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

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reviewing the 2009-10 Hunting Season

For me, the 2009-10 Hunting Season is finished. The Hunting FY ends after Turkey Season is kaput. It’s time to analyze this past year and commence preparation for next. Besides, my energy levels are toast, and I’m ready to put ‘er in port for a while. The May Malaise – an awful affliction related to Mono that renders one totally fatigued and incapable of arising at the butt-crack of dawn for any reason – is in total control now. So let’s take a deep breath and gander back at the year that was.

The Highlights

Gator Hunting, no doubt, was one of the most exciting times I’ve had. What a fun way to kick off a hunting season. A bunch of buddies in a boat, stalking the red eyes of Mr. Grins across Polk County lakes. Hooking into one of these bad boys is a thrill, and the teamwork required to put one in the boat safely is a huge part of the buzz . Neither of the gators we took on my tags will awe the serious lizard hunters, but for my inaugural season, it got no better.

A day in North Carolina will live forever around the campfire as long as I'm alive to re-live it for everyone's pleasure. I’d taken a snooze in the stand to fight back a foggy head from the late night drive into town and awoke to two does standing in the dried out soybeans. Two shots, two kills. While on the phone telling Carolyn about it, another pair came running up the length of the field. Cracked a third, and, figuring I shouldn’t get too greedy, let the other one walk. All shots were over 200 yards and filled my freezer for the winter.

My first Georgia quail hunt won’t be withdrawn from the memory banks anytime soon, either. On a beautiful plantation with my soon-to-be-wife and in-laws, we had a fantastic shoot. The dogs worked hard as did the guides. It’ll be hard to let another December pass without a bobwhite extravaganza included.

A few others – the annual Christmas hunt in Sarasota County. Close friends and a perfect stress reliever after the busy holidays. Hunting in Levy County with long-time hunting buddies. It’s always more of a steak and bourbon affair, but I did pop a couple hogs.

The Lowlights

Missing the turkeys. You can surf back through my archives on this. And I still have another punishing tale to write once I muster the strength to do so.

Bow season. It was so blazing hot through September and October; the deer movement was about non-existent in Manatee County. On my last bowhunt in January on public land, it was the coldest day in the last 30 years in the Sunshine State.

Duck season was disappointing as well, but mostly from my lack of attendance. The few times I did make it out, the birds just didn’t cooperate. Friends still make these trips worth while.

The Enemies

Mother Nature proved, once again, what a fickle wench she can be. The extreme heat, the extreme cold. Just a weird weather year. The acorns didn’t fall until late, and the pollen in the Spring was intolerable. With the rain in between, some of the best-laid plans crumbled.

Something New

We went over gator and quail hunting. A trip to Lake Toho in September to shoot moorhen was fun – bet I can scrounge up some interest for a .410 tournament this next go-round. I scouted plenty of WMA’s I had not been on and look forward to hunting in the coming years.

My Hunting Plans for 2010-11

The quota season is getting close. Applying for hunts at…oh, wait, I’m not saying! Potentially, this year’s deer season can stretch from July to February with careful planning. There’s talk of bowhunting the heat and lightning in the South Zone for velvet bucks this August. Gator hunting permits will go online soon. You can bet my name will be in that hat. There’s a fleet of coyotes on my lease that I’ll have to tangle with sometime soon, as well as herds of hogs that need thinning. Gonna try to plant a dove field. Will also forgo bowhunting during that week in September when the early duck season is open. North Carolina in November is a-go. And who knows what else, especially with turkey. The hope is a strong tonic against the malaise.

Finally, thanks to everyone who reads my nonsense on a regular basis or even stops by, tricked by a fancy headline. The Lakeland Ledger runs a feed through its site, and I apparently haven’t written anything too offensive to change that. Same with Central Florida Online helmed by Marialice Quinn, a big supporter and source of encouragement. Trying to get the Orlando Sentinel to run a feed - feel free to e-mail them on how you feel about this.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention followers on blogspot, Backcountry Sportsmen, USA Hunting Pros, The Outdoor Show, FS Forum, NWTF, Mossy Oak, Florida Fish and Hunt, and The Wildlife Pro Network.

If any of ya’ll have any suggestions or tips to share about the site or hunting, holla. (And you can always subscribe by using the application on the right side of the page!)

Kinda weird chaptering the last nine months into such a short article, but rest assured, they were a fun nine months, regardless of how the hunts turned out.

Cheers to you and your hunting seasons!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Love for the Greasy Spoon

The clam and corn chowder was pretty much an insult to chowders and soups around the globe, and the guys warned me to avoid the hamburgers. So I was skeptical that the All-You-Can-Eat shrimp and fried mullet would be worth the money.

It was the best fried seafood I’ve ever had. The shrimp was delightful, dipped in an egg-white wash and lightly breaded. These prawns could have been swimming, enjoying life just six hours prior. Having never experienced the sting of a freezer, they tasted that fresh. The mullet fillets were small, but harbored none of the fishy taste bigger slabs do. The lack of size was compensated by the endless plates served to the table. Chalk one up for the sin of gluttony.

The little joint was called Robinson’s, a quaint seafood depot on the west side of Rosewood as you follow 24 to Cedar Key. Next door is a seafood shop stocked with treats from local waters, notably clams. Their crop of clams had been picked clean, though, as wandering yuppies stopped in as they passed by on their way into or out of Cedar Key. That weekend the island was hosting one of their many art festivals, events that draw out-of-towners from God-knows-where to purchase clam shell wind chimes and artwork of manatees that don’t belong – aesthetically speaking – in any modern suburban household. But, it’s a high time for a local economy that does not have a whole lot propping it up.

Back at the restaurant, a man, clearly a New York-American, bellowed at the waitress as he squeezed his ample thighs through the door:

“The food any good here? The Viper Club has arrived!”

Or something to that effect.

We chuckled. Dope. What? You think the teen aged waitress is gonna tell you the food blows and to hit the road, Jack? And Viper Club, what in the world? They didn’t appear to be bikers – more well-to-do than your typical attorney turned leather road warrior so common on Harley’s these days.

Dad paid the tab as we strolled back into the sunlight, and parked in the limestone driveway were eight shiny Dodge Vipers. That answered that! Who knew Dodge Vipers had their own fan club? And out here in rural Levy County. Of course, we were in rural Levy County to turkey hunt, one of the strangest, most neurotic hobbies of all time. Usually though, when I dine out on hunting trips, I’m dug so deep into rural America you don’t find competing interests and cultural rifts.

There are some excellent eatin’ joints out there, but you gotta get off the Interstate to find them. More times than not, food is hot, cheap, and plentiful. These places make me despise chain restaurants that have you pay for atmosphere and whose menus consist of flank steaks and pressed chicken breasts slathered with whatever flavor aioli – the condiment formerly known as mayonnaise – you want gooping up your dish all for the low price of fifteen bucks.

(And don’t get me started on chipotle. I’m not sure what species of plant or animal a chipotle is, but it has evidently rooted itself in between “water” and “shelter” on that short list of essential human needs. Judging by the menus at these places, chipotle MUST be in every meal. Thanks, whoever introduced that culinary fad.)

I look forward to these greasy spoon restaurants while on hunting trips. I like leaving a place with a full stomach and money left in the bank. Robin’s Kitchen was once a fine example. Robin’s nested on the converging paths of 321 and 301 in Ulmer, SC. Ulmer is one of several decaying Eastern ghost towns that, once-upon-a-time, depended on those thoroughfares. The Interstate system was the Death Blow, rerouting travellers up the coast. Now, the remaining residents cotton to hunters, soybeans, and, well, cotton.

Robin was a trucker’s ex-wife hailing from, of all places, Miami. She’d be at the restaurant to serve hunters bacon and eggs and coffee in the wee morning hours before we’d leave for the treestands. She’d be there for lunch and dinner, too. I don’t think she slept.

One day Mike was running his mouth about how the steaks probably sucked. Robin heard this and served him up the biggest side of cow sirloin I’d ever seen. Though he tried, Mike couldn’t finish it. He ordered steaks there every year until our Robin flew away to parts unknown. The next year the restaurant was named Three Sisters. The ladies tried to keep up, but the food was cold and the service lacking. Maybe by coincidence, maybe not, but our years of hunting that region of SC stopped soon after.

South Carolina – especially throughout Barnwell and Bamberg Counties - was home to some awfully fine buffets and that fantastic mustard-based BBQ sauce. My years hunting Georgia uncovered a few fine buffets as well. The Bobcat CafĂ© in Blakely comes to mind. Fried Just About Everything. You’d be surprised the number of Southern restaurant buffets that screw up their fried foods – I’ve had fried chicken so dried out and tasteless I considered swallowing stones to aid digestion. Bobcat did it right. The place across the street served the best pulled pork ever.

Of the greatest hunting trip meals I’ve ever had, a December stop at the Roadrunner in Colquitt, GA ranks #1. Don, Travis, and I swung in for oysters on our way in town for a deer hunt. They warned me how delicious the oysters would be, but I truly wasn’t prepared. Captain Dennis, the old guy shucking behind the bar, served up ice cold Busch Lite cans and chatted away as we plowed through a few dozen of the plumpest, saltiest oysters the Good Lord has ever blessed upon Apalachicola Bay. But then, Capt. D threw down the gauntlet. Try his Parmesan-baked oysters. These things belonged in plastic Easter Eggs, they were so tasty.

Years later, I drove down to Colquitt from Randolph County to visit Capt. D. They shut the restaurant down, but still sold the oysters. Thirty bucks for a bushel. I miss hunting Western Georgia in large part because of Roadrunners.

Not all these places are five-star, however. Lots of food on the road comes from Quickie Marts and whatnot. These stops are downright deadly. Clear Run, a gas station/deli in Harrells, NC is such a place. The food is what you’d expect – fried pork chops, chicken, mashed potatoes, etc - but everything is just too greasy. Still, it is just about the only place around, and after a hard day’s hunt, just too accessible. I watched a woman in there one time order the short ribs. She insisted the server pour more sauce over the ribs. The “sauce” was, more or less, a puddle of grease, and upon closer inspection, featured the gasoline rainbows you’d witness in an oil spill. How anyone up there survives past 50 is beyond me. Each time I’ve returned home from this trip, I crave as much fiber and salad I can get my hands on.

Other diners and delis jump to mind for different reasons than food. The Surefire Grill, Bar, and Gunstore in Olar, SC, for example. Buy beer, burgers, and bullets all in one stop. Don’t remember anything I ate, but do recall buying my license and turning around to shoot pool. A small restaurant in Red Feather, Colorado near the Wyoming border. The cute waitress appeared puzzled when I asked for a sweet tea. I was a 17 year old from the South and assumed it was a staple everywhere. Haven’t erred in that manner again.

For sure, these stops are all part of what makes hunting an adventure, if even in a small way. When I plan a trip, I budget in the most cost-efficient manner that still allows me to sample the local fare. Canned ravioli and beef jerky will only carry me so far.

I doubt, however, I’ll ever find another place that cooks as delicious shrimp and mullet than Robinson’s. Doesn’t mean I won’t try, though.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Asleep in the Stand - Late Spring Hunting Links

Today’s flock of links was spooked off the roost but wandered back thanks to my calling prowess.

- This is, no doubt, the best article I’ve read about hunting turkeys – embarrasses anything I’ve ever penned.

- Brining turkey? Here’s a woman after my own heart.

- Florida wants your input to help decide if rifles should be allowed on public lands during turkey season. Not sure how I’m going to vote yet.

And now enough about turkey. Let’s gaze into the offseason.

- I am looking forward to the day when I can squander money away to shoot ground rodents out West. I’m not being sarcastic. I really mean it.

- I haven’t typed the word “duck” in a long time. Kinda makes me sad. Here is DU’s list of articles you can read to make yourself a better waterfowl shot.

- Speaking of shooting, check out Winchester’s Ballistics Calculator. Show that .25-06 totin' know-it-all in camp who is boss with your knowledge of bullet drops and wind drift for any round you can think of. Become that know-it-all. You can even add it to your iPhone, Smarty-Britches.

That’s it for now. Last weekend of Florida turkey season. Gobble Gobble!

Monday, April 19, 2010

TWL Classics - Struttin' in South Carolina

Two years ago I started my volunteer outdoor writing service through a local newspaper's public blogging site. Unfortunately, through powers beyond my control, my archives from that source are gone and lost forever. Luckily, I saved rough drafts of this work on my computer, and once or twice a week I'll re-introduce a past column back into the wild of the World Wide Web. Enjoy!

Originally Published April 2008

Our timing was screwed up Friday morning. The alarm hammered off an hour early, which felt much worse considering we’d only gone to bed two hours prior, having left Lakeland later than planned. Then we screwed around too long getting dressed and breakfast. So I guess it should not have come as any surprise when we walked to our planned set-up in almost broad daylight that the gobblers were already doing their thing.

P.J. and I were fouled from the beginning. The first gobble came as we debated where to sit. We scrambled into the woods and deployed the decoys – a noisy waste of time at this point – and settled by a couple trees amid what can only be described as a biblical swarm of mosquitoes. I’d forgotten to heat up my Terma-Cell and was fully assaulted, slapping my head, legs, arms, and eyeballs. Only deaf, dumb, and blind were these gobblers coming our way. Not when they’re perched a mere 150 yards away.

This is not how I’d envisioned my first turkey hunt in South Carolina. Honestly, though, I didn’t know what to expect other than to see plenty of game. I’ve hunted deer in Allendale, Barnwell, and surrounding counties off and on since I was 16. Deer, deer, and more deer, is the only way to describe this Low Country portion of the state. I seem to remember reading once that the deer population ran from 30-40 per square mile, incredible considering the season starts in August, ends in January, and farmers and other landowners obtain permits to shoot them during the offseason.

Turkey, though, were always an afterthought. Sure, I’d seen plenty of them in corn piles and elsewhere, but I’d never considered packing up a truck and leaving Florida to hunt gobblers. That was back in my younger days, a time when I had access to all the turkey hunting I desired. That changed, but my passion for turkey hunting didn’t.

Unfortunately, around the same time we lost our Florida properties, hunting in South Carolina became expensive. Way back when, day hunts on soy bean fields were $100 per day for deer, and we balked at places that charged $150-200. The guy who managed all this offered turkey hunting for $50-75, another $20 a night to stay at a local motel - cheap now considering one well-known hunting outfit charges $495 per DAY.

Our old contact at that hunting land is gone now, so I never took advantage of those relatively inexpensive hunts, and in the years since, I’ve relied mostly on invitations to treat my gobbler fever.

So, it is nice to have friends. P.J. leases 150 acres in Allendale County, a beautiful piece of land with planted pines of varying ages and a deep swamp bottom over which the gobblers tend to roost. I’d been told there were plenty of toms on the property, and I’d been ready to make the trip since we first discussed it months earlier.

Since I’ve grown up spoiled rotten on Osceola’s, I still think of the eastern gobbler subspecies as some kind of exotic game. Like a lot of turkey hunters, I dream of completing the Slam, and though Rio’s and Merriam’s are still a few years off for my budget (not to mention Gould’s or Oscellated), a half slam of Osceola and eastern in a single spring still gets me excited.

So this year, with my Osceola side of the deal completed, I was ready to take a crack at South Carolina’s best toms. And as I wrote above, the whole venture started wrong. Besides being late and covered with mosquitoes, I felt I’d stepped on every loud-cracking stick and twig in the woods. I didn’t want to say it or think it out loud, but I knew those birds weren’t heading our way, no matter what I threw at them.

The tom, and some squeaky-clucking jake, gobbled two or three more times off the roost, pitching down on a ridge opposite our location. He gobbled now and then from the ground, but it became clear him and his entourage were moving away.

After a long silence, P.J. suggested we move shop and follow the road alongside the ridge leading to the swamp. We arrived at a bend in the trail, walked another 50-60 yards, planted a couple hen decoys in the right-of-way, found a good sittin’ tree, and leaned back, calling every once in a while.

No matter how many hunts I go on, I’ll always shake my head at how different gobblers respond to different calls. Slate call, no luck. Raspy Ol’ Hen yelps, nada. Excited clucks and putts from a single reed, bingo!

The tom gobbled from a startlingly close distance from the pines in front of us. In between the trees stood tall new growth grasses and weeds that provided cover and food for turkey, but limited our visibility. Not convinced he’d planned to hit our dekes, I hit him again with a series of high-pitched clucks that sent him into frenzy, gobbling five or six times in a row.

Game on now! Soon jakes came dodging through the pines, trailed by Mr. Longbeard. My heart had long since taken to pounding as the Shakes took hold. The gobbler strutted back and forth behind the decoys as the jakes milled around, becoming more agitated as time passed.

P.J., as the trigger man, swung his gun slowly towards the gobbler, but the jakes picked up on the movement, I guess. They grew spookier, so I whispered to take the gobbler. Maybe a second later, P.J.’s shotgun blasted, rolling the tom, as I tried to locate a jake to gun down as they beat a retreat, but with no luck. It’s possible we could’ve waited for both of us to take a shot, but I’d rather put one trophy bird in the bag than mess up trying to wait on the perfect double situation.

I don’t know if I’d forgotten, didn’t pay attention, or what, but the realization that this was P.J.’s first bird skipped me - and what a fine tom, sporting a 10 ¼ inch beard, 1 inch spurs, and weighing in at 20 pounds. Not a bad start to what will be a successful turkey hunting career, I’m confident.

The Shakes still rattled me as I snapped photos and didn’t settle until long after we’d returned to the truck. I can tell you, no deer or other big game leaves me as manic as a run-in with a gobbling, strutting tom. We’d gotten the Show, the absolute pinnacle of any hunting experience, I believe. Love deer hunting, but I’d crawl over a Boone & Crockett buck any day of the week to call in a tom and watch it strut in the decoys.

The next morning, we almost made it 2/2 for the Silver Can Assassins, our team named after a particular brand of Rocky Mountain refreshment enjoyed throughout the weekend. We heard gobblers back down in the swamp, but I wanted to start the morning near some strut marks in the road we’d found, surmising the birds would work their way from the bottoms up to the grassy roads to feed.

I almost knew what I was doing. Again, this tom gobbled too close for comfort. He didn’t seem nearly as worked up as P.J.’s gobbler. Only twice more did he sound off, the last gobble toward the distant pines. I don’t know if he’d found the hens we’d heard from the roost, or if I sent him a call that rubbed him wrong, but I guess I’ll never know. One for the bush, I suppose.

Sunday, the weather changed to a cold, rainy morning. We sat in the truck awaiting daylight, but this morning was over before sunrise. I’d hunted in the rain once already this year and found success, but I’m never too angry at a turkey to go out in this pneumonia weather.

Maybe I’ll get my half-slam in Georgia later this year or maybe not. I don’t know. One thing is for sure though - I’m definitely excited to return to South Carolina. The state never disappoints for deer, and with turkey, well, our relationship is off to a great start.

2010-11 Florida Limited Entry Hunts

Time to break out your pencils and calendars, boys and girls, and commence planning for the 2010-11 Florida hunting season – the application periods for limited entry hunts are near. So, let’s get started.

First on the list, Special Opportunity Fall Hunts; St. Marks NWR Archery, General Gun, Mobility Impaired; and St. Vincent Island NWR Sambar Deer hunts all have an application period that begins May 4th and ends June 10th. This won’t be the year I go after the sambar, but that day is coming. St. Marks is usually a pretty good hunt, from what I hear. And, just for the fun of being opinionated, looking down the list of available hunts this year, I’m not real sure what is so special about the Special Opportunity offerings – in the past they’ve had quite a variety of properties. Doesn’t appear that way any longer.

I’m sitting that first round out. Of more personal interest, your earliest chance to apply for gator tags is May 5th and ends May 18th. Last year was the first time FWC utilized the random-draw system; I loved it. I got drawn. I’m not sure what the merits are of the first-come, first-serve system, but random draw is certainly the most egalitarian. Gator hunting is a ton of fun, something everyone should give a try at least once. Plus, it starts in August when there’s really nothing else going on, and, hey, it’s Florida – there’s a gator in every ditch.

Finally, June 1st is when hunters can apply for quota hunts on WMA’s. Worksheets for individual WMA's should be out mid-May, and I'm curious to see how they are adjusted for the new seasons Florida just constructed. Like last year, you can apply for archery, muzzleloading, and general gun permits. Each successful quota hunt applicant is allowed a buddy tag to tote along a worthy friend or family member. The number of WMA's increase seemingly every year; check out your neighborhood public land to see what they offer.

Sure, Spring just sprung, and autumn is a long ways off, but the time to plan is now.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Brats & Bacon Kabobs

I've heard it is sacrilege to many people - Wisconsin-Americans in particular - to pierce the casing of a bratwurst while it’s on the grill, but how about carving the links up and threading them on skewers? Have we reached the point of paganism with this or what?

Every year I turn a venison shoulder or two into bratwurst. Technically, the local meat processor does, but whatever. My thinking is, it’s right in the middle of football season when everyone is grilling out, and I’m probably just returning from a hunt and don’t have the time or enthusiasm to whip up burgers or a fancy tenderloin recipe that I don’t want to waste on my boozehound friends anyhow. And brats and football (and beer!) just go together. I submit back to the Wisconsin-Americans out there to agree with me.

Call it all charity work, though. My passion for linked sausage, of any kind, is low - great for football, not so much for a Wednesday night in with the lady. Unfortunately by April, the unsettling realization dawns that I have few friends, wasn’t invited to many football parties, and have like a dozen packs of brats left. This glorious cycle repeats itself every year. Some packs are gifted away. Some packs turn into catfish chum.

Then one day, suffering through another soul-crushing shopping trip, I flipped through a recipe book that was mercifully placed in a bin near the interminable checkout line. I browsed the typical chicken and pork chop dishes and found a recipe for sausage kabobs cooked in the oven.

OK, well I have the brats already, the oven route is a little lame, but I think we can work with this.

Thus, I dreamed up the grilled brat and bacon kabob.

Last night’s Venison Wednesday launched this experiment. I started by marinating the brats overnight in a mixture of beer, mustard, chili powder, red pepper flakes, and brown sugar. Then I cut the brats into one-inch chunks and threaded them on pre-soaked bamboo skewers with thick, hickory smoked bacon. Cooked ‘em 4-5 minutes on each side. Finally, I brushed them with a mustard based BBQ sauce Carolyn’s father makes that should be bottled and sold.

Annnnnddddddd, they were pretty good. Carolyn enjoyed hers. Ansley barely paused to chew her so-called “meat stick." Krunk had no qualms. It’s not a recipe I’ll cook every other week, but it’s a fine change-up from your normal “simmer in beer” brat recipe. Give it a try!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

YouTube Video of the Week - Osceola Turkey Hunt (miss)

While I've felt wretched about the missed birds this season, I do understand it happens to the best of us, though my "friends" won't ever concede this assertion.

This is a cool video to watch. Be warned, however, the ending is pretty painful. Gotta wonder where this guy's bead was pointing. Missed by a mile.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Chassahowitzka Hunt

Saturday morning was an event God hosted for turkey hunting. Clear as a bell, 48 degrees, and no wind. The owls greeted me the second I got out of the truck. So did Duane.

If you’ve been paying attention to past posts, you know I drew a Spring Turkey quota tag for Chassahowitzka WMA in Hernando County. Chazz is over 33,000 acres of Florida Nasty. Tough scrubs, deep swamps, and snake-infested pine and palmetto flats. And I was a lucky one of ten who drew this permit for the weekend of April 10th.

Apparently, so was Duane.

“33,000 acres and here we are in the same area. Hi, my name is Ian.”

I could tell quickly Duane knew his business. Soft-spoken and polite, he told me of the birds he’d heard the previous morning and his strategy for today. He’d venture East into the tall pines where he knew the toms hung around. Perfect. My plan was to head West down a fire trail to the edge of the swamp and a burned palmetto flat. My hope was the toms would fly down to strut in the road before feeding into the flats.

Duane took my cellphone number in case he wanted to meet later and compare notes, and off I strolled down the fire break, catching glimpses of turkey tracks in the sandy soil, courtesy of the moonlight.

I reached my designated location and clipped the shrubs around the trunk of a skinny pine tree. I placed three decoys at the end of the fire break and another to my right in the burn. I unfolded the seat on my vest and began to wait out daylight.

Chazz is a spooky place. Parts of the swamp behind me I’m sure never see daylight, blotted out by the canopies of cypress and pine. The black water that rolls underneath the trees invites pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes, spiders with the pelts of small animals on their backs, and evil moccasins. Who knows what kind of black bears and hillbillies live in those woods. I wasn’t all that excited about having my back turned to it. The owls carried on, and branches and leaves popped and crunched with who-knows-what breed of goblin crashing around. A dog barked followed by the deep, guttural squeal of an angry hog. It was hard to stay focused.

The first gobble came later than I expected. But after that initial tom, gobblers lit up from every direction, one to the right so close it shook me. He only gobbled once, though, and I suspected he was one of those nigh-inviolable swamp toms for which the Osceola gains its reputation.

After flydown, the gobbling action flatlined. That’s when the hens chimed in. Hens were everywhere, and the prospects of landing a tom grew dim. I’d already decided against calling a whole lot, but now I thought to employ a variation of this tactic. Call every fifteen minutes, but make a decent scream when I do. Rather than getting up and closing on a gobbler, I wanted to stand out, but still have faith in the set-up.

"I am where they want to go," I thought.

Taking this route accomplished a few things. One, the toms – who were playing to the Osceola Handbook’s reputation of having lockjaw – opened back up. The excited series of putts and purrs on the mouth call, combined with a sequence of clucks on the slate, allowed me to keep a bead on a fair number of the birds. It wasn’t always an automatic response, but once one would respond to call, it was a fair bet they’d yak back at crows and owls and other gobblers. The problem was they were henned-up. Sure, they’d respond, but never travel very far. So, I leaned back to wait out the hens.

As the morning approached 8:15, a lone gobble came from up the road, probably 100 yards uphill. At the time, he was the closest candidate, so I fired back a few putts to see what was up. His response was immediate and closer than I originally thought. I adjusted to relieve the butt cramp, rested the shotgun on my knee and awaited glory.

I caught first glimpse of the hen through the charred underbrush, her back shining in the sun as she slipped down the road towards the dekes. Then, from out of sight, the tom spitted. I thumbed the safety off. I could picture him strutting in a circle on that sandy road, and I fought back the Shakes. Ever so slowly, he poked his head into the open.

It's the best moment in hunting when a gobbler reveals himself. Gently, he moved forward, not a giant bird - probably eight inch beard – but he was cautious. The hen fed on new-growth grass as the tom inched towards the decoys, that warty head surveying the new company. The decision to lay waste was easy; he just needed to take a few more steps to be in the clear at 20 yards. Finally, the sights of the Mossberg 835 sat under his chin.

Like the jake I killed three weeks ago, the first shot missed the bird to the left, with just a few outlier #5's clipping feathers. Unlike the jake I killed three weeks ago, I had no opportunity for a second shot. The tom and his gal pal scampered back up the road until the brush swallowed them forever. I ran up the road, but…well…just but.

I stood in the open limply holding my shotgun, feeling like an airplane pilot who had just watched a wing fall off - completely helpless and screwed. I mean, I patterned the shotgun on Thursday! I was sure the problem with the loose factory-issued rear sight had been corrected.

Lost in disbelief, I didn’t know what to do. For starters, there was no available tree to wrap my gun around to relieve the anger, and by the time I walked back to the one I had been sitting against, this thought had subsided. Two, it was still early, and there were plenty of birds in the area. Though I hate like the homemade sin it is to hunt with a firearm that is not functioning properly, I decided to stake one last claim on the morning. I re-adjusted the fiber-optic warlock and walked over to the next cut-down.

While entering the flat, a gobbler and hen spooked back into the swamp. No big deal. I could just sit and shut up for a while. Clearly, this is an area they like. I huddled up under the only shade tree available and waited thirty minutes before calling. Only when I went to hit the slate did I realize the rear sight had again slid out of position. I corrected it once more and then noticed something odd. The sight was creeping on its own. Somehow, there was torque on the pin that held that POS together. Maybe a bend in the aluminum? I don’t know, but it was the last straw.

Duane called about twenty minutes after I left the property. He’d a heard a couple toms and saw a jake. I relayed my situation and said I’d see him in the morning, leaving him, no doubt, wondering what kind of goober he’d run into. Then, in an effort to get ahead of the story as all good politicians do, I went about the chore of explaining to loved ones of the failure.

I’d made plans to visit friends at a hunt camp in Levy County after my morning hunt, so I waited until I arrived to work on my gun. Upon pulling the shotgun out of the truck, the rear sight fell off. And, how do you like that? My buddies just laughed. We all agreed, left with only a front bead I was in much better shape.

Sunday wasn’t to be, however. The temperature was 20 degrees warmer, the air stale and humid and heavy. A slight breeze that would certainly mature into a stiff wind by 9 blew from the east. On top of it, a sinus headache from the excessive oak and cypress pollen had dampened my spirits. Apparently, too, the gobblers' for they greeted the morning with only scattered attention.

The headache, slowly morphing into a migraine, put the kibosh on my hunt around 10. All that visited my set-up was a scrawny hen and a giant boar hog. I packed my equipment and shuffled back to the truck. Though I had missed my chance, and almost certainly had an alien baby bouncing against my sinuses, I was in good spirits. I can’t curse my luck when it was lucky for me to even draw the permit. Plus, I accept equipment failure as my fault. I’d put in hard work getting to the point where I could pull the trigger. On top of that, it was an exciting hunt with a ton of gobbling. Shame about the gobbler, though. Last I heard from Duane, he thought one was coming in to him. Hope he slayed a monster tom.

Driving back to Lakeland, Darin called with wonderful news from Levy County. When I was there Saturday evening, we went cruising the property on the golf cart. Quietly rounding a bend, a large gobbler stood in the bright green grass. Darin set up there the next day and way-laid that bad boy. No one gets more excited about taking a turkey than Darin.

Two weekends left. The shotgun will be ready. I’ve missed three birds this season, one of which, the jake, I did kill.

Three birds? I haven’t told the story on that other one yet. It was much more painful and had little to do with wobbly sights.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

To the Oriental Yeti or Whatever

This is one of those terribly disappointing headlines found so often on the Web designed to get you to click on it - which is why I incorporated it in the title of this post! I was hoping to read a story of some snarling, ape-man caught in a leg trap fighting back a pack of baying hounds. Or at least a hairy, drunkenly-passed out peasant man. I guess the search continues.

I'm not entirely sure who would willingly handle this flea-bitten animal. In the last few years - especially as coyotes' ranges expand - hunters in the U.S. are finding similar creatures. Hairless, yo-momma-know-yo-ugly grotesque critters. They get cool names like "chupacabra." I think the Chinese could have come up with something as marketable. A yeti, this thing is not.

Anyway, it is kind of interesting

Mysterious 'Oriental Yeti' Trapped in China

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Gear for the Tuesday Morning Jake

I know many of you have waited - breathlessly, in some cases - for me to divulge my list of equipment I used to bring that monster jake to bag last week. Well, wait no more!

If you recall, I performed limited calling and primarily used a slate. Specifically, my call of choice was a Quaker Boy Triple Threat. It may seem a little gimmicky, but I've long been a fan of those metallic surfaces for their high frequency and resistance to damp weather. It takes a while to properly prepare the surface and to find that "sweet spot," but if the birds are quiet and I'm trying to strike up a gobble, I find it gathers the most attention. On this last hunt, I struck the pot with a H.S. Strut Magic Wand with a carbon fiber tip for that extra resonance.

When a bird is in view, though, playing a slate is a gamble I'm not willing to play. Usually, I'll let the tom close the distance on his own. If he needs a little extra coaxing - as the tom did last Tuesday - a mouth call is the proper tool.

Mouth calls are intimidating to plenty of hunters. And for a number of hunters I've heard try them, they should be! In the future, I may approach the lectern and instruct the nuances of the single, double, and triple reeds, but not today. To yank that jake to the decoys last week, my call of choice was a raspy triple reed, a Primos Many Beards. I like this call - and triple reeds in general - for their versatility and raspy sound. Moreover, this call makes excellent purrs and other small noises that mimics content, feeding, and otherwise come-hither hens.

Which brings us to decoys. I usually carry up to six decoys, which is a lot, but I may set up in a spot where birds can come from multiple directions. Other times, I just like setting up that many. Regardless of manufacturer, all of them are light-weight collapsible foam, and I deploy at least one "feeding" model with two "stand-up" versions.

The coup de grace is, of course, the shotgun and ammo. I've used Winchester Supremes for years now with great confidence. They pattern well and hit like bricks. I vacillated between 4's and 6's for a couple years before meeting in the middle and settling on the 12 gauge, 3 1/2 inch magnums with 2 oz. of 5 shot offering. Combined with my Mossberg 835, it's a potent load on the gobbler and the shoulder.

Finally, the gun. I've hunted with that 835 for, oh, 7-8 years now, and it's done it's work when I've done mine. My one complaint is the fiber optic sights. The rear sight is much too loose, even pivoting a cool 35 degrees with no real way of tightening it down. I don't care for this, especially after missing that jake with the first shot. It's my fault because I hadn't patterned it before taking it to the woods. But, without sounding too braggadocios, something is amiss when I whiff a bird. I'm heading out Thursday to do the paperwork, and if it turns out the miss was the result of the shakes, I doubt you'll hear anymore about it. I suspect, though, this wasn't the case, and you can expect a post on patterning your gun sometime soon.

The shotgun itself is a delight for Florida hunting. A short barrel makes it portable in the swamps. The porting on the barrel eases the burden of those heavy loads. And when it's tuned in, the turkey choke causes the shot to fist-punch through the paper at 30 yards. It's even impressive farther out.

So there you go, my list of gear for that hunt. Odds are I'll switch everything up on coming hunts depending on where I go. Turkey hunters tend to have a ton of gear, and I doubt I've employed the same combination of calls and set-ups twice in a row. So, take this for what it's worth. At the very least, it may work busting a jake!

Monday, April 5, 2010

TWL Classics - Dad's Green Swamp Gobbler

Two years ago I started my volunteer outdoor writing service through a local newspaper's public blogging site. Unfortunately, through powers beyond my control, my archives from that source are gone and lost forever. Luckily, I saved rough drafts of this work on my computer, and once or twice a week I'll re-introduce a past column back into the wild of the World Wide Web. Enjoy!

Originally Published April 2009

A blind hog finds an acorn.

When the call came Saturday morning, I was still in bed, my own turkey hunting plans scrapped for the weekend. When your Spring Season revolves around invitations to private lands, hopes can be quickly scattered. And sometimes I’m just too lazy, too negative, or too spoiled to take matters in my own hands.

Dad’s tom came from the Green Swamp WMA. The gobbler itself won’t make any registries – 9-inch beard, 1 ½ spurs, around 17 lbs. – but it was a true trophy as far as I’m concerned.

Not that I don’t realize there are plenty of birds on this property; as I said above, I guess I’m too lazy, too negative, and too spoiled. I’ve never been able to perform the mathematics that would equate me having a decent opportunity to shoot a bird on this public land. An overabundance of novice hunters interfering with your hunt. An immense amount of acreage to scout properly. Whine and whine. Yet, Dad, helming his much-maligned, Jed Clampett-autographed 1986 Diesel Suburban, rolls out of the gate with a gobbler of his own after only a handful of scouting ventures.

Lucky SOB.

Dad’s first set-up didn’t do much, hearing nothing to convince him birds were in the area. So, he picked up and moved to an alternate location, noting only one other vehicle along the way. He posted up in some tall trees near a burned palmetto flat and began calling on his Gaskins. The bird never gobbled he told me, just made a couple sharp clucks as he emerged from the flat.

Man, this lined up perfectly - didn’t spook anything walking about, found a location away from other hunters and sat still as a silent bird sneaked in to his calls.

The tom entered Dad’s clearing too far for a shot with his Mossberg 500 and its 3-inch loads; he could have toted my 835, its 3 ½ mag chambering and the extra reach, but he’d forgot about it. As the gobbler closed in, he took notice of the inflatable Sceery jake decoy and beelined it towards the fake at such an angle that a pine completely obstructed a shot. Dad could hear, but not see his tom spurring his decoy to death.

How did the sound of that popping decoy snapping off its peg not spook the bird? That bird would have been chop suey early with my 835. Amazing.

The tom, startled by his deflated opponent but not so much to flip on the afterburners, turned back towards the palmetto flat, still partially shielded by the pine. Dad leaned over and fired a round, rolling, but not completely terminating the gobbler. The bird hopped up and went airborne, flying parallel to Dad who wingshot the tom before he could escape.

I don’t have the words to describe how fortunate this is.

After the initial phone call, I called back at least twice more, wondering if I were suspended in some breed of dream I’d previously not dreamt. I told Dad I’d meet him at the house with the camera, knowing full well I’d be catching crap for this ad infinitum, especially since I’d poo-pooed his initial efforts and scouting trips. Forlorn over plans I couldn’t control, I’d slept in, forgoing a day in the woods pursuing that which I routinely proclaim to be my favorite game of all, this Expert-In-My-Own-Mind.

I’d like to tell you that it’s better to be lucky than good, but I know this old adage is probably more appropriate:

“Luck has a peculiar habit of favoring those who don’t depend on it.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

FL Wild Hog Quota Application

For you fellow fun-seekers out there, just wanted to post a reminder that today is the first day you can apply for quota hunts to chase the ol' wild piggie on public land. The application period runs until April 12th. The applications and hunts are free. Those of you who enjoy running dogs, there are some options for you as well.

Check here for more information. Oink oink!

Using Bump Feeders

From out of the December morning fog, a healthy boar walked nose-up down the soggy jeep trail, tail a-swishing. The .300 put an end to that. Ten minutes later, a flock of hens lingered by the feeder picking corn kernels out of the holes punched in the old oil drum. They were interrupted by a cow that beat the can around like a plaything, knocking some of that yellow gold on the ground. That’s fast company.

I like bump feeders, much more so than motorized versions. Not that the spinners aren’t effective; if you put corn on the ground, something is going to chow down in no time. No, I like the bumpers for convenience and economy.

A bump feeder can be constructed out of just about anything that’ll hold corn and not made of paper or burlap. My current model is a huge, bright blue barrel that at one time, according to the man who gave it to me, held water from the Red Sea for some sort of phosphate experiment. I don’t know. It hangs on our lease, and yesterday I put 150 lbs of whole corn in it. I’m somewhat concerned the hogs will break their noses hitting this heavy contraption. Anyway, Dad, for some reason, had a metal hoist in his garage we used to suspend the rig, and we drilled holes in four spots around the bottom. It lords over that corner of the property and has become a popular buffet spot for the local swine and turk-a-lurks.

Drilling the holes can be tricky. You want a few kernels to spout out, but you don’t want them gushing like a winning slot machine. Turkey should be able to peck corn out easily, and the hogs and deer can get enough to keep them curious and coming back for more. If you kick it with your boot and 6-8 kernels hit the ground, you’ve done well.

This can be frustrating to the uninitiated who are used to a substantial dusting of yellow grain scattered across the forest floor at dawn and dusk. I felt the same way the first time I saw one. The cattle rancher maintained a couple on a section of land in Manatee County I hunted several years ago. Being young, I wanted more. He shook his head at my impertinence and for good reason, I soon learned. He had one placed by camp, and there’d always be deer hanging out, even when we had a campfire blazing as we whooped and hollered. And two of the largest hogs I’ve seen harvested in Florida came from nearby.

I don’t have any statistical corn-eaten-by-game to corn-eaten-by-vermin ratio available, but I soon became convinced more corn went into the gullets of deer, turkeys, and hogs than to squirrels, crows, and raccoons. Anything eating off of these had to work for it; hung high enough, even the crafty raccoons had difficulty thieving the feeder. Hung even higher, it became off-limits to all but the tallest hogs. So, you save some money on corn ensuring your designated targets are feeding and not the local vermin.

Over the years, I’ve used different variations of the bump feeder. A long time back when I was more creative, I employed a green 5-gallon bucket fitted with a foot of 2-inch PVC hanging down so the deer could reach up and get it, but the turkey and hogs were left wanting. I once hung an old metal trash can with one slot cut into it that resulted in a couple dead does.

The ease of use is the final advantage. No more changing batteries or solar panels to keep them charged. It’s not liable to break or be ruined by weather or gnawing rodents. If someone steals it, you’re out materials and cost of labor.

Feeders are excellent tools in Florida and throughout the thick, swampy South. For hog management, it’s the berries. And harvesting a hog that’s been noshing on corn for a while translates heartily at the dinner table. I’ve never shot a buck of any size over corn, but for does it’s a fine management instrument and for filling the freezer. If you hunt land that allows baiting, do consider the bumpers.

Be careful, though. Feeders become popular spots for all predators, human and animal alike. Travis called me today to say a 7-8 ft. gator was hanging out under my bump feeder awaiting the inevitable troop of swine or raccoons. Or maybe my right leg if I'm not paying attention. Maybe he’ll hang out until August when gator season is underway. That’d be a heckuva story!