High Winds ... Eagle's Nests OK

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 02/23/2011 - 13:34

February 20 & 21, 2011

I remember the first time observing an eagle's nest falling. It was high, up on a bluff in the top of a pine tree. After confirming it was indeed on the ground, I called the Center for Conservation Biology, and at the end of my ramble, almost like calling in a 911 call for eagles, they said, "Sir, it's ok, eagle's nests fall, and they'll be fine. They will rebuild." I felt a little embarrassed, but what the heck, I learned something. Over the last year the three eagle's nests visible from the river in Jefferson's Reach all fell at some point due to high winds. Two of the nests were rebuilt in the same tree, while the third was built further off the riverbank, too far to be seen from the river. Needless to say, after all the high winds we had over the last week, I was curious to see if Bandit & Smokey and Baba & Pops still had their nests intact.

This past Sunday was my first venture back on the James to observe eagles in almost a week. I was hoping the five pair of resident bald eagles didn't experience problems due to the extreme weather. I backed the Discovery Barge II out of the slip and cruised slowly downriver, soaking in the early morning air and loving every hue in the wonderful colors in the sky. We lost sight of the Richmond Yacht Basin and proceeded around the bend toward Henricus ... onward to Bandit & Smokey's nest location. Their nest is in a precarious location. They built far out on a limb of in an old oak tree. This was the nest I was worried about most, but it was fine. Bandit was keeping a watchful eye out as she perched on a nearby tree, while Smokey hunkered down, incubating their clutch.

We motored into the main channel and proceeded downriver and beneath the Varina-Enon Bridge. Again, we were treated to a promising observation. Enon was perched high on a leafless oak tree along the southside of the river, which was a sign that all is still good with Varina & Enon's nest. Varina was hopefully incubating their eggs in a nest that is located somewhere out of sight of the river. I have yet to see their nest, but I'm determined to find it some day in the future. Continuing downriver towards Virginia & James' nest we saw two immature bald eagles, perhaps some of the last remaining migratory eagles in Jefferson's Reach for the 2011 winter season. 

This Winter the immature bald eagles often delighted us with an interesting behavior. We often noticed two immature eagles paired and playing in flight. It happened often enough to makes me wonder if these young bald eagles are attempting to find a mate during the maturing process. it's just a thought, and probably not the cast, but one that I will continue thinking about for years to come.

We arrived in Virginia & James' territory, and there was one eagle hunting on the river, again a great sign that all three pairs are still enjoying a successful breeding season. We neared the Jones Neck cut and turned left into the old river channel, heading towards Deep Bottom and into Rebecca & Capt. John's territory. The past two trips, we had not seen either bird and the last observation of either was about ten days ago. Rebecca & Capt. John are a curious pair, as they may actually have two nests they occupy. Interestingly these two birds have not been in their favorite perches at all this year. Their nest is not visible from the river, so it's impossible to tell whether or not it's being occupied. Once the Center for Conservation Biology does their semi-annual fly over, counting eagle nests, we may be able to find out for certain, but it could be that Rebecca & Capt. John are hunting the inland ponds on Jones Neck.  It's interesting that they have been sporadic in their sightings. Time will tell ... time always tells. 

Lastly, we arrived at the nest site of Baba & Pops. We looked high up on the hill into the top of their pine tree, and lo and behold, the nest was in perfect condition! One of these beautiful eagles was nestled on top of their clutch. There is no telling how many eggs any of these pairs of eagles have, but I can confidently say that four out of five pair are incubating eggs.  The fifth pair may very well be, but their sightings have just not been consistent enough to say a definite yes.   

--Capt. Mike

Eagle image by Lindy Thackston  

Eagle Activity Update: Jefferson's Reach

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Thu, 02/17/2011 - 11:10

February 13, 2011. An exciting period has come for the Bald Eagles of the James, it is time for them to nest.  From my observations over the last two weeks, I'd say it's a good chance all five pairs of resident bald eagles on Jefferson's Reach on the James are sitting on eggs.  Why do I say that?  Over the last two weeks, I have only noted one bird at a time with all five pairs.  That means there is a good chance the other bird is incubating a clutch.

There are two nests visible in Jefferson's Reach.  Bandit & Smokey's and Baba & Pops'.  Three days ago, both nests were occupied by an eagle that was hunkered deep down into the nest, only popping their head up once in a while.  These two happy pairs are no doubt nesting a clutch.

The other three pairs, Virginia & James, Varina & Enon, and Rebecca & Capt. John all have nests built far off the river, nestled in deep within the pines, oaks, hickories, and sycamores. Over the last two weeks, there has been only one bird at a time from these pairs out on the riverbanks.  Normally I see two, unless they are nesting.  This could be very good for the eagle population this year in Jefferson's Reach.  The eagles will be sharing te duty of incubating their clutch for about 35 days.  Their eggs will hatch around the second or third week of March, which coincides with the annual run of hickory shad and blue back herring.  Pretty smart birds if you ask me.  --Capt. Mike

The Photo's Story:  This is an image of two eagles trying to nest on the James.  No, this isn't a pair in Jefferson's Reach, but the pair that is supposedly trying to nest in the City of Richmond, just below the Powhite Bridge on the James River.  Judy Self has been watching eagles on the James for many years, and has been watching these two just about everyday for the past month.  As of her last report, they still have not laid an egg.  It's getting late though, hopefully soon we will have good news.  --Photo by Judy Self

Boat Record Blue Catfish - 78 lbs!

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Fri, 02/04/2011 - 18:01

February 3, 2011

Sometimes when you think you know something about fishing, the opposite happens and you realize how incredible and unpredictable this sport can be. That happened yesterday on the James River ... again.

I had a trip booked with a good friend and fellow guide, Tony Horsley. He brought two of his hunting buddies on the trip, both from out of town, but familiar with fishing. It was a fine day of fishing already as we catch a few decent catfish in the 24 to 35 pound range along with a couple of smaller ones. One of those "eating sized" catfish was a meaty six pounder which I filleted, cubed and marinated in preparation for an excellent fried fish lunch. Having hunters on the boat is always a bonus ... during the day we also ate smoked duck breast, marinated duck, and venison sausage with crackers. 

When I cook, I like to set up in calm waters that are not often upset by passing boats. Hot oil and wakes from boaters are manageable, but unwanted, so I anchored in the old river channel (secret spot) where I like to fish ... and cook. We cast out the lines and I started the process of cooking lunch. I whiped up some homemade tartar sauce and dropped the fresh fried catfish in hot oil. Soon we were eating like river kings with fresh fried fish, tarter and one of the guys had some buffalo sauce he brought. Although it didn't need the spicy addition, dipping the fried catfish strip into a little buffalo wing sauce, then into homemade tartar. Wow .... Mmmmmmm, mmmmmm good.

About 30 minutes into the location we fished and ate a 21-pound blue cat chomped one of our baits. Ten minutes later, lunch was wrapped up and we were ready to go but the weather, scenery and stories were as good as it gets, so I decided to give it an extra five minutes. We were talking about the pair of eagles flying around us, and looking at their nest when the next thing I know, Dana has a pole in his hand.  It's the smaller of the eight rods I fish with. It has a solid reel, a Shimano Calcutta 400 spooled with 20-pound monofilament baited with a small circle hook and a small piece of gizzard shad, as that was the pole that was out set up for eating sized blue catfish ... those about eight pounds or smaller.

Here's where it gets 'fishy' and where I start to rethink everything I know about bluecat fishing.

I am a firm believer in fishing for big blue cats with fresh bait, which means changing out the bait every time you reel in the line.  For some reason, we kept casting out the same little piece of shad on the small rod, with the small circle hook. 

Dana is reeling in his fish, and the rod is bent over as far as I've seen, and I've witnessed that rod catch huge blue catfish over 60 pounds before. Tony is perched up high on a storage bench, amidships, looking down at the scene on the stern of the Discovery Barge II.  Tony yells, "I saw a really big tail!" at the time a huge swirl appeared about 20 yards away. A short time later we saw it ... Wow, what a monster catfish. We got her in the net and it took all I had to get that big girl in the net over the railings of the boat. It was awesome!

Upon weighing the fish, it read 81 pounds. Minus three pounds for the net, I worked out the simple math in my head and pronounced proudly, "We have a new boat record ... 78 pounds!"  We checked it three times and sure enough a boat record by five pounds. The official boat record now belonged to Dana Eggers, from North Carolina with his 78-pound blue catfish.  Congratulations Dana! 

--Capt. Mike



The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  Dana and a head shot of his 78-pound blue catfish.  You really get an idea of the size of it when you look at the size of the fish's head compared to the size of Dana's.  --Photo by Capt. Mike

Left:  This is the shot that shows how big this blue cat really looks.  I still can't believe the size of this fish.  --Photo by Tony Horsley

Jones Landing: First Fish of the Year

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 02/01/2011 - 23:28

I belong to a pretty cool fishing club ... Jones Landing on the James.  It's a mixture of people, all different in their own way, but with one thing to bind us all together, the James River.  During the 2010 fishing season we had some outstanding fishing competitions and this year is going to just as strong, if not stronger.

It's been a cold winter, which has made that first fish for the club in 2011 that much more elusive.  We've been talking about that fish for a month now.  We've seen them jump, and even had a dream or two about that first fish.  I personally have been out twice before this past Sunday, and I've heard about two or three other trips made by members in their jon boats.  No bites, just cold wind and the old college try.  This past Saturday, a good buddyof mine, Jeff Duncan, asked if I wanted to fish on Sunday for a few hours, and I said ABSOULUTELY, but let me check with my wife first!!

With permission to fish in hand, we loaded the boat around 11AM on Sunday, January 30.  It was a perfect day to fish with 50 degree temperatures the day before, and the air temps were slated to get to near 50 again.  No wind and a good combimnation of veteran river fishermen.  We had fresh-caught minnows for bass, a few new lures to try for smallies and some frozen gizzard shad for catfish.  Upon loading the boat I noticed the water clarity was not the best, so I thought catfishing might be our best bet.  We headed out to our first spot, a catfish hole, a place I've been wanting to try for the last two weeks but hadn't.

Jeff and I cut the shad up and cast out two rods each. We put them into the Discovery Gheenoe's rod holders, and started to fish for smallmouth bass.  After a few casts, I put the smallie rod down and focused on the catfish, trying to get a bit by calling on the river gods, by giving it the old catfish call.  About five minutes later, one of Jeff's brand new rods made a jump, with a little line pulling off the reel.  A definite hit.  Thirty seconds later, we had the first fish of the year on, now all we had to do was land it.  The fish fought pretty hard for 38 degree water, it came to the surface and rolled, then splashed.  A minute later it was at the side of the boat, so I reached my hand down into the cold water, slid my fingers into its jaw and clamped down .... no way was the first fish of the year getting away. 


Jeff gave the blue cat a big kiss, we took a few photos, weighed it, blessed it, and let it go to tell its story.  Congrats to Jeff for catching the first fish of the year out of Jones Landing ... a 16 pound 7 ounce blue catfish.  Oh yeah, can't wait to go again!  --Capt. Mike

Honoring a Friend on the River

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Fri, 01/28/2011 - 11:47

January 28, 2011

Honoring a Friend on the River

The James River is full of life, history, and opportunities to forge special friendships.  In mid 2009 through the end of 2010 I enjoyed a brief but powerful friendship with Danny Jefferson. Danny was a Chickahominy Indian, and a respected man of their Tribal Council. He was also very active in the community and if something was worth doing, he gave it his all.

Danny was direct and observant and the kind of guy that would teach you things when you didn't even know you were learning. Something I'll never forget ... the evening of December 12, he called and said, "I saw you grow on the water this past year, I just want you to know that ... I saw you grow with my own eyes."  The next day, December 13, 2010, Danny walked on.

Together we learned a lot about bald eagles. But that evening after we talked I realized he taught me a few things about life along the in the short time we spent together on the river. Now he's gone, but will always be on my boat and a part of who I am becoming. Danny was a deep and spiritual man and I wanted to find a way to honor him on the James. 

One of the questions I am asked quite often is, "Where do you run your Eagle Tours?" I generally respond, "On the James River between Deep Bottom Boat Landing and the Richmond Yacht Basin."  It's about a five-mile stretch, and includes parts of two oxbows (Jones Neck and Hatcher Island) and the section of the main river that connects them.  In that "reach" of river, five pair of resident bald eagles have taken up residency and are the ones I follow most of the time. It is the area Danny and I worked together.

Riding downriver one early morning, heading east into towards the sunrise, I found myself thinking about Danny and an idea came to mind, and it formed quickly and clearly. I found a way to honor Danny Jefferson in my work and it was during a time much like the sunrise seen in the top right photo. 

I believe naming natural things gets you closer to them; it connects and helps them become familiar. The five-mile stretch of the James River between Deep Bottom and the Richmond Yacht Basin now has a name ... I have started to call it, 'Jefferson's Reach'. It was here that I met Danny, and we started to work together on my boat, sharing the history of the river from the bald eagle's incredible conservation success story, to some of the native American history Danny was famous for sharing. This is the area Danny 'reached' out to me and the lucky folks we carried out on the river on the Discovery Barge II.

Now when people ask where I work, I can proclaim "Jefferson's Reach", and explain to them all about it. Or when out on the river, and viewing bald eagles, I can let people know we are in Jefferson's Reach. What a perfect segue into connecting the bald eagles to the history of the area and the Virginia Indians. 

-- Capt. Mike


The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  This is an image that always reminded me of Danny and the great history of the James River.  You can go back as far in time as you wish in this image.  The sunrise has not changed in eons.

Bottom Left:  This is a necklace Danny made and presented it to me on the Discovery Barge II, after a Capt. John Smith Watertrail tour.  The necklace is made of bones, beads, copper, sinew, wampum and the centerpiece is a 'scute' from an Atlantic Sturgeon. The rattail at the top is Danny's signature.  To learn about Atlantic Sturgeon, click here.