"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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Thanksgiving Boar

Originally posted at Good Hunt
It is an autumn of Anything Can Happen. Witness Auburn, for God sake. After a year of trying to catch up with him, I had no illusions of killing this boar on this day or any other. But, there he stood in broad daylight behind my 16-ft. ladder stand Thanksgiving morning, nose up in the crisp 30-degree air, attempting to sniff out any danger.
Since he started visiting our lease last fall, I have collected hundreds of pictures of this boar, always around midnight. He survived that hunting season without being noticed. I bragged in a post back in February that he’d be BBQ by mid-March. By late-March we set a trap only for him to disappear and us losing interest in driving down to check it every other day. When he did pop back up over the summer, he religiously visited a particular corn pile every night. I picked a day on the calendar with a full moon, planning a lunar assault on this stud. Luckily, before I sacrificed sleep and blood to the skeeters, I checked the trail camera the day before the hunt to find him vanished once more.
Though I prefer doing so for deer, I could no longer dump corn on the ground. He siphoned it up too quickly when present and accounted for. He’d show up periodically through late summer and early bowseason, but the timed tripod feeder just didn’t interest him as much as the all-night buffets. Good riddance, I thought. Though he was a trophy animal, corn is too expensive these days to waste on him.
The uninitiated generally don’t understand – or just don’t care – how hard it is to hunt big boars in a free-range, non-dog hunting situation. Nocturnal is their MO. By the time they develop their swagger and linebacker shoulders, trophy boars have had run-ins with hunters, predators, hog dogs and other boars. While they’re tough as can be, big boars are also pretty cagey and pay close attention to their surroundings to avoid confrontations. Those noses are not easily fooled. Their eyesight is limited but still capable of discerning an excited hunter in a tree.
This is why I held my breath and Ruger No. 1 still while his nose periscoped the atmosphere for signs of alarm. Fortunately, he was not heading towards the feeder. The wind was blowing right towards it and a little button buck who could not have cared less. The boar would have cared and been gone before I could have clicked the safety off, I guarantee.
Where he was going, I can’t say. While the corn feeder is a plus, my stand is positioned at an intersection of game trails that run North to South on the property. If there is a weakness for wild boars, it is that they have a tendency to use the same two or three trails on the way to feeding to bedding and back again. I had noticed he’d been wearing down this trail in recent weeks, though the camera on the feeder wasn’t revealing his presence. Per usual, the trick was being in the right spot at the right time, in this instance right after a cold front had pushed south, plummeting the Central Florida temps into the 30′s. It’s weather to get most animals on their feet in the mornings.
Once the boar was satisfied the coast was clear, he continued on the trail, badly limping. It appeared his front right shoulder had been injured. About 10 minutes prior, I had heard a shot from the orange grove to the south. Was I finishing off the walking wounded?
I settled the .25-06 behind his shoulder. At 15 yards, he filled the Nikon glass, even on 3X. I squeezed the trigger, and he never broke stride or left the trail. For a moment, I thought I had missed. The No. 1 being a single shot, I frantically reached into the box of Remingtons for another round, but it was unnecessary.
The boar wandered 30 yards down the path, spun in a circle and dropped. I hurried down the stand, rifle reloaded to ensure he’d given up the ghost. Satisfied it was over, I pulled out my iPhone to snap a picture to send to people. As I leaned in for the photo, he let out a final grunt and lunged up, but that was the end of it – the King was dead and my pants very nearly soiled.
In 20 years of hog hunting, I’d say he’s in my Top-3 boars – certainly my best in the last 10 seasons. I loathe to estimate a hog’s weight, but he was a solid 250-275 lbs. I’ve shot smaller hogs with bigger cutters, but his were a very respectable 3 1/4-inches with worn wetters. He stunk only like big boars do, and his front right leg had been broken at the shoulder and not by another’s bullet. An eight-inch long thin scar appeared indicative of him getting that leg caught in wire of some kind, either from a fence, trap, or snare. Perhaps this injury is why he’d disappear for such lengths of time – he just couldn’t get around like he used to, though he clearly wasn’t missing many meals.
While I’m thrilled to have finally caught up with the boar, it is kind of depressing to know he won’t be on the trail camera in the future; however, I know it’s only a matter of time before another takes his place. I’ll get that one, too.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 2013 North Carolina Hunt

Also published at Good Hunt.

I returned home from Sampson County, North Carolina last Thursday with three deer in the coffin cooler. A doe and cowhorn spike were felled in the normal fashion on the final evening, blessedly topping off the Igloo. The other deer, though – well, that was a doozy.
That Monday morning I invited Dirty J to hunt with me in the stand I had drawn, the same stand from which I got the two bucks last year. It was Dirty’s birthday, and we don’t hunt together much anymore. Well, soon after legal light a doe bailed into the field to my right followed by a buck. We glassed him and determined he was a shooter – easily had antler an inch or so beyond the ears. At under 100 yards, it was Dirty’s chip shot to make.
Problem was, the deer came from downwind and got spooky. He pranced to the middle of the field as I was imploring Dirty to shoot. By the time the buck came to a rest he was directly between the stand and the fledgling sunrise, and there was apparently just enough glare in the scope to prohibit a shot. The buck kept on moving away towards the creek bottom on the opposite side of the field.
Up until this point, my .300 Win. Mag. had been leaning against the corner of the stand. I slid a round in the chamber, heaved the heavy-barreled Savage, and settled into a solid rest. By the time I picked up on the deer, he was at the farthest edge of the field, 300 – 350 yards, and I told Dirty I had the shot. Standing in the early morning dark of the far treeline, I could barely make out the outline of his white tail. When I thought I had him adequately squared up for a broadside shot, that 180-grain XP3 boomed across the open with an audible whack! when it hit the target. Dirty said he saw the buck kick up and run nose down into the woods.
It was still early so we held tight and discussed what had happened. We had the deer marked well where he went into the woods and were excited to put hands on antlers. I did mention how odd it was that the buck held up on the edge and didn’t enter the woods after being spooked. We watched a young doe piddle around a feeder for a while before walking down to check things out.
We found the trail easy enough and the buck shortly after. I called up to Dirty, who had beaten me to the animal, to give me a tine report. He called back, “It’s a spike!”
I trotted up, in complete disbelief, and sure enough, it was a younger deer with a whole 2 inches of antler poking off his head.
I was stunned. We went through all kinds of ludicrous scenarios: someone else had shot the deer the night before, maybe a poacher or farmer. But we would have heard the shot from camp since you can’t hunt on Sundays. Plus, this was a fresh trail, not one that had sat over night. We walked past the deer looking to see if the blood trail continued as if the buck I intended to shoot ran past this one. It took at least 15 minutes to come to terms with the fact that I had downed this deer. There was no denying the evidence.
So what happened? Well, there’s no question the original buck was a different animal. We put binos on him and agreed he was a shooter well before anyone raised a rifle. Best we figured was the buck did in fact go into the woods, and this was a different deer we had not seen prior. I simply lost track of the big one in the shuffle of rifles and can’t say what Dirty was doing in the interim. The dead deer had acted all spooky before the shot leading me to believe he was the bigger one. The bigger one probably boogered him, though, making him all antsy. At the distance and the dark – and we weren’t dealing with a 150-class buck to begin with – I simply failed to notice the antlers, concentrating more on a steady shot behind the shoulder.
There was another possibility that I knew those in camp would go for – it was all BS, and we had buck fever. Hand to Bible, that was not the case. I’m still stupefied as I write this but certainly pleased to have the venison. And it was the longest shot – easily – I’ve made on a deer. The three longest shots I’ve made have now come from that stand.
So that cross-up was a first for me, but it was that kind of week. Camp Rookie Alex shot a 7-pt in an antler, concussing him enough that Alex was able to get a second shot and ground him. Can’t say I’ve seen that before. Darin, uncharacteristically, shot a button buck. Gene, even more uncharacteristically, failed to check his zero before that morning’s hunt and promptly missed a nice buck. His pattern was 7-inches off.

Tim Long with a coastal North Carolina 8pt.
Others did it right. Don killed a dark 6-point, and Tim shot a pretty 8-pt. Several does were added to the pot. A couple other smaller bucks were taken.
I did see one monster buck Tuesday morning. I was overlooking a cut cornfield while sitting in a Porta-Potty stand when a big ol’ boy with tall tines and lots of them came boiling into the open from the highway at a considerable distance. Something had spooked him because he was getting after it. At his closest point, he may have been 250 yards. But with him moving too fast, at that distance, and one screw-up under my belt already, I was in no mood to start slinging lead and possibly wounding him.
Plus, as much as I love big bucks, the deer hunting on this trip is always incidental to the friendships around that camp. We’ve been hunting together a long time but only see one another once or twice a year anymore. Thankful we can all still make this trip. It snowed Tuesday night which made it hard to get out of bed Wednesday morning. Even having been in Montana the week before, that was the coldest I’d been in a while, certainly unexpected for coastal North Carolina.
Already looking forward to next year and to seeing everyone again. Maybe I’ll catch up with one of those bigger bucks then. If not, it’s always a good hunt.