Sanibel Island, FL

Paradise is Personal

© Jack Ballard

“Should we try a different fly?”

            It is an undeniable aspect of the human condition that those confronted with a novel situation attempt to resolve it with previous experience. Innumerable studies in human learning have verified this trait across a surfeit of situations, none of which I know have been applied specifically to fly fishing. But perched in a skiff, with the distinct, saline aroma of sea air in my nostrils and an hour of casting without a strike, my question belies three decades of trout fishing and its characteristic mentality.

            The guide’s steadfast eye’s momentarily illuminate in an uncharacteristic twinkle. He chuckles softly, then dismisses my prior knowledge with a brief lecture.

            “That’s what every trout guy thinks down here when the fish aren’t biting. We’re not matching a hatch. When the fish are biting it doesn’t really matter what fly you’re throwing. When they’re not biting it doesn’t matter, either. As long as you’ve got a good pattern in the water, getting it to the fish is way more important.”

            Despite the absence of a catch, I’m mightily enjoying a new practice and place. Poled by Steve Bailey, a seasoned local guide, the bow of his spotless white skiff points toward a verdant line of mangroves, the sea-sand interface along a small islet near Sanibel Island, Florida. It’s not that there is a dearth of finned targets for my fly. A little coaching from Steve has helped me discern the outline of fish lying languidly on the shoals near the mangroves. I’ve begun to differentiate the outline of a husky redfish from a streamlined snook.

            The guide’s most understated demeanor takes an urgent uptick when he spies what I conjecture is the fin of a small shark cutting smartly through the surface of the water in slightly deeper water. It is rather the dark dorsal fin of a cobia, cruising smartly on a parallel course with the boat. Just at the outer limit of my casting distance, I make my best attempt at the fish. The fly falls just shy of the target. Like a host of other competent trout-takers, I’m quickly confronting my deficiencies as a saltwater angler. The range of my casting is fair, but takes far too much false casting. The rod often drops too low on the forward stroke, resulting in a splashy presentation unfriendly to skittish snook. Accuracy is reasonable, but warrants improvement.

            At noon, Steve returns a tired angler and his sweetheart to the sandy shore of a key along the causeway that links Sanibel Island to the mainland at Fort Myers. The morning’s catch has been dismal from the standpoint of size or numbers, likely the result of uncooperative tides and a passing weather system. A couple of small snook don’t make for a boasting post on social media. But it has been a most memorable outing. We watched in awe as a bald eagle boldly stole an osprey’s fish in an aerial display of pursuit and intimidation, snatching the catch directly from the rightful owner’s talons. I made several perfect casts to a variety of fish, one that put the fly within less than a foot of the snout of a large, lounging snook. Steve pronounced the fish’s failure to take the bait, “immoral.” In the words of a most tired cliché, this first foray into saltwater fishing has me hooked, both in terms of the practice and the place.

            In geological time, Sanibel’s life as an island spans perhaps a more brief period of time than my morning’s introduction to saltwater fishing. Scientists believe the island was formed around 6,000 years ago, it substrate deposited on the sea bed from sediment borne by the Caloosahatchee River. Currents in the Gulf of Mexico formed the silt into a low-lying island oriented primarily along an east-west axis, an oddity in a region where most islands are aligned north-south. Sanibel takes the shape of a skinny kidney bean or a slightly-flexed index finger, the base of which lies nearest Fort Myers on the mainland, the tip of which separates Sanibel Island from Captiva Island at Blind Pass. Captiva is essentially a sweeping, skinny extension of Sanibel that turns northward. Blind Pass, the shallow cut between the two, has filled with silt on several occasions during the life of the islands, giving credibility to the assertion that the two are but one island ecosystem.

            Pine Island, a larger barrier island, lies between the northwest tip of Sanibel and Captiva Island and mainland Florida. Pine Island Sound is located between Sanibel-Captiva and Pine Island, a unique estuary which mingles waters from Charlotte Harbor, San Carlos Bay and the Caloosahatchee River. The sound connects with the Gulf of Mexico via four passes.

            Biologists have long recognized estuaries as among the most vibrant ecosystems in the world for numerous forms of life. Pine Island Sound is home to at least 100 invertebrates, numerous species of sharks, more than 150 bird species and a startling 200 different species of fish. In one of the classic movies from the 1990s, Forrest Gump, the protagonist’s mother admonishes him that “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” Casting a fly rod in Pine Island Sound, with its plethora of fish species, is a similar proposition.

            Nearly two years to the day after our inaugural visit to Sanibel Island, Lisa and I are cozied up in a beachside condo at Sanibel Arms. We’re honeymooners, married the previous day at the blissfully romantic, relaxing Tarpon Lodge on Pine Island. I count myself among the most fortunate of fellows. My bride is beautiful and intelligent. She is also the perfect outdoor playmate, as enthusiastic about fishing on the honeymoon as her groom.

            For the next few days we wander our island paradise, searching the beach for sea shells, photographing birds, stuffing ourselves on seafood and, of course, casting for fish in Pine Island Sound. One day we rent Hobie fishing kayaks, another I fish from Sanibel’s beaches at dawn while Lisa sleeps in. True to form, our catch composes a wide array of fish: pompano, ladyfish, spotted seatrout, redfish, blue runner, snook, a hardhead catfish, a couple of pesky needlefish and even a squatty little puffer that grabbed a Clouser minnow.

            It’s a heady, fascinating education in saltwater fish. We dutifully photograph each species to identify those with which we’re not familiar. Much like the neophyte trout angler in the Rocky Mountains whose face lights up with the catching of a diminutive brook trout or a foot-long rainbow, we’re just happy to be there, to find ourselves thoroughly though unsophisticatedly enmeshed in a novel pursuit.

            Over time, trout-chasing newbies naturally develop preferences and aspirations more in line with veterans of the sport. Honeymoon complete, I’ve landed enough fish in the saline waters adjacent Sanibel Island to develop some distinct preferences. I am keenly motivated by the challenge of sight-casting to a single fish. So far, the specimens we’ve landed of those species most often associated with sport angling (redfish, snook, seatrout) have been modest in size. Weather conditions and tides, I’ve discovered, play a pivotal role in creating prime conditions for better than average fish. Departing the island in my mother-in-law’s borrowed car on the causeway, I take a longing look through the driver’s window at the wind-riffled waters toward Pine Island Sound and hatch a plan for a return trip. An anniversary getaway, perhaps?

            With a Sanibel stay booked for our second wedding anniversary, a fortuitous turn of events finds me fishing Pine Island Sound four months before the anticipated event. A winter board meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, of which my wife is President, lands us at Tween the Waters Resort on Captiva Island in mid-January for a board meeting. One day is reserved for angling.

            The weather is truly wretched for fishing. A sustained cold front has dropped water temperature by 11 degrees in as many days. The nighttime low plummets to the low 50s. Fishing day dawns chilly, a dull gray sky overhead and a soft, but biting breeze necessitating a jacket for Florida fishing. I’ll be fishing with Kris Millgate, a friend and video producer from Idaho in the morning, also here for the board meeting. In the afternoon I’m scheduled on the local guide’s skiff with a photographer and a writer from the News-Press, the dominant newspaper in Fort Myers. They’re slated to do a lifestyle piece on saltwater fly fishing. I’m the reluctant subject for the story. We will be fishing in conditions the guide flatly describes as “tough.”

            By 11 a. m. Kris and I have shed our jackets, two northerners finding this unseasonably cold morning in January perfectly pleasant. The clouds have dissipated somewhat, making it a bit easier to see into the water. But we’re having poor success finding fish, less luck catching them. We return to the resort’s dock at noon. A single, small snook took my fly in late morning, our sole fish for the morning. On the bright side, I’ve had a couple hours to polish a rusty casting stroke. If the guide can find a fish this afternoon, I’m far less likely to botch the opportunity with an errant cast.

          We launch after lunch. On the boat with guide, Ozzie Lessinger, and myself are Laura and Ricardo, writer and photographer. For the next two hours we scour the flats in Pine Island Sound, just northeast of Sanibel Island. Visibility is obscured by choppy water and clouds. Ozzie and I are plied with a thousand questions. Why fly fishing? How does it work? Why here?

            The editorial duo seems fascinated with the art of casting. I explain to them that sight fishing is, in my mind, the fly angler’s equivalent to another of my passions, elk hunting: spot the quarry, compose a perfect stalk and make the shot. Ozzie appraises them of the area’s attraction as a fishing destination. “We’re not as well-known as the Florida Keys, but Southwest Florida is the premier destination in the world for tarpon fishing.” Lessinger explains that the gargantuan, migratory tarpon usually show up in early May, along with a flush of outsized snook. But the Sanibel area is also a year-round fishery, thanks to an abundance of resident species like the snook, redfish and spotted seatrout we’re seeking. Some tarpon are also year-round residents.

            Ozzie’s watchful eyes are tuned to every hint of a target. We pole past an oyster bar, where he instructs me to shoot a few casts into water that often holds redfish. He scrutinizes a large, passing ray, telling our observers that game fish sometimes follow rays in search of crustaceans they dislodge from the bottom. He finally focuses on a particular flat, concluding that a methodical coverage of this habitat, much like a refined pointing dog working a cover, will be our best chance of success.

            Our efforts remain scuttled by cloud cover and wind. Ozzie sights some fish from the poling platform; I spot a few from the bow. But by the time they’re spied, the skiff is already too close. In most cases we spot the forms as they’re finning away. I catch a glimpse of a pod of redfish moving out of range. Ozzie grimaces when the long, broad body of a husky snook scoots from a patch of sunlit water into the shadows.

            My chance arrives when the clouds dissipate and the breeze begins to abate. The sharp eyes of the guide detect two redfish off the bow, close enough for a cast. But by the time I’m on them the pair whisks away. A few minutes later Ozzie sees three more reds at 12 o’clock. It will be a tricky. There’s no time to re-position the boat. My backcast will pass directly over the photographer and scribe huddled behind me, and close to the poling platform.

            “Don’t blow it!” I chide myself as the leader unfurls. The rod bends backward with the weight of the line. I press my elbow to ribcage, drive the butt of the Winston 8-weight forward and stop my taut wrist at 10 o’clock. Green line shoots through the guides. Before the fly reaches the water I know it’s a good cast.

            A little too good, in fact. The fly lands a foot beyond the snout of the shouldered redfish facing the boat. I strip frantically to keep the fly from tickling the back of the drum, now extremely thankful for the chop on the water that impedes the fish’s vision as well as my own.

            Clear of the fish, I let the fly sink within eyeshot of the lounging red, then strip toward the boat. The predator suddenly comes to life, lunging after the fly, missing it in two wild gulps. But I see its mouth close around the yellow-orange minnow on the third and strip mightily to make the set.

            “Nice work,” hollers a grinning guide from the rear of the boat.

            I’m not quite ready to celebrate. Odds are very high it will be the only fish of the afternoon. It surges strongly on the first run and I can’t bear to lose it.

            But after a sustained tussle Ozzie grasps the leader and brings the fish to skiff. The reporter wants a measurement. A tape shows 25 inches from nose to tail, not the biggest redfish in the water, but a very fine catch in challenging conditions. Documentary photos of the occasion show the angler with a broad smile.

            In late April we’re back on Sanibel. The fishing component of the nuptials anniversary will be a multi-day kayaking adventure on segments of the Great Calusa Blueway, a paddling “trail” spanning 190 miles in the bays, rivers and estuaries in the Fort Myers area. A substantial portion of it is found in Pine Island Sound. From the eastern end of Sanibel Island the Blueway winds westward, hugging the shoreline of the island, then ducking into Tarpon Bay before exiting to skirt a seemingly endless array of mangrove islets in the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The route turns north toward the end of Sanibel, passes along the west side of Captiva and North Captiva Islands, eventually crossing the northern end of the sound to arrive on the west side of Pine Island.

            Anglers on the Blueway, we discover, aren’t so much confronted with the question of “where to fish” but “where not to fish.” After a pre-dawn launch the first morning, our progress comes to a standstill at a tiny island drooped with a canopy of strident green mangroves, their ochre roots clutching gamely to a scaly bar not much larger than the concrete slab of a two-car garage. We catch a handful of seatrout near the islet. Casting toward the mangroves, I’m rewarded with the aggressive take of a burly redfish.

            The entirety of Pine Island Sound was designated as an Aquatic Preserve in 1970. Motorized craft are welcome, but their speed is regulated in many places to protect manatees and the seagrass habitat from gnawing propellers. Duck into a cove and it may mark the gateway to a veritable labyrinth of mangroves, inhabited by birds, crabs, redfish and snook. Prowl the shoreline and you’re apt to have more close encounters with herons, ibises and seatrout than boats. One of Sanibel’s finest attractions is the ability to be engulfed in solitude so close to such charming island inhabitation.             By early afternoon a relentless sun and heightening heat chase us from the water. We return to the condo, take a late lunch indoors and contemplate a closure to the day. Perhaps we’ll eat an early dinner at one of the island’s many fine restaurants and then wander Lighthouse Beach in search of shells. Another option is to play tennis or cruise an island path on bicycles, then dine at a later hour. Tomorrow? That’s easy. We’ll embark on a similar itinerary, relishing just another day in paradise.

Bald Eagle: The Bird Behind the Symbol

(c) Jack Ballard

Best known in our nation as a symbol of the United States, likenesses of the bald eagle appear on most official seals and have also appeared on the backs of many coins. The bald eagle is our national bird. However, it’s a species whose name doesn’t seem to fit the creature. After all, the head of an adult bald eagle is clad in feathers, not devoid of covering as the term “bald” implies.

However, when these eagles were first named, the word “bald” was commonly understood as a shorter version of “piebald” which referred to someone with a white head of hair rather than a head lacking hair. Thus, the bald eagle’s name perfectly fits it appearance when considered against the vocabulary of early America. For the pioneers who encountered them, bald eagles were considered “white-headed eagles,” based on the meaning of their name.

Although their striking hoary heads and matching tail feathers are the trademark features of these magnificent birds, not all bald eagles exhibit them. Young eagles do not attain this pale plumage on the head and tail until they reach reproductive maturity, usually at four or five years of age. Prior to this time, their appearance exhibits varying stages of development. For the first year or two, bald eagles are brown, showing little or no white on their heads and tail feathers and are easily confused with young golden eagles. Junior members of both species exhibit white mottling on their bodies and  undersides of their wings. Around three years of age, bald eagles begin to acquire their trademark white head and tail, although brown streaking is common on both.

Distinguishing immature bald eagles from all golden eagles is a challenge, but attention to a few unique markings will do the trick if you have time to study a bird through binoculars or at close range. Golden eagles have feathers on their legs extending all the way to their toes while the large, yellow legs of the bald eagle do not have feathers on the lower parts. Bald eagles also exhibit a blockier head and slightly shorter tail than golden eagles. In most habitats in the contiguous United States, golden eagles are also noticeably larger than their bald cousins.

Although immature birds can be very difficult to distinguish in the field, bald and golden eagles are unrelated, save for their name. In fact, the term “eagle” is somewhat confusing in itself. For eagles are no more than oversized raptors that could well be called “hawks.” Several species of “eagles” in Europe are smaller than the red-tailed hawks of North America. Taxonomically, bald eagles are aligned with the broader family of sea-eagles (haliaeetus) which include the white-tailed eagle of Greenland and Eurasia, and the mighty Stellar’s sea-eagle of northeastern Asia, a species occasionally see on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Golden eagles are part of the family of “true eagles” (aquila), distinguished by fully-feathered legs. The wedge-tailed eagle of Australia shares this family with the golden eagle, similar in size and color, but with noticeably longer necks and legs.

The differing families of the bald and golden eagles also originates in their feeding habits. Bald eagles are seldom found far from water, and are enthusiastic consumers of fish, whether taken on their own or usurped from ospreys. They’re also very prone to dine upon carrion, especially in the winter months when road-killed deer and other creatures are available. The diet of golden eagles, by contrast, consists of land animals. Rabbits, hares, ground squirrels and snakes comprise the bulk of their diet, although they’re capable of taking much larger when necessary. However, bald eagles are also capable of taking land animals for prey, and will do so in areas where fish are less available as a foundation for their nourishment.

Although slightly smaller than golden eagles, bald eagles are nonetheless large and imposing birds. Their size varies considerably depending on where they live. Males found in Florida, for example, are much smaller than those soaring the skies of Alaska. Florida males weigh slightly more than five pounds and achieve wingspans of around six feet. Large males in Alaska, by contrast, may weigh 13 pounds with wings spreading to nearly seven feet. No matter where they live, bald eagles are an example of sexual dimorphism, a term used to describe species where males and females differ in relation to some important trait. In bald eagles the variation is related to size. Female bald eagles are typically about 25% larger than the males. 

The impressive size of bald eagles corresponds to equally notable nests. These white-headed raptors construct the largest nests of any bird in North America, structures sometimes so bulky it scarcely seems a tree could hold them without collapsing. However, bald eagles tend to choose very large trees for their nests, an important habit considering their nurseries of branches and twigs often weigh a ton and may be over 12 feet high and eight feet wide. A pair of eagles usually returns to the same nest site year after year, adding additional material each spring. Considering bald eagles live about 20 years in the wild it’s no wonder their nests, with each yearly “addition,” attain such impressive sizes.

Currently, bald eagles nest can be found over most of the contiguous United States and Alaska, although their range was once much, much smaller, especially in the lower 48 states. Eagle numbers declined dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries due to habitat destruction and hunting. Protections enacted in 1940 as the Bald Eagle Protection Act helped the birds somewhat, but the 1950s brought another, exceedingly serious threat to these birds whose population had plummeted from an estimated 400,000 individuals in the 1700s to just over 400 breeding pairs. Like many other raptors, bald eagle numbers declined precipitously in the decades following the widespread application of DDT and other pesticides for agricultural use in the 1950s. DDT absorbed by eagles through their prey disrupted their metabolism of calcium, causing females to lay eggs with paper-thin, easily-broken shells. Pesticides also led to infertility among the birds, severely curtailing their reproduction. Bald eagles became the “poster bird” for the DDT ban in the United States in the 1970s, although their potential for extinction in absence of the ban was potentially as acute for ospreys, another fish-loving raptor.

Since their designation as an Endangered Species in 1967, the recovery of bald eagles in the contiguous United States is one of the most thrilling conservation stories of our time. Once DDT was banned, eagle numbers began to increase and their range expanded. Tens of thousands of bald eagles now glide above the seacoasts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and thousands of large lakes and rivers in between. In 2007, bald eagles were completely removed from Endangered Species protections and are now considered a species of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning their health and population currently face no significant obstacles.

Breathtaking in flight, beautiful to the eye, the bald eagle is not only the symbol of our nation on official documents and governmental paraphernalia. The majestic birds also symbolize the power and will of the America people to protect wildlife in jeopardy, a national trait still needed in relation to other species both now and in the future.

A Tailless Whitetail

(c) Jack Ballard

Near the edge of town during mid-summer, just at twilight, I spied two whitetail bucks feeding in a meadow. Intrigued by their large, fuzzy antlers, I pulled over at the side of the road to give my son in the back seat a better look. On closer examination, we noticed something very strange about one of the deer. He had no tail.

A few months later, while puttering about trying take photos of a jackrabbit, I noticed a buck deer bounding pell-mell in my direction. It was a sight I’ve seen a thousand times, but something didn’t seem right. Viewing the photos on my computer later in the day, I recognized the tailless whitetail. It was the same buck, absent the trademark white flag normally carried upright on the rump of a deer when running.

Initially amused, I soon found myself zooming in on the image of the unfortunate creature to examine its missing appendage. Within the tail of a whitetail deer is a series of thin bones, much smaller but similar to those in the spine. This buck wasn’t simply missing the hair on its tail. Its tail was completely gone, severed from its body precisely at the base as if it had been surgically removed by a mentally unstable veterinarian.

And so I pose some obvious questions. Has anyone else seen a deer without a tail? Does anyone know how a whitetail might lose its tail? Maybe all those kids trying to pin the tail on the poor donkey could help out this buck. But perhaps not. I think they’d have a hard time catching him.

Elk Camp

(c) Jack Ballard

Home is where the heart is,” or so the threadbare but penetratingly truthful saying goes. Where one sleeps for the night may define his or her place of residence. The tiny space on a vast planet to which one is most emotionally connected more appropriately qualifies as home.

            On the Thursday prior to the fourth weekend in October, I yearly depart the location described on various legal documents as my “physical address” to return home. The moving truck, laden with all the earthly possessions required for the relocation spins beyond the houses and lots of Red Lodge, past towering cottonwoods clinging to their last few golden leaves of autumn along Rock Creek, then westward through a range of hills covered in prickly ponderosa pines to Interstate 90. I’m anxious. Hours of work are left undone in the office. The 6 a.m. scheduled departure occurred just before noon. Even with a loaded pickup it seems imperative to inch the accelerator a wee bit beyond the speed limit.

            At Whitehall, my course veers southward from the state’s four-lane, east-west transportation artery onto ever-narrowing roads. It eventually terminates on a capillary consisting of little more than a two-track snaking across a broad bench above a winsome creek, a flatland dappled with sagebrush and flaxen grass, the humble threshold to a range of mountains whose windswept, lordly summits loom more than 10,000 feet above that 71% of the earth covered in ocean. By this time, the stress of a missed deadline and unreturned phone calls has melted in a chilly, evening breeze. Windows buried in the front doors, air rushes through the cab, bearing the distinct scent of sage and an occasional whiff of damp poplar as I chug through a fleeting copse of ashen aspens.

            The “road” bends at a right-angle. Just east of the route lies another aspen grove, mature trees invitingly spaced just far enough apart to accommodate a tent. This is “elk camp.” It is the place above all others I choose to inhabit at this season of the year, a sentiment shared by thousands of residents and itinerants who come from the likes of Gary, Indiana, and Pasco, Washington, to roam Montana’s highlands in search of its most favored big game animal, the elk.

            Camping is a concept with a host of interpretations, from well-heeled tourists cozied up in the interior of a motorhome with a purchase price $50,000 higher than the median residential home in the Treasure State, to a family of four happily bedded in one another’s personal space in a budget tent impulsively purchased at a discount retailer. Some hunters pursue the elusive wapiti from the Spartan confines of a backpacker’s tent. One fall, a trio of hardy youths backpacked from a trailhead some seven miles and 2,000 vertical feet below our camp. Their thin nylon tents were unwittingly pitched within a stone’s throw of the road just below our wall tents, the intrepid newcomers unaware that a pickup might have as easily ferried their gear as their sweat-soaked backs. A vicious cold front and several inches of snow greeted them on opening day of the hunting season. By the time its daylight faded, they had departed to the warmer confines of their vehicles back at the trailhead. The enterprising threesome were camping and hunting elk. They did not have an elk camp.

            In its finest and most traditional sense, an elk camp consists of one or more canvas wall tents, stalwart structures behind the fabric of which a social misfit or lover of solitude might pass an entire winter in comfort, so long as the wood supply held. Which brings us to another integral item in elk camp. The wall tent is warmed efficiently via seasoned lengths of pine and fir stoked into a wood-burning stove. Equipped with such a heater, humans in elk camp do not suffer in the cold, even when the thermometer reaches the overdrawn portion of the Fahrenheit scale. They sleep as comfortably as the city-dwellers in Butte or Billings, as the person to which the task of feeding the stove at 2 a.m. does not forsake his duties.

            Ostensibly, the purpose of the elk camp is to facilitate elk hunting, the goal of which is most simply defined as killing an elk. But the camp likely plays a much more complex role in the lives of the hunters, at least in bivouacs with a long history, such as that which surrounds my family’s camp. Just a couple of years into the third millennium, my uncle Tom celebrated his 50th consecutive year of hunting elk from the same camp, with the ridgepole of the cook tent fastened to the same wind-scarred pine.

“That old guy must really be into killing things,” a cynical soul of the non-sporting public might conclude. Such a simplistic conclusion ignores the fact that for at least the last decade before his silver anniversary, Tom spent precious little time hunting, preferring instead to hone his culinary skills in the camp kitchen and pass many precious hours reading, tinkering or surveying the broad, untrammeled view of a yonder mountain range perched on a folding metal chair outside the cook tent.

            In his younger years, Tom brought many elk to earth, as did his brother, Jack, and my father, Dudley. The meat from those animals was shared and happily consumed by their families. By the time I first arrived in elk camp in the late 1970s, a passel of elder cousins accomplished as much of the elk taking as the patriarchs. Harvest was fickle. Some years might see a half-dozen or more carcasses carefully arranged on the meat tarps as the four-wheel drive caravan chugged slowly from the high country. Others brought the hunters home empty-handed.

            Despite the variable nature of the harvest, one constant characterized elk camp. It was a male affair, though that dynamic is now changing with the arrival of my then fiancé in camp years ago, and the occasional presence of my daughter, a daddy’s girl with a heart for hunting as large as her male relatives’. Elk camp connected man to man, relation to relation in a manner not maintained by Christmas and sympathy cards or attendance at the annual family reunion. As a teen sprawled contentedly on a tick of flannel in the sleeping tent, I sometimes caught snatches of late-night conversation from the cook tent, talk over a cribbage game of job stress, marital difficulties and challenges with children. I remember snippets of sage advice imparted by my elders at elk camp, passing tidbits such as a poignant reminder in a heated, but humorous exchange between uncles Jack and Tom in which the elder made the case that having friends at the end of a deal was preferred to profiting the most from the transaction.

            As a wide-eyed youth, I wondered at the skills of my forbearers as they efficiently pitched the camp, lashed halves of elk carcasses to riding saddles for packing and navigated confidently through immense, wild country that, despite its solace and beauty can easily kill a man. Now it is I who executes these functions, but in a different era, a time in which a call can be made from a cellular telephone from a ridge above camp and a GPS in the pocket offers reasonable assurance of returning to tent in a white-out or other situation of disorientation. Will my children, typical kids enthralled with a world of electronic amusements and communication maintain a connection to elk camp in the next generation?

            A line from an essay my eldest wrote in his Senior English class for an assignment in which students were required to create a lyrical accounting of a life “bucket list” says something of the near-magical attraction so many Montanans have to an elk camp. I discovered the essay by happenstance, buried in the “Documents” folder on my office computer some four months after his graduation.

“I never want to break old family traditions, such as elk camp,” he wrote. Behind such words lies an assurance that elk camp will remain a cultural tradition, in this part of the world, for decades to come.

The Isles of Forked Lake

(c) Jack Ballard

It’s the dream of many an American, from freckled grade-school girls with missing front teeth to smartly-attired executives who prowl Manhattan’s financial district in search of a deal like pickerel on a perch. Ah, to traipse the shoreline of one’s own, private island. For multiple millions, you just might swing the purchase of this piece of paradise in the Caribbean. In the Adirondacks, you can have one for less than a hundred bucks. At least for a night or two.

Four crafts loaded, prows pointed into a blustery wind pushing knee-high waves into the boat launch at Forked Lake, a crew of six sailors, er, paddlers, prepare to fulfill a fancy. Less than a mile away lies a private island we’ll call home for the next three nights, a shady islet we’ll share with nary another human. For now, the trick is getting there.

Lisa, my sweetheart, and her son, Parker, lead the flotilla in a pair of kayaks. My two sons, Micah and Dominic, paddle an aluminum canoe we rented at the lake, piled high in its center with a mound of gear in dry bags and firewood. Zoe, my nine year-old daughter sits in the front of my 17-foot Old Town Penobscot, a craft whose stability and efficient profile I’ll surely need on this trek. For it’s the youngest member of the crew and I who ferry the lion’s share of the gear to the island in the face of a pernicious wind.

Shortly after we shove from shore, Parker runs aground on a boulder disguised beneath the waves. The overbearing breeze sends waves splashing over the hull of her kayak and nearly into Lisa’s lap. True to brotherly form, Micah and Dominic squabble about who’s to blame for their canoe not running a straight course toward the island. But I’m in no position to manage the mishaps of others. It takes nearly all my strength and stamina to keep the canoe cutting into the waves.

A particularly boisterous swell breaks against the bow, sending spray into Zoe’s face. She laughs and turns to show me her splattered glasses.

“Hey dad, isn’t this fun?”

At least one person thinks so.

In what seems far more than an hour but is more probably around thirty minutes, we reach the leeward side of an island that looks like the back of some humongous sea creature protruding from the lake. But this monster is formed of stone and thin, sandy soil, prickled with stately evergreens and a few deciduous trees whose roots burrow into cracks in the rock for strength and sustenance, whose towering trunks thrust upward toward the infinite sky overhead. Our abode lies just beyond it on a smaller isle with a singular campsite. Rounding the point of the bigger island we’re again buffeted by the waves but only momentarily. Two dozen strokes of my paddle brings us blissfully into calmer water on the sheltered side of our island. We pull the kayaks ashore and moor the canoes to the dock. Lisa is anxious to unload, pitch the tents and arrange a camp. I’m more interested in a rest for my aching shoulders.

Watching the three boys set up the kids’ tent and organize their sleeping quarters in one of its two rooms (Zoe gets the other suite to herself), I’m grateful to share their company, boundless energy and growing competence with outdoor skills. After dinner we dip into the store of firewood that burdened the boys’ canoe. As they roast marshmallows in the dancing flames, I remember an adage from my boyhood on a Montana ranch. “He who cuts his own wood is twice warmed.” Carry much wood in a canoe and it applies as aptly to paddling as cutting.

Just before sunrise, in the first, bashful light of the new day, I awaken to the wavering call of a loon somewhere down the lake. At 1,248 acres, Forked Lake isn’t one of the larger lakes in the Adirondacks, but it certainly claims its share of the wildlife. Loons and ducks are common neighbors to campers, along with ospreys and a host of other birds. Rousing ourselves from the tent, knowing the kids will be unconscious for another two hours, Lisa and I decide to go on a loon hunt. I’ll paddle the canoe and help her spot the game. She’ll shoot the birds from the front seat — with her camera.

Cruising back toward the boat launch, we discover a single bird who allows us to approach within easy photo range. Lisa composes a few nice images, but the water is just rough enough to rock the canoe, making it hard for her to stabilize her long telephoto lens. Looping back toward our island, we spy another loon in a sheltered bay. It, too, seems quite tolerant of our approach. Peering through her camera, Lisa focuses on the beautiful bird, its red orb of an eye intently scrutinizing our now-motionless craft.

“Look!” she exclaims. “There are two chicks on its back.”

Sure enough, two fuzzy youngsters are huddled happily on their mother’s back, seemingly enjoying the first warm rays of sunlight as much as the two humans observing them. Then one decides it’s time for a swim. It plops from mom’s feathered ribcage into the water, immediately followed by its sibling. Within minutes, Lisa has dozens of lovely photos.

Arriving back at camp, we find the kids stirring. Camping on Forked Lake is a delightful exercise in doing without the conveniences of modern life to encounter a world that is big, wild and more soothing to the soul than the lulling whispers of a hypnotist. Breakfast is simple fare: oatmeal with dried blueberries, milk and yogurt. Afterwards, the kids disperse to throw rocks into the water, fish and explore every nook and cranny of the island. At lunch, we’re greeted by a mother mallard and her ducklings, bold little waterfowl who surge forward in frantic competition for any crumb that drops from the half-dozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being consumed by a brood of hungry humans. Afterwards, Zoe and the boys coax the adults into the water for a swim from our island to the larger one, an activity that morphs into a daily routine.

In a 1955 article for Sports Illustrated, author George Tichenor penned words which remarkably capture our experience on Forked Lake, 55 years later. “Forked Lake’s greatest charm lies in its wilderness look,” he wrote. “It is an area of great old trees and cool vistas…The ground is springy to the step, the air laced with the fragrance of spruce. Camp life quickly becomes orderly and easy…Hurry back to work? Not on your life!”

For the next two days, there is no work, save the modest chores of dishwashing and food preparation. We do find time for exercise, though, mainly in the form of swimming and evening paddling excursions to explore ever-greater portions of our surroundings. Forked Lake offers fine fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, along with smaller, spiny pumpkinseeds, fish Zoe quickly likens to the bluegills she loves to catch at home. On our last evening, Micah and I paddle away from the dock, determined to make a fine showing of our final opportunity to fish for bass. We catch a couple modestly-sized smallmouths. Intent on stretching as much distance as possible from my fly cast, I hear a shriek from the island. Standing on the large, rounded rock jutting into the lake near the picnic table, Zoe is cranking on her spinning reel and yelling.

“I got one, I got one.”

Ceasing our own fishing to enjoy the show, expecting to see yet another pumpkinseed yanked from the water, our mouths drop in amazement when she grapples the largest bass of the trip from its underwater lair.

Paddling back toward the boat launch on the final morning of our adventure in island living, it seems everyone is a little happier, a little stronger and more confident for the experience. Owning a tropical island might make one feel like royalty, but it’s hard to believe it tops being the sovereign, if only for days, of an isle on Forked Lake.


Time for a Change?

On two occasions, the pleasure and safety of our evening paddles was marred by individuals on jet-skis and a boat towing a water-skier who roared by hand-powered crafts with reckless abandon. For solitude seekers, one of the greatest attractions of this lake is its lack of the amenities that draw folks who favor motorized forms of recreation. Most adventurers take to the water in a craft that is as Adirondack as the maple tree, the canoe. There are many places to enjoy jet-skis and powerboats in the Forked Lake area. Given the number of hand-powered crafts on Forked Lake, it seems reasonable (in this visitor’s opinion) to limit the horsepower and speed of motorized crafts or eliminate them altogether. Doing so would inconvenience only a very small percentage of recreationists and greatly enhance the safety of others.

The Buzz on Bees

(c) Jack Ballard

In our culture, people hold two primary associations with bees: stings and honey. In fact, neither are so closely related to bees as most people imagine. While nearly every species of bee is capable of delivering a sting, under normal circumstances bees are highly docile. Only when squeezed or directly harmed will the average bee thrust its stinger into the hide of a human. Threaten the hive, and a whole swarm of bees may sting you. Other than those two instances, bees would much rather go about their business than prick people. Many stings attributed to bees actually come from wasps which are much more aggressive and far more likely to sting with minimal provocation.

Honey comes from bees. However, most people fail to realize that very few species actually produce it. The European honey bee has been widely domesticated and accounts for most of our nation’s honey production. Of all the other species of bees inhabiting the world, just a handful of them make honey.

How many kinds of bee are there? The number and variety are astounding. Some 20,000 different species of bees buzz the planet, existing on every continent except for Antarctica. From coastal lowlands to barren mountaintops, bees make their home in every type of habitat that nurtures plants requiring insects for pollination. In size, bees range from tiny workers of the trigona minima species who barely exceed 1/16 of an inch to females of the megachile pluto species who can reach lengths slightly exceeding 1.5 inches. Bees range in color from muted blacks and grays, to red, yellow, orange and metallic hues of green and blue. Not all bees rely on pollen and nectar for sustenance. Some glean floral oils from plants. Vulture bees, a species of stingless bees, feed on dead animals.

Diverse in size and feeding habits, bees also exhibit a wide range of social structures. Most people have some elementary understanding of the complex relationships of bees in a honey-producing hive. A hive of honey bees may contain up to 40,000 bees, with the queen producing 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day to replace worker bees lost to predators while foraging and those dying of old age. However, there are many forms of bees that exist in colonies containing a few dozen to a few hundred individuals. Bumblebee colonies typically contain around 50 to 200 bees in August or early September when their population is at its highest. Still other species of bees are loners, not forming colonies at all. The females of these types of bees, known as solitary bees, make nests in holes in the ground, decaying wood or the hollows of reeds. They often specialize in collecting the pollen of a particular plant or a single type of plant, such as sunflowers. Some species of bees are parasitic, laying their eggs in the colonies of others or even killing the resident queen and forcing the workers of the deposed matriarch to rear their young.

Whether solitary or living in a colony with thousands of members, bees perform a critical role in maintaining life on earth for a bewildering array of plants and the creatures (including humans) who consume them. Bees are the most important pollinator of flowering plants on the earth. When foraging for pollen or nectar, bees transfer pollen from flower to flower, facilitating reproduction. Scientists estimate that over 30% of the food consumed by humans is garnered from plants requiring insects for pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees.

However, worldwide populations of bees are declining dramatically. In the 35 year period from 1970 to 2005, most of the wild honey bee colonies in the United States were wiped out due to pesticides, urbanization, parasites and disease. Very few wild honey bee colonies now exist in our country. In 2006 and 2007, a dramatic drop in bee numbers, both domestic and untamed, sparked a great deal of alarm among biologists in the United States. Labeled “colony collapse disorder,” this unprecedented decline in bee numbers caused a great deal of warranted concern among crop and vegetable growers, regarding the ability of their crops to be effectively pollinated without bees. Some researchers now believe a fatal combination of a fungus and a virus was responsible for this colossal collapse in the bee population. Bee numbers continue to decline. Pesticides applied for the control of other harmful insects often exterminate bees as well, including bumblebees and other solitary species that play an important role in pollinating many flowering plants. Increasingly, domestic honey bee colonies are moved about the country, not so much for their own good, but for the pollination of crops and flowers.

Of the solitary bees, many species are stingless or only willing to sting in extreme cases of self-defense. Communal bees, such as honey bees, are also reluctant to sting, but may become quite aggressive when defending their hive. When they sting, these bees release a pheromone, a chemical substance detected by others bees which causes them to join the attack on the aggressor, either stinging it to death or driving it from the hive.

Stinging a human is generally fatal to the bee. Bees’ stingers are more suited for battle with other bees than humans or other skinned mammals. When a bee stings a human, barbs on the stinger cause it to become so firmly embedded in the skin that the bee cannot pull it free. Instead, a sizeable chunk of the bee’s hide is left behind with the stinger when it retreats after imparting the sting, a wound which is almost inevitably fatal.

Thus, the idea that bees can sting only once applies quite accurately to their painful interactions with humans and other mammals, but isn’t true of aggressive interactions between bees or between bees and other insects.

One of the bulkiest bees in America is the bumblebee. An important pollinator, bumblebees are often seen buzzing around suburban vegetable and flower gardens. Their flight has been characterized in song, and also described as defying the laws of flight. While bumblebees’ aerial antics are certainly worthy of a melody, the supposed theoretical prohibitions on their flight are in error. The idea that bumblebees are theoretically incapable of flight probably stems from a book by French scientists published in the 1930s where the authors applied principles of fixed-wing flight to the bees. More recent analysis shows that bumblebees use exceedingly fast, irregular and rotational wing movements which generate sufficient lift and propulsion for their buzzing, erratic patterns of flight.

Often misunderstood, bees are an integral strand in the complex web of biological interactions that maintain life on earth. Encountering a bee in the garden or camp isn’t a cause for alarm, but an opportunity to consider their critical connection to human life and our need to maintain a planet hospitable to our buzzing benefactors.

ABCs of Elk Habitat

(c)  Jack Ballard

A few kids have the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” licked by the time they’re five. An acquaintance of mine recently completed a long career as a nurse, a professional path she’d plotted for herself since first grade. But most of us aren’t so lucky. For many, the ongoing turmoil over the issue reaches a fever pitch when confronted with choosing a college major or taking a first job out of high school. No longer able to kick the can down Commitment Street some are so frustrated by the choice they seem prepared to blindly hurl a dart at the list of options and live with the results. However, decades past the decision most successful American adults advocate for a simpler approach. Take a dispassionate appraisal of your interests and abilities. Pick a career path based on those and life will satisfactorily work itself out.

            Planning an elk hunt in unfamiliar territory is similarly bewildering to many outdoorsmen, whether traveling from Wisconsin for a first crack at a wapiti as a whitetail hunter or starting the Subaru in Boulder, Colorado on a quest for elk as a confirmed “locavore.” Tens of thousands of acres of habitat are found on public land in the average elk hunting district in the West. How do you even begin choosing a place to hunt?

            Knowing what elk need at various times during the season is the key to success. This entails the ability to “read” habitat in relation to the biological requirements of wapiti in relation to factors such as the ecosystem in which one is hunting, the forage cycle, motorized vehicle routes and disruption to the routines of elk life by humans. With the ability to read habitat, a hunter can methodically rule out the majority of real estate in a hunting district and focus on the areas that will be most productive.

            Food (and water), shelter and security have been identified by sociologists as the most basic human needs. Satisfy those, and a person has the building blocks for a good life. The same three elements motivate the activities of elk. Habitat that fails to provide them will be avoided. Areas offering all three in proximity will be “elk magnets.”

            Of the members of the deer family, elk are the most eclectic in their diets. Whereas mule deer (and whitetails) consume mostly browse in the fall (in the absence of agricultural crops) and moose are almost exclusively browsers, elk will readily consume both the twigs of brush and deciduous trees along with grass. Leafy plants known as forbs are autumn favorite of elk where available, typically becoming scarcer as the season wears on.

            Whether it’s grass, forbs or browse, a common characteristic unites their desirability for elk as food. Green and tender always trump dry and woody. This applies all over but is especially important when reading habitat in arid environments. There’s outstanding elk hunting in places such as the foothills and prairies of mountain states and the pinyon-juniper country of the Southwest, both of which receive far less annual precipitation than the mountains.

            In these areas, green forbs and grasses persist in moist pockets long after the majority of the landscape has dried up in late summer. They’re also the spots where deciduous trees and shrubs produce the most new growth, sprouting the palatable twigs at the ends of woody branches favored by elk and deer.

            Locating these areas is often as simple as glassing, not for animals, but for the moisture-loving deciduous trees and shrubs that betray the wettest, most productive habitat nooks in the country. In my area that means species like aspen trees and chokecherry bushes in the foothills. Draws with green ash trees and tall sagebrush are similar indicators on the plains.

            Last season I hit the foothills not far from home on a late September bird hunt. Gray partridge, sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse all inhabit the region, mostly on a long, broad bench with plunging draws and finger ridges on its east side. I followed our English Setter along the sagebrush and grass flat for over a mile without encountering a single bird. We paused along the eastern rim as I contemplated dropping off a steep embankment onto a smaller bench where we’d found partridges in the past.

            Decision made, my boots skidded down the canted slope. The dog chose a detour onto an even steeper slope that terminated abruptly onto a dished pocket nourishing a stand of aspens and a fringe of evergreens on its uphill side. He didn’t find any birds in its several acres, but he did bump two spike bull elk, one with long tatters of dried velvet flapping from the base of one of its antlers like streamers tied to a kid’s bicycle in a parade. Curious, I made my own loop into the shady abode. Droppings, beds and cropped green grass told the story. The young bulls had been hanging out in the foothills oasis for some time. Though small, its succulent forage proffered them a finer buffet than several square miles of the surrounding, semi-arid habitat.

            Reading habitat in relation to forage involves two further considerations. The first is to research to the greatest extent possible the feeding preferences of elk in a particular area during the time of the hunt. For example, research from a mountain range in southwestern Montana identified grasses comprising 62% of plant use by elk during the month of September, with forbs contributing another 34%. Sticky Geranium was a favorite forb. By late October, grass consumption increased to 80% of the elk diet while forbs dropped to 14%. During the entire fall, browse was a very minor portion of the diet. By contrast, a similar project in New Mexico found elk eating 78% browse during the fall and around 16% grass. Two shrubs, oak brush and Wright’s silktassel, were top food items for elk in the two study areas.

Elk are extremely adaptable animals whose diets can shift quite dramatically in relation to the region they inhabit, and annual precipitation and temperature conditions that enhance the growth of certain plant species over others. Savvy hunters who understand the forage preferences of wapiti in their hunting area have the ability to read habitat on the go and be on the alert for particular dietary items especially attractive to local elk. Discover the favorite eats and you’re well on the way to finding your bull.

Along the same lines, surface water is critical to elk survival. Where green, succulent forage is present the big brown ungulates can absorb a substantial amount of their required moisture from plants. But once the growing season is past and habitat dries in early autumn reliable water sources become extremely important, especially in arid environments and during drought years.

Water typically isn’t an issue for mountain-dwelling elk. But it’s an imperative on the plains and in the dry habitats of the Southwest. As a general rule, elk will be found within about a mile of reliable water. For example, Montana’s Missouri Breaks region, home to some outstanding trophy bulls, is in a portion of the state receiving modest rainfall and prone to drought. The presence of Fort Peck Reservoir greatly enhances elk habitat in the breaks by providing an annual source of water. During drought years, elk are concentrated in the vicinity of the reservoir and other water sources (stock tanks, smaller reservoirs). Reading habitat in such places means identifying water sources and their reliability during drought in addition to focusing on feed.

Habitat analysis for forage and water must also be tied to a second requirement for elk, security. This means daytime bedding cover that buffers animals from human disturbance during the hunting season while also provided protection from the elements, be it shade during hot days in September or a place to avoid bitterly cold winds in November. Forage adjacent to cover will be used heavily. Attractive food items located a half-mile or more from security may not be munched at all. Waterholes in or adjacent to cover are much more likely to be visited during legal shooting hours than those in the open.

A pair of words capture habitat assessment regarding the forage/security dynamic: edges and pockets. Large swaths of desirable forage (think big burns, expansive sagebrush flats, major meadows) bounded by excellent cover in the form of evergreen forests are perennially attractive to elk. But they’ll stick to the edges, straying from cover as little as possible to find a meal, a phenomenon that becomes even more pervasive as hunting pressure increases.

However, not all edges are created equal. Elk are most at home on flat to moderately sloped terrain. They’ll plunge up and down the really steep stuff when pushed, but normally avoid territory with more than a 30-degree slope. Thus, where the edges of a sprawling, grassy park include both steep and gently sloped terrain (up or down) the more navigable portions are the best bets.

In the past decade, folks from my hunting camp have taken a number of elk from just such a place. There’s a fairly long but narrow meadow on a sidehill bounded by timber several miles from our annual encampment. On the upper end it’s vertiginous terrain that ramps the heart-rate into overdrive should a hunter take a direct route upslope. However, at the base of the steep a nearly flat bench offers passage from heavy timber to the opening. That’s the portion of the park’s rim where elk show up. We’ve taken three animals (and missed a couple more) using the exact same travel route in the past several years.

Edges are important to all elk hunters. Pockets are even more so for bull-seekers. These are modest areas of good forage among broad areas of cover. They might be two-acre grassy clearings on a timbered flat, knobs where tree cover yields to shrubs or smallish, backcountry burns where a lightning strike ignited a blaze that burned briefly. Post-rut bulls, reclusive by nature, love such retreats. Those located in lightly pressured areas are a bonus. These seldom show up on a paper map. Satellite mapping imagery is the best to pinpoint them in advance.

Once found, pockets in secure areas attract bulls year after year. The type of security post-rut stags desire brings up another aspect of reading habitat. Numerous research studies have confirmed that elk on public lands are rebuffed by roads, normally staying a mile or more from motorized travel routes. (I’d peg it at an average of two miles in most of the mountain ranges I hunt in Montana.)

Bull-pockets seem to require even more insulation from intruding hunters. One of those in our hunting area is five miles from any road and almost a mile from a lightly used Forest Service trail. It’s made up of a few thin meadows on a massive, heavily timbered north-facing slope. Our camp killed two fine bulls in its vicinity one season. There’s a physical commitment to get there whether riding or hiking, but it’s consistently about the best place to find a bull on our side of the mountains from late October to mid-November.

There’s a simple way for the befuddled high school senior to make sense of a future with seemingly too many choices. Make a decision based on the needs and desires of the individual and you can’t go wrong. Reading habitat with the same necessities of elk in mind is the best way to find a bull in unfamiliar territory.