Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paying My Respects

    I set out into the woods one day last week after school to try to collect a few more Bushytails before I left for the week.  The sun was high, and the sky clear.  I decided to try the neighbor's property, because he had made a comment earlier in the season that he could see more than fifteen squirrels from his deer stand without shifting his glance.  Its too bad I can only take six.
    Just on the inside of the treeline, I spotted movement in the crowns of several Red Oaks.  All of the squirrels seemed to be mature, and I quickly set myself up with a rest on a solid White Oak.  The animal closest to me, a thick veteran of squirrel season, settled in a crotch of a tree behind a veil of dead twigs.  I waited for the alarmed yearlings to stop scampering about and chattering before I began coaxing my quarry from his perch.  A few chirps that I created with my mouth got him curious, curious enough to poke his head out from his hiding place.  He may have been a veteran of the fall woods--but so am I.
    Toting the head-shot rodent by the feet down into the creekbottom, I spotted another hefty Bushytail feeding at the base of a pine tree.  Stalking downhill, I kept a thick oak between me and my quarry, and I had the sun to my back, so the squirrel's back was to me.  Stopping at just inside twenty yards, I used an ancient White Oak for a rest, and pulled a shot off.
    At first I thought I'd hit him, because he fled scrambling, low to the ground, out of view.  As I followed, I spotted a gray back in a log jam--I froze.  Presuming him to be spent, I approached him, still with caution and alertness.  At a new angle, I could make out his head, and could tell that he was definitely not dead, but as I shouldered my air rifle to take a final shot, he shot from his hiding place, bounding high, to the backside of a thick Hickory tree.

    More alert now, I used the soft creekbottom to my advantage, stalking the squirrel's hiding place almost soundlessly.
    If you've ever chased Bushytails in the bare-boned winter woods, more than likely you've run into a squirrel that disappears behind a mature hardwood, never to show itself to you again.  Sometimes he escapes by means of almost foreign stealthiness, sometimes by squeezing into a tiny hole in a tree trunk, and sometimes still by simply freezing spread eagle against the patterned bark of an oak tree--camouflaged like a hairy Chameleon.
    As I approached the base of the Hickory tree with no response from the squirrel I hoped to find there, I knew I had been outwitted.  I stepped back, searching the crown and crotches of the tree for the one I was seeking.  Pressing my ear to the trunk, I listened for the soft scratching of the Gray's sharp claws on the bark--but heard nothing.  Standing in disbelief, my eyes averted to the sky, then to the ground--it was then that I noticed the hole at the base of the tree.
    As I did once trying to photograph a woodchuck, I quartered around the trunk, and took a prone position on the wet forest floor.  Ten minutes went by, and the squirrel never appeared.  Stiff, and wet, I got up and brushed myself off.  I made my way over to the tree, maybe to pay my respects to an animal that had outsmarted me, but I'm not really sure why.  There, laying in the entry to the den hole lay the squirrel I had chased all afternoon--lifeless.

    Maybe it was unfit, but standing there, in the fading light, I was filled with pride, and respect.  A hunter's job, or goal, is to beat his quarry at their own game--in their element, by their rules,completely beat by the odds.  I had done just that.  The Bushytail I now admired had put up a daring fight, and admitted defeat only when it was decided, and even offered himself to me when it was over.  Thinking this through in my mind, I climbed the hill back home with a much greater respect for one of my favorite game animals--he may have been a veteran, but so was I.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Afternoon of Squirrel Control

Mixed Woods

    Walking through the woods Sunday afternoon confirmed that I needed to do some serious squirrel hunting.  In a period of about an hour I observed more than thirty squirrels, most of which I got withing shooting range of.
    Monday afternoon was warm and slightly breezy, and I arrived home with an hour and a half of light left to hunt.  I grabbed my air rifle and a handful of pellets and walked into the woods with a run-and-gun strategy in my head.  Fifty yards down a dirt trail that runs behind the dog fence the first shot presented itself.  A young, but solid bushytail had spotted me and was scaling a thick red oak broadside to me.  I used a convenient horizontal log as a rest and fired a shot that dropped the unlucky squirrel.  With squirrel number one in the bag, and roughly forty-five minutes left in the day, I decided to head straight to a beech stand that I observed several squirrels the previous night.
    I reached a pine edge on the crest of a hardwood ridge and quietly slipped into the shadows, taking advantage of the soft pine bedding that layered the forest floor.  The stand of pine is not a hundred yards deep, and soon I was approaching another hardwood edge.  Still somewhat concealed, I trusted my feet to find their footing as I scanned the ground and trees for bushytails, letting my left hand grasp a gum sapling for stability.

    The minute I grabbed the tree, the leaves up high must have moved because several squirrels split in opposite directions.  I picked one early and stuck with him as he sped along the branches of a young oak tree, desperately craving the safety of the solid pine.  With a crack of my air rifle I dropped him, just feet from the edge.  The second perched broadside on a dead beech, barking, warning the others in his feeding group of my presence.  With one more crack, I placed another pellet in the center of his back.  A third squirrel was advancing to the safety of the pine trees.  Leaping to a pine trunk, he hesitated a second too long, and he too fell to the soft ground with a quick, but practiced, discharge of my air rifle.

    With the golden light fading, I only had minutes to locate the downed squirrels.  I felt confident in my mind that I had mentally marked the spots where the bushytails had landed, but the laurel on the ground, and the possibility of them moving after hitting the ground left me with only one of my four grays when I was caught in full darkness.
    Both today's success, and the fact that I lost a few squirrels due to heavy ground cover and disappearing light, drive home a belief I've been subscribing to for a few years.  Contrary to the belief that squirrels are creatures of hardwood forests, exceptional squirrel hunting can be had in mixed woods.  Quick, easy access to evergreens, like white and yellow pines, allow squirrels to feed, or make a speedy escape from a hunter, in treetops that don't sag under their weight and give away their position.  Pine trees' evergreen quality also provide cover from predators in the winter, when hunters are in the woods and leaves are on the ground rather than on the trees.  Pines also provide a staple food source for squirrels--pine nuts.
    Another case in which I rely heavily on pine woods is when the wind is blowing.  The strong backbone, and close-growing property of the white pine has a wind-blocking quality.  Inside of a stand of pines is also much quieter on a howler than the open hard woods, giving the bushytail a leg up in avoiding predators from their quiet perch in the crotch of a tall white pine.

Another Day on the Lake with McFish

    The last day we spent on LKA with Mr. McCotter was spent chasing Striper on a cold, late December day.  Our trip was informative, fun, and rich in fish.  This trip, unlike the last, was just a half day, and this time, with my younger brother.
    We arrived at High Point Marina around 12:15, we were to launch at 12:30.  The wind was blowing slightly, adding a few degrees to the already chilly air.  I grabbed my pack from the back of the Suburban and made my way inside the marina store to get a parking pass.  On the way, I bumped into Mr. McCotter, carrying a bucket of minnows.  He quickly asked if I'd like to include some Crappie fishing in today's mix of objectives--I could already tell it would be a grand day on the water.
    In the first couple of hours, we hit a few shady docks and rock piles, catching a few decent speckled fish here and there, but mostly fish smaller than 12".  The three of us did however manage to boat a keeper each.
    The next fish that came was a skinny, 19" Striper caught by my brother on a small swimbait off of a sloping, clay bank.  On the next pass, he again boated a chunky, two pound Largemouth.
    We fished from here until dark, in friendly conversation, but adding no more fish to the boat.  Darkness found us about two miles up the Pamunkey, and we made good time back to High Point, with the full moon overhead.

Thanks Chris!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Waiting in the Weeds

    Our last trip to Lake Anna was, sadly, one of our most successful trips.  There was an up-lake pattern that had been holding for about a week--the fish were up shallow, in the willow grass.
    We were taking a friend of my dad's form work out on the Nitro for a days fishing on LKA, and the easy pattern would have made easy fishing--had it not been windy and rainy.  We started pitching to the grass around the No Wake Zone in the Pamunky.  The first fish, a small bluegill, fell to a 3" Rippleshad.  The next fish took an hour and a half to catch.
    About a half mile up lake, a creek, with willow grass on one bank, and wood on the other, brought most of our other fish.  Four Largemouth, and three Channel Cats all fell to a pearl Rippleshad.  Sorry, no pictures.
    Around the point, up lake, a few more bass were caught in a small flat.  a few minutes later, we observed a bait ball, most likely Gizzard Shad, being rounded up by a school of Striper.  Just before the action should have started, it all ended as smoothly as it had developed.

A Morning With the Squirrels

Quarry:  Deer (Muzzleloader)
Time:  6:00 AM - 9:00 AM
Sunrise/Sunset:  6:46 AM - 5:01 PM
Moon Phase:  Full
Temperature:  30*F
Wind:  6 MPH
Weather:  Sunny

    When I awoke this morning at 6:00, the moonlight shining through my bedroom window eased some of my anticipation for the morning's hunt.  The full moon in the sky that night would have allowed the deer to feed most of the night, only my game plan for the morning counted on the moon setting relatively early.  Naturally, the moon shone high and bright till nearly 6:30 in the morning.
    A half hour later I had Buck Bomb* dispensed on the trees, a cover scent on the blind, and myself seated inside the blind.
    The last time I toted my TC Muzzleloader I shot a fat doe, and it is by far my favorite gun.  So my hopes were high that I would be able to drag home a deer this morning.
    Similar to my last hunt, the only animals that showed themselves this morning were bushytails-tons of them. Needless to say, I need to do some serious rodent control.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Year's First Deer Hunt

Time:  6:30 AM - 9:30 AM
Sunrise/Sunset:  7:18 AM/6:33 PM
Moon Phase:  Waning Gibbous
Temperature:  50*F
Wind:  6 MPH, Southwest
Weather:  Sunny

    My first deer hunt of the year started out at 6:00 AM as I rolled out of bed and into the clothes I had laid out the night before.  My game plan was sound in my head as I headed into the woods in the dark, headlamp strapped to my head, bow in hand.
    After reaching the blind, which I had positioned on a southern facing hillside, watching an exit/entrance to a bedding area on the corner of the property, I used a red fox urine cover scent and sprayed it on the ground in the lane I would be shooting in.  My hope was that this would put the deer at ease, because of the allusiveness of the fox, and at the same time give them something to distract them from the blind, which was just put up the night before.
    Almost as soon as it was light enough to see in the woods, a small four-pointer came into view, entering the bedding area--but I had no shot.  I called aggressively with an early season, doe communication bleat call, but to no avail.  Half an hour later, the same four-pointer exited the bedding area, out of range in the creekbottom at the bottom of the hill.  Some more aggressive calling brought the small buck forty yards up the hill, but I still had no shot.  He circled around me, where I couldn't see him, and hung up.
    Apart from deer, there were several squirrels present to entertain me, they climbed down from their high night time dwellings around 8:00.
    An hour later, around 9:00, three does came across the ridge, behind the blind, entering the bedding area.  I attempted to call them down the hill, but they were wary of the new blind in their woods, and would not.  Eventually, the three deer swung around the blind and made their way into the bedding area.
    Overall, the hunt went well, no animals were spooked(squirrels included), and the only flaw was that the blind was so new to the environment.  Next time should be better.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Born Too Late

                A few times in an angler’s life, one stumbles upon a gem—seemingly unspoiled and genuine—and when an unforgettable day’s fishing is coupled with this discovery, a deeper, personal relationship is formed with the water.  Its mystical qualities enable one to deflect life’s bullets instead of dodging them, ready to turn to the earth for sustenance, and leave behind what is unnecessary, in order to do what you feel you were born to do.  You’re left feeling empowered, peaceful and humbled.  This is who you are—you are a different person standing within Creation.  This rush soon runs out, when the river carries you back through the portal to your modern life full of violence and political correctness, and can be easily written off as adrenaline.  The feeling that ensues is one of longing and remorse; longing for a simpler time that wasn't complicated by modern culture, when the people made their living from the earth and went back to it when they were done.

                One such setting that holds this meaning to me is a dynamic river in Vermont’s north country.  This historic river called “The Clyde,” flows out of a pond in the northeast corner of the state, and flows lazily, meandering through the forests and ponds of the Northeast Kingdom, exploring the land in the broad river valley as if it likes what it sees and wants to stay.  After running through five ponds, and over two dams, the water finally makes its way to a vast lake with a name meaning “big water.”
                It is from this large, glacial lake that the largest salmon run on the east coast once began.  In the early nineteenth century, three times a year, Landlocked Salmon reaching twenty pounds or more would make runs upstream to feed on the eggs of suckers, who also ran the river, and to begin a new life cycle.  Walleye would also accompany the salmon on their runs in equal or greater numbers.  Dams constructed later, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, soon blocked the annual movement of spawning fish.  Before long, sport fishing and salmon tournaments stripped the river of its greatest quality.
                In the days when the salmon still ran, after traveling fifteen miles against the mild current of their home river, the river’s resistance would ease; finding depth in a broad valley, and the scenery would change from that of a north woods salmon river, to that of a riverine bog.  It is this stretch that I too have a personal connection to.
Today, it is on this stretch that the passerby loses sight of roads, houses, plowed fields, and all other hints of human existence except for the ancient riverside cabins that can be found in the shadows of the birch trees on the banks of the river.  Completely in place, they are part of the river, one with the river as part of the long-standing equation that was the salmon run; but without the salmon they are vacant, only because of the very humans that once occupied them.  That passerby is me.

It was our last day in the place I call my home, and the last day for my father, my brother, and I to fish together.  We had several options, but after weighing them, we finally discounted a few local ponds and made the safe decision to paddle the beautiful Clyde—where we knew we could catch fish.  Full of energy and excitement, we poured out the front door on a mission.  After loading the aluminum canoe full of paddles, fishing rods and gear, and food, I assisted my father in sliding it into the covered bed of my grandfather’s Dodge pickup.  My father and brother would occupy the canoe.  So as they piled into the front seats of the truck, I stuffed my yellow kayak and paddle into the bed, and slid into the front seat as the ignition started and the green truck carried the three of us down the driveway.
Rolling down the mountain, I began thinking of my own personal quest and the challenges that awaited me on the river.  Naturally, I’d utilize this outing for both fishing and photography, and being alone in a kayak on a flowing river presents some issues.  These issues will need to be resolved if I want to protect my fish-catching reputation and keep up with my father and brother in the canoe—but I digress.
The red-orange fields backed by dark conifers and bold mountains reaching through the low-laying clouds remind me that my real objective for the afternoon is to have fun and enjoy my surroundings before setting off for home in the morning.  My first glimpse of flowing water reminds me of the sizable Brookie I landed on my last trip to the Clyde.
Something about the three of us being in the car together tosses weighty topics out the open window.  My father either begins singing, “making Neil Young look good,” or cracking cheesy jokes to entertain himself and I, like he’s been doing since he started taking me along squirrel hunting or trout fishing in the mountains of western Virginia when I was just old enough to walk.  My brother, relatively new to the events that take place in the truck, tries to make sense of it all, and tries to introduce more “sophisticated” topics.  One of these days, he will learn.
After arriving at our put-in the boats were launched with no hesitation.  The sky was cloudy, and the midday sun’s intensity was beginning to ease with the slightest breeze.  I was now on my own, and the fish would surely be feeding.

When the river finds width, I beach the stern of my craft on the pickerel weed covered, southern bank.  Sitting, straddling the kayak in shallow water, with no sign of human life in sight, ankle deep in water, and boating fish after strong fish, it’s hard to envision a time when this bounty of Yellow Perch would have meant so little.  Visions instilled in me by sporting stories written a hundred years back and further come to mind.  Rivers thick with fish; birds so plentiful, with their songs so diverse as to give you a headache; but no humans—these visions taunt me from the safety of my imagination.
I realize that settings such as these now offer a simulation of the world that exists in my imagination.  When light is shone on modern culture, the shallow shadow falls on the natural world, veiled and cheated by society.
With river water cooling my ankles, I myself feel cheated.  Staring out across the water and marsh grass, to the foot of the river’s mountain, I can’t help thinking about our precarious position.  The term “untouched wilderness” now comes with a side of disappointment, with the knowledge that these words are indeed just an empty promise.  Perhaps a more accurate term is “less touched wilderness.”

Off again, exploring the rich river.  As predicted I’m feeling empowered, yet humble.  The sun is setting, and I’m a mile from my put-in, but my mind is at ease.  The water of the Clyde River, now swirling below me, makes clear to me my mission.  The need to keep what is, to bring the world back where it came from, now fills me like the river water that saturates my pores.  

A North Woods Haunting

            As a fisherman, all my life I have been intrigued and haunted by waters.  And as far as my angling career has taken me, I have been haunted by fish lost.  A summer trip to Northern Vermont brought me home and my hopes up.  My yearning for trout in a mystic place made my most recent loss much more important.

My twelve-year- old brother and I were staying with our grandparents in their bed and breakfast cabin in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.  We had the whole month of July to adventure and fish at our own dispense—a dream of mine a long time coming.  While most of my days were occupied filling the seemingly endless woodshed, I was still left several hours each day to spend on the water.
            It is this time of year that the warm, summer air in Vermont brings about the swelling of blueberries, and it was to these tasty berries that the grandparents were devoting the latter half of their day to.  As for my brother and I, we grabbed our fishing gear and peddled our bikes down the road to the nearest glacial pond.  The sky was clear, and the temperature was in the seventies, and even though the trout probably wouldn’t be very active, the canoe seemed to be begging for use.
            My brother in the bow shoved the craft from the rocks on shore and I pointed us in the direction of the piece of shore near a small island we usually fished for Smallmouth and Yellow Perch.  Over the course of an hour, many scrappy smallmouth bent our rods.  We were hunting for table fare though, and were only keeping the tasty Yellow Perch.
We fished South, down the rocky bank, until we reached the shallow, rocky southern end of the pond, where we slid a few perch onto the stringer.  We hung around there for a while, fishing the flat thoroughly, adding still more smallmouth to the ranks of fish caught.
            It must have been past noon by this point, because the two of us were getting hungry.  So I pushed us off from the sandy shore the light, north breeze had pushed us onto, and pointed the bow of the canoe down the shoreline towards the camp where we tie up.
            As we emerged from the shallow south bay, and the rocky lake bottom slipped out of view, I wedged my medium weight rod in the canoe and opened the bail to try some trolling.  Finding the speed of the canoe too fast, I relieved my younger brother of his paddling duty, and towed the lure myself.  I had never caught a trout out of the pond, but I hoped to on my white Roadrunner on the way back to the camp.
            A few minutes passed—uneventful.  My brother broke the silence with a criticizing query.
“Do fish really swim out in the middle of the pond?”
As I attempted to answer his question, my lure lodged in something solid and the rod steadily started to bend.  I threw the canoe in reverse to retrieve my lure from the snag when the rod tip throbbed.  The events that followed were surreal.
            The initial throb of the rod tip wasn’t enough to convince me that anything in the pond was large enough to bend the medium rod double.  The first powerful surge brought me to my senses, and as I tried to guess what kind of fish I was tied into, ruled out every fish I knew to inhabit the pond.
In what seemed like hours, I got no view of the hefty fish.  The line headed for the surface, but I prevented the jump, intending to keep the hook in its mouth.  In another fit of rage, the fish bored down on the lake bottom, turned, and started to rise just as fast.  I thought to myself, “Here she comes.”
A half second later, a gray-green missile cleared the water by feet, showing just a narrow view of its flank and its snow white belly.  Adrenaline shot through my body as the long fish sliced back into the dark, clear water like a loon after a fish.
I put more pressure on the fish as he entered the water, pointing his head towards our craft, spinning helplessly at the mercy of the fish.  It was almost under the canoe now, and I realized that the size of the hook and the fact that I didn’t get a true hook-set put me in a position to land this fish as fast as possible.
With the fish just feet below me in the stern, tension was easing up on the rod, and I prepared myself, clearing space at my feet, to boat the magnificent creature.
My eyes probed the clear water beside me, hopeful and expecting as ever.  Just as I was making out a different texture in the water, my query turned and dug his nose down into the rocky bottom.
At this moment, the rod straightened abruptly, my spirit flattened, and the fish wiggled back into the unknown.  Just as the fight seemed to be a dream, the twirling Roadrunner returning to the surface from the unknown depths seemed to be a harsh reality.  A familiar feeling began to set in.
My mood soon rebounded, as my knees and hands began to tremble, and a smile replaced my gaping mouth.  I called to my brother in the bow, asking him to indicate on his paddle how long he took the fish to be.  Without hesitation, he lifted his paddle, with his hands glued in the paddling position, indicating the neck of the paddle.
“That’s what I thought,” I said, admiring my paddle.
I began to study my lure and line for signs of teeth, but none existed—not even chipped paint, or tearing on the plastic grub.  A soft-mouthed fish had engulfed the lure, and it was at this moment that I realized I had just lost the biggest trout of my life—a good thirty inches, maybe eight pounds.
We paddled back to camp in excited conversation.  The water that swirled around my paddle now carried an utterly different meaning.  Once again, my head swam with thoughts of my experience, and the dreams and attempts to reproduce the fish in the weeks that followed all seemed to push me towards the harsh realization that I may not get another chance at the fish I now wanted so badly.
“This is why.” I thought to myself, “This is why I’m here.”