The Bear Situation

The Sturgeon Moon is building toward its Saturday climax in the deep midnight sky, with the smell of cow corn and bear season in the air. For the first time in recent memory this year, bear season will be extended 12 days by adding a third segment, that being a slugs-only hunting opportunity coinciding with shotgun deer season.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens. The first 17-day September bear season opens on Sept. 8 — as usual, the day after Labor Day. MassWildlife has for years been trying to encourage more hunters to participate in the bear hunt, which typically draws a thin, select fraternity. Yet last year, with the burgeoning bear population running wild and spilling east into suburbia, where it creates vexing management problems, hunters shattered the harvest record with 240 kills, the lion’s share taken in September and the rest during the 18-day November season, which never approaches the September numbers. Why? Because bears are easier to pattern in September, especially problem bears ravaging cornfields and orchards, where hunters can easily get permission to hunt and set up in an advantageous stand.

Plus, this year there appears to be food in the woods, another option for those who prefer that setting. Although I have not visited my favorite upland hardwood spines, royal as they are, I did extend my Wednesday walk to assess the bottomland hard-mast crop, including a couple of tall, broad red oaks near two large shagbark hickories, and would say there are more acorns this year than last and about the same number of hickory nuts. The acorns are just sprouting on the small oaks and still for the most part clinging tightly to branch-tips of mature trees, with a few nuts on the ground here and there, what I would call wind and rainstorm drops. I bit into a capless red-oak acorn along a cornfield and found it chock-full of moist, bitter white meat.

Meanwhile, my daily travels long ago told me it’s a great year for apples and a good year for berries, judging from those I can easily monitor without going out of my wayg. So, although most bears will likely be taken near easily accessible cornfields and orchards now that hounds and bait are illegal, fruit and nuts are available and hunters posted in dense hickory, beech and oak groves or around wild fruit and berries could find success. The butternut trees I pass daily are showing few if any nuts for some reason, after last year producing many. Hmmmm? No clue. Ask Mother Nature.

Buoyed by last year’s record kill of 240 — which topped the 2012 record of 185 — and hoping to create an upward harvest trend to meet their goal of hunters reducing the statewide bear population by at least 12 percent annually, the management team opened the shotgun deer season to bear hunting. That move has been clamored for over the years by hunters claiming killable bears were not an unusual sight from deer stands and thus they should be allowed to take them to help meet management objectives.

The best reason for adopting the new policy is related to hunter density, which is typically sparse during the September and November bear seasons. On the other hand, never are there more hunters patrolling bear country than during deer season. The only other high-density hunt that compares is the spring turkey season, when hunters’ ammo is bird shot, definitely not a bear-hunting load. As for buckshot during deer season, well, yes, it could kill bears shot through the right weapon within 50 yards. But not everyone owns such a weapon and state officials clearly don’t want to tempt the fates of irresponsible long shots with buckshot that would result in wounding bears that either suffer and survive or die without being retrieved.

The inaugural bear season during deer season should prove interesting if for no other reason than the novelty of it. Bears were in play during deer season early in my lifetime, definitely as recent as the 1950s. Perhaps this new measure will assure an annual harvest of at least 200 bears, which would be a step in the right direction. But that remains to be seen, and we’ll need more than one season to quantify the impact. More likely, the annual bear kill will exceed what it would be without open season for deer hunters, but still won’t reach the goal of 12 percent annually to stabilize our bear population. Factors such as snow-cover, weather and available wild foods will contribute to some deer seasons being better than others for bear hunting.

The dates of this year’s three bear seasons are: Sept. 8 through 26, Nov. 2 through 21, and Nov. 30 through Dec. 12.

***

An interesting little gift found its way to my daily path over the weekend when — for some undetermined reason I won’t waste time trying to decipher — the end of a three-armed beech branch snapped off and fell to the ground with the outer tips propped up against a tall, dense wild-rosebush border.

I looked up to see where it had broken off, then went to the branch to see if there was meat in the many visible nuts encased in small, thorny, olive husks. Experience tells me that by the time the nuts collect on the ground most are hollow and meatless, which was not the case on this fallen branch. I must have opened a dozen husks, broken open the thin, soft, three-sided shells inside and found every last one of them full of dense, cream-colored meat.

Frankly, the discovery surprised me, because I have been opening beechnuts for many years at diverse sites and typically find hollow nut shells, whether pried out of the husk or lying loose on the ground. So, yes, meat has been a rarity in my half-century experimentation project. Not so this time, which leads me to believe that the meat disappears over time.

I can’t say what broke that perfectly healthy 3-inch branch to the ground, but if it was squirrels, there must have been many eating simultaneously to stress the branch so. Then again, perhaps a turkey brood was perched up there eating and one too many decided to join the feast.

It’s a mystery. A bear wouldn’t have tempted fate out so far on a flimsy branch. No chance. They’re not stupid. Plus, even a cub would have known better than to venture out close to the point of the break. So, yeah, my guess is probably turkeys, though I must admit I’ve seen a grand total of one since spring down there on my daily rambles.

Cougar Comments

Cougars and catfish derbies, a book recently finished, and a troubling climate-change piece in last week’s Rolling Stone magazine. Hmmmm? Where to start?

OK, cougars. Yes, cougars, despite that recent call from a woman I’ve known for some time pleading that I cease and desist writing about them. She says she and others know of a pair, including a grayish colored female, and fears some 4-wheeler yahoos will soon shoot one dead. I don’t know what to think of such a claim, but I’m always willing to listen, toss it around internally, and “out there.”

So I did pay heed but issued no sincere pledges. Then, lo, I open up a review copy of Connecticut author Edward R. Ricciuti’s “Bears in the Backyard: Big Animals, Sprawling Suburbs, and the New Urban Jungle” and, sure enough, the first two chapters are about cougars, including “dispersers” spilling into the Northeast from the Wild West. And yes, Martha, that includes New England.

I won’t get into detail about Ricciuti’s book because I plan to review it in detail down the road. But this much I don’t hesitate to say: Ricciuti has drunk the Kool-Aid and is a believer that cougars are indeed in the process of reinhabiting the Northeast, where, in urban outskirts they could become a public health hazard as they already have in thickly settled parts of California.

As for the local take, well, I received a credible report from Rowe last week saying there had been a sighting there a couple of days earlier that sounded legit. The person who was telling his tale around town is apparently not interested in press exposure, because the woman who reached out to me and said she’d try to get me a phone number went deafeningly silent.

Meanwhile, a day or two after writing about cougars in this space a few weeks ago, the same narrative that drew the aforementioned unnamed woman’s plea drew an interesting email from hilltowner Skip Jepson, who responded from his iPhone. He claimed he’s “hunted, trapped and fished Buckland/Shelburne for 45 years and has seen two cougars. One crossed Route 2 at Wilcox Hollow, the other was on Ashfield Mountain on my way to ice-fishing at DAR.”

It gets better. His wife has also had a solo sighting “on the road to Shelburne Falls she traveled for 35 years as a teacher. Plus a friend of mine saw one cross at Wilcox Hollow. They’re up on the High Ledges, too.”
Yes indeed, the reports just keep arriving. In fact, they’ve been coming for five solid decades now, and I try to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result from the brick oven? A little, hard-crusted loaf of sumptuous bread, food for thought.

The latest Rolling Stone installment on climate change is disturbing indeed, based on a new collaborative report by NASA climate scientists James Hansen and Eric Rignot as well as other experts who agree that the globe is warming much faster than expected and has already created frightening developments along the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific is warming at an alarming rate that’s softening mollusk shells and negatively impacting whales and many salmon species that could soon be only memories in a rich ecosystem called Puget Sound. Meanwhile, cars are burning in runaway wildfires crossing LA freeways, pavement is melting in India and floods of biblical proportions have occurred in Turkey, the latter two locales way out of sight, out of mind and easy to hide by those who wish to do so. With all this in mind, take a look at the nightly news maps displaying flames at the sites of all the fires ravaging western forests and rural developments alike, and you have to wonder how big-oil lobbyists and certain politicians beholden to the fossil-fuel industry can still vociferously deny global warming as a hoax. Talk about not being able to see the forest for the trees.


Oh yes, don’t want to forget the annual Connecticut River catfish derbies. First the one founded by the brothers Hallowell — Greefielders Gary and Rick — then a quick look at the granddaddy of them all, the 35th annual Holyoke Post 351 Catfish Derby, founded by the late, affable Don Partyka and taken over by the Hattens, daughter Lisa and son-in-law Mark.

Robert Bedaw of Whately won the Hallowells’ sixth-annual Last-Cast Derby, which attracted 29 anglers last weekend, headquartered at the Turners Falls Rod & Gun Clubhouse on Barton Cove. Bedaw’s channel cat tipped the scales at 15.51 pounds and brought him the $100 first prize. The rest of the top five (with weight and prize money in parenthesis) were: A.J. Sackett of Gardner (12.80, $50), Todd Sanford of Whately (12.52, $25), Miguel Delgado of Greenfield (10.69, $25) and James Lund of Greenfield. (8.44, no money). Pipione’s Sports Shop sponsored the event, which raised $200 for the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization.

I didn’t recognize any names among the winners from the Post 351 Derby, held July 17 through 19 “anywhere on the Connecticut River and its tributaries,” and their towns or residence were not noted. Nonetheless, the winner was Nate Taylor, whose 15-pound, 5-ounce cat brought him top prize of $300. The rest of the top five (with weight and winnings in parenthesis) were: Bruce Dufresne (13-3, $200), Mike Koske (13-1, $150), Victor Nieves (12-1, $125) and Jamie Kasulinous (12-0, $100).

Shelled Intruder

A gray, wet Tuesday morning, rain pelting down, backyard brook up a little and running muddy as the dogs crunch dry nuggets from rusty, cast-iron Wagner skillets on the concrete floor just inside the cook-shed stoop.

It’s looking more and more like this morning we’ll just walk the brook a short distance once they’re through eating, me taking special precautions, wearing my light green rubber Crocs with bald, slippery treads indeed underfoot. But then, as though ordered from the heavens, the rain lets up considerably and I figure, “Why not take a ride to the site of our daily rambles and give it a shot, see what develops?” At the very least, I surmise, we’ll get in a short walk, maybe even complete the whole loop if the foggy drizzle lingers long enough.

I load the animals into their Porta-Kennels and buckle down the capped bed of my Tacoma to drive perhaps a mile to our preferred site I’ve named Sunken Meadow. On the hayfield plain above, behind a greenhouse, I park, walk to the back of the vehicle, drop the tailgate, open the Porta-Kennel doors and watch as the dogs spring down enthusiastically and run off through knee-high red clover, heads up, noses on high alert in the damp, still, pungent air.

We make our way east to a slim treeline border capping a 20-foot escarpment overlooking the flood plain and hook a gentle right toward the locked aluminium gate barring the double-rutted lane down into another verdant flood plain, our Sunken Meadow. The quiet, enclosed little sanctuary is slowly transforming into its late summer mode with hints of purple and yellow along the edges, green apples littered about on the ground, a few premature fallen nuts here and there, likely windblown from oak, hickory and butternut trees standing proud sentry along the upper periphery.

At the base of the short ramp down into the Christmas-tree plot I notice Chubby, ears perked up alert, with palpable caution. There’s something on the ground eight or ten feet in front of him. As I approach, I recognize the object of Chub-Chub’s cautious curiosity as a small black-shelled turtle that’s smaller than a dessert plate and larger than a tea saucer. Standing over it and looking down as it retracts its head and neck into its shell, I’m wondering if it’s a Wood Turtle, a Painted Turtle or some other rarer species I’m not familiar with. Knowing it’s not large and definitely not a snapper, I have no fear of reaching reach down to turn it over for a look at its under-shell, which, if it’s a Wood Turtle, with be decorated with six or eight small black tabs the size of nickels along the outer rim. That, I learned that last year after snapping off a photo of a dead turtle killed by a tractor, incorrectly identifying it as a Painted Turtle and receiving several emails and a phone call from a friend to correct my misidentification. It was a Wood Turtle, not “endangered” but under “protected” status in the Bay State nonetheless.

As I reach down to briefly turn the critter over, I can detect a soft hiss emanating from the front compartment its head has retreated into. It’s not a Wood Turtle. The under-shell is a bland, faded orange with not a mark visible. There seemed to be some lines of color on its head and neck but, because it had unfortunately disappeared by the time I circled back to the site perhaps 20 minutes later, I had no opportunity to re-examine it more carefully. I remember no distinguishing colors or spots on its carapace, just a bland, domed, patterned shell, nothing flashy.

Clearly, the turtle was there to lay eggs in packed sandy soil. That was clear when I saw the half-dollar-sized hole under its tail end. I have passed several similar holes in recent weeks that look like something a rodent or snake would make. My guess now is that all of the holes have been made by turtles of various species, including Wood Turtles, though it seems a little late for egg-laying to me.

At work, I Googled “Massachusetts turtles” to see if I could from memory identify the critter I encountered by studying online photos, but I was unable to pin it down. The biggest problem was that I was unable to find a site showing the under shells of turtles displayed. That plus the fact that I hadn’t pestered the critter long enough to get a good read on any distinguishing characteristics or colors. So now, I have a mystery that’s bugging me a bit.

Hopefully, I’ll run into this critter again, or maybe there’s more than one down there laying eggs at this time, which, again, seems to me a little later than I’m used to seeing. That said, I do have vivid memories of discovering a nest of emerging snappers emerging from a sandbank overlooking a “crick” running along the back property line of my Uncle Bob’s suburban Twin Cities home outside Minneapolis in the early 1960s.

I think I’ll throw a camera in my pocket and stay alert in coming days for that same turtle or another like it, just in case.

Maybe it’s one of the state’s rare turtles biologists want reported when spotted.

That’s what I like about walking the wilds. There’s always opportunity to learn something new in a place you know well. For me, it’s what makes the world go round and awakens me each day with a positive, enthusiastic outlook.

Harbingers Of Fall

Maybe I’m getting old and that’s why time flies as it does, but it’s hard to believe that summer has already faded to its stretch run.

Signs abound in the fields, the woods, the ornamental bushes gracing tidy country lawns.

The first hint for me that fall was near were my two Rose of Sharon bushes sporting purple flowers, which, by the way, my dog, Chubby, eats daily. He actually goes to the bush along my western perimeter, securely envelops a blossom between his jaws, pulls back in a tug-a-war stance, snaps it off and devours it like I would a blueberry muffin. He repeats the process as long as I allow. Soon, I presume, he’ll have eaten all the low ones and will have to leap for higher blossoms. I think it’s the only flower I’ve seen him eat, and I have no clue why but would guess there is a good reason. Maybe someone out there has the answer. All I know for sure is that animals have an uncanny ability to sense what’s worth eating for any variety of reasons, kind of like primitive man before the days of crops and herds, tribes and nation states.

Oh yes, the good old hunter/gatherer days that are in all of our backgrounds, though obscured by millennia of “progress” delivering us to supermarket shelves, roadside stands and powdered scrambled eggs.

Some heady old-ways devotees of a cerebral natural-history bent — beat poet Gary Snyder and agricultural ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan, to name two — believe humankind embarked on an unnatural path when it began drifting away from hunting and gathering. Yeah, yeah, I know, there are many good citizens committed to our modern ways who dismiss these people as crackpots, kooks and worse. But if you give them a chance and read or listen to them, they make a lot of sense in philosophical realms. And then you discover the likes of best-selling author Richard Louv, who brought a new term into the American lexicon in 2005 with his eye-opening, even frightening book titled “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.” His point was that the modern American child, far removed from farm and field, woods and stream, no longer associates living plants and animals with what he or she finds on his or her plate. And that, my friends, is scary on many levels, because it’s out of touch with reality.

I must say that when I see those Rose of Sharon blossoms Chub-Chub finds so tasty, they remind me of looming firewood chores, that is, tossing seven cords of seasoned hardwood fuel into the woodshed attached to the pantry and kitchen at the rear of my home. It is a great luxury to have such a building in which to store wood because, once the snow flies, you don’t have to go outside to stock your stoveside cradle. But trust me, even though it’s good exercise for any man preparing to chase two energetic, crackerjack gun dogs through swamps for six weeks of bird-hunting, you never really look forward to it. It’s work with a capital W, yet so fulfilling once it’s all under cover in the bloated shed.

The problem with cordwood these days is the cost. When I moved to Greenfield 18 years ago, I was paying $85 for a seasoned cord, cut, split and delivered. Now you’re more apt to pay $300 if you don’t know someone, and $225 to $250 cords are becoming difficult indeed to find. And then, when you do find it, you have to hold your breath and pray it’s not a mix of soft hardwoods that produces low BTUs. What’s worth more, a $225 load of soft maple, poplar, ash and white birch, or a $300 load of black locust or two-year-seasoned oak? In the long run, I’d say you’re better off paying more for the latter, which produces far more heat. But be prepared to pony up $350 a cord this fall and winter for such superior wood.

Recently, there’s been a lot of beech wood being sold because the trees have a blistering disease that’s killing them, thus foresters are removing them from the woods. Having burned more of it the past two years than ever before, I would rate it a pretty good heating wood. Not as good as locust, oak, hickory, rock maple or black birch, but better than many others you’re apt to get in a load these days.

But, enough on firewood. Back to bird hunting, which always starts flowing through my consciousness as soon as I see the yellows and purples invade the roadside wetlands. Plus, right now, the staghorn sumac drupes, large and ripe, are sporting their finest, most salubrious deep blood-red. That sight is always to me a harbinger of my joyous fall bird-hunting season. I wish I knew how to use sumac as a medicine like the first North American people did. If you want to learn about it and other natural medicines available to all for free, along the side of the road, in the swamps or in the upland hardwood forests, get a copy of “American Indian Medicine” by Virgil J. Vogel. Published in 1970, it’s still in print for good reason — because it’s worth reading. The Indians used virtually all parts of the sumac tree for different remedies, employing the roots for one problem, the drupes for another, the bark and leaves for yet others. And all of them worked before the drug companies took over.

I knew a woman with five children who moved to Whately in the Sixties after a homesteading stint with Scott Nearing near Jamaica, Vt. This creative lady used sumac-drupe tea with remarkable success in treating childhood colds’ coughs and sniffles. It makes sense. Those sumac berries are loaded with Vitamin C. Yes, that’s right, the same stuff you buy as pharmacy tablets or ingest with your morning glass of orange juice.

Enough! Would be easy to wander off here. Not today. Maybe I’d be better served to start getting my hunting gear in order, my side-by-side oiled and polished with Butcher’s Wax. Plus, I’ve got a few household clean-up chores that must be tackled before those first cackles sound, the first shot fired, the first ringneck retrieved to the game bag at the back of my vest.

Oh, how I savor the fall chase in crisp, clear air backed by brilliant, inspirational fall color.

Roadside Rambler

Two phone calls, a month apart, reporting separate sightings of a New England phantom, added perspective gleaned from a morning trip to my old stomping grounds, and here I sit, molding it into an outdoors tale for the sports page.

So let’s begin with the apparition, otherwise known as mountain lion or catamount or panther or puma or, heaven forbid, Eastern cougar — an agile, secretive and potentially dangerous beast that once roamed these parts as a top-of-the-food-chain North American predator, which has now, for the second time in four years, been declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. This declaration comes despite claims of many card-carrying wildlife biologists with impeccable credentials that there never was a genetic difference between cougars in the East, West, North or South. That’s right. No subspecies. Just one big cat that grew larger in northern climes. So put that in your carved calumet bowl and smoke it. While you’re at it, pull that sacred tribal smoke deep into your lungs, hold your breath and savor the enlightenment that may invade your consciousness. It won’t harm you. The truth never does. In fact, it can be liberating. Well, of course, that is unless someone in power is determined to hide it, which, naturally, I am in no way suggesting here. Just something to keep in mind.

The freshest sighting is new indeed and came my way from old South Deerfield acquaintance Eddie Jablonski, known in town as far back as I remember as “Jabber.” A couple of years older than me, he lived as a boy across town off Sugarloaf Street, patrolling “The Desert,” barren sand drifts out by the old town dump between West Street and the East Whately line. He remembers well the days before residential development — Gromaki and King Philip avenues — and the Route 116 bypass changed the landscape forever by the early 1970s. Jabber also remembers great brook-trout fishing in lower Sugarloaf Brook between the Brookside Cemetery and Herlihy Park, and so do I, though not nearly as well as he and the Sadoski boys. Their backyards, it was a hike for me.

First word of Jabber’s cougar tale came my way Friday afternoon from work. Colleague Jay Butynski left a message on my home phone alerting me to a breathless message on my work phone asking for a call-back. The man had seen a real, live four-legged cougar at midday in North Hatfield and was anxious to speak to me. I finally reached him Monday afternoon, by which time his excitement had abated little. All he knew was what he, with his own eyes, saw trying to cross Depot Road through Bradstreet in broad daylight. He didn’t care what anyone thought or said.

On his way to Golonka’s Farm Stand on the North Hatfield/Whately line, Jabber was cutting across from River Road to Routes 5 & 10 when, just past the outflow of Cronin Hill Road on the left, four telephone poles down the road, he spotted what he first assumed was a deer. When it walked out into the road and presented a clear broadside view, he knew it was not. The musclebound cat briefly froze, turned its head toward Jabber’s oncoming vehicle, reversed direction and vanished in a jiffy into a tall, deep silage cornfield.

Jabber continued to the spot of the sighting, looked north into the cornfield, saw nothing and was so stunned that he turned around and went home. Forget the sweet corn. He had a story to tell, returning straight home to wife Patti, who wondered why he hadn’t snapped off a cell-phone photo?

“You know how that goes,” he quipped. “By the time you dig the phone out of your pocket, flip it open and prepare to take a shot, it would have been gone. I know what I saw. It was huge. The long tail, face and ears told me it was no deer. Definitely a cat. Big. Took up half the road. I was flabbergasted. I turned around to go home and call you. What a beautiful sight.”

OK. So that’s the eyewitness report delivered before 4 Monday afternoon, three days after the fact, yet still vivid. The plot thickened Tuesday morning when I was about to leave Grybko’s Garage after an oil change and a lively, meandering gabfest with Leonard Grybko, father and son, always good for a chat. As though predestined from above, lo, who walks through the door but North Hatfield’s own Bernie Smiarowski, who with his three brothers runs a vast River Road farm where I often buy spring asparagus. The Jablonski cougar sighting had occurred right in his neighborhood, and — go figure — it didn’t surprise the man one iota.

“Really?” he pondered. “I didn’t hear anything but sure would like to see one.”
“Why does the state deny they exist?” he continued. “I’ve heard other stories from credible sources. There’s one guy who not long ago claimed he saw a mountain lion down by the (Hatfield) sewage-treatment plant. Why would he lie? I believe him and think you would, too, if you heard his story.”

Which brings me to that first phone call, about a month back, from local historian/photographer Ed “Gizmo” Gregory, who’s collaborated with another local historian, Greenfield’s Peter S. Miller — yes that Peter S. Miller — on many photographic-history books of Franklin County towns. Well, Gizmo must have had an interest in Colrain’s Catamount Mountain because there he found himself during the last few days of June with hilltown historian Muriel Russell. Walking the wooded ridge-top lane in search of cellar holes and old mill-sites, Russell heard something, looked up, pointed and said, “Look at the deer running off,” and Gregory, camera slung around his neck, saw fleeing movement of a peculiar tawny beast.
“As I followed it’s movement, I knew we weren’t looking at a deer because it wasn’t bounding and showed no white flagging,” he told me on the phone during the first week of July. “I said to Muriel, ‘That’s no deer. It’s a cat.’ It was low to the ground and powerful, not a graceful deer bounding off. I know I can’t prove it, but it was a cat. It was tan and long, no bobcat.”

And, of all places, he saw it up on Catamount, which got its name from the big cats that lurked there in the early days of 18th-century Scots/Irish Coleraine settlement.

A ghost?

Perhaps.

You be the judge.

Wild Apples, Bees and Stuff

Good news for deer hunters: From what I’ve encountered, there’s a bumper crop of wild apples.

I guess it all starts for me in the front yard, where, just off the road at the driveway outflow, stands an old, tired, scabby, partially hollow apple tree I cannot identify. In nearly 20 years of observation, this mystery apple tree, which may soon be identified if I take a sample apple to Tom Clark at Clarkdale Orchards, has had many sparse years, some with almost no apples at all, and one memorable year two years back, when it was so overloaded with deep burgundy-red, blemished, pear-shaped fruit that a major limb broke off and fell to the ground. A similar catastrophe is a distinct possibility this year, and it could happen soon from the looks of the sagging tree limbs and still smallish fruit.

When I described the apple and its peculiar, red-streaked, pinkish fruit under the skin to Clark and told him my brother-in-law who raises apples in Maine figured it was probably an old apple grafted from an adjacent cider orchard once associated with my tavern, he perked up, pondered briefly, asked a few questions and ventured a guess that it could be some sort of sheepnose apple, which I had never heard of. Not so with my brother-in-law. He was indeed familiar with sheepnose apples, and said he believed they had a strong western Massachusetts association. So, it won’t be long before I again pester Clark, sample in hand. If it’s a superior cider apple, maybe I can even find someone to utilize the fruit and make a batch of old-fashioned, pesticide-free, convivial beverage for the most special occasions only. In fact, I tried last time, querying my old buddy Steve Coutu, who once made a fine country hard cider I sampled around softball socials. He told me he had had his eye on it over the years and would love to make a batch if he still did so, but he quit his cider-making hobby long ago.

Oh well. Bad timing.

But enough on that neglected front-yard apple. I pass other wild apple trees in my daily travels, ones similarly loaded with tiny fruit, it green. Following windy rainstorms, some small apples wind up on the ground below, where my dogs eagerly search for and devour them daily, crunching down one after another until I move on. They’re definitely competing with wild critters, likely deer given the fact I have seen not a trace of bear scat in the vicinity.

The largest of four apple trees along Sunken Meadow’s perimeter is thus far the most prolific. It stands just off a high, steep, undercut-gravel, Green River bank in the southeast corner of our daily ramble. There are many green apples of various sizes in the tree, along with many daily overnight drops. The drops vary in circumference from a quarter to a dime. The dogs prefer the bigger ones and search them out vigorously. I stand and watch as they search and eat them, then allow them to submerge themselves up to their bellies in the refreshing stream below for a lusty, slurping drink before giving them a friendly whistle to embark on our final leg back to the truck.

Before we reach that tree, three others stand in a sheltered southwestern Sunken Meadow nook bordering marsh. These trees are holding green fruit that doesn’t seem to be shedding. Maybe the trees are protected from winds, or perhaps they’re just later apples. Whatever the reason, there don’t appear to be any drops because I have not seen my dogs find one despite daily diversions. Must be they can smell the fruit in the tree. Give it time and that fruit will be on the ground for my dogs and whatever other critters look for it, coyotes as well as deer and bear. Even squirrels, I think. Maybe rabbits. What I see that suggests small animal foraging is nibbled, partially eaten fruit on the ground. Who knows, maybe mice or chipmunks, too. Likely someone will chime in on this subject to straighten me out. Possibly even my naturalist brother-in-law, who raised rabbits as a free-roaming Hampden lad.

Speaking of whom, ole Buzz told me his Montville, Maine, orchards are swollen with fruit due to great spring weather for pollination. When I asked if he had beehives, he said no, not honey bees, which are less-prolific pollinators than the native New England mason bees he intentionally attracts to his vast acreage of open mowings, orchard and woodlots by creating ideal habitats. He rotates cutting many different portions of his clover fields on a structured schedule to ensure there’s always simultaneous young and old growth, some sprouting, others flowering, still others gone to seed and ready to cut and reseed. Deer, turkeys, moose, bears and you name it take advantage of his private wildlife refuge protected with pure passion. One hen turkey he has named and figures to be 3 years old is with 17 chicks this year. Although he can’t be certain this bird hasn’t taken on an orphaned brood, he suspects not. The poults look like they all came from the same nest, judging from size and appearance.

But, back to the wild bees … he created ideal habitat for them by tidying up stonewalls and girdling selected trees to kill them and attract boring insects that leave holes, which mason bees, including the blue orchard type, make their home. The University of Maine at Orono has done a lot of research on these wild pollinators and online displays show drilled, vertical, 4-by-4 boards with drilled holes on the sides standing in fields for bees to populate. My brother-in-law says he has more than enough man-made bird nests to maintain, thus he goes the au naturel route with wild bees; economical indeed.

What I find interesting about these wild-bee pollinators, including bumble bees, is that I have read so many gloom and doom reports about the imported European honey bees placed willy-nilly throughout the valley on farms and around orchards. Yet not a word about the native-bee alternative, although I have to believe many local orchard growers are using them much like my creative brother-in-law, who’s always been good at saving a buck while living the good life.

Can’t fault that — in and of itself, an art.

Cream-Caddis Delights

To me, I see this as a dredging chore. That is, write in detail about a skill I honed years ago, have not used in many moons but am confident I could quickly remaster if, on a whim, I decided to dig out equipment and head to my old lower-Deerfield River flyfishing haunts.

The dredging image my imagination presents in vivid color involves a muddy-bottomed, spring-fed meadow pond — my aging mind — and the murky depths of sediment that must be activated to recreate an activity I perfected long ago before moving in other directions. I think I can do it. And even if I mis-remember, or some young whippersnapper writes to say he does it differently, well, so be it. Maybe we just fish the same hatches for the same trout with slightly different artificials or by slightly different methods using the same fly. No problem. I can live with that.

What brought me to this subject was a pre-midnight sighting of a fluttering, flickering insect casting a shadow in bright onion-lamp light Tuesday night out by my carriage sheds. Not five feet from my face, a solitary cream caddis fly soared away from me to the dark heavens, its erratic upward flight immediately drawing my attention and reminding me of a conversation two days earlier. Speaking on the phone with my cerebral brother-in-law, a retired college professor and observant man, as usual, he was reporting this and that from his secluded Montville, Maine, retirement farm and naturalist’s Nirvana.

Somehow we had touched upon his stocked trout ponds from which he harvests many brook trout each spring, and he told of standing on the bank with his mate and noticing peculiar, tubular, inch-long, clumps of small sticks underwater near the shore. Suddenly, his lady friend, Leigh, pointed down and said excitedly, “Look, those sticks are moving.” And, sure enough, upon closer inspection, they discovered a well-camouflaged head and a couple of legs protruding just enough for whatever was inside to walk along the pond floor.

“Yes,” I told him, “I’m quite familiar with that aquatic insect from fishing. I call it a stick-case-building cream caddis and used to have great fun catching trout with a wet-fly imitating the pupa that exits the case and soon pops to the surface like an air bubble to fly away as a winged insect.” The strike and the ensuing battle are always worth the trip when they’re hatching.

But, hmmmm? Why do these things happen to me at such opportune moments? Not that it’s unusual to see caddis flies in my yard. With a clear, clean trout stream acting as my rear property line, I often see Mayflies and caddis flies around my home. But I can’t recall seeing a cream caddis this summer and, planning to dredge the depths of my flyfishing memories for a column this week anyway, I had an ideal segue and an exciting subject in the world of flyfishing. Coincidence? Uh-uh. I believe things like this happen for a reason.

Nonfishermen who pay little attention to stream entomology would probably identify the fluttering insect I saw that night as a tan moth because that’s exactly what it looks like in flight, day or night, the flight pattern similar to that of a woodcock without the accompanying whistle. I know it because it was my favorite Deerfield River fly. Astream, the first clue that such a hatch is underway is the athletic rises of trout chasing it to the surface. First you identify the rise. Then upon closer inspection, you notice cream-caddis flies flickering toward streamside vegetation perches. The next step is to dig out your flybox for a cream-caddis pupa or sparkling emerger, which can bring exciting angling indeed when the artificial is manipulated with the rod tip to simulate the quick upward emergence of this fly that’s tied in several styles, some winged, some not, some shiny, others drab. You can make them all work, though everyone has a favorite. Old fishing buddy and commercial fly-tier “Indian Al” Niemiec of Chicopee used to tie a couple of beauties that produced many nice trout for me over the years.

Myself, I had more success with the cream-colored wet-fly version in the larva and pupa stages. But I always carried identical flies in olive green to imitate a pebble-cased caddis cousin that hatches from the same waters and can be fun. Though it’s been a long time since I’ve wet my line in the Deerfield, I remember such flies being effective at riffle tails dropping into deeper channels with strong current. The first clue that trout are feeding on cream caddis pupa is aggressive rises exploding skyward like torpedoes, fish out of the water head to tail. The reason for the urgency and energy is that the caddis emergers don’t dilly-dally on the surface like many other flies, which float for many feet while drying their wings for flight. Not so with cream-caddis emergers, which shed their stick cases from the larva to pupa stage and leave the water in a hurry when ready, rising from the stream bed like a released bobber and forcing trout to pursue them with a quick, powerful surge that carries them through the surface totally airborne, landing with a loud, showy splash.

I used to fish this fly most often using sink-tip line and a short leader. Floating line and a weighted fly works, too. I’d cast 45 degrees upstream and swing the fly down a 135-degree arc, basically sacrificing the first 45 degrees to mend line and get the proper drift with my rod-tip low. Then I’d lift the rod tip to sink the fly to the bottom before twitching the rod-tip upward several times and letting the fly sink again before repeating the process throughout the final 90-degrees. Sometimes feeding trout would take the hook on the upward motion and clear the water with hook in mouth. Other times, you’d get an aggressive strike on slack line in the process of letting it sink before another erratic twitching ascension. When they’re hitting, it’s a ball. If not, you go to plan two and dig out another fly you’re comfortable with.

The beauty of flyfishing is that you’re always occupied with casting and fishing, not to mention mending line and manipulating the fly to entice a strike. Plus, there’s always other chores to keep you occupied, such as tying tippets, changing spools from wet to dry lines, and selecting different flies when nothing seems to work. When the action slows, you can always move to another spot and give it a shot. Or maybe just surrender and call it a day.

The name of the game is identifying what the trout are feeding on and having something in your flybox to fool them.

Rainy-day fishing

I guess it was the two galvanized tubs hanging among cobwebs high along the carriage-shed’s north wall that stirred uplifting memories on a gray, still Tuesday morning — air heavy, storm brewing — on my way out back to the kennel.

The smaller, round tub is familiar to one at my previous South Deerfield home and that of my great-grandfather, Willis Chapman Sanderson, who was discovered unconscious in the road from Whately and carted to the Greenfield hospital. There, he died a few days later (Jan. 23, 1913), a week shy of his 47th birthday. A milkman, grist-mill electrician and town constable, foul play was suspected but never proved, thus the final life-insurance ruling of accidental death by fall from carriage on the way home for supper. Officials figured maybe the horse got frisky and dislodged him airborne from his seat and onto the back of his head.

My father used to play basketball in his late grandfather’s large dairy barn out back. By my time, though, it was totally dismantled, only a memory, the outline framing grandfather Waldo Willis Sanderson’s large summer vegetable garden with a battered chicken coop and broad ash tree standing sentry on the west side.

It was in that backyard between garden and driveway, then in the old north pasture behind the garden, on Frontier Regional School property taken at some point by eminent domain, where my youthful, intermittent night-crawler hunts began on hot summer nights with wet, dewy grass covering rich, foot-deep black loam. Unfortunately, that prime soil was trucked away to who knows where during the Frontier athletic-field upgrade of the 1990s. All I know is that the project was well underway when I decided to pull up stake and move to Greenfield in the spring of 1997.

I truly believe there was no better place on earth to pick crawlers than on those mowed green acres book-ending north and south my Pleasant Street home — a sliver of which dated back to Revolutionary times, when Scots-Irish Colrain soldier William Anderson and family bought a 60-acre parcel. The first owners I remember finding in deed research were three Deerfield soldiers who had obtained it as a land grant following one of the French & Indians Wars that consumed the first two-thirds of the 18th century.

In the cellar, on a waist-high mound of dirt supporting the piled-stone footing for the kitchen fireplace — near a narrow, white rectangular gravestone wearing the initials T.A. — I kept my night crawlers in a squarish-round galvanized tub covered by a window screen for air ventilation. Inside was six or eight inches of moist loam covered by a thicker layer of wet leaves that fell far below tub top. About once a week, or on the day before predicted thunderstorms and flash flooding, I’d mix in wet grounds from a morning pot of coffee, just to keep the bait caffeine-buzz lively, oh-so enticing to feeding trout in sanctuary pockets of muddy-brown storm water. How I appreciated those deluges as a young man, heading off on eager trips to West Whately and Conway streams that were always productive at such times.

Although concealment could be a factor that draws big feeding trout out of hiding places and into muddy water during summer rains, I believe the primary reason for coming out is to take advantage of the diverse feed liberated into the flow by turbulent water. The increased flow riles up the sediment and accepts runoff carrying unwilling insects, reptiles, rodents and even unfortunate baby birds out of nests along the banks and those of tiny storm tributaries. Never is it easier to catch nice brown trout you would otherwise doubt existed in such streams when running slow and low. And it’s not only browns. There are also big brookies and even rainbows that come out in high water but are rarely caught from low summer daytime streams. Not even from deep, dark pools, where little trout and immature salmon tend to bite instead.

It’s not rocket science. Once streams recede to their shallow summer trickle, most big trout hold tight out of sight and become nocturnal feeders. All you catch during the day are fingerlings, which many meat fishermen prefer, anyway. Not me. I like big fish that tug hard and leap into the air like sky pilots trying to shake free of the hook.

Astream, it helps if you can identify lanes, pools and eddies where feeding trout lurk — in other words, know how to read water. But even beginners ignorant of such stream dynamics will catch fish, and very nice ones, during summer rains like this week’s. You must experiment with different sinker combinations to get your bait to the depth at which fish are feeding, and you may find a need to add or subtract a split-shot from location to location. That’s fishing savvy. In fact, you’re better off in some spots with a fat crawler and no weight at all. Honest.

My preferred routine, whatever the flow, is to cast upstream 45 degrees and dead-drift the live, frisky “speed-worms,” which contract and expand through feeding lairs. There, usually on the final 90-degree swing, is usually where you set the hook start the entertainment.

You can catch fish on fly tackle using the same dead-drift, but roll casts and back casts under overhanging foliage on small streams requires expertise. For brooks, I always preferred and open-face spinning reel, a five- or six-foot ultralight graphite rod and 4- or 6-pound test line. With it, I’d lob delicate pendulum casts upstream, quickly correcting the loop by mending line to create a realistic bait drift. If you allow the loop to precede the bait, an unnatural drag alerts wise fish that something’s amiss.

It all comes down to presentation, reading water and knowing where fish feed. Once you learn the basics on small streams, it will transition nicely onto larger streams like the Deerfield, Millers, Green, Falls, North and Sawmill rivers.

Rainy summer days can’t be beat for trout fishing. And, while you’re at it, get a good, light, hooded raincoat with elastic wrist bands.

Shad, salmon and cougars

Although a few stragglers may yet appear here and there in different watersheds, it’s July and the 2015 Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration season is, for all intents and purposes, over as usual.

A rule of thumb is that once the river temperature stabilizes around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, American shad stop running and start spawning, Atlantic salmon have found or are zeroing in on streams where they’ll reside till fall spawning, and all the rest of the migratory fish, such as herring and lamprey eels, follow similar, run-termination demeanors.

It was a good year by recent standards on the shad front, where a total of 416,346 were counted at three stations in Windsor, Conn., West Springfield and Holyoke, where the lion’s share (412,656) were seen passing the Barrett Fishlift on the Holyoke Dam. Last year’s total of 370,506 was in the same ballpark. Prior to that, over the past 22 years, only the 2012 total of 490,431 tops this year’s, which is the sixth best on record. No. 1 was 720,000 in 1992, followed by 530,000 in 1983, 520,000 in 1991 and 500,000 in 1984.

The total Connecticut River count has not been computed since 2005, when changes to facilities and operations made it impossible to accurately track numbers throughout the river basin. Prior to that, the all-time high total-river run was 1.63 million in 1992, right on the heels of 1991’s runner-up run of 1.57 million. Five other years topped the million mark, with 1.23 in 1984, 1.2 in 1991, 1.14 in 1970, 1.13 in 1971, and 1.11 in 1969.

So what does it all mean? Well, for one thing, there’s still a viable shad fishery here in the Pioneer Valley, and anglers do aggressively pursue the spring sportfishing opportunity, primarily between the Westfield River and Turners Falls. That includes prime Deerfield River fishing opportunity for those who can identify migration channels that attract aggressive, ornery running fish which can be coaxed to strike shiny darts, lures and streamers.

As for salmon, well, the restoration program is over and it’s very illegal to fish for the king of game fish, which could not be brought back to our river in sufficient numbers to justify sportfishing. Which doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. No, sir. The stubborn wayward travelers keep showing up, albeit in small numbers, yet not that much smaller than the final years of the program’s existence. Thus far, a total of 20 Atlantic salmon have been counted randomly or passing monitoring stations, where most are captured and equipped with tags that allow their movement to be tracked.

You have to wonder when the returns will stop. Or, better still, ponder if perhaps some salmon would have found their way back to the Connecticut one way or another, regardless of an expensive restoration initiative. Although that’s probably a question that’s impossible to answer, my suspicion is that random fish with independent spirit would have found their way back to their historic New England breeding grounds. Why not? The first salmon to find their way up the region’s largest river weren’t born there.

Food for thought.

I suppose it’s time to chime in briefly on the latest eastern cougar twist many readers caught in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago and have ever since asked me about in my travels, email and telephone conversations.

In case you missed it, for the second time in four years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service took it upon itself to send out a press release reclassifying the Eastern cougars subspecies from endangered to extinct.

My knee-jerk reaction is, “Hey, haven’t we already been through this?”

Hmmmmmmm? Curious indeed.

Not only that but, in case you’ve forgotten, three months after that previous official reclassification in March 2011, lo, a dead, 140-pound cougar showed up as road-kill on a southern Connecticut highway. Oh, but wait a minute. That wasn’t an eastern cougar. It was a wayward western cougar “disperser,” that is a young love-sick whippersnapper forced into eastern maneuvers by dominant male competitors west of here.

The absurdity doesn’t end there. No. Get a load of this. Quoting Cougar Rewilding Foundation expert Helen McGuiness from four years ago, “Eastern and western are NOT separate species. They are not even a subspecies. The comprehensive study of cougar DNA throughout their North, Central and South American range, done by Melanie Culver and associates in 2000, concluded that there are only six subspecies of cougars and only one in North America.”

It gets wilder. According to more than one source, there is today an Ontario, Canada, cougar population of around 400. If the Connecticut cat could wander to the Nutmeg State all the way from South Dakota, what in the world is there to stop Ontario big cats from crossing into the United States and turning up in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and/or Maine? And when that happens, what will the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service call them? Canada cougars? Certainly not eastern cougars. Those are extinct.

Oh my?

What a silly little game of rhetorical semantics, one only government hacks would have the audacity to float through the public square and hope it will stick.

It bounces off of me like a hail pellet.

Tick Talk

Yes, it came out of the blue a couple of weeks ago by email from someone I did not know. No, her question was not unique. In fact, it seems I am asked the same question on every visit to my longtime vet’s office, and often in the public square: Are you finding a lot of ticks?

Now, let me say I can understand why folks figure that, because my dogs and I routinely patrol off-road habitats with thick cover — traipsing through chest-high hayfields and swampy edges — ticks must be a recurring annoyance. Well, I hate to disappoint but would not rate ticks as a vexing problem in my world. Why? I can’t say for sure. Entomologist I ain’t. But I have thought about the subject often, usually in conversation with friends, readers or people I meet socially. Not only that, but I’m confident I know the answer resulting from simple comparative analysis of habitats visited and the seasonal occurrence of ticks in different cover.

Let me begin by saying I am certain ticks prefer sandy, woody terrain like, for instance, the pine barrens of Montague Plains, where I have never walked for any length of time without finding ticks on my dogs and/or me during snowless months. Another sandy plain along the South Deerfield/Whately line, minus the dense scrub pine and oak of the Montague Plains, produces reduced tick issues but increased occurrence nonetheless.

Plus, never have I removed more ticks from my dogs than after killing frosts during the fall bird-hunting season. That’s when the little buggers seem to most aggressively search out warm bodies, including humans, on which to burrow in and get warm and comfy in moist spots, such as the crevice between your clavicle and neck, armpits and nether regions, where they’re not always easily detectable and can thus linger long enough for Lyme-disease complications to develop.

Also, as I wrote to my latest inquirer, my travels tell me I’m more apt to pick up ticks in woody terrain than in open, fertile, loamy fields, be they hayfields or goldenrod/aster patches on colorful wetland cuffs. On the other hand, move a few feet from these flowered tangles and into alders, sumac, poplar or other bushy, woody swampland, and the possibility of picking up ticks increases dramatically. Same can be said of upland forest from personal observation, which again most often occurs during the fall, in my mind clearly “the season of the tick.” Apparently others differ with my assessment, suggesting spring as the season they find most problematic. And I will admit that I did occasionally pick up ticks during the May turkey-hunting season, when my dogs never accompanied me, removing prime tick targets and guinea pigs.

Thus far this spring, I have seen a total of six ticks, all of them wood ticks that do not as far as I know bring dangerous Lyme Disease into the mix like minuscule deer ticks. Three of those little, creepy, crab-like buggers were detected walking on the back of my hand after morning walks. Another came off my neck after I twice knocked it off my temple with the back of my hand while reading after a shower. Other than that, I pulled one engorged bugger from behind bitch Lily’s left ear one night a couple of weeks ago, and I removed another attached to my cat’s neck more than a month back.

So, despite many opportunities to collect ticks in my travels or by transference from my three pets, I would not consider ticks a problem in the flatlands I patrol.

Before I transition briefly to another pressing subject, just a little gimmick pitch to throw off your timing. Either last year or the year before, probably in April, I took a walk on my colleague’s fertile produce farm less than a mile south and west of the spot where I have walked daily for many years without encountering tick problems. After an hour or so in the field exploring wetland cover, I returned home and, sure enough, pulled two ticks off the back of my hand and another later that day off of dog Chubby.

During that pleasant walk, I ventured maybe 100 yards through a narrow strip of woods hiding a spring brook between fields, broke through the perimeter of wild rose and alders in another spot way out along the back corner at the base of Greenfield Mountain, then went a short distance into the woods at the site of a old dried-up pond, now marsh, where Chubby got jacked up and flushed a couple of whistling spring woodcocks. So, again, same plain yet different types of cover.

I’m convinced that we picked up the ticks in the woods that day, and my colleague concurs. In discussion this week, I asked him how often he picks up ticks working his family’s vegetable plots and hayfields, the hay typically harvested up to three times a year.

His answer?

Never.

’Nough said.

q

In case you missed it, deer hunters participating in the two-week shotgun deer season this year will be able to kill random black bears that cross their path.

All deer-hunting regulations will be in effect except for the use of buckshot, which will not be permitted during a extended slugs-only bear season.

Hunters have for years proposed bear-hunting during deer season like way back when. Now, the state has finally accepted the rule-change I long ago predicted was inevitable as a partial solution to a problematic expanding bear population without ample bear hunters to stabilize it with sufficient annual harvests.

Now, with the burgeoning bear population spilling into pockets of suburban central and eastern Mass. communities, apparently MassWildlife believed it was time to act. The fact is that, with the hunter density greater during deer season (60,000 statewide) than any other time of the year, the new measure will help but not solve the growing bear-population issue.

More will likely have to be done in the not too distant future to maximize the bear harvest in a state where the last population estimate in 2011 was 4,000 to 4,500, with an estimated annual growth rate of eight percent.

Another population assessment is due next year.