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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Charlie's Scallop Season

The scallops were thick last weekend. The boats were out in droves, also. Based on the Homosassa area, I’d say Governor Crist’s Early Scallop Season was a success.

With the oil panic and its effect on Florida’s tourism, Crist opened scallop season June 19th to encourage folks to visit the coasts where scalloping is permitted. The people responded. And it worked for me, too. I was gonna miss the opener while away on my honeymoon.

As for the scallops, depending who the captain is, you’ll look for different environments on which to focus your clamming efforts. Some seek white sandy patches. Others love searching the thicker turtle grass. Deep water, shallow water…really, if the scallops are there, it doesn’t matter.

Our first stop, ¾ mile north of Marker 10 at the mouth of the Homosassa River, was productive. I was pulling up three and four at a time - quick action compared to the dregs of last year. We lifted anchor and ran farther north to dodge a rain shower. This was the honey hole.

The swift outgoing tide had attracted the scallops to the top of the seagrass to filter feed. I had a confirmed 7 Grabber on one dive. Other times, I couldn’t put them in my catch bag fast enough. My bag was weighing straight down despite the current.

None of the scallops were big. It seems that extra month helps them put on the size. I tucked a few of the very small ones back under cover lest some derelict add it to their bag. As always, it’s such a pleasure to snorkel these crystal clear waters. Swam up on a striped burrfish and the usual selection of porgy and grunts.

After we sufficiently vacuumed up this honey hole, we made one more stop and did well. The total stats – 1 hour, five people, 8 gallons. We probably could have secured our last two gallons, but with the current pulling like it was and the inevitable rush back into the river, we decided to bail early.

Despite the small size of the scallops’ shells, the meat inside was plump for bay scallops. Cleaning them, as usual, was a messy deal of shop-vacs and bourbon, but cooked that night in a skillet with olive oil, lemon juice, and Everglades Seasoning, it was all worth it.

The Florida Scallop season September 10th. The scallops are plentiful, the Nature Coast economy would appreciate your patronage, and you’ll enjoy this simple outdoors pleasure.

Scallop Rules.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Trouble with Black Guns

I remember exactly where I was when I read about Outdoor Life giving long-time hunting editor Jim Zumbo the heave-ho. It was in the basement of my aunt and uncle’s home in Westerville, Ohio, February 2007. Outside a flock of hens fed along the little creek, frozen over and surrounded by the crunchy late-winter snow. The chills, however, came more from what I was reading about Mr. Zumbo’s dismissal than Jack Frost’s shenanigans.

His offense? Mr. Zumbo disparaged the use of AR-style weapons. Here are his OL blog comments as they appeared in an article from the Washington Post:

“Excuse me, maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity. As hunters, we don't need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them. . . I'll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles."

Look, Zumbo was definitely in the wrong and definitely ignorant. Gun owners and hunters have enough image problems without one in the ranks casting dispersions. Yet, I couldn’t escape the irony of how fast he was turned on. Here’s a guy who championed gun rights for years. Also, he’s one of the most knowledgeable hunters I’d ever read. And here is Outdoor Life, the NRA, and numerous other organizations that so fervently support the 2nd Amendment hack down his right to the 1st. I understand OL needed to protect their business. I also thoroughly understand that calling these guns “terrorist rifles” – or to that point, the more common term, “assault rifle” – is, what’s the phrase, stupid.

Not to spend too much more time on this, but I think he got the hook a little quick. I do wish he had been granted some forgiveness and time to rehab his opinion. I miss his eloquent writing, especially on elk hunting, his forte.

Really, it is the three years since this occurred that I want to discuss. In this time, numerous sources are pushing hard to introduce AR-style firearms into the woods, so much so it seems like the Powers That Be are still fighting Mr. Zumbo’s comments.

Before I am castigated – I’m using my thesaurus today – I will let you know that I have, off-and-on, been an AR-15 equipped hunter since before being an AR-15 equipped hunter was cool. I especially enjoy hog hunting with a custom Bushmaster in .223 and have fiddled and screwed around with others over the years.

Quite honestly, there’s nothing more practical or groundbreaking in their use. The bullet still fires out the same way, and the first shot always counts. I do find them a tad unwieldy in a treestand.

This is not to say there aren’t some benefits. They are gracefully easy to shoot with low recoil, though a little tough on the unprotected ear drum. And now they come in a wide variety of calibers manufactured by a healthy list of companies.

But let’s not be so foolish as to not think the reaction of people, even hunters, is different than if I’d toted into camp my heavy-barreled Savage, which, incidentally enough, is often dubbed my “sniper rifle” when I have a bipod attached. I’ve gotten the Rambo comments. The machine gun comments. Some people just want to hold the thing, but yeah, there’s a stigma to it.

The outdoor industry has jumped at this opportunity to correct people’s opinion. The November 2009 issue of, you guessed it, Outdoor Life is a good example. After page 64 is a four-page advertisement from the National Shooting Sports Foundation promoting the “Evolution of the American Hunting Rifle.” Here we can see the lineage of military rifles from WWI and beyond deployed in the deer woods, with our friend the M-16/AR-15 as the sexy centerfold. In the July 2010 edition of Guns & Ammo, Wayne van Swoll pens the “ugly-as-sin-but-I-like-them” angle. I wonder if this was a test of allegiance for him.

He’s not the only one. In the May/June copy of Petersen’s Hunting, Mike Schoby runs the similar curve but with the added claim that “they can be hell on big game.” Then you flip back through the previous stories of reindeer, coyote, and African hunts and spy nary an Armalite.

The TV programs are even better. They remind me of the lady who peddles the cooker that, in ten minutes, will prepare a perfect steak and baked potato as the audience gasps in amazement. From the outdoor shows, you’d think the AR-15 could not only be used to harvest game, but will skin and ice it, too. Gosh, just having one nestled in your hands is enough to prompt ol’ Big Buck to emerge from the woods, hooves in the air to surrender his fate.

For me, the whole deal is a tad pushy – we get it, they’ll kill a deer, coyote, polar bear, and tyrannosaur, but that’s the cartridge more than the gun. I will applaud NSSF, NRA, and whoever else for educating fellow gun owners on the use of AR-15’s in the field. Lord knows we need someone fighting the PR battle. But, this style of gun, and others like SKS’s and AK-47 variants, have been used for years and years. Just check out the Green Swamp WMA during general gun season if you need proof.

Maybe the issue is these guns aren’t selling like people think they should and this is a marketing strategy. The industry of advertising is too apparent. They are generally more expensive than your standard bolt action. Heck, the whole reason those old military arms were so popular was because of their cheap price. They were surplus firearms, not redesigns like manufacturers are doing with Stoner’s rifle.

Still, in my cynical little mind I wonder, too, if there’s a bit of agenda at work here, rooting the concept of military semi-autos into the hearts and hands of sportsmen as a “looky-here” defense for when, inevitably, President Obama or other like minds push for a new round of gun control legislation on such firearms. Really, that’s not a bad idea.

For hunting, they do, and will, have their place. Schoby does present a fine point at the end of his article that represents the freedom of hunting and gun ownership:

"The hunter's world has never been all or nothing - there is a time and place for all types of rifles afield. Some days I may grab an old lever gun or I may reach for an AR - I'll let the hunt and my mood decide."

As for Zumbo, I find it a real tragedy. I wish he’d been given a better chance to redefine the nature of his association with these guns. I mean, he was a paid outdoor writer who went on sponsored hunts all the time. Hand him an AR-15 rifle, find a herd of hogs, and tell him to get busy.

I’m gonna keep on hunting with my AR-15 when I feel like it and defend others’ rights to do likewise. They are fine, reliable firearms that have plenty of utility in the field.

Insults to Injuries

I have a wound in my left foot that is taking its sweet time to heal. A couple weeks ago at Indian Rocks Beach, I drunkenly stepped on the rocking part of a wicker chair, snapping the wood. What remained looked like a telephone pole victimized and splintered by gale winds. Naturally, the next morning I impaled my foot on that disaster. My profanity is probably still floating across the Gulf, unless it was trapped by oil and drowned.

I, as most outdoorsmen do, have an assortment of bizarre injuries that scar the body. Pride. Stupidity. Clumsiness. They all know my name and have left their marks. The hunting life, for sure, has induced a few doozies.

Towards the stupidity side of the spectrum, I examine the calloused, tobacco stain-colored knot on my right hand. I’d just shot my first gobbler and I ran to the bird to secure it…do I need to keep going?

OK, as the tom flopped around, I reached to grab him and he put his spur clean through my glove and into my palm. I was so excited I didn’t notice it at first. At first. Pretty sure that won’t happen again. Well, at least until it happens again.

My fingers are unfortunate tributes to knife cuts, fishing line burns, and even a barracuda bite I received from a dead barracuda as I rigged him up for shark chum. The most sinister of these is the bonesaw scar that snakes down my left index finger.

When I was younger, the guys in camp proclaimed I was an expert at sawing antlers off a buck. At the time I was like, “Hell yeah, I am!” Looking back now, I realize what a Pain in the A performing such a chore is, and the guys were just dumping their load so they could rig up a nap or drink.

One guy, Tim, brought me a fine Florida seven point to scalp. Despite my professionalism, I had difficulty with this one as the antlers swept back far enough to prevent getting a decent angle with the meat saw. Plus, when you're young, being proficient at something is equivalent to doing it fast. Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the youngest in camp anymore.

I have, to the best of my recollection, 4 different machete carvings in me, though I have been lucky to avoid any hatchet wounds. Scorpions don’t leave scars, but they tag me often enough to believe I’m a targeted man. Creeping up the stocks of scoped rifles has clipped a divot or two from my brow. But few of these are very serious. My right arm is a different story.

About eight years ago, Dad and I were driving through the 1000 Acres in his 1986 blue diesel Suburban. It was a tank. At one point on the trail, the road narrowed between the barbed wire fence and an ancient pine. I thought the pine would bang against the sideview mirror and reached to pull it in. Somehow, my arm got trapped flat-palmed against the pine trunk. I yelled and Dad stopped the truck.

Pulling my arm in, I thought it had broken. A crease had been left in my tricep without bursting the skin. Took a minute for the panic to subside to remember my anatomy - the upper arm has one bone, not two like the forearm. The tricep was screwed. It went black and blue in a hurry and filled with fluid.

Probably should’ve visited a doctor. Swimming, playing darts, anything that requires heavy or consistent use of that muscle is painful, even today. The crease remains, too. Pretty lucky it didn't break.

The worst of the worst, the crème de la crème, the Darth Vader of injuries occurred to my lower back.

In 2006, I had dragged a 220lb. buck out of the Georgia woods. The temperature had not yet hit 30 when I arrived with him back at my old, white Dodge Ram. Sweating in my thermal gear, I'd stripped down to my long johns to - strangely enough - cool back down and catch my breath. I climbed into the bed of the Ram and grabbed the buck by his antlers. As I heaved the behemoth over the tailgate, my boots slipped on the layer of ice that had frozen over during the night.

Both of my feet shot out from under me, and I landed butt down on the bed. I darn near bounced out of the truck. At first, I was embarrassed. It would have been a YouTube sensation. Then the pain started. That night I shifted funny in bed and my days of enjoying boat rides officially ended. Slogging through marshes in duck waders is murder, as well.

Of course, I am too foolish to visit a doctor. Occupational hazard, I always say, though this line of thought doesn’t attract much sympathy. Besides, if the back starts hurting, I can always pour a drink.

And then I’ll punch my foot through a broken chair and the circle of stupidity continues.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Means to Attain a Happy Life

The Tudors is one of those TV shows that your girlfriend forces you to watch against your will. Eventually, though, you find yourself planning Sunday evenings around the damn series. Despite whiny protests, it took me a year to succumb. Thanks Showtime.

Really, though, I do like history programs, and The Tudors fits that bill. This Sunday is the series finale.

Over the course of four seasons, The Tudors has delved into the life of King Henry VIII, the once proud, athletic king who descended into murderous gluttony, paranoia, and madness. From Season 1 to the end, a ceaseless parade of caricatures of history's characters have graced the King's presence only to have their heads lopped off due to his intolerance and the scheming of ambitious sycophants.

Of the most fascinating of these people is Season 4's Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey. Surrey was born of noble blood and all too aware of it. His arrogance and haughty behavior landed him behind stone walls on more than one occasion, but he held the king's favor, probably because he was a distinguished field commander in battles against the Scottish and French. In contrast to his brutish and boorish attitudes, he was one of the forefathers of Renaissance poetry, the sonnet, and blank verse. His work is thoughtful and quite graceful.

As he is escorted out of court and to the axe, you hear the voice of his portrayer, David O'Hara, read one of his poems that the directors saw fit to capture the moment.

Hearing it, and later reading it, I felt it worthy of sharing.

MARTIAL, the things that do attain
The happy life, be these, I find :
The riches left, not got with pain ;
The fruitful ground, the quiet mind :

The equal friend, no grudge, no strife ;
No charge of rule, nor governance ;
Without disease, the healthful life ;
The household of continuance :

The mean diet, no delicate fare ;
True wisdom join'd with simpleness ;
The night discharged of all care,
Where wine the wit may not oppress :

The faithful wife, without debate ;
Such sleeps as may beguile the night.
Contented with thine own estate ;
Ne wish for Death, ne fear his might.

I've thought much of the pleasures of hunting - as I always do - as I've read over this time and again. The fruitful ground and quiet mind of the fall. The friends between the camps and the continuance of tradition through sons and daughters. Drinks with a simple steak and politics cooked on a fire, but not so hard on bourbon that you rest in the bed that night ruined.

And, of course, arriving home to contentment and love.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Father's Day Venison Recipes - Fajitas and Kabobs

Yes, it's scorching outside, but summer is all about grilling. And it's Dad's Day Sunday, the U.S. Open is in full swing (ha!) - the whole afternoon lends itself to family banter, perhaps a couple coldies, and chowing down. Assuming you have any venison left in the fridge - which if you do, it's time to start making room for this upcoming season - I think I have a couple recipes that'll let you enjoy your day instead of slaving away in the kitchen or sweating in this stifling heat for too long.

Easy Venison Fajitas

I love fajitas. I played for years with different mixes and marinades for venison steaks. Never could hit the right combo of spices until I tripped across this simple recipe.

Take your steaks or backstrap and hit a couple times with a meat mallet. Sprinkle Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and Garlic Salt on the meat (some would think adding chili powder would make this more fajita-y, but anything I add chili powder to, I ruin). Put in Ziploc bag with enough lime juice to cover the cuts, pour a little olive oil in, and marinate for 2-4 hours.

As your grill is heating up, cook the peppers and onions in a little olive oil in a skillet – I skip this part since I’m not much of a veggie eater.

I cook venison hot and fast on the gas grill. When I’ve hit around 400 or so, I put the steaks on, cooking for no more than a minute or two per side. (Minute and a half for medium rare usually).

When finished, cut the steaks across the grain fajita-style and assemble in warm flour tortilla with cheddar or Monterrey Jack cheese, cooked onions and pepper, or whatever else you want. I personally top these off with healthy shakes out of the Cholula Hot Sauce bottle.

Florida Venison Kabobs

I found a honey-based marinade recipe online one day, and with subtle adjustments to my tastes and a creative nod towards the Sunshine State, this formula is pretty darned good.

Now, let me preface this – I hate finding recipes online without exact measurements of how much of what goes into the meal. But now I’m gonna do it since I usually just taste test it in the kitchen. And it’s a marinade anyway, most of which is going down the drain when you’re done.

I’ll go ahead and try to measure it out for you, but you may want to adjust.

2 cups veg. oil
1 cup Leighton’s Orange Blossom Honey
½ cup vinegar
½ cup soy sauce (I like to use less – as with the chili powder above, I tend to ruin recipes with soy sauce)
½ tbs. salt
½ tbs Everglades Seasoning
½ tbs ginger (again, see soy sauce warning)
½ tbs minced garlic

Stir these ingredients well. Cut ham steaks or backstrap into pieces appropriate for the skewers and marinate for 4-6 hours. With all the oil in this recipe, the grill is probably going to flare up, so keep a watchful eye, but cook 4-5 minutes per side. Serve with rice, and while I’ve not tried it yet, cozied up in warm French bread would make a pretty awesome sandwich.

Again, just a couple of suggestions. Enjoy and have a great Father’s Day!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

TWL Classics - My Gator Hunting Journal II

Originally Published July 2009

I’ve never held alligators in high esteem. For one, I’m a native Floridian who’s been around them my whole life and know better than to go swimming in infested lakes after dusk, and who doesn’t troll my dog on a leash up and down South Florida canals. Such are the common characteristics of the Alligator Attack.

It was ingrained at a young age. Growing up ashore the Stink Pit on the west side of Banana Lake, gators sightings were nothing unusual. “They can scoot faster than a quarter horse over short distances - run in a zig-zag pattern if one chases you," the folks used to say. Of course, this was also the point in my life my father told me he’d windsurfed around the globe. Never could – and still can’t – get a good bead on the jive those two sold me. So, my sister and I merrily launched tangerines and oranges at reptiles swimming on the surface of the pit, faces lighting up when they’d stop to chomp at the citrus missiles.

I carried this nonchalance with me through college. The University of Florida owns Lake Wahlburg. Students sporting a Gator One ID card could use the facility’s kayaks, canoes, and paddle boats free of charge. Wahlburg teems with gators. We’d borrow kayaks and stroke it to the far reaches of the lake, getting as close as we could to the beasts. Sober. One of the few things we did for thrills in our time there that didn’t involve beer.

Even today when someone asks me where they can spot a gator, my crass response is to pee in a parking lot, wait 20 minutes, and one will show. I don’t know, but for some reason gators don’t unscrew me quite like, say, sharks. I’ve always endured under the theory if you leave them alone, they’ll do likewise.

Which got me wondering why I’d upset this status quo by applying for a Florida gator license. My indifference for them notwithstanding, I still recognize they are large, powerful critters that, oh yeah, can rip your arm off if you’re not careful. Three men in a boat with 800lbs. of twisting, snapping lizard on the end of a fishing line sounds like a delicate proposition.

Mom has always pleaded with me not to hunt things that can bite back. Little does she know, first chance provided, my plane ticket is stamped for Kodiak Island, followed as financially able as possible to wherever they kill a lot of leopard. And besides, I remind her, wild boars are dangerous if you’re not careful.

A few weeks after learning I’d drawn my tag, a license and packet from the FWC arrived. I imagine, in terms of thickness, the manual for adopting a child is smaller. In this manual is the history of the alligator hunting program, rules and regulations, equipment and harvest strategies, names of number for meat and hide processors, and a handful of other things. Then you arrive at the section titled, Alligator Bites and Infections. A couple pictures of dismembered arms, hands, and grave warnings about bacterial infections stemming from bite wounds have a way of grabbing your attention.

Not that I am worried; I’m hunting with an experienced and competent crew - for the most part. I do find the manner of harvest rather crude. You can either snatch them with a treble hook on a stout stand-up rig and terminal tackle. Harpoon them, Ahab, or pop them with archery gear tied to floats and ropes and whatnot. Honestly, the ropes could be the most dangerous part of this whole gig. I don’t know what manner of twine is traditionally used for gator hunting, but your average dock line has a habit of uncoiling, knotting, and wrapping around things on its own volition. Secure an angry gator to one and see what gets yanked over.

The easy answer is to shoot the gator from afar. As a matter of public policy though, this isn’t possible. Let’s imagine Lake Generic for a moment under this scenario - half dozen rifles, their aim fueled by varying BAC’s, after dark, blasting at glowing red eyes. Severed arms and free-willed rope would be the least of my concerns.

Still, I’m excited. Something primitive certainly resides in all those who go chasing gator tail. Given my druthers I’d tote along my .300 and start sharpening my knives. As it is, we have to go all native, wrestle a leviathan to the boat and level a bangstick between his temples.

Some more help

After having trouble flagging down help with the FWC, I was put in touch with Jeff McGrady who was very helpful, and very familiar with the alligator hunt program. Tiger Lake, Lake Livingston, Lake Buffum were a few of the public waters we discussed. Ask for him at the FWC office in Lakeland (863 648-3200); he should be able to aid you from there.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

YouTube Video of the Week - Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus

Last week I mentioned a movie so astoundingly awful, I want to have a screening party for friends and family. Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus.

Now I am sort of a movie junkie of the independent, merchant ivory persuasion. If it's been through Cannes or Sundance with any fanfare, odds are the popcorn is in the microwave. Anything with Dane Cook or Martin Lawrence is bound to turn me off. As such, I get critical, and when you step your foot into a steaming pile like this flick, well, you just can't help yourself. You want to tell EVERYONE.

Anyway - and I realize this has nothing to do with hunting - I just wanted to share a little more about this movie. A few hundred people will probably click on this post. A few dozen with chuckle. The elite 3 or 4 will advance my idea and invite me to their own screening.

Below is a pivotal scene in the movie that combines my two biggest fears: Flying and Shark Attacks. The soundtrack is not original but certainly does nothing to detract from the gravity of the situation. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Trouble with Spikes and Culls II

This last fall I received an e-mail from an old hunting buddy and one of the finest outdoorsmen you’ll ever meet. It was a picture of a spike with a couple knobs off the main beams you could call tines, but “spike” would still be the proper categorization. The sender wrote that the deer had gray on its face so he must have been old, wouldn’t get any bigger, and needed to be shot. The deer, leggy and thin-necked, did not appear to be a veteran of many seasons by any means.

Don’t think I’ve not drank this Kool-Aid myself. Hey, when you’ve decided a buck’s antlers are puny because of an alleged deficiency, it’s not a far leap to conclude the rest of the deer’s body must be stunted too. I’ve whacked several bucks in earnest practice of skimming some scoundrel seed from the ol’ gene pool and have stood by and encouraged the death of several more miscreants deemed unworthy of procreating with my fine does.

Last time I wrote about the debate in deer camps regarding the harvesting of spike bucks. Now we’ll advance this concept to include so-called “cull bucks,” or animals whose antlers hunters believe possess a genetic deficiency that precludes them from growing perfect, trophy-quality racks. In theory, removal of these animals will sever their genetic influence from disseminating throughout the herd thereby assuring no spoiled apples, so to speak, in the future. Increasingly, this supposition is being argued as hooey.

Two resources have brought this issue into focus for me. The first is an episode of QDMA Quality Whitetails TV on the Outdoor Channel about the effectiveness of harvesting spikes and culls on trophy potential. Wildlife biologist, Joe Hamilton, discussed three factors that affect antler growth: age, nutrition, and genetics.

Mr. Hamilton suggests hunters “put genetics on the shelf.” Hunters and game managers are more capable of controlling the age structure of their herd and improving nutrition than manipulating genetics, saying that DNA’s influence on antler development is “overrated.”

Another veteran deer biologist, Al Brothers, discussed the debate over shooting spikes and posits two questions managers must consider before incorporating a spike or cull buck harvest program:

1. What are your herd conditions, such as buck-to-doe ratio, age structure, deer density, recruitment rate?

2. What degree of control do you have over what’s taken and not taken?

Analyzing the first question, Mr. Brothers addresses, in a round about way, if there’s not a better way to grow antlers. In a simplified explanation, if the buck-to-doe ratio, deer density and recruitment rate is too high, the elimination of does will increase browse, supplying more nutrition for antler development. If a deer herd is too young, hunters may not be observing the full potential in the area.

The second question is particularly salient for anyone who manages deer. If one elects to let a buck walk, what assurances are there that this patience will pay off in the future? Smaller leases and properties routinely run into this issue. Hunters may not realize the fruits of their labor if those surrounding them do not engage in similar management goals. Educating and convincing neighbors about a deer management mission could go a long way towards establishing a healthy, trophy-producing herd.

The second resource is an excellent article by Wildlife Biologist Chris Cook I saved from the December 2008 edition of Woods ‘n Water. The thrust of Mr. Cook’s argument posits that there’s insufficient research, knowledge, and understanding of whitetail genetics to justify culling bucks as an effective trophy management practice.

Mr. Cook brings a fresh argument to the table – the genetics of a doe have just as much, if not more, influence on the health of their fawn as the sire. How can you judge trophy potential from a slickhead? Additionally, he wonders how thousands of years of breeding will be erased in a few seasons by hunters?

So what causes one young buck’s antlers to blossom into those that give us the nervous sweats in the stand, while another’s poke straight up like daggers, or are broken and jagged like a hockey player’s smile?

Mr. Cook states lack of nutrition is one factor, but physical injuries to the animal may cause abnormal or underachieving antlers as the body focuses on repair. Drought and environmental factors influence growth. Also, damage to the pedicles, or the soft, growing bases of the antler, will cause malformed horns that can take a year or two to mend. Regardless, numerous variables influence antler growth and may actually stunt inherent genetic potential.

What does all this mean to game managers who’ve allowed this concept of cull bucks to seep into our culture? It means, and yes I quote Yoda, we must unlearn all we have learned. It is certainly true some bucks just won't grow B&C antlers; however, they should be allowed to age a few years before making this determination. Those big ranches in Texas that offer management hunts aren't serving up 2 year old spikes and raghorns. They are 5-6 year old bucks that have maxed out their antler potential, and are approaching the back side of their prime breeding years. At that point, it's not that much different than eliminating a few does to improve browse. Learning to age deer is the key, and the old-school methods - gray hairs, thick pedicles, just saying it's old to salve the conscience - won't cut it. The proliferation of trail cameras will be a big help in coming years. Also, I'd recommend taking jawbones of all harvested buck to the local biologist for aging.

It appears hunters can do very little to influence the genetics of a herd and may do more harm in their quest than good. Improving browse and nutrition through fertilizing procedures, supplemental feeding, controlled burns, amongst other methods, while working to reduce the number of does in the herd is recognized as the standard for growing big racks. This and allowing younger bucks - even spikes and culls - to walk will pay off in the future when seeking that wallhanger.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Trouble with Spikes and Culls I

Harvesting a spike buck remains one of the most controversial topics around campfire - and otherwise uncivil - deer management discussions. Most people accept shooting does as a responsible practice, and hunters on trophy leases tend to agree on an 8pt minimum for bucks.

But spikes are different. Hunters as a group have difficulty coming to agreement on when or if they should be culled from the herd. Some hunters believe every one of them should be removed to prevent the spread of genetic inferiority throughout the population. Others characterize all spikes as being young (the devil horned deer) or all spikes as being old, having seen their better days antler-wise (the cowhorn). Each argument can be backed by a large number of scientific or pseudo-scientific reports easily accessible on the Internet.

What do I think? I think there is probably a little of truth in all of these theories. I’ve seen a couple legitimately ancient bucks with little spikes, and seen very young deer taken by hunters who rationalize that their horns will never get any better. If I had to lean to one side, I think many hunters shoot spikes under this latter category of thought.

The trick is telling the difference between the two; however, how can the average hunter correctly age these bucks? I get a kick out of some of these hunting TV shows or magazine articles that stiffly look down on hunters who shoot deer under the magical 5 ½ year old mark. I’m sure it is easier for guys who hunt manicured food plots in wide open Illinois and Iowa, or Loaded With Bucks, Texas, to have the time and numerous opportunities to discern an older deer from a younger one. Someone hunting a property where visibility is measured in tens of yards, not hundreds, and may only see a couple deer a year is not likely to have this time. And in fact, if that hunter spends precious seconds trying to determine the deer’s age, the experience will probably translate into a missed opportunity and unpunched tag. Many shoot first and ask questions later - or ground check, as it’s known in many circles.

The number of places where this style of hunting exists is shrinking, though. State agencies around the nation and managers of private lands are increasingly tightening the rules on how big a buck must be for harvest. The penalties for shooting undersized deer are pretty severe, keeping responsible hunters from pulling the trigger too hastily, which is really the proper way to operate anyhow. Still, private game managers want bigger deer. Public land people often want more deer, and hunters reporting increased numbers of spikes enhances the perception of the hunting quality on that land. Thus, antler restrictions have become a popular tool in manipulating a deer herd.

Just for definition’s sake, let’s say that the goal of any property is to maximize antler potential by restricting the harvest of young deer and removing genetically inferior “cull bucks.” Certainly there are other elements to consider when diagnosing the health of a herd, but these two common objectives are difficult to obtain in the field with hunters of various experiences and sets of standards.

For example, I have a 2 ½ year old, 220lb 8pt on my wall that is an excellent buck now, but there is no telling now how big it may have grown had it avoided my Summit climber that November. Based on his behavior and size at the time, I guessed he’d go 3 ½ to 4 years. But I was glassing through the pines, bucks in this area are notoriously nocturnal, and there stood the biggest buck I'd seen in Georgia up to that point. Bang!

Under the theory that bucks should be 5 ½ years before harvest, I screwed up huge. He certainly was big enough to satisfy the rules of the club, but I’ve been reminded time and again that I should have let this buck go. In Kansas, I probably would have. In Georgia where the bucks are spooky, come out of nowhere and return there in a hurry, he is going to the ground every time.

The same year I took this buck, I was forced by club rules to pass on an assortment of spike and ragged horn bucks. To my best guess, they ranged from 1-3 years old; however, their antlers came nowhere close to the 8pt’s, and I doubt they ever would. But I messed up judging the 8pt so how do I know if my opinion is worth anything on these deer?

This is the purpose of antler restrictions - especially on privately managed land. If you have an 8pt that meets or exceeds a 15 inch spread, it’s not likely that deer is getting any smaller in the coming years. Then you have an assortment of misfits that may or may not become anything in the coming seasons. What you don’t want is a paying hunter or club member to tell you how experienced they are and leave it to them to dictate what a cull buck may be or declaring that any smaller buck that doesn't sport a symmetrical basket rack should head to the cooler.

We often have to live with the knowledge that antlers usually aren’t a great indication of age or trophy potential. A decent number of supposedly genetically inferior deer will be allowed to walk in a given season, while some future bruisers are going to be taken too early. It’s the nature of the business in a lot of places.

I’m not really sure if any management system - outside of large private ranches see: Texas - can adequately balance the health of a herd and the needs of the hunters. Too restrictive of a plan on WMA’s and hunters will go elsewhere and game departments will lose money. Too relaxed of a plan will result in a high, unhealthy harvest of young deer.

So what should you take from all of this? Public land and hunt club game managers have their hands tied when trying to realize everyone’s goals whether it is managing a deer herd or satisfying hunters’ desires. If you don’t want to be on a lease or hunt a game plantation that institutes antler restrictions, look elsewhere. If you hunt public land and see a spike and it’s legal to harvest, pull that trigger and don’t apologize to anyone.

As for me, well, I know I’ve not shot my last spike – by accident or otherwise - but I need more of a reason to do so than in the past. The doe season in Florida has been lengthened, and the other southern states have very liberal doe harvests. They are typically better on the dinner plate anyhow, and I know they won’t be growing any large antlers in the future.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Asleep in the Stand - Almost Summer Hunting Links

These links raided your strong box, ate all your shoestring potatoes and Snickers bars, and should be put down. But let's proceed with them anyway.

First, though, let me introduce to you the brand new Break-Up Infinity camo pattern from Mossy Oak.

From their website:

Featuring unprecedented depth, unequalled detail and elements with remarkable contrast, Break-Up Infinity truly offers hunters another dimension in camo.

Each element – leaves, limbs, acorns and branches – was selected to create unmatched realism and contrast to break up a hunter’s silhouette. Then they were placed over multiple layers of actual images from the woods to create a multi-dimensional depth of field unlike any camouflage ever created.

Break-Up Infinity is the first pattern ever that you can actually look into much the same way you look into the woods.

I thought Mossy Oak hit a homerun with their Treestand Pattern. From the word I got from Florida's Mossy Oak Pro-Staff Leader, Kevin Faver, Infinity should have hit the market yesterday.

It's the offseason. Go buy new clothes. Help the economy. It's an awesome pattern.

I'm still awfully bitter about my fortunes this past turkey season. I would like to get over it, really would, just can't. It's been hard to listen to others' tales of success. Still, ESPN Outdoors has an extensive photo gallery of those more fortunate than I this Spring.

Of course, I missed those turkeys because of equipment malfunction. Somebody probably missed because they were too jumpy on the trigger. Wade Bourne offers advice to those who suffer from flinching. I personally like to warm up with a .22 before touching off my cannons, but this is solid advice, too.

Back to the .22, Summer is a fine time in Florida - in the late evenings or early mornings, Sweaty Boy - to cure some varmint woes. Sure, we don't have prairie dogs like hunters out West, but there's a dubious list of undesirables to cope with here in the Sunshine State. Coyotes are susceptible to Summer hunting. Those feeder-destroying, turkey egg-eating raccoons. Armadillos. Or heck, just fly West and help their pest problem. Here's a rundown of rifles and gear you may need, want, or have to have.

On a far more serious note, the Gulf Coast is getting wrecked by this oil spill. Florida, luckily, has dodged it so far, but the Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi shores are in trouble. It's hard to envision a scenario where fishing and hunting in that area will return to normal in the next several years which means a lot of people are going to the poor farm, to speak nothing of the adverse effects on wildlife.

In addition to the clean-up work allegedly conducted by BP, Ducks Unlimited is supporting a bill making the rounds through Congress that will help supplement this effort.

Congress is working to pass a supplemental bill that has little funding to support clean-up operations on the Gulf coast. Representative’s John Dingell (MI), Lois Capps (CA), Mike Thompson (CA), and Charlie Melancon (LA) are circulating a Dear Colleague letter in the House of Representatives encouraging their colleagues to support increased funding of $85 million. This funding would go to assist the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with their response and recovery efforts to address economic and environmental damages resulting from the oil spill.

I understand the hesitance to spend additional taxpayer money in this day and age, but of all the bailouts and handouts, I do support this. It's a bitter pill, too, considering how badly NOAA and the USFWS has ignorantly abused the fishing community in the last few years. Still, it goes to restore the environment and should create a few jobs.

Finally, with the damage to wildlife well underway, here's a small way you can give back. Making wood duck boxes. I'm sure you can find an environmental group or two around who would be happy to accept your parts and labor.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

YouTube Video of the Week - Croc Attacks Shark

There is an awesomely awful movie starring Debbie Gibson and Lorenzo Lamas titled Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Seriously. I've wanted to have a friendly screening of it for about a year. The thought is dominating. I mean, it is so spectacularly terrible, you must show others.

However, I have been disallowed to bring it up in social circles again, as it is a major source of embarrassment for Carolyn that I am such a rube.

When I first heard of this YouTube clip, I was hoping it would be a similar, real-life, situation of two over-sized beasties fighting it out to the death. I don't want you to be fooled. It is still pretty neat. Better than the movie in all aspects, though I still heartily recommend you watch that, too.