Tag Archives: Wildlife

Secret Pools (and Some Good News about our Native Trout)

 In my last fishing essay, I described solitary fishing in winter on small streams.  In that article I referenced a book published in 1938 that my mother gave last year me titled Upstream and Down by Howard T. Walden II.  Mr. Walden’s book descriptions are as appropriate today as they were in the 1930s.  His commentary shows an amazing prescience about many matters related to the outdoors in general and fly fishing in particular.  

One of the themes of Mr. Walden is that in the 1920s and 1930s the small streams of the East were becoming more accessible, and that there were fewer and fewer secret streams left anymore. 

Some trout streams are important for their trout, almost all for their beauty, a few for their associations and memories.  In the last category are the secret streams of the past.  Every angler who has been at his sport a score of years or more can remember whispered directions, the pledges of secrecy, the long and tortuous journeys to those segments of Paradise hidden in the back country.  Such prospecting and discovery once constituted the most glamorous aspect of trout fishing.  But that is gone in the world, now, except in the remote semi-wilderness counties.  Most young anglers, casting over their first pools in the nineteen forties [1940s], will not know the high adventure of finding a secret stream.  The automobile has accomplished this special destruction along with general spoliation of virgin countrysides.  The motoring hordes have found all the streams there are. . . .  The State has charted all the likely water, filled it with foreign trout and invited the public to come and get ’em.

       And the public comes.  Paths have been beaten by many booted feet along both banks of the farm boy’s secret brook and the wild shy native beauties of that little watercourse are disappearing, dying in the hostile company of rainbows and browns.

Upstream and Down, at 170-171 (1938).  Mr. Walden was generally speaking about streams in the Northeast, in New Jersey and Connecticut.  Many of his prognostications, however, are equally applicable in Virginia and throughout the Southeast. 

If you read modern fishing magazines and browse outdoor websites, the Twenty-First Century equivalent of the automobile is the advent of the information age:  the Internet and GPS technology have amplified the problem (from the perspective of the solitude-seeking angler) of the “motoring hordes.”  One man armed with a GPS can post all the location information about a “honey hole” on a web forum page, and you can be sure that within a month or two dozens of anglers will have found the “secret pool.”  

And yet, even now, such places do exist in our region:

A Secret Pool in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area

Lovely native trout continue to exist in Southwest Virginia, too.  Here is a young brook trout from the Mount Rogers area I caught in June 2012:

A little brook trout, the official state fish of Virginia (and of West Virginia), caught in June 2012. Note the parr marks (vertical stripes) on this fish.

In the most rural sections of  Southwest Virginia, there are still secret pools (if not completely secret streams) holding the same native brookies that have lived here for a thousand years. 

While our brook trout are no doubt still under pressure, as the map below (and this even more detailed Virginia map) shows, there is good news lately about brookies in Virginia. In the Summer 2012 issue of Trout, Trout Unlimited’s “Journal of Coldwater Fisheries Conservation,” there is an article indicating that Virginia brook trout streams are healthier than they have been in decades.  One of the main fisheries referenced is St. Mary’s River in Augusta County (which I visited and wrote about last year, here).   According to the article, acid rain deposits, which negatively affect stream quality, have decreased 18 percent between 1987 and 2010, and “acid neutralizing capacity” of the Virginia streams studied have increased 82 percent during this same period.

My own anecdotal experience is consistent with Mr. Walden’s observations 80 years ago:  Much of the pressure that can be expected to continue on our native trout streams will still come from the “motoring hordes,” especially those individuals who trample on these treasured resources,  leaving their garbage behind while taking their full bag limit (or more) of trout, which can quickly eviscerate these sensitive fisheries.

On one point, however, I must disagree with the esteemed Mr. Walden.  While we may no longer be able to readily find entire secret streams unknown to most of mankind, there is still much “high adventure” to be had in our mountain streams (and beyond).  We just may have to search a little harder these days for a secret pool and be willing to enjoy the more modest adventure of rediscovery of off-the-beaten-track places that are still, after all these years, quite beautiful.  In the future we will continue to know streams most important for their associations and memories, recalling those days of yore when we found that secret pool, or caught that lunker fish, or shared that special trip with a relative or friend, as glamorous in our recollection as were those memories of the fishermen of the past.  Because those nostalgic fishing memories—just like the proverbial fish story itself—always seem to grow, and never diminish, with time.

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Elk in Southwest Virginia

Last month the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) released the first elk in Buchanan County, Virginia. The intial planned elk management area will include Dickenson and Wise counties. 

Soon a common sight in Southwest Virginia? Elk in neighboring Kentucky.
(photo under a creative commons license from animaltourism.com)

This followed an extensive study of the feasibility and impact of elk reintroduction in the Commonwealth.  Elk have successfully been reintroduced into neighbooring areas of Kentucky, which now has the largest elk herd (of approximately 10,000 animals) west of the Mississippi.  They have also been reintroduced on a more modest scale into the Cataloochee area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Elk were extirpated from our area of Southwest Virginia in the mid-1850s. 

The reintroduction of elk in Southwestern Virginia has been somewhat controversial.  Some citizens have opposed it asserting that it would have a negative effect on livestock and farming due to grazing and possible communication of diseases.  The animals are obviously much larger than deer and would likely cause more damage if struck by a motor vehicle.  VDGIF’s own position on elk has evolved, as the agency was originally less supportive of reintroduction to elk than it currently is. 

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation “Virginia Confirms Elk Restoration” Webpage

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation conducted the first feasibility study and has been the major non-profit organization funding the project, contributing over $300,000 according to its press release earlier this year.  The RMEF now has a Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter devoted to the cause. Certainly, the reintroduction of an extirpated species of such magnificence is exciting for outdoorsmen in our area.

Below is the film footage of the first elk release in May by VDGIF:

Water Snake

This is a water snake I photographed at Hidden Valley lake a few weeks ago.

Water Snake – Close Up

This photo was taken near the dam on the eastern side of the lake.  The snake was almost three feet in length, which based upon the research is fairly good sized for this kind of snake.  Water snakes, or Northern Water Snakes as they are sometimes known, are not poisonous but can be aggressive and have a painful bite.  They feed on frogs, fish, and other water-based prey.  These snakes are found throughout Virginia according to the VDGIF map of occurance for this species.

Water Snake on Log

Tennessee Laurel Creek

Spring is high season for trout fishing in Southern Appalachia.   This evening I was able to get in a couple of hours of fishing on Tennessee Laurel Creek.

The Brown Trout Were Hungry Today

Tennessee Laurel Creek starts in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee and flows north across the Virginia state line into Damascus.  There are bunches of turnouts next to Route 91, the road that parallels the creek, where you can fish. 

The creek is not limited to fly fishing, so some days—like today—there are way too many fisherman on the Virginia side, where VGIF stocks regularly.  I therefore drove across into Tennessee, where the stocking program is not as prominent, but where there are still numbers of wild trout.

Beautiful Fins and Colors

The creeksides are now lush and green.  The greenery is reason enough to get outside this time of year.

Tennessee Laurel Up The Creek

Tennessee Laurel is a typical Appalachian freestone creek, with lots of rifles and pocket water.  It has more chutes and slightly slacker water than its sister Whitetop Laurel Creek, allowing for longer and easier drifts in most sections.  When the water flow is right, it’s a pleasure to fish.

Tennessee Laurel - Down the Creek

Of Falcons and Falconry

Check out these photographs of falcons and falconry from a new Northern Virginian blog on photography.  Falconry, the ancient sport of taking quarry with raptors, is not widely practiced in the United States, although there is a Virginia Falconers Association

A Falcon's View in Tennessee

If you investigate a little bit you will learn there is normally an “apprenticeship” whereby an aspiring falconer will work with a more senior bird handler to learn how to trap, manage and train a falcon.  The apprenticeship may take years.  Falconers must obtain U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permits in order to trap and keep these birds. 

Having a falcon return to you and land on your arm would be exhilarating—presuming, of course, that you were wearing a protective gauntlet (otherwise your exhilaration would be tempered by extreme pain as the raptor’s talons clamped down on your forearm).

These photos reminded me of a backpacking trip a friend and I took several years ago wherein we accidentally came upon several wild raptors that flew extremely close to us.  It was a bit unnerving to have birds of prey buzz so closely by.  A few minutes later we would realize why the birds were flying so close to us.

We were hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Bald Mountains, up on the North Carolina-Tennessee border about 10 miles north of Sams Gap.  As we rounded some large boulders, we accidentally came upon the Big Bald Banding Station.  There were some individuals near the summit of Big Bald Mountain collecting data, and there were birds of prey that were either nesting or returning to the area.  There were also some large bird cages, and, if I recall correctly, we observed several birds being released. 

The sheer randomness of our coming upon these guys and watching the magnificent birds was pretty neat.  In fact, we were so surprised that neither of us remembered to take our cameras and photograph the birds.  We probably could have gotten some shots like those in the article highlighted above.  The birds we saw were not trained, but were wild and free and were probably just passing through, stopping briefly on their way south for the winter. 

On Top of the World - Eastern Falcon Migration Throughway

Big Bald Mountain, at 5516′, is one the higher points on the AT (and the highest between the Roan balds to the north and the Smokies to the south).  The hike on the AT from Spivey Gap (Route 19W, aka Spivey Mountain Road) to Big Bald Mountain is a steep, rugged hike.  The Bald Mountains are a natural bird migration throughway, and both large birds and smaller species cross the mountain during the seasons.

Southern Exposure: View of the Smokies from Big Bald Mountain

P.S. – North Carolina has a  North Carolina Falconer’s Guild; Tennessee does not  have any organization that supports falconry, although the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency administers the testing for falconry permits.

More Bald Eagle Sightings in SWVA

There have been more bald eagle sightings in Southwest Virginia this fall and winter.  The sightings are becoming more widespread.  I have heard first-hand accounts of bald eagle spottings at Hidden Valley Lake and at Clinch Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as on private land in Washington County between Abingdon and Damascus.  Here is a photo my brother-in-law James Bear took of two eagles in December:

Bald Eagles in Wythe County, December 2011

The increase in bald eagle sitings was also recently profiled in a local article:

Sightings of bald eagles are still rare enough that people like Osborne and his neighbor are excited to spot one. However, Boynton, a bird watcher himself, says if individuals know where to look, it’s not difficult to see a bald eagle in Southwest Virginia or Smyth County.People regularly spot bald eagles, Boynton said, at Laurel Bed, Claytor and South Holston lakes as well as along the New River. In Smyth County, the wildlife biologist said, eagles can be seen along the Middle Fork and at DGIF’s trout hatchery on Rt. 16 and some private trout farms.

While the bald eagle’s presence has been growing in the region for some time, Boynton did note a new observation that now some nests are being located in Southwest Virginia.

SWVA Today, November 30, 2012 (online).

There’s a Squatch in These Virginia Woods

Bigfoot has been sighted in Southwest Virginia.  Apparently often.  Usually associated with the mountains in the Pacific Northwest, there have been encounters with bigfoot, or sasquatch, all across this country. 

Huge Bigfoot Carving in Mt. Shasta, Northern California

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we saw an 8′ tall, fur-covered, man-like creature stop on the trail about 100′ in front of us.  Standing but slightly hunched, it turned its head slowly and looked back at us, barred its teeth, and then quickly lumbered away down the hill out of sight. 

Neither of us had our cameras ready.  It happened so fast we were not able to get a photograph of the creature.  Dumbfounded, shocked, and in fear, we just stared down the trail and then back at one another.

Our Encounter

Actually, that’s not what really happened.

Earlier last month, I was finishing a hike with a client when we learned that Animal Planet was getting ready to film a new episode for the second season of the TV show Finding Bigfoot in Southwest Virginia.  This is what really happened:

As we were arriving at the gravel parking lot, a large, white SUV drove up to us.  The blonde driver stated,  “Hi, I’m a TV producer from Los Angeles, and I’m  trying to find out some areas to shoot footage for our television show.”

He pointed to where we were hiking.  He asked, “Do you know who owns this property?”

My client stepped forward.  She said, “I do.”  

Then, gesturing towards me, she said, “And he’s my lawyer.” 

So our conversation began.  We talked for a while, and we learned he was one of the producers of Finding Bigfoot.  

Last week, the local newspaper reported that the TV show had a “casting call” of sorts, where they interviewed individuals who believe they have encountered bigfoot in our region.  According to the Washington County News:

After a short introduction by the show’s cast, the floor was open for local residents to tell their best Bigfoot stories on camera. Most of the witnesses’ stories had the common theme of spotting an extremely tall, broad-shouldered figure while hunting in the woods. One of the hunters was a man from Piney Flats, Tenn., who told a detailed story about how a large, dark figure with long, matted hair walked up to him, looked at him for a moment, then walked away in a zigzag motion.
“With my hand up to heaven I know what I saw,” the man said after he told his story.
A teenager from Saltville told a story about how she saw the familiar dark figure at the top of a hill outside her home, and soon after she made eye contact with it she was hit by a rock that left a sizeable bruise on her right leg. She even brought in a drawing of the creature to show to the cast.

The Bigfoot Phenomenon

The phenomenon of the fascination with bigfoot is itself fascinating.  Like other paranormal phenomenons, such as UFOs, opinions on the existence of bigfoot are polarized.  Either you believe they exist, or you think those who do are freaks. 

Those who believe in bigfoot argue that bigfoot’s existence without definitive human knowledge is not that far-fetched:   There are other phenomena−far larger phenomena−that have existed without human knowledge through the ages.  For example, until the last 10-15 years, many of the world’s tallest waterfalls remained unknown to humankind (the 3rd, 5th, and 16th tallest waterfalls were only recently discovered).  If such large geographical formations could remain hidden, is it not possible that an intelligent humanoid could covertly exist in remote areas of the country?

Huge Yowie Carving, Queensland, Australia

The phenomenon of bigfoot sightings is world-wide.  Individuals around the world swear they have seen the humanoid cryptid.  In Europe the creature has been known through the ages as the “Wildman”; in Asia it is known as the “Yeti” or the “Abominable Snowman”; in Oceania it is known as the “Yowie.”

The great climber, Reinhold Messner, spent several seasons in the Himalaya and had an encounter with the Yeti.  Messner wrote a book about it, My Quest for the Yeti.  Messner ultimately concluded that the Himalyan Yeti was most likely a bear. 

Perhaps most, if not all, human encounters with bigfoot could be explained in some similar fashion−misconceptions about what people saw or thought they saw. 

Bigfoot Sightings in Virginia

In Virginia, there are several organizations dedicated to bigfoot research.  The Virginia Bigfoot Research Organization  boasts of “combining scientific methodology with shamanistic awareness in the hopes of establishing peaceful contact.”  Based in Northern Virginia, VBRO has a large list of encounters with bigfoot in the Commonwealth organized by region.  There are numerous sightings in Southwest Virginia.  Sasquatch Watch of Virginia, another organization, “conducts initial field investigations and field research within areas of reported encounters or habitual recurring encounters.” 

One website purports to map all of the confirmed bigfoot encounters in the United States.  From my review of the maps, there are more bigfoot sightings in the Eastern United States than in the West.  There are numerous encounters near New York City. 

Which brings us to the penultimate question in this article.  Hypothetically, if there are bigfoot in Southwest Virginia, where would they most likely be? 

My guess would be up on Clinch Mountain, in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area, or somewhere near the Virginia-Kentucky state line near Breaks Interstate Park.  These are the most rugged areas of this part of the state, where the squatch could reside with fairly large ranging areas and yet hide from humans.

So, is there a squatch in these Southwest Virginia woods?  I can’t wait to hear the testimonials on the TV show and find out.  And next time you are in the outdoors, be extra aware.  Oh yes, keep your cameras ready, too.

Twin Pinnacles

While the most spectacular hike in Virginia is, in my opinion, the ascent of Wilburn Ridge (as described in one of my previous articles), perhaps the best “bang for the buck” hike in Southwest Virginia is the short hike known as Twin Pinnacles.  This is a 1.6 mile hike in Grayson Highlands State Park.  On September 25, 2011 after visiting the Grayson Highlands Festival my family did this little hike.

View from the Little Pinnacle

The trail begins right behind the Visitor Center.   The trail is a loop that takes you out to two pinnacles, or rock outcroppings, that have great views of the surrounding mountains.  The first pinnacle can be reached in less than 300 yards from the trailhead.   The pinnacles afford 300 degree views.  The view in the above photograph is looking south towards the North Carolina/Tennessee state line.  The view below is toward the north.  The rounded, frasier fir-covered hump at the top of the photo is Mount Rogers, the highest mountain in Virginia.

Mount Rogers View
Notice anything unusual in the photo above?  My son Isaac noticed the hawk on one of the outcroppings.  I have circled it below.  You can click on the photo below to enlarge it and see the bird a bit closer.  After a few minutes, it flew away, taking advantage of the thermals that rise up the mountainside.
Large Hawk at the Pinnacles

Looking back towards the north, you can also make out Wilburn Ridge as it rises from Massie Gap and climbs towards Mount Rogers.  In the photo below, it is the rocky ridge on the right side of the photo’

 
Wilburn Ridge View
On the second part of the trail, which involves some up-and-down climbing through some forest, we came across a resident in the middle of the trail who would not move.  Eventually, I had to get a long stick and move it out of the path.  The snake was almost three feet in length.  It was an eastern gartner snake, although I had not seen one this large before.  My daughter was not scared of it, and it seems to have been the most memorable part of the hike for her!
Gartner Snake on the Pinnacles Trail

After the hike, on the way down the mountain in our vehicle we saw a whole group of gobblers crossing the road.  Seeing wildlife like this in the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area is not unusual. 

Wild Turkeys

Overall, this was another nice day in the mountains.  The Twin Pinnacles Trail is a bit short in and of itself to justify a long trip to Grayson Highlands State Park.  It is, however, a perfect complement to a picnic or a nice side trip while visiting.  It is also a really good family hike:  Just the right distance for younger children or those looking for a less strenuous, shorter hike with great views.

Seeing Red on Labor Day

Tropical Storm Lee has been slowly moving towards Southwest Virginia.  Its precursor precipitation bands arrived Sunday afternoon, and it rained most of Sunday night.  The Doppler radar weather map Monday morning looked like it was painted green, with just a small area around Washington County not showing rain.  It was a small decent-weather window in which to labor through one last long run on the Virginia Creeper Trail before the Blue Ridge Relay race later this week. 

With the rainy weather, it is surprising that the color that is in forefront of my mind today is red.  Running through the matte lighting on the misty trail this morning, I saw more red in the outdoors than anytime this summer:

  • The falling and fallen leaves that are finally turning red (in addition to yellow), signaling the onset of autumn and the fantastic color changes we will be witnessing once again across the mountains very soon;
  • The beautiful orange-red color pattern of an Eastern box turtle that was slowly crossing the trail.  Its brilliantly-colored head was raised high as it scouted the area; and
  • The long, lithesome body and outstretched tail of an auburn-colored red fox darting over the trail only 100 feet in front of me.

All of this was on a four-mile stretch of the trail from the Abingdon trailhead. 

On this website, I usually don’t cover too much about the Virginia Creeper Trail, in part because it’s covered extensively on other sites, and on this site I seek to provide information about some of the less-known outdoor activities near Abingdon.  That said, it is true that sometimes we take for granted that which is closest to us.  The Virginia Creeper Trail is really something quite special; a solitary trip at an unusual time is sometimes the best way to reawaken awareness of how fortunate we are to have this awesome natural resource literally in our backyard.

Fly Fishing Secluded Water with a Neighbor

Notwithstanding that the local watershed continues to be low and unreplenished due to lack of big storms, there is still some good fly fishing to be had towards the end of this summer in the high mountains. 

Working a Section of a Creek in August

This August fellow Abingdonian, outdoorsman, and neighbor John Hortenstine, my son Karl, and I took a mid-week, evening fly fishing trip to one of our local trout streams in Southwest Virginia.  John took us out to one of those relatively unknown spots that anglers usually don’t reveal on websites. 

Blindfolded and sworn to secrecy before we were allowed to enter his car, John drove us to a secluded stretch of water where we were treated to some nice fishing.  Once on the water, John and I took turns working the various pools as we worked our way upstream.  Karl started several pools downstream and brought up the rear as a sweeper, fishing each of the downstream pools after they were rested for a while and documenting our trip with photography. 

Only John was getting all the action when we started out.  While he might contend it was solely due to the skilfulness of the angler in question, at the time I suggested it was the fact that he was using a lighter tippet (the final part of the line that connects the leader to the fly), and that the fish were more interested in the particular pattern, or type, of fly he was using.  John caught several nice fish right out of the gate, while my dry fly was just getting some rises and some looks, but the trout were ultimately not interested in the Parachute Adams I was offering.

SW Virginia Rainbow

When the water is super low, your approach is a big part of the fishing.  “Spooking” the fish by a clumsy approach will dampen, if not totally destroy, your chance of catching trout.  While the water is not always extremely clear in the Appalachians, when it’s low like it is right now in late summer, the fish will easily spook if you are not cautious.  Even poor or unnecessary false casting of the fly line (where the line shoots out over the water before the actual cast of the fly out onto the water) will spook a rising trout in these little creeks.

Stealthy Approach to Trout-Laden Pool

Of course, the flip side to the low water is that you have a better chance of actually seeing more of the trout in the pools and other places where the fish are more likely to be holding in the smaller water.  We saw several trout at a time in some of the pools, and a few were lunkers. 

An additional benefit to being quiet on the water is that you may see additional wildlife.  About halfway through our fishing, a small deer busted through the brush at the bank less than 100 feet from where we were fishing, and stopped right in the middle of the stream.  It froze for a few seconds when it saw us.  Then it crossed and was gone.

As we were fishing in this fashion, John had one rise—and a sip, or take—by a particularly large trout in a 2 foot slow-moving pool of clear water.  The top part of the trout actually broke the surface of the quiet pool as it opened its jaws and slowly and deliberately sipped the fly.  I immediately estimated this trout was 18-22 inches!  It was clearly visible in the water since the entire length of the trout was only an inch below the surface at the time it sipped the fly.  We both watched mesmerized.  Seeing a take like that is impressive on any level, but when it is your fly that is being taken it can send chills up your spine.  You draw in your breath with a silent gasp and your heart skips a beat.  This is what a dry fly fisherman lives for. 

There was a momentary pause—we both knew this was a great fish.  Then, timing it properly, John attempted to set the hook . . . but just at that moment the lunker ejected the fly as deliberately as he had taken it.  The fish turned and returned to his lie at the bottom of the pool as the leader and tippet with the fly attached was withdrawn back towards us.  The whole thing almost seemed to happen in slow motion.  Watching it was agonizing, but awesome.

John's Nice 'Bow Caught on a Dry Fly

 Setting the hook with a dry fly on a rising trout is much more difficult than on a nymph or streamer (let alone setting the hook using spinning tackle), because with the dry fly there is a longer period between the fish’s actual strike, or take, of the fly and the moment to set the hook.  Getting the timing just right to set the hook while the fly has been taken, but before it is ejected, is challenging.  While there are sometimes violent strikes, if the trout are rising and merely gently sipping surface flies, the angler must concentrate, time the hook-set perfectly, and generally use more finesse to catch the fish.  A large trout like the one we almost caught may be even more finicky, as it may have been caught before and is probably even more cautious than most fish.  It takes a lot of skill, and also a little bit of luck, to catch a seasoned trout on a dry fly.

My Turn
 After a while, we finally switched out my rig to use a smaller (6X) tippet and to change my fly to a pattern similar to the one John was using. Within a few minutes I started to get some rises and more interest from the trout.  I had several takes, but also was unable to set the hook.  Towards the end of the evening, however, I caught a beauty, too:
 
My Colorful August ‘Bow

In the end, there was plenty of wealth to spread around.  Last but not least, Karl got into the action with a nice, fat rainbow in one of the largest pools we fished.  He now has the fly fishing “fever,” too:  He is getting his own fly rod for the fall. 

This was a great little evening of fishing.  Willing trout, close to home, and a cool summer evening:  It’s hard to beat that. 

P.S. — John did not really blindfold us; we were, however, truly sworn to secrecy!

Karl's Chunky Rainbow

 All photos in this article by Karl Thiessen.