment. That is not true. In Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus early scientific explorers found evidence that tribes routinely managed forests and fields for their own sustenance. They conducted what we call prescribed burns to help young seeds regenerate to attract wildlife and keep fields open. They also cut non-beneficial trees to allow mast bearing trees like oaks, hickory, and chestnut to grow for their own use as well to attract wildlife. I highly recommend its reading to understand early North America. You’ll be surprised.

Hunters are often blamed for the near extinction of elk in the eastern United States. And surely there were excesses with no game laws and a hungry population to feed in our westward movement. But another factor is that our colonization changed the landscape. Elk need grassy fields to graze. We turned those fields Native Americans had managed for wildlife into forests for a growing timber industry. Combine excessive hunting with a changing ecology and you see what we get.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Elk were not introduced into forested areas of the Smoky Mountains but an area with open fields, Cataloochee Valley. And as the herd has expanded they’ve sought similar habitat outside the Park boundaries. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is now working with the U.S. Forest Service on land adjacent to the Park and also has acquired local land to improve habitat in a new Game Land.

Native Americans didn’t use science to manage the landscape, but simply knowledge and human reasoning passed down over generations connected to the land. The Roman philosopher Cicero called it Natural Law. Science is to a degree an extension of Natural Law. Yes, there are folks who still have that connection with the land; farmers and hunters among them. Like Native Americans, they depend on it for sustenance and as a livelihood. Unfortunately within the general populous that is the exception, not the rule. In its most recent survey the USFWS found only about 12% of the American populous hunt.For the proper conservation of our resources we need to try and understand the complex relationship of all the factors affecting an ecosystem. Study. Read. Ask questions. Walk the land. Don’t just take for granted what an advocacy group says. Remember, they are advocating for a purpose. Sometimes facts and science that don’t support their purpose are willfully ignored.

That’s what real hunters, anglers and conservationists do. Not only do we pursue game, we understand the landscape and how different factors impact it whether it is fire, timber harvests, or introduction of a wildlife species. We are connected to the land. We do that not just for the game but to heighten the experience and connect us with nature. That’s what our forbearers did. Why can’t we?

The Future of Hunting

Oh woe is us. Doom and Gloom. By all indications the future of hunting in the United States is in question. According to an article in Outdoor Life we are in trouble. And don’t seem to be handling it well. In 1982 there were about 17 million licensed hunters in the U.S. In the most recent survey from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2016 that number was down to 11.5 million. That is a problem unto itself. It’s further complicated by the fact us Baby boomers comprise about one-third of that number. Thanks to the aging process (less physical strength, lack of mobility, etc.) we stop hunting at some point. So what to do?

That is a question faced by most state agencies and according to the Outdoor Life article they are doing it wrong. Just about all states, and a lot of non-government conservation groups, have an R3 program: Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation. We have one here in North Carolina. Recent evidence is the addition of an Apprentice hunting permit, and specific days and weeks set aside for youth deer, turkey, and waterfowl hunting. So why aren’t these programs being successful? I have my own theories which I’ll get to. But the article says we shouldn’t be targeting youth because it has a low return on investment. Most of the kids in the programs are in families that are already active hunters. You see, as they grow older they will simply be filling the shoes of an older family member who is aging out.

The key to the R3 program is young adult hunters. Now there is bright news on that front. According to a survey conducted by Southwick Associates, the number of women participating in hunting increased 10 percent in just four years. If you watch outdoor TV shows or thumb through your favorite hunting magazine you’ll see a larger number of women writers, columnists, and brand sponsors. That is good news.

But how do you attract young adult men? Let’s call them hipsters or millenials. They don’t fit the typical hunter mold. Yes, they may want to hunt but not for the same reasons that typical hunter does. The hipster deer hunter is doing it for organic meat, not the rack. They want to connect with a natural environment because we are increasingly urban and they may live in a large city. They may forsake the usual hunting traditions to pursue that path.

So how do we change our R3 model to both develop youth as long term hunters and recruit young adults? There is no simple answer but let me offer a couple of my thoughts. First, for both of those groups start out by connecting them with nature. Too often a first experience (particularly kids) is an ATV ride to a deer stand; sitting in the stand with dad or uncle; playing video games; shooting at a deer when dad says, “There’s one. Shoot it.” Sound familiar?

My old school solution to introduce someone to hunting is taking them out for small game. You’re moving around. You don’t have to be super quiet (with exceptions). It is natural that when you walk you observe your surroundings. When they see something that interests them it’s a chance to talk about wildlife movement and feeding habits, and what their habitat needs are. Can’t beat squirrel, rabbit, or bird hunting for that. Driving an eight year old to a tree stand, sitting with Dad while playing video games, and shooting a deer on command is not hunting.

Part of the R3 equation is access and opportunity. Access is about having places to hunt. Opportunity means having game in those places. This is another place we are failing. North Carolina is blessed with over 2 million acres of public access Game Lands. But is there game to pursue on those lands? At least in our region the answer is no; unless you are a squirrel hunter. Let me belabor the point: Our nearly one million acres of National Forests are nearly devoid of game animals. Just over 1,000 deer harvested last season. Grouse flush rates are at an historic low. It is difficult to recruit and retain hunters when there is no game to pursue. Then it becomes just a hike in the woods. To recruit new hunters there must be game to pursue on public land. That’s part of the equation.

Forest Management Isn’t Evil

from Forest History Society
Carl Schenck with Biltmore Boys

A columnist, and historian, for the local paper recently wrote an article with glowing remarks for a local environmental group and their impact on U.S. Forest Service management of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. In that piece he put the words Forest Management in quotes. I don’t know about you, but normally when you see something written in quotes it is meant as a bad thing. That got me thinking: since when was forest management considered evil?

So I had to respond. Here’s the text of my email to him: “In your January 8th column “Of bogs, beavers, red wolves” you put forest management in quotes as if it is a bad thing. OK, I know the paper is in the tank for the environmental movement. But as a historian you should remember that American forestry started here in western North Carolina through the efforts of Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck. That heritage is recognized at the Cradle of Forestry near Brevard.

The scientific research Schenck, a self-described lumberman, did over a century ago in the Biltmore School of Forestry became the foundational principles for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. Those principles encompass what is multiple use forest management: timber harvest for the local economy; recreational use for people; a variety of habitat for wildlife.

Until the environmental movement involvement in the 1990s you mentioned in that column those principles held true. Instead of conservation of resources, wise use, it became a model of preservation for human use. Forest management is a science, not an emotion which is what environmentalists bring to the table. Thanks to their efforts the forest no longer provides the economic benefit of timber harvest or habitat for survival of wildlife.

If you haven’t already, as a historian you should spend an hour viewing the documentary “America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment” to truly understand that forest management is not evil. It is about conservation, not preservation.

Timber harvest at the Biltmore School of Forestry

Western North Carolina is proud of its heritage but seems to have forgotten this part of it. Scientific forest management in the United States started here. Carl Schenck came from Germany as a trained forester but had to re-learn his science because of the variety of trees and terrain differences he was trained for in Germany. George Vanderbilt brought him here to manage his Biltmore Estate forest, a working/self-sustaining estate, with three purposes in mind: produce timber for income, recreational opportunities for Vanderbilt and his guests, and wildlife habitat associated with that recreation.

In doing so Schenck took local young men under his wing and trained them in his new forestry techniques. That became the Biltmore School of Forestry, first in the nation, and many of his students went to work for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. The same principles he taught at that school also became the guiding principles for the Forest Service for following decades, that of multiple use.

Then arrived the environmental movement and everything changed. Management of the forest wasn’t about science but emotion. Thus the name “tree hugger” (and yes that’s meant in bad terms). In the 1990’s the model started turning from conservation with multiple uses to preservation only considering the recreational and emotional benefit of an undisturbed forest. Using regulations and litigation, along with an emotionally sympathetic and uninformed populous, environmentalists all but shut down timber harvests and thus wildlife habitat on the National Forests in our southern mountains.

Evidence? Year after year the Forest Service has failed to meet timber harvest goals for both economic benefit and wildlife habitat. This has resulted in the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests being only 1% young forest growth when the goal is 10 percent. And wildlife has suffered.

During the most recent North Carolina deer harvest recorded year, 2016-2017, there were more deer harvested in one county in Western NC than on ALL of the Pisgah/Nantahala;  nearly 1 million acres. As reported by the NC Wildlife Commission avid grouse hunter survey data, grouse numbers continue to decline to the point that a hunter will have no flushes on one of three trips taken on Forest Service land. Non-game species like Golden-Winged Warblers are also in decline.

Schenck Instructing Students in Forestry

It is time to put the science back into forest management, not associate it with something evil. The research and teaching Carl Schenck did a century ago is still true today. Forestry management truly is a science, not an emotion. Wildlife habitat is also a science. No matter how many times environmentalists say they support wildlife habitat, their words ring hollow. They ignore the science in favor of an emotional response. A cautionary note to hunters: If you want to continuing pursuing game on federal forests you’d better stand tall, learn the science, and speak up. We need to spread the message: Forestry is a science, not an emotion. Forestry and Wildlife Management is not evil.

Photos courtesy Forest History Society – www.foresthistory.org

Outdoor New Year Resolutions

Have you made your New Year resolutions? So, how many have you broken just two weeks in? I’m afraid to look at those from last year, knowing most of them probably fell by the wayside. It’s amazing how life interferes with those things we really enjoy doing, isn’t it? As I enter my home stretch in life my hope is to spend more time doing enjoyable things. I’m semi-retired so time should not be an issue. Conflicting priorities, i.e. my wife’s gardening, will present a challenge. So here goes with some things I want to accomplish this year as an outdoorsman in no particular order.

First, shoot more registered targets at sporting clays. The National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA) hosts events at local clubs where you record your score and they are reported to national. NSCA has different skill levels starting at E Class and working up to Master shooter. Needless to say, since I’ve not been to many registered shoots I’m currently stuck in E Class. One of the challenges to accomplishing this goal is the lack of registered shoots in our local area. The closest I’m aware of is in Spartanburg. That means travel which also means additional expenses.

I’ve shot a couple of events over the past few years and they are always fun. Great group of folks and there’s a social element to the shoots. Why do this? To improve my shooting. The challenge of competition forces me to “up my game”. I tend to focus more on breaking targets, not so much competing with other folks as with myself. Going to competitive shoots also means more practice. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. My goal is to attend 5 – 6 registered shoots in 2018 to the point that I can consistently shoot 80 targets in a practice round.

This next one is a bucket list item. As you well know, I’m a lifelong bird hunter. One of the things I’ve never done is hunt wild pheasant in one of the western states. My only wild pheasant hunting experience was nearly thirty years ago at an Army Recreation Center in Korea. The hunting was fantastic but I’ve still not hunted them here in the states. The closest I came was three years ago when my son was at an Army school in Kansas. It never materialized as his school schedule and mine never worked out.

So Kansas or Iowa provide the closest opportunities but they’re still a full day’s drive away. But hey, I’ve driven that far for grouse so why not. I’m drawn further west for one reason. A twofer. Along with hunting pheasant another bucket list item is to hunt pronghorn antelope. Not sure what my attraction is to pronghorns. I’ve just always been fascinated by them and what it would take to shoot one. It’s typically long range shooting on the plains. So going out to South Dakota or western North Dakota looks like the best option. It’s time to start planning.

My third resolution is more local. Something forsaken to meet work obligations. I really want to spend more time trout fishing our mountain streams. I’ve already got the gear although my skills are lacking. My method is more akin to flailing the water than artful presentation. But it’s fun and can be done with a little travel and minimum financial investment. Or so I think. We are truly blessed with ample trout fishing opportunities here in the mountains. Nearly a thousand miles of streams and a very active stocking program by the WRC.

To be an angler in Western North Carolina and not take advantage of the resource is insane. And I’m not there yet. There are waters for every angler: Hatchery Supported, Delayed Harvest, Wild Trout, and even some of the local lakes and ponds are stocked by the WRC like Max Patch and Lake Powhatan. This also has me thinking that maybe it’s time to buy a canoe to do some drift fishing for smallmouth bass on the French Broad River, another overlooked opportunity in our area.

So there you have it, my short list of three resolutions for the next year. Maybe if I keep the list short there is a greater chance of getting them done. Hope you make plans to spend time in the outdoors this coming year. Happy New Year.

Two Jakes

My son Bob and I both harvested jake turkeys Easter weekend. Nothing unusual there, right? Young toms are easy to call in, especially early season. What made this hunt special? The first turkey either of us ever killed. I’m 63 and he’s 37. It was a special hunt for another reason.

I’ve watched too many turkey hunting TV shows. You know the ones. The host locates a roosted tom, yelps, the tom gobbles. That sequence repeats itself for what seems an eternity while the old boy slowly works toward the seductive hen. When he’s in range the hunter smacks him with a 3” load of #4s. A huge bird! Eleven inch beard with 1 1/2” spurs. That was how I envisioned our hunt going. As we said in the Army, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

We parked the truck by the farmer’s house in the pre-dawn darkness and began to unload. As the first glimmer of light peeked over the adjacent mountain, with our gear and guns in hand, I shut the tailgate of the truck. A shock gobble echoed from the ridge near my planned setup. Yes! So far everything is going to plans. We moved quickly to our ambush point.

We set our decoys about 20 yards into the field, hid inside the nearby trees, loaded our shotguns, and I sent out a quick yelp from the box call. A throaty gobble came back from the same ridgeline. I waited a couple of minutes and called again. The old tom answered back. Then he went quiet. I whispered to my son, “He’s off the roost now. Watch for him to come around the tree line to our left in the field.”

My occasional call over the next thirty minutes went unanswered. I had read it is not uncommon for an old bird to approach quietly. I mixed up my calls, sometimes using the box, then a slate, and maybe a push button call. I thought maybe three different hen sounds might just bring him in a little faster. But patience was the name of the game. Anyway, isn’t that how it happened on TV?

We noticed a lone hen cross in the field headed to our left. While watching the hen peck her way across the field Bob suddenly whispered, “Two birds to the right!” I slowly turned my head and barely made out the birds through some nearby trees about twenty-five yards away. One of them was strutting. As they moved forward I could see that both of them were jakes with 3” beards.

I said quietly, “Get your gun up.” We had agreed beforehand that if two birds came in we would shoot both on a three count. After a couple more steps I still couldn’t see the trail bird. Suddenly they stopped and turned. I told Bob, “Take your bird.” Boom! The lead bird went down. The trail bird, mine, ran up the field ridge away from us. Instinctively I hit the yelper. He turned, ran back down the hill, and stood over his buddy. Now it was my turn and the second jake went down. The amazing thing: the entire sequence from seeing the birds to both on the ground was maybe three minutes. We looked at each other and Bob said, “That’s not how I thought it would happen but we’ll take it!”

The farmer was smiling as we approached the truck and told us he saw the whole thing unfold. He said, “Look over there.” Two old toms were strutting in an adjacent field, each with five or six hens. We each killed birds, but most importantly have a father and son memory. I just wanted Bob to kill a turkey. You see, he is about to leave on his sixth military deployment. Our hunting opportunities are limited. We will cherish that hunt for more reasons than just a bird.

Building Lifelong Hunters

I recently read an article lamenting the impact that a loss of hunters will have on wildlife habitat and wildlife numbers in general. It is true in that we owe what we have in wildlife populations to hunter’s contributions through Pittman-Robertson Act funds, license sales, and conservation groups. And if hunter numbers decline so will the revenue from all of those sources. So the obvious answer is: we need to recruit more hunters!

The NSSF released a report in 2012, Hunting in America: An Economic Force for Conservation. The report is based on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data from a survey they collect every five years about hunter activity. When you look at the data hunter numbers have actually remained stable just under 16 million over the reporting years. The number of youth under 16 hunting has also remained fairly stable. The problem is: How do we retain those young hunters?

It’s not just a matter of getting them in the woods and fields. It’s about getting them out there under the right circumstances. In my previous life owning a small gun store, many parents came in wanting to get their kid a first gun. You would think they would be looking for a .22 rifle or small gauge shotgun. Nope, they were looking for a centerfire rifle to take the kid deer hunting. I even had one father want to buy a .270 for his eleven year old son. What is wrong with this picture?

You don’t continue the hunting tradition and build lifelong hunters by waking a kid up at 4 a.m., riding him or her to a tree stand on an ATV, and then having them sit there playing games on an iPad waiting for deer to walk in to a bait site. You build future hunters by starting them out in the woods hunting squirrels, field edges for rabbits, or sitting in a duck blind. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying taking a kid deer hunting is wrong. In my opinion it’s not the best experience in building a hunting tradition.

I know it’s “old school”, but it’s time to return to the old days. It all has to do with activity and the inquisitive nature of youth. Anyone who has children knows they can’t be still. Why not take advantage of that? A slow walk through the woods keeps them moving. It also gives an adult the chance to explain things they see. What kind of animal track is that? More importantly, which kind of trees attract squirrels? Why are ducks attracted to flooded timber? Not only that, there is more action. Action, whether it is in an oak/hickory stand or mallards gliding through flooded timber is the answer. Tell me this: Which is better to develop a future hunter, a kid shooting one deer sitting in a tree stand or three squirrels walking through the woods? To me the answer is obvious.

I place part of the blame for this culture to “kill a deer” on state game management agencies. As it is with most things you have to follow the money. In a state with large deer populations which attract non-resident hunters, there is more revenue from license fees for large game than small game. When is the last time you saw a state game agency promote its squirrel or upland bird hunting opportunities? I didn’t think so.

Large outdoor retailers and TV shows are also culprits. Look through any retailer catalog and there is an abundance of camo youth deer hunting clothing and gear. Try to find a pair of brush pants for a 10 year old. Have you ever watched a TV show with a kid on his or her first rabbit hunt? Neither have I.

Delta Waterfowl also had a recent article about the impact of the decline in duck hunters, even while duck populations increase. To build a lifelong hunter, and prevent a decline in hunter numbers, we have to start promoting the hunting experience that gives youth plenty of action and appeals to their inquisitive nature. That is the challenge because it takes a greater investment in time by the hunting mentor. It is not a “one and done” that a lot of parents look for in a deer hunting experience. It requires many days in the field to build a hunter.