Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Season of Plenty

When we moved to Black Mountain six weeks ago, I was thrilled to have quick access to not one, but two major grocery chains. In addition to the Bi-Lo just a 5-minute drive from the house, Mr. Ingles himself lives nearby and maintains his flagship store another minute down the road.

Ain't she a beaut?
At our last house, it was a solid 20-minute drive to the grocery store. Add another 10-15 minutes to that during the summer beach season.
The first time I went in, I walked around this massive edifice to food for more than an hour. That kind of behavior is fairly typical for me and it drives Sue mad. She'd rather run in with a list and get out as quickly as possible. Me? I like to browse.
Life seemed just ducky at the supermarket, until I learned about the weekly farmers market. Sure, I've stopped at roadside farmstands to buy my produce in the summertime, but I've never lived in a place that had a market - especially one that could replace so much of my weekly food consumption with glorious, locally-produced, organic, free-range, happy products.So this is where I shop now. The Black Mountain Tailgate Market meets each Saturday, from 9 a.m. until noon, behind the First Baptist Church. Since I started going there, I know the names of the people who grow my vegetables and fruits, my chickens, my eggs, my grass-fed beef, my pork. I also know the people who make my pasta and bread, my cheese, my cider and roast my coffee beans. It is without a doubt the most-delicious, cleanest tasting food I have ever had the privilege to eat.
Does it cost more? Yes it does, but I'm willing to pay $3 for a dozen eggs that taste like these and come from yard chickens - not the laying hens in industrial egg houses that live in cages so small they cannot move and have their beaks clipped square so they can't peck at the chickens beside them. I'll pay the extra $2.50 a pound to know my chickens and eggs ate a diverse and natural diet - not one of corn and animal by-products. I can see, smell and taste the difference.
I love being able to make this choice. The fact that the market will run until the end of October has me thinking about ways to preserve these foods so Sue and I will be able to enjoy them through the winter. I've made it my mission to learn how to can, pickle and freeze foods properly. We've always appreciated fresh, local foods, but this little market on the edge of town is changing the way I think and eat.
I know everyone doesn't have a farmers' market they can go to every week, but if you do and you haven't, please go - meet the people who grow real food and support them. We'll all be better off for it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Catfishing in the raw

I need not remind you it's been brutally hot for the past week here in the East.
Instead of holing up in the house this weekend with the AC cranking, I opted to hop in the truck and drive 4 hours east to what is arguably the hottest place in the Carolinas - the Sandhills region. I did so not because I'm some sort of masochist (well, I'll let you be the judge of that once you've read through this post) but to visit a great friend and get back to fishing at its very core.
I've known Lincoln for the better part of a decade. He epitomizes everything I love about the South. Sure, he's hospitable, but I think that term is overused in describing Southerners. He's also generous, genuine, honest and a master of tomfoolery. He's the only friend I have who whittles, makes persimmon bread in a cast iron pan, maintains a pack of purpose-driven beagles and catches oversized fish with his bare hands.
That's right, Lincoln belongs to a small tribe of catfish grabblers (also called noodlers, gravellers or hoggers, depending on what part of the country you're in) that regularly pulls flathead and blue catfish weighing more than 40 pounds out of their favored stretch of North Carolina's Pee Dee River.
Ever since my first grabbling experience two summers ago, I've been anxious to get back to the river. After regretfully turning down a couple of invitations already this year, I took the opportunity to join in the last fishing expedition of the year and hoped the success of what has been a terrific season would continue for just one more day.
I arrived in Southern Pines an hour before sundown at the home Lincoln now shares with his bride of one year, Cameron. They live smack in the middle of the state's best and most beautiful horse country, and the epicenter of the iconic long leaf pine forest, which is no accident, as the couple is driven by a passion for fox hunting that takes them around the globe in pursuit of great horses, great hounds and exotic places.
As I pulled down the long drive, I noticed a wall of storm clouds advancing from the north. In my travels, I have seen lightning ricochet off mountaintops in the Colorado Rockies and powerful squalls whip the ocean into a washing machine, but I think there is no more impressive place to witness a thunderstorm than the Carolina Sandhills. It is a special place.
Cameron is a consummate hostess, and within moments of my arrival, a small dinner party was underway. Neighbors, family and other grabblers sat down to a sumptuous feast of slow-cooked, Moroccan-style lamb, cucumber, tomato and mint salad, and plenty of good red wine. And just when the dinner plates were cleared, Cameron produced a mandarin-filled cake with coconut frosting that was bigger than my head, cut into heavy slices that pushed my stomach to its breaking limit. More wine and conversation followed, and then it was off to bed with visions of giant catfish swimming in my head.
The next morning, I awoke to a rooster crowing on top of the homestead's chicken coop, where they keep some 16 laying hens. For breakfast; a bowl of peeled and sliced SC peaches and a farm fresh hard-boiled egg - simply perfect - and then we were off.
At the river, we met up with the rest of the day's group, including two veteran grabblers - Lincoln's brother Lee, and friend, Rupert. The rest had experience ranging from occasional participants (like myself) to first-timers. In all, we totaled 16, with perhaps 8 or 9 active fishermen and the rest, enthusiastic spectators. I should say that, although one might question the wisdom of bringing such a large group to their most-prized fishing holes, Lincoln, Lee and Rupert are extremely generous fellows who, nevertheless, probably wouldn't think twice about distributing Sandhills justice to anyone who abuses the privilege. (Besides, if you put me on the same stretch of river tomorrow and told me to find any one of the dozen or so catfish rocks we tried Sunday, I doubt I could find a single one.)
So now; a description of grabbling method and technique...
To hand-fish large, free-swimming catfish from a body of water, one must first have a place with large catfish. These are typically shallow, warm-water rivers with an abundance of large rocks and/or submerged trees where catfish will take up residence. The fish are normally either the native blue catfish, or the introduced flathead catfish; both of which may attain considerable size, as proven out by the recent rod-and-reel capture of the pending 130-pound, world record blue cat in Missouri. The water level must allow grabblers to wade or swim to likley catfish hangouts and then dive down to reach around hoping for a bite. That's right, I said bite. The most common way to grabble a fish is to stick your hand into the entrance of a catfish lair and have the fish defend itself by latching onto your outstretched fingers. Then, the idea is to turn the tables on the fish by shoving your other hand into its mouth or gill plate and wrenching it out of its hiding place. I'm totally serious. Why doesn't the fish just swim away, you ask? because it feels safe in its hiding place and because the gang of grabblers blocks all entrances/exits to the lair with rocks or their feet except one - the one through which the fish is to be grabbled from. Does it hurt, you ask? Ummm, yes. Blue catfish have strong jaws, sharp teeth and a nasty disposition. They are more likely to inflict pain on the grabbler than flatheads, which have smaller teeth and are slightly less-inclined to defend themselves. Either way, a successful grabbler's hands will look like they've been run through a cheese grater. Often, a stick is required to feel around in the hole to A: figure out if anyone is home and B: coax the fish to come closer to the entrance where it can be successfully grabbled.
Important vocabulary to know:
Jawber - term used to describe the stick-poking a grabbler might resort to to reposition a fish (i.e. Go down there and jawber him a bit to get him to come closer to the hole.) May also be used to describe any poking action (i.e. Hey bubba, watch where the end of your stick is. You nearly jawbered out my eye.)
Alligator arm - term used to describe a timid, often neophyte grabbler who is concerned about going up to his/her shoulders into a hole under a rock the size of a Volkswagon and extending his/her arm into the murky gloom hoping a giant fish will bite them on the hand (i.e. He was a likely looking lad, who talked a big game, but when we got him down to the river it turned out he had alligator arms.)
Noodle - another term for grabbling etc., but also, ironically, the universally recognized name for the long, tubular, foam floating devices grabblers often use to cross sections of deep water (i.e. Damn, all this noodling is making me tired. Pass me that noodle so I can rest.)
With temperatures forecast to hit 100 degrees and an equally obscene humidity level, the gang was anxious to cover the 2-mile trek to the river and hit the water. By the time we reached the shoreline at 10 a.m., I was dripping sweat and rubbing horsefly welts.
We made our way to the first known catfish rock in short order, but it was empty. At the second, there were only two holes for the fish to escape, so Lincoln blocked one and sent me down with a jawbering stick to see if anyone was home. Though the water level was low and visibility good, by the time I descended three feet to the bottom, I couldn't see more than a few inches in front of my face. I reached around and found the hole, which was about as big as a watermelon, then stuck my arm in as far as I could and waved the stick around. At first, all I could feel was the cavern wall and gravel bottom, but then there was something else - something soft and smooth that gave a little as I gently probed. I ran out of air and had to surface. "He's in there," I reported.
With our quarry located, the grabblers broke into two teams, with anglers at each entrance to the lair. From there, we took turns trying to snatch the fish or push it closer to the other side of the rock where someone from the other team could catch it. After 20 or so individual attempts, Ryan went down to the hole I was covering with Lincoln and, after a lengthy dive, resurfaced with only his lips and said calmly, "I've got his tail." At the news, Lincoln and I dove immediately to assist. Unlike a fish grabbed by the mouth, a tail-caught catfish is liable to be lost simply because it can easily break free from your grasp. Halfway down, I grabbed onto the first thing I could find, but released it quickly because I thought I had mistakly latched onto someones' thigh. When I resurfaced, I could see Lincoln and Ryan were positioned in such a way that I could not have had them - I had just let go of the fish. Luckily, Ryan still had his precarious hold and I went back down. This time I could tell I had the fish by the base of the tail, but only for a few seconds, as it kicked away and broke our grip, only to scoot back under the rock. In its haste however, the fish swam all the way to the opposite entrance, where Mark and Lee tagged up to wrestle the beast to the surface.
Pinned to the top of the rock, the big blue catfish lay stunned while a string was run under the gill plate and out the mouth and then tied off. With that, the fish was ours!
Flush with success, we moved to down river to other favorite rocks. Some had fish, but most did not, and the fish we did find all managed to elude capture one way or another. And so, some five hours later, the 2010 Pee Dee River grabbling season came to an end, but not before everyone, including several intrepid young women (lest you think this is a sport dominated by drunken men) had a chance to tangle with the whiskered denizens of the deep. Back on shore, the fish tipped the scales at 33 pounds - an impressive catch by any means, but far short of this season's high mark, a 56-pound flathead.
I still haven't caught that giant flathead that lurks in my dreams, but I knew as I said my goodbyes, that I'll be back again next year to give it another try.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Citizen science: Flutterbys and the Devil's darning needle

In addition to writing again, I thought I'd open the case file on my interest in the natural world around me - not just the critters I can catch, kill and eat.

With that in mind, I called on an old friend yesterday to see if he could use some help making an inventory of the flora and fauna inhabiting Lake James State Park.
I first met Sean when he was a ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park and I was a reporter at the Tideland News in Swansboro, NC. It was during a severe cold spell during January or February and even the sound had started to freeze over. There was a call in to the news room that someone had found an alligator out on the ice. The White Oak River Basin is right around the northernmost limit for American alligator. Typically they hibernate to escape the winter, but for some reason, this one had decided to venture out on one of the coldest days of the year.
I grabbed a camera and a notepad and drove down to the creek - this was big news for a small town like Swansboro. By the time I got there, a couple of locals had thrown a lasso around the gator and drug it to shore. Sean was there too, and had taken custody of the four foot lizard (which was frozen solid) in the name of the State of North Carolina. I took his picture for the front page, holding the alligator that had died in the shape of a donut, and we've been friends ever since.
Sean has moved up the ranks in the state parks and recreation service, and now he's the man who decides who does what and what goes where at Lake James. He and his wife, Sarah, and their three young children live 40 minutes away and we are all happily reunited after five years of living on opposite ends of the state.
The Southeast region has been going through a bit of a heat wave of late, but I learned on my short drive east that heat is a relative term. From the Town of Black Mountain (elev. 2,400 feet above sea level) down to Lake James (1,200) the temperature rose from the mid-80s to the mid-90s in less than 20 minutes.
Sean was delayed with important park business, but he sent me on my way to a forested creek that emptied into a secluded pond to look for dragonflies and butterflies, to beef up the park's known biodiversity.
Admittedly, I'm a bird guy, but like many birders in the last decade, I've tried to become familiar with other flying things. Butterflies and dragonflies are big, colorful targets for this interest and the excellent Oxford University Press field guides; "Butterflies Through Binoculars" by Jeffrey Glassberg and "Dragonflies Through Binoculars" by Sidney Dunkle made it much more palatable for bird geeks to take up. I mean, not many people can stomach taking the plunge from binocular-wearing nerd to butterfly net-swinging maniac.
I hiked down to the small pond and set to work. It's been a long time since I've sat down in the woods and tried to take notice of all the life around me. The hunter in me smiled when an unseen whitetail blew nervously from across the water. Bullfrogs shattered the solitude as they fled my presence like skipping stones. A watersnake (I'm not sure what kind) swam around the bend before I could get a good look.
Oh and the dragonflies. A few photographs and a quick scan through my field guide proved out the most common were slaty skimmers, with a few blue dashers, common whitetails and a beautiful eastern amberwing mixed in. There was an ongoing battle amongst the dragonflies; as individuals jockeyed for the best perches, defended tiny territories, hunted passing insects and generally made a show of themselves all over the edges of the pond.
I looked for butterflies too, but the pickings were slim - an eastern tailed blue, and azure of some sort (summer I think) and a few Carolina satyrs flitted back in the shadows of the forest. Perhaps the lack of diversity had something to do with the paucity of flowers on which to feed. Maybe it will change as the season progresses.
Having looked through the obvious insects at the pond, I decided to follow the creek up into the forest. It was blessedly cooler in there, but the dragons and butters all but disappeared as I headed upstream. I kept going, knowing from my earlier interest in bugs that the inner forest holds few, but interesting treasures.
Out of the corner of my eye, movement in a shaft of sunlight. There, perched on a tree trunk that had fallen across the creek, was a large gray dragonfly I had never seen before. It sat calmly as I approached for a better look and a more impressive beast with four wings I haven't laid eyes upon. From its head to the tip of its tail, the dragonfly was three inches long, with sinister, separated eyes (most dragonflies' eyes meet) and cloaked in mottled gray camouflage. This was one seriously bad bug. After a little "getting to know you" time, I was able to take some decent photographs and opened my book. Unquestionably, it was a gray petaltail (tachopteryx thoreyi) which, according to Dunkle, belongs to an ancient family of dragonflies, of which there is only one representative in eastern North America. Considering dragonfly fossil records go back some 300 million years, the gray petaltail must be pretty old - and it looks and acts the part too. Unlike the raucous, pinwheeling dragonflies out at the pond, the gray petaltail was concerned with one thing and one thing only - hunting down large prey. I watched it pursue a large moth that barely escaped by dropping into a hollow stump when it felt the sharp claws of death scratching at its wings. If the skimmers and others that live in the sunlight are the puffed up street punks, petty thieves and pushers of the dragonfly world, then the gray petaltail is Keyser Soze - uninterested in fame or reputation, it lives in the shadows, where the really bad stuff goes down.
Finally, the stifling heat of the late afternoon - Sean was able to join me for a short time - drove us back to the road and I turned my truck west towards the relief of the mountains.
The insects we positively identified will go into a database that keeps track of all species found at Lake James. To say we barely scratched the surface would be an understatement, but we'll keep at it; chipping away as we learn more and more about the creatures great and small here in McDowell County, NC.
Some helpful Web sites are: Butterflies of North Carolina and the NC Odonate Website.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Opening Day

Welcome to my blog.
Damn, what a way to start - seems exciting and depressing at the same time. You'd think a guy who writes for a living could come up with a better lede, but there it is.
This post has been a long time coming. You see, I've been reading blogs for several years now. the best of them have great content, excellent photos and, most importantly, focus. That's my problem - what to focus on. Well, I'm unemployed after 10 years in the newspaper business; I could write about that, but who wants to read self-pitying drivel? I'm a Yankee from Boston who ended up in North Carolina, but let's face it, most everyone in this country has a translocation story. I'm married 9 years to an incredible woman who miraculously continues to wake up each morning and decide to stay with me instead of packing up our two dogs and cat and make a run for it. My passions, aside from those I have for my wife, Sue, are hunting, cooking, nature watching and fishing. Probably in that order. Now we're getting somewhere. I can write about these.
It's funny. I started out birdwatching with my father when I was a little kid. I learned how to fish from him too, but hunting wasn't a part of my life until the last decade or so. Maybe it was because Dad doesn't hunt, or because opportunities were limited in the greater Boston area where I grew up. All I know is I have always, since I can remember, wanted to be a hunter. I used to go out in the backyard with a wooden yardstick and pretend it was a shotgun. I killed a lot of doves that way (and I knew they were doves thanks to Dad).
In my early teens, I even went so far as took take the Massachusetts Hunter Safety course. And Dad, bless his heart, took it with me. I scored a 90 of the final exam, but I didn't go hunting until 15 had passed and I'd moved to North Carolina with my then-girlfriend, Sue.
It took a long time and I have a lot of mentors to thank, but I now consider myself a passable outdoorsman, though my hunting buddies like to tease me because I can't tie a knot and I hate camping. All I know is I want to get better, a lot better, at it and continue doing it with some of the greatest friends I have ever met.
It's a similar story with the cooking. I came to it late, but it is now an all-consuming passion that I pursue every day. It only makes things worse that I try to incorporate the fish and wild game in the freezer into the menu. These obsessions feed upon one another to a point of distraction. I post a weekly dinner menu on the fridge and keep an inventory of all foodstuffs to what some might say crosses the line of anal retentiveness. So I'll write about cooking too.
This is my blog about hunting, fishing, nature, cooking, marriage, pets, politics, family and friends. If it lacks focus, sue me. I just want to tell some stories. I hope you enjoy and come back often.