08/24/13 8:00am
08/24/2013 8:00 AM

FILE PHOTO | For years, anglers turned to Newsday columnist Nick Karas for reports on the outdoors.

To the editor:

I don’t know where to start when discussing Capt. Nick Karas’ impact on fishermen like me.

I read his columns continuously throughout his career at Newsday. I missed very few. He always put me right there as if I were his shadow.

The first time we met was at Salivar’s in Montauk during an evening before a cod trip in the very early ’70s. A few years later, despite our initial conversations, I felt strangely intimidated when I called him to ask if he would accompany a large group of fourth-graders on a school boating and fishing field trip I had planned. Naturally, he followed his guest appearance with a wonderful and accurate column on our adventures at sea.

Thank you again, Nick. After that, I would see Nick regularly at the winter outdoor shows or on the Orient or Montauk docks. I was always greeted with a friendly smile and an enthusiastic hello. He frequently spoke of the refurbished center console that he now took charters from. A few years ago, he joined my dinner guests, consisting mostly of fishing addicts, as a guest speaker at a local restaurant. He did a fine job of outlining and discussing sight-casting on the flats for large and small stripers.

Nick Karas wrote so much about the outdoors, his writing credits are way too many to list. They were all terrific works.

What stands out the most to me is “The Complete Book of Striped Bass Fishing.” It is considered by many to be the bible for linesider anglers. Nick’s attention to detail is overwhelming. The book is a must-read for every bass angler, including the best of the pros.

Sadly, Nick Karas will be missed by many, including this angler.

RIP, Capt. Nick.

Capt. Jerry McGrath, Wading River

Mr. McGrath is a licensed charter boat captain and the owner of Sportfishing Adventures in Calverton. He’s a retired Shoreham-Wading River schoolteacher.

08/12/12 4:00am
08/12/2012 4:00 AM

We were going to a restaurant the other night with old friends who trialed field dogs with us over the years and asked for directions. One of them pulled out pen and paper and said, “Here, I’ll draw you a map!” It was a fine document and got us there without difficulty.

Here was an “aha” moment; this sequence is now quite unusual because mapmaking is a lost art for many outdoors persons. In a world of Google Earth, GPS, On Star and computerized voices like Siri, it’s no wonder that the need to sketch or read a detailed map appears old-fashioned, even irrelevant. This observation applies, I suppose, as long as technology works for you. However, if you have no laptop, if you are in an area where wireless signals are poor or non-existent, e.g., some wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park or roads through the mountains of Pennsylvania, then what?

Also, because computer technology from the very beginning was only as good as the early programmers, (i.e., “garbage in equals garbage out”) and because much of today’s software is written by wonks who haven’t a clue about local details, some really crazy situations arise when technology goes awry or androids make decisions for you. Several seasons back, a couple of friends from northern New England with no knowledge of Long Island wanted to get to a trial in Calverton with their horses and set out confidently, using their GPS. Somehow they tracked all the way west to the New York Thruway and the Major Deegan Expressway, then wound up on the Cross Bronx Expressway just in time for Friday evening rush hour — a nightmare!

Our north country home up against the Canadian border lies on a road, Jones Road, which ends next to our house, but there is a track through the woods going north, an old military trail once intended for border protection and later used by bootleggers and locals to get to Canada. It emerges a couple of miles north onto an east-west country road, but the track is really for ATVs or hikers. Still, every so often, we’ll see someone come crashing out of the woods in a 4×4 pickup, looking somewhat dazed. Inevitably, this is a pilgrim following a GPS or a Google Map that clearly shows “Jones Road Extension.”

Live and learn.

The best maps give an overall picture, showing not only roads and landmarks, but accurate distances, too. Looking for a field trial, a hunting camp, or a restaurant — it’s all the same; you’ve got to be precise about how far you’ve come and where you turn. The same holds true for sailors and anglers reading nautical charts. It’s well and good for a skipper to punch in numbers and get precisely onto some patch of bottom or some little wreck where the fish were yesterday. But, we’re spoiled to the point where we have a hard time figuring out new waters for which there is only scant information.

If you rented a livery skiff from the Lorias 40 years back, Captain Marty’s would supply you with a simple map showing shorelines, islands, reefs and buoys. Given the layout and some numbers (like distances from points or time of travel at cruising speed) you could pretty well get to the desirable areas, even if there were no other boats fishing there. If you had a depth recorder, great; otherwise, you dropped a sinker overboard on a fixed line and checked both depth and, by bumping the sinker, the type of bottom. Often you could pick out features on shorelines directly fore and aft as well as off both stern and bow. The intersection of the two lines gave you a triangulated position that you could note. If you needed to drift a bit, you carried a couple of marker buoys — empty plastic milk jugs and heavy sinkers on lines wrapped around the jugs. Toss one overboard and you had the spot marked perfectly (at least until the tide ran so fast that the jug submerged). This also served nicely to mark where a body of bottom hugging flounder might be feeding so you could drift over the hot spot repeatedly. No GPS or Loran numbers required.

This “lost art” itself, like mapmaking, can still come in handy when you find yourself in some little embayment in a borrowed skiff a thousand miles away from home and you want to catch your supper as we did on Cape Breton Island some 20 years back. The winter flounder there were extraordinary, too! Similarly, locating a deep spring in a mountain pond you’ve never fished before usually requires a tip or two, a homemade map, and the skills of triangulation.

If you can make and read simple maps and find your way around new areas, you shouldn’t need to ask yourself, “Where am I?” Or answer, “I dunno!”

07/19/12 4:00am
07/19/2012 4:00 AM

We had just finished a good morning workout, a training session, really, with three bird dogs when another club member arrived on the grounds. We were the only ones that morning. By the time we packed up to go, the temperature was 85 degrees. It was 8:30 a.m., and the heat wave would push the mercury into triple digits in nearby Philadelphia that afternoon.

Outdoors persons who deal with summer activities during the frequent hot spells learn to be smart. More important than 4 p.m. high temperatures are the 6 a.m. lows, for these dictate what you can do and when. Unless you’re forced to defy Noel Coward’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen [Go Out in the Noonday Sun]” rule because of some scheduled event, you key on the period between first light and breakfast, say 4 a.m. to 8. Unless the morning lows come in above 80 degrees, you can usually accomplish what you want in relative comfort. Why only mornings? Throughout most of our mid-Atlantic region, high humidity levels simply don’t allow temperatures to plunge much at nightfall, and “the cool of the evening” is pretty much a myth.

Where I grew up, fishing the summer nights in Westchester and Putnam counties, my favorite fishing time was “the witching hour” right around dark, until mid-July. Then older mentors showed me how to fish long after dark, and, indeed, the bass often “came alive” around midnight, much to the annoyance of my parents. (I had to learn to refrigerate my catch until at least after breakfast the next day.) A couple of young friends who constantly outfished me wouldn’t get on the lakes until 3 a.m. or so, and they had the advantage of the coolest water temperatures of all. Even a half-degree or so makes a difference in freshwater predator activity.

Many years later when I worked a half-year in New Zealand, I learned that the rainbow/steelhead of the North Island were also best fished in the middle of the night by anglers casting tiny luminous flies from sandbars, fly rodders lined up just like so many northeastern surf fishers. Of course tides are just as important as the cover of darkness for nighttime stripers during the summer doldrums; East End skippers always cherish the new and full-moon periods from now through September for that very reason.

Unfortunately, biorhythms present a problem for most of us landlubbers. Although you’re just as likely to come across “night owls” as you are to encounter “early birds,” very few can go both ways. That’s why charter skippers are not fond of 12-hour sunset-to-sunrise grinds. Those still standing at the rail can be made to look really foolish when the biggest striped bass of the trip opts for a live eel at night’s end.

The only option for the outdoors person who simply hates the graveyard shift and cannot function without a full night’s rest is to fight the heat of the day and do what you need to do to be active: wear protective clothing, slather on sunscreen, drink plenty of fluids, etc. The other afternoon, with temperatures in the 90s, I had to muck out a barn and couldn’t bear long pants. The flies ate me alive while sunscreen dissolved in my sweat and got into my eyes. Humidity and lack of a breeze did me in. But offshore pros often find their targets perfectly well if they can handle some discomfort. That’s why some of the best offshore fishing comes in summertime, for tunas, mahi, or sharks out in the blue water. If you’ve got a shaded cabin to rest in, or even a canopy for shade, and if there’s a whiff of a breeze (not too much of a rolling sea, though!) it’s tolerable.

I used to consider summertime freshwater fishing to be a crazy proposition if I had to go in the daytime until I started fishing streams or rivers with fairly constant temperatures. Although, you had the best trout fishing in low light or at night, it was different with the river smallmouth and especially with the pikes. Given some local shade, some trees or weeds, you could often do pretty well all day. Because the pikes (chain pickerel, northern pike and muskellunge) are binge feeders, you often tease them or anger them to provoke a strike. High water temperatures increase metabolic rates and seem to make pike about as ornery as an overheated angler. We’ve seen some big river muskies come roaring out of weed patches to attack surface lures with open water river temperatures in the 80s!

Just because it’s hot, that’s no excuse not to get out. Whether you rise before the sun or emerge from the house after sundown, the summer outdoors still has a lot to offer. Besides, if the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are right, it won’t be any easier in the future!

06/28/12 2:00am
06/28/2012 2:00 AM

When I felt the bump of the horse trailer on the curb as I drove through the turnpike toll, I had a bad feeling. Minutes later on the Massachusetts Pike, a glance in the rear-view mirror of the haul vehicle confirmed my fears; the tire on the trailer just didn’t seem to be running right. When a car passed alongside and its driver frantically gestured towards the trailer, I knew it was time to pull over and change the tire. Fortunately, we had all the tools necessary; even more fortunately, we had a spare tire bolted to the front of the trailer.

No motorist in his or her right mind would think of taking a long trip without such a “spare” tire assembly. Yet, it’s amusing how many outdoors persons travel without preparing for such contingencies. It’s so easy to stumble over gear and fall on a fishing rod, crushing it, or catch a long wand in a closing door as you step across the doorstep into camp. Fly rodders are notorious for leaving tackle assembled while proceeding through tricky entrances or into rear compartments of autos. Anglers set up a reel with shock leader or tippets ever so carefully, but often fail to check reel screws, bails or nuts that hold reel handles in place.

Sometimes we’re able to make emergency repairs. An older generation of bamboo rods always came with spare tips, for example. I’ve made repairs on guides when wraps came undone by finding a handy roll of duct tape and taking a turn or two around the foot of a loose guide. On one Canadian trip I got really lucky and snapped a fallen guide ring back into place, then used a drop of instant glue to make it more secure. If I catch a loose screw or two on a reel plate or notice a loose nut on a bail or handle, a small screwdriver from my kit or a pair of pliers comes to my rescue.

The worst “uh-oh” moments come when repairs in the field are impossible. Where’s the technician who can replace a bail spring on the spot? Who can load up a spool of line while standing hip deep in the surf? Who can take apart a delicate reel after it has fallen into the bilge and filled with fine sand? That’s where your replacement comes in.

Just as you wouldn’t think of fishing with one lure and one leader, you shouldn’t think of proceeding without a spare outfit, or at least a spare reel. If storage is no problem on a big boat, we usually stash a spare outfit in a safe corner of the cabin or tie it to the rail where a spot is empty. We also put a spare reel into our daypack, just in case one of our winches malfunctions.

On a bottom fishing trip, the spare outfit is handy when we lose a rig and want to jump right back into the action during a “bite.” Re-rigging can take place during a lull in the action. On a drift fishing trip years ago in the Florida Keys, I had an outsized mahi burn up a bail roller and render a spinning outfit unfit for casting. I spent the rest of the afternoon with a 12-pound class drift rig, set up with a tandem-hooked ballyhoo, and saved the trip with my very first sailfish.

It’s a tough call when you have to go with only one rod, as one does so often working a stream of wading from the beach. Unless you want to carry the spare rod all day, you probably leave it back in the truck or back in the tent, but you at least should stash a second reel in a pocket or wading vest. Fly fishers sometimes carry spare spools to change lines, which is so much easier. I’ve seen a few anglers manage to carry spare two- or three-piece rods by taping them together or using a Velcro strap fastened to their person. Still this can get pretty clumsy as you plod miles along the gravel or walk a forest path. It’s tempting to put them down above the high tide line or off the trail as you proceed, but hours later you had better remember exactly where you stashed the spares!

One trout specialist I fished with in the wilds of Quebec got around this problem by building a short fly rod with somewhat larger guides and a reel seat just above the butt. He could, in a pinch, slip a small spinning reel onto the back of the rod and toss tiny lures when he wasn’t fly-fishing. Such spinning-fly combinations were offered by specialty catalogs at one time long ago, and they were deadly on tiny streams where backcasts were out of the question.

Being prepared is like being flexible. It certainly doesn’t hurt.

06/12/12 3:00am
06/12/2012 3:00 AM

An East End charter skipper once told me he couldn’t wait to get back to Florida for winter action on snook and tarpon. This confession came on a late November day when we were pursuing tautog and the tides were rather strong, causing one-pound sinkers to bounce merrily away in 70-foot depths. The thought of catching fish averaging four times the weight of the sinkers doesn’t appeal to anyone who regularly fishes tropical seas where currents are often non-existent.

But, if you are a pilgrim in our area, you have to learn how to fish northeast waters where “5-to-1” or “10-to-1” ratios of fish weight to line strength are impractical, and techniques are different from those used in other coastal areas. There are three good ways to learn these techniques first hand, once you’ve been properly outfitted. You can share a charter, sail aboard a party boat, or, in a few places, rent a skiff and motor. I’ve deliberately left out the surf game here; although beach techniques are relatively easy to learn, the game is daunting because of its feast-or-famine aspects and because of the difficulty getting access to the beaches when you want to fish them. I’ll have more on this in a later article.

A “newbie” should spend a few days scouting the docks and tackle shops, observing and asking questions. What boats are recommended? What do the catches look like? What does the tackle look like? No matter how well you think you’re set up, there are always new rigs to learn, new baits to bring, and new techniques to apply, good reasons for our first preference, a shared charter.

A good charter boat has a patient skipper plus an attentive crew, and provides a running tutorial during at least four hours of fishing, maybe twice that. Almost always, there are well-rigged, well-maintained outfits on hand; even if you’ve brought your own, it’s not a bad idea to try fishing with the boat’s tackle. Just make sure you check reel drags, hooks, and, above all, knots. If drags have no “give” (generally, they are set at one-third line or knot strength for strong running predators like bass and blues, a bit higher for powerful bottom-hugging bulldogs like tautog or fluke; for delicate-mouthed scup and small hooks, drags should be on the light side), if hooks seem dull, if lines look frayed — ask the mate courteously about the outfit or get another.

Pay strict attention to instructions about hooking fish, avoiding hangups, and manipulating baits. Dropping a live eel into the maw of a striper or discerning the difference between the bounce of a sinker and a strike in a strong current won’t be easy for you. You’ll lose rigs and drop fish while you learn. Again, the best skippers are either very patient or they have diplomatic crews to smooth hurt feelings!

Party boats serve beautifully once you’ve got the essentials or if you’re able to handle your own errors in public. Again, there should be a patient skipper and an attentive crew, but now you’re at a buffet, not a private table, so you’re serving yourself! You should learn the rigs and baits of the day ahead of the trip or at least during the boat ride to the grounds, but then, once the action gets going, you had better be able to tie and rig after any breakoffs. If you can find a kind, honest “regular,” ask questions, lots of questions, and pay attention to the railbirds who have figured out what techniques and rigs are paying off on that particular trip. If you stumble into something that works, share it and be modest about success. Many a pool-winning fluke has been decked by a grade-school kid who paid no attention to his or her rod or by an old gaffer who had too much beer with lunch and went to sleep with a rod fastened to the rail.

Sadly, liveries or boat rental stations, our final choices for the pilgrim, are disappearing rapidly. Still, places like Captain Marty’s in New Suffolk, the Caraftis Fishing Station in Port Jefferson, or Silly Lily in East Moriches can provide an inshore experience like no other. They will help you set up rigs and baits for the day and give you instructions on where to find the fish out in that incredible expanse of water; however, once you leave the dock behind, you and your companions are on your own. Nevertheless, if you want to really learn the secrets of anchoring on a good spot or drifting a productive area at the right speed, nothing beats fishing in “your own” rental craft. And if you have a few fish to show for your efforts at the end of the day, you know you did it yourself.

Learning how to fish a new way never grows old.

06/07/12 1:00am
06/07/2012 1:00 AM

Nothing beats an outdoor dinner when the weather turns “summery” as it did over the Memorial Day weekend. We were sitting down for “happy hour” after a day of running our dogs down East near Freyburg, Maine, last Saturday and having a wonderful time — until the local deer ticks showed up at the party. First, someone picked a couple off his neck; then another tick showed up on a sleeve. Next, a crawler got peeled from a bare arm. Now the inspection of pant legs began in earnest. Suddenly the scene resembled an assemblage of monkeys and apes picking parasites off one another in an African documentary!

Thanks to a mild winter with very few days of freezing temperatures along the seaboard, Ixodes ticks are out in force this spring in fields and woods. They are, as always, particularly abundant wherever one finds deer, rodents, sandy soils and pine barrens, places like coastal Connecticut, Cape Cod and, of course, our very own Long Island. But we’ve found them plentiful inland, too, in the Catskills or the Black Forest area of central Pennsylvania.

Fortunately, you do not have to be an expert in the diagnosis of the half dozen or so tick-related diseases to know that preventive measures are quite helpful. As we’ve pointed out many times in previous pieces, you begin with insect spray or liquid on the skin (legs, forearms, neck) and clothing and wear the kind of clothing that makes ticks (the adults, at least) easy to spot in the first place. Rolling pants legs into your socks probably keeps the downstairs ticks from accessing your lower body, but we’ve never figured out where the upstairs ticks come from. How the heck can they get into the sweatband of a ball cap?

Our rule for outdoor clothing worn in marshes, forests and fields is simple — one and done. Once worn, the day’s attire goes into the washer, making for lots of laundry but lots of drowned ticks, too. As for pets, they are better protected than we are, thanks to annual vaccines and regular applications of systemic tick killers; we spray dogs lightly with repellents after days in the field and comb them out, minimizing the ticks that drop off in the house.

If you’re fortunate, you feel a tick moving on your skin during the day or two before it settles in for a bite, or you see it, looking like a tiny, dark, out-of-place scab. Then you kill and discard it. Three weeks ago, a day after we returned from a trip to Falmouth on Cape Cod where we had judged a trial in a wildlife area, I plucked a tick off my forearm. It wasn’t embedded, but it had been working with its enzymes, dissolving tissue before biting, and leaving a quarter-inch red spot surrounded by a pink area. So potent are the chemicals, I can still see the faint mark of the “burn” 13 days later.

When you’ve been bitten, the signs are sometimes unmistakable, sometimes not. The characteristic “spreading bull’s-eye” doesn’t occur in every case, and you may not see a tick embedded in your scalp or a hidden body part, especially if the insect is a sub-adult nymph or larva. And the onset of generic “Lyme disease” (e.g. true Lyme, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, etc.) weeks or months after the bite, shows up as aches, fatigue, weakness, or “summer flu-like” symptoms, mimicking many common ailments.

Forty years ago when tick-related diseases were first diagnosed in large numbers on Long Island and elsewhere, physicians would search diligently for medical proof of a tick bite. A few still do, insisting on thorough blood work and a “positive test.” Because the spirochete remains hidden in the system, one can contract “Lyme” without a timely positive test. You occasionally hear of folks who suffer for a year or more with consistently negative tests; this creates a dangerous situation, because “Lyme” never goes away, and can result in permanent nerve or heart damage as symptoms return in a cyclical fashion. Most wise physicians opt for symptom-based treatment with antibiotics like amoxicillin or doxycyclene and take the curative effects of the treatment as proof that patients were infected.

With thousands of these cases every year, bites from infected ticks are part and parcel of the outdoors on the North Fork and just about everywhere else in the mid-Atlantic region. If you tend a garden, hike, bicycle, go afield with your pets, or even “fire up the barbecue” in the back yard on weekends, watch for ticks and go at once for treatment if you see any sign of a bite from an embedded Ixodes tick. With outdoors persons, it’s not a question of “if” we’ll be bitten. It’s only “when.”

You cannot let these arachnids keep you from enjoying the North Fork outdoors, however. Fortunately, vigilance is simple, and treatment is simple, too!

05/13/12 3:00am
05/13/2012 3:00 AM

With the demise of the winter flounder fishery now in its second decade, anglers have pretty much come to terms with the loss of our once reliable treat for the springtime table. Fortunately for those who grew up fishing freshwater, substitutes are readily available — the ubiquitous “pan fish” found in ponds and lakes all over Long Island.

Just like flounder, freshwater pan fish exhibit schooling behavior; catch one and there are probably a dozen lurking nearby. Also, these little fellows are best taken on light tackle, and, finally, they are great table fish.

I grew up on a lake some 60 miles from Manhattan that once had a population of bluegill sunfish so robust it would have brought tears of joy to any of the Good Ol’ Boys who loved their “brim” so much in Dixie. Almost any time of year, you could locate these sunfish hanging around the shallows where they would eagerly take anything resembling an insect or tiny minnow. The groups of big bluegills from eight to 10 inches in size were so easy to find in the spring that we would invite guests over and wait until they arrived to start fishing the great big fish tank off our dock. In very short order, we had enough fish for a “fry.”

Early this month, a cousin who had lived through those days with me and was now an expert on rainbows and browns, came through on a visit and wanted to revisit that lake. We called my brother, who still lives in the old family house, and got together on a miserable, showery afternoon with an east wind and more rain in the forecast. To make more space in the aluminum skiff, we jettisoned battery and trolling motor, opting for oars and a small mushroom anchor instead. As expected, fishing was picky. When we couldn’t locate any chain pickerel to fool with (we try to avoid the spawning bass), we dropped back to light fly rods for the pan fish — first a nice rock bass (“redeye”), then a couple of seven-inch bluegills. When the wind sent us drifting into a big sheltered cove, we considered moving out to a couple of brush piles in front of the cove that were home base to schools of black crappie later in the season.

Suddenly, cousin Steve hooked a large but sluggish fish, not a bass, not a spunky bluegill, and I dropped another at the same time. When he coaxed his fish to the boat, I grabbed the net — and we had our first crappie. With large but soft mouths, crappie are the one pan fish you don’t swing aboard, especially when you’re fishing streamers in sizes 10 and 12. The next half-hour was classic, just like a flounder run, and we caught dinner in short order. These crappie, 12 to 14 inches in size (we’ve caught them to nearly 18, in fact), were apparently well off the brush piles and probably spawning or feeding on fry in a few feet of water.

To best enjoy the art of pan fishing, you fish light with tippets less than six pounds and two- to four-weight fly rods. Nothing fancy here; sink-tip or floating lines work just fine. Besides midget streamers, wet flies will work, and so will dry flies or tiny popping bugs later in the summer. For non-fly rodders, spinning tackle — ultralight with lines testing two to four pounds — works equally well. Just remember to keep the lures tiny. Spinners, jigs and the smallest wobblers you can find will catch all pan fish species. Usually freshwater pan fish are so abundant (in fact, they can outcompete a bass population unless there are top predators like pikes around) they can be enjoyed on the table without concern for “overfishing.”

Besides the pan fish species mentioned above, there are myriad species in all eastern waters. In the course of a fishing career, we’ve caught both white and yellow perch on the North Fork when they were abundant in Marratooka, and one of the largest white perch I ever saw, a two-and-a-half pounder, took a full-sized Rapala on Laurel Lake. Remember that pan fish species are cyclical, and a lake may change over the years with one species replacing another. The niche once occupied by bluegill in the lake I described above appears now to be occupied by black crappie and bass.

As table fare, pan fish are (again, like flounder) superb. For best results, you can fillet the larger fish, the ones well over 10 inches, but you might want to simply remove head and tail and eviscerate the smaller ones. Unless you like the stronger taste of the skin (scaled, of course), you’ll want to skin your catch before frying, baking or broiling. When you put some fresh pan fish on your table with a good Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, you might just for the moment forget those winter flounder.

04/28/12 2:00am
04/28/2012 2:00 AM

Lots of outdoors persons, here and elsewhere, enjoy horses and horseback activities. And so do we. But, as in any exercise involving the outdoors, accidents are part of the game, and working with half-ton animals presents risks that are pretty specific to that activity.

A couple of weeks ago at a field trial held on the historic English Setter Club grounds in Medford, N.J., about a half-hour from Philadelphia, a surprising number of accidents took place over the course of only a few days. Having so many mishaps in such a short time was unusual.

At mid-week, during a fast-paced stake, one experienced handler tried to turn his horse rather sharply; when the animal stumbled, he went over the top and landed on his collarbone, breaking it in the process. Over the weekend, two more riders went down when their horses fell; one bailed off just in time, the other suffered a fractured finger and a few bruises. To round things out, another experienced rider with a newly purchased horse failed to notice how much air the animal had blown out while riding and didn’t cinch up in time. During dismounting, the saddle assembly slipped off, depositing the rider, butt-first, on hard, dry soil. Badly bruised, that rider was also through riding for the weekend.

A couple of wags commented that this had something to do with bad karma, running a big field trial during Holy Week (with Passover in the mix as well), but a very well-known dog trainer, who also spent her youth breaking in quarter horses, confided that she had long ago stopped counting cracked and broken bones accumulated while riding horses!

As we’ve explained in previous essays, most of us get into horseback activities from the periphery. If you go into the Rockies with guides to set up a hunting or fishing trip, you ride in a pack train, horses and burros, or you just don’t go. If you compete seriously with pointing dogs in any trials other than walking trials on grouse and woodcock, sooner or later, you’ll be in the saddle, handling, judging, or simply observing those dogs.

After only a few rides, you get the feeling that there’s more to this game than simply plopping your butt into a comfortable saddle and using reins or legs, especially if you’re called upon to ride off by yourself on a steed from the wrangler’s string. Horses have a terrific sense of who’s a “tenderfoot” or “greenhorn” and who’s not, and “rental” horses are notorious for taking advantage of such situations. Now maybe you’ll want to get serious about riding lessons, and buy proper riding apparel, designed specifically for the riding you’ll do. Riding jeans, proper riding boots, chaps, and certainly a good helmet are starters, and you may quickly find that your very own saddle will serve you well over several seasons.

If you get serious about any horseback-related games, you eventually come to the conclusion that you’ll do a lot better with your own horse. Here the story takes a new turn, similar to the anglers who commit to offshore fishing and progress from skiff to cruiser. Horses (we use the plural form because they need companions) require pasture, barn or boarding, plus trailers and haul vehicles. Now you’re really hooked, and so are your life savings!

But back to the “safety” theme. Even when beginning to ride, you should know about tying lines, adjusting stirrups, saddling and bridling the animals properly in case the wrangler misses something while setting up your rental ride. You’re the person most affected. A loose saddle for a rider is like a poorly tied knot for an angler. Stirrups too long? No control? Too short? Cramps or balance issues? If you begin to work around horses, you realize how much lifting has to be done — everything from dragging heavy bales of hay and six-gallon Jerry cans of water to supporting horses’ feet and cleaning hooves. I’ve never used a lumbar support so often in any other outdoor activity!

But, again, like all outdoor endeavors, when things come together, it’s something else. Late on the Sunday of the Medford, N.J., trial, I was called upon to run a dog in place of one of the injured handlers. While I judge quite a bit and help out handlers as a “scout” when dogs go AWOL, I seldom carry responsibility for steering a wide-ranging field dog around a big course. But the dog knew its mission and, within a few minutes, I found myself watching her two fields ahead, swinging along a long edge, searching for game birds. Then the veteran judge cantered up alongside and asked me to turn at the end of the cast. As I called and swung the horse, the dog spotted me and swung 90 degrees at the far end of the field, just the maneuver we wanted.

And this is why we ride!