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

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crossbow Aficionado

(Also Posted at Good Hunt.)
From the months of feeder maintenance, setting up a stand, and cutting shooting lanes to religiously checking the trail camera and extensive range time to make sure my broadheads hit their mark, this was the most calculated hunt I think I have ever conducted. I knew that deer would be there at first light on Opening Morning of Florida’s archery season, and sure enough, the time had come to collect.
I had not planned on the scope fogging up. This would be a whole lot more impressive if I were writing about a 10-point, but no, it was only a doe. For whatever reason, the bucks on our little lease disappeared over the summer. Perhaps they heard I acquired a crossbow.
I’ve taken a great deal of abuse from buddies about my new toy. Most feel it’s cheating, but I don’t really care.
Look, I’ve never been enchanted by the lyrical magic of archery that many enthusiasts claim they feel in their souls. Aspects of the sport are more challenging than gun hunting, without question, and therefore more satisfying for some, but I can’t say it does much for me. In 15 years of bowhunting, I’ve learned how to set-up on deer with more accuracy and employed that to all styles of hunting. I’ve enjoyed the extra time in the woods. We’ve hadgood times and bad, but that’s what I’ve taken away from it. And besides, as the saying goes, the dyer’s hands are stained by the elements from which he works – I’ll ditch anything with a string when I can get a centerfire in my grasp.
This is not to say, however, I do not appreciate esoteric challenges. Shy of using a flintlock or bolt-action handgun, I’ve harvested deer with just about every legal hunting implement out there, and the desire to knock one off with a bolt was appealing. And with being a faithful reporter in the world of hunting, the use of crossbows has increased over the last several years, and I just wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
So after months of not-so-subtle hints of e-mails with various models and prices, my wife and mother gifted me a PSE Reaper combo package complete with 4 cheap bolts and a scope with 5 reticles for my birthday in August. On the money side, it’s towards the more-affordable. You can easily drop more cash on a fancier model but for what may be a passing fancy, this just didn’t seem prudent – and who’s to argue with such a rig as a present. Saints, my family.
Truth be told, my first impressions were not great, though I am a fan of PSE products. What I had thought would be a slam-dunk proposition turned into challenges of its own. One, the thing is heavy and fairly unwieldy in a stand. When you pull the trigger it sounds like a hammer hitting a trailer hitch. The trigger itself you almost need to use the cocking device on which doesn’t breed accuracy. And that scope…even jacked up as high as I could crank it, the 15 and 25 yard reticles were pushing the bolts into the dirt. You don’t have to stand and draw, which is essentially the biggest advantage, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t get the bolt to hit in the right place or the deer jumps the string.
After quickly tearing the fletchings off the factory bolts during practice, I purchased a 6-pack of Laser II Gold Tips, screwed in 100-grain Rage mechanical broadheads, and sighted them in. I need to research how to dampen the noise and a new scope is in order, but by employing the bottom three reticles and applying a little Kentucky windage to the top two, I was consistently hitting the bull and felt confident enough to take it to the stand a couple Saturdays ago.
The doe, though, wasn’t real impressed with my movement as I frantically tried to wipe the steam out of the scope, which, by the way, isn’t ideal for low-light situations, either. Say what you will about crossbows, but there are still range limitations at play and dithering around within 30 yards of game is usually a recipe for disaster.
Fortunately, I rubbed the scope clean, and the second she stopped high-stepping around the feeder ready to blow off to points unknown, she turned broadside. I hit high which dropped her in her tracks. Having lost game before on high shots, I slid down the rails of the stand like a firefighter, re-cocked the PSE and immediately put an insurance bolt in her. Fresh venison in the freezer on the initial day of hunting season. In 20 years of chasing deer, I believe that’s the first time I’ve accomplished that.
As I said, there are still issues to be corrected, but it’s great to be off to a fast start and beat the skunk. I’m not totally over the standard bow – mostly because many WMA’s and jealous friends with property won’t allow crossbows. But the PSE is a fun new toy for at least this season. I do have a feeling it’ll be a productive relationship.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2013's Gator Hunting - Tough Luck and Zombie Gators

If you've never stumbled by my other website on Lakeland Ledger's Polk Outdoors section, I invite you to do so. I've done most of my writing there over the last couple of years, since I get paid for writing there, which is great. But, I keep this site up for story-time and when I get long-winded.

One problem with the other webpage is that it's subscription-based. Sure you get 5 free reads per month, but after that, you gotta pay or get a subscription to the newspaper which won't work for those outside the Central Florida area. I'll reserve my opinions on why anyone would have to pay to access a website for reasons other than those that may get you in trouble with your wife or the law.

But, it was a successful gator season for me - exciting. Wanted to share what I'd already written at Good Hunt. It's a two-for-one feature here. Enjoy!

Gator Hunting Report 2013 - Successes and Failures

Friday morning we’d spied a large gator in Lake Hancock. I had these 1st phase permits and was eager to wipe the stink of failure away from my 2012 season. Not so eager that I’d take any gator; I still wanted some heft, something to brag about.
This guy appeared to fit the bill. The lake was choppy making targets difficult to spot. The low pressure was palpable, and that’s rarely a positive sign for game movement. Despite this, we’d finally gotten within range of what looked to be a winner.
On the first cast I skipped the snatch hook over his back while he rested on the bottom. I quickly re-cast near the spot, keeping the rod tip lower in hopes of having a better angle to snag him.
Suddenly, it felt like I’d hooked a stone wall. And then the line promptly popped.
It was such a bang-bang play that it’s tough to recall what went wrong. I know I didn’t check the drag and it was a little tight. Maybe I grabbed the spool and maybe that caused the loss. Either way, I was holding the rod so the blame fell on me and rightly so.
I had an encore performance the next morning – this time I definitely failed to check the drag on a different rod and the Dacron snapped. This gator was not nearly as big, and I started feeling like a young girl staring in a mirror hoping she’ll be pretty one day.
Saturday was different, though. The lake was smooth, and gators were more at ease and easily spotted. We opened with running-and-gunning, tossing on gators who’d leave a bubble trail or push a wake. A couple seemingly disappeared and another fortunately surfaced as we saw him for the runt he was and called off the pursuit, but this was well after I’d again diminished our supply of weighted treble hooks.
We went back to general area where I’d broken off the morning before and dropped anchor for a little while. Every now and then heads would surface then disappear. One of them, though, Krunk felt for sure was a goodie. I hadn’t set eyes on him until he surfaced several minutes later behind the boat 60 – 75 yards away. With the decision to act being made, Harris cranked the motor and picked up on his trail.
I’d like to tell you it was a battle for the ages, but that’s really not the truth. Harris was able to keep sight of the gator’s bubbles as Krunk and I flailed hooks at the zig-zagging reptile. He finally took a brief respite, settling on the bottom, and I was able to get a hook in him. Krunk soon followed with his rod before Harris assisted with a handline. There were, thankfully, no more break-offs or tossed hooks or harpoons that regularly happen with snagged gators large and small.
Up to that point we weren’t entirely sure how big he was – “meat gator” was kind of the thought until Harris and Krunk heaved him topside. He began his rolling and thrashing, and it became clear he was a bit more than the average lizard. A harpoon and two bangstick shots later and he was boated.
Later at Tropic Star, the tape said 10ft. 6in. We figured over ten, but he just wasn’t filled out; we even thought him skinny, nothing like the stud we boated two years ago. He was just a younger bull. Still, it was a great catch and start to gator season.
Other gator hunters we spoke with weren’t as lucky. One guide drifted in Friday morning with a decent 9-footer, it looked like. A trio of gentlemen took a pair of meat gators. Brent Faircloth at Tropic Star said that things had been a little slow, mostly because of late-night storms keeping some hunters off the water. But, he expects it to pick up. I’m sure it will.
Phase I ends Thursday morning at 10 a.m. I have one tag left for Hancock. Harris has a Phase II Kissimmee River license, so, all things permitting, it’s on to there.

Particular things force me to abandon my appetite during breakfast. For instance, as I read the paper in the mornings, enjoying the daily tales of Egyptian uprisings and cyber-bullying, I’m often confronted by dental ads and those disgusting before-and-after photos. The before photo – typically the one on the left – is the set of rotten, meth-mangled, and otherwise nasty chompers. 100% of the time when I run across these advertisements I drop the paper and throw my breakfast sandwich directly in the garbage.
I witnessed something this morning, however, that might have cured me of this idiosyncrasy.
This gator came to us in the usual way. Harris, Krunk and I returned to Lake Hancock after our success on Saturday. The water was choppy and gators hard to spy in the area we typically hunt. We moved a couple times before spotting three large-ish gators towards the east. We set out after them as they sank to the sound of the boat motor.
Hard to say if this guy was one of the original three, but he was an easy target off the front of the boat and left a solid bubble trail. I was in no mood for spending more time at gator hunting this week – work and family had been pushed aside long enough. When Krunk got the treble hook in him, Harris promptly pulled a handline into him. The gator shook it off once, but he was able to secure the animal again, hoisting him to the surface.
It was at this point we noticed something rather peculiar and downright disgusting – his lower jaw was badly damaged, blown out at the end like a blunderbuss muzzle with a bulbous growth the size of a baseball on the right side.
Stomachs turned – there may or may not have been a little gagging. The loose skin and flesh of the throat spun about in the water – it was enough to turn an undertaker green.
I have no way of saying what had happened. It might have been another gator that ripped into him or perhaps he caught a prop one day. Heck, the jaw could have been an old bite wound or something from when he was 8-inches long. And while I also can’t explain how he could eat with this malformation, the gator was able to endure – after all, he later taped at 9-feet 9-inches. But, he wasn’t surviving the bangstick to the dome, which leads me to the only reasonable conclusion – this was a zombie gator.
After dispatching the monstrosity, we wondered what we should do. No one really wanted to grab him, and we weren’t real sure how to tape his mouth. Still, we pressed forward, taping what could be taped of his jaws and hauling his stinking, mud-caked body aboard.
So, it wasn’t the biggest of gators but without question one of the most unique. I’ll have the skull European mounted – it should be an interesting conversation piece.
I just won’t keep it around the breakfast table.