Archive for May, 2017

  • Blog
  • May 22nd, 2017

BROTHERS IN TOOTH AND CLAW

By Joel M. Vance

I was sitting on our deck, reading a book in the evening light. The sun lit the trees across the pond with a golden glow; I was in shadow. A motion caught my eye and I looked up from the book to glimpse a big bird as it swooped into a huge oak about 30 yards away.
The bird landed on a stob and turned toward me and I recognized a northern goshawk. Even across those 90 feet I felt its intense predatory glare. The bird called, a long series of sharp chirps, like a woodpecker. I was enthralled, afraid to leap up for my binoculars for fear I’d spook the bird.
No need to fear—it launched, spreading wings two feet wide, and came directly at me across the yard. I was frozen, not with fear but with awe. The bird got larger and larger and reason should have made me duck but I was paralyzed and could realize for the first time how prey creatures feel in that eyeblink before it’s all over for them.
There was an instant of time suspended when the hawk was about eight feet away, our eyes locked, and then it swooped up over my head, over the roof of the house, made a circle back in front of me and landed in a tree near the pond. Then I ran for the binoculars and came back just in time to see it flying across the pond.
I have no idea why a big hawk would make a strafing run on me. Best I know I don’t look much like a bunny or mouse or any other prey creature. Maybe it was a salute, one predator to another. Goshawks and I both are small game hunters..
Some hunters consider hawks as competitors and if it were not for federal protection, would leave them hanging dead on fenceposts, the way they used to. I consider them fellow hunters and figure there’s enough game to go around. A hawkless sky would be a dreary one indeed.
Goshawks are the cheetahs of the bird world, combining speed and maneuverability to track down prey. I pondered the actions of this fierce predator, discounting the idea that it paid tribute to me as a fellow predator—not sprawled as I was and unfeathered to boot.
In the middle of the night I came awake with a start. That was a falconer’s bird I thought. It escaped from someone and was looking for a home or a handout. My friend Steve Bodio, a fine writer, has been a falconer most of his life and has written an exciting book about fulfilling a lifelong dream. He saw a picture of a Mongol hunting with a golden eagle when he was a boy and vowed to go to Mongolia some day and hunt with eagles.
He finally made it in his 50s and the result is Eagle Dreams. I emailed Steve the day after I had the face-off with the goshawk and he replied, “Gosses are very strange birds. I almost think a falconer’s young bird would have just lit at your feet—at least if it were hungry enough. I have no idea if you have breeding gosses down your way, though I’m sure you have winter migrants. But all goshawks and especially first year birds can be scarily bold.”
He asked if the bird was wearing jesses, those leather thongs by which a falconer holds the bird on his fist. It didn’t, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t an escapee—just that it’s unlikely.
Goshawks are the largest of what are called “true hawks,” from the genus accipiter, which include Cooper’s, sharp-shinned and sparrow hawks). They have short, broad wings and a long tail which helps them maneuver through trees and other obstacles with lightning speed. The other common group are Buteos, which include the familiar broad-winged, soaring birds like red-tailed, rough-legged and broad wing hawks—and the name in Latin means “buzzard” which they assuredly aren’t.
The goshawk’s name comes from Dutch for “goose hawk,” although goshawks would have a tough time bringing a goose to the table—probably the name is because of goose-like coloration or gooselike size. Goshawks generally feed on other birds, though they won’t turn down a juicy rabbit. The Latin name, Accipiter gentilis, implies a gentle creature, ironic given the fierce predatory bent of the bird.
Broadwing hawks are easy to see and that’s the image most people have of hawks. But the swift hawks, Gos and Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned, those are the guys that bring fire to Hawkdom. They are so graceful in the air, so trim and swift that they are the fighter jets compared to the lumbering bomber broadwings.
My one-sided game of chicken wasn’t the first time a goshawk and I had interacted. Once I watched a goshawk chase a small bird around a field fringed by tall trees. The bird could corner quicker than the hawk and would gain some ground when it juked 90 degrees at the field corner. But the hawk closed the gap on the straightaway. It was like watching stock car racing, only more exciting.
The two birds squared the field about three times and finally the hawk tired of this not-quite lethal game and banked off, over the trees. I suppose the little bird went somewhere to quit trembling and get on with life.
Not so fortunate another time was a yellowhammer. I surprised a gos having a leisurely lunch on the luckless woodpecker. The hawk swirled off the ground like a dust devil, caught the wind and was gone in an eyeblink. One chunk of red meat lay among a scattering of yellow and black feathers, mute testimonial to the gos’s swift attack.
This was stark evidence of the law of tooth and fang (or talon and beak). This was a scene that the “Wonderful World of Disney” naturalists (i.e, those who draw their knowledge of the outdoors from sanitized nature shows on television) need to see more of. There are only those that are born to eat and those that are born to be eaten. There is nothing in between and survival is not a game of hide-and-seek. Tag in that game does not mean “you’re it”; it means “you’re dead.”
While one can feel regret for the prey rabbit or yellowhammer that never had the life it might have had, a true conservationist worries about the health of the species, not the individual. Misguided attempts to “help out” have been a problem throughout history and this country’s most notable example was in Arizona when well-meaning types tried to eliminate predators on the Mogollon Rim to help the deer population.
It certainly worked…to a fault. The deer population exploded; the deer ate themselves out of house and home, starved in great numbers and the habitat suffered greatly for years.
Sometimes the effects are unintentional which is the case now with “light” geese (blue/snow geese). The population in recent years has exploded to the point they are destroying their Arctic nesting habitat. It’s possible global warming is putting less cold weather stress on the birds, and certainly the geese have more food down the flyway to keep them healthy and fertile.
There also aren’t enough predators (Man is the only viable one) to keep the population in check. Checks and balances. Nature, by its nature, does not have a so-called “balance of nature.” There would be severe peaks and deep valleys in wildlife populations without Man and only Man can assure a relative balance by intelligent manipulation of habitat and predation. That’s called wildlife management (conservation, not preservation) and it’s the reason behind protection for birds of prey and controls on other predators. Without other predators Man would be the only check on wildlife productivity…and Man doesn’t do a very good job.
The predator-prey relationship is dictated by genetics. There are carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, those last who eat anything that doesn’t eat them first. Man falls into that category. But Man is not designed to be just an herbivore. He has two eyes in the front of his head and that’s crucial for a predator.
It’s not by accident that predators have binocular vision, both eyes able to see prey simultaneously. Binocular vision is a vital tool to zero in on prey. It’s also no accident that prey animals and birds have eyes that see independently of each other so they can better scan for danger. Woodcock, which feed head-down, probing for earthworms, have eyes set high on their head so they can glimpse death dropping from the sky above.
The goshawk has binocular vision and when he looked at me as he mounted his aerial charge he knew exactly how close to come without a head-on crash.
Maybe he was having fun; maybe practicing his aerobatic skills. If I had been a rabbit he wouldn’t have aborted the mission—he would have braked at the last instant, talons extended, and I would have screamed the agony of the doomed.
From a rabbit’s point of view that would have been tragic; from the gos’s viewpoint it would have been survival. It all depends what side of the equation is yours. The quail I shoot, in the microsecond before life winks out, knows it has failed at survival. I know I have a delectable dinner ahead.
There is no question of morality here, either for the hawk or for me. We are what we are, shaped by millennia of existence. It is right for a predator to kill because he is a predator. Only humans make moral judgments and since we are omnivores, with canine teeth for tearing meat, moral judgment shouldn’t be part of the equation. We eat meat because we eat meat and in order to get meat killing is necessary.
Three of us were quail hunting. The dogs pointed, a covey flushed, we fired. My son Andy dropped a bird but we couldn’t find it, despite earnest attempts by the dogs. We finally accepted it as a lost bird and moved on in a wide circle that brought us back to the same fencerow an hour later. As we neared the fencerow, a goshawk, labored toward us, not much more than head-high, carrying something in its talons.
It flared as it spotted us and dropped its load. “I think that’s my bird!” Andy exclaimed and sure enough it was a still-warm quail, almost certainly the one he had shot earlier. This was an example of man and hawk working together, although not on a planned basis.
In the end I quit wondering why a goshawk would make a false charge at me. I thought I knew. Under the skin or feathers we’re kindred creatures, predators dating back to primal ooze. It takes one to know one. When we locked eyes for an instant we were linked by more than vision—we were linked by our predatory bloodlust.

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  • Blog
  • May 10th, 2017

PILGRIMAGE

By Joel M. Vance

Some pilgrims en route to their personal Mecca do it on cruise control all the way; others are barefoot and hopping on sharp rocks every step.
I did it in ratty tennis shoes and equally ratty cutoffs.
It had been nearly 50 years since I parked a car at the bridge over Thirty Three Creek and dug out my fly fishing gear. The stream looked the same—unprepossessing; in fact virtually invisible below the overhanging popple and thick ferns.
I hoped Thirty Three Creek was among those things that never change because my visit was a pilgrimage to a place where I had learned the craft of brook trout fishing with an old guy who died in 1982. This was not a stream for the elegant casts of A River Runs Through It. Nor was it a wade stream for the most part.
A fisherman’s path had led the way along the stream, skirting the blowdowns and bog sucks by diverging into the dense second growth forest, then returning to the creek edge. My mentor, George Mattis, always said, “You don’t start fishing until the tab tops quit and you can’t see the path anymore.”
That point was the turnaround for all the other anglers and was George’s jumping-off spot. It was where the trout fishing got good. It also was perhaps a mile or so into a woods so trackless that if you got away from the stream on a cloudy day you just might have to spend a night crouching on damp moss and thinking about bears.
George was in his 60s when I met him, spry as a gray squirrel. He had been a high school classmate of my mother’s, and after a stint in the Army during World War Two, went through Journalism School at the University of Wisconsin/Madison…and then came home to Birchwood—his own pilgrimage. He was short, stocky and windbit, with blue eyes and that Wisconsiner accent that is heavily influenced by Scandinavian immigrants. He wrote about hunting, fishing and nature for small local and regional publications. He had written but not found a publisher for a book on deer hunting, pouring a lifetime of woods savvy into its pages.
George lived an uncomplicated bachelor life, enjoying pleasures that cost nothing—the sharp tug of a brook trout, the challenging snort of a buck in an alder thicket. He lived in an immaculate little house. His bathroom doubled as a darkroom. He drove a small car, wore old and comfortable clothing, and fished with a battered old rod, probably handed down from his father, a grizzled logger.
His was not the life of the big time outdoor writer, with a huge bass boat, expensive gear and trips to big game country.
George loved swamp orchids and he didn’t photograph them in his back yard. He tromped endless miles, lugging his camera. He probably was the most accomplished snowshoe user left in Birchwood—maybe the only one. He didn’t make much money, but he didn’t need much.
Then the Outdoor Life Book Club picked up his deer manuscript and the book sold like nothing before or since—at least 300,000 copies, probably a record for an outdoor book. It brought him more money than—given his lifestyle—he could spend.
The differences between us were age, experience, woods savvy and, of course, that half million bucks in the bank, although I never saw him spend any of it. He was content with the deer he shot every fall, the trout he caught every time out, and a drink or two with old friends and relatives.
An economic downturn would have been meaningless to George because he’d spent his life in one. George and I fished together every time I came north. We shared a love of Birchwood and the area around it and of exploring the backwoods.
“I have taken one-pound brookies from a hole no more than a foot deep in a rill hardly two feet across,” George wrote. He could have (and probably was) describing both much of Thirty Three Creek and a typical outing there.
Armed with a water-filled Coke bottle and a half-dozen minnows swimming in it, George would lope along the fisherman’s trail until it petered out, his jogging action aerating the minnows. Finally he would reach a pool, well beyond the trash trail, where the creek curved sharply to the left, undercutting the high bank on the outside of the bend. The swirling current had created a deep hole, dark with tannin, impenetrable even to polarized glasses. Here he would rig a minnow on a No. 12 hook and launch it into the pool, letting the current carry the struggling shiner into the undercut. It wasn’t quite a quarter-stick of dynamite, but close.
George was fishing for sport, yes….but also for supper. When he had laid three or four nice brook trout in his wicker creel, he would disassemble his rod and empty the Coke bottle. His stomach said it was dinner time. He then unpacked a fry pan, a bottle of cooking oil, salt and pepper, and built a small cook fire on the grassy bank of Thirty Three Creek.
Then George Mattis would cook his trout and eat them, leaving the bones, skin and heads for raccoons. “No one who has eaten freshly caught summer trout, fried at the brookside, will ever forget this Epicurean delight,” George wrote. This was George—the consummate hunter-gatherer.
Once he pointed out bear scat which encouraged me to keep looking behind us as we trudged ever farther into the Blue Hills wilderness. Another time he mumbled that he wasn’t quite sure where we were. I damn sure didn’t know where I was, but I hoped George had a vague idea. Eventually he found the creek and proceeded to land several foot-long brook trout with his Coke bottle aerated minnows.
He was 77 years old and playing cribbage with his brother when he keeled over from a heart attack and he now is buried in the Birchwood cemetery, along with most of my relatives. His headstone inscription doesn’t mention his best-selling deer book, just the fact that he was a corporal in World War Two. That was something he was proud of more than being a professional phenomenon.
So it was time to go back to Thirty Three Creek and see how it had fared with the passage of time and of George Mattis.
The tangle at the road ditch was daunting, but once I got into the woods I paused to sort myself out. Ferns blanketed the forest floor. Sunlight danced here and there through the breeze-ruffled treetops. It was hushed, as if in a cathedral, and then a log truck roared past on the highway behind me, shattering the pastoral silence. “Shit!” I murmured reverently and moved on.
There was a faint fisherman’s trail, but the wagon tracks from the Chisholm Trail still are visible 130 years after they were made so the trail I followed could have been 50 years or 50 minutes old. Still, there should have been the wrapper from a brick of Velveeta, the local angler’s ultimate fallback.
The stream trickled over rounded rocks, scarcely flowing. I took this to be good news, theorizing that late summer low flow would concentrate trout in the scour holes and fishing would be somewhat like the proverbial shooting fish-in-a-barrel.
It didn’t take long to reach the end of the fisherman’s trail because essentially there was none. The afternoon sun continued to create chiaroscuro patterns on the forest floor but it also began to create a sticky heat. Sweat oozed from under my cap and down my face. I soldiered through a nice patch of stinging nettle and remembered why it’s reckless to wear shorts along a woodland stream.
I stumbled into the stream and stood in the cool water until the fierce itch from the nettles eased.
Finally the feeble trickle of the stream gave way to a pool. It wasn’t a classic pool from fly fishing literature; rather, a 10-yard widening of the stream. A couple of blowdown logs offered shelter to a spooky trout and the current had gouged out a couple of washtub-sized holes which might hold a brookie.
I wiped my forehead, clawed at my nettled legs, and put together my four-piece travel rod, dug the reel out of my fishing vest with a box consisting of a limited choice of flies—one. There were 40 woolly worms in two colors, black and olive. Take your pick.
I plucked an olive fly from the box and tied it on. There was no room for a back cast, but I thought I could side cast the length of the pool and with the consummate skill of a Lefty Kreh, drop the fly just above one of the holes and let it drift into the deeper water.
So I stripped line, flipped the fly in the air sideways….and wrapped it around a dead limb. Well, there were 39 other flies in the box.
My second cast landed with as much finesse as if I had hurled a dead cat in the stream, but the strike indicator jerked and I set the hook in what I hoped was a George Mattis-sized brook trout. After an epic battle of at least two seconds, I landed a chub minnow the right size to bait medium-length pike.
As pilgrimages go this was on the order of a pilgrimage to the boyhood home of the Three Stooges.
It took an hour of frustration, the loss of several more woolly worms, a near-encounter with poison ivy and incipient heat stroke to convince me that I was not going to revisit the 1960s and that if I didn’t vacate the woods I might be revisiting the nearest emergency room.
When I struggled out of the woods, my legs on fire from stinging nettle, sweat trickling down my face, swatting at mosquitoes, I spotted a trim uniformed fellow standing by my car.
Had I not stopped in Joe’s Bait Shop en route to Thirty Three Creek and permitted up, I would have been in trouble. A lay Baptist preacher of my acquaintance once told me in the orotund tones of a pulpit pundit that “I never buy a fishing license when I travel.” Perhaps he thought he was St. Peter, the Big Fisherman, reincarnated from a time when there was no such thing as a fishing permit, but I thought he was a jerk.
I hiked up the road berm to where the conservation agent stood and hauled out my billfold and showed the requisite fishing permit and trout stamp. It was a $37 expense for two chub minnows, but some guys spend that for a round of golf and don’t even get to wade through stinging nettle.
He asked the inevitable question: “How did you do?” and I shook my head.
“Well,” he said, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think that several years of drought and warm temperatures has really hammered a lot of these small brook trout streams. I’d be surprised if there are any trout left in the creek.”
It appears that Thirty Three Creek is a chub fishery now. Maybe, even farther back in the Blue Hills, are pools with naive brook trout that never have seen an angler or ever will. George would have ferreted them out, but George is gone as is much of the world he knew.
I stopped at the pastoral Methodist cemetery just outside Birchwood and prowled among the markers until I spotted George’s small headstone. If he were still around he’d be 104 years old. And I suspect he still would be hiking the banks of Thirty Three Creek. Maybe he is in some phantom land where the creek flows free and cold, brook trout shimmer in the dark pool depths, and minnows slosh in a vintage Coke bottle.
I laid my still damp woolly worm on George’s marker and murmured, “Keep a tight line, old friend,” and headed into town.
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