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What I Learned at Fish Camp Last Week ...

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 08/16/2011 - 15:52


August 16, 2011.  For me, working with kids who want to become responsible anglers is as good as it gets.  Teaching them the finer points of fishing while trying to relate how everything you catch, see, hear and touch on the river is a part of the whole ecosystem.  Everything is intertwined, and every minnow, insect and each leaf along the riverbank has its place.  They are all parts of the whole, including us as fishermen.  It’s the “There’s more to fishing than just catching fish” approach without saying it. 
After running fishing programs for VCU’s Summer Discovery over the last eight summers, I decided it was time to try my own.  Last week I ran my first fishing camp, and thoroughly enjoyed a week of five eager kids foaming at the mouth to get out onto the water every morning.  It was a challenge to consistently work in a little education, but there were many opportunities.  Mostly in the van, while riding to our destination, but also in the field and on the water. 
We caught over 200 fish on the second day, which is an incredible number, but one opportunity missed was taking more time to stop fishing and tune into our human senses, helping us become more aware and appreciative of where we were.  At one point during that 200 fish day we did take five minutes to look at rocks on a bar in the middle of the river, seeing who could find the most interesting one.  I considered that one of the highlights of the day and still have the four rocks that were picked … all very cool in their own way. 
I should have taken ten more minutes that day to get the kids to just watch and listen to the environment.  It easy enough to point things out, like a hatch of insects, or a green heron perched on a rock, fishing.  Or how the water flowing around a boulder, if you stare at it long enough, makes the rock look like it is moving upriver.  But giving the kids more time to take a deeper look at their surroundings would have added to their 200 fish day.  
Reflecting on last week’s experience, I realize taking time out to ‘listen’ to the sounds of nature, while fishing would have also been well worth the effort.  Sure, we heard things, but did we listen? Fishing is complex and you need to focus on the sounds around you to become more aware.  Imagine pausing in the stream for a few minutes, tucking your fishing rod under your arm.   The dull, constant hum of insects in the woods quickly becomes apparent.  Then a half a dozen or more different songbirds are heard chirping and singing in surround sound and a cicada suddenly, clumsily flies by.  You hear the recognizable swirl of a fish in the water upriver.  You turn and see the ripples. 
While deciding whether to make a cast toward the rising fish a piliated woodpecker flies above you with its unmistakable jungle-like call.  You start to realize just how much is going on around you and just feet away a cardinal chirps loudly.   A woodpecker, perhaps the one you just heard call, starts to thump on a nearby dead tree.  Yeah, I think taking some time to just listen in on nature is going to be a regular part of helping kids become better anglers. 
I’ve been sitting at the river since a little before 7 this morning, I think it's time to stop writing and just listen for a while.   --Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories? Top Right:  One of the days included a special trip to the upper James River.  Through private property, we were able to trek around an island while fishing for smallmouth bass and sunfish.  We also flipped a few rocks, caught and identified a few critters like hellgrammites, damselfly larvae and mayfly larvae.  --Photo by Bob Jones Jr.
Middle Left:  One of the days during the fishing camp was a trip out onto the tidal James River on the Discovery Barge II, my pontoon boat.  We launched from the Richmond Yacht Basin and cruised downriver towards Presquile Island and fished downed trees along the shoreline to catch a few blue catfish and one channel cat.  We also were able to see lots of bald eagles, blue heron and osprey.  In this image, "L'il Fish" holds a little catfish, which ended up being half of our lunch!  One of the fun things during the week is the naming of nicknames.  Everyone gets one, including me (Cappy).  --Photo by Capt. Mike
Bottom Right:  Silver, so named for the first crappie being caught during the week is shown holding one of the first fish of the 200-fish day.  Silver is proudly displaying one of the many bluegill caught that day.  --Photo by Capt. Mike



Independence Day Eagles & Osprey

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Fri, 07/08/2011 - 17:26

 July 4, 2011. Independence Day. For the second year in a row, I have spent the early hours of Independence Day on the James River looking at bald eagles. This year may have been better than 2010, but that’s probably because it’s so fresh in my mind. 

There seemed to be an abundance of immature bald eagles flying about in Jefferson’s Reach. A few are probably eaglets of Jefferson’s Reach from the past few years, coming back to celebrate their status as a national symbol with their parents. A number of them are likely migratory eagles, here for the summer from Florida. The migratory eagles arrive in the Bay region in May and will stay until September. 
Something that caught my eye over the past few weeks has been the osprey. There seems to be more osprey on the James each year. Osprey nests are now on every channel marker in the main channel from Henricus downriver to Presquile Island. There are also nests on the old light poles along the river and even in trees along the riverbank. The osprey nests on the channel markers are fun to watch, as you can pass by them on a regular basis and watch their young grow. My favorite pair, who lives on channel marker 146, near the Deep Bottom Cut Channel had one young osprey this year, and on July 4, this bird fledged, or flew for the very first time.   It awkwardly leapt off the nest, flapped and just flew around. Now this young bird likes to perch on the bluff of the cut through, just as the previous young osprey from years past.
Just downriver of Jefferson’s Reach, below the Deep Bottom cut channel another pair of osprey had two young birds. The last of the two also started to fly on July 4. This one, we watched for minutes flying around, apparently looking for a place to land. Once off the nest, mom and dad flew to its aid, flying close to their offspring.   They flew pretty far to the south shore and we lost sight of them eventually. A little further downriver, another pair of osprey have three chicks. All three were lined up next to each other, chirping and fluffing up their feathers as we rode by them at a comfortable distance.  As of July 5, none of these birds have fledged.

One thing I can’t help but love about the osprey chicks is the color of their eyes. They are a deep orange, or reddish. Their eyes eventually change into the adult color of bright yellow. When looking through binoculars you can really get a good look at this. Or with a good camera, you can get a great pic, as in the image taken by Dave Parrish.
The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  Photo taken of a mature female osprey.  You can tell she is a female by the 'necklace' of brown feathers around her neck.  Greg Mika took this image, to see more of his work, click here.  -- Photo by Greg Mika.
Bottom Left:  Another outstanding image by Dave Parrish. This one is of a young eaglet that just showed itself for the first time.  Most of the young osprey have shown themselves quite often, even as little chicks.  This one showed unexpectedly.  This big chick lives in a nest on a channel marker on the north bank of the James, just upriver of the 295, Varina-Enon Bridge.  I had previously thought the pair that lives in this nest didn't have a chick until this pic was taken on July 3.  Amazing.  To see more of Dave's work, click here.  -- Photo by Dave Parrish.

Eagle Update: Father's Day 2011

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 06/20/2011 - 11:02

Eaglet Update, June 19, 2011.  Father's Day.  Today was a magical day on the river, and rightfully so on Father's Day.  We saw two more of this year's eaglets make an appearance for the first time.  Varina & Enon's eaglet flew out of the trees and over the river, then back into the forested south bank of the river. The bird made a brief appearance, but a special one.  On the boat, I had a family of five bringing out their father/husband on a surprise Bald Eagle Tour. They came from about two hours away, and the adult eagles and eaglets put on a show for them, but it was a highlighted by the young eagles.  Varina & Enon's offspring was named 'Buckbeak' by the family on board.  A different name, but a great name, nonetheless.  

Not only did we see Varina & Enon's eaglet for the first time, but we also saw Rebecca & John's eaglet for the first time as well.  Rebecca & John's eaglet was flying around the old river channel, just north of the Jones Neck cut through.  It was an amazing site as she would fly from tree to tree, landing and taking off, flying around her new playground. It was as if she was practicing take offs and landings.  One of the adults was flying around near her, paying just enough attention to key an eye out, but keeping a fair distance away.  This young bird remains unnamed at this point.  Perhaps a new name will be given on Tuesday morning's eagle tour!  

So that makes the appearance of four new eaglets showing themselves for the first time over the last ten days.  I am still wondering if Varina & Enon have a second eaglet that is going to make an appearance, but time will tell.  Rebecca & John may have a second as well.  Good stuff from Jefferson's Reach on the James.  On another note, kook for the second installment of the story of Rebecca & John soon.  It's a great story about a wonderful pair of birds.  --Capt. Mike

Rebecca & John: The Story of the Fifth of Resident Eagles in Jefferson's Reach (Part 1 of 2)
Eagle watching is awesome. I get a lot of personal satisfaction when an opportunity to take the Bald Eagle Tour to another level arises, and this was of one of those opportunities. The more time I spend on the James with the bald eagles, the better I get to know them, as their stories continue to develop.  This true tale is about the last named pair and most elusive eagles in Jefferson’s Reach … Rebecca & John and how Capt John simply became John.
After spending a few months watching bald eagles around Jones Neck, in February 2010, I noticed an eagle that would perch in some of the same branches week after week. Then I noticed it had the same flight patterns. Over the next few months the eagle, or eagles (only saw one at a time) remained long after the migratory birds of winter had long left on their trek back to the far north. They acted like a resident pair but until a nest was located they would have to wait to become the fifth pair of resident eagles in Jefferson’s Reach. I could only watch as the flight patterns took them to a certain row of pine trees off in the distance of Jones Neck.
Jones Neck is an island surrounded by the old James River channel across from Deep Bottom. Jones Neck was a long finger of land, jutting out from the southside of the James tucked in between the landmasses of Curles Neck and Varina Farms.  In the 1930’s the Core of Engineers and the Civilian Conservation Core dug a 30-foot deep channel at the base of the peninsula to shorten the trip on the river between the Chesapeake Bay and Richmond by approximately five miles.  This cut through, or thoroughfare, took this peninsula of land and created the island of Jones Neck.
At the end of an early summer morning Eagle Tour, a young boy of eight walked up to me as he was departing the boat and said, “Capt. Mike, the next eagle you name, you have to call him John!” I responded, “Why John?” He said “For Capt. John Smith of course.”  I followed, “Why don’t we call him Capt. John?” The boy’s next move was classic. He stuck out his hand to shake on it, and sealed it with an over zealous head nod. It was a done deal. Capt. John was to be the next resident eagle named! For the moment at least …
Giving an eagle a name is something special and isn’t taken lightly. It doesn’t happen very often, and to date only one eagle has had a name change, as in the case of Rebecca & Capt. John. To name an eagle is to name a pair. I have to define a pair of bald eagles as a resident pair, which would mean they would have a territory, a nest, and would defend it while remaining in their territory 365 days a year.  By understanding their habits and hangouts, the resident pair would be easily recognizable at any time during the year.
On the very next day, while in the area I had been watching an eagle fly with the same flight patterns, I was looking onto Jones Neck and saw a remarkable sight. There were two mature bald eagles perched in a tree. Next to them, on the branch below was a newly fledged immature bald eagle. I couldn’t believe it, here was the eagle I had been following perched proudly with the whole family. The immature eagle was proof that the pair was indeed a resident pair, and the nest was surely nearby, just out of sight. “Wow” I thought, and said, There’s Capt. John!” I promptly told the story of the eight year old boy’s naming the next eagle from the day before.

When I told the group the story, I informed them they had a special opportunity at hand, and could name the female because whomever is on board at the time gets to name the resident pair … as long as it was agreed upon by everyone in the boat. The excited group could only come up with one name for the female bald eagle … Pocahontas. Unfortunately, that name would not work, as I could not agree to call her Pocahontas. Hollywood might want you think Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas were together, but history tells us differently. They were never a ‘couple’, but they did share in the famous story of Capt. John Smith’s telling of his capture by the Chickahominy Indians, and how Pocahontas, the little ten-year-old girl threw herself upon him to save him from the certain death blow of a warrior commanded by her father Chief Powhatan.  (End of Part I)

The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  This shot is potentially Rebecca or John as it was shot in the crossover area between Rebecca & John and Virginia & James.  Sometimes when we are in this area, it's hard to tell who is who because the distance between the heart of their territories is so large.  This area, near the Jones Neck Cut, is also an area that is often frequented by both summer and winter migratory bald eagles.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson

Lower Left:  This is a wonderful shot by photographer Carol Hollenbeck, taken during a recent Bald Eagle Tour.  This is another image of a bald eagle taken in that same "crossover" area between Virginia & James and Rebecca & John's territories.  --Photo by Carol Hollenbeck

Lower Right:  A very nice image of a bald eagle taken by photographer Don Keisling.  To see more of his work go to  --Photo by Don Keisling.

Eaglets of Jefferson's Reach 2011 - June Update

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 06/06/2011 - 17:58

Eaglet Update, June 6, 2011.  Today was another important day for the eaglets of Jefferson's Reach on the James.  Of the five pair of resident eagles, I am hopeful that four of the five pair have eaglets.  Today we saw Baba & Pops' eaglet fly for the first time.  'Lee' who was named several weeks ago, flew from the nest to a tree branch about 100 yards from the nest.  We were looking at Lee through binoculars when Baba (Lee's mom) flew to the branch and perched right next to her.  Baba landed with a gizzard shad in her talons.  She started to tear off little chunks of shad and began to feed her young eaglet right there on the branch.  It was an amazing, tender sight. Baba would rip off a small piece of fish, turn her head sideways, and offer it. The fledgling bird would turn it's head and gently receive pieces of fish. Both eagles shared the gizzard shad.  For every two or three pieces of fish she fed her offspring, she would eat a piece of fish.  They shared most of the shad, and at one point, it looked like Baba was trying to get Lee to take the fish from her. These eagles work diligently training their young, as they only have months to go, before the young birds are off on their own, searching the region for new places and new eagle faces.

Three days ago, on Friday, June 3 we saw the first eaglet of the year in Jefferson's Reach take flight.  It was the first time we'd seen this bird, as their nest is out of sight of the river.  The newly named eagle, Miss Laura, an offspring of Virginia & James, flew from the nest and onto a tree branch along the side of the river. This bird is hopefully a female, since she was given a female name, named after one of the ladies on the boat that morning.  It's been about three days since Miss Laura fledged from the nest, and there is a chance that a sibling bird remains in the nest.

As for the rest of the resident eagles in Jefferson's Reach ...  Well, Varina & Enon are still feeding their young, and I expect to see one or both in the next week or so along the river bank.  Their huge nest is about 200 yards from the James, nestled in a pine tree off the south bank of the river.  The nest is currently obscured by the leaves and trees that have filled since early spring.  Varina & Enon have brought a lot of fish back to the nest over the last few months, so I am guessing they have two eaglets.  Last year, they didn't have any.  Not sure why, but they along with Bandit & Smokey in 2010 did not have any young.  This year, I expect to see Rebecca & John's offspring flying along the eastern banks of Varina Plantation soon.  They had a nest on Jones Neck in 2010, and over the fall/winter of 2010/11 they moved their nest to the western side of Deep Bottom onto Varina Plantation.  Rebecca & John are not spotted as often as last year because of the new nest site.  They must have another primary hunting ground and use the old river channel of the James as a secondary hunting area.  Rebecca & John's story is a good one and needs to be told in full. I promise to follow up on their story soon.

Good ole' Bandit & Smokey keep plugging along.  They remain in the largest territory in Jefferson's Reach.  It seems they have been continuously attacked or harassed by intruding bald eagles.  They seem to be missing many feathers often, while none of the other eagles seem to have that problem. Back in the end of February, a pair of bald eagles were harassing these two.  They would fly in and dive on the nest, causing Smokey to fly out in defense.  One of the odd behaviors the intruding eagles would do, is sit in a tree about 100-200 yards from Bandit & Smokey's nest as they sat on their clutch.  These eagles would just sit there, and cause Bandit & Smokey stress.  Bandit & Smokey would sit in the nest, or on the branch just next to the nest and cry out in a sort of eagle call that was more of a wail.  Unfortunately, one day, Bandit & Smokey were off the nest totally.  My guess is that the intruding eagles got into the nest while unguarded and killed the eggs, trying to take over the territory.  Last year, Bandit & Smokey didn't have any young, as their nest fell in February, when they would have had eggs in the nest.  

Overall, there is a possibility of four to six new eaglets in Jefferson's Reach.  In 2010, there were four total eaglets from the five resident pair.  How many will there be this year?  My guess is five, I think Varina & Enon have two sitting in the nest still, and I believe Rebecca & John have one.  Time will tell. --Capt. Mike

The Photo's Stories?  Above Left:  Here is Baba & Lee perched on a branch, high upon a bank along the western side of Deep Bottom.  Baba suddenly appeared next to Lee and began to feed her little pieces of fish.  You can see the gizzard shad in Baba's talons.  This was a pretty cool moment on the James River and luckily I had one of the best nature photographers in the world on the Discovery Barge II at the time!  --Photo by Lynda Richardson

To the Right:  Baba & Pops in all their glory, sitting on two separate branches, while their newly fledged offspring, Lee, remains perched within eyesight of the proud parents.  Something startled the two birds just after this picture was taken.  We never figured out what it was, perhaps it was the subtle call from Lee, calling out for her folks.  This is a great shot of male and female.  The female, Baba is on the lower branch, and you can see how much bigger she is than Pops, the male.  --Photo by Lynda Richardson