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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

To Catch a Coon - Trapping for Land Management

So, I’ve become a trapper - at least the furbearers permit claims as much. Not the kind of woodsman extraordinaire who snares beaver to trade downstream for supplies and women to keep him warm during the winter. Or one who runs a line to make an extra dime on coyote or bobcat pelts. It’s a straight-up management attempt to rid our small Central Florida lease of a few raccoons.

Throughout turkey season I noted hen tracks in the sugar sand trailing from the adjoining property to the west into ours. With a lack of tall trees, they almost certainly do not roost on our land with any regularity. What occurred to me was the hens were visiting our weedy, brushy, scrubby land to nest. It is an ideal locale to do so with an abundance of sedge and palmetto and gallberry that offers not only nesting shelter but plenty of bugs for the precocious poults.

Ideal albeit one caveat: The Raccoons.

A couple months ago I wrote about the booming coon population on our lease, their thirst for destruction, and our feeble attempts to dim their flames. The property is surrounded by orange groves and a swamp bottom, a veritable raccoon Nirvana. Since that post we have implemented a serious trapping program. 

Well, let’s start from the beginning. I’ve never cared too much about trapping largely because there’s never been a real call to arms. Sure, most properties I’ve hunted host large numbers of egg-stealing predators, but either trapping was not allowed, such as on WMA’s, the properties were too far away to ethically run traps, or the situation just didn’t call for it. The first two elements are easy to explain – the last is the sticky wicket.

You have to decide whether trapping for management is worth your time, and I mean this in a couple of different ways. One, will your property benefit from trapping coons? Large tracts of land with an already-healthy turkey population will probably only realize minimal results unless you can dedicate many, many years to a trapping program. Which brings us to another point – do you have the time and resources to be consistent with the routine of keeping traps baited and dispatching the caught week in and week out? If not, you’re probably just spinning your wheels.

But back to our place. It’s a mere 140-acres, and there is a no-question surplus of ringtails. The turkey population is only starting to creep back into this part of Florida having been pushed out years back by mining, citrus and other factors. There are birds around; with a little help, there could be more in the coming years.

Now, again, it’s tough to predict if our efforts will pan out. Our neighbors aren’t trapping and coons breed rather quickly. On the plus side, coons will travel good distances seeking food and mates; there should be plenty of targets. The trick is to stay with it.

To begin, we used live traps near the corn feeders and baited them with tuna fish and dog food. This promptly wiped out 10, but the survivors soon grew wary of the cages. We needed a foothold or snare of some kind. The only problem with this – especially in Florida – is the possibility of catching an endangered something or another. Like a fox. Gray fox are protected here, and last thing I want is to find one in a foot-hold and have the man ready to write me a ticket. The cruelest thing he could do – to me and the fox - is have me release the creature. Hard to say who’d come out on top.

To remedy this, I purchased a pair of Duke’s Dog Proof Coon Traps and deployed them by a spinner feeder that had not had a live trap near it yet. The trap is a hollow tube with a trigger in the back. Its opening is just big enough for a raccoon’s or possum’s thieving paw, but if a coyote stuck its muzzle in there, it wouldn’t be able to set off the trigger. Same if they happened to step in it. The prey must reach past the trigger and pull it forward to spring it. It looks and sounds a tad gimmicky but nothing machined from steel tends to be. Same here. Neat design.

You’ll want to rig the trap with cable and secure to a tree. To set the trap, squeeze down on the spring-lock mechanism. Have a wooden dowel handy and stick in the trap to keep it open while you set the trigger. The instructions suggest marshmallows for lure, but I suspected the Florida heat and fire ants would ruin this, so I baited them with dry cat food and leftover fish-fry grease to sweeten the pot.

With people checking them every couple days, the first week we caught a possum and a large boar coon that probably should have ended up in my trophy room. The second week found two more coons. I’ll give the Dukes a few more days to dine and relocate them to other pieces of the property. They are efficient. I’ve been using my North American Arms .22 Mag derringer for the loud work – which is the highest employment I can justify for even owning that pistol.

The reality is I’m picking off the easy ones; the time is fast coming when trapping becomes more of an art form and strategy of woodsmanship. I’ve done research on both setting traps and trapping coons and feel I own a plan. I’ll look to place one trap near the swamp along trails coon sign and rotate the other between crossings from the orange grove with corresponding spoor. Sounds like a plan, at least. Let you know.

It’s too early to tell with turkey, but I will testify that it’s helped with the deer. Over the last few months I’ve struggled to capture whitetails on the Covert Camera by my bump feeder despite keeping the barrel slap-full of corn and dumping bags around it to chum up the area. All this produced were thousands of pictures of raccoons.

Within a week of removing the traps – and a half-dozen pests – I have the raccoons running scared and the deer happily grazing. I’d long heard that coons would keep deer from the feeders, but it was amazing to witness how quickly it worked.

So think about it. Trapping is not for everyone – personally and functionally on a piece of land. But in the right setting it can be an effective land management tool to improve turkey populations and deer hunting.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Touristing Through the Mummies Exhibit

Since I was prohibited from taking pictures, this is going to be a poorly illustrated post. I don’t know if flash photography would conjure up a curse – it was not mentioned in any of the informational displays – but cameras were strictly forbidden. My guess was the museum didn't want anyone undermining their marketing. Also banned were soft drinks, food, and cellphones, for the courtesy of others. Strangely, small children were allowed, though taking them to see mummies is kind of a backlash against proper parenting, I would think.

Carolyn and I actually took our twins to the Mummies of theWorld Exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Tampa on Mother’s Day. Mummies for Mommies. Our feelings were that they were too young to be frightened – though, come to think of it, the boy has been shrieking in the middle of the night ever since – and we couldn’t just abandon the kids at Grandma’s since, technically, Carolyn wouldn’t be a mother without them and it was her first Mom's Day.

It’s really a cool show if you don’t mind being surrounded by dead bodies and nerds. The exhibit consists of preserved corpses from across the globe and educational pointers that detail the history of mummification, what it represented to different societies, yadda yadda. They have mummified birds and crocodiles and cats that once meant something to ancient civilizations, which I don’t understand why anyone would want to preserve a cat for any reason other than for a trophy room. The kiosk leading into the main show room asked that we respect the dignity of deceased. It’s really too late, in my opinion, since the museum had no qualms at all about laying them in glass cases with their shriveled privates for the world to see.  

But back to the kids. I suffer from social anxiety. Don’t care for cramped, crowded places with strangers – especially amongst the Dead. Toss a wailing kid in the mix, and it shoots through the roof to the point I can only mutter obscenities. Having suffered from this for many, many years, swearing at many, many parents and their unkempt children, I was naturally on edge about my own two acting up. It’s like having a cellphone at a wedding. I nervously check mine 100 times during the course of a ceremony and am ticked when someone else’s quacks or sings during the “I Do’s.” The smart thing is to leave it in the car, something that our legal system foolishly frowns upon when it comes to children.

Beyond this, I don’t know how many of you know people with twins, but moving them anywhere takes more time than it took to arrange this exhibit. The extra bottles, the diaper bag with all the necessities, a double stroller that by law you can’t drive across some rural bridges. It’s a wonder we remember to actually load the children in it, though on this trip we did forget to shut the rear driver-side door to the Sequoia after exiting. Thankfully no one stole off with our collection of dirty spit rags and fast food bags.

So anyway, with it being Mother’s Day, there was quite the audience, and maneuvering this baby buggy that’s roughly the size of a John boat through the maze of Waiting-Line ropes and folks telling me how lucky we were to have twins had the sweat beading on my brow in no time. Once we finally reached the head of the line and had heard the aforementioned warnings about pictures, drinks, and food no fewer than a dozen times from Peter the MOSI Greeter, we realized we could not make it through the turnstiles. We had to turn around and go home and vowed never to leave the house with them again.

No, really we were ushered through a series of double doors with the words “Do Not Enter” written in a dozen languages and into a holding room to hear another speech about…something, I don’t know. The kids, that up until this point had been little lambs, got squirmy, and I more or less blacked out from anxiety that they’d start balling and we’d be hate-hooted right out of the exhibit. Thankfully, another kid started crying which switched the mob's attention and threatening glances away from us.

Once inside, the exhibit was arranged with the glass cases holding the bodies with little placards explaining the Best-Known-History of the remains. Clearly this whole event was sponsored by the CT-Scan Society of America. Each tidbit of knowledge incorporated how CT-Scans were used to help glean more information on how a particular individual died. Some apparently perished of heart problems, lung ailments, poor diet, injuries - I’m not sure how they accomplish this on humans who are a couple thousand years old. I’m just a layman without a CT-Scanner, but I would have just surmised they died of old age. They also said that mummies may help in finding a cure for tuberculosis. I’m not sure how when they’re trapped under that glass, but there’s a lot about science that escapes me. Maybe they flash cameras at them to arouse the Dead into conducting research, I don’t know. Anyway, they were proud of their CT-Machines, and they seemed to flaunt it in the faces of those in the inner circles of the MRI or EKG clans.

Of course, you can’t go to one of these things and not ponder your own mortality. I don’t know how I’d feel about being put on display. I guess I shouldn’t worry about it since I am neither a pharaoh nor visit many peat bogs or glaciers, locations where they tend to find these bodies – see, I learned something. But just the chance that some future family would pay to stare at my shriveled remains has entrenched me right in the cremation camp of thought. 

Still, if I do go the burial route and one day my corpse is pilfered from the dirt, rest assured you won't need a CT-Scanner to determine Cause of Death. It's even odds the twins put me there.

(As flippant as this post is, I will testify that we both thoroughly enjoyed it and was worth the time and money. If you’re in Tampa, check it out.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hogs on the Run

We spied five or six hogs slinking along a wet-weather pond on the edge of a palm hammock around 5 in the afternoon. At 250-300 yards and the wind in our favor, there wasn’t much chance of them picking us out, even though there were five of us tromping through the South Florida underbrush. In all reality we could have probably just walked across the field and tapped them in a cold assassination style. But, there was plenty of cover for a stalk, and we are hunters. Gotta play the part, you know. The hogs filtered in and out of view as we darted about trying to close the distance. We needed to get to one last myrtle bush before we could deploy and cut loose.

Well, we never made that myrtle. The problem wasn’t the hogs busting us. It was the coyote. One old mangy dog was loitering around the herd. These pigs were big enough not to be bothered by a pesky song dog, but they certainly took notice of him after he caught wind of our activities and bounded away. The coup de grace, though, were the turkeys. A couple hens were holding sentry and naturally took off when they saw us, taking the finally-frightened hogs with them. Wild pigs don’t have the best sense of sight, but they’re wary enough to recognize something amiss. (And how strange is it to find a coyote, hogs, and turkeys hanging around each other outside of a Disney movie?)

The next batch was not nearly as lucky. The way we do this is drive the ranch until we spot swine. We then hop out and stalk within range. Sometimes it’s fifty yards, sometimes 300.  Everyone picks a hog and cleans up, hopefully. It is exciting stuff experiencing five rifles bark at once. It’s frenzied. Hog squealing, folks yelling, brass being shucked out just as fast as the action works. It’s dessert after a long winter and spring of meticulous deer and turkey hunting.

Anyway, the next batch was not nearly as lucky. I had my AR-15. Again feeding in a wet-weather pond, this group was caught in the open. We slipped to about 75-80 yards away. The other four saddled up next to a palm, I fanned out to edge of the action. Somebody shot and the hogs scattered like quail, with three or four sows – I lost count in the action – spinning my way and into the Teeth of the Beast.

I doused one sow pretty quickly. With the hail of gunfire, it could have just been an accident, but I caught up to a second that required a trailing job. Those guys with their bolt actions downed one. Krunk got her, which was only his second or third hog, so he was pleased. Three pigs was a fine start to filling the freezers, and we sensed with this much activity early that this was going to be a special day.

The lone gaffe of this assault was one guy missing with my pet .300 Win Mag, which had me concerned the zero was off because it’s an easy weapon to shoot. Being an avid and successful bowhunter, I just assumed Chris knew what he was doing with my rifle. This was his first hog trip, though, and with an archer’s ethos was ill-prepared for the turpitude that had just occurred. Hell, he only loaded one round in the chamber – rookie mistake. We really wanted him to pop a hog and were dismayed that he left this encounter without a ham to call his own. We loaded the pigs in the back of the truck and pressed forward. No more than ten minutes later, Chris had his opportunity.

You could just barely make out the line of the boar’s back over the thick grass. Travis and I studied intently with the binoculars to make sure it wasn’t a black calf. Only after we caught his long wire-haired tail swishing did we made the correct call that it was in fact a pig. Travis, Chris and PJ set up a stalk covering a couple hundred yards while Krunk and I enjoyed the experience from the Chevy. This time, Chris came through, felling a 120lb. young boar with one shot.

The action went slack as we drove through the drier sections of the ranch – though still saw plenty of deer and turkey.  We eventually meandered to a section of the property known as the Railroad Grade where we could see down and out across swampier portions of property. And I know it’s starting to sound like a fish story now, but we did indeed locate another herd of hogs.

This time we did creep across the open pasture. They were milling through reeds and other tall grasses and didn’t pay any mind to our advances…we actually trotted to them. I did have a different issue this time. Expecting to guide more than shoot, I only toted along a handful of .223’s and they were gone. So I swapped out to my Marlin Guide Gun in .45-70 which isn’t exactly a long distance poker. Unfortunate because as we stalked up to the herd of young sows, a giant swagger of a boar appeared from the woods.

I motioned over to PJ and he saw the stud, but we were now too spread out and too close to the hogs for any effective communication. Had my .300 been resting in my hands, I would have just screwed everybody else over to shoot that boar. But I didn’t and PJ ended up dumping a fine eater sow.

So if you’re keeping count, that would be five hogs and there was still an hour before dark. We decided to split up and hunt the feeders for Last Call. Travis and I were skunked, but PJ, Chris and Krunk had a fat young boar visit their haunt, and PJ promptly settled his hash.

Days like this are certainly special and even on this private land, relatively uncommon. The owner’s annihilating contempt for hogs allowed us to do this, but the game doesn't always cooperate. This time, everything lined up correctly. It’s been dry in Florida and the hogs are concentrating their rooting efforts in the vestiges of wetlands. So while this was a bunch of fun, it’s also a reminder that we need rain badly.

We saw the owner before we set out on the hunt. He told us to kill them all. We certainly tried, but didn’t even make a dent. But it is nice to know there will be some for next time.