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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Easy Fried Venison Chops

I remember learning to fry venison in college. No, it wasn’t a class. Wish it was – I would have actually attended. I always had plenty of deer meat but little in the way of cooking experience, especially frying. As with other aspects of collegiate life I was inadequately prepared for, I blame my parents. My mother rarely fried foods, I guess, caring for our hearts more than our appetites. The backstraps and tenderloins were left whole to grill, and the rest was generally converted to ground venison for tacos, spaghetti, and the like. So, frying venison chops in the apartment was an exciting proposal.

And the fire alarms were exciting as I invariably filled the room to the brim with smoke. See, somehow, I had it in my mind that the proper way of frying anything was to heat the oil on the stove at the highest setting. Made the oil hotter faster, why not? The chops were always over-cooked coated in singed breadcrumbs. Delicious when covered with enough BBQ sauce and after several adult libations.

Luckily, these meals never ended in fire trucks and smoke inhalation trips to Shands. Turns out I became a whole lot smarter after I left college than when I was enrolled there, and I slowed my act down. It seems one can fry foods without a rolling plume of smoke emanating from the stovetop.

I bring this up, not only to satisfy my insatiable need to ramble and relay inane stories, but also to pass this knowledge around to others who may be in similar straits. The Internet was very much in its infancy then. I searched and surfed for recipes and help but found little. Recipes I did find took it for granted that any Joe Shmoe knew what they were doing in the kitchen.

The key elements to fried venison are a cast iron pan, canola oil, and medium-high heat. With this combination, you can fry just about any cut of venison. But for today’s purpose, I want to stick with fried venison backstrap chops.

In the field, leave the backstraps and tenderloins attached to the backbone and have your butcher cut bone-in chops about an inch thick. You can, of course, make boneless chops on your own; I like the little handle of bone to eat without a fork and knife like a savage.

In the kitchen, pour oil in the skillet until it’s about an inch deep. The oil will shimmer when it is ready. If you have any doubts, take a few fingertips of breading and flick it in the pan. It should immediately bubble and cook on the surface, and as they say, you’re now cooking with grease. If you're the anal type, though, use a thermometer to gauge when you hit the optimal temperature of 360-370 degrees.

Defrost your chops – talk about a mess if you don’t – and soak in icy cold water for 30 minutes or so to remove blood and gamey tastes, if you’re concerned about such things. Trim any fat or sinew away from the meat. Pat dry and press into Vigo Italian Breadcrumbs.

Place the breaded chops in the hot oil until browned on both sides for medium-rare to medium and remove to a paper towel-lined plate. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. Nothing wrong with A-1 or a Mustard-Style BBQ sauce for dipping.

It’s not all that hard and is delicious. I’m a constant advocate for trying new things when cooking venison. If you’ve not tried frying a batch, you are missing out.

And remember, always put out grease fires with salt or an extinguisher. Never use water. Or adult libations.

Trust me.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Field and Kitchen Care for Wild Hogs

A lot of wild hogs are going to die in Florida this fall and winter. The signs are everywhere for a fine season. I’m seeing rooting everywhere – even along public roads and highways. It’s a weak acorn crop in many parts of the state, and the hogs compensate for this cash crop deficiency by increasing this destructive, hatred-breeding feeding style. Hunters are reporting plenty of swine activity. I’ve not set foot on hunting land in Florida the last three months and not seen a hog - total opposite from last year where you’d slide across acorns like marbles on a tile floor. The hogs fed at their leisure, limiting their daylight movement.

As we move out of the deer rut in most parts of the state, hogs will become the primary target of opportunity. Let ‘em have it!

Well, let’s pretend you snuffed out a hog. What to do now is critical to fine eating pork, a memorable mount, and even your health.

Things to consider as you slice your swine.

1. Taxidermy Tips – Starting on a high note, let’s say you have bagged that monster boar for the den, garage, camp, or wherever this animal head will fit with your spouse’s d├ęcor. Avoid dragging the hog with his head hitting the ground. This could burn off his hair and even potentially wreck those chompers on a pine stump or some other debris. Most large boars will have a thick shield over his shoulders. It behooves the hunter to cut well behind this and peel everything down from there. The taxidermist can then deal with the extra hide. Ice it down immediately and keep it on ice, making sure it’s not sitting in a puddle of melted water. Freeze or take to the taxidermist ASAP. A buddy of mine shot his first boar a few years back in pretty warm weather. The taxidermist’s best guess was the hog was either sick or improper care led to a mount that stunk so bad, the boy had to keep it in a shed outside after getting it home. We tried knocking it out with Febreeze, Lysol, and even scent-killing foot pads. The flies enjoyed it. By the way, you’re likely to pay more for a boar mount than a deer; it’s just that much more work for the taxidermist.

2. Hose that Bad Boy Down – If you have a water hose available, wash the animal thoroughly. Get off all of that caked mud, dust, dead ticks, or whatever. One, this helps prevent against contaminating the meat once you commence to dress it. And two, hog hide will dull a knife quickly; the extra dirt and grime will accelerate this process. Put that piggy through the wash.

3. Wear Gloves – I’ve never heard of a hunter getting sick from cleaning a hog. I’d have to believe contracting a disease from a tick from their hide or even from a mosquito hanging under the lights of the cleaning shack would be more likely. However, wild hogs are known carriers of human-transmittable diseases such as swine brucellosis. Simple, cheap latex gloves from the grocery or drug stores are invaluable in your day pack.

Here are the recommendations on hog handling from the FWC:

Wild hogs, though not originally native to Florida, are now found within all 67 counties, and like any wild animal, can carry parasites and diseases - some of which can be transmitted to people. One such disease for hunters to be concerned with is swine brucellosis.

The FWC is advising hunters handling wild hog carcasses to take the following precautions to protect themselves from exposure to this bacterial disease:

- Avoid eating, drinking or using tobacco when field-dressing or handling carcasses.

- Use latex or rubber gloves when handling the carcass or raw meat.

- Avoid direct contact with blood, reproductive organs and fecal matter. Wearing long sleeves, eye protection and covering any scratches, open wounds or lesions will help provide protection.

-Clean and disinfect knives, cleaning area, clothing and any other exposed surfaces when finished.

- Wash hands frequently with soap and water.

When cooking wild hog, as with any wild game, care in handling is an important part of disease prevention, and the meat should be cooked thoroughly to 170 degrees. Swine brucellosis is not transmitted through properly cooked meat.

Brucellosis in people is called undulant fever and could be transmitted if a hunter cuts him/herself while field-dressing a wild hog or was exposed to the animal's blood or bodily fluids. Symptoms include a recurrent fever, chills, night sweats, weakness, headaches, back pain, swollen joints, loss of appetite and weight loss.

Hunters who exhibit these symptoms or may have been exposed should contact a physician.

4. Meat Care – Ice down well after cleaning the hog. Now, here’s where people separate. Some folks prefer to brine wild hogs – boars, especially – to remove a lot of the gamey taste out and tenderize the meat. It’s a long process of salt, water, large coolers, and time. Some hogs are just going to be poor without brining. But I am ignorant of this procedure. I don’t have the time, space, or the need to keep large hams frozen for any length of time.

5. In the Kitchen - Generally speaking, I’ll put the whole hog in a coffin cooler and take it to a processor. The hams I’ll have cut into cube steaks or roasts. The shoulders are rolled into roasts. I prefer the roasts because I can put it right in a crockpot and slow-cook it. I’ve not had this fail me yet. The backstraps can be kept whole and marinated and is quite delicious when cooked over low-heat. Or, sliced into boneless chops and grilled quickly. Or, I’ll have bone-in pork chops cut. The chops and cubed steaks I like to fry and simmer in gravy to tenderize. Ribs are good if meaty enough; if not, it gets ground into breakfast sausage or links. A lot of people do this with boars in lieu of brining. Fat should be trimmed – it’s not nearly as delicious as on domestic swine. For grilling, wild hog begs for marinades; Stubbs Pork Marinade my favorite, followed by Italian dressing. (Feel free to go through my recipe archive for ideas.)

There ya have it. From loving life to your fork and knife. My Porky-Senses are tingling – it’s gonna be a banner year for the wild hog hunter. Best of luck on the hunt and keep these things in mind to keep enjoying your kill after the hunt is completed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Treestand Time Waster Apps

2007. The year started with Bulgaria and Romania officially joining the European Union and signed off with the conclusion of the Massive Big Dig construction project in Boston. Between those two marks, not much else exciting happened either - except for one event that changed the world of treestand hunting forever.

On January 9th, Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, ushering in the Age of the Smart Phone. No longer did hunters have to concern themselves with just poor cellular reception. We were then confronted with the possibility of weak Internet signals, fragile phones that aren’t exactly built for outdoor use, and batteries that die within a couple hours of going off the charger. It became a brave new world.

See, despite consuming copious and irresponsible quantities of Kentucky Water since that time, I do recall what Treestand Living was like before we could wield this powerful new technology. All we had for entertainment during the Dark Ages was to sit in our perches and appreciate and revel in the beauty and glory of Nature. Thank God that’s over.

Case in point. This last weekend I bowhunted Lake Panasofkee WMA on a Special Opportunity Hunt. I saw a spike, a doe, and a young boar hog, but these encounters were fleeting, leaving plenty of down time. The wind was blowing 30, the rut was all but over, the bucks weren’t moving. But I was still able to accomplish a lot including harvesting crops in my virtual rural community, photograph my surroundings, keep tabs on my wife and kids – or vice versa – and stare at my pitiful bank account in a vainglory attempt to figure how I’ll pay for Christmas gifts and an upcoming duck trip to Okeechobee. Even killed a few rampaging dinosaurs in the interim.

No, these phones are great tools, and I’m very pleased with my iPhone. It’s so much more than could have been imagined before 2007. I’m not sure how they don’t cost thousands of dollars. Luckily, you can make up this difference by purchasing apps – which I hope is a term everyone is familiar with by now.

Many hunter-helpful apps come installed on the factory phone. Weather apps give you up-to-date radar and forecasts. The maps app on my iPhone provides a Google-powered aerial photo of where you are or want to be; a fantastic scouting tool. I’ve taken my first videos of deer with the phone and uploaded them to YouTube, all while swatting mosquitoes and listening to armadillos rustle in the palmettos.

Then there’s the social media. I’m now able to tweet every excruciating minute detail of a hunt, from swatting mosquitoes to the activities of said armadillo. With Facebook, I can update my status and wait for responses from family, friends, and acquaintances. (Example response – “You’re disgusting! Hunting again while your wife is home with infant twins?”) And, of course, stay updated on football scores and baseball trade rumors.

But there are other special apps you can download through the App Store. Some are free; others come at a nominal fee. These are the ones I want to cover today; ones that help slay the slack in stand-time while waiting for Bruiser Buck to bumble by. Not that this has happened yet. Perhaps I’ve been too busy fooling around to notice him.

So without further delay, here are a few of my favorites.

1. GroupMe – If all you do these days is text your hunting buddies, you are mired in the mid-2000’s. GroupMe is an app that allows groups of friends to text and banter in an open forum. It’s neat to compare notes on what’s being seen when a few people are on the same trip, or get reports from those in other places. And it’s positively devastating to get these messages when they are hunting and you are not. You can text pictures of your latest kill, or kill time with mindless banter, insults, and jokes.

2. Oregon Settler – This game is based on the old Oregon Trail game we played on PC’s in grade school. In this version, your pilgrim is dropped in the middle of God’s Country with the objective to raise a town, improving its economy, and care for the livelihood of its citizens. Wild animals gallop through town that you can blast for more food. It’s realistic in that it takes me typically 3-4 shots to kill a deer; unrealistic that after every shot, a food icon falls off, like you are blowing hams off the animal to collect. Really, it’s the ultimate game of socialism. Your character runs around harvesting crops, raking in monies, and solving each level’s new challenges. All the while, a herd of shiftless citizens plague you to solve their medical and social ills without even an offer to help around town. (HINT – move all your sick people to the far end of town and let them croak. It won’t affect anything other than your conscience.)

3. Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter – Pretty self-explanatory. You are dropped off on a distant planet with a handgun to hunt herbivorous dinos. After accruing enough points, the game allows you to upgrade your arsenal with rifles, shotguns and, inexplicably, a crossbow. After honing your skills on plant-eaters, you can trek down the carnivores. You'll probably be eaten a few times before getting the hang of it. The ultimate goal is a trophy stegosaurus – no, wait, it’s the tyrannosaur. He can only be killed with a careful shot to the eye. If you miss, he tramples everything underfoot to catch and toss you around like an orca pitches a baby seal around its pod. There are dinosaur calls, you have to play the wind; it’s a solid hunting game. Your biggest kills are displayed in a virtual trophy room that can be shared with your family, friends, and acquaintances on Facebook – weirdo.

Last I read – or have totally made up – there are hundreds of millions of apps for your pleasure. The hunting world is well-represented. As I’ve said, they are great ways to kill time in the stand. These above are all free, but many others will be happy to take your money.

If you have any you’d like to share, please do. I have three more deer hunts this year, and my town doesn’t have much more room on which to build.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reconciling The Wild Life

I hate not hunting. Truly despise the thought. Work or weddings, enmity seeps from otherwise bloodless and paralyzed veins when collared to another facet of the Real World. Every hunt I make is an event I’ve looked forward to my whole life. And each time the sun sets, a creeping feeling whispers that this may be the last time I get to hunt. Silly, but certainly palpable. There are no pills for this fear. I suppose this is one of the reasons I write - to maintain a written history of the fun and remember the Good Old Days.

This is the second anniversary of The Wild Life, in its current form. Also, the 250th post. And, oh, there’s been no lack of hunting. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone back and visited with the past. What a strange chapter to a long-ish, fairly productive hunting career.

When I got this site cranked up, I was fading out of the trophy deer hunting. The previous five years, I dedicated myself to leases and the pursuit of nice bucks. I was successful meeting my expectations some years and exceeding them in a couple others. But with the money I wrapped into this, I realized I was missing out on a lot of the rest.

If you’re a far gone antler crank, good for you. But living in Florida, whitetail expectations are little tempered compared to the Holy Land of the Midwest. I wanted to snoop around more, spread myself thinner in the hunting world. And in this, too, I’ve been mostly successful.

Over the course of this blog, I’ve really come to enjoy gator and duck hunting. Not just the actual hunts but learning about these pursuits. The gear has been fun to collect. After a dozen years of deer and turkey, one kinda maxes out on what he or she wants to buy. I think, also, the factors that make these hunts so much fun is what is lacking in today’s deer and turkey hunting world.

One is opportunity. Deer have gotten expensive. When I started out on my Antler Quest, a Georgia lease was a reasonable number – as was gasoline. Quality deer management took hold, and all of a sudden, bragging about big bucks became taboo because no leaseholder wanted to lose their spot to someone with big bucks of the green variety if word leaked out about local monsters. Leases in Florida are even worse since the demand for land is so high. Osceola’s are part of this equation, too.

Duck hunting, in particular, is on the rise in these parts because of the lack of deer opportunity. Public lakes are accessible, as are most coastal waters, and there’s plenty of game at which to shoot. They may not all be Duck Commander-style hunts, but if you can’t find a place to splash waterfowl in Florida, you simply aren’t trying that hard.

The other thing that I enjoy about ducks is the camaraderie. Now, I love a treestand. It gets me right in ways years of therapy would be unable to accomplish. I feel recharged after a cool evening in the stand. And I love venison a whole lot more than duck breast. But I have quota tags for a duck hunt and a deer hunt for the same weekend in January. When I study my chances of catching up to a six-point or better on public land with a bow, or BS-ing with buddies in a duck blind, blasting away at teal – well, it may take more than a flip of a coin to get me to ride that climber up a pine. Heck, I even flew to Montana, Land of Mulies and Pronghorn, to shoot ducks last fall. Would do it again in a heartbeat.

So, yes, I’ve chronicled a change in my Fall Routine, and it’s been fun. Luckily, gator hunting doesn’t interfere with deer. It sure is exciting, and I wouldn’t have bothered paying for those tags if I’d had feeders to fill and food plots to plant in another state. Two years ago, I took a December weekend off of deer to hunt bobwhite at a Georgia plantation. I’ve done more predator hunting since this blog’s inception than ever before. Done more small game hunting, in general. Yikes, I’ve even gotten married and had twins since two Decembers ago.

The other thing that has changed in this transition has been my utilization of public land. Besides a missed opportunity on a gobbler a couple springs ago, I’ve not really tapped into much luck on these properties. But, I will say, I’ve learned a lot. Mostly, how gorgeous and well-kept most places I’ve been are. I’m impressed. The game is there, and it’s not necessarily the land’s fault I’m not tagging out – I’m not really left with as much time to scout as in the past. That’s a critical component to success. A public land buck and gobbler is high on my list of priorities at the moment. I need to work harder at it, which I should probably do soon.

For despite the embarrassment of riches I’ve lightly detailed above, I want more! I’m toying with the notion of another Georgia lease. It’s not exactly the most financially sound decision in the world, but I feel the itch to chase that Antler High once more. The way I figure, friends have to stop getting married in October and November eventually. I’m not that popular. That should open up a few weekends a year. Ducks can be done on the weekdays if all is planned correctly and after the rut in November. I’m not sure how this will fit with potential invites to other states next season, but I’m sure it can work. I feel like a running back carrying multiple defenders on his back just trying to cross a goal line that never gets closer.

That’s my bag of issues, though. Want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read, comment, or otherwise visit my site. I try to keep it entertaining for those who want to burn some time; informative for those looking for answers. I’m a Jack-of-all-Trades and legitimate Expert-on-Nothing.

Looking ahead, it should be a productive next couple of years. Duck season has only just begun. Hog hunts a-plenty coming. I just signed on to a new lease in Central Florida with a few deer, hogs, and it's going to have an awesome dove field. There's also a terrific number of predators. You can guess what I’ll be doing come February after the other seasons fizzle. Then gobblers, hogs, gators, early deer, early duck, blackpowder..it keeps coming...hopefully.

(If you have any suggestions to improve the site, please share. Content, design, whatever. Also, feel free to read back through the archives. Enjoy and Thank You!)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oyster Ideas

I don’t want to waste people’s time posting recipes for some creature I didn’t wrangle down myself. Like, I cook a pretty evil chicken cordon bleu...but, it’s not anyhow, anyway, anytime appropriate in a hunting forum. Even if I pursued feral chickens. It’s just not proper camp food. If someone cooked and served chicken cordon bleu in one of my camps, I’d be sleeping in the bunk farthest from. This person would be clearly touched in the noggin with no realization of where he or she is.

Oysters are different. True, I am not an oyster hunter, or farmer, or collector thereof, but I don’t think anyone would rationally fault me for procuring them from the market. And they are excellent camp fare. Some of my best days on God’s Green Earth have come at the expense of a hot campfire, cold beer, and a bushel of fresh oysters.

Which is weird. I loathe most vegetables. I’m allergic to onions, repulsed by tomatoes, and generally dislike most greens. But slimy oysters? Sign me up!

In North Carolina a few weeks back, I indulged in the saltiest bivalves I can recall in some time. They were harvested from the waters north of Wilmington and Wrightsville and tasted like they drank the Gulf Stream dry. This, naturally, got the hankering flowing for more when I returned home. Krunk bought a half-bushel from Publix a couple weekends ago. The lady said they had just come in; otherwise he would not have bothered. Once they get too freshwatery from multiple icings, they lose much of their charisma. I never order them in restaurants for this reason. Bleck. These were good, though – not North Carolina good, but a passable addition to a day of football. Bought more in Homosassa this last weekend that certainly hit the spot. I don’t know if it really matters that you should only eat oysters during months with an “r” in them, but cool weather is definitely more comforting when designing an oyster feast.

I prefer oysters raw out of the shell. But after so many, it’s never a bad thing to dress them up a little. The usual procession routes its way past the straight-from-the-shell routine and on to a few slapped on a saltine and topped with Louisiana hot sauce or horseradish. Then you get the ones that are difficult to shuck – the Tough Mothershuckers. I flip on the ol' gas grill. A couple minutes on there loosens their hinges and steams them in the shell. But if we’re gonna heat them up, let’s just take it a step further.

Now, this isn’t completely original, but I forget where I learned this, so there are no pangs of guilt for plagiarism. However you do it, whether you steam them open or shuck them raw, arrange a couple dozen on the half-shell. Turn your grill to medium-high heat. In a coffee mug, melt in the microwave one stick of salted butter with two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce and a few dashes of garlic salt and fresh ground pepper. Place the oysters on the grill and drizzle the butter combo over them, then top with shredded parmesan cheese – get the good stuff, not the generic brand. Cover and cook until the cheese and butter bubble. Some people refer to these as charbroiled. Or a hybrid of this method – when one converses with passionate oyster aficionados, however, you never can be too sure that what you’re doing is kosher. I just think they are delicious.

A bushel of oysters goes a long way. There are a lot of different ways to eat them. Nothing seems to get a group of hungry hunters – at least ones I know - excited more than when someone arrives with a cooler full. Give this recipe a try for a quick change-up.

Unless you are a Chicken Lover.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gadwall Experience

Duck hunting is a lot like bottom fishing a reef or wreck. You get your spot, toss out some baits – in our case, decoys – and await the action. Most times, you’ll get at least a few nibbles from a variety of species. After a while, you come to expect what’ll show; but once in a while, something special unexpectedly screeches that drag. Those are the days to remember.

Travis and I set sail for Lake Toho Thanksgiving morning. It is a budding ritual. Last year, we shot several ringnecks and bluewing teal – standard fare for the area. Turkey day ’11 was my second outing on Toho this season. The morning before, our crew of four splashed 8 ringers. Not shabby for a public lake that’s hit hard the first week of the season But, we saw plenty of ducks, and I was cranked up for the next day, though I’d have to meet T by 3:45am to beat other hunters to the ramp.

T motored the boat to a floating mass of aquatic plants caught in a massive flotilla of hydrilla, a preferred duck food in these parts, mercifully not yet sprayed by the FWC. We got our decoys - a spread of a couple dozen ringer dekes sprinkled with a few teal fakes and a teal Mojo - deployed an hour before shooting light. We lined the boat with pre-cut palm fronds thrust into a PVC tubular rail along the gunnels of the boat, fashioning an effective blind. The time then came to sit back and await shooting light, enjoy the crisp November morning of coots and assorted water heints, with the occasional shooting star or airliner coming or going from Orlando International for the full sensory overload.

About 10 minutes before legal light, a flock of a dozen teal wheeled over the decoys, flipping and flopping in the air as they are trained to do. Soon, a lone ringer swam across the channel, scooching through the decoys like a wind-up toy. It was just about Go-Time.

I promptly missed my first duck, a passing ringer that barely cleared the horizon. When ducks of that fighter class zip out of the gloaming, shots are all too often fleeting and desperately late – which made the circling flock of big ducks all that more exciting.

Big ducks, in these parts, are typically mottled or whistling ducks. Whistling ducks are gorgeous, but slow as snot, loud as Hell, and prefer soggy ground to open water. So, it was evident this flock circling the decoys to Travis’ hail calls weren’t whistlers. Mottled ducks are very common, and that was the thought when they locked up on the decoys as we stood to shoot.

In two blasts, we had four of ten birds splashed. Which sounds great until you realize the limit on mottled ducks is one per person. With an over-abundance of law on Toho, we were in a bit of a pickle. No biggie, though. Friends were close by, and if they didn’t have any mottled ducks, we could swap out with ringers or something.

It was an honest mistake. And not the only one we made during that assault. The morning progressed with the ringers, clearly shore-shy from a week of hunting, keeping to open waters. Travis pounded a beautiful drake wood duck. But as the sun rose, our encounter with the mottled ducks took on new light as well.

For one thing, mottled ducks are pretty vocal. They quack and chuckle like your standard-issue mallard. These ducks were stone silent, I thought. These birds floated smaller in the water. Then Travis said something that really stuck – “Hey, mottled ducks don’t have white on their wings, do they?”

“Nope, blue or green.”

We decided to call the morning early to satiate our new-found curiosity. Wigeon were possible.

By Gadfrey, they’re Gadwall.

For those not in the know, such as me prior to Thanksgiving morning, gadwall, or gray ducks, are medium-sized ducks more common to the Mississippi and Central flyways. They are drab in color, but with striking white speculums and reddish wing plummage. Of course, I'd seen pictures of them in books and read about them in the Hunting Literature, but they are much more pretty birds than either describes.

I’ve heard of hunters harvesting them in Florida, notably along the East Coast where you find more pintail and wigeon, but these were the first I’d laid my eyes on. And coupled with my lack of overall waterfowling experience, the low-light, and being similarly colored birds I’d never figured they were not mottled ducks. We were relieved to keep things legal, but disappointed by the missed chance to shoot to the plug on a lucky draw of birds.

Of four, we retrieved only three – one was lost to the hydrilla or turtle or gator or something. We’d been keeping our eyes on it for the morning, yet it all but vanished when the time came to retrieve it despite searching for half-an-hour in every reed bed and grass patch nearby. So we were forced to settle with two drakes, one with almost-full plumage, and a hen, the female as pretty as the males, in my opinion. For sure, I’ve had more spectacular shoots, but this hunt was for the memory bank.

Now I have a drake gadwall in the freezer awaiting a trip to the taxidermy man. It may not be a big deal to those in other time zones who see them regularly. Odds are I’ll catch up with more before the grave. But on this lake, on Thanksgiving, and the surprise of learning their identities…events like these makes duck hunting worth the early mornings.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Footnotes to the North Carolina Hunt

I tried to keep my story about this year’s North Carolina hunt short; I wanted to focus on deer success, for a change. If you follow this blog regularly, you know a lot of posts are dominated by hunts that bear no fruit. I do this not just to chronicle trips, but to also highlight lessons and circumstances that lead to an empty cooler. It’s not exciting, for sure, and folks tire of reading such tales – heck, anyone can Not shoot game. But I enjoy the reflection lest fall into the perils of an unexamined life.

Even with a successful hunt, there is still dissection of information to process. With that, I want to run through a list of addendums to this last hunt.

- Always check your rifle’s zero, especially if you suspect something may have knocked it off. The boy who missed the Big 8 did not. His rifle had taken a pretty heavy hit, sliding out of his back seat and landing on the scope. He didn’t figure it’d be a problem. Not only did he miss the buck, he also whiffed on a doe during the same sit. The next day he took it to the range. The bullet was off the mark by 6 inches. Of course, no one was with him when he re-zeroed...but I’ll take him on his word this time.

- Novice hunters are often shocked that deer don’t always drop when shot, especially with magnums. The biggest doe I plugged took off and left a feint bloodtrail. The distance was close, and I was shooting a .300 Win Mag with 180-grain Winchester XP3’s. The bullet zipped on through without much energy transfer. Plus, I hit no bone which would have grounded her. Probably. Always check carefully after a shot. Each game animal reacts differently given distance, bullet, shot placement, temperament, whatever.

- On that note, when following up, take your time. I knew the shot was good by the bright pink spoor. But she took off into some God-awful country. She didn’t dash fifty yards, but she did a figure-eight, more or less. Her trail switched back several times, and the path we figured she’d take was way off. As I said above, even with a great shot, the spoor was limited. With two others with me and our noses to the ground, we found her, but not without some CSI sleuthing along the way. One person would mark the last known sign while the other two spread from there. Don’t just assume a deer will run in a straight line. Don’t assume anything.

- I made a horrible shot on my first deer – but I have an excuse. Another hunter had placed a homemade blind around the top of the stand and secured the netting with zip ties around the rail. I couldn’t shoulder the rifle without the barrel catching the netting. The one small hole cut in for shooting was poorly suited for covering the trail the deer typically use, much less the bait pile. It was well-intended, but not conducive for beanfield hunting. We corrected the problem after my first hunt, but the blind still encumbered a steady rest. In the past, I’ve used a rectangular seat cushion strapped to the rail for those long shots. Anyway, the blind kept me from doing this. At 150-175 yards, I aimed for the doe’s shoulder but never could get comfortable, sprawling out in the stand trying to steady the bouncing crosshairs. I cleanly got her in the neck, but it certainly wasn’t where I aimed. Don’t go out of your way to conceal your stand if your efforts hamper the ability to make a rested shot, especially if shot distances get into triple figures.

- Not all spikes are bucks that’ll never grow large antlers. It’s amazing to me how rampant this train of thought is, even today. Some won’t, many others can grow. A wide variety of factors affect antler growth. Unless you have trophy management experience on large tracts of land over a considerable length of time, you probably don’t know. Best to let them walk if you’re goal is more trophy bucks.

- I didn’t realize how attractive sweet potatoes are to deer. They often ignored the corn and soybeans. These spikes I saw would stand in the pile, pick up a tuber, and fumble it in its mouth like an old man playing with his dentures. Or they’d stick a paw on the tater and rip it apart. They prefer them fresh. After a few nights in the woods, the potatoes will start to rot away and the deer will abandon them.

- And finally, with nothing to do with hunting - normally the Georgia Highway Patrol is stiff resistance on I-95. And they were out in full force, for sure. But South Carolina took the cake this trip. One member of camp got a speeding ticket riding home through the Palmetto state. The offense? 73 in a 70mph zone. That’s low rent officiating.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The 2011 North Carolina Hunt

The old doe hung up in the back of a rugged pine clearing, head up and ears forward as her young counterparts fed in the sweet potato pile. Earlier in the morning, I’d shot a younger doe at a long distance that required serious binocular work to ensure I didn’t pop a small spike. There was no doubt on this girl - not at 50 yards, and certainly not with her long nose and nervous demeanor.

My arrival at the box blind that evening had been delayed. I’d not hunted this stand, The Dirty Hole, in 6 or 7 years, and the time fogged my memory for where I needed to go. So, too, my driver's. He dropped me off at a culvert along the road, and I followed a trail until it ended in unfamilar thick brush. It began to dawn on me. Some of the boys had taken an ATV in earlier in the day to drop off corn and check the trail camera - didn’t appear any four-wheelers had been here recently. I jumped on the iPhone and hailed Uncle Dennis; I had been released on the wrong piece of property.

Though there was a heavy scrape along the trail, with looming armed trespassing charges a real possibility, I was relieved to see the red Chevy roll in. We had a good laugh as I loaded into the bed. Turns out, we’d cluelessly shot our mark by a mile. Dennis dropped me back off at a similar looking culvert and trail with an 1 ½ of daylight remaining. This time, the path was obvious and ended in a wooden box blind. Soon after settling in, the yearlings emerged from the thick North Carolina brush.

Both deer were 80-90 pounds, but clearly young. Still, a huge storm system was barreling at the state, and I needed freezer meat. The wind was already switching and the evening had become muggy with dormant mosquitoes awaking for a meal. But, I held off. One deer was a button buck, and the doe clung close to him preventing an ethical shot. That’s when the old doe arrived.

This was our annual pilgrimage to Newton’s Crossroads in Sampson County, NC. It’s more of a family reunion. Most of us have hunted together for twenty years. I grew up with these folks hunting private land in Central Florida. These days, we assemble here from parts as far as Central Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maine. The camptalk is depraved, suitable more for a Hunter S. Thompson novel than civilized society, and hunting takes a backseat to the camaraderie. But that doesn’t mean the hunting isn’t wonderful, too.

The timing of this trip was less than wonderful. This section of the state is rancid with deer, but 80-degree November temps and finicky winds are never great ingredients for deer hunting. That and the rut was on its downside, this coastal area expecting the peak around the end of October through the first week of November.

One beautiful 8-pt was seen and promptly missed by one member of camp. Besides this, one small six and a rugged cull six were taken. Along with the usual passel of does. Everyone saw small bucks – mostly spikes and adolescent four-points. Most came to feed in the soybean fields or bait piles, showing little rutting inclination. The big boys were holed up for the week.

Which is a shame. I’ve long coveted a trophy buck from this area, and there are plenty of them, but that’s how hunting goes. Luckily, there was enough deer activity to make hay.

My first doe stood out in a soybean field at first light Tuesday morning. I was hunting the Corner Stand that overlooks 400 acres of soybeans with fingers of oak and pine running through it. Over the years, I’ve killed a lot of deer here, and a big buck was spotted three weeks back at last light a mere 20 yards from the stand. Monday night, I’d glassed through a trio of spikes, the smallest antlers not even visible by eye at 100 yards. I nearly cranked him down but luckily a 40-pound runt fed behind him preventing a shot. Then, one last look through the binos revealed those thimbles on his head.

So I was hesitant to let loose in the thin light of the next morning. As the deer fed 150-175 yards away, two of the spikes from the previous evening ghosted into the sweet potato pile gnawing like rodents on the orange tubers. One was a large-bodied deer with long spikes; he clearly lacked the age you’d want with a cull, though. With luck, I’ll catch up with him again in the coming years.

As the light increased, I realized that first deer looked more and more like a doe, and I became confident that she wasn’t that miscreant from the evening before. The morning wore on and she would soon tire of feeding in the open. It was early in trip, and the freezer begged for backstrap. I rested my Savage .300 Win Mag on the rail of the ladder stand and planted her in the field.

After that, the pressure was off, so I wasn’t in a hurry to take any dicey shots at the Dirty Hole. The old doe slowly crept from behind the brush, feeding on browse and leaving the bait for the youngin’s. Soon, a good-looking four-point strode in. Enough daylight remained that if I could grab a shot, I’d take the doe and hope for more action after. She’d just have to give me a window.

I leaned my Savage out of the portal of the ground blind and tracked her in my scope. Ever careful, she slowly slipped to a gap that’d allow a clear shot. I took one last careful look around to make sure no other deer had appeared and settled the crosshairs of the Nikon behind her right shoulder. At the shot, she head-plunged into the Thick; the four, the doe, and the button buck springing like quail in every direction.

The last minute of legal shooting hours expired before another deer showed. I’d crawled out of the stand and saw a dark silhouette on the edge of the clearing. The deer stood like a statue, surveying the area as the Honda rumbled up before finally disappearing back into the woods.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Gator Mount

Never figured to be in the market for an alligator head - mostly because, until recently, I never appreciated the trophy value of such an item. If so desired, they are easy to purchase from just about any South Florida truck stop or curio store. It’s like with bobwhite. If I want a mounted quail, I’ll buy the table with a covey under glass from Cabelas and be done with it. A gator head is a gator head. Big deal.

Well, that was dumb thinking. Taxidermy is about preserving memories, and that trophy gator from August was quite the experience. Still, even with the gator boated, I had no illusions of a mount. That decision was aroused out of desperation.

See, I cleaned that gator myself without benefit of a hoist, fork lift, or walk-in cooler. The other hunters had to be at work, and since I held the tag, it was my burden to bear. Think about this before setting off after your own leviathan. The intelligent option was to take it to a processor, but being cheap as the day is long, this wasn’t an appealing option. Plus, I figured I could handle it on my own.

Problem was – and I hadn’t really thought it through beforehand – that gator wasn’t coming out of that boat after the three of us had miraculously rolled him in. I’d have to carve it where it sat. So, I towed gator and vessel out to my folks’ place. Since they live on a few acres out of town, I figured I’d come up with an idea of what to do with it there. Plus, I needed Mom to take pictures.

Since this is a family website, I’ll spare the disgusting details of dressing a stinky 600-pound monster in the August heat. It was an ordeal. After I’d cooler-ed the tail, I was left with this immovable gator carcass and nowhere to go with it. Mom and Dad have a bass pond in the front, but – well, they still have to live there, and if it floated up...yikes. I wasn't about to sweat further burying it. Their property borders Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve; I could pitch it over the fence. All ideas were muted anyhow by that pesky problem of getting it out of the boat – lift with the knees, Mom! No, I’d need a team of oxen and a system of ropes and pulleys for these tasks.

Maybe it was the onset of heat stroke, but an idea germinated. The time had arrived to push frugalness aside; I may have to buy my way out of this mess. Let me call the taxidermist. Maybe he’ll have a place to dump the body if I agree to have the head mounted.

I dialed up George Norwood in Plant City to see if he taxidermized alligators. He quoted me $11 an inch. I asked how much of the gator he required. He replied to just bring what I wanted mounted. I asked again, and he picked up on what I was intimating. George laughed and said he’d charge more to dispose the mess than mount the head.

Long story short, I ended up finding a place to unload the gator – it took three of us risking serious hernias, Mom included, to roll the gator back out of the boat and down into a sand pit on private land. But on the ride out there I was calculating and rationalizing.

That’s not a bad price. It IS a trophy animal. Who knows when I may draw a tag again or find an animal that size?

I froze the head – cut off behind the jowls for that extra size effect - and the next day took off to Mr. Norwood’s. I didn’t have anything particular in mind. I knew I didn’t want any teeth replaced. Several of the front ones were chipped and broken like the smile of an old bulldog. Also the eyes. Poor eye color or setting devastates a mount, to me. A lot of gator mounts have these lime-green eyes like they’d been swimming near a nuke plant. I wanted something darker and more sinister. Beyond that, the bangstick hole would have to be patched.

I was surprised to get the phone call last week that the project was completed - with deer season not yet in full swing, he had plenty of time to work on it. I’m very pleased. The hide along the jaws is pretty firmly attached. It’s not like caping a deer where you can easily skin it off and tan. The whole head had to be submerged in a foul-smelling pickling solution. Before this, Mr. Norwood had to cut out as much meat in the jowls as possible. Once it was removed from the pickling solution and dried, insulation was packed into the back of the head and secured with wooden slats. This was then sealed with a black epoxy compound.

Anyway, the mount looks great. My only regret is I didn’t have more of it mounted. The head is certainly impressive, but that alone doesn’t represent the girth of the animal. That’s gonna have to remain a memory.

So it is now proudly displayed in the kitchen, lording over the pantry and scaring the bejesus out of the unaware who come in the side door. Couldn’t be happier. Everyday I walk in and stare at the beast and remember what a great hunt that was.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hunting for Hunting Answers III - Accessing Private Property

This is a popular query I receive: How can I gain permission to hunt private land in the South?

In a word – money. But, there are other ways, too.

A buddy of mine from Maine was aghast to discover I lease property. He wasn’t unsettled at the concept of me trying to buy deer like the Yankees buy ballplayers or that the money I have spent on such things treads in irresponsible waters. It was more that I exist in this situation. To hear him tell it, in Maine you can drive out to the Boonies, park your truck on the side of the road and march out into the Wilderness, provided the land wasn’t posted, which little of it in his area was. He hunted moose and whitetail before moving to Florida and found land access restrictive, not to mention our moose population largely a figment of Jack Daniel's imagination.

Heck, I couldn’t believe to learn in Montana last year you could do just about the same thing on un-posted land. With the proper license in your pocket and a desire for bleeding feet and burning lungs, one can just traipse off into the mountains for a wide variety of big game. It’s still amazing to me stories I read about approaching farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere about hunting the Back Forty. Knock on the door of the Ol’ Family Farm with an offer to help with the harvest seemed to be the ticket for wonderful whitetails.

It’s a sweeping generalization, but not without its truths, that the culture of private property is different in the South. Whether it's xenophobia or an intense protective nature of privacy, it's downright difficult for Willy off the Turnpike to go door-to-door seeking hunting rights here.

Florida is particularly difficult. Add the once-rapid suburbanization and associated property values with the commodity of Osceolas and the fact large tracts of private land are held by huge corporations, and chances at free land are scarce. Because of the demand, leases here cost more than equivalent lands in Georgia and South Carolina. By far. Things ease up as you move up that way which is why – not from a perceived lack of game non-resident hunters assume about the Sunshine State – Florida hunters travel in droves up I-75 and I-95 each year to chase deer. And by the time you get there, the value of QDM managed land increases to the point that a lease is about inevitable. There are fewer whitetail dummies these days. If a dollar can be made, assure yourself it will.

Before we go too much further, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Florida, Georgia and other Southern states offer a lot of public land. If I desired, I could leave my house now – and I do - and choose from several hundred thousands of acres to hunt in a shorter time than it’d take to get to the Peach State. But, a lot of it is heavily pressured. The hunting is difficult in the swamps and palmettos, and quota hunts, while they are great resources, are one-shot deals, none too conducive to planning a hunting season around. Without question, bagging game is easier on private lands.

Now, I don’t want to go spiraling away from the subject of this post. If you are counting on hunting private land, search and find a lease (read my post about that here). The ones I’ve been on were ultimately enjoyable, and I’ve met some great hunters along the way. And that networking has opened doors for me.

But I digress. It’s not totally hopeless to locate a few open gates that'll lead to fine hunting without draining the bank. Knowing where to start and how to approach folks about hunting their property are the biggest keys. In Florida, though they sit on a gazillion acres of game-rich property, phosphate giant Mosaic and anything with Ben Hill Griffin’s name on it probably won’t get you far. The former doesn’t care much for hunting and potential lawsuits, while the latter limits their property to only family, friends, and guests. The thing to do is search small and work from there.

My boy PJ has the right idea. He checks with real estate agents for hunting lands. Back during the housing boom, these companies locked up land with the idea of development. Now that that has pooped the bed, they are still sitting on this land. Many probably have cattle or other agricultural ventures for Greenbelt exemptions, but this doesn’t mean they won’t consider offers on such things. To date, he’s not gotten any free access, but he’s built relationships and good leads on properties to lease. One day, he’s gonna bring in a big buck that he paid little to nothing to bag.

Other options to try are small agricultural holdings. I’m thinking orange groves here in Florida, but any soybean or peanut farmer with 100 acres who doesn’t have the time to control hogs and does may lend an open ear. You’ll face stiff competition from other erstwhile hunters to find these properties, but the key is to network and create contacts.

And I keep using the word free, which isn’t exactly true. As Mattie Ross says in True Grit, “There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”

You’re going to have to put something in, be it help mowing pastures or irrigation work or branding cows or some other chore. If you assume otherwise, you’re sunk before you’ve left port. At least offer help. I’m leaving Saturday for North Carolina for a week of deer hunting “free” land. I’m hosted by lifelong friends, but much of the property we’ll hunt has been obtained through courteous contact. I don’t miss the chance to help out with whatever menial job may be proposed, even if it means skipping an afternoon on the stand. We also make sure to toss in cash for the cost of corn and hospitality. I like hunting there.

Obtaining access will take work and expect disappointment if you start from scratch. That’s how it goes. As I said, the culture is different here and the demand for land is high.

I can tell you how NOT to go about things. One, clean yourself and your truck up. If I were to have land and Homeboy showed up in his 4X4 with dog boxes and a bumper sticker that read “Hog Hunters Do It In The Brush” I’ll probably call the cops. Think about that, seriously. The South is known for its rednecks, but that sorta thing won’t garner positive attention.

Next, don’t just hear that someone has land and offer to throw up stands, corn feeders, and food plots and profess yourself Boss Buck Slayer. If that land is not hunted already, odds are the owner couldn’t care less about your hunting acumen or dreams thereof.

Which brings me - since we’re running long today - to one last thought. I was at a hunting program during the summer in full Mossy Oak regalia. This dude sat down and asked where I was from. When I told him I’m born and bred Florida, he immediately inquired how one finds access to private land in these parts. Before I had a chance to answer, he launched into his tirade. He said in his home state of New York (!) he had no trouble finding hunting land. He used to hunt somebody’s farm, killed lots of deer, blah, blah, blah. He vociferously lectured me – in the stereotypical New York smug and arrogant way of speaking to others – of how much better it is up there, what he’d do different, and basically how things are stupid here. His buddy was even rolling his eyes and clearly embarrassed. It’s not that he didn’t possibly have a point, but after listening to him rant without getting a word in edgewise, I'm confident in the knowledge this guy won’t be setting foot on any private lands here for free any time soon. Not unless he’s pushed out of an airplane and plummets onto it.

I can’t give advice on how an individual manages their interpersonal relationships. But this is what it takes to develop trust. Consider what you’re proposing when you step up to a person’s doorstep. You’re asking a stranger to allow you on their lands with a firearm or weapon to shoot animals. Be well-composed and polite. In a litigious society in this reserved part of the country, it requires stones to do this. Southern Hospitality extends only so far.

But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and there’s excellent hunting opportunity throughout the South that'll make it worth the effort.

Part I - Introduction
Part II - Do Deer Move More in Cold Weather?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Other People's Bucks

I had an exciting muzzleloader hunt at Duette Park in Manatee County on Saturday. The weather was fantastic; it was prime rut time, and the game moving. Saw 11 hogs and 3 deer – two does and a button buck. Not too shabby. Since these weren’t legal deer, no shots. The buck quota was met that day, so hunting was out Sunday. It’s hard to do bucks – especially trophy bucks - in a day.

Somehow and out of nowhere, I’ve re-developed the antler craze. Maybe it’s because I’ve not shot a buck of note in three years. Maybe it’s because I’ve been trapped inside with the babies for the better part of this season. It came from somewhere deep, though, because I’ve not really cared too much about chasing bone over the course of the last several years, merrily shooting does and letting young bucks walk.

This has vanished. Quoth Adele, who’d probably never guess in a million years her lyrics would be cited in a deer hunting post, “There’s a fire starting my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it’s bringing me out the dark.”

The antler rule at Duette is four-points or better. I would have whacked a 40-pounder with forked horns that fit between my thumb and forefinger given the chance – which was my last to do such a thing since the next several hunts I’m on have pretty severe antler rules.

Well, whether I can tag this season or not, I’m fairly impressed by the work of some campmates. Gonna have to largely live vicariously until these babies ease up and I can put the effort and hours in to finding Mr. Gnarly Head. Or maybe I’ll get lucky. None of these will make serious Midwest whitetail devotees swoon, but they are fine representations of the areas these guys hunt.

Mike busted this 9-point Scrub Buck at his camp near Cedar Key on Saturday with the wind blowing 20mph. I want – really, really want – one of these bucks for the wall. They do not grow enormous in body or antler, but these deer are so handsome with their deep sienna coats and Colgate White throat patches. I took a young 8-point there three years back, but he didn’t whiff trophy standards. Mike has killed bigger, but this is a nice representative buck.

Dirty J plowed this buck two weekends ago on his place near the Outer Banks, NC. Dirty is not one who typically trophy hunts – no spikes are safe around him. But he has the propensity for finding a nice buck or two no matter where he hunts. This is an excellent coastal buck, and, again, there’s a spot on the wall reserved for a North Carolina buck. I have taxidermy problems.

Finally, my boy Trace arrowed this wonderful Florida buck at the start of October on private land near Orlando. The buck speaks for himself. And it’s none too surprising. Trace is a Natural Born Killer.

All these guys do a tremendous amount of hunting. And that’s really the lesson to learn regarding shooting nice bucks. Time in the woods. A little private land never hurts, either.

Hopefully soon I will be able to share some trophy photos of my own. The fire, no matter what sparked it, has returned with full fury.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thoughts on Florida's Alligator Hunting Season

I’m still gushing to folks about the trophy gator we killed in August. What an experience! Three years ago I could barely care about gator hunting. Now, it’s a must-hunt event, provided someone has the tags. In two of the three seasons I’ve applied, I’ve drawn, which totally helps the mood, too.

There’s still plenty for me to learn and hunting methods to try. I'm happy to have acquired the gear. Makes finding a boat ride easier. And any gator capture is a thrilling adventure. Just saying.

For those who have not filled all their tags, November 1st marks the end of the 2011 Florida Alligator Season. Just some thoughts from what I’ve learned and enjoy about gator hunting...

- The Mother-types in your life may rile into a dinner table kerfuffle, but gator hunting is a pretty safe activity. The things one may worry about like losing hands or blowing a foot off with a bangstick just don’t seem to happen very often. I really can’t recall any stories like this, and trust me, if it happened, it’d be all over the news. Spring time headlines in Florida are largely reserved for when a lizard chomps a toy poodle off a leash or when a crackhead takes a midnight skinny dip in the local lake and gets bit. There’s a primeval, instinctual fear of these things that forces hunters to comport themselves in a manner befitting the risks. The real danger rests in navigating waters at night, especially in airboats. But, again, accidents are a rare occurrence. Thankfully. Bring this up next time the hens start clucking.

- These are routinely successful hunts. From what I hear, most people who eat tag soup do so from a lack of time on the water. You know, it rains here in the summer. A lot. And there’s plenty o’lighting. This ruins quick trips, as you can imagine. Plus, Life gets in the way between the time you buy tags and when the season starts. Overall, if you put your time in, you’ll see plenty of game, and if your expectations don’t trend towards gaffing a monster, you have an outstanding chance at bagging gator tail. Can’t really say the same about other game species.

- If you do tag that Legendary Lizard, you have one heckuva trophy. Outside of hunting friends and family, generally no one gives a crap if I bag a nice buck or gobbler. Not so with alligators. Friends of friends and acquaintances ask to see photos of the bruiser we subdued this year. I can’t wait to get the head mount back.

- It's not Swamp People. Curse that show, for that's all people ask when asking about my hunts. We cannot hang baits from trees and shoot them with .22's. And I'm not sad about that.

- I don’t have a yearning desire to traverse the state hunting foreign waters for The One. For those targeting him, though, every year the biggest gators tend to come from the bigger waterways in the state like the St. Johns and Kissimmee. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty Big Boys in other lakes throughout the state – there are – but these places really pop up in conversations about those that hang from front-end loaders and dwarf the accomplished hunter. If I were to come from out of state, I’d look hard at these places.

- I like morning hunting more than after dark. I can’t say if it’s easier or more successful, but it plays better with the sleep and work schedules. I will attest nighttime hunts are far more exciting, though.

- Like the futility in wishing for $1.50 gasoline, it’d be nice if the FWC came off the cost of tags. It’s about three hundos when all’s paid for – fifty bones for a trapper’s license to even help with the hunt. Though opportunities abound to tag out, it falls just barely within that thin line of good value.

- Having said that, FWC is banking. The popularity of deer hunting is declining a bit in these parts; alligator hunting is trending up – this is probably because the ease of availability, if you get past the cost. This, of course, reduces the individual’s odds of drawing a tag, but it’s nice to see people excited about the sport. Hunting recruitment is ever-important.

- The old trophy hunting adage, “The big ones look big” certainly applies here. You can easily talk yourself into believing a mid-size 9-footer is a stud. Then you see a stud and it changes your opinion of things. Generally, they are craftier and harder to hunt. What’s nice, too, is there’s nothing at all wrong with going after that 9-footer.

- I like the versatility of the hunting tactics. It’s great conversation fodder. We snag ours. Some buddies harpooned their limits by running up on surfaced gators and aiming at bubbles stirred off the bottom when they submerged. And another gentleman I know popped a giant with a bow and arrow attached to line and float. Certainly, different bodies of water dictate different strategies, but you can pick and learn from numerous approaches.

- I love my bangstick.

- These are simply fun hunts. It may not require, per se, a whole crew of friends, but it is better in their company. I’ve compared it before to offshore tournament fishing – everyone has to have a role when the action starts. In the downtime, there’s plenty of slack for the camaraderie. If you’re one of those who require your fingerprints alone to be on every instrument of destruction, I doubt we’ll hunt together. And I don’t understand why you’d want that anyway.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Doe Management Hunt

Hogs always need managing. A herd of a dozen piggies ran in front of the Chevy mere minutes after arriving for an afternoon hunt on a private ranch in Sarasota County. We’d see probably 40 more before the day was done - but not without taking a few shots.

I spied three young hogs tossing dirt under a low hanging oak. It was early in day and we were seriously after deer, but these guys did not spook as we drove past. We parked the truck and opted for a stalk. Travis grabbed his pet .257 Roberts. I elected for the Marlin .22 Mag riding in the back; my .300 would have blown swine this size sky-high.

With the wind in our favor, we stalked in the wide open, over a creek crossing to within 20 yards of the hogs who were too busy rooting to care for our advances. Travis was on point and squeezed the trigger, flopping a 50-pound sow. Another hog bounded out, and I fired high as he dipped down a slight depression in the terrain. The next pig was not so lucky, catching that small bullet behind the shoulder and rolling up in the dog fennels. Two meat hogs in the truck and four hours left to find a doe.

This ranch is an amusement park for hunters, and to be allowed to hunt deer – or hogs - here is special. For decades the whitetail population tried to bounce back from a tick-borne disease that severely thinned the herd, as the story goes. Only about 15 years ago did the owners decide enough animals recovered to allow a couple deer killed per year. It’s hard to believe, driving around this 9000 acres of Old Florida pine and palmetto flats and prairie, that this was ever an issue.

These days, bucks are restricted to family members and special circumstances, but the doe program is less restraining. With cooperation with the FWC, the ranch has access to a high number of doe permits based on yearly surveys and harvest data collection. Most years, the quota is never reached. The ranch manager requires information such as estimated weight of the deer, time it was taken, and names of successful hunters to be logged at the cleaning station. The hunter is asked to remove the head, heart, liver, kidneys, and urethra from felled does, and they are turned over to biologists to gauge the overall health and age of the deer. At the end of the season, this information is consolidated and presented in a yearly report.

Over time, the overall harvest account of does and bucks reveals vital herd statistics and is used to pinpoint rutting dates. It’s been fascinating to review over the last few years. All I know is there’s been no shortage of deer on my visits, and I’ve glassed really impressive bucks for this part of the state.

Last year the FWC changed the hunting dates for South Florida to try and accommodate the varied rutting times. In far South Florida the rut could be as early as August. On this ranch, generally speaking, the rut occurs in mid-October, yet it does not occur within a concise measurement of time. The rut is often strung out with a fairly strong secondary rut – if even this can be easily defined. Maybe with the data collection applied over the long term, that’ll get figured out. Regardless, by October, bow and muzzleloader seasons are long retired.

Which pleases me just fine; I love a rifle hunt more than all else. And while bucks were out of the equation, I equally enjoy taking a doe for freezer meat. It’s not carte blanche slickhead shoots, though. One, they want to take older does from the herd, and hunters are encouraged to pass on younger animals. Also, a hunter must use caution that he or she does not punch a small buck. With its sod fields, cow pastures, and prairie, it’s easy to mistake a young spike for a doe at long range. In fact, with a breeding season as scattered as it is, yearlings born early in the Spring easily reach 100 pounds as winter approaches – accidentally blasting a button buck or small spike would be a cinch without a careful forehead review.

With the rut underway, Travis and I expected to see the bucks a-chasing, but even on private lands, the weather can waylay anticipation. A full-moon and lingering low-pressure front hung over the state on this hunt, and it hindered the deer activity. (Which makes it really weird we saw so many hogs because they are typically invisible during full moons.) We saw one small buck with its nose to the ground on the north fenceline but that was the only deer sighting for most of the day.

Besides deer hunting, we also needed to do feeder maintenance. A summer storm had flooded a couple of the older ones, rotting the corn and creating a wretched sour stink that maybe only moonshiners appreciate. Travis and I were preparing for a barefoot slog through the wetland mitigation area – a section of the property protected from cattle grazing and other agricultural activities - to retrieve one of these feeders. I glanced West and noticed a lone deer standing on the edge of a palmetto island.

Though she had spotted us, she was at such a distance that she did not spook, allowing us ample time to check that she was in fact a large doe and not a rutting spike. I found a quick rest, upped the Nikon to 9X and settled on her high shoulder. The last thing I remember before flipping forward the safety was Travis asking if I could hit her at this distance.

My Savage Tactical .300 Win. Mag. - shooting 165-grain Winchester XP3’s - barked and the doe crumpled on the edge of the treeline. I gotta say I was quite pleased with the shot, right around 250 yards. With my rifle zeroed to hit where I aim at this distance, the bullet caught her exactly where I held the crosshairs.

Though confident the doe was legit before the shot, I was awfully apprehensive walking forward to check my prize, hoping I wasn’t tricked by the low light of the cloudy evening and long distance into shooting one of those smaller bucks. Since it is a rare privilege to have access to such a place, you don't want to do anything to ruin the hospitality. Turns out, this was the kind of doe the ranch was looking to harvest – mature, with a long nose and blocky head. We loaded her in with the hogs and went about collecting the feeder as the sun fell towards the Gulf.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recap of 1st 2011 Bowhunt

Finally made my first bowhunt of the season. It’d been a long time coming – the longest I’ve had to wait in like 12 years. Per tradition, I failed to sleep the night before and had high hopes I’d bust that bruiser buck. The lock-on stand was in a prime location; I expected wheel back to the check station like a pro.

I’m not going to repeat the last couple of years and write about every unsuccessful hunt I embark upon. No need. Who wants to really read about someone NOT shooting something? Heck, anyone can do that! Even if I have just about mastered futility with a bow, that doesn’t mean I need to share with everyone.

Still, there are always lessons to learn, stuff to report, and experiences to chronicle. When the time is right, it’s probably OK to relate a few of these expeditions. So I do want to review last weekend’s hunt at Duette Park in Manatee County, though I once again came home with a full quiver and a cooler full of excuses.

- I know better, I know better, I know better than to take unproven gear afield. My regular release – the one I’ve used and loved for ten years – crapped out on me Wednesday. Long story short, I broke open the package to the new one Saturday morning and tested pulling back the string before I headed off to my stand. While lowering the string, I don’t know if my finger or a leafy flange off my suit tapped the trigger, but the string popped that dull, hollow thunk of a dry-fire. Panicked I’d jumped the string off the cams and ruined the hunt, I noticed my peep sight had come free. The release needed to be tightened – and was eventually. It could have been disastrous, however.

- A cold front that was supposed to push through the state hung up over south-central Florida. The switching winds made deer sightings in my hammock rather improbable. But my scent control really shined through. First, a very large boar splashed and rumbled out of the swamp and fed behind me. Later, a spike walked practically under the stand. Finally, a button buck fed unalarmed in front of me for 30 minutes while a wind blew on my neck and up his nostrils. Say what you will about small, young, dumb deer, the hog proved something was working. I’d argue they have the best olfactory senses in these parts.

I showered with scent-eliminating shampoo and washed my clothes in scent-eliminating detergent. I wore camp clothes on the ride down with the hunting garb in a trash bag. After suiting up, I sprayed down with Scent Killer and put one of those delicious Scent Wafers on my ballcap. You can’t always control the weather and wind but you can go a long way towards minimizing its attempts to scatter your stink throughout the woods. It's not fail-safe but worth the efforts.

- Speaking of the deer. This is the spike. It’s hard to see since I recorded this on the iPhone. And the video quality really ate it when uploaded to YouTube. He’s actually a little 3-point – naturally, Duette has a 4-point minimum. You can tell he caught me moving while I fiddled with the phone. He did calm down, circled back in front of me and ambled away feeding. By the way, I’m shaking because I’m turned around trying to film. It is NOT Buck Fever.

- And here’s the button buck. This guy was legal but he might have weighed 50 pounds. The Rage would have cut him in half. As badly as I want to fill a freezer, I gave him the pass. What a swell guy I am. Note he’s eating on the gallberry bushes. This is important...

- ...because there are very few acorns down here this year. I haven’t been kicking around too many properties yet this fall but noticed the same thing in Sarasota County earlier in the week. It is gonna be another one of those crazy years, I feel. Anyone else want to offer up an acorn report? Still time to adjust stand locations – but not much time.

- Saturday morning I felt something crawling up the inside of my facemask. I figured it was just another bat-sized mosquito that slid through the Therma-Cell’s defenses. I swiped it away and that was that. A couple minutes later the same sensation returned on the right side of my face. I slapped it harder this time and was rewarded with a sharp, burning pain behind my ear in that spot people put seasickness patches. I struggled to free myself of the mask as a scorpion fell onto my lap, tail lifted and jabbing, claws extended. I flicked him off - I hope he fell to his death and is burning in Arachnid Hell.

Scorpion stings feel like someone extinguished a cigarette on your skin. It burns and aches for about 20 minutes; then, thankfully, peters out. Being a marvelous physical specimen, I am not allergic to these bites. If you are, an Epi-Pen or antihistamine or notepad and pencil to record your last will and testament should be in your daypack.

- The biologist at the check station said the deer are just a tick off from a full-blown rut. Hunters have reported bucks seeking does, but few have been brought to the check station during archery. Dad did say one young man took a fine buck a couple weeks ago. Smaller bucks were taken this weekend. By the time I return with a muzzleloader, it should be on like Donkey Kong.

Hopefully we’ll have a success story, then.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trail Camera on a Bad Stand

Trail cameras are neat tools. They are also sober judges of a stand's potential and can overrule a hunter's lofty expectations.

This stand was gonna be a gem. Situated on converging trails in a palmetto flat, it stands between a cow pasture and a wet-weather pond and additional cover. Seen a lot of game in the area. Should have been a homerun for deer and hogs.

Over the last year a few hunters have posted up here and, predictably, saw a few hogs. But we never got the sense it was all that productive. Enter the Covert Cam.

T placed it on August 16th, and we retrieved it October 12th. I literally could not wait to see the pics.

Annnnnnnddddddd, the air was let out of the tires. 1371 pictures - 3/4's of those of four raccoons that visited seemingly nonstop during this time. I may need to camp out here with my .17HMR.

One young black boar showed up the day after the camera was flipped on.

And a full month passed before another showed. Why, I cannot explain. I kid you not when I say this 9,000 acre ranch has THOUSANDS of hogs. And they're not shy around the feeders. Worse still, it was these same two boars that would return sporadically.

Corn will dial in the turkeys...but no gobblers. Again, very weird for the area. And no flocks of hens, just one or two at a time.

There were an assortment of dove, crow, and squirrel pics I'm sure you're disappointed I'm not sharing. But here's some bobwhite!

So this stand and feeder will have to be moved. Just goes to show that corn isn't a magic cure-all. Stand location is paramount to success. There are plenty more places on this Happy Hunting Ground where the animals will appreciate our efforts. Soon, this poor guy will have to cast a hopeful eye elsewhere. At $12 a bag, corn is a little too pricey to feed to him!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Babies vs. Bucks & Ducks

Mercifully, hunting shows put the kids at ease. Maybe it’s the whispering hunters. Maybe it’s just the noise of the TV. Or maybe – hopefully - they possess a genetic disposition to hunting. But flipping on the Outdoor Channel or Versus has worked far better than ESPN or any number of CSI shows Carolyn watches.

We both look like we’ve been busted in the eyeballs with tablespoons. I find myself alternating between zoning out and rambling like a drunk in the presence of company. My caffeine intake has doubled in the last three weeks. Ever seen a photo of a woman holding a baby and a cigarette? I’m closer to understanding. They aren’t simply white trash; they are just trying to cope. Carolyn stares out the window like a cat most chances she gets to lay down and rests about as well. Otherwise, she staggers about the house like a POW. Sleep has been a thing of the past.

I’ve planned for deer seasons around weather, full moons, weddings, finances and a myriad of other obstacles, but these kids take the cake. Love them both, but man, what work! Carolyn and I welcomed the twins – a boy and girl – on September 14th. I think. The hours have blended together so perfectly we routinely lose track of what day it is. Little darlings. Crying, spitting, pooping darlings.

Well, enough of the jokes. I don’t want to further bemoan our station when we’re so lucky. We are very blessed to have two healthy children; it’s our health I am most concerned with at the moment. As much as we love them, it’s time for a release – in my case, the release to my PSE.

She is heading to Homosassa next Wednesday with her mother – God Bless her – and the children for some River Relaxing. I’ll take off that afternoon for a doe management rifle hunt in South Florida, and then spend the weekend bowhunting. I’m scheming on how much more I can squeeze into this moment. Can I find a dove hunt close? I have an alligator tag left. The wise thing to do is sleep, but…

So while the hunting shows are a relief to the babies, they further stoke the fire. These kids have not dampened my passion. Every time I change a diaper and deposit it in the diaper pail, the warm moist air that wafts from the can conjures up thoughts of sitting on my lock-on in the damp Swamp awaiting Big Buck to meander by during an early Fall bowhunt. Sad, huh?

They say things improve after six weeks. Here’s hoping. My annual North Carolina hunt is tentatively scheduled for mid-November. But, being a guy who doesn’t favor the concept of court-ordered visitation weekends, I’ll scuttle it if conditions don’t improve. That’s as far as I’ll wander, though, and the only time, too. The accrued value of the all the swings, rockers, pacifiers, bottles and other gadgets around this place, I could have paid for a handsome lease in Georgia. I’ve been invited to South Carolina a couple times now with PJ. He’s also welcomed me to join him in Pennsylvania later in the season. A piece of me dies each time I say no. I could probably weasel a hunt to Kansas – but I’m about impoverished these days, and their non-resident tags are obscene.

So it’s close-to-home this year, and I did well to secure a few decent opportunities at a buck. I have deer quota hunts for Half Moon in November, Upper Hillsborough in January, and a Special Opportunity bow hunt at Lake Panasofkee. My dad and I will hunt Duette a couple times. All are within an hour from the house and if I had to bail on them, I wouldn’t be out of too much cash.

If deer doesn’t work out, ducks are an attractive option, though not nearly as rewarding, for me. Lake Toho is 45 minutes away and is an easy before-work hunt. I’ve applied for STA tags, and I’m not above driving three hours south for a quick morning hunt. Spending the weekend at Uncle Joe’s is basically out of the question, and that’s OK. We have our annual sea duck tournament in the works, and Carolyn goes on that trip, ostensibly with the bambinos in tow.

Which brings us to another point – it’s only fair to make sure she has her moments planned. She doesn’t hunt but is very supportive of me. Or has been. As I said, this is a lot of work. Money has long been set aside for Girls’ Night Out and facials and massages and whatnot. Too bad it’s not Beach Season. I hope she takes advantage of every opportunity she has to ditch me with the heathens. One positive of this experience I am very proud of has been how well we have come together to operate and address this challenge. She’s endured more hunting programs than she would have ever imagined just for a few hours of Peace and Quiet.

Well, Feeding Time is almost here – I wish game animals were as predictable in their eating patterns as these two are. The sound of grunt calls and gobbling has been drowned out by the occasional whine and my frantic efforts with the musical mobiles to keep them mum for at least another thirty.

Babies are a major lifestyle change – as if you couldn’t put that together on your own. I look at both of them and can’t help but wonder how they’ll grow. They may grow up to be World Class hunters like their father. Or they may protest the hunting shows that once subdued them and have no interest in the hunt, which is fine, too.

I hope the latter is not true, though. I’ve been told by so many that one of the greatest joys of a hunter’s career is sharing the outdoors with his or her children. Only time will tell.

For now, it’s about time for Ol’ Dad to hit the woods. Maybe I'll find that buck. Maybe I'll just catch a snooze in the stand.