Archive for June, 2018

  • Blog
  • June 27th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

I have an image problem talking among a group of trout anglers. I grew up in Dalton, in Chariton County, Missouri, where a sport fish was a carp and a trash fish was any one you couldn’t catch. The only time I heard the word “trout” was in conjunction with “trout lines” which I found out actually were trot lines and had nothing to do with salmonids.

In fact, I thought salmonella was the study of cold water fishes until I started hanging around with my late best friend Spence Turner. Fly fishing always appeared to us kids as resembling a man fighting off yellowjackets. But I began fly fishing as a young adult and discovered that it is composed largely of esoteric knots. There are blood knots, nail knots and my specialty, the wind knot.

After a serious skirmish with the Boy Scouts, I realized that knots and me were never meant to be. The Outdoor Writers Association used to have a knot tying contest at its annual conference. It was sponsored by Trilene. They gave you a couple of pieces of Trilene and invited you to tie your favorite knot in 20 seconds. My favorite knot was actually the only one I knew with any certainty and that was a square knot, something that most kids learn at least by the second grade.

After my 20 seconds they hooked the mono up to a machine and started pulling. The winner was the one who registered the highest poundage before the line broke. I entered twice and both times the line did not break….because the knot slipped free within the first turn of their machine. I got the impression the second time that the Trilene folks would rather not have me come back.

The first time I encountered the wind knot was on the Brule River in northern Wisconsin. I was fishing with a guide who ran a fly fishing shop and he was clearly gritting his teeth. “You just had a hit!” he snarled. “The line shot at least six inches! Set the hook!”

By the time we got to the takeout the hook had become the “damn hook.” And he also cried in anguish, “You’re tying wind knots!” I thought that was kind of cool, to be able to tie a complex knot in the middle of the air, but he didn’t see it that way.

My first fly rod was leaning against a forgotten counter in a store that was going out of business. I think the business was a buggy whip factory. This thing was bamboo and I thought I’d made a buy. I have read books by legendary fly fisherman and they all seem to use bamboo rods. He I squinted along it and saw several curves that didn’t seem to be there because of superior engineering, but I figured what the heck, for four bucks I could forgive a few quirks.

Well, it was like casting kite string with a CB antenna. Partly it was because I didn’t have the idea of fly fishing down right. I was a refugee from spin casting—actually I began fishing life with a casting rod and reel and 20 pound test nylon line throwing plugs that were bigger than most of the fish in the lake. I still figured you cast the lure, not the fly, so I used such delicate fly fishing terminal tackle as a one-sixteenth ounce jig.

Picking it off the water was like dredging for alligators and it flew through the air like a .22 caliber bullet. It took just one shot upside the head to get my attention and I vowed never again to stand in the way of one of my own casts. I learned a technique that I named “hurl and duck” which I still use to this day. Visualize the Hunchback of Notre Dame on the river with a fly rod.

You all know about “matching the hatch.” The first time I heard the phrase I thought they said, “Down the hatch” and I said, “I’ll drink to that!” Spence Turner was a man of infinite patience and tolerance. He’d have had to be to have invited me on a trout fishing trip to the Yellowstone area. He dropped names like Madison and Firehole and Henry’s Fork. The only Henry’s fork I knew was owned by a guy named Hank who used it to pitch manure and eat barbecue (actually, he used two different forks).

I checked the catalogs to see what it would take to outfit me like a real fly fisherman. There was a shirt with a fly pattern embroidered on the pocket for only fifty bucks. I looked in vain for the Jolly Green Giant kernel of corn emblem or at the very least a piece of foam rubber soaked in cheese juice that would represent the lures that I equated with trout fishing.

Finally I donned my ratty jeans and J.C. Penny shirt, scraped the dried mud off the butt of the fly rod (I’d been bank line fishing for catfish with it) and off we went. I knew we were in trouble when we sauntered into a West Yellowstone fly shop and heard the proprietor talking to a customer in a language which either indicated they were using the Latin names of aquatic insects or celebrating a Mass.

It’s one thing to say, “Old chap, I usually fish the No. 4 Hexagenia limbata, but I sense perhaps something a bit more delicate would be appropriate. Pray give me the benefit of your longtime local expertise.” It’s another to show the guy a tattered bug-eyed popper and say, “This here’s what we use for perch back home. Y’all got anything like it fer trouts?”

We left the store with me clutching a little paper sack of flies that weighed perhaps a tenth of an ounce and considering what I paid for them were about three times as valuable as high grade diamonds.

I found that trout on the Firehole were taking something so tiny that the smallest fly I had looked like a road-killed warthog by contrast. I can’t imagine why a fish eats something so small that it takes more calories to eat that there are in it. Then Spence got us a float on the Madison where he said the fishing was so easy even I could do it. Don’t you just love it when someone says something is so easy that “even you could do it”?

I was expecting another No. 55 size Trico, but the guide dragged out a big, ugly bug with rubber legs. It looked like what scuttles off into the kitchen cabinets when you switch on the light real fast.

And then it happened. There was a smashing strike, throbbing rod, line hissing through the water just like a page out of an Ernest Schwiebert book. I worried about my backing, mainly because I didn’t have any. . But I played the fish masterfully and everyone in the boat was openmouthed….one guy was asleep and the other guy was yawning.

I lifted my fish with a vibrant cry of triumph. ‘Huge brown?” I asked. “Trophy rainbow?”
The guide looked at it. ‘It’s a damned old whitefish,” he snarled in disgust. I looked at the bronze fish with its downturned mouth. It looked almost exactly like a good ol’ Missouri Ozark redhorse sucker.

It was just like being at home. You can take the boy out of the country….but you can’t make a trout fisherman out of him. It’s not that I don’t trout fish. Spence could have told you that I do it with great earnestness, though not with great success. Spence was from real trout country where the fish have their babies right in the stream instead of in a hatchery pool. My mother was from Spence’s home country, northwest Wisconsin, and I got started trout fishing up there. Once I went down the Brule River at night, fishing for big brown trout. It was both the most exciting and disappointing trout trip I ever took.

Dark as the inside of a Labrador retriever. Soft July breeze suffing through the spruce and fir trees. No traffic sounds, only the gurgle of the unseen Bois Brule and the pop of a cook fire.
My guide was cooking greasy, indigestible, delectable pan fries while we waited for night. The Brule is Wisconsin’s crown jewel trout stream. It gathers in miles of peat bogs, runs narrow and still with only faint swirls to show its current. Then it picks up speed as it senses lake Superior. Hall’s Rapids winds between a couple of rock walls that can whack an unwary canoeist and wake him out of the nine previous quiet miles.

Once I followed the canoeing guide book which told me to look out for a brown cabin so I wouldn’t stray into May’s Ledges, a Class Four rapids. I rounded a bend and was sucked into a series of roaring, frightening drops before I could react.

They’d painted the damn cabin!

The Brule is called the river of presidents because several fished there, but also Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and others sampled it. Calvin Coolidge, another comic actor, vacationed there while he was president. Mr. Coolidge ticked off the nation’s anglers when he was quoted as saying fishing was for old men and boys. That went over like a can of nightcrawlers at a Trout Unlimited banquet.

His advisors told Mr. Coolidge he’d better take up fishing and quick. So he did…with worms. Fly anglers were enraged. The man known as Silent Cal must have wondered how someone who never said anything could get in trouble so much for shooting off his mouth. Well, Mr. Coolidge finally recognized which way the wind was blowing and got himself a fly rod.

A fellow Republican president, Herbert Hoover, was unimpressed. He said, “President Coolidge apparently had not fished before election. Being a fundamentalist in religion, economics and fishing, he began his fish career for common trout with worms. Ten million fly fishermen at once evidenced disturbed minds. Then Mr. Coolidge took to a fly. He gave the Secret Service guards great excitement in dodging his back cast and rescuing flies from trees.”

By the time Silent Cal got to the Brule he had become so accomplished an angler that he bragged to game wardens at Cedar Island Lodge that he had caught 26 trout. Problem was the limit was 25. A local newspaperman commented, “Not a single word was spoken for several minutes by newspapermen or conservation officers assigned to the president’s security. They stood with bowed heads and all, including the president, appeared to be staring at their shoelaces.” Not surprisingly the president wasn’t ticketed for over the limit.

The first presidential visitor to the Brule was Ulysses Grant in the 1870s. Grover Cleveland did it in the 1880s and then came Coolidge in 1928. Herbert Hoover fished there as a senator and Dwight Eisenhower as a general. Ike’s guide wrote that there were no guards when he drove to the lodge to meet the general. “The only sign of life I encountered was an old male raccoon waddling down the road with his mate,” he wrote.

Ike’s fishing was featured in a 1955 outdoor magazine and they featured his recipe for “Trout Eisenhower” which brings on arteriosclerosis just by reading it. Chunk a pound of bacon and fry it over a hot bed of coals, remove the bacon and drain, mix bacon drippings with a half pound of butter melted in a second frying pan, pouring from skillet to skillet. Shake cleaned trout in a paper bag containing cornmeal, salt and pepper and lay fish in the butter/bacon fat to cook.”

My God, no wonder Mr. Eisenhower died of a heart attack!

I didn’t have any interest in politics that July night and no one was trying to make me run for office, but I did have an interest in the huge brown trout on the Brule. My guide and I were sipping bourbon mixed with springwater from the peat bogs which has a smoky quality to it that turns bourbon into something noble.

John soaked a huge hair mouse in the stream while we waited. There is no subtlety about night fishing for brown trout. You pick the darkest night ever created, tie three feet of 10-pound monofiliment to the end of the fly line, and the hair mouse on the other end. You blind cast and if you hear something that sounds like someone punted a yearling heifer into the river, you set the hook.

Finally we loaded into John’s canoe. It was so dark that I couldn’t see him in the stern. I would no more go down a river at night than I would drive after dark on a freeway without lights. But John knew the Brule. He’d learned a paddle trick from an old river guide. He sculled with two paddles with the shafts under his armpits. At the top of a riffle he’d dig the blades into the gravel and hold the canoe while I fished out of the bow.

At the first riffle he said, “There’s a race coming in here. Cast out at 4 o’clock and give the mouse a swimming action. Follow it with the tip of your rod. You can’t tell, but it’s swinging with the current.” I twitched the rod tip and tried to imagine how the mouse must be angling across the face of the feeder stream. There was a sloshing sound and John shouted, “Hit ‘im!”

I set the hook and felt the fish surge. There were three or four powerful surges and then the mouse came free and swished back and bounced off my chest. I recited an old Anglo-Saxon benediction. John said, “That’s okay—there’ll be more.”

And there were. The next hit was like what a big old largemouth bass does in the springtime. The trout went down the rapids so fast that all I could do was hang on. It was like hooking a passing Peterbilt. Then the line went slack again. By now it was after midnight and cold. But still the fish hit, always with that awesome splash in the black night. And still I couldn’t hold them.

Finally I closed my hand over the mouse after perhaps eight or nine hard strikes….and felt the hook broken off just behind the barb. I could hook them, but the moment they got the right angle they came loose.

The hook came from Herter’s, the Minnesota outdoor store, which possibly explains why Herter’s is out of business today. John didn’t mean to but he rubbed salt in my wound by saying it was the best fishing night on the river that year. It was 3 a.m. before I slid under the covers, cold, fishless and exhausted. I dreamed fitfully about noisy strikes and leaping trout and a hair mouse as big as something out of a 1950s science fiction movie.

I have no photos of the big fish on the Brule, nothing really to show for the long night.

Nothing, that is, except a deer hair mouse that hangs over my desk on the broken bend of a Herter’s hook……

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  • Blog
  • June 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

When Jeff Sessions the grinning troll stands at the podium and says that the Bible mandates that it’s all right for United States immigration enforcement agents to forcibly drag children in diapers away from their parents and sequester them in a converted Walmart store where their prison wardens are forbidden to touch them no matter how hard they weep for their parents, even the most hardened heart has to wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Sessions is ugly and what he spouts as justification for the actions of our government is beyond ugly- it is cruelty personified by a racist and authoritarian regime that more closely represents the early days of Adolf Hitler than it does anything we have suffered in our 250 years of history as a Republic.

This demon-eared twerp, afterbirth from the most egregious days of Southern segregation, is a visible symbol of the innately cruel and uncaring person who is his bloated boss, Donald J Trump, known in this household as the biggest political mistake in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, in too many American households the knowledge has not yet seeped in that this is an evil, sociopathic monster who has no normal human characteristics.

He acknowledges none of the wrongs he is perpetrating and maintains that the only right is what he wants. He shows it every day in every way. He fawns over those ruthless despots of other regimes and brags that he wants “his” subjects to bow to him as those automatons in North Korea do to their porky despotic ruler. I have news for him. We are not subjects, asshole, we are citizens of a Republic where supposedly we wisely choose our leaders.

The United States often has blotted its copybook over the 2 ½ centuries of its existence but seldom have we gone as far against the democratic grain as we now are doing. Only with slave families did we disrupt the household and separate children from their parents. Even as we interned Japanese-American families during World War II—an unpardonable offense— we allowed families to stay together. Even on the long march where the Cherokee Indians were forcibly evicted from their Carolina homeland and were forced hundreds of miles to a desolate reservation in Oklahoma territory , they went as families. Even as we similarly evicted other Native Americans from their ancestral lands to often inhospitable reservations, they retained their family identities. Even as we turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and sent them back to be killed in concentration camps, they went as families.

Those were egregious acts of cruelty which should forever stand as examples of national shame and for which we can never make total amends. The best we can do is to remember these acts of violence against humanity and try not to repeat them. But, unfortunately, we not only are repeating the worst of them right now, we aren’t even making a good attempt to stop it before it gets any worse.

Now the Trumpites seize families at our country’s southern border, separate parents and their children, send the parents to prison, and send the children to tent cities in the desert under blazing temperatures, wondering how they are now better off than they were when endemic death and desolation in their home countries forced them to head North to what they believed would be a better life.

We have a craven Republican Congress whose most notable achievement is to kowtow to Trump’s every un-American (and demented) demand and a feeble Democrat opposition party so ineffectual as to make the word “opposition” meaningless. Shovel in the Supreme Court with a conservative five to four majority which is agreeable to approve state laws designed to deprive legitimate voters from their right to cast a ballot.

Renowned actor Robert De Niro summed up what should be universal outrage when he dropped an F bomb on Trump at the Tony awards show. He got a standing ovation. But the problem is that no matter how little free speech remains (and if Trump has his way there won’t be any before long) De Niro’s one finger salute to Trump may prompt a negative reaction. First of all it will just make the Trumpites even more fiercely dedicated to dismantling civil society than they already are, and secondly it prompts even more coverage of the outrageous lies that Trump routinely tells— and it’s an unfortunate truism that the more you lie about something the more it becomes believed by the gullible.

The whole Trump presidency is a fabric of lies, routinely documented by the media. But he counters by calling reported and proved falsehoods “fake news” and stoutly maintains that the news media is the greatest enemy of the United States, a statement which on its face is so outrageous that anyone who believes it, or endorses it, is almost by definition an enemy himself or herself of all that we purport to stand for.

“If you’re smuggling a child then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably as required by law,” said Jeff Sessions that freaky little creep that masquerades as the Attorney. General of the United States. “If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” This sleazy little moron who looks remarkably like Alfred E Neuman the half witted caricature from Mad Comics, can’t even speak grammatically.

Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly was touted as someone who might bring a voice of reason to today’s chaotic circus in the White House. Instead he has bought into the strategy of holding children hostage so that the Democrats will cave in and agree to build Trump’s stupid border wall in return for which the separated families might be reunited. I don’t hold out hope that the Democrats won’t cave in— humanitarian instinct may force them to, but it will be taxpayers who foot the bill for that moronic wall and for the Army of storm troopers who will be needed to maintain it.

Former first lady Laura Bush had this to say “Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in US history.”

Those Trump voters of limited intelligence may conceivably remember that Laura Bush is married to George W. Bush, a Republican president and not one of those Democrats whom Trump blames for the family separation crisis on our southern border. Parenthetically speaking, is there any Trump voter who is not of limited intelligence?

Another little factoid for those cretins who believe Trump’s lies: Trump attacked Germany’s immigration policies, claiming that crime is up in that country (because of immigration) when in fact crime is at a 25 year low. No wonder Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, recently fixed Trump with a glare which should have turned him in into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife. Ms. Merkel is only one leader of a number of countries who once were our staunch allies who now think that the United States is a beleaguered and staggering country run by a hapless clown.

In a six-week period, just over one month, nearly 2000 children have been separated from their parents by the immigration authorities. Nothing sums it up better than a photograph taken by Pulitzer prize-winning photographer John Moore. The photograph shows a two-year-old child crying helplessly as she looked up at her mother who was being searched by a US customs and border patrol agent. “I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself,” said Moore. Moments later the border cops put the child and mother into a van with a group of other undocumented migrants and took them to a processing center. No one knows whether the mother and child were separated, but given the continuing trend it’s a good bet they were.

Moore talked briefly with the mother who said she was from Honduras and had been traveling for a full month and was exhausted. Just the kind of helpless mother and child that Donald J Trump and his heartless followers enjoy picking on.

Cameras have been banned by the border Nazis so there’s no footage of the chain-link cages that the kids are been stuffed into but there is an audio recording where you can hear children rending your heart with sobs, calling for their mother and father amid which can be heard one of the ICE thugs commenting, “Well, we have an orchestra here, right? What’s missing is a conductor.” That guy probably drowns kittens as a hobby, especially if they are the cherished pets of small children. Anyone who can listen to that recording without tearing up should be down on the border terrorizing infants.

Even Trump’s own First Lady, Melania, weighed in on the zero-tolerance policy of her awful husband, the serial Abuser in Chief. In a tepid comment on the family separation she said through her communications director Stephanie Griffin, “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart. Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform.” Notice that is not a direct quote from Melania Trump but instead comes from the same office that has spawned such luminaries as Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hardly a biting commentary on the order of the scathing one delivered by Laura Bush— more a timid way to say the same thing that the creepy wizened gnome Sessions said.

By contrast, several other past first ladies have echoed the sharp indignation that should be inflaming every citizen of this country. Michelle Obama retweeted Laura Bush’s fiery outrage, Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter also declared their ire and said what should be said by anyone with an ounce of compassion. These women speak for every woman in the country and especially they speak for the mothers of those seeking asylum in this country who can’t speak for themselves.

Perhaps this parade of outraged first ladies is a symbol of what will bring an end to what now is the most reprehensible act of cowardice and cruelty yet devised by Donald Trump and his heartless hit squad. These angered eminent women echo the famous phrase from Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network who implored people to stick their heads out the window and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” If the nation’s women voters and younger voters turn out in record numbers in November they are more than adequate
to oust the cowardly Republican majority from the House and Senate and bring enough pressure to bear on the many investigations into the Trump administration’s misdeeds that, one would hope, Donald J Trump would be forced to get the hell out of the White House and out of our lives forever.

And he can take the insipid Melania with him.

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  • Blog
  • June 13th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

If ever there was a wildlife media celebrity, it is the raccoon that scaled a 23 story office building in Minneapolis, exhibiting all the characteristics of Spiderman. How or why the little raccoon decided to go technical climbing is beyond explanation, but it did and became an instant media celebrity, thankfully supplanting the clown president and all the other political entities who daily make the news cycle toxic.

One Twitterite said this, “if that poor raccoon can climb all the way to the roof then I can make it through college.” News cameras, smart phones, and anybody with a camera followed the progress of the animal as it progressed floor to floor all the way to the roof of the UBS tower 23 stories above the street and then back down several floors to a window ledge for a well-deserved rest before animal control lured it into a cage with cat food. Apparently, inexplicably in the middle of Minneapolis’s cityscape, the raccoon was startled into flight and started its epic climb and didn’t quit until it reached the top of the building.

Wildlife often appears in an urban setting, far from its usual habitat–deer appear in downtowns, peregrine falcons nest on Manhattan window ledges–but perhaps never has any animal done what this little raccoon did. But then I would not put anything past a determined raccoon

Bears are bears, ducks are ducks and mooses are mooses…meese…whatever. The point is that animals are what they are. But if there ever was a critter that pushes the envelope between critter and human it’s the raccoon. It’s hard to describe a raccoon without resorting to human characteristics (sneaky, devious, selfish, stealthy, etc.)

I’ve had a love/aggravation relationship with coons for years, even as I recognize that what they do is just coon-ness, not deliberate bad behavior. Given Ft. Knox filled with crawdads instead of gold bars, an average raccoon could break in with the finesse of old time robber Willie Sutton who allegedly said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is” and then managed to escape from jail most of the time. Then the coon would give us the same impudent grin that Mr. Sutton displayed in newspaper photographs of the time.

The raccoon is America’s most important furbearer, is the source of much entertainment for people who like to follow the sound of a baying hound while falling into ravines and crashing into unseen trees, and is a pain in the pocketbook for bird lovers who would prefer to feed purple finches rather than paunchy pilferers.

As an economic boon alone, trapping furbearers brings in an estimated $800 million annually to wildlife agencies in permit fees and much of that is contributed by the raccoon, the most frequently-taken furbearer.

Few states lack raccoons. In the Western mountain states the animal is absent from large chunks of territory but in the eastern part of such states as Wyoming the habitat is raccoon rich (the raccoon range is southern Canada to northern Argentina). Given the human trend to mountain development, raccoons surely will follow—coons love people (or the food benefits that people bring. Western Montana has seen an influx of raccoons in the past several decades, along with people.

There are six species of raccoon, but the common one is the most commonly seen and cussed at (no great surprise). The name comes from an Algonquin word and originally the Latin moniker was “Ursus lotor,” meaning “washer bear.” But the Latin now is “Procyon lotor,” or “washer dog.”

Raccoons historically were thought of as little cousins of the bear, but they aren’t related to either bears or dogs—their nearest relatives are ringtails, coatis and coatimundis. They are also related to the kinkajou, olingos and the lesser panda, none common in the wilds of North America.

Raccoons can weigh up to 50 pounds, but 20 is about average. They’re attracted to water because that’s where much of their food comes from. In the West they’ll come to livestock watering areas. They’re largely nocturnal and as omnivorous as people—they eat just about anything that doesn’t eat them first. They have an uncanny ability to judge the ripeness of sweet corn. Once I had a wonderful crop of succulent sweet corn and planned to pick it the next day. I found the raccoons had beaten me to it the night before and had stripped and eaten every ear.

Average litter size is 3-5 and females breed between their first and second year, then every year thereafter. Lifespan can reach 12 years, but usually is considerably less.
In keeping with the raccoon’s rascally reputation, males are in it for the fun and the female is left to raise the young. She takes care of them until they’re fully grown, often through the summer and succeeding winter.

And she teaches them the wily wares of raccoon. I have spotted a mother coon on our deck instructing her rowdy kids in breaking and entering our bird feeder. She is a tough mother, knowing that the skills she teaches them tonight will be vital in nights to come. She’ll nip their impudent back ends if they get involved in coonplay and redirect them to the business at hand.

Raccoons are among the best-known carriers of the dread rabies virus. For example, West Virginia had 96 diagnosed cases of rabies in 2001; Wyoming none. There’s little pattern in where rabies pops up. Some Western states have had rabid raccoons; others none. The same pattern applies to Eastern states.

Rabies can be latent in a raccoon for up to six months, long enough for the animal to breed a litter of rabid young. But calls for intensive trapping and other supposed rabies control programs are misguided—they’re expensive and don’t work. Also expensive, but more promising are air drops of bait containing an anti-rabies vaccine in a capsule that has been designed to be absorbable only by raccoons. The air drop program has been in use in Europe for more than two decades and has been used widely in Ontario and several Northeastern states where rabies is endemic.

An Iowa study found that about three-fourths of raccoon deaths are from trapping and hunting, with another 12 percent due to road kills. Distemper and parvo, two disease threats they share with dogs, accounted for less than two percent; however, a distemper outbreak can wreak havoc on a local population of coons.

Raccoons are classified as predator animals in Wyoming but in most states they are listed as furbearers. Those classed as predators can be taken year-round, with no limit; however other regulations (such as no shooting from roads) usually apply. Coon hunting behind hounds at night is permitted if the hunter follows the rules. You must have written landowner permission on private land, use a hand light, and have a coonhound along.

While hound hunting for coons isn’t a big thing in some states, it is hugely popular in Midwest and Southern states where to a dedicated coon hunter a good coonhound is more valuable than most of his kids. Hounds can bring thousands of dollars and to a hound man Placido Domingo never sang sweeter than a good bawling hound on the trail.

Coon hunting is different than fox hunting. Where the fox hunters build a warm fire, sit on logs and lie to each other about their hounds, as the distant dogs run the fox, coon hunters stumble through the bleak night after their dogs, keeping warm only by excessive exertion.

I coon hunted…once. It was a sharply cold December night, with a light snow falling. My coon hunting companion apparently was in training for a marathon and we tripped and sprawled (well, I did—he didn’t) across miles of back country in the pit of night, following the distant bawl of his hounds. Finally they bayed treed and we eagerly closed in for the kill…only to find that the coon had treed in a farmer’s barn.

The house was dark (responsible people having gone to bed long before) and we doubted that the landowner would take kindly to us shooting up his barn, no matter how unfriendly he felt toward raccoons or how much permission we had to be on the land, so we called off the hounds and the hunt.

Hound hunters account for about 60 percent of raccoon pelts and trappers take the rest (not counting the irate homeowner who plinks one off his bird feeder). Fur prices vary wildly from year to year as trends in furs change from long haired animals to short and back again. Raccoons, being long-haired, are at the mercy of fashion. The 1920s saw a great boom in raccoon fur. Full length coats for both men and women were the in-garment for the F. Scott Fitzgerald crowd (it takes 30-40 coon hides to make a coat).

Fur resurged after a lull during the 1990s when animal rights activists and fashion trends combined to bring trapping to its knees. The Russians and Chinese, now our trading buddies, are particularly fond of long-haired pelts. An otter pelt might bring $100, while a raccoon pelt might go for anywhere from two dollars to $50 depending on the year (in the 1970s coon pelts averaged $25 or more, but were down to $6 or less in the early 1990s, then more than $20 at the end of the decade). Generally raccoon prices are in the ball park with mink and beaver.

Save for trappers and hunters, raccoons and people usually meet under disagreeable circumstances—the human’s trash can or bird feeder. I briefly stored trash and bird food in plastic cans which the coons chewed through quicker than a Sutton jailbreak. Then I went to galvanized cans, but the coons flipped the lids off and dove in. Now the lids are wired down, an inconvenient barrier for me and raccoons alike. They haven’t yet figured out how to untwist the wire….but I’m not putting it past them.

Controlling pest raccoons is almost impossible short of what spies call “wet work” (i.e. assassination). You can live trap-and-transplant and hope that the coons don’t find their way back (or that more coons don’t fill the gap). Or you can try scaring them off which is temporary—coons don’t scare easily. A friend once wired his garbage can to his house current and when he heard the telltale rattle of a marauding coon, he’d flip the switch. That worked fine until he forgot to turn off the juice and his wife took out some garbage. They’re still married…barely.

One wildlife damage control bulletin says, with wry understatement, “shooting can be very effective.” Beyond the income from trapping permits and fur sales, trapping and hunting raccoons is necessary as a population control. The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates the nationwide cost of rabies education and control of raccoons, foxes and coyotes at more than $450 million annually…and that the cost would jump to $1.4 billion annually without hunting or trapping. The figures are for all three species, not just raccoons, but it’s a telling statistic.

Fur is the primary reason for hunting or trapping a raccoon, but barbecued raccoon is considered a delicacy by some. I once tried it but because we’d had several young raccoons as house guests, snacking on one was somewhat like eating one of my bird dogs and I didn’t finish my helping. For those with a yen for culinary adventure a Google search of “raccoon recipes” finds countless ways to fix the meat. Chances are you won’t want to tell most of your dinner guests what they’re eating.

Years ago I was host to a young raccoon for several weeks. He had been confiscated by conservation officials from someone who had taken him from the wild. He was too young to release, so I volunteered to keep him until he was grown enough to make it on his own.

Bimbo had been a favorite of the wildlife people. They fed him popcorn and other treats until he was as chunky as an NFL linebacker. He was a thoroughly delightful animal, playful and intelligent. He tussled with the family kitten but rapidly outgrew the cat whereupon the cat lost interest in being treated like a beach ball. You could wool him around like a puppy and he’d chew on your fingers, but not hard enough to break the skin.

Bimbo got into everything. No cabinet was safe from his investigations. Once he crawled into a backpack and carefully tucked the flap around his neck while he took a nap. He was sweet-natured and charming…but he was a wild animal and we knew that as he matured he would become less agreeable and possibly dangerous (an aroused mature raccoon is nothing to fool around with).

So, while Bimbo still was a big, lovable clown, we took him to the very middle of a National Wildlife Refuge where there was an ample food supply and no predatory threats, and I led him down to a borrow ditch that had a whole bunch of water to explore. Bimbo began to feel in the muddy water, using those delicate and dexterous paws as extensions of his curiosity.

I ran up the hill to the car, jumped in and floored it. A hundred yards down the road I glanced in the rear view mirror. Bimbo was in the middle of the road, standing upright, looking after the car.

I didn’t go back.

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  • Blog
  • June 6th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

People often ask me (well, one did, one time) “where do you get your ideas?” And I tell them that ideas are everywhere. You just have to let them flow over you like mudslide on a California highway or lava from a Hawaiian volcanic eruption.

There was a time when I was a tadpole wannabe fiction writer and my wife, Marty, was in a doctor’s office waiting for a prenatal checkup when she noticed a woman next to her cradling what appeared to be an injured arm. “How did you hurt your arm?” Marty asked. The woman mumbled something.

Then, embarrassed, she confessed that she had gotten her arm caught in a pool table pocket, shooting a game of eightball by herself when her husband was at work, her kids at school. She scratched the cue ball by mistake and reached in the pocket to retrieve it. But it kept scooting away from her grasping fingers and finally her elbow slipped into the pocket and she was trapped as thoroughly as a raccoon in a coon trap. She had to wait until someone came home to help her. Somehow Marty managed to keep from laughing but I couldn’t when she told me about it and instantly a short story began to form in my mind and it became a chapter in my first collection of Birch Lake stories, Grandma and the Buck Deer.

Other fiction pieces have been similarly inspired by the misfortunes of others. I am a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and that has been a fertile ground for story ideas. OWAA members attend the annual conference for a variety of reasons: to see old friends, to see new places, to get away from the humdrum for a while. But primary among those reasons is to gather material for outdoor communication that will result in bounteous compensation. (And anyone who believes there is bounteous compensation in the outdoor writing field is not an outdoor writer).

It’s a chance to pick the brains of more experienced members–tips, information and other valuable intelligence vital to amortize the cost of the few days spent away from the routine. Sometimes a few minutes spent with a grizzled old head can result in a virtual frog choker of dollars– see above comment about bounteous compensation.

The late and much revered past president of the outdoor Writers Association of America, Mike Levy, then outdoor editor of the Buffalo, New York, newspaper was one of those grizzled heads and in addition to cherishing his long friendship I will eternally owe him an unpayable debt of gratitude for a few moments of his time that not only padded my bank account, but also gave me a lifelong story for retelling time and again— and a good true story is priceless . Actually, some of the bullfluff which on the face of it is outright fiction makes for even better stories.

It happened this way. I was looking for material for a humor column for a magazine which shall remain nameless because they dropped the column to save the pitifully few dollars they grudgingly shelled out each time I sat at a word processor until beads of blood popped out on my forehead. It had to do with fishing and I got the idea that, since every angler I know has had one or more unpleasant experiences with fishing hooks. I should gather those unhappy moments and treat them with humor—after all what are friends for if you can’t exploit them?

So I polled my OWAA friends for their traumatic trials with fishhooks, among whom was Mike who came up with the capstone anecdote for the column. It seems that he and his son who was about five at the time, went fishing and the little one insisted on using a long plug equipped with three treble hooks—hardly the equipment for bluegills, but his tolerant daddy went along with it. Then the youngster tangled his fishing line and Mike helpfully started pulling at the bird’s nest but his son suddenly jerked the fishing rod and hooks on either end of the fishing lure neatly impaled Mike’s opposable thumbs.

While opposable thumbs are the one piece of human equipment that separates us from lower animal life, they aren’t much use when the only available help is a five-year-old with no idea how to separate his daddy from embedded fishhooks. “Did you ever try to drive with your thumbs hooked to a fishing plug?” Mike asked rhetorically.

Somehow, he managed to get the car started and get on the road steering painfully and awkwardly with his impaled digits. Then he spied a rural fire department with the lights on (it was getting dark now) and he knew that the firemen would have at least one EMT available who could separate him from the Pikie Minnow. It turned out that the reason the lights were on was that the firemen were having their annual beer and brats party and at least some of them were as lit as the fires they often put out.

While they tended to Mike, they hoisted his son on the fire truck and let him pretend to drive it which delighted the lad no end. And so probably did the language used by the intrepid firefighters which tended toward the salty.

When Mike and son arrived home, the kid raced into the house shouting “mom! Mom! You’ll never guess what happened. Dad got his thumbs hooked together and I got to drive the fire truck and what does @#$%%@!@ mean?”

Poor Cynthia, Mike’s wife, was bumfuzzled— she sent her husband and son off to fish and he comes home a wounded warrior, and the kid is shouting something about a fire truck and where did the little guy learn that kind of language!

So I used the anecdote in my humor column and got paid my usual pittance. But I thought it was too good to quit there, so I adapted the incident into a short story, sold that to a major magazine for a lovely chunk of money, entered the story in OWAA’s freshwater fishing contest, and took first place for what at that time was a nice winner’s bonus. When I told Mike about the bonanza his story had created (for me, not him), without a hint of shame for exploiting his misfortune, he grumbled, “I’m never going to tell you anything again!”

Later on I included the story as a chapter in a book— but I didn’t tell Mike about that.

Pre-and post conference trips are a gold mine of stories and on one of them the incomparable storyteller Marty Malin, a prolific and annual prize-winning freelance radio personality from Texas, regaled us fellow trippers with the story of how he and a friend sneaked in to see the exotic dancer in a tent at a county fair in his misspent childhood. For him it may have been just a story to tell amused buddies, but for me it was the inspiration of another short story and a chapter in a book. Thanks, Marty.

The fishing hook column also inspired, yet another short story and book chapter— Randy Vance (not my son and I’m not his father– we used to inscribe our nametags that way to avoid the inevitable confusion) told him someone he knew fell backward into an open tacklebox bristling with treble hooked fishing plugs. Inspiration blossomed and one of my hapless fictional characters became entangled with guess what? A situation involving an open tacklebox, fishing lures, and a painful encounter with them.

Then there was a casual mention by an old friend, another OWAA member, George Mattis— a fishing buddy from Birchwood Wisconsin, who wrote a book titled Whitetail, which turned out to be the biggest seller of the Outdoor Life book club ever. Anyway George told me about stopping in the woods once to sit on a log and smoke a cigarette, only to have a buck deer walk out of the woods over to him, take the cigarette from him and walk off chewing it with gusto. “Apparently deer have a tobacco addiction,” George said, “so strong that once they get the taste they’re hooked.”

Story idea! I turned it into the title story of Grandma and the Buck Deer, combining the fact that my real life uncle, Roy Finnell, raised tobacco in Missouri, some of which made its way to my fictional Birch Lake, and a confrontation with my fictional rowdy uncle Al, and my also fictional but formidable grandma.

Back in World War II there was a poster saying “loose lips sink ships.” Good advice during wartime but when it comes to paying attention when others are telling outrageous stories, some of those loose lips mean story tips….and money in the pocket.

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