Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm


Shop carefully and support local businesses when possible

On a recent trip to Fredericksburg, I learned something of value that I felt would be worth passing on to readers. Simply put: It pays to shop.
 I was shopping around for a handgun and decided to stop at a local, independently owned shop near town. I found something I was possibly interested in but was not quite sure I wanted to spend that much money quite yet.
 So, I took a drive to think about it. While driving and running other errands I passed a mass merchant that carries firearms in town and decided to stop in and see what they had. While their selection was quite a bit larger, their service was lousy and believe it or not the same exact handgun I thought about getting was over $250 more!
One would think that a larger retailer that has a chain of stores could purchase firearms cheaper than the independent dealer. Whatever the case, the little guy was far cheaper.
I decided that while I was in the “big” store I would take a look around and price ammunition. The ammunition that was available was double the price of what it was a few months ago. A box of 30-06 ammo for hunting was $40 for 20 rounds.
 I was stunned because in December I went to an independent dealer north of us on my way to bag a deer in the mountains and bit the bullet so to speak and forked over $21 for a box of rounds. I thought that was expensive. A call back to them for this article shows that at least one dealer in our area is trying to make some money on the scarcity of ammunition at our expense.
I also called a mass retailer south of us and found that their prices although higher than some were well below what I found locally.
The bottom line is that you need to call around for availability and price. Don’t get ripped off with inflated prices! It is too bad we don’t have a small independent gun dealer or outdoor shop nearby. With the economy like it is I doubt anyone would want to venture out and do that right now. If we had one though, I bet they would do some business!
Side Note:
I am not sure how many of you are aware but ammunition of practically all types are scarce and look to remain scarce for the foreseeable future. When I say scarce I mean that most handgun ammunition cannot be reliably found anywhere locally or nationally.
Many rifle calibers are also scarce. I even went to the websites of well-known ammunition suppliers and one had a note on their site stating that it could be four to six MONTHS before ammo was available! It seems that either some folks are very concerned about the future or they are not so sure the current administration will leave firearms and ammunition alone.
Supplies for making ammunition don’t appear to be much of a problem.  Whatever the reason you might want to take stock of what you own now and what you might need in the near future.

Mark Fike

Crappie Bite to Start Soon

There is much anticipation among anglers with the recent warm weather we had until this week’s snow storm.
Spring is not too far around the corner and everyone I have spoken with is ready to enjoy more of those 70-degree days. March is now here as you read this and the crappie bite will turn on very soon.
   Two years ago I was visiting my brother in Louisa when we decided to take a drive to Lake Orange and see how the fishing was going. This was the first week of March. When we pulled into the lot, two good ole boys were offloading their boat and cooler from the lake and calling to the bait shop manager to get the scales ready.
There were five citation crappie over three pounds in that cooler and over thirty more that would cover your hand. I was stunned at the quality of the fishery over there. I spoke to those guys and took a few pictures before heading home.
Last year I used some of the tactics I learned from the guys at Lake Orange to land a number of fat slabs myself at a local pond. It seems that on warm days like the ones we had  recently, the fish will often come into the sunlit and sun warmed shallows to grab any minnows or stray insects that have emerged. I walked the banks quietly and pulled a dozen really nice fish out while sight casting to them. I hope to do the same one-day after work soon. Fish pulled from cold-water sure taste good.
If you want to get in on the action for some early, prespawn crappie, then be sure to sneak out on a day after the temperatures climb into the upper sixties or low seventies.
If you can wait for two days in a row like that the fishing is even better. Fish the shallows or the flats near deeper drop offs or ledges and make long casts when possible. If you can catch a few insects or buy some crickets at Ken’s Tackle in Fredericksburg, the stringer will be heavier.
Also noteworthy would be the prespawn bass action. Last year while crappie fishing I noticed a HUGE bass cruise by like a submarine. I looked at the flimsy little ultralight that I was using and just grinned. I knew I was undergunned but why not give it a shot?
I did give it a shot and within a few minutes the bass took the line and went for a ride making the reel scream like crazy. The fish measured over 22 inches and was very fat. My scale is not very accurate but it appeared to be over seven pounds. Had the fish been given a few more weeks it would have topped eight pounds.
          Not bad for a little ultralight rod and a quick switch of baits from crappie tackle to bass tackle.
I noticed that the bass would not take the bait when I could see the fish and it could see me. Once it got nearly out of sight and I cast the line far past the fish and pulled it back towards the now disappeared submarine it did take the bait. Was it coincidence? I don’t think so. I caught two more fish in that size class last spring doing the same thing at another location. Neither of those fish hit while within sight of me yet I had seen them and they clearly saw me before they swam off and later hit the bait.
Make longer casts, use the drag to your advantage and be patient with the rod so as to not break the fish off.


Mark Fike


Low cost therapy can bring home the bacon, too

   When my phone rings, I normally don’t care to answer it very often. What little time I have to myself I prefer to spend doing something away from computers and the other electronic gizmos today’s fast pace world relies on so much.
   However, when my phone buzzed a few weeks ago, and I looked at it to see who needed to speak to me.
    I grinned.
   The name and number were very recognizable and welcome to ring or buzz me at anytime. Local outdoorsman, skeet shooting extraordinaire and all-around good ol’ boy, Scott Rollins, was calling and asked me if I wanted to accompany he and his father on the last day of goose season to a farm about an hour away to do a little goose calling and hunting.
   Now if he had asked me to come shoot skeet with , I would have had to ask the charge for lessons as he and his father are both superb at making clays disappear in a short puff without so much as breaking a sweat.  But this was goose hunting, and even I could dust a goose now and then and make it drop from the sky.
   After checking my schedule and realizing it had once again been a very long and tense week, I knew that I really had no choice. I had to go with the Rollins men to regain my sanity.
   We agreed on a time and place and arrived within a few minutes of each other. The Rollins men are quite adept at setting up a goose spread and have a keen goose sense that allows them to put honkers on the ground and on the table very reliably.
   I know because I have hunted with them and have witnessed their skills. This day was to be no different. They did most of the set up and then we got into the layout blinds that they brought along.
   Our setup was along a small pond that was a magnet for geese in the area. While thousands of geese would not light in the pond, several dozen could. Gently rolling grain and cow pastures surrounded the pond, giving the geese a place to feed and all but sweetening the package for any passing honkers.
   The dam was to our left and we had backed up the layout blinds to a few fallen trees among the grass and stubble in the pasture next to the pond. I had to admit I was excited. I knew I was in excellent hands in my field goose hunting class and the morning was promising to be a good one.
   We were not in the blinds very long when I heard Scott say that we had some birds inbound. I could hear them honking and Scott soon began coaxing them in with his Zink call. His ability was very impressive. Although the geese were cautious and decided to circle around right over top of us, they eventually came right in over the dam. I remember looking up through the mesh in the blind I was reclined in, watching them float over, wobbling back and forth as they checked out the spread, the pond, and the area in general. I could see individual tail feathers as they went over. It was a gorgeous sight to behold with these seemingly ungainly birds gracefully wheeling over our position. Once they passed around, I heard them come back in our direction and then the curt, “Take EM!”
   A few shots rang out as I watched the pair of geese tumble to the pond’s surface. We did have some disappointment though as my dog was unwilling to retrieve the geese. Some of the problem was likely a few bad experiences he had a few years ago with a lively goose that decided to hammer him, and some of the problem was his age. I really need to retire him as I could see he just is too old to be called upon to do any heavy lifting anymore. It was a tough call for me to make but it was the only bad moment in the whole day.  
   Mr. Rollins used some ingenuity and we were able to get the geese off the pond within a few minutes. Another lone goose came in a short while later and Scott promptly splashed him too. It was then that the sun climbed high enough in the sky to begin warming the blinds and making the day very peaceful and therapeutic.
The flights slowed down and we had an hour or so of a break but remained in our blinds stretched out in a comfortable reclined position with just our heads poking out. My dog took a turn stretching out beside me and then moved over to sprawl next to Scott for a while.
  Resting there in that blind listening the melodies of the birds as the wind swayed the trees and rippled the water while allowing the sun to keep me warm was a bit too much. I caught myself snoring and hoped no one else had noticed. I really did not have to worry too much though as I suspect both of the other men caught a few Z’s and counted a few geese-errr I mean sheep—in their blinds too.
   After another hour or so passed, Scott quickly hunkered down in his blind and told us he heard a big flock making its way toward us. We all waited patiently for them to come streaming overhead. Moments later, a flock of fifty birds or so cupped in behind us right over our heads. The setting sun gleaming on their wings gave their feathers a rich amber shine as they glided down to the serene waters of the pond. With the gentle sun on my face, and my heart thudding against my chest from excitement, time seemed to stand still as I stared up at the birds, which were now right above my head.
   They dipped and jinked from left to right, making their voices heard as they slowly descended down into range. A few of the lead birds crashed down into the water; Scott gave the firing order again and we sent a few more heavy birds spiraling down to the water.
   As things began to slow down, we eased back into the blinds and “rested” after trading stories, sharing some hunting lore and discussing some of the latest gear back and forth a bit more before calling it a day. Breathing some good ol’ farm air while totally relaxing and even nodding off for a few minutes made me realize that the best therapy that I ever tend to get is with good friends while on the water or in the fields among God’s creation.
   Nothing beats the cost of such therapy either. You can share as much as you want or as little as you want, and then go home at the end of the day feeling better without a huge bill for the hour or so you might spend in someone else’s office.
   Generally I prefer my office, which is the one I share with friends out of doors. If you ever need some good old fashioned, low-cost therapy and have a good friend or two, grab a fishing rod or a gun and head for the fields, forest or waters. I doubt you end up disappointed. Who knows, you might bring home dinner too!

Mark Fike and Scott Rollins

Let the season go out with a bang....yours!

By Mark Fike
Journal Outdoor Writer

Hunting season is all but over for a few months with only squirrel and rabbit season left in our area.
Given the economic situation in our country we all feel a bit tense and most of us are thinking before we spend any money. One small fix to the stress and a way to save a little money in the next few weeks would be to get in the woods during the waning days of small game season.
Taking a walk after work or on a Saturday in the local woods is a good way to relieve some stress and temporarily forget about some of the problems we are facing.
It is also nice to grab a .22 rifle or a light gauge shotgun and find a sunny spot against a tree or a log to soak up some sunshine on these cold days. Reliving a few childhood hunting trips is right up my alley, anyway.
The other benefit to take a walk. Besides the exercise and effort to relax a little is that you can put a little bit of meat on the table in the process and it is guaranteed to be lean and nutritious.
Squirrels are plentiful and finding some to bag is as easy as getting into the woods a few yards. The last two walks I took permitted me to see a brace of squirrels before traveling twenty yards into the woods.
First of all, wear drab clothes but don’t feel you have to get totally camo clad. I wear a chore coat and some jeans and a warm hat with some comfortable boots to sneak along.
Walk slowly and stop often. In fact, during this time of the season most of the squirrels that are seen will be on the ground. If you can sit still for ten or fifteen minutes, you will be amazed how many squirrels start appearing. Look for them near oak or hickory lots where they have buried nuts earlier in the season and are now looking to retrieve the nuts.
A careful eye will turn up where squirrels are frequenting. Look at fallen logs and stumps for nutshells. That is a dead give away to squirrels in the area.
Sometimes when you are walking along in the dry leaves it sounds like a dozen cows tromping through. I dread the sound and cringe at each step but I have also observed that many squirrels could care less.
In fact, last week while taking a quick walk before dark I got within ten feet of several squirrels, as they were busy eating. Too bad I was not carrying my firestick.
However, there are the squirrels that bolt like lightening when they hear the first crunch. Simply note where they run and then find a good spot to observe and wait them out. Fifteen minutes ought to do the job.
Late in the season, as we are now, the better option for squirrel hunters is the .22 rifle (or a .17 if that is your preference). Make sure you know where the little .22 bullet will impact at longer ranges and take head shots only if possible to save meat. Squirrels will often be seen at quite a distance and with a thick hide and fur to keep them warm shotgun pellets can have a tough time penetrating for a clean kill at distances over 40 yards.
 If you really want to use your scattergun take close shots only and if possible aim forward on the critter to keep pellet damage to the minimum.
When I dress out a squirrel I make a slit in the fur across the back and then pull the skin back exposing the meat to the ankles and wrists. Taking a pair of snips I cut the joints and then quarter the animal.
If you want, you can work the little strip of backstrap off as well. This way you never have to remove entrails.
There is no real meat to fool with on the ribs anyway and the method described here is quick and less mess. After dressing out my squirrels I place them in a small bowl or zip lock for four or five days. The aging process tenderizes the meat amazingly well while in the refrigerator. The last six or seven squirrels we have had in soups or fried have been very tender and have come right off the bone. This season ends January 31st.
If rabbits are your game, there are a few more days in the season to bag them. Hunting until the end of February will be enjoyable and rabbits seem to be plentiful this year. Hunting rabbits with a dog is the most fun and productive but if you know where to find the rabs you can take a leisurely walk and stop and wait every once in awhile to see if Mr. Thumper shows up.
A shotgun is likely the better choice here but a .22 will work well if you are a decent shot and are more apt to see the rabs are longer ranges such as hedgerows or old fence lines. Frequent such areas as well as cutovers to find more rabbits.
Early successional growth is where the most rabbits breed and feed at this time of year. While rabbit hunting you may want to field dress any you take that will stay in your game vest more than a few hours. Use surgical gloves to dress them. Rabbits have been known to carry tularemia. As with squirrels rabbits age well in a cool refrigerator and are great on the table.
Both are good fried the old Southern way rolled in cornmeal but they also dress up gravy and dumplings very well and look great in a casserole dish with veggies roasted or baked.
Take advantage of the few days we have left. Get a load off your mind, take a walk in a local woodlot or field, enjoy the clean, cold air and take home some old fashioned dinner. Consider it the cheapest therapy and least expensive meal you have had in awhile!

PART II-Guide turns chaotic and rough start into great day

 When I left church and turned on my cell phone I had a message from our guide, stating that we were still on but the steering on his boat was acting up and he was not sure what the problem was.
 I called him back and offered to rebook but he wanted to get us out on the water. The following morning we hit the road by 7:00 a.m. and received yet another call half-way to Richmond from Capt. Mike, stating his steering cable had broke while he was out catching bait for us. He had managed to get his boat back to the dock, and was working on backup plans. I knew then that we had a great guide. He was not canceling despite my offer to turn the truck around and not be upset about it.

By the time we arrived at the dock, Capt. Mike had secured the use of another guide’s boat and had it all loaded up ready to go. The only thing he had left to do was get bait. I love catching bait so the slight delay in the fishing was not an issue.

It was obvious that our guide was well liked and respected because not only did he have the complete use of another man’s boat but also someone had set a gill net out for him to use to get bait. And another guide gave him a report on the fishing from a section of the river we were to fish.

  Unfortunately the gill net was empty save for two eating size catfish, which he put back in the river. So, without a complaint Capt. Mike took us to some promising bait catching areas. More bad news here though and that was the fish finder which would have marked bait, was not working.
Good thing our guide was experienced enough to know where the shad like hanging out. Within a few throws of a cast net he had enough bait for us to go fishing. I watched all of this happen and considered the variables he faced when trying to get us hooked up with a trophy catfish and was very impressed.

First, most guides who had planned a vacation like our guide would likely not have booked the trip.

Second, when things began going wrong with the boat I know most people would have canceled the trip and hauled the boat to the mechanic to get it looked at and fixed.
Third, if they would have driven on and tried the trip, I guarantee that once the steering cable broke and there was no bait it would have been over.

Obviously we had a guide who was determined and had the fortitude to make it happen. By the way, he never appeared to be stressed, grumpy as I would have been, nor did he cut our trip short. In fact, he added extra time to be sure we were happy and despite the odds he had to overcome we boated not one but two citation catfish to boot!
The first fish was a gorgeously ugly flathead that tipped the scales at 28 pounds and the second trophy was a blue cat at nearly 31 pounds. Plus we caught some smaller cats that were fun to haul in.

Should you be looking for a great guide to help you hook up to a citation catfish or two I can definitely point you an hour and a half south of King George to Captain Mike Ostrander. He runs the James River Fishing School for kids.

He can be reached at 804-938-2350. Check out his website at www.jamesriverfishing.com.
While there you can also look at a complete tackle kit he has put together to market for new anglers. I examined it while on his boat and found it was truly all that you would need to get started freshwater fishing all in one box. 

Guide turns chaotic and rough start into great day


Imagine having what some of you would consider a dream job of fishing every day for a living. If this is recreational fishing you are working as a fishing guide taking clients out for fish to make their dreams come true while you live out your dream as well.
Being a guide is not all good times and fun in my opinion.  I came to that conclusion a few years ago when I agreed to take a few people out fishing as a favor for someone else. First of all, strangers are not your friends or at least they don’t start out to be your friends. When someone else comes on your boat to fish and they step on a rod, drop the bait in the water or drop the anchor in the bottom of the boat effectively driving all the fish up the river, patience suddenly becomes scarce. The problem gets compounded when those you are taking fishing don’t seem to know better nor do they care that your favorite rod has a broken tip or the bait you spent the wee hours of the morning catching is now gone. I digress…
Fishing or hunting guides have all sorts of variables they must face and overcome such as weather, tide, stubborn fish or game, inept outdoorsmen (or city people without a clue), and yet they are still expected to pull the rabbit, err…the fish or game out of their hat to keep their clients happy. In fact, if they don’t pull the trip off successfully they risk having the client go home and badmouth their guiding business, effectively putting a damper on calls from future clients.
However, if the guide is able to overcome the variables and inexperience of the clients and send them home happy not only will those people come back for another trip but they are going to tell their friends who will tell their friends and business can suddenly be quite good. It takes a great attitude, fortitude and determination along with a serious dose of patience to pull it off and my hat is off to those that can do that day in and day out.
The Monday after Christmas I wanted to take my father in law fishing as he does not get a chance to go very often. Being the middle of winter I knew that unless I wanted to book a striper trip on the ocean fishing was going to be tough. However, I also knew that many guides plied the James River successfully in the winter for trophy catfish. So, I decided that was closer and a bit less expensive than driving to Virginia Beach.
After digging through some of my old contacts I found Captain Mike Ostrander’s phone number. Capt. Mike fishes on the James just below Richmond and he specializes in trophy catfish that has made the James River nationally famous. My initial contact with Capt. Mike was promising as he agreed to put off his vacation to visit his parents and take us fishing instead. What a guy! I felt bad and told him we could rebook it later but he wanted to take us out. Then all the variables a guide must face kicked in and things began to look quite bleak for a successful trip.
My first warning to this fact was the frontal system that blew through on Sunday. While in church I could hear the wind howling and knew that was going to make the weather nice the following day while we were fishing but the sharp change and passing of the front was also likely to shut down the fishing for a day or two.
To be continued next week….


Mark Fike, Outdoor Writer




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