An Amazing Day on the James

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 12/21/2011 - 17:58
December 20, 2011. Today started like most days on the James, an early arrival to the Richmond Yacht Basin to get the boat ready for the day’s adventure. Today, I readied for a fishing trip … checking lines on rods, checking hook points and leaders, and generally making sure everything was in order and in place. By 6:45am, I was ready to embrace the day, and welcome guests on my pontoon boat, into a clean, workboat-like atmosphere. 
Some days, if I am lucky, I get to sit back on the boat and enjoy the Eastern sky for a short while, after everything is done and ready. Today, I had those precious 15 minutes, and while looking at the glow of the predawn sunrise, I thought to myself, “This is going to be a good day.”
I was right. Not only did I manage to take this series of wonderful sunrise images from a moving pontoon boat (all in 30 minutes on the James River), but I spent the day with one of my favorite folks, Bill Schieman, an angler from Virginia Beach … AND … fishing was good! On the trip Bill brought his son Bill Jr., and his son’s daughter, Tracy.
Bill Schieman is also a hero of mine and here’s why ….
About six years ago, I received a phone call and was asked if I was the guy who did flathead fishing trips on the James in Richmond. I said, “Yes” and proceeded to tell the gentleman the details of the trip. When I explained how the flathead fishing trip is a perfect ‘half-day’ adventure, he interrupted and asked, “Don’t you do full-day flathead trips?” “Sure” I responded, “It’s just that this trip makes for a perfect half day, due to the length of the river float, etc. etc.” 
So Bill books a full day fishing trip and he travels from Virginia Beach by himself. We are to meet at the Huguenot Flatwater ramp at 7AM. The morning of our trip, I come floating downriver towards Huguenot Flatwater, about 6:40 am in my raft, ready to fish. Like always, I was arriving about 20 minutes early to relax, enjoy the morning sunrise, and watch over the river’s surface for fish activity. As I paddle up to the shore, there is a man sitting about halfway down the steps to the river. He says, “Are you Mike?” and I say, “Are you Bill?” and we both chuckled a bit.
That day of fishing was awesome. But more importantly, I got to know this guy from Virginia Beach, who has such an amazing, long history of fishing in Virginia. He’s a master bass fisherman, who has more largemouth bass citations than anyone in the history of freshwater fishing in Virginia. Bill has caught over 500 largemouth bass worthy of being called a “Trophy” by the Commonwealth of VA. Plus, he’s famous for catching huge walleye, yellow perch, crappie and sunfish. In short, the guy is an amazing fisherman and has been for over 70 years. 

That first trip Bill booked with me ended with him catching 20 or more flathead catfish, many over 20 pounds along with numerous smallmouth bass, redbreasted sunfish and bluegill. He fished in that hot sun for eight hours, non-stop with a smile on his face from ear to ear. We talked all day about fishing and life, and as I gave Bill a ride back upriver to his car for his journey back to Virginia Beach, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is who I want to be when I am 82 years old.” Bill got in his car at 4:45am, drove two hours to the James River in Richmond, fished all day, had a great time and drove back home all in one day. All for the sake of enjoying a day of fishing and all at the age of 82. Yeah, Bill is one of my hero’s and always will be. 

The Photo's Stories:  Top Left:  Sunrise on the James #1.  December 20, 2011.  Early morning, taken from just downriver of the Richmond Yacht Basin, at the upriver end of Jefferson's Reach.  --Photo by Capt. Mike 

Middle Right:  Sunrise on the James #2.  December 20, 2011.  Minutes after taking the first pic at the top left, while riding dowriver, towards Jones Neck, I paused to take this image from my Canon G-9 digital camera.  I love that little camera.  --Photo by Capt. Mike

Lower Left:  This is from a fishing trip, with Bill, from last fall.  He comes to fish the James River at least twice ayear, and here I am holding the biggest blue catfish of his life, a 64 pounder!  To this day, it is still a club record for the Tidewater Angler's Club, a fishing club Bill has belonged to since the 1960's.  --Photo by Sheldon Aery

Bottom Left:  Sunrise on the James #3.  December 20, 2011.  This is one of my favorite sunrise images in a while. Something about it grabs me, perhaps it's that first moment of direct sunlight, or the pallette of colors in the sky with the rays shooting through the clouds, or maybe it's the total lack of wind, creating a near perfect reflection of a magnificent sky.  Maybe it's all that, and more, of which I just can't explain.  Maybe it was just being there.  --Photo by Capt. Mike   


Eagle Tour Photographer Spotlight: Steve Baranoff

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 12/06/2011 - 19:10
December 6, 2011.  I find myself writing about the James River in ‘clumps’.  When I get enough time … I write.  With that said, after my recent ‘Fall Fishing Report’, I am following up with another blog post about some wonderful photography taken on my Bald Eagle Tour this fall.  The images in this post are the work of a photographer who has been booking Bald Eagle Tours on a regular basis.  Over the next month or two I plan to highlight the work of a few more photographers who have taken my Bald Eagle Tours.
Steve Baranoff is a nature photographer who lives in Richmond, Virginia and Austin, Texas.  He takes his talents and the lessons he’s learned throughout his life and channels it into his current work. 
And his work is very good. 
Steve worked as an electrical engineer and has perfectly combined his ‘engineering brain’ with an ‘art seed’ planted by his father, who worked as a painter, print maker and university art professor.  He is a member of many nature-based associations, including the Richmond Audubon Society, which promote stewardship and awareness of natural things.  And he freely shares his knowledge of photography and birds with his associates. 
His vision takes him into his subject’s natural surroundings, where he can capture images of birds in their habitat.  From there, he transforms his digital captures into artistic prints, shown as Bird Art.  Steve produces his own prints with archival inks and paper.  The images in this post, along with many others are available for sale through his website … 
What does Steve say about Discover The James' Bald Eagle Tours?  He states, "Capt. Mike's Bald Eagle tour is one of Richmond's hidden secrets."  
His love of photography, birding and boating makes the Bald Eagle Tour a natural way for him to capture incredible images of bald eagles (along with a few osprey, great blue heron, and even a songbird or two).  I can’t wait for him to get back from Texas so he can take some more wonderful images of the wildlife along the James River… Come on back soon Steve!      --Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories?: Top Right:  This is one of my favorite images Steve has taken, although I have to admit, there are many.  Here, one of the resident bald eagles of Jefferson's Reach is caught at the perfect moment of grabbing a meal from the James River.  Based on the ripples on the water, there may have been a good headwind (eagles usually fly into the wind when they either land, or fly in to snatch a meal on the water) and this bird may have slowed down it's process of snatching the fish.  Either way, this shot is awesome!  --Photo by Steve Baranoff
Middle Left:  Bandit, up close!  What can be said about this bird that hasn't been said (alot actually, more to come soon).  You can even see a scale in the beak.  During a fairly close up experience with Bandit this day, Steve broke out his long lens and captured this wonderful moment with this bird.  --Photo by Steve Baranoff
Lower Right:  I don't place enough immature eagle shots on my posts.  That's going to change though soon, as many wonderful shots were taken this year.  Here is a great shot of an immature flying with it's mature partent.  I believe this is Varina and her 2011 offspring, Liberty.  To read more about this immature bird, Liberty, click here (great story actually!).  
--Photo by Steve Baranoff
Lower Left: This very well could be Liberty, Varina & Enon's only 2011 offspring.  I love this image, as it shows off the inspirational markings on the underside of the wings.  It's no wonder our ancestors loved these birds so much.  Also, note the beak color.  The end of the beak is dark, meaning this immature bald eagle is a very young bird, less than two years of age.  --Photo by Steve Baranoff


Fall Blue Catfishing on the James River Update

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Mon, 12/05/2011 - 11:56
December 5, 2011. Fishing has been outstanding on the James recently. Throughout November, and into the first week of December huge blue catfish have been bowing up my fishing poles one after the other. Wow, fantastic catfishing in December. It’s funny how my perspective of catfishing has changed over my lifetime. 
From the humble beginnings of fishing for bluegill on Russles Pond, a neighborhood pond, my angling adventures have slowly turned into a passion and now has become a lifetime’s journey of ‘Discovery on the James River’. 
When I was in my teens I thought catfish only bit at night and in the heat of the summer and spent many nights fishing the Occoquan River and the outflow of the Possum Point power plant on a tributary of the Potomac River.  Baiting a hook under the light of a lantern, if I caught a 10-pound catfish, that was a monster. Most were channel cats, but there were a few blue catfish mixed in, and even a flathead or two. Before ‘Discovering the James’, my biggest catfish was a 25 pound flathead catfish caught from the Occoquan when I was 25. 
Today, on the James, fishing for catfish is much different … I fish with bigger fishing rods, from a boat, and I get the opportunity to fish with lots of different people, both young and older alike. One of the highlights for me is seeing someone reel in a big fish for the first time, or better yet, to see a kid reel in a big fish.  In the image at the top, two youngsters are holding fish they caught at nearly the same moment. The biggest fish, caught by Nic weighted 51 pounds, while Daniel holds a 38-pound blue cat … caught at the end of November.
The other images are of two recent catches. The middle image is of a fellow who caught a 70-pound blue catfish last week. Funny how big fish like this can lurk in areas you never thought would hold such big fish. I am not going to divulge this secret spot, but it’s only the second time I ever fishing it, and believe me, I’ll be out there again soon. The last image, the bottom photo, is of 80-something year old Bill Schieman. Bill has been fishing with me for five or six years now and is one of the finest fishermen in the history of freshwater fishing in Virginia. He has to his credit over 500 largemouth bass citations (over 22” or 8 pounds!). He loves to catch big yellow perch, crappie, walleye and of course, big blue cats on the James. This fish weighed in around 35 pounds. His personal best with me is a 64 pounder caught last November.

Yes, catfishing is much different now than it was when I was younger. 

--Capt. Mike

A Day on the James with Sturgeon

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Tue, 10/25/2011 - 13:44
October 2011.  Today was the third in a series of trips on the James River with science teachers from Prince George High School. Through a grant at VCU Life Sciences, Anne Wright, has developed a series of teacher workshops that highlight the migration patterns for certain species of anadromous fish that annually inhabit the James River. These fish include the mighty Atlantic sturgeon, blueback herring, American shad and hickory shad. 
What is an anadromous fish? They are fish that live in the ocean, or in saltwater, and migrate up rivers along the coast, into freshwater in order to spawn. 
Over the past two years, the same group of teachers has been ‘Discovering the James’ with me on the Discovery Barge II through Anne’s workshops. Last fall, we took a trip downriver and studied the history of the river while learning about the migration patterns of herring and shad. This past spring we enjoyed a day with bald eagles, blueback herring and were introduced to the odd looking, anadromous sea lamprey
This recent trip, in early October was a very special one, as we ventured downriver from the Richmond Yacht Basin to Presquile Island … the home base for serious Atlantic sturgeon research. Our goal was to watch the best team of Atlantic Sturgeon researchers on the James River lead by VCU doctoral candidate, Matt Balazik. His team included brother Martin Balazik and fellow sturgeon researcher, Bree Langford.
We were to meet Matt’s team at Presquile Island around 9:30AM. When we arrived they already had two nets in the river, soaking for about 40 minutes. The 600 foot-long nets were set near the edge of the river channel, just off a very large flat. The gillnets had different mesh sizes, or size of the square holes in the net. The smaller net had 10 ½” mesh, while the other was 13”. These were very big nets, but we were after very big fish. 
Atlantic sturgeon grow to over 300 pounds on the James River. Historically they could exceed 800 pounds. The search for this prehistoric fish kept us all at the edge of our pontoon seats. Matt and his team positioned the boat and began to pull the first net. On that first pull of the smaller mesh net, about half way into it, Martin yelled, “Fish On!” Sure enough a 5-foot sturgeon was entangled in the net. They quickly pulled it onboard, untangled the sturgeon, and placed it into a large holding tank onboard his research vessel.
The second, larger mesh net yielded no sturgeon. As the nets were checked, they were placed back into the river for another set. While they soaked in the river, waiting for another sturgeon to swim by, Matt’s team and our team headed to Presquile Island. Matt had his equipment already set up. All the electronics and medical tools were ready to perform. After securing the boats, Matt carefully carried the sturgeon onto the shore and placed it into a large, shallow tank. Once in the tank he ran a small amount of electricity into the water, and the great fish instantly turned upside down. This process off adding a small amount of electrical current calmed the male sturgeon. 
Everything was ready for Matt to start the procedure of medically inserting a radio beacon tag in the sturgeon. He made a small incision on the bottom of the fish, slid the radio beacon tag into him, and sewed the incision perfectly with a series of stitches. Matt worked with the steady hands of an ichthyologist surgeon. Matt was, for the moment … the “Sturgeon General”. Once the fish was stitched, the electricity was turned off and it immediately turned upright and was ready for release. A moment later the feisty Atlantic sturgeon was again swimming in the James River preparing for a return to the sea.
The radio tag will track the migration of this fish for years to come, offering valuable information to Matt’s team, but also Anne’s team of science teachers. They will also study the tracking information provided by this fish and many others that Matt has already captured, tagged and released. The teachers will present the information they gain back in the classroom. 

This valuable work will not only prove to be instrumental for the Atlantic sturgeon, but also inspire future generations of ichthyologist, fishing guides, science teachers, outreach specialists and environmental researchers they present this information to the students at Prince George High School.
--Capt. Mike
The Photos Stories?  Upper Right:  The Prince George High School science teachers are watching Matt's team work the sturgeon nets just below Presquile Island on the James River.
Upper Left:  Matt carries the Atlantic sturgeon from the holding tank on the VCU research vessel to the holding tank on Presquile Island.  This tank is where the radio tag will be surgically implanted.  
Lower Right:  The PGHS team looks on as Matt locates the point of incision.  Martin Balazik, one of Matt's team members, is in the far background.
Middle Left:  The steady hands of the 'Sturgeon General' (Matt Balazik) sew up the incision after the raido tag had been implanted into the body cavity of the Atlantic sturgeon.  Here he is midway through tying a series of stitches.
Lower Left:  The happy Atlantic sturgeon is inches away from the river's surface.  Matt explained that tossing them back into the river, is the easiest way to release them.  In fact, that is how they usually hit the water when the breach.  With a little photoshop action, perhaps I can claim that I captured a sturgeon breaching and this is the fish just before it hit the water.  Hmmmmm .... looks like Matt and I may have a project for next August when these prehistoric fish return to the James River once again.  


Jefferson's Reach

Submitted by Capt. Mike on Wed, 10/05/2011 - 10:08

October 4, 2011.  It occurred to me recently that I should reiterate the story of Jefferson's Reach, a section of the James River that runs from the Richmond Yacht Basin, to Deep Bottom Boat Landing ...  a little over five miles of river.  With a little more detail, here is the story ...

The James River is full of life, history, and opportunities including the opportunity to forge a special friendship.  In the summer of 2009 through December of 2010 I was honored with a brief but powerful friendship with Danny Jefferson.  Danny was a Chickahominy Indian, and a respected man of their Tribal Council and very active in the community.

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

He taught me a lot about bald eagles, but that evening after we talked, I realized he taught me a few things about life along the way.  Now he will forever be a part of who I am becoming on the river as he has become a spiritual river guide for me.  Because of this deep connection, I wanted to find a way to honor Danny on the River.  Something deep and spiritual because that was the kind of guy he was.

It took a few weeks, but an idea came to me and I found a way to honor Danny Jefferson in my work on the river.  People ask where I run my eagle tours and I respond, "On the James River between Deep Bottom Boat Landing and the Richmond Yacht Basin."  It's about a five-mile stretch, half of which is in the parts of two oxbows (Jones Neck and Hatcher Island) and the other half is the main river that connects them.  In that "reach" of river five pair of resident bald eagles have their nests, which are the eagles I follow most of the time. 

This is the area Danny 'reached' out to me and the lucky folks we carried out on the river on the Discovery Barge II.  

I believe naming natural things gets you closer to them; it helps them become more familiar.  The stretch of the James River between Deep Bottom and the Richmond Yacht Basin is where Danny and I worked together and it now has a name ... 'Jefferson's Reach' ... named after a Chickahominy Indian man who reached out to many on the river.  

Now when people ask where I work, I can say more than the James River, I can say, "Jefferson's Reach." Or when beginning a history or bald eagle tour, I can start by letting people know they are in Jefferson's Reach.  What a perfect segue into talking about history, eagles, and Virginia Indians.  -- Capt. Mike

The Photos Stories?  Top Right: This is an image that 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.  This image was taken from the Richmond Yacht Basin, just outside of my boat slip. This is the upriver end, or the beginning of Jefferson's Reach.  --Photo by Capt. Mike

Bottom Left: This is the necklace Danny made and presented to me on the Discovery Barge II.  He gave it to me after one of our Capt. John Smith Watertrail Tours.  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 more about Atlantic Sturgeon (and the local work being done for them), click here.  To learn more about the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, click here.  --Made by Danny Jefferson