"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Monday, December 21, 2009

My First Georgia Quail Hunt

My single most embarrassing maneuver of the morning was lining up on a sailing quail and hearing the firing pin slam an empty chamber as the ladies in the buggy snapped digital photos of the covey rise.

“And, in this picture,” Carolyn said later, “is where you didn’t have a round loaded.”

I’m a boob. And in front of the guide, too, whom I thought I might have been impressing with my wingshooting acumen. That and not pulling the trigger on low-flying birds that could harm his very expensive dogs. “You shoot 'em, you buy 'em” was the motto here, and, Lord, do I not have the pennies for that. This blunder was good for a laugh, however, and earned reminders to load my gun as we approached every other point.

For a spell afterwards I went into a funk, whiffing on birds that flushed too close and zipped from right to left, pulling my cheek off the stock and sending the wad and lead through their vapor trails. I ended the day on a high note, though, downing my last two birds on consecutive shots. All in all, not a bad outing on my first Georgia quail hunting trip. 31 total birds in hand, and plenty more left in the bush.

We hunted Piney Creek Plantation in Dawson, Georgia. Our group consisted of Carolyn and me, her brother, Houghton, and his wife, Tiffany. We stayed in the company of Carolyn and Houghton’s aunt, Emily Williams who breeds and trains English Cockers and other bird dogs in Albany. The weather was gorgeous, property beautiful, and our guides Bill and Sonya easy, knowledgeable company. All in all, it was an A+ event.

Knowing what I know about the quail hunting business, I expected the picturesque cabin, manicured and managed land, and the fantastic guides; I didn’t expect how much I would come to appreciate the art of the dogs. Though I’ve seen dogs run deer, catch hogs and retrieve ducks, this was a totally new experience. The training and effort afforded to these animals to produce this service must be immense, and I aim to learn more.

We hunted with a combination of English pointers and German Shorthairs with the Cockers called in to flush and retrieve. And they knew their business. I’d long read of the majesty and professionalism of these animals, but it took witnessing it firsthand to really admire this style of hunting. Words really fail me here to relate the poetic pageantry displayed by these hard-working, enthusiastic animals. You just kinda have to see it. One dog, an English pointer, Dan, held a point for at least five minutes as we searched for him among the tall broom sedge. I don’t think so much as a leg quivered as he waited for us bumbling hunters to come claim his prize. Luckily, I didn’t waste his patience with a miss.

Other birds were more fortunate. Houghton was dealing, and I held my own, but when you’re hunting animals that blend perfectly with the terrain, the unexpected flush as a covey is being busted will throw you off your game. Even when you know it's coming doesn't mean you won't eventually shoot stupid.

Case in point, we’d – I say “we” when I mean Buddy, Yancey, or Pearl, the flushers – jumped a covey of maybe a dozen birds. To my right and behind me, a lone hen flushed wild. I whirled around in a corkscrew, completely off-balance and way-laid plenty of vegetation. Had this been a British slapstick comedy, I’d spun in a complete circle until I fell to the ground, shooting as I hit the flat of my back. Then the birdshot would have rained down on me. Surprisingly, it didn’t come down to that.

But, man, those dogs. Rock solid. And the birds cooperated. These were released birds, no hiding that fact. Maybe I just don’t know the difference, but they fired up like rockets and vacated the premises with extreme prejudice. At one point, I dumped three in a row – in full view of everyone – as they zoomed out of a patch of corn stalks. How the dogs found them in that mess is beyond me. It’s just what they’re bred to do, I suppose. And I got a couple kudos.

Bill was the man, and his reputation with me didn’t just get lucky with a fruitful day of shooting and nice weather. I’ve been around quite a few hunting and fishing guides – not all are as accommodating. After my brain fart with the empty chamber, I swung on another bird I probably could have scratched down, but I’d lost my bearings on where the buggy was thus neglected to shoot. Turns out it wouldn’t have been within the scope of my swing, but he still offered a pat on the back for not firing. Know plenty of Gung-Ho’s who probably wouldn’t have. Of course, I’m sure he’s seen it all. Competence comes in many forms.

He carefully maneuvered Houghton and me to be in the best position for a shot. I don’t know what all the whistles and commands meant that directed the dogs, but they sounded good, and, as I said, the dogs performed admirably. Houghton, by the way, gets the award for completely stripping the most birds of their feathers. I couldn't hit those that flew too close - try it before you comment. He made it look routine, and as an added bonus, most these victims hit the turf already plucked. Looked like he was blasting snowballs.

After we’d secured the shotguns for the day, we meandered around the property near the lodge. In a timber pit behind the cabin, mallards swarmed down to the water, exciting this wannbe duck hunter. Told Bill it was giving me heart palpitations and he laughed as we said our goodbyes when a mallard quacked down on the pond and I instinctively cracked my head around to catch a glimpse. He knew quickly I’m eat up with this hunting stuff.

I don’t know much about quail hunting - not sure how to write about it to do the hunt proper justice, to be honest with you. You ride in the buggy until the dogs go on point, hop out, load up, walk to the pointers slowly, then put the flushers on the covey. Your only real job is to try not to vomit awful shooting all over the place. That's the cheat sheet. Actually doing it has to be experienced.

Over the years I’ve traveled many a weary mile to Georgia and back for deer – I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t hesitate to pile more on for these bobwhite at Piney Creek.

Or the ducks.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Check out this YouTube video of some guys patrolling the ag fields of SW Georgia at night for our friend the Wild Hog. Sign me up!

Duck Gossip 2009-10

The wood duck couple scooted about the retention pond feeding in the muck weed for what felt like 30 minutes. These were the only two that settled in after having numerous others buzz the tower, hopes rising and falling with their passing whistles. Don’t know why more didn’t land here Opening Morning, but it was common wood duck action. Very early, very quick.

Of course, we didn’t use any decoys or blinds that morning either as it was more of an exploratory mission than anything. Previous scouting uncovered ducks using that pond regularly and there was no real point in spoiling the scene – either they’d be there or they wouldn’t, you know? In hindsight, we maybe could have used one or two dekes, but I’m satisfied with our decision overall.

I was caught off-guard staring into the horizon trying to pick out a flock of ducks that wasn’t there when I glanced back at the drake who had launched himself towards me. The first shot was a tad off - enough to spin him around for the second. Jim downed the hen to prevent any broken hearts or Juliet suicides. Beautiful birds, those woodies.

And that was it for me this first duck season phase. The rest of our hunting party – hunting private land outside of Lakeland – scratched down a couple more wood duck, a few hooded mergansers, and a couple feral mallards. Not a bad morning.

But, as has happened with my deer season, previous obligations prevented any more forays afield and stream for ducks; however, I’ve kept my ears to the tracks and give you a rundown of the duck hunting gossip so far.

First, the FWC published their 2009-10 harvest reports for the first phase. Just eyeballing the data, blue-wing teal look to be leading the list – mostly in the South and East – with ringers a close second. Mottled ducks and green-wing teal make an honest showing with a smattering of widgeon, woodies, and ruddies in the mix. Not too bad.

As for public lakes not on this list? Friends tell me ringers were the duck-of-the-day. Know a drake redhead took the plunge as well as some teal. Hunting and shooting was spotty at times, and a few lakes had an armada of boats on them, but that’s Florida duck hunting, the best I can describe it.

Still, I get the general sense that this is going to be a successful year for many waterfowlers. Second Phase began December 12th and runs to January 31st.

Good luck.

Scouting Chassahowitzka for Spring Turkey I - The Lucky Draw

I’ve been grinning ear-to-ear like Enzyte Bob the last few weeks. I just can’t believe my luck this year. You see, I NEVER win raffles or lotteries or anything. When I attend NWTF or DU banquets, I just give my money to the Hooters Girl and tell myself, “It’s all for a good cause.”

But this year, I’ve had the hot hand! This summer I pulled my first-ever gator permit on my first try. While others on the various outdoor forums griped about the new random draw system sucking when they didn’t get drawn, I sported a smug little smile on my face. Then came the WMA quota hunt application in June - got my first choice for muzzleloader and archery (didn’t apply for any general gun). Finally, I pulled all the hunts I wanted at Duette.

November was the month for Spring Turkey quota hunts. I perused the options. I wanted hunts with limited permits that would keep hunting pressure down even though this reduced my likelihood of being drawn. Second, I wanted something accessible so I can scout and hunt without driving a million miles and back each day. Finally, I wanted some place I’d never been. This year has been about trying new things - Green Swamp and Richloam were out.

From all the properties listed in the FWC manual, my primary choice was the Babcock Ranch Preserve. I hoped to draw in the South Zone and hunt early March just in case invites to private land popped up later in the season. Plus, I could stay at my grandparents’ place in Cape Coral and commute. No dice though.

My second choice was Chassahowitzka WMA in Hernando County. 10 permits per weekend for over 33,000 acres. Long shot, but pressure should be low. Plus, I have a couple places to stay up the road in Homosassa.

I’ll save you the details of my last three choices since I drew my second. I was dealt the flush this year. I swept the tag season!

Careful what you wish for, however. I’m not unfamiliar with Hernando and Citrus counties and its mixed terrain of scrub and deep cypress swamps. This is going to be a tough hunt. One, the sheer size of Chazz makes it daunting to scout. 33,000+ acres is a lot of ground. Next, you can only drive on maybe a third of it. The back third is accessible by boat, and I don’t have the time to learn to safely navigate those waters and scout for birds. Plus, swamp gobblers themselves are a difficult quarry. I’ve not seen it in person yet, but it looks just thick enough from Google Earth that, by educated guess, I’m not sure you could hear a gobble more than 150 yards away – if they gobble much anyway. And no telling yet what the population of birds is like.

As I said, I’ve started scouting through Google Earth. I’ve also posted queries on the forums to try and drum up some help. One gentleman offered to show me around, which I’ll probably take him up on.

One last thought. Since I have a loyal readership that numbers in the single digits, I’m confident no one is reading this who’s hunted Chassahowitzka their entire lives and is dying to draw a turkey tag here and is now angry with me. Just in case, I promise I’m going to put my best effort forward to pop a bird here and not just waste a tag.

As I said, it’s going to be tough. For the record, the other permits I’ve drawn have been met with mixed success. The gator hunting ended well while Duette crushed my hopes and dreams. I missed my muzzleloading hunt to watch UF smack down FSU, Tebow’s - and as it turned out, Bobby Bowden’s - last game in the Swamp. The archery hunt is in January.

While hunters may not have much luck drawing tags each year, there’s no question Florida does open a lot of properties up for hunting. As always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Soaked in Levy County

I wish there were a way for me to gain some measure of reprisal against Mother Nature for sabotaging my deer season. Simple air pollution from my 10 MPG Dodge Hemi isn’t granting enough satisfaction. I may have to step it up a notch, perhaps lighting a tire fire and exploding CFC- infused spray paint cans in the melting black rubber while donning a baby seal fur coat. It’d be a start.

She’s paralyzed and put in real jeopardy my four-year streak of harvesting at least one decent buck, somewhat remarkable for a guy without his own TV show. Heat, rain, fog, wind, late acorn crop – She’s Shanghi-ed me this year.

Case in point, my last trip to Levy County in the Rosewood area. With the high deer population in this region, and hunting private land, I figured I’d get at least a shot at one of those scraggly scrub bucks. Heck, Mike had been e-mailing trail camera pictures of a certain pair of bucks for weeks now.

A Cedar Key buck is high on my list of trophies for the wall. They are comparatively little deer, even going shoulder-to-shoulder with the average Florida buck. But, they are attractive animal with a distinguishing contrast between their auburn hide and bright white throat and underbelly markings.

Anyway, the trail camera pics drew me to this stand and my plan was to somehow sidle my way into this area, which I accomplished. Yet, a cold front was pushing south on that Friday evening. A sharp, wet Northeast wind cut through me like no cold has ever done. The drizzle, lower 40’s - I gave it my best, and huddled there til dark with nary a glimpse or hopeful thought of whitetail. It took me two hours, a campfire, a rib eye and baked potato, and copious amounts of bourbon to lift my body temperature back over 90.

Saturday morning I posted up at the so-called “Stuart Stand”, a beautiful area with a cypress swamp to the left, and palmettos and small planted pines ahead and to the right - killed an 8pt here last year. Temperatures were in the mid-50’s with a light sprinkle. Not ideal, but a workable deer hunting scenario.

Maybe a minute past legal shooting light, I looked up from the latest baseball trade rumors – thank you, Verizon and Al Gore for making the Internet accessible by phone in remote areas – and spied three hogs milling under the feeder. Didn’t really want to pop one under the guise of deer hunting, but already the precipitation had increased and the wind began to whip around. Plus, I knew the guys wanted as many swine shot as possible.

I rolled the middle hog, a young, corn-fat boar as they beat a retreat back into the swamp, dismayed the feeder had not yet gone off. I regretted not being able to tag a second pig as it scurried across the open – didn’t even fire a shot as it put its front feet between its back and burned towards the sunrise.

Now where are you, Mr. Buck?

Still don’t know. Mike picked me up at 8, mercifully. The rain became too much. I don’t mind hunting in a light rain, but when it’s down-pouring, forget it. Not this far after the rut with a swirling wind.

We got back to camp and the sausage and bacon. If you’ve ever hunted in the rain, you know exactly how I felt at that moment to change out of wet camo and digest some greasy pork. After breakfast I pulled up the radar on my phone. Streaking from west to east, like skidmarks in the underbritches of the South, was a frontal boundary that had stalled over the upper third of the state. It was warm, but cloudy to the south; cold and clear to the north. I guess what happened was, a cold front moved down, but was pushed back up by warmer air coming from the Gulf. We were caught in a soggy limbo. By Saturday evening, the temperature had risen to 75. In case there are Southern Californians reading this, this is what we mean when we say if you don’t like the weather in Florida, wait 10 minutes and it’ll change.

But change into what? It got warmer, but the rain barely relented. Saturday evening, posted back up in the Stuart Stand, was a wash. Literally.

Morning 2 showed promise. The sky had cleared; you could actually see stars and the moon. There was hope! There was talk of the deer moving this morning!

Then Lucy yanked the football away. Soon after sunup, a dense sea fog pushed in from the west. Visibility rapidly declined as the morning progressed, though once again, I did manage to pop a pig.

Quick thought on the hogs for those of you who think I may sound too whiny or morose. They are an eat-everything, destroy-the-roads pestilence here, as they are in other portions of the state. The landowners want them gone. While I really want a deer, I’m obliged to assist when I can. In some situations hog hunting is very sporting and I love it; here, it’s nuisance patrol.

Actually, I will say the swine served as something of a moral victory. In these elements it’d been a cinch to see nothing all weekend, as my father did. And in the end, by ridding the property of a couple porkers, I actually helped out Mother Nature.

She’s just dancing this puppet on a string, isn’t She?