Friday, August 28, 2009

Almost time...

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the mourning dove.

I consider them the most egalitarian of gamebirds in that they're widespread, numerous and you don't need any specialized equipment or tactics to hunt them.

They don't require a boat, decoys, dogs or calls. They don't make you chase them and when you do manage to hit them they have the grace and courtesy to die fairly easily. Even a half-wit can quickly grasp the basics of dove hunting: find a spot, sit down, and when a bird flies by you shoot at it once, twice or thrice depending on skill and/or luck.

As such, they are easily our most popular gamebird. And therein lies the problem with dove: their familiarity breeds a certain degree of if not contempt then at least a sort of one-dimensional thinking in that the entire arc of the popular notion of the dove-hunting experience can be described in one sentence: Opening day dove shoot.

That's it. That one image conjures up notions of the traditional southern social event, the big party hunt where everyone gets together, has a great time, shoots lots of birds, shoots lots of bull and then packs up, goes home and gets ready for the rest of the"real" hunting seasons to open up.

Basically, dove are considered a one-time celebratory kick-off. And that's it. The vast, and I mean vast majority of dove hunters give absolutely no post-opening weekend thought to the little buggers at all.

Which is a shame, really. Because once you get past the action-packed barrel-burning salvos of opening weekend, dove hunting can be a very mellow and contemplative activity. It gives you time to think. And what's hunting without thinking? Some of my most cherished and memorable hunts have been spent sitting under a windmill with the dog, watching the sky and shooting nowhere near a limit.

I guess I'm partial to dove because they were my (for lack of a better term) genesis bird. I had zero bird-hunting tradition growing up, so I pretty much had to make up my own as I went along.

I had no dog, no dad (my parents divorced when I was ten) and no clue, but I did have a shotgun, a bike, a duffel bag in which to break down and hide the shotgun so the cops wouldn't see me pedaling down the street packing heat, and a lot of open fields and riverbottom to hunt.

So I hunted dove, and the occasional kicked-up quail and pond-jumped ducks. But local dove were my main bird-hunting species until well into my later teens and my friends and I finally had access to cars and distant destinations. And since I didn't know any better I hunted dove on into October right up to the archery season opener.

Sure there weren't nearly as many birds as there were in early September, but I could always find a few, and a few were all I needed. Besides, what else was I going to hunt besides squirrels?

Maybe that's why I don't mind the slower pace and lighter gamebags of the mid and late-September hunts: it's merely a conditioned response from my misspent youth.

And here we are again, on the eve of what will be, as close as I can recall, my 25th straight dove opener ( Setting a lifelong tone of shirked responsibility, I always managed to skip school when it fell on a weekday...).

Seen from that perspective, it's a bit hard to reconcile the memory of the 13-year-old me furiously pedaling my bike down to the South Canadian river - hidden shotgun strapped to the handlebars - with the pushing-forty me; the chronically melancholy, none-too-successful misanthrope who, when he's drunk and thoughtful, sees those 25 season openers as a chronology of the ever-widening gap between what he is and what he once thought he'd be, each date a waypoint along a route that never quite made it to the original destination.

But whose ever does, right? Hindsight may be 20/20 but it's also like straight liquor: best consumed in moderation lest it consume you.

So here I am. Tomorrow will bring another waypoint, another rollover of the seasonal odometer and I will dutifully note it in the the only way I know, really the only way I've ever known how to track my life's progression or lack thereof.

Hopefully a few dove will be flying. And if I'm lucky I might shoot a few. Or I might not. Either way is fine by me. I can certainly think of worse ways to dwell on one's life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flying with Eagles...

Back in 2002 I wrote a feature story on falconry for our state magazine (the story can be viewed here, but the PDF warning applies...)

One of the people I interviewed during the course of writing the story was a young apprentice falconer named Lauren McGough.

What was extraordinary about Lauren was she was only fourteen at the time and she was a girl in an incredibly demanding pursuit that is practiced primarily (with apologies to all the falconers out there) by old(er) men. And for good reason (the age part, anyway. Gender, of course matters not...)

You see, you can't just decide to become a falconer. Here's how I described it in the article:

"Like all top-echelon predators, birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply can’t. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty and frightening efficiency, birds of prey seem to wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers.

Simply put, we love to watch them. By virtue of their very haughtiness, they demand our attention. And we, as spellbound, earth-bound subjects, always give it.

Whether you’re watching from a quarter-mile away through a pair of binoculars or a distance of three feet, the first thing you notice are the eyes. Disconcertingly intense and unmistakably wild, those twin wells of unfathomable depth don’t merely look past you, they penetrate you. In one cold, perfunctory glance, you’ve been sized up, found to be of no real consequence and then simply disregarded.

But there is a small group of Oklahomans that takes our Earth-bound fascination with birds of prey beyond passive observation and into a realm of interaction and cooperation few have the opportunity to witness and even fewer have the dedication to achieve.

These individuals have learned how to fly - vicariously, anyway - by learning how to live and hunt with birds of prey.

Falconry is at once art, science, history and lifestyle. And to be successful, its practitioners say, you have to apply all qualities equally.

Perhaps that’s why there are fewer than 100 practicing falconers statewide. Not only is it the most highly-regulated sport externally, due to a maze of state and federal regulations, the unique demands of the sport are such that anything less than total commitment is doomed to failure.

That’s why the one overriding truth of falconry is there is no such thing as a casual falconer.

To become one, a person must first pass a comprehensive test covering everything from biology to care and handling to pertinent laws and regulations. They must then build housing facilities and purchase certain equipment that must be inspected and approved by a state inspector. They must then purchase all the necessary state and federal licenses.

And that’s the easy part. By law, all beginning falconers must be apprenticed to a licensed falconer for their first two years, and if you haven’t made an honest assessment of why you want to be a falconer in the first place, you can be sure that the person you ask to be your sponsor will do just that."

But here was this fourteen-year-old girl with a red-tailed hawk on her fist taking on the kind of responsibility and commitment that very few adults, much less a teenager, could handle.

At any rate, Lauren was a good interview and I left thinking she'd have no problem making it through her apprenticeship and becoming a falconer.

That ended up being a wee bit of an understatement on my part...

Apparently Lauren has gone on to bigger things (much bigger) and more exotic places (much more exotic) than red-tails and Oklahoma. And she's a damn good writer, to boot. via Steve Bodio's blog

Now that, folks, is impressive as hell.

I'm not sure exactly how old Lauren is now (21ish, maybe) but speaking as someone whose greatest accomplishment at that age was scraping together enough change to buy a few happy-hour draws at Mr. Bill's after class (and sometimes before...), I commend her for the vision to have a dream worth pursuing and the courage to actually go out and do it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

They Call Me Naughty Lola...

I'm a happily married guy. Have been for going on fourteen years. But I have to confess that I still scan the personals every few weeks, looking for that special someone.

Maybe someone like this:

"Attractive F, 32, seeks M, of a not too dissimilar age, who smells nice, dresses well & is good at sex. But must not be a cock. London. "

Or maybe this one:

"Inveterate, pelagic marmalade maker – artist/peace activist. Cheerful F 62 – red/green – seeks help committing future acts of parsimony."

But definitely not this one:

"Two hefty, tattooed Brighton skinheads, 43/45. One writes, one reads. Want uncensored sex with bookish blokes who like rough drafts."

These are all personals from the current edition of the London Review of Books.

If you've never heard of the London Review of Books, well, you're not alone. I'd never heard of it either. But in one of those serendipitous 'net surfing incidents of looking for one thing and finding another I stumbled across the site several years ago while searching for a particular book review.

I thought "Hmmm, what's this?" and started reading. As it turns out, the LRB started out as an insert in the New York Review of Books way back in 1979 before going solo in 1980 (thanks, Wikipedia). It's a good read, but what (immediately) caught my eye were the personals.

And now I have to explain why exactly I was reading the personals section of a fairly obscure (to Americans, anyway) literary journal. Really, it was all completely innocent...

My wife and I had just returned from a ten-day trip to Paris (with a side trip to London). My wife had been to Europe twice already on study abroad programs in both high school and college, but it was the first trip abroad for this provincial rube.

Well, being a history, travel and culture weenie I fell immediately and deeply in love with Europe, and as soon as we got back I started scheming how and when we could go back. One money-saving option we kicked around was renting a flat rather than staying in motels. And the LRB, I noticed, had ads for flats and apartments. But wouldn't you know it, right underneath that was the personals section. I started reading. And then I started laughing.

As it turns out, the LRB was - and is - famous for its offbeat, quirky, witty and weird personal ads. I had no idea. I was instantly hooked, and I've been reading it ever since.

There's none of that earnest, sappy, American-style "looking for that special someone to share my dreams with" bile here. Oh, hell no...

"Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite."

"I'm just a girl who can't say no (or anaesthetist). Lisping Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, female, lecturer in politics (37) WLTM man to 40 for thome enthanted eveningth."

"Mature gentleman (62) aged well, noble grey looks, fit and active, sound mind and unfazed by the demands of modern society seeks...damn it, I have to pee again."

Those are just a few of the selections from "They Call Me Naughty Lola" a compilation of the best personals from the pages of the LRB. It's on my Christmas list...

Monday, August 24, 2009

How to Respond to Absurdity?

After reading this item in today's Field Notes I first assumed it had to be some kind of joke, maybe something someone picked up from the Onion.

But then I realized the article wasn't satire. On the contrary it was, as they say, serious as a heart attack, which in turn engendered somewhere deep within the common-sense lobe of my brain that most modern and ubiquitous reaction to unbelievable news: "WTF? They can't be serious. They simply can't be."

Oh, but they are. Of course, this has fuckall to do with animal welfare and everything to do with harassing dog owners and controlling, stigmatizing and eventually severely limiting or banning dog ownership.

From the story:

The leader of one of the state's sporting dog organizations says a recently approved Kanawha County (West Virginia) ordinance may very well be a covert effort to eliminate hunting with dogs.

Gary Knapp, president of the West Virginia Bear Hunters Association appeared before the Kanawha County Commission last week to raise his concerns about the stiff stipulations of the ordinance, aimed at preventing mistreatment of dogs...

Knapp says the ordinance, as it was approved, requires dog owners to bring their animals in the house when temperatures outside go above 85 degrees or below 40 degrees. The range would encompass more than half the year in West Virginia. Knapp say it also renders the dog ineffective on a hunt if he or she isn't in proper condition.

Nobody seems sure of just where the writers of the ordinance came up with the arbitrary figures of 40-degrees and 85-degrees. Knapp says he was told by the attorney for the Humane Society it was a recommendation of their organization. The Humane Society of the United States has long been opposed to any and all hunting. Knapp says there was a not-so-veiled indication that may be what's at play here.

So here's what I proposed to the F&S editors as a response: "The First Annual Field & Stream Cruel And/Or Inhumane Treatment of Canine Companion Animal Photo Contest."

The rules? Simple: your photograph must show a canine companion animal (preferably one bred for and used as an accessory in the harassment and murder of small creatures) in cruel or inhumane temperature conditions as defined by the Humane Society of the United States and Kanawha County, West Virginia.

Got pics of your ice-coated labs? Send 'em in. Late-season bird hunts? They're game. Those 90-degree dove openers? They're eligible. Hell, take a pic of your kids walking the dog on a cool fall morning or throwing bumpers for them in the park If it's under 40 or over 85, you too have a shot at the prize.

The winners would receive the wrath and condemnation of the HSUS (which in my book is priceless) and - if you happen to live within the borders of Kanawha County, West Virginia - jail time.

Eh, the editors didn't go for it...
And just to clarify for the record (seeing as how the above photograph was obviously taken in conditions well below 40 degrees) I do not reside in nor have I ever visited Kanawha County, West Virginia.
If I did I suppose I'd be writing this from the clinky...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Canine Humiliation...

My poor dogs.

In addition to the normal, low-grade day-to-day embarrassment of being owned by someone like myself, my dogs must, on occasion, be subjected to my work-related bursts of "creativity."
This shot was taken for a F&S post earlier this year. I stumbled across it tonight while doing some computer housecleaning.
Needless to say, the dogs weren't amused.
I, on the other hand, thought it was a brilliant idea for the topic at hand, which was the declining number of gundogs being registered with AKC.
Oh, well. They got over it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I know I'm belaboring the writing point a bit, but...

first a gratuitos photograph from last night. It's still a bit early for the fall severe weather season to start up, but we were in a tornado watch last night so I thought I'd take a little drive and see what I could see.

Not much, as it turns out. Just a wee bit 'o rotation in this storm that never did do much of anything but dump rain and hail. Highly electrified storm, though, and so I tried to get a few lightning shots.

And this is what happens when you attempt a three-second handheld exposure because you were too stupid to remember your tripod and remote shutter release...

So anyway...There's an interesting article this week in - of all places - The New York Observer on the demise of the old-fashioned sports columnist. And while the story doesn't directly address or otherwise have anything to do with outdoors columnists the parallels are too similar to ignore.

I'm not a sports guy so I didn't grow up reading the great sports columnists, but I did grow up reading their equally great counterparts in the hook-and-bullet world.

But I didn't read them because they were "experts" from whom I might glean some tip or technique. I read them first and foremost because they were great storytellers, great writers and because they had something to say and could say it with wit, intelligence and grace. And if I happened to learn something of a technical nature along the way, so much the better.

But here's what I don't get: No one, apparently, wants that kind of writing any more. They want "experts." They want specifics. They want results. They want attitude. They want formulas for success, some A plus B equals C and high-fives all-around equation focused on the mechanics and end-result of the act rather than any boring contemplations of or subtle musing on the act itself.

Which is fine, of course, to a point. Everyone wants to have success in the field or on the water. God knows I could use some more myself. But is there no longer room for both kinds of writing? Has our collective attention span atrophied to the point that we as readers are unable to process anything beyond the tightly-focused byte-sized single-serving story?

I don't know the answer to that, but I believe traditional print-based outdoors magazines are going to live or die by good, insightful writing. It's the only hand they have left, because as a medium for showcasing or announcing the latest, the greatest or the hottest, they're essentially dead. And as an instructional or informational medium they're increasingly irrelevant.

For example, If I want specific information on hunting, fishing, shooting, reloading, new products or whatever, all I have to do is click the mouse and right there at my fingertips are literally millions of hunting and fishing websites out there that can answer my questions, absolutely free.

There is simply no way magazines can compete with that. The web is now essentially what the magazines were twenty years ago, but with one exception: great writers telling great stories.

I won't pay five bucks for a magazine that gives me four-hundred word articles on, for example, the latest technique for Texas-rigging a duck decoy or the hottest bass lure. By the time I get the issue in my hand it's already old news, but I'll damn sure pay five bucks for a magazine that gives me a great duck-hunting or bass-fishing story; a rousing adventure, or perhaps a story or essay that speaks to the intangibles of why we do what we do.

And magazines have a built-in format advantage for longer-form journalism. It's easy to read a three or four hundred-word blog on a monitor. It's not so easy reading a 1,500-word essay or a three thousand-word story on that same monitor. Again, don't compete where you can't win and do compete where you can.

But of course, it all goes back to the fundamental question of "Is that what readers want?"

I'm a reader. That's what I want. But structuring a business model on the demographic I represent is kind of like structuring your retirement portfolio around winning the lottery: sounds great but not quite reality-based.

Of course, someone has to win the damn thing, right?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Those hours spent outdoors...

On any given weekday during my high school career you could - on occasion - find me in class, but you would just as likely find me experiencing truancy Nirvana doing one of three things: fishing a farm pond, hunting a woodlot or skulking around a used book store.
It was while skulking around a used book store that I first stumbled across William Tapply's book "Those Hours Spent Outdoors."

I knew, of course, who Tapply was from reading his stories in Field & Stream and Fins and Feathers, yet another great hook-and-bullet magazine that is no longer with us. I even recognized some of the book's essays from originally reading them in said magazines, but it was the introduction to the book that caught me eye, in which Tapply recalls how his father (of Field & Stream's Tap's Tips fame) hung a plaque on young William's bedroom wall.

"It was the last thing I saw at night before I turned out the light, and the first thing I saw in the morning. I memorized what it said on that plaque long before I understood the words. It said:

"Allah does not deduct from the alloted time of man those hours spent in fishing."

The fishing-obsessed high school me thought that story, and the saying (however historically spurious the quote surely is) supremely cool, and for years I looked high and low for a similar plaque, until one day serendipity (with whom I normally have a non-existent relationship) smiled down upon me when I stumbled across this brass plaque in a junk store.

The wording wasn't exactly the same, but the meaning was, so I bought it and hung it over my workbench in the garage.

So when I read last week that William Tapply had died, I first grabbed that same copy of "Those Hours Spent Outdoors" and re-read it. I then grabbed the plaque from the garage, cleared a spot on the wall above my desk and hung it up.I figured if it was good enough for display in the Tapply household then it was good enough for display in mine.

William Tapply was much better known to the world as a mystery writer than he ever was or will be as an outdoors writer, but the news of his passing was, in my mind, a reminder that not only can good writing about hunting and fishing be as literary and as thoughtful as anything out there (and much more so than a helluva lot of it) but also that the type of outdoors writing Tapply represented is becoming increasingly rare.

The word-counts on some of the essays in Tapply's book, which was published in 1988 and discovered by me a year later, would probably have to be Twitterized to get published today. That's just the way it is.

At least that's what they tell me. And if it's true that shrinking magazine feature wells simply reflect the attention span of their audience, then I guess we don't have a helluva lot on our minds any more.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I'm back. Even if I'd rather not....

I vaguely recall writing something in the last post about plans for doing some actual work on the blog both in terms of look, layout and content.

I had good intentions. And then I went fishing and it all went to hell. Pretty much sums up my love life, my academic record, my professional career and the condition of my yard.

I just got back from a week of family vacation and fishing in Colorado. There were a few days up there, standing in the middle of a river in a pair of shorts and sneakers, that I really could have used some of my duck hunting gear. It was that cool, literally and figuratively.

But now I'm home. And the projected high today is 106. But I'm not bitching. Too much, anyway. Dove season is a little over three weeks away. The early teal season will follow thusly and before I know it I'll be sitting in the middle of a sagebrush flat, bow in hand, sweating and swatting skeeters, silently griping about Oklahoma's miserable early October weather and swearing that next year gawddamnit I'll be in Montana. That's my usual pattern, anyway.

But back to the present. I'm a pretty lousy flyfisherman. Now there are guys who say that and in truth they're really not bad. I'm not one of them. Pretty much any trout I catch on a fly rod is accidental. But I did manage to hook a few while wheezing my way across the 8-9000-foot elevations in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I probably would have caught more, but I'm pretty sure the guy at the fly shop in Estes Park deliberately gave me lousy advice after I walked into the shop and said "I need some help. I'm mainly a bass fisherman, so trout flies to me are kinda like Texans: They all look the same."

Guess where the guy in the fly shop was from? Let's just say his Big 12 South team plays my Big 12 South team every year...

Actually, he was a very nice guy, gave me very good advice and we both agreed the Longhorns really suck.
Tim Romano, who lives in Boulder (the smug, affluent hippie capitol of the world, but a cool place nonetheless) and is one-half of the excellent Flytalk blog over at Field & Stream, also gave me some great suggestions on flies and locations in the Estes Park/RMNP area.

So I apologize. I spent the week fishing, poorly, when I should have been blogging, poorly.

At any rate, in a vain attempt to make amends, in the coming days I shall post some thoughts which I have ruminated upon this past week...observations on national parks, national park visitors, tourist towns, Marty Robbins impersonators, flyfishing and trout.