Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Prepared Man's Guide to Being Unprepared

    The night of my last post was spent diligently preparing and packing for the morning's hunt.  Without a driver's license and a set of wheels of my own, most of my hunting is limited to a ten acre woodlot behind our house in rural central Virginia.  That being said, my hunting pack is normally set to tackle much more, usually containing food, water, a good knife, extra ammunition (be it rifle cartridges, shotgun shells, etc.), hand warmers, a flashlight  and headlamp (for backup), calls, personal medical supplies, a compass/GPS, a cell phone, my camera, a seat cushion and camo netting (in case my game plan changes and I need to make a makeshift stand), and sometimes a book.  What this list does lack is first aid and field dressing supplies, which do find their way into my gear on outings away from home.  On this outing I even threw my computer into the pack so I could check my trail cameras and adjust my game plan accordingly.
    After checking my empty trail cameras and hunting four solid hours the next morning, watching a known bedding area on a south-facing slope, I left the woods cold and without meat.  The only noise in the woods came from scampering squirrels and birds, and my confidence was riding at an all time low.
    The afternoon crept up on me and I sprung into action when my neighbor called at 3:00 asking me where I would be hunting that evening.  In record time I gathered all of my gear, got dressed, and set out for the woods.  Twenty minutes later, I was fully camouflaged, behind a makeshift, burlap blind, and seated comfortably in a creek bottom that would allow me a large field of vision.

    An hour crept by and my spirits sank at every squirrel I saw and every minute that yielded no sign of deer.  Deer season was almost over for me, and with the rain that was predicted for tomorrow, the next minutes would surely be my last in the deer woods of the year.  I needed a miracle.
    As these thoughts flowed through my head, I leaned forward in my seat at the base of a thick beech tree, stretching my back, and shifting my weight to my vertical shotgun.  At that very moment, three does trotted down the hillside about fifty yards to my left and across the creek--adrenaline took over my body immediately.  I slowly reclined to rest my back against the tree trunk and raise my knee for a rest.  My breathing was shallow, and I closed my eyes and controlled my breathing--and prayed.  Never have I been this excited by a deer, even by the buck I had a chance at last year, or the six-pointer that came in before sunrise on the first day of bow season.  After all of the planning and anticipation that went into this deer season, that doe that was slowly making her way along the creek towards my stand in the last ten minutes of light, on my last day of the season, had me trembling.
    Overcoming my fever, I was reminded by my childish giddy feeling that there was a boy with his father in a two man treestand three hundred yards to my right.  If the deer kept coming the way they were, I could take the last one in the group and give him a chance at his first deer--what a feeling!  However, I was stretching my luck, and the lead doe was turning around in a clear shooting lane, and started working her way back from where she came.  I knew that was my chance, at fifty yards, I rested my twenty gauge on my knee, put the bead over her, and fired.
    I was too excited to notice any sound that indicated I had hit her, but she was slightly separated from her group as they bounded up the hill.  Finding a clump of long white hair at the point of impact worried me, and the absence of blood did nothing to support my belief that my slug had hit her fatally.  I followed her trail up the hill for several yards, still without blood.  Finally, halfway to the crest of the ridge, there was a sizable blood spurt on a log, which sent my confidence through the roof--she was mine.
    I called my dad to inform him I would be late for dinner, and he came out to help in tracking her.  Dark was setting in, but I had my headlamp to help in tracking.  The blood trail began to thin at the crest of the ridge, but I could hear the other members of the group of does in some thick pines blowing and wheezing, which to me was a good sign that they had been separated.  The trail continued for about two hundred yards, but through some nearly impenetrable laurel thickets and pines, until it reached another creek bottom.  This creek bottom and laurel thicket was what separated our subdivision from the neighboring one to the north.
    Another two hundred yards and an hour later, we were only a stone's throw away from a house in the neighboring subdivision and we had no blood trail.  We ended on some smears low to the ground through a wall of ceder trees and merciless briers.  My dad was walking around on a whim, looking for more blood or a dead deer.  I heard him yell as I was searching desperately for blood, but it was not an excited yell, so I slowly walked towards his flashlight beam, praying that he had found her.  As I approached him, he was staring off into some tall grass, and when I turned I saw it--two glowing eyes looking back at me.
    She was still moving, throwing her head from side to side, and I shucked a buckshot shell into the chamber, and put her down with a headshot--it was all over.
    As we all know, when you track a wounded deer through several hundred yards of thick laurel, down a steep hillside, and over a creek, when you finally recover the deer, your work is far from over.  We made quick work of it though, I secured my shotgun to my pack, gave it to my dad, and began dragging.  I knew my way back in the dark, so I led up the hill and through the laurel, and then directed from the rear how to get back to the car.
    As I hauled the deer back through the woods, I learned my lesson of year:  Even though I normally hunt a small wooded parcel of land, anything can happen.  With a wounded deer on your hands, a ten acre piece of woods can turn into fifty, and things like trail markers, drag ropes, and other "after the shot" tools can make a big difference.
    When I finally broke through the woods, and reached the cul-de-sac where my dad parked, I had a chance to look at my animal for the first time.  He was a small button-buck, shot in the left hindquarter, not a preferable shot, but none the less, he was down.  The important part was, I now had my deer, the meat, and the story for the year, and I was proud to have it.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Full Court Press

    After an uneventful beginning to the 2011-12 deer season, and very few outings, the empty space in the chest freezer nags at me constantly.  I thoroughly enjoy deer hunting, and the thought of how little I've done this year, combined with the low numbers of deer that have been observed in the woods behind our subdivision, are equally as depressing.  My outings this year have been limited to these very woods, I have not been able to get a decent crack at a White-Tail all year.
    The new year comes early for me though, and all this is behind me.  For the next several days I will camp out tight to a known bedding area, check hopeful trail cameras, and hope for a chance to harvest some meat.
    Christmas brought new prospects for spring and the show season that is approaching, so with deer season out of the way, I've got more to do to prepare for the approaching season.  Pics of this "prospect" will come, but until then, I've got some work ahead of me.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Predator Hunting--what needs to happen

    After spending weeks in the woods seeking White-Tailed Deer, now more elusive than ever, and coming across countless predators in the boundaries of our rural subdivision, I have decided to chase Coyotes for the next several months.  I've always had an interest in this sport, but now with deer numbers suffering, it is becoming more and more necessary.  Check out this video:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Recycling Your Squirrels: Fur

    For fly tiers like myself, squirrel fur can be a very frugal substitute to the conventional rabbit fur dubbing that can be purchased specifically for fly tying.  Squirrel fur is suitable for fly tying and has been emerging on the market in the last several years as a cheaper alternative to rabbit.
    Before you can begin making squirrel dubbing it is necessary to have a preserved skin to work with.  When skinning your squirrel, begin under the tail, make a long cut up the center of the belly to the shoulders, and make four diagonal cuts along the inside of the legs to the feet.  Nail the raw skin, flesh side up, to a piece of plywood with finishing nails and apply a generous amount of salt to pull moisture from the skin and keep it from rotting.  After a few days, scrape the salt from the skin, and remove from the board if dry.  If the skin is still moist, repeat the salting process.  You now have a preserved squirrel skin that can be reused until all the hair is used.
    First, the method that provides the highest quality dubbing involves a bit of machinery.  Using your hands, or a wire brush, gather a good amount of squirrel hair, including both the underfur and the guard hairs.  After you have gathered enough fur, run water over it to prepare it for the next step.  Next, use a blender on the pulse setting to blend your squirrel fur to the desired consistency.  After blending, fluff the fur out by running it through a grinder and allowing it to dry.
    The easy alternative to the blend and grind method above takes relatively no time at all.  Just pinch a good handful of underfur, and a few guard hairs from the dried skin, mix, and store in a handy pill bottle.
    Without any coloring, natural gray squirrel dubbing is ideal for fly patterns requiring gray dubbing such as the Adams, Adams Parachute, and Mosquito patterns.  Just like with rabbit fur, squirrel fur can be dyed to accompany any popular fly pattern.

Something New

    Recently, after shuffling through the stacks of pictures that I have accumulated over the last couple years, I have noticed a pattern, a pattern that should be obvious already.  Of all the pictures I take, few are keepers, and at that, its plain to see why.  Something new that I capture, whether it be a new species or environment, finds its place more readily in the "good" pile than just another picture of a gray squirrel on an oak tree.  Now, I cannot say that these pictures are not valuable, but a couple is enough.
    Living in central Virginia, squirrels and deer are the most abundant and therefore occupy most of the space on my memory card at any given moment, but add a new element such as snow, rain, pine trees, or water, and the picture gains more value--there is nothing exciting about repetition.
    So as an early New Year's Resolution, I plan to photograph a wider range of species and settings, throughout the year.  I have included a few examples of my point in the photographs below.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Recycling Your Squirrels: Tails

    So you've limited out several times this year, or at least killed several bushytails, and you begin to realize how much of the animal you are actually using when you clean them and freeze them for later, and you wonder what you could be using the rest of your squirrels for.  Just like with deer, there are several things you can do with a nice squirrel decides eating it.  A series of posts following this one will introduce new ways to use other parts of squirrels, and a few recipes will fall among them too.
    To the tree squirrel, their tail is a very important anatomical feature that gives them balance and leverage in the upper reaches of tall hardwoods--to the average hunter, it usually goes in the gut pile.  If you routinely kill numbers of squirrels, it may be beneficial to keep these bushy appendages around.
    The number one spinner-fly company in the world, Mepps Lures, knows the value of squirrel tail, and it has shown in their domination of the fishing industry.  After trying countless animal hairs, squirrel tail provided the results the tackle crafters were looking for, and the spinners produced and sold by the company today are still made with natural and dyed squirrel tail.  If you are not into tackle craft or fly tying, for which it is also a staple ingredient in many streamer patterns, you can mail your collected and dried squirrel tails to the Mepps headquarters in Wisconsin in return for a small payment.  Here is the link to the page on the Mepps website:
    Even if you have no interest in preserving or reusing tails, or you only harvest the occasional squirrel, kids sometimes appreciate having a squirrel tail around as a token from the outdoors.  I got my start in the hunting world as a toddler accompanying my dad in the mountainous part of the state, chasing bushytails, and cleaning them by the river, and my most prized token from that time in my life is a tanned squirrel hide that my dad made for me.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Life and Struggles of The White-Tailed Deer

    The sky is dark. The airy woods of a poplar swamp are still, and the tree crowns above remain tangled in silence. The crisp chill that hangs in the black air is beginning to make the sun seem like a blessing not to return after expiring an age ago behind the impenetrable wall of pine that surrounds the swamp. Frost seals the soft ground with its ice crystals, keeping any and all warmth out, and the cold, threatening mountain air that seems to be hovering just above the treetops is yet another indication that the sun may indeed remain set. The silence is deafening, and the conscious, seemingly empty world seems to begin and end at your earlobes, but now and then a faint rustle brings the silence to life, and gives real depth to the eerie setting.
    On the east side of the swamp, the sky turns gray. The three-pronged silhouettes of mature white pine crowns begin to appear, giving the restless inhabitants of the brushy swamp the reassuring knowledge that the circle of life will once again rise. The thick enclosure still prevents any light from penetrating to the swamp—but that doesn’t matter. The patient souls that slept here tonight are restless, dawn is approaching, and they have existed on stored plant forage and the final remaining carbs leeched from withering acorns for a full half day. The rustles grow in volume and number as a hardy family rises from their warm beds of leaves, slip their adept hooves between hardened leaves to the frozen ground, and shake the frost from their warm, gray backs. By some thin stroke of luck, dawn comes, and finds a herd of young White-Tails on their way to feed for the morning.

    The last doe disappears into the shadows of the barricade of pines and the swamp again seems empty, but after several moments there is movement in the heart of the swamp. Behind a maze of vines and bushes, on solid ground, with moss and decaying pine needles as bedding, a stocky, solitary buck lies in the nook of a fallen spruce tree and its root mass. The hefty animal, who is up in his years, is planted firmly in his warm bed, eyes wide, as if determined to never leave his position. Emotionally and physically calloused, this is purely meditation, for his way of life has made him who he is, has kept him alive, and made him a veteran of the fall. Today is a very important day in every deer’s year, but particularly his, for he is the most sought after animal in his neck of the woods. Today is the opening day of deer season in the north woods.
    The buck knows from experience that today the hunters will be thick in his woods, for opening day is the most popular day afield for most. He knows there will be a large number of deer taken from his woods this morning, for a new moon makes them particularly easy to read, and he concludes that delaying his movements would be beneficial. Hunger pulls at him, tensing his muscles, any other deer would give in, but giving in to desire hasn’t kept him alive for this long.
    Several Red Squirrels emerge from the pine stand surrounding the swampy heart of the woods when the sun acquires height, and they play carelessly, always keeping their distance from the bedded buck—never challenging his position as king of the woods. Head held high, the cold sun embraces his gleaming, white antlers.

    After the sun has been up for several hours, a slight breeze begins to filter through the woods, and the buck rises from his bed cautiously. Hunger plays with his mind, and he dismisses some caution, knowing that he must satisfy his hunger to be as alert as possible. Like an opening day ritual, he lumbers off into the breeze, through a brushy draw cut by a trickle through the pines, head held high, in the direction of a small patch of grass irrigated by a flowing brook in the open woods that has always yielded late forage.
    Following the trickle, the buck shows a humble personality. Like an old man, whose youth and muscle is gone, his headgear has decreased in size over the recent years, but his wisdom is unparalleled, and he is confident in his ability. Several times squirrels or fisher put him on alert, but he doesn’t dwell on these kinds of interruptions, and he quickly resumes his steady pace.

    Traveling downhill now, numerous fallen pines crisscross his path like a giant’s wooden fence. Easily, or with seemingly little energy, he lifts himself over the obstacles with his spring loaded back legs capable of propelling him over nine feet in the air. His beauty increases with every moment, as he meets obstacles with hundreds of years of evolved physical tools, and conquers them with a single, flowing, controlled movement.
    As the pines begin to thin, so do the brown needles that layer the soft ground, and the thick, white pines give way to an open grove of hemlocks and loblolly pines. A mountain brook, swelling with the accumulation of a hard rain, makes its presence known over the static of the breeze. 
    The wise old buck remains hidden inside the shadow of the pines, surveying the ground he’s about to tread on. He’s been surprised here before, and is always careful when entering, because the setting is much more revealing than that of the pine margin. With his nose in the air, the gentle breeze flows through his nostrils with ease, giving him confidence in his knowledge of the contents of the woods ahead of him. He presses on.
    Off in the distance, a pack of Gray Wolves initiate a gathering call, putting the wary buck on edge. Several deer have been taken from the herd recently by wolves, aside from the countless fawns taken in the spring, and they are becoming more proficient at their jobs with every meal. This being the case, the logical action would be to bed down and wait for the dogs to leave the area—but there are certain risks involved:  hunger is already playing a part in his decisions, but to be caught by the brook amongst a pack of hungry wolves would mean certain death, but going without food for now would surely mean starvation in the event of a sudden winter storm. The northern buck maintains his proximity to the thick pines, and beds by a patch of laurel bushes, munching on starchy green leaves to take the edge off of his hunger until he feels safe once more.
    After wearing out a couple of laurel branches, thick clouds had covered the high sun, spreading gray light throughout the woods. The buck has forgotten about the wolves, and redirects his attention to his main food source. Moving more quickly now, he aims himself towards the crest of the ridge, and the hollow where he will feed.
    Upon reaching the crest of the hollow, the big, northern buck is satisfied with its contents. The breeze holds no sign of human, and the squirrels rummaging through the crunchy leaves of the forest floor seem content and at ease—he loses no time in descending into the creek bottom. Eyeing a beaver, playing in his stillwater creation, cautiously, and with careful footing, the buck crosses a beaver dam, making his way to the edge habitat of a beaver field.
    Feeding, or grazing, often brings out a false sense of security in all deer, and the northern buck that is feeding alone in an overgrown beaver field knows it. He checks his back frequently for any signs of a difference in his woods—he knows what they are.
    After several minutes of grazing broom sedge and other assorted grasses, the cautious veteran of the fall woods notices the silent retreat of the tree squirrels to their safe dens in the lofty hardwoods. He eyes the sky, which looks as if it could begin spitting precipitation down through the dormant arms of the hardwoods at any moment, but that’s not what they fear. At that very moment he could make out a steady noise originating on the upward slope on the opposite side of the thick field—wolves.
    With straw still hanging from his flat teeth, the three hundred pound tank lunges from his foot prints in the soft mud, clears most of the beaver dam in one long, bounding stride, landing roughly on the sticks just inside of the bank, and shuffles up the steep wall of the hollow with speed rivaling a racehorse. The open woods of hemlock put forth no obstacles, and should be easy traveling for the buck, but a large splinter just below his dewclaw, acquired from the busy beaver’s woody creation, is hindering his movement, and must be removed.
    The northerner is still glowing from his spectacular escapade up the hill, when he converges with yet another danger. A surprised, wool laden hunter stands motionless in the open woods, caught by surprise by the fleeing buck quartering towards him on his way out of the woods on an unsuccessful day’s hunting. The sheer magnificence of the loping deer stuns the astonished hunter for several seconds, fixing his eyes on the oblivious animal, and tugging at his rough, gray chin, but he quickly snaps from his daze, and raises his weathered, wood-stocked rifle.
    The buck raises his head to scan his surroundings just in time to catch the movement of the old mountain man switching off his safety. More vulnerable than ever, the old buck can’t react to this very real threat, giving the hunter a perfect opportunity to take him. With a resounding crack of his rifle, the weathered hunter sends a .270 mm. bullet, shattering the confused buck’s left knee cap.
    The splinter doesn’t matter anymore, and the overwhelming rush of adrenaline sends the crippled buck on a mad dash for his life towards the safety of the thick pine woods, and the excited hunter fumbling for his bolt and another load. Halfway to apparent safety, the handicapped buck realizes his chances of survival are slim, but he presses on with seven years of luck and determination to drive him to safety.
    Inside the pine margin, the buck limps to the closest piece of decent cover available—a small draw cluttered with laurel bushes and pine and gum saplings. The hunter, now on his toes, enters the shadows smoothly, wielding his weapon vertically, close to his chest, scanning the area with utmost confidence. The crisscrossing pine poles, stripped whole of their bark by reoccurring frosts, break up the outline of the concealed buck’s head gear, and pine needles blanketing the ground engulf his bulky, weak body, quivering with fear and shock. Light already dim from the cloud cover is fading from the woods, and the impenetrable canopy of the pines smother the hunters straining eyes, forcing him to retreat—the deer is safe.
    Several seconds passed, as the frightened buck’s breaths grew increasingly deeper, and the hunter’s soft footsteps faded into the silence of the north woods. A shot rang out, followed by the unmistakable racket of deer wheezing in retreat, and the downfall of another. Another animal would wear the deer hunter’s tag this day.

    Again, noise associated with the hunter faded, and the remaining group from which one unfortunate deer was taken, moved on to their precious swamp to spend the night in safety. Just moments before all hints of light were sucked from the sky, and dusk was no more, icy flakes began to filter through the covering of pine boughs. As the snowflakes fought their way to the forest floor, pattering like they do off of the semi-permeable pine needles, the motionless buck begins acquiring an icy blanket, and prepares himself for another long night in the cold and unforgiving north woods.
    He survived that day. He managed to muddle by one more day, but that was an unfortunate start to a short deer season in an unforgiving setting, one which would have to improve to ensure survival. It’s even quite possible that he would make it through to spring, if the winter snow and hunger doesn’t suck the life from him first. All of these compiled experiences with the many obstacles that oppose the White-Tailed Deer condition them to the country they inhabit, educating them with every encounter, making them the most desired big game animal in North America.

Shotgunning for Late Season Bushytails

    This Saturday was going to be another day in the deer woods for me, but when I got the call from my neighbor around 2:00 in the afternoon, the wind had picked up, and I suddenly reflected on the fact that I haven't seen, or gotten trail cam pics of a deer in over a month--I was going squirrel hunting.  My twenty gauge was still laying on my bed, begging for use--I couldn't refuse.
    Entering the woods on a hilltop full of white and red oak trees, several large squirrels made dashes for cover, I dropped one, and pocketed him after just two minutes in the woods.  I could tell right away this would be easy.
    After shooting once with the loud boomstick, the resident squirrels that were still alive were holding tight, and they were not budging, so I moved onto another quadrant of the hardwood portion of the property.
    After an hour of ridge hopping, I had five puffy squirrel tails hanging from my game pouch.  I needed one more bushytail to limit out--that wouldn't be a problem.  My plan was to hit the second ridge I hunted once more, because the squirrels seemed to be on the ground here, and I had the sun to my back, making stalking easy.  As I quartered up the ridge, I pushed a wary squirrel around the top of the ridge, so I stayed put, hoping he would return to his food source.  My plan proved effective as the small gray pounced our from behind a tree two minutes later, I ended his dinner plans with a solid bark from the twenty gauge--mission accomplished.