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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Gadwall Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope, blue or green.”

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

By Gadfrey, they’re Gadwall.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Footnotes to the North Carolina Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

The 2011 North Carolina Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Gator Mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hunting for Hunting Answers III - Accessing Private Property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Other People's Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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