Sunday, January 29, 2012


Last weekend it rained.  Again.  How this still qualifies as a drought I can't understand, squishy as the ground is nearly everywhere.  According to NOAA, however, we have improved from Extreme to merely Severe status. Whatever.  We were stuck inside.

The only real blessing I find in days like these during hunting season is the opportunity to get slightly caught up on what unavoidably gets neglected from September to the first of March.  Cleaning, fixing, moving, touching up, throwing out and the general repair and maintenance of the nuptials can eat up a weekend in no time.  After I let the dogs back in I sat down for a minute, taking a break from the domestic gulag to catch up on some reading, and was immediately overcome with the smell.  Unmistakable, overpowering, thick enough that it ought to be visible.  Wet bird dog.

I can understand why some people, especially non-dog people, would find it less than appealing.  It's not exactly perfume or potpourri and I doubt Glade will be incorporating it in their lineup this year but it's not altogether repulsive either.  Dew-soaked mornings, dips in a puddle or a creek, rides home when the inside of the truck smelled of nothing other than damp dog fur.  This never turned me off.  Sometimes it lingered for a few days and I'd get to enjoy it on the way to work.  I can never recall, not even once, rolling down the windows or otherwise trying to cover it up.

I have a closet full of scents that fit the same bill. The bottle of Hoppes No 9 in my cleaning box is as unique as anything in there.  The fact that it's a solvent can't be denied and it will open your eyes if you get too close.  From working distance, though, it almost has a sweet smell to it.  Apparently enough people felt the same way that Hoppes now offers air fresheners.

When I pull out the No 9 and the barrels for scrubbing I get a faint whiff of the leftover powder.  It smells exactly like the gunpowder hanging in the air after the first trigger pull on opening day, sharp, announcing with its presence the beginning of a new season.  By January or February you don't notice it as much, but after a long summer it floods a nose.  Powerful stuff.

The tincloth of my Filson vest has an aroma all its own.  As do my gloves which, like any really good gear, have a story.  When I was maybe thirteen or fourteen I saw an ad in a magazine for authentic Marlboro Man gear.  Shearling coat, cowboy hat, boots, vest, the whole works.  The deal was you sent in empty packs of Marlboros as legal tender. Everything in the ad was many cartons' worth, the shearling coat priced at a good decade of any chain-smoker's pleasure.  But there was a pair of leather gloves for the occasional, only-when-I'm-drinking smoker, maybe twenty or thirty empty packs.  And I wanted them.

As luck would have it my dad worked with a dedicated Marlboro patron who gladly contributed to the cause and in about 6-8 weeks I had my gloves.  Normally the stuff you get in these giveaways is worth less than the empties you trade for it and falls apart in a few months, junque in the classic sense.  These, however, may go down as the deal of all time. Thirty plus years later they're still at it, not a tear, not a crack, not a loose stitch anywhere. It's gonna be a sad day when that first chink appears.  All well-worn leather smells distinctive, far different than brand new, and each individual piece more distinctive still.  I could pick these out of a lineup blindfolded.

As potent as these scents are, even more so are the memories tied to them.  Instant, uncontrollable recall kicks in as they tickle the olfactory wires.  Hundreds all at once and strangely each one is good.

Rain, rain go away.  But don't take these smells with you.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Great Bobwhite Revival - Opening Round

Underdogs and longshots don't start out with all of the cards in their favor.  A few months ago I posted about the NBCI's call to action, a short list of tasks (see bold face below) avid quail hunters can engage in to swing some of the odds back in favor of the troubled bird. On paper it doesn't look nearly as impossible as it's proven over the last 10-20 years. Channeling my inner Quixote I grabbed a lance and set out to challenge these windmills of bobwhite, hoping not to make a complete ass of myself in the process.

Here's where we stand to date:

Support your state's quail initiative

For several years I've kept in touch with our state's small game project coordinator, Billy Dukes, about the bobwhite restoration efforts at the DNR.  Billy's an extraordinary quail biologist and an all-around good guy.  His department has been decimated (it's down to Billy and a secretary) by the last few rounds of budget cuts, yet he's still found time to put together a very viable plan for the bobwhite restoration efforts in our state.  What's been missing is support outside of the agency.  It has to do with how a project is presented to the board.  If presented by staff members with no external support it can come across as a pet project funded by taxpayers.  If constituents - hunters and fishermen who pay taxes- make the request it comes across in an entirely different light.

A call to a board member resulted in the recommendation that I get on the agenda for one of their monthly meetings and make our request.  That's it?  That's all I have to do?  Alluringly simple, although the actual approval of our request was neither guaranteed nor implied.

As the plan is still being tweaked and hasn't been presented to the board yet I'll reserve any details.  I will say that the most appealing part of the plan is the lack of any request or requirement for funding by the DNR, something that should make it instantly appealing.  Any win that a government agency can chalk up without compromising another of its programs or placing it further in debt should get plenty of support.  Notice I've now said should twice. Political no-brainers sometimes have a way of becoming brainers.  Still, I like our chances.

Tell your local Congressional delegation to prioritize Farm Bill conservation programs

The Queen Mother of windmills
I fired off letters to my congressman and one of our senators specifically requesting that they give equal priority to wildlife conservation.  I considered sending emails but thought, possibly erroneously, that a tangible message might hang around on a desk longer than an email.  Typically such a letter generates a stock "Thank you for your interest in ______ " response followed by reassurances that said representative highly values constituent input and will diligently look into the issue at hand.  This is why they have all those staffers and interns.  My letters must have generated intense debate, research and philosophical discussion of the highest magnitude, much of which continues as I write this post, as so far I've received zero response.  I'm not worried. If they don't respond they're going to have to beg for that $5 contribution to their re-election funds.

I'm happy to share the content of these letters with anyone who wishes to do the same. Caveat emptor: since these have generated absolutely no response they may not have pressed the right buttons.

Join a grassland habitat-related conservation organization immediately

Yes it says immediately, but I'm deferring to the second half on this one.  Throwing $40-45 at each of the main bobwhite conservation groups would be the easy way to check this off the list.  Given the amount of work we have ahead of us and the precious nature of every dollar bill, I'd much prefer to put my $$ behind the ones that are going to play ball with us here in SC.  It sounds selfish, I know, but oddly it's the only way to get changes on a range-wide scale.  Everyone should insist that the lion's share of their donations be used locally.

As we get further along in the quail initiative all of the players will have an opportunity to participate.  And I'll return the favor of those that do.

So there we have it, relatively pain-free up to this point but the hard work hasn't truly started yet.  It's going to be an interesting trip.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Time for some adjustments

I've been an analytical sort for a long, long time.  I studied engineering, I work in the financial side of a decidedly blue collar business, metrics, analysis, measurement, comparisons, reporting, scorecards .... all tools of my trade and fairly ingrained in my approach to just about everything.  I even keep track of the books I read and listen to.   We all have our demons and this is one of mine, somewhere between compulsion and affliction.

Today was the last day to shoot dove until September.  The funky weather patterns since Thanksgiving have thrown long-held expectations for the third season out the window (translation:  everybody sees birds around, calls a hunt for the next day, shows up and the birds are gone).  I've shot a limit on the last day of the season before but I knew when I left the house today that it wasn't in the cards this year.  The worst part?  This is the first season since I started hunting that I haven't managed a limit of dove.  At all.  Not even on opening day.

And there's something wrong with that.  Not with the fact that I didn't get a limit, with the fact that I know I didn't get a limit.  This isn't a competition, it's something I supposedly do for enjoyment.  You don't get some rodeo-sized belt buckle for shooting limits.  Once it's over you get an ounce of boost to your ego and have a serving of satisfaction and that's it.  Why not get that satisfaction from something else, and get it every time?

Easier said than done for an analytical type.

The splash of cold water in the face is that it's time to let go of a few things I've held close for many, many years.  These things have provided some measure of comfort, most likely through a perception that if I kept track of the numbers I'd maintain control.  What gets measured gets done, right?  Not necessarily.  And not if measuring takes the fun out of it.

I've been pecking away at this since early September and during that time I came across this post on The Drake's website.  Bruce Smithhammer hit it pretty solid and while he was talking about fly fishing instead of bird hunting and anger directed toward others instead of toward yourself, he makes his case exceptionally well:  never forget that this is about fun.

Without dessert a great dinner is still great, but dessert leaves nothing unfinished.  This is kind of the way I felt about shooting a limit of birds.  I always had a great time in the field, but leaving with six or nine or even twelve birds had a loose end feel to it.  To have fun every time this loose end has to go.  I'm not talking about clipping it.  I'm talking about not acknowledging its existence.  I'm talking about looking at it and not seeing it at all.

Somehow, some way, this calls for a shift in consciousness.  I don't know how it plays out, but I know it's time.  There will always be occasion to celebrate a double and be thankful for a limit, and those limits will come.  I haven't completely given up trying to hit birds.  And my guess is, for a while anyway, there will still be those nagging numbers in the back of my head.  But it's time.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It's the 'other' season

The woods are a lot more quiet than they were a week ago.  Deer season is over.  Sunday through Saturday is now fair game for me and the dog on dozens of properties that previously required scheduling, coordinating, or were just plain off-limits.

There's a piece of private land, extremely convenient in that it's only twenty minutes from the house, that I only have access to after the deer lease ends.  I was there at daylight yesterday and put about four or five miles on my boots before lunchtime, finding one covey in the process. Beautiful, mild morning, easy walking on comfortable roads.  I should have felt fortunate given the relative scarcity of birds this close to home.  But noooooo, I wanted more.  More birds, more points, more shots, more in the bag.  That seems like an awful way to start a new year. When did I become such a greedy, ungrateful wretch?

It's not the first time I've found myself wishing every day could be an eight or ten covey day with plenty of shooting, plenty of contact for the dog, and maybe even a chance at a limit of quail, something that's been a pipe dream as far as wild birds go in these parts.  Granted wishes have a curious habit of never being enough, though.  If every day was a ten covey day, I'd wish the dog worked better.  Or worse, I'd pick out the one covey he didn't handle so well and dwell on it, brooding for hours at the lack of perfection. As if I never miss a shot. Hey, there's something else to be pissed about.  Give me an Elhew pointer and a brand new shotgun and then I'd be happy.

Or I could complain about not having a wider variety of birds in our state.  I'd sure like to have pheasant or huns or sharptails to shoot and not have to drive so far to get into the grouse woods.  New England and South Dakota have it so much better.

I read once that happiness is not having what you want, it's wanting what you have.  That's an odd proposal, odd in that we'd all like to be happier but where would we be as a civilization if somebody at some point hadn't wanted more?  Still living in caves, building fires for light and warmth, and.....yep, going hunting every day.  Man, those cavemen had it so much better.

So I guess it's human nature for satisfaction to be a temporary thing.  What would happen if every day were the perfect day?  What if I could never, ever find something wrong with a day in the field?  I'd bitch about being rained out, like today.

Monday, January 2, 2012

This is what they call a zero-sum game

What's good for one group is bad for another.  It's hardly mentioned in this Thursday article on the NY Times website, but the plain truth is that rising crop prices aren't generally a good things for birds or the hunters who chase them.

Higher prices for corn and other staple grains translate to fewer acres of native grasses and shrubs, prime habitat for many gamebirds. The economics work like this:  A farmer has 20 acres of what he considers 'marginal' land, dirt so full of rocks or so lacking in nutrients or so damp that he can only manage 15 bushels of crop per acre when it comes time to harvest.  With corn prices at $2.50/bushel this land generates $37.50 an acre under the plow.  Take out the $5 or so per acre it costs to actually grow the corn (seed, fertilizer, diesel fuel, etc) and he nets even less.  The Conservation Reserve Program offers the farmer $50 per acre to plant some native grasses and just leave the land alone for ten years.  Easy decision, right?

Easy until world populations grow and all those new bellies want food in them.  Demand increases, prices rise, and all of sudden the farmer looks up and corn is fetching $6/bushel. Now this formerly marginal land is worth $90 an acre if he farms it, substantially more than the $50 an acre it gets in CRP.  And farmers instantly start bailing out of the CRP.  

And it's not just CRP acreage that's being converted back to cropland.  The article talks about midwest golf courses, windbreaks, even old homes being torn down, cleared and plowed to make room for more rows of crop.  I don't have much of a problem with a golf course being returned to farmland.  America needs another golf course like it needs another lawyer.  And if you tear down an old house that was in terrible disrepair and hadn't been lived in since the '30s you haven't really lost anything of use.  The cropland these are replaced with does provide food for migrating birds, so it's not a complete loss.  I hunt dove over corn, wheat, soybeans and sunflowers, and ducks and geese feed in these fields on their way south every year.  Where it falls short, though, is providing the critically important cover that upland gamebirds use for breeding and shelter.  It's like having several thousand grocery stores in a town but no houses.

CRP isn't likely to disappear completely.  There will always be land so marginal that it makes economic sense to leave it in the program.  And there will always be responsible farmers who will leave field borders for wildlife. Keeping CRP acreage from plummeting, however, is ultimately about dollars.  Funding CRP at higher rates is a challenge in good times; in the current environment it's a practical impossibility.  That leaves private sector funding as the stopgap, and it's going to be tough for organizations like Pheasants Forever to raise the necessary comparable capital.  We're talking about billions, not millions.

What the conservation groups lack in finance they can make up for in marketing and public relations, raising awareness among farmers and landowners of the value in creating and preserving wildlife habitat.  One thing working in our favor now is a general national consciousness of doing things in an environmentally responsible manner.  Leveraging this holds the best hope in the fight against world economics. Zero-sum doesn't have to mean winner take all.