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

Monday, October 25, 2010

TWL Classics - The One Hitter Buck

Originally Published December 2008

The doe bailed out of the woods, skipping through the dog fennels as her six-pointed paramour paced on her heels. Just looking at him you got the sense you could smack him between the brow tines with a 2x4 and he’d shake it off and restart the pursuit of passion.

Ah, love, as much as it can be for deer.

I really wanted a doe for the fridge, but my luck convinced me otherwise. Here I thought I’d missed the best of the rut, and it’s only 2:30 and bucks are chasing. Something great was in the December air, and I fist-pumped a couple of times, just knowing this would be my evening.

A quarter past 3, a larger buck weaved his way through the pines, down a ridge heading towards the creek bottom, nose to the ground searching for a girlfriend. I twisted in the Summit Viper, trying to steady for the hundred yard free-hand shot. All he had to do was hit this one small gap in the underbrush and I could lower the boom on my .300 Win. Mag.

C’mon, boy! Seemed everything about this trip had to transpire within a narrow window – the weather, the moon phase, the rut, the stand location, even the actual shot.

I’d left Lakeland at 7 that morning for my lease, racing up 471 and 75 to Valdosta where I beat it west through Thomasville and a scattering of small towns until I neared the Alabama border. My urgency was not unwarranted. A day-and-a-half later, a frog-choker of a front would settle over and proceed to smother this portion of the South with unending wind and rain. I try to stay positive and realize it’s beyond my control, but even the possibility of foul conditions launches me into a polluted mood.

Even though I’d planned on staying a week and through the storms, by the end of it a full moon would be rising at dusk, and while it may sound beautiful in verse, moonlight through the pines can be rather ugly for the Georgia stand hunter. At least in this part of the state, daylight deer movement nearly ceases as the Man-in-the-Moon watches them feed at night.

And really, diurnal buck activity is not all that high outside of the rut. Sure, every year many hunters get lucky pulling gigantic bucks from the woods in October, but the money time is from around Thanksgiving weekend to the second week of December. On our lease, several guys had already taken nice bucks, or had seen some monsters, but they hit the rut at the peak; I was on the tail-end, hoping their hunting pressure or declining buck libidos hadn’t sank any hopes of filling the cooler.

Luckily, one of my stands hung in a location where deer regularly travel regardless of sexual frenzy, and few people have cared to explore. Or maybe they did, but it’s such a witch trying to get to it they never bothered. I named it the “One Hitter” a few years back after observing the deer that traveled by.

The climber hangs in a dynamite funnel on the southwest side of a ridge rowed with tall pines. To the east is a thicket of smaller pines that serve as a bedding area. Behind me to the west is a creek bottom filled with oaks and small gum trees, and beyond that is another thicket of small planted pines. To the north is the highway, and the south an intersecting, near impenetrable swamp bottom. Deer come from each stand of planted pines and feed on the blackberry bushes, scattered acorns, and whatever else they can find. They also find a false sense of security in the dog fennels that grow shoulder high on me.

By running my stand 25-30 feet up a pine, I can see down into the fennels, but since the ridge is so high, I’m eyeball to eyeball with anything coming from the east. Neat area.

But – and this is the big “but” – with all those dog fennels and thorny blackberry bushes, it’s impossible to get in and out and not make a ton of noise. Next, with all that vegetation grabbing at you, your scent is well-marked.

It took me a while to figure this out. The first time I sat here I saw a ton of deer, then next time, none. I was confused until one day I spied a doe coming down off the ridge. She crossed my trail and began smelling the dog fennels, tossing her head in the air to check for airborne scent, before finally blowing and running off. She was 150 yards away. And upwind. Then I knew that no matter what kind of scent protection I use – and yes, I have the suits, the cover up, and all those fancy tricks – this stand could be burned up in a hurry. So, I restricted myself to hunting it once a trip, and only on days I thought would be the best.

And that’s worked fine. Taken a few does and a solid 7pt over the years, but I knew a big buck worked that area. People had reported seeing a 150-class ten on several occasions near here; with all the trails between the two pine thickets and the corresponding doe traffic it’d only be a matter of time.

This would be the first time I’d hunted “One Hitter” this year, and I’d like to tell you this buck was the beast, but he wasn’t. At first glance I knew he was a decent buck, but no monster. More important to me than antlers though, is when a plan comes together, especially as forces beyond your control battle against you. I’d saved this stand for just this trip and broke many speeding laws to ensure I’d be sitting here in time for this guy to pass by. With weather and moon limiting future opportunities, the crosshairs followed the buck down the ridge until he paused in a thin gap between two pines.

The buck did not move at the first crack of the rifle. Confused I’d missed on what felt like an excellent shot, I re-chambered and sent another .30 cal. his direction. This time he popped up in the air and ran to the creek bottom, calling it quits under a large gum. Both shots were an inch apart behind the shoulder, the first killing him before he knew he was dead. If a 2x4 won’t cure love sickness, a .300 sure will.

Just a hair under 15 inches wide, his 140 pounds held gaunt on his large frame, no doubt from spending the last few weeks speed dating. He’s not the biggest buck in the woods by any means, but I was right proud to have him.

This whole hunt ended in 30 minutes – after all that hurry, I still had a couple of hours of daylight left. Some may have stayed in the stand, but I know how rare it is to get a win like this. I hauled him back to camp to snap pictures as the waxing moon rose in the east.

As I was about to leave the local game processor, the man cleaning deer asked, “You headin’ back out to the stand?”

“No, sir, I think I’m just gonna pour a toddy, count my blessings, and enjoy the rest of the evening; it’s been a long day.”

“Well, it’ll be raining the next few days”.

“Good, let it rain.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Deer Season Compromises & Plans

I typically loathe interruptions to deer season, but this year has provided agreeable alternatives. Two weekends ago I was at a bachelor party in St. Pete. We did what boys our age do at bachelor parties minus the dancing ladies in pasties. (Honestly.) I actually played golf for the first time in seven years. It will be another seven before I attempt shooting any more pars. But what fun this crew has together.

This weekend is the Big Weekend. It’s all for a long-time, cherished friend – though I’m not sure you can call anyone who gets married, has a baby, or dies during hunting season a “friend.”

This last weekend was the annual Stone Crab Fest. Essentially, you combine all the basic elements of a bachelor party but add wives and a cooler-full of succulent stone crab. Everyone tosses in a wad of cash, and Harris, of Harris Seafood LLC in Orlando, goes to Shelly’s Seafood, one of his suppliers in Homosassa, and buys as many claws as he can. This year it worked out to forty pounds. That’s a lot of crab. And it was awesome, though I will say, eating nothing but will leave you wanting a salad by the event’s end.

So these have been fun distractions, but the business is about to start again. Leaving next week for my first trip to Montana for some waterfowling. Obviously I don’t have to tell you how excited I am to see that beautiful land. I return home from that to a muzzleloading hunt at Duette. Leave directly from there to North Carolina for four days of deer hunting with very close friends. It’ll be a killing up there. This is followed by the start of duck and another muzzleloading trip at Upper Hillsborough. Also have a gobbler I want to whack with a bow and maybe a hog or two.

Anyways, hope everyone is having a wonderful season so far. If you feel the need, leave a comment on how your season is going or what your plans are. Would love for you to share, in fact.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

TWL Classics - Creepy Crawlies

Originally Posted October 2008

One of those special moments in hunting happens at dawn. The increasing light improves your visual acuity as you begin arranging the shapes and outlines of the woods, pushing aside your imaginations. Slowly, you survey the environment and realize on a turn of the head, hanging there, mere centimeters from your nose – and yes, I went metric to convey the seriousness of the situation – is one of those night spiders as hairy as, and as large as, a brown bat.

You contemplate your next move, half expecting it to drop the nightjar it’s eating and snarl, revealing a row of fangs and snot not unlike the giant squid at the end of the second Pirates of the Caribbean. The more emasculating aspect is you’re toting a rifle capable of downing a bull elk at 300 yards, but is utterly useless on this beast.

Just be glad it’s not a banana spider. I caught one roughly the dimensions of a snow crab crawling up my leg one morning last year and if I’d had a baseball bat, I would’ve cracked my femur beating that thing off me. And walking into their web is like getting tangled in kite string.

Don’t think I’m the only sissy. A few weeks ago hunting in Sarasota, one member in the party employed his mastery of profanity in relaying to us the violent consequences if any of us put a spider on him, or similar jokes. Trust me, if this guy landed a punch, a spider bite would be the least of your concerns.

Really, I don’t enjoy the company of any arachnids. I still have difficulty sleeping thinking about the Skull Island-sized scorpion that crawled out from under a foam arm rest on a stand in Manatee County. You could’ve put it in the lobster tank and no one would notice.

The thing about the local scorpions, though, if you get stung, it only hurts for ten minutes or so. Can’t say the same about snakes. Snakes – and I care not what any herpetologists may say – are evil. Luckily, you don’t see snakes like spiders. If they hung coiled from webs I’d stop going outdoors, period.

If a snake tags you, odds are, you were doing something you shouldn’t have been. I’ve come up with a fool-proof plan to avoid getting bit – I deny they even exist as I tromp through the woods. Other hunters I know see serpents all the time. I may look like I’m politely paying attention to their stories; really, I’m sitting on the beach with a Corona listening to the waves and terns, or in other such Happy Places.

All these creepy-crawlies hinder sleepy time. I’m well-known for sleep-throwing pillows at dreamed snakes, spiders, and other vermin. Cabin mates have heard me yelling, then the “whump” of a pillow hitting the wall. Yes, the teasing hurts, but at least I’m safe.

Fortunately, neither snakes nor spiders stay active once the weather turns cold, so I hunt worry-free through most of deer season. They resurface in spring turkey, which is fine. A 12 gauge primed with #5’s is an excellent snake and spider repellant system.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Trail Camera Photos

Our Polk County lease is void of deer. It has a few turkey. Quite a few hogs. And apparently an unseemly number of raccoons. I finally broke down and bought a Covert II Assassin trail camera a few weeks ago and hung it by my bump feeder.

So far I am very pleased with the camera. It takes great photos, is a cinch to adjust and easy on battery consumption. I'll wait a few months before I totally endorse it, but right now the rig is five-star.

It's taken nearly 5000 photos of hogs, raccoons, and one armadillo, mostly at night or early morning. Wish there were more hope-fueling daylight shots, but my stand was - I came to find out - worked pretty hard through the summer. May take a while to restore their confidence. Also haven't picked up on any huge boars yet which isn't totally surprising but did think would happen.

I'm very disappointed no turkey pics have been snapped. They have been hitting the dove field pretty regularly, though. And the hog action has settled down over the last week as they seek the plentiful acorns.

So here are a few photographs. The white and spotted hog with the shoats is dead meat first chance I get. I have hundreds of pics of her and her youngin's. They've consumed a silo's worth of corn. She actually looks pregnant in the recent pics.

Ah, who knows, I may let her slide.

Thick as thieves, these two are

A different spotted hog who is a glutton

And, the No-Ear Hog

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Florida Hunter Shot with Arrow

How do these things happen? Three possibilities:

1. Drugs and/or alcohol

2. A ill-conceived prank or joke that went horribly, horribly wrong.

3. Attempted murder.

Outside of this list, there is no adequate alternative I can accept, because if you have the common sense and intelligence God gave cole slaw, you ought to be able to distinguish a deer from your camo-clad buddy at archery distance regardless of your level of hunting experience. I guess that's a Big If for some folks.

The FWC and local law enforcement needs to warrant this case more than a quick once-over. Even if it was purely accidental, the shooter probably shouldn't be allowed to handle anything more dangerous than a feather duster the rest of his life. Pretty sad and pretty pathetic. Glad the victim will be OK.

Just a cautionary tale to remind everyone to pay attention in the woods this fall. A lot of bozos out there.

Hunter mistaken for deer shot with arrow

Florida Deer Journal 2010 - Bowhunting Dumpfuggle

No, I have no idea what that title means. Thought of it on another fruitless sit Sunday morning. I also can’t figure out this last weekend bowhunting at Duette in Manatee County.

Here’s a situation that appeared just perfect for a successful deer hunt - the air was cool and dry under the high pressure system that has settled across the country; the pre-rut is about to start; acorns are Plinko-ing down the oaks. As a deer hunter – or someone arrogant enough to dispense advice on deer hunting – this is how you’d draw up a hunt on the chalkboard.

I mean, there was nothing moving. Unlike two weeks ago when turkeys scared off my deer, the forest was empty. No deer, no turkey, no hogs, no Therma-Cell fumes-induced hallucinations of unicorns or flying dogs. 13 hours of sitting on the stand staring at nothing and thinking of dirty parody lyrics to Christmas songs.

I have a few theories on why the deer weren’t frolicking in front of my stand.

1. The hammock has changed. Three or four years ago, the park managers burned the palmetto flat on the south side of the hammock that drew the deer into the open to feed on the new growth. Combined with the acorn harvest, it was a buffet the game could not pass up. The flat has matured greatly since then, and the edibles have been choked by the waxy, obnoxious palmettos.

Sitting in the stand, I could hear acorns plopping down into the creek behind me. Since it is early in the year, much of the swamp vegetation these deer eat is still growing. The deer don’t have much cause to leave their hidey-holes during the day. I suppose I could move back into the swamp. I should move, but don’t really want to either (I'll explain below).

This is forever a problem with hunts like this when you have limited time to scout. Scouting in February is good because you can get a clearer view of trails and old rubs, and stinking up the joint wandering around just isn’t a big deal. You rely on the history of hunting an area. I failed to recognize that this changes. My success in the past has relied on finding this spot then doing my best not to disturb it for fear of putting pressure on the deer.

Which brings me to...

2. I’m getting help hunting this area. Saturday afternoon I heard a truck on the other side of the swamp banging around. Ten minutes later I could hear the unmistakable clanging of a climber stand ascending a tree. Even though I said above I should have probably hunted the swamp, doing so depends on serious stealth. As I’ve written before, swamps breathe. The moisture traps scent and the breeze swirls it throughout the oaks. It’s a high-risk situation, and if you have any intentions of hunting more than once in this area, probably not the best plan. Deer unseen pick up on this phenomenon in a hurry, and it does not take them long to totally maneuver around set-ups. I heard a couple deer blow Saturday evening at these other hunters to the upwind side of me.

Also on Saturday evening, I had already walked to my stand, but Dad hung by the truck for a little while longer. He said he was sitting there and had two hunters approach with climbers on their back. When they saw the truck and Dad, they started cursing and moped back from where they came. Undoubtedly, they were the ones who hung the green flagging tape in my hammock. Dad recognized them. Their trick is to tape off multiple areas and use their climbers to hunt thereby never committing to the two spots Duette Park mandates. I’d love to wrap their truck in that tape.

3. It was just one of those weekends. There is probably a combination of the guesses above that contributed to the lack of activity this weekend, but something larger was at work, too. The biologist at the check station said that nobody has been seeing much yet. One guy had brought in a 6 point and a doe hung from the cleaning rack Saturday evening, but as of leaving Sunday morning, that had been about it. It is still early. I noticed a couple rudimentary rubs leaving the hammock Sunday. The deer are just being deer, and hopefully my next hunt there in November when the rut is cranking will result in more action.

I'll be there, for sure.

The Dove Opener

It wasn’t Argentina, but this weekend’s Opening dove hunt was what I’ve always loved about a dove hunt. We shot some birds. We shot at some birds. Travis grilled venison burgers and sausage before the shoot. Some guys shot bows; others looked through trail camera pictures and swapped hunting stories.

Around 4 the shooting began in earnest. Over the previous few months, we’d watched birds pile in and out of our small plot. Now, these residential dove flew towards the millet in groups of three and four, circling the field as the field artillery banged away to shouts of “Bird, Bird!!”

I maintained by shotgun ineptitude. A few dove died on accident, though, and I am excited to grill a few in the coming days. We agreed to allow the plot to rest until the start of the second phase. No doubt it will see hunting pressure then as, hopefully, migratory birds find the field.

But with so many other outdoor things going on in November and the Summer’s Anticipation quenched, it won’t be the same experience as the Opener.

Florida’s Dove Hunting Season

Season: First Phase - October 2-25, 2010
Second Phase - November 13-28, 2010
Third Phase - December 11, 2010 - January 9, 2011
Shooting Hours: First Phase - Noon to sunset
Second & Third phases - One-half hour before sunrise to sunset
Bag Limit (daily/possession): 15/30 (singly or in aggregate)