Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Water and technology don’t mix—you would think I would know that by now.

    When I was younger, in my last year of middle school, I acquired a hand-me-down flip phone—a Motorola of sufficient capabilities.  The gift was supposedly meant to provide me a method of communicating when I was away from home—to keep me safe.

    However, I quickly learned that phones are extremely dangerous.  From that moment on, the potential harm that loomed over my everyday operations was magnificent, and I was required by special edict issued by my parents (bless them) to carry the salvational device wherever I roamed, regardless of the availability of cell service—especially if I was going fishing, as I did most frequently, alone.

    Now, much of my childhood was spent wet-wading my home river—the Rivanna—even well outside of the traditional wet-wading season.  I had not yet acquired waders, and my too-eager-to-care childhood-self pushed on undeterred.

    One sunny spring morning, shortly after inheriting the phone, I made the bike ride and hike to the riverbank and rigged up my fly rod.  Keeping my phone in my shorts pocket had become a habit, and I dared not remove it.

    The river ran with the voluminous, blue-green lifeblood of spring.  The red maples were blooming; samaras twirled in the breeze.  Dogwoods and redbuds lit up the understory.  The smallmouth were pre-spawn, and hungry. 

    That day I caught and landed several large smallmouth on flies of my own creation.  I was satisfied to the core as I closed the book on the day, wading towards the bank as dusk settled.  Contentment met horrified disgust in a blind alley when I felt the blocky form of my phone clinging to my thigh in the right pocket of my soaked wading shorts.

    My immediate thoughts were “It’s broken.  But what?  I was being obedient!”  I dried the phone out after its four hour swim and used it to its full potential for another couple of years, marked by the occasional swim, before it was finally condemned.

    Midway through my high school career I graduated—to an iPhone, which proved to be just as dependable a fishing partner as my first.

    I woke up to a fiery sunrise and the chattering of birds one crisp November morning amid an upland tract of land in Georgia’s Okeefenokee swamp.  The night required no fly—a pleasant coincidence, as I was due in southwest Florida by nightfall and the mesh canopy of my tent allowed in enough dawn sunlight to awaken me sans alarm.  I packed my things, shouldered my kayak, and trudged towards the swamp.

    Nine miles into an early-morning paddle I was still relatively alone.  The birds were awake, but the alligators had yet to be lured onto land by the sun.  I snapped some sunrise pictures with my phone. 

    The swamp channel constricted, and out of the cypress trunks and wildflower backdrop emerged a shelter, with stairs and a deck, for the stretching of cramped legs.  As I planted my feet on the steps above the tannic water, my phone slid out of the unzipped pocket of my PFD, fell, and landed on its side, perpendicular to, and on, the stair stringer.

    I took several moments to calm my pulse and regain control of my trembling extremities before wiping sweat from my brow and thankfully retrieving the device, sliding it tenderly into my pocket.  It was on borrowed time.

    Just a month later, while emptying my pockets after a day of brook trout fishing, I fumbled the phone, and its screen shattered on river rock.  It remained usable.

    All of these incidents breathe positivity into my most recent lapse in technological competence.

    I stood knee-deep and wader-less in the cool waters of a foreign mountain brook trout stream.  Really, wild rainbows outnumbered brook trout.  So when I landed the first brookie, its picture was taken. 

    A half hour later, I came upon a picturesque waterfall and reached for my breast pocket.  Empty.  Contentment and disgust were up for round two. 

    I returned to the scene of the last photo to find the device face-up, wedged between two rocks in the tail of the pool, water rushing over it.  I retrieved it, sent a few warning messages to those who might be worried, and was then greeted by a black screen.  Three days later, it’s alive and riding shotgun.

    Looking back, I may need to make some adjustments.  I hear there is something called “adventure proof;” and although I have fortunately escaped a debt of several hundred dollars to the Apple and Motorola companies, I believe the concept worthy of my research.  My luck may be in short supply going forward. 

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Local knowledge—it’s the earthy flavor and time-tested confidence in the voice of a weathered character who can forecast the weather, crop yield, and animal behaviors with just a finger in the wind and an eye on the past.  I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a few such minds.  Most were outdoorsmen, and could unfailingly concur on a single truth—turkeys start gobbling, shad start running, and crappie start biting when the dogwood buds grow to the size of a squirrel’s ear.  In central Virginia, that system is more practical and manifestly observable than any calendar or watch of any ability.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    The latter prediction has been the most valuable to me.  Crappie will bite year-round, but after the new year has brought sufficient sunlight and warmth to bud the state tree, the water temperatures in our stillwaters have largely warmed and teased shoreline vegetation to the surface, providing the tuxedoed panfish cover in which to stage their spawn.  Around these grassbeds, crappie become much more accessible to a pair of youngster in a john boat.

    During my younger years, my family and I almost always ended up at my grandparents’ lake house on the Northern Neck in early spring.  The lake held my interest more than the house did.  There were fish to be caught in what was then my playground, and crappie were no minority in its waters.

    My cousin and I typically launched the small boat that was kept tied up to the dock two or three times per day, returning for meals and in the instance of any bouts of dangerous weather.  At 35 acres, the lake was easily navigable with the small trolling motor mounted on the stern, which we commonly re-designated as the bow for simplicity in navigation. 

    I was often assigned the captain’s role.  With crappie on the mind I would point us towards some distant creek mouth or cove and we would be freed from the constraints of land, lake breeze in our hair.

    Finding ourselves in an intimate arena, attention was turned to our tackle boxes.  We regularly took crappie on Roadrunners, small spoons, grubs, Beetle Spins, and crankbaits, but there was no science to our choice.  Whatever struck our fancy found its way to the water.

    One particular morning, we enjoyed good success in the upper end of a creek throwing small crankbaits and landing some quality fish.  It seemed that the skinny areas held the best fish.  So I would man the motor, positioning my cousin in the bow for a long cast through a narrow lane of shrouding laurel.

    Concentration was paramount in making the deep cast, but as the bow of the boat slowly slid into position, the voice of a hoarse dragon erupted from the thick bushes adjacent.  Heron Cove was so dubbed when we discovered a nesting green heron as the source of the commotion.

    Composure regained, my cousin made the cast.  Thump.  His crankbait collided with a stump.  He kept reeling, and connected with the papery mouth of a big slab.

    The long, riverine nature of the lake and a handful of recently purchased gold spoons came together in my mind one day early in the season, when the white flowers of the dogwoods were still scarce among the hardwood banks.  With the aid of the trolling motor and built in rod holders, we quickly developed a trolling system, and with the speed set just fast enough to keep our lures out of the woody snags on the bottom, patrolled the lake in search of a suspended school.

    Crappie are highly mobile schooling fish.  So when we landed the first fish just minutes into the routine, I experimentally employed an old trick, tying 20 feet of fishing line through the hole left by the hook in the fish’s mouth and tagging the end with an inflated pink balloon.  The rest of the afternoon, trolling was abandoned for following and placing casts around the bobbing balloon.  

    Evening came.  After dinner we took to the water once again in search of our ballooned friend.

    We found him in a favorite evening cove and freed him.  With Roadrunners we beat the banks, the evening light slowly creeping out of the scene as we competed for numbers.  We were tied somewhere in the 30s, but short-striking fish caused many to lose the hook at the boat, sometimes even breaking free and back into the lake after they had been hoisted from the water.

    The light was soon gone and the temperature dropped.  Sweaters broke out when the water lapping against the hull was our greatest perception of place.  A classic breeze filled our senses, and we were comfortable, amid a murky southern lake dimpled with the snowy petals of dogwoods and a sporting springtime tradition carried on.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


A sense of distant familiarity filled the brisk mountain air as my brother, Phillip, and I sliced a path through it with boots and fly rods, following rocky switchbacks and clambering over fallen trees along a footpath aimed at an intimate Blue Ridge hollow.  Irrigating the gorge 1,000 feet below was a favorite and well-known brook trout stream, but our sense of adventure was renewed, our minds overtaken by anticipation, as our feet treaded a course to a foreign stretch.  Fishing together has been rare since the pursuit of a college education relocated me 200 miles to the south, and so it seemed fitting to choose a venue of tradition for the day that we broke the fast.

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Gurgling Appalachian Mountain water joined our downward venture when a narrow gut nuzzled the hillside trail.  An unnamed creek, a tributary beaded by lucid, globular pools, captured our passing fancy and required an impromptu plying with flies. 

    We split up.  Shortly, the modest trickle yielded a half dozen fiery-flanked brookies of respectable size, and I retired my preliminary efforts to the overlooking path, excited and ready to continue on to the main event.  Phillip was still fishing as I took a standing perch atop a rock mound to reflect and wait.

    A bluebird sky illuminated the forest floor, warming the ground and lighting diamonds on the riffles and runs of the brook trout’s home.  The warmth of spring tugged at young hardwoods, at the ground, drawing renewed life and its tell-tale buds of green from the ragged nooks of an otherwise harsh landscape.  There was not a road in sight, nor a human who was not diligently cracking away at a hungry trout.

    The air is stimulating and humbling in such places, tucked away in the folds of the developing world.  For a moment, I was comfortably engulfed by the emotions of wilderness, the unstudied potential of new water, and the impression that their influence was unrestrained. 

Photo by Matt Reilly
    Yet, I know too much.  As Aldo Leopold explained, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  The water we were scheduled to meet by afternoon is plagued by the adverse effects of acid rain deposition, by no fault of the fragile brook trout or the caddisflies or the equally iconic black bears of the mountain setting, but by fault of humans in the adjacent, polluting, coal-producing region.  Regular water quality monitoring and treatment loan the native trout their health.

    Less than 24 hours prior, a press release landed in my inbox detailing the recently sealed fate of the Ozernaya River in Russia’s Kamchatka.  Gold was discovered in the headwaters of the river in 2004, and in 2013 plans to develop access roads and a road mine were made, stealing the “pristine” designation from the largest spring creek valley in the world.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate voted to support a budget resolution that would allow state governments to take over control, auction, or sell all federal public lands, except for national parks and monuments.  Sportsmen and women are undoubtedly the strongest advocates and defenders of our public lands.  Following the announcement that the number of Americans involved with hunting and fishing had dropped from approximately 40 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2006, this recent bout of immorality in the Senate is particularly ominous for the future of America’s outdoor heritage.

    On a more local level, New Mexicans are engaged in an ongoing, fist-clenched battle against Senate Bill 226, which threatens to eliminate their access to public waters.  Should the amendment, which contradicts the rights to public waters spelled out in the state’s constitution, be passed, New Mexicans will be stripped of their right to wade, float, or fish navigable, public waters which are bordered by private property.

    Incomparable and dwarfed in “ecological education” to Leopold, my foundational education mirrors his own.  I am an outdoorsman, and in reflecting upon the deeply personal relationship that I have with the outdoors I know one thing—that the stewardship and the quest for ecologically sustainable systems that I challenge my purpose in life with is a direct result of that foundational outdoor education, and that the future of our sports, our public lands, and our Earth rely upon the ongoing recruitment of such passions.

    Between the lines of the tense reports on issues that threaten the health of our environment and the access we currently enjoy to our woods and waters are the voices of sportsmen.  We know there are no “quick fixes” for these short-sighted, progress-guised adulterations, and understand our obligation to defend our natural resources tooth and nail against such baneful human activity.  Hope for the future resounds in those voices, united in a world of wounds.        

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Saturday, April 11, 2015


Spring is an experience of rebirth, an exercise for the senses.  Rich aromas and dramatic sounds clutter the landscape, but none is more impressive and melodramatic than the thunderous boom of a gobbler announcing its presence to the countryside.  His intended audience is a willing mate, but the loving echoes beckon hunters to the woods, and this year they are liable for great success.

Photo by David Coffman.
    This year, the spring gobbler season in Virginia opens on April 11 and runs through May 16.  During the first part of the season—from April 11 through May 3—legal shooting hours span half the day, from a half hour before sunrise till noon.  The latter portion—starting on May 4 and running through the end of the season on May 16—offers hunters the full day, from a half hour before sunset until sunset, to chase gobblers.

    Despite the 2014-15 turkey hunting seasons’ 44-percent deficit over last year’s seasons’ harvest numbers, DGIF Wild Turkey Project Leader, Gary Norman believes the Commonwealth’s wild turkey population to be in excellent condition, as participants in the annual August Brood Survey reported record numbers of broods and birds.  The population has exhibited a consistent annual growth of two percent throughout the last decade.

Photo by David Coffman
    This is positive, considering the potential for much more dramatic population variances.  Because wild turkey lay and incubate 10-12 eggs after mating, the weather during the month-and-a-half-long period during which the eggs are incubated and the chicks are growing and learning to fly--beginning sometime in early May--is the crux of population growth.  Wet, humid conditions improve scenting conditions, thus increasing predation opportunities for nest-robbers and poult-nappers like raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and bobcats.  After the chicks are hatched, extended periods of moist, cold weather are dangerous until the newborns are old enough to maintain their body temperatures.

    Hunter success rates have been proven to reliably mirror these variables with a two-year lag time for maturation.  Such was the case in 2013, when a record harvest number of 19,265 birds correlated directly with a record poult recruitment estimate in the spring of 2011.

David Coffman with a big bird!
    Looking ahead to the coming season, one can only speculate about the weather.  However, in studying the reproductive success of Old Dominion turkey in 2013, hunters can confidently expect to observe a great increase in gobblers afield in 2015.

    Of even greater encouragement are the potential consequences of last fall’s heavy mast crop, which made deer hunting difficult.  Biologist popularly hold that turkey gobble more frequently and enthusiastically when they are in peak physical condition.  Given the density of high-energy acorns present through the fall and early winter, and the relatively short-lived bouts of winter weather, the Commonwealth’s turkey population should be feeling vocal and ready for love this spring. 

The 2015 Virginia Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt

    The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia invite hunters and outdoor enthusiasts to the First Annual Virginia Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt to be held April 17 and 18—the second weekend of spring gobbler season—based out of downtown Richmond.  The inaugural event is designed in celebration of turkey, hunting, and the rich spring sporting tradition that is an integral element of Virginia’s heritage. 

    The festivities begin Friday night at the brand new VDGIF headquarters building located at 7870 Villa Park Drive in Richmond, where hunters and guides will pair up and make plans for Saturday’s hunt.

    Hunter-guide teams will hunt a variety of private properties across the state loaded with gobblers until noon on Saturday.  The event will draw to a close Saturday night with dinner, music, and an auction at the NewMarket Pavilion in downtown Richmond.

    The registration fee for hunters is $1,000 and includes all activities for you and a guest, as well as some great gifts.

    Come out and be a part of this long-awaited inaugural event that is sure to become a treasured tradition!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Friday, April 3, 2015


Trodding deliberately through an oak grove and the dynamic air of a fading season, swollen neck and tined, bone-white crown extended in hot-blooded search, the majesty of a mature, rutting whitetail buck commands a certain level of reverence.

As an unshakeable characteristic of our animalistic nature, we calculate a buck’s stature as a product of that mesmerizing, ivory headdress.  Yet, such materialistic obtainments are fleeting, dropped after their mating purpose is served and testosterone levels dip post-rut.  Yes, deer also suffer from losses of manhood—yearly, in fact.

    In the mid-south, this period of antler-dropping typically occurs in late winter, while bucks exhausted from the reproductive ritual aim to consume scarce food while expending as little calories as possible.

    Luckily for us, shed antlers allow us to continue to indulge our infatuation with bone long after the season ends and well beyond what a typical big game license affords.

Local shed hunter Bill Weigold with a couple of
impressive 1/2 headsets.
    Over the past decade, it seems, the practice of taking to the woods after the last of winter’s snow melts in search of these dropped treasures has taken off.  Popularity has grown particularly in the Midwestern states, where food plots—late season feeding stations—concentrate deer movements and provide clutter-free arenas for searching.  In the East, where expansive oak forests generally replace food plots and agricultural fields, shed antlers can be a bit harder to come by and spot, and the game become even more about covering ground. 

    Utilizing a tactical approach and some basic knowledge of season deer behavior can substantially up your bone count this spring.

Check the Weather

    Bucks will drop their antlers as early as December and as late as April, depending on a host of hormonal and chemical factors within an individual animal’s system.  However, most bucks in Virginia drop their racks between January and late March on intermittent snow cover.

    Seasoned local shed hunter, Bill Weigold, recommends timing your hunts when snow is no longer present, simply for ease of sighting white antlers among brown leaves with no distraction.

    Other times, melting snow can influence deer movement by providing a rare feeding opportunity, providing hints as to where shed antlers might lay.  “One particular winter we had quite a bit of snow and a couple warm days cleared out some hillsides.  I figured the deer would go where the food was available, and I found quite a few there,” Weigold remembered.

Weigold with an impressive collection of large
shed antlers.
    When snow is finally out of the equation for the season, Weigold looks for certain weather patterns to create optimum shed hunting conditions.  “My favorite time to look for sheds is on a cloudy day after rain,” he said.  “The lack of sun eliminates distracting, bright glare on the ground.”  Moreover, leaves dark from rain and light antlers contrast much sharper than dry leaves illuminated by bright sun.

Go Small

    Shed hunting in the eastern, heavily-forested states is a challenge because of the distribution of deer across a wide range and because of a cluttered forest floor that distracts the eye.  So instead of covering miles and miles of ground aimlessly, it pays in antlers found to search small wildlife havens. 

    Several of the best shed antlers in my own collection were rummaged from a narrow swath of creek bottom forest pinned between a busy state road and my childhood subdivision.  Deer hunters also know these small woodlots to be concentrated with deer.  Human dwellings displace deer, pushing them into these areas of relative seclusion.  You’ll be surprised what you might find in close proximity to development.

    Shed hunter and outdoor writer, Mark Taylor, of Roanoke has likewise reports success in scouring the small urban lots and parks of his home city. 

Search Escape Cover

    Like any species of wildlife, prime habitat will be comprised of feeding stations, transitional bedding and nesting grounds, and escape cover.  Because late winter bucks are weak from the rut and wary from months of hunting pressure, thick escape cover in relative proximity to available food—such as grass in a field or on a hillside—will house bucks during the antler-dropping period. 

    Naturally, areas where bucks spend the most time this time of year will be the shed hunter’s best bet for success.  Weigold, who holds quite a collection of finds, says, “I go to the thickest stuff I can find!”

     Search escape and wintering cover thoroughly and if you’ve got bucks, you’ll probably find antlers!

Weigold with his complete collection 
     As with other outdoor pursuits, shed hunting can be quite rewarding, and even an unsuccessful hunt is nothing worse than a walk in the awakening spring woods!

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian