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

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Magazine Hunts

My wife says I receive too many hunting magazines. Patient woman, her concerns are legit. The outdoor media that washes into this home – in print, on TV, and through cyberspace – consumes much of my free time. Nothing new to me; may be more than she bargained for, though.

The truth is hunting represents the last vestiges of childhood imagination. No longer do I costume like Batman or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – that you’ll know of, at least. Around the age my superhero fixation fizzled, I discovered hunting literature. At night I’d read stories of manly men like Peter Capstick and Finn Aagaard and their African pursuits. And there was John Wooters and Gary Sitton, knowledgeable and common-sensical teachers of the technical and moral aspects of the sport. Craig Boddington was - and still is - the in-real-life embodiment of my dreams, chasing blue bears in Alaska and sitatunga in Zambia. For sure, I sit and peck on this computer today about my own modest excursions out of hero worship. I guess pretending to be an outdoor writer is the closest I approach dress-up anymore.

Quite frankly, I’ve achieved more in the hunting world than I could have ever hoped for as I cut grass and stared out of classroom windows. But that doesn’t pause my incessant scheming to ditch real life and pursue these fantasies. I tell people, not in jest, that each hunt I go on is an adventure I’ve waited my whole life for. And that’s a special feeling.

A handful of hunts from past reads continue to resonate as the years progress. While it’s no secret I’ll hunt just about anything, the following is list of whispers into God’s ear.

We’ll begin with still-hunting the Big Woods and deep snow of Anticosti Island for whitetail. When I was young, Anticosti – located in the Gulf of Lawrence in Quebec - was the Shangri-la of deer hunting, and where-to-go ads in the back of magazines were plentiful.

A dense population of deer ensured wildly successful hunts at a time when numbers of deer were more important than the Industry of Antlers today. The deer don’t grow all that large in body size or headgear, and as a result, the popularity of the island has waned. Not that I care. I can’t wait to hunt Anticosti.

We’ll stick with deer, sort of. West Texas offers a potpourri of fall hunting possibilities - Carmen Mountain whitetail or “fantails,” Desert Mule deer, Rio Grande turkey, javelina, wild hog, and a variety of small game. Way back when, Boddington penned an article in Petersen’s Hunting about a “fun hunt” near San Angelo. Those in his camp cranked shots at just about everything on the above list. After reading this, I actually called up outfitters in that area requesting brochures. Javelina and Desert Mule deer were of particular interest, and still are. And the Carmen Mountain whitetail subspecies has picked up popularity points in recent years, maybe as marketing competitor with the Coues deer. A life-long Floridian, I have an active Internet job search for San Angelo - if that relays how serious I am about this area’s hunting opportunity.

This next one is where my path splits with the majority of my hunting running mates. I want to go chasing the mountain lion out West. I blame Outdoor Life for this one. They’ve always published those adventure stories, and tales of fabled cat trackers from the turn-of-the-20th century popped up from time to time.

Done correctly, this is a grueling hunt of cutting tracks, releasing the dogs, and following the big cat into whatever corner of Hell it can scratch its way into.

From what I’ve read, it’s an endurance contest with one fanged, snarling, angry animal at the other end of success. The kill is typically easy; the physical challenge of this hunt sets it apart. Most of all, I want to see the dog men in their element, work a trail, and experience a style of hunting that is poorly understood and quickly disappearing. I just don’t want to end up immortalized in an “Outdoor Happening” cartoon in OL when that cat pounces.

This next one may wrinkle the noses of other hunters as well, and represents the greatest potential for a letdown. I’ve long wanted to hunt axis deer. Wooters did this to me back in ’94 or ’95 when he wrote a column about axis deer spreading through parts of Texas. I soon discovered these beautiful deer occupy ranches in Florida and spent many an hour on the stand with quixotic hope that an escapee would wander past me.

Today, there are several ranches that offer axis deer hunts, but the cost is considerable for what you get. Plus, these properties are high-fenced so it is tough to gauge the level of sportsmanship required on such hunts. The day will come when I’m posed with one of these spotted beauties; just hope the experience matches my anticipation – a tall order, for sure.

Finally, I want to hunt elephant, for a great many reasons. One, I gotta go to Africa. Talk about childhood dreams always arrive here. The old ivory hunters were men of legend. I’d like the plains game and buffalo thing, maybe leopard, but an elephant represents the ultimate adventure.

Just listen – a 21-day safari tromping through the wild African brush to get within 20-25 yards of a highly intelligent animal that can crush you to dust. After judging the ivory to be of trophy dimensions – no sure thing after following miles of spoor - you slide that double-barrel to your shoulder, fight back the adrenaline, and hope for the best.

Once the loud work is finished, the local villagers come to celebrate and retrieve as much of the animal as possible for their consumption. And from what I’ve read, it’s not even close to that easy. Some may assume this is the epitome of obnoxious trophy hunting, but if you grew up on African novels, it’s nothing shy of romantic. Even the words “ivory” and “double-barrel” make my knees weak.

Who knows about elephant? More than the rest, it’s more likely to remain a fantasy. You’d think with all the places I want to travel, this would be a tough list to narrow down, but no. These hunts jumped off the pages at me years ago and I continue to hold them dear.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

This Bowfishing Thing

I would have placed my chances of cracking that gar with the 1st shot at about 10,000:1. But, lo and behold, I spasmed a brief moment of competency and, Whack!

Missed the second gar, then the line snapped on my third attempt, ending my archery day.

Easy come, easy go.

The hand reel that came with the PSE Kingfisher has a little rubber tab that holds the line in place so it isn’t blown away and unspooled by the vagaries of the wind. But the line also rubs on the screw that holds the tab in place wearing it until the 20th or so shot when it just becomes too much. Without any major gift-giving holidays or birthdays close, I may have to wait awhile to replace this travesty unless I can convince my beautiful bride that a new reel belongs in the Bunny Basket.

I’m pushing the AMS Retriever Pro. A pair of gentlemen I know have them on their bows and it just looks so easy. Have queasy feelings about the reels that actually resemble reels. Buttons have to be pushed, and I have heard stories about big tangles and messes. Apparently not so with the AMS.

I’m scared of this bowfishing thing. It is strangely addictive. I’m not even a huge archery fan for big game – something about sticking those fish with a recurve appeals to me. Not sure why yet.

Accessibility to the game could be one major selling point. I stuck this gar on Lake Bonny in Lakeland 10 minutes from the house. The water is about as filthy as a stopped-up truck stop toilet, but it is sure rife with gar. They laze near the shore in the tall aquatic grasses and reeds. You have to spy them quick while the boat is underway to take your shot. After we lost my arrow, we started gigging them; if that gives you an idea of how close you can get.

Central Florida abounds with lakes such as this. I’m also interested in expanding my bag. Banana Lake in the Highlands City area harbors a ton of plecostomus. Tilapia would be fun sport this spring as they bed up. Basically, any fish not designated a sportsfish – bass, bream, bluegill – is considered legal game for freshwater. There’s a ton of trashfish in these waters.

And nighttime bowfishing? That’s what the pros do. Before you know it I’ll be entering tournaments and granted sponsorships.

As I said, I’m scared of this bowfishing thing.

I don’t need another drug.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Florida Spring Turkey Journal 2011 - The Green Swamp Revisited

I hadn’t stepped boot in Green Swamp WMA since 1995. I was there, ostensibly, deer hunting with my Dad and Uncle. Remember lots of people. Remember lots of walking. Remember seeing one doe. That’s about it.

Over the years the stories of hunting accidents filtered out of the swamp. Folks shot off bikes and other head-scratchingly awful events. For a man of my hunting stature and prowess, my enthusiasm for venturing back was admittedly low.

Dad, on the other hand, started scouting around for turkey a few years back, and his efforts paid off with a nice gobbler two seasons ago. He was busted by a bird last year. That’s not bad action for a public land romp-and-stomp.

Pops reported a little bit of hunter interference, but mostly felt uninterrupted by others. Doing the math, the Green Swamp is 50,692 acres and allows 200 hunters in per day for a total of 253.46 acres per hunter which, in my mind, is more than a reasonable amount of land to hunt. By contrast, they allow 750 hunters a day during deer season working out to a paltry and potentially cramped 67.59 acres per person.

Of course, not every acre is brimming with gobblers. Some people work hard, some people work smart. I worked smart by letting Dad work hard. Dad had put the legwork in and found these birds away from others and well off the beaten path. The time was nigh to allow the Green Swamp another chance.

The gates open at 5:30 and when we arrived at a quarter after, there was already a sizeable line to enter the Rock Ridge Road entrance. Going by dangerous biases and pure snobbery, I half expected the other folks in line to be popping coldies and blaring David Allen Coe awaiting the shotgun start.

When 5:30 arrived, we got through the gate in an orderly fashion and received our daily permits from the man at the check station. We drove far into the property, believing we were abandoning the chumps who'd hunt 100 yards off the road. Well, other trucks were streaming in from the 471 entrance, probably assuming, as we did, they were distancing themselves from others. There’s a curious sociological experiment here that an aspiring behavior student should tap into.

What makes the Green Swamp so inviting is the chance to hunt Osceola’s without a quota permit after the first weekend of the season. For an out-of-towner who wants a solid chance at connecting with a Florida tom, this would be a fine place to start.

But, with all that land, it is an intimidating venue. Dad began scouting with aerial maps and applied boot leather; he trekked me on a long hike to an island of pines and palmettos at the intersection of two old firebreaks. 150 yards ahead was a line of taller pines and oaks, with a cypress swamp behind me. The open sections had been burned within the last year offering strutting zones, feeding areas and easy travel routes for any incoming gobblers. If it were private land, this is where you’d want to set up.

Realizing that hunting pressure was still a dominating concern, the only difference in my approach was in setting up the decoys. Having hunted private land most of my turkey career, I would plant the dekes in whatever fashion I thought would be most appealing to toms; here I had the additional consideration of how to position them where a gobbler could see the decoys yet I not catch a face-full of number 5’s if an Itchy Trigger Finger happened by.

The gobbling was non-existent this morning. I heard hens early, but the dawn life settled quickly as fog grew over the flats. The birds quit chirping – just one of those dead mornings that knocks the enthusiasm out of me regardless of where I am. I heard one shot within 30 minutes of first light and that was the extent of the hunter activity.

In the dark, I didn’t fully appreciate the area Dad had discovered. Again, if it had been private land – and a livelier morning – it’s possible you could have been trampled by turkey. One, there were no signs of other hunters. No foot traffic, no beer cans, no trash. But there were certainly turkey tracks, and the woods were well manicured with the recent burns. And it just looked healthy.

I found this to be true as we returned to the exit. The FWC, God bless them, either does a great job of maintaining lands or it goes to crap. For all the bad things I’d heard and the number of people who hunt here, I anticipated so much worse. The chalky limestone roads were in good order – despite the revving of engines early in the mornings. Most of the land appeared as our little area did. Clean and downright beautiful, as much as this thick, wooly Florida land of pines, palmettos and cypress can be.

The Green Swamp won’t be my number one turkey hunting destination anytime soon, but it is nice to know a well-kept and possibly productive place is so close to home. And I’m putting a Green Swamp Gobbler on my list of hunting goals.

Honestly, the only difference between here and a number of private land places I’ve been is you’ll have to hunt a little harder, and a little smarter.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Click here for more information on the Green Swamp WMA

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Oven Baked Wild Pork Chops

The Prize Pig for this recipe is a 90-120 lb. dry sow or young boar, preferably a fat one taken during the acorn drop or who frequents the local friendly corn feeder. Any smaller and you won’t have much of a pork chop. Bigger – well, who knows? Could be tougher, maybe not.

But let’s hypothesize that this size swine constitutes the majority of the wild hog harvest in these here parts. Makes up most of my feral hog body count. You could cut the backstraps out and have a lovely meal – most folks do. This is just another option that is a crowd and finicky-eater pleaser.

Take the dressed hog to the local butcher with the backstraps and tenderloins still attached to the carcass. I don’t have the tools necessary to make the clean cuts necessary for chops. I have tried with meat saws – it’s messy and I don’t recommend it. The meat man will have it sliced and wrapped in no time flat. The chops should be about an inch thick.

If you feel the swine smells a little gamey, soak it in milk for thirty minutes to an hour. This will subdue any unpalatable flavors. Trim fat and gristle. I realize this is sacrilege with store-bought pork, but trust me with the wild thing. It’s usually sinewy and gross.

Preheat oven to 425 and spray a baking sheet or broiler pan with Pam.

Season the chops with whatever spices you prefer - garlic salt, pepper, garlic pepper, paprika, garlic paprika. Most recently I used Penzey’s Chicago Steak Seasoning.

Dip the seasoned chops into an egg wash, then into Vigo Italian Breadcrumbs, coating well. Line on pan, place in oven, and cook 15 minutes or until done. Let sit for 10 minutes before eating

Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ is a fine complementary sauce. Sticky Fingers Carolina Style sauce is excellent, too. Eat with hands.

Not all wild hog belongs on a smoker or ground into sausage. Next time you pop a hog, give this a try.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Florida Spring Turkey Journal 2011 - The First Few Days

The thoughts of particular things frighten the snot out of me. Like the motion sensors on the urinals in the guys room having video recording and transmission capabilities. Or seaworthy friends discovering that even after growing up around water and boats, it still takes me at least 20 minutes to launch a boat.

Not hunting the Opener of Turkey Season is another such notion. Tremors to the bone. Even if it’s a dud as this last weekend was.

Saturday on our Polk County lease was indeed a nonstarter. The weather was beautiful, the set-up good; just no gobble gobbles. The cowboys have been running fence through the swamp. That could have contributed. There are not a whole lot of toms on this land. Expectations were kinda low, but I still enjoyed every minute of the morning.

This morning, a young bobby cat snooped around our set-up at point-blank range. Had he been around three weeks prior, blammo! As is, he flicked his tail a few times and crept into the woods. No gobbles, either.

On Sunday on private land near Orlando, PJ and I called a hen into the decoys. I dared PJ to shoot her and wondered aloud why gobblers rarely peel across a field right into the dekes like she did. Later in the morning we saw another hen and a pile of deer. Good times.

Nice, nice, it all is...but still no gobbles for me.

Friends did much better. I’m envious and filled with rage, of course.

Jack shot a fine tom Saturday on his lease near Mayo. Harris blasted a bird this morning in North Lakeland (shown at top).

My favorite story by far was PJ and Cole hunting that private land near O-Town. PJ had been scouting these birds for the better part of the month. And, sure enough, one tom flew into the field across from their ambush and did what field birds tend to do – strut, gobble their heads off, and not come any closer than 70 yards.

Cole has it all on videotape – kind of. His new camera – and this being his first attempt at videotaping – focused on a clump of muscadine vines between him and the tom. The result was 17 minutes of intense, rattle-your-teeth gobbling and crystal clear video of a green leaf with the occasional blurry bob of a white head in the background.

I can’t decide if it was just rakishly amateur video, or Cole was pioneering the first conceptual art hunting short film. I have my guesses, though.

It gets better. The gobbler, after 17 minutes, grew tired of gobbling at their slate calls, and passing noises, and even whistling bobwhites. He topped a berm that runs the western length of the field, probably towards hen noises that didn't sound like they were dying of strep.

(Just a quick videography tip. If you have smartass friends you plan to show your hunt to, edit out your calling attempts. It doesn't matter if you're a regional grand champion. One slipped squoink or squink and the critics pile on.)

The camera shuttered off amidst much trembling and whispering and clanking of plastic.

As the story is later retold - many times over during the course of Saturday afternoon – PJ and Cole hopped up from their positions and ran to the berm, army-crawling to the top. There they spied the bird, 45-50 yards away slowly walking across an opening.

They both unloaded to the plug. PJ was supposed to shoot first, but knowing Cole, the time lapse between their first muzzleblasts probably occurred in an increment the human brain can't comprehend.

The felled gobbler looked exactly what you would think a large bird that caught 5-6 rounds of #5’s from frenzied and jacked-up hunters would look like. Several tail fan feathers missing. The breast bare of plummage. It looked like it flew into a powerline or windmill. But it was the first Osceola for the both of them and made for a fine story. 9-inch beard and inch spurs. Not too shabby.

Turkey season marches onwards.

If you have any stories to tell, please share!

Monday, March 21, 2011

March Trail Camera Photos

For your voyeuristic impulses, here are this month’s trail camera photos. The Covert Cam has endured the last few weeks lording over a feeding station on a private ranch in Sarasota County, FL.

This particular section is thick – thick with vegetation, thick with hogs, thick with deer.

It is a popular draw for hunters here.

I’m thankful I still have my camera.

Hogs are a plentiful, as I mentioned. Here’s a fine boar.

This is a big pig.

And a young boar.

The turk-a-lurks frequent this area, too, though no tom pictures this go-round. They have largely moved into the fields and transition areas to strut. A few of the ladies stopped by, however.

And deer, finally. As I wrote in last month’s installment, the deer don’t really hit the feeders too hard. Besides keeping a Big Brother eye on the feeder, there’s a major trail here the deer use.

You can’t see the stand from this view, but trust me this deer looks like it would be arrow-rific if I had been sitting in it. Keep this in mind come August.

That’s about all the pics for today, boys and girls. See ya next time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Homosassa Photo Diary

Homosassa is one of my favorite places to be. I grew up taking the summer annual scalloping trip with my folks and their friends until the season was terminated in the late 80’s. When the season resumed in the 2000’s, Travis and I were pounding the backwaters for trout and redfish the area is known for. These days I stay at my in-laws place directly on the big river. I don’t fish as much anymore thanks to a bad back, but I still cherish every trip up there.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Homosassa River is an 8-mile waterway that originates from a freshwater spring that flows west into the Gulf of Mexico. Surrounding the freshwater lengths are homes and hydric hammocks and swamps of holly, cedar, sweet bay, magnolia and cabbage palm. As you approach the salt, mangroves and reeds replace the tall trees. Treacherous oyster bars carved by the strong tides jut out from the river and have claimed numerous lower units and props over the years.

The brackish transition between fresh and saltwater invites a diverse range of wildlife. Many have adapted to traverse across both environments.

This last weekend Carolyn and I repaired for a weekend of touristing. No boats or best-laid plans; just relaxation and taking what is offered. We toured the local flea market and local restaurants. We read books and magazines in the sun. It was a grand time.

But I am the restless type, especially around nature – and this is the Nature Coast – and reading and flea marketing is great and all, but that wild spirit moves me. There’s always something to catch or photograph.

So let’s get through a quick photo diary of this last weekend.

Manatees are the preeminent attraction in Homosassa. They move up the river from the flats in the fall before the water temperature gets much below 65. Cold-water intolerant, they develop lesions on their skin when the temperature dips. These sores get infected which eventually kills the animal. As such, manatees congregate around the freshwater springs where the surrounding waters hold a constant 72 degrees year-round. It’s no trick to see dozens of sea cows huddled up by the Homosassa Springs State Park or traveling the channels of the river during warm spells. In late Spring they leave these comforts and return to saltier destinations.

I try to respect their privacy – and once you’ve seen one, you’ve really seen them all. With so many manatees in one place, it’s no real surprise that certain bends in the river become sea cow brothels. It’s easy to identify these locations by the swarms of pontoon boats. I reckon this is one reason for the sea cows’ endangered status – I’d have difficulty procreating, too, with 3-blade props blowing past my whiskers.

Manatees are protected during these months by No Wake Zones...which some, like this genius towing a tube, choose to ignore.

By the way, for any law enforcement officials reading, his registration number is FL 2155 L7. He was finally waved down and scolded by a local crabber.

Speaking of crabs, blue crabs were thick this last weekend. It’d been a while since I’d boiled any blues; they are trouble to eat, but God are they good. And since I had nothing to do...

(Usually we buy them at Shelly’s – a must-visit for the seafood lover. Just wanted to fit that endorsement in there!)

I attacked the crabs in two ways. One, traps baited with chicken necks bought at Publix and half a mullet. I tied two off the dock.

This accounted for a few, but required far too much patience. So to complement this approach, I took a cane pole with a split shot and a small hook and affixed a piece of leftover chicken. I’d locate one and dangle the bait until the crustacean reached up and grabbed hold. Then, I’d slowly coax them within range of the dip net. I got 19 in two days, including one I think will set an all-tackle record. I should have had my bangstick with me to subdue him. Not bad for angling right off the dock.

Regardless of how they were captured, they ultimately met their demise in a pot of boiling water and Old Bay seasoning. (Boil 10 minutes, immediately reduce water temperature with ice, and let sit for 30 minutes before eating.)

Other tasty outdoor treats swam by, but they were out of season by a month. Wood ducks are year-round residents of the Homosassa River. They raise their young in the duck boxes and swamps bordering the waterways. As you can see, there’s one family group already this year.

By May other hens will be paddling about with their brood. I tried to get close pictures on some of the drakes, but they proved elusive. The neighbor said the original hatch was 16 chicks. Bass, gators, turtles, anhingas – all will take their shots at the young ducks. The mother is super-protective, but she can only do so much.

The river is home to marauding bottlenose dolphins, as well. They corral the mullet into balls and swoop through, tossing their prey in the air. It’s impressive. On Sunday we really worked as one coherent group – though I doubt Flipper knew he was helping me. I had my new PSE Kingfisher, still a virgin in the bowfishing fraternity. A school of mullet, terrified by the dolphins racing through their ranks broke into tightly-huddled balls, one of which tried to hide by our dock.

OK, it was basically a flock-shot, but I did pop my first fish with the PSE, thanks, Friendly Dolphin, King of the Sea.

By the way, minus a Wife-Beater and Trucker Hat, this is the attire and physique of the Common Bowfisherman.

During the late winter and early Spring, the river is absolutely alive with wildlife. Ospreys flew overhead constantly, always on the lookout for the poaching eagle who’ll wait for their smaller brethren to catch a fish before swooping in to steal it. Sea birds like brown pelicans intermingled in the brackish waters with the woodies. Gar and bass flittered by while I was crabbing.

No place better to relax.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Venison Meatball Subs

The Meatball Sub. A staple of the Comfort Food Family. I’m not a huge fan of sandwiches – too pedestrian for my tastes. But the meatball sub. Who hasn’t made a mess plowing down on one of these grinders? Love the flavor; you can not add too much cheese, of several different varieties, which works for me.

And with venison, it’s pretty simple.

Start with a pound of ground venison and mix in a cup of Vigo Italian breadcrumbs and two eggs. No secret here; it’s the recipe on the can of Vigo. I’m that lazy. Mold into balls about an inch and a half in diameter.

Now here comes the fork in the road. I personally prefer to pan fry the meatballs. My wife requests baked which I feel is quite an indignity.

To bake (like a sissy) preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cook 25-30 minutes. Fry only a couple minutes until golden brown.

I also rather fry because the meatballs carry the oil into the sauce for more flavor. Heat a couple jars of Ragu in a large pot. Unless you want to go all gourmet just use the standard issue traditional style spaghetti sauce. No need for clumpy onions and mushrooms. Add a cup of parmesan.

Once the meatballs are ready, dump them in the sauce and cook for another 30-45 minutes over low heat. This simmers the spaghetti sauce into the meatballs.

Toast a sub roll, if you like, and line with meatballs making sure to cover any bread with sauce. Top with shredded mozzarella and a couple slices of Provolone, perhaps.

Keep plenty of napkins available.

As is the case with most Italian foods, it's almost better reheated later!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Patterning Your Turkey Rig

The Turkey Hunting Craze really hit the gas around the mid-90’s. All sorts of new guns and gear flooded the zone, and us being hunters, we bought what they sold us – 3 ½ mags with camo stocks, extra-full chokes, and red-dot scopes. New loads were developed that promised (and delivered) increased down-range lethality. Largely inexperienced hunters drove the market to offer further reach and heightened killing capabilities from our weaponry.

The old guard – those Turkey Gods who hunted with beat-up 870’s with full chokes, a rusty front bead and religiously killed gobblers at 12 steps – guffawed like old guards tend to do.

OK, this is stereotyping. But I will say with conviction, the discipline of utilizing these new firearms in the field has not stayed in step with one’s ability to purchase them at the gun store. These cool new toys have led to turkey hunting heartbreak for those poor souls who went to battle with an unproven weapon.

Patterning your turkey gun is but one neglected chore. Funny thing happened along the way towards developing these specialized gobbler-getters – we made shotgunning more difficult. With all the high-tech loads and chokes, 12 steps now means firing a golf-ball sized flock of lead at a gobbler’s head. To combat this, naturally, we needed more sophisticated sighting equipment, hence the red-dot sights and turkey scopes. We must sight-in our shotguns or make darn sure we trust the integrity of standard issue open sights or beads on several brands of scatterguns, hoping they point in the right direction. And with the scopes or red-dots comes the risk of knocking them off “zero” or praying you don’t have a battery malfunction.

(Cue Old Guard’s Laughter)

It's not all that bad; you just need to learn the new equipment.

I trusted the open sights, for years, in fact. Then I suffered a colossal equipment failure last year after patterning my gun and two gobblers are still wandering the Florida countryside as a result, one who has a few waddle piercings, for sure. So, I attached a Tru-Glo Gobbler Stopper Red Dot Recticle atop my Mossberg 835 with it's ported barrel and extra-full choke – once a thoroughly modern outfit, now a relic compared to the smoothbores on the market today. This season will be the proofing session, though I'm so far pleased with the Tru-Glo's ease-of-use.

So that’s one reason for patterning your gun. Making sure the sights are correct for the pattern, that you are correctly aiming your shotgun, not pointing as the case used to be.

Next reason is to learn limitations on your gun and load. A 3 ½ mag is a beast of a round – on your shoulder as well as your target. But it is not infallible. I once thought so and have taken a few lumps as a result. Shooting 45-50 yards has become en vogue on TV, and tragic stories from the field permeate otherwise civil hunting discussions amongst those who believe they should be shot at arms-length.

For me, I have a limited time to hunt each season and will take the first reasonable shot I have, no apologies, whether that is 15 yards or 45. I want to be prepared for either scenario.

So, to the range!

One, purchase a package or two of turkey targets. HS Strut makes a fine copy that I used for today’s lesson. Yes, you can make your own, but those with anatomically correct pictures can really help illustrate what the pattern is doing. You may also find targets to print online.

Two, don’t think it’s a great idea to bang away on a box of 3 ½’s one afternoon. My Macho Man days are past, thank you very much. You may end up developing a grand flinch. Flinches cause you to raise your cheek off the stock, come off target, and whiff big-time.

But, I still want to hunt with these loads. There’s a much less painful – financially and physically – way to sight your shotgun in. Grab a box of 2 ¾-inch # 7 ½’s like you’d dove hunt with and commence your zeroing session.

I assign each target a distinct distance - 15, 25, 35, 45 yards - and take one shot at each and make adjustments as necessary. If it's on-line at 15, you're probably going to be OK at further reaches but it is still best to check. Since we are firing more than one projectile, we want the center of the pattern to hit the neck area on the target. Once I'm satisfied with the 7's, I'll tape up four more targets and grit my teeth through the 3 1/2's

(Click on pictures for larger size!)

As you can see in these photos you get a decent idea of the center of the spread, though at 45 yards it gets a little watery.

Now look at how this compares with the Winchester Supremes 3 ½-inch # 5’s.

Pretty comparable. It appears at closer ranges the smaller pellets fly a little higher than the heavier, and drop faster at longer ranges, which makes ballistic sense. And you notice, too, how the pattern fizzles so markedly at 45 yards. This could just be my combination of gun and load – yours may do better. There were still 9 pellets in the vitals at that distance which is fried turkey breast.

The 15 yard mark is obviously the most vivid. And here you can see how being off just an inch or two could result in a missed or wounded gobbler.

Patterning shotguns, as an obedient practice, is in its adolescence. Spoken capabilities of a person’s gun and load is often conjecture and speculation. I still know plenty of folks who don’t invest the trigger-time necessary to be flapping their gators.

Even if they blow beer cans away at camp and put fist-sized holes through paper at 50 yards, don’t assume your shotgun will behave the same. It is important to learn on your own what your particular rig will do.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bacon Wrapped Venison with Blue Cheese

The sportsman’s universal trick for tasty wild game is to wrap it in bacon. I’m convinced of the pig’s divine existence to provide bacon for us poor sinners here on Earth. Deer, duck, dove, snipe, moorhen, merganser...you really can’t go wrong. Stuff it with cream cheese and maybe a banana pepper; stick a toothpick through it, and one has totally serviceable and quite delicious football food that’s quick and easy to cook on the grill.

Who am I to argue with success?

For the purpose of today, we will be working with venison. A trip to the grocery is in order first. You need:

1 Bottle Stubbs Beef Marinade
1 can blue cheese crumbles
Slab O’ Bacon

Depending on their hunting acumen, some folks may need to buy venison.

Anyway, I use ham steaks but backstrap is fine, too. Cut the silvery sinew away from the meat and slice into chops three inches across. Cover with Saran Wrap and flatten with tenderizer mallet until ¾ inch thick.

Marinate in Stubbs for at least 4 hours. Stubbs is by far my favorite marinade. It complements the flavor of venison perfectly. I’ve been using it for years and think Uncle Stubbs should pay me royalties for his success since I’ve been trumpeting his products for so long now.

Remove from marinade and lay flat on cutting board to pat dry. Put a pinch of blue cheese in the middle of the steak and roll up with bacon, securing all with a toothpick. Also, don’t skimp on the price of cheese. My wife tends to buy the generic brand that tastes like glue – you don’t need to spend 15 bucks on Amablu but don’t sacrifice the flavor over 65 cents either.

Grill over high heat, 3 minutes a side or until cheese is oozing out. Let sit for five minutes and serve. The bacony flavor of bacon combined with the sharp, saltiness of the cheese blends with the sweet and spicy Stubbs to create a Perfect Storm of taste. Not one element, though, overwhelms the other.

It’s so easy and so delicious. This is my standard “I don’t like venison” recipe for those kinds of people.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Pair of Spring Swine

I couldn’t decide if it was the actual noise or the way it re-verbed in the palm island that was more disconcerting, but the situation was eerily reminiscent of the scene in Jurassic Park when the staff lowers the cow into the velociraptor pen. The grunts and high-pitched wheezing. The trampling of foliage by unseen animals. The gaze of abject terror on the faces of the witnesses.

This hog was pissed. Only one XP3 remained in the magazine and it vacated there and went into the chamber in a hot second. I wrapped my arm in the sling and scooted into a skimpy stand of palmettos to break up my outline in case he came busting out.

Wait! Let’s back up.

Travis and I headed down to Sarasota County the other evening, following a cold-front that had scooted south, rinsing the state and shining up the Spring. Both of us wanted – no, lusted for – pork for the freezer. Of all the whining I’ve done of late about not popping a buck this last year, whiffing on hogs had really irritated me. On the places I hunt, a combination of hunting pressure and an embarrassing richness of acorns had killed the hog hunting.

Now, though, the weather had warmed and the leftover acorns were rotting away. The trail camera finally revealed hogs returning to the feeders in the early evening hours. And deer season was a month past, giving the hogs time to regroup and reintroduce themselves to the pleasures of unleaded daylight.

Or so they thought.

I elected to hunt, naturally, where I had placed my Covert Cam and got all those great hog pics. A mottled boar was the primary target, I told Travis, but really it didn’t matter to me; I was just ready for some artillery breeze.

Speaking of breezes, stand location was a serious concern. The bow blind at this location was in the worst possible position for the NW wind. It would blow scent all over the corn. To make matters worse, the spot is basically a clearing surrounded by palms and oak canopies. When the wind blew hard, it circled around the opening like water flushing down a toilet taking stink with it. Really, there’s no escaping it, no bueno for swine.

One can try to minimize it. I hauled a folding metal chair in with me and set it under the bare branches of an oak on the SE side in the only clear view of the feeder I could get. Even then, this was no gimme shot. Sedge broom had begun growing knee-high, and palmettos and twigs obscured any potential pokes just outside from the feeder. Purists may scoff, but the hogs would have to be standing in corn, it appeared, for me to shoot.

Still, I was toting my pet Savage Tactical .300 Win Mag stoked with 165-gr. Winchester XP3’s – I’m confident to the socks with that rig.

I hosed down with Scent-A-Way, clicked on the Therma-Cell to keep the skeeters at bay, and accessed the Mobile Internet to catch up with the latest Spring Training news. I had a solid hour before I expected the action.

When hogs do arrive at a feeder, they announce their presence with authority, which is pretty damn convenient - I’ve always thought - to knock you out of reverie and man your arms.

At 6:30, a sharp grunt was followed by a “whoofing” noise they make when they think something may be amiss. No doubt, this one detected a foreign fragrance - maybe me, maybe the Therma-Cell, blast their noses - but it couldn’t quite figure it out. I listened as it noisily circled unseen along the palmetto edge before emerging from a trail directly in front of me, nose to the air and high-stepping, maybe 45 yards away.

If that won’t get your blood running, absolutely nothing will.

I didn't think there was a shot through the tangle to the front. I practically dared that hog to move left to the opening under the feeder, but she hesitated. She turned that way and took a precious couple steps. That’s when I realized I had just the tiniest crack through which to fling a bullet. It wasn’t a long shot...but it still was.

The sow rolled at that kaboom, laying still as the report echoed off. From the right, more snorting and wheezing. Another black sow trotted up and paused in the same glory-hole, this time ten yards closer standing between me and The Fallen, hair raised on the back of her neck.

As I walked up to check the hogs for any last life, the prehistoric wailing in the palms began. No way will a third pig pop out – and if this one did, it was going to be a show.

I waited and waited and listened as the bush hog paralleled the treeline and melted into the landscape, heart absolutely racing, expecting Mega-Boar and a showdown.

The first sow was a 120-pounder. She had an old wound in her back that cut down into her tenderloin. I'm not sure if this was a bullet hole or a horny hole from a rough tusker boar. The second was maybe 90 pounds, an excellent eater. At dark, Travis and I loaded the hogs in the back of the Ram as a secondary front began to blow in heavy wind and light rain. The timing was perfect.

It had been a year since I've harvested a hog. This hunt was worth the wait.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Archery Spring Training

I love baseball. Particularly, I love the Yankees. I am unapologetically a huge New York fan. I care not that they buy players year in and year out. I would do the same thing if I had the money, though personal needs for a Derek Jeter or an A-Rod are pretty low unless they can paint my house. I'd be swapping out gear and hunts, for sure.

Still, baseball is a fantastic sport. It requires eye-hand coordination, focus on a small target, and rigourous repetition to achieve success. Spring Training is a particularly exciting time of the year. Teams report to camp to begin working towards achieving their goals for September and October. How they perform here sets the groundwork for what they hope to be a winning fall.

Bowhunters should really take note.

If you could find a better time of the year to practice with your archery gear, let me know. Too many years have passed when I’ve waited until August or late July to start shooting arrows. It’s hot and muggy, and storms often put an end to my session.

And even though bow season is over half a year away, the next couple of months offer the right opportunities to be outside tuning up for September. It has been a particularly cold winter across the nation and shivering can really impact your archery accuracy. Thank God that’s over. Now, you can spend a couple hours outside, taking your time before the opposite happens and summer sweat accumulates in your armpits until the point where the stink starts killing grass.

Many outdoor writers, much wiser than me, suggest you conduct your archery practice from natural hunting positions, such as from a stand. I primarily use climber stands. This is not happening in the summer. One reason is the aforementioned Stink Factor from running the stand up and down a tree. The other is I don’t favor myself a lightning target.

I’m betting stand hunting is how 99% of us will kill a deer during bow season, so it makes sense to practice from there. And not just by loosing arrows, but also in how to bring your gear up the tree quietly, and finding a comfortable position from which to shoot. All of these are more practical exercises than standing flat-footed and seeing how far you can hit the target.

I don't always practice what I preach; Spring is an awfully busy time as we prepare for turkey season and other outdoor pursuits. But it wouldn't harm you or me to spend an afternoon or three playing with the bow.

Oh, and Go Yanks!!!