Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Hank Shaw's "On Killing"

One of the best essays I've ever read on the meaning of what we do, please read it:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Fit for a Goddess: Venison Diane

After invoking the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana in my last posting I decided to give an account of applying the classic recipe Steak Diane to a nice section of venison backstrap.  I'm certainly not the first person to do this, in fact a few sources I Googled up indicated that Steak Diane has its origin as a venison recipe.  However, like most of these recipes it was new to me.  I consulted a couple of noteworthy, trusted internet sources as well as my lovingly stained copy of Joy of Cooking (of course) to decide on the exact ingredients.  

Some people get paid to put logos in pics like this LOL
I began by sauteing the salted venison steak in butter, which is always scary to me as it is easy to screw up by using high heat.  This time I kept it at a nice, moderate heat and had good success achieving a nice browned layer teaming with Maillard reactions.  I took the meat from the pan, set it aside, then added two minced shallots and a few cloves of minced garlic to the pan and stirred them over medium heat until the shallots were translucent.  Then it was time to deglaze with brandy and condense the fluids a bit.  Soon it was time to add about a cup or so of beef stock, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a bit more than a table spoon of mustard, and a bit more than two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce.  This all got stirred together and simmered on low for a few minutes to further reduce.  Now its time to add the tasty tasty fat, in the form of a healthy dose of heavy cream, enough to turn the mixture a nice mocha color.  

Instead of larger steak slices, I decided to cut the backstrap into bit-sized chunks and mix it in with the sauce.  I served it with garlic and butter mashed red potatoes and some simple steamed broccoli (we like potatoes and broccoli, I'm sure you've seen those sides before in my posts).  The sauce was beautiful, very rich and thick, going equally well with the potatoes as with the venison.  This is definitely one of those simple recipes that turn out a delicious dish, I'd be happy to serve it in larger quantities at a dinner party.  

Saturday's hunt at 40 Acre Pines was somewhat different, an approaching front pushed a lot of rain through before daylight, it stopped just shortly before we arrived.  I hoped that maybe the deer stayed bedded all night as it was the dark of the moon and raining and would get up to eat at daylight.  Two days before I moved my stand to the other half of the property, on the other side of the bedding area (well, we hope, obviously haven't walked in there in months).  Saturday morning before I climbed up in the stand I put out some strips with buck "attractant" on a nearby oak shrub.  As you can tell from the recipe post taking the place of a much more jubilant announcement there was no success.  I heard maybe two shots that morning, not very close by.  

This is the last week of muzzleloader, Saturday is General Gun so it will be time to take Aunt Mary's rifle for a walk.  I guess I'm mostly looking forward to the week before Thanksgiving that does are legal, that's likely my best hope for actually getting meat (and coincidentally to continue the cooking aspect of EMD).  That is, if any deer at all actually decide to move around in daylight hours around here.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Smoke Pole Season in Goethe - Monday: Humanworld

What happens when an adult male human, accomplished dayhiker and backpacker, recipient of the designation of Trailmaster from the Florida State Forest Service, who has logged hundreds of hours and several hundred miles on trails in Florida, sets off in the dark to find a stand he's been to three previous times with his GPS off?  He gets lost.  Well...he gets "turned around'.  Before I finally gave up and turned the gadget on I had turned a 20 minute trip into an almost hour-long ordeal.  Sometimes pride makes us do stupid things...

Anyhow, I made it to the stand annoyingly late, feeling like the rank amateur that I am.  It was barely 10 minutes before sunrise, I hadn't needed my headlamp for a while.  The trek was still a great experience however.  While I was wandering around confused in the dusk I listened to a few coyotes howling off in the distance.  For another instant I was terrified by the sudden explosion of turkeys from their roost above me, probably the same flock that I'd watch amble by the day before.

I climbed up and settled down in the morning chill to wait.  I could occasionally hear some movement off in the distance to my left.  I had heard a lot of armadillos closer to the truck, and it was likely that's what was moving.  I blew a few calls out in that direction just in case.  Most of the morning was quiet however, except for a few busy squirrels.  Its amazing how much noise one little tree rat can make, but wild squirrels are always cool to watch.

Around 9:30 I heard some soft footsteps approaching in front of me.  I soon caught movement, and saw a doe approaching.  A yearling appeared, trailing behind.  The two were in no hurry, calmly picking their way across the pine-needle carpet.  The yearling snagged a leaf now and then, perhaps still testing what was edible.  The doe crossed my trail and got a little more alert, not scared but cautious.

The two paused for about a full minute about 25 yards ahead.  At one point the doe's body was broadside to me, but with its head concealed behind a pine.  A perfect shot.  What an incredible temptation!  It was as if the Goddess Diana was testing my worth as an ethical hunter.

I reflected that the whole three-day experience was a test.   First I resisted the temptation to take a too-fast shot at a legal buck, then a shot at flock of illegal turkeys, now a shot at an illegal deer that in addition still had a young one attached to her.  I think by any measure I passed those tests, and even though I have no meat to show for it I have the satisfaction that I made the right choices.

The doe and yearling calmly turned and slowly worked their way back as they had come.

I remained in the stand another hour and a half, then decided it was time to call it a hunt.  I collected my gear then pulled down the tree stand and transformed it into its backpack mode, but not before I posed for a self-portrait as a memento.

My last duty was to discharge the rifle that had been loaded since Friday (although with no firing cap when it was in transport).  Although I was loathe to disturb the morning's peace, I would not have another opportunity soon.  I picked the cat-face of an old turpentine stump about 30 yards away as a target and using a small tree to steady myself I let fire.  Note to self: don't fire a muzzleloader upwind.  When I cleared my throat of the acrid smoke I saw the round went a little low and to the left, not sure if it was me or the gun.  It was still within the zone of a boiler-room shot on a whitetail though.

Guess you could say it did end with a bang, at any rate.

I drove back home with a sense of melancholy, but very happy and grateful to have had the awesome experience.  I had a rare lunchtime beer as I cleaned my rifle in my kitchen, then headed to work for the rest of the afternoon (reports need to go out, you know).

A man I know who hunts with a primitive bow and arrow in Goethe for both archery and small game season says I was very lucky to see as many deer as I did.  I have plans to head back over myself for small game season, feral hogs of any kind as well as squirrels are legal at that time. 

I should be hunting back at 40 Acre Pines Friday and Saturday, most likely using the muzzleloader.  However, I do think that once I finally get one (if that happens) and the mental pressure to restock my freezer is off  I may go back to archery for the rest of the season. 

OK, enough for now.  Two new recipe posts coming soon, and I have an idea for another.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Smoke Pole Season in Goethe - Sunday: Turkeyworld

I returned to Goethe about 4 PM on Sunday for an evening sit.  I was happy to see that there was only one other set of footprints, besides my own, on the woods road that started my trek to the tree stand, and that they were both coming and going.  Looks like I'd have the island to myself yet again.

I'd been concerned by how easily the does picked up on my scent the prior morning.  I was willing to gamble on some kind of cover scent.  That morning I'd gone by the local big-box store and purchased a can of doe-in-estrus scent.  Yes, I purchased pee.  The aerosol variety.  I almost laughed at the idea as the clerk scanned it, but I'm sure he'd seen it all before and was unfazed.

When I was a couple hundred yards from the stand I uncapped the urine and sprayed a liberal coating on the soles of my boots.  Man, what a raunchy odor!  Like a sheep pen in a barnyard or something.  I wondered how long this pee had been in a can, for all I know the doe that passed it might have also passed.  As I approached the area I let out a few short bursts on the trail behind me.  I sprayed some on the pine needles near the scrape, and made another trail over to a good shooting lane.  Then I climbed into the stand and sprayed the leaves around me.

The events of the prior day had worn at me psychologically.  As I looked over to where the buck had approached, I realized how close he had been.  I was still full of "should haves" over missing a chance at that buck, and I tried to prepare myself to react quickly this time if the need arose.

Not long after I'd arrived I heard a few yelps in the distance off to my right, out somewhere on the edge of the marsh.  Now, almost two hours later, I heard something approaching from that direction.  Two light in the step to be a deer, the sound resolved itself into multiple quick footsteps.  First one, then another, then a whole flock of Meleagris gallopavo osceola, the Osceola Wild Turkey, filed by about 30 yards in front of me.  They seemed totally unaware of my presence.

Heck, even the hubby has informed me I need to shoot a turkey, but I already knew they weren't in season here.  Just in case I was wrong, I checked the PDF of regulations on my iphone (that's something hunters couldn't do a generation ago).  Yep, I was right, not legit, and besides legal turkey hunting hours don't extend past 1 P.M. in Florida WMAs anyhow.  Amazing though, all that aside this must be something like a fall turkey hunter's dream, a dozen or so birds passing right by in range at a nice slow pace. 

Soon a sudden burst of heavy wing beats a little further off signaled that one of them had flown to roost.  A few more followed, climbing to the top of the tall loblolly pines.  I made a note to find out when the applications for the spring turkey quota permits need to be in.  I have an old Browning shotgun that I bet would work pretty well. 

After the turkeys passed it was quiet again, and the evening crawled past the moment of sunset.  I decided to use the remaining twilight to walk out instead of waiting for full night.  I couldn't resist one look out over the marsh as I passed though.  Out in the distance, movement caught my eye.  A brown back, a tail, then they were clear:  a doe and a yearling, far away.  At least, I thought, I've seen deer today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Smoke Pole Season in Goethe - Saturday: Deerworld

I've never figured this out about me, but one of my two superpowers is waking up right before my alarm, no matter when I set it (the other is mosquito resistance, but that's for another day).  For the record, please don't think I'm always on time, just awake. Whatever, in any event I was up at 4:55 (making a total of 5 hours sleep, also another story). 

I made it to my chosen access point on the boundary of Goethe State Forest about 6:30, little more than an hour before sunrise.  I probably was on the tree stand around 6:50.  The forest slowly turned from greys to colors around me.  I heard something like a deer call around sunrise, and attempted to answer using the rubber deer call thing I recently purchased. Nothing...for a while.

About 8:15 I heard a deer coming in from my left and froze stock-still.  It was a small yearling!  My heart jumped.  It fairly pranced along, with its tail up, not in panic but in interest.  It went directly over and sniffed the buck scrape.  Then the yearling looked expectantly back over it's shoulder as I heard, then saw, two other deer approaching on the same path.

It was two older does, smart enough not to rush in.  These old biddies were obviously sniffing the tracks I left the previous day, not overly nervous or excited, but curious, deciding what to make of the situation.  Then they started looking back.  My heart jumped into overdrive as all those stories I'd read in the hunting magazines raced through my head.  A buck (well legal!) was trotting right up without a care, still in the last of velvet, maybe a 7-8 point in a basket configuration.  He mingled in with the does and yearling (at this point another couple does had come in from somewhere while I was focused on the buck) and seemed to even be trying to single one out.  All this was only about 30-40 yards away.  My brain raced, man, could it be over this fast?  And please let it!  It seemed like it would only be a matter of seconds before the buck would pause in just the right place.

But no, those two old does...

The two old biddies already knew something was up, and, ironically, it was they who were now hunting me.  With the legendary ears and nose of whitetails, they were triangulating my location, easing closer, stamping to get my attention.  I froze as stock still as my racing heart would allow.  They were circling downwind, one of them was probably not 15 feet away!  I knew as soon as I moved a muscle they would be gone, and the buck with them.

Meanwhile that lust-stricken buck was still going la-la-la, smelling young doe tail and moving in and out of clear line-of-sight.  Finally for a few seconds I had a good shot, well, would have had a good shot if I could raise the rifle without spooking these does!  Then biddies had finally had enough, and with disgusted huffs they took off.  The buck was all like "Cool! We're running now!" and followed after.

The woods were thus cleared, and I was left alone with my thoughts.  In the post-game analysis that looped through my head the next couple hours I decided that I should have chanced it, quickly thrown up the rifle and drew down with one quick sweep.  Oh well, didn't happen.

I forced myself to stay on the stand in the quiet woods until about 10 am, then as a consolation prize I treated myself to a nice mile of stalking on a loop around the island.  I doubted I'd see a deer this way but I might scare up a hog since there was some sign of them near the marshes.  In reality I saw no more mammals that day besides grey squirrels, technically legal game at the time but 1) I doubted I could hit one with open sights and 2) If I did I doubted a .45 caliber bullet would leave much usable meat.  It was a beautiful circuit anyway (most of the pics in the previous post came from it).

Cat-faced pine stumps are the historians of the island.
I got back to my house around 2 PM.  As great as the experience was, I had other things to do that afternoon and the next morning.  My return to Goethe was Sunday evening, but that's for the next post.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Smoke Pole Season in Goethe: Prologue

In order to to give people a higher quality hunting experience and control the taking of game animals, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses a weighted lottery system to issue quota permits for various Wildlife Management Areas during various hunts (archery, muzzleloading, general gun, fall and spring turkey etc.).   This was my first year entering the lottery system, and I feel I got pretty lucky.  I drew a muzzleloading permit for a three-day season on the WMA that covers most of a large state forest about 45 minutes west of my home.

Goethe State Forest is a true gem of the Real Florida, 48,000 acres containing examples of 15 different natural communities such as flatwoods, dome swamp, sandhill, and basin swamp.  The extensive mature longleaf pine forest has one of the largest red-cockaded woodpecker populations in Florida.  Other rare animal species found on the forest include the Florida black bear, gopher tortoise, Sherman's fox squirrel and bald eagle.  It would in no way surprise me to learn that far-ranging young male Florida Panthers are dispersing into the area.

Goethe only became a state forest in 1992, the majority of it purchased from Mr. J.T. Goethe, a private landholder, using government-raised conservation funds.  It may be a rural legend, but I've read that upon hearing of the impending State Forest designation, a local county counsel member said something to the effect:  "That's not an endangered forest, that's good usable land!".  Such is the Other Florida that Goethe was saved from (so far).

Only 250 permits were issued for the Goethe muzzleloading season this year, so even if everyone and their one guest showed up at once, that still left 96 acres per hunter (As I found, the case was far from this).  I wanted to stack the odds even more in my favor.  Something stuck in my head from my stack of old '80's-vintage Deer and Deer Hunting magazine:  99% of hunters never venture a mile from their vehicles (likewise, the experienced dayhiker in me has nothing but confirmation for that).   When I discovered my win I started scanning Google Earth to find likely places far away from motorized entry points.

I found what looked like a good place about a mile cross-country and soon put boots on the ground to scout it out.  I fell in love at first sight with what I found.  An island of sorts, in a wet year you would have to wade thigh-deep to reach it, but its dry right now.  Mature pines and bald cypress surrounded by prairie marshes, cut through with well-used game trails.  Little sign of humans, and some of that was at lest seventy years old.

I bought a tree stand that can transform into a reasonable backpack-like configuration (I've been using it at 40 Acre Woods, too.  Huh, maybe I'll do a review and endorsement soon), and placed it out Friday morning. 

In good shooting range from the stand is a well-used game trail forced into a small funnel by some downed trees and brush, but also, more importantly, a fresh buck scrape the size of my work desk. Hunting was from Saturday-Monday, updates and results coming soon, when I get more time at the computer.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Alone Time

Last Saturday I was already out the truck and walking into my stand at 40 Acre Pines when it dawned on me that I was embarking on my first solo deer hunt, ever.  The thought of it was mildly stunning, in both that I'd not realized it to that point and that it was such a strange feeling.

The hunting of my youth was a very communal venture.  Up to dozens of people met up early in the morning with shotguns full of 00 buckshot and trucks full of excited dogs anxious to get into the woods.  We would be strung out over, sometimes, miles of dirt roads, a "shotgun length" apart, to listen with rapt attention as the drivers with their walker hounds, blueticks, and beagles roused the deer from their beds, hopefully towards one of us.

In hindsight it hard to believe that ever could have bored me, but a 16 year old does not look at the world as a 40 year old does.  Back then my mind was filled with a storm of other things I needed to do, most of which involved adventures with another voluntarily naked warm body.  Being stuck in one place in the woods for hours on a Saturday did nothing to help that.

All of my modern hunting experiences have been with at least one other person, either as a companion or a guide.  This evening I was going alone due to Gator Football, John was headed over to watch the game with some other friends.  I have only a very passing interest in football, but in this town you can't help but be immersed in it.  We aren't having a great year, and this last game wasn't going to help that.

The hunt itself was uneventful.  I sat alone with my bow and arrows and watched the evening pass until the end of shooting light, then walked back out.  No cooling carcass to deal with solo in the fading light, and I was actually fine with that.  The highlight of the trip was the fox squirrel I saw walking in, they aren't that common in areas like this as they prefer more mature forest.

Speaking of both alone time and mature forest, last Sunday I took a long solo dayhike in the Croom tract of Withlacoochee State Forest.  About a decade ago the World Wildlife Foundation named Withlacoochee SF #1 in their "Top 10 Coolest Places Youve Never Seen in North America".  It's lands hold outstanding examples of the real Florida.  My walk mostly took me through sandhill habitat, most of which was in riotous bloom.  I saw many fox squirrels.  Here are a few shots to compare and contrast with the degraded sandhill-turned-pine-plantation habitat of our hunting area.

Mixed-age trees, regularly burned, healthy and abundant native understory.
Fired up!

Lopsided Indiangrass, my favorite grass.  Seeing this makes me glad I've lived to see another October.
The bigger solo hunt is still to come though.  Next Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (actually beginning tomorrow as I write this) is the limited-entry muzzleloader hunt in Goethe State Forest that I drew a permit for this year.  The northern part of Goethe is about 45 minutes from our house.  I went over this morning and set up my tree stand, almost a mile from the nearest public access point.  I'm excited about the site I stumbled on, it has both a "funnel" where a bushy oak and a fallen tree channels a game trail and a nice big scrape the size of my desk top.  Getting there was a beautiful hike in itself, and I'm looking forward to observing nature from my stand a few times over the next three days.  I'm pretty sure I'll return to this area during the small game season and do some further exploring with my Marlin 60 slung over my shoulder.

PS:  Check out this excellent interview in Huffington Post with Holly Heyser (NorCal Cazadora)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

From Field To Table: Report on the Wild Game Processing Class Offered by University of Florida Meat Processing Center

A few weeks ago I was in my favorite gas station/BBQ and breakfast joint/bookstore (well, it's owned by the son of a famous herpetologist, things often get a little mixed together in a university town) when I saw this flyer on the counter:

I thought Albert holding a steak on a fork was a nice touch.

I was intrigued.  Seems some people at University of Florida picked up on the micro-trend for classes such as this and wanted to see if anyone was interested in one here in Gainesville.  I know I was, since my experience with processing deer was limited and hog non-existent, so I sent and email and a check and signed myself up.

The morning of the class was rainy, but I got lucky and parked fairly near the building.  I was surprised by the number of other people approaching the building through the grey drizzle.  Chad Carr, Meat Science Extension, played host at the event and welcomed us each as we arrived and signed it. The turnout far exceeded my expectations as I estimated at least 70-80 people were milling around outside the auditorium.   The demographics were not especially surprising though, we did mostly consist of white males.  However, a few minorities were in attendance, as well as a reasonable number of women.  Many of the attendees were younger (it was at UF) but quite a few looked to be in the second half of life.  Later on I learned that at least a few had never hunted in their lives but were interested in learning.

I doubt that many other classes of this type had the facilities available to us that morning.  The University of Florida Meat Processing Laboratory is a full Federal (USDA- FSIS) Inspected meat processing facility designed to facilitate teaching, extension and research programs for the Animals Sciences Department.  The room superficially resembled any other teaching auditorium on campus, with stadium seating for around 100 students, but the overhead rails that curved in front of the blackboard and lead to the huge stainless-steel dutch-doors of a massive walk-in refrigeration unit belied the differences of the lessons learned here.  

I was surprised to find myself slightly queasy at both the thought of the thousands of animals that had been presented to thousands of students in this room and the very faint but unmistakeable smell of blood hidden beneath sanitizers.  It didn't take long for that feeling to pass as  Mr. Carr started us off with some background information about the aims of the course.  It seems he too had been taken aback by the large turnout, and was very enthusiastic for the chance to contribute to our education. 

A gentleman from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission then gave an informative talk about the hazards of game-borne illness, not the least of which was the possibility of being bitten by a tick piggy-backing (litterally!) on our quarry.  Seems the most dangerous in Florida may be brucellosis contracted during the processing of wild hog, and he warned to always take topmost precaution when handling their carcasses.

The FWC speaker also gave a warning about something looming on the horizon:  Chronic Wasting Disease.  They have a passive monitoring system set up in this state that involves testing road kill, other found carcasses, and voluntarily donated hunting kills.  Evidently a major vector for the spread of CWD is by captive animals transported to "high fence" ranches for canned hunts (yet another reason to dislike those businesses).  Florida definitely has a high concentration of them, some of which are uncomfortably close to our 40 Acre Pines site.  No evidence of CWD has surfaced in Florida, but it may be only a matter of time. 

Next came the practical demonstrations.  A freshly killed young male goat played the role of a deer carcass as two very knowledgeable assistant managers  gave a lesson on skinning and gutting.  One thing I learned is that it is not always necessary or even wise to gut an animal.  Sounds counter intuitive, but if you know the animal has suffered a gut-shot it may be better to glean cuts from the outside of the carcass (most of the usable meat anyhow) than to open the thoracic cavity and introduce the intestinal contamination to the exterior.  You do give up the flanks, organs, and tenderloins, however.

"You can do it all with this knife!"
Later on the same to guys partially disassembled a wild hog that had been captured and pen raised in preparation for this class.  Strategic use of meat marking ink simulated contamination from a bullet wound and a less-than-expertly done field dressing. 

I was surprised to learn how little lean meat was on a wild hog of this size.  Evidently they don't share the muscle-producing genetics of their factory cousins.  According to these guys, a 125 lb wild hog might only yield 20 lbs of meat.  Of course, you'll have all the fat you'll need, render for lard anyone?

Note the size of the loin vs. the cape of fat over them in that cross-section
The class ended up with a sausage and jerky making demo, which was somewhat interesting but made it look way too easy since they were using a $5000 meat grinder. 


In other news, my beautiful old compound bow suffered a breakage during practice over the weekend.  Nothing catastrophic or explosive, but I had to talk to three bow shops before I found one that could fix it, due to its design differences with modern bows.  In a way it was a good thing, because I discovered a local pawn shop actually has a pretty nice archery pro shop, I would have never thought to check. 

I just called them and the bow is ready for pick up now.  John and I had planned on hunting this evening, but I don't find myself in the proper mindset today.  I'll see what he thinks when he gets back from his field job.  Only a few more days of either-sex archery though, next week its a few days of antlered archery then my weekend of Muzzle-loading in Goethe State Forest!  That will make a nice couple of posts, I hope.

I'll leave you with a couple of pics from my moonrise walk at my favorite local preserve (two square miles with no hunting season there, its hard to count how many deer blow at you as you walk the trails)

Wait, so what's that old rhyme? "Red touch black, good for Jack. Red touch yellow..." wait, what?
LOL, yep, I almost tripped over this one, but coral snakes aren't supposed to be that dangerous. I mean, they can kill you, but they aren't eager to bite.
The most Southern Gothic photo I've ever taken.  Quick, get it on the cover of a vampire-werewolf romance novel!

Friday, October 7, 2011

An Evening In The Pines

John and I met at the gate of our forty acre hunting woods and set out across the eastern edge of the property, our bows and arrows in hand, headed for the stands awaiting us.  The walk took us pass several small hardwoods scarred by antler scrapes from previous years, their bark already rounding over the edges of the wounds.  If a young hardwood survives its injury, one day no outward evidence of the distress will remain, just as the tree itself may long outlast any other evidence of the buck. 

The active scrapes discovered the week before, along with the scene of the photographic evidence, lie in the southeast portion of planted pines.  Our stands are there, spaced about 120 yards apart; John has a climbing model, I have a more conventional, if spartan, ladder stand.  We arrived about 5 PM.  A conversation with John's neighbor, an experienced hunter, gave us his opinon that the area's deer were most likely appearing just after sunset.  With GPS-empowered accuracy the time of sunset was determined as 7:08 PM, with civil twilight ending at 7:32.  Effective shooting light would certainly die out shortly before then.  

I mounted my stand as the last direct rays of the setting sun shown above the treeline, which suited me fine as I was generally facing west.  The thicker brush that covered the old house trailer site where we know deer have bedded lay about a hundred yards ahead of me, with the likely route to the feeder and scrapes nearby in my left front quarter.  I settled in for the show.  

Not to give the wrong impression, although this forty acre  block of young pines is seldom visited, it does not enjoy the silence of isolation.  Cars and trucks rushing by on the county road along the northern boundary were clearly audible, as well other random anthropogenic clatter.  Yet another testament to the adaptability of wildlife when faced with all manor of environmental pollution.  

Before very long a bank of clouds appeared to the northeast.  It advanced over us and produced a shower, short and gentle.  This was the first time I'd been out in a rainstorm in quite some time, since the majority of our summer rain here in Florida comes from thunderstorms that only idiots or tourists would stay out in.  The rain soon ended, barely enough to make my newly-purchased camouflaged suit damp. I hoped it may erase the scent from our trial.

The wind that came during and after the storm rocked the small pine that supported my ladder stand.  The sublime feeling of being strapped to a limber young tree, moving back and forth with the breeze, reenforced the attachment to nature that many hunters seek. 

Before long the clouds passed and the last rays of the sun could be seen through the pines across the adjacent pasture.  The distant sound of calling cows drifted through the woods.  A few squirrels decided it was time to come out and procure some cones to gnaw for pine nuts.  The evidence of prior feasts littered the ground below my stand.  Crows called to each other as they flapped over the crests of the young pines. 

A few small dead limbs, their sponge-like rotten flesh no doubt made heavy by the rain, crashed to earth from the young slash pines near sunset, upsetting the lengthening calms between vehicles passing out on the county road.  Once far larger trees occupied this land:  All evidence points to the historic existence of a Sandhill environment at the forty acre pines.  The widely-spaced Longleaf Pine, with leaning, bare trunks supporting  bonzai-like flat-topped crowns, would have towered over the savannah-like forest floor.  Frequent fires raced through the wiregrass understory, bringing rejuvenation and renewal to the low-growing herbaceous flora.  In October a bounty of wildflowers, yellow and purple and pink and white, would have been fueled by the previous year's ash.  Now the darkened, needle-carpeted floor yields only the white daisy-heads of the invasive Spanish Needle, who's spear-like seeds will soon develop and annoyingly attach to and pierce our socks.

The tree-obscured horizon gave no clue of the exact moment of sunset, but as the light faded a flurry of small, brown moths began to flit around my seated form.  Alighting on my bow, I believe they were drinking water from the droplets still beading here and there on the varnished wood.  I touched one gently with my left index finger.  It was not startled, but instead crawled up on my fingertip, were it remained for several minutes, its comrades still in motion all around us.

I let John make the decision to leave, since I would have gladly stayed until full dark when the waxing moon would have lit the way back, but he has a young family to attend to and needed to find his way home.  I heard him descend, and so I shooed away my lepidopteran entourage and climbed gingerly down to meet him in the enshrouding gloom.  

The deer remained as ghosts, a mystery, unseen in the night.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A faint glimmer of hope illuminates my expectations.  After letting our hunting woods sit unvisited for about two weeks, checking the game cam revealed a couple of visitors.

Pope and Young won't care much about them, but to me they are just fine.  They have been showing up intermittently, probably bedding down under the overgrown holly bushes at the old trailer site.  We only have night photos so far, but that's actually in line with the feeding predictions (however they come up with those).  They've established a scrape line leading to the feeder, and a bit past it, consisting of the most textbook scrapes you'll find.  About 30 yards past the end of the scrape line and off to the side now sits this:

It feels kind of exposed, but that's the nature of the area, 15 year old pines with scattered underbrush isn't ideal.  I had to take a segment off of the ladder because, honestly, I'm afraid of heights and I knew I'd never feel comfortable with my head 17 feet up.  12-13 feet is just fine though, funny how big of a difference a few feet made psychologically.

I'm going out with my bow Thursday evening after work.  I'm still not 100% confident with the broad heads (they tend to waver more than the field points) but this is mostly for the experience, as I've said before I'd need a perfect shot to try to stick an arrow in a deer, and there is a lot of season left, so there is no hurry at all.  Besides, rifles will be legal in just a few weeks.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sweet September.

Wow, I've really neglected this blog, but if there is anyone still out there I will be updating it more frequently.  Hunting season is coming up, and I've actually got a few recipe posts backlogged that I need to finish up and go live with.

My friend and hunting buddy John has located for us a new hunting ground, 40 acres that belong to his in-laws side of the family.  The old area we hunted last season (without success) isn't viable anymore since the owner's two Rhodesian Ridgebacks now roam freely within it, which is a shame since a huge field nearby happens to be planted in peanuts.  The habitat in the new area isn't ideal, almost all 15-20 year old planted pine with limited food sources and no water source, but there are some hardwoods on the perimeter, and the lot is surrounded by areas of farmland and more natural vegetation.  An asset is that it's hardly ever visited by humans except around the first of the year when it's swept for pine straw.  There is a mass of overgrown holly shrubs in the center of it where an old trailer site used to be, and there have definitely been deer bedding down there.  We found a few active deer trails leading into the area from the fields to the south.  I have a game cam out there now, I'll be curious to see what the pics are of.

Archery season starts here on the 17th of September, just two Saturdays from now.  On one of my posts I think I briefly discussed my reservations about bowhunting before, but with careful consideration I will likely participate this year.  I have two bows now, both older models I picked up in great condition on the cheap.  The both date from the '70's as near as I can tell.  I've been practicing with both using the 20 yard range I set up in the dry drainage ditch behind my suburban home (if we weren't in a drought, I guess I'd be wading).  The first is the Ben Pearson Mustang recurve bow with a 45# draw weight that I've mentioned previously.  It's of wood-fiberglass construction, like the classic Bear Archery designs.  I consider it my training bow, but its still really fun to shoot.  It put some pain in my shoulders the first couple weeks though, I probably should have started with a lower draw weight recurve at first but I made it through.

The newer-to-me one is a Darton Huntsman compound with 55# draw weight, mint condition.  The Huntsman is an early production model recurve, very dissimilar in appearance from the modern arrow-casting machines out there, but it sure is handsomer, if not a faster shot.  It is noticeably faster than the Mustang however.  The one-piece riser and limb section is composed of laminated wood and fiberglass, just like the recurves of the era.  My best group so far is about five inches at 20 yards, not horrible I guess, and I don't plan on ever shooting it at a living critter any farther than that.

The Darton Huntsman, before I had a peep sight installed, propped up next to my tomato cage quiver.

So, if or when the opportunity presents itself, would I actually attempt to send a broadhead into a deer, knowing what can happen if any of a hundred things causes the arrow to be off and it ends up a worst-case scenario?  I honestly don't know until the time comes.  As much preparation as archery requires, even at this level I already know it's all about how the situation feels, and I'd have to feel very right to try it.

But I'm looking forward to the chance to make that decision.

20 yard pin is still a bit high.

In other news, we took a trip to the Smokys last week, and had amazing weather (this was pre-Lee).  Here is a pic of a doe and her fawn browsing the vegetation at Mt. LeConte Lodge, at 6500+ feet the highest lodge in eastern North America.  Being in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, these two are separated by many miles and many years from the closest legal hunter, to them humans are a minor annoyance at worst, a source of (illegal) handouts at best.

Ellie May!  Come get your critter!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Roux, roux, roux the deer: Venison Gumbo

I've neglected this blog the last while.  Its the Dog Days of summer here in sunny FLA, and we have topped 100 degrees in real temperature on a few days.  I ran off for a solo camping trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park two weekends ago, it was a nice trip but the afternoon thunderstorms caused me to spend more time in the truck that I wanted to.  Back at home, my garden had a good spring, lots of green bean, plenty of tomatoes and eggplant.  The corn and cucumbers were a bust, but that's no great surprise, they seldom do well in my yard.

We have had venison on a few occasions, but nothing I felt compelled to blog about.  We've had several good grilled cuts, and one horrific experiment with a blueberry wine braze.  I'd rather not discuss that episode.

It occurred to me last weekend I've never tried to make venison gumbo, and it seemed like a good idea.  I went ahead and selected a piece of backstrap, I think this was from Miss Catalina (need to use this stuff up, that's been in the freezer for 9 months now, still looked perfect though).  I diced it up, and browned it in oil in the pan

I took my time with the roux (yeah, sometime I've been known to hurry it).  It got a nice coppery brown, then I mixed in chopped red onion and green peppers.

Here is the meat, veggies (including some home grown tomatoes) and the stock.  I poured in a generous amount of Old Bay seasoning (I love that stuff) and two leaves from my laurel bay.

In at the end with the chopped okra, bought from one of my favorite farms.  Mine is still a long way from ready, since I waited until the potato beds were free to plant it.

Here is the final product, quite tasty if I do say so myself :)

Les' eat, y'all!

Couple of pics from my trip:

Young bull elk in Cataloochee Valley, GSMNP

Sunset from Cataloochee overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I'm On A Boat: You Say Dolphin, I'll Say Mahi, Lets Eat!

We were invited to go fishing in the Keys on a boat chartered by my friend Kendall, who has way to much disposable income since he's a 40's-something bachelor with a major position at a Fortune 500 company (yep ladies, he likes ya'll and would like a good one who will put up with his peculiar self).  Unfortunately, for Craig and I it was to be a whirlwind trip, work half day Friday then drive down 7 hours, get up at the butt-crack of dawn to spend Saturday on the boat, then back home Sunday in time to pick up the dogs from being boarded at the vet by 6 pm.  It was amazing though, first we'd been in the Keys in about 9 yrs or so.

We stayed at a quaint (for want of a better term) historic inn on Tavernier.  Actually, it was perfectly fine for what we needed, which was a cheap clean place to sleep.  I wouldn't go there for a family vacation, but it served great as a base of operation.

I slept as well as I could (don't do well in hotels the first night) and our party of four made it to the marina by 6:30 with no problem.  This charter is run by Capt. Ron Allen aboard the Fish Tales, a 50-footer that was amazing.  Our extremely competent mate, Pete, handled all the chores of getting the lines out.  It was a low-stress trip, we just basically helped out where Pete told us to and waited for the fish to bite.

Cruising out of Whale Harbor Marina on Islamorada in the early twilight.
A beautiful morning awaited. We drove out to the reef and the Capt Ron and Pete caught some live bait with a cast net.  We attracted a turtle and a shark while doing it, cool to see in the crystal clear water.  Then we slowly trolled outward.   We had a few minor bites but not much, Our Benefactor (my friend who hired the charter) caught a Mahi that was too small to keep and the other guy with us caught a tuna relative that the mate assured us wasn't worth eating.  The Capt. and Mate were old-school and called mahi "dolphin", of course, and called the real dolphins porpoises, as to differentiate.

We were taking turns at the reals, and my first up produced a nice mahi. This was the first time I'd ever seen a live mahi in the water.  Words can barely describe the incredible colors of these fish as they flare up and fight for their lives in that ultramarine and azure ocean.  The only think that I've seen that can compare is maybe a blue-and-yellow macaw, but even so it isn't really that close.

Fish on!

Pete holding my first.

The biggest excitement of the day came shortly afterwards.  Craig was next up, and his bite was a good sized female mahi.  As he was reeling it in, Pete threw out a fresh line with a scrap of fish meat on it and handed it to me, since I was closest.  A few seconds later, it went taunt, and I had a fight on my hands. Craig and I both had fish out at the same time, and they were both big time firsts for both of us!  Mine didn't break any records, but it was a 18 lb mahi, and it put up a damn good fight.  It jumped 3-4 times as Pete coached me on my crude reel skills.  I was half afraid the fish would would win, but the line held, and before long we had a shaking ice chest as they thrashed their last before cooling down into the dark abyss.

Not a lot to report after that, the fishing dried up for the afternoon.  According to Capt., the other boats weren't having much luck either.  We had a nice cruise though, Pete explained how the ocean floor features affect the fishing, and the behavior of the various oceanic bird species.  Pete says they become really good birdwatchers, since the birds are great natural fish finders in their own right.

We made it back to port late afternoon.  We collected our fillets after the mandatory fish photos.  We cleaned up at our hotel and then headed over to the place Kendall was staying for dinner, which happened to be the Hilton Key Largo resort (he's got a penny or two, I guess).  We all had the chef prepare some of our mahi three ways: grill, blackened, and jerked.  They did a great job, serving it up on a platter of citrus slices.  We devoured it as the sun left us on time (see the pic at the head of this post).  I forgot to take a before pic, but here is the aftermath of the carnage:

Good bread, good meat, good God, did we eat!

We only ended up with about three meals worth of fish to take home, but I'll be working on something to show you for it.

BTW, I would have loved to have had a permit like this for our canoe trip on the Suwanee River a few years ago:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Venison Tamale Pie

The new kitchen cabinets and countertops (that were a result of the unfortunate events of late last year) are now fully installed and functional, and I have to say its great to have a nice place to cook again.  I'm celebrating my return to domestic normalcy with a cervidaceous take on a classic casserole, tamale pie.   After some Googling about the origins of this dish, the general idea is that it was invented by Americans who wanted to approximate the taste of a real tamale without the work of stuffing corn husks.  Its not a recent invention either, published recipes for it date back to at least 1905.  It is, of course, basically a kind of meat pie (although plenty of meatless versions circulated during wartime shortages), typically with ground beef cooked between, or under, layers of corn meal batter.  I though this would be a good way to use up some venison shoulder chunks I had in the freezer.  I started by putting the shoulder meat in my trusty crock pot with a large container of beef stock, a chopped onion, and a few minced cloves of garlic.  I left this on high for about 5 hours, then on low for another couple hours. 

New countertops and cabinets, same old crockpot.
Since this is a dish that seems to have been designed by American housewives as a quick and fairly cheap way to feed their families, I thought I would just stick to typical ingredients to make it "authentic":  Three boxes of Jiffy corn bread mix, a can of Ro-Tel, a fresh pepper (this is a Cubanelle because they looked really good that day), chili powder, onion and garlic. 

When the meat was ready to go, I sauted the onion, garlic, pepper, with about half the can of Ro-Tel until they were slightly softened.

Veggies diced and sauteing
Shredded venison shoulder.
I went ahead and pulled some of the venison out of the crock pot (the rest is for another dish in the near future) and shredded it well.  I combined it with the veggies in the pan along with chili powder and some of the crock pot stock and let it simmer down for a bit.

Filling cooking down.
I used some more of the crock pot stock instead of the suggested milk to make the corn meal batter, then spread it in an even layer across the bottom of a Pyrex baking pan.

Filling on top of lower cornmeal batter layer.
Spread the meat filling on top of the first corn meal batter layer then spread another batter layer on top.  

Top layer of cornmeal batter in place.
Fully cooked and ready to go.

I got invited to go saltwater fishing on a chartered boat out of Islamorada in a few weeks.  My saltwater fishing experience is about nil, but I'm really looking forward to a day on the water.  I think we will be doing some blue water stuff out in the gulf stream for dolphin and mahi and maybe fishing some reefs for grouper.  There will definitely be some updates on that, and hopefully some fish recipes to follow.