Virginia Public Hunting Areas – Google Maps

Public hunting land in VA

My neighbor and shooting buddy Isaiah put together this handy Google app that details all the public hunting areas in Virginia.  This is a great resource if don’t have access to private land, or if you just want to check out a new place to hunt.

Virginia Public Hunting Areas – Google maps

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Public Land + 5 Hours = Two Elk

Two hunters from Virginia tag out on elk in one morning

Thanks again to my hunting partner Jason, this time for telling the tale of  our first elk hunt together.

Catch elk fever and this is the only cure!

There is nothing in the world, and I mean nothing, that stirs hunters like me as do elk, and the elk country of the Rocky Mountain West.  In the East, we brag of spotting whitetails in our trail cams with antlers the size of rocking chairs, but they’re picnic baskets compared to the headgear sported by elk.   A bull elk’s rack can stretch six feet back to the tail end of its 800 pound body.  I’ve got an “Elk Crossing” and  an “Elk-a-holic” bumper sticker on my Jeep.   See or hear one and your infected.  The first time I heard the trumpety, screaming bellow of an elk bugling from a distant ridge, I darn near cried out of joy and awe.  I love the smell of elk in the rut and I’ve covered the walls of my home and office with nothing but pictures of them.  Once, I even dreamed I was an elk.

I had my first bout with elkaholism in 2007.  I started off the guided public land  hunt with high hopes. We packed into the Idaho backcountry with horses. The camp was good and the food was excellent, but the outfitter had a terrible hunting style.  He was unwilling to move through his own concession near the Lo Lo National Forest.  Up high in the Clearwater, near Hoodoo Pass, he set clients down and told us not to move.  I heard elk bugling from a basin a thousand yards away, I could even see them.  I got the outfitter on the radio and asked if I should move 600-yards closer for a shot. His reply: “no, we don’t want you to scent up our area”.  Fine way to hunt if you’re lazy or out of shape, but I wasn’t neither.

In 2009, I had a much better hunt in southern Colorado.  Just before the hunt though I had premonitions about to getting sick or injured and not being able to make the hunt.   It seemed like something was bound to happen just before departure.  Ominously, the day before we left, I had an accident at work which could have killed me, but only tweaked my knee a bit.  Finally, on October 13th, my hunting partner Jeff and I took a cab to Reagan National and flew from Alexandria, Virginia to Denver, Colorado.

But flight delays from Denver to Durango left me with only an hour’s sleep, when the outfitter’s wakeup call at 4:00 a.m interrupted my elk-laced dreams.  Stumbling to the bathroom in my motel, I stepped on a huge piece of glass.  Though blood was everywhere, I could still walk on the injured foot.  It wasn’t on the same leg as the bad knee, so the pain equaled out and most importantly, I wasn’t limpin’ none.  Premonitions be damned.

Our outfitter, Andrew DiCesare of D bar G Outfitters, arrived at the motel looking every bit the part, wearing a duster and cowboy hat. He rustled us and our gear into his pickup with the efficiency of a successful businessman who survived off  his wits and razor-thin margins.  He also exuded the happiness of  a man who made a living hunting in the Rocky Mountains and loving every minute of it. During the 20 mile drive to the  D bar G ranch, we discussed best local hunting tactics, elk movements in the area, our shooting abilities, and how the elk camp was run.  Jeff and I quickly came to believe that D bar G Outfitters was the right choice.

At the ranch we met about eight other hunters and Andrew’s wife, Victoria.  We organized our equipment and packed horses and

Packing in to the San Juan National Forest

mules in thin, cold air.   Heck, I got a little winded just unburdening my Pelican case and staging a few bags, worrying if I had trained enough.  The sun finally moved over the foothills and warmed our bones around 7:00 a.m.  Just as my fingers were beginning to thaw, we got in the stirrups and clip-clopped up the trail leading into the wild heart of the San Juan National Forest.   A string of hunters and half as many guides, extra horses, and pack mules went single file, higher up into the mountains. We rode for about 12 miles until we arrived at camp.

Camp was a first-class siwash affair consisting of three or four canvas wall tents with stoves, and a chow tent, sitting at 9500 feet elevation.  Tucked in a grove of firs at the edge of an alpine meadow, situated between a pure spring and a babbling mountain brook, it was the elk camp of every hunter’s imagination.  After a quick lunch of bologna sandwiches, we unpacked our rifles and gear and settled in.  After dark, everyone gathered round the fire pit and talked about elk and elk guns.  Elk medicine at this camp varied from a classic blued steel and walnut Ruger 30-06, to a father and son pair of  carbon fiber, muzzle-braked Christensen Arms .300 RUMs.  Our guides were partial to any round that began with “ three hundred ” which they stated could kill elk reliably to 500 yards, thought the 30-06 should be used only within 200 meters, and in the hands of most clients, a .270 just didn’t get the job done.

Didn’t sleep too well again cause of elk fever, though I’d hardly slept in nearly 48 hours.  My tent’s wood burning stove died out just after midnight and I shivered miserably, but was as thrilled as a kid the night before Christmas.  Around 4:00 a.m. the camp stirred and hungry hunters made their way to the mess tent for cups of steaming black coffee, egg and bacon sandwiches and lunch, – you guessed it-  bologna sandwiches, issued with breakfast.

Minutes before dawn, Andrew assembled the hunters in a schoolhouse circle and paired them off with their respective guides. His voice barely above a whisper, he reminded us to remain silent, watch where we stepped, and gave the command to move out. Andrew never left camp during darkness because the chance of encountering elk in the meadow over the first rise was high; and he didn’t want to just spook elk, he wanted to give his clients every chance to shoot one.  We followed Andrew in single file a few hundred meters up to the edge of the first rise and paused while he scanned for elk.  Using hand signals he called up his guide/client teams one at a time, dispatching some to distant ridges,  and others to far away hot spots known only to the guides and Andrew.

This is elk country!

Jeff and I drew the lucky straws, we’d been paired up with the outfitter himself.  We headed up the north side of the closest ridge and I silently fell out of the formation at the lip of a wide bowl.  Jeff and Andrew continued on to a series of tables parallel to my field of fire.   As the sun bathed me in its warmth it wasn’t long before the lack of sleep caught up to me and I dozed off into what I call the Basic Hunter’s Nap.  That contented twilight sleep that fools you into believing that you will rouse at the the slightest rustling of leaves to find your prey at 25 yards patiently pawing the ground, waiting for you to aim your rifle.

Around 7:30 a.m, three gunshots brought me to full alert.  They echoed off the ridges around me so it was hard to tell who might be doing the shooting – though I was hoping it was Jeff.  Fell back asleep against a downed tree, but woke up when I heard Jeff and Andrew walking on a nearby trail.  They had spied me napping and joked that I’d get nothing with my eyes closed.

Jeff took a knee and excitedly recounted how Andrew had bugled to challenge a bull they’d heard thrashing in the distance.  The elk charged in with his harem and a posse of lesser bulls, ready to kick the snot out the interloper.  At fifty yards the bull screeched to a halt and paused behind a tree, trying to pinpoint the intruder.  Jeff’s first shot missed its mark – his particular rifle always needs a fouling shot to be true.  It only enraged the bull further and he actually stepped around the tree to bellow at the offending 30-06.   A 180 grain Federal Vital Shock behind the shoulder and a second one to the chest, dropped the magnificent 750 pound 4×5 literally in its tracks.  As they headed back to camp to get the horses for a pack out, Andrew told me I should still hunt the north facing slope of the bowl, as the elk tended to bed on that side of the mountain.

Moving laterally across the bowl to the north, I passed a bunch of sign and my confidence rose.  In less than ten minutes I heard a bull bugle, as elk parallel to me worked their way up the slope.  The terrain was thick with evergreens, so I moved 20 yards to my left where it was more open, with some browse on the ground where elk might stop to feed.

A small legal shooter materialized just below me, but he was walking away fast, offering no shot. Within minutes a second bull walked out of the trees 100 yards distant, giving me a broadside shot.  I brought up my Model 70 Featherweight, but the trigger wouldn’t budge.  I had foolishly left the three-position safety on the middle position, thinking from there it would be a faster switch to “fire”.  Instead, the bolt had moved out of battery at some point, and as I struggled to re-chamber the round, bull number two walked out of my crosshairs.

Just five minutes after the two bulls passed I heard footsteps coming from my left.  With the rifle resting on my knee, a cow stepped into the clearing from about 20 yards away, testing the wind and scanning the terrain.  I observed her, willing myself not to move.  Don’t even think about the gun.  Don’t think about killing elk or have any predator thoughts.  Hide your eyes and become part of the woods.  That’s it.  Now, will the cow to move on and lead a bull out of cover.

Determining it was safe (surely because of my telepathy) she moved sharply downhill and out of my field of view.  Then another cow showed up in same spot, quartering slightly away, pausing briefly, then moved downhill out of sight.  I was in a shooting gallery.  As about fifteen cows continued their procession, I ensured my scope was on its lowest magnification and waited, alert,  knowing a bull had to be following closely behind.  Moments later I saw massive antlers that paused at the edge of the cover, then brown hide…come on…one more step…stay broadside.  I squeezed the trigger as my crosshairs settled in behind his rippling shoulder and watched the bull react just before recoil caused me to lose the sight picture.  Every elk in the herd overtook him as he struggled to run over a nearby rise.  I called the shot in on the radio, feeling great as I whooped, “send in the horses, I got a nice 5×5 down.”

A wonderful public land trophy

I waited a few minutes to start tracking, not wanting to possibly push a wounded bull all over the state. I went to the spot where I last saw him and got more than a little nervous when I didn’t see any blood. I followed elk tracks and still didn’t see any spoor.  But one hundred yards further against the base of a burned evergreen, I found my big, old, muddy, rut-stinking Rocky Mountain bull elk!  A 180 grain Federal Accubond .300 WSM had done the job, blowing through one shoulder and coming to a halt,  perfectly expanded just under the skin on the far side.

The Rifleman's Rifle

I re-counted the points on his rack and was astonished to see that he was even bigger-bodied than I originally thought. Turned out he was the biggest elk shot by our party. He was my first elk and I’d earned him. I planned and prepared hard, read every book, article and blog post I could find and jogged countless miles and climbed my building’s stairs wearing a rucksack nearly every day for a year to get here.   Jeff shot his at 7:30 and I shot mine at around 11:00 a.m.  Almost unbelievable.   One of the guides, as surprised as we were said, “Do you realize what you all did?  Two bulls, on public land, in just under five hours.  It’s almost impossible and damn fine luck.”

— — —

Reflections from the Great Bison Roadtrip

My cousin Jessica kindly sent me this post reflecting on her recent road trip to South Dakota and Wyoming.  Thanks Jessica!

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from the masters  – Saint Bernard de Clairvaux.

Bison in Wyoming

Recently I read Douglas Brinkley’s book “The Wilderness Warrior – Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America”.  This read motivated me to take a trip I have been longing to do my whole life –  visit the great plains of the US – the “American Serengeti.”  I wanted to see first-hand the wildlife that inspired Teddy Roosevelt and other conservationists such as Stephen Mather, and Joseph Grinnell to establish the system of modern land and wildlife conservation in our country.

The one animal I really yearned to see in person was the bison, often incorrectly referred to as buffalo. Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America and Europe, can run up to 35mph, and weigh up to 2000 pounds.  In 1800 this majestic creature numbered around 30 to 60 million, but by the late 19th century had dwindled to just a few hundred animals.

The US Army sought to deplete the main food source of the American Indians, starving them or forcing them to submit to life on

19th Century carnage

reservations, and so slaughtered the bison.  Also unfortunately for the bison,  they reportedly enjoyed scratching their massive backs on telegraph poles, knocking them over with their great strength. Delays caused by buffalo herds numbering in the of tens of thousands that lumbered across the tracks annoyed railway passengers.  These natural behaviors of the bison didn’t exactly endear them to telegraph and railroad executives. Tragically, their systematic execution at the hands of the U.S. Army and the hired guns of the telegraph and railway companies nearly eradicated the bison from the face of the earth forever.

Paradoxically, if not for the efforts of Roosevelt and other avid hunters in the late 19th century, the bison would have faced certain extinction. These men helped set aside large tracts of land for the protection of these and other mega fauna. They also fostered the development of modern wildlife management – of which regulated sport hunting is an essential element.  I am encouraged that although we were once only a few years away from losing plains animals such as the bison, and later the black-tailed prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, and the black-footed ferret, thanks to the foresight of hunters like Roosevelt, their populations are rebounding. I wish that I could have seen a herd of a 100,000 bison, instead of the paltry 500 or so I did see, but I feel fortunate to have seen any at all. I was moved to see small caramel-colored bison calves with their herd crossing the roadway in Grand Teton National Park – not inconvenienced like the railway passengers of old.

Prairie critters

Teddy Roosevelt said that there can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country.  Many people believe that Roosevelt was a hypocrite, citing his love of hunting while he championed the issue of wildlife conservancy.  Not so, hunters are no mere conservationists, as the editor of Petersen’s Hunting recently wrote, “we hunt for food, we hunt for the experience, and we hunt for the tradition”.

By virtue of the way I was raised, and seeing my father and brother hunt, I believe that modern hunters, like the early outdoorsmen-conservationists, express their values by respecting nature and her creatures – and by actively participating in the cycle of life and death.  The billions of dollars that American hunters have contributed to habitat restoration and wildlife research through fees and excise taxes such as those levied by the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937 are a testimony and monument to their ethos.

Hopefully in coming years more Americans will opt out of  resort vacations in expensive artificial playgrounds, and instead decide

The symbol of the American West saved by hunters for all

to bring their children to our nation’s parks and forests. There children can learn the valuable lessons of respect for nature, conservation, and stewardship.

Bats in Belle View

Big Brown bat pups are common sights this time of year

What is that?!, shrieked my wife pointing out something brown and hairy that clung to the wall of our condo in the Belle View neighborhood of Alexandria two nights ago.

At first we thought it was a giant moth. I got closer and saw that it was a little bat. He was just hanging out – as bats do- and didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. In fact, he was kind of cute.

To find out what kind of bat the little guy was, I turned to my sister.  She is an avid caver and works part-time for the State of Pennsylvania checking on vulnerable bat populations. Some local species are being decimated by the dreaded white nose syndrome.

Turns out,  she thinks our neighborhood friend is a juvenile big brown bat. The young are called pups. My sister’s friend had one turn up in her kitchen sink the other morning. This time of year the pups are starting to fly and wander from their mothers and like any kid, they get lost, take chances they shouldn’t and get stuck in bad situations.

In about three weeks they’ll have learned and we’ll no longer see them in odd locations.

Bwana’s First Gobbler

There are hunters, and then there are turkey hunters
-Archibald Rutledge, Dean of Turkey Literature

Thanks to my hunting partner Jason for submitting this post on bagging his very first turkey !

Persistence pays!

It took all of five seasons, several shotguns, two ghillie suits, and dozens of calls, but I finally managed to bag my first turkey this past season.  Years of reveilles at 1:00 a.m. to make the hike in and get set up before dawn sometimes had me leaving for work on Monday mornings in my suit, minus my dress pants.  I averaged an hour’s sleep a night before a hunt, usually from opening day until the season closed.

I turned into a general plotting The Great Assault.  Topographic maps soon noted individual roosting trees, feeding areas, strut zones, calling locations, and turkey sightings.  The day before a hunt, I obsessively considered new areas to hunt, and different set ups. One more thing to correct and do differently.  A new call to start with at first light.  I started sweating and couldn’t sleep with the alarm set for just after midnight. What’s the point in sleeping anyway when the smartest game in the woods is going to be strutting just out of shotgun range in a few hours ?

There’s nothing like that first heart-stopping opening-day gobble. The sound of scraping leaves and breaking twigs as a tom in full-strut cautiously works its way into your decoys is more than enough to raise rainstorm-dampened spirits at O’dark Thirty and bring you back for more, year after year.

I had come close before.  A sudden movement would always give me away though.  Please note that I do not mean either sudden or movement, en grandiose.  Turkey hunters quickly learn you can’t sneeze, cough, scratch the deer tick on your leg, swat the mosquito in your ear, or adjust your shotgun too abruptly.  Scientists have determined that a turkey’s eyesight is so keen that it can detect the perception of a flicker of an eyelash, just as a hunter even thinks of blinking.  The bloody birds read your mind.

Taking no chances, early in my turkey hunting career I started wearing ghillie suits and even camouflaged the bottom of my boots with spray paint to break up the tread pattern.  Somehow though, turkeys always found a way to come in at an angle I wasn’t expecting.  There’s a wing in madhouses for those who feel like a turkey hunter when a 25 pound gobbler, spits, drums and gobbles two-feet behind the tree he’s set up against, knowing the slightest turn of his head will send that tom fleeing into the next draw.  Close calls like that have had me threatening to wrap my 12-gauge around a mossy oak every year, ‘round the first week in April in these parts.

Last season, I dealt with Mr. Won’t Budge.  This jive-talking turkey answered every call in my vest for about two weeks, but wouldn’t

Hurry up! This bird's heavy!

come within fifty yards.  He liked to hang out in an elevated area of open pine trees where he could see anything approaching.  I eventually had the idea that if I set up 25 decoys, purchased every call at Gander Mountain, and set up as close as I could, maybe he’d think all the turkeys in northern Virginia were celebrating at a party he wasn’t invited too.  I implemented most of the plan and eventually it worked. Half a dozen decoys and a cacophony of slates, boxes, and mouth calls (single, double and split reed) had him coming in fast. But when I shifted my gun from across my knees to the ‘high blast him’ position, he noticed the movement and was gone in a flash deciding to find a new roost for the rest of the season.

Finally, this year every thing worked out.  One Friday in the second week of the season, I decided to set up in in a pine thicket just a few hundred yards away from where I had heard turkeys on opening morning.  I got into my set-up early.  Had my decoys tastefully arranged in order to fool the most discriminating randy old tom .  Called softly, but wasn’t too aggressive on my slate.  This time, when a fat gobbler answered back I immediately brought the Mossberg to my shoulder and kept it there.  I only moved when he ducked behind a tree and eventually lined up the red dot, introducing him to my little friend, Hevi Shot.

This tom was more of a jake, with short spurs and a stubby beard, but he had a huge body, weighing in at least 25 pounds. My hunting partner, Jeff, who had heard my hooting and hollerin’ after the shot, showed me how to breast him out and take off the giant drumstcks. We laid the stripped carcass to rest under a pine tree, with an old wood and slate call for a pillow and thanked the Great Spirit for sharing His bounty with us.  I marinated the meat with lime and mesquite and had Jeff and his wife Natasha over one night for dinner. The tom’s fan and spurs are a very welcome addition to my ever-expanding trophy room. Let’s hope Jeff can get his first turkey next season.

Those interested in turkey lit may wish to check out Colonel Tom Kelly’s 1973 Classic, The Tenth Legion, comparing the obsessive compulsive, ritualistic, dogged attention-to-detail habits of turkey hunters to the Roman Army’s elite Special Forces unit.

If it was this easy, it wouldn't be huntin'!

Southern Arizona Outside

Remembering the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Huachuca

My wife and I are both in training for our respective Army and Air Force Reserve commitments at Fort Huachuca in Arizona for two weeks and we decided to spend our Sunday break on a short road trip to the restored mining town of Bisbee. In the late 1800’s, Bisbee was once the largest town between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Our plans changed temporarily when about five miles out of Sierra Vista we saw foothills a few miles to the north of Highway 92 that looked they would be fun to poke around in. We decided Bisbee could wait and hooked the first left towards the short, rounded peaks. How lucky we turned off the highway when we did!

Murray Springs Clovis Paleo Indian Site

After a few minutes of driving we saw a sign for the Murray Springs – Clovis Paleo Indian site, administered by the Bureau of Land Management area. Four canteens of water and an iPhone stuffed in my satchel and off we went!

The trail head led down a sandy path that cut through mesquite, yucca, cacti and thistle. It seemed like all the plants were blooming in either red, yellow, white or pink. And none of them wanted

Even the plants are tough out here!

to be touched – they all wore some sort of thorn, spine or briar. Life in the desert is tough – and so are the plants.

The trail was strewn with coyote scat and a Gambel’s quail scampered ahead.  Every few

Gambel's Quail and Chicks

yards a den of some sort was dug into the overhanging banks of bone-dry arroyos which paralleled the trail. What looked like wasteland from the road was in fact teeming with life.

After only 30 minutes or so, we had each drank a liter of water and a dry wind coated us in dust. The foothills we had seen from road were now clearly several miles away – too far for a spontaneous day hike with a pregnant lady. A quick glance behind us, to the southwest, and we saw

Monument Fire Grows

smoke billowing out of the canyons of the Coronado Memorial forest.  A forest fire threatening Sierra Vista for the past few days was gaining momentum and our hotel was hosting several families that already been evacuated.

A very tall and wide solitary tree rose above the brush about 700 yards ahead of us. My wife and I had a “what would Bear Grylls do?” moment and reckoned that if Bearwas trying to cross the high desert on foot, he would head straight for that tree. That became the new goal of our short trek. A thin line of greener and brighter brush leading to the old giant hinted of Murray Springs.

The Old Giant by the spring

Cold, Clear and Clean!

Sure enough, as we approached our oasis the dirt got a little darker and I poked my finger  into mud.  Ten feet further down a steepening incline and the dark soil transformed into green reeds and trickle of cold water! Further “downstream” the trickle widened and deepened running close enough to the massive old tree to water its roots year ‘round. The tree so big that five people wouldn’t be able to wrap their arms around it and it grew at least 100 feet into the sky.

Dozens of game trails led to the spring and I spooked my wife by telling her that many a deer had probably met its fate while it drank from the cool stream from a stealthy mountain lion lying in wait. Down in this little canyon, the air was at least ten degrees cooler than it was in the plains above.

On the way back up to the main trail we saw two hummingbirds hovering over the pink flowering nettles and tried to catch a fleet-footed lizard that evaded us by darting in and out of cracks in the rocky walls of the arroyo.

We did make it to Bisbee eventually, but the two hour “detour” we took gave me, my wife and our little biscuit in the oven an appreciation of the land, its beauty and its wildlife that just can’t be bought in a store.

On a less happy note, as I write this I am looking out my hotel window at tongues of fire in

The Monument Fire from Route 92

the night, licking up the sides of the mountains south of Sierra Vista. On our trip back from Bisbee going West on 90, we met dozens of folks who lost their homes to the fire we’d seen gaining strength behind us earlier in the day. To a person each one of them was grateful to be alive and didn’t blame anyone for their misfortune,  but accepted nature’s indiscriminately heavy hand with grace and concern for their neighbors.

It’s Spring When the Spring Peeper Says It Is

Spring Peeper

It’s official, Springtime is officially here! Despite what the calendar may say – it’s not for another two days – the spring peepers in the woods along the Potomac River say otherwise.

After my wife and I went grocery shopping at the commissary at Fort Belvoir last Friday after work, we drove past a cul-de-sac that looped into a small wood that bordered the river and we heard them – thousands of spring peepers – chorus frogs  – chirping away.

This time of year in the mid-Atlantic states just after nightfall, the little (less than an inch) male Pseudacris crucifer hangs out in leafy bush or tree, near water and peeps his heart out trying to find a mate.

To me, their cheerful mating call means the end winter and its short, cold, gray days. Spring peepers mean being enveloped by the earth’s surge to life in the Blue Ridge, as I sit against a tree turkey hunting at dawn in a few short weeks. Or feeling the warmth of the sun and being amazed by the sudden greening of the shoreline,  as I fish for delicious, hard-fighting crappie in the Potomac.

The spring peepers are making their beautiful music, telling us all within earshot that it’s time to chalk up the turkey calls, put some fresh line on our fishing reels, dust off our bicycles or clean the spider webs out of our kayaks and get outside!

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