Friday, July 31, 2009

Join the Circus

I recall my dad saying, when things got stressful in our house of four boys, he was going to run away and join the circus. It always got a laugh. Having a couple grandkids around for a week can be stressful as well as exhausting. So when the circus came to our town this week, it seemed like the solution to several problems. (Older folks have problems; young folks have issues.)
It was an old-style circus—mud shows they used to call them. The smell of the animals. One-night stands. It was an opportunity to see how life was years ago in America. I thought it might be a challenge to convince the kids they should get up in the middle of the night, well, 7 a.m., to watch people work. Not so. They were actually excited at the opportunity to do something different—not that going to special gardens, kiddie parks and hikes in the National Park are everyday things for them.
When we got to the place where the circus was to be, there was nothing but an open field. We did notice some small yellow flags set in what was a huge circle. Colorfully painted trucks started arriving, along with RVs and trailers. It became obvious that the trucks did not park at random. A man in a bright yellow shirt with “logistics” emblazoned on the back waved and pointed until the trucks formed a huge ring outside the ring of flags. With uncanny precision and skill, the men attacked the trucks, unrolled the Big Top, drove stakes with a portable pile-driver, laced the overlapping layers of the tent material and managed to joke with each other in some foreign language.
The Kelly Miller Circus travels on a fleet of 25 vehicles as it has since 1938. It requires an area of some 90,000 square feet to set up. The Big Top, imported from Italy, has a seating capacity of 1,500 and is made of waterproof vinyl. The tent is 120 feet by 130 feet and is 40 feet high. It’s supported by more than a quarter of a mile of heavy gauge aluminum tubing as well as several miles of rope, steel cable and chain.
About 100 or so folks joined us to watch the tent emerge from where a few yellow flags had been only two hours before. Then, a fellow who looked a lot like Buffalo Bill Cody, appeared. He told us the history of the Kelly Miller Circus and how many hundreds of performances they do every year.
He asked us to join the tent master inside the sagging big top. As we entered, an enormous Asian elephant, Lisa by name, joined us. She was in harness. The tent crew fastened her harness to the pole rigging—the king pole. On command, showing virtually no effort, the 10,000 pound pachyderm took a few steps forward and the tent began to unfold like a giant piece of origami. We all stood there in awe as Lisa did her trick with three more huge poles. And the big top was—big—just as it has been for 200 years.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What You Don’t See Is What You Get

Even on rainy days, I’ve noticed, the hummingbirds keep their appointed rounds. That was my observation from having the laptop stationed by the window that offers a view of our hummingbird feeder array. I was working. Honest!
Recently, Susan was telling me of a study by ornithologists that suggests for every hummingbird you see at your feeder, you can assume there are actually six birds in the area. Here in northeast Ohio the hummingbirds are not good at sharing. There is a constant wrangling over the food source, complete with squeaky sounds and chasing. All the birds try to take possession of the feeder. We have four feeders set up in hopes of reducing the bickering and stress in the chow line.
Photographing these bejeweled creatures is the kind of thing photographers live for. The birds are elusive, to say the least. They come and go in a blur and buzzing of wings. They, tantalizingly, hover over the feeder until you raise the camera. Then, zip! They’re gone. You scratch your head and say, “If I do this or that …” You shoot 100 frames and there might be one keeper shot in the batch. You shoot 200 frames and you get one that makes you happy.
Ghostly images. You ask yourself unanswerable questions about what you might have seen. Or, didn’t see. Photographing hummingbirds is different from making images of other birds. You don’t know what you have until you see the image on the screen. And, even then, you can’t be sure.
Tomorrow, if it’s not raining, I’ll go for 300 frames and see what the birds deliver.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Racing the Eastern Kingbird

I knew there would be a sprint to the finish. I just didn’t know where the finish was. It didn’t matter. Since no money was involved, I knew it would be an honest sprint.
My opponent was an Eastern Kingbird. He had wings; I had my fancy red Raleigh racing bike. I was out doing my daily 20-mile training ride, coasting along about 14 miles per hour when he lifted off the top of a low bush, about three feet from the right side of the bike trail.
The Eastern Kingbird is a fine example of how, dressing in only black and white, one can look especially fashionable. If you untwist its Latin name, "Tyrannus tyrannus", it comes out something like King of the Tyrants. Cool name.
Typically, the bird’s body is about 8.5 inches long with a wingspan of about 14 inches. It puts on an amazing aerial display while catching bugs from a perch. Its flight is usually in a straight line with stiff-wing fluttering making up most of the action. How this neotropical migrant ever makes it to South America is amazing, as is all bird migration, actually.
This morning’s bird did not seem to have bugs on its mind when it launched into the sprint against its 160-pound opponent. Had my arm been a bit longer I could have reached out and given him a high-five, or the avian equivalent, at the end. For about 30 yards we raced, 15, 16, 17 miles per hour, head-to-head toward the next vertical twig. That was apparently the finish line and he knew it. With a choppy surge, and the thrust of his beak, he beat me! He gave me a high-pitched "dzeet", sound as I sped past.
In return I thanked him for the wind sprint. I needed that.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Who Needs California?

It was a great day to be astream. What day isn’t? Susan and I were fishing the Clearfork, a branch of the Mohican River in north-central Ohio. It’s one of the few places in the state where you can chase trout in a more-or-less wild setting.
Susan managed the first fish of the day with no trouble. I had barely worked my way up stream and started casting when I heard her exclaim, as all fishers do with the first fish of the day, “Hey, I got a fish on!”
It’s no surprise that she’d get into fish right away. She’s quiet. Her cast is slow and precise. She doesn’t thrash the water. And she often pays more attention to what the birds around her are doing than to what the fly on the water should be doing. She just lets it happen, the way fly fishing should be.
For about an hour I worked up and around what I thought was perfect water. All I had to show for my efforts was the fun of catching a couple river chubs. I decided to leap-frog to the other side of the pool Susan was working because she was paying more attention to a family of noisy Baltimore Orioles. Hmmm, more chubs.
Time for a lunch break.
After lunch we moved further down stream to spot that had yielded some trout in the past. After a few hours I managed to pull a couple unsuspecting brown trout out of a deep spot, along with countless river chubs. Susan, meanwhile, was getting plenty of chub action, and lots of laughs, as well.
We decided to call it a day and do some exploring. We wanted to see where the river went further down stream. About a mile from where we had been fishing we saw a large group of tents and RVs on the other side of the stream. We both commented on what a great camping spot it was. Then Susan said, “And there’s a couple guys cleaning fish in the river!”
Whoa, there! Back up. Not only is that a bad idea, it’s hard to imagine anyone pulling fish out of this river large enough to clean.
We found a short dirt road that led toward the campsite and checked out the guys sitting in the stream. In unison we said, “They’re panning for gold!”
A quick reality check showed we were still in Ohio. We pulled into the opening of the campsite and, posted on a little guard house, was a sign, “Swank Claim. Buckeye Chapter of GPAA [Gold Prospectors Association of America].”
These were modern-day prospectors. The camo-colored neoprene waders were a dead giveaway; as were their gas-powered water pumps for the sluice. There were plenty of authentic looking guys running around sporting long beards and floppy hats, however, somehow, the NASCAR T-shirts didn’t fit the picture.
And like most things these days, they have a Web site ( Here’s what I learned: The Swank Claim covers approximately one mile of the Clear Fork river on the upper claim and one mile of Clear Fork river on the lower claim. This claim is known for burgundy colored garnets and fine flour gold. This claim has also produced, two quartz rocks with gold nuggets layered in them. One valued at $50,000.
The Buckeye Chapter of the Gold Prospectors Association of America was started in 1996. People from all over the state came together to pan for gold. There are three claims in the state. Along with the Swank Claim, there’s the Frazee Claim near Zuck, Ohio, and the Lewis Claim located below Lucusville in the southern part of Ohio.
Although gold is not as plentiful in Ohio as in some of the other states it does exist, you just have to work a little harder for it. Usually gold in Ohio is in the form of flour gold and takes a little more skill to uncover.
Well, who’d a thunk it? And all these years I thought the beauty of the stream was in the scarlet spots of a brown trout or the vivid pink stripe on the side of feisty rainbow trout. Or, the iridescent blue of an Indigo Bunting. Maybe the flash of orange as a Baltimore Oriole flew across the stream.
As we watched the plum of sand, silt and mud created by the prospectors’ activities flow downstream, I realized the fly fisher’s non-consumptive use of the resource was still best—for now and for future generations.

How birders fly fish

Thursday, July 02, 2009

How Procrastination Leads to Understanding

While preparing for a trout-fishing trip this weekend and a bluegill-fishing trip next week, I faced the usual dilemma. Thousands of fishing flies, yet I couldn’t find what I needed. I knew the ones I wanted were there, I just couldn’t see the hooks for the feathers, so to speak.
It’s a never-ending conundrum for many fly tier/fishers. Like the mystery of dust bunnies under the bed, boxes of flies seem to appear from nowhere. When a trip is pending, rather than dig through countless cluttered boxes to find what you want, you tie more flies, thus perpetuating the problem. In extreme situations, I’ve been known to purchase more boxes rather than try to empty ones I have.
Now, I had to get a grip on this problem. I don’t fish for bluegills (bream to you readers south of Cincinnati) often enough, so I like to get it right. As fighters, pound for pound, a bluegill is a formidable foe. If they grew as large as large-mouthed bass, we’d probably never land them on a fly rod.
Bluegill are the first fish I can remember catching. It’s that way with most fishers. A few years ago my mother declared the bluegill was our “family fish.” If we had a Coat of Arms there would probably be crossed fins on it.
About the same time as mom declaring the bluegill our family fish, I made a silent celebration of what would have been my dad’s 100th birthday. I took his now-restored bamboo fly rod and drove over to a small lake in Indiana near his home town. The picturesque spot I remembered from my childhood was surrounded with paved roads and houses. I found a break in the trees and proceeded to catch 101 bluegills. It’s not that I’m good, it’s more a function of the fish being easy. Those 101 (one for each year of his life and one to grow on) fish, if laid tail to head probably would not have stretched to 10 feet.
My current challenge was to prepare a box or two of flies for a day’s outing. I decided to finally do it right. Clean out the old stuff, rearrange the usable flies, and bring some sort of order to the chaos I call my fishing vest.
The end of the story is that I feel much better now, thanks. My breathing has returned to normal. Had I been cleaning up after anyone other than myself, I would have considered tossing the lot and starting over.
What I had tagged to be a two-hour project stretched over two days. When Susan arrived home from work and observed what I had gotten into (on the commandeered dining table) she succinctly observed, “You’ll never have to make another fly—ever.”
If only that were true. Herein lies the dilemma. After all the sorting and categorizing and weeding out the damaged or poorly made flies, I find that many of the basic bugs, the ones I use most often, are missing. A keen observer will note an important fact of fishing, here. I have, probably, thousands of flies, yet tend to fish the same patterns over and over. Why? Because those are the ones that catch fish!
So, why tie up all that exotic stuff?
Because they’re better at catching fishermen, I suppose.

Bringing chaos to order.