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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Duck Hunting on the Straight and Narrow

With duck hunting it is not too difficult to spill the banks of the written laws. Now, if you’re unlicensed and make a hobby out of shooting lead from unplugged shotguns on someone else’s property while piling up birds to the point it threatens a flyway, you’re nothing more than a wanton criminal bent by your own sadistic whims and concepts of sporthunting. There’s really no place for you here. But there are plenty of other occasions when well-intentioned, law-abiding hunters cross the line into the realm of lawbreaker.

Let’s be clear before we move forward – there’s no gray area. The USFWS and other governing bodies have laid bare the laws. How they enforce them is often a matter of discretion, but ignorance is not an excuse, though we all know plenty of folks where you could at least make a strong case out of it. The rules that bind the sport are so varied that accidents do happen.

We can always start with motorized boats. It’s a cinch to have running lights fail or forget to slap a current registration sticker on the side. Flares can be out of date. Maybe a cushion or life vest blew out on the ride to the ramp. Or whatever is absent on that long list of safety gear and equipment Florida boaters, at least, must carry on their vessels.

Last year’s Early Teal Season was a prime example. We’d run out of Lake Toho before dawn when the bow lights quit and the spotlight failed. The captain used a flashlight to navigate and alert others to our presence. With few boats around us and the moonlight illuminating the lake, it wasn’t a dangerous matter. The Man got us the second that flashlight was quelled for the slightest moment, descending on us like a hawk on a field mouse. It happened quickly. Granted, they had no running lights and their boat was solid black…but you can’t argue with The Man.

I’ve seen this sort of thing happen too many times, and, I mean, they are right, it’s the law. But, frustratingly, there is almost no circumstance in this world where a game officer will show mercy and not cite you for a vessel violation. Furthermore, if they want to find something wrong, they most certainly will. I’m convinced some would look past large bales of grass tucked under the bow and focus more on the mold content of your throw-cushion thus fining you for it being out of code, probably because it’s a simple ticket and they won’t have to appear in court.

Speaking of having to go to court, that reminds me of a very recent situation. Of course, I would not be party to such things, so let’s think of this as a secondhand story instead. There was this group of guys who hunted STA 5 one Sunday afternoon back in September for the Early Teal Season. These guys shot one duck shy of their limit and were quickly stowing their gear to return to the check-in station. This being South Florida, their bare flesh was being flayed by the various ground based and aerial combat insects that reside here. They did what anyone who still has nerve endings would do, namely, toss all their gear and ducks into the bed of a truck and haul butt out of there.

Upon arrival at the check station and staring at the mound of ducks behind the tailgate, the FWC officer informed these folks that it was against the law to store ducks in that manner, even though the group was under their limit. All the birds must be separated and/or kept on a stringer of some fashion to designate who they belonged to.

She said this was a federal offense, and they should be lucky federal officers were not there or the group would be cited and have to return to Hendry County to go to court. Kindly, this group of ne’er-do-wells was allowed a pass. She let these guys know – several times – how nice she was being, and there were plenty of thank-you’s to go around because no one wants to go to court in Hendry County where the judicial system is already bogged down with meth possession trials and cockfighting arraignments.

Naturally, I knew all of this because I read all the federal rules and clearly understand their meaning…OK, I’m lying. I’ve been duck hunting off and on for over ten years now and have neither heard anything about this nor seen it done despite the fact I hunt with experienced waterfowlers. Hell, I’ve left other STA’s with similar piles of ducks that were checked by game officers and nothing was ever said. Having looked it over a second time, it is there in the guidelines in typical legal jargon, easy enough to browse over without fully understanding its purpose while seeking the current bag limits.

Did you realize that until you get to your primary residence – or abode as the feds call it - that all dressed birds must have their head or one wing attached for positive ID? So make sure you keep a wing on that breast after you’re done plucking it in the hotel room sink. Furthermore, if you transfer a bird to another person, including a game processor, taxidermist, or buddy who has freezer space, it must have a tag attached with your name, signature, harvest date and address of the hunter who shot the bird. If you drop off several dressed birds to anyone, you must also include the species and total number of birds killed on that day. You can clip this info to the wing, I suppose.

Well, let’s finish this off with a positive note and not get into those hunts when a bag limit is exceeded or a bird misidentified. Do your best to read the rules and keep an eye out for changes. Quite honestly, though I do read the rulebooks, I’ve mostly learned this sport by following the crowd. But just like trying to argue your way out of a speeding ticket by saying you’re just going with the flow of the traffic, no game officer worth his salt is gonna buy that excuse.

When you do mess up, just hope you’re not caught; if you are pray for the kindness of that game officer and hope he or she is not a federal agent.

Imagine the looks you’ll get in the Hendry County courthouse when you tell the resident hardened felons that you’re in for failing to keep your ducks in a row.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Venison Taquitos

I won't insult you - today, at least - by offering up a venison taco recipe. My guess is, if you're capable of finding and reading this website on your own, following the rules on the box of Ortega should be no big deal.

But I have been wrong before.

Preferring the Taco Bell brand seasoning myself, I make venison tacos at least once a month. They're easy and delicious, and since it's just my wife and me eating them - for now - there's typically plenty of leftovers. If you run into similar situations and want to improve upon the Ol' Microwaved Taco Reheat, try making a batch of taquitos.

Generally speaking, we'll have 1/2 pound of leftover venison taco meat after dinner, so that's going to be our measuring point for this recipe which is enough for 12 -15 taquitos.

What you'll need:

1/2 Pound Ground Venison cooked in favorite brand of Taco Seasoning
15 Corn Tortillas
1 Can Enchilada Sauce
1 Cup Shredded Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Sour Cream
Favorite Salsa
Any Variety of Hot Sauce that graces your fridge

Preheat an oven to 350-degrees. Taquitos are often fried in vegetable or peanut oils on the stovetop, and that's probably how God intended it; however, sin aside, I don't always feel like cleaning up stovetops after pops and sizzles of the oil. The baked method is easier, healthier, and the difference in taste is negligible.

Add one can of enchilada sauce in with the 1/2 pound of cooked ground venison. You may think that the enchilada sauce may seem like Mexican Overkill after the deer has been cooked in taco seasoning, but trust me, it's not. Add to this a half cup of the shredded cheese and mix well.

Meanwhile, you'll need to cook the tortillas to make them pliable. Again, you could cook them 10-15 seconds a side in a skillet on the stove; to save time and energy, it's far more efficient to wrap them in a paper towel and nuke in the microwave for 2 minutes.

Once everything is prepared, lightly grease a cookie sheet. To stuff the tortilla, place the venison mixture on the edge of the tortilla and roll tightly to the other end. Placing the meat in the middle and trying to fold it is a waste of messy time. Place seam-down on the greased sheet and finish your batch. Before tossing them in the oven, I like to give them a quick blast of spray butter.

Bake for 30 minutes and remove, covering the rows of taquitos with the remainder of the shredded cheese if you feel the need. I usually do - though not in the picture to the left. They will be piping hot and should be left to sit for a few minutes, and it's now that you can whip up the accoutrements.

I'm a straight-up hot sauce and salsa guy. Carolyn likes sour cream. Chopped cilantro and lime juice are popular garnishes for taquitos. Guacamole, if you're down with that.


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Vagaries of Luck while Deer Hunting in North Carolina

The buzzsaws cranked up at 7 a.m., a solid 45 minutes after first shooting light. True to current form, those three-quarters of an hour produced not a single deer sighting. I’d long since come to the conclusion that I’m a deer hunting hack – not a single strategy of my own had paid off this season and now I was relying on the Deer Gods to shine on me in Sampson County, North Carolina. As I put forth no effort whatsoever in placing this stand or scouting the land or even dumping bait piles, I would be at the whim and mercy of forces beyond my control – including the loggers.

We knew there would be a crew chopping trees. As the story goes, the lady who owned the land ran into health problems and resulting money problems, and the banks were threatening to foreclose on the property – quite frankly, it’s a depressing backdrop on which to highlight my misfortunes with something as silly as deer hunting. To help settle the debt, family decided to sell the timber rights on this several hundred acre tract. Since the woods would be gone in a matter of days, it was decreed in camp to hang the antler rules and restrictions and any deer could be shot from this area, so long as it was legal by NC standards.

Gene had sat here the previous morning and spotted an assortment of does and a young six-point. He had his mind on bigger things and passed on the chances. The din of the work crew was distant enough so as not to rile the deer up too much. I pounced on the opportunity to abide by the “Brown is Down” mentality when it became available and sat coiled, ready to strike at any spike or doe that slipped out of the woods. But by the time those blades started striking pine bark, only a few hen turkeys had visited.

The stand was really a Porta-Potty on a raised platform. Gutted on the inside minus a swivel chair and an assortment of whiz bottles and spit cups, it was a comfortable perch on the border of the timber and a cut cornfield. The one problem with being encapsulated like that was it muffled noise from the outside. While the terrible, irritating drone of the saws was clearly audible, it was difficult to realize that they were drawing closer.

But the hens didn’t seem to mind, so I held out hope. Around 8, though, all dreams were dashed. I distinctly heard the snap of a splintering pine trunk and listened as the tree top bullied its way through vines and underbrush and crashed to the floor, shaking the entire stand. I slung the door to the stand open and could now clearly hear and see the crew in the treeline behind me, maybe 100 yards, and more pines waving in the air and disappearing to the ground. Deer be damned, I didn’t want to be crushed by a felled conifer, especially in a Porta-Potty.

But that about summed up how things had been going for me this year – galactic forces beyond my control pulling me further from my goals of antlers and venison. Desperation had already taken hold. The evening before in a different stand I tried shooting a doe at 450-500 yards, rough guess. She and four others bailed into a gigantic cut cornfield at sunset. They milled about in the open as I fumbled with the odds of actually cutting hair. I figured I never get a chance to shoot this far, why not? No Lead, No Dead. The bullet fell way shy of the animal, exploding in the dirt and mushrooming small plumes of dust as it ricocheted across the field like splashes after a rock is skipped across water. Needless to say, she got away and they were the only deer I saw in nearly 8 hours of hunting that area that day.

In that very stand the following morning while I was listening to the saws, Dave shot an ancient 6-point, wide of the ears by a couple inches. He’d also seen another 8 and several does within shooting distance. Why didn’t they show when I was there 24 hours earlier? It is things like this that’ll drive you nuts because when luck is not breaking your way but seems to be favoring everyone else, you begin to question your Karmic standing: "What have I done wrong? I'm a nice person!" Dave does a bunch of work on this land year in, year out and deservedly took a nice buck.
Dad's cull buck

Well, it was also a little bit more than work ethic that contributed to Dave’s buck. A cold front was quickly approaching and it switched the deer activity wide open. Dad – on his first trip ever hunting with us here – shot an interesting cull buck out of what is known as the Jerry Mack Stand. This animal, too, had been on the scent of a hot doe. Dad had seen several other big-bodied deer before shooting light that he was convinced were bucks. I just needed to lay claim to that stand for the evening hunt.

Camp protocol states that the man who has not killed a deer gets his first chance at choosing a stand. That put me in the driver’s seat, but only barely. Tim had shot and lost a cowhorn the night before. I offered him my bid on Jerry Mack’s out of the shear kindness of my heart. He deliberated hard, but the issue became moot. Travis had gone out on a feed run and found Tim’s deer thus rendering his claim on JM’s null and void. Things were lining up for me.

And don’t feel bad for Timbo – no one else ever would – because his evening hunt was a hard lesson in Hunting Destiny. My boy E-Man had been hunting the Dennis Stand for a couple days. He hunted morning to noon, would come back for lunch and return for the bulk of the afternoon. He’d put in an unspeakable number of hours in that stand that neither I nor any other member in camp would and it just wasn’t paying off for him. E-Man decided he required a change of scenery, if only for an evening. Tim decided he’d hunt the Dennis Stand.

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time deer hunting, you’re probably wincing and already know what happened. Yes, Tim killed the biggest buck we have taken on that property in the years I’ve hunted there, a gorgeous 8-pt. He was in the stand only 15 minutes. There was some muttering and name-calling later and a notable shortage of bourbon by night’s end, but all-in-all, E-Man handled it well.

Back at Jerry Mack’s, I’d settled in as the wind started whipping up with gusts in the 20-30mph range. I’ve had zero success in my life when the conditions were like this and lacked confidence that this evening would be any different. Jerry Mack’s is a large elevated box blind situated on a grass pasture surrounded by blocks of thick ash, pine and oak. If you were to take a running start into the woods, you’d make it maybe 5 feet. It’s more of a brick of woods than a block, pervasive in coastal North Carolina. But the deer love it. The only way to reliably get them out of this mess is with dogs or bait piles. This isn’t land for lock-ons or ground blinds set way out in the weeds; you must motivate these deer.

A light drizzle started around 4 p.m. as the light already started to fade. From across the field ahead of me a spike emerged from the tangle, nose to the ground seeking a hot doe. He circled the bait piles for 10 minutes or so before finally wandering into the woods to my left. Entranced by the spike, I failed to mention the buck standing in the field on my right. The Nikon Monarchs showed him to be a young 8-pt; the Nikon rangefinder said he was at 292yds. Now it was a matter as to whether I could hold the Nikon scope in the right spot with the distance and wind.
North Carolina 8-point

I’m supremely confident in my Savage 110 Tactical in .300 Win. Mag. Shot a few hogs at such ranges – and missed plenty more – but this would be my longest crack at a deer. Shooting 180-grain Winchester XP3’s sighted in 1.5 inches high at 100 yards, I could hold at the top of his shoulder and we’d be in the money. The only problem was that wind.

The buck was doing the same as the spike, though with more patience. He was seeking the trail of a doe around the corn piles. He’d pace around with this nose to the ground as the wind and rain no doubt hindered his senses. I got comfortable in the stand and nestled the rifle in the corner of the railings and the roof support for a solid rest and tracked him as he turned broadside. At that time, the wind gave me the break I needed. I squeezed the trigger and, after the report, caught the sight of the white belly flipping upwards and still in the grass.

292 yards is a good shot. I raced down to make sure he had expired and to snap a quick pic. You know that’s a decent distance when it takes almost 10 minutes to walk from the stand and back. He was what I thought he was – no surprises like being a four-point or something that'll earn lectures at camp. No giant trophy but my first decent buck after several failed attempts over the years. The next buck that walked in, while I was texting pics to friends and family, I thought would be a wall-hanger.

This buck, certainly more mature, carried a belly and swagger and an impressive right side of antlers for this area. He strolled up to his fallen brethren to size him up before he started his own search for love. That’s when he turned his head my way and I saw his left antler didn’t match – it was a forked brow tine, almost exactly like the one my father had shot that morning.

North Carolina Cull Buck
We needed to do something about this gene pool, but I strongly contemplated what would be the results of my action. One, he was at 307 yards. Could I pull off that shot again? What if someone else wants to hunt here? An act of unselfishness would weigh well with the Hunting Gods. Should I push my luck this far after being graced just minutes prior?

Well, I made the shot. Get rich or die trying. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. This time I abandoned the stand and called Dad and Uncle Dennis to help me load the deer. As it turned out, the weather only got worse and the deer movement across the property slackened by the next day. 

Time will tell if there will be any cosmic repercussions, but I was certainly proud of these two bucks and more than a little thankful. Truth be told, I celebrated a little harder that night, surely contributing to the whiskey shortfall. Plus, someone had to selflessly stay up to console E-Man and wish him luck for the next day.

Monday, October 22, 2012

From "Good Hunt" - Some Things about Muzzleloaders

My collection of Muzzleloaders

I wanted to take a moment for a little cross-promotion. As some of you know, I've been writing a hunting blog, Good Hunt, for the local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, over the last nine months. Really enjoy it and feel it is going well. We have covered a wide range of hunting activities in this time. In addition to my efforts, the paper's regular outdoor writing staff has contributed a wealth of information on freshwater and saltwater fishing, hunting, hiking, and environmental issues. Together, we are grouped at the Polk Outdoors website. If you live in Florida, plan to visit here or already do so on a regular basis, or just find an interest in our outdoor lifestyle, I encourage you to visit the site and bookmark it for future use. 
Below was my last post on Good Hunt. It's a little longer than I usually publish there and not as Florida-centric, and I was torn on which site to post it. Problem solved now!
Anyhow, please take some time to visit Polk Outdoors and snoop around. Hope you enjoy and feel free to drop a line with comments, suggestions, etc. 
Thank you.
Over the last 15 years I’ve hunted muzzleloading season it’s been quite entertaining watching folks trudge into camp all excited about an extra weekend or two of hunting, only to leave without their new weapons, having sold them in fits of rage for pennies on the dollar to anyone willing to take the cursed tokens off their hands. One year this camp regular, who had gone through at least a half-dozen frontstuffers that failed him in some way or another, showed with his single-shot Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H arguing it was the same general concept of muzzleloading. Of course this was very illegal, and I would never recommend or endorse anyone to do likewise – unless maybe they’ve gone through, at minimum, 10 different blackpowder devices.
The truth is, failures with blackpowder equipment are typically the result of operator error. Though the guns they manufacture today are about as fool-proof as you can design these tools, they still require more diligence than your standard issue cartridge-fed, breech-loaded rifle.
Just wanted to run through a list of errors and issues I’ve witnessed in the past.
1. Trouble with Sidelocks – It seems most folks who first dabble with muzzleloading start with those $89.99 sidelock CVA’s. Then they buy the coolest looking sabot-ed projectiles and the Pyrodex pellets and doom themselves to disaster before they’ve left Wal-Mart. One, those sidelocks aren’t designed to use pelleted forms of powder. They require loose powder. Yes, you can get them to ignite from time to time, but reliability is severely compromised. There are no shortcuts with these guns – you must measure the loose powder. Two, those 250-grain sabots with the colorful polymer tips aren’t designed for sidelocks, either. Using the factory sights, these bullets will always hit high and usually above the target. I’ve witnessed folks – seriously – file down the front posts on their sidelocks to get sabots to print on paper. It’s depressing and frustrating to watch. You’ll need to shoot 350 – 385-grain MaxiBalls or Plains slugs, and if you can put three of those in a softball-sized circle at 50 yards, friend, you’re killing deer.
2. Care with Primers – You want to avoid handling your primers as much as possible. Your skin has oils that will ruin the caps. Percussion caps are the worst. Musket caps are a little better, followed by the 209 Shotshell Primers. If I drop a cap, I throw it out. I hunt with it once, then throw it out. No part of this process is as important as keeping your primer’s integrity intact.
3. Ramrods – Carry an extra ramrod. They are made of plastic, carbon fiber, or wood, and their job is to push a tight fitting bullet 20 inches down a rifled tube. They break. Also, once you load your rifle for the first time, cut a line or notch on the ramroad where it meets the crown of the barrel. This will ensure in the future that you have the proper seating for the load – or that there’s not another, forgotten load in there, Mr. No Fingers.
4. Realistic Inline Accuracy – As designed, inlines are inherently more accurate than sidelocks. Having said that, I’m sure someone in the Heartland has a sidelock that prints 1/2-inch MOA and if that’s the case, I would parlay that luck into lotto tickets and a trip to gamble on the ponies. Still, inlines do have accuracy issues. Let’s set a standard first – if you’re getting 2 – 2 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards, you’re in the stink. Most factory centerfire rifles barely do better than that. If you’re wandering outside of the 3-inch mark, there are some things to look at. Start back at the primer and work forward. At first, using standard 209 primers, my Knight Disc rifle wouldn’t even group, just randomly splatter shots across paper, certainly not what I had in mind when I purchased it. When used with Pyrodex or Triple 7 pellets, I discovered those generic primers left a fouling ring in the throat of the barrel that prevented proper seating by about a quarter-inch. This was enough to send the bullet astray. I switched to Remington’s Kleanbore primers and the patterns immediately tightened. The amount of powder you use is important. I use 100-grains of Triple Seven. Some guns are designed for 150-grains, but I’ve never felt the need and have heard about wild accuracy issues as the space needed for three 50-grain pellets takes up barrel space and shortens the time the bullet has to stabilize. If you’re having accuracy issues with 100-grains, back off to 90. It could be the bullet/barrel combination is more accurate with less powder behind it. Or it could be you appreciate not being violently beaten as bad in the shoulder. If you’re still having trouble, try different bullets – after that, switch to a .375 H&H…
5. Gun Function Issues – Above were mostly internal issues with muzzleloading accuracy, but, in reality, many of these guns aren’t exactly built for benchrest shooting. The triggers have the grace of a ratchet strap. Many of the cheaper models have hollow stocks, not all that much comfort when launching a .50-cal. projectile at a couple thousand feet per second. My first inline was like this. If you filmed the stock in slow motion while I shot it, I bet you’d see it crumple like a used toilet paper roll against my shoulder and the receiver actually hit me. With little weight to help brace for the recoil, it doesn’t take long for The Flinches to take control. One day I filled it with fishing weights and epoxy and that tamed the beast, though it became a bear to carry in the woods. As for the trigger – thanks to a litigious society, I’m not suggesting anything here other than to take it to a gunsmith and see what he or she can do for you. All I know is it’s hard to accurately shoot any rifle that beats you to death and requires a tricep flex in order to pull the trigger.
But don’t let me deter you. As I’ve said before, muzzleloading is a fun way to experience deer hunting. Just keep in mind they require a touch more attention than you’d put towards other firearms.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That Old Doe

2004 South Carolina Doe

The old doe fed in a clearing between palmetto patches, munching on acorns from the sweeping live oaks that rapidly diminished what was left of the fading light. She’d come from a marsh accompanied by a younger doe and a yearling. She was a chocolate-gray color, unlike her unseasoned counterparts who still sported a pine needle red coat that had carried through the heat of the summer into the early fall. While the two other deer audibly splashed their way into the hammock like children running through the surf, she tip-toed, an almost imperceptible wet hoof-beat.  She’d walk a few steps and then stop to survey her surroundings, that long Roman nose gauging the swamp air for any hints of danger. This old doe had been around a while. Always cautious with animals like her, I was careful not to breathe, even though I was 20 feet up a pine tree with the wind in my face. I've played this game before.

Still, she never could defeat that natural wariness of hers. She sensed something. The scabs on surrounding pines from other hunters scaling the trunks in climber stands betrayed any notion that I’d tapped into a virginal hunting ground, and it was becoming more apparent with each passing moment that she’d had an unpleasant encounter prior to my visit. She’d ceased focusing on her buffet, raising her head and pinning her ears back as she’d gaze in my direction. Occasionally she’d stoop her head as if to continue feeding but immediately snatch it back up to see if she could trick anything into moving.

Finally, that old doe had had enough. She oozed back into the understory, circling through the creek to get downwind of my position. I knew, without doubt, what would be coming next. That nanny finally hit the current of air she sought. I’ll never know if she caught my scent or the fumes from the Therma-CELL, but this once-silent creature who went to great lengths to avoid being detected, raised Hell a mere 30 yards away, blowing and snorting and slapping her hooves into the water. She still did not have a bead on my location and stood exposed, broadside for 5 minutes adhering to this routine. I had never wished for an antlerless tag so badly in my life.

This was on a Special Opportunity Hunt at Lake Panasofkee last Saturday evening. An archery hunt, the rules for the property required a tag for the harvest of does. I’m not sure why I upset this doe so much; I hadn’t killed any of her relatives. Heck, I don’t think I’ve even shot a deer within 100 miles of this location, but she had it out for me. And if you’ve ever had an old doe stomp and blow at you, you are well aware that this is Taps, the 3rd strike in the bottom of the 9th. Game Over. Content with her damage, she finally trotted off into the gloaming, and that was it for the deer that evening.

That’s the way of things with those old does. They can be your worst enemy in the woods, worse than squirrels barking in your face. But just as with those obnoxious tree rats, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of their bluster to start contemplating revenge - an arrow, a bullet, a hand grenade, something to shut them up.

One of my favorite “Return to the Campfire Tales” is when a hunter reports with wild excitement how That Old Buck winded him down in the Pine Woods and blew at him all evening. I never want to spoil anyone’s big buck story with my attitude and theories, but more than likely, it was a doe calling you out. If a buck winds you, he’s outta there. Mature bucks, as elusive and crafty as they are, just don’t have it in their DNA to hang around and intentionally ruin your hunt. Plus, they have the does to warn them; no point risking their own hides when their sentries will sound the alarm. It's just good business.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it probably comes down to a doe’s maternal instincts. Bucks aren’t burdened with raising fawns and protecting them from the perils of the woods. I’ve watched does chase coyotes and bobcats and run off wild boar. Does will reliably come to a predator call – like a mouse squeaker - during the spring. I’ve watched them decoy themselves to distract attention from bedded fawns. So the fact they’d open themselves to sacrifice during hunting season isn’t all that surprising.

This isn’t to say they are easy targets - not at all. The fact this one was caught in the open was as an anomaly. In my experience, the older does hang in the woods a little longer than the younger ones, having since lost their reckless ambition over the course of several seasons. They have a knack for shielding themselves from a direct shot, and oftentimes the first glimpses you have are of those ears, ever-shifting above the brush. Then the nose is tossed in the air, and this is the truly frightening part. Those wet nostrils can calculate scents we can’t even begin to register.

If her safety checklist is met, she’ll slowly proceed into the open, cautious to the last step. If the area has been hunted before, you probably won’t be in her graces for too long. Those old does will remember stands and always keep an eye on them, often just staring in your direction daring you to move.

At this point, you are left with two options, one that is out of your hands, and the other completely under your control. You could just let her be and hope she passes through, but if she’s so inclined to stick around, know that the spotlight is on you. If you shift to relieve a cramp, pick your nose, flick a mosquito, or finish Level 20 of your iPhone game, she’ll know. If the vagaries of the wind turn on you, you’re screwed, and God help you if you inadvertently kick over a water bottle or ding a jacket zipper on a metal stand.

The other choice is to grease her. You’ll probably sacrifice your chances at a buck that evening, but when she showed, that was likely anyhow. There is no shame – quite the opposite, in fact – in taking a mature animal like this. It’s a far nobler and challenging quest than collecting any random set of antlers.
Hardee County Doe, 2001

Of the forty or so does I’ve killed, I can only think of a handful that were legitimate old-age trophies. I recall one in Hardee County that tried slipping behind me through a chute of gallberry bushes. Luckily my stand was just tall enough to fire a clear shot. I took another in Erhardt, SC in 2004 right after the four hurricanes pummeled Florida. The guide had warned me she’d be there and to smoke her if I had the chance. Seems she’d busted other hunters during the course of the immature season. And I shot one last year in North Carolina that seemed staked behind a fence of clearcut before slowly slipping out to munch on sweet potatoes.

But there is one old doe I’d love to catch up with. She’s been haunting my hammock in Manatee County for years. Already mature and noticeably large-bodied when I first met her, she had a habit of staying out of bow range during archery season, but would come within feet during blackpowder hunts when she was off-limits. She’d have no trouble patrolling that clearing, blowing and stomping and generally ruining the world. I thought I had her two years ago. Her hips had been sunken by advanced maternal age, and she seemed a tad off her game as she actually fed underneath my lock-on stand. All she had to do was clear the grating of the footstand and meander a few yards in front and she was mine.

As it turned out, a gobbler flew down and started drumming, alerting the other doe that had slipped in with the old mare. Her friend got to blowing and circling downwind and finally caught my scent, busting off for the swamp. The matron leisurely followed suit, saved by her new apprentice who had quickly learned the ways of the old doe. I'm not sure that deer is still alive, but I can't help but hope I get one last crack at her. 

And there’s another lady up in Lake Panasofkee who’ll be in mind when I return one day – hopefully with a doe tag.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Tao of Dove

I shot well Saturday. I feel it necessary to open this post with that assertion; in the near-future I’m likely to suffer further bouts of chronic wingshooting incompetence - just need to mark this period of time. A couple buddies who had not done much dove hunting asked me how many boxes of shells to bring. I told them 4 – 6 shots per bird is considered average by the hunting press. They claimed to need half of that, and I knew they were teasing me, but I still didn’t ascribe the humor to their boasts that they sought. The dove have twisted me so poorly in the past, it’s tough to be so boastful, in jest or otherwise.

Beyond my personal accomplishment, our first dove hunt of the year went OK, though fell way shy of my lofty goals. I expected the limits. A lot of work was put into the fields. The property – improved pasture, now void of cattle, surrounded by orange groves - teemed with dove throughout the year. Folks shot well; I’m not a “limit” guy but felt a tad disappointed by the collective bag.

Still, there were mitigating factors. One, we probably did not have had enough folks to keep birds flying. There were 15 shooters on 10 acres of planted field. Folks were clumped together in cliques and too spread out. Next, Florida had the edge of a front stalled off the Gulf Coast for the better part of the week, and we received a ton of afternoon rain. While we dodged the storms most of Saturday afternoon, that low pressure inhibits dove flights. Towards dark those clouds started building and the wind kicked up, and what should have been a better part of the hunt shut down as birds went to roost. And these were largely resident birds, young and small-breasted. By the second phase we should get more northerners. That’s just the way it goes. Fortunately most hunters were not as downtrodden with the results as me, and they were correct about adjusting my mood. I have been on some suck fields over the years.

A busy dove hunt is fun. The camaraderie is tops, watching buddies blast and curse at those brown missiles. Or hollering out cheers to good shots. We did the cookout thing – chicken parts and hamburgers - and brought TV and satellite hookups to watch college football while waiting field time. A few of us hung around camp a while longer and chuckled at the Eager Beavers clamoring to get in the field as soon as possible. Of course when they started shooting, it was mayhem as we scrambled for vests and shotguns and stools.

I shot my Dad’s step-father’s Winchester 1400, the only automatic I own. He sold it to me 10 years ago at a family price, just a year or so before he passed. It’s a fair bet I have put more use to it than he did - I assume he had that figured when we made the deal. The shotgun is pleasant to shoot compared to the duck and turkey guns in the safe. It came with a factory modified choke and is limited to 2 ¾ inch rounds. In a time when carrying several different tubes and choke wrenches is in vogue, the simple pleasure of this shotgun matches the sport for which it is employed. Shooting generic factory 7 ½’s, the Ol' Gal's never been found wanting; one day, though, I’d love a slick Over/Under 28-gauge for my dove gun. Maybe when it’s time to pass the Winchester down to my kids I’ll pony up the money for a Citori or Red Label.

While an O/U is an aesthetic pleasure and an automatic is at home on a dove field, I cut teeth on a pump. It wasn't until the 1600 came along that the irreverent blasting began. Atticus Finch would have been disappointed in my shotshell economy, but that  frenetic willingness to strike brass is overpowering to the young and uninitiated, and that's what leads to the 4 – 6 shot rule. I forget where I first read that figure. I could probably look it up on the Internet – but we know how unreliable that can be. You’ll just have to take my word on it. I think I shot well this hunt because I slowed down and didn't take bad shots. This seems to be another disgusting side-effect of age and experience.

Still, dove will unravel plenty of fine shotgunsmen. Over the years I've watched folks who routinely powder clays completely lose their composure on a dipping, diving dove. The ideal dove is the one at cruising speed, just about to light in the field. Miss this chance and he becomes a different beast. I’d say they “wheel” more than any other adjective of the feather and wing. They carom just as a pool ball, but more on a whim, bouncing off unseen winds.

Mourning dove are thought to be America’s most popular gamebird and rightly so. Throughout the South, families and friends honor the start of dove season as the heralding of the hunting year. This was my first event playing host, which partially describes my slight distress over the numbers taken.

But I was assured it was a fine event. Folks will want to do it again, and certainly I will. Hopefully the numbers will be a little higher – but by then I may forget to shoot again. 

That’s part of the dove hunting charm, too. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Toddlers vs. Bucks & Ducks

They'll be able to go in a few years...

It feels like a flock of sea gulls invaded our home. There are strange screeches and screams emanating from seemingly every corner of the house. The smells, ugh, the smells are varied and grotesque. Our hardwood floors are stained with little white blotches like from an old pier on the Atlantic coast. We live in a single family wharf. In all honesty, if we did have actual sea gulls shacking up with us it’d probably be cleaner than what these two kids have done.

We made one year with our twins. It feels more like five. There were actual two-year stretches in college where I did not log as many waking hours as I have in the last 52-week period.

And they are adorable. We’ve had considerable luck with their health, though when there’s a stomach issue it sweeps through this place drowning all in its path. They are walking, pulling stuff off shelves, counters, out of the trash, out of the toilet, etc. If one of them spit up a dollar’s worth of quarters I wouldn’t bat an eye. Their crying has mutated from the “I’m hungry” and “I need changing” to “irritating.” At this point, all you can do is crack your neck and shake your head.

Thanks to my lovely wife, I got away with quite a bit of hunting last year considering the circumstances. (Notice I keep using plural terms as a reminder to everyone that there are two toddlers. Twins. Don’t want anyone forgetting.) In full confession, I don’t recall much of anything from September through Thanksgiving. One day I woke up in waders while duck hunting and that flickered my stream of consciousness back to light. Then about April, right about the time I was returning from a successful turkey hunt, I kinda gave up hope that this was all an elaborate 7-month dream. Nightmare. High. Buzz. Pick your term.

There were several hunts last year that hunting was way down the list of goals, having been knocked down a peg by sleeping. I can hear Carolyn now: “Sleeping???? You drove all the way to North Carolina with your buddies to sleep in a treestand??? While I’m here alone with them unable to bat an eye for a second’s rest? You’d better hunt and kill deer next time or don’t bother going!” That’s sort of what we went through. It's definitely affected my writing. Attempting to concentrate on what you're typing with crying children in the background is about like trying to paint in the rain.

By the time turkey season rolled around, the kids’ awareness of the household routine had developed. Funny thing about those formula-stained hardwood floors – they are exceptionally creaky at 3:30 in the morning. Same goes for the hinges on the closet that holds most of my gear. So I’d place all my stuff in the kitchen the night before and change there when it was time to leave. Inevitably I would forget something and have to tip-toe back across the floor, praying to all that is holy that the kids didn’t pick up the noise.

“Wahhhh. Wahhhhhhhhhhhhh! Whhaaaaaaaahhhhhh!” (Remember - take that and double it.)

That of course woke Carolyn up and those innocent weekday mornings of silently slipping off for a turkey hunt before work came to a sudden conclusion.

I tell you the worst was the start of gator season. Now that they can motivate, they drag toys all over the house and deposit them in random fashion. For those of you without kids, let me explain a few things. One, these toys are constructed of military-grade plastic. I have multiple hairline fractures in several metatarsals from inadvertently – or advertently, depending on my mood – kicking them while zombie-ing through the house in the evenings. Two, they all sing songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.” And damn if they don’t make batteries last longer than they used to. Three, any friend you have who has passed this stage with their own children will be more than happy to dump their leftover toys at your place morning, noon, and night. I can’t keep track of what’s coming in. I need a Customs agent at my door. Most of it is in like-new condition because, you see, kids don't like to play with toys. They like paper towels and power plugs and empty water bottles and hygiene products they find in the trash. If it wasn't for the powerful plastic lobby and our need to supply the Chinese with jobs, there wouldn't even be toys. 

So here I am a few weeks back all excited about the gator hunt. Clothes and gear by the back door. My zip-line-across-the-floors and something involving monkey bars ideas were shot down due to a lack of household ambience, but no matter. I scouted a quiet route prior to the hunt and discovered I could hop like a checker piece from spot to spot and dash out the door before any crying and feel that relief…er…guilt about leaving.

The lights are off, of course, so I start my little dance to reach the safety of the kitchen. But I did not pick up on the one toy in my path that was not there during my recon trip. It ricocheted off my freshly crushed toe, slobbered-slick, down the hall, singing all the way before coming to a halt in front of the nursery. There wasn’t much clapping going on that morning, and I’ve never feared the dark as much as I do now. 
...if they behave!

Ahh, kids. Twins. Remember that. Twins. I’m looking forward to a deer hunt this weekend. One year ago on this hunt, I was sleeping – yes, that’s right – in the bed of the truck during the midday. Out in the middle of nowhere, I heard children crying and sat up and about ran to get bottles. Then I realized the swaying oak branch above and sensed it would all be alright. And it has been.

Have some good hunts planned for this season. Per usual a few will fall through. And I don’t feel as bad or anxious about getting away. Hell, the kids are one and practically take care of themselves now, anyway.

And if worst comes to worst, I’ll happily drop them off with some toys at a friend’s house for a few days.

Morning, noon, or night!

Early Teal Season at STA 5 - Kayaking for Ducks

Never figured I’d find much use for a kayak. The vessels are popular with skinny-water anglers and eco-tourists in the state, but I don’t fish the flats much anymore, and I’ve smelled enough cormorant and pelican poop in my day to kill my desire to rise early in the morning and paddle through secluded mangrove islands to ooh and ahh at manatees and shorebirds. So I was surprised by my excitement when I procured a kayak for my first duck hunting adventure this year. Let me explain.

Over the last couple years, my buddies and I have been hunting the STA’s in South Florida. Properly, they are Stormwater Treatment Areas, large, shallow impounds of water south of Lake Okeechobee filled with flotillas of invasive hydrilla, pods of hyacinth, and cattail islands designed to filter nutrient runoff from the surrounding sugar cane fields before it reaches the Everglades and pollutes the River of Grass. With over 52,000 acres – and more being planned - of man-made, vegetation-choked wetlands, they are premier waterfowl destinations for those lucky enough to draw a permit.

The thing is, South Florida is an alien locale. The ground pulsates with biting insects. Bizarre, foreign fish, with nightmarish names like snakeheads and clown knifefish, crowd the waters. Snakes that have no place in modern epochs are spreading throughout the region to the point the Good Ol’ Alligator can’t even control them. Oh yeah, the alligators, some the size that they could easily leap out of the water and take down a great blue heron like a river trout snatches a mayfly. Then there’s Miami. South of Lake O is a weird, wild place which makes hunting here an adventure.

My first trip two years ago was a complete off-the-cuff, why-the-hell-not journey. Knowing the water wasn’t too deep, we brazenly decided to wade into this miasma clad with waders. In the heat and humidity of a September morning, there had been talk of slipping in without the oppressive Neoprene, but these are essentially retention ponds; no telling the flesh-eating bacterium that lurks in the weeds. And though there have been no reported cases thus far, I’d be worried about a Candiru attack. Just saying. We shot a couple of teal, but to retrieve them meant slogging through thousands of pounds of hydrilla that would curtain around your waist until movement wasn’t even a thought anymore and you'd want to give up, much like a poor soul dying of thirst in the desert. I’m quite certain that even if you trekked more than 100 yards in this stuff, a tentacle of ‘drill would eventually reach up around your neck to pull you down for keeps. And I suppose it isn’t too late to announce that motorized crafts were/are prohibited. Not like it’d matter to the sheets of man-eating hydrilla; that gunk would tear the unit off, drag it a half-mile across the bottom before spitting it back out like that swamp whale regurgitated R2-D2 in Empire Strikes Back. You get the point - it's tough stuff to navigate.

We toyed with a john boat on a subsequent hunt – too heavy – and inflatable rafts – too light and flimsy – before toting down kayaks which proved to be the proper conveyance for this work. In large thanks to this craft, we were able to reach a distant cattail island and fill a three-man limit of ducks on STA 3/4 last December. It proved to be my most memorable moment with a kayak since I told my wife at the Homosassa River a few years ago, “No, I don’t want to kayak down the Homosassa River.”

So duck hunting the STA’s fueled my torrid tolerance-affair with the kayak and sparked the search for one of my own or to borrow, “borrow” being the key thought. The wonderful thing about kayaks is they are easy to find. You can go to just about any sporting goods store and crank out a few hundred dollars for one. But, if you play your cards right and nose around, you can probably locate someone who’ll let you take one off their hands for a reasonable amount. Or for free. Kayaks are about like treadmills; everyone thinks they are a great idea at first, but then the will to use them vanishes. So they sit around hoarding space in the garage, breeding spiders and contempt for wasting money on personal fitness.

The neighbor had been storing a pair under the deck of my in-laws home in Homosassa for the length of my relationship with Carolyn and prior. In those years, I don't ever recall them ever seeing daylight. Had I not drummed up the courage to ask if I could use one, I'm quite certain they wouldn't have floated in anything other than floodwater for years to come. It didn’t take any serious pleading to gain permission for its use. “Paint the thing for all I care,” he told me. I didn’t go that far, though I may one day if it stays too long in my possession. But since it was silver, some form of camo was needed. A 15-ft bolt of camo burlap from Wal-Mart was plenty sufficient for concealment purposes. After hosing off the years of negligence and insect dwellings, I just had to wait for the calendar.

So the time came last Sunday. I had drawn an afternoon tag for STA 5 – my first trip to this particular string of ponds. It was the early September season which is notoriously spotty for duck action in the afternoons. Furthermore, in order for them to honor our permits we had to check in between 12:30 and 1:00 or risk placement in a lottery for walk-ins…which didn’t matter since there were two other trucks there, and no one came in behind us. It felt like we had the place to ourselves, though one hillbilly smart mouth at the check-in station was forced to comment on Drew’s bright orange kayak. “Boy, you ain’t gonna kill ducks out of that, der, der, der, dah der.” Ignoring Cletus and his clear assessment that we were slackjaw rookies ourselves, we blindly picked a couple spots off the map, and set out for the hunt.

We surveyed our locale, picking out teal amongst the moorhen and coots stationed in the impoundment. After deciding on a patch of cover that would conceal the four of us, we unloaded the kayaks and packed them with the essentials. I’d like to tell you I slipped on in there in the slick, Navy Seal style. The truth is, I’m not in peak physical condition. The “essentials” felt a lot less so after 75 yards. With the thick aquatic vegetation, it was like paddling through cold oatmeal though still a far better deal than poling a heavy-bottom aluminum boat. But that was just me. The other guys about had their kayaks on a plane. The slow, fat kid in the bunch, I arrived as they were pitching dekes in calf-deep water.

Assuming the depth was the same where I stopped to set up, I hopped out of the kayak and plunged to my chin whiskers in a death portal, that noxious water flooding into my waders. Luckily my boots hit hard bottom – or the back of a very large, very patient gator – and clamored into shallower water before the hydrilla sensed my struggle and enveloped over my head to commence sucking out bodily fluids.

I had a very real problem at this point. I could stay in the soaked waders and let my body heat excite the parasites and bacteria into a feeding frenzy or strip to my board shorts to wade to the island where we were to hole up. Oh, that slimy bottom was disgusting, even to my horse-hoof feet. My legs itch as I write this, and what I can only guess was dysentery subsided yesterday.

The kayak became a life raft. No way was I standing bare-skinned in that water for the next four hours that we’d wait for sundown or our limit. I slid the ‘yak into the grasses and sat with my feet propped in the cattails until I learned fire ants thrive in semi-submerged vegetation far from dry land. To relieve this pain, I soaked them in the water until noticing small minnows picking at my skin - South Florida. After this I elected to keep all body parts inside the ride, sitting Indian style in the raft, which made shots at passing birds rather awkward. But at least I felt safe. 
It turned out to be a banner hunt. We shot one bird shy of our limit of blue-wing teal, many sweeping right past my bare, welted legs and into the walls of steel fired by the crew. I retrieved my decoys and fallen birds from the dry embrace of the kayak and stroked it back towards the truck. With a successful outing under our belt, I barely remember the paddle back.

According to the game warden, we did better than the others hunting that afternoon, certainly better than Cletus and whatever plywood and palm frond contraption he surely captained. So if you ever find yourself hunting an STA or any number of places in Florida that forbids motorized vessels, consider using a kayak. Can't say they are for comfort or style, but they'll get you where you need to go.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Gators, Maybe?

With the onset of a low-grade migraine, I sprawled out helpless in bed Sunday afternoon watching what football I could capture through the one eye that didn’t burn from ambient lighting. Assessing a new NFL season, I couldn’t believe how poorly the replacement officials performed. During the 49’er – Packer tilt, I felt confident a special-teams player or assistant coach would take one for the team and kill a ref. Both of these squads were juggernauts last year and hope to recapture that glory in 2012. So much has to go right in today’s football to maintain success that any interference of unseen forces is detrimental to clubs. In addition to all the preparation, practice and acquisition of talent, praying for a lack of injuries and a weak strength of schedule - and playing outside of Cleveland or Detroit - is about all a team can do within their capability to challenge the Universe and punch a ticket to the playoffs.

Hunting is much the same way. A lot of things have to go right year in and year out to consistently tag whatever critter you’re chasing. Take deer. There was a four-year stretch where I could do no wrong. I could have constructed a small gazebo from the whitetail antler I killed during that time. I sensed I had it all figured out. Since then, I’m entering my fourth straight season without having had a reasonable whisper of connecting on even a spike.

Not to dole out too many frowny faces, but weather, work, time, Mother Nature's fickle personality, family and friends selfishly marrying during the fall, and changes in hunting locales have all conspired against me. I’m not complaining, but it's the truth. Though I've spent a reckless amount of time in the woods, it hasn't been enough to overcome the time I've not been there in order to succeed. And in all honesty, I compromised myself by half-abandoning the Antler Chase to free up time and resources forother ventures, namely ducks and gators. After three straight seasons of relative easy gator grabbing, I wasn’t prepared for them to Shanghai me this summer, but Shanghai me they have.

Gators deserve a lot more credit than they receive. The reality shows have served as a catalyst to get people interested in the sport. And – in contradiction to most ads – it’s not what’s seen on TV. Alligators are difficult quarry to describe. I wouldn’t exactly call them intelligent, but they are very wary, especially on hard-hunted lakes. They display a reaction to hunting pressure just the same as any other pursued beast. You can spot one across a lake, motor to him as he submerges and thenwait him out. Sometimes it works; sometimes he…well, we call it, “Transports to Dimension X.”

My first two mornings out on Harris’ 1st phase permits taught the ying and yang of their personalities. The opening morning you couldn’t shine or glass 50 yards in any direction without spotting eyes. Not all of them were behemoths, but seeing game is seeing game. Harris hooked into a large gator that was creeping along the bottom surfacing a trail of bubbles, a common tactic for snatching a gator. I put another treble hook into him and the fight was on. He breached the water once. From the brief showing, we could tell he was easily in the 10-11 foot range.

Somehow, though, he managed to pitch both lines. We reeled in the hooks and quickly fired them back out at his new trail of bubbles streaming from the bottom as if a regulator had popped out of the mouth of a Scuba diver. I felt the line go taunt and heaved into the creature, hoping to set the barbs deeper this time. We maneuvered over top of him as I could feel my line shaking, knowing I had hooked into something living and not a log or submerged car.

Slowly but surely, I hoisted up a trot line placed by one of the many commercial fisherman on the lake, hooks complete with catfish. The gator got away due to the interference. The following morning was a gator ghost town. Where we’d seen dozens the day before, now they’d vanished. The majority of gator hunting is done during the evening hours and two nights of boats had properly alarmed them.

After that showing it’s been a comedy of errors. A couple breezy days that caused the lake to chop. A failing spotlight. A sick child. Tropical Storm Issac. Prior weekend obligations. Work. I thought we’d had a monster pegged on Lake Buffum for a Saturday hunt on my tags – after weeks of keeping watch, he was nowhere to be found when the time came to collect. These are the elements of most failed seasons.
Harris, Belle, and Krunk with a 10-footer

The real kicker, though, is the crew I hunt with has persevered through these obstacles and landed fine gators. Harris and Krunk tagged two 10-footers in consecutive trips after I had been unavailable for the hunt. That’ll drive anyone nuts.

The nice thing is there’s still plenty of time in the season. Between us we have six permits and a month-and-a-half left to use them. After the 4th phase ends Wednesday morning, at 5 pm on the 12th, anyone with leftover CITES permits may return to their respective lakes and double their efforts. This 2012 general season will conclude at 10 am on November 1st.

As with hunting and football, you have to keep trotting out there, make the most of your chances, and believe things will break your way over the course of a long season – even if the year was not the one you were expecting.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

High Water Hogs

The fall and winter of 1997-98 was a banner time in my life. It was my senior year of high school, and I’d be departing for the University of Florida the following autumn to study...something. That August I took a velvet buck in South Carolina and followed him up in November with a fine trophy Florida whitetail, two mounts I still gaze upon fondly. In October I flew out West for the first time on a successful week-long mule deer and elk hunt in the mountains of the Roosevelt National Forest in North-Central Colorado, an adventure that will never be forgotten.

And I way-laid a ton of hogs that winter.

Florida experienced an exceptional amount of rainfall during November and December of that year. We were trapped in the effects of an El Nino cycle that deluged the state. All of the creek bottoms on the properties we hunted flooded. Trails and roads were impassable with anything shy of a canoe. There was a chop of whitecaps across cow pastures. Normally this extra water would've receded in a matter of days, but the rain just kept on coming.

As a result, the game was pushed up on high. The sounders of sows and shoats were particularly susceptible while the bigger boars that were once inviolable were forced onto the dry land. I don’t recall the accurate number of swine we popped…let’s just say it was quite a bounty to this young hunter. We’ve had wet years since, but this one will always stick out in stories.

With two tropical storms and our usual buffet of evening thunderstorms, Florida has had a pretty wet summer. If this continues – which is a big “if” because we typically experience dry autumns and winters – we could realize another hog year like that one. Already on our lease - which is as dry as a box of matches – after months of no hog sign, a few showed up on trail cameras after Tropical Storm Issac passed, no doubt the result of the stormwater pushing these fellows out of their comfort zone. And I’m noticing hogs and hog sign everywhere recently, just driving through the state.

There's no question wild hogs like the water, and it's why they're regarded as cagey swamp dwellers, but pigs aren't aquatic mammals. They don’t possess sweat glands which render them sensitive to high temperatures. If you've ever held a hog hide, you've probably considered how awful it'd be to wear that in the warm months. That and being covered with ticks would be pretty horrible. So to regulate their body temperature they wallow and take to swamps with that wonderful combination of cover, shade and moisture that lends to a life of leisure for a pig. 

Even still, while hogs prefer this habitat, don’t mind traveling through water, and are powerful swimmers, too much is too much. When their bedding and feeding areas flood, hogs behave about like those little sandpipers and plovers you’d see at the beach - they don’t care if their feet get wet, but they’re not going to nest there either. Hogs will be pushed to the peripheries when it's too wet for comfort, and it’s a boon to hunters when this happens.

And I typically witness this during the summer and note on dry years how we don’t see the numbers of hogs we're accustomed to. Travis, Krunk and I were hog hunting in Sarasota County a couple weeks ago. It was blazing hot, and the property was, in its driest areas, a marsh. We saw hogs the majority of the day, atypical for a place where your best afternoon opportunities occur an hour before dark but the hogs had spilled their banks. We should have rung up high numbers with the rifles, but we were spotting and stalking from the truck. The ground was so soggy that the splashing tires alerted the hogs before we could shut off the engine. Our spy-to-kill ratio was remarkably low. With the number of hogs were were seeing, though, a chance or two had to ultimately prevail. 

Around 5:30, Krunk shot a nice sow that hesitated a bit too long before retreating in the palmettos. Soon after, Travis and I bailed out on a sounder feeding in a dry patch of tall grass, probably sharing that patch with fireants, ground-nesting birds, and any other critter seeking the Ark. Travis split left for a direct approach while I moved to the nearest woodline to cut off their retreat. Unfortunately they spooked before T got a shot, but I was ready. 40-pounders burst from the grass as I armed my AR-15. I sorted through the runts until a large sow erupted from cover and into a hail of .223’s.

But that’s summer-time hunting. With deer season starting soon, most of us will be in treestands. Anyone with stands on the water’s edge is likely to have run-in’s. It’s not like you’ll need to keep a watchful eye; you’ll hear them come, a-splishing and a-splashing and a-grunting. 

If the heavy rains do cease like during most FL winters, the hogs will retreat into their swamps, popping out to feed on acorns, palmetto berries, crops, and return to whatever semblance of a normal life a hog has.

But if you have a wild hog on your wish list this year - for a BBQ or for a shoulder mount - I’d continue to pray for rain and swollen rivers and swamps.

It’s about as good as hog hunting gets.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Case of a County-Run Hunting Program

I attended Duette Park's mandatory hunting orientation last Saturday morning. Manatee County runs the show and, to my knowledge, Duette is the only tract of public land in Florida where the county designs the hunting program, within the guidelines of state law. Over 21,000 acres, the land is home to the headwaters of the Manatee River which favors healthy populations of deer, hogs, turkey and other game animals. Duette shows scars of human use from a couple generations ago and is still surrounded by agriculture and phosphate ventures. Today, it's managed with a plan to restore it to its native, natural condition - with shell roads, power boxes and fences, of course.

Part of their management plan includes this unique hunting program to keep the deer and hog herds in check. Several weekend hunts are sold through a random-draw system. The added income helps fund conservation projects such as longleaf pine restoration, and land management tools like prescribed burns. These hunts have been held every year for nearly 20 years and enjoy a loyal following. In a section of the state where public land is limited, it's valuable real estate.

And it's a lot to ask for in these days of shrinking local government budgets. These hunts aren't overflowing the coffers considering labor costs, machinery, etc. A few seasons ago the hunt program was very much in doubt as the entire state buckled under the recession. So take a tough economic climate and add the wishes of sportsmen, and the challenge for the county comes down to satisfying paying customers while keeping management plans in check with the limited resources available.

I remember the first orientation I attended. The park biologists and managers stood in front of the drawn hunters and read through the rules. Then they were verbally accosted for all manner of  supposed transgressions. Quite a few in the mob – many of whom couldn't even spell "diploma" – queried the biologists on their qualifications to enact management policy. It was known that a lot of the staff were non-hunters, though they worked closely with FWC to draw up management goals from season to season. It was as close to a public flogging as I'd ever seen, and honestly made me worried sharing the woods with these folks.
Duette Park 8-pt

I left that year thinking, "Why do they put up with this? No way can this last." 

But, to their credit, the show’s gone on. 

Since then these annual meetings have been pretty tame, and I'm recognizing the same outdoorsmen from year to year; the majority of the loudmouth malcontents have since packed sand. This year, though, I thought would attract scorn. One, there were no hunts in November, the prime rut period in this section of the state. Two, it didn't appear there'd be any doe tags this season. Three, they raised the antler restriction to 3-points on one side, up from 2.

I figured the antler rule would rile up the most derision. It was front and center in the debate 6 years back. Then, they proposed a modest increase from spike to forkie to improve the age structure and trophy potential, and Holy Jesus, you’d thought they’d been restricted to shooting fictional creatures.

It passed without a peep this year. People will surprise you. It was explained that, yes, they’d still like to improve the age structure. Not a murmur dripped from the crowd. But that’s not the most shocking point to this lack of aggression. See, it's not a free-for-all deer slaying; they work on a quota system. Usually the number of bucks that can be taken on a weekend is 4 – 6. If that is met or exceeded on Saturday, bucks are off-limits on Sunday, allowing only the harvest of pigs or does – if one possesses an antlerless tag (be there in a second). For a 100 hunters paying $80-$90 a hunt sharing a bag of 6 bucks, it's tough to swallow expectations of a whole weekend and only getting a day for that Big Buck. And Big Bucks are tough to do in a day.

Again, not an eyebrow raised, and I believe the rangers relaxed enough to uncross their legs.

As for the doe situation, the guy running the orientation this year, now confident in the calm, claimed he’d prefer no doe tags for the next five years. Nighttime surveys convinced them they’d been a little too liberal doling out these special permits in the past. Bowhunters were welcome to pop a flathead, but the rifle crowds were out.

A striking silence with hunting opportunity shrinking by the paragraph.

The final issue was a lack of hunting weekends during the rut in November, save for one Youth Hunt – youth recruitment was also a big topic this year, happily. One guy stepped forward to challenge this decision, maybe having concluded we were getting chumped out of the best time to hunt. The Man in Charge flatly told him they didn’t have the staff. The limited crew was spread out between here and several other parks throughout the county. With the holidays and influx of Snowbirds flocking south, they just didn’t have the manpower or budget to accommodate November hunts. The gentleman ghosted back into the corn.

All in all, I was impressed with the crowd. Though the added money is critical, hunting is not a priority on this property and this group seemed to understand. Or maybe it was hot and they were lazy, who knows? The County certainly doesn’t need the hassle but has put together about as fine of a quality deer hunting program as you could expect, given the variables. 

The major attribute I see in this success is the communication. The park employees ask hunters to volunteer input on season dates, recommendations for the park, and ways to improve the program. And they appear to be listened to, in some form. A few years back it was suggested to open up the park in the summer for hog and predator hunts. The hogs are rampant here and need serious thinning, a point on which the biologists and hunters always agree. This year they obliged, and it was a superb hunt. As an added bonus, the proceeds of the weekend went to the United Way.

One last remarkable part of this program that other state agencies would do well to notice – the place gets quite a bit of traffic from equestrians, hikers, birdwatchers, butterfly gazers, etc., and there appears to be little conflict, though the park is closed to outsiders during hunt weekends. Beyond the game animals, Duette is also home to endangered scrub jays and indigo snakes and other special species such as gopher tortoises all living in delicate ecological environs. If in nearly twenty years the sanctity of the park’s mission to protect and restore this vestige of native Florida landscape was threatened or conflicts arose with other user groups, I think us hunters would be shown the door in hurry.

Thankfully that’s not happened. It’s a rare piece of property in this state and a fine example of not only assimilating hunters and sound land management practices, but also allowing various populations of outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy the land. We need it in Florida. 

Think folks understand that, too.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Assault on the Stingrays

My feelings on arrowing a magnum-grade stingray flip-flopped over the last year. Before I just didn’t get much sense of sport from it. But I eventually talked my way into believing otherwise, if you’d like to follow my manner of thinking here. For one thing, it’s been a non-productive year bowfishing. Whatever chances I have had were crippled by murky water or crying children. Success can come in any form, I suppose, even if it is flat and ugly. Next, I wanted a trophy-sized fish. Much like mourning dove, mullet and gar don’t hack it in this regard, no matter how many I shoot. Granted, I would have preferred something a little tougher, a little stronger, a little more trophy-like than a ray, say a shark or marlin, but neither of these are legal to shoot in Florida, and I don’t tend to run across marlin in the shallows with any frequency anyhow.

So stingrays. Every summer since I was born my family has stayed in Vero Beach for a week. We haul a 25-ft. AquaSport over to fish around Ft. Pierce or Sebastian Inlet. If the weather and will to get out of bed before sun-up cooperate, we’ll run offshore to troll for dolphin and kings. Some years we bottom-fish the numerous wrecks and artificial reefs along the Treasure Coast. Last year I mixed it up with my first attempt at bowfishing this region. I coveted a barracuda; however, circumstances intervened, and my boating days to overcome these were limited by a very pregnant wife. So I settled for plunking a few mullet on the flats.

While out there, Dad and I noticed a bunch of very large Southern Stingrays. I was timid. I’ve caught plenty on rod and reel, and their fight is a short run at high speed, slows to jog and is followed by an endurance contest akin to hauling an oak door through the water. I wasn’t real sure my AMS Retriever Pro was up to the task. I envisioned the PSE Kingfisher being yanked from my hand and towed across the flats in a hasty wake.

Plus, I just wasn’t sure what I’d do with a stingray if I shot it. They are good shark bait, but I don’t want to catch sharks – just arrow them. I suppose I could have one mounted and placed by the front door like a bear rug - that’d be a conversation piece. I’ve since learned they are edible, and there are an astounding number of YouTube videos demonstrating not only how to clean but also how to cook stingray. The Internet is everything its innovators hoped it would be.

So with a little more purpose and a bundle of willful stupidity, Dad and I spent Tuesday morning hunting the Indian River for my prize. And one would think that it’d be easy – even for an archer of my sub-standard proclivity for hitting what I’m aiming at – to drill the piscine equivalent of a broad side of a barn, but that just shows me you’ve never bowfished.

My first shot on a 25 - 30-lb ray was batted away like a bubble caught in a stiff breeze. He was on a gentle cruise, maybe ten yards off the bow in three feet of water. Though the arrow entered the water at the bulls-eye position, at that particular shallow angle and with his wings flapping, the arrow planed off the mark amid the turbulence of his motion. I doubt the Muzzy tip even glanced his slimy back, but that fish certainly scooted showing nothing but the taillights and plumes of sea mud across the grass bed. Lesson learned. I required a fish closer to the boat to take a more direct shot. Wonderful. I mean, stingrays aren’t the brightest animals, but even they get leery by a lurking boat and the shadow of a large sweaty guy standing on the anchor pulpit with a bow.

The next attempt was a failure by way of taking an ill-advised shot. This ray was settled on the bottom in five -six feet of water. At this depth, I’m not sure a .223 would kill one. That water resistance is simply too much to allow a broadhead much penetration, at least with my rig. But that’s a charm with bowfishing – the arrow is on a string and easy to retrieve. Might as well try. Still, the arrow harmlessly tapped him as he scooted away.

Things were starting to feel awfully incompetent by this point. Dad was getting restless and decided to anchor near a grassy sandbar to castnet live bait to fish with. I sensed he’d lost faith in my skills. I was sour. I’d also missed a couple mullet and a nice sheepshead to much dismay and profanity. A break was probably in order.

As I watched Dad fiddle with the castnet, I noticed a dark shape stroking our way. Catching sight of the boat, the ray came to a stop and dug into the grass. Directly beneath me and in less than 3 feet, if I’d missed, the bow would now be lodged in the muck on an otherwise non-descript Ft. Pierce, FL mangrove island. I drew the recurve back like I was about to shoot the moon and let the arrow fly.

The ray did exactly what I figured it would – kicked into high gear and made a run across the flat. Like I described before, though, it starts with a quick run, slows to a chug, then it’s a matter of muscling it in boatside.
Ft. Pierce Southern Stingray

I wasn’t too sure how to handle this. It’s not like fishing tackle where you pump and reel – in fact, reeling was about worthless. Fortunately the ray made another error. After making his initial run, he chugged back towards the boat and into the deeper water off the transom. This allowed Dad to participate. He grabbed the orange line and heaved while I reeled in the slack. When the fish was at the foot ladder, Dad yanked him aboard as we all stood back.

A fresh stingray on a boat deck is a live wire. They don’t flop about like trout or tuna. No, they possess that long tail with a barber’s razor towards the end of it – in this case, the spine was every bit of ten inches long. And, man, he was waving that that blade around menacingly. Approaching the beast reminded me of those games they play – if I’ve learned anything cultural from Indiana Jones movies – in places like India where they have a live cobra striking at the hands of, well, let’s just say it, idiots reaching within the strike range for coins, jewels or other baubles.

I wanted to pull the arrow in a hurry to get him back in the water as quickly as possible. A stingray’s wing is meat and cartilage; in a sense, I pierced his ear. It’s a lighter shade of cruelty, and I was prepared to carve him up had the shot been in the vitals, but this guy could fight another day provided he steers clear of any hammerheads or folks with bowfishing gear. While keeping an eye out for his tail – as a tall person would keep a heads-up for low door frames or rotating helicopter blades – I carefully removed the arrow. Once clear it was a matter of sliding him back in the water, not an easy task with an animal that’s tough to handle and potentially lethal. But we safely got him back into his stomping grounds. He lingered on the surface for a moment and then shot down into the depths, seemingly no worse for the wear.

We saw plenty more stingrays that morning but all were about the same size, and I’d had my fill. We guessed our one victim to be in the 20-25-lb range. I’ve seen much, much larger fish in these waters, though. I may stand up to that challenge one day and will definitely look to shoot a bigger fish if I do. I have learned it is more sporting than originally thought, and I’d love to try the meat sometime.

Plus, I think that mount would look awesome at the front door.