How to Find Fiddleheads for Next Year’s Harvest

Now is the time to start searching!

Every year, at the beginning of the fiddlehead season, I see countless people asking, “Is this a fiddlehead?” It seems like a no brainer finding them, but I forget that when I was growing up, my mother would have done anything to know how to find fiddleheads and not have to buy them. Since fiddlehead spots are heavily guarded as sacred, it’s just much easier to find your own spot than to even think of asking someone or possibly contributing to over-harvesting on a popular spot.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can find fiddleheads even now for next year, and perhaps even easier than when the season starts and definitely with less competition.

Best of all, finding fiddleheads out of season means you’ll be well prepared for next year. Chances are, you will find fiddleheads where you least expect to find them, and they’ll be bigger and less picked-over than the popular picked spots on the river.

Yes, fiddleheads do grow on the river banks, but that’s not the only places they grow. In fact, the biggest fiddleheads I’ve ever found weren’t found on the river, but in the woods, along a road, far away from the river. John and I spend a great deal of time driving logging roads all over Maine. This is the time of year when you can easily spot the ostrich a.k.a. fiddlehead fern.

There are two things you look for when scouting for fiddleheads; fern fronds (the leaves), and spores. Fiddleheads are the beginnings of the ostrich fern, which are easy to spot now that they are in full display. Another distinguishing attribute is the grooved stem of the fern. There are only 12 ferns in Maine, and most of them don’t look anything like the ostrich fern, so once you learn the twelve, it makes it far easier to finding fiddleheads, but really, just learn what the ostrich fern looks like and you won’t have a problem finding fiddleheads.

Fiddlehead ferns have very distinct foliage with very sharp points and slender leaves. Once the fiddlehead season is over, the ferns unravel and fill the roadsides along with other ferns that are often mistaken as fiddleheads. They are taller than most ferns. They look rather majestic and stand upright like ostrich feathers. If the ferns are large and are around three feet tall, then you most likely have found a mature batch with nice sized fiddleheads to found next spring.

So look carefully and look for sharp edged ferns. I’ve included photos so that you can really see the difference.  The first picture is fiddlehead fern. The others are not fiddlehead ferns, and when you compare them side by side, it’s easier to tell them apart. Fiddleheads will often grow amongst other ferns. In the picture with John picking fiddleheads, there are other ferns already up and open…and they’re not fiddleheads. Look at the photo of the fiddleheads up close; you will see the leaf structure of the fiddlehead fern before it opens up.

Fiddlehead ferns are bright green like a fiddlehead, not lemon green, or blue green…and not glossy like a Christmas fern.
Fiddleheads emerge from a cluster of root ball. You can usually find the dried spore pods as an indicator of where to look for fiddleheads.
John picking fiddleheads. See the other ferns that are not fiddleheads. They are paler green and have rounded leaves. Also note the seed pods from last year’s fiddlehead crop. New fiddleheads are emerging from the base of each bunch of dried fronds.

So the next time you get the chance to ride some roads, bring along your Gazeteer and mark locations that you can return to next spring. You won’t find those beautiful ferns, but you will most likely spot the dried spore pods that are left behind. So if you find yourself still not finding fiddleheads by the ferns, then try concentrating on the spore pods. Ostrich fern spore pods are very distinct, and you’ll know for sure you’ve found your spot. Not only are they neat to discover, but they make great decorations in a simple vase.

Ostrich fern spore pods look like a brown ostrich feather.
Remember that the fiddlehead has to have a grooved stem.

The other important thing to remember is timing. Since most of our fiddleheads are found north of where we live, we find that our mountain fiddleheads can be as much if not more than two weeks later before they’re ready to harvest, so don’t get discouraged if they’re not readily found the first time you check. Patience and persistence will get you the prize!

One other thing to consider if you are foraging on paper company land is to look for herbicide use nearby. Large clear-cuts will get sprayed yearly, so I like to make sure there aren’t any signs of herbicide use before I pick.

Happy Foraging!

How to Spot Signs of Spring Bear

Most of the time, bear sign is all around, but you’ll miss it if you don’t know what to look for.

We always hear that we need to remove food for bear when it starts to warm up and they start raiding bird feeders. Many people don’t even know what bear like to eat. Bear are omnivores with means they survive by eating plants and animals. Bear don’t eat just honey and they will kill other animals if they want to eat it.

Bear are one of the biggest predators to deer fawn and moose calves born each spring. Bear compete with other predators such as coyote and bobcat, which also kill deer and moose calves. Source

When bear come out of their dens, most often, there isn’t even green grass, let alone abundant berries, nuts, or other goodies to eat, which is what drives them to take advantage of what’s available. That means if they live in your woods, they’ll raid bird feeders, bee hives, chicken coops, grain barrels, and garbage bins, if given the opportunity.

Bear also take advantage of roadkill, called carrion, which is why motorists may get a chance to see bear roadside in the spring. Just think of how much road kill you can see in one trip down the turnpike: deer, ground hog, raccoon, beaver, porcupine, turkey, and fox, just for starters. Bear love beaver, which has been referred to as “bear caviar” or “bear coke”, but I’ve never heard of bear specifically hunting beaver as a source of food. Beaver have some pretty nasty teeth, so most likely, it would be road kill. We actually have used beaver as a scent attractant when we initially set bait for bear hunting. It works.

A bear’s incredible sense of smell will bring them into neighborhoods and populated areas not usually frequented once natural food is available. Since I am fortunate enough to not get bear in my backyard, I have to go looking elsewhere.

photo credit: https://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn-more/living-with-wildlife/living-with-black-bears/bear-resistant-trash-containers

In our travels, primarily on paper company owned land, I’m always looking for signs of bear activity. In all the time we’ve spent in the woods and driving roads, we’ve only seen a bear three times, all at dusk, and only glimpses, because once they see you coming, they usually are gone in a flash of black.

I truly love to see the signs of bear in our travels. You don’t need a game camera to find where bear are hanging out. When traveling roads, you can also spot signs. We often get out and inspect what we find. I love to take pictures and talk with the kids about what the bear might have been eating or doing when it was there. This is also a great way to break up a long ride. Most of the time, bear sign is all around, but you’ll miss it if you don’t know what to look for. So here’s a run down of what to look for:

1. Bear scat, in the road…Yes, bear poop in the road, not necessarily always in the middle. Poop in early spring is usually very black and consists of grass that has just sprouted. This is also a way for boars to mark their territory. Since spring is the beginning of mating season for bear, this is just another calling card.

A few years ago, we were trying to get a picture of this huge pile of poop…and got caught by another motorist…not everyone understands the desire to take pictures of scat. His hand out is for reference. He wasn’t reaching for it…I promise!

2. Rocks that have been rolled out of their spots. You can usually spot when a rock has been overturned. I have scoured my files, and despite knowing I’ve taken pictures of rocks, I can’t find one. But trust me…just picture good sized rocks overturned and ants crawling about. To make up for it, here’s more poop pictures.

3. Logs and other debris in the woods and in older wood yards. These are our biggest finds, and we often find bear claw marks on the wood. Bear rely on insects as an important part of their diet throughout the year, but spring is when ants provide them the food they need.

Newly shredded log in search of bugs
Ants are a great source of protein for bear in the spring.
See how the big stump has been rolled out of the way.
Looking for ants and grubs

4. We’ll find bear tracks in the dirt if we’re really lucky. Nothing to me is more fun than spotting tracks. Which one is it? Front foot? Back foot? The size of the track compared to your hand is a great photo opportunity. ‘

Husband’s hand compared to a bear track
Twelve year-old son’s hand compared to a bear track

And finally…claw marks on trees. Some of the trees were visited long ago and the tree has started to grow, while others are freshly carved. Any way I look at these, they’re all wicked cool.

Those are some deep claw marks…glad it’s a tree and not me!
Old claw marks in a beech tree. The tree was literally covered in claw marks.

I hope this will give you a chance to find your own bear sign. Get out of that truck and take a look the next time you’re on a dirt road. While chances are you won’t actually see a bear, finding sign is almost as good. You’ll be surprised by how much you’ve been missing. Don’t forget your camera or cell-phone…you just may find your own pile of poop to photograph.

We’ve Come A Long Way

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One of the first fishing trips John and I went on with his family. We caught a bunch of brook trout.

As I was talking with John the other day, it occurred to me that we’ve changed so much over the last thirty something years. We married in October of 1984, and through all these years, we’ve persevered and have become what some have referred us to as a “power couple.”
IMG_20160507_110851408I laugh when I hear this because it’s usually in the context of hunting and fishing and all the things we do together. It’s quite a compliment, but honestly, it’s just about being together and enjoying what we do. Our kids are grown and off doing their own things with friends and family, so we have more time together that we didn’t have when we were raising our three kids. Hopefully they’ll take some of the times we spent hunting, fishing and wildlife watching with them and pass it onto their families.

So how did we get here?

My dad was pretty strict, but I think it was his own fears that made these rules. I remember not being allowed to go into the woods. My father’s house was only on two acres, but apparently he felt that was more than enough for us to get into trouble, so we (the kids) weren’t allowed to “wander off” and had to stay in the backyard. As an adult, this had lasting effects as I was dreadfully afraid of the woods and what might be lurking in those woods. The first time John and I went for a walk, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a partridge took off. I was never aware of my surroundings and all I remember was that I didn’t enjoy mosquitoes, and I certainly didn’t go looking for wildlife. Even when my family spent time at the camp lot, a parcel of land that my parents bought in the mid 70’s, that had an old school bus on it that we turned into a camper, we were not allowed to explore beyond our boundaries. Now when I hear partridge drumming, it only makes me want to find it.

From the age of 4, my oldest son Zack would want to go “hunting” with his BB gun, so he and I would put on our orange and take walks in the trails behind our house. We never saw anything, but he got the chance to work on his stalking skills and just loved every minute we were out there. I, on the other hand, never went beyond the trails because that’s all I knew.

One of these times, we hadn’t gotten further than 30 yards off the edge of the field, when I spied legs walking down the right trail. In my mind, I thought this was one of John’s cousins who is tall and skinny and who also lived next door. While I was wondering what he was doing out back, I soon realized it was a rutting moose coming down the trail. His head was down and his antlers…huge antlers…were going side to side as if to challenge us. I grabbed Zack by the arm and made a run for it back toward the house. I wanted Zack to see it, but I didn’t want the moose to charge us. I went into a full asthma attack as we hid behind a tree. We never saw it up close because I was so concerned about getting away from the scary monster, and meanwhile the moose changed course and headed down a different trail.

Zack grew to love the outdoors so much that he’d wander off all day. I’d worry and every night, I’d have to yell, “Zack-Ah-reeeeee“, for him to come home. He certainly explored beyond my boundaries, but would come home with stories of his travels and of all the stuff he saw in the woods.

When my husband was a young boy, he would sit around and listen to the men tell hunting stories, but moose hunting wasn’t allowed then so there were only stories of beastly moose and how scary and unpredictable they are. As a youth hunter, he had an encounter with a rutting moose that charged him, which left a lasting impression. John was set up in front of an oak tree while hunting deer. A moose came in to the smell of his buck lure, and when the moose saw John, he charged. John ended up yelling and kicking leaves at the moose and eventually shot over its head to scare it off. He retold this story  as a teenager and said it was one of the scariest moments as a kid he could remember. Then while in college, John was working the wood yard when a young moose wandered into camp. John decided to challenge himself and he was pretty impressed that he was able to make calls to the moose and eventually scare it off. It was then that he realized moose weren’t all that scary.

Thirty plus years later, we’ve grown to understand moose, and fully appreciate their presence in the woods. We’ve successfully hunted, tracked, and called them in just for the sake of seeing if they’d respond. There are no longer fears associated with moose or any animal for that matter.  If anyone had told me ten years ago, that I’d be hunting bear, or that I’d get my grand slam, I would have laughed. I am no longer afraid of the outdoors, the dark, the water (somewhat),  or going beyond my boundaries and stepping out of my comfort zone. I am still challenged when I face new adventures and those old fears creep in; however, I know I have the skills to be competent in the outdoors, so I just push forward challenging myself at every chance I get.

We’ve come a long way from where we were thirty years ago. I hope that if you’re thinking of getting into hunting and fishing or even just nature, that you’ll not put it off for another day. Don’t expect it to be perfect when you do venture out. Just take each time as a new and learning experience. I’m so thankful for who we’ve become both as people and as a couple. I can’t imagine life any other way.

 

Learning in My Down Time

FLY2Almost two weeks ago, I was out in the woods getting my mind clear, looking for antlers and trudging through some pretty deep snow when my foot fell deep through a snow covered brush pile. I fell flat on my face; my .22 barrel drove into the ground, and I got this incredible burning pain in my left knee. My foot had become lodged so that when I fell, there was no give, and the knee took the brunt of the fall. After a few curse words I got up and walked out, but the knee was incredibly stiff and sore. By the next day, I could barely walk on it and I feared the worst. What I don’t need is a torn ACL since I’m already the candidate for a knee replacement and with fishing season beginning in about a month, the last thing I want to do is be sidelined when I should be casting my fly rod. A trip to the doctor and I was told no torn ligament, just a good knee sprain that needs rest.

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My new fly tying kit. It came with some supplies but I also got a lot more separate items.

So what to do in the meantime? I decided that I was finally going to put my down time to good use and learn how to tie some of the flies I most often use. Before I ever got hurt, I had decided I wanted to learn how to tie flies. Besides the fact that we spend a lot of money on flies, I have this sense of pride that I can do anything I set my mind to, and especially if it means I’m going to save money.  I mean A LOT of money… every time we hit L.L. Bean, Cabelas, Pinkham’s in North Anson, Sandy River General in New Sharon, or Jack’s in Farmington to name a few, I never seem to get out of any of these stores before I’ve spent at least $20 in flies. It’s like an addiction…I love having all my fly boxes full with several of each kind of fly because we’ve all lost a favorite fly that is the only one catching fish.  John, Tyler and Zack have all owned fly tying kits and all of them know how to tie flies, so this winter I bought my very own fly tying kit and stocked up on supplies. This cost me a good $100 even with the fly tying kit being on sale, but I figured I’d get my money back in no time. The average cost of a fly is $2.25 so I need to make about 45 flies in order to break even on my out of pocket expense and not buy any more supplies or flies or I’ll be in the hole.

“NO PROBLEM”…In my mind I’d soon be cranking out the flies and waiting to get a call for my work.

Being able to tie flies can’t be that hard. I’m naturally good with my hands, and I’m not afraid to use them. I’ve sewn wedding dresses. I can build with wood and have had lots of experience. I can paint. I can tile. I can make things…I am freaking awesome when it comes to doing stuff like this….how hard can it be to tie a fly?

A hell of a lot harder than I imagined!

haresearnymph
 

photo credit: orvis.com

 

What I failed to calculate is the learning curve. I am a perfectionist which probably doesn’t help. I want it to be perfect the first time. I want it to look like the flies we buy. If only I didn’t feel like no matter which way I turn the vise, I have two left hands and neither one of them is talking to the other one. My first fly attempt is a Hare’s Ear nymph. This is what they’re supposed to look like.

 

IMG_20160228_212746709These were hot last year and since there were no bugs, these nymphs were the only thing catching salmon. Dubbing sounds harmless enough, but it’s a nightmare to work with. Dubbing is dyed rabbit fur. It’s used to make the bump on the nymph…How much, how thin, too thin, too thick..gahhh! It seems like the harder I tried to make it look clean, the worse it looked.

 

 

 

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Feeling confident! (c)SWarren

 

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Before dubbing was applied. (c) SWarren

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Please let this be over!

 

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My first two Hare’s Ear Nymphs. A big learning curve!

 

My second fly is a green Woolly Bugger, a fluffy fly that when wet resembles a fish. I emphasize fluffy as I think half of the marabou feathers got sucked up my nose when I tried to get what I needed for the fly.  I also made a black one. Add a Hare’s ear nymph to it and you’ve got a great combination for catching brook trout and salmon. I wasn’t as disappointed with the Woolly Bugger as the Hare’s Ear Nymph, but I know that all I need is practice.

 

 

So just like fly fishing, I will need to take baby steps. My return on investment may not happen until next year, but I’ll try not to be so hard on myself and try to remind myself that every expert was once a beginner.

expert