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The Future of the James Looks Bright

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 05/22/2012 - 14:10

 

May 22, 2012. Another spring season on the river, gone. And the upcoming summer season, just around the corner. For this river guide, the month of May becomes a good time to take a breath, reflect on the spring and prepare for the sunny, hot summer. As I think about the 2012 year thus far, I can’t help but think the future is looking bright for the James River.
 
Why do I think this? An exciting new opportunity is coming to the upper, tidal James. The James River Association has purchased a new 40’ pontoon boat and it is coming to the area very soon. With a 35-passenger capacity, this vessel is going to offer larger groups a chance to come out and experience the incomparable James River. This opportunity (and boat) is huge!  
 
Another exciting addition to the James this spring has been the new Richmond Eagle Cam, enlightening people around the world to the story of the bald eagle on the James River. The Eagle Cam is focused on two mature, resident bald eagles, named Virginia & James, who have called the City of Richmond home for more than ten years. Virginia laid two eggs in the nest, the first on Feb. 8 and the second on Feb. 11. Together, they share the responsibilities of eagle parenthood.
 

This cam, run by The Center for Conservation Biology, is for research, but also for the public to view life in and directly around a bald eagle’s nest.  Right now, the two eaglets are close to fledging (flying off the nest for the first time) and has everyone on the edge of their own nest rails, a buzz in the Eagle Cam viewers world.  

If you have not spent time on the Eagle Cam, you should.   Click here to link to the Eagle Cam.  The moderated chat runs during the following hours: 8-10am, 12-1pm & 6-8pm.  The video stream is up all the time.

When I first visited the online Eagle Cam in early February I watched a little bit here and there, marveling at the two parent eagles, Virginia & James.  Nestorations (love that word), then the egg laying, then 35 days of incubation and finally the hatching.  By the time the first egg hatched I was online chatting with the moderators and other chatters, learning something new about bald eagles every time.

Then came the drama of the two parents inability to find fish to feed their very young eaglets during a long, spring flood on the river.  Not only was the river muddy and high, but the canal had very little flow due to some construction.  This double whammy caused the parents to both leave the nest at times in search of food.  Enough ‘fishless’ time went by that nearly everyone who watched the Eagle Cam, viewed it with high concern for the welfare of the eaglets.  As it turned out, at the last hour, the parents were able to sustain their clutch.  Talk about drama …. that visual of the youngest eaglet, named R-2 (for Richmond-2nd Eaglet) to hatch lying on its side on the base of the nest, nearly starved, when the Dad eagle flew in with a fish.  Thinking the worst, to see that slight movement of R-2’s head in anticipation of a meal, was real emotional drama … wow.

Virginia, James, R-1 (first eaglet hatched) and R-2 are incredible to watch, but the best part of the Eagle Cam is the people on it.  Chatters and moderators typing away with loads of great information and friendly talk.  Everyone shares wonderful images, links, facts and videos along the way.  My hat is off for the kindness of the moderators who bind us all on this journey together.  The way they kept their hopes verbally up during the tensest moments of the visual journey.  The incredible knowledge base they share about the lives and natural history of bald eagles.  I have learned so much from them.  Thank You, Richmond Eagle Cam moderators and the Center for Conservation Biology for something much needed in the Richmond area to bind so many to life along the James River.  Long live the Richmond Eagle Cam (Virginia, James, R-1 and R-2 too!).  -- Capt. Mike

The Photo's Story:  No, this is not Virginia & James, but it's another of my favorite pair, Baba & Pops.  Just don't have any images of the Eagle Cam pair, and I had to have an eagle photo, didn't I?  -- Photo by Lynda Richardson

 

The Bald Eagles of the James River Exhibition

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Thu, 03/01/2012 - 22:34

April 4, 2012. Dr. Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), spoke one of the greatest quotes about the James River bald eagles, summing the efforts of many great organizations.  To quote Dr. Watts ... "No other place on the continent illustrates the recovery of the bald eagle population from DDT lows better than the James River."

And now, after months of preparation and coordination, “The Bald Eagles of the James River Exhibition” is set to open this Friday. The traveling exhibit of bald eagle images by 15 photographers is sponsored by Discover the James and will initially open at:

Richmond Camera Gallery
April 6, 2012.   5-8pm
213 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA   23220
 
This exhibition of photos will highlight the five pair of resident bald eagles in Jefferson’s Reach, the five-mile stretch of the James River between Deep Bottom Park and the Richmond Yacht Basin. For a wonderful story about Jefferson’s Reach, click here.
 
 
“The Bald Eagles of the James River Exhibition” is a series of about thirty 16” x 20” Gallery Wrapped images including two panoramic images. The participating photographers in the show are as follows, with their websites in (parenthesis):
 
Bob Jones Jr.   (www.bobjonesjr.com)
Marlene Frazier  (www.dmvphotos.net)
Shelly Fowler (shellyva.smugmug.com)
Steve Schanzer  (www.stevenschanzer.com)
Steve Baranoff  (www.birdsinphotos.com)
Bob Schamerhorn (iphotobirds.com)
Rich Young (no website yet)
Ricky Simpson  (www.ssdsigns.com)
Mike Davies  (www.mikeswildlife.com)
 

The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) will receive $40 from each image sold.  The CCB has been instrumental in the comeback of bald eagles on the James River.  Everyone involved in this project believes it is vitally important to support the CCB and their conservation efforts.  For more information on the CCB, click here.  All Gallery Wrapped Images are available for sale, with a $295 price. 

The opening is bound to be a good time, with lots of wonderful images of the James River's eagles.  I hope you find time to make it.  --Capt. Mike

The Photos Stories:  Top Left:  This is an image of the finest bald eagle on the James River, Bandit.  This bird has been the star of the River for a few years now and she continues to dazzle.  As her story is unfolds, it will soon be time to share her incredible history.  --Photo by Bob Schamerhorn

Bottom Right:  This is, I believe one of the oldest pairs of eagles in Jefferson's Reach.  They have been there for as long as I can remember.  Baba & Pops have had at least one chick the last few years.  Their nest is easily seen on the Bald Eagle Tour, and it's always a pleasure to see how quickly their chicks grow.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson

Persistence Pays Off!
 
In the last couple months of 2011, I started to delve into the world of swimbait fishing – throwing giant baitfish style lures that specifically target big bass. I’m not talking about the Basstrix, Yum Money Minnow, or Zoom Swimmin’ Fluke, but the truly big baits; baits that exceed eight inches in length and weigh in excess of four ounces. With these giant lures comes a certain tradeoff – you’re most likely not going to have 20+ fish days, but on the days you do catch numerous fish, they’re most likely going to be much bigger than fish caught on traditional bass tackle. It’s sort of a “Go big or go home” mentality. You have to fully commit to the big baits and not succumb to the pressure of putting them down in exchange for a jig or plastic. Keep in mind, all of this information is what I had learned from seasoned swimbait fisherman, and until yesterday, I was still in the process of sticking with the big baits until I finally caught some fish. I’ll be the first to admit, it’s tough to gain confidence in a technique when you spend seven straight hours on the water without a fish, let alone a bite. But, with all of the time and effort you put in, sticking your first swimbait fish is like catching your very first bass all over again. It’s totally worth it.
 
Fast-forward to yesterday, February 3rd. I had put a combined 46 hours of time into the swimbaits without a fish to show for it. Plenty of bites, swats, taps, and slaps, but no hookups. After school I headed over to one of my prime spots. 45 minutes in, I finally hooked and landed a bass on the swimbait, specifically a Huddleston Deluxe 8” inch Rainbow Trout pattern. Because of all the missed bites, I had added a small #5 treble hook to the bottom of the bait with some braided line, and tucked the hook in between the pelvic fins of the bait the night before. Low and behold, it was caught on the tiny stinger hook. The fish wasn’t very big, 3.65 pounds, but was a very big accomplishment for me. I would have gone home a satisfied man having just caught that fish, but four hours later, my day got much, much better.
 
By 4 in the afternoon, I had moved to a different body of water that holds some truly monster fish. It’s a very well balanced lake with tons of bluegill, pickerel, and good numbers of 7+ pound bass. After an hour with a lot of bites but no hookups, I looked at the Hudd and realized all of the slaps I was getting were indeed the beloved pickerel (At one point I had made an exceptionally long cast onto a boulder, which had very slightly nicked my 25 lb. line. This will make sense later on in the story). I reeled in the Huddleston, which at this point looked like someone went at it with a razor blade, and moved to a spot that is the epitome of a big bass haunt – a creek flows in with tons of scattered brush, logs, and limbs. When the creek is running fast after a good rain, it pushes tons of threadfin shad into the lake, and the big bass follow. Outside of the creek channel, there is more scattered brush, a small point, and a very slight drop-off that I have caught two six pounders and a 7.3 off of. The water level was slightly high and stained from the creek water pouring in, and I would guess the water temperature to be somewhere in the high 50’s to low 60’s, which is very unusual for February in Virginia.
 
This is where things get weird. A lot of successful trophy bass fishermen have told me that to catch a trophy bass, you have to do everything perfectly. A bass in the 8-pound plus range didn’t reach that size by making stupid decisions. The right cast at the right time with the right lure is what it takes to catch a trophy, and if anything about your presentation is wrong, your chances decrease significantly. After about 15 casts in the area, I decided to approach the creek channel from a different angle, and moved 30 feet to my left. I made a long, accurate cast right past an ambush point; a spot where a big fish has an advantage over its prey, and in this case, the cast landed in the creek channel and was set up to swim past a big laydown right on the edge of the moving water. Prime. Absolutely prime. I began the slow retrieve back, reeled it past the laydown, and then I had the most ferocious, bone-jarring strike of my life. I loaded up the rod and the battle began. Right away, I knew it was a toad. Sometimes, big bass don’t put up a very good fight. They’re big, slow, and lazy, and besides a few headshakes here and maybe a surface thrash there, they (sometimes) don’t have the energy to pull as hard as their smaller relatives. This fish was different. For the Huddleston Deluxe, I use a Dobyns 807MAGH, an 8’ XXH rod with a long handle and tons of backbone, a Daiwa Luna 300 with the drag locked down, and 25 lb. P-Line CXX. That’s some serious equipment. At one point, I literally could not reel. This big girl was pulling with so much authority that I couldn’t move the reel handle. As I got her closer to shore and saw really how big she was, I said to myself “Come on dude, don’t screw this one up.” I guess I was just so excited that I had a big fish on this monster bait, I forgot everything I had learned about landing a big bass, because when she was close enough, I went to swing her up on the shore. Thankfully my rod didn’t snap, but as soon as she was over dry land, the line snapped. Common sense told me to retie after I had cast onto the rock, but my laziness thought otherwise. She flopped one time, and with my $25 bait, landed in a foot of water. Without even thinking, I jumped in after her. When I landed on my side, cell phone, keys, and camera in pocket, I wrapped my arms around her, grabbed her by the bottom lip, stood up, and went absolutely nuts. A couple of kids that were jumping on a trampoline close by and had watched the entire thing unfold probably thought I was insane. This fish was a toad. I jumped up on shore and ran over to my camera, which was on a tripod, snapped about 20 pictures, weighed her, and let her go.
 
One of the reasons I took interest in swimbait fishing was that catching big fish on traditional bass tackle wasn’t giving me the same rush that it used to. After I caught this fish, I was shaking, laughing, my heart was racing, adrenaline pumping, the whole package. It was awesome. All of the hours without success, all of the missed bites, all of the questioning and doubts, I had done it. It was without a doubt the best feeling I have ever had. That fish was worth all of the money I’ve ever spent on fishing tackle, all of the miles driven, and hours spent on the water.
 
She weighed in at 9 pounds, 3 ounces on two separate digital scales, and measured 27 inches in length. Beat my previous personal best by four ounces. The 3.65 I had caught earlier in the day had just barely eaten the back half of the bait, and was hooked on the rear stinger hook. The 9 pounder had taken the entire bait, all the way up to the nose, and was hooked on the 1/0 treble attached to the line tie. Talk about a hog! That’s an eight-inch, four-ounce bait, and she could have easily swallowed it. I fished for another 20 minutes and caught one more fish, a 12 incher. A foot long bass tried to eat an eight-inch bait. That just goes to show that little fish aren’t afraid to hit a big, slow-moving lure. A lot of people throw much bigger lures, some reaching a whopping 16 inches!
 
Don’t be afraid to try something new or out of the ordinary. Almost every place I have thrown the Hudd, someone has asked me if there were fish big enough to eat it, if that was a fish I had just caught, or just laughed and shook their head. Prove those people wrong. Step out of your comfort zone and with a little determination, motivation, and hard work, it will eventually pay off. I can honestly say catching a fish on a jig simply will never be the same. I’m hooked on swimbait fishing.  --Hayden
 
The Photo's Stories:  Top Left:  Hayden's 27" bass and lure used.  Cool looking lure, but love that shadow.  Really shows off the fish's length.  Really nice work Hayden!
 
Bottom Left:  The pround angler with heart pumping, looking cool.  Probably the finest bass I have ever seen.  Awesome!

Bald Eagle Tour Photographer Spotlight: Otis Sowell

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 01/18/2012 - 21:42

January 18, 2012.  One of the best things about working on the river is truly the people I meet.  I have met outstanding folks from all over the Commonwealth, and really, all over the U.S.A.  What is easy to see is that there are scores of people who care deeply for the James River and preserving its heritage.  Caring individuals from all parts, and folks from organizations like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The James River Association, the Center for Conservation & Biology at William & Mary, Friends of the James River Park and the list goes on ... assure that the future of the James River is looking good.  To learn more about the organizations, click the names to link to their website. 

Getting back to my favorite part of working the river ... the people ... that is what I love most.  You never know when a guest who steps onto the Discovery Barge II will knock your socks off with something they say, or have done, or in this case photograph.  Otis Sowell recently stepped onto my boat for his first Eagle Tour and I hope it won't be his last.  In early January 2012, he took a series of images of the Duke ... Bandit's new mate.  Something about them hit me deep, especially the one to the left.  These images knocked my socks off, they are some of the most wonderful images of a bald eagle on the James River.

A little about Otis ... he is a native of Charlottesville and currently lives in Fluvanna County, VA.  Fascinated with nature, and especially birds, Otis states, "My favorite bird is the American Robin because it signals the arrival of spring and warm weather."  A story he shared was from his childhood.  When he was five or six years old, Otis asked his dad how to catch a robin so he could keep it as a pet. His father said, "All you have to do is sprinkle salt on it's tail and it won't fly away."  Otis tried to sprinkle salt on a robin's tail just about all day when he realized he was not fast enough and could not get close enough ... no matter how hard he tried.  His father kept at him stating, "Keep trying son", who was probably getting the biggest kick out of his son and the robins that day.

In the 1970's when Otis lived in Houston, TX with his wife, Wanda, he began to get serious about photography.  Returning to his hometown in Charlottesville in 1980, he began photographing weddings, groups and portraits.  He found photographing nature was his true love, and began 'focusing' on all things wild, but 'discovered' wild bird photography gave him the most satisfaction.  At the advice of a good friend, "Just use your imagination", Otis took his photography another step further and began exploring deeper and creating images that satisfied his soul.  The three images you see in this blog satisfy my soul. Thank you Otis! 

To see more of Otis Sowell's work, go to www.OtisSowellPhotography.com

To see his series of Eagle images, click here.

 

The Photo's Story:  Above Left, Middle Right, and Bottom Left:  These images are wonderful.  They are of an eagle that took the place of another bird in Bandit's life.  The Duke became Bandit's new mate at some point in September of 2011.  After Hurricane Irene took out the third of Bandit & Smokey's nest something happened and this bird worked it's way into the lives of Bandit & Smokey.  Eventually Bandit chose the Duke over Smokey.  The last time I saw Smokey was after a magnificent aerial chase and talon locking session between the two former mates ... then Bandit flew downriver towards the 295 Bridge, into the Eastern sunrise.  -- All Photos by Otis Sowell

January 1, 2012.   Today is the beginning of the New Year, 2012. I have to say a long morning on the James River, watching bald eagles is a pretty good start. One thing comes to mind after today’s journey on the river. The sheer difference in numbers of eagles this year versus last year in Jefferson’s Reach.

First is the difference in the number of eagles on this year New Year’s Day and last years. On January 1, 2011 the main river channel in Jefferson’s Reach was flooded with migratory bald eagles. There were over 50 in a mile and half stretch, from the Varina-Enon Bridge (I-295) to the Jones Neck cut. The reason is pretty clear, I believe, and it’s temperature. Last year, the end of December was much colder. Today and yesterday were days where the high temps were in the 60’s! That’s amazingly warm for this time of year. The colder the weather, the more eagles we have in the area, as the cold air drives the migratory eagles further south into our area. 

Here is an example of the difference …
 

This year, 1/1/12: There is some migratory eagle activity in the area, but not much as of yet, and here is a good example of the difference. Over the last month, on most trips we may see three to ten migratory birds. On some trips we may not see any in Jefferson’s Reach. Today, I believe we saw ten or so migratory birds and that was over the course of two trips through the five mile stretch of Jefferson’s Reach, and proceeding downriver towards Turkey Island.   
 
Last year, 1/1/11: On January 1, 2011, I experienced a day on the river I termed, “The Day of 100 Eagle Calls.”  Here is an excerpt from my blog from last year …
 I've never seen so many bald eagles 'perched' in trees.  They didn't seem to fly much today, except to go from tree to tree.  Occasionally, they'd fly around the river in search of a meal, but for the most part they sat content in the branches of trees along the riverbanks.  What made this day so unique was the constant calls we'd hear from these great birds.  All day long ... that high-pitched chirp.  We heard over 100 bald eagle calls this day, it was phenomenal.” 
 
A couple more notes on the day, to hear what a bald eagle sounds like, click here, to go to a website that offers a series of bald eagle calls. Some of them are pretty good, some are not very clear, but regardless, they are all bald eagles. 
 
To close, I hope you enjoy the photos is today's blog entry.  My wife, Lynda Richardson, was on the boat today to take a few wonderful images to start of the year right. The images seen in the post were all taken today, January 1, 2012, with three being mature residents of Jefferson’s Reach and the other an immature eagle that was flying near Virginia & James, and may have been one of their eaglets from a few years ago.  –Capt. Mike
 
 
The Photos Stories?  Top, Right:  This is an explosive shot of Varina, one of the pair of birds that lives just east of the Varina-Enon Bridge.  This bird loves to dance around, flying back and forth over the river.  An interesting note about this bird is the James River's main channel, where they perch nearly all the time, is the only body of water in their territory.  All the other birds in Jefferson's Reach have some other body of water to hunt, most of which are inland ponds off the James River.  They had previously been mined of sand and or gravel.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson
 
Top, Left:  This is a great shot of Virginia, just after the catch.  Virginia & James live just east of Varina & Enon.  Their territorial lines are drawn like lines in the sand.  If one of the birds crosses it, and the other pair sees it, watch out!  There will be an aggressive flight pattern, direct and fast towards the offending eagle.  It's pretty neat to watch as they always seem to be testing each other's wills.  As of yet, I have only seen aggressive flight patterns and no actual contact, thankfully.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson

Above, Left: Just after Virginia captured that fish, above, an immature bird flew into the area.  It would be easy to say it was just a migratory bird, and it may have been.  But the way the two mature eagles were acting (Virginia & James), this immature bird could have been one of their chicks from three years ago.  Looking at this immature bird, you can see how the head seems to be starting to lighten up as the body is darkening, which is indicative of a bird in the three year, perhaps four year range.  Bald Eagles take four to five years to become fully mature with the white head & tail, with dark brown body and wings.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson

Bottom, Right:  Baba & Pops are such great birds.  They have a huge nest visible from the river near Deep Bottom.  They seem to be expert nest builders.  When their last nest was damaged by Hurricane Irene, they were instantly on the task of rebuilding. Here, Pops is flying towards the shoreline just after snatching a dead gizzards shad from the surface of the river.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson