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

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Boneheaded Bowhunter

Bowhunting and I have had a stormy relationship over the last decade. There’s been name-calling and threats and throwing things. Abandonment on both sides. Even today, it knows I’d leave it in a second for Full Season Rifle Hunting, and there has been casual to serious flirting with purchasing a crossbow as that season expands. We don’t have the most stable foundation.

Still, bow season is a great time to be in the woods, and I need that companionship. Things have settled down to a degree where we’ve learned to work together, but, man, I just couldn’t help but rehash the old days as we sat in the stand a couple weeks ago and whittled the hours thinking through the What-Could-Have-Beens.

I thought of the Top Five moments in my bowhunting career that have been soul-crushing and painful…

1. In 1999, I perched in a lock-on in Manatee County on a rather coolish October morning. I was fresh to this archery game, but the rubs and nice weather had me jacked up. About an hour into the sit, I pulled out my grunt call and gave it a few notes. From the swamp bottom, a six-point came rushing up to the stand and stood broadside 25 yards away.

Now, this was a young deer, but I was a young hunter. His close proximity and 30 inches of antler disturbed the Shakes within. Still, I rose carefully and clipped the release onto the string, ready to send my first broadhead into a buck.

This release was one of those palm deals that would be totally suitable for a bow that shoots arrows with plastic suction cups but not ideal for the real thing. Despite the fact it had performed flawlessly through hours of practice, as I came to half-draw the 65 pound pull caused the mechanism in the release to fail. The string snapped forward limply flying the arrow about as far as a three year old can toss a baseball, and my hand flew back into my lips, instantly fattening them.

If only deer could laugh. But as I said, this was a young deer, and I was a young hunter. The buck paced in a circle and again stood broadside. I re-nocked another arrow thinking, "There’s no way this would happen twice."

Angelina Jolie does not have as pouty lips as I did after that morning.

2. A couple years later I sat in an old wooden ladder stand guarding a corn feeder and watched a hive of yellow jackets fly in and out of a palmetto clump, no doubt plotting a vicious attack on some poor creature. A doe slipped out of the gallberries behind me and fed in front of my stand. I had no bowhunting mentor and had to learn by trial and error and error. I shifted in the seat ever so slowly and drew back on the doe.

When I hit the release, the arrow tumbled through the air not unlike Darth Vader’s ship at the end of the original Star Wars. The doe hauled tail as I wondered what the hell had happened. Then I noticed my string had come completely off the wheel and cam. When I shot, the bottom limb had been resting against the wooden rail. The force of the shot unspooled and snapped the bowstring.

I know not to let that happen again. To make matters worse, as I sat there with no functioning weapon, a herd of meat hogs arrived at the feeder.

3. Speaking of hogs. I had fashioned a ground blind out of palmettos and old logs in a scrub hammock. I grunted in a nice 8pt my first sit. As they tend to do, this buck showed up on the one weak side in my concealment and busted me immediately. Hoping for redemption, I patched the problem and returned that night, but as we all know, Second Chances are few and far between.

As dark came to the hammock, I elected to slip out to a feeder on the edge of a large palmetto flat hoping to stick a hog. When I arrived at the feeder, no hogs were to be seen, and I desperately needed to answer the Call of Number 1.

So I sat the bow down and unzipped because, you know, peeing where you are trying to attract game is always a professional idea. I had gotten down to the last drop when I heard an oink behind me. All of a sudden I had a herd of 30-60 pound porkers literally feeding within a few feet.

There I stood exposed, bow on the ground, The Great White Hunter. When I stooped to reach my bow, they alerted and slowly trotted back to the palmetto flat. I zipped up and hurried to catch them. When I hit a fire trail that circled the hammock, a large boar was wandering his way to the feeder.

He turned broadside, just inviting that perfect shot. I sailed the arrow a foot over his back and cursed my way back to the truck debating whether I should tell others about this story.

4. I had this buck dead to rights. He had just enormous rubs near my stand. I was cautious about entering this area on anything less than the right moment. But, I did hang a film canister filled with cotton on a small pine tree that I’d occasionally touch up with store-bought doe urine.

I’ve never been struck with a ton of patience, but finally the evening had arrived. The wind was agreeable and the air was cool. The rut was just about to spill out all over the place. I should have stood when the doe came trotting by. I should have stood when I heard him grunt.

You know it’s a nice buck when the first thing you notice is the horns. Dark chocolate, like so many swamp bucks in the area. Nine points outside the ears. He had followed the doe's trail right in front of my stand, and when he walked behind a palmetto patch, I drew.

The buck stopped to sniff my film canister. A lot of things went wrong. One, my bow at that time – which came across on the Mayflower – had no let-off and my arms were fatiguing. Two, I never stood to get a solid anchor point and my body was torqued. Three, I didn’t follow through on the shot, lifting my head to see the arrow fly high and right into the meaty part of his neck. I should have just lowered the bow.

The buck bounded away, and I waited an hour before getting down. I found the broken aluminum shaft a few yards into the woods where he ran, no more than 3 inches severed from the broadhead. I located the blood trail and realized if I didn’t find him fast, I wouldn’t. A shot like that either hits blood or air. Anything else is about a lost cause.

My tracking job ended well past dark, caught in a tangle of thick swamp vegetation with no more blood to find, and what sounded like a pretty riled up pack of hogs that would be at eye-level as I crawled through that mess.

I was so sick and disappointed in myself. I came close to killing my bowhunting relationship for good that evening. The experience still haunts me every time I pick up archery tackle.

5. There stood the biggest buck I had laid eyes on in the woods, up to that point. He slithered out of the pines behind me. This was a truly large Florida buck, golden antlers from rubbing pines, ten points, at least 17 inches wide, massive - every bit a wallhanger. You’d have to be a much more dedicated hunter than I to let this guy walk.

He appeared ragged and tired from a night of chasing does and was in no big rush. A friend had invited me to his family’s ranch and strict rules were in place about the size of bucks one could take. This guy met the standards, for sure.

The buck turned away from me to cross a small creek and walk out towards an open wet-weather pond. I took the opportunity to stand and get ready. But, he only offered me the rump shot until he meandered to a myrtle bush and stood broadside, surveying his land.

The shot might have been 50 yards; it may have been 35, but I never drew the bow. Two weeks prior I had sent that arrow into the neck of the aforementioned buck, and I just could not harness the confidence. I know they say you have to Cowboy Up and get back on the horse when the iron is hot and the tough get going, but I watched that trophy buck stand there for an interminable length of time until he moseyed into the swamp and out of my life forever.

I can’t say if I did the right thing or not. Hopefully a deserving hunter did finally tag him. I never heard.

Like all relationships, one must learn from their mistakes, how to compromise, and how to move past it all to become better.

As rocky as my relationship with bowhunting has been, it has made me a more complete hunter.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Florida's Early Duck Season - STA 3/4

Travis and I had arrived at STA 3/4 just before the 5 am mark when the ranger would start handing unused tags to the throngs of hopefuls lined up with their pickups and canoes at the gates. Since I had drawn a tag for the opening morning of Early Duck season, we were able to ride the VIP line past the huddled masses yearning to duck hunt. A young FWC officer took our information and thrust a map in my hand and asked which spot we would like to hunt. Not knowing anything about the property, I chose Spot 35 since it was the furthest from the majority of the crowds and had easy water access. I asked the female biologist present if there were any teal in the area. She said there were a few...plus ducks you can’t pop this time of year.

Probably noticing our lack of vessel, Lady Biologist warned that water levels were higher than in years gone by. But, we pressed on to Spot 35 gauging the advances of the thunderstorm towards the south. We had no clue what we were doing. We had no canoe, no kayak, no skiff, no kid’s floatie tube, nothing but our waders and determination to avoid being eaten by alligators.

Travis was the first in the waders, and we scoured the cattail-infested banks of the levee for an entrance into the water. T cautiously stepped a few feet into the reeds and began sinking up to his nipples.

“This ain’t gonna work. And I don’t want to be chewed on by a gator.”

I was adamant about staying. The STA’s are popular draws and well-known duck Meccas. I needed to know how things would shake out come daylight. This had turned into an advanced recon scouting trip. Travis agreed to wait out daylight. Official shooting time started 6:42, more than an hour-and-a-half away. We figured we’d just lean back and catch a snooze to fight back that 3:30 wake-up time.

Travis was well into snoring when I heard another truck pull into Spot 34 behind us. They banged and crashed about as the Sandman was about to waylay me. The last thing I heard them say was, “I wonder where these guys went, east or west?” And I fell asleep.

Located in western Palm Beach County and covering nearly 17,000 acres, STA 3/4 is the largest constructed wetland in the world. STA’s (Stormwater Treatment Areas) are manmade marshes designed to trap phosphorus and other excess nutrients from reaching the Everglades (click here for the details). Standing in the middle of the property, all you see for miles are aquatic grasses, cattails, hydrilla and various other plantlife. The avian population – to speak nothing of waterfowl – is quite amazing. Purple gallinules feed along the levees. Doves are everywhere, and raptors sit on perches lording over this unique part of the world. (And, yes, hundreds of gators!)

The hunting program is a co-op between FWC and the South Florida Water Management District. Tags are issued by a random drawing several weeks in advance of the start of the waterfowl seasons. To ensure this opportunity is maxed out, successful applicants must check in and pick their spots before 5 am or risk losing out to walk-in’s.

This was the first season I applied. I had never hunted Early Duck, and Travis and I already had designs to hunt Lake Okeechobee. When I found I was selected for the opening Saturday morning, we agreed to make the trip from Moore Haven then return to Lake O in the evening to fill out our bag or scout.

I did my research, of course. I knew we probably needed a water-based conveyance of some manner. No motors – trolling or otherwise – are allowed here, so Travis’ duck boat was out. I could not secure a canoe of any kind, plus I am typically too lazy to paddle, it is hot, and I figured the two of us could come up with something easier. I polled several veteran STA hunters who agreed, yes, a canoe is probably the best, but the water levels are so low that one could slog across it in a pair of waders.

And that plan was out. As mentioned at the beginning, Lady Biologist warned us of the high water, and it appeared we’d be returning home with nothing more than knowledge of the area - a learning experience, so to speak.

As shooting light neared and the thunderstorm that had been cracking lightning all morning long dissipated, T and I both awoke from our slumber and rolled down the windows. The crew who had come up behind us had clearly paddled across the east marsh leaving a visible trail through the hydrilla. The guys in front of us worked their canoe maybe fifty yards from their truck and were now walking in knee-deep water through the western marsh setting up decoys and settling in for the shoot.

I was concerned. I didn’t want to blow anyone’s hunt by gawking in the truck at passing birds; these boys to the west were pretty close. And cranking up and leaving would disturb the whole property as I’d have to drive back through it all. But Travis noticed something I didn’t – those guys were walking in knee-deep water. The toughest part is just getting through the layer of muck around the cattails; it gets shallower as you walk out.

Not convinced, I resigned myself to sitting in the truck for the next couple hours until my conscience would let us leave. Then we turned and saw the teal appearing out of the black, pouring by the dozens into the eastern marsh.

Travis and I were out of the Dodge in seconds, grabbing our shotguns and shells and scurrying to the bank and into the cattails like children running away from their parents towards the beach with their sandcastle buckets and shovels. He was right. The water along the edges was chest deep, but once you got through that, it only came up to the waist.

The shooting started soon after. The boys to the west shot first and the guys to the east fired a salvo that dumped a couple birds that buzzed them. Travis waded out to a finger of weeds, and I held tight in the reeds near the levee shore, eye open for moccassins or our new-found serpent, the python. Within moments, a pair of blue wings blew past T, and he dumped the first one, and I tagged the second. She would have skipped like a stone across the water had it not been for the hydrilla. Teal sure move fast.

The morning slowed down, as it often does, but we could still hear the shooting around us that kept birds flying. One group to the south was slaying them. You’d hear shots, swing around to look and see little black dots fall from the sky. I had a single come from that direction, and he fell into the weeds behind me.

As the morning wore on, I understood the purpose of the canoes. Birds that were coming into range flared off at the cluster of trucks behind me. Also, we were in such a hurry we forgot the decoys in the truck. Three teal doesn’t sound like a whole lot for this effort, but I assure you it was, especially for how half-cocked it all went down. Watching the teal dip and dive, the mottled ducks quack their way by, and the whistling ducks flocked over in hordes...it was enough to fire up even the most casual waterfowl enthusiast.

Around 8:30, we made the call to return to the truck and head back to Lake O. At the check out station was Lady Biologist shoving cotton swabs up the rectums of teal the party in front of us had tagged - a strange activity for a Saturday morning. That crew had their limit. When it was our ducks’ turn for defilement, Lady Biologist explained she had to test for avian flu. I asked that she notify me if I am in sudden need of inoculation.

We reported what species of ducks we’d seen. She told us that the winter time is when it gets awesome. In addition to teal, other migratory ducks such as pintail, wigeon, and redheads are popular temporary residents. I may have to look into this.

Next time, I’m certainly bringing that canoe.

If You Go

A management area permit is needed. One member of our party who wasn’t me didn’t know this – and I forgot to tell him – and was mercifully let off with a warning since we were under our bag.

The law of the land requires you to pick up all shotgun shell cases. And they do check to see if you have them.

Arrive early if you have a tag. Arrive a lot earlier if you don’t.

Bring a camera. A more unique place to hunt, you will be hard pressed to find.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Florida Deer Journal 2010 - The Archery Opener

The doe’s ribs stuck out and her back swayed, resembling a forgotten pasture mare with a similar nonchalance about her surroundings when it’s feedin’ time. Old doe. Trophy doe. I gave her the taxidermy thought, in fact. She had wandered out of the swamp bottom behind me - like I’d planned when I hung the lock-on - with a younger, though certainly mature, doe, possibly one of her numerous progeny from years of dwelling these woods. I know I’d seen this animal before in my days of hunting this hammock.

I wasn’t in position for a shot. As I said, I had counted on deer emerging from behind and wandering past my stand on both sides to feed on acorns. It was the classic transition zone set-up. A funnel of trails led into the swamp at my back. In front was a string of oaks that lined a sea of palmettos and gallberries.

When I hung the stand, I had to decide whether I should point my arrows at the convergence of trails and turn my back to the oaks, or face the food.

Food. Besides, they are coming out of that swamp to feed, and that wasn’t exactly the only pathway to the groceries - would hate to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. I positioned the stand at such an angle that a clearing in the oaks would sit offset left allowing an easy shot, but I also had a shooting lane behind me.

It was a solid plan that was just about to pay off. Unfortunately, the younger doe was nervous, catching my scent or alerting another sense that triggered uneasiness about that Saturday morning.

Swamps breathe. You don’t notice it a whole lot sitting on the inside, but this phenomenon is palpable on the perimeters. Evaporating moisture rolls in and out even without a breeze. Perhaps it’d mixed with my stink and sank to the forest floor and put the deer on guard.

The old nag didn’t appear to take note. She’d occasionally check back on her unsteady friend, but fed closer until she was directly beneath my stand. All I needed was a distraction for the other doe so I could lift my bow and stand for the anchor shot when she passed by. Just give me a diversion.

The turkeys obliged. The first fly-down cackle re-directed the second doe’s attention, and it held as the flock descended into the hammock. I carefully rose from my perch even though any mud clinging to my boot soles could have shaken loose on the foot grating and pelt the old lady in the head.

My target put her head back to the chow and began to feed away from the tree, circling to the first opening I had to fling an arrow through.

I’m sure you’ve willed a deer to do what you want:

C’mon, you backstrap baby, just a few more steps. Ian, remember to keep your head down when you release. C’mon, beautiful, just a few more steps. Carolyn is gonna be so happy about some fresh venison. Just a few more...what the %*&!! is that noise?

I broke concentration about the same time the doe did. A staccato hiss was emanating from in front of us. A gobbler had flown down unnoticed and was strutting in the middle of the hammock, spitting and drumming like his rites of Spring.

OK, this is a new one!

He was a ratty bird with his middle four or five tail feathers missing. His beard was about as thin and wispy as a moustache on a fifteen year old. He strutted in a circle, puffing up and spitting every second or two and creating quite the scene. The tom’s actions put the young doe off her feed. Already unsure of things, she trotted back into the swamp with haste, probably as confused by the gobbler as I was. The old doe took notice and slowly retreated, never offering a shot, and disappeared into the vegetation.

Such is life. That was my only action over the weekend. The biologist at Duette told me Sunday morning when I left that the deer were feeding at night, and only one doe had been brought to the cleaning station, atypical for this place. Dad saw a bunch of hogs and turkey, and I heard some swine. The weather was gorgeous for early Bow Season – 65 degrees Sunday morning. I would have guessed at a spectacular morning of antlers.

It wasn’t to be, but what a fun way to start the season.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Weather Resources for Outdoorspeople

I laughed at ol’ Red Forman when he told Hyde in an episode of That 70’s Show that he watched the Weather Channel because, “It comforts me to know that there are people out there more miserable than me. Like those people in Buffalo...”

One, it’s a comment eerily reminiscent of something my own father would say. Two, I’ll confess to open schadenfreude while planted in front of the tube when the elements aren’t doing me any favors.

Case in point, a couple winters ago, cooped up for three days during a sin-driven storm not too far from Dothan, Alabama, I was getting my jollies any way I could. Deer hunting was out of the question in the gale force winds, lightning, and pouring rain. The Weather Channel and the poor folks of the Northeast buried under snow whittled through the hours.

“At least it’s not that bad here,” I kept thinking.

But just barely. I scanned the radar, waiting for the Local On The 8’s for signs of mercy. Finally, between squalls I sneaked down to the lease and busted some wood ducks, a welcome jolt of action between microwaving more Chef-Boy-R-Dee ravioli and cursing satellite imagery.

This week the FL humidity has given way to dry air, a blessed relief from the oppressive summer. This weekend – my opening archery trip – looks excellent, if not a little hot. But, I’ll still neurotically scan the weather websites for any change.

On average, the outdoors-person will study the weather closer than a typical civilian. Beyond hoping a long-scheduled trip won’t be ruined, many different variables affect game movement: moon phases, barometric pressure, humidity, wind, etc. Learning how each piece completes the whole hunting puzzle will stake a person to madness and has contributed to a sea of spilled ink in the hunting press.

I’ll probably wander down that road in the future, but for now I want to concentrate on the numerous resources at your disposal to help plan for and guide you through a successful hunt.


If you are a saltwater fisherman in Florida, you are probably well-versed in the monotone delivery of current conditions and forecasts by the National Weather Service provided by NOAA. I got my first weather radio – well, really, police scanner – when I was 15, and it still goes hunting when TV or Internet won’t be available (GASP!).

While sea conditions won’t be as important to the average deer hunter – that is until Global Warming totally takes over – these broadcasts provide a wealth of meteorological info.

The Post-It Note I taped on the back of my scanner with frequencies to favorite locations is still intact. Here are frequencies for weather broadcasts in your neck of the woods.


Well, we have the aforementioned Weather Channel. The one trouble with this station is it never seems to stay on what you want long enough, especially if there’s inclement weather in other regions of the country or a hurricane is spinning anywhere on the globe or Jupiter. Better is local news, but typically that’s on at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., or 11 p.m. Most hunters will be hunting or sleeping (or both!) during these times. Bay News 9 in Tampa is about the best I’ve run across and plays on a Sportscenter-like loop.

The Internet

The choices on the World Wide Web can be intimidating. Access away from home is the real problem. Of course, you could subscribe to the go-anywhere Internet service they offer now; it won’t be long before that’s the standard anyhow. Most cellphones with Internet capabilities have excellent access to local weather radars and maps.

But if this is outside your budget or cell service is lacking, here’s another thought – visit the local library near where you hunt. Many of these Nerd Huts will allow guest passes for limited time on their computers. Here you can not only catch up with Facebook but take a gander at the weather as well.

My favorite website, by far, is Intellicast. The resolution on their radar images leaves much to be desired, but you could type “Mayberry RFD” in their city search and it’d come back with a ten-day forecast. Also, moon phase, wind direction and speed, and other such information is available on the dashboard. A click away is local radar and satellite. I don’t plan a trip without visiting this site, and more often than not, it’s on a constant loop on the computer at home.

With a touch of luck, using these weather resources before or during your next hunting adventure should leave you less miserable than those people in Buffalo.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Post - Whitetail Deer Hunting in Wisconsin

I asked talented writer and Huntress Extraordinaire, Kari Murray of I Don't Wear Pink Camo to the Woods, to supply an overview of the Wisconsin Deer Hunting Experience.

Kindly, she obliged.

Personally, I enjoy learning about the hunting in different states. The whitetail is a fascinating critter, adaptable to a variety of environments and influences. I'm forever curious to observe how they are managed by local game departments and how hunters alter their methods to successfully fill a tag in their neck of the woods.

So thanks to Kari, and be be sure to check out her fantastic blog when you have a moment.

Known for big bucks, Wisconsin is often sought out by hunters in search of a trophy whitetail. It is listed as one of the top three states for overall entries in the Boone and Crocket record books, but it’s not all about the trophy animals. Each year around 700,000 deer hunters take to the woods, with over 470,000 tags being filled and around one billion dollars added to the state's economy.

Although most of the Wisconsin deer herd is thriving, Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, is a concern in the southern third of the state. The disease attacks the nervous system, leaving the animals unable to thrive and faced with certain death. The state’s Department of Natural Resources has a surveillance program in place and since 2002 has tested nearly 160,000 free-ranging deer, of which 1,353 have tested positive.

Hunting license/season options for Wisconsin whitetails fall into three basic categories: archery, firearm, and muzzleloader.

Archery season is open for hunting with a bow with a minimum draw weight of 30 pounds and arrows tipped with broad heads 7/8“ or greater, or a crossbow with a minimum draw weight of 100 pounds, working safety, and bolts 14“ or longer tipped with broad heads. Crossbows are only legal in Wisconsin for individuals over the age of 65, disabled persons, or persons who have obtained a special permit. Archery season starts mid September and continues until the beginning of January, with a break for the nine-day gun season.

Firearm season, or more commonly called gun season by residents, is a nine-day hunt towards the end of November. Weapons that can be used, some in restricted areas, are:
• Shotgun- 10, 12, 16, 20, and 28 gauge. A .410 bore shotgun is illegal.
• Rifle- .22 cal or larger
• Handgun- .22 cal or larger with a minimum barrel length of 5 ½” measured from the firing pin to the muzzle with the action closed

Muzzleloader season starts immediately following the nine-day gun hunt and is open for ten days. Legal muzzleloaders are of a .45 caliber or larger if smoothbore and a .40 caliber or larger if rifled barreled.

Bucks in the state are defined as a deer with at least one antler that is 3” long or longer in length. All other deer are considered antlerless. It is legal to shoot bucks still in velvet and spotted deer but the hunter needs to contact a warden within 7 days of tagging the deer to request written authorization to keep either the antlers or the hide. Albino or white deer may not be harvested without prior written authorization from the DNR except in CWD units.

Baiting is legal in 44 of the 72 counties within the state. There is a two-gallon limit per 40 acres on parcels greater then 80 acres and parcels less than 80 acres are only allowed two gallons total. Baits must be placed at least 100 yards apart, even on public lands. The only exception to this rule is for private lands adjacent to each other, with baits on each, and cannot be distributed by timed or gravity feeders. Bait is any material that is placed or used to attract wild animals. Including but not limited to: scent materials, salt, minerals and grain. Water is not considered bait.

Styles for hunting whitetails are very similar throughout the state. The use of tree stands and ground blinds are most the popular with both bow and gun hunters, but the most popular way, and a long-standing tradition in Wisconsin is the group hunt or deer drive. It is only legal during the gun and muzzleloader seasons but during this time, you can shoot a deer to fill the unused tag of another hunter in your party as long as you are within sight or voice contact.

For more information on hunting in Wisconsin, visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources online at http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/hunt/

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Federal Duck Stamp

Why do they make you sign your name across the Federal Duck Stamp? I mean, each year dozens of artists compete for the honor to display their handiwork to millions of hunters, and we are law bound to splash ink across their sweat and labor. It’s like kicking over a child’s sand castle or lighting an effigy of Smokey the Bear – just fundamentally wrong.

This year’s stamp features the wigeon – which sounds like the love-chick of a wren and a pigeon!

Ha! No? OK, whatever, it would have slain in Ornithology 101.

The wigeon is a demure dabbling duck. In the waterfowl world, they’d be the cute math girl who blossoms into a hottie when she’s pulled away from the cheerleaders, let’s her hair out of a bun, and drops the nerd glasses. Without the designer make-up of the wood duck or promiscuity of the mallard, the wigeon is attractive in its own right - unlike that ogre the gadwall.

Wigeon aren’t as common in FL as other ducks, preferring the Western Flyways, probably because they lack the size of the mallard and the maneuverability of teal to defend themselves from the Greater South Floridian Elephant Mosquito. Remember the black globs at the end of Ghost that pulled the bad guy down to Hell for murdering Patrick Swayze? (You just remember the clay molding scene, don’t ya, Sally?) That’s what our skeeters could do to a wigeon.

Of course, wigeon are downright plentiful compared to the winner of last year’s stamp, the long-tailed duck. I’m dreaming of the day when the stamp is dedicated to a waterfowl species that calls Florida home year-round such as the mottled duck, anhinga, or flying fish.

Fifteen dollars for this stamp. I could dream up some financial figure for how much of that actually goes to wetland conservation, but there’s a website out there already that cranks out “facts” like this.

Wikipedia states:

For every $15 stamp sold, the federal government retains $14.70 for wetlands acquisition and conservation, so very little gets lost in the system for overhead.

If they say so, I’m good with it.

In addition to graffiting across the face of the wigeon, I must also affix it to the back of my Florida hunting license which is essentially a receipt. General hunting, WMA permit, muzzleloader, archery, alligator trapping license, migratory bird, deer management, and state waterfowl. I won’t total this all up for you, but it leaves me precious few pennies to actually hunt or upgrade my gear. My camo resembles the rags Nazis used to make torches to set fire to their book piles, and I assume I am getting Punk’d every time I hear of low funds for game departments.

The sad part about this back-of-a-receipt arrangement is by June 30th, the stamp is mashed and destroyed, like a butterfly kept in a sandwich bag and slipped into a jean pocket. I feel far worse for the artist’s effort than any wigeon that splashes this season.

And as I understand it, a certain demographic of folks pays the 15 bones to, what, just collect the stamps? Have I left out any aspect of this exciting process? Needlessly collecting things for the sole sake of having them? My wife may argue I do the same thing with firearms, but she clearly doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

I shouldn’t pick on others’ hobbies. After all, I pay for this stamp for the sole privilege of slipping into leaky waders and humping through swamp bottoms and across tidal flats while battling the aforementioned mosquitoes and the occasional reptilian. Duck hunting is not so much a recreation as it is a severe mental affliction for which there is no cure - waterfowlaphilia.

Still, I am happy to fork over the cash. I admire the work of the winning painter. This year’s winner was Robert Bealle from Waldorf, Maryland. Sorry, Mr. Bealle, for defiling your talents.

But thanks for contributing your labor towards the opportunity to set out again this fall to lay a few decoys and study the horizon in the hopes of a successful shoot.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

TWL Classics - Wood Duck Jump Shoot

Two years ago I started my volunteer outdoor writing service through a local newspaper's public blogging site. Unfortunately, through powers beyond my control, my archives from that source are gone and lost forever. Luckily, I saved rough drafts of this work on my computer, and once in a while I'll re-introduce a past column back into the wild of the World Wide Web. Enjoy!

Originally Published January 2009

Floating on the water, drake wood ducks resemble shiny toys. Or maybe Christmas ornaments. Either way, they are handsome, tropical-looking birds that I almost, almost hate pulling the trigger on. Unfortunately for them, they are serious-good to eat and a great deal more fun to hunt!

I’ve sometimes wondered why they bothered domesticating the mallard or Muscovy when this treasure of a bird would make every child’s Easter basket special. And then I remember what all I go through to put a duck or two in hand – these birds were never meant to be tamed. Where they live is too wild. Wooly river swamps, booger bottoms, small ponds, lakes and ditches – heck, as fledglings they enter the world by leaping from treehole nests and splat into the water below.

No, these birds can’t be broken, at least not without help from a solid hunting plan and a salvo of #4’s

On my lease in Georgia I have two places to shoot woodies. One is a beaver pond where the birds arrive early in the morning to assemble and feed in the shallow water. Here, I construct a small blind from branches and small saplings, cut courtesy of that buck-tooth rodent.

Not too long after first light I hear them whistling in flight, and make it rain as they pitch down to the water. Timed correctly, the whole hunt is over in maybe ten minutes. It's fun, but often I’m back in camp cooking eggs and bacon wondering why I didn’t spend the morning deer hunting.

The second place is a bit more exciting to hunt as I jump-shoot the ducks and can do it after the a.m. deer sit.

A lease member showed me the site. Essentially a hole in the middle of planted pines and thick swamp, he had originally scouted it for deer – and indeed the scrapes in here were mythical – but found it too tight for a blind, stand, or anything else. But I did jump woodies off a small creek - my grandfather would call it a “crik” - each time I went to explore. And the wheels got to turnin’. By creeping from the road through the pines, I could peer down at the crik, charge forward ten yards, and flush the birds. Even without waders, I’d have no problem retrieving my bag in the narrow waterway.

In theory.

My first attempt last year was a success. I pummeled a beautiful drake that’s still at the taxidermist – looks like he was scared from the sky without a noticeable mark or ruffled feather. I simply took a branch and pulled him from the water and that was that.

This year I was again determined to utilize this tactic after deer hunting. So the plan was hatched. Hunt deer until ten, then slip down to the hole, bust my limit and be back in time for lunch.

Well, the deer didn’t cooperate, but the ducks sure did. I slowly stalked through the pines up to the edge of the hole armed with my do-anything Mossberg pump. Didn’t see them immediately, but as I glanced to my right, I caught just the smallest ripple, then movement – a drake. The ducks, at least twenty of them, were a few yards downstream, brush screening them from a charge-and-shot.

I snaked back into the pines to circle their position. I crept within 20 yards and relocated the flock. Still not presented with a clear shot if they flushed, I crouched and willed them to paddle my way to a small opening ahead.

Over the years, I’ve waited out many heads of game holding for that perfect shot, but I chuckled that I’d put this much effort into three ducks. The woodies fed in the grasses, effortlessly blowing about like leaves on the water.

Finally, they blew my way.

All at once I lunged up and shouldered the scattergun as the ducks scrambled to the sky. The first shot caught a drake, and a hen dumped with the second. My third was a vain attempt at a fleeing male, who circled around with his buddies and put as much distance between us as possible.

After everything calmed down and I assessed the situation, I let out that groan Bucs fans make when a routine third-and-inches play becomes third-and-ten thanks to a holding penalty – the duo dropped too far out into the crik to snag with any available branch. I tried to find a dry route to retrieve them, but to no avail.

Forget it. I pulled my boots off and waded up to my crotch into the cold creek, clinging to a slimy, fallen gum tree trunk, straining to reach my prizes, hoping that Georgia swamp bottom wouldn’t swallow me alive with no sign of me ever again, save my keys, wallet, and pump gun sitting on the bank. But I got them. Totally worth it.

Next time you get a chance, check out your own piece of property to see if there’s a little ducky hidey-hole somewhere, and give the jump-shoot a shot. Just remember to bring your waders.

Or a fishing rod to snag the birds out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

YouTube Video of the Week - The Ale Swaling Axis Deer

A perfect companion for your Labor Day weekend. Especially when folks start getting hungry. Beer infused axis backstrap. Yum.

I wish someone would tie me to a fencepost after a couple rounds of suds!

Seriously, everyone have a safe holiday weekend!!!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tale of the Green Flagging Tape

Hunters get awfully peckish when their honey-holes are trampled upon by interlopers. I’ve been in the game long enough to witness a few unfriendly interactions. Know of once great campmates refusing to speak to each other when one person or another did not respect a buffer zone. It’s childish, sure, but like any large land predator that’s staked a hunting area, trespassers that aren’t immediate kin of the pride are treated with hostility.

Upon entering my favorite oak hammock last Saturday, Dad and I were greeted with disgusting, foreign ribbons of green flagging tape, marking a trail back into “my” spot. When we got in there, someone had also wrapped this ribbon exactly where I sat in a ground blind the previous year. This person was probably thinking the same strategy when he or she toilet-papered the tree with ribbon. I was incensed.

Let’s backtrack, though. We are talking about Duette Park in Manatee County. They lotto hunts to the citizenry every year. I would call it semi-public land. The hunting is good. For the last five seasons, I had been hunting this particular hammock – Dad before that.

Now, there’s nowhere on any map that names this locale “Nance Hammock.” In fact, I have for years avoided putting up flagging tape for fear of drawing attention to the area. I know how to hunt this spot and have spent hours and hours and hours and hours in its warm embrace.

I hung my lock-on stand near the creek bottom where the deer typically travel in the morning. I hung a ladder stand – only allowed two stands on this property – near the palmetto flat under the live oaks that drop the acorns that fuel the evening feed. All this time, annoyed that the problem of this other person may interfere with a long-standing and successful plan. Assuming we drew the same weekends, I can assure you there’s no room for a third stand in between.

Let’s backtrack once more, lest you think I am a filthy pig for obviously and fragrantly trampling upon another’s rights. Duette Park allows hunters to hang stands a few weekends before the season starts. This year it was Saturday, August 28th. Gates opened at 8 am. We showed up at 7:45 and dutifully waited our chance to enter. Given the number of people there and the logistics of the property, there was no conceivable way another person could have driven all the way out there, walked the ¾ mile into the woods and hung tape without us seeing that person or finding fresh tire tracks leading that direction.

No, what happened was, dollars to doughnuts, is that person went out some time before us on a day that was not permitted to hang stands and wrapped their presence in hopes of warding others off. If this were allowed, I can assure you I would long ago have erected a barbed wire fence with a wooden Ranch Sign at the entrance called, yes, “Nance Hammock” along with “No Trespassing: Ye Has Been Warned” notices on the fenceposts.

Of course, that can’t be done. I will concede, though I abided by the letter of the law, hanging my stands was a bit of a buster move. Clearly, someone had the intent of hunting there. I don’t know why I am having this ethical personal conflict, but I am. I can’t rush to judgment on who this other person may be, but I am not willing to cede to an individual circumventing the rules.

Maybe the sickest feeling, and I am compelled by Redneck Nature to consider this, is the inevitable retribution. The very least – an angry phone call (contact information must be attached to the bottom half of any stand, another rule he or she committed to violating). Worse, maybe I will have to kiss those stands goodbye, though they are locked onto their respective trees. I was tempted to de-ribbon the oaks, but decided against this, not wanting to ignite an obnoxious tit-for-tat.

Worse still is that I climb my stand one morning and fall into my pre-dawn snooze and am awakened by Elmer ratcheting a climber up the tree next to me and the inevitable problems there. I don’t like these conflicts. I am there to hunt and enjoy peace in the woods.

Maybe, just maybe, things will work out OK. A few years ago, I hung my stands and returned to hunt and discovered someone put a tripod not 30 yards away. We apparently didn’t draw the same weekend because I never saw that hunter. The same could happen here. Out of like ten weekends offered, I drew three hunts, all primitive seasons. Better than a puncher’s chance I don’t cross paths with this individual.

Better still would be what happened two years ago. I broke the rules. I had waited out a thunderstorm before heading to my hammock to place my stands. I saw vehicle tracks when I arrived, but no stand or flagging tape. A couple weeks later I was in Gainesville for a Gators vs. Hurricanes tilt and received a phone call from a gentleman wondering why I had so egregiously violated another hunter’s space.

He and his grandson wanted to hunt there. He had fought the rain and placed a climber on a tree before I arrived, but had hid it in the palmettos where I did not see it, concerned, and rightly so, that someone would steal it. We exchanged civil discourse and explained what weekends we would be there. The hunts that overlapped, I sat in one of Dad’s stands. All went well in the end.

When you share the woods with others, things like this happen. I do feel pangs of ethical guilt. Again, though, by rule I was in the right.