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