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

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thoughts on Florida's Alligator Hunting Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- I love my bangstick.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Doe Management Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recap of 1st 2011 Bowhunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopefully we’ll have a success story, then.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trail Camera on a Bad Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 7, 2011

Babies vs. Bucks & Ducks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hunting for Hunting Answers II - Do Deer Move More in Cold Weather?


Do deer move more in cold weather?

Yes, but...

The Public Administration program at University of Central Florida required us to take a year of statistical analytics to earn our Masters. Throughout this course, we used a program called SPSS to determine if certain variables had an effect on a given outcome. Since this was a PA class, the topics were geared around policy questions. For instance, the professor had published numerous papers and actively researched people’s responses to natural disasters and the government’s ability to shape policy around that. His goal was to discover how a person’s demographics, geography, exposure to weather reports, etc., would affect whether or not they would evacuate in case of a hurricane or other natural disaster. He reveled in working with data, as only a university professor can.

The information he utilized had been collected through surveys and other data gathering tools. Responses were coded and plugged into SPSS. If people didn’t evacuate a hurricane, what were the reasons, and which had the strongest influence on a person’s decision? A factor that seemed prevalent in a decision was said to have a strong statistical correlation - those that had some influence but weren’t as dominant displayed a weak correlation. And other stuff. Big words. Tons of fun, as you can imagine, and surprisingly, I actually passed. (By the way, my term project was about how poorly the NMFS regulates recreational grouper fishing on the West Coast of Florida which made me the biggest hick in the class by far.)

I bring this up because it is what I think of when approached by the above question. The wrinkle is, we can’t really go out and survey deer for their personal opinions, and there are so many influences on deer movement – especially during hunting season - it’s hard to say if one in particular relates directly to deer activity.

Most of what we think we know is anecdotal which isn’t all that reliable. OK, my guess is avid hunters would say, yes, deer move more during cold weather. But, you know, we hunt during the fall and winter when it is prone to be cold. Folks may say, “I got my biggest buck on that weekend it was the coldest day in recorded history.” Which could be true, but you don’t always know how that one experience translates into overall deer movement. You also have no idea how many times people have hunted when it is cold and not seen spit. But no one seems to recall that. Having just had kids, it reminds me of all the talk about more births happening during full moons. People want to ascribe that phenomenon to a celestial influence, when really The Man in the Moon is a prominent stamp on the memory. No one ever says, “Hey, I had my baby on a waning crescent.” You just notice the full moon – or cold weather – because it lacks subtlety.

Moon phase, rut dates, available food sources, hunting pressure, predator control, and a litany of other factors influence deer movement. Just think through this small list and compare it to your own history of successes and excuses.

“The deer were feeding all night on a full moon, and it’s a weak rut.”

“Too many acorns this year.”

“Hunters have been in my spot.”

“Darn coyotes have the deer buggered up.”

We hunters can rationalize, but it is prudent to place at least a little stock from stories afield. Again, some condition or combination of natural circumstances do dictate how and when deer move.

Also, "cold" and “move more” are a dodgy terms. One, "cold" is regional. It's not the same in FL as it is across the whitetail's range. Reports of movement are based on hunter anecdotes. What one sees from a treestand in the evening is a small sample size. Too many times have I come back to camp dejected, hadn’t seen a sparrow, and complained that the deer were acting weird this year and suffered through listening to others gush about their day straight out of a Disney movie. Turns out I was just in crappy spots. Don’t discount this.

So, the question is too vague to deliver a concrete answer. This is where I stop, though, lest I start arguing myself in circles. Because it's easy to. As with politics and public administration, there are rarely absolute right answers, just opinions for what seems to work at the time.

From my years of deer hunting, I’m convinced the best days revolve around the crisp, dry air of high pressure fronts. My finest bucks have come when the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees overnight after a high pressure front has settled over an area - also had quite a bit of luck right before the next wave of low pressure wings south.

So when I think of weather, I try not to believe in what I’m seeing in terms of hot or cold, but whether action comes along frontal boundaries. Maybe it’s because the deer are ready to move again after spending a day in wet, windy weather. Or maybe, yeah, the cooler weather just feels better. It sure seems to snap the rut on. And really cold temps will drive deer to the feed...ah, going in circles!

My purpose here is not to be evasive, difficult, too academic or to bore anyone to tears, just to highlight the difficulty in ascribing answers to deer movement. Yes, cooler weather and drops in temperature likely have that significant correlation; however, there are other things hunters should focus on, like locating a prominent food source, and hunting trails and rub lines. I feel it’s much more important to be in the right place than worrying as much about the right time.

One last thought; it is a heckuva lot nicer to hunt when it is cooler, and this leads to longer sits in the woods. The more time one spends hunting will go a longer way towards hanging deer at camp than any other factor real or imagined.

It’s much more gratifying than statistical analysis, I promise you.