Wild Ideas: Spring finally arrives . . . sort of

Although the temperature is hovering around 40 degrees and snow is falling as I’m writing this, spring has officially arrived. The vernal equinox was last Thursday (March 20), which means days are now getting longer. Spring peepers are calling, wood-frog eggs are appearing in vernal pools, red-spotted newts are mating and phoebes have returned to nest.

Last Saturday dawned sunny and warm. As soon as I could get myself together, I headed to Triple Oak Bakery in Sperryville, lured by the promise of freshly baked donuts. On the way down the mountain, I passed the ponds, where customers were already enjoying the opening day of Skyline Trout Farm, my landlords’ fee-fishing operation.

A father teaches his young daughter to fish on opening day at Skyline Trout Farm, near Sperryville.
A father teaches his young daughter to fish on opening day at Skyline Trout Farm, near Sperryville. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

At the bakery, I stepped out of the car to the sound of “fee-bee, fee-bee,” the first eastern phoebe calls I’d heard this year. I thrilled to the sound, while bemoaning the fact that “my” pair had not yet shown up. With treasure in hand, I headed back to my house and, arrived to hear once again “fee-bee, fee-bee.” My phoebes were back! (At least I’m assuming it’s the same pair that had nested here last year.)

It was so nice outside that I decided to enjoy the donuts out there. As I ate, I watched the phoebes flitting around the yard, alighting on their favorite perches — phone wire, clothes line, garden hook and goldenrod. There they watched for insects on the ground, which were also drawn out by the warm weather. In between dive-bombing their prey, the phoebes explored the boundaries of their territory.

One of the pair, likely the female, alighted a couple of times on last year’s nest, on the kitchen vent under the eaves of my roof. The phoebe did some token repairs, which boded well for the pair’s choosing to nest there again. I usually take down phoebe nests over the winter because mites can infest them, but I’d left this one up, thinking the cold winter this year probably killed any mites. Leaving it up would also give the phoebes a head start on this year’s first brood.

A bit later I walked down to the ponds to find out how things were going there. More than a dozen people, mostly in family groups, were fishing at the trout pond or sitting around its edge enjoying the sun. On Thursday, 400 pounds of rainbow and golden trout from West Virginia, where the trout were raised, had been put into the pond. (All are sterile to prevent them from reproducing and invading our native ecosystems.)

Parents were teaching their kids — some of whom were barely old enough to hold a rod — how to fish. A grandmother helped her two small grandchildren tote fish from the end of the dock to a tall painter’s bucket that served as temporary storage, frequently cautioning the kids to be careful around the water.

Meanwhile, grandpa had found a quiet spot farther along the other shore and was slowly and methodically reeling in trout. Further around the pond, a mother sat with her baby daughter, who dozed in a stroller, and watched her husband and young son pulling trout after trout from the pond.

I sat and chatted with Kaye Johnson, my landlady, while nearby her husband, Tom, was hard at work cleaning and filleting trout. Kaye said they’d been busy all morning. While we talked, customers kept coming up with their catch, which she weighed and added to the day’s tally; payment is by the pound.

In talking with them and Kaye, I found that most of the visitors were from out of the county, having found the trout farm through its website or Facebook page, or from friends who had visited last year. Some of the customers had called (540-987-9438); others dropped by on a whim. The latter were happy to find rods, tackle and bait available for a small fee.

A few customers were returnees. A Russian couple, who last year had come often and stayed late, was back. Their young daughter, who spoke little English, was fascinated by the red-spotted newts at the water’s edge. She’d captured a few, putting them in a bucket to study. Now she was concerned that the rising heat, which was now into the 70s, might hurt the little amphibians. She asked if she could put them back into the pond, which Kaye agreed was a good idea.

Everyone at the pond seemed to be having a good time, and several commented on how fishing there made for a great family outing. When their budget for trout had been reached, a few headed to the adjoining catch-and-release pond — which is loaded with various sunfish species, from bluegill to bass — to practice their angling skills. Any nontrout caught in the trout pond are added to this pond, where customers are charged by the rod to fish. I’ve seen some fat pumpkin fish and bass that are real lunkers there.

When the Johnsons closed on Saturday, Kaye reported having 32 customers, representing 11 families, who caught a total of 110 pounds of trout (106 fish) — not a bad opening day.

The next day was gray and cold, with temperatures dropping back into the forties. Spring was obviously not quite ready to settle in. While a few hardy fisherman did manage to show up at the ponds, my phoebes had disappeared. Still, I have hope that, any day now, I’ll be driven awake at dawn by the male phoebe’s persistent territorial call.

© 2014 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”