Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Catch and Release Me From Your Sense Of Morality

"If the fisherman loves the fish, why does he catch them in his net?" ~ paraphrased
When I was a kid growing up in suburban Boston, I was a fisherman of single-minded addiction. There wasn't a brook, river, pond or lake within bicycling distance that I didn't visit on a regular basis. More often than not, my return trip home was complicated by a balance-busting pendulum of slimy, spiny fish destined for the pan.

In those days before cable television, I had no sense of the argument for catching a legal-sized fish and voluntarily releasing it. It just wasn't something I considered. Fish were for eating. Then the New England Sports Network found its way into the idiot box in our living room and I started watching the likes of Roland Martin, Jimmy Houston and Bill Dance catch giant largemouth bass by the boatload and LET THEM GO! At first, my 12-year-old brain just couldn't process what it was seeing. I thought they were all fools. I mean, who would go through all that trouble to drive down to Lake Okeechobee, catch a 7-pound bass, let it go and be satisfied to return to the dock empty handed?

Spring 2010. I let it go.
Of course, being the impressionable young sportsman that I was, I eventually started letting my fish go too. According to my TV heroes, it was all about conserving the resource for the future. I wasn't the only one letting my fry pan go empty in the name of those fishermen to come. An entire generation of American anglers has grown up with a catch-and-release mantra ringing in its ears.

The tao of catch-and-release angling is stronger than ever. It's a simple sacrifice anyone can make to help them feel like they're practicing good conservation and protecting the resource. Over the years, however, I find myself starting to come full circle. I don't go fishing nearly as often as I used to or I'd like to. When I do, it's often with an unapologetic attitude of filling the cooler up. Of course, I follow all state and local regulations - keeping only fish of legal size and never taking more than my allotted limit (or fewer if my blood lust is satisfied early). I suppose this path I have chosen, to feed myself and my wife with as much natural and wild food as possible, has a lot to do with my current fishing philosophy. I have also been swayed by more than a few voices who argue the act of tricking a fish to bite something it believes to be food, wrestling it from its habitat and damaging its overall health by sapping its energy reserves and improperly handling it, only to release it so that you can do it again may be a bit, ummm... misguided. The polar opposite of catch-and-release would be the Swiss and German fisheries management philosophy that all fish brought to the net must be kept and utilized by the angler. Let it be known, I disagree with these mandates wholeheartedly, but I think it's interesting to see the other side of the coin.

I am slightly amused by those who believe practicing catch-and-release alone is an adequate strategy for preserving fish populations. I was recently directed to check out the group Greenfish, which seems to suggest this is the case. The web site makes some mention of "other conservation measures," but the overriding mission is to convince recreational anglers catch-and-release is the answer to all evils. (It should be noted that Greenfish is an apparel company that is out to make money. The boast that it donates a whopping 1% of profits to non-profit groups that tout the shared catch-and-release philosophy to the masses is rather unimpressive to me).

Food for thought should include the growing evidence that fish released by good-intentioned anglers suffer mortality rates due to their brief human encounters. A very short list might include these results for striped bass, trout and marlin. Note that the authors of these articles (and others, should you choose to investigate further) are often using the data to argue for or against catch-and-release fishing. In almost every study and species, the mortality rates are related to water conditions, how the fish were handled and what type of tackle they were caught with.

The point I'm trying to make is; while there is no doubt practicing catch-and-release is a tool for the conservation of many gamefish species, it is but a screwdriver in the box. Far more important are efforts to protect and preserve valuable fish habitat from development and pollution and maintain high water quality throughout the environment. If letting a trophy bass go back into the pond so it can spawn and produce future generations makes you feel good, keep doing it. If your passion for fishing goes beyond providing the raw materials for trout almondine, pursue it. Understand though (are you listening Greenfish?) there is a lot more to fisheries management and conservation than releasing your catch to fight again another day.
For some fishermen, catching a mess is a worthy goal, and that's A-OK with me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

If They Could Talk

I'm not much for collections, though that hasn't always been the case. As a kid I collected comic books and baseball cards, but for all the wrong reasons. I read the comics and I looked at the cards. I liked organizing them and archiving them, but I didn't love them. The cards and comics represented my first investments - stuff I hoped one day would make me rich. That will never happen of course. My entrepreneurial instinct has never been very keen. I haven't sold any of them and I don't intend to. It would hardly be worth it. They sit in boxes and 3-ring binders in the closet (much to Sue's chagrin) waiting for when the time is right to be handed over to my nephews. Maybe they will be able to find the honest joy in them that I never did. (And there's always the chance Barry Bonds will be exonerated, embraced as the greatest baseball player that ever lived and his rookie card will skyrocket to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, right?)

If ever there were a pastime that produces artifacts begging to be collected, it is that of the sportsman. Antique fishing lures, ancient duck decoys, bamboo fly rods, old guns - it's all there. I know a few passionate people who collect such things and I am always grateful to see their latest finds. It gives them a connection to the hunters and fishermen of distant generations who shared our affliction. I understand the magnetic pull they exert, but I have little desire to acquire such things and decorate my house with them.

In spite of this, I do own a few relics of days afield gone by and they are among my most cherished possessions - perhaps not for their historical importance, but for the stories behind them.

When I was in middle school, we took a family vacation to Arizona one winter. Mom had a childhood friend who lived in Phoenix, who we stayed with a few days before hitting the road in a rental car and heading north toward the Grand Canyon. Like most of our outings, we didn't really have an itinerary to stick to - just follow the road and see where it took us.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped at a motel off the highway. I can't remember where it was, but if you can picture a long, isolated stretch of asphalt cutting through the darkness of the desert at night and a glowing neon "vacancy" sign, you'll know the place.

The man in the lobby who checked us in was an elderly fellow with a sparse gray beard and kind eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He was strong and leathery, like an old cowboy should look I thought. Curiously, he stood behind a glass display case filled with duck decoys and they were for sale. If you can imagine a stranger place to find and buy an antique duck block than that rundown flop house in the middle of the Arizona desert...

Regardless how they got there, I was enthralled. They might have been the first duck decoys I'd ever laid eyes on. There were all manner of types and styles - an eclectic collection of hand-carved and factory dekes. The old man had them priced at $40 apiece; didn't matter if it was a red-breasted merganser signed by its maker or a paper mache Canada goose, mass-produced for Sears and Roebuck. After we moved all of the luggage into the room, I wandered back over to the lobby. It was pretty obvious to everyone involved that I was going to make a play for one of those birds. After watching me examining his collection for several minutes, the old man asked me which decoy I liked best. There was a slick looking northern pintail drake that was almost perfect. Whoever had carved it knew a thing or two about ducks and the paint job was so good, the bird almost looked real. And there was an old, beat-up hen scaup that caught my eye for whatever reason. Her body was chip-carved, the paint was faded and her bill was broken. My dad walked in to check on me. "Hey Dad, if you were going to pick between this one and this one, which would you chose?" Dad probably gave the old man a look before he stooped over and looked in the case. "I like that pintail," he said. "That bird's got class." I considered his opinion, but my mind was already made up. "I like that scaup. It's got some stories to tell." The old man said he'd sell us the scaup for half-price and Dad forked over the $20 while I took the duck. "I think you made the right choice," said the old man with a wink as he handed me the decoy.

I've had her going on 25 years now and that hen scaup still holds a place of honor in our house. I once took the duck to a renowned decoy carver on the Carolina coast to see if he could tell me anything about its history. Without any identifying stamps or signatures, all he could venture was that it is a factory-made block of relatively little value. To me, her monetary value is inconsequential to the friendship that was forged that day and the tale of how she came to be in my living room~

My grandfather on my father's side was a fisherman. Though I cannot recall any time he and I went, my father says Grandpa dabbled in all variety of angling pursuits. One year it would be surf casting, the next it would be jigging for mackerel. His constant favorite, however, was bass and he liked nothing better than to troll balsa wood plugs from a 2-man canoe around the edges of a lake.

Long before he died, more than 10 years ago, Grandpa started handing down his fishing equipment to me. I have old Shakespeare bait-casting reels and an ancient tacklebox filled with giant spinners that must have been meant to catch muskies or pike. Most of the stuff is up in the attic, but I do keep a checkbook-sized streamer case from Grandpa's days chasing salmon in northern Maine.

The flies are bedraggled at best, but as of 25 years ago, they still caught fish. I remember using the impossibly long bamboo fly rod Grandpa gave me (its location now a mystery to me) and teaching myself how to cast on an open stretch of the Charles River, just south of Boston. With his instruction echoing in my head, I cobbled together a serviceable blend of rotted fly line, sun-brittle monofilament leader and one of those threadbare salmon streamers you see above. I rode my bike down to the river nearly every day after school and flogged the water with sledgehammer presentations. I will never forget the day I felt a strike as I stripped the great streamer across the current. The fish was strong, as I remember, and I had visions of a giant brown trout coming to the net. After what seemed like an "Old Man and the Sea"-like effort, I managed to beach the 14-inch sucker, which I'd foul-hooked just above the tail.

Shortly after that great struggle, I reasoned the flies and tackle should probably be packed away for safe-keeping and posterity. The L.L. Bean leatherbound book of streamers, however, will always sit on my bookshelf, reminding me of nothing in particular, but important to my connection with the past nonetheless~

I own few guns; a rifle and a 20-gauge slug gun for deer hunting and a 12-gauge shotgun for everything else. They are utilitarian - tools for the job, nothing more. Given half the chance to trade any of them for something more effective, I would do so without remorse. When Sue's father, Hank, decided to give me his old shotgun two Christmases ago, I was happy to have it for the simple fact of adding another tool to my arsenal. And then I took it out of the cloth sock it was wrapped in.

The gun is a double-barrel L.C. Smith Field Grade in 16-gauge. It is light, it swings beautifully and it flies to my shoulder when I mount it. I am in love.

From my research, the model was produced by L.C. Smith between 1945 and 1950. There were more than 53,000 made during that period and they are considered to be fine guns of considerable value. When I took the shotgun to a local gunsmith to have the rust and pitting rubbed out and the barrels re-blued, he acted like one of the celebrity appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow" when they are presented with something particularly special. "This gun has value," he emphasized as he handed it back to me. "Thank you for bringing it in and letting me work on it."

In it's current, restored condition, the gun must be as beautiful as the day it was when my father-in-law received it as a teenager. The only thing about it that isn't "factory" is the finish on the receiver, which Hank apparently took a blow-torch to to make it look cool (or whatever the 1940s equivalent to cool was). I have no intention of packing the gun in oil and sticking it in the closet for safe-keeping like a pack of baseball cards or a stack of comic books. Fine old shotguns are not meant to be retired, they are meant to be shot and I mean to do just that in the years to come. This particular piece of history is going to keep on living for as long as I am its caretaker~

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Return To Normalcy? A Little Bird Told Me

Tufted titmouse
Dare I say the words? Dare I?

After two-and-a-half months of cold, snowy, miserable weather, the sudden onset of daytime temps in the 50s and 60s and overnight lows in the 20s and 30s has this cooped up bushman thinking spring.

Lest you think I'm jinxing things by speaking out of turn (it's only mid-February for God's sake), I'm not the only one. The signs are flitting back and forth around my backyard.

First and foremost, many of our resident bird species are taking the change in the weather as a cue to start stretching their vocal chords in preparation for the courting season. Song sparrows, northern cardinals, eastern towhees and Carolina wrens are filling the warming air with their songs. Some of them sound a little rusty after their long hiatus, but so did Pavarotti when he decided to stop lip-syncing.

Red-bellied woodpecker
Despite a lifetime of birdwatching, I am ambivalent/leaning toward chaffed in regards to one member of the growing choir. During the weekend, I heard the telltale drumming of a woodpecker on the make. Normally, this would not trouble me, but the incessant ratta-tat-tat seemed disturbingly close - like, on-the-side-of-the-house close. There are two reasons for a woodpecker to start pecking at your siding; it's either found a spot with particularly good acoustics that help broadcast its romantic intent far and wide, or it's found wood-eating insects burrowed in there and it's getting a meal. Neither of these potentialities does much to ease the human mind. With an anxious heart, I slipped outside and patrolled the grounds, looking especially up under the eaves where I feared my feathered friend would be snacking on an infestation of termites or carpenter ants, thereby putting the spotlight on a much larger problem. Thankfully, our little Rat Scabies turned out to be a lovesick red-bellied woodpecker who happens to have chosen to use the side of the owl box I put up last fall as the bullhorn to find his Juliet. I don't envy the eastern screech owl that, at least for a time, was roosting in there. I imagine it must be something like living inside a snare drum.

Pine siskins
Curiously, Sue and I are seeing the return of a few birds that haven't been around in such numbers since before the deepest, darkest winter descended. This is especially true of the pine siskins, two of which arrived February 11 to fill up on black sunflower seeds and thistle. A way back in October, we hosted a few siskins for about a week. Pine siskins are small members of the finch family that breed in high elevation, boreal forests and are seen only occasionally during the winter as they come off the frigid mountain tops in search of food. In  some years when the seed crop is particularly poor, siskins and and other northern finchy types irrupt southward in massive flocks, much to the delight of backyard birdwatchers. I hypothesized at the early arrival of our siskins (along with several purple finches) that this might be such a year, but after staying a week or two, we never saw either species again - until now.

Dark-eyed junco

White-throated sparrow
Their arrival a couple of days ago seems to coincide with an influx of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, both of which have been present throughout the winter, but now there seem to be a lot more of them scurfing around the yard where we scatter white millet for their benefit. If I had to guess the reason, I'd say the sudden abundance of siskins, juncos and white-throated sparrows indicate these traveling gypsies have sensed a shift in the season and are filtering their way back north in preparation for spring migration.

Regardless of the reason, we certainly welcome them back. I do, however, reserve the right to withhold services and kick their sorry asses back to wherever they came from if it all turns out to be a big tease and winter isn't done with us yet.

C'mon spring, we're waiting on you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Tri-colored bat w/ white-nose syndrome fungus (NCWRC photo)
Unless you're tuned in to the environmental news beat, the startling fact that eastern North America's cave bat populations are facing immediate collapse may have slipped under your radar.

For many, the story of white-nose syndrome's emergence and its affect on hibernating bats didn't begin until popular periodicals like "National Geographic"  and "Science" magazines ran articles announcing its discovery and potentially catastrophic consequences.

In truth, WNS was first discovered back in February, 2006 outside Albany, N.Y. A caver there photographed hibernating bats with a mysterious white fungus growing around their muzzles. He also observed several dead bats. The following winter, as bats began returning to their ancestral wintering sites in natural caves and retired mines, the insidious fungus was documented in other locations and the body count rose into the hundreds. Since then, WNS has spread throughout the New England states, south to Tennessee and west to Indiana. More than 1 million bats have perished in five years. Mortality rates in some hibernacula (a big word for caves and mines where bats spend the winter) have been 90 to 100 percent.

Last week, biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission found the state's first WNS cases in a retired mine in Avery County. It was not a surprise, but nevertheless, a dark shadow has descended upon us here in the Old North State.

Marking the spread of white-nose syndrome in North America. (Pennsylvania Game Commission)
The evidence strongly suggests WNS is spread from bat to bat, but many are concerned that human cave visitors may inadvertently spread the highly-contagious disease across large geographic distances.
A USFWS biologist prepares to enter a bat hibernacula in western NC. (USFWS photo)

Infected bats typically display non-typical behavior that includes high levels of activity during a period in their life cycle when they should be hibernating, or more accurately, in a state of torpor. For whatever reason, bats with WNS fidget and fly around to the point that energy stores which were supposed to get them through the winter are exhausted and they subsequently die of starvation, exposure, dehydration and/or the damage the fungus does to their thin wing membranes.

The why here and why now are still open to speculation. Since the fungus suspected of causing WNS - an unusual type that prefers cold, high-humidity environment, specifically bat caves - has been preliminarily identified, the same species has also been found in western Europe, where it seems to have a zero-mortality rate on the bats there. The fungus could have been introduced from Europe inadvertently. Another possibility is the fungus could have been here all along but only recently mutated into the deadly pathogen it is today.

Tri-colored bat in Avery County w/ WNS. (NCWRC photo)
Scientists still haven't come up with a way to stop the spread of WNS or treat bats that have become infected. Efforts to protect uninfected caves and retired mines have been ineffective. Killing the fungal spores inside the caves is a possibility, though not in the minds of many biologists because cave ecosystems are notoriously delicate. The effects anti-fungal agents might have could be worse than the disease itself.

WNS has already caused serious declines in six types of cave bats. Several species already threatened or endangered are susceptible and other populations, once considered to be healthy, could, in the next few years, potentially fall close to the edge of regional extinction (or worse).

What's all this got to do with you and me? Aside from the very real possibility that this disease could spark a major extinction event in North America bat species already at risk, there are tangible consequences to a world without bats. The bats that are affected are insectivores of the highest order. Some studies suggest bats eat as many as 1,000 mosquitoes an hour. If you enjoy the outdoors (and I suspect you do), fewer bats mean more insect pests - both those that bite and those that destroy crops. The question is, when you're sitting on your porch on a beautiful evening this summer, will you notice you're using more mosquito repellent? As you tend your backyard gardens, will you be tempted to break out the insecticide that you haven't thought of using since you went "organic" so many years ago? Will you look into the night sky and wonder, "What happened to all the bats we used to see?" Or will you notice anything at all?

For more information, click here for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's compilation of research and recommendations. To support bat research and conservation, check out Bat Conservation International.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

If Not Now, When?

Craggy Gardens - Blue Ridge Parkway
The result of my disjointed employment record o'er these past 10 months is an eclectic collection of 1099 forms representing those freelance writing gigs I've managed to land during the 2010 tax season. That, in and of itself, is hardly worthy of a post here, but in considering taxes, another likely subject caught my attention.

As in years past, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is asking residents to check the box and donate a portion of their state income tax return to the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund. Without going too in-depth (please click on the link if you're interested), NCWRC relies on the fund to assess and manage for nongame and endangered species populations and habitat. However disappointed I am that the state of North Carolina doesn't see fit to finance this mission in its regular budget, I am grateful to know that some portion of its citizens are willing to give a small portion of their tax returns in the interest of preserving our native flora and fauna.

Supporting state and federal conservation efforts is noble, but it's not enough... not hardly. The government has an awful lot on its plate. Whether or not it has too much is a debate for some other forum. As a country, we need jobs (he writes one-handedly as he raises the other vigorously in the air), we need to modernize our infrastructure, we need to rewrite the tax code, we need to figure out a way to win a war and we need to dance gracefully across the international stage of public relations. Did I miss anything? Of course I did. The demands and interests are huge. The point is, whether we like it or not, our government isn't going to come swooping in to protect and preserve the environment anytime soon.

Enter the private, non-profit conservation groups that have become the backbone of environmental stewardship in this country. Land trusts and conservancies are doing the work that needs to be done if there is any hope of saving the last wild places we have from greed and development. These dedicated groups squeeze blood from stones as they scrounge enough money from state and federal grants and matches, private donors and partnerships to acquire and preserve critical habitats for both wildlife and humans.

It is the cruelest irony then that as the economic recession has tempered the once-unstoppable wave of new construction and unchecked development and land values have crashed, that nobody - not the states, not the feds, not the populace at large - has any money to enable land trusts and conservancies to go out and take advantage of what amounts to the deal of the century.

Without trying to sound like a volunteer at pledge central, this is the time when private donations toward land conservation will have more impact than any other in our lifetimes. If such a sacrifice is within your budget, and Lord knows I realize what I'm asking, I urge you to research the land conservancy efforts in your region. I suggest you will be amazed with what it is doing in terms of outreach and acquisition with hardly two nickles to rub together. 

If you live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I personally vouch for the efficiency and effectiveness of Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina. Since its inception in 1994, the group has been directly involved in the protection of more than 42,000 acres across eight counties in the Blue Ridge front range. Lest you mistakenly think all that land is locked away behind "no trespassing" signs, consider that almost all of it has been transferred to state agencies that include South Mountains State Park, South Mountains Game Lands, Pisgah National Forest, Chimney Rock State Park, Lake James State Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the creation of the 1,400-acre Linville River Game Lands area. These places are open (to varying degrees) for camping, hiking, birding, fishing and hunting. In other words, they now belong to the people of North Carolina.

Back in my old stomping grounds at the coast, I am grateful for the efforts of the folks who work so diligently at the North Carolina Coastal Federation and North Carolina Coastal Land Trust. It is because of them that I have so many fond memories of birdwatching, hunting and fishing in the White Oak River Basin.

If the idea of giving to a land trust or conservancy still makes you queasy and mistrustful (get over it, do some homework and quit relying on what your buddies are saying) this golden opportunity to conserve also applies to sportsmen's favorites like Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited and the Mule Deer Foundation

The reason I got up on this soapbox today is a result of my recent trip to Boston. In three days on the North Shore I got to see what has happened to my native state - vast stretches of high-density housing with hardly a tree or a blade of grass in relief. Flying in and out of Logan Airport, I could see the harbor islands jammed with human habitation. There is no land to conserve. There is no wildlife to protect. Now I am a citizen of one of the fastest-growing states in the union and I'm afraid, afraid the places I love won't exist in the future for my nephews to hunt and fish and just ramble across the countryside. Maybe I'm being overly dramatic, but maybe I'm not.



Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There is a Season(ing)

It was a few months ago while I was overseeing the after-dinner clean-up when my friend, Jenny, expressed reservations toward wiping out a cast iron Dutch oven to my satisfaction. I told her not to worry about it, just use warm, soapy water and a gentle hand and we'd dry it on the stove top and give it a thin coat of vegetable oil, as per my usual methodology. "Okay," she said. "I just don't want to do anything to mess up the seasoning." I thanked her for her concern and replied,"Yeah, the measure of a man can be taken by the quality of his seasoned cast irons." She thought about it for a second, screwed up her face and said, "Maybe with this crowd, but I don't think it's normal. Most guys go for muscles and money."

Jenny's dig regardless, I started thinking about re-seasoning the old Dutch oven a few days later. The old layer was starting to peel away in places and there was a rusty blush growing on the underside of the lid. It was around that time my father called to tell me about an article on the very same topic in "Cook's Illustrated" magazine that was supposed to revolutionize the way cast iron should be seasoned.

Now, "Cook's Illustrated," in case you don't already know, is the greatest thing to home cooks since sliced bread. The magazine tackles just a few recipes and techniques in each issue, with tons of text on the trial-and-error process that led to the perfection of the final result, which, almost always, works beautifully in my kitchen. There are honest and thorough produce reviews and ingenious tips for convenience in the kitchen and pantry. Add to that the fact that publisher and editor Christopher Kimball is a hunter and often writes beautifully of that pursuit in his letter from the editor and I simply cannot give the publication higher praise.

The staff at "Cook's Illustrated" called blogger Sheryl Canter's seasoning technique for cast iron "ultimate" and that was good enough for my dad and me.

First, a word on seasoning. Cast iron is a desirable material for cookware because it distributes heat evenly and holds it better than any other metal or compound used in making pots and pans. Unless it is "seasoned," however, cast iron is decidedly "stick." To make it non-stick, you must treat the cast iron with several layers of natural oil and heat. The heat causes the omega-3 fatty acids in the oil to combine into a strong coat that gives well-seasoned cast iron pots and pans their smooth, shiny black look.

This Dutch oven needs love.
The debate rages on the type of oil to use and how long and how high the cast iron should be heated. I have always used vegetable oil and a low oven with new cast iron pans. For touch-ups (which are occasionally necessary) I wipe the pan with a paper towel and a thin coat of oil on the stove top over medium heat. Over the years, my Dutch oven is the pot that suffers the most, as it is the workhorse in my kitchen. It needed a make-over and what better excuse to try the new, "ultimate" method?

Stripped down after three rounds with the oven cleaner.
So I started the daunting process as described in "Cook's Illustrated." First, since this wasn't a new pot, I had to strip all evidence of the old seasoning out to get to the bare metal underneath. The article said to do this with oven cleaner - just spray on a layer of foam, allow it to set for 30 minutes and wipe everything out with soapy water and paper towels. I'm not sure what the pots and pans they tried this on started out looking like, but my faithful Dutch oven would not go peacefully into that good night. The old seasoning practically laughed as I tried to scrape it away with paper towels. Then I tried the rough side of a sponge with marginally better results. A second round of oven cleaner was in order. When that failed, I drove to the store to get the big guns - steel wool. A third cleaning round finally produced the bare metal I needed to start the seasoning process, but I was already a day and a half into the project.

Now, instead of vegetable oil, the "ultimate" technique calls for flaxseed oil, which has six times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as "old reliable" and forms a polymerized bond that is supposed to withstand the rigors of a run through the dishwasher and come out unscathed. Such a boast is practically unbelievable to me, (I'm used to cast iron pans that rust in 30 seconds if you don't dry the water residue immediately) but since it's the "ultimate," I paid the $15 for a 12-ounce bottle of flaxseed oil at the local health food store.

I took my stripped Dutch oven and placed it, as instructed, into a 200-degree oven for 15 minutes to "open the pores" of the metal for a better bond. Then I applied a teaspoon of flaxseed oil (well shaken to stir up those all-important lignans) and wiped it into a thin layer the interior of the pot. I applied a similar layer to the lid and cranked the oven up to 550 degrees. When the oven came to temperature, I placed the pot and lid on the middle rack and let it rip for one hour. A word of caution: Ovens operating at such high temps for long periods tend to smoke. Make sure you can open some windows or disable the smoke detectors before you start. If you're married to someone (like I am) with a low tolerance for kitchen smoke, do NOT attempt this while they are at home.

After the hour was up, I turned the oven off and allowed the pot and lid to cool in there for two hours more, then I repeated the process... five more times. Even after the first go-round, however, I was impressed. The Dutch oven came out with a beautiful black patina that only got better with each treatment that followed. It's a two-day process, covering 18 hours, six of which require you to sit in a smokey kitchen hoping the oven doesn't explode and watching the gas meter spin furiously. It ain't for the faint of heart. But my God it was beautiful!

Ultimate rust?
With the seasoning process finally complete, I couldn't wait to take the old Dutch oven for a test drive, and there's no higher purpose for that particular piece of cookware in my house than as a vessel for making venison garam masala. The masala puts the pot through all of its paces; browning meat, sweating onions, three hours braising in a low oven and a high, fast boil-off on the stove top to finish. The result? A great batch of venison garam masala, but the "ultimate" seasoning came through poorly.

Patches of cast iron showing through?
Perhaps I didn't strip the original seasoning as thoroughly as I could have, but after three rounds with the oven cleaner, I was starting to fear for my eyes and lungs. Maybe it's better to just start with a fresh piece of cast iron so the flaxseed gets a better bond. All I know is, I'm leaving the rest of my pots and pans alone and adding the remaining flawseed oil to my yogurt in the morning. There have to be a better ways to spend 18 hours of your life, don't you think?