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

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.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The 2013 Montana Trip - A Two-Parter

(These two stories are also published at Good Hunt)

Montana Mule Deer Hunting
Harris and Trace with Trace's 2013 Montana Mule Deer
Harris and Trace with Trace's 2013 Montana Mule Deer
Curiously, for a place where you can see miles in every direction, the mule deer on this property popped out of nowhere. You’d sit there, glassing for hours on end with nothing but binocular burn in your retinas, when all of a sudden they’d line every hill like in a Western movie when the White Eye is in peril from a Bad Guy and the sympathetic Native Americans silently assemble a Show of Force that springs the man from danger. In this case, though, the mulies were the ones in danger.
Once satisfied the coast was clear below, they’d slither down the sides of these hills following well-worn trails of generations of deer. A few would pop out of the deep coulees between the hills unannounced; but either way, they’d all congregate – 50 or so at a time – on a pivot field at the bottom planted with alfalfa. On the edge of that field is where Harris and Trace were waiting Sunday afternoon.
Really, it sounds easy, but it’s far from – “far” the operative word. This ranch – just outside of Willow Creek, Montana – is a diamond in a valley, so to speak. The hills to the east and north pale in comparison to the snow-capped alpine fixtures constantly in the Big Sky horizon, yet they’re steep with plenty of nooks and crannies to shelter a large population of animals. As you move south and west there’s a river system that fuels the waterfowl hunting and harbors healthy whitetails amid the cottonwoods along the banks. Beyond that it gets steep again.
Positioned in between is where the mulies, whitetail and pronghorn all meet to feed. It definitely helps that the private ranches here grow alfalfa, wheat and other agriculture which lures the game from their haunts. The problem is, it’s open territory. Targets are deceptively far. Guessing a distance and then putting a rangefinder on it is humbling. There’s not much to break up a hunter’s movements other than the occasional cottonwood, olive tree, or hay bale – and they were too removed from the pivot field to bother setting up for a hunt.

Trace and Harris with the 2012 Mule Deer Harris killed
Oh, we performed our due diligence the previous two evenings. Harris killed a wonderful buck last year on one of the hills with Trace alongside to assist. Both of them drew tags this year and invited me to go along. Having been there before, it was tough to decline – with the promise of a duck hunt or two in the mornings, impossible. So the three of us spent Friday evening on the glasses watching herd after herd of deer move into the field – more deer than I’ll likely see in Florida over the next five years – hoping to make sense of their movements.
Realistic options for closing the gap on these deer were few – hide in the edges of the field and hope for one to feed within range without the swirling wind busting things up, or traipse up the hills like Harris did last year; however, the ranch manager had been reporting a number of shooter bucks reliably in the alfalfa with does. Plus, the one time Harris and Trace tried to ascend the hills and loop above the field on Saturday, every deer stopped munching and tracked their movement, though they were a cool half-mile away. It was amazing to watch how tuned in these animals were, which made us nervous about setting up too close to one of their trails. If it happened to be the wrong path the buck traveled, there was a strong risk of spooking the does.
Attacking the field was the clear choice, but there was no obvious fail-safe method in which to get within distance – fortune would have a say in this. On the last day of the hunt, an idea was born. The plan was for me to drop Harris and Trace along the grassy eastern edge around noon before the deer hit the field and wait them out. They’d rest prone, glass the field, and pray Ol’ Big Buck eventually drifted within a realistic shot. The theory was that even if the deer saw us they would not be bothered by the white Dodge Ram if it came and left in a relative hurry. For the guys to walk from camp to their set-up would have taken at least 30 minutes of needless exposure. Harris quickly unfolded a blanket on the hard ground, and they got settled as I turned back to the cabin to settle myself on the back patio to glass and enjoy the show with several ice cold Kokonees and Josh Ritter.
Those guys held on longer than I would have. To say Montana weather is unpredictable is about like saying the ocean has some water – it’s so understated it’s ludicrous. On a given day, the temps may rise to 65 or so, then comes a wind gusting 40 MPH out of the hills that will blow bricks off a table and, wham, 30′s. After two hours on the patio and not spotting a single breathing, caring animal that would excite at least a little adrenaline, I had bundled up with almost every garment I could find that would still allow me to raise my arms enough to look through the Nikon binos.
Exactly as I described it above, however, without warning or reason, suddenly deer were everywhere. A herd of does followed by a duo of immature bucks. Four whitetail does wandering behind Harris and Trace. Another string of 8 – 10 white-rumped mulies single-lining it from the SW. They were scattered all over Big Thong – a pair of similarly rounded shaped hills we named that had a ridge of evergreens that looked like a waistband at the top and a row of trees traveling down a coulee that perfectly bisected this terrain into a rocky-based butt…you get the picture, I hope…
Perhaps the beer was making one particular animal appear more attractive, but I had been keeping an eye on a large-bodied deer that was hanging around a herd of cows. When you deal with 130 lb. Florida deer for a living, every mule deer looks big. But this one just seemed different; however, he was a long way off in the dull of an overcast afternoon. So I’d keep scanning the countryside. But one time I gazed back as his head lifted and the setting sun poked through the clouds and lit up those antlers. Even at an incredible distance, it was obvious he was a shooter.
It’s illegal in most Western states to communicate deer activity like this to hunters on the ground, but it would not have helped anyway. They were pinned down by the numbers. The thought of moving would have sent all four-legged creatures scrambling up the hills. I sat there thinking about, if I were hunting him, how I could get in range but kept coming up blank.
Gradually, I lost sight of the buck as he ambled further into the field to feed under the pivot, a patch of olive trees the ringnecks would fly into obscuring my view. I wasn’t certain if the others guys had spotted him from their prone vantage point. Wasn’t totally sure I wouldn’t later find them frozen like Hatchet Jack…
Eventually, luck shines on everyone. Buy him a beer one day and Trace may relate the story of how he connected with that buck – it’s not my tale to tell. Up close, he was a gorgeous mule deer – a mainframe 4×4 with a single brow tine on his left beam. It was Trace’s first mule deer buck, and we couldn’t have been happier for him. Can’t wait for the mount to return from the taxidermist to admire it on Trace’s wall. By then the smell of his tarsal glands will have finally dissipated from my fingertips and clothing.
One forky hung around and circled The Fallen, thinking perhaps he was the new King of the Hill. It would have been a cinch shot and was pretty tempting, but Harris, the professional hunter he is, passed him up for next time.
Next time, that buck will be bigger, stronger, but hopefully no smarter. Mule deer hunting is tough enough in this part of Montana. Even when you’re surrounded by them.
(Thank you to everyone…everyone…who made this trip happen for me. Could not be more grateful. Congrats yet again, Trace! #corporatepigeon)
Keep reading below for more on this trip....
Fun in Airports - Montana to Tampa

photo (18)
Harris, Trace and I loped through the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport late Monday afternoon, three hunters still clad in cold-weather clothing that had, by this point, absorbed the funk of four days of travel, cabin drinks and saloons, and the residuals of our planned objective, all-day duck and mule deer hunting outside of Willow Creek, Montana. Every moment wasted was one that could have doomed us to watching our flight leave for Tampa.
The additional sweat from this sprint was cruelly inflicted by forces beyond our control. When the intercom notified us as we taxied to the gate that the jetway was not operating properly, the passengers grew restless. We had a short layover; others realized they were doomed.
One gentleman – though the term grew loose for him after this altercation – laid into a stewardess about this tardiness as if she had some charge of rule in the situation or was perhaps a contestant on Undercover Boss. She took it as a pro – I’m sure that wasn’t that the first rodeo for her. Like it or not, until they repaired the jetway or moved the plane to another gate, we were stuck in one of those small connecting Delta jets that don’t appear designed, strangely enough, to transport grown humans that care to sit upright.
So I can justify the frustration; his verbiage and manner, not so much. He even inquired why they didn’t deploy the emergency exit slides – not sure how chuting everyone onto a half-frozen Minnesota tarmac to scatter like ants for an entrance into the airport and through security would help anyone’s time frame. This guy clearly wasn’t a hunter – we’re far more adept to handling situations beyond our control and putting in the extra work to take advantage of what time allows.
Eventually, the stewardess – or, more likely, someone else – decided the best option was to taxi the jet to another gate, and the race was on. I hope that guy missed his flight – we sprinted past several who did who were forced to re-book their trips home. It had to have been funny and probably somewhat alarming in this day and age of airport security, to witness three guys in camo chug through the crowds to reach their gate. Making matters worse for me, my jeans kept falling down, and I had worn flip-flops from the camp – even though it had started snowing there as we were packing to leave – to help move things through security when in Bozeman. Tough to run with frostbite in your toes and pants around your ankles.
(Speaking of Bozeman, I will testify that airport is spiritually satisfying for sportsmen. Upon arrival, it’s the symbol that the adventure has begun. Large picture windows display the gorgeous surrounding snow-capped peaks. The line of hunters at baggage claim awaiting their firearms and gear discuss their fraternal purposes for their travel, whether it’s mulies or elk or waterfowl or upland birds. Departing will leave you wanting to return. Just a wonderful, albeit small, part of the experience.)
Our mad dash paid off as we made the departure gate in time, the lady scanned our boarding passes, and the stewardess welcomed us on the plane so the child behind us could commence kicking the back of our seats. I’ll refrain, in these delicate times of anti-bullying, from saying anything too nasty, but this kid was unruly. My fear of flying is well-documented; each thwack of his tiny foot into his tray table struck my heart, thinking for sure a wing had just fallen off. Two-and-a-half hours of this can drive nearly anyone to an outburst, but, perhaps recalling my feelings on the jerk from the connecting flight or the fact the parent-figure sitting with him and trying to correct his behavior in a helpless situation had the unmistakable appearance and weariness of a foster parent, I endured without snapping.
But, I noticed everyone looked weary on that flight as we got settled. The stewardess told us we would be waiting on another passenger, a big fellow who clearly had not run from Gate C2 to F13, nor seemed capable of. A lot of Western Hunts are physically demanding. The most strain I had was climbing in and out of a duck blind and this run. The details of the actual hunt are coming later this week. As a preview, let’s just say the scent of a rutting mule deer may not be scrubbed off us for another week or so, which probably rendered us more offensive than any other person on these flights.
We landed without crashing in Tampa, our mercy for not killing the seat-kicking kid rewarded by God, in my opinion. (Quick aside: when compared to the final approaches in Minneapolis and Bozeman, landing in Tampa feels like you’re setting down on the Vegas Strip.) Though completely wiped out, we spent the truck ride back to our respective homes talking and scheming about next year’s adventure – and happy to have been on this one.
Nothing that happens in an airport can detract from a hunt like that.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Baited Gator

(Also Published at Good Hunt)

I bet Nick and Trace each $1 that the gator cruising up to the baits would choose the meaty sirloin over the bleached-white rotting chicken that looked like something that floated off the carcass of a bloated whale.
I lost 2 bucks. Shows what I know – but, hey, this was my first experience baiting gators.
The gator grabbed the chicken in his jaws, chomped a couple times and took the chunk of flesh down his gullet.
Baiting is a popular method in which to entice a gator close enough to get it attached to a restraining line. No hooks are permitted by law, as the FWC stipulates:
Baited wooden pegs less than two (2) inches in length have been used as a legal and effective method for attaching a restraining line to take an alligator. A baited wooden peg is attached to a restraining line that is hand-held or used with a fishing rod and reel and high-test line. The baited peg is typically thrown or cast near the alligator or near the area where it last submerged. The line of a baited wooden peg cannot be terminated with a float. The end of the line must be attached to the boat or hand-held.
Baits include rotten chicken, beef or beef lung, all of which will turn a stomach in a heartbeat. In some instances, the leader is wrapped around and through a bait and cleated off to the peg. Some folks fill the baits with spray foam to help it float. The baits are then left in buckets to stew for a few days before the hunt to create the putrid scent that’s attractive to the reptiles. Once the gator ingests the bait, the fight is on, though care must be taken to not pull it out or force the gator to regurgitate it.
That monster, national news-making gator Harris and Matt killed a few weeks back took the beef option. The first time he bit, the gator spit the bait after pressure was applied. When he returned, though, he did so with a vengeance, rolling the steak across his back before sucking it down. From what they tell me, it was quite a show.
So I was excited to see it for myself. With a successful season already in the bag and an early teal hunt in the morning, we didn’t have the impulse nor motivation to wait out another biggun’. Using Harris’ last Kissimmee tag, we spied a decent meat gator, tossed the baits out and trolled a hundred yards upstream and hoped for the best.
Watching through the binoculars at dusk, we observed the gator return to the surface and take the lure. While he wasn’t the biggest beast on the river, he ran us a merry chase for an hour through vegetation before getting the line caught under a submerged tree. Desperate to be over with the hunt and the mosquitoes to cease flaying our flesh, Harris reached into the water to grab the tree – cracking a rib on the gunnel of his boat in the process – cut the line free and re-tied the loose ends. Thankfully, the gator was still on and thereafter quickly subdued.
It may not be ideal in all situations, but on places where the water is deep or otherwise impractical to toss snatch hooks, baits are a fun way to go about gator hunting.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crossbow Aficionado

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

2013's Gator Hunting - Tough Luck and Zombie Gators

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

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

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

Gator Hunting Report 2013 - Successes and Failures

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

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Stingray Stabbing

The ray that got my Pa

Well, Dad took a stingray barb to the top of his foot. We'd hunted the Intercoastal around Ft. Pierce for much of last Wednesday morning, determined to arrow a trophy ray without much success. Freshwater runoff had killed water clarity, even in areas where during high tide clean ocean water usually makes the waterway crystal clear. The majority of rays were either pushed out or just very difficult to see.

We'd spotted a couple smaller rays south of the South Bridge but none were any bigger than what I've arrowed in the past. I wanted a big one for glory, to try the meat, and to donate some parts thereof to the shark fishermen staying at our place in Vero Beach. So with that particular mindset, I'd let the runts escape.

Anyway, we'd pushed further north to where we'd seen big rays before, but the flats were damn near black because of the runoff from Lake Okeechobee. It's a common occurrence right now. With all the heavy rains this summer, inland freshwater was being discharged from Taylor Creek into the Ft. Pierce area. With Lake O's water levels so high, there's fear of the dikes around it collapsing and flooding surrounding areas. As such, they drain the lake as needed - or as determined by an even more murky source.

The effect on the East Coast has been profound. It's quite a sight to see water hyacinths float out into the Atlantic; nothing I've witnessed in 30 years of fishing here. I hear it's worse further down the coast where sugar cane byproduct has not only darkened the water but created an abundance of green slime that has been strangling the coast.

But back to bowfishing, we searched this flat where we'd encountered many large rays in the past. I was dismayed by the elements and time was running out as we'd be picking up Mom and the kids in about an hour for a beer cruise.

Well, wouldn't you know it, even in the compromised visibility, we passed right over top of the specimen we'd been hunting. I released the arrow and the fight was on.

This was easily the biggest fish I've shot with bowfishing gear. Other rays have buried in the sand and it became a heave-ho ordeal - this boy charted towards deeper waters in a hurry. We'd retrieve as much line as possible, then it'd spit back out of the AMS reel, causing Dad to engage the boat and track it down. It was a solid 15 minute ordeal in the early morning Florida August heat and humidity.
A close up of the barb and its shadow

But we're tough guys. After two last runs - one that almost got the ray wrapped around the prop -  the 50-60 lb. fish played out. Dad gaffed him on board and that dangerous tail whipped around like an unattended fire hose, a 10-inch blade of a spine as menacing as a pit viper ready to strike.

Unlike vipers, stingray's poison is not too dangerous if attended to quickly. The pain can be severe for a few hours and parts of the spine often break off and may cause infection. Outside of the legend of Steve Irwin, stings usually are not fatal. Hot water is a well-known home remedy to break down the poisons followed by medical treatment.

The stingray calmed down for a moment as I got my pictures and removed the arrow. His wounds were superficial, but I still wanted pieces of him. How we were getting the flat fish into the ice boxes was another problem you can rightly blame on poor planning, especially with the kids soon to be on board. A live-wire ray and twin two-year olds could be cause for a state investigation. But as I maneuvered him around the back of the boat contemplating its fate, Dad swore out loud profanity that is probably still audible in certain corners of the Indian River.

We're not real sure how it happened. Dad felt he was well clear of the ray and I was pulling it in the opposite direction of where he stood. The next thing he felt was the end of that barb gouging him where the ankle meets the foot. I guess that's the risk of having a beast with a 36-inch prehensile tail with a boot knife attached to it slapping around the back of a 25-foot Aquasport.

Almost instantly, there was blood everywhere, all over the gunnels, fish boxes - it looked like his foot exploded. The ray bled far less and, with a far larger issue at hand, was immediately heaved back into the water where he revived and blasted away into the murk.

Having never treated a stingray stab, I instantly consulted the Interweb on my iPhone, which, by the way, should you land on this site seeking medical advice in such an emergency, my lawyers advise me to say: GO TO THE HOSPITAL.

Now, my father would prefer to cut off his own mangled foot - and possibly leg - than be treated in any medical facility. He applied pressure to stop the bleeding and kept it elevated. Without a jug or pot or bota bag of hot water aboard, I instructed him to say something if he felt nauseous or dizzy. If the wound started to smell funny we'd need to hit a hospital by helicopter. Of course, his feet always smell a little bad, the heat was stifling and would make an uninjured person nauseous and dizzy, so these were all tough calls. He decided to ride it out, pick up the rest of the family and continue as planned.

Today, the doctors took his foot..nah, he and his foot survived. Though the barb did not break off in his foot, he concurred the pain was indeed intense for a couple of hours. He also did not take the full dosage of the barb, just an inch or so. But between keeping it clean with Hydrogen Peroxide, Neosporine , bandages and bourbon, he came through just fine.
A stingray boo-boo

Me? Well, I feel slight pains of guilt but primarily from releasing an injured stingray. I view Dad's incident as another useless casualty in the pursuit of glory. I told him we could probably shut down the stingray program for a couple years or until his nightmares subside, though I still want to try the meat one day. And possibly find one bigger.

It's safe to assume he won't be clamoring to go gator hunting with me this year.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Chasing the Convict Fish

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. Give a man a bowfishing set and puddle him into Amanda Bynes, I swear to God.

Case in point, I missed the same damn gar four or five times Sunday morning. Once, I was even able to glance the arrow off the edge of the concrete dock, shattering my confidence but, luckily, not my arrow. Each ploink in the water, the gar lazily flitted further under the dock, taunting me. It was just about enough for me to bleach my hair, pierce my face, and indulge in heavy narcotics.

In all reality, I should have taken my hostilities out on the few dozen stingrays in the shallows and stacked them up like silver dollar pancakes, but it just didn't seem sporting enough, especially when I was supposed to be helping clean up the river house to rent this summer. If a kill was to be made, it needed to be impressive enough to absorb the verbal beating that would surely ensue for taking a Union Break. The gar just narrowly fit in that category.
One of my first sheepshead when times were easier. Before bowfishing.

Which brings us to the sheepshead, the Ol' Convict Fish. The sheepshead is one of those fish, if you're a real sportsman, you typically don't target between the ages of 13 and When You Have Kids. Don't get me wrong – they are fun sport on rod and reel and delicious, to boot, but it is the equivalent of rabbit hunting. Grander plans hop in the way of a good time, at times.

I've caught, I don't know, hundreds in my youth and hadn't given them much thought since then until I got my PSE Kingfisher a couple Christmases ago and started marching down the list of legal fish I could conquer with a bow. Actually, “conquer” may be too strong of a term given my aptitude with a bow, or lack thereof. In the last 2 ½ years, I've shot at dozens. I can accurately describe to you with mouth noises what my arrow sounds like when it misses a sheepshead.

What makes them such attractive quarry – aside from their excellent table-fare and prison-uni stripes – is their ability to hang around just long enough to make you think you have a chance. They have a tendency to hang in the shallows and feed along seawalls and pilings, stripping them free of barnacles with their creepy baby teeth. They are slab-sided and appear dim-witted, but once you make eye contact and start to anchor your bow, they are gone in a flash leaving you with desperate, flailing shots at where the fish was a split-second earlier, sort of how I've always felt about trying to hit a baseball. It's frustrating. 

So I was caught in this cat-and-mouse game with a fairly large sheepster on Sunday. In between gar misses, I'd catch him under the boat house, or at the end of the dock. In all reality, it could have been different fish, but as a trophy hunter, I believed I was after The One, heroically engaged in a Battle Royale of wits with what amounts to an over-sized panfish. Each time I thought I'd have a shot, he'd spook, either from my shadow or movement or wife yelling at me to help her move some piece of heavy furniture.

Time was running out. As I was making my last stalk along the water's edge, I notice the blue-gray tail of homeboy sticking out from under the dock, high in the surface column as he grazed on the piling. I pulled back the bow and gangster-leaned to the side and plugged him without him knowing I was even there. I reeled him out of the water and hauled him to my wife for her to admire, pleading, of course, for her to put down the box of family heirlooms and grab my camera.


I snuck back out and shot a mullet, too.  

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Kansas Gobbler

Nick and I were slipping through a vein of cottonwoods along a creek bottom that dissected two large crop fields, advancing on a distant roosted gobbler that had betrayed his presence to Nick's owl hoots. The morning having cleared from a full day before of rain that had softened our footsteps, we came to a bit of a stopping point. Nick hit the locator again and another gobbler fired up right on the edge of the field in front of us.

Then I saw a bird fly into the open.

We immediately found shelter against cottonwood trunks, not having time to wrestle decoys from our vests. Nick yelped a few times, and the tom's response was immediate and resolute - he was coming in. At 6:19 a.m., with the gobbler pacing in front of me at 20 yards, that morning's hunt had been the easiest part of this adventure - even that was almost screwed up.

Located in Independence, Kansas in the southeast part of the state near Coffeyville, Nick had been living at his family's farm while finishing school nearby. It took him visiting Florida in mid-March and a cocktail-infused evening around my firepit to dream up this hunt. The farm had been in Nick's family for generations, and despite numerous invitations over the years, I'd just not been able to coincide time with funds. We poured over the logistics of a late-April hunt, and after staring at my pennies and securing permission from my patient, turkey-widow of a wife, Harris and I booked tickets with Allegiant out of St. Pete on the 26th to join Nick for a weekend turkey getaway.

Now, everyone who knows me knows I'm terrified of flying, but some trips can't be passed up. As it turned out, the majority of my angst occurred while still on the ground. Despite living in Florida my whole life, I failed to recognize St. Pete had an airport. I'd always flown out of Tampa or Orlando. For whatever reason, Google Maps directed us to a tiny airport in downtown St. Pete. Realizing something was wrong, I ran into a terminal with roughly the square-footage of an average Cracker Barrel and hurriedly questioned the lady behind the counter where I could find the correct airport. Seemingly having been asked this on numerous occasions, she gave me the proper directions. Thank God, too. I wasn't getting on any of those Tic-Tac container-sized “airplanes” littered across that tarmac. So we were uncomfortably behind schedule as we strolled into St. Pete International.

With the worry of missing our flight and spending our hard-won free time at the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, it was disheartening to see crowds of travelers stuffed within aisles waiting to check-in. I'm not sure what kind of crafts or flannel shirt convention was happening in the Springfield, Missouri area where we would hopefully land in a few hours, but there were deep, winding lines of folks, and with the boarding call closing in fast, our odds of seeing Kansas diminished further. Luckily, Harris had purchased priority boarding but had forgotten about it. Upon realizing this bold strike of fortune after ten minutes in line, he was able to call me up to bypass the masses and drop bags with just enough minutes left to clear security and sit at the bar for a pre-flight nerve tonic which turned out being extremely helpful for my anxiety. 

After boarding and feeling pretty good about having made it in time, we were getting settled in our seats when a guy trying to stuff his over-sized carry-on into the overhead compartment blew a fluorescent bulb and sprayed glass on and around all of us good people sitting near the emergency exits. I think I handled it well. I don't remember screaming, but I don't suppose many do when their lives flash before their eyes.

Let me clue you, the pop of a bulb, the tinkling of glass, and the faint smell of ozone attracts some attention within an airplane. It took 6 airport employees to handle this situation: 1 to see there was a problem; 1 to diagnose the problem; 1 to discern how to fix the problem; 2 to clean up the problem; and 1 to report the problem and tell the guy he owed forty bucks to check his bag. I leaned over and told Harris that if anything else happened, he'd be going solo.

But, we landed in Springfield without further issue beyond the delayed arrival and me being on the far side of comfortably numb. The weatherman was the one who threw a wrench in the issue now. The forecast had called for warm and sunny for the entirety of the trip. We landed in a cold drizzle that lasted through the first day of hunting. We tried a couple of set-ups Saturday morning but with no gobbles, the cows laying down and vultures roosted, it was evident that the only thing we'd be getting on this day was pneumonia. It was decided we should pull up stakes, grab a hot lunch and watch lucky hunters chase gobblers in Kansas via DVD.

As the rains eased later in the afternoon, we took a drive around the property. In this part of Kansas, the turkeys are a Rio Grande/Eastern hybrid. Some gobs have more of one subspecies characteristics than others, but we were in the state's designated intergrade zone which made for a unique trophy. Fascinating, too, was Nick's description of hunting this area. He maintained that gobblers were often a here-today, gone-tomorrow prospect. And while he received a weekend's ration of commentary and jokes about migrating turkeys, it did make some sense.

See, the property we were able to hunt totaled 400-500 acres. In parts of Florida I'm used to hunting, 400-500 acres is dominated by swamps with little clearings and fields toms are attracted to. Navigation through such areas is tricky even for game animals. There are a lot of obstacles that dictate habits. Even on wide-open properties where occasional cypress heads, pine stands, or oak hammocks comprise the only vertical landscapes, Osceolas typically return to the same roosting areas. Also, one has to consider the fragmentation of land in Florida by development and roads and whatnot; turkey populations are, generally speaking, squeezed together - Kansas, not so much. They are free and clear to travel, impeded by very little from what I saw. The turkeys on this and adjacent properties will apparently follow deep creek bottoms for miles picking new places to fly-up each evening. It's why locating and roosting birds in the evenings is an important strategy here, not something I worry about too much in the Sunshine State.

And while I don't want to place too much emphasis on the habits of an individual bird and how that translates into a whole subspecies, this gobbler did everything I would not expect from an Osceola. One was the fly-down time: 6:15 in the morning. I can't recall a Florida tom ever arriving that early – heck, most of the birds I worked this season didn't touch the ground until well after 7. Two, there was a hen calling from the edge of the same field, and he left her and that opening to come to us, crossing a deep ditch - almost a ravine – along the way. I still can't reconcile that. Perhaps that other bird we heard was the dominate animal, and homeboy knew it. We'll never know, but I credited Nick's calling because I'd like to be invited back one day. Three, the gobbler stayed in range while I buffooned with the shotgun.

For starters, everything happened so quickly that I failed to put a round in the chamber. Doing so with an incoming gobbler is a real trick of the pros - said no one ever. Fortunately Nick had, and I escaped without the clatter of fully racking the pump. Then, I'm sure you've heard the mantra, “Don't go into battle with an unproven weapon?” Well, many folks over the years have dusted gobblers with the Mossberg pump Nick loaned me, but I was unfamiliar with the use of the red-dot scope mounted on it. Since we didn't place decoys, the gobbler was pacing along the ditch searching. He wouldn't stay still, and I could not pick him up in dawn's low light with the short field-of-view incumbent with those scopes. He alarm-putted once, and I knew I'd have to get my stink together or catch Hell in camp for the remainder of the weekend. He walked behind a tree, and as he did, I focused the red dot on the trunk. When he stepped out the other side, I moved the reticle slightly to the left and under his chin and crumpled him at 35 yards to save the day. He wasn't hanging out any longer.

Weighing in at 22 pounds with a 9 1/2-inch beard, Nick and I performed the ritual high-fives and recount of the events that occurred  We laughed that the walk in and back took four times as long as the hunt. With the rains history and the temperature warming during a bluebird day, we calculated the gobblers were going to go gangbusters and more gobblers would meet this one's fate, but it wasn't to be. Harris, unfortunately, didn't hear much. A mid-morning hunt wasn't any more productive, and Nick was unable to roost any birds that evening. With great friends, you'd like to see everyone have a chance to pull the trigger.

But that's just turkey hunting - everyone present knew that. We were lucky to have the one in hand. And despite the travel and weather woes, with the company kept and the beauty of Southeast Kansas, it's a trip worth doing a 1000 times over.

Maybe we'll catch that migration one day.