Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CONQUERING MOUNT ROGERS--VIRGINIA'S ROOFTOP

There’s a reason moving mountains is used metaphorically in description of a miracle. The mountains we know are Mother Nature’s most concrete creations, formed from the movement of tectonic plates and the very ground we walk on. They were born before us, and will persist long after our short lives are through. The best are untamable, rugged, dynamic in attitude—wild, as all the best places are.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Mount Rogers is Virginia’s tallest, and arguably wildest mountain. Located in the heart of the 200,000-acre Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (MRNRA), the once-active volcano steeps over Southwest Virginia at an elevation of 5,728 feet, and serves as the crown jewel of the vastly foreign (to Virginia) landscape of the Grayson Highlands. 

    The peak is most popularly accessed via a 4.6-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) and a spur trail through Grayson Highlands State Park, the MRNRA, and Lewis Fork Wilderness Area. Scenery along the way includes grassy balds, rock outcroppings, caves, thick rhododendron forests, wide-ranging mountain vistas, a hemlock- and spruce-dominated crest zone, and the wild ponies that lend the Highlands even more unique flavor.

    It was a sunny, albeit slightly cold and windy, Saturday morning when the idea of surmounting the Old Dominion’s highest peak drifted into my mind. A relatively dry spring (thus far) was keeping the creeks running well below the seasonal average, keeping the need to go fishing at some kind of bay. 

    The week prior had been consumed pouring over topographic maps, planning a five-day backpacking trip to West Virginia’s Cranberry Wilderness. Thus my West Virginia preparations, along with the raw tone of a crisp spring wind, inspired visions of jagged peaks that couldn’t be ignored. Not when they’re so close. I announced my plans, and three friends jumped on board.

    To those tackling the Grayson Highlands for the first time during any season of the year, my advice is foremost to bring good, rugged shoes. Close behind is the warning to expect the high country to be twice as windy and 10 degrees colder than it is 3,500 feet lower in temperate Abingdon or Marion. 

    When I forced open the door of the car in the Massie Gap parking area in Grayson Highlands State Park, I was pleased to find the predictable air of adventure pushing back.

    To my friends, I announced the potential for a raw high country experience, shouting in contest with the wind, which was forecast to reach a maximum speed of 44 MPH. I found out later that gusts registered upwards of 60 MPH. The temperature sat firmly in the high 40s.

    Zipping on an insulated wind-breaking layer, I shouldered my 55-liter pack, loaded thoughtfully with overnight gear and backpacking essentials (for conditioning), and took on a few water bottles and snacks from my pack-less friends.

    Head into the wind, we began plodding northwest from the parking lot along the Rhododendron Trail.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A quarter mile into the hike, we crested an open saddle, vegetated with highbush blueberry bushes and the forms of about a dozen camera-wielding day-hikers. Grayson’s renowned wild ponies were the center of attention, as they grazed peacefully despite the attention. I snapped a few photos, and we moved on.

    An even mile into the hike, there is a crossroads and a cattle gate. As we did, day-hikers should bear left to pick up the AT. It’s at this point that the road gets rugged. Following the white blazes northwest is an exercise in rock-hopping, as a single misstep can make for a painful end to an otherwise enjoyable hike.

    For 1.9 miles, the trail maintains this character, leaving the state park behind and traveling over two notable passes, and offering several wide-stretching mountain vistas.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After 1.9 miles of the AT, the trail meets the boundary of the Lewis Fork Wilderness—one of four within the MRNRA. Here the trail takes a sharp left, and skirts the boundary of the more forested, coniferous wilderness area. The Lewis Fork of the Upper Fox flows north out of the ridge slope to the right.   

    In the next 1.2 miles, we encountered several more ponies at Thomas Knob, and enjoyed a windbreak in the form of spruce and hemlock trees that line the trail. Backpackers were plentiful, as fires are permitted within the wilderness area, and not in the state park.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After those 1.2 miles, the AT again takes a sharp left, and a spur trail proceeds straight to the peak of Mount Rogers. In a half mile, the trail leaves the open country behind, traded for thick, damp coniferous forest. It’s a remarkable sight, even in contrast to the wide open scenes further below.

The summit trail. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    At the end of the line, the ascent halts, and a rock ledge studded with a US Geological Survey cap marks Virginia’s highest point. 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

BEFORE THE STORM

“I’m dropping out after today.”

    The declaration was one part joke, two parts intent, and escaped daily into a warm, bluebird sky from behind a bottom lip bit in collegiate compliance.

    Once you’ve invested years of tireless angling and observation, and compiled and analyzed a few thousand fish’s worth of fishing logs, you come to recognize Go-Time for what it is.

    It was Day Four of what was to be a week-long warming trend, and March’s winds were moving in response. Friday afternoon would see 75 degrees, and Saturday would bring a sharp cold snap—30 degrees and the possibility of snow. Local stream flows were double average from spring rains, and dropping slowly. In other words, it was Go-Time, and I knew it.

    With the looming reward of escaping to the mountains in search of big wild trout, I crammed my schoolwork into the dark hours, and shaved all unnecessary habits from my routine.

    Thursday afternoon found me speeding towards a Virginia mountain valley, eyes glancing nervously from the road towards the snaking creekbottom below. An eagle soared overhead—casting a shadow over the river’s course and the farm fields surrounding it in its lower reaches—it too content in the spring sun’s gaze.

    I found the water and realized a dream. Rivers—in their ideal state in my mind’s eye—run full and deep. From snow runoff, their runs and holes are highlighted an icy blue. Wonder and possibility are retained when the gravel of the streambed is not too visible. And so this river ran.
High spring water. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Within these holes and runs and un-seeable gravel lots lies the year’s most promising opportunity to tangle with a big fish, for they find confidence in the slight discoloration, and large prey is disoriented in the chaos.

    Likewise, I tied on a large crayfish fly and worked my way upstream, methodically, keeping contact with the gravel and opportunity.

    Opportunity took me by surprise a few casts into the afternoon, when a sizeable brown snapped at my fly and released it in the same breath. An hour and a half later, opportunity returned with conviction, and ripped my fly into the undercut of a rock ledge. My Tycoon Tackle Scion throbbed under the pressure of a large flash, and a thick 24-inch wild rainbow initiated an adrenaline-soaked game of net tag downstream.

24-inch wild rainbow trout taken on a streamer in the mountains. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Friday was a continuation in the weather trend, and the joke in my daily threat to abandon academic employment was further diluted with intent. The wind was raging harder; the sun, shining brighter. A storm was coming, and the front was shaping up to be a dramatic one.

    This time, I found the water slightly lower. The currents were calmer and the water clearer, though still rich with opportunity.

    Brown trout are homebodies, particularly in small mountain streams, and so I started the day with a hit list. Patiently, I placed my fly along the current seam of the first run, working my way upstream. 

    Redemption struck where she should have—in a pillow behind a large chunk rock in the streambed where she showed her face the day before—but held on, and rewarded me with 21 inches of wild butter-belly and shimmering bulls’ eyes.

About 20 inches of brown trout taken on a streamer in the mountains. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    It’s funny that fishermen yearn for redemption so avidly, and yet release her graciously once achieved. I was pondering this thought as I examined my tippet and discovered nicks that could cause me to lose another big fish, should I be so lucky. I retied.

    In the act of retying my fly, my focus shifted from my knot to the water in the background, captured by unexplained movement. My heart ricocheted about my chest, more than it would for any fish, when I quickly recognized the brown figure lumbering over the limestone streambed towards my wading boot as a hellbender salamander—18 inches of giant, beautifully adapted, rare salamander.
A hellbender salamander cruises the limestone streambed inches from my wading boot. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    With shaking hands, I reached for my backpack’s side pocket and squeezed my eyes tight in thankfulness for having remembered my waterproof camera. A few moments interacting with, and studying the awesome intricacies of the animal left my spirit enriched.

    God must have been smiling on me and rewarded my responsible stewardship, when granted redemption in that large wild brown trout, with more blessings; for the afternoon ran on, and more wild trout came to hand—approximately 40, with most being larger than 12 inches. The term “golden light” comes to mind—that moment of perfect elemental combination that results in a truly magnificent circumstance, as recognized by photographers and outdoorsmen, alike.



Photos by Matt Reilly.
    As I write this, the weather has turned stable; the water, low. I’ve hardly threatened to abandon my studies for the river, and my nighttime motivation has shrunken. The conditions are not prime for my mind to wander, but they will be again.

    
*Originally published in the Rural Virginian            

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

CHURCH

It is in this season of rebirth that church attendances spike across the country as the timidly church-going crowd makes a traditional pilgrimage—largely from supposed obligation—from the safety of an artificially sacrosanct modern routine, to the pews, to celebrate the foundational event of the Christian religion. Inevitably, as suddenly as this seasonal devotion emerged, it retreats into a criticized abyss. Regulars among the pews come to associate a negative connotation with the “Easter crowd,” and discussions emerge over the importance of weekly church attendance in the lifestyle of the faithful. I can’t help but think something is missing.

A storm parts over the Grayson Highlands. Photo by Matt Reilly
    My own church attendance is irregular. I don’t go every week, and I’ve skipped a few Christmas services in recent years, but I don’t feel I’ve missed anything. I don’t feel a distance from God.

    After a childhood of returning weekly to the church building I grew up in, around the time that some of my teenage friends began disappearing from the aisles as they began to make decisions about their beliefs for themselves, I underwent a similar discovery. I began to abandon the building and the sermons for a more natural approach—for hymns sung by songbirds and flowing water, salvation offered in a sunrise.

    Though I perhaps knew all along, and did what was most pleasing to my being, I didn’t tackle the question of the reason for my faith until rather recently. It seems—at least it did, to me—an irrelevant question when you’re content, but one that could be enriching to have the answer to worked out, nevertheless.   

    The people of the world, throughout time, have had faith and developed belief systems because of an innate desire to explain the world around them and answer the questions for which there are no empirical answers. I am no different.

    Religions, factions, and denominations emerge to surround different cultures and serve as a standard of beliefs for the faithful public. But the act of faith is personal, and speaks to us in the most personal of ways.

    For me, that way is through nature and through words. I am a romantic person, yes. I can be emotional. But if you've ever defied metaphorical gravity or felt a warmness in your soul sparked by the sight of a voluminous freestone river barreling through a maple gorge ablaze by the dying ember of autumn, or teared up to the tune of a flawless line, a timeless, nostalgic anecdote filled to the brim with old world tradition and wisdom, you may have a similar kind of faith as I.

    These are the things that I find to be beautiful—supernaturally, unbelievably beautiful. For these things I can perceive no possibility of their coming about by chance, by some stupendous, spontaneous cosmic happening, even if succeeded by millions of years of evolution, fine-tuning, and settling.

    In the beauty of these things, I hear God’s words, as they spill from the mountains and the lowlands and the trickling hollows, and I think them as I hear them. As I think these things, I conclude that I am of them, and as such, don’t find loneliness, but purpose and inspiration.

    As somewhat of a rambler, I recognize these words as the same that speak, and have spoken, to those of a similar faith as I—the same words that have inspired great works and thoughts, all just meager attempts to transcribe the words that come. In this I recognize that when my last track has been pressed and my last word written, I will go home to the mountains, the lowlands, and the trickling hollows. These words will remain, while my thoughts become their words; and their words, the thoughts of my gone-home contemporaries.

    All of this from a mere question of faith, a thoughtful departure from the cultural, comfortable, church-going experience? Through the countless personal church services I’ve enjoyed in my time, I’ve encountered many an evening, and every sunset asks the same question: “How have you lived?” I hope you can smile in answering.


    Church is not a building. It’s an experience—taking a break from the chaotic flux of everyday life and surrendering control of your heart, mind, and soul to something bigger than ourselves. I find it in nature.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

NIGHTTIME IN THE SWAMP

Swamps never really go to sleep; they only wake up.

Campfire in Dragon Run Swamp. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I was a few paddle strokes into one of Virginia’s own when this thought came to mind. I could feel it.

    The aroma of black swamp water--of cypress and tannin--burned like incense as a fiery sun yielded to the chill of night over Northern Neck farm fields, behind a labyrinth of crowns and tangles.

    Noises grew as their sources disappeared under cover of darkness. Red-winged blackbirds whistled gurgling shrills in staggered succession. A choir of spring peepers, and its baritone bullfrogs, sounded off eternally. Dragon Run, trickling audibly as thick roots and channel tighten its course, rounded out the background.

    A blue heron made its last flaps of daylight across the landscape, breaking limbs, pushing air, and emitting a raspy squall as it found a roost in a cypress crown. Odd screams--from bobcats, foxes, or something else altogether--broke the rhythm, but went unquestioned, as part of the age-old awakening song that commences every day as dusk turns out the lights.

    The horizon blazed orange, and I intended to keep it alive as long as possible, but craved nightfall. With a heavy-footed boot, I carved out a wide circle in the leafy understory—six feet wide, about. With a strong stick, I dug a shallow pit into the dirt--through humus, mud, and veiny roots—just two feet wide, enough to harbor a modest pile of sticks.

    It didn't take long, or much roaming, to ascertain a healthy collection of wood—twigs and branches of increasing thickness. Each size went into its own pile, ready for application. From an undisturbed site, I took handfuls of leaves from the floor—dry ones, untouched by the dampness of the swampy ground. In an airy ball, they represented my last ditch effort to retain light, with the sun gone, light fading quickly.

    A match brought it back, slowly. It caught as a glowing edge on the finger of an oak leaf, smoked, smoldered, and grew to engulf the pile. One by one, I added small twigs, then larger ones. As the flame gained strength, I invested a pile of arm-thick branches, leaning them to rest against each other over the blaze, hopefully to catch, and keep the light on.

    But the swamp is old. The wood that was readily accessible was punk—rotten, flaky. It burned through in minutes, making upkeep a chore. It was a happy chore, though.

    Fire has long been a symbol of civilization, of life—the only thing that sets humans apart from animals. It grants hope and comfort. A fire illuminates more than just the night.

    If ever there was an old-world essence surrounding my activities, it disappeared the moment I bit into an imported mango. Dinner was finished off with a handful of cashews.

    After a final fueling of the fire, I lashed rope to two old oaks, and hung a hammock, from which to become, with the fire, the only thing fading away in the swamp.


    For the time, the fire granted enough light to read by--A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's masterpiece--and the shadows it cast made the plot all the more dramatic. In the swamp, a river runs through the forest—is the forest--save for a few firm spots where the oak trees grow—a long way from the glacial canyons and bustling logging camps of western Montana. Maclean probably never saw the likes of a southern Virginia cypress swamp, but the drama, and the haunting, he knew is rich here, too.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.

A CHILDHOOD STORY: LATE WINTER BASS WINDOW

Every year, as winter fights a losing battle with the advances of spring and natural rejuvenation, Mother Nature’s actors stage for the opening act. Upon spring’s minor victories, the mercury ascends—into the 50s, 60s—and some of my favorite actors, in an aqueous, farm field gem, begin their own ascent.

    These charismatic, southern sporting phenotypes begin undergoing changes as water temperatures approaches 50 degrees. Their metabolisms ramp up. They’re inspired to move, to chase, and to earn energy in ambush games with larger and larger prey. More importantly, they experience a change in attitude—from the idle survivalism of the winter doldrums, to the procedural excitement of reproduction.

    The males move first, from the thermal refuges of deep water, finning the ridges of points, towards warming shallow-water spawning sites.

    As the sun beats down on the sparkling water, these shallow spawning flats become the most attractive habitat to awakening bass—but only by temperature. The rest of the set is a skeleton of its unhampered essence. Lily pads, bullfrogs, tall grass, dobsonflies—all are holding off for the security of the warmer months.

    Grasses, though, are on the way. When the right water temperature is achieved, they begin to sprout from the pond floor, and play an important part in the story that I have come to know.

    The ambient air temperature continues to fluctuate—from the high 30s to the low 70s—throughout the end of February and beginning of March. Likewise, competing warm and cold air masses created by the periodical warming of the Earth, and the subsequent radiation into the air, bring the lion out in March. She rages on almost every day, particularly the warm ones, representing the final variable in the annual production I’ve acquainted myself with.

    Humans are creatures of habit too. Outdoorsmen, I like to think of as seasonal junkies. Every week of the year can be designated a particular pursuit (or faction of a pursuit) that is ripe for the time. The late winter window, in which all of the aforementioned variables coexist, is one of my personal favorites, which has come to be acknowledged as “The Weekend”—for big, early season bass—by some of the more fervent of my fishing companions.

    It was my father who first introduced me to this happening, on a warm, windy day in March on the farm pond I return to every year, before I had become a full-fledged teenager.

    A bottleneck is formed by two facing points, which mark the transition between the main-pond and the shallow coves on the insides of the points. The area between the points is a kind of flat—shallow, littered with a few well-known stumps, and, in the late winter, tufted by the beginning efforts of lake weed. Moving deeper into the coves, the water becomes shallower, creating a gradient of heated water and, in following, grasses.

    On that inaugural March afternoon of my childhood, the wind was roaring parallel to the points—from the west, right into the face of the dominant point.

The author's father with a healthy late-winter bass. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Wind from the west, fishing is best,” they say, but this is sounder science. By the will of the wind, the food chain was moved into the grassy flat between the points. First, phytoplankton. Then, baitfish. Then, predators. It was all explained to me before the first cast, and I believe it was on the first that my father stuck a respectable largemouth of about five pounds.

    Looking back, I am excessively proud, and thankful, of my father for that moment of genius.
Since, I have taken many a fish, always returning to the same setting, chasing the same memory, with the ambition of having a brush with an early-season trophy.

    Indeed, the pattern has produced well, over the years, resulting in several fish over five pounds and up to 10, by student-friends, myself, and others. This story is a testament to the dimension of fishing that is all too often dismissed, and that is hardly quantifiable by one who does not practice it and know its benefits—that is, observation and critical thinking.


    These days, I don’t get to watch that childhood story play out in front of me, often. The farm ponds of those years I left behind in search of an education. Still, change is in the air, and it brings memories to mind, which might compare for enjoyment. Then again, perhaps it’s merely the continuation of that story I’m after every year, on the bank of that farm pond, chasing fish I caught long ago. Perhaps nothing is lost.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

2015-16 BEAR, DEER, TURKEY HARVEST NUMBERS OUT

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries released the 2015-16 season harvest data for bear, deer, and turkey last week, and the numbers check out well, continuing a stable trend upheld over the past decade.

Bear


    The 2015-16 hunting season saw the second largest black bear harvest in recorded Virginia history, with 2,331 animals harvested. Youth and apprentice hunters took 110 of those over their designated weekend in October.

    Despite the large harvest, this year’s number falls in line with recent figures. Each year’s harvest after 2008 has exceeded 200 bears, with the highest occurring in 2014, with 2,412 animals taken.

    It’s worthy of note that 2015-16 marked the first season in which a Virginia bear license was sold separately from the resident deer/turkey license. The Department’s bear management staff reports 30,780 resident bear licenses and 926 non-resident bear licenses being sold in its inaugural year, and can draw no conclusions on the effect the new regulation had on the season’s harvest numbers.

    More so, mast production influences harvest numbers, and 2015’s was spotty at best. This often leads to an increase in bears taken in the early season by bowhunters, when animals are more vulnerable to hunting efforts as they concentrate on limited, available food sources.

    Still, archers took an average proportion of the total harvest in 2015-16, accounting for 24 percent, while those hunting with firearms and muzzleloaders took a combined 71 percent. Sunday hunting continues to have a minimal effect on the outcome of the harvest, and only accounted for three percent of the total.

Deer


    Hunters took a total of 209,197 deer in Virginia during the 2015-16 season—16,901 up from last year’s figure. Antlered deer composed 103,310 of the total, while button bucks accounted for 15,000, and antlerless does, 90,887.

    This year’s youth came out with 3,076 harvests. Bowhunters claimed 15,078 (7 percent), crossbow hunters took 11,719 (6 percent), and muzzleloader hunters took 42,517 (20 percent) of the total.

    A stable or declining deer population has been expected over the past decade, though the majority of the yearly fluctuation in harvest numbers in that time—ranging from a low of 192,278 in 2014, to a high of 259,147 in 2009—has been attributed to variable mast productions and Hemorrhagic 
Disease flare-ups.

    In that time, too, the Department has made a conscious effort to increase the harvest of female deer throughout the state, namely on private land, as a measure for reducing and stabilizing the overall deer herd, as resolved by the current deer management plan.

    Thus, hunters should anticipate a declining statewide deer harvest in coming years.

Turkey


    Commonwealth hunters bagged a total of 3,283 turkey during the 2015-16 fall turkey season, up somewhat significantly from 2,988 in 2014-15, suggesting a robust population.

    However, other factors skew the relationship between harvest and population size. Weather in late spring can influence successful reproduction rates, stealing poults in the case of cold, wet weather. The hatch rate fell just slightly below average (2.7 poults/hen) in the spring of 2015, at 2.5 poults/hen.

    Moreover, as is the case with the other big game species, acorn availability significantly impacts harvest numbers. Years blessed with an abundant mast spell hard times for hunters, as the turkey’s home range shrinks due to the concentration of resources in the woods. Years with poor mast, such as 2015, see turkey range wider, increasing their vulnerability to hunting efforts. Likewise, in years with poor mast, hunters often find increased success on private lands with more open field habitat, as birds range wider and resort to alternative food sources.



    Overall, the 2015-16 season reflects positivity for game populations, though hunters can expect to see fewer deer in coming years, in an effort to balance and stabilize the herd.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

FEBRUARY IS A HARD MONTH TO LOVE

February is a hard month to love. The most ardent endure her harsh temperament--her changing moods--with some success, rarely without sacrificing self, in the form of numb fingers or wind-chapped cheeks.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    February is a time of change, one without which the climactic arrival of spring would be of muted contrast. Snowmelt, under the typically warmer-than-winter closing days of the month, floods rivers and streams with cold, dirty water, while small game seasons peter out. But if February offers any consolation, it’s that taking it by the horns and experiencing the true end of the outdoor year makes spring all the more grandiose.

High, Cold, and Dirty


    Six inches of snow fell over the weekend, and promptly melted, unleashing inches of 36-degree, muddy water on the landscape. If there’s a type of water that warrants hanging your hat up for, it’s this—but when the going gets tough, I find it unacceptable to accept defeat.

    When I arrived at the roadside pull-off, I could hardly recognize the creek that brushes the road. Under normal circumstances, a well-defined run-pool complex passes tranquilly under the shadow of a hemlock-lined bank. With the right angle of sunlight to facilitate, a half dozen or so dark, elongated forms can be seen waving in place like submerged grass in the lucid blue belly of water, fins grazing cobble below.

    This time, however, the scene looked and sounded of chaos. Green-brown water capped with foam rolled and chopped like ocean waves, ignoring the serpentine borders of the creek, and challenging the quiet forest highway adjacent to a contest in violent white noise it was sure to win.

    I learned a lesson in high-water trout fishing in western Maryland three years prior. That river was running roughly four times its typical flow. Wild brown trout filled the river, and I had considerable success fishing soft water behind big boulders along the flooded bank with a large, dark fly. That was mid-June.

    A third odd was stacked against me on that February day—cold water. I knew I’d have to fish slowly, and very thoroughly.

    When a creek jumps its banks, holding and feeding lies are tossed in the air. The food chain scrambles to reestablish footing in the changing system. Small fish are tossed around, and large, predatory fish cruise harsh current breaks, looking for a feeding opportunity.

    A few hundred yards upstream, I found the setting for the scene I prophesized in my mind. A long, hard run ran over chunk rock, tossing water in crests and pits. An abutting slab of bedrock calmed the churning, and pooled a few feet of calm water.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Several casts with a heavy crayfish-imitating fly into the seam ended with a hard stop and the turn of a massive female brown trout that ran downstream, broke me off, and became my latest heartbreak.

Two Triples


    A crisp, sunny afternoon in February beckoned me to the squirrel woods, amped with adrenaline, 20-guage pump shotgun in tote.

    Late season bushytail hunting, in my mind, speaks of delicate walking, skittish squirrels, and quick shots—a game tailored to the indiscriminate, somewhat forgiving reach of a boom-stick.

    Just barely inside the treeline, as I stood mid-way up a hardwood ridge, sun to my back, three squirrels busted from cover, nervous from my prolonged pause, and darted for independent cover. Swinging, and operating the pump-loading mechanism instinctively, I dropped all three on consecutive shots—a triple, for half a limit.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Another 45 minutes of still hunting landed me in position to take another bushytail. From a creekbottom, I closed the distance between me and the rustling I could hear near the top of the ridge, hopping and skipping in bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing gray squirrel.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray pounced from the trunk of an oak tree into the branches of another. As it was scrambling to establish footing, I dropped it with a swinging report from the 20-guage.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    A second bushytail peeked out from behind the trunk of a neighboring oak, curious, presenting a headshot that didn’t go unclaimed. Down went another batch of meat for the pot.

    A third held tight to the forest floor for 30 seconds before making a mad dash for a nearby hickory tree. I ran forward ten feet as the squirrel began its ascent of the trunk, and interrupted it, taking a quick knee, and firing a rising snap-shot—a second double, for a limit of late season bushytails.


 *Originally published in the Rural Virginian