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The Could-Have-Been Great Texas Wild Hog Hunt

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 7, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Son-in-law Chris and I have been talking for several years about an early spring trip to Texas to help them deal with what has become a plague in much of the Lone Star State – wild hogs. When Diane and I spent time in Paris, Texas, last fall reconnecting with eldest son James, it became obvious that the time had arrived. I agreed to find us a wild hog hunt.

Homey Wes Clogston, retired commander from Texas Parks & Wildlife, was able to get me background info on Texas hogs, private vs public land rules, and some starting places for my search. I made a couple dozen phone calls, studied maps (given that Chris and I would be driving down from Denver, we wanted to stay in the top half of the state), and sent a number of emails.

Turns out there are hundreds of opportunities to hunt hogs – after all, there are a million and a half trouble-making feral hogs in Texas. Since they are non-game animals, there are almost no rules about when or how to hunt them – or how many you can take. One does need a license, and our five-day nonresident special hunt permit ran us less than fifty bucks.

I found innumerable hunt opportunities. Hunt hogs on one ranch for a couple days and get another hunt for free within a couple years. There were lodging, food and hunt packages and any number of two or three-day hog hunts where we would be on our own for food and lodging in some nearby town. Almost no matter how we cut it, the costs would add up about the same.  Major differences were in the methods of hunting. Most everyone started with first and last light hunting from stands overseeing favored, or baited, food plots. Then, given that these are highly nocturnal animals, some had nighttime hunts under lights. Others had mid-day dune buggy drives or dog hunts or spot and stalk hunts. A helicopter hunt was optional. The standard among the hunts seemed to be three “meat” hogs (to 150 pounds) or a mix of a big boar and meat pigs.

I narrowed it down, and we discussed three possible hunts. I made another couple calls, trying to get a sense of the likelihood of actually getting three hogs apiece during our hunt. The standard answer was “You just have to choose which pigs you want.” Through a Colorado booking agent, I arranged a hunt on a ranch near Rochester, north of Abilene.

I got a four-page contract from the folks handling the booking (one disclaimer after another). This was a new one for me, and I figured I’d best take another look at the web page for the guy owning the outfit with which we would hunt. There was plenty of info about deer, turkey, quail and big-time waterfowl hunts, and the hog hunt page had pictures of nighttime hunts, day hunts, and dog hunts. When I called him for more details, the owner reminded me that we could get three hogs apiece and should pick the ones we wanted. Fine. We started arranging our meeting places and seriously planning a hog hunt.

Two Sundays ago, I pointed my rig toward Denver. A couple days later, Tuesday, Chris and I were headed south to Rochester. James would drive west from Paris and we would convene at the hunting lodge that evening. Even with torrential rain and wind most of the way, Chris and I arrived early evening – just in time for tornado warnings and a hailstorm. We met guide Jared, learned the morning plan, and turned in. A bit before James arrived at 10, we listened to a tornado roaring past a quarter-mile away – flashing me back to my tornado chasing days in the ‘70s at the University of Kansas.

By first light the next morning, the weather had settled, the country was wet and muddy, and we were in our blinds waiting for hogs at spots with plenty of fresh sign of overnight digging and rooting. That evening, we did it again. Chris saw two small pigs and had a shot from his blind, but the pig scurried onto neighboring ground and we found no sign of it.

The second morning at dark-thirty we were again in our blinds – and no pigs. By mid-morning, it was obvious that our only hunting would be from first and last light blinds. Despite the web page suggestions, there was apparently no availability of other ways of finding hogs. Right after lunch, we headed to another property and a new set of ‘til-dark blinds.

That evening, our last, James was finally in a spot with moving pigs. By sunset he had a boar and a sow – both meat hogs in the 140 pound range – and two empty ’06 cases. We would have a little meat, after all.

During our 70+ man-hours of blind occupation, we saw deer, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, quail, roadrunners and sundry other critters. Chris and James saw a combined handful of hogs, but I never saw a pig. Jared, with good humor and optimism, did his very best with our one-trick pony hunt. Somewhere in there, we came to the conclusion that the owner of the operation didn’t really take hog hunts very seriously; it seemed to us that his business was waterfowl, deer and turkeys. We found out later that three hunters in daylight blinds could expect to take a total of a pig or two a day – not really a “choose which hogs you want” hunt.

This was on me; even after booking hunting and fishing trips across North America, Europe and South Africa over decades, I just somehow missed asking the right questions – or the right follow up questions – in the right way.

We had three goals: spend some quality armed time together; have a great adventure; and get a pile of wild hog meat. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess. Overall, I called it a successful trip.

James is now researching outfits with multi-trick hog-hunting ponies. I guess we like the meat we did get so much, we’re going back.

[Photos: James & boar (above) and James & sow (right) by Jared Ritter]

Robins – Bringers of Spring

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 31, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

An old friend hopped into my yard on Wednesday last week. I was headed out to pick up some items for last Saturday night’s Chukar Run, but paused for a moment to consider the substantial amount of fruit tree, shrub and cane pruning staring back at me. Suddenly, literally feet from my shoes, was my long-anticipated friend, American Robin Turdus migratorius – bringer of spring.

No doubt, you’ve noticed robins, also. It was seeming a bit late, but that could be a result of the winter-that-nearly-refused-to-die with which we were blessed. Of course, a few of the birds (males generally) stayed through winter, but the folks at Annenburg Media’s “Journey North” site report the first migratory robins in the reach from the Lower Yakima Valley to Paradise just in the last few weeks. Those birds were returning from wintering grounds in Guatemala and Central America.

The male’s job is to choose a territory, then defend it as others arrive. Thus, he must be here early. If nasty weather eliminates his food supply for a few days, he can easily survive until the weather reopens. The female, on the other hand, need not hurry as there is nothing much for her to do until there is a dependable food supply and sufficient mud for creating the nest which may be weakened by a hard frost. Then too, if she suffers much hunger, it can limit her body’s ability to make strong viable eggs. So, she will stay on wintering grounds until conditions are most likely to be favorable in summer breeding territories.

At any rate, I was delighted to say hello to the robin boy staking out turf in my yard last week, and wished him well. I anticipate hearing his three or four note song, once his turf is claimed. A twenty- or thirty-minute rendition of his “cheery-up, cheery-me, cheery-up, cheery-me” song of daylight and spring warmth will make me want to dig worms and hand them over.

A California colleague once told me he was sure he’d heard a “robin’s song” in Great Britain. That bird, he was told, was a European blackbird (as in “baked into a pie…”).  Turns out that blackbird is also a thrush and of the genus Turdus, like our robin. Our American robin got its name, apparently, because it reminded homesick migrants of England’s “Robin redbreast.” (That little European red-breasted robin (Erithacus rubecula) is a small, roughly sparrow-sized, bird. It was once classified as a member of the family Turdidae, but is now considered to be an old world flycatcher.).

American robins are generalists, like us. They eat a variety of stuff and occupy breeding territories in most any habitat in the West below timberline (except marshes). On our lawns after insects and worms (found by sight, by the way) and in our trees after other edibles, robins seem pretty tame, but in more remote alpine and wilderness areas they can be extremely wary.

You probably know that only a few generations ago, robins were widely hunted for food in the US. More recently, populations were in trouble because of DDT spraying. Earthworms digested sprayed leaves and the poisons ended up in the robins. Many thousands died outright, and reproduction failed for others because DDT concentrated in bird ovaries, causing shell thinning of eggs. Once DDT was no longer used, the birds quickly recovered.

Robin courtship often reminds me of what I see on campus; groups of males pursue a desirable female until she takes a shine to one of them. Once chosen, the male will strut around her with his tail spread, throat inflated and wings shaking.

When vows are properly sealed, the female will begin building a soft‑lined nest of mud and grass in the lucky male’s territory. This we will watch over the next few weeks, as such nests are constructed (generally fairly low) in crotches of deciduous trees or on buildings. Both adults will belligerently defend the nest.

The female may lay half a dozen inch‑long turquoise blue eggs. She will do most of the incubating, but chicks will be fed by both parents and will grow quickly. They will leave the nest looking much like adults, with thickly spotted breasts of orange, white and brown.

Once the first brood fledges, the pair may build another nest, with the hen laying more eggs. If the fledged young are not independent enough, the male will care for them while the female incubates the second clutch of eggs. Rearing baby robins is a big job; a brood of three young may eat 95 or 100 meals a day. Sometimes, robins have help. Several observations have been made of house finches helping adult robins bring food to young. The finches have also been seen sitting nearby and singing while the insatiable youngsters were being fed.

In keeping with the wishes of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association’s Science Education Committee, I include the following. The American robin’s scientific name is Turdus migratorius. It may reach ten inches in length, and makes its living off grubs, insects (and their larvae), earthworms and fruit.

Track migrations of robins and many other birds on the Annenburg Media site. You can also find pictures, hear songs and learn cool new things at www.learner.org/jnorth/.

Robin gives me hope for spring, for summer and for a good gardening year. I love that song.

Spring Hikes, Wildflowers and That Horn/Antler Stuff

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 24, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I’ve been waiting. After a winter like this one (It IS gone, right?), it seemed inevitable.

“So,” young I-Wanna-Take-My-Girlfriend-On-A-Hike Homey asked, “where would be a nice hike without snakes and bugs and with things that are fun to see and good scenery? And maybe there might be deer or elk horns there?”

“Well, it is not that simple,” I cautioned him. “Spring is underway down along the Columbia and out into the Basin. Hike up that anticlinal limb of basalt layers north of Gingko State Park headquarters – up over the west side of the river. Hanford Reach National Monument has great early spring trekking, with dry trails and no snow, even in the dunes above White Bluffs. Snakes and bugs are not out much yet, so that will work out, but you need to take some information with you, so that you can point out the flowers and unique plants you’ll be wandering through; so you can have an intelligent conversation with her out there all alone in the shrub-steppe. You may find some deer or elk ANTLERS, but we’ll get to that in a moment.”

I sat young Homey down and explained that, to make the most of his time afield with his distaff companion, he needed to understand the country and its plants. After all, here we are nearing flowering time in our semi-arid shrub-steppe Paradise, and our wet winter and spring could create a blooming explosion all around us. After they’ve grown and stored up food and water from winter, after blooming and making seeds for future generations, they’ll still have to survive another hot and dry Northwest summer.

The unique plants of our shrub-steppe have adaptations to make sure their life force continues.

Look closely at sage, with its small, gray leaves and shaggy, furrowed bark. Notice other plants with shaggy, loose-hanging bark, providing dead air spaces for insulation. See how some little shrubs and perennials have tiny white or silvery “hairs” which reflect sunlight, and also hold a dead air space for insulation. How many “bulbs” will he see flowering? Check out the wild onions, garlic, and wild iris. Then consider all the flowering “root” plants; camas, bitterroot, balsamroot and lomatium, in several varieties, storing enough calories in their fleshy roots to carry themselves through years of drought. Ours are so plentiful they have sustained Native civilizations for millennia. Take a book, maybe the Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.

It may be a bit early, but start looking for lupines and arrow leaf balsamroot, wild onion, yarrow, sagebrush buttercup, fern-leaved desert parsley, narrow-leaved desert parsley, camas, big-head clover and several of the low phloxes, penstemons, salvia sage, sagebrush violet phlox and the beautiful desert yellow daisy.

Now, then… Horns? (Well, he did ask.) Horns grow every year and are never shed. They are made of keratin, much like hooves and fingernails. Sheep grow horns. Antlers are bone, grown by the Cervidae – the deer family. They grow, mature and shed on an annual cycle apparently related to length of daylight and testosterone levels.

Antlers grow as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin. They may grow three or four inches daily (if we grew bone like that, a broken leg would heal completely in days). In late summer, the velvet is rubbed off for the mating season.

When testosterone levels hit a minimum, the antlers are dropped, or cast. Here in our country, cast off will continue over the next few weeks. Those bulls or bucks which did most of the breeding – and therefore used up the most testosterone – will drop their antlers first. Cells at the antler bases will granulate and antlers will drop away at the pedicel. It is probably pretty painless, but likely a bit disorienting.

In Washington, any naturally cast antler you find is yours to keep. Joe Watt and Robinson Canyon feeding areas will be closed until May First, but much other public ground is open to walking and looking.

“Now, go,” I said to young Homey. “Stumble across an antler and kneel among the flowers of our shrub-steppe countryside. Photograph them, and sit with the amazing plants that produced them. Examine the leaves and the bark, and the site. Think about the adaptations that made the flowers possible. Let yourself be amazed. Together, perhaps, you and your fair maiden might rediscover the joy of your first flower.”

Ah, spring.

All about Outdoor Schools

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 17, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Washington State Senate bill 5357 passed the Senate and is in the State House of Representatives at the moment. If it gets passed and signed it will create opportunities which may reach here into Paradise. (I know you’ve heard that the two things you don’t want to watch being created are sausage and legislation, but I thoroughly enjoy making my own sausage and have never had a problem watching the legislative process.)

Be that as it may, might I encourage you to keep a good thought for Senate Bill 5357 – “An act relating to a pilot project to license outdoor early learning and child care programs.” The bill is scheduled for a hearing in the House Early Learning & Human Services Committee during its meeting next Tuesday (March 21) at 8 a.m.

If passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, this bill will (subject to an appropriation of funds, of course) establish a four-year pilot program to license outdoor, nature-based, early learning and child care programs. Within the pilot project, the Department of Early Learning would be allowed to waive or adapt licensing requirements to allow for operation of outdoor classrooms.

If approved, the pilot program would begin at the end of August this year. Up to ten pilot locations would participate the first year, with additional programs invited to apply in late summer of 2018. An advisory group of outdoor, nature-based, early learning teachers and practitioners would be created to support the pilot programs. This advisory group would likely be involved in assisting with annual reports on pilot programs.

The act addresses some of the rules which have held back the development of outdoor schools. Much of the testimony in favor of SB 5357 noted the wide recognition that access to the outdoors increases kids’ focus, critical thinking, performance and ability to manage stress. Without licensing, full-day programs are very rare – yet they are highly sought-after by working families wanting such an educational experience for their children. Such programs become much more accessible with licensing, and provide a creative solution to the shortage of preschools in many Washington communities. In addition, licensing requirements currently assume that schools are in buildings – and are thus not applicable to outdoor classrooms.

Cost of education is another important factor. Since outdoor schools spend far less than traditional schools on facilities and maintenance, more funding can go toward high quality teachers and financial support for families needing it. One example cited in testimony in favor of SB 5357 was the work of Tiny Trees Outdoor School. Tiny Trees built six outdoor sites at a cost of $320,000. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction noted that one typical indoor preschool classroom costs $350,000. In these times of educators scratching for funding, such savings can be highly significant.

The Washington Outdoor School operating here in Paradise is helping many youngsters get a good start on their educations. We now have the Washington Outdoor School Fridays at Helen McCabe, and three mornings a week in Roslyn, with other outdoor classroom activities on late start days and other opportune moments. With enough support and the right outdoor-savvy teacher(s), our local outdoor school could become a daily school and even add a kindergarten.

Sibyl Maer-Fillo has been making it happen here. Through two decades of teaching and working at all levels of education, Sibyl dreamed of getting young students immersed in the natural world – outside. Her belief that a child’s interaction with nature helps develop a sense of place, awakens curiosity, and creates healthy minds and bodies reflects the important work now spreading across the planet. This work of connecting kids with Earth helps build stronger communities and a life-long commitment to the proper functioning of our natural world.

Take a look at some happy youngsters and find out more – or register your kids for the program that is perfect for them – at www.ycic.org/washington-outdoor-school. For a peek into the Upper County program, take a look at www.roslynoutdoorschool.org. KEEN and the Yakima Canyon Interpretive Center working group are strong supporters of the outdoor school, summer day camps, and a surprising number of other outdoor learning options for kids of all ages. Find out more about the Yakima Canyon Bird Fest, Get Intimate with the Shrub-Steppe, bird illustration and photography classes at www.ycic.org/.

This is critically important business. To paraphrase Jodi Larsen, Upper County Rotary: Children are the emissaries we send into a time we will never see – what do we want them to take along?

Winter? What Winter?

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 10, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

It was an impromptu meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. We were standing just outside Dean Hall in yet another snow flurry. The lone agenda item was winter; our winter – with whining.

I mentioned that I was getting really tired of hearing nearly-constant whining about our never-say-die winter. Homey Thomas observed that I had just been spending too much time listening to myself. Be that as it may, I have not been alone. Somewhere in there I may have reminded my fellow members of the RCRGWD&OTTBA that one of my old Siberian acquaintances maintained that there was no such thing as a bad winter – there was only poor planning, poor clothing and poor housing.

As the meeting fell to chaos, someone reminded me that, sometime in the last century, I had read a treatise on “real winter” from Brad Johnson, renowned outdoorsman and Director of the Watertown, South Dakota, Chapter of the RCRGWD&OTTBA. Brad was editor of the Colorado daily for which I wrote the first couple years of this “Inside the Outdoors” column in the late 1980s. Once our meeting adjourned, I went digging for his letter.

That late-January 1997 correspondence was composed by candlelight. “Enough already! Winter, bah humbug…The power’s out…let me tell you about the winter of 1996-1997. In my tender 37 years, I have never experienced anything like this. The Great Plains can be a difficult place…but this has been a challenge to all of us. Old Man Winter has been brutal and relentless… Grandpa Howard always said that mid-November was the end of hunting season – the geese and ducks would give way to the weather and head south. This year, they never looked back. Veteran’s Day on Monday was the beginning of the winter that wouldn’t quit. It started to snow that morning, and the geese were flying low off the lake. Perfect weather for those of us who love the thrill of the hunt and being one with the elements. The snow continued for the next day and put down a layer for the ice to come. The geese huddled together on the ice for about four more days, thinking, ‘this too, shall pass…’ But winter wasn’t joking, and they split. If only we all had wings…

“This was just a taste… An ice storm soon followed, coating roads, trees and everything. Then snow – then wind – more snow… The weekend after Thanksgiving was particularly brutal, with the ice storm in the Dakotas and Minnesota. But the big Arctic winds kept marching in. Since the week before Christmas, it’s been almost the weekly blizzard. The only question is whether the weekly event will last one, two or three days and take one or two days to clear off the roads before the next one hits. My heart goes out to those driving snowplows this winter. Every business in town has been hurt – except those who have heavy equipment for snow removal. We presently have an average of about two feet of snow on the ground and drifts around buildings and tree belts are 10 to 12 feet high. Drifts along some roads also remind me of my days in the Colorado mountains. These are 12 feet high and will need rotary plows the rest of the winter to keep them open. The wind has been brutal, whipping temperatures to 80 below.

“Oops, the power just went back on. Now, thirty minutes later, it’s off. In the meantime, I had to call Grandma Lila to see how she’s doing in Sinai, about 50 miles south of here. At 78, she’s still on her own…says she’s never seen a South Dakota winter ‘as dangerous as this.’ The freezing rain – the snow – the cold – the freezing rain…

“Growing up in the computer age and cellular phone age has caused a change in the way people my age view life. Everything is faster, faster, faster… How much can you get done in a shorter period of time? Computers, fax, voice mail – instant communication…

“But winters like this cause one to stop and listen. There is no e-mail. There is no voice mail. There is no microwave (Three minutes? Who’s got time to cook this?) …You hear many things.

“The Wind is everywhere. High pitches – low pitches. Blustery! Ever present. Relentless. Dangerous and deadly if you don’t respect it. It is the essence of Mother Nature. It brings serenity in a light gentle breeze. It brings death… …It teaches respect.

“I also hear a mouse – one of nine that have survived the winter. The other eight have moved on via my trap. This one too shall pass.

“I hear one clock. The only one in our house that operates on a C battery. The pendulum swings back and forth. Someone once said that the most perfectly balanced instrument is the pendulum. It goes from extreme to extreme. This winter is extreme. This past summer was near perfect. We must not forget that. Moderate temperatures. Moderate winds. Very enjoyable. So we must endure.

“That damn mouse is starting to bother me…sounds like a pig.

“The power just came back on. I was just beginning to really enjoy this. Until later, Brad.”  (Margin note: “The mouse died Jan. 20”)

Winter? What winter? I have confidence that we will see spring – certainly by early June.