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

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Other Hunting Seasons

Deer hunting has become such an industry it has blotted out the appeal of other outdoor pursuits. This is a shame, especially for outdoorspeople in Florida. By December a wide variety of hunting opportunities have opened. Some are as simple as lacing up a pair of boots and coursing the oak hammocks for squirrel or as tactic-driven as predator calling or fall turkey hunting.

So, I will just briefly peruse some of these other adventures that are hiding behind the sun.

(Click Here for Resident/Upland Game Season Dates!)

Wild Hogs

It is not really fair to lump wild hogs in with the rest of this list. They are probably pursued harder in FL than deer. But, as I’ve written before, my favorite time to hunt hogs is in the winter months. Hogs can be found statewide and numerous outfitters offer the chance to harvest at least a meat hog at reasonable prices.

This year’s acorn crop has been wicked. Combined with the dry the swine have all but abandoned my feeders for the deeper reaches of the arid swamps, and I’m hearing the same thing from buddies around the state. Still, the acorns should be gone soon, and the hogs will have a nice layer of fat. Should be just ripe for the BBQ.

Florida’s coyote population is going bananas. It really is the perfect state for them to thrive with the temperate weather and buffet of small critters and crops to eat. Hunting them here is a real challenge. I’ve tried numerous times but the best I can rely on is luck. I think the important thing is to hunt them where they can be killed. Hunt them along fire breaks and palmetto flats where your call can be heard. Hunting in the swamps drowns out the rabbit squealer and if they do come out, it will be in your lap.

Calling in bobcats is just plain fun. Sometimes they charge in immediately, sometimes they sneak in after 30-40 minutes of calling, though the latter is far more common. Either way, it’s chilling. The crouch. Those yellow eyes. The flick of the tail. Even if you don’t care about pulling the trigger, it’s a wonderfully wild spectacle.

Call for the wildcats on the edges of ag fields and swamps, especially if there are irrigation ditches or firebreaks for them to travel down. Be patient, of all things. Dedicate an hour or so to a set up.

Fall Turkey
Yes, Florida offers a fall turkey season. On many WMA’s one’s best chance at a gobbler or hen will be bow season which has largely passed – again, though, check local regulations.

Private land is at the discretion of the landholders. Some people prefer to wait on spring to harvest turkey, others not so much. Only toms may be taken on private land. There are two ways to success. Hope one ambles by your tree stand or sit and call.

I’ve been lucky with the stand situation, but it has been many years since I’ve tagged one in such a fashion. It’s been even longer since I’ve tried fall calling. It’s a slow process of calling softly and remaining seated. Gobblers flock up this time of year and seek out the thicker swamps. It's tough.

My lease is in Zone B and the fall turkey season runs through the end of January. I’ll be making a concerted effort at a tom this year. Chances at doing this are few and far between.

Small Game
I personally enjoy squirrel hunting. My Ruger 10/22 loves to dance with bushytails in January and February.

Same with rabbits. We do a rabbit hunt every December in Sarasota County. We glass down bush fencerows in the evenings with a 17 HMR. Good fun.

Most WMA’s have small game seasons. This is the time I usually visit WMA’s to scout for deer and turkey. Might as well tote a .22 with you and have some fun while you’re at it.


It has been years since I have taken a quail in FL. I’m not even sure where to go anymore. There are plenty of hunting preserves across the state. Duette Park in Manatee County has a thriving population and offers small game hunts. That would be my best advice. Outside of that, check with local biologists at your local WMA and give it a shot!

Winter gets to be a busy time here in Florida what with all the holidays and stuff. This is true for hunting season, too. I haven’t even touched some of the other possibilities today – waterfowl, snipe, dove, crows, furbearers, etc. It’s an exciting time.

Deer hunting is my favorite, for sure, but it sure is nice to get away from that for a while and give something else a try!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Thanksgiving Toho Hunt

I know what I was thankful for Thursday morning – no one was videotaping our shoot. The first four ducks – a pair of ringnecks and a pair of bluewing teal – splashed in proper fashion. After that it got a little dicey.

Actually, it got dicey for Travis earlier. He pulled up on the aforementioned teal and realized he didn’t have a round in the chamber. I collected the double. That was my last speck of professionalism for a while. A wood duck – and I’d like to say he “dodged,” but that wouldn’t be accurate – escaped a three-round salvo from the Browning 3 ½. A mottled duck lazily floated by without even a click of the safety. Can’t explain that one. And numerous ringers passed right on by no rougher for the wear.

I’d peeled through ¾ of a box of Black Clouds in less than 30 minutes. For four ducks. (Head shaking)

Blaming the choke, I swapped out to a full to tag the higher flying ringers. This didn’t matter in the least. I went to switch again when a pair rushed in from the east. I managed to dump one on one shot and felt the sweet kiss of vindication, if only for a moment.

Travis and I were hunting Lake Toho in Central Florida Thanksgiving morning. This is a popular public water duck destination. Fortunately it wasn’t’ too crowded. I guess other hunters wanted to wake up and spend time with family or something. We did have to wave off one boat who thought he was going to set up on our decoy spread, I guess. We suggested he move one bay down. I’m not sure what those guys were shooting, but it sounded like they were lighting off quarter sticks back there.

We planted a Baby Mojo in the ground and surrounded it with a variety of decoys that represented the waterfowl in the area. In the open water we tossed a couple dozen ringer decoys. Closer to the weeds we threw out 5 or 6 wood ducks, four mallards hens, and a smattering of teal. It looked real good.

After pitching the dekes, Travis parked the boat amid a patch of tall lake grass. He had previously clipped palm fronds, and we lined the gunnels of the boat with the broad, waxy fans for concealment, a pretty common tactic in these parts. We called it quits around 9:30 when the action finally slackened.

It worked well. I’m proud to say every duck we did bag decoyed to our spread. Our limitations were strictly bound to pass shooting efforts. In all, we ended up with 9 ducks, not too shabby.

The duck hunting has been fairly slow, from what I understand. It’s been warm for this time of year. The large clouds of ringers that are typical here haven’t settled in yet. The teal are sporadic. I’m sure Opening Day took its toll on a fair number of the resident mottled and wood ducks.

It’s a pretty place, that Lake Toho, though not as remote as Okeechobee. You watch planes lift off and land on a constant basis from Orlando International. Bass fishermen whip their outboards through the channels at high rates of speed, and the din of airboats is near ceaseless. In the horizon, four or five hot air balloons floated up and away. Lots going on around Orlando.

Still with all these people, there was one lone witness to my poor outing. And he couldn’t say much either. We were the real turkeys this Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The 2010 North Carolina Hunt

The spike mowed through the sweet potato pile smacking his lips and paying very little attention to anything around him. This deer had been seen several times before. He was thick-bodied for a youngster, probably 120-130 lbs, with 7 inch antlers that forked slightly at the tips with one freaky-long chin whisker that illuminated in the remaining daylight. For an hour he fed in the bait pile.

Two does emerged from the opposite corner of the cut corn field, lingering under a ladder stand. One ate the edge browse while the other held sentry. They looked to be about the same size, but the one acted more mature. I have a difficult time judging the dimensions and age of does without a reference point. I kept thinking about the alert doe, talking myself into believing she was a tad bigger than her counterpart. It would be a 250 yard shot so I held off for a bit.

The spike finally spied them and abandoned his binge eating. He lowered his head and walked to the does. They were unimpressed and coldly shunned him. Embarrassed, he retreated into the block of thick North Carolina woods.

I watched all of this from a Porta-Potty. OK, it was a Porta-Potty hoisted up on a wooden support with a swivel chair inside instead of a commode. It made for a fine stand. Darin had hunted here the previous morning and shot a wide six-point. That evening I dusted a doe, my first of the season. I was so excited about finally being lined up on venison, I had the shakes. I pulled my eye off the scope and calmed myself before cleanly dropping her in the dirt. Finally. Meat.

We were on our annual trip to Sampson County, NC. The land is primarily agricultural fields in between blocks of hardwoods that’s nigh impenetrable on foot. There are a ton of deer up here, does especially. There are whopper bucks in the area, for sure, but the average mature buck won’t grow to huge proportions. The locals think this may have something to do with their narrow confines, and the antlers grow accordingly.

The rut should have been in full swing, but warm weather had settled in for our trip. Darin’s buck was indeed rutted out, stinky and gaunt on his frame. It was a representative buck of the area, and I was proud he took him. Me? I needed meat and was none too bashful about popping that first doe. After that shot, three smaller bucks came into the field and circled the downed doe. Not a one of them made me think of pulling the trigger.

The rest of the guys were doing well on does. A pair of young bucks were killed in error or inexperience, pick one, by one gentleman in camp. Besides that, some mature nannies were filling the coolers. The mature bucks, though, just weren’t participating.

This is shameless bait hunting up there. Before stand hunting took hold, running dogs was the primary sport. With land sectioned off into leases and smaller parcels for indivudual use combined with the sudden emergence of QDM experts, this has largely ceased. In a few more years of a solid doe harvest, I expect the buck hunting to vastly improve.

Not that I have not seen a few nice ones in the past. A buck two years ago still haunts my dreams. I’ve changed since then. My opportunities at deer – any deer – have thinned out and venison is delight to work with in the kitchen. I’m just not going to let whitetail opportunity pass me by waiting on antler. I’ll get back into that trophy hunting one day, but for now...

Those two smaller does slowly walked across the corn field towards the bait pile. Again, I was trying to make the one grow, but I just couldn’t convince myself she was much over 75-80 pounds. I needed another doe to stand her up against.

I came off the glasses and saw a gray doe enter stage left. Ah ha! That’s the one. A longer nose with bigger ears and rounder belly, she was what I needed to train on. She sauntered up to the sweet potatoes. I stuck my Savage 110 Tactical .300 Win Mag out the venting window and sent a 180 gr. XP3 her way.

About 10 minutes later, in the now fading day, a small six walked up to her sniffing, and otherwise disrespecting her. He was clearly rutted up. His attention wasn’t even broken by the four other full-grown does that had joined the action. Well-versed in the delicate female mindset and insecurities, I pitied these ladies who were blatantly spurned for the Recently Deceased.

I could have taken a third doe, no sweat, but I was up to two does and this was one of the hotter stands; other hunters needed meat, too. Plus, I held out hope that maybe Ol’ Big Buck would show up.

I nearly soiled myself - Get it? Hunting in a Porta-Potty. Soiled myself. Ha! No, huh? - when a dark shape trotted out of the western treeline and ambled slowly, head down towards the group of feeding deer. My Nikons strained to find antler in the twilight. It turned out to be another little buck.

Nearly total dark now, I left the John. At the base of the ladder, I peeked around and watched the 6 continue to offer his affections to my doe. Sicko. I slipped around through the woods without spooking them and awaited the ATV to haul my deer out.

This land in Sampson County and the friends in camp are a blessing. With 10 hunters, we took 16 deer, not too shabby. It was Buck-Lite this year, but I’m sure in the future this will change. I’m already looking forward to next time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Florida Deer Journal 2010 - Blackpowder Bummer

Of all the things great and small I do not understand in this world, from the appeal of NASCAR to why women hate Rachel Ray so much when Kelly Ripa lives and breathes fresh air, I’ll fail to explain the doldrums that has been my Florida deer season thus far. Weather great. Proven stand location. Maximum effort in the tree. Acorns aplenty. No deer, minus the does I saw opening morning of bow season. Null and void.

It’s seems to be a down year at Duette park in Manatee County. From what I've been told, nothing big has really squeaked in to the check station over the first four hunts that covered the pre-rut and rut. A bunch of hogs, but deer hunters were mostly left wanting. I may forgo my dues next year and take my talents back to South Georgia.

The muzzleloader hunt on the weekend of the 13th was most disappointing. I don’t really get excited until I can put the stick and string away for something that goes “boom!” And I enjoy hunting with this setup – a .50 Cal. Knight Disc Rifle with a Bushnell Banner scope firing a 250 grain Barnes Expander MZ served over 100 grains of Hodgdon 777 pellets. Kaboom! Accurate and dependable, it has made muzzleloading a corn feeder’s worth of fun.

But alas, nada. Just two big ol’ gobblers that showed up Saturday around two and poked their heads about before feeding into the palmetto flat. Dad saw a bunch of hogs and some gobblers, and that was that.

Duette met their quota of four bucks by Saturday evening, though the biggest was a small six. Twenty-some hogs met their maker. Dad hunted Sunday and saw nothing while I was on my way to North Carolina hoping the deer drought would not follow.

In all honesty, and I've made excuses in a previous post, I think it's just one of those years. The weekends allowed did not coincide with when the deer were moving, I guess. Successfully hunting deer in FL requires more time spent in the woods than I've been able to offer. I made the most of my innings but appear to be striking out.

I have other hunts in FL. One in Levy County. One in Sarasota. Two at Upper Hillsborough. Looking forward to it. Taking a FL buck is always a challenge I will put the work in for.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Wood Duck Breakfast Sandwich

A hot wood duck shoot is heart-stopping action. Why not flip it into a hot heart-stopping breakfast?

OK Fellow Fatties, take your de-boned duck breast and soak in cold water or milk for 20-30 minutes to remove blood from the meat. Meanwhile, start a skillet of bacon and cook to your desired Level of Crispy. Dip the duck in flour and your favorite game seasoning. Fry in the bacon grease until the flour is browned and blood leaches out either side when pricked with a fork. Your aim here is to cook it about medium.

Set aside the bacon and duck, and crack an egg in the skillet. I go broken yolk and fried hard topped with salt, pepper, and shredded cheddar cheese, but to each his own.

Assemble duck, bacon, and egg on a toasted hamburger bun and top with copious shakes from a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

Teal is a fair substitute if you lack the woodies. I suppose any duck would work, but woodies are the tastiest, in my opinion. If you're like me with little regard for your circulatory system, this is a delicioso sodium surprise in the camp and at home.


Friday, November 12, 2010

The Trouble with Hound Hunting

Also known as coursing, running dogs for game – deer, bear, wild boar, mountain lion and small game – is a centuries old practice steeped in tradition, performed by the common folk and regal alike. But times, they are a-changing.

My first hound hunt is certainly in my Top 10 Hunting Experiences. A cold weekend in North Carolina, we sat in trucks along graded roads between swamp bottoms and planted pines listening as the beagles and blue ticks chased whitetails through the woods. The sound of some slow-drawled Carolinian would come screaming across the CB for the nearest truck to race over to whatever open area the deer may run through. These places were typically named, “The Smoke House” or “Tucker’s Grade” and other signatures no doubt ascribed from stories of the past.

If you were the lucky truck near the action, the cacophony of baying hounds carrying through the woods approaching your position would get the knees knockin’ as you rack a round of buckshot in the chamber, nervous of where the buck will burst through. More times than not, the deer knew his game, giving only glimpses of antler, circling back through a block of pines, and the yelling on the CB would resume.

Sadly, I never connected, but what really impressed me was that in this sport of 4WD’s, CB radios, and electronic dog collars, the hunters were terribly proficient outdoorsmen. To hear a faint howl and know where the dog was heading was amazing – more amazing was hearing the courser declare that the buck would never hit the rural highway, rather retreat to the swamp and shake the hounds. He was always right. With genuine respect for their quarry, these were true outdoors people and as close to mastery as can be witnessed from any outdoors pursuit.

More than this, the hunt was attended by sons and daughters, wives and girlfriends, and the elders, like one old gentleman posted on the end of a dirt road in a folding chair, double barrel shotgun resting across his lap – never misses the hunt. One boy had a decal on his Ford of Calvin peeing on a tree stand. They were serious about this style of hunting. And while I’ve been on other social hunts, like for dove, this was my first contact point with a true Southern, community-oriented hunting tradition. I’ve seen nothing like it since.

As much as I learned on that hunt, I’ve been on the other side. See on that adventure, we had a few thousand acres to run and bothered no one. Dogs running on others’ properties just wasn’t a concern. A few years prior I sat in a South Carolina deer stand on a semi-guided trip, caressing my trigger and contemplating canine-icide. Some thoughtless hunter had released his dogs on this private property and was looking to profit. I’d saved and paid a pretty penny to be there, and some rube just dropped his mutts off by the fence. The dogs – mongrels really, not the fine packs in NC - swarmed the area, running back and forth howling with no real purpose, until finally retreating east to God knows where they were reclaimed.

Before I get any stern letters from dog lovers, let me tell you, these aren’t Man’s Best Friend – these hounds are bred, born, and will die deer hunting, not unlike their owners, which makes this whole debate so passionate.

In the last few years, most southern states have restricted or totally banned hound hunting – for deer at least. Game departments don’t want to put up with the hassle of complaining land owners. More and more pieces of land are being leased in smaller blocks than what is adequate for coursing.

There are still pockets of the South where this is not true. Florida's WMA system does a decent job of offering dog hunts in places, notably around the Big Bend. I'm sure this is true in other states, as well. For the most part, though, private land opportunities have been greatly diminished.

Hunting, too, has changed as hunters became more educated about deer and deer habits. A great deal of dog hunting was born from necessity. You look at those Carolina woods and explain to me how rabbits get through there, much less bucks and blue ticks. These safe havens were once nearly impenetrable to the still or stand hunter. Now we have food plots and feeders to lure deer in the open. Aggressive doe management reduces the buck to doe ratio, making bucks more active and competitive for receptive does and more susceptible to stand hunters. And attitudes have changed with the success of these practices. Quality deer management is not easily implemented while trying to gun down a buck with beagles on its heels.

That property I hunted a few years back now caters to only stand hunters, regardless of Calvin’s sentiments. People began leasing land nearby and predictably didn’t want dogs running through their food plots. And in all truth, I’ve hunted that property several times since - actually will be there on the stand Monday - and the hunting has become outstanding. There’ll be no going back.

This is not an indictment of coursing. I respect the tradition and can personally account the thrill of the chase and the skill of those in participation. I’d like to believe that we as sportsmen can have it all ways, but that’s simply not true. Hound hunting, for the most part, is on its way out, but at least I have faith they’ll go down swinging.

The South has never been known for easily abandoning tradition.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TWL Classics - The Bucks of Sampson County

Originally Published November 2008 from my old blog.

“You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? My guess is you'll never hear from him again” – Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects.

And so it was this last week in North Carolina - a week so promising with a hard rut interrupted by winds and rain. The buck posted up on the perimeter of a cut cornfield, eying a gangly spike that had been trotting all over the field. Through the binoculars he possessed the features and habits of a mature animal. Unlike his young counterpart trying to sniff up a doe, he didn’t come barging into the middle of the field, rather sneaking to the edge to survey his surroundings. There was no clear definition between his neck and shoulders. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see his antlers in the predawn of this Wednesday - across the two hundred-plus yards to where he stood.

I theory, I could have ground-checked him; it’s not like I was hunting a high-dollar plantation that would fine me bags of gold bouillon for popping an undersized buck. I was hunting with friends on a family farm where the ridicule for such an offense is worse than opening a wallet. So, I held off the trigger.

The buck slowly ventured into the field to confront the spike as I strained for a glimpse of horn, begging for more light. At this point, a parade of trophy deer could have been dancing across the field like in that Big Buck arcade game, but I’d never known – I was glued on this boy, and man, he seemed like a shooter.

As I pulled down the binoculars to clear the fog off the lenses from my warm, heavy breathing in the forty degree chill of morning, I noticed the deer moving back towards the tree line. I retrained the glasses on him and saw what I’d already known in my heart – he was a keeper. Strangely tall, out past the ears, and with visible mass, he’d go at least eight points. And I really have wanted a nice NC State buck for the wall.

I settled down on the crosshairs, shifting in the ladder stand to get a solid rest. By the time I relocated the buck, his antlers were being swallowed by the dark of the pines, walking away until only the bright white borders of his tail remained, until they too were snuffed out.

I camped out on that stand for the better part of the week hoping for another chance, but I’ve been in this game too long. Big Southern deer only give you a chance or two. In the words of Mr. Kint:

“And like that, poof! He's gone.”

For the third time in three hunts, I’d encountered a large North Carolina buck, only to come away empty-handed. Poor shooting cost me in the past. Four years ago it was a nice eight. He’d walked in, got spooked, and then spun back around for a head-on shot. Rushed and free-handed, I hit him low, and after six hours of tracking weak spoor through Satan’s own square mile of thorns and cut-down, I grudgingly conceded the loss. Last year, I sailed a shot over the back of a large buck on the same field I saw this latest buck. The stand was dubbed, “The Sniper Stand” for the distance to the tree line where deer emerged. Again hurried, I fired a poorly rested shot as a heavy fog parted just long enough for an opportunity. So, after these last two experiences and the subsequent camp house humiliation, I was determined not to screw up again.

Of course, I did later in the hunt, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Located roughly 45 minutes west of Wilmington off 421, this land in Sampson County is God’s Country. In the heart of the Bible Belt, it’s yessir, no ma’am, food is hot and plentiful and greasy, the faithful work hard even when there’s little work to be done, and Sundays are off-limits to deer hunting. Once primarily a dog running area, still-hunting and the associated management practices have taken root, although coursing still runs through the locals’ veins.

My fellow hunters in camp fared well. David and Darin both took fine eight points. Don and Travis took a pair of does apiece. Everyone was excited by the buck activity as the rut was clearly on. But, the weatherman’s forecast really stuck it to us. By Thursday night, the skies went overcast and windy and spitting rain. As much as I’d liked another crack at that buck, I’d long since grown jealous of standing by as others loaded fat, corn-fed venison in their coolers. And with the weather deteriorating, next slick-head I’m taking a shot at.

Here’s where I screwed up. Thursday afternoon, from that same stand I’d seen the big buck, a deer entered the field, feeding in said overcast, windy, and wet weather. By 4:45 the light had almost vanished in the inclement conditions. The deer fed amongst the cut corn stalks as I waited to see if the bruiser would re-appear, searching for any sign of antler with the binos. The light continued to fade until the deer began working its way back to cover. At over two hundred yards away, I carefully squeezed off my .300 Win Mag and the report of the shot broke the soggy still of the evening.

Happy I’d finally got a doe for the cooler, disappointed when I walked up and saw two spikes poking from her, er, his head. Yes, sir, I get the irony. I’d held off on an near-obvious shooter in low light to avoid taking a deer I wasn’t supposed to, yet happily pulled the trigger in low light on what I thought was a doe only to discover I’d taken a deer I wasn’t supposed to. Actually, it was a scruffy five point.

Adding injury to insult, while relaying the story to Don in frantic frustration and not paying attention to anything but excuses, I backed my Dodge into an irrigation ditch slick with slippery field muck, which in Chevy Country opened the floodgates of embarrassment.

All turned out well though. Yes, I stood and shamefully watched Uncle Dennis yank out my Ram with his Chevy and took the abuse like a man, save for the crying. I withstood the obligatory lectures and teasing from campmates about the importance of deer management and shooting Bambi. Better though, I escaped with some venison and an invitation to return any time, which will always be more important than antlers.

The Fear of Flying and More Montana Pictures

When people tell me flying is safer than driving, I generally assume they think I am stupid or drive to work in a Miata. It’s a ludicrous notion. A several ton machine carrying a tankful of high octane jet fuel and ill-mannered children, speeding along at a brisk 600 MPH 36,000 feet over places where I know no one. Yeah, sounds safe to me.

You know, where’s my sign?

I am terrified of flying. Palm-sweating, convinced I will die at any second terror. For years, I have rambled about this ad nauseum to anyone who’ll listen. Always have been scared. Never had a bad experience, minus the one time my parents had to literally peel my fingernails off a jetway ramp at Tampa International when I was 8 to load me on an Ohio-bound aircraft.

It’s really a control thing; namely, I am not in control. Next, I have no understanding how it all works but am all too familiar with the lurid news reports when one has a crash “landing.” True, I don’t have a great idea how the lights turn on in my house either, so I guess I shouldn’t get too worked up.

But I do. My trip to Montana. To begin, let me apologize to anyone flying from Orlando to Denver by way of United a couple Wednesdays ago. It was the airline’s fault they sold me those little bottles two at a time. Apparently there were kids aboard that may have broadened their vocabulary. I was cut off again on the flight into Bozeman, but at least I had reached that magical point where I was staring at the lights on Final Approach like a child entranced by a Fourth of July sparkler. I also spilled one drink on each flight directly on my crotch making it look like I’d had a pair of Uh-Oh’s.

We landed safely on all flights, as you may have deducted already. To my dismay, our return flight from Bozeman to Minneapolis to Orlando was re-routed due to some unspoken delay, thank you, Delta. We had to go from Bozeman to Salt Lake City to Atlanta to Orlando adding an extra death-defying takeoff/land routine to my travels.

The flight to Utah was awful in that Sardine Can they packed us in. I could feel the anxiety rising to my face and fought back the tears and urge to yell up and down the aisles demanding they pull over and let me out. The air marshal would have loved that.

Salt Lake to Atlanta wasn’t too bad other than the fact we were landing in Atlanta. Those of you who have been there will agree with me, this airport was designed by sadists. I’d describe it further but was too distracted by the sobering realization I'd split the butt part of my jeans and half-mooned God knows how many innocent weary-eyed frequent fliers in at least two different time zones.

By the Orlando flight, I was too dehydrated from sweating to care about my fate. The entire trip back I said the Lord’s Prayer approximately 2,513 times and contemplated for a few hours what song they should play at my funeral or wherever they’d dump some ceremonial ash for me. I settled on The Long Road by Pearl Jam, for no particular reason.

Every bump and pocket of air was certain doom. I was scared to shift my weight for fear of tipping us over. These aren’t the thoughts of a rational human.

I will provided my Top Three (out of 10,000) Moments I Was Certain of Doom.

3. The stewardess from Bozeman had a thick French accent. Just a little HR advice – if you are going to bother with the pre-flight safety procedure, please do it with someone we can understand. Due to my inebriation during the first flights, I had no idea what to do in the event of a water landing until we were about to depart for Atlanta. Not that this mattered because the Mississippi was about the largest body of water on this journey. Doomed.

(Also, forget the oxygen masks. Think “nitrous oxide.” Or, perhaps, self-administered shots of Demerol.)

2. From Atlanta to Orlando, Travis showed every stranger he could pictures of his soon-to-be one year old girl. Have you not seen any war movies? Do you not know how this works? Don’t go saying lines like you can’t wait to see your wife and child when in potentially lethal situations. You'll curse us all. Doomed.

1. In a similar vein, though much more potent, before we landed in Atlanta, the captain came over the intercom to wish one of the stewards good luck after 42 years of service and asked we all clap for him. Switch “war movie” from the above scenario with “cop movie.” Doesn’t anyone watch cut-rate cinema where a detective is just a few days from retirement but has to go on one last case. Guess what always happens to him. That's right. Doomed.

Even worse than feeling like The Day Has Come for every drop of turbulence, is panicking others. From Salt Lake, this nice gentleman took the time to talk baseball, guns and hunting with me. He could tell I was nervous. Then he – and I don’t know what psychological trigger sparks this in others when I tell them I am scared of flying – told me about his worst flying stories. Thanks. Jack, please!

One poor sap on the last leg of the trip told me he had flown all the way from Toronto to see the final space shuttle launch. Fully understanding that NASA cancels these launches like a picky old man sends steaks back at restaurants, I did wish him luck, not wanting to endanger my own. (They ended up canceling, too.) I told him it was just as reasonable excuse to travel as was duck hunting.

Back on terra firma, I am happy I survived the odds. It had been ten years since my last flight. Doubt it will be another ten. Montana is too gorgeous not to return, and there’s much more to see out there on this Ol' Blue Planet.

Next time I’ll just be tranquilized and tossed in the cargo hold.

No kids should hear me curse from there.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Waterfowl of Montana

Mallards are big ducks that get swallowed in the steel blue of the Montana dawn, especially as they circle against the backdrop of a distant mountain or foothill. A pair of drakes had looped Cliff Pond a half-dozen times before dropping from the air that’s as fresh and thin as a July bride. They cupped up and bombed towards the decoy spread as we waited motionlessly, fingers on the trigger and breaths rolling out of the blind.

I did not fly to Montana to duck hunt. I flew to Montana to see Montana. And because Harris invited me to this beautiful 1000-acre private ranch near the Lewis and Clark country of Three Forks and Willow Creek. The hunting was strangely an afterthought in my mind. After four mornings of waterfowl hunting, my next trip will definitely concentrate on duck hunting, no question.

The waterfowl is mindboggling. My Lord, the ducks! In the rivers and irrigation ditches near the ranch, thousands of greenheads puddled with wigeon, gadwall, coots, Canada geese and wild swan. It’s quite possible I’ll never fully Q-Tip the hooting of honking geese from my eardrums. All day long you could sit on the back patio of the ranch house and watch waterfowl of some variety. With a long season and liberal bag limits, this region of Montana is a sportsman’s dream.

I am but a casual waterfowler. I’d never hunted ducks outside of FL or GA. I’ve killed more mottleds than mallards and found these wild greenheads strikingly beautiful when compared to the tamed ones so problematic to the aforementioned mottled ducks of the Sunshine State. It’s somewhat embarrassing to report that despite the amount of waterfowl we spied, we killed only a dozen or so greenheads. It’s the Beast of Hunting.

One, this place is impossibly open. Even the far expanses of Okeechobee marsh feel tight. We huddled in cut-out septic tanks buried in dug, shallow ponds. Those of us without waders were pushed with gear in a canoe to the hide-outs. Some service, I say...and said multiple times to the boys ferrying us. But anyway, you could see ducks and geese a long ways off. Having them choose this one particular drop of water amongst the reaches of the river and similar honey-holes on un-hunted land is a challenge that’s being addressed according to the ranch’s agenda.

Next, the weather was unseasonably warm for late October. The mornings were no colder than 40 degrees. Ranch Manager Ron said the migratory birds simply had not winged down yet. The ones that were there were residential ducks.

Which brings us to our third difficulty. A party the week before had put a solid hammer on what local birds lit on the property. They evidently had a fine shoot. The ducks that circled us did so with the careful, detail-oriented eyes of a jeweler.

I wanted a mallard for the wall; however, when pairs and trios come within gun range, the Five-Gun salvo made it awfully difficult to claim birds – probably hard for the Taxidermy Man to repair, too.

I especially craved a honker for the wall. I’d never hunted geese. It is its own challenge. One morning a flock flew over that we skyblasted at, but armed with 2’s we might as well be slinging rock salt at them. They would land in a pivot field of cut wheat and feed in groups of a hundred or more. We simply did not have the gear for this routine. I am pumped for the next crack at that.

Still, we made the most of it and hunted hard. Duck blinds are places for friends, anyhow. One of the two drakes mentioned at the beginning flew past Clark at butterfly-net distance. He failed to dump the quacker, something that was not easily dismissed. I missed my opportunity on one greenhead, getting the barrel of my BPS caught in the blind material on my right. Watching these big ducks cup and drop towards the decoys is a matchless experience.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to return one day. It’s truly beautiful country that is beyond writing, especially for an amateur wordsmith. The game is astonishing. Mule deer fed along the foothills. The long-tailed, Ring-Necked Pheasant cackled in the early morning and pitched between patches of deep grass. Coyotes howled in the coulees. Up the road on a private ranch, a green alfalfa field was literally swarming with pronghorn and mule deer. In the cottonwoods near the river, a herd of whitetails fed under the trees, a couple of the bucks bigger than anything I’ll catch up with in Florida anytime soon. Hell, even the black and white magpies impressed me. It’s a great place for the heart.

I’m a big game hunter, first and foremost. I long to travel many, many places in pursuit of this passion. The waterfowl of the Big Sky State now have me just as hooked.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

October Trail Camera Pics with a Side Topic on Corn

One hunting topic that never fails to rile up an argument is the subject of baiting, specifically the use of corn feeders. The Pro-Cheaters...I mean, the Pro-Corn crowd beats their drum to the cadence that hunting food plots or mast crops is no different, feeders help bring and keep game on the property, and assist in managing over-populated does and hogs. Amongst other arguments.

The Anti-Corn crowd...by which I mean, of course, the Purists...believe hunting by feeders is an unholy act that only private land scumbags with no ethical chords in their bodies would practice.

Nine times out of ten, if you ask this last group if they’ve ever hunted over corn, they’ll answer, “Well, no, but I don’t need to to know it’s wrong!”

Please. All this shows is that this vocal crowd – and I don’t want to offend anyone who elects not to hunt over corn or legally can not; I mean to offend those who worry others over for their choice to do so – generally does not know what they are talking about and is highlighting their own lack of practical knowledge through hypothetical pretense.

As the immortal Jimmy Buffett once sang: "Don't try to describe the ocean if you haven't seen it/Don't ever forget that you just may wind up being wrong."

Case in point, our lease in Polk County. The hogs are thick and have attacked the feeders throughout the summer, but who wants to sit in the heat during the summer? So we’ve, more or less, waited on the arrival of bowseason and cool air to whack the hogs. Easy Peazy, Lemon Squeezy. (A lot of planning for swine, huh?)

It’s time. Problem is the hogs aren’t there! These Corn-A-Holics have been avoiding my feeder and trail camera - and everyone else’s - for the better part of a month.

The answer is in the acorns. There is a large mast this year, and wild game will abandon corn fields and food plots in a hurry when this happens. I’ve noticed this in every state I’ve hunted that has acorns hit the forest floor. Why? Hell, I don’t know. One guess is I think it is so hardwired in their DNA to seek acorns during the fall they can’t help themselves.

Two, corn is a high-energy, low-yield food while acorns are high in all kinds of proteins and nutrients. Yellow corn will fill stomachs and make hogs fat, but much like if you compare it to Big Macs, who wants that when filet mignons are falling from the sky?

Just a couple theories. Some biologist can explain it better than I.

Back to practical hunting. The option now is to stalk the thick, swampy, small property with a bow, thus dusting human scent all over the place, if we want a hog. This pressure will probably spook them off for the months when acorns aren’t on the ground or send them completely nocturnal. Hogs will succumb to hunting pressure must faster than people think.

I'm here to tell you, feeders are not a magical cure-all. Some actual hunting skill is usually required. Over a decade or so I've killed many, many hogs off feeders (and not a single trophy buck, either). It's not 100%, and in fact, they will avoid offered corn at all costs if the hunter screws around it too often.

I’m practicing patience and will wait to hit the woods until later. I want a big boar. I want another shoulder mount. I want to pop him while he’s banging on my corn feeder. I've been biding my time, scouting by camera, and staying off my stand since we got the property.

Isn’t hunting about patience?

On with the pictures! The camera sat in the woods for two weeks and only captured 80 photos, mostly of raccoons. (Quick tip – if you find crunched-up corn under your feeder, it is raccoons. They don’t eat the whole kernel like deer or hogs. They munch the germ and leave the rest for the birds.)

I'm not sure if this creature eats corn or not. He may eat a .17HMR if I ever catch up with him, though.

As will this one. But I KNOW they eat corn. Judge for yourself.

My only evening of hog pictures in nearly a month. Not a single one taken during daylight, shooting hours. And certainly no trophy hogs. Geeze.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

TWL Classic - The Frozen Toes Buck

Originally Published December 2008

I’m not going to lie to you – well, not this time at least – so in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I powdered a young buck with all the potential in the galaxy to become a great trophy. Remember this in a few weeks when I post a blog about not harvesting cull bucks and letting deer age to maximize antler potential. Hypocrite, yes, but at least an honest one.

I just couldn’t help myself. Sure, he was scrawny-bodied and thin-antlered, who, judging by the scars on his face, kept getting bullied by larger deer. There was no way I could argue he was bigger than I thought, especially when I popped him just feet from the stand. He rut-stunk to the point the stench still lingers under my fingernail beds and was stricken dim-witted by love.

Wow, that’s a God-awful eulogy. And not fair. Happy to take him. But why did I? Well, let me account myself in a Top-10 list, if you please. A few of them contradict, but what the heck - I’m a hypocrite anyhow.

10. For the freezer – In all truth, I’m an unabashed meat hunter. My girlfriend loves venison, I love venison, and quite frankly, the five deer in the freezer now won’t make it to next October. I’ve been trying to whack a doe since September, but have had no luck; all I’m getting are antlers. I find there’s not much sympathy for me here.

9. Last Georgia Trip – This was my last Peach State trip for the year and possibly for a long time. Doubt I’ll be able to afford the lease next year, and in any case, I’m kinda ready to explore a new place. I get restless. Just this season I’ve been invited to Montana, Kansas, and Arkansas and could have paid for all three with money to spare for a cocktail at the airport lounge for what I’ve doled out to the deer of SW Georgia. On the last day of the last trip, think it’s neat to walk away a winner – or as I tell friends, give the critters of those woods some fear to remember me by. Kilroy was here.

8. A Great Stand Location – As I wrote about the “One Hitter Buck," I love when a plan comes together. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best deer hunter, but from time to time even I prove to myself I may know something about deer habits. This stand sat a hundred yards into a pine and oak-wooded edge bordering a large soy bean field. Other hunters placed ladder stands overlooking the field, but I surmised the deer would hole up here before dark or pass through in the morning avoiding the open after the first of rifle season. Two years ago from this stand I killed my two largest bucks as they wandered around the field in the morning and two fat does who fed amongst the few oaks in the evening. And saw plenty of other does and immature bucks. This smaller six-point served as an ego-boosting, pat-on-the-back reminder that occasionally I can dial up the right play, even if it doesn’t result in a trip to the taxidermist.

7. Revenge for Last Year – Revenge, spite, reprisal, call it what you will, but I spent over a month hunting that lease last year and saw one buck, a piddly five point I let walk. With the One Hitter and this guy, I sorta evened the score, though I risked angering the QDMA gods and dooming myself to four years of buying beef at Publix.

6. 28 degrees – The temperature had dropped to 28 degrees from 42 the previous morning. My toes were frozen, and I wanted something reward this vigilance.

5. Beat the Moon – In the same tune, the moon was bright full – fullest I can remember in a long time. Deer go vampire and avoid the daylight when this happens here. With the cold weather, I just about stayed in bed. Busting this buck at 9:15 was an accomplishment. Not a single other hunter even saw a deer during the week.

4. It Wasn’t a Spike – I’ve joked this season that I’d like to harvest a spike for no other reason than they are the most protected deer in the woods anymore. After hunting all season on lands I’m not supposed to do such a thing, I was free to do so here at my discretion. I imagine it’s akin to visiting some remote tropical island and spearing green sea turtles – wrong in most places, but when you get a rare opportunity here, take advantage. I saw a spike the night before but didn’t shoot, with no regrets. But why OK on the 6 when both were young deer? Wasn’t all that long ago that 6’s were true trophies in our camp, and while I generally have shown restraint in the past few years letting bucks bigger than this one walk, well, I guess there’s still enough young hunter in me to get excited about any set of branched antlers.

3. Other Hunters Hadn’t Seen Anything – That “young hunter” thing is true too about bringing deer back to camp when no one else has had any luck. Immature? Obnoxious? You bet!

2. For the Lodge Pole – Honestly, I’m generally not much of a braggart, but I’d been shooting my mouth off all year about just having fun again, abandoning trophy hunting, and stocking the freezer. Thought I’d be way-laying does. By the time this 6 meandered up by the Summit, three sets of antlers were back at home and another pair sat in the kitchen at camp: the Duette Bow Buck, the Levy County Buck, the North Carolina Mistake Buck, and the One-Hitter Buck. Never had such a string of luck. I’d planned on mounting these horns to a piece of driftwood to commemorate the season; this guy just capped it off. (By the way, if you have seen or have or know anyone who has a similar display, I’d love to see pictures.)

1. Because I Could Do So – That’s the freedom of hunting. I know I’ve written before, somewhere, that shooting a deer just because I can doesn’t do it for me much anymore, but reasons – like the previous 9 above – change. Next season I’ll probably return in earnest to adhering to the tenets of trophy hunting and QDMA. But I will tell you one true thing about deer and deer hunting that is forgotten, sadly, in these days of tall tines and TV shows. This deer was ethically hunted and harvested with knowledge of the land and deer habits. The guys at camp responded with hearty handshakes and congratulations from one deer hunter to another. The meat will entertain and nourish family and friends, while the antlers will forever live with me as a one-of-a-kind piece of artwork to remind me of that morning.

No matter how you choose to hunt deer or your particular goals, these things should be most valued.