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

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.