This story appeared in the Pender Neighbors Section of the Wilmington Star-News on May 28, 2008. It received the second place 2008 SEOPA Excellence In Craft award for the Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.

At every fishing tournament, there must be a judge to sort out the winners from those who merely entered. These dedicated individuals are usually volunteers and are the unsung heroes of the sport of tournament fishing. Although they are seldom seen outside their weigh stations and are never glorified as highly as even the lowest money winner, no tournament could be run without its weighmaster

Weighmasters make sure that entrants’ names and contact information are correct, that every fish weighed-in is eligible and every contestant weighing in a fish is treated equally. Weighmasters are also in charge of making sure their scales are accurate and that the weight of every fish is recorded just as accurately. Fairness and accuracy of the weighmaster are taken for granted, but these traits form the core around which the good times of everyone involved in a tournament revolve, whether or not they are fortunate enough to catch a fish to bring to the scales or even if they are merely observers or helpers and not contestants at all.

At the 10th Annual Got-em On Live Bait Club’s Disabled Sportsman’s Tournament held at Kure Beach Fishing Pier, anglers and their helpers floated inside a virtual sea of yellow Got-em On Club T-shirts. Club members were scurrying everywhere, helping disabled anglers bring their fish to the weigh station. Glancing from yellow shirt to yellow shirt, I was looking for the weighmaster. Wayne “Mac” McSwain has been the official tournament weighmaster ever since the tournament began and I had been to the tournament every year except for the last one. At the scales, I spotted Mike Harrison, who was weighing in a spadefish.

This story appeared in the Wilmington Star News on Nov. 12, 2006 and Tabor-Loris Tribune and received the first place SEOPA Excellence in Craft Award for Best Daily Newspaper Column or Feature.

It’s not often you get to treat someone from a foreign state to a coastal North Carolina deer hunt. But when that hunter hails from a foreign country, it becomes even more of a special event.

Andy Hahn is a magazine editor from Brazil, although he was born and raised in Pennsylvania. While I was working on a story for his magazine, Sport Fishing, we struck up a steadfast friendship, sort of like being pen pals, except through the electronic marvel of emails rather than letters sent by postal carrier.

Offhandedly, he asked me to host him on a deer hunt and I agreed to be his guide. While most such offers are left unaccepted, Andy was serious and so we made plans.

I watched two deer feed in a field all summer and hoped they would remain in the area. Moving a portable blind to the edge of the field to make it easy for Andy to have his hunt was all that was required, except of course having the deer cooperate and enter the field during the daylight when he was hunting.

This column appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on Jan. 1, 2000 and in the Wilmington Star News. It received the first place 2001 SEOPA Excellence in Craft award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.

“Fish On!”

The shout was unnecessary, so loud was the ratcheting of the warning clicker on the big Penn 130. Every angler and crewman aboard knew that the fish stripping away 200-pound test Dacron line against 45 pounds of strike drag was huge, but instinct made Captain Bruce Pollack of Wave Runner holler to let everyone know that battle stations must be manned.

As agreed, Bob Walmsley would be the first angler in the chair. As mate Chris Johnson handed Bob the rod at the end of the giant bluefin tuna’s first run, he stepped up the drag to 70 pounds of tension. Chris reeled in all the other lines while Bob held onto the rod, which was bent over so far it looked like it would shatter.

Bob’s brother, Don, swiveled the fight chair to face the fish as it used brute strength to try to throw the hook. The captain maneuvered the 53-foot Jarrett Bay into the 6-foot seas and shouted encouragement to the gang fighting the fish in the cockpit.

This story appeared in the Tabor-Loris Tribune on Oct. 2, 2002 and in the Wilmington Star News and received the second place 2003 SEOPA EIC award for Best Weekly Newspaper Column or Feature.

Patting a storm-battered dock float with the flat of my palm, I “upped” Santana out of the muck. The fabric jacketing the float was as black as the Lab and the underlying Styrofoam peeping out through small rips in the plastic weave was as white as the grizzled hair on his chin.

In spite of a tide watch that read “full moon” and “high tide,” the water had was not yet high enough to float the mats of dead, hollow reeds lining the edge of the island. To marsh hens, the reeds become rafts when a lunar tide fills the marsh to overflowing, providing them with places to rest until the tide recedes and lets them fly out to feed in the grass flats again.

Like the clapper rail that had skulked from the grass into a stand of giant reeds as I anchored the boat at the edge of our island, the tide sneaked silently in. Selecting the stub of a broken cordgrass stem to use as a tide gauge, I watched the water creep higher against the slanting rays of sunlight reflecting beneath the bill of a cap and forcing me to squint against the grass-dappled glare. Deciding that when the top of the stub was covered we would resume our hunt, I waited. Santana whined quietly, excitedly. We caught our breath until more favorable conditions arose with the incoming brine.

There is something mystical about sitting in a marsh while waiting out a rising tide. The timeless tide waits for no one and sets its own schedule.  Sometimes it rises to such a height that is remarkable in human terms, covering roadways, boat ramps and piers. To hunters, such an astronomical event is known as a “marsh hen tide,” because it concentrates sora, Virginia and clapper rails, making them easy pickings for a hunter poling a boat through the marsh or walking the edge of an island.

Anyone who has never hunted marsh hens cannot appreciate the extraordinary sporting qualities they possess. They can run faster than any pheasant, hide better than a rabbit, swim and dive like a canvasback duck. If they could fly with the speed and maneuverability of a blue-winged teal, rails would be the gamiest bird in the marsh. Alas, or fortunately for many of us who are addicted to the pungent aromas of the tidelands, clappers are poorly equipped to fly. Their attempts at gaining the safety of open marsh or tall reeds when flushed are nearly comical and more are missed by gunners who over-lead, rather than shoot too far behind.

Once our makeshift tide gauge read “marsh hens,” Santana and I resumed our hunt. However, the tide never achieved its full potential and we walked a long distance before striking birds.

The Lab’s tail telegraphed scent as he trailed a marsh hen in the short grass near a point of land. At the flush and the shot, feathers drifted on the wind, indicating a downed bird as the big clapper hen sailed through the tall reeds.

Santana retrieved the bird then began trailing another up a high bank and into 12-foot tall cane. The rail flushed, landing well out into the marsh and out of range. On a lark, I whistled him out of the jungle. Handling him out into the water, I tested his mettle against the tidal rips and clinging grass. Working him into the wind with hand signals maneuvered him into the vicinity of the bird. Amazingly, he swam hard enough in pursuit to pressure the clapper into flushing instead of diving. She flew toward me and I added her to the game bag, our shopping basket for the makings of dinner on days spent out in the marsh.

On a good day, a limit of 15 clappers can come within a couple of hundred yards of walking. But on this day, the tide began to fall before it rafted the reeds.  On a bad day, one hundred yards per marsh hen is the price you pay for dinner.  This day was one of the worst of the worst, with paces slogged through grass beds, marsh muck and fording tidal streams measured in distances of miles.

Still, we achieved our goal. But it was not the half-dozen fine clappers that created a heavy lump at the small of my back. The glint of sunrise tinged with salt-scent and spiced with solitude are the solace of a hunter’s soul. There is nothing quite as soothing to the spirit of a coastal gunner as a morning spent on a marsh, waiting for the tide to rise.

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This story ran in the Wilmington Star-News Oct. 15, 2000 and in the Tabor-Loris Tribune. It received the first place 2001 SEOPA Excellence in Craft Award for the best Daily Newspaper Column or Feature.

In the stillness of the weakening light of imminent sunset, the doe stepped out of the bushes overhanging a shooting lane to graze on a planting of rye. The silence was breached almost imperceptibly when her fawn shouldered through dog fennel leaves to stand beside her to feed.

This scene unfolded in a trophy management territory, where does are weeded out with vigor. Still, there was a long wait until the darkness that would close out legal shooting time at half an hour after sunset.

A muzzleloading rifle is a very effective arm. In fact, it seems flatly untrue to call such a marvelous hunting tool “primitive.”

I was holding a new Knight Bighorn rifle that shoots a modern, copper jacketed, .44-caliber handgun bullet held against the rifling by a .50 caliber plastic sabot. The bullet is propelled at high velocity by two 50-grain pellets of Pyrodex ignited by a standard shotgun primer. A 1.75x scope completes the rig, which has proven to possess tack-driving accuracy.