Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Playing the hawk's game

Stekoa is normally a very co-operative hunting partner, following well and paying close attention to me and anyone else in our party. On our most recent outing, however, he was bolshie from the start.

We were working a riparian area, following a creek that feeds one of the Salt Valley Lakes, and we had had a successful hunt there just the previous weekend. I expected him to remember and follow with perhaps even more than the usual enthusiasm; instead, he took a perch overlooking the grass along the creek and proceeded to ignore me with an intensity that seemed quite deliberate. I of course worked the brush below him—when he is stubborn, it's generally for good reason, but in this case my diligent efforts produced no game—and then I tried to get my hawk back on the move. Still Stekoa sat.

Worse, he seemed to be paying more attention to the opposite side of the creek. On my side: open riparian woods with abundant quail and rabbit tracks in the snow. On the opposite side: just a few trees in a wide expanse of grass, an ideal habitat for mice and voles but marginal for anything else.

Mice and voles are an unavoidable aspect of hawking here, and I truly don't mind if Stekoa dabbles in mousing while we're afield, but it's not the reason I drag myself out of a warm house when the temperature is hovering in the single digits Fahrenheit. And on this particular afternoon, I'm afraid my temper began to fray about the edges, not that Stekoa would have known. I muttered dark threats and imprecations, alternating with what I hoped were encouraging exhortations to for crying out loud follow me down the creek in search of cottontails or even bobwhites.

And then he flew across to the other side.

My ire was not lessened by the fact that, despite the frigid temperatures, the creek right here was running clear, forcing me to backtrack to the road so I could cross at the bridge. And as I approached Stekoa, my suspicions were confirmed: the only tracks to be seen on this side were of small rodents. Happily, though, once I reached him he began to follow me, and in my wake he caught first a deer mouse and then a fat vole. Okay, some success and some warm calories for him.

The direction of our travels took us to a bend in the creek, where I was relieved to find that some combination of lower flows and deeper shade had produced walkable ice at this point. I crossed, and Stekoa followed. Now we were in rabbit country. Immediately we began finding sign; no quail now, but plenty of rabbit tracks and scat. Networks of tracks, in places merging into bunny highways. Tracks everywhere.

Tracks, but no bunnies. I worked through the woods, Stekoa tuned in to my efforts, but to no avail: the authors of the tracks were either underground or elsewhere, and we saw not a single rabbit where the previous weekend we had seen several.

As we continued downstream, the creek wound back and forth, now out of sight, now looping back toward us. And when we again found ourselves at the edge of the woods, overlooking a strip of Indian grass and little bluestem  growing along the creek, I realised I had a choice to make: continue an apparently futile search for traditional quarry, or play Stekoa's game and let him have some sport on mice.

I headed back upstream, beating the grass with my stick, and immediately had rodents on the move. Stekoa, watching from the trees at the edge, had numerous opportunities, and within just a few minutes had caught another vole and three more deer mice. He wasn't gently parachuting down on them, either, but launching himself from the trees, flying directly at me, and slamming decisively into the ground. Decent flights—more than decent, in fact. They were impressive, and I was glad to be reminded how versatile redtails are, how determined they are to survive, how thoroughly they seem to enjoy their work.

I was also starting to wonder just how long I should let this continue. Stekoa now had four mice and two voles in his crop, and while he was still eagerly watching my every move, I didn't want to push my luck too far. He launched again, flew at me, then rocketed past, his wings pumping hard, and veered back toward the trees. A rabbit had flushed, unseen and unheard by me, from the grass at my feet, and Stekoa bound to it at the edge of woods and riparian meadow.

Back at the car, as I finished field-dressing the rabbit, I raised my hand toward the cold, distant sun, laid it gently on the earth's snowy surface, and said my thanks—not just for the rabbit, but for the mice and voles; for the trees and grasses; for the chickadees and nuthatches foraging overhead; for the quail we hadn't seen but might next time; for all the life in these winter woods and fields. For all my relations—mitakuye oyasin. And I remembered again Sitting Bull's declaration that "When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom."

Monday, January 6, 2020

Ginger binger 2019

For the convenience of long-time readers (I think we still have a few) and newcomers alike, I've finally created a "ginger" label for easier access to previous editions of our New Year's Eve tasting of ginger beers and ginger ales. "Ginger binger 3" is the most comprehensive, complete with GB/GGA/DGA definitions; subsequent write-up have been limited to new entries, and this post will adhere to that format, so take a few moments to look back if you will; we'll be right here.

This year we (Jessa, Ellie, and myself) were joined by Jessica's sister Heather, a first-time ginger binger. And away we go...

We begin with a blast from the past. Our case of ginger sodas, for various reasons, is always a mix of old and new, and while we usually don't revisit a previous review, Ellie and Jessa insisted on one. I originally reviewed Dr. Brown's Original Ginger Ale in the second season of these reviews, and described it as "not a flavour standout". Ellie's verdict was far more blunt: "This one just makes me sad." Dr. Brown's actually does begin with a mild ginger bite—it is a DGA, after all— but the finish is nothing. "After the first sip, it's just water." I doubt Dr. Brown's finds its way into our box again.

On to the new...

Americana Honey Lime Ginger Beer has been a favourite of ours for years now, but it's taken us 'til now to encounter its straight-shooting, non-honey, non-lime sibling. Americana Ginger Beer, this one sweetened with pure cane sugar, has a nice golden/amber colour (though hidden in brown glass) and a fantastic flavour curve: smooth to start, but with a nice afterburn. (Ginger extract and other natural flavours, thank you very much.) Most similar, I thought, to what we still call Goose Island, but Jessa noted a similarity to Vernor's as well. By a narrow margin, the best of the new entries, and a very worthy stablemate to the Americana Honey Lime.

Australian Style Hot Ginger Ale appears to be a Rocket Fizz house brand, and as such definitely Australian style, not Australian, despite the prominent kangaroo. And like many American ginger sodas, it is miscategorised: a GA per the label, a GB in fact, with a GB's slight murkiness. It does have a good bite, but a surprisingly mild aftertaste. The most unique component, though, is a slight aroma of Play-Doh; when I mentioned this, Heather said with full conviction that it was actually closer to a green putty the girls' dad used on home improvement projects. Not unpleasant, but a bit odd, this—and certainly no match for Bundaberg or Buderim. Clear glass, cane sugar, natural flavours.

The most unique of this year's new entries, and perhaps the most eagerly anticipated, was Fever Tree Smoky Ginger Ale. In the bottle, it appeared to have a greyish cast, but it turned out to be a very golden ginger ale in a subtly tinted bottle. The trickery was quite unnecessary, as this GGA has a distinctive smoky taste, the ginger ale equivalent of lapsang souchong tea. This is a natural effect, as applewood-smoked water is used in its production. Ellie, who starting from her time in Oxford has become a minor gin aficionado, intuited that this would pair nicely with Hendrick's (which it did), but we rather enjoyed it straight as well—a campfire in a glass.

From the same source comes Fever Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale. If the Smoky Ginger Beer is lapsang souchong, then the Spiced Orange must be something like Constant Comment. It does have a prominent orange colour, scent, and flavour, along with heavy notes of cinnamon, but none of us felt that it made as good a stand-alone beverage as its smoky sister. (In fairness, it should be noted that Fever Tree's ginger ales are sold in small bottles, clearly intended as mixers.) All flavours natural, and sweetened with sugar, as is the Smoky Ginger Ale.

How in the world did we get this many years down the road without reviewing Jones Ginger Beer? Perhaps the brand's ubiquity caused it to be overlooked, and that's too bad for us. Like all of Jones' sodas, their ginger beer uses pure cane sugar and all-natural flavours; the result is a pleasantly musty GB with definite notes of like and lemon, reminiscent of a Caribbean brew. I shall try to keep a sharper eye henceforth.

And then the one that almost missed the boat. A friend from work kindly gifted me a bottle of Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew,—thanks, Karen!—but Jessa, apparently not realising I was saving it for New Year's Eve, thieved the bottle and shared it with Ellie and Heather in my absence. In the end, she redeemed herself by purchasing a new bottle—and what a bottle it is. Oversized (750 ml), green glass, fitted not with a standard bottle cap but a latching stopper. Extra points to Trader Joe's for presentation. And the brew? A lovely GB, cloudy and musty with real ginger root, sweetened with both sugar and honey, with diverse citrus notes from lemon, lime, and pineapple. A very good, very accessible GB.

And that's all for this go 'round. There are yet more out there, so watch this space...

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"Crabs for Christmas"

Charm City nostalgia.

No steamers on the menu, but Jessa has crab soup waiting for me tonight, and there'll be crab imperial tomorrow.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Home improvement

Jessa sent me the following text yesterday:

Little boy at Home Depot: "I LOVE this store! You can buy plants! You can buy WATERFALLS!" Kid's got his priorities in order.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Just for the day

At almost four hours away, Verdigre Creek is usually a weekend-long proposition—a long weekend, for preference—but for one reason and another we haven't made our usual pilgrimages this year. So out of desperation, Ellie and I recently made a day trip of it. We arose well before daybreak, drove through thunderstorms and torrential rains, and arrived to find that the weather had all been further south and the creek was flowing at normal levels.

At normal levels now, that is. Like much of Nebraska, especially northern Nebraska, Verdigre flooded this spring. Heraclitus was certainly on to something, and every time I've been back to Verdigre I've noticed slight alterations, but nothing so dramatic as this. One of our favourite spots, a dramatic S-bend above the bridge, had been rendered nearly straight, and more than one familiar pool was no more. But there were new pools, and gravel bars in spots that had previously been choked with reed canary grass. Better yet, there was fresh gravel in the creek as well, a boon to spawning trout. The creek's productivity was highlighted early on, when Ellie and I caught several small rainbows with parr marks, wild trout born of this very stream.

Later, Ellie was fishing to a big rainbow holding in a run below the bridge when a smaller trout darted out from under some watercress to take her nymph; it looked different from the start and, once netted, proved to be El's first brown. (Also wild; according to Game & Parks, browns were last stocked here in 1976.)

The drive back home to Lincoln seemed to go much faster than the drive up. That was down partly to more direct routing (in the morning, we had detoured to shop for on-stream provisions) and partly to better driving weather (the storms having passed to the east). But a good day's fishing—not to mention the prospect of good fishing in future, and the assurance that our favourite stream is still itself despite some changes in course—did its share to speed us on our way.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Farrell's Irish Gold

I don't think this is likely to become a regular feature here on Flyover Country, but I wanted to have a go at a fly-tying tutorial. This is my favourite hairwing streamer, Farrell's Irish Gold. I have fished it on the trout stream occasionally, but it really shines for lough fishing, especially in the autumn. It has become my go-to streamer for stillwater trout; they can't seem to resist this impressionistic baitfish.

Let's get started!

I generally use a 3X long streamer hook in size 8 (currently an Umpqua U301), but occasionally downsize to size 10 for crappie, and size 6 would be reasonable for larger trout. Spooled materials are black thread (I use UTC Ultra Thread in 140 denier; you want something on the strong side), orange floss (four-strand rayon from Danville's), and flat tinsel in gold (UTC makes a Mylar tinsel that's gold on one side, silver on the other; size medium is perfect for this fly). An orange-toned squirrel tail (more detail to follow) rounds out the materials list.

Start your black thread a bit behind the hook eye, taking touching wraps back to the start of the hook bend. (Incidentally, you could weight the fly with some lead or lead-substitute wire under the thread, but I prefer the slimmer look and improved versatility of the unweighted streamer. Split shot, tungsten putty, or a sinking leader can get the fly down just as easily. Or, don't go fishing without your bullets.)

Lay in a single strand of orange floss, about halfway from the bend to the eye, and tie it down with the thread; then lay in the tinsel—silver side up—over the floss, and tie it down with thread wraps, which should have your thread back at the start of the bend. Now take the thread back to the initial tie-in point; using open spiral wraps over the floss and tinsel, then touching wraps the rest of the way, will help to even out the taper, but it doesn't need to be perfect anyway.

Hand-wrap the orange floss over the black thread to the initial tie-in point. This is perhaps the trickiest part of tying this fly, as the floss is prone to fraying. Avoid catching it on the hook point or the jaws of the vise, but be aware that even dry skin may be enough to cause problems. Secure the floss with a couple of thread wraps and snip off any excess.

Next, wind the tinsel forward to the tie-in point. The tinsel having been tied in silver side up, the gold should now be showing. You'll want to pull the tinsel somewhat aggressively forward to create an open spiral that lets the orange floss show through; this is not a tinsel-bodied fly like the Mickey Finn or black-nosed dace. Again, secure with a couple of thread wraps and snip off the excess.

Now for the squirrel tail. I use locally-sourced (ideally, hawk-caught) red fox squirrel, Sciurus niger rufiventer; other species, such as chickaree (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) in the Appalachians or red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in Ireland or the UK, can be appropriate regional substitutes, but for this fly we really do want to keep to reddish-orange tones.

Snip a pinch of hair from the squirrel tail and tie it in, first using a couple of loose wraps to capture the square-cut base of the clump, and then tightening down to secure it. (Hence the strong 140-denier thread.) Keep making tight thread wraps to really bind down the hair and build a tapered head; I usually take at least one wrap behind and under the resulting wing to push it up a bit. Once the head is constructed, take two or three turns with a whip-finish tool and snip the thread off close.

A bit of head cement can make the fly a bit more durable, but I usually don't bother with this step. Because the fly uses just a single strand of four-strand floss, I find it convenient to tie Farrell's Irish Gold in multiples of four.

I typically fish this streamer on a sinking leader; an Airflo polyleader with a known sink rate lets me count it down if the trout are holding or cruising at a specific depth. While I use a Davy knot for dries and most nymphs, a loop knot imparts much more realistic action to streamers; I especially like the double figure-eight. And although I generally prefer a more moderate action, I keep a fast-action rod (the Three Forks model at left) handy for streamer fishing on the lough.

If any readers actually do tie this fly, I hope you'll let me know how it works out for you. Comments are always welcome.

Tight lines!

Friday, September 27, 2019

Furniture day

A couple of weekends ago, Jessa and I embarked on an annual task that is at once routine and somewhat nerve-wracking: kitting out Stekoa with his new furniture, "furniture" in this context referring to the leather equipment with which the hawk is, well, furnished.

And here it is: Aylmeri jesses and Noble bells on button bewits, cut, oiled, and ready to be put on. All the leather is kangaroo—the best material for the application, but quite dry, it takes a fair bit of oil to make suitable. As you can see, I like Obenauf's.

Stekoa stood calmly and bare-headed while I carefully cut off his old anklets (after a full year in the elements, the leather takes on nearly the consistency of wood) and then affixed the new ones, with only a single bate to release tension in between doing the left and right legs.

A perfect fit...

The next step—the nerve-wracking step—was to cope Stekoa's beak. We didn't take a good "before" picture, though you might be able to see his overgrown hook in the second photo above. He's not trained to the hood (from now on, though...), so I have to hood him in a hanging bate. Once hooded, he stood for a few well-aimed snips with the clippers and the job was done.

After taking a few minutes to unwind with a glass of Jameson's, we unhooded Stekoa, gave him a well-deserved quail, then put him in his box (as usual, he leapt right in) and made some needed repairs to the mews. It'll be another month, most likely, before conditions are conducive to going afield, but we're on the road to being ready.

And now, having written this, I shall go read a favourite passage from Dan O'Brien's Brendan Prairie, in which a falconer and his daughter furnish a jack merlin.

Bill was smiling with Allison, and at first he thought it was all because of her. But there was more. He held his hands to his face and smelled the neatsfoot oil from the jesses. It was a rich and poignant odor that he had always loved. He breathed it deeply and it smelled so good that he took one hand and held it up to Allison's face. "Breathe," he said.

Thursday, September 19, 2019


Previous post notwithstanding, we do occasionally make an effort at housekeeping.

J: "Hey, would you help me open this box?"

M: "Why, what is it?"

J: "It's our new vacuum."

M: "Damned heavy for a box with nothing in it."

J: " Innit?"

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Also a verb

"I've been reliably informed," my old dad used to say, "that 'dust' is also a verb." (This would have been when he was living on his own after my mom passed away. Her mom, of Pennsylvania German extraction, verbed regularly enough that the noun was never to be seen.)

Our own household, two people (and sometimes three) plus a fair number of furred and feathered critters in a 99-year-old house, generates a fair bit of the noun, and we're sufficiently busy that the verb is seldom prioritised. But there is occasionally beauty even in neglect, and I think my dad would appreciate this dust-shadow feather atop our chicken coop. (My grandmother, of course, would be appalled, and my mom amused at both of them.)

Disturb the dust
if you must
only just
please don't write in it.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Scenes from a blowout

On our way back from Valentine to Lincoln, Jessa's Outback blew a tyre on the eastern edge of the Sandhills, about 4 miles north of Bartlett, Nebraska, population 120 or so. Roughly the middle of nowhere. From a practical point of view, not an ideal place to have a breakdown.

On the other hand, if you're going to have a breakdown, you couldn't ask for a lovelier spot: a nice bit of grassland with a couple of photogenic trees. And Nebraska does good sunsets, so we were actually grateful to have an excuse to sit while waiting for the wrecker out of Grand Island, some 70 miles away.

Photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill for the Nebraska Sandhills Department of Sunsets.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Niobrara trip 2019

[At Ft. Niobrara NWR, this red barn is the only readily apparent remnant of the old Army post.]

[Fort Falls]

[Berry Bridge and Berry Falls.]

[Smith Falls]

[Old Verdigre Bridge, now at Smith Falls SP]

For previous Niobrara posts, click the Niobrara label below. All photos here by Mark & Jessica Farrell-Churchill...mostly Jessa.