Decisions Decisions

Last week I returned to Elberton to my brother-in-law’s 400 acres to hunt whitetail. On the drive out, we sipped coffee and talked about our wives, lives and work, but when we pulled onto the red clay dirt road we got focused. We had decided to hit the stand after sun-up this time, to spare ourselves, it was a holiday after all. We sprayed down our camoed bodies with scent blocker then I took the Kimber into my hand and we walked down the trail. We could hear the forest waking up all around us and as we topped the ridge at the end of the trail, I was told I’d be in the treestand instead of the ground blind this year. Better angles, and less chance of my scent tipping the deer off. We walked down the hill and though my eyes were still adjusting to the light, I could see three or four grey shapes on the side of a dry creekbed no more than 200 yards away. I stopped and whispered, “Wow, they’re right here. There they are.”

My brother-in-law paused, let out an explicative and asked for the shooting sticks and Kimber. He set up and took the shot. He missed. And the deer barely looked up. He chambered another round and shot again. A deer collapsed, literally his legs fell out from underneath him, and finally the herd spooked. White tails started bobbing as the deer headed out in different directions. There were at least five, and one strayed on the edge of the treeline, pawing and stamping an alert. She fell after two more missed shots and more cursing. Clearly the sighting was off. My brother-in-law picked up his own AR and brought her down.

And it was all over in less than thirty seconds and a mere minute or two from taking the field. Now, we’re meat hunters so there wasn’t need to examine rack size and we thought we were taking does. As we approached the deer, my brother-in-law was surprised and saddened to see one of the deer was a spiker, a young male buck with his horns barely visible. It seems there were less bucks on the property of late and he’d preferred to take does. I wanted to take a doe because they taste better than the hormone stressed bucks going through the rut. We removed the deer from the field and then decided to continue the hunt until I could take one. After about a half hour on another hill with no deer-sign, I was called back to the original site and to hit the stand. Two more deer had crossed from one side of the forest to another. An hour later, I saw two heads pop up out of the tall grass about 300 yards away and out of range for my level of shooting. I noticed my hand shaking, but forced a breath and calmed down. THEY WERE HERE! About thirty minutes after that, another deer came out of the opposite side of the forest at about 100 yards. I scoped the deer and took several deep breaths. THIS WAS IT. A nice-sized deer in range, and a clear shot I could make. And then I noticed the spikes, about 7 or 8 inches long indicated a young male. This deer would get a pass. But it was an opportunity to observe deer behavior, so I savored the encounter.

The spiker walked down into the gully, sniffed at the site of the other slain deer and decided to b-line it straight for the treeline. He dissappeared but only minutes later I heard him and then saw him walking to my right in the trees. He was just twenty feet away and oblivious to my appearance. He walked right underneath my stand. Then I got a text. It was from my brother-in-law on the ridge above me watching. It read, “there’s a deer right behind you!”

I texted back–“yeah I know, its a spike, he walks.”

About twenty minutes later I watched another spiker cross the field about 150 yards away. I made the same decision and didn’t take the shot. It was time to go but I got one more text, “just take the next deer.” Ha! If it had come in about 10 minutes earlier, I might have taken the spike, but no harm no foul, I had my decision that morning to take a doe, not a buck, and I was sticking to it.

Later it occurred to me that perhaps I had made a decision based on my station in life. Sure, I want to be a meat-hunter, but a hungry hunter, or a hunter putting food on his table for his family, would have taken the young buck. After all, we weren’t really “managing” the bucks on this property. Food is food. Maybe I had been a little high-fallutin’ with my decision. I pondered it and let it go. Nope, I think I learned a valuable decision out there on the fields of Georgia. Hunting is about making decisions. They aren’t right or wrong, but they’re yours. And I think I learned from my close in encounter, not to make snap decisions, to be patient, to go through a checklist and make a decision about what I was about to kill. Though I felt like a predator on that ridge, I was also a man who is nothing but the choices he makes. And without taking a single shot, I think I walked away a better hunter. I sure had a lot of fun too.

**UPDATE** I’ve since learned that taking Spikes is perfectly fine, that they indeed improve antlered populations according to studies, and could even be a sign of a lack of nutrition in the area. Texas Depart of Game and Wildlife suggests taking them when you see them because they have inferior genetics and aren’t likely to get “better” with age. A single buck can breed as many as 40 does, so one with superior genetics (antlered) could do the job with less pressure from spikes. Funny huh? Oh well, live and learn, I think a doe would be tastier than a rut buck anyway.

Hunting Black Friday

The rut is in full swing in Georgia with bucks chasing does everywhere according to the forum. So I’m going hunting with my brother-in-law in Elberton again this year. Its only fitting, while the girls hunt for deals on Black Friday, I’ll hunt for meat instead. Last Xmas, we gave it a shot only to find that every yokel in the county popping off their new toys which scared the deer away for miles.

I’m assured the stand has been productive as two nice does have already been taken this season. Apparently, venison burgers and italian sausage await me in Decatur.  I may just have to “finish” the sausages in my brother’s smoker too.

Not to knock shopping too much since I do enjoy it, I’ve got a backup plan in case we get rained out. With guidance from  Red Clay Soul,  I’ve got a few places I may have to wander in to.

Snakehead Tastes Like…

Jackson Landers is hard at work wrapping his new book on invasive species in America, Eating Aliens, and dropped in on NYC to talk snakeheads at an invasive species dinner. I’ve mentioned before my goal to catch a snakehead on a fly after I move down to DC in August, and FINALLY I find out what it might taste like…apparently, swordfish! And yes, for you catch-and-release fanatics, I do release most every fish I catch, but I have every intention on catching and killing this invasive, and then throwing it on the grill. In fact if you catch one the law asks you kindly NOT to return it but inform them here at the 24-hour Snakehead Fish Hotline at 1-800-770-4951.

 

 

Emmy-award winning filmmaker Helenah Swedberg captured Lander’s pre-dinner talk. Swedberg and Landers have been collaborating on a new film, Close to the Bone, an unconventional documentary about hunting, sustainability and love. While the film wasn’t exactly supposed to include that last part about love, we all know life is funny somehow, and I wish Jackson and Helenah all the happiness in the world.

 

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

I recently learned about the work of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) through one my favorite author/outdoorsman, Steven Rinella. Perusing the MeatEater website I saw the videos Rinella did in partnership with TRCP “Conservation Field Notes.”  You can view them here. They are well-shot, impassioned and detailed. TRCP’s mission “Guaranteeing you a place to hunt and fish” aligns tightly on public policy that will effect our rights as anglers and hunters in an increasingly contentious, anti-environment government. I feel strongly that the Obama administration and Congress isn’t doing nearly enough in this area to protect what I think are inalienable public access rights being chewed-up by the 1%. Nor are they looking long-term at the environmental benefits inherent in protecting access.

The TRCP has also created a short series called TRCP’s Native Trout Adventures. Joel Webster, Director of TRCP Center for Western Lands travels across the west fishing native trout fisheries with policymakers, environmentalists, and fish and game officials to shine a light on how precious and varied our native trout is. Along with some beautiful fly fishing, the webisodes explain the various initiatives the TRCP is involved in to protect and restore native trout populations. I had never even heard of the Redband trout or that there was a species of sea-run cut-throat. I was particularly thrilled to learn about the Roadless Areas initiative which keeps development in check in crucial habitat. And thrilled to learn that I could help by supporting the TRCP. I’m now pondering a serious cross-country, multi-year trip to fish for every last one of America’s native trout.

Spot and Stalk in Texas

I’ve just returned from a little corner of northeast Texas hunting hogs for three days on the Wildcat Creek Quail Hunting Resort. After practicing hard with my bow, a PSE Stinger 3G, deadly fast and highly accurate, I was more than a little nervous to be hunting hogs for the first time. We went out twice a day, just before dawn and just before dusk for several hours. Alternating between tree stands, ground blinds and a tripod, I and my fellow hunters spotted quite a few hogs, herds and a few big boars going solo. Spread out over a hundred acres, the terrain was lush and dense with a variety of scrub, alder and cedars, with several-story old growth hardwoods spread about. Before arriving, Texas was hit with nearly five days straight of rain, ending a many-years long drought that turned most of the bottoms into full-fledged swamps. To make matters tougher, I would be hunting with six other guys in the area–creating a lot of pressure. We were there celebrating my brother-in-law’s 40th. Hopes were high, some were serious, some weren’t.

DAY ONE

After tuning my bow on the range,  and a late start, within a half hour of getting into my stand, a big black boar that was probably “bumped” into my area by another hunter getting set-up, made an appearance on a rise just above my baited area near a pond. He gave the air one sniff and trotted off. I saw the same hog in the same area later that evening, but I was ratted-out by a squirrel that went on the alarm behind me. My guide later suggested it was probably sounding off at another hog that I missed spotting coming in from behind. Either way, day one I came up short, but exhilarated by the encounters.

DAY TWO

I decided to switch up and hunt a feeder where one of our party had taken a shot with a crossbow at a big sow, only to have his bolt deflect off the hog’s gristle–a tough armor-like plate on a hogs shoulder. I had seen this before on a hunting show–so I knew it was entirely possible to shot a hog at 10 yards and not get any penetration. I was in the stand before dawn, and was treated to the cacophony of the waking forest. I heard the most beautiful birdsong, but no hogs! An evening move to conduct a spot and stalk was a far more rewarding hunt.

My guide, and the owner of WRC, Ron Parker, decided to take me into the thickest part of the forest. We moved at a steady even pace, with the instruction to walk in his footsteps and stop when he stops. 300 yards away, the other guide, Chico, took another hunter up a parallel path. Even though we had our worries that a passing buggy had ruined our stalk, Chico bumped a herd in our direction. Several large boars circled around us in a complete 360 degrees. We crossed a couple of dirt roads and came across another one of our group in a blind, we got him out and proceed to do another push–but the hogs were too fast and crossed back into the thickest woods many yards ahead of us. Our opportunity was gone. All during the hunt, Ron provided lots of little tips…it was a masterclass and I look forward to doing my own “still hunting” soon.

DAY THREE

I tossed and turned all night, considered bailing on the third morning. I was tired, feeling a little down. I wanted to get out early at 5:30am, but worried about a persistent cough, getting lost in the dark. I knew that in all likelihood it would be just me and my brother-in-law in the forest, the others had fell away, too much partying…but after two hard days of pressure on the hogs, would they even show up? I dithered and got in the stand a little late I realized. I could see the hog-sign, the torn up ground from all the rooting for grubs. The hogs had been up, had breakfast and moved from their bedding area where my groundblind was set up. Chico, the head guide, assured me, they’ll come back around, just be patient.

I waited and waited as the morning air warmed up. I was satisfied by the stillness. At 10:30am, I was ready to pack it in, when I heard the tell-tale whoosh and stomp of hogs running through the forest. They were trotting not 100 yards away heading for their bedding area, ready to go quiet for the warmest part of the day in the cool wallows. I smiled and let my spirits rise, my chance seemed to have finally arrived. Sound became sight as I spotted about twenty-plus animals moving across the road and into the bedding area at a casual, even lazy gait, staying along the treeline. Smaller hogs, brown, and black, ginger. Then, no, no, no, I heard the tell-tale sound of an EV, a buggy coming up the road. The hogs froze in place. One softly grunted, and off they marched right out of the bedding area. Not a single one came out of the treeline until they were out of range of my bow. I was crushed, left longing for a do-over. The finality of the end of the hunt was at hand.

REASONS TO RETURN

There are so many reasons to return to WRC. The Parker family have created a warm, modern, and very comfortable lodge. Their family-run operation was supposed to be a quiet retirement after a lifetime of traipsing the world building the finest resorts in the Caribbean, Dubai and other exotic locales. Instead, WRC is a labor of love, and each Shinerbock you’re handed across the handbuilt bar, each pan-seared quail or piece of peach cobbler baked by chef David, another Parker son, each generous smile from Chico, makes it easy to imagine returning as soon as possible.

And then there’s the fishing. Ron has stocked several of the ponds and lake with Florida strain bass. He told me, “I love to hunt, but I LOVE fishing.” I had told Ron earlier about a big bass I spotted in a run-off stream off the lake (probably due to the rains). He promptly grabbed his pole and left. Later I spotted him pulling up in an EV as I was fly fishing the banks of the lake behind the lodge. “Did you get it?” I asked. “Yep. I got it.” We spent a good hour together fishing for more bucketmouths before I broke my pole on a snag. Guests routinely pull out 5 even 7 lbers. I took my fairshare on a popper on my 8wt.

One of the guides, Nick, Ron’s son, really wanted to get me a hog, and with only a few hours to catch my flight, offered to take me out for once more, this time with his rifle. I thought long and hard about it. I wanted the encounter. I wanted the meat. I wanted the kill. And yet, I wanted to take the animal under circumstances that met my own conditions. I set out to let nature take its course, aware that though I had modern conveniences, nature had her defenses too. Sure, the owners and guides are skilled enough to take a hog when they apply themselves. Their talent and knowledge would almost assure another opportunity. However, I wanted a “fair chase” opportunity that matched my skill level. I told Nick that no, I’d get my first hog with a bow, when I was ready, when I had earned the chance, and without a doubt, I would return.

David, Chico, Nick of WRC

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Coming Hunt

In a few days, I will pack my new PSE compound bow, my camo, and loads of deet and head to northeast Texas for my first guided hunt in celebration of my brother-in-law’s 40th birthday. The expected conditions at the The Wildcat Creek Hunting Resort, the mid 70s and 80s, sunny. The 1200K acres contain scrub, brush, forest and an 20-acre lake. There’s a 3D archery range, TRAP and a 1000 acres of quail. I’m going armed with a hunter safety certificate, a bowhunting safety certificate, a basic course in deer hunting from Jackson Landers, and a headful of dreams. I’ve only hunted once before, and it was, uneventful, but rewarding in its own way, good practice at being quiet. I’ve spent the last year studying food, how it makes its way to my plate and the ethics of it all. I’ve been reading and studying hunters, both sportsmen and men and women who are just feeding their families. I’ve resolved to become a hunter. According to Torvar Cerulli, I am suffering from or perhaps blessed by a condition called “Adult-Onset Hunting.” I guess it was just a natural step to take from fly fishing, where hunt and stalk sight-fishing is my just about my favorite activity in the world, to hunting larger prey for food.

Like other AOHers (that’s right I’m far from alone), I’ve experienced a variety of reactions from friends and family toward my desire to hunt, but the majority have been quite positive. I think we are living in a more enlightened age, where due to the increase in voices about the sourcing of our food, the protection of our environment, and the explosion of media, most are aware that hunting can be a very ethical, sustainable way to eat. Sure there are plenty of stereotypes, but consider this, its only been a handful of generations since the majority of our food became processed. Though early hunting turned into unreasonable farming of animals which lead to the decimation and extinction of certain animals, today, Americans are relearning how to live in balance with their environment. Its not perfect, not by a longshot, but I see myself as choosing to be on the vanguard here–to believing in this enough to take action.

I’ve field dressed a deer, but will I be able to look into the eyes of my prey and take it’s life? Catch and release fishing this is not. I want to fill my larder with organic meat that I have hunted on my own, but am I just being plonky–you know–a privileged city-dweller with sustainable eating tendencies who reads to many food blogs? I want to hunt ethically, but how ethical is it to travel hundreds of miles to shoot a hog, admittedly a pest, a very delicious pest, when there are wild hogs invading NY state? (The short answer to that one is that I’ll be hunting hogs in NY this year of course).

I’ve caught and killed and consumed fish my whole life, but never a mammal. Fish are alien, they’re not cute, and we’re not related–at least not closely. Hogs aren’t cute either, but they’re smarter than my cat, and that’s strange. I’m excited, nervous, anxious, and I feel worried–am I good enough? I know a couple of things. One, I’m going to learn, to ask lots of questions, to be guided, to practice. I know I won’t take a shot unless I’m sure I can kill the animal. I know I want to experience everything, to field dress my animal if the lodge will let me. I know I want to be a hunter, yes for the sport, but also for the meat, and the connection that hunting will bring in facing the life and death of the food I love to consume. I know that I am already thankful for the opportunity despite not yet having taken a single animal.

Coming Soon: Review of The Mindful Carnivore

I just finished The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance by Torvar Cerulli. In short, I couldn’t put it down. It is a riveting, beautiful and provocative book. A new or experienced hunter or anyone interested in finding a more meaningful and healthy connection to their food will be inspired and moved by Torvar’s journey. I’ll be writing a full review when I get back from SXSW. Meanwhile, here’s some insight into the author/hunter in his own words.

 

 

MeatEater

I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from author, hunter and conservationist, Steven Rinella. Rinella is the author of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine and American Buffalo: In Seach of a Lost Icon. Like another modern-day subsistence hunter I know, Jackson Landers, Rinella has turned his great passion of the outdoors into a media career–he has hosted the Travel Channel’s The Wild Within, and now is the host of MeatEater on the Sportsman’s Channel. In MeatEater, Rinella’s goal is to focus on hunting and gathering from the cook’s perspective.

 

I’ve met and spoke with Rinella a couple times now and find him to be affable, humble, and smart man, plus, he’s got midwest roots like me but lives just around the corner in Brooklyn. Sadly, Time Warner doesn’t carry the Sportsman’s Channel, but New Yorkers can see exerpts from his new show on the MeatEater website. FYI, the show is produced by Zero Point Zero Productions the same folk behind The Wild Within and Tony Bourdain’s hit shows No Reservations, The Layover, and David Chang’s foodie magazine Lucky Peach. I won’t go into it here–but ZPZ are also behind the killer app, Pat Lafrieda’s Big App for Meat. Quality!!

I’ve no doubt I’ll be tuning in online to MeatEater the moment they get their Youtube channel up and running (hint-hint). My bro recently launched his cured meats biz in DC and I’m hoping to become one of his suppliers this year… In fact, a memorable quote stands out from Rinella’s conversation with another food hero of mine, Michael Rulhman. “Being a better chef, is being a better hunter.”


First Hunt

Yesterday I went to Elberton, GA on about 400 acres of private land in my in-laws family for my first hunt, during the post-rut. The winds were about 6mph out of the east, slightly overcast, about 39 in the morning, 50 in the afternoon. I went with my bro-in-law and we took up positions under a powerline, his firing lane aimed away from me on the other side of a hill, my firing lane aimed opposite direction on the other slope, basically back-to-back. I was using a Kimber 334M Classic .308 Winchester (bolt action). We got there before dawn, about 5am and I settled into a blind chair, my shooting sticks setup.

I tried my hardest not to shift about, and glassed the valley looking for deer. The first thing I heard as the early morning light rose was a big turkey goobling up a storm as he came down from his roost, followed by the chirping of some hens. Of course, it could have been a hunter, but as it lasted only a few minutes and didn’t repeat, I’m fairly certain it was a turkey. I learned later that turkeys had been seen in that area before too. A good excuse to visit the area again with a shotgun.

 

After a about 3 hours, I was a bit perplexed, no does, no bucks. The previous day we had a storm and so we both believed there’d be deer up and about, hungry after having to bed down all day. I could hear dozens of shots from every direction at varying distances, half a mile, many miles away. Clearly the early morning hunting was going well for others, but I kept wondering if I was being nosed out by the deer. I did my best to reduce my scent, but hey, a deer has about 100x better smell than humans. After a break for lunch we were back in the blind around 2pm and stayed til dark. Still no deer. My hunting partner did spot a doe, but due to a misfire, couldn’t harvest it. About an hour before dusk, there was a big crash in the woods a few hundred yards to the right of my blind. Several crows flew up out of the woods and I could hear yapping, coyotes! Figures, we’d seen tracks and scat. Perhaps there presence had put the deer off on my side of the hill? After a while, all was quiet again.

All in all, it was a day meant to reinforce one of the key rules of hunting, patience. I was lucky to have great weather and at dusk, with no deer, we set out to do a little target practice. I still have a minor flinch, but with the trigger pressure set to 2lbs on the Kimber, I was able to squeeze and not be aware when the shot would fire, and so my aim improved. The modified Winchester had a kick, but the recoil was very manageable.

Though I didn’t harvest a deer, and frankly I gave myself a 20% chance being a new hunter, I had a fantastic time out and was lucky to be able to hunt before the season ended. I’m looking forward to getting on the range in 2012, improving my skill with a rifle, taking some additional courses for my next hunt.