Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Many people have a favorite president.  I won’t say I do.

I have a love-hate relationship with Herbert Hoover.  Stock market crash aside, Hoover shared my love of the magnificent brook trout of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  However, this led to an exposé that made the Rapidan River, where Hoover built his cabin in 1929, one of the most popular trout streams in Virginia.  And for that, following a recent trip to the mountains, I pondered what the river might yield today if it weren’t for the press the president earned it.

        A light rain fell in the night.  Just like the day before, partly-sunny skies were forecast; but the sky forecast something different—heavy clouds, fog, and drizzle—typical November.  Under this cover, my brother and I loaded the truck with waders, rods, and daypacks, and headed north towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Photo by Matt Reilly
        After hiking a few miles through rugged country, we slipped down through an aged laurel thicket, over rocks and deadfalls. 

        The river was in good condition, running full, thanks to recent rain.

        Water in the mid-50s, and overcast, drizzly weather had me searching for my favorite nymph pattern—the CK nymph.  I found the smallest, buggiest imitation, with stray hackle fibers and a meager body, and tied it on. 

        With this weapon ready for action, I did my best to assume the role of a predator.  On hands and knees, I edged towards a sizeable boulder overlooking the tail of a promising pool.  The first cast landed somewhat sloppily in the current rushing past a smaller, undercut boulder.  Nothing.  I sent a second cast, more refined and floating, to the deep channel in the middle of the pool where the current began to relax. 

        My fly line hesitated in the current for a split second, and a raised rod tip excited a brilliantly-colored brook trout, maybe five inches long, and lifted him from the slick water.

        My reaction was fast, and my body warmed with the excitement of my first brook trout in several months of absence from the water.  I netted the fish, and admired his spawning colors—the white-banded fins bordered with black, the fiery belly, the red and blue bulls-eyes on his flanks, the marbled green back that makes him invisible from above.

        After releasing the fish, I moved on until I came upon a pool worthy of careful prospecting.  Water fell heavy into the head of the pool, as it was split in two by a sturdy boulder.  The water carved a two-foot deep pocket there, and ran out into the tail, after wrapping around an undercut rock submerged in the current.  I got into position.

        “There has to be a fish on that rock,” I thought.

        But as I was taught, I placed my first casts carefully in the tail of the pool, to avoid lining any cruising fish with the colorful fly line.  After meticulous picking, I focused on the rock that tugged at my attention.  Four casts, five, six, seven—nothing.  After several casts, the current gripped the line as it hovered over the rock, dragging my nymph into the undercut ledge.

        An underwater flash jolted the line!  My rod tip rose with my arm high into the air; and I sprung from my hiding place behind a log as war ravaged. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
        I wiped my hands on my wader-covered thighs to moisten my hands, and guided the fish into them.  He went 11 inches, easy—11 and a half—almost 12 inches.  It was then, holding a veteran of the mountain stream, that I thought of Hoover, and those that enjoyed such bounty before I was here to do so myself. 

        It’s a foreign concept to many outside the world of fly fishing, to consider the gaunt brook trout of these small streams to be worth the energy, briar cuts, and twisted ankles they demand.  They’re precious gems in small, discreet packages; and it’s a testament to their allure that the most powerful man in America, living in relative proximity to the Adirondack trout streams, the wilderness streams of West Virginia, the spring creeks of Pennsylvania, and the steelhead of Lake Erie tributaries, chose a seemingly insignificant being in Appalachian Virginia to be his host in his home away from home. 

        After several brief seconds, I slipped the fish back into his icy domain.  He left my hand with a flick of his tail, as stately and as bold as the river tumbling down the mountain.  The spirit of such a fish cannot be tamed, not by the President of the United States, nor any that came after him; but its existence can be threatened, and I can rest easy knowing that the popularity of the Rapidan River has bred respect for its native trout.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Thursday, November 21, 2013


    It’s no secret that winning writing contests are a great way to ramp up your writing credentials.

So if you have a tendency towards outdoor writing, or a notion of one day participating in the profession, this is a contest for you.  For me, it has provided a professional start in the industry, numerous valuable contacts, and endless other opportunities for growth and education.

        For 21 years, the Virginia Outdoor Writer’sAssociation of Virginia (VOWA) has sponsored the Annual High School WritingCompetition.  The object of the competition is to reward high school students for excellence in communicating their experiences in the outdoors.  Submitted essays should convey a memorable experience.  Hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, boating, wildlife watching, or other general outdoors topics are all acceptable subject matters.  Athletic events and competitions are not eligible themes.  Public-, private-, and home-schooled students are all eligible to participate.

        Bass Pro Shops has once again agreed to co-sponsor this contest, and will provide $150, $100, and $50 Bass Pro Shops gift cards for the first, second, and third place winners.  Also to be awarded are sponsor packages from other outdoor retailers and supporting members of VOWA.  Winners will be contacted by Mr. Terry Lewis via email, and invited to the annual membership conference in Charlottesville, VA on February 22, 2014, where students will read their winning entries.  (For more information on how to submit, visit

        While the membership meeting may at first seem like an unfit gathering for a high school student, I encourage any attendant with a true interest in outdoor writing to listen intently and participate with an open mind and confident air.  The men and women that comprise this association are truly passionate people, not “in it for the money, by any means,” as many of them will joke.  The high school writing contest is the product of this passion and a genuine interest in the next generation for the continuation of our unique and threatened niche in the communications industry.

        It was at this annual meeting in 2012 that I first found myself lost and without direction.  That is, until Terry Lewis found me.  I shook hands with some well-known names, and got to socializing.  Several informative seminars later, and after a few hearty meals, my wallet was bulging with business cards. 

        On one was printed the name David Coffman, Editor of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ e-newsletter, The Outdoor Report, and a previously unknown Fluvanna neighbor.  It was he who sponsored my invitation to the 2013 Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers AssociationVirginia Outdoor Writers Association joint conference, and who later began re-running the columns I wrote for the local paper.  The same relationship gave me the opportunity to participate in the Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament on the Rose River as a photographer and media member

        Coffman introduced me to Mark Taylor, then president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, who soon opened a membership category for high school students and sponsored my induction.

        Another name in my wallet was Beau Beasley’s.  Beau has been the source of some valuable bits of information over the past two years, and inspired my volunteer participation in the annual Virginia Fly Fishing Festival in Waynesboro of which he is the Director. 

        Within a week of the conference I sold my first magazine feature to Chris McCotter, editor of Woods & Waters Magazine; and I sold two more by June.

        After my last feature, I was contacted by the local paper, the Rural Virginian, to see if I was interested in becoming an outdoor columnistTerry Beigie, the editor, was thenceforth a constructive, forgiving, and altogether positive blessing in the beginning stages of a writing career that is riddled with rejection and failure.   She is still a very willing wealth of knowledge on journalism and photography; though it is with the submission of this column that I make my last to her, as she moves on to fulfill other opportunities.

        I don’t normally “wax nostalgia,” as McCotter would say, and on a normal day I would claim humility, but in reflection, I believe strongly in this contest and the group that sponsors it.  I firmly believe that you will get out of chances what you put into them; and this chance believes in you.  So if you are a high school student and have any interest in outdoor writing, I urge you to take up this opportunity.  Shake a few hands, share a few stories.  Submit an essay, and you might even win something!  Heck, even if you don’t win, go anyway.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Conversing with classmates in middle school, hunting was defined by “treestands,” “30/06s,” and “deer.”  My background was different.  I learned to shoot with a 20-gauge, behind a dog with a nose for birds and a Dad with an aim for them.

The author with his first deer.  Photo by Chris Reilly
        It wasn’t until my family settled in Fluvanna County that deer and I became acquainted.  We purchased property in a developing subdivision, where the woods impressed on me the aura of the “big woods” of Maine that I’d mused over in Field and Stream, if only for my size.

        Dad had long-since split from traditional deer hunting.  Maybe it was my birth, and the convenience that bird hunting afforded for the infant-toting parent.  Whatever the reason, we lacked roots in the sport, and hunted from the ground, against goliath oaks in the woods of the subdividing property.  A 12-guage—a carry-over from pheasant hunting—full-choked and loaded with buck-shot was the weapon of choice.  We saw deer on several occasions, a bobcat once; but none ever came close.  Still, when the sun receded behind the black curtain of pines on a distant ridgeline, the shadows that emerged were enough to suggest a mystery worth coming back to solve.

        Two years later, Dad promised to take me to a friend’s local farm.  There were 40-acres, lots of deer, clover fields, and a tripod stand; and we were invited to hunt.  I was allowed any deer I had a chance at.  It would be my first; and the friend was more than willing to chip in.

        Five hours into the third Saturday in November, my alarm clock barked, and I was up, open-eyed, adrenaline fighting off drowsiness.  Backpack, clothes, food, hat…license—everything was where it was piled the night before, under my tireless, opening-day eyes.

        We braked for deer crossing secondary roads for almost an hour before slowing, turning, bouncing, and parking.  Backlit three-pronged pine crowns were my only perception of place.  I was sweating slightly from the heat in the car and the layers on my body, which were promptly misted with a metallic-smelling liquid.  I was given the padded case of Dad’s Ruger .243 and a cartridge to load.

        “Watch the safety.”

        Away from the truck, we marched through the new moon sky, through tall grass, me in the rear, stumbling, head down.  We were swallowed by trees, but the sky opened up again, and my hands were touched by a cold ladder.  At the top was a cylindrical dome.

        Following directions, I unloaded, climbed to the top, and reported when I was seated.  Dad took a seat in the brush below.  Only one seat sat up top.

        Communication ended for several hours, while the sun peeked out from under the horizon, birds came alive, a breeze lit, and rabbits and chipmunks zig-zagged the lush field of clover that emerged below my perch.

        When my eyes had consumed all of the literature engraved on the barrel, scope, stock, and butt of the rifle, I pointed its lens to the field edges, simulating shots in my head.

        I found new reading material in the tags of the canvas covering when two brown figures emerged at the field edge.  I stuck my head out the side window, angled to the ground.

        “Two does…over there!”

        Dad nodded in approval.

        I slipped the barrel out the window as practiced.  I settled the scope on the lead deer, my heart ricocheting about my rib cage, breath spewing out in gusts.  With confidence, as much as I could bear, I squeezed the trigger.  The deer rolled, and the other bounded away. 

        Relief swept in, and suddenly it was very cold.  The rifle’s barrel rattled in my hand against the frame of the stand.  I had to wait several minutes for my knees to regain the strength needed to descend the ladder.

        On the ground I got a proud high-five, and the indispensable “watch your safety.”  We took a walk towards the animal, down a lane of clover.  It was further than it seemed from the stand—maybe 80 yards. 

        We had another round of high fives, after making sure the deer, now realized to be carrying small bony buttons atop his head, was totally expired.  But the congratulations didn’t last long.  We had work to do—I had work to do.

        The pride felt at having taken my first deer was not completely different from other firsts, but not without a certain feeling of remorse.  It’s a mind-expanding experience, when such a large animal is taken for your own sustenance, one filled with a sense of control and participation in the greater scheme of life, and the understanding that death is a significant part of it.  It’s a mature endowment of practical sufficiency, a rite of passage—one that I will never forget.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


    At the close of every summer, water levels drop, rain becomes scarce, and leaves begin to wilt on the trees.  October comes, and brings with it rain; and the flaming foliage that signals the beginning of fall beckons hunters to the woods for the remaining months of the year.  With winter imminent, it’s easy to walk the expiring woods assuming that bass fishing, for the year, has pretty much come to an end.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

    Take a trip back (time traveling is hard, but do your best to keep up) to the month of February—cold, windswept, and dreary—and try to remember your state of mind.  The out-of-doors can be described as “miserable” often.  It seems as if someday will never come, and the ice that seals the local ponds may just decide to stick around for eternity—or longer—preventing any sort of fishing, ever.  If you’re like me, you don’t have a bass boat or a depth finder, but you try anyway, rarely catching, always freezing, and suppressing your heart deeper into your body where it’s at least kept warm by the blood that’s neglecting your ears and fingers.

    Nevertheless, spring emerges from the drizzly sky and frozen ground one day in March, and hope for sanity returns.  The magic 60-degree mark is fast approaching; and bass have made the landmark decision to feed more than once in a day.

Why So Great?

    The same temperature that kicks off traditional bass fishing in the spring also occurs in the fall, albeit from the opposite direction.

    As cooling air temperatures and cold, drizzly rains become commonplace, water surface temperatures too begin to cool.  Because bass and their foodstuffs are cold-blooded organisms, consistent daytime temperatures in the mid-sixties and seventies will draw bass to the shallows, following forage following their preferred environmental temperature.

Where to Fish?

    Shallow water draws bass in the fall because of cool temperatures.  But all lakes and ponds have shallow spots, so where are the best locations?  Just as in the spring, it helps to tote a water thermometer.  Look for the coolest temperatures, or those closest 60-65 degrees.

    Coves, especially those readily accessible from the main lake, are logical locations, as they provide an easy transition from the bass’s deep summertime haunts.

    Other spots include the upper ends of ponds or lakes, or the arms fed by creeks.  Creeks provide an input of cool, oxygenated water that fosters small aquatic invertebrates, which draw baitfish, and in turn, bass.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    Still, fall bass fishing may require a run-and-gun technique.  As surface temperatures decline in late fall, it becomes rich in oxygen, more dense, and falls in the water column, displacing the warmer, less-oxygenated water on the bottom, which rises to the top for its turn.  This process, called a turnover, effectively oxygenates the entire water column.  This makes eliminating water difficult in some regards, but there are some rules of thumb.

    Until grassbeds and lily pads begin to recede and wither, they represent good cover.  But as cooling water stops the growth of aquatic plants and they begin to decompose, oxygen is consumed, leaving the peripheral water oxygen-depleted and uncomfortable to exist in.

    Baitfish and fingerling predator species have grown to the size of a modest meal, and are more confident in rolling about in shallow water, and even straying into open water.  The busy wakes of such prey can been observed, usually, and always represents a likely location for feeding bass.

What’s on the Menu?

    Bass, like all other animals, have to prepare nutritionally for winter.  So come late fall, “bigger meals and lots of them” becomes the dining philosophy.  As aforementioned, baitfish in this season are big meals, and there are lots of them. 
    Baitfish patterns—swimbaits, spinnerbaits, large streamers—are thus the best options for netting a quality sack in the fall.  Remember to pause your retrieve frequently to entice a bite, and to keep it in play as long as possible.

    Mid to late fall represents to many anglers a great chance to land a quality fish, but the month or more prior to the advent of winter offers strength in numbers too.  Keep an open and logical mind, and take advantage of fall’s late and great bass bite.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Sunday, October 20, 2013


    Thanks go to Carl McNiel; sponsors Sage, Patagonia, and Costa; and Louis Cahill of Gink and Gasoline for bringing this excellent film to my attention.

    In the interest of conservation, McNiel undertakes a local gill fisherman's talents on the flats, converting him to a bonefish fly fishing guide.  The film depicts the entire transformation.  This is one of the best films I've seen in a long time!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


    Reports from the 2013 youth deer hunting day indicate an exceptionally large harvest, the largest in the tradition’s five-year history.  

1,911 deer were checked via phone and the internet system, an increase of approximately 45% from 2012; and VDGIF Deer Project Coordinator, W. Matt Knox estimates at least 700 additional animals checked at game check stations across the state will raise the harvest number to about 2,600, pending the end of the season in January when these stations turn in their records.

    There are suspected reasons for this somewhat drastic increase in harvest.  September 28 was a day of tradition for many young hunters, but with a new twist.  New this year, Virginians hunting under an apprentice license, the VDGIF’s two-year license for beginning “apprentice” hunters, were also allowed to hunt on what is now called the “youth/apprentice hunting day.”  This increased the number of hunters afield by about 50%.

    In terms of deer killed per licensed and eligible hunter, the numbers still reveal an increase in success from 2012, but only as slight as a half of a percent.

    Moreover, in past years, and this year, deer kill numbers from the urban archery season and Northern Virginia season are also counted in the overall tally.  Also new this year, the Northern Virginia deer season, currently underway, now allows the use of firearms, as opposed to strictly archery equipment.  Because of this change, the resulting numbers were likely skewed minimally.

    Still, Central Virginians scored rather averagely in terms of harvest numbers.  Buckingham’s youth/apprentice hunters took 10 deer, Albemarle’s (including Charlottesville’s) took 16, Fluvanna’s took 14, and Nelson’s took 13, all excluding estimates on animal numbers checked at check stations.

    In all, Virginia’s youth, and now apprentice, hunting day is continuing to grow in success, with the numbers to prove it.  We can be hopeful that the new change in legislation will only add to this success, recruiting more novice hunters to the woods where their lives may be changed forever.

What About Bear?

    Not only were apprentice licensed hunters permitted to hunt on this year’s youth/apprentice day, a new species was added to the “in season” list as well—bear.

    Unlike deer, bear must be checked at a game check station, so that biologists can retrieve the premolar for aging and population reconstruction and management.  This means that harvest numbers cannot be accurately reported until the close of the season in January when check cards are collected.  However, Virginia’s reputation for having the best, longest-running, and most comprehensive population reconstruction information system in the East surely outshines this slight inconvenience.

    We do know, however, that one at least one bear was taken in Central Virginia on youth/apprentice day.  Steve Morgan Jr.’s beautiful 260-plus-pound black bear, taken in central Albemarle County, is a prime example of what youth and apprentice hunting days aim to provide.  Congratulations, Steve, on a great harvest!

     Other photos, stories, or both can be submitted via the website or Facebook page.

Trout on the Rise

    In the Old Dominion, October means hunting—deer, bear, and squirrel.  But as the temperatures fall and water temperatures follow, passing back through the optimal 55- or 60-degree mark that excites fish in the spring, fish again begin to feed, consuming large meals, preparing to spawn, or settle down for the winter.

    Notably, the VDGIF begins their routine trout stocking schedule in October; and though fisherman in Virginia no longer adhere to a designated trout season, this new beginning reignites trout fishing from a summer of low water and sluggish fish.

    Stocking efforts make trout available to many anglers within a slight proximity to the Blue Ridge.  A Department-made map, such as can be found on their website, will reveal numerous access points and detailed information to help improve your experience.  But remember, other anglers can become pretty attuned to regularly-scheduled stocking events, and you may find most consistent success in stretches of river lying downstream from popular fishing spots and road crossings and that require a little grunt work to reach.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


    When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) relocated their headquarters to Norfolk, Virginia in 1996, well over a million Virginians considered themselves hunters and anglers; and both parties were aware of the other’s agenda.  

It is the hunter’s and the angler’s sport, after all, that PETA works so diligently to abolish, under the premise that these sportsmen do not need to pursue such “violent” recreation “for subsistence.”  It may be so, but it is difficult still to look at the well-organized group of such sportsmen, and at the thriving populations of both game and non-game wildlife, without doubting PETA’s anti-sportsman philosophy, which, in fact, is currently the most dangerous and irresponsible threat to our wildlife resources.

    Sportsmen of Virginia, and, likewise, the game populations of Virginia, owe their contentment to one overarching governmental branch.  The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), founded in 1916, is the Old Dominion’s vanguard agency concerned with the health of native species, as well as their habitats.  It is the VDGIF that sportsmen in Virginia count on for the continuation of their sports.

    To this end, it is the sportsmen that fund almost half of the VDGIF’s over $57 million annual budget through license sales, which is implemented through habitat, wildlife, fisheries, and public land management across the state, directly benefitting wildlife.  Despite this agenda, PETA continues to oppose the sports that provide the backbone for the state’s strongest, federally-funded, conservation-minded department because of the activities it endorses. 

    But take for example the white-tailed deer, which had nearly been extirpated in Virginia by 1900.  Colonists, unrestricted by game laws, overharvested the animal that was so plentiful in the New World.  Modern hunting was not the cause of this near-extinction, but unregulated hunting.  By 1940, 24 years following the VDGIF’s establishment, Virginia’s deer population was increasing exponentially.  How would deer populations measure today without the restorative habitat management and restrictive game laws implemented by the Department?  Chances are, they wouldn’t around to be counted.

    History has repeated itself, in the instance of the plains buffalo, the great auk, the Tasmanian tiger, and the woolly mammoth, proving that the morality and fire within human peoples in significant numbers, native peoples included, are incapable of hunting fur and meat species stewardly, and will decimate populations left unchecked.  Thus, a regulatory body is necessary to protect species of value to humans from disappearing altogether from the Earth.

    But what about non-game species—the eastern hellbender, bald eagle, or rattlesnake?  They too, PETA claims, matter, as significant elements in maintaining adequate biodiversity in local—and, in some cases, foreign—ecosystems.  Vultures, for instance, though largely unappreciated, play the important role of decomposition and nutrient cycling.  They also serve as locator beacons for other scavengers—foxes, coyotes, eagles—who aid in the process, and laterally contribute to the control of disease originating from decaying carcasses.  In the interest of these disregarded decomposers, the VDGIF invests well over $500,000 and 6,000 hours of time annually.  Without decomposers like vultures, ecosystems would collapse, and undernourished lands would become the norm.

    The enthusiasm PETA places on climate change should warrant some appreciation of this safeguarding of biological niches.  Another initiative within the Department seeks to eradicate the non-native competitors of native bivalve species, which, as filter feeders, do their job to buffer water pollution.  Without these custodial wetland species, contaminated waters would quickly destroy our planet’s most sensitive ecosystems and the immensely rich population of the world’s fauna that they support, moreover compromising the filters of the air.  

    Why then, if sportsmen, and the VDGIF that they support more than the federal government itself, input such programs and funds to protect and keep healthy all species of wildlife, conserve their habitats, educate the public on living with and respecting them, and employ conservation officers in order to monitor illegal activity and prosecute criminals detracting from the well-being of our ecosystems, does PETA so radically and heartily oppose hunting and fishing?

    PETA’s struggle is one not uncommon in the world.  The conflicting ideals of eradicating animal suffering and preserving nature and our planet clash at the human level.  Without the activities of sportsmen, agencies such as the VDGIF would not be able to operate.  As a result, anarchy would rule in the woods and on our waters, non-natives would continue to immigrate into our native habitats unnoticed, and the nature of an overzealous people would once again prove that humans take what they want with reckless abandon.  The large-scale disruption of biodiversity, and the land devastation, pollution, and water contamination that would follow, are the primary ingredients for cataclysmic climate change, which would critically endanger the indigenous.  To deny governmental groups sponsored by sportsmen funding by prohibiting the recreational activities that provide them funding is to accept such a reality.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Friday, October 4, 2013


Rivers cool and skies clear, breezes blow crisp air through aging leaves and thunderstorms disappear as summer slips into fall.  There’s obvious change in the air.  

The clues are reminiscent of hardwood sunrises, leaves crunching underfoot to frost fallen in the night, the intoxicating aura about the woods as the trees greet the end of their year in fiery display, slight movements of game camouflaged by forest bathed in warm light.

Those that succumb most to these allusions find it hard to remain focused as the week wanes on.  Fridays are filled with meticulous planning and visualizing.  They return home and greet the weekend with an early retirement—alarm set punctually and pertinently.  But they can’t sleep.  With the sun comes the first day of bow season, perhaps one of the most-awaited dates on the sportsman’s calendar.

This year, October 5 is that date, when thousands of such hunters will usher in the beginning of Virginia’s early archery deer season.  The season will run until November 15, overlapped slightly by the early muzzleloading season that opens on November 2 and closes with the archery season.

East of the Blue Ridge Mountains, these seasons are either-sex in full, meaning that hunters are permitted to harvest either antlerless (defined as a doe, button buck, or shed antler buck) or antlered deer all season.

Different Types of Hunters

Within those that take to the woods during bow season, there are two distinct groups—those that hunt with a bow because it allows them early legal permission to take game, and true archers. 

True archers are completely immersed in their sport.  They begin target shooting and making adjustments to their weapon promptly as the season closes in the winter, and keep at it throughout the summer, patiently awaiting the arrival of fall.

I tend to fall into the former group; for my devotion to the fish of the rivers and lakes far outweighs my desire to maintain shooting form.  However I bear a complete appreciation for the challenges set forth by the archery season opener, and can usually be seen in my front yard shooting a foam cube several weeks prior, welcoming the coming season with enthusiasm.

A Different Kind of Game

Besides the difference in gear, there are many differences between bow-hunting and gun-hunting that can fashion better hunters.  To begin, shots must be taken at much closer ranges, requiring the hunter to work within about 20 yards of game to get a safe, sure shot.  Due to the multitude of variables involved in shooting an arrow straight and accurately, extra care must be taken in maintaining proper form as well.

One of my favorite ways to hunt this season is from a pop-up or hand-made ground blind.  In forests of new growth, there are plenty of dense areas of vegetation in which to conceal yourself, where, if chosen and prepared correctly, you may find yourself at a very short distance from your quarry.  Though, at such a small distance, and at eye level with game, it can often be difficult to draw without being detected; but that is just another challenge of the bow-hunting pursuit.

Because they put hunters above the eye level of their target, treestands are unofficially the bowhunter’s best friend.  They can be bought in many different styles and heights to suit individual situations, and offer a larger, birds-eye-view of the area in which they are placed, a feature that can be appreciated in the early morning hours.  There’s nothing like watching the woods warm as the sun peeks over the horizon on a crisp fall morning, an experience that is lost in part in a ground blind.

Where to Hunt

Virginia abounds with public land, over 200,000 acres of which are managed specifically for hunting as part of the VDGIF’s 39 Wildlife Management Areas.  Particularly worthy of note, C.F. Phelps WMA in Fauquier County, Goshen and Little North Mountain WMA in Rockbridge and Augusta Counties, and Featherfin WMA in Buckingham and Appomattox Counties support large and healthy populations of deer.  Nevertheless, huntable populations of deer may be found on just about any WMA, including the Hardware River and James River WMAs close to home.

Rules and regulations differ between WMAs, so make sure to educate yourself before hunting a new property.

National Forests represent another public land opportunity for hunters.  Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests total 1.8 million acres, one of the largest pieces of contiguous public land in the eastern US.  Such a large property offers much backcountry, and biologists continue to support that hunters’ best chance at a large mountain buck may originate from the interior of the National Forest land, if they’re willing to work for it.

Regardless of where you hunt, you are likely to find good populations of deer in Virginia.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


It's October, my favorite month of the year--the best month of the year, as far as many outdoorsmen are concerned.  The Shenandoah National Park (when reopened by the government of course) can be a great place to spend the fall months, hiking, fishing, taking pictures, or just going for a drive.

This useful app tracks foliage color changes throughout the year, and could be a great tool for those hoping to catch colors in their peak!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


I invite everyone to submit their photos to Dispatches From the Potomac's Fumbled Fish Photo Contest!

This photo is one of our entries, a shot of a not-so-happy brown trout, my brother's FIRST brown trout, tumbling from his hands into the South River.  If you're not voting for your own, vote for us by following this link and clicking VOTE!  Thanks!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


    Capturing significant images with a trail camera is no different than doing so with a film camera.  In both pursuits, the photographer is forced to set up what they believe to be an effective, quality shot on a subject, and recover the images later.  Combine these concepts with the unpredictable, human-fearing qualities of wild animals, and you have the essence of trail camera use.

    With this challenge, it helps to have somewhere to start.  Luckily, trail cameras have been in use for some years.  Hunters have learned from their mistakes, and have devised a few rules to counter them.  But in case you’d prefer to learn those lessons for yourself, here are a few ways to do so.

Aim your camera facing the eastern sky to come back to
some extremely blown out images of the sunrise.
1.       Aim your camera facing the eastern or western sky.  This is a matter of individual preference.  Sunrise lovers, like myself, will find an eastern orientation to suit their fancy, while sunset lovers will prefer a western outlook.  This is a great way to capture washed out images of both while you sit nice and warm at home in front of the fire, as the sun’s course in the sky triggers your camera’s shutter.  When a deer does do the triggering, there’s a 25 percent chance that light from the sun will attack your camera’s sensor and show nothing but the animal’s feet.

However, if you’re the wildlife photography sort, you might try positioning your camera to face north.  Much clearer images will result; and they might give you an idea of where to hang your stand come October.

2.       DON’T cut back limbs or weeds in your camera’s viewfinder.  In particular, tall grass really can shake it, and will readily do so when prompted by the steady breezes common post-Labor Day.  Position your camera well, and you may return in a week’s time to recover 4000 duplicates of your lease’s landscape, in multiple exposures.  Unfortunately, this tends to be exhaustive of batteries and card space.  Hey, nobody said photography or hunting were cheap hobbies.

If money and pre-season scouting time are important to you, trim your foreground.  You’ll recover a much more varied memory card, and save battery life in the process.

Frequenting camera-trap locations is a sure-fire way to
make sure you only get pictures of yourself.  No deer.
3.       Frequent your camera locations.  So you’ve spent $300 on Scent Blocker camouflage for the upcoming season, and you’re proud of it.  There’s no need to wear gloves or a cover scent while hanging cameras.  You’re new getup takes care of that.  And the residual oils from your hands that do contaminate your camera will only keep the scene empty for you as you stroll through the frame two days later while scouting on foot.  Of course there’s no sense in paying a photographer when you have a hands-free method at your dispense.

If you don’t plan on having your trail camera do your, and only your, pre-season photoshoot, set cameras donning latex gloves, and turn them on after aiming them to reduce wasted shots of your puzzled face.  Apply a cover scent to you boots when approaching the site.  It also doesn’t hurt to leave the area undisturbed for at least 75 percent of your camera’s battery life, and return at midday, when you do.

4.       Aim cameras along a game trail.  This, again, is an excellent strategy for capturing washed out shots.  The movement made by a deer approaching a camera sensor directly is often not enough to trigger the shutter until the animal is either over top of or passing it, and the resulting image usually teaches a very up-close-and-personal lesson on how the White-Tailed Deer got its name.  
      Occasionally, you may get an image that tells on the deer’s approach to your camera site—but it’s not likely.

If bucktail isn’t your thing, and you prefer broadside shots of deer, which is much more telling of stature, age, and integrity, position your camera perpendicular to a game trail.  The shutter is usually triggered when the deer ambles in frame.

Baiting is a great way to spice up your photostream, but
may also eliminate any chance of capturing any portraits
of deer.
5.       When all else fails, nail a trout head to a tree.  This used to be one of my favorites.  If you’re bored of the traditional commencement of doe and squirrel dominated photos, spice up your yield by leaving bait in front of your camera trap.  Recovering pictures of raccoons, foxes, and coyotes is great fun.

While I’ll admit, this is fun, attracting predators like coyotes that feed on trout heads and fawns is the last thing you want to do on your hunting property.  Leave the trout heads in the trash can (double bagged) or, preferably, on the fish to catch another day.  I always prefer feeding a fisherman over a coyote.

    There is a learning curve to utilizing a trail camera properly.  You may follow these rules at your own desire, but I strongly encourage ignoring them, and applying the lessons they provide.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


    Virginian’s are quite lucky to live within a few hours’ drive of excellent smallmouth angling.  But this was not always so.  

Prior to the 1800s, the smallmouth bass finned only the Great Lakes and Ohio River watersheds.  However, thanks to the smallmouth’s growing popularity as a game fish, and the booming railroad industry, the feisty bass was introduced east of the Ohio in the mid-1800s.

The beautiful Shenandoah River, with Massanutten Mountain's rocky slopes in the background.
Photo by Matt Reilly
    That historic introduction occurred in the Potomac River basin; and Virginia’s Shenandoah River became one of the smallmouth’s first home rivers in the East.

    The smallmouth’s long residence in the Shenandoah may or may not account for the river’s prestige as a trophy bass fishery, but its ledge-rock foundation and ample supply of aquatic foodstuffs to support the metabolisms of one of our country’s hardest-fighting fish certainly do.

    That thought got me up at 5:00 AM before school on Friday to pack the truck with camping, floating, and fishing gear.  After school, I grabbed my brother from his home in Charlottesville, and made the short pilgrimage to Luray, where Massanutten Mountain towers over the Shenandoah’s fertile waters.

    We made camp near Bealer’s Ferry at Shenandoah River Outfitters, who we also used as a shuttle service.

    After setting up camp, we walked a short trail to the water, just before dark.  The damselflies are really quite something on the Shenandoah, and drew fish to the surface to feed.  Casting floating Rapalas, I could often hook fish by letting its minnow profile bob on the surface, twitching it occasionally.

    The next morning, we were on the water by 8:30.  Fog sat heavily on the water’s surface, slowly being broken apart by sun.  The Shenandoah’s fishing traditions sat silhouetted against the backlit fog in johnboats, fishing bottom rigs, patiently.

A typical Shenandoah smallmouth.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    When the sun filtered through the fog completely, and sent it on its way into the heavens, a bluebird sky was revealed, and the fishing picked up.

    Short-strikes from fish made my brother’s trebeled Rapala efficient with the bluegill, while I directed the canoe and cast a grub to the swift pockets and structured shorelines.

    Too many fish to count came to hand—at least 100, between the two of us—with the largest smallmouth inching past the two-and-a-half pound mark.

    We selected an eight mile float to fill the day, but thanks to the fast pace of the river, we made it to our take-out at Bixler’s Ferry by 4:00 PM, tired, wet, and happy.

Youth and Apprentice Hunting Days

    New this year, on National Hunting and Fishing Day, Saturday, September 28, the Saturday before the opening of deer season will allow youth hunters under the age of 15 and holders of valid apprentice hunting licenses to hunt either deer or bear.  Both days are in effect statewide.

    Those hunting deer should note that either antlered or antlerless deer may be taken. 

    Blaze orange requirements are in effect for both seasons; and the use of dogs, except in tracking wounded animals, is prohibited, with the exception of bear hunting where there is an open bear hound training season.

    All daily and seasonal bag limits apply to these seasons.  For bear hunters, this means that if a bear is taken on this day, no other may be taken in any other season.

    Those supervising youth or apprentice hunters are reminded that they must be at least 18 years of age, hold a valid Virginia hunting license, and maintain close verbal and visual contact with their subject.  You do not need a bear, deer, and turkey license; and you are not permitted to carry or discharge a firearm while supervising.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Friday, September 13, 2013


FIRE!DinnerShenandoahThe Shenandoah River
DamselflyGreat Blue Heron hunting a grassy edgeAn average Shenandoah Smallie'Another nice Shenandoah bronzeback

Here is the latest batch of photos to roll out of the Nikon.

 Places as beautiful as the Shenandoah River, where my brother and I spend 3 days fishing, floating, and camping, make photography easy. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


    It’s mid-September.  In Central Virginia that means that squirrel season has already come into effect and the early archery seasons are just around the corner.  In the spirit of being prepared, you’ve hung treestands, aimed trail cameras, tuned bows, and sharpened arrows; but there’s one last thing standing between you and your concealed spot in a tree come October—a license.

    The VDGIF offers a wide range of license types and add-ons suited to fit any and all hunting preferences and styles, hunter age and residency.  But first you’ve got to have the proper education

Hunter Education

    Legislation was passed in 1988 requiring 12-15-year-old and first-time hunters to complete a certified hunter education course before purchasing a license.  Since its implementation, the total number of hunting-related shooting deaths has decreased 25-percent.

    These courses are designed to teach young or prospective hunters conservation and stewardship of our natural resources, as well as safe hunting practices.

    Several hours of self-study, six to eight class credit hours, and a passing grade on the final test are required to earn a certificate of completion, which then allows students to purchase a valid Virginia hunting license.

    Self-study options include online courses, paper manuals acquired from VDGIF regional offices, and downloadable powerpoints detailing the information needed to pass the test given at the conclusion of the classroom course.  Keep in mind that one of these options is mandatory and recommended in the interest of surmounting the certification process and getting in the woods quickly.

    The classroom portion of the course is perhaps the most grunt work, as classes generally run several hours to minimize the number of days needed to attain the appropriate amount of credit hours.  Classes come at no charge, and can be found in most all towns and counties in the state; but seats fill up fast, and you should sign up as soon as possible.

    For more information about the education requirements for purchasing a license, or to sign up for a hunter’s education course, visit the Department’s website at

The License Barrier

    When you turn 16 and are required to carry a Virginia hunting license, there are several different options available, and the fitting choice varies from individual to individual.

    For several years, the Department has offered Apprentice Licenses, aimed at recruiting new hunters to the woods.  These licenses are one-time purchases, are good for two years, and waive the hunter education requirement provided the “apprentice” hunter is chaperoned visually and verbally by a Virginia license-holding adult over the age of 18.  Apprentice License-holders are still required to purchase bear, deer, and turkey licenses and the relevant stamps and permits, but are not then eligible to purchase a basic Virginia hunting license.

    For those who have passed a hunter education course, or have previously owned valid Virginia hunting licenses, are most suited to the basic Virginia hunting license, unless exempt.

    It’s worth noting that those 65 years of age and older are not required to purchase a hunting license to hunt on private property in their county or city of residence.

    Otherwise, you must be licensed and decorated with the proper permits and stamps.  These include options for small game and big game (bear, deer, turkey).  Dove, rail, snipe, woodcock, and waterfowl hunters are required to have a HIP number, and waterfowlers also need a Federal Duck Stamp.  Hunting on state forest or national forest land also requires a separate permit.  If hunting with archery tackle, a crossbow, or muzzleloader during any specific archery or muzzleloading hunting season, the respective permit is required.  No permit is required if hunting with any of these arms during a general firearms season.

    Lifetime licenses, valid for the duration of your lifetime, are available upon an application providing proof of age and residency.  All applicable permits and stamps are needed to accompany this license.  Applications can be submitted in person or via mail to the Richmond office of the VDGIF.  Contact the Department’s website, or call 1-866-721-6911 for an application.

    Legacy hunting licenses are available for purchase for children younger than two years old, and may be acquired from the Richmond office.

    Licenses for the partially and permanently disabled come at a well-discounted price, and vary by condition.  These too require the adequate permits and stamps.  Check the website for further information.

    In the end, it’s being safe, relaxed, and enjoying the great outdoors that makes hunting enjoyable.  Hunter education is a benefactor for this cause, cutting down on unfortunate accidents that even now continue to occur at an alarming rate; and license fees, though sometimes expensive, benefit the game and habitats that make our sport possible.  Pay your respects to these relatively minimal conditions, and you’re sure to have a more enjoyable adventure afield.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


    Bluebird skies, awesome temperatures, and normal water levels weren't getting away without a few fish being caught this weekend!

Any idea where we were?  The hint is in the background.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Squirrel Season, Bigger and Better

    With the arrival of the first Saturday in September, Virginia’s fall squirrel season will be set into motion statewide.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The estimated 33,000 squirrel hunters native to Virginia enjoy the state’s longest small-game season—discounting the clamorous old crow—as they are permitted to pursue their sport a full month after deer hunters abandon their stands.

    However, this year our state biologists have extended the season’s duration.  The 2013-14 squirrel season will run from September 7-February 28.  Virginia is then added to the ranks of states whose squirrel season extends fully into the month of February, including our neighbors North Carolina and Maryland.  Marc Puckett, state small-game biologists assures that low hunting pressure in the late-season does not negatively impact squirrel numbers, and that the extension is a way of increasing hunting opportunities for those devoted sportsmen who chase the bushytail well into the winter months.

    With this change, it’s important that hunters remain informed by reading up with a critical eye on the game laws.  Gray and red squirrels may be hunted the full length of the season in 2013-14.  Their hefty cousins the fox squirrels, however, remain protected by the January 31 closure.  The bag limit remains set at a total of six combined squirrels.

Be Selective or Stay Home?

    The early squirrel season—that is, in my mind, the month of September—is hardly characterized by appropriate hunting conditions. 

    Squirrels are very vulnerable at this time.  Their hurried thrashing through dense summer foliage is an easy giveaway, and hides the hunter’s movements and noise, making close shots possible at times, even if shooting may be tricky.

    I do, however, on occasion tote my .22 into the prime squirrel woods of Fluvanna County in September.  Creeping to within shooting range of a bouncing ball of leaves is an exhilarating experience, but sometimes effortless.  This time of year, squirrels are hardly as gun shy as they become by the climax of deer season, and will many times be just a little too trusting of the human creeping through the understory.

    Too often I find myself exiting the woods with juveniles—the lanky, large-eyed, un-educated members of the squirrel population that don’t carry enough meat to make their skinning and cleaning a worthwhile endeavor.  Even trying to select the largest of the squirrels from the treetops, the leaves that still cling to the trees make distinguishing size difficult.

    These youngsters are truly young-of-the-year, from the year’s second litter.  After being born in late June or July, the juveniles rely on the mother for up to ten weeks before striking out on their own to begin gathering and caching food for winter.  This weaning stage often runs into September.

    For these reasons, I prefer to spend the last month of summer fishing for the numerous species of fish that the Old Dominion hosts.  Biologists from North Carolina may share the same opinion as I, setting opening day of squirrel season at October 14.

Feeding Deer

    Also effective in September, the annual prohibition on deer feeding begins September 1 and runs through the first Saturday in January, or the closing day of deer season.  But this too is subject to change.

    New this year, it is illegal to feed both deer and elk in Buchanan, Wise, and Dickenson Counties at any time.

    The deer feeding restriction has also been extended to endure the length of any deer or elk hunting season in the state.  This covers late urban archery seasons that take place in portions of the state that host overabundant deer populations.

    Feed must now be removed from any baiting site prior to September 1; and a new regulation has been created defining an area as “baited” for 10 days following the removal of feed.

    These laws are aimed at preserving the health of both the public and wildlife.  Most notably, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) can be spread in areas where heaving feeding activity concentrates deer unnaturally.  Therefore, it’s illegal to feed deer in Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties, as well as the City of Winchester, where CWD has been confirmed and contained.

    Deer also suffer a loss of “wildness” from human feeding, as they begin to associate humans with their food source and become dangerously trusting.  If you don’t recognize this as a negative issue, inquire from the local Park stations accounts of visitors being badly or fatally wounded by the hooves or antlers of an angry deer—they have many. 

Originally published in the Rural Virginian