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!