Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Robins, and Thrashers, and Kites! Oh, my!

Last week, I was fortunate to be doing outdoor work for a change... building a fence to be specific. So... I had a bit more opportunity than usual to observe some suburban wildlife... and by "wildlife" I mean wild birds.

This is the time of year when many young birds (still incapable of flight) are fledging the nest and being fed by their parents on the ground. I've seen more fledgling American Robins (Turdus migratorius) lately than I can count. Most Robins are probably wrapping up their second brood of the season by now. Robins are one of the handful of species that has actually benefited from anthropogenic habitat alteration. Their population is growing... obviously so in my area.

Mother Robin on her nest in my carport in 2007.

These little guys successfully fledged, but not all are so lucky.

In a previous post, I featured a mother Robin on her nest that had survived a serious windstorm. Unfortunately, she didn't raise her brood to fledging. She disappeared shortly after I wrote that post. If I had to guess, one of the neighborhood cats got her. Her nest was just a little too obvious, although I don't really consider a housecat with nothing better to do a true agent of natural selection. Far too many songbirds become the victims of housecats... but I digress.

Robins aren't the only fledgling birds that I've seen lately either. I've seen several Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), and Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) around my own house... but my closest encounter was last week with a species I had never actually seen as a fledgling. When I found it, I immediately thought "this looks like a... "

Let me tell you the story.

Last week, my friend Mark and I were building a fence for a lady living in a suburban Memphis neighborhood. Thursday morning when we arrived at her house, she was just about to leave for work. She mentioned to Mark that she had heard a bird in her garage the night before, and he called me over to investigate. We promptly located the fledgling behind a freezer and I was able to safely capture it. It had lots of energy and appeared to be in fine condition, but I imagine it wouldn't have survived too much longer trapped in that garage. I figured its parents would be nearby, and I decided to place it under the shrubbery at the front of the house so the lady could drive away and close the garage door without incident. Little did I know this baby bird had other things on its mind.

As soon as its feet hit the ground, it made a beeline across the driveway for the neighbor's back yard. Fortunately, it wasn't run over by the car as the lady pulled out of the garage. It quickly made its way under the neighbor's fence (luckily no dog in that back yard). The little one knew exactly which way to go as it had almost certainly been communicating with its parents through that closed garage door all morning. As soon as it got into the back yard, I saw one of the parents in the oak tree above. It was indeed a Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) just as I had initially suspected. It was nice to have that nearly instant confirmation... no need to look it up when I got home. It was also nice knowing that I helped safely reunite a family. My good deed for the day was done.

In addition to all of the songbirds that graced me with their presence, I saw my fair share of raptors too. I saw the usual Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and what I believe to have been a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)... but I'm not very confident about that ID made from a moving vehicle. I also saw plenty of my favorite raptors- Mississippi Kites (Ictinia mississippiensis). Three Mississippi Kites kept watch over the neighborhood where we were building the fence, and I even got to see one carrying off a meal (what appeared to be a small songbird) on Wednesday.

I've never been able to snap a photo of a Mississippi Kite, but just so you'll know what they look like, here is Audubon's rendition (a framed print that once hung in my office) and the cover of a book from my bird library. They're simply beautiful animals.

Mississippi Kites are, in my humble opinion, one of the finest looking birds of prey out there, and Memphis is blessed to have what appears to be a healthy population of them. I see them soaring all over the city including my neighborhood... but it hasn't always been that way. The local population had dwindled drastically during the 1960s (probably thanks to DDT), but now the graceful birds are a pretty common sight around the city. Rumor has it that the Memphis Zoo played a key role in this population rebound... pretty cool to see a local conservation effort that has apparently worked.

My bird watching continued into the weekend... which was about the only positive aspect of my solo fishing trip to Herb Parsons Lake on Saturday. I saw Green Herons (Butorides virescens), Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias), Great Egrets (Casmerodius albus), a Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), and a fair number of ducks and songbirds. I even saw a Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea)... one of my favorite bottomland birds. Unfortunately, my camera isn't up to the task of photographing small birds at a distance.

Giving up

As for the fishing... I'd rather not talk about it.

By the way, if you've never heard of Herb Parsons (the man the lake was named for), he was a legendary exhibition shooter and world champion duck caller from west Tennessee. He was known as the "Showman Shooter" and is considered by many to be the greatest exhibition shooter of all time. He died way too early, but he still left quite a legacy. Enjoy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More family fishing, fly rod only

At a family gathering Saturday at my sister's house, I made an offer for "free fly fishing lessons" out by the pond.

Who could refuse "free"?

Most of the family actually... but I had a couple of takers. Two of my nephews decided that fishing was the most interesting thing going at the moment and joined me down at the waters edge.

I tried to explain the basic mechanics of fly casting and demonstrated (albeit poorly) a basic cast. I pretty much handed over the two rods I had with me and gave a few pointers on casting as needed. I really let them learn on their own... and they both did very well.

Robert, my oldest nephew, played the trombone in a very competitive high school marching band, and I really think his musical sense of timing helped him establish a rhythm. He quickly adapted to sidearm casting under the overhanging trees, and even caught a couple of fish. John Curtis, Robert's younger brother, did very well casting too, even though he missed out on catching a fish. He had a bit of difficulty with line management and hook setting, but I know he'll figure that out in time.

Robert's first fly rod fish

Robert with the big fish of the day

I managed to catch two small Bluegill and one 6" Largemouth in the few minutes that I actually fished. I mostly stood back and coached. The day was about family after all, and it was really nice to see my nephews try their hands at something that I have enjoyed so much.  The suburban subdivision pond proved to be a great place to let them learn. The only thing that would have made it better is if John Curtis had hooked up with one. I could tell he was a bit disappointed, but I'm sure he wouldn't hesitate to give it another go.

Maybe one day they'll join me on a river. They have an open invitation.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Unforgettable trout trips

It seems like a simple question to answer.

Which trout fishing trip was my favorite?


Maybe it was the time I waded and fished my way up a challenging stream in the Smokies for six hours and nearly two miles to be rewarded by only a single 5" trout... but somehow still felt like my day was a huge success.


Maybe it was the time I went fishing with my friend Zack Brown (not that Zac Brown) on the Little Red River, and I rescued a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) that had his head stuck in a pig carcass. I discovered this very strange situation when I went to relieve myself near the river... but I honestly don't remember catching any trout.

A very dehydrated Black Vulture and a much younger me

Then again...

Maybe it was the time that same friend and I floated for two days and twenty-five miles down the Spring River, and we caught more trout than I could possibly remember.


Maybe it was the time I took Kelly to that same river and she caught her very first trout.

Kelly's first day of trout success

Better yet...

Maybe it was the time Kelly and I went fishing on Christmas Day and I caught my best trout of the year on a silly fly I tied just for the holidays.

The "Christmas Crawdad"


My favorite trout fishing trip could have been any of those times, but I know that my favorite is always the one that has yet to come.

The planning, the fly tying to fill boxes, the anticipation during the preceding days, the preparation of gear, and the difficulty I have falling asleep the night before I go are all parts of the familiar routine that builds up to my favorite trip.

It's not until the moment that I make my first cast of my next trip that I actually experience a favorite... and all of its exciting new possibilities. After the last cast of the day is made, my favorite once again ceases to exist.

Thankfully, I know that there are still countless favorites out there which I have yet to experience. I also know that without the conservation efforts of organizations like Trout Unlimited, I might actually have to pick a favorite trout fishing trip from times past. The next generation of anglers deserves to experience trout fishing as good or better than we have today, and for that reason, trout fisheries and habitat must be protected. No one should ever have to hear about how good the trout fishing used to be... and no one should ever have to settle on a favorite trip from the past.

Here's to Trout Unlimited and my favorite trout fishing trip...
whenever and wherever it may be.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Family fishing and a small victory for the fly rod

Kelly had the opportunity to go fishing with her brother Kevin and his family on Saturday. They live in south Mississippi, and Kelly is currently in Hattiesburg teaching summer camps at the University of Southern Mississippi. I know Kelly was really excited to get to spend some quality time with her niece Kellen whom she doesn't get to see very often. Kellen was also excited about going fishing with her aunt.

Kellen catches a Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus).

The proud angler shows off her catch.

Kellen caught two fish on crickets with her very own tiny pink spinning rod, and then aunt Kelly worked with her to land one on the fly rod.


Kelly was really excited when she called me Saturday evening, and the first words out of her mouth were simply "I win." Kelly and the long rod outfished all other methods including bait.

Big Bluegill (L. macrochirus) can't resist a woolly bugger.

In total, Kelly caught fifteen large Bluegill plus a few dinks and one 12" Largemouth Bass. Elizabeth, Kevin's wife and Kellen's mom, caught one small catfish on a stink bait. Kevin, who fished with spinning gear and lures, didn't catch any. At the end of the day, he was quite annoyed that he had been thoroughly outfished by a girl with a fly rod.

Welcome to my world, brother.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On my soapbox for snakes... and safety

In case you haven't seen a preview yet, ABC has a new show that will premiere June 21st called "Combat Hospital." You might be wondering... what does this show have to do with fly fishing and/or nature?

Not much really... at least not as far as I can tell.

They haven't revealed too much in the previews other than the basic concept that seems to be a modern ("War on Terror") version of "China Beach" or maybe a modern dramatic version of M*A*S*H.

So, why have I drawn your attention to it? Well, because the preview alone has already offended my sensibility and demonstrated such ridiculous stupidity... and I happen to like snakes.

Here's the dialogue and action from the preview that annoys me:
Xavier Marks (experienced male combat surgeon): "Don't anybody move." (draws his sidearm and fires at a snake slithering on the operating room floor)
Rebecca Gordon (newbie female combat surgeon): "That wasn't in the manual."
Why do I care? Because this is the kind of media generated garbage that perpetuates fear and idiotic "control" practices such as firing a bullet at a concrete floor in a crowded building. On top of that demonstration of stupidity, the snake that plays the role of an Afghani native serpent is a North American Pine Snake of the genus Pituophis. It's a bit difficult for me to identify it beyond that level because it only appears for about one second, and it is most certainly a captive bred snake supplied by a Hollywood animal provider. It has superficial characteristics of a Louisiana Pine Snake (P. ruthveni) as well as a good ol' Bullsnake (P. catenifer sayi). If I had to guess, it's probably some sort of Pine Snake hybrid.

I find it very interesting that the celebrity snake superficially appears to be a Louisiana Pine Snake (P. ruthveni). Louisiana Pines are one of the most endangered species of snake in the North America, and certainly don't need anybody getting the wrong impression about them. I sincerely hope nobody "learns" any snake I.D. from this show.

This is by no means the first time I've observed this sort of thing in entertainment media. It happens all the time actually. Couldn't they at least find a snake that comes from the appropriate continent? The only movie that I can think of that actually used authentic and geographically accurate snakes (both venomous and non-venomous) during filming was I Dreamed of Africa starring Kim Basinger.

I am fully aware that it would be inappropriate and downright dangerous to throw a McMahon's Desert Viper (Eristicophis macmahoni) on the floor of a TV studio set just for the sake of authenticity, and I wouldn't suggest anybody do so, but is it responsible to use a snake that, if not actually a Louisiana Pine, superficially resembles one of the rarest snakes in the U.S.?

I think not.

But far worse is simply villainizing a snake (just for being a snake) and having a highly educated, seemingly intelligent, character (a surgeon) fire a gun at a concrete floor inside a building which would likely injure someone or worse. Can we say "ricochet"? Unfortunately, a lot of people faced with a similar real life situation would make the same sort of irrational decision.

It reminds me of the police officers trigger happy morons in Oklahoma (2007) that "accidentally" killed the five year old boy (who was fishing with his grandfather) while attempting to shoot a snake in a tree. Based on my knowledge of snakes and what I read when the incident happened, the snake that the officers idiots were shooting at was a harmless Western Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) misidentified as a Rattlesnake.

Why am I so confident that it wasn't a Rattlesnake? First, the snake was in a tree, and Rattlesnakes aren't really known for their arboreal abilities. Rat Snakes, on the other hand, are expert tree climbers and even have special adaptations for climbing. Second, the snake was raiding a birdhouse- Rat Snakes are well known for this predatory behavior while Rattlesnakes don't typically eat birds and especially not their eggs. Rat Snakes become bird nest specialists during the nesting season and will eat hatchlings as well as eggs. Third, see my first and second points.

Even if it was a Rattlesnake (which it wasn't), it should have just been left alone. All snakes, even the venomous species, have their place in nature, and trying to kill snakes is often how people get hurt.

Sadly, the human victim of stupid snake slaughtering behavior isn't always the idiot attempting to kill the snake. Additionally, it's not in the job description of a police officer to wantonly shoot at wildlife. They should have called the proper wildlife officer or animal control to handle the situation... or just left it alone. The two officers involved were charged with manslaughter, but (to my knowledge) never served any time in prison.

When it comes to snakes... just leave them alone. It really is the safest option... and don't try to learn anything about snakes (or how to kill them) from Hollywood? Got it?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Fishing with Bill

Very early Monday morning (2:20 A.M.) June 6th, I left my house in Memphis and headed toward Jasper, Alabama. My destination was Bill Trussell's house and ultimately Lewis Smith Lake. It was an exciting day, because I was going fishing for the first time with a fellow blogger who I met through the Outdoor Blogger Network. Bill writes the blog Fishing Through Life, and if you don't read it, you should. Bill always has interesting things to share and writes with genuine enthusiasm about fly fishing his home waters on Smith Lake.

Bill lands the first Bluegill of the day.

Bill was just as enthusiastic in person as I imagined he would be from reading his blog. I was thoroughly impressed with how well he knows practically every shoreline and rock formation on the lake... which is pretty impressive when you consider that Smith Lake has 500 plus miles of shoreline. He also knows the fish on Smith Lake pretty well too. He knew very quickly that we weren't going to have an easy day... I think it only took him about five casts.

Bill wrote a pretty thorough account of our morning on the lake, so there's no sense in me trying to reinvent the wheel. The only thing I would add is that Bill has a very beautiful lake to call his home water. I would have to say that Smith Lake is probably the most scenic still water I've ever been on in the South.

Now, Bill calls the fish in his lake "Kentucky Spots," and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but I believe the Spotted Bass there are actually Alabama Spotted Bass (Micropterus henshalli).
Why do I think this? Well, Alabama Spotted Bass (or just Alabama Bass as they are now more properly called) are found in the upper Mobile River basin, and Smith Lake is indeed part of the Mobile River watershed.
What does this mean? It means that I get to cross another species off the list for the Bass Slam quest- one that I missed out on during our last trip. That pushes our collective total to 7 out of 18. I'm actually catching up with Kelly too. Currently, she has a one species lead.

My Bass Slam 12.25" Alabama Spotted Bass

Yet another victim of the Bunny Butt Slider

Although I only needed to catch a 12" Alabama Spotted for the Bass Slam, I'd really like to catch a bigger one... and I hope to get another chance soon. Bill was a great fishing partner, and I can't wait to visit him and his amazing home water again.

Friday, June 3, 2011

6/18 (or 1/3) Bass Slam Mission Accomplished: a canyoneering adventure

One third of our Bass Slam mission accomplished... I like the sound of that.

This is a brief account of what we did during our extended Memorial Day weekend trip to DeSoto State Park and Little River Canyon National Preserve.

It's probably no surprise that Kelly outfished me once again. I caught only one Bass Slam qualifying fish, while Kelly caught two. We both caught our needed Redeye Bass (Micropterus coosae), and of course Kelly's was bigger. Kelly also caught a qualifying Alabama Spotted Bass (M. henshalli) while I didn't catch a single one... not even a dink.

Kelly's Bass Slam 13.5" Alabama Spotted Bass caught on my damsel, Little River Canyon NP, AL

Jay's Bass Slam 10.25" Redeye Bass caught on a Bunny Butt Slider, LRCNP, AL

Kelly's Bass Slam 12.5" Redeye Bass, DeSoto State Park, AL

I should mention that Kelly's big Redeye of the trip (pictured above) ignored numerous offerings from me before she caught it. I should also mention that this fish was larger than any submitted to Bassmaster and published in their November 2010 Bass Slam article. The largest in the magazine was 11.5". Anyway, Kelly graciously let me have the first shot at it since she had already caught a qualifying Redeye. As we stood there watching the fish and tying on several different offerings, a fellow fly fisher wandered up to our pool and he quickly spotted the big female bass. Our new friend was nice enough to move on after he realized we working the pool, but before he moved on, we had a brief exchange regarding the bass in which I told him that she apparently wasn't interested in eating. After I finally gave up on trying to catch her, Kelly and I began to wade upstream through the pool. As we waded, we continued our methodical casting. Kelly caught the fish on her second or third cast... on the surface. How does she do it?

Of course, after Kelly caught the fish, I was so jealous proud of her that I made sure we let our fly fisher friend know that she caught it. He was just upstream of us at this point, and Kelly held up her fish. He immediately acknowledged what she had done. A little later when we met on the trail we let him know exactly how big she measured out.

Encountering a fellow fly fisher in DeSoto State Park is a rare occurrence. So rare that when we were gearing up in the parking area to go down to the stream, Park Superintendent Ken Thomas (who authored a nice article on fly fishing in the park) stopped his truck and talked to us when he saw that we had fly rods in our hands. He even told us where (and how) to catch the "big one." Kelly apparently pays better attention than I do.

In addition to our Bass Slam qualifiers, we caught a bunch of Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus), Redbreast Sunfish (L. auritus), and a handful of non-qualifying northern Largemouth Bass (M. salmoides salmoides) during our trip. I also hooked and broke off a small Channel Catfish on a Bunny Butt Slider... which was very annoying. I saw the catfish (actually two of them) holding at the bottom of a four foot deep pool and brought the fish to the surface by slapping the slider on the water. I got a take and a two second fight before it broke off. I blame old tippet that I probably should have just thrown away. It was painful watching the catfish swim away through the crystal clear water with my slider in his mouth.

The fishing conditions during our trip were tough and the route(s) we took to find fish weren't any easier. It was hot... really hot (upper 90s), and we probably didn't get in the water as early as we should have. There was a ton of fishing pressure because it was Memorial Day weekend. The wading in the Little River Canyon is already challenging to say the least, but we really challenged ourselves on Monday by attempting to access the main river by following a tributary (Johnnie's Creek) through its own side canyon. Our "hike" toward the main river (which we never actually reached) can only be accurately described as "canyoneering." We scrambled over boulders the size of cars, pulled ourselves up onto monoliths as large as elephants, carefully descended slippery waterfalls, waded through runs that have cut their way into the overhanging wall of the canyon for millennia... and somehow we made it back out before dark without incident... a little soreness and fatigue, but no serious injuries. Here's a little scenery from Johnnie's Creek canyon...

Johnnie's Creek is known for it's whitewater kayaking qualities when the water is up a bit, but we found it to be quite a bit calmer... and it provided a nice getaway from the Memorial Day crowd that was swarming Canyon Mouth Park. After we got away from the parking area, and the big waterfall and plunge pool near the road, we saw not another soul except the fishes... and that was just fine by me.