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

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Trophy Gator

“Never insult an alligator until after you have crossed the river.” – Cordell Hull

Down in a cove on the southwest corner of the lake, the gator moseyed towards shore. A beast, we didn’t figure we could cut him off with the trolling motor. But the surface drive would have definitely spooked him. We had to try – this gator had given us the slip on a couple other occasions, and the situation had grown personal.

Luck appeared to be in our favor. He ceased swimming and bathed in the open. Still, a gator this size could make it to weeds and cattails along the bank in a handful of tails swishes. I manned the motor, hoping to maneuver into a position where we’d block him from reaching the lakeshore where he’d be safe from snatch hooks. At least if he sank in the open, we could seek out his bubble trail. But, the best scenario was for him to stay surfaced - just had to get close enough to pitch the large treble hook.

We reached the brink of range as the gator started feeling the pressure and slowly resumed his cruise towards land, his gnarly head poking above the lake’s horizon leaving an inverted V of a wake to mark his trail. Cole was given the go ahead. This was no fire-for-effect situation – the gator would surely spook once the hook hit the water. It was just a matter of getting the hook and line over his back, reeling quickly and digging a prong deep into his hide.

Cole’s attempt had the distance of a worthy try, but not the accuracy. The three-pronged snatch plopped in front of the gator, missing by several feet. A tannic-stained wave of water erupted as he beat his tail and disappeared once again into the depths of the mucky lake.

Trophy animals – regardless of species – attain their status through the years. A trophy alligator, especially, is a worthy prize. One, they live for decades, surviving numerous assaults like the one described above, to say nothing of the violent relationships with other gators and predators in their youth. I would not depict them as crafty, as one would call a big buck whitetail, but they are certainly of a different mindset than their younger counterparts. Bull gators are often all too visible on lakes and rivers but have the capability to vanish in surprisingly shallow depths, the normal tricks plied to dig out the younger guys rendered ineffective.

And, like other trophies, a combination of hunter effort must usually overlap with an environmental or physiological change that exposes vulnerability in the animal. Take whitetails again. While a great many big bucks are taken outside of the rut, the majority are laid low when they shrug off their normal wary instinct to chase does. The problem with gators is the hunting season does not coincide with their breeding cycle. We desperately needed such an event to get the drop on this bad boy or we’d spend more time in fruitless pursuit, educating him even further.

We returned to the lake the next morning. I had drawn second phase tags for a popular Central Florida lake. By this point in the season, no doubt, the gator, and his hunted brethren, had endured a pestilence of hunters. A trophy specimen mixed with intense hunting activity only distances the odds of triumph. But he was firmly implanted in our minds. I’d never taken a truly large gator and was only lukewarm about taking a meat gator. This morning was sloppy, though. Winds coming from the advancing Hurricane Irene created a chop across the lake, making it awfully difficult to spot heads on the surface. It appeared that a repeat shot at this guy was slim to none.

So, Harris drove us across the lake - opposite the haunt of our villain - to hunt along a shoreline protected from the wind. Wimpy gators – 5-7-footers – popped up and down, but none were of any interest. Then I spotted a barge of a lizard floating in the middle of the lake.

Trophy judging gators is difficult. There are a whole lot of medium-sized reptiles out there that are 8-9 feet long that are big by reasonable standards and represent fine catches, but are not the leviathans of nightmares and campfire stories. And I know hunters probably help gators grow a few feet, too, when carrying a warm tag in their pocket as the nights drag on and on.

But, as the saying goes in trophy hunting, the big ones look big, and this one was a warhorse. This gator displayed his veteran status, as well. He submerged before we got close enough to even think about picking up a rod. I helmed the trolling motor until we neared where he went down and sat back to wait for him to show himself, careful not to kick gear around the boat and create startling noises and vibrations.

Thirty minutes passed and nothing. Good ideas were fleeting, with little hunting time left. We decided to circle the lake in hopes of spotting any action, but the waves thwarted us.

As we started back to the ramp the wind mercifully eased. We noticed an abundance of dead shad floating on the surface. The evening before, a huge thunderstorm dumped several inches of rain on the area. The influx of cool rainwater sank to the bottom of the lake releasing decomposing vegetation that removed dissolved oxygen from the water. Unable to breathe, the fish suffocated. Shad are particularly vulnerable to this in the shallows. We noticed one runt gator on the surface enjoying this feast.

That’s when I noticed our Man back in the cove where he had given us the slip the day before. He was surrounded by dead shad.

This time he allowed us to get fairly close before sounding just out of casting range. But unlike before, he surfaced quickly, hanging in that general area and not beating tail to shore. The shad buffet kept his attention fixed. His vulnerability was exposed.

This didn’t mean he was completely off his grind. The gator went back down as the anchor was lowered. We got a bead on where he was and prepared to wait him out, hearts absolutely racing. When he did resurface ten minutes later, he was off our port side and quickly sank after a quick breath. The gator wasn’t any closer to shore, but given any more time, it was a cinch he could make it there, no sweat. The decision was made to do a little prospecting with the snatch lines.

The gator betrayed no bubbles or other sign, but the snatch hooks were tossed with educated guesses. It was a long shot, but our only hope at this juncture. Time and opportunities were burning. Harris hung something on his third or fourth cast. Near a shoreline with cypress and oaks, it was a safe bet he’d hooked a large, waterlogged treetrunk. Indeed, it was coming up far too easy. We stood on the bow of the boat peering into the muddy water, hoping it was gator.

That warty head surfacing at our toes is a moment that cannot be forgotten. We all jumped back startled and scrambled to find gear with sharp points attached. Those yellow eyes, set so far apart, glanced up over us briefly before thrashing into a tug of war. I grabbed my new rod rigged with triple treble hooks and frantically tried to set another line to him as Harris tried to keep tension on the gator without snapping the line or rod. A gator that size would not be real impressed with one angler, and his thick skin could easily toss the hook. After several attempts – nearly fouling the original line more than once – I struck hide.

The old boy made several runs – not the high spirited streaks younger gators will do; just a constant freight train charge. A harpoon line was a necessity to try to gain control over him as our drags moaned, reluctantly giving up line. He could easily have pulled us into the debris around shore, or that powerful tail could rub through the braided with his scaly hide. I handed my rod off and prepared the harpoon. Finally, enough line was retrieved and a few pumps on the rods brought the gator towards the surface along the portside gunnel. I tried twice to sink the point into whatever leather I could hit but without success. Eventually, I drove the harpoon head in his massive tail, not the ideal spot, but it was what I could do.

I prepared another harpoon line when the gator rolled. The harpoon point and all hooks came loose and he was free. Harris immediately grabbed another rod and began pitching it at the gator, who realized he had an opportunity to reach safety but seemed discombobulated by the action. He whirled close to shore as I rushed to untangle the other lines. Finally, Harris – this hunt would have failed without him – hooked up.

Again, we couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a tree. Harris was unable to budge him. I went ahead and snagged whatever it was with another line and reeled. The line came tight and rod bent over to the water. Whatever it was wasn’t budging.

Thoughts of failure crept in. Almost certainly we were fighting a cypress stump. The object gave no ground. It was like trying to pull a screw straight out of a bolt without turning lefty-loosey first. We kept the pressure on, though. My back began aching and my arms shook from fatigue, sweat blurred my eyes. After what seemed like an hour – but more like 5 or 10 minutes – I felt a quiver on my line and knew we had him again.

He didn’t fight like he had before. The gator was clearly exhausted. Harris and I decided to go ahead and heave him to the surface. That wide, landing strip of a back, resembling tank tread but constructed of blown semi-truck tire, peaked out of the water before rolling over and displaying a dark yellowish underside flecked with scars, leeches and mottled patches of hide.

This time, we put two harpoons in relatively easy despite our remaining reserves of collective strength hovering in the red. The fight had led us into the cattails and aquatic plants along shore, but with four lines in him now, Harris used the trolling motor to free us from this tangle and tried to use the momentum of the boat to bring his head up for the bangstick.

It worked but only briefly. I failed on my first chance, his dome rising and falling without a shot. The anxiety had built to a head; I could not afford to let another attempt slip by. Over the course of several hunts and by the grace of good fortune, he was right where we needed him. But it was not over yet - a gator that size wouldn’t require much more than a solid breath or two and the fight in him would return. I was not confident how much further our luck would stretch.

My first shot was a touch off-center. The gator quickly dove and thrashed. I reloaded. Again, Harris pulled him onto a plane, and I quickly tapped another .44 in his skull. The struggle slacked. The trick now was to get him onshore without losing him. There was no way to get him in the boat on open water.

Harris held the harpoon lines and trolled the short distance back to the ramp. The huge gator was all but expired as we rolled onto the mud. I carefully crawled out of the boat, trying to avoid his tail - if he was to thrash, he’d snap my legs - and put another shot in the sweet spot. It was then we knew it was all over and the celebration began.

The alligator was a real monster. I’m not sure how we rolled him in the boat, but the gravity of what we had done finally hit us. We knew he was big but not like this. The gator taped 10 feet 8 inches. More impressive than the length was the girth. He was a massive bull with the fattest jowls I have seen on an alligator. His claws resembled those of a grizzly, and his hide was scarred from years of fighting the nature of Central Florida. I loathe making such assertions without the proper instruments, but I’m guessing he weighed somewhere in the 600-700 pound range.

As I said, taking a trophy animal is something special. It requires effort and luck and unforeseeable circumstances to help bring one to bag. On an animal like this, you feel the accomplishment from the congratulations of friends to the soreness in your back and arms, and the adrenaline that lingers through the rest of the week. And I’d be severely remiss if I did not give Harris his due; he guided the trip and hooked the gator. It’s as much his prize as mine, if not more so. I just happened to pull the tag and fire a few shots.

Though I am still a novice in the gator hunting ranks, it is safe to say, trophy-wise, years will pass before this Old Boy is matched. And if Time offers up no adequate comparisons, that will be fine, too.

This experience could never be topped.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Thoughts on a Nine Foot Gator

For us at least, gator hunting is a team sport. True, one person draws the tags and has the claim on the trophy, but there is a lot going on when a gator is spotted and hooked. It behooves the tag-holder to enlist the aid of licensed helpers.

Plus, it’s fun with a crowd. Alligator hunting is exciting and best shared in the company of friends. And when you get a crew together who has the hunting experience and knows each other well enough to handle a pressure situation, the results are impressive.

I don’t mean to brag, but we flat whipped a nine-footer a couple Friday’s ago. Harris had the tags for the first phase. The previous Wednesday he and another group bagged a 10-plus trophy, and I was kicking myself for scheduling work appointments so early in the morning. Friday I did not miss the invite to help punch his second tag.

As I have described previously, our manner of hunting gators relies on spotting the target and getting within range of casting a large treble hook to snag the reptile. Then we put another fishing line in it, harpoon and then bangstick. It’s not all that easy, though.

One, the gators get spooky, especially on lakes with a large number of tags. Gators are easy to spot but approaching them is the tricky part. If you get lucky, they will stay close to the surface, and you can lay a line across their backs. If they submerge before you are in range, you approach quietly by trolling motor and look for bubble trails from where the scoot across the bottom, stirring up the muck. Still other gators will go down and not move, and the goal is to wait them out and hope they surface for a breath nearby.

The first gator we moved on that morning gave us the slip. We had spied him from afar. As we approached, he submerged, but left a solid bubble trail. The problem was, he was moving quick, and we tried to keep pace with the trolling motor – as much as a high-speed chase as you can get in this situation. The hooks were missing their mark. The gator whirled around under the boat anxiety and we lost track of him. We finally picked back up on a bubble trail and watched as a small 5-6 footer surfaced. I guess we scared him up while pursuing the bigger one. He had Houdini-ed us.

I glassed a very large gator across the lake, so we cranked up and made way to his location. While in route, the gator sounded, but we quickly spied another lizard that piqued our curiosity. Harris elected to spend his final tag on him, and after locating his bubble trail, the fight was on.

Getting the second fishing line into the gator is usually the most anxious component of this experience. You have to be very careful not to tangle the other line and pull it loose, and even though you have a general idea of where the gator is, the water depth and the way the animal is swimming or laying on the bottom affect a quick hook-up. On a crowded boat and the intensity of trying to double up lines, confusion can set in and tempers flare.

Someone got the second line into this gator with relative ease. He was hauled to the surface – an angry alligator is the most PO’ed animal I’ve ever seen. I tagged him behind the head with the harpoon and the spinning Death Roll commenced, splashing water over us all and banging against the side of the boat. This guy was beefier that we had thought.

The real problem then came with the position of all three lines. As Harris readied the bangstick, I held the harpoon line while Cole held the two fishing rods, both hooks also stuck behind the noggin. When we’d raise him, he’d surface head-up giving him extra momentum if the spirit moved him to join us in the boat. And this guy could do damage.

This situation proved problematic for the bangstick. The gator was angled as such that a shot would travel through the skull and towards the hull. We needed to get him sideways instead of bobbing up and down in the water column. I tried to pull him up and troll him past Harris, but this put me in the way when the shot presented itself. Finally Cole grabbed the harpoon line from the bow and lifted. This different angle gave Harris a shot and he reached deep to pop the gator.

Harris made a great shot and the gator’s lights went out. We hoisted the gator alongside the boat, taped his mouth and rolled him aboard. All told, it didn’t take 15 minutes from hookup to finish. Probably less. Everyone worked well.

The gator taped at 8”10 with a couple inches missing from his tail – so fairly rounded up to an even nine feet. He was no monster, but a solid gator and the biggest one I had been a part of catching up to that point.

Most impressive was the efficiency in which we solved problems that presented throughout the course of the hunt. It’s an easy game to sensationalize. Between bangsticks and harpoons and snatch lines and toothy beasts, there is a high potential for dangerous incident. It’s important everyone figures out their roles quickly.

This makes gator hunting one of the most exhilarating outdoor sports in which to participate - whether you are making the kill or not.

Camo Dipped Alligator European Mount

I’m in the midst of a taxidermy binge. Which is great – it means high times afield. My bobcat is close to completion. I just hauled a bull gator to my man for a head mount (story still pending). These specimens were clear-cut trophies, and I am excited to put them on display.

But the mount I’ve most been looking forward to was delivered yesterday.

I am not a fan of altering trophies. I want them to represent the animal honestly and in as close a position to what it was doing when our paths crossed. Hogs, for example. A lot of boar mounts have their cutters pulled out to make them appear more ferocious. It’s a bogus memory. Likewise, I didn’t want my bobcat mounted on a limb with claws and teeth baring and coming off the wall like it was shot out of a cannon. I chose a style where he was in a semi-sneak, like he was pursuing the female cat with him. My wood duck is not in flight because I shot him off the water. Kidding.

To each his own, of course. I just like the memory and mount agreeing on the moment as much as possible. European mounts are different. It’s a skull. It’s a memory, but it’s difficult to evoke the same feelings as a pelt. The skull is cold.

Now, I do think they are awesome. I have several hogs and a couple deer done this way, and they fit well in my taxidermy display. And they are more hands-on figures. People can examine the hog skulls and mess with the teeth. It’s cool. When I saw Matthew Beck of Legacy Skull Preservation offering Alligator European mounts dipped in camo, I knew I had to have one.

If you have not read my interview with him from last month, please do so – or at least visit his site. He works very hard at preserving skulls. In April I took him a skull from my first gator season two years ago, an 8-foot female pulled from Lake Garfield after a week of hard hunting. I had done what every lazy person seems to do with these things – place it in an ant bed, sun bleach it, and tuck it in a closet until I could find the time to reassemble the teeth – which, let me tell you, picking through a fire ant bed trying to find them all is none too pleasant.

The skull had a chalky feeling to it. The lower jaw had splintered and the bone was separating by the nose. I applied glue to hold everything together. When I went to re-set the teeth, I realized I had no clue in the world where they all went. I took this mess to Matt, and he was kind enough to accept the project. It took a while for him to repair the damage I’d done trying to bleach the skull, but the finished product has been the joy of my week.

The camo pattern is called Boggy Vizion. The skull is sturdy and smooth to the touch. The white teeth really pop against the dark camo. I love it. My wife loves it. All God’s Children love it.

Next time I get a large gator I’m gonna have Matt mount it bone white. The camo really hides the work he put into this one. That would make three gator mounts, which is more than fine for my trophy room.

Check out Legacy Skull Preservation!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Best Taxidermy Ad Ever

Been busy gator hunting this week and have a couple great stories to write. Also close to having the twins so not had a chance to sit at the computer for long - but check back. The tales will cement my legend status.

For now, this will have to do.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Basic Gator Hunting Gear and Strategies

This week I will be taking delivery on a new harpoon from Central Florida Trophy Hunts. Their combo package includes a stainless steel base, driver, two Muzzy harpoon points, 100 feet of rope and two Styrofoam buoys. For 120 bucks plus shipping, it ain’t too bad. Just gonna have to run to ACE to get a dowel to mount it on. Shy of a boat, this will complete my crusade for gator hunting gear. But once you have all the gear, boats are easy to come by.

For those of you raised on Swamp People who believe gator hunting is as easy as shooting a gator in the head with a .22 while it chokes on a hooked chicken thigh, know Florida does not allow the use of firearms. Nor baited hooks – baited pegs, yes.

To wit, there are numerous tactics hunters use to land gators, most of which are dependent on the elements of the Happy Hunting Grounds. Some folks, especially those who hunt shallow, weedy areas, prefer a run-and-gun style. They spotlight red eyes and floor it to that location and try to spear or arrow the gator. Or track their bubbles and pitch snatch lines provided the vegetation isn't so thick that it hangs hooks.

For some who hunt large rivers and open waters, using baited lines to chum gators is their preferred tactic. They are not allowed to set lines from shore – and catch those “Tree Shakers.” Baited lines must be hand-held or secured to a boat. Plus, no hooks may be used; only 2-inch wooden pegs wedged into the bait and thrown in the vicinity of a gator or in a likely location. Common baits are beef lung and rotten chicken and are pretty repulsive. The gator swallows the bait and the Tug-O-War begins until it is hit with snatch hooks or harpoons.

Still others take the silent approach, spotlighting gators from a distance and stalking within range with minimal light and by paddle or trolling motor. If the gator sounds, an anchor is eased over. Most times the gator will not travel far. When the gator is sighted again within range, the snatch line is cast over the beast and the fight is on. Hunters must be quiet not to kick equipment and beer cans around the vessel as this noise easily spooks the gators.

I cannot speak much more than this about baits and harpooning and bows and arrows; I’ve never tried these methods. We’ve relied on this final model, and it is the equipment needed for this that I would like to discuss.

Let’s start with lights. Q-Beams are near-essential tools for the gator hunter to spot game at long distances. Not surprisingly, different hunters disagree on how much a spotlight should be used; some feel if you keep it in their eyes, it keeps a lizard from submerging. Others feel you should douse the light and sneak in the dark. I agree with the latter camp only because I’ve not witnessed an effective execution of the former strategy.

But, you must still see where you are throwing. We use low wattage headlamps. It can be difficult for others in the boat to see the game, but for the person wearing the lamp about to cast a line, the light is just enough to shine those eyes.

Which brings us to the pitch rods. Last year Harris introduced a new strategy. On previous hunts with him, he used two stout rods with large treble hooks. The muscle was there, but the casting range was limited and inaccurate. Plus, large three-pointed hooks slinging out of the boat made everyone a little antsy. So, last year he decided to bring a smaller rod with lighter line that cast farther. We were hunting open water, more or less, so we could quickly maneuver close to put more lines in him without much fear of the gator breaking us off. Worked twice in the night.

Dad visited Bridgemaster Fishing Products in Lake Wales to find a gator set-up for my birthday. On the advice of a seasoned hunter, he bought a 7-foot E-Class Roddy Gator Tail with an Okuma Avenger and 150 yards of 80lb. Tuf-Line. The gentleman also recommended rigging a line with three treble hooks and a weight on the end. Previously we had just used a weighted hook, but I can see the benefits of adding a couple more. (I do fear my knot-tying skills for this operation. I’m usually surprised when I tie my shoe and don’t have a finger wrapped in the bow. It's why I wear sandals.) After a gator has been hooked, we try to put another line in him. It's important that people work together because lines will tangle and snap in the frenzy.

Once you’ve spotted a gator and put a line or three in him, the next step is the harpoon. Gators roll up and down lines like yo-yos when boat side. That harpoon line is insurance and makes the situation more manageable. The one I’ve purchased – and there are numerous companies that sell them – is a straightforward design. A harpoon tip is rigged to rope and a float. This is then placed on a driver. The hunter leans into a strong jab to get under that tough hide. The tip comes off the pole and the floats are free to go overboard if the gator takes off. Now comes the dangerous part - getting the gator boatside and subdued.

I’ve written about my bangstick before, so I won’t repeat myself today. The goal is to send the slug in a spot directly between the eyes and two to three inches behind and angled towards the brain for a humane kill. It must only be used when the gator is a few inches below the water and only when the gator is secured to a restraining line as described above.

This typically knocks the wind from their sails, but gators are dangerous critters with small brains. It’s prudent to wrap their snouts - very carefully - with electrical or duct tape. Then, sever the spine behind the skull. Their eyes should shut after giving up the ghost.

As I noted earlier, this is the basic manner in which I have gator hunted. And I will confess, I've never personally dealt with a true dinosaur. How each captain or guide or hunter performs is dependent on their experience, and I welcome any advice should one want to share it. Gator hunting, for us, has been a team sport and very enjoyable as long as everyone is on the same page.

One last thought if you’re the captain of the vessel. Make sure you have all your running lights, throw cushions, flares, and life jackets on board. The Man is relentless. A trapper’s agent license is required of all those who aid in the capture of a gator and can be purchased online and at the local Wal-Mart or sporting goods store.

(FYI: For this year, tags have been applied for and distributed. The first phase begins today. The new hunting hours are 5pm to 10am each day of the 11-week season)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Covert Scouting Cameras

Just wanted to give a quick plug for Covert Scouting Cameras. As I noted in my last Trail Camera Pics post, my Covert had developed a few issues. The door to the battery case broke. The on-off switch snapped. And the last few pictures were over-exposed.

I wasn’t all that angry because it endured a torture test of varying, year-long Florida weather conditions. It still should have held up, but I really liked the quality of pictures I was getting, the system was easy to use, and the battery life was superb. I wasn't ready to jump ship. A quick e-mail to the company with my concerns was all it took to secure a warranty number and instructions to send it back.

I quickly obliged.

10 days later, sitting on my doorstep, was a brand-new in-the-box camera. Not only that, it was the next model up, the Covert Extreme. All it cost was seven dollars in shipping. I was terribly pleased with this level of customer service.

Covert cameras have an underground, cult following that is well-deserved. You see more of other brands in ads and magazines, but I get alot of praise from others when I mention Coverts in my posts. I've even won a few converts.

The Extreme and my previous version different in very user-friendly ways. Instead of a plug-in control system in the last model, the Extreme has all the controls on the inside of the unit, but the basic attraction of its compact size remains intact. The battery housing is different with 8 AA’s fitting snug into the unit without a weak door. The company claims the Extreme has a 1.2 second trigger time. There are all kinds of settings from photo bursts to videos, and this version is compatible with 8GB SD cards - an upgrade, as well. In addition, the camera is camo-ed in the snazzy Mossy Oak Bottomland finish.

The new camera should be deployed within the next week in South Florida. I look forward to sharing the results with you.

If you have not already, check out Covert Scouting Cameras.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cuda Dreams, Mullet Reality - East Coast Bowfishing

The plan was easy enough – arrow a barracuda. Maybe not the smartest plan in the world but a challenge that no one I know has attempted. The idea was to visit a buoy south of Ft. Pierce Inlet where local fisherman stop to sabiki sardines and threadfins for the more serious business of offshore fishing. It is also here where the barracuda lounge around, eating at leisure on the hapless bait and the foraging bonito, jacks and assortment of other piscine predators there to fill their stomachs, as well. It’s 25-30 feet deep here, but if there’s not a lot of boat traffic, the cuda will tread near the surface, tail fins often poking out of the water. Over the years we’ve seen real leviathans, and I wanted to stick one badly.

But apparently Tuesday, August 2nd was a holiday I was unaware of as there was a merry band of boaters on the water. 6 or 7 boats peddled around the buoy trying to fill their livewells. Another 3 or 4 boats were on a plane in that direction. This did not bode well for the prospects of lazy barracuda and easy targets.

We could have maneuvered our way into the mix, but I was downright hostile to the idea. One, I don’t like people stuck all up in my beeswax. There’s every reason to believe I was the first ever who’d visited the buoy with a bow and arrow. Fishermen are a curious bunch, and I didn’t care to repeatedly explain myself. The activity is perfectly legal, but you never know when an ignorant angler may call the law and have to deal with that hassle.

Next, barracuda have this terrible habit of leaping out of the water when hooked by standard fishing tackle. There may be Minnesota-Americans reading this who don’t have a clear concept of what a barracuda is – once it leaves the water, it is a wayward rocket with teeth that clips serious holes into whatever it hits. Occasionally you’ll read stories of one jumping randomly in a boat and chewing up its crew, but more often than not, it’s a hooked fish darting into the cockpit that tears people up. So arrowing one amidst a bunch of boats had the potential for a sad, litigious ending.

Dad and I tossed out a couple spoons and trolled the area for mackerel, without luck, until the boats cleared away. Immediately I could tell the fish were spooked. They were down deep in the crystal water and showed no signs of rising. Oh, we saw plenty – schools in fact, some fish that’d probably hit the 30 pound mark. I did tag one in the side with an arrow - I was more surprised by it than he was - but at the depth he was cruising, the arrow harmlessly bounced off and he sped away.

So we pulled out the SWAT tactics. Dad would cast a surface plug and retrieved it as fast as he could. Cuda love chasing fast-moving lures. And they did, but still stayed deep. The next trick was to rig up the sabikis and try to lure the barracuda alongside the boat with fresh bait. For those of you who don’t know, a sabiki rigs is a gangline of five to six small gold hooks with little white “wings” that you attach a weight to and jig through schools of bait. The baitfish attack the miniscule lures, and it’s a pretty effective manner of filling a livewell with frisky baits. We had one sabiki rig. On the first cast, I hooked into four or five scaled sardines.

Annnnddddd, the line broke sending the rig and baitfish into the Locker.

I was flabbergasted as the clown music was now blaring loudly. Foolishly I expected easy and planned accordingly. This cuda thing just wasn’t going to work out today and the August heat was cranking up. Dad mentioned a grassflat in the Indian River he had fished the previous day filled with mullet. Mullet are on the other end of the spectrum of dangerous game, but I am sure in the annals of African safaris, some lion hunter frustrated with his ill-fated pursuit, soothed his irritations on a herd of impala or dik-dik. So, we left the blue of the Atlantic to head to emerald green of the Intercoastal.

Dad was right. There were plenty of mullet. Also stingrays.

I’m on the fence about stingrays. They are tailor-made for bowfishing. But, what to do with them? Their only real purpose on Earth is to feed sharks, but that still is not enough reason to shoot one. And these were big rays – 30-40 pound rays. I’ve caught enough on rod and reel to know that, unless I brained the fish, it would be a struggle to get it to the boat with what little line I had in the AMS. This is in extreme violation of the fisherman’s affliction with reeling in the Big Catch, but I could log no ethical reason to pop these slow-moving flat fish. Then again, I didn’t have much reason to shoot barracuda either. Silly how ethics works sometimes.

The other frustrating fish were the snook. It is highly illegal – as in, BBQ a bald eagle illegal – to spear snook. And it was out of season. And most of them we saw were over slot size. But linesider after linesider drifted by the boat as I perched near the center console awaiting passing schools of mullet. They’d given me the electric chair had I pegged the 20-pounder that hung off the transom, eying me, almost Triple Dog Daring me to shoot.

Mullet it would be. I shot three in about 200 shots. Two were intentionally shot; the smallest I flock-shot. So, I didn’t bag the biggest fish in the seas.

But unlike stingrays and cuda, mullet do nicely translate into this:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Summer Hog Hunting

Like singing in the shower, cutting into a herd of hogs with an AR-15 is an unbridled joy. I could have popped the first one easy enough, but Travis was not at a vantage point where he could see the 100 pound sow. Plus, he was in front of my left shoulder just enough that it would have scared me – and certainly him – if I’d launched a round or three at the black pig without him aware of the situation. As we corrected our position, the sow caught our movements and thrashed into a head of willows and deep aquatic grass.

That’s when her herd of 40-50 pound progeny started piling out of the Tall Grass. They were perfect BBQ hogs. The shots would have been fleeting, but, again, with an AR-15 the temptation to go Predator-era Jesse Ventura on them was pretty high. But, I’ve calmed myself in recent years, and believe in the economy of a bullet. The group settled under those willows as we recomposed ourselves and crept in for a shot. This was pure luck; the circumstances of us even being there too convoluted to really comprehend.

The week before we had been at the ranch hanging stands, filling feeders, and preparing for bow season. It was a fine time for the battery in my truck to die. We had to call the ranch manager to tow us out of the woods, humiliated, but grateful, that his Ford Ranger was able to coax my Dodge Mega Cab over ditches and down the trails back to the ranch shed. There, the ranch manager loaned me a tractor battery so I could drive home. We agreed to bring it back at the earliest possible time and thanked him profusely for saving our rears.

We returned the next Tuesday evening to deliver the battery. I had also become concerned with the working conditions of my trail camera, so we decided we’d slip in and grab it before calling it a day. On the path back to the truck, we wandered across the hogs. It’s important to carry a rifle with you in the working hours of summer, especially when pigs are around.

Summer hog hunting is typically an early morning or last light affair. Sure, I’ve rambled across plenty in the heat of noon while driving properties or hanging stands, but by and large, the gloaming of the day is prime time. Exceptions do arise.

The hogs were out feeding well before last light, around 6pm. The caveat was the weather. A tropical wave had buffeted the property with light rain before our arrival which had significantly cooled the area. The conditions were still overcast, and for a Florida July, I’d call it comfortable. In our limited roaming, we saw several deer and a couple hens.

Florida hogs emerge from their swampy hideouts after a rain shower or thunderstorm to munch on freshly-wet green grass. The problem is, down here everything is green during the summer, so it is important to stay mobile. If it’s a blistering 95, that makes hunting awfully unrewarding. So maybe it’s as much me liking to hunt after a rain as much as hogs prefer to eat after one that makes this summer hunting successful. Either way, it is savvy practice to stay on alert during these times, whether you are out stalking or out bumbling.

You could always guard a feeder, but stand hunting in the summer for hogs doesn’t do much for me. The cat’s meow is to park your truck under a shade tree with the A/C and radio humming and glass cow pastures and cutovers, then slip out and stalk up to them. Hogs are the perfect southern animal on which to hone your stalking skills.

What is also nice about summer hog hunting is the lack of hunting pressure. While we were on a private ranch, it gets pretty heavy traffic from September through April, and not all of the guests are as single-minded about deer or turkey as I tend to be. During this time, too, the ranch hands do a fair amount of dog hunting and trapping. This all relaxes in the summer, as do the hogs. Even drawing on experiences from other properties that have not endured the hard-core hog obliteration, the pigs just seem more comfortable in the summer. Wish I could quantify that beyond anecdote, but I can’t.

It’s too bad Florida doesn’t open more public lands to summer hog hunts. Swiftmud is currently analyzing their lands to see which would be suitable for hunting. They’ve been amenable to hog hunts. It’s something to investigate. And those of you on deer leases who don’t hog hunt are missing a fine offseason reprieve.

Wild hogs are also a delightful quarry on which to employ some of those neglected arms in the back of the gun locker. Summer hog hunting is the perfect opportunity to pull out that old lever action or handgun. Or Grandpa’s old military rifles. Perhaps try open sights for once in your life. Any fast-handling firearm is perfect for sneaking up on a sounder.

To wit, the AR-15. Those hogs were bayed in the willows grunting and wheezing. Probably not a great idea to get any closer, but we were game.

From the corner of my eye, I caught what I thought was a boar lope across the road. I swung and fired once, rolling the 150lb sow head over heels.

Just straight up Summer Luck.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Great White Shark off Sebastian Inlet, FL

OK, this is month-old news, but I figured I'd post it anyway - we are celebrating Shark Week. And I did just spend the last six days enjoying the beautiful beaches and warm waters of Cocoa and Vero, 30 minutes to the north and south, respectively, of Sebastian Inlet.

This diver was supposedly hunting in 150-170 feet of water. The big fish he is shooting at are amberjacks.

It's a pretty cool video and a strong reminder of why I don't spearfish. (Skip to the 3-minute mark to see the shark.)