Friday, March 4, 2011

Adventures with Nature, Part II

Once again, I find my thoughts turning to our furry chums in the animal world. This time, though, I’m not interested in how the redneck doofwads around here treat them, but more in the critters themselves. How they behave, to be exact. Puzzling out what motivates their often mysterious and weird behaviors is a constant source of happiness for me. Yeah, I’m a geek. So what.

The Great Polecat Massacree

I had reason to leave my little town this week for a drive down to the throbbing, visceral metropolis of Oklahoma City. Couple of hours there, couple of hours back. No biggie. It’s an easy drive along friendly roads. Easy for me, at least. I’d wager that the local skunk population, if polled, would offer a different and much darker view of the thing. See, over the course of my drive I counted no fewer than twenty-one dead skunks on the road.

Roadkill is far from unusual here in Oklahoma (it is, I believe, the State Animal), but the only dead beasts I saw were skunks. There wasn’t a single porcupine, raccoon, armadillo, or deer to be seen. I saw three in one 150-yard stretch of highway. What exactly is happening with les skunks de pew?

Driving along, I formed, and rejected, numerous hypotheses. Just for fun. An outbreak of suicidal stupidity in the polecat community? Nah. Daredevil teenaged skunks playing chicken with the iron horses? Nah. A mass migration—a sort of new Okie Land Rush—waddling forth to establish a new Skunk Frontier? Nah, and nah again.

The answer, I think, is fairly simple. We had a cold spell a few weeks ago where temperatures quite unreasonably refused to climb above single digits. When that pattern broke, the highs abruptly soared into the seventies. Trees started to bud and the wheat fields sprouted a carpet of green fuzz. Spring is awake and stretching the kinks from her muscles, even if, according to the calendar, she’s just a hair premature.

Ma Nature’s precipitate arrival has roused the local skunk population from its long winter doze, and the first thing on the minds of newly-awakened mammals is finding some nosh, followed immediately by getting busy making more mammals.

Skunk populations rise and fall naturally, due to all sorts of factors, and they occasionally spike, which is what seems to be happening now, leaving us with a surplus of the randy little stinkpots, all of them rampaging around looking for groceries and a bit of the ol’ slap-n-tickle. Their pursuits lead them far and wide, which means encountering the random motorway or two, and, well, the rest is street-pizza.

And there it is—the Great Polecat Massacree, explained.

I guess.

Leapin’ Largemouths

I’ve mentioned in past missives that my favorite Aunt and Uncle own a farm near my little town, and on that farm is a marvelous spring-fed pond, where, since I was six years old, I’ve spent as much time as humanly possibly, extracting largemouth bass.

Over the years I’ve noticed a growing predilection among the piscine masses. After you hook them, they jump. Just like they do on those goofy Saturday afternoon programs ESPN 27 shows in between the slam-dunk challenge for the infirm and extreme curling from Zimbabwe. They used to jump every so often, but rarely with much gusto. Nowadays, them come clean out of the water, shaking and thrashing like Fred Phelps at a drag club.

What we have here is an example of, not adaptation, but evolution in action. Non-jumping fish are more easily captured than their jumping brethren. When a fish jumps it lessens the tension on the line, making it easier to shake free of the hook. Getting off the hook means staying out of the fry-pan. So, the instinct to jump is a valuable one to have for a fish who wishes to hang around a while longer, engaging in his fishy business. One of the more vital items on a fish’s agenda is getting together with a fetching lady fish and cranking out a school of fingerlings. Jumping fish are more likely to stay waterbound long enough to accomplish the task, at which time they genetically pass the jumping behavior along to their young ‘uns. And so it goes, until you get a pond full of harder-to-land jumping bass, and thus a healthier local ecosystem all the way around.

I am willing to admit, however, that they might just be acting smart-alecky. You know how fish can be…

The Sociopathic Turtle

The ponds and rivers of Oklahoma are rife with turtles. We have ordinary (read: non-alligator) snapping turtles, unbelievably ugly smooth softshells (they look like slimy brown cake platters with clawed feet), and, the most common of the bunch, red-eared sliders.

Every healthy waterhole needs a few turtles (not to mention frogs, mosquitos, fish and predatory mammals and birds). But let me stress the word few. Too many turtles and they throw the whole balance of the place out of whack. They eat carrion, which is all to the good, but they also feast on fish eggs; can’t get enough of ‘em. Their dining habits can all but depopulate a fishing hole in no time. So I’m a bit ambivalent on the testudines. Though I remain openly hostile toward one particular member of the order.

One bright afternoon I was standing in my favorite spot on the shore of my Uncle’s pond, casting and reeling, casting and reeling. I was using a rubber lure, designed to look like an immature bass-trout-perch, and its action in the water imitated a wounded fish. Silly as they sound, they are pretty effective—and at $6 each, they’d better be. Some few minutes had elapsed between strikes, and I let the lure come to rest in a couple of inches of water at my feet while I lit a smoke. In the time it took me to tug a cigarette from the pack and put fire to it, a red-eared slider glided up from the muck, homed in on the lure, and, with one snap of its scaly beak, bit it in half.

“Hey!” I hollered. “You little bastard.” And I swatted him with the tip of my pole, which sent him flailing back into the deeps—like most living things, turtles look completely ridiculous when they hurry—the tail end of the rubber fish flapping in its jaws.

I examined my exenterated lure, chalked it in the loss column, and fitted another like it onto the swivel. Aiming for a new patch of shoreline, I maneuvered along the bank about fifty yards, and started casting again. No more than two minutes expired before I happened to glance down at the water beneath me, and there he was. That same damn turtle; looking up at me with his oil-bead eyes. How’d I know it was the same turtle? Don’t they all look alike? In their gross anatomy, yes, they do, but since they spend most of their time frolicking in the bottom-ooze, they often develop individualized patterns of moss on their shells. The Lure Biter had a distinct scalloped-shaped design in the back half of his carapace. Oh, it was him, alright.

And he seemed to be waiting for another snack.

“Piss off,” I said. He did not. “Go on. I got nothin’ for ya.”

I moved another few feet along. He followed, never lowering his head below the surface. I moved again. So did he. I threw a stick at him. He pinwheeled away. I relocated. He returned. I cursed at him. He remained unfazed. This went on for—I kid you not—nearly 45 minutes, as I fished my way around the pond. If my lure came near him, he attacked. If it slowed in the shallows, he went for it like a homing reptile. Once I got him to crawl all the way onto the bank by twitching the rubber fish along in front of him through the mud, at which point I pinged a rock off his shell and he left me alone…for nearly three minutes.

By this time he’d twisted my entire angling outlook sideways. I was being stalked by a turtle. I couldn’t concentrate on accuracy or control because I kept watching for his inevitable return. And though I am not proud of what happened next, it is what happened. Back at my tacklebox, I rummaged my .22 revolver from its leather holster and waited, turtlecide on my mind.
He appeared only moments later, totally unaware of his impending journey to Turtle Heaven. I raised the pistol…

…and my phone rang.

It was my good friend Cal. We chatted for a few minutes (the turtle maintained his ceaseless vigilance) before she asked why I sounded distracted. I explained about my harasser, and she burst out laughing (which is what I should’ve been doing), and said “Oh, that’s so cute! You have a friend!”

“I don’t want a friend,” I said. “I have all of those I require.”

We went on for some few minutes debating the pro and cons of turtle camaraderie, until I came to my senses. That turtle should thank Cal for saving his reptilian biscuits.

I’ve fished that pond two dozen times since first meeting the sociopathic young Yertle, and I’ve seen him almost every time. Seen him, yes, but not been stalked by him. These days he ignores me totally. Once, when the fish weren’t biting I tried to entice him with a rubber fish, but he was having none of it. Disdain, about sums it up.

If there’s an explanation for his behavior on that singularly bizarre afternoon, I’m damned if I know what it is. I’m guessing he was just really hungry. If that’s the case, I’m glad they don’t hunt in packs. It has ‘70s B-movie written all over it. And I'm not sure I'm in good enough shape to outrun a turtle...


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