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Get Online, Get Outside

Savvy outdoors enthusiasts use the Internet to congregate, not isolate.

By Katie Armstrong

While working from his Austin home, Brian Greenstone can openly do what many cubicle dwellers have to do in secret: search the Internet for fun stuff to do. When he finds an interesting outdoor activity, from spelunking at Longhorn Cavern to touring the scenic gorge at Canyon Lake, he logs in to hillcountryoutdoors.com and posts a brief description of the event. Then other club members can sign up and simply show up at the appointed time and place. Anyone who has ever tried to get three friends to agree on a movie, a restaurant or an outdoor activity will quickly learn to appreciate the convenience of online scheduling.

As a member of Hill Country Outdoors, Greenstone and others like him are discovering that the Internet is a tool that brings people together - in real life, not just online. Instead of keeping people isolated and inside, outdoor-oriented Web sites and listservs are helping birders, anglers, hunters and hikers get together to enjoy the Texas outdoors. Whether you're passionate about casting for bass or spying on the blue jays in your backyard, you'll be sure to find a community of like-minded folks online. Here are five services that help you find people who enjoy the outdoors as much as you do - and you don't have to be an Internet whiz to take advantage of them.

General Outdoors-Hill Country Outdoors

Austin-based Hill Country Outdoors is an outdoor-oriented social club that schedules a variety of events every week. Members can hike, tube, kayak, camp and participate in organized sports. More adventurous outings include special trips to Big Bend and other national parks and travel outside the U.S.

"A lot of people are trying things they would never try, like windsurfing, caving, skydiving," says Kieve Garner, who's been an event leader for about a year. "It offers them the opportunity to stretch their comfort zone."

HCO started as a club with a Web site in 2001 and now has up to 550 members, says Bill Talbot, the club's owner.

"We try to introduce people to different activities, and a lot of our events have the beginner in mind," he says. "It's done well in Austin because we've got the greenbelt in our backyard and there's so much to do within an hour or two."

Members can participate in as many activities as they choose, using a calendar on HCO's Web site to register for events. Members can also post personal profiles on the Web site with information and pictures, and e-mail other members. There are also active message boards geared toward specific activities, like team sports and camping.

HCO is affiliated with the American Outdoor Network, and HCO members can participate in other clubs' activities. Other Texas outdoor clubs are Bayou City Outdoors in Houston, DFW Outdoors in Dallas/Fort Worth and Adventure Club S.A. in San Antonio.

Five to 10 events per month are open to the public. Basic membership costs $24.95 per month, with options for semi-annual and annual membership rates.
www.hillcountryoutdoors.com

Fishing-Texas Fishing Forum

Texas Fishing Forum bills itself as the "best place in Texas to talk fishing." More than 25,000 registered members do just that. TFF hosts forums dedicated to everything to do with fishing: there are forums about boats, tournaments, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, fly fishing, bass, catfish, crappie and even kayak fishing.

Members can post pictures within forums, as well as link to sites like www.myfishingpictures.com and www.photobucket.com to share photos of the big ones that didn't get away.

Registration is free, and after signing up users can trade tips, share stories and ask questions. Members can also have profiles on the Web site and send messages to each other.

Two fishing buddies, Ben Moore of Grapevine and L.J. Bybee of Azle, met through TFF's partner-finder function. Bybee usually fished with co-workers, but after retiring he needed a new way to find fellow anglers. Moore was looking for someone to share his boat and expenses with. A posting and a reply later, the two set up an initial fishing trip and have been floating the waters of Lakes Texoma and Tawakoni for strong fighting fish nearly every weekend since.

"It has worked out great with Ben," says Bybee. "He has become a good friend and I enjoy fishing with him."

TFF even has a tournament for trash-talking anglers, which began when moderator Bob Smith noticed that anglers were fighting and complaining through the forum during the rainy 2005-06 winter. Looking to channel that energy into something constructive, he created the Match Play tournament. Participating anglers are grouped into five two-person squads. The rival teams are then "matched" to each other, and over the forum they make a connection, pick a lake and start trash-talking.

"We like calling it the art of being a smart-arse," says Smith. "Everyone else can chime in on the fun as well."

Then the rivals meet and compete with each other to see if they bagged as much as they bragged. The tournament concludes with a "fish-off," where the top two teams compete for the title and all the anglers can meet each other face to face.

"The thing that makes this so great is the opportunity to release a lot of frustration in a fun way, but more importantly you get to meet a lot of people in a low-key, low-risk setting," says Smith. "There have been great friendships that evolved out of this game."
www.texasfishingforum.com

One to Watch: Angling Masters

Launched in early 2007, Angling Masters is a freshwater fishing-oriented social networking Web site, similar to MySpace. The site is the project of co-founder Dave Abbott, a lifelong fisherman who envisioned an easy way for anglers to share fishing stories and compare their catches.

It's free to become a member, or "build a cabin," in Angling Masters-speak. Cabins consist of personal profiles, pictures and a fishing blog where members can share their "I-caught-one-this-big" stories. Members can also create and manage a list of online fishing buddies. Businesses and clubs can also have profiles, called "marinas."

A unique feature of Angling Masters is its fish calculator function, which allows members to type in the variety and measurements of their catches. Using information about the typical size of each fish in different locations, the fish calculator awards points and rankings so anglers can compare their catches.
www.anglingmasters.com

Hunting-Texas Lease Connection

Texas Lease Connection is designed to help hunters find leases and landowners find hunters. Landowners can post detailed profiles of their properties, including pictures. One Central Texas listing boasts that hunters can find "fish, hogs, varmints and whitetails" on the property.

Hunters can match their exact hunting preferences and search for leases by county, zip code, region of Texas, and game. Then they can narrow down their selections by price range, driving distance and amenities.

Texas Lease Connection also gives members the option of creating a personal profile and joining a members' directory. A partner-finder function helps hunters find new buddies to hunt with. The Web site also provides links to Texas hunting dates and resources like sunrise/sunset information and hunting tips.

A six-month membership with the Web site costs $29.99.
www.texasleaseconnection.com

TPWD is preparing to launch a similar service in May that will be free to use for all landowners and hunters. Landowners will be able to post detailed information about their leases, such as game available, allowed weapons, number of acres and the number of hunter positions available.

Hunters will be able to search by a variety of criteria, such as county, lease type, game, the number of hunters in the party and cost per hunter.

"The intent is to give people a free way of finding out where the land is, and helping landowners list their properties," says Kathleen Martin, a Web administrator for TPWD.
www.tpwd.state.tx.us

Other hunting resources:
www.texashuntfish.com - allows members to post journals and read hunting news and has product reviews.

www.texashuntingforum.com - has the same open-forum format as Texas Fishing Forum, only with a hunting focus.

Birding-Texbirds Listserv

Texbirds is an e-mail distribution list (or "listserv") that reaches about 1,500 birders across the state. Founded in the mid-1990s, Texbirds is sponsored by the University of Houston. By keeping discussion focused on birds, Texbirds has built a solid reputation as a reliable and up-to-date source of information for birders of all levels.

"Some want to chase rare birds, some are working on conservation issues," says list manager David Sarkozi. "Some of the world's experts are members, some have just learned their first few birds. There is room for all of them."

Some expert Texbirds users include Joshua Rose, program director at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Jennifer Owen, a natural resource specialist at Estero Llano Grande State Park, and John Arvin, research coordinator of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.

Using Texbirds is just like spreading birding information by word of mouth, only it reaches hundreds of Texas birders instantly. Subscribers can enlist the aid of fellow birders to identify birds, share their sightings and organize outings. Susan Schaezler, co-owner of Warbler Woods in Cibolo, uses Texbirds to alert birders about rare bird sightings in the preserve.

"Using Texbirds shares our sightings and excitement over our birds," she says.

"Spontaneous birding trips is who we are and why the listserv exists," says Barbara Ribble of Austin.

It is an understatement to say that birders will go to great lengths to see rare birds. Instant communication from Texbirds provides the quick turnaround time that birders need to spot elusive species.

Birders from all over Texas and the U.S. descended on Big Bend National Park in August and September to glimpse the secretive fan-tailed warbler, which had never been seen in Texas before. Gail Morris of the Fort Worth Audubon Society made the nine-hour drive two weekends in a row to see the bird.

"We have even driven to Oklahoma to see a rarity," says Morris. "Any rarity within nine hours is worth the drive!"

Wireless Internet keeps traveling birders connected with Texbirds. Wi-Fi access is available at all Texas safety rest areas and travel information centers. Many Texas RV parks also offer wireless Internet. Go to www.rvtravel.com/wifi.html for a list. Subscriber Carol C. Ferguson says using Texbirds makes her feel like part of the birding community.

"Before finding Texbirds, I birded on my own, going to places that I knew were good for birds and where I had good experiences," says Ferguson. "However, Texbirds not only put me in touch with places where certain birds were seen, but I received the benefit of debate and discussion between very knowledgeable Texas birders about bird behavior, bird physiology, migration, habits, whatever you can think of relating to birds." It is free to subscribe to Texbirds, and users need only an e-mail address to send and receive messages.
www.Texbirds.org

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