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

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

North Carolina Gobbler Cross Up

(Originally published at Good Hunt.)

Since I'm a forthright and honest guy who wants to write off this trip for tax purposes, I feel I must come clean about other events that occurred in North Carolina at the end of April. If you recall, I had a shotgun mishap on the second day of the hunt that caused me to miss a nice gobbler. Add this to a miss the Opening Weekend of Florida's season, and 2014 was a pretty humiliating and painful year for errors and screw-ups.

Well, this wasn't quite as bad as that, as I actually put feather on the ground...let's make it short and sweet, because that's how the hunting tale unfolded.

Harris and I had flown to North Carolina to hunt gobblers on property that I've deer hunted for a decade, thanks to Uncle Dennis and his family. 10 years ago there were almost no birds. Over the years we noticed more and more thanks to re-introduction practices by NWTF. One piece of farming land known as Uncle Harry's was especially loaded. (None of these people are actual kin to me by blood; through the course of 20-odd years hunting together, though, the difference is only academic.)

Leading into Uncle Harry's is what's named the Sleepy Hollow Road, a meandering path along a creek splitting agriculture fields and a large block of planted pines. The turkeys will roost in these pines or along the water.

After arriving at Dennis' camp Thursday evening and getting our things settled, Harris and I collected our gear and set out for Harry's to roost a gobbler or perhaps get a shot on one.

We slowly walked down Sleepy Hollow, calling periodically. On the first field on the left we noticed a hen trotting towards the woodline, clearly spooked. I told Harris I would be shocked if the next field didn't have a bird in it - it always holds birds. With enough brush and small trees growing out of the creek and vines snaking down from the pines, we would be pretty well-screened as we advanced down the road.

Sure enough, there was blood-red head visible through the tangle.

Harris and I both dropped to the ground and started to crawl to a spot where we could close the distance for a shot . Harris, though, did not see the tom and was unsure when or where to move and elected to stay put. All I could see was that red head and whiffs of his dark body. I called once or twice, and he'd break into strut but never gobble. Trying to keep trees and brush between us as much as possible, I elbowed to a spot where I could get a clear poke if he were to accommodate his positioning.

For a solid 5 - 10 minutes I held on all-fours, vicious Sampson County skeeters darting my plumber's crack. The gobbler would sift in and out of view between the fresh green Spring-unfurled leaves as he moseyed parallel to the creekbank searching for his love as I attempted to will him into a pie-plate gap in the vegetation where I'd have a clean shot. I would pull the trigger if his still-bright red noggin would center in that space. In a quick motion, I'd have to flip to a sitting position and quickly shoot. One thing was certain, my knees and back weren't taking much more abuse bent over trying to hold steady. The gobbler had grown nervous, too, as no hen ever emerged from the road.

For once, things worked out as he meandered to the gap, head down and slightly angled away as he was sneaking to safety. The jig was up, one way or the other. I committed to Kill Mode, flipped around and fired in about a second, flopping him in the field. It was a fine piece of shotgunning with the 835 that would betray me the next evening.

Until this point, Harris still had not seen the bird but had picked up on him thrashing about and noticed his tail feathers on the edges of his fan were shorter than those in the middle. I had no idea as I fought across the ditch and raced into the field to claim my first NC gobbler, only to find that instead of 8 - 10 inches of beard there was 4 - 5...and that's being generous. Serious ground-shrinkage, friends.

I never in a thousand years would've guessed that was a jake. Hunkered down in the road within shooting distance but with an obscured view, I didn't take the time to check if in fact he had a long beard. When he did strut, I couldn't make out his entire fan. But he looked big and dark and strutted. The other jakes I'd seen the previous weeks of hunting were mousy critters, not animals holding fort fanning in the middle of a field where dominant birds could easily locate and spur them down the totem pole. Excited and with poor visibility is usually a bad combo, and that held true to form on this day.

Nothing was illegal, just not my preference for this trip. Discouraged, yet still pumped about executing a fun hunt, I jogged back to Sleepy Hollow and attempted to toss the jake across the creek so I could navigate it myself. Well, he rolled down into the water, and in my efforts to retrieve him I managed to yank out all of his tail feathers. Impressive photos, he did not make. Matted down and soaking-wet scrawny, it was a hard sell to make-believe he was anything but a jake after the fact, nubby spurs and stunted beard notwithstanding.

Had he wandered in clear view like a trio would the next morning, he would have lived. While I hate making excuses, these things happen. But the more I considered the situation, the more disappointment waned. It was an excellent spot-and-stalk hunt on a treasured piece of property with a good friend. I guess I'm not as embarrassed as I thought, and it'd be wrong to diminish that bird because of a few inches of beard.

Just need to be more careful next time on target identification.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

An Osceola in the Rain

(Originally Posted at Good Hunt)

The rain was no surprise - hell, it seemed to pour on every other hunt this turkey season. At this point, it was laughable, and the mirthful radar displayed waves of yellow and red rolling in from the southwest straight into the Big Bend.

The property of scrub and planted pines and cypress heads in Rosewood I hunted the last weekend of Florida's Spring Turkey was more of a bog. Without any major creek systems or ditches to move water combined with a solid sheet of limestone 20-ft. underground, the persistent downpours over the previous six weeks had nowhere to go other than through merciful evaporation.

So, rain - no surprise. The shock was my ability to stave off complete inebriation. When it's raining, I'm a full-blown pessimist. In these surroundings with these conditions, the only reasonable thing to do - in my sick mind - is swale bourbon, laugh too loud, and eat a huge steak by nightfall. Beyond the safety and legal ramifications of this, once the whiskey starts flowing with any rapidity, my feet are kicked up and the hunt is over. Call it advancing maturity, call it triumph of the human spirit, call it the bloodlust to kill one more turkey, but I avoided this urge. I just felt I'd have a chance at action later in the day if I kept it between the buoys, as Alan Jackson would say.

I can't say it was easy being trapped in the cabin, despite its comforts. The Friday morning hunt was cut short by howling winds - my turkey calling attempts blew away only slightly faster than the sideways pine needles. And from previous conversations with Mike, the owner of the property, the gobblers hadn't been all that vocal this year, dampening my enthusiasm further. Back in camp before nine, we settled down for breakfast and watched Bay News 9 reveal our fate via iPhone.

(Quick aside - if someone had told you 20 years ago that there would be a device that let you talk, text, check e-mail, sports scores, weather stations, and other websites - wink-wink - how much would you have predicted it'd cost? $10,000? More?)

By 10:30 there was a solid downpour. We looked through hundreds of trail camera pictures of drier days to bide the time. The hogs on this property are ridiculous. You almost never saw the same one, yet the property is under 90-acres. And we noticed most of the gobblers moved after noon and later into the evening.

In particular, we noticed one large tom sporting a rainbow of a beard. He was clearly a mature animal that had been recently ambling between two locations from 2 to about 5pm. Three jakes were frequently photographed, as well, and at this point, that would be game on. I set it to my mind that I could get one of these birds if given half-a-chance, and maybe a pig, too.

At four, the rains ceased. The radar had showed a break in the weather. Dad and I hurriedly donned our gear and set to the woods. I chose one of the areas where the gobbler had been seen in the last few days, and set up in the only dry place I could find, a treestand. Adding to this unconventional arrangement, I was toting my Ruger No. 1 .25-06. I'll happily debate another day the political correctness of turkey hunting with a rifle, but with the pigs and coyotes on the property, I wanted to be ready for anything.

It didn't take long. After settling in, I loudly yelped a few times. Within minutes, one of those jakes came splish-splashing down a trail, poking around for a potential lover. He sadly found it. That Ruger loves killing turkeys. I shot him very carefully in the neck to avoid ruining any breast meat, and he dropped in a puddle at 20-yards, soaking his feathers. All turkey are worthy opponents to me; hate to see them all drowned-rat-like. Of course, with the weather conditions he'd endured this Spring, this was probably a constant style for him.

I suppose I could have let him pass and held out for the bigger gobbler. I could have...but a bird in the hand and all that. Actually, Dad shot immediately after me. He had spooked a few hogs off while walking into his area, but things had settled down and he watched as that tom started closing the distance. At my shot, the gobbler changed directions, and Dad fired a desperation round. He should have been carrying a rifle.

We got back to camp soon after dark. I selfishly pined for a pig to wind down the day, but one never ambled by. As we packed our things away, the rain began to spit again. I stowed the jake in a trash bag and put him on ice to clean at the house and show the kids. As is my tradition, I did not get out of bed to hunt Saturday morning, my last of the season in Florida. The sheets were too comfortable, the 6-week season plenty long and exhausting, and I finally got to those drinks I'd be meaning to enjoy.

This time, though, they were of a celebratory nature and not dedicated to the rains.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Get Ducks or Die Trying

Originally Posted at Good Hunt.

I’m not sure if I should blame Obama or Phil Robertson for the difficulty in finding duck hunting ammunition this year. Last year – almost to the day – I moaned about the shortage of waterfowl rounds in local stores, begging them to stock up for 2013-14. I said then not to blame Obama, but the beginning of 2013 witnessed an ammo grab unlike anything we’d witnessed since the ’90′s. Folks were literally snatching whatever they could off of shelves as panic spread that the President was going to restrict firearm ownership, a threat no one should have taken too seriously, in hindsight, since he actually put VP Biden in charge of the duty.

So while my plea may have been heard, it’s possible there was little retailers could do as manufacturers simply could not keep up with the demand. While the factories have been churning out the goods as fast as possible, supplies stretched pretty thin into this season. Even the big online stores were bare come mid-December. Unless a 10-gauge was your idea of a teal gun, options were slim.
All of this has coincided with an upturn in duck hunter numbers. I’d have to see Duck Stamp sales to be certain, but there’s been a palpable increase in people banging away at birds this year. Three years ago I argued that the popularity of duck hunting was about to explode. It wasn’t my best post – I mean, I quote Britney Spears; who does this? – but my theory has largely been correct, and that was without anticipating the arrival of Duck Dynasty, a phenomenon unlike any other to hit the hunting world, Swamp People included.
Assuming you’ve not been in a coma over the last 18 months, I’ll go ahead and skip over the rise and potential fall of that show, but will say that you’d think a major corporation like Wal-Mart could help out actual sportsmen and stock their shelves with whatever steel shot they could get their hands on given the program’s popularity and, presumably, studying hunting market trends. The Robertsons are so featured in your local Wally-World, it’s entirely conceivable that they constitute a branch of the Walton Family Tree. For Rudolph’s sake, cashiers wore Santa hats with duck bills on them throughout the holidays…but try finding a box of 12-gauge #4 steel anywhere in a Central Florida store location. The irony is not lost on me.
But some people have had them stockpiled – there’s been a lot of blasting this year on public waters.
My first inkling that we might be in trouble was for the September Teal STA draws in late-summer. These used to be a cinch to pull. When our group produced one permit out of a dozen of us applying, we surmised something was up. But, hey, it’s hot September in South Florida and online applications are easy to fill out. When rubber hits the road and skeeters, surely more than a few folks would pull up lame and leave available spots open for the few walk-in hunters willing to sacrifice a pint of blood and sweat for four teal.
Fast forward to Harris and I sprinting down a line of two dozen vehicles all there to register for a teaspoon of open spots. We entered our names at the last second and watched those openings fill with fellows sporting the Uncle Si beards and DD shirts. A whole horde of luckless hunters wheeled back home in the dark that morning.
It’s also possible I’m suffering the early onset of post-traumatic stress disorder after a hunt down at STA 1-W a few weekends ago. We got surrounded – as in we would have been the bulls-eye on a dart board – by other hunters taking it to the plug on ducks near and high, but mostly high. Anything slower than a teal had no chance of making it to us within AA-Gun range. I watched a hen shoveler tightly circle far overhead several times and had hopes she’d decoy. She finally circled too far and went totally vertical amid the shower of steel coming off the barrels of a group who was incapable of docking the duck calls in their shirt pockets and whose shot rained on us every time they pulled the trigger. They had pulled such shenanigans all morning. The shoveler was the lucky one.
But the STA’s have become well-known over the last five years as word has spread about their productivity. What really caught me off-guard has been the hunter activity along the West Coast this fall. What was once a lonely, often unproductive, game of merganser and diver hunting for those crazy enough to brave the salt spray, extreme tides and oyster bars has become a little crowded. Not, of course, by public lake standards, but never have I seen so many frond blinds on the tips of mangrove islands. And twice this year we’ve been cut off by newbies wailing on mallard calls hoping to turn passing mergies. Fun times.
This is all a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful that so many people have taken up this sport. Allies are being recruited even as we duel for the same hunting spots and curse over skyblasting. I don’t watch Duck Dynasty nor purchase their shirts, hats, band-aids, or board games, but I will confess to being overjoyed to see young people at ramps and check-in stations so intrigued with that crew that they’re willing to plunge into a duck blind on a cold morning, Jack.
For our group, the increase in hunters has caused us to spread out and try new places this year with a great deal of success, I might add. The duck hunting bubble will burst for a number of people as they spread their wings into other outdoor pursuits. For our group, not much slows us down when it comes to ducks. Except, of course, a lack of shotgun shells.