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

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.