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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Few Things About Treestands

I hung my stands a couple weekends ago. To say they are in precarious positions would be an understatement. Unfortunately our lease consists mostly of scrub oaks, trees not well-suited - with their twisty trunks and reaching, Dark Forest branches - for treestands. I managed to place a Gorilla lock-on in a young white oak of some variety. It took creativity. The ascent is a combination of swinging and climbing up branches like said primate with two Ameri-Step Rapid Rails filling in the gaps. The foot platform rests at a 70-degree angle. It’s a herniated disc waiting to happen. My other one isn’t much better. Nearby I hoisted a generic 16-ft ladder stand that is situated on a thin scrub oak. At that height, it waves back and forth to the point I may need Dramamine to sit in it if there’s more than a gentle breeze. This may be the season of safety harnesses.

Treestands are traps and should be treated as such. And if you know anything about trapping – and I don’t care if we’re talking about a line of lobster pots or a cardboard box propped up with a pencil and kite string trigger – you have to a) put them where the game is b) give them time to work without disturbance. I don’t recall any episode of Deadliest Catch where Captain Sig said, “This bottom sucks, but let’s drop our gear here and hope the Opilios come to us. When we’re done with that, just for fun, let’s go check the cages we just dumped out. Maybe we’ll pick up Edgar while we’re at it; he’s probably getting cold.”

I recall, with very mild amusement, a group I hunted with in Georgia a few years back. They hung stands in early November having never seriously pre-scouted the property, would finish their morning hunts with little deer activity, and proceed to move them for the evening hunt. This would repeat itself several times over the course of a few days. They only came to camp for lunch and prepare to move stands again. I’m convinced moving stands was their sole purpose for joining a lease – it was their hobby. Needless to say, they didn’t kill a thing, darn near ran everything off before Thanksgiving, and spent the rest of the season walking…I’m sorry, “still-hunting” the place. They weren’t bad guys or anything, just novices with all the gear and no patience.

So the stands I hung aren’t exactly ideal if comfort is your measuring stick. But the fact remains they are located in areas where the deer travel. The lock-on lords over a major trail that leads from the scrub into an open pasture. It’s the last finger of woods winding from thicker cover towards the field and bordering orange groves, places with more browse than the scrub. Several trails converge in this general area. It’ll be my bow stand as the deer will continue using this trail through the early fall to feed.

The ladder stand is directly behind the lock-on by no more than 40 yards, shielded from view by an oak and vine canopy. But, I’m able to look at something different from this vantage point. While the bow stand pinpoints where trails come together, this stand guards the trails as they fan out through the scrub. It’s much more ideal for rifle hunting during the rut as bucks roam different paths for hot does. Why so close to one another? Well, there are three other folks on this small property with plans and agendas of their own. This is one spot of deer activity I liked. No need trying to cram stands in between everyone else’s business. Done properly, it’s all the space I’ll need.

I get married to stands. I’ve never hung more than a two or three on most places I’ve hunted. You can only hunt so many spots and trying to cover them all is betraying your scouting efforts. Detail your strategy, hunt it as such, and know when not to hunt. I have lived and died in this manner for a long time. As such, I also get very jealous and paranoid about how stands are hunted. I used to hang a decoy stand to lure other hunters away from my honeyholes…or maybe I still do…

I only begrudgingly permit use by others – unless they are community stands or something like that – and have to pop Seroquel to prevent nervous breakdowns when I know someone else is in there. I figure everything I do when around my stand is ruining my own chances at Big Buck. I constantly feel as if I'm screwing up. Absolute paranoia. But paranoia has helped me shoot a lot of deer.

The factors that will kill a stand location are as follows – weather and curiosity. There’s not much you can do about the weather. If a wind is bad and alternate stand locations are limited, forgo the sit if you know a big buck is in the area and you have more time in the season to hunt – that’s kind of a moot point on quota hunts or if you only have a weekend or two a year; by all means, stay out there. But if you’re actively hunting a particular buck or quality of buck you know to inhabit your land, you are only hurting yourself hunting swirling or otherwise bad winds, not toughing it out or fighting the elements. Rain is a different story. Big bucks often move in the rain – it’s not something I like to do, but I’ve seen enough hunters pull in nice bucks during a soaker that I believe there is merit to the theory. Rain plus wind – not unless I’m in a covered Cadillac stand with plenty of juice on my iPhone for entertainment.

Curiosity, though, is the biggest preventable factor in ruining a stand location. My dad is culpable of this. We’ll hang stands one weekend, and he’ll spend the next few checking back to see if acorns have fallen, to add one more strap to the tree or adjust it just perfectly on the trunk, check on rubs, add tarsal glad misters and scrape drippers etc. Before hunting season starts, my SOP is to hang them way beforehand and leave them the Hell alone, best of my ability. It’s hard when running trail cameras and corn feeders. I wear rubber boots at all times and avoid contact with vegetation as if I’d catch cooties by brushing against it.

Also, when the season does start, be wary of Stand Burnout. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never completely eliminate scent. It may not be a big deal if you hunt a stand every few days, but a morning-and-evening slog back and forth several days straight will foul up the area, no question. It may not even be scent; it could be the noise you make while walking in or unseen deer seeing you and spooking. I don’t plan on hunting my lease but maybe once a week so it doesn’t concern me to have those two stands so close – given more land and time to hunt, I’d certainly spread out my efforts, having different set-ups to adjust for wind, time of the season, time of day, etc. Again, I’ve never been partial to Musical Stands and only place 2 or 3, but there is something to be said for options.

Again, a treestand is essentially a trap. It must be kept fresh and kept in one spot long enough to work. If everything goes to plan, you’ll be the one springing it, and the planning and cultivation and successful execution of that area is the highlight of deer hunting.

Country-Fried Venison

I love country-fried steak. I want it written as the Cause of Death in my obituary – not “Congestive Heart Failure” or “Myocardial Infarction.” “Country-Fried Steak.” I want people to know I crossed over Jordan on a slick of white gravy. Whether at a Cracker Barrel or a Greasy Spoon in the middle of nowhere, CFS is my go-to order breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Add some form of potato in there to mop up the goodness….Dig It!

It’s also easy to make, and cubed venison steak is the golden-fried ticket for a great home-cooked meal.

What you need:

2lbs. venison cubed steaks or about 8 steaks
Vigo Italian Breadcrumbs
3 Eggs
Garlic Salt
Canola Oil
Packet of White Gravy Mix

Defrost the cubed steaks in the sink with warm water. When thawed, drain the water and re-fill with cold water and ice cubes to draw out blood and any gamey taste. After 30 minutes or so, remove from the water and pat dry. Season steaks with Garlic Salt and set aside.

While the venison is thawing, set up a little prep station. In one shallow bowl, dump flour seasoned with garlic salt. In another bowl, beat the three eggs into a wash. And a third bowl will be used for the breadcrumbs – yes, this is fairly dish-intensive, and yes, you’ll probably be too full and suffering from gravy shakes after dinner to want to mess with it, so clean as you go. When the steaks are ready, press them into the flour, rinse through the egg, and press well into the breadcrumbs. Set aside the breaded cutlets while the oil heats.

There are two ways to go about frying the steaks. I prefer an electric deep fryer. Get the temperature to around 365 degrees and cook for about a minute or until golden brown. These thin cuts don’t require much more than that. The other option is pan-frying in a cast iron skillet. I suppose it is more traditional, but I always have trouble with loose breading burning and ruining the second and third batches of steaks. Heat about an inch of canola oil over medium heat and cook for a couple minutes, flipping the steaks once or twice.

For the gravy, I just buy the mix that comes in whatever packaging looks more Old-Timey. I suppose I could make the gravy from scratch – or the breadcrumbs for that matter – but for $0.99, who cares? It’s worth saving the time.

When everything is ready, slather the steaks with gravy and serve with mashed potatoes. A little A-1 never hurts, either.

So there you go, one of my favorites, Country-Fried Venison. The reason I’m sweaty, a little dizzy, and out of breath from typing this.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Roast Duck

The last time I roasted a duck, I stuffed the cavity of a mottled with apples and celery and onions, seasoned the skin, and basted it with melted butter every ten minutes or so. Turned out pretty tasty, as I recall.

72 hours later, I was in Bartow Hospital having my appendix removed.

Now, I don’t think there was any real correlation between the two. I actually believe the Grilled Chicken Sandwich I had the night prior to surgery at the local sports bar may have done me in. Or maybe it's because one night I slept on my stomach funny, who knows? It’s one of those chum markers of life – roast duck and appendectomy in the same week. Sticks with the brain.

That was in 2003. Why have I gone 9 years without tossing another bird in the oven other than the thin threat of internal surgery? Well, I didn’t really start duck hunting with any level of seriousness until a couple years ago, so supply was limited. When I did splash a few, I donated the corpses to others to cook (and clean). And the ones I did hold onto were typically woodies that ended up in breakfast sandwiches or pan-fried.

Last week a buddy arrived at the house with an assortment of packaged ducks for an intended cook-out. He was called to leave and left the ducks with me to do as I pleased. Well, he had an assortment of teal and pintail and mallards. I took one of the larger bone-in breasts and thought, “What the Hell?”

I cleaned the remainder of the feathers and detritus from the meat, patted dry and sprinkled with Old Bay Seasoning and Garlic Salt. After this, I wrapped the duck in bacon to keep it from drying out and to add flavor. I placed the bird on a roasting rack in pan filled with a 1/4-inch of water and set the oven for 350 degrees. 

The duck roasted for 50 minutes as the kitchen filled with that wonderful bacon aroma. I pulled the pan out of the oven and let it cool for ten minutes before carving the meat from the breast. I’m leery of over-cooking duck and was a little concerned I had – but it turned out just on the shy side of medium. Better, though, it was tender, almost enough so a fork could cut it.

Wild duck breast is typically going to possess a stronger taste than other gamebirds, but this was certainly not gamey – which says more to how it was handled in the field than anything. Duck lends itself to a variety of dipping sauces. I rinsed the bites of breast through sriracha and various BBQ sauces. Sticky Fingers Smokehouse Carolina Classic was my favorite.

Obviously, I have a small sample size to work from, and you’re welcome to take this with a grain of salt, but this should work with your larger ducks, mallards, pintails, whistlers, etc. If you have any roast duck recipes, please share; this was pretty easy and I was pleased with the results.

And I didn’t lose an appendix this time, either.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Velvet Bucks

If I were a less law-abiding citizen, I’d probably spend the better portion of July camped out over a corn pile with my .300 Win Mag on a Harris Bipod. There’s a gorgeous buck who’s been hanging around the area. Being that it is only early June, those horns are in their infancy – hope to see them come October, but you never can tell. While he’s a daily visitor now, it’s possible he’ll be a memory by then. A mainframe eight and quite a prize for this area, those antlers would look great on the wall. Even better covered in velvet.

I shot one velvet buck when I was 17. I missed the first several days of my senior year to hunt the traditional August 15th South Carolina rifle season. He was a young six-point that took just too long crossing a road before the aforementioned .300 caught up to him. A few more steps and he’d disappeared into the swamp bottoms of the Salkahatchee. As it played out, he’s a unique mount in my collection.

I returned a few days after my 21st birthday – you have to about be young and dumb to participate in these brutally hot, humid, and flat-out mosquito-infested hunts. I hunted the very same area I’d killed the six 4 years prior. The deer action was nearly constant in the mornings and evenings – the Low Country of South Carolina has some deer, I’ll clue you. At the time I had a handheld video camera that I purchased right before everything went digital and captured wonderful footage of does and lesser bucks feeding and fighting, but nothing big enough to satisfy camp rules.

One evening, a gentleman arrived at the shed with a dandy eight-point. It was nothing that would grab the attention of a far-gone Midwestern antler crank, but he was a stud for those parts. The guy had shot the buck as he fed in a wide-open soybean field with two or three other bucks. I’ve personally seen and taken larger deer, but this was about the most handsome whitetail I can recall. That summer red coat contrasted so perfectly with the darkening fuzzy antlers, it became my mission to find a trophy like that.

Unfortunately it’s still on my dream list. The fellow who hosted us passed away. I was invited to the same area in 2004, but Florida had a pesky hurricane problem that August which prevented any travel. By the time I did return to South Carolina that September for a guided hunt, the bucks were off their summer feeding pattern preparing for the rut, and had shed their velvet. Invites that never panned out and dueling financial realties have pilloried any chances of return, but I still have that urge to find that trophy velvet buck.

So it’s with great interest that I watch this buck. He and a younger, far less impressive six-point are mowing through my corn. I’m trying to decide which child of mine will have to cut back on their feed so I can continue to keep this guy around.

When a hunter thinks about whitetail bucks it is often about how crafty or intelligent or adaptable they are. The more you study them the more you realize how inefficient they actually are as an organism. Imagine working out and taking supplements constantly for a few months over the spring and summer pumping up the guns, chasing women through the fall, and then laying around exhausted and gaunt through the winter – actually, I believe most gyms rely on this very model.

Deer antlers are the fastest growing bone in the animal kingdom and each year they drop them and grow new ones. That velvet is actually a vascular system that transports blood and nutrients to the growing antler. It takes a great deal of nutritional support to grow those things and can be seen as an indicator of a deer’s health or ability to gather nutrients from its environment. This is why black soil bucks will grow larger racks than a deer around parts of central Florida with sandy soil and palmettos, put simply.

As they mature, they quite literally flower out from the bases or pedicles. The velvet carries supplies to the tips of the tines while the cartilage that forms behind it converts to bone. Once growth has peaked the bone dies and the velvet is shed leaving that classic All-American Whitetail antler. All of this takes place in a span of 3 to 4 months.

Fun side note, antler velvet has long been considered by the Chinese to have medicinal value. It is believed to function as an anti-inflammatory, boost immune systems and fight cancer. As you can imagine, this has created a market for antler velvet, but the main contributors are elk and red deer farmed on ranches. I believe I’ll continue to ingest backstrap and venison in the form hamburger for my own health.

So whitetail bucks are locusts, eating machines during the offseason. It’s why I take only small stock in their patterns right now. It’s helpful as can be to have trail cameras around feeders and food sources to appraise the deer population. But once that velvet is shed, it signifies the start of the challenge of deer hunting. Obviously a buck still has to feed throughout the fall, but that drive is overshadowed by a much more powerful one and the reason bucks even grow antlers – the rut. The bucks that so reliably dine on feeders throughout the summer will start traveling far and wide to find as many ladies as possible. This is when we’re in the woods and realize he’s not the dumb creature that’s been stuffing his face in the heat of the year.

I’m still not sure how I’m gonna go about hunting this buck. It’s nice to know he’s there, but the property is small and there aren’t too many deer to start with. He could be a mile away by pre-rut. Or maybe not; always hard to say with these things.

I do know for certain that velvet will be discarded and a fine set of antlers rests underneath, and I’d love to have a crack at them. May turn out, though, that these trail camera pics will be only tangible mementos of this buck.

Which is more than OK, too.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Adjusting Florida's Gator Hunting Application System

Some folks want to blame Swamp People, but I think things were trending this way anyhow. Florida Gator Hunting has really jumped in popularity over the last five years. The hunts are exciting. They don’t interfere with other hunting pursuits. And up until recently, they’ve been pretty accessible. Now the FWC may have a burgeoning gator problem on their hands. Not one where they have to remove a reptile from a pool or dislodge a poodle from a gator’s gums, but with their hunting program.

Perception is reality to a mob. After the 1st round of drawings went down a few weeks ago, you could hear the torches flaring and the grinding of honed pitchfork tines. All kinds of wild accusations were flying about from the unsuccessful, from accusing the FWC of favoring non-resident applicants because they pay more for their permit - $1022 to $272 for residents – to suggesting gator guides are gaming the system by submitting applications for all friends and family members fit for a late-night gator chase. 

Indeed these are pretty reckless claims without proof. And this year has been tougher because demand has increased while the number of tags was diminished because of drought conditions. Anecdotal evidence an effective argument does not make, but I do have frustrated friends who have not been drawn in years of applying, and I suspect others do, as well. If these folks are applying for tough-to-draw lakes and zones year-in, year-out, then reason stands that the odds are never in their favor.

My method of applying is about the same as the NFL Draft. Everyone gets five picks per application – I try to apply for the top-shelf talent first and second. The third and fourth picks are reserved for bigger lakes with more tags, and the final is left for the less desirable licenses, like my fourth-season Polk County tag I paid for the other day.

But a few changes could really help assuage much of the clamor associated with this process and give everyone - well, almost everyone - a better shot at yanking a prized permit.

1. Institute a preference point system. I’d like to see points awarded to unsuccessful applicants weighted on whether, let’s just say, a person struck out on their first 3 picks. Assign 3 preference points for the 1st pick, 2 for a second pick, and 1 for a third rounder. Over time this will allow folks to eventually pull that coveted pond nearby with only two permits. They already use preference points for other quota hunts in the state – it couldn’t be that difficult to get it going for gators.

2. Designate a certain number of tags for residents and non-residents. As it stands now, I have the same odds of drawing a permit for a local lake as someone from Arkansas does. Nothing against non-residents and no xenophobia here, but there’s a real problem when Florida residents can’t access a local resource because of out-of-towners, even if this is only an imagined problem. This model is used in many areas in the West for desirable big game tags, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be employed here. Maybe split the privilege 70/30 in favor of residents.

3. Adjust the Phase II application time. Not everyone was excited about going to a random draw system a few years back, but it was a relic. They continue to operate under a 1st-come, 1st-serve design for Round 2, but it starts at 10:00 am. Now, I paid for my tag so I’m ineligible anyhow, but I can tell you exactly where I’m gonna be at ten tomorrow – work. Maybe move it up to 6pm or so.

Look, it’s never going to be perfect, but the FWC does a pretty good job of listening to stakeholders and making sure all available permits are divvied amongst the crowd. Not everyone will draw a tag, and, believe it or not, gators are a limited resource. This is not an extermination program, rather a recreational one.

Gator hunting is great sport; there just needs to be a few wrinkles ironed out in the application process. But, hey, even if you don’t get pulled, you can always buy a trapper’s agent tag and participate in a hunt in which someone else drew the CITES tags and right to pay the 300 bones.

Or a $1000…*%&@! Out-of-Towners.

(Ideas? Suggestions? Let's hear it!)