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

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Duck Hunting Trend. And The 2010-11 Hunts

In 3, Britney Spears claims Livin’ in Sin is the Newest Thing.

Well, maybe.

From my perspective, Duck Hunting is the newest thing.

Let me explain.

I keep the pulse of hunting...and other less important things, too. Identifying trends is something I am very good at and have been since I was but a lad, and the amount of outdoor literature I consume in a month is exhaustive. Doesn’t matter if it is elk or squirrel hunting, I Hoover it up.

Hunting fads have swept in and out over the last two decades, most of it relating to deer. In the mid-90’s and into the 2000’s, everyone wanted to be a bowhunting Chuck Adams extraordinaire. TV shows, Internet forums, magazine articles. It stuck with some, but a great many sets of archery tackle landed in pawn shops. The machismo of it has largely, mercifully, passed by - Archery Close.

Thanks to QDM, in a matter of five or six years everyone became Boone & Crockett experts and turned their noses at shooting less-than-mature bucks. Folks who probably hadn’t seen a buck score over 100 were suddenly seeing 140-150 class bucks on each outing and that old 8 point in the Gun Store would easily go 160. Again, this phenomenon is still breathing, but not with the gusto with which it reigned just a few years ago. Yes, you still hear about it...but not as much. See my point?

Some things the outdoor media continues to push just won’t get much footing in my part of the world. Predator hunting is one. I try every year – and enjoy it – but it’s lonely company. AR-Style weapons for hunting, despite the pleas of the NRA and NSSF, just aren’t catching fire the way they’d want. Duck hunting, though, is en fuego.

I can’t quantify this, of course. You’ll have to take my word for it. Or better yet, check out the outdoor forums and blogs. There has been an increase in duck chatter. A lot of people out for their first trips. Everyone has a DU decal on their rear windshields. Each year another friend contracts the Duck Hunting Disease. And why not?

Deer hunting has lost a lot of democratic appeal thanks, in part, to QDM and bowhunting. The woods became crowded and restrictive – not everywhere, but it has become more difficult to justify your time on public land when game agencies are instituting point rules and every flop with a stick and string is stalking down fire lanes trying to arrow a buck. The economy is the other factor. Leases have become right pricey even though the prices have hardly changed. Folks tend to be bailing towards other pursuits. (The upside for serious deer hunters on these lands is that it will eventually open back up where it’s not so jam-packed.)

Duck hunting can be a local activity with high chances of success on public land. With the exception of Montana, all of my duck hunts this year were on public waters and I had a blast. Especially in Florida, if you can’t find a place or two to bust beaks, you probably aren’t trying all that hard.

And duck hunting appeals in a lot of different ways from guns to gear to decoys...you can recklessly buy and waste money until you’re divorced. The hunts are fun. It’s social networking compared to still hunting. You’ll probably shoot more in one morning than a season of deer hunting. Photos of dead game animals and bragging to friends. It’s pure Horatio Alger and folks are taking advantage. The media isn't far behind.

Keep an eye out for it; I promise you this is happening.

I had an immensely enjoyable 2010-11 Duck Season. From STA ¾ in South Florida to Montana and back – all new experiences. Except losing the Sea Duck Tournament. Still stings. And familiar.

Such a fun year, though.

It was almost sinful.

Early Season STA ¾
Early Season Lake Okeechobee
Waterfowl of Montana
Lake Toho Thanksgiving
South Florida Duck Hunting in Pictures
2011 Sea Duck Tournament

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Venison Francese Recipe

Love veal. Tender. Flavorful. It’s the tops. I wish I could hunt veal – a backpack adventure into the Wilds of Wisconsin where the great veal herds prosper. Well, I suppose I could hunt them here, but I would not be allowed back on that property ever again.

Luckily, I have plenty of venison which itself is tender and flavorful and an excellent substitute for many veal-based recipes.

Today, we’re going to do Venison Francese. Francese is scallopini – a cutlet of veal, venison, or poultry sliced or smashed thin and covered in flour – in a lemon butter sauce. It’s a close relative to picatta, the large difference being picatta utilizes capers which are, quite frankly, gross.

The Palace Restaurant in South Lakeland serves the best Francese, and their version inspired me to give it a try with venison. Important note, though. This is NOT their recipe. I’m afraid I would only do injustice to their plate. Instead, I browsed through several Internet recipes and substituted for what I did and did not have in my fridge or pantry. I've made my shopping trip for the week already.

So. What’s the cut of deer that would be mostly likely to serve as a fill-in for baby cow?

That’s right, the tenderloin!


2 tenderloins
Olive oil
2 eggs
Lemon juice

Cut tenderloin across the grain so you have tenderloin nuggets. Soak in milk for up to 24 hours. Remove from milk and pat dry. Cover meat with saran wrap and hit a couple times with a mallet until it is a ½-inch to ¼-thin. Dredge in flour and dip in egg wash with ½ tbs of salt and ¼ tbs of pepper. One recipe called for 6 tbs of parmesan cheese added to the egg wash, but again, I have made my shopping trip for the week. Separate the scallopini into three batches.

Set your oven to its lowest setting – 180 degrees or thereabouts. On the stove, heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tbs of olive oil and 2 tbs of butter. When the butter starts bubbling, add one batch of venison, browning on each side, about a 1 ½ minutes a side. Remove to pan in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with 2 more tbs of butter and olive oil for each of the next two batches.

Once all the meat is cooked, return it to the pan and sprinkle the juice of one large lemon or 2-3 tbs of lemon juice over the meat and cook for an additional minute or two.

Serve over angel hair pasta, making sure you pour all that lemon-butter goodness out of the skillet and over the meat and noodles.

Now, a couple things I will do different next time I cook this. One, I’m gonna add a clove of garlic before I toss in the lemon juice. Also, I’m adding the parmesan to the egg wash. I love cheese.

This is a simple-as-can-be recipe that fits venison very well. Suggest you give it a whirl.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Duck Hunter EXTREME RC Game

My duck season is over.

Or is it?


OK, it really is. I’m stuck in stupid work trainings all week, and this weekend I am repairing to Homosassa River for R&R with non-hunting buddies. I honest to God can not drag myself out of bed before daylight one more time for a few weekends, at least.

Just can’t. Hate to admit that, but there ya go.

Hunting video games have come a long way since I was a kid – technologically, they’ve come a long way, not so much for my maturity level, sadly. No more orange pistols and trying to shoot the laughing dog in Duck Hunt.

Well, there is still an orange gun involved. Carolyn bought me this crafty little device for Christmas, Duck Hunter EXTREME. It’s a two-player game where one person flies a remote-controlled duck and the other gamer tries to plunk it down with an ever-stylish orange pistol that sounds kinda like a shotgun when you pump the action and pull the trigger. Actually, if I keep shooting without hearing protection, it’s exactly what a shotgun will sound like to me in the not-to-distant future.

It’s advertised as an indoor/outdoor game. Indoors, with the wife present, it goes over about as well as blowing on a turkey or predator call. Outdoors in a clearing where it won’t hang in branches or roofs, it’s a lot of fun.

You take the Styrofoam duck - which really resembles an angry orange flying fish from the waters surrounding a nuclear facility – and charge it on the controller. Then you flip on a little black switch where the anal fin belongs and the gadget springs to life with two forward motions of the controller. Though it’s a kid’s game, there is a strong urge to associate this game with beer.

Which is exactly what Cole and I did one evening with the aid of a feral cat who wanted to pounce on the fluttering duck every time it hit the ground, and who should be thankful we live within city limits. Cole did most of the flying because when I controlled it, the duck seemed to develop a crippling case of depression and flew into powerlines and in front of passing cars.

It takes three hits to bring the duck down with the IR-Laser Gun. The first two hits, the bird pauses slightly, and the third brings him back down to earth and into the waiting claws of the aforementioned feline.

As noted, steering the duck can be tricky, but Cole figured it out. It’s not fool-proof, however. After getting it caught on the roof and in an oak tree, the game devolved into flying it through the patio to buzz the ladies who came over for a glass of wine. Needless to say, it would have done better to let the cat shred it up.

Still, it’s entertaining and props to whoever thunk it up.

I look forward to playing it again one day when Carolyn lets me have it back.

Check it out!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The 2011 Sea Duck Tournament

I pity those who have never intentionally hunted mergansers.

The omens were all there for a spectacular weekend of shooting. The wildlife was alive. When we arrived at the river, dolphins were chasing mullet near the dock and through the manatees that fed on floating seaweed. A flock of bluebills milled around in the channel, diving for mussels or something. A flock of wood ducks flew in right before dark.

I sensed a great victory for my team and let everyone know so.

Alas, the 2011 Sea Duck Tournament ended early. Cole, PJ, and Rumph smoked the field with an impressive 15-Duck Display Saturday morning. They didn’t even bother to hunt Sunday. Sawyer and Mitch pulled 1 Saturday and 5 Sunday, not bad for their first event. Travis, Chase and I – the alleged pros of the tourney - splashed one red-breasted merganser late Saturday morning and slept through the 20 degree cold of Sunday, content with humiliating defeat and warm beds.

We hunted the outer islands around St. Martin’s Key off the mouth of the Little Homosassa River. Cole’s and Sawyer’s teams reported the mergies decoyed rather well, unusual for them. Using a mixture of bluebill and puddle duck dekes, combined with a floating bluebill MOJO decoy, Cole said 90% of the ducks they shot had their feet down to land in their spread. Sawyer commented a similar response. 100% of our ducks did – but again, we only shot one.

My team messed up. I had been doing quite a bit of research over the last year about hunting divers. Our decoys were in such shallow water, they practically perched on oyster clumps. Cole and Sawyer hunted deeper water. The theory in the literature and observing their success and remembering my own history with the sport, the divers like to be in water where they can...get ready for it...dive! But Travis had seen a pile of ducks in this spot the night before.

Some of it's strategy; with the tides and vastness of open water, some of it’s a crapshoot, and I was but a lowly deckhand on T's vessel.

PJ popped a trophy hooded merganser that is on its way to the taxidermist. Sawyer – a duck hunting novice – is already discussing what waders and decoys to buy. Another victim of the Duck Hunting Disease.

You want to know about the merganser I shot? Well, OK. After all, it’s not always a numbers game. They can have their silly victory. For me, it’s about trophy hunting these magnificent mergansers. I look for The One that fits the description of a perfect hunt.

Facing the hurricane force gales, and gazing beyond the circling of bull shark fins, I spotted one lone merganser flying in the distance. More like, he was jet-screaming in the distance. Though he didn’t touch water, he still pushed a wake. I contemplated on how to get his attention.

Through my vast knowledge of interspecies waterfowl communication, I knew he wouldn’t respond to a mallard chuckle. Thinking quickly, I pulled a shotgun shell from my bandolier and pried it open with my teeth. I tossed the steel number 2’s high and out into the decoys. The plunking pellets sounded like a school of piddling pilchards, a merganser treat.

The wise old bird changed his course and approached the spread. As he was about to land, those wings - those backpedaling, pterodactyl wings - blew the MOJO into the brine and sprayed a fine salt mist into my face, like the lashing of water from an airboat engine. Wiping my eyes with my right hand and firing from my left shoulder, the mighty bird was felled. I waded quietly through the bull sharks and retrieved my prize.

One day the rest of those guys will learn a thing or two from me. Until then, they’ll have to just be content with high-volume shooting and a year’s worth of bragging rights.

I’m sure they’ll be fine with that...

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mr. Hunting Expert Bites Back

(World Renowned and Recognized Mr. Hunting Expert takes a break from his two-week Arctic Walrus Safari to answer fan mail. Each day he does not harvest the walrus of his dreams, he punishes himself by removing one article of clothing. Still, it’s not as painful as some of your questions.)

Q. My 2011 New Years hunting resolution is to hunt gators this year. It is a sport that seems to be catching on quickly. I have a 14 ft john boat and most people I’ve talked to say that is about the minimum sized boat they’d want. Friends state with reasonable caution and respect for the game, it’s a relatively safe activity, but what should I be most prepared for?

- Jason Jaws, Estill, SC

A. Easy. Game wardens. While I hunt gators by wading into a lake at night with a mask, snorkel and a catfish stringer to secure my catch, most of you lightweights prefer to hunt from a boat. So, not only must you comply with the standard game rules – bag limits, proper tags and equipment, etc. – you must also make sure that little john boat of yours is water-friendly. Life jackets, throw cushions, flares, and proper running lights. Lesser hunting associates of mine tend to get busted every year on a little oversight. They report game officers are none too friendly at 3 am and awfully unforgiving after spending the night dealing with rednecks such as you. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

PS. New Years resolutions are for the weak.

Q. The sandhill crane population is booming here in Florida. I know they hunt them out West, but do you think they will open up a season in the Sunshine State? Also, what species of bird do you think should be open to hunting? Why?

- Clem Jones, Kissimmee, FL

A. Let my word spread across the land – no more multi-part questions!!! I will answer them no more. I doubt the sandhill will have an open season in Florida. Known as a “Ribeye in the Sky” in certain western states that allow sandhill hunting, the Florida bird is non-migratory and highly protected. It has been taxonomically designated as a unique subspecies much like other Florida natives, the Key Deer and Sunkissed Beach Babe, neither of which you will possess either.

The roseate spoonbill. The reasons are mine and personal.

Q. The time to apply for Western Big Game hunts is nearing. I want to hunt mule deer. This will be my first trip out yonder in pursuit of game. Any tips for me?

- Sea Level Louis, Biloxi, MS

A. Get in shape. Generally speaking, this style of hunting is more physically demanding that your average treestand sit for whitetail, Dough Boy. You’re gonna walk. If you’re in the hills, you’re going to climb. And you’re probably going to ache. The thin air is no joke. You’re going to wheeze, at first. If you smoke, you’re screwed. So peel yourself away from Sportscenter for a little bit and go for a walk, at the very least. Otherwise, enjoy Yellowstone with the rest of the tourists.

Enough for today! I must ready my walrus decoys, chalk my walrus whistle and settle in for my meal of narwhal blubber and snow.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2009 Sea Duck Tournament

After a year hiatus, the Sea Duck Tournament resumes this weekend. A taste of 2009's event. Posted February 2009.

That old maxim, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” is as true for ducks as poultry. After morning one, our team was up six birds to none – a commanding lead - in the 2nd Annual Sea Duck tournament. Obviously with a name like that, this is no sanctioned, sponsored event, rather a group of friends who turned an end of the season Homosassa River duck hunt into a yearly competition for winning or losing twenty bucks.

The rules are simple - one point per duck taken while hunting over decoys or in a blind only, agreed upon to discourage other nefarious, and often illegal, manners of cheating, that none of us would ever consider doing unless being thoroughly embarrassed at the time.

Though I’ve never been paid, my team won the previous year, and after Saturday morning, a repeat title seemed inevitable. Hmm, probably shouldn’t have talked so much trash.

We hunt mergansers - red-breasted and hooded - although from time to time vague recounts detailing flocks of pintail, oldsquaw, and harlequin ducks creep into otherwise civil, honest hunting discussions. Granted, the ol’ mergies don’t attract much love from the waterfowl faithful; they don’t decoy well or respond to calls worth a hoot, are not the highest of table fare, and are uglier than butt. However, they are plentiful, with large flocks swarming from the open waters of the Gulf into the river shortly after daybreak. Even without employing any of the above common duck hunting tactics, the sheer volume of birds is enough to expect an exciting morning.

None the less, successfully filling your bag limit of five is a crap shoot; there’s an awful lot of water for fowl to travel and feed, not to mention places for hunters to set up. Pinpointing a reliable ambush is daunting. Adding to this degree of difficulty is the nature of these waters. Oyster bars jut far out of the seas on a winter low, but hide frighteningly shallow during the highs – in short, it’s treacherous navigation, and there are just some areas you can’t go with a standard outboard.

The targets themselves are tougher than old shoes, especially the red-breasted species that breeds farther north and winters farther south than the other American mergansers. This translates into some serious muscle and very thick down to poke through, asking a lot from wimpy steel loads. A number of birds will brush off a volley of long distance shots and keep on trucking, no worse for the wear, and still more well-hit birds will tumble to the water requiring a quick follow-up shot, or a long slog through the flats to chase them down, which more often than not results in them paddling or flying away. They just aren’t impressed with cheap steel.

So, we’d done well putting six on Merganser Mound, the non-descript oyster shell island where we’d set up shop. We’d tossed out four bags of fakes, bluebills mostly, and a Baby Mojo mallard hen hoping the flashing white wings - which do mimic those of a ganzer scooting off the water - would bring a few into close range. (I do realize that four bags of dekes are but a pittance in comparison to the numbers serious open water duck hunters incorporate in their spreads.)

This approach failed. The birds did not decoy; luckily though, we’d tapped into a diver duck superflyway of sorts. Soon after first light, a low-flying, high-speed flock of hoodies whizzed by without a trigger pull. Alerted, we were ready for the next group. After an hour and a half, after the smoke cleared, the hulls quit ejecting, and the echoing of shotgun blasts ceased freight-training across the Nature Coast, five red-breasted and one hoodie hen rested on the oysters.

We’d heard the other team shoot and only assumed they’d matched our production. Personally, I was disappointed. There were some shooters on that other team, and when you have the number of birds in range like we’d had that morning, six ducks didn’t seem like a whole lot.

Didn’t seem like a whole lot until we returned to the dock and discovered they’d laid a goose egg. All their shots were too far for a reasonable chance at a kill. And a bunch of other excuses. For a while I thought it was a gag. Maybe they’d wait til later to fess up and open a cooler, hoping to embarrass us in the midst of our victorious war whooping. With these boys you never can tell. But no, nothing, nada.

And it’s true, there maaayyyyyy have been a little too much strut in our step after this, doling out professional advice and insults. Too much glide in our stride as we hunted and got skunked ourselves that afternoon in this charming, mucky place I call Misery Pit, joking about smoking those other guys in the morning. Too much bounce in our pounce (OK, these are getting lame) that evening offering to let the other team hunt with us by Merganser Mound instead of whatever crappy location they’d discovered, no matter that they’d closed their deficit to four after bringing in two birds.

As Sunday morning unfolded, we clearly heard our lead, and our chances at a repeat title, evaporate. The ducks, so plentiful the morning before, simply changed course on us. We watched them spill into the Little River, veering far past Merganser Mound, right to the other team. Our few opportunities at saving this tourney flew on the fringes of in-range, safe from the steel. The Hunting Gods simply won’t allow boasting, even in an event this crude.

Rounding up the decoys, some variation of the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief set in.

Denial: “There’s no way THOSE guys killed too many birds; we may still win”

Anger: “I bet that rattling Mojo spooked the ducks away”

Bargaining: “Let’s just give it a little longer, don’t unload the shotguns yet”

Depression: “I can’t believe we’re gonna have this rubbed in our faces for the next year”

Acceptance: “Oh well, I think there’s some bourbon left at the house”

Actually, that last one may be part Depression as well. The final score, 9-6.

Not the end to duck season I’d hoped, but as always, a fun company and good times.

Besides, we’ll re-capture the title at Sea Duck Tournament ’10. I’m sure it’s not too early to guarantee victory.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Love for Lever Actions

Originally posted May 2009

Hunters are no more immune from stereotyping than any other group of humans. Say a newcomer strolls into camp toting an AR-Style firearm. What do a lot of hunters think?

“Here’s Rambo!”

Switch that rig out with the newest, fastest magnum chambering?

“Show-off, blowhard.”

And a lever action of any kind?

“Rookie, public land hunter, rube!”

Now, I may join in and hate hoot the first two groups - though I hunt with each style of weapon regularly - but I’ll take umbrage with those who consider the lever actions to be any sort of novice toy.

My first run-in with a lever action was way back in the ancient days of the ‘90’s. My longtime buddy Dirty J was carrying his father’s Marlin 336 .35 Remington down a limestone road in Manatee County when an old sow came be-bopping across the trail. Dirty tossed up the .35 and rolled the hog in an instant.

Several years later, I stood over a 170 lb mottled boar I popped with a Winchester 94 in the classic .30-30. As Dad and I re-lived the details of the stalk and shot, a black 120-pound boar crept out of a palmetto head. I deftly raised the rifle and lowered the boom, astonished this hog would stick his snout out in the commotion, yet proud as can be that Pops was there to witness it.

Since then, Dad bought a Marlin 1894 .44 Mag. which he’s enjoyed. A few years back I answered a classified ad in the paper and, more or less, stole a Marlin Guide Gun in .45-70 topped with a 1.5-4.5X Nikon Monarch, the cat’s meow in lever actions in my humble opinion.

(Note that I’m leaving out, solely for the purpose of this discussion, such fine lever actions such as the Ruger 96/44, Browning BLR, Savage Model 99, amongst a few others. What I’m really talking about are your cowboy guns. My reasons? I simply, sadly, have no experience with these. I do hope to change this.)

When I show up to camp with these guns, I am often met with the mocking statements I mentioned above, especially when those in the know realize I have much more capable and fashionable firearms in the locker. And it’s here where I’m lost trying to decide whether I’m defending these lever actions or campaigning for them. Mostly, I enjoy a little variety and debate.

Let’s start with what these guns are not. Plainly, the range limitation of the common lever action is a buzz kill. Even with a scope, your furthest responsible shot shouldn’t be much beyond 130, 140 yards. For some hunters, such a compromise in reach is unacceptable. And in truth, depending on where you hunt, this is a real consideration. Florida and much of the South is land of mixed terrain. Yes, we have the thick swamps and scrubs, but there are plenty of acres of broken pasture, prairie, and crop fields in which game is known to thrive and a lever action is out of its element.

Next, lever actions aren’t the most accurate. Start with the blunt-nosed, lead exposed bullets - they don’t scream “High Ballistic Co-efficiency” like Ballistic Tips and other spire points. Though they now have soft polymer tips for use in tubular magazines, the anatomy of the rifle is still not designed for MOA groups. These guns are made for portability - the shorter barrels, for example. You simply won’t harness the ballistic potential of any round fired out of an 18-inch tube. Couple these stumpy guns with iron sights, and precision is sacrificed. Scopes help, but even Swarovski glass is not going to improve the natural flaws of design.

As a result, there’s a stigma on how this accuracy prints on paper. Hunters equipped with a bolt action of some variety will dismissingly scoff at 3 ½ inch groups, though few really understand how accurate their own rifle and load may or may not be. A great many campfire storyteller would be humbled if their alleged sub-MOA rifles were truly put to the test. With an audience, wind, bad rests, drops in atmospheric pressure, and solar flares have all been blamed to explain why today their pet is punching 2-inch groups when just a few weeks ago a quarter covered three shots. Personal mythology aside, accuracy, as it is applied in the field and into the shoulder of a deer, is terribly over-rated.

But if we really want to talk about mythology and being over-rated, let’s discuss the lever action’s moniker of being a “brush gun”. I listened patiently to a guy in camp a few years back bragging on how his .444 Marlin would freight train through any tangle. Finally I asked him how many deer or hogs he’d shot in such conditions. He claimed none. His argument became even less persuasive after watching him miss a doe at 30 yards standing in the wide-open. The point is, a .444 will foul off a twig or anything else. Too many tests have been done to argue otherwise, but this has always been a fun source of pride and folklore for plenty of lever action enthusiasts.

The brush gun title really comes in the design of the firearm itself. These guns shine like diamonds in those dark swamps and scrubs. They are handy to carry and handle through the vines and overhanging branches. Those short barrels with open sights or low-power scopes pick up the target in a hurry. Lug a lever action with you once, and you’ll quickly discover the advantages both in portability and ease of operation.

And when you fair-punch your game, woooo-weeee, does that bullet deliver a smack-down. That slow, chugging bullet hits like a ton of bricks. The energy transfer from those blunt-nosed projectiles seems very real. Not a whole lot is left to scream across the countryside after passing through the off-shoulder which can be the case with the magnums. To date, I’ve never seen a hog or deer get his or her feet back under them after a clean shot with one of these rounds. I can’t say the same about my .300 Winchester Magnum.

So, what do we have in these lever actions? A novelty? A specialty tool?

Some of both. In swamps, oak hammocks, pine stands and other areas where you don’t have a shot much farther than 100 yards, lever actions should be in your wheelhouse, particularly if you still hunt.

Lever actions may not be ideal for your style of hunting. Still, it’s never a bad idea to keep one handy. They are slick handling, fast on the target, and all around fun to shoot. And you may think about holding your tongue next time someone rolls into camp with such a rifle.

They just may know how to use it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve

I went to Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve in search of deer sign. For fifteen years my folks have lived on the northern fence line of the property and I’ve long dreamed of giant antlered deer running through the horse pasture. We’ve had visits from wild hogs, a couple of which met their demise, but never deer.

When I was a teenager, and before it had been bought by the county, I wandered this land with permission, popping quail and rabbits and whatever other small game crossed the war path of my trusty Benjamin Pump. The old railroad bed was a haven for such quarry, along with gopher tortoises whose burrows pockmarked the trail of quartz rock and prickly pear. At the back of the property, a marathon barefoot hike from the house, was a marsh where the most exotic of game lived – ducks and snipe. Though I certainly schemed and tried, all escaped the .177 pellet.

But I never saw deer sign.

It had been a decade since I set foot on this property though the park has been opened for several years now. According to the kiosk at the entrance, deer were amongst the mammals listed in the park, along with boar, fox, raccoons, and other small game. My hopes were certainly high to find some split hoof tracks in the sugar sand, perhaps a scrub oak rubbed raw back in the fall.

They say you can never go home, and in this instance, they were correct. Little was as I remembered. The marsh, bone dry from drought, now sports a boardwalk across it, where looking down, one can see empty bottles and other litter, not the turtles and gators and mottled ducks of my youth. The railroad bed has been stripped of its rails, spikes, ties and the imaginations and industries of a generation past. The once plentiful quail that ping-ponged between the palmetto hedges have flushed for good; there’s no way they can live in this terrain in need of a good burn to unclog the overgrown myrtles and fennels and sedges.

The bobwhite situation truly concerns me. It’s possible my recollections are grander than the realities, but there was a time before Eaglebrook Golf Course, before the surrounding suburbia, when coveys of quail on this property numbered in the dozens; I didn’t kill them all. The cattle kept the vegetation beat down, creating the edge habitat so vital to the quail’s survival. Occasionally, the old cowboys would take a match to the land, burning up the undergrowth, inspiring fresh life and food from the ashes. The quail thrived.

The land managers today are more concerned with the plight of the Scrub Jay which requires a niche habitat for their survival. In all my years of traipsing this land, I never saw one scrub jay. Yet, on this day, there was that bird’s picture on the kiosk with nary a mention of Mr. Bob White. Why the scrub jay merits more concern over its management and protection than the quail is for larger minds and morals than mine.

Carolyn seemed to be enjoying the hike. I guess it’s my own fault to come here with expectations and memories; few non-hunters understand the impact land, even land that does not belong to them, has on a hunter. And once that person is forced to leave the land, few times do they have the chance to return. Perhaps inside the brain of a hunter is the only place where earth remains unchanged.

Detaching from emotion, I did notice something else about this place, something that does make me happy. The trails seemed well-traveled, and if you can look beyond the occasional cracker wrapper, this is a great thing. Increasing land use introduces more people to the outdoors. Parents can bring their children to explore the beauty of the natural world. Amateur naturalists and photographers have a milieu for their hobbies. And one of my own underhanded goals was to gauge the hog population to see if I could petition a hunt of some kind in the future - not a whole lot of sign, save a few old rootings in the old railroad bed.

Wild areas are much easier to protect from encroaching civilization if a larger number of people experience its value. Hunters and anglers do a great deal of the work, but suffer from a lack in numbers. Recruiting others to enjoy nature sometimes leads to conflicts in how the land is utilized, but in the end works wonders in protecting it from concrete, fantastic news to both scrub jays and bobwhite. Lakeland Highlands Scrub Preserve will probably never be developed unless some misguided county manager strikes a deal with the devil, or there’s no one left to care about the land.

Having circled the property on our hike, we arrived back at the boardwalk. Confused by all the change and time away, I didn’t realize my marsh was now the one with this deck running through it. To make sure, we crossed it one last time to look for a dug cattle pond and the pile of dirt on which we once played King of the Mountain.

The water in the pond had run dry and the dirt mound wasn’t so much a mountain anymore, but it was there, though it’d be difficult to play any games with the pine trees growing up through the middle of it now. For a moment I recalled jumping snipe along the water’s edge, in feeble hopes of watching them drop back down so I could sneak up on them for shot. And the cows feeding on the water grasses, lifting their head to observe me in this foolishness.

And I remembered looking for deer sign, some split hoof tracks in the sugar sand, perhaps a scrub oak rubbed raw back in the fall, and how I’ve long dreamed of giant antlered deer running through the horse pasture. Of all the people who have or who will visit here, I’m selfishly pleased I’m the only one who has been able to take these memories with them.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Gator Tail

I had my first bite of gator when I was six or seven. It was the 80's. Times were free and loose back then. The restaurant owner was a pal of my folks, and he did that thing you do to kids to surprise and shock their fragile minds.

Try it. You’ll like it. Oh, by the way...dum dum dum dum...it’s Alligator! Ooooooohhhhhhhh...(Funny face. Pictures taken. Adults laugh. Timeless, precious moments at the expense of your child.)

As I got older, gator started popping up in the appetizer corner of menus at every Harbor Side Restaurant and Tiki Hut that catered to Yankees. But these bites were made about the same way one would cook up Crack Cocaine. Take a little bit of the real thing, mash it with a bunch of unwanted fillers, and sell it for ten bucks. (And don’t get me started on all the BS Chipotle Aioli dipping sauces, either.) Not good. Still isn’t good. I’ll never again request gator tail at a restaurant unless under a court order.

In my twenties, we’d have fish fries and Poker Nights. Gator AKA Prairie Scallops would mysteriously show up at these events. Oh, forbidden lizard - a rare and deviant treat that was enough cause to have a fish fry and Poker Night.

Now we hunt these things on the up-and-up and can’t get rid of the stuff. One gator tail, plus the meat from the jowls, legs, and elsewhere, gets a lot of mileage.

Problem is, no one I’ve met really sits down to an evening of gator. I’m sure there are Bayou-Americans out there who eat ‘em like chicken – Yard Lizard, ha! – but I am not this person. If my wife ever asked me what I was cooking for dinner on a given Tuesday and I responded “Gator” the papers would be in my hands in no time. And she likes gator tail.

All joking aside, I’m glad to have it even if it is difficult to incorporate into a cosmopolitan meal plan.

The meat is tough, but with an overnight milk bath or a few whacks with a tenderizer mallet, this is overcome easily. The most important thing to remember is to make sure all the fat is cut away from the meat. Year-old dirty sink sponges probably taste better.

To pan fry, take your beaten gator meat and dip in an egg wash, then pat into Vigo Italian breadcrumbs. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet to proper frying temp and cook until browned. Easy Peasy. Remove to paper towel-covered plate and dash with your favorite seasoning and a little Parmesan cheese. Dip in Frank’s Red Hot sauce, if you are a real man or woman. Or if you're feeling especially kooky, these nuggets are superb for a Gator Po' Boy. Just sayin'.

Gator is also excellent grilled. But that’s gonna have to wait for another day.

Monday, January 10, 2011

To America's Most Infested Places or Whatever

If you follow my blog with any regularity - and your brain is not fried from all the psychiatric meds you’d have to be on to do so - you may have figured out my affinity for “Lists of the Mosts.”

Most Invasive Species. Most Toughest Animals. Schlock such as this.

Why? Probably for the same reason I partake in movies like Piranha 3D and songs by Ke$ha – they are simple, stupid and largely enjoyable.

These lists are similar in design. Must be great to be in the editor’s office when they review these assignments - ostensibly, they review these assignments.

OK, Hamooda, let’s see your list of infested places and what plagues these poor locations:

Rats, killer bees, allergins, sharks, bedbugs, nutria and bugs?

Love it! What a completely arbitrary and non-sensible summary of Mother Nature’s ills afflicting our nation’s municipalities. Halt all else until this baby is up. It’s golden!

I kid because I love, and thank you, US News.

The pictures are the best, especially with sharks. New Symrna Beach does have a bevy of shark attacks each summer, but not from Great Whites, as the picture would suggest. It’s typically sand sharks and small blacktips that take a bite on waders mistaking the flashing of ankles and shins for fish in the murky surf. I’m sure it’s a painful experience but mentioning Jaws in the same breath is a little overzealous.

Details, shmetails.

Anyway, here’s the article and hope you enjoy. Feel free to post comment. I’ll respond, provided I am not devoured and doomed by our infestation of bugs.

America’s Most Infested Places

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Florida Deer Journal 2010 - The Upper Hills Hunt

Behind me, I heard the dry leaves of the cypress swamp Corn Flake as the deer approached at a trot. It was coming fast. Though the weather was clear and beautiful all weekend with temperatures in the 40’s, after 12 hours perched in the stand with nothing to report, action couldn’t come fast enough.

I glanced over my right shoulder and finally saw the large-bodied buck. His antlers, tall and tobacco-stained in color, curved straight forward like lances. Points, I cannot say. It was too thick for a shot, at least with a bow.

He paused briefly then resumed his pace into the Thickness of Central Florida. I grunted on the Knight & Hale a couple times, but I knew Mr. Deer was history. He was the only buck I have seen in Florida all season.

I was satisfied. So be it. Save an unexpected invite somewhere, that was probably my last chance for the year. At least it ended on somewhat of a high note. Seeing a Swamp Buck is always a thrill.

But something felt askew. Why was he running? I thought at first he may be chasing a doe that slipped past unseen. January and February is Rut Time in this part of the state. Heck, it’s the reason I applied for the bowhunt here. Usually, though, when on the tail of a skirt, bucks will be nose-to-the-ground. This guy was heads-up and high-stepping. He was spooked.

Maybe another hunter pushed him. This was public land, after all. The evening before a gentleman and a portly young fellow crashed my set-up. Heard them coming - sounded like a herd of elephants walking down the trail. People don't realize how loud they can truly be. The pair politely moved along, but I knew they probably lurked close.

Another thought was more pervasive, however. Dad was hunting the northwest side of the cypress head, maybe 200 yards away straight line. And he’s had all the luck with seeing game lately. Problem is, I’m not sure he could kill a deer with an arrow if it had heat-seeking capabilities and a thermo-nuclear broadhead.

Had to check the texts.

“I just missed my buck.”

Sigh. The night before, he said he let a nice buck slip under his stand and couldn’t find an ethical shot in the remaining light. Nothing more frustrating than when you aren’t seeing anything and having to endure kith and kin bemoan their lost opportunities. It’s like, put me in the game, Coach!

Upper Hillsborough WMA is a few thousand acres in Pasco County. They offer only a few hunts a year, all by quota drawing and all primitive. The rut, as I said earlier, is late winter. On this hunt, I was finding fresh rubs and scrapes, sign that’s gone long cold in southern regions of the state. (Actually, the picture of the rub in the header of this blog was taken here last year.)

I’ve only hunted Upper Hills a few times; I get the sense there is not a ton of deer. The land is comprised of cypress bottoms interspersed with pine and palmetto flats and sand scrub. It is pretty land but without much in the way of nutrition, not all that conducive to a large population. (I’m also guessing a Cracker Season has been in effect in this area a long time, further suppressing numbers.)

This is not to say there aren’t a few nice ones. One person this year tagged a 198lb. nine. Not too shabby for these parts. As I said, Dad has had all the luck, but it correlates to the scouting he had done. The eastern end of the property can be reached only by bike and the trails open during game seasons are closed the rest of the year. You’ll need your hiking boots and a two-wheeler if you plan on advance recon.

This has been a strange year in Florida. A biologist buddy of mine reports harvest numbers are down across the region. It’s the way things go.

Next year things will be different. Next year I’ll do more scouting. Next year things will work out.

Next year I’m following Dad into the woods, clubbing him over the head, and hunting his stand.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Adventures of the Novice Bowfisherman

As if life isn’t complicated and frustrating enough, I decided I wanted to take up bowfishing. I put a starter’s kit on my letter to Santa, and lo and behold, it was under the tree Christmas morning. He’ll be taking note of the naughty in 2011...at least the naughty words.

Before we get to my nincompoopery, let’s tell ya what I got. It is a PSE Kingfisher kit – a recurve with two arrows and a spool you wrap with 80lb braided line. The spool goes where the stabilizer normally would, and the rest is a roller of sorts. I will be replacing the spool with a reel when I’m done paying off my sizeable Most Wonderful Time of the Year debt.

Not being the engineering type, I was a touch dismayed that the kit came disassembled - even more so when I realized there were no instructions, in French, Korean or otherwise, included in the box. But what the heck, I am a pretty smart guy, I should be able to assemble this with little problem.

I screwed in the limbs so the bow would resemble your standard half-moon shaped archery tackle. But the string was too long. Hmm. My first thought, naturally, was someone else had erred severely. Where the hell does the tension necessary to fling an arrow past my feet come from when I have six inches of bowstring coiled around my hand?

A dim bulb brightened. Maybe they are on backwards. So, I took it all apart and re-screwed the limbs in so the rig was inverted. Guess that's why it's called a recurve. Ha! I looped the string on and the loops correctly locked into the notches at the ends. (My archery terminology sucks, BTW. Feel free to correct me.) Then I realized that the thick part of the string (See?) that held the nock (Better.) was upside down.

I started to back off the screw to correct this problem and thankfully realized that the strain would be too much. Either the limbs would crack and it’s be all over, or it’d come whipping apart leaving me with fewer teeth. After consultation with a friend, I learned I could use my own brute strength to flip the string around without damage to the bow or my face. I was ready to shoot.

And here’s where the real trouble started.

I went up to Homosassa to my in-laws’ river house for New Years. Dreams of smoked mullet chased me up the road. Alas, the water was murky and the sky overcast. Nothing moved. (Basically just described my actual bow season this year.)

Just for the fun of it, I fired an arrow off the end of the dock. A manatee roiled a few yards away. That would have been embarrassing. I would have had to cut the line, wipe the bow of fingerprints, and toss the albatross into the nearest channel for the Navy Seals to find for their prosecution. Lesson relearned – don’t shoot into what you can’t see.

Moving along, fully expecting angry e-mails for confessing that, I shot at leaves in shallower water where I could see clearly. I learned some fun things. One, make sure the fishing line is clear of any snags on the bow. One arrow flew playfully back into my Thank God I Was Wearing Jeans At The Time left leg. The arrow popped off another time, and I had to roll up aforementioned jeans to wade into the frigid water to recover my dart. Finally, if the breeze caught the fishing line correctly, the braid would come unwinding off the spool, hence my desire for a reel.

I truly feel, though, wisdom comes with courting advice from those in the know. We repaired to a party up the road where I knew the boys there had been bowfishing for some time. As expected, they were whacking fish like starving Aborigines.

They imparted that the trickiest part of this – and here I thought assembly and preventing self-harm were the trickiest parts – was aiming below the target fish. More so the deeper the fish is underwater due to the refraction of the water. I'd learned this from shooting at the leaves, sometimes aiming as much as a foot below the objective.

They plucked away at a school of mullet. I'd left my bow at the house because I truly, truly hate being embarrassed in front of others. Plus, it was New Years Eve, and if I'd nearly impaled myself and an innocent sea cow while sober...

Anyway, New Years morning I staggered back down to our dock and found a young stingray lounging in the shadows.


Three shots later, the ray finally tired of the ploinks of my wayward arrows and drifted into the manatee-infested dark water.


This is part of an actual review of the PSE Kingfisher kit on Cabela's website from PGKIRK of New Holland, PA:

"This is a fun package...Whacked a monster fish with my 1st shot."

New Holland, PA, birthplace of liars.

But I enjoy the challenge. I have no familiarity with a recurve and aim to learn to aim one properly. Plus, it gives me another toy to fiddle with and customize.

As always, I invite tips and hints for such things. I’m looking forward to plunging my first fish. And with your gentle advice and guiding hand, it’s possible you may spare me embarrassment.

You may end up saving a me few pints of blood along the way, too.

Monday, January 3, 2011

December Trail Camera Photos

My feeder continues to attract, well, useless animals. At least for bowhunting. No hogs for a third straight month. No deer ever.


Not counting on the deer anyhow, though the hog hunting has been deflating. Lease expires in February, and I'm gone.

For this month's gallery, I present to you these misfits.

I looked at this photo for some time, thinking it was a scrawny hog...what do you think? (Click on photos for larger image.)

Upon careful study, this appears to be a mutt. Kinda pitbullish. Another lease member spotted a pair two weeks ago. Mongrel.

These two are certainly strange bedfellows.

I may have the World's Largest Collection of armadillo photos.

I called one of these in on my last hunting trip there with a digital predator call. But they are sneaky.

These animals are rather sneaky, too!

Finally, I obtained photos of a legit game animal - my favorite nonetheless.

Fall turkey in this zone ends January 31st. I desperately want to crack one this time of year, though these won't be legal game. Bearded birds only! I know a few are there.

I will certainly let you know if I am successful.

See you then!