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About the Author:
John Merwin lives in Vermont, where, when he's not tying flies, building lures, or digging up worms with his backhoe, he writes the monthly Fishing Column for Field & Stream magazine.

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July 25, 2008
Blowing in the Wind

Bowhunters live and die by the wind, so most of us don‚t think twice about shelling out between $2.99 and $8.29 for a 1-oz. plastic squeeze bottle of Windicator, an odorless talc made by Hunters Specialties. On the other hand, the vegetable kingdom is full of thistles and weeds that spew downy seeds by the thousand into the air.

These are better wind indicators than anything you can buy, and they're free. The finest talc drops like a stone by comparison, and disappears faster than the money you spent on it. A single downy seed, released from your tree stand, will often float up on an air current. What's more, you can follow it with your naked eye for 5, 10, often 15 yards or more, especially against a solid background. Grab a film can and hit the nearest waste land. There are natural windicators for the taking. The edges of parking lots are good places to look.

July 22, 2008
Overpopulated Whitetails, Come On Down!

A suburban couple in a well-to-do neighborhood near here got fed up with deer destroying their flowers and bushes. John and Carmela Peterson tried deterrents, even considered a fence, but decided getting the required variance might be slow and expensive. The county verified the extent of the damage and recommended hunting, in part because the local deer herd is at or beyond the land’s carrying capacity. Now holding a damage control permit, the Petersons invited a licensed bowhunter in.  They had every reason to believe they had hit upon a way to manage, if not solve, the problem. 

But things play out differently if your neighbors are wealthy, well-connected, and rabidly anti-hunting. The people next door,  Martina and Anthony Caputy, were horrified. “None of us are farmers,” she told the Washington Post. “We’re not dependent on crops or anything like that.” She called their efforts “senseless slaughter.” It didn’t stop there. Anthony Caputy is former chief of neurosurgery at an area hospital, where he once operated on Bob Barker, the 85-year-old former host of “The Price Is Right,” a man always happy to lend his celebrity to animal rights causes. Barker dashed off a letter to the state about deer treading “an ancestral path that leads them to and from their sleeping place ” and saying killing them  would render nearby children “catatonic” and the adults “up in arms.”

PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, never one to pass up the chance to pour accelerant onto a house fire, roused the troops and weighed in with a predictable statement, calling hunting “selfish, callous and cowardly.” 

When told by a Post reporter that PETA and Bob Barker were issuing press releases about her backyard deer, Carmela Peterson’s first reaction was: “You’ve got to be kidding.” The Petersons met with their neighbors. In the end, they decided the loss of landscaping wasn’t worth the enmity of the community. The irony? The Petersons themselves are longtime PETA supporters. Mrs. Peterson once donated her car to the group.

The lesson for hunters is not that PETA will cannibalize its own supporters if they stop drinking the Kool-Aid. It’s that we face an extremely motivated, shrewd, and relentless group that would like to see hunting outlawed. If you’re a hunter, always be on your best behavior in public. Next time you see a hunter acting like a slob, remember that he’s hurting all of us.

July 17, 2008
Why I Won't Be Eating Much Bass

The Clean Water Act of 1972, passed by both house of Congress and signed by President Richard M. Nixon, called on the country to restore our rivers, lakes, and streams to “fishable” and “swimmable”status. Thirty-six years later, any angler buying a D.C. fishing license also receives a the District of Columbia fishing regulations booklet, which contains the following Public Health Advisory:

PCBs and other chemical contaminants have continued to be found in certain fish species caught in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and their tributaries, including Rock Creek, within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Because of these findings, the Department of Health advises the general public to limit consumption of fish from all DC waters, as follows:

Do not eat: Catfish, carp, or eel.

May eat: One-half pound per month of largemouth bass, or one-half pound per week of sunfish or other fish.

Choose to eat: Younger and smaller fish of legal size.

The practice of catch and release  is encouraged.

The booklet goes on to counsel that anglers should “always skin the fish, trim away fat, and cook fish to drain away fat because chemical contaminants tend to concentrate in the fat of the fish.”
Just to make sure all the bases are covered, it adds a final note: "The Department of Health also notes that other species of fish found in the District's waters not identified above did not have elevated levels of PCBs or pesticides."

D.C. is not alone, of course. Few, if any of our country’s rivers meet the “fishable/swimmable” test. Yet you hear almost nothing about this in the general media. We no longer expect our rivers to be fishable and swimmable, and that state of affairs appears to be acceptable to both the people and the people’s elected representatives. Here’s my question: How come so few of us raise our voices against the fact that our nation’s rivers have essentially become scenic toilet bowls?

July 14, 2008
A Cure for Kudzu?

Kudzu chips aren’t half bad. After hearing of the plant from a friend and checking it out online (good luck separating fact from fiction on the Internet), I decided to give it a try. I collected only the small, tender, new leaves from some vines swallowing up the trees in a suburban stream valley down the street, washed and dried them, then dredged them in salted flour and dropped them in a pan of hot canola oil. They were done almost as soon as they hit the pan and tasted faintly of cucumber. You can argue that shavings from a cinder block, similarly prepared, would taste good, and you’d be right.

The leaves are reputed to be high in vitamins A and C, protein, and calcium. The Japanese make tea pastries using the root flour. You can buy kudzu herbal remedies purported to reduce hangovers, control diarrhea and osteoporosis, even reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. Kudzu was first brought to this country in the 19th century as a forage crop. Then it was touted as a good way to stop soil erosion. Then it consumed most of the southeastern United States. If you really want to tick off a Southerner, tell him you planted some kudzu. If you want to know why, take a look at photographer Jack Anthony’s images of houses eaten alive by the stuff at

I’m not taking a stand one way or another on kudzu. Afterward, however, I took a 15-minute nap and woke with one arm curled around a chair leg in the next room...

July 10, 2008
Exploding Bags of Entrails

The good news is that I have been accepted into Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia. Read: Free Meat. This group of bow hunters normally maintains exceptionally high standards in its campaign to convince the public that a) bowhunting is an effective response to the exploding suburban whitetail problem, and 2) that bowhunters are not all Bubbas. One of the founders is an air traffic controller who works at the policy level. Another does ground security inside the CIA grounds at Langley. A third is a maintenance crew chief for military fighter planes. Having heard this, when I got to the “profession” blank on the application, I wrote “deep-cover PETA mole.”

The bad news is, well, there is no bad news. But I do have a couple of questions. Bow-season already lasts from mid-September to the end of January where I hunt. How much more time does a guy really need to obsess about deer? Secondly, because many of the properties are small and in densely populated areas, members must either haul the deer before dressing or bag up and take all guts away from the kill-site.

So what do you do on a blast-furnace day if you kill one, especially if you have no good place of your own to clean it? Just how much damage would an exploding Hefty Bag of deer entrails cause if left too long in a sun-warmed vehicle?

July 08, 2008
Thorns, Welts, and Ancient Bear Attacks

The last wineberries are drawing me deeper into the woods these days. I had all but given up on finding any more the other day when I stumbled upon a patch growing in the crater left by a tree that had blown over a couple of years ago. I’d come prepared for heavy cover: jeans and a long-sleeved shirt despite the heat, and old leather gloves (thorn protection) with the tips cut off the first three fingers (dexterity). The patch was tiny but extremely thick. 

Once I’d picked the berries at the edge I could scarcely bull my way any deeper in to get at the others. This was because there were thick vines growing all through the wineberries. Upon finally succeeding at crashing forward three feet, I had a momentary feeling of vulnerability, thinking how easy it must have been for our ancestors to be working a patch just like this only to discover there was a cave bear doing the same thing from the other side. To a critter like that, running into a homo sapiens stuck in a berry patch, his spear leaning against a bush well beyond arm’s reach, must have been like hitting the meat lotto. “Boy, did I get lucky today!” he’d say when he got back to the other bears at the cave.

I picked until I had nearly filled my small container, then noticed that my hands and arms suddenly felt aflame. Alongside the vines, a healthy patch of stinging nettles was pushing up through the wineberries. The nettles attacked the patch of skin I invariably bared between my shirt cuffs and gloves when stretching for the furthest berries, my face, and had even penetrated the shirt itself in other places.

Next, attempting to back track along the trunk of the tree, I yanked myself free of a vine only to lose my balance and fall into a muddy place on the downhill side of the trunk. By then I’d had enough. I left. By the time I got back to my vehicle, I was sporting muddy jeans, a ripped shirt, and welts all down one side of my face. The young couple stretching in preparation for their morning jog seemed to be making a note of my license plate number as I backed out of my parking spot. It was a lot of work for a small container of berries, which I’d eaten long before I got home. 

July 03, 2008
Rattled While Rooting

One of the first things edible plant expert and naturalist Vickie Shufer wanted to show me when I visited her recently outside Virginia Beach, Va., was a rattlesnake skin she had found and mounted on a length of plywood in her living room. “Canebrake,” she said proudly. “Found it one morning just laying there on the ground,” she said. “So fresh I could still smell the snake in it when I picked it up.” Vickie, an enthusiastic and supremely grounded woman who grew up on a Kentucky tobacco farm with seven brothers and sisters in a four-room house, stands exactly five feet tall. The empty snake skin had her beat by a good six inches.

Two days later we were walking in 16 acres of mixed hardwood and pine forest she owns where Shufer grows native plants. She called my attention to various specimens as we encountered them: wild yam, ginger, skullcap, sweet bay magnolia, and rattlesnake root.

Huh? The mention of this last caused me to remember the following: 1) that I was no longer in suburban D.C., 2) that I was wearing low-cut shoes and featherweight nylon trousers, and 3) that I hadn’t been paying much attention as to which of us was in the lead or where I was putting my lightly protected limbs. “Listen, Vickie,” I said, stopping dead, “where’d you say you found that snake skin?” She giggled. “Actually, it was right about here, near as I can tell,” she said, stopping to scan the trees and get her bearings.

Never at a loss for a witty rejoinder, I said, "Oh." And for the rest of the morning, I found myself unwilling and unable to locate or identify so much as a honeysuckle. The only thing I was able to look for after that was a thick-bodied venomous snake, its background color ranging from pinkish to light tan, with darker chevrons across its back and a stripe usually rusty orange or brown running the length of its body.

July 02, 2008
Levels of Awareness

As a hunter, I occasionally feel that I’ve got the market cornered on being in touch with nature. You know how this works. You start seeing pieces of the puzzle, how every thing that moves or calls in the woods sends its own particularly shaped ripple. You’d know it was October even if you didn’t have a calendar when you see the bucks that ran together in late summer traveling solo and with a shoulder-rolling gait. You watch a deer that doesn’t know you’re inside its bubble as it swivels its ears like radar dishes to scan what it can’t yet see, and you realize how many different levels of awareness there are. You start to feel like you know something other people don’t.  And you do. But, as I’m discovering, there are other ways to put your finger on nature’s beating heart. 

I spent the better part of a very hot day last week trying to keep up with John Parrish, a National Park Service vegetative naturalist documenting rare plants on a four-mile stretch of the Potomac. He’s about 6’ 3” and 160 lbs. if he happens to have a brick in his pocket. Fiftyish, but looks younger. His parents took him camping a lot as a kid. His father ran a struggling little hardware store in a Maryland suburban strip mall at a time when mom-and-pops were being neutron-bombed by the new wave of superstores. John tried college, but it wasn’t a good fit and he soon left. He cleaned pools and did other odd jobs while educating himself about plants, got on with the Park Service, and as one local naturalist told me, is considered “sort of a genius” by his peers. 

In the midst of a six-hour scramble on a 90-degree day, we tabulated about ten rare plants along the river. Some, like riverbank goldenrod, seldom grow this far south. Another, freshwater cordgrass, is more commonly found only in prairie wetlands. But the sand and gravel left by the Potomac along its banks mimics the glacier- and wind-driven soils of the prairie’s wet places, and this is one of the few places for many miles it can be found.

Parrish clearly vibrates at a different frequency than most people. He carried his water in glass honey jars inside a shoulder bag. His lunch consisted of dry Shredded Wheat cereal, an avocado, and some crackers. While I was soaked in sweat in clothing designed for tropical flats fishing, his body seemed to stay bone dry despite jeans and a long-sleeved medium-weight cotton shirt.

But there was one moment when it felt like we were on exactly the same page. Poking around in some tall grass next to the water for a rare sedge, he suddenly stopped and said, “Look at that!” It was a trickle of water somehow running against the current as it began to fill a series of separate little potholes along the riverbank. It was just ahead of my feet, a dark rivulet moving like a snake, hunting its way through a series of mud craters, from one to another to another. What we were seeing was the beginning of the new tide, the moon’s power made tangible 100 miles from the Chesapeake Bay.  It was subtle until you focused on it, and then it was huge, overwhelming. It was like being inside the deer’s bubble, watching the scout sent ahead of the ocean to prepare the way for its unstoppable advance.

A pretty cool moment on a sweltering summer day.

June 30, 2008
Berry Loud, Berry Congested

From the crop of books extolling the abundance of the vegetable kingdom, you get the idea that nature is such an obliging host that all you have to do for a great meal is open your mouth and walk into the woods. Bradford Angier’s guide, for example, is called “Feasting for Free on Wild Edibles.” The blurb on the back cover of “Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide,” by Elias and Dykeman, touts “a nutritious, delicious, season-by-season guide to identifying, harvesting, and preparing over 200 healthful plants from the wild!”

Personally, I’m not finding the green world quite so accommodating. In fact, I’m starting to believe that many plants have no desire whatsoever to be eaten. Read about the plants in the above books and others, and you are nearly always directed to gather the youngest shoots, the smallest basal rosettes, and the earliest stage of the flower buds. Why? Once they flower, most plants become bitter, even toxic. In other words, nature’s supermarket has very limited hours. 

As a novice, I’m spending a lot of time in a Catch-22 scenario. The plants I want to eat are most edible when least identifiable, when every green shoot looks pretty much like every other. When most identifiable, during and after they have flowered, they tend to be the least edible.

One notable exception are berries, including the many varieties of the bramble (Rubus) family, which includes the various species of raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries. In my area, the wineberry -  a type of raspberry introduced from Asia and well-established in disturbed, sunny places - is going gangbusters. The best patch I’ve found is right along the edge of a four-lane highway that skirts the Potomac. The roar of traffic is such that when picking with a companion you communicate using hand signals, like Scuba divers. Yesterday, after picking about three pints of delicious, juicy wineberries, I noticed I was out of time. Looking at my companion, I tapped the face of my watch and made a slashing motion across my throat. He understood perfectly, and we hugged the shoulder trying to get home without getting flattened.

You pick berries where they grow, and Nature apparently doesn’t watch the Disney Channel.

What’s the most unlikely place you’ve foraged, fished, or hunted?

June 26, 2008
Grow Your Own

Today’s Sportsman’s Life entry has nothing to do with hunting, fishing, foraging, or gardening - unless you happen to be a parent. If you are growing children, listen up.

Where I live, public school let out last Friday and cranks back up on September 2. In other words, summer vacation in the brave new world of standards-based public education (official slogan, “making the world safe for work sheets”) lasts just over two months.

100_0059When I picked Emma, 8, up from her second day of a week-long Junior Naturalist camp at 4 p.m., she was already late for dive practice at our local pool, to be followed by the first dive meet of the summer. I took one look at my child: sunburned, dazed, her face covered with paint from a lesson on how animals use camouflage to avoid predators. And I decided it was time to stop the clock. “Monkey,” I said, “here’s the deal: You don’t have to go to dive practice or the meet unless you want to. For the rest of the day, we are gonna do whatever you want. We’re making this an Emma Day.”

She roused herself and trained a cynical eye on me. “For real?” she asked. For real, I answered. We could even go toy shopping if she wanted: roller blades, a skateboard, whatever. “Even dolls?” she asked. "No dolls," I said. I draw the line at more dolls. She already has so many that the last time the cable guy came, he wanted to know how many girls lived in the house. “One,” I said. “But she’s kind of intense about dolls.”

An hour later, Emma was the proud owner of a Cerberus (3-Headed Dog) Channel 1 skateboard and a pink Kryptonics helmet that rested nearly on her shoulders. She was highly stoked. We adjourned to a nearby church parking lot. I let her be in charge, telling me when she wanted me to steady her and when she wanted me to get out of the way. Emma, being adopted and possessing none of my genetic material, is almost preternaturally athletic, without fear, yet with an intuitive sense of her own limits. She didn’t fall once, and was soon riding as if Velcroed to the board. We stayed until she finally sighed, “Okay. Now I’m really tired.” She even ate tiny bites of her vegetables as we watched a few minutes of a John Wayne movie.

As I put her in bed and prepared to read a few pages of “Sunny the Yellow Fairy,” I said, “Monk, I just want you to know that the luckiest day in my life was the one I got picked to be your daddy.” But she was already out, off chasing rainbows and goblins with all the other fairies.