Monday, December 10, 2012

Swamped! Santa Fe Swamp WEA

The 2012-2013 hunting season saw a significant increase in acreage for Santa Fe Swamp Wildlife and Environmental Area.  Santa Fe Swamp WEA is a dedicated primitive weapons area, starting with archery season in sept/oct then a short early muzzleloader season in October.  For almost all of November and December the area is open for archery or muzzleloader. 

Santa Fe Swamp is a challenging area.  Except for a small portion along it's far eastern boundary, no roads traverse it.  In a wet year, most of it is under water.  Widespread peaty soil makes walking treacherous.  Because of raging wildfires in previous years many of the standing trees are dead snags, pretty unsafe for a tree stand.  I'd only hunted it once before, and that afternoon essentially amounted to hiking the eastern roads with a gun at the ready.  I did have a chance to take a shot at a rabbit, but it would have meant shooting towards the nearby parking area so I passed it up. 

The new addition is to the west of the main parcel, connected to it by a ribbon of land that includes the headwaters of the Santa Fe River.  I'd heard it was largely under water early in the season but it had recently dried up some.  This past Saturday I went over to conduct what would amount to a mid-season scouting trip, but since the season was open I brought my gun just on the slim chance I got lucky and ran across a legal buck. 

Two new parking areas, one on either side of SR 325, were created to grant access to the new parcels.  I started with the western parking area, which was empty of vehicles.  Brush-hogged trails lead away from the truck to the west, branching around either side of a large basin swamp.  I chose the right hand trail, but it quickly became submerged so I attempted to follow game trails around the water.  It wasn't long before these became thicker than I cared to fight with so I backtracked and started down the left hand trail.
 
Dark and dreary afternoon in the swamp.
The left trail followed a marshy logging road for a short distance, running near the property boundary where "No Trespassing" signs were plentiful.  The road petered off into a game trail that passes through some drier areas with a few oaks, not bad deer habitat.  I was attempting to use my iPhone with Google Maps to make sure I stayed on the correct side of the property boundary.  This got a bit confusing at one point, with my phone saying one thing and the physical signs saying another.  

Clouds starting to break up over the Loblolly Pines and Loblolly Bays
I eventually made it mostly around the basin swamp, and came to a dense forest of loblolly pine and loblolly bays (btw, I think Gordonia is just fun to say).  I'm sure this forest is periodically flooded.  I had planned at that point to pick a place to hide and wait until sunset, but suddenly the mosquitoes, which had not been too bad, became a swarm.  I was without the ThermaCell.  After a moment of soul-searching I decided to just head back and briefly check out the other side of the road.

Saltbush releasing seed.
The other parking area was also empty.  Its next to a man-made pond that has a few date palms and the stumps of dense clumps of bamboo.  I guess it was at some point intended to be a home site to have been landscaped so. 
 
The dug pond, it was teaming with frogs and such.
The sun was about to dip below the tree line so I just headed off to the north with the idea of actually seeing the channel of the Santa Fe River, if it existed at this point.  I ended up climbing over downed and half-rotten cypress trees tossed like pick-up sticks before realizing this would be a shitty place to sprain an ankle and headed back to the truck.  I never found  a channel.

Somewhere near the channel, if there is one.
All in all it was much more of a bushwack hike than a hunting trip, but as I said this outing was more for exploring and scouting anyhow.  I only covered a very small portion of the addition, I want to go back on a colder day (if it ever gets cold) and try to push farther.  It should be drier in a couple of months also, by Spring turkey season more areas should be accessible without wading.

Adios, Santa Fe Swamp!  Hopefully we'll have some good days together in the future.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

December Morning on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail

This post isn't related to hunting or cooking, but it is about a nice way to spend a morning. 

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail is a prime example of the recreational amenities we have here in Alachua County.  The trail mostly follows the path of an old railroad that connected downtown Gainesville to the town of Hawthorne.   Several years ago the pathway was paved and is now utilized by a parade of bikers, skaters, runners and even horseback riders.  I do not personally frequent it much, being a solitary sort who enjoys unpaved trails where the chances of seeing other humans is slight.  However, a good friend of mine recently acquired a nice hybrid bike and I figured he needed to see the trial, which is definitely pretty beautiful.  I do have a decent bike, even though I don't use it that much, so I pulled it out and pumped up the tires for a Saturday jaunt.

Around 10:30 we pulled up in his Jeep at the Boulware Springs trailhead.  The spring, while not much in comparison to some of the other great springs in this state, was once vital to Gainesville since it supplied all the drinking water to the downtown area and the University of Florida.  In fact the story is that UF decided to settle in Gainesville after being promised free water into perpetuity from this reliable source.

Luckily we waited as late as we did for the morning to warm up because it turned out a half-marathon was wrapping up as we arrived.  Only a few stragglers were left on the trail, so that worked out pretty well.  We weren't planning to make it all the way to Hawthorne but our turn-around point was open-ended.  We took detours and biked on the spur trails out to Sweetwater and Prairie Lake overlooks, and took a short walk out on the Prairie Creek boardwalk, were we decided to turn back. 

Prairie Lake overlook.  Not much lake right now.
On the return trip we walked out as far as the end of the boardwalk at Alachua Sink where the usual gators and water birds were engaged in their iconic dealings. 

Unconcerned archosaurs, both crocodilian and avian.
We made it about 13 miles, which is nothing for a real road biker but not too bad for two guys who haven't even really been on a bike in ages.  My legs aren't sore but my butt cheeks are, bike saddles are difficult to adjust to for an ass that's used to being perched in a padded office chair all day.

That's all for now, hopefully more outdoor adventures to come.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

His Noodly Appendage: Oriental-like Venison Noodle Soup

When I finished boning out the meat from the shoulder and ham my brother gave me, I realized I must make broth with the bones.  I used my BFC (Big F'ing Cleaver) to chop them into manageable bits and then proceeded to boil them down with onions, celery, carrots and bay leaf in a classic broth fashion.  After a few hours of simmering I strained off the liquid and let it sit on the stove-top overnight.  In the morning the fluid had clarified itself and I carefully decanted it off of the sediment and simmered it down for about a hour more.  I basically ended up with about 20 ounces of slightly salted juicy essence of venison that I chilled in the fridge for a couple of nights.

Before...
...During...
...After
I agonized a bit about what to do with this broth, but I'm feeling a general Asian kick right now after that delicious meal at Xaio Bao Biscuit so I quickly realized I needed to do some kind of venison noodle soup.  Ramen-esque if you would.  I actually did some reading about how to make ramen noodles from scratch but honestly for my first attempt I didn't even want to mess with it.  Instead I just picked up a pack of whole-grain linguini from Publix. I did go to one of our local Asian grocery stores to pick up a pack of miso paste and a package of mung bean sprouts.

I selected a packet of boned shoulder meat for this endeavor.  I spent some time cutting out the more obvious silverskin.  BTW, this was still partially frozen which really does make the meat easier to cube.

Out of the vacuum bag


Cubed about an inch on each side.  I love how dark red venison is.
I took the venison stock (which had actually gelled up nicely in the fridge overnight, very lovely) and combined it with about 32 ounces of water and slowly heated it to a simmer.  Meanwhile I went out to the garden and picked about the only thing I still have growing right now, a handful of young tender collard greens. 

So pretty!
I cut out the mid-rib and shredded the collard leaves into strips. 

I always use a knife to de-rib 6-8 leaves at a time, then just fold the leaves and slice.
I pulled out my trusty cast-iron pan.  I don't think I've written about this pan yet, it was just a run-of-the-mill find from the local flea market, but something about really spoke to me the first time I laid eyes on it.  I've tried other cast iron pans before, but without much success.  For whatever reason, this one is perfect and I've really become comfortable with it.  Hopefully it won't be going anywhere.

Starting to brown the venison.
I then attempted to brown the venison on each side over medium high heat.  I admit, I did get anxious and crowd the meat too much, so only the first side really browned correctly before the liquid rendered out and it really just sort of started stewing in its own juices.  Oh well.  After that was as good as it was getting I dumped the "browned" meat into the stock pot.  I put some more olive oil in the pan and stir fried the collards for a bit with a few cloves of diced garlic, just enough to make it change color and brown it slightly.  I deglazed the pan with a few large spoonfuls of the stock and re-added it to the pot as well.

Starting to simmer.
I poured in about a 8th cup of lower-sodium soy sauce and a few splashes of fish sauce.  I wasn't sure how much was correct so I was pretty conservative.  After simmering a few hours I went ahead and started boiling the pasta.  When the pasta was about ready I dumped the mung bean sprouts into the soup then turned the heat off.  I then took roughly a quarter cup of miso past and combined it with about two cups of warm water, stirring to mix the two.  When that was well mixed I combined it into the soup as well.  The result:

Tasty-looking.  It smelled pretty good at this point too.
 

Turns out I was a little off on the soy to my tastes, and of course I added a bit of sriracha sauce for heat.  I loved the flavor of this broth in general though, and the contrast of soft collard green and noodles with the crunchy mung bean sprout was awesome.

I remembered something from a few years ago as I was scooping up spoonfuls.  On some random hunting forum, couldn't tell you which, a typical thread about what a "big buck" is was rolling.  A short, concise response caught my eye "A doe eats better."   I expected this meat to be a bit gamey, and it definitely was.  A buck shot in the ass with buckshot after running from dogs is not going to be as tasty as a doe dropped in cold blood, I'm sure.  I can see I might as well forget trying to cut any steaks from the ham, as I did with the two Catalina does.  Oh well, there's plenty of recipes out there made to work with gamey, I'm sure I'll find a few.

Beggars can't be choosers, after all.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thanksgiving, As In I'd Better Be Thankful I Was Given Something

Thanksgiving has come and gone and along with it our trip to South Carolina to visit my family and for me to engage in a few hunts.  We headed up Thursday morning and arrived in time for a great Thanksgiving dinner my sister-in-law prepared for us at my brother's house.  At the end of the afternoon I climbed into my hunting drag and my brother showed me the way to a tripod stand with two corn piles he's placed on some land he has permission to hunt.  Like a lot of things up there that's convoluted, the land belongs to my Dad's ex-woman friend's friend (it wasn't the most amicable break-up), but she seems to still get along with my brother well enough to let him continue to hunt there.

Yes, it is a Decepticon. 
 As anyone who reads this blog knows, sitting up in a more-or-less permanent tripod while staring at a pile of bait isn't my normal style of hunting.  It usually involves a lot more hiking in and out of public land with a backpack climber.  However, the season isn't getting any younger and beggars can't be choosers.  I sat that evening from about 4:15 until after after shooting light.  Just as things really settled down and I had a good feeling about it, at around 5 some kid drove up on a road just through the woods but out of sight and started calling for his dogs (the club on the land next door dog hunts).  I sincerely hope he found T.J. and Levi, because he sure wasn't helping me find anything.  I, of course, came back empty handed.

Is it possible that this could surprise any of you people? 

My brother wanted me go on to his club for a dog hunt with him Friday morning but I started feeling crappy after I got home Thursday evening and by Friday morning I really didn't feel like going out into freezing weather.  I stayed home and popped Advil and by noon I felt like going over to my Dad's and doing some work around the house for him.  When I pulled out the leaf blower the neighbor next door came over to discuss how dust was a primary reason for mildew growth on his pontoon boat.  He's a good friend of ours but he can be peculiar.

Friday evening was a repeat of Thursday, but without T.J. and Levi's owner.  When I climbed down this time I switched out the SD card in the trail cam pointed at the closest corn pile.  Back at my Brother's house I confirmed what I knew in my soul.  The previous week entire herds of deer had been swarming the piles in the warm autumn glow of sunset.  Then all activity ceased the week I was there.

Is it possible that this could surprise any of you people? 

Saturday I got up at the butt-crack of dawn and went out to Cousin George's farm, where he met me in the darkness and ushered me into a ladder stand he had placed in relatively thick woods, only about 20 yards from a corn pile.

I have to say I do love watching the world wake up this time of year.  Song birds were everywhere before dawn, yelling their lovely melodic obscenities at each other.  Fat squirrels swarmed the forest, jumping down to the corn and back into the surrounding hardwoods.  I sat there for over three hours, and I have to say it was some of the most peaceful time I've spent this year.


About 9:15 I decided to hang it up and climb down, mostly because there was a lot more stuff to do that day.  I had a heavy heart, since these were the last few moments I would spend hunting this season, and in leaving I was admitting defeat. I tossed my heavy jacket down, followed by my trail bag.  I carefully lowered the rifle, then sighed and climbed down the metal rungs.

Of course, as I made it to terra firma, stood and stretched, movement caught my eye.  75 yards behind the stand, in my blind spot, the brilliant white of three jaunty tails bounded silently away. 

Is it possible that this could surprise any of you people?

Right after the deer fled.  I figured I needed a pic anyhow.
George also saw them run as he drove up to retrieve me.  At his insistence he handed me an 870 shotgun that he had in his truck and he made an effort to drive them back towards a cut-off spot he placed me in, but to no avail.  I caught a very fleeting glimpse of them in the distance as they slipped off across the field as he was trying to drive them back.  I was actually OK with this, since I have very negative feelings about shooting a running deer with a shotgun.  Its pretty much the opposite of the strategic humane single shot kill I always envision when I play the hunt out in my mind. 

Free-range, grass fed, organic cattle at the Muckenfuss Bauernhof.  They don't do it on purpose, that's just how they've always raised them.  I keep encouraging him to get hooked up with the farmer's markets in the area, they are walking gold.

I wish I could be like Obi Wan and Yoda:  "That boy was our last hope.""No, there is another."  But no, that's about it for my deer season.  At this point I don't have any more limited entry permits for state land.  I could go over to Santa Fe Swamp, which has an open primitive weapons season.  In fact, I probably will take my muzzleloader over there at some point but I don't have any expectations of finding a legal deer this late in the season, it would be just a hike with a gun.  Which is fun, of course.

Another option is to go back to South Carolina for Christmas, but that would be more money for licenses, etc.  Besides, I'm really looking forward to a laid-back Christmas in our own home, I have five consecutive days off this year and want to enjoy them without long car trips.  So that's probably out.

As a consolation prize my brother did give me a shoulder and a lower ham from a buck shot on his club the day I didn't go.  I got it home and cut it up Sunday.  The ham was peppered with buckshot wound channels, not good but I managed to salvage a lot of it, so at least I'll be able to put some new recipes up on here, I have a few good (I hope) ideas. 



BTW, one of the inspirations came for the restaurant we ate at Saturday night, a new "Asian comfort food" restaurant in Downtown Charleston.  Xaio Bao Biscuit is owned by a man who is probably a distant cousin of mine and his wife.  They treated us very right that night, great food, great beer, great conversation.  Frequent it if you are in the area. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Season Thus Far, in Three Chapters.

Prologue:  Smokys Love
View from the Mt. Sterling Trail

The week after the wonderful morning hunt in Goethe I described a couple of blog posts ago I took off on a camping trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, one of my favorite places on earth.  My Cousin George, the one who accompanied me to Catalina on my second hunt there, met me there and we had a great few days doing day hikes in the area. The fall colors were just starting to put on their show. We climbed Mt. Sterling, the easternmost tall mountain in GSMNP, and hiked out from Newfound Gap along the Appalachian Trail to The Jumpoff, an amazing perch above a thousand foot cliff.  We had absolutely perfect weather (besides some fog at The Jumpoff) and heard the spine chilling eeriness of the elk bugling Cataloochee Valley, where we camped. 











Chapter 1:  Love, Divided

When I returned from the trip something had slipped with my hunting momentum.  This blog aside, to this day my first love in the woods is hiking and exploring.  You can almost say its unnatural for me to sit still for very long, although I've definitely done it enough to realize you have experiences in a tree stand you just don't get from wandering.  Conversely, wandering has a lot of advantages too.  

I had a permit for the Lake Panasoffkee archery hunt, which sounded like a great idea when I bought it.  As the time approached though, it was appealing less and less.  I didn't draw a doe tag, and the antler limit is a pretty high standard there.  Those things coupled with a complete lack of scouting in the area caused me to scrap the whole idea and simply go back to the areas of Goethe I'm familiar with for the last weekend of archery there.  

For the Friday hunt I really didn't have time to make it all the way out to the island, so I set up near a scrape in the thick woods on the way, where I've jumped several deer while walking past.  This area was close enough to the adjacent private land to actually hear kids playing and parents calling, so not quiet as peaceful as I'd hoped.  At about the end of shooting light I heard a deer walk past just out of sight, but never caught sight of it.  It was a peaceful evening but I was feeling antsy.

The next morning I made it out to my usual spot.  It was a nice sit but I was really feeling antsy.  The hiker in me was almost screaming.  Fall was full blown in the air, and there were a lot of places that needed to be seen.  I suffered though the morning, seeing nothing, not even squirrels.  Something had to be done.

The next Saturday morning I did something.  I eschewed venatic endeavors for a 14-mile hike on the south loop of the Citrus Tract of Withlacoochee State Forest.  I got up just slightly later than I would to hunt and made it to the trail head a few minutes after dawn.  I surprised myself how well I managed the hike considering it was my longest on by far in over a year.  The day was perfect, amazing blue skies, fall wildflowers everywhere.  The trail passes a few caves and one large sinkhole pond, one of the few places in Florida where tripping over a rock on the trail is a real concern. Parts of it also follow an old stagecoach route through the area, including a loop around the pond they used to water the horses.  The northeast section contained beautifully well-maintained Sandhill habitat that was covered in fall flowers.

Lopsided Indian-grass in the dawn's rays.  Sublime.

Chapter 2:  Walkabout

The following weekend was muzzleloading season in Goethe.   It was also the time period that Hurricane Sandy was churning away off the coast.  I feel somewhat guilty putting this in writing considering the pain it inflicted on many people, but it brought us here in Florida some great weather.  It was a bit breezy though, so much so that I wasn't super comfortable with the idea of climbing a pine tree with a tree stand.  My coworker Donnie, the wise hunter, gave me a great piece of advice:  "Why don't you just go walk around?"  Loves, reunited!  And so Saturday afternoon found me tracing a 5 mile loop around the northern tip of Goethe, .45 CVA rifle in hand, carefully easing around corners and stopping to listen here and there.  Now let me just say, doing this randomly on public land is probably not a great idea, but the places I was going I was about as sure as I can be that there were no other humans.  Not only was it a limited entry hunt, but I was far from a parking area.  And of course I was liberally covered in blaze orange.

The hunt was antlered-only, so the two does that I might have had a shot at didn't count but it was still a lot of fun.   On the road along the far western edge of the forest I found where another hunter got lucky at some point, a dried brown crusty puddle of blood in the sand with clear drag marks leading to the south.  That one had a long walk, unless they came in from some private land adjacent.  

To complete the loop I had to do some serious bushwacking through intense briar beds.  A few times it seemed that if I fell I might bleed out from the thorns before I extracted myself.  

It was a really nice hike.

Skunk Ape print along a woods road. 
View from the parking area, right as I made it back.

Chapter 3:  Big Guns

By the time my General Gun permit for Goethe rolled around I was centered again and more into a morning in a tree.  I purposefully signed up for the second of the three slots, three days mid-week.  However, I didn't anticipate being as low on vacation hours as I am now, so I picked the one day with the best forecast and went with a morning hunt. 

I have to say getting there went well.  I was able to follow my landmarks in the dark with no problem (figures since this would be the last trip for a while) and was up my tree with Aunt Mary's .270 in plenty of time.

I tried something that I've never used before, one of those "Buck Bombs".  Yeah, just what it sounds like.  Much like a flea bomb but instead pumping aerosolized doe estrus urine into the general area.  I can't say that it made a difference.  That is, besides making me feel slightly like an idiot for paying $9.95 for a can of deer piss to spray into the air. 

The weather was nice and cool, no need for the Therma-Cell.  It was a bit overcast at first but the low clouds started to break up around the time the sun cleared the pines.  Knowing that this would be my last and only gun hunt in Florida this year (unless something unexpected comes up) gave me some determination that chased away antsiness.  Later in the morning I saw a red-tailed hawk make an attempt at a squirrel in the distance, the woods were pretty excited for a couple of minutes after that.  Ultimately, however, despite being covered in a fine mist of sexy doe pee, no bucks showed up.

I climbed down around 10:30 and made it back to my desk shortly after Noon.  

Pines and Cypress from my stand, after the clouds started to clear.
 
Epilogue:

Thanksgiving is almost upon us.  I actually forgot until today that it's doe week on private land in the zone I live in, its pretty irrelevant this year, since I currently have no private land to hunt.   However, hope is with me because we will be going to SC to visit the family for the holiday.  My brother and cousin George both have stands for me to hunt, so we'll see what happens.  Next Saturday is a doe day up there.  Might need to buy a freezer when I get back.


Tragic plane crash in The Smokys.  Not really, just some dumbass threw a styrofoam glider off the Jump Off.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blood Trails In My Mind


The first deer I ever shot went unrecovered.  I was a teenager, hunting with Daddy and several others at our club.  We were using shotguns and dogs as is traditional in that area.  I was standing next to a small field when a large buck (in my memory it has moose-like proportions, but in reality it was probably a nice 8 point or so) came out of the woods at a slow run about 30 yards away.  I put two shells of 00 buckshot out of my old 870 into the deer but it kept going.  How accurate were those shots?  I don't know.  I was 15 or so.  I was a pretty good at turkey shoots but lousy at clays.  Did I actually aim at a spot or just at the deer in general?  Did I, like Daddy reckoned, aim at the antlers? I don't know those things either, the details are lost to memory. 

Regardless, I stayed put until one of Daddy's friends showed up and we started on the blood trail, a good one too.  Plenty of the bright red stuff.  Unfortunately, the deer made a straight line for our property boundary, and crossed over into timber company land a couple hundred yards away.  I remember that, for whatever reason, the blood between us and that landowner was worse that the crimson splattered on the sand, and we were strictly forbidden from trespassing.

Could things have been different?  Of course, looking back as an adult I would at least call someone in charge and tell them the situation, a boy's first deer is likely dead a short way across the fence.  I'm not sure if someone did anything like that or not.  I just remember I was forced to give up.

Looking back on it I suppose the feelings from that incident could have been a part of why I gave up hunting for a couple of decades.  When I finally shot another deer it was messy as well, we recovered her but not until she soaked up a finishing shot from another of our hunters. 

Those are distant memories though, and the two deer that I shot since I returned to hunting both had the decency to die quickly and not very far away. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky that was, because I’ve read a lot of bad accounts since then.

Lately I’ve thought even more about wounding since it’s archery season now in Florida Zone C and I’m hunting with my recurve. I’ve practiced a lot and feel pretty confident to 25 yards or so, but a 370 grain arrow from a 45 lb bow is a long way from a Barnes VOR-TX .270 round. My friend Charlie, who was a hunting guide on Catalina, wrote me a lengthy email about tracking wounded game, emphasizing the positive mental attitude aspect of it. He ended up editing it and it got posted on the blog of a hunting club in California, its a pretty good read that doesn’t hide any gruesome details, I highly recommend any hunter taking this advice to heart.

So what happens if I do make a wounding shot, and after absolutely exhausting the search find no carcass?  I certainly don’t want to cause excessive suffering. But I also know that many, if not most, wild animals die suffering, and in the woods nothing is wasted. I’ll do my absolute best to do my part, if but everything goes wrong and I don’t get the meat, the buzzards will. 

And I really like buzzards.


Nice mixed flock of Black and Turkey Vultures at Palm Point, Newnan's Lake
Beautiful adult Black Vulture at Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park
Turkey Vulture in a pond cypress, Pa-Hay-Okee Overlook, Everglades National Park

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Perfect Morning, on National Public Lands Day

I don't think I've ever been as happy, yes happy, to hear my alarm go off at 4:35 am this past Saturday morning.  Finally, a morning hunt!  With my bow!  On public land on National Public Lands day!  Sweet!

Everything had been packed or laid out last evening, so all I had to do after showering and donning the camo was crank the truck and roll out.  The full moon hung low on the horizon before me as I drove west.  Like usual, it got cooler and foggier the farther I drove from the urban heat island.  Since I'd seen two other trucks at the parking area Thursday I wondered how many other hunters would be in "my" part of the forest this morning.

When I reached the parking area shortly before 6 am, no tail light reflectors greeted me, only darkness.  Being first gave me a nice little feeling of accomplishment.  Suiting up with the tree stand safety strap and boots went quick, everything that had been an issue Thursday went smoothly.

Of course nothing is perfect, and the fog or whatever was giving my GPS grief.  I supposedly had 15 feet accuracy but it showed me 50 feet away from a known reference point when I was standing on it.  Oh well.  Not the first time I stumbled in the dark in this area.  Before long, and without too many circles walked, I spotted one of my trail markers and made the game trail onto the island.

The only other complication came shortly afterwards, when the tree I intended to climb turned out to have grown significantly in my memory.  This oak, near the holly scrape, that I scouted before I had even taken delivery of my tree stand, was woefully inadequate.  As the sky lightened with the glow of civil twilight I made a command decision to go with a pine right in front of me that I had a good feeling about.  Turns out I was a little turned around, and as I was tightening the safety straps 20 feet up I realized the scrape was almost directly below me.  Oh well, didn't mean to step all around it but too late now.

The landscape lightened, and the colors grew from dim greys to the muted tones of a North Florida fall.  The forecast high for the day was near 90 degrees, but it was currently comfortably in the upper 60's.  The mist from the ThermaCell drifted perfectly past me and to my back, driving away the Swamp Angels but illiciting vague fears of toxicity.  Oh well.

About an hour passed in blissful peace.  The woods were mostly silent, but I could hear turkeys talking to each other in the distance and a couple of hound dogs in the farm out near the road.  A bird of some kind started calling bloody murder about a hundred yards away or so.  I immediately wondered what had disturbed it.  I heard a deer blow in front of me, and an answering blow from behind me in the marsh.  What were these guys up to?

I found out shortly when an old, grey doe stepped from behind a palmetto clump. She was out of range, but seemed to be completely unperturbed.  As she stepped into the open, suddenly a small yearling burst out besides her, jumping like a puppy.  The yearling was tiny, and I wondered how long out of spots it was.  A third younger mature doe joined, and they crossed the island, the yearling prancing about in contrast with the calm but deliberate steps of its elders.

Technically all of those deer were legal game, but I'm certainly not hungry enough to disturb that little family unit, and hopefully never will be.  Besides, although they might have been in range of other competent archers, they stayed outside of my comfort zone shooting "instinctive" with my recurve.

About 20 minutes after the trio passed my stomach and throat told me it was time for a snack and some water.  I sat down and hung my bow from the stand while I dug out some jerky and the water bottle.  By this time the squirrels were coming out in full force, and a group of them were having Squirrel Wars in the nearby oaks.  I packed away the jerky and water, and picked up my bow.  When I looked up, a full-grown doe was standing less than 20 yards away!

OK, fearless reader, I know people joke about Whitetail Magic and how they can materialize and dematerialize at will, but seriously, not a sound betrayed this deers approach.  I spotted her a few heartbeats before she spotted me, but I was still sitting, and with the bow across my lap.  Suddenly she looked up, and locked eyes with me.  Two seconds later she was "high tailing" on her backtrack, with another unseen deer joining her.  However, in the spectrum of Whitetail fleeing, their movements were rather relaxed, and based on the sound neither ran far before dropping to a walk.

I stood there on high alert, listening to Squirrel Wars on my right, hoping that any other deer from that group might still come out on my left.  A minute later more Whitetail Magic happened and somehow for a moment Squirrel Wars became another deer.  WTF?  I didn't even really see this one just heard it taking off. 

Six deer, seen from a random tree with nothing but a scape nearby!  I spent another half hour carefully surveying the area but by that time it was really heating up, and the woods were truly falling silent outside of the still crazy tree rats.  During that time Squirrel Wars had a skirmish in the oak right before me.  I had a serious mental debate about trying to take one or two (they were legal as well), I gave myself a pretty good chance of hitting one at that range, however a few considerations stopped me.  If I missed, the arrow would either sail off into the palmettos, probably never to be seen again, or or it would embed itself into the tree truck 20 feet up, neither of which seemed a good use for a $25 arrow-broad head combination.  A third horrible possibility occurred to me, with a squirrel skewered to the tree by the arrow 20 feet up.  I put the bow down. 

At 10:30 I climbed down, packed everything up, and went for a walk with my bow.  I guess technically I was still hunting, and in my walks in the woods I have definitely found myself in bow range of random deer, but I had no real illusions about it.  I was just exploring for the upcoming gun seasons I have permits for.

Cypress, marsh, blooming goldenrod in the background
I don't want to give away too many secrets prematurely but the walk revealed some promising spots, I'm looking forward to later in the season.

Skunk Ape?  Grey Alien?  I actually interpret this as a young Florida Black Bear, a little washed out though.  Wish it was fresher

The day finally heated up beyond my comfort level so I made my way back to my stuff then through the tangle to the woods road and the truck.  I was pretty whipped by that time, and the pack felt a lot heaver than it did going in.

The trail back.  Its there, really, squint your eyes and you can see it.
Going back to a topic I've discussed before, there are a lot of hunters who would have considered the morning a failure since it yielded no trophy racks or venison.  I consider it an incredible success.  The meat will come, eventually.  As Charlie says, its just a matter of time.  But for now, simply finding what the real world had to offer, courtesy of all the people that have made the amazing wealth of public land in Florida and across the nation a reality, is the best hunt of all.

Liatrus.  One color of the rainbow that signals that October, the Best Month, is almost here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Glass Is Half Full


My rhythm was off. 

The recent travels I've undertaken in assisting with Daddy's affairs disrupted many of my mental vectors, especially those that were set to converge on the opening weekend of archery season.  While I was away I occasionally felt as though I was walking in a parallel universe, existing partly in a world of hospitals and decisions while an alternative me was somewhere out there, bow in hand, listing for muffled hoof beats on the pine needles.

Regardless, I am back home now, and I told myself I'd definitely hunt one afternoon this week.  Originally that was Tuesday, but it turned out work was too busy.  Wednesday likewise, because there were other things to do.  Yesterday, however, I put my mental foot down and when the clock on my office computer monitor finally read 1:00 PM, it was the time of departure.  Time to at long last begin an afternoon's archery hunt.

I'd heard through the grapevine that hunter turn out at Goethe last weekend was high, and that was irrationally off-putting to me.  It is public land, obviously many other people utilize the area, and rightly so.  I'm just one of those people who like to be alone in the woods.  I'd never seen anyone on my island, but there are trail tags out there, albeit older ones.  I just wanted to be the first this year, and the though that another hunter beat me hung like a tainted cloud over me.  I guess all humans are territorial to an extent.  

It was already after 3 o'clock when I rolled into the parking area.  No other vehicles at least.  When I got out of the truck I was immediately hit with the rancid foulness of rotten deer guts that some asshole delightful individual chose to leave adjacent to the parking lot.  At least the buzzards were taking care of it.  

Even with all my preparations, getting all the gear together for the first time was a clumsy affair. It took me three tries to correctly strap into the tree stand safety harness.  Next, tree stand in pack mode strapped to my back...wait, dammit I still had my regular shoes on!  Off with the pack, on with the boots, back on with the pack.  Checked pockets, everything there.  Time to go, down the woods road.  Sure enough, boot tracks on in the sand ahead of me, dammit!  A few dozen yards...wait, dammit, I left the headlight at the house!  Well, worse case scenario I have a flashlight app on my iPhone.   Another few dozen yards...wait, dammit, I left the GPS at the house!  Whatever, I know where I'm going, its just a bitch to find the game trail sometimes.  

It wasn't a bitch to find this time, I just didn't find it.  I managed to eventually stumble through the thick blackberry briars onto the island and found myself about where the huge buck jumped up during the scouting trip.  Well, with this thick cover it makes sense why he was here.  Once on the open floor of the island I did orient myself quickly and headed over to the scrape under the holly bush. 

I didn't see any obvious evidence that anyone else had been there.  No new flags of any kind were in evidence, and when I left the woods road there were no longer any tracks to be seen.  I brightened up a bit, maybe I was the first to hunt the island this year after all.  However, there had to have been some kind of glitch in the matrix.  The tree I was going to climb with the perfect view of the scrape had turned from an oak into a pine.  I could have sworn that was an oak, but my mark was clearly on it so blame my foggy memory.  

Now this pine was certainly no urban pine, and its bark was thick and super flaky.  Hauling myself up it on the climber knocked great slabs of bark off of it that accumulated on the foot rest and had to be kicked off occasionally.  The base of the tree looked like a bear had attacked it.

Speaking of attack, did I mention the mosquitoes?  Because there were plenty.  And if they were messing with me you can bet they were epidemic in proportion.  I'm the Wolverine of mosquito bites.  I've seen a bite slightly swell then disappear without a trace in a matter of moments.  But just because I don't itch doesn't mean I want the little vampires mixing precious bodily fluids with me either.  

Time for the ThermaCELL!  Except for after it softly hissed away for minutes I saw no drop in mosquitoes.  My expert friends swore they worked, WTF?  Once again...wait, dammit, its not really ignited, just hissing out fuel!  OK, now its on, and guess what?  The Florida Swamp Angels get the message and actually buzz off, mostly!

So, tree stand secured, ThermaCELL up, bow hauled up, clearance checked, camo mask on...holy shit, I'm actually hunting!

Owlman!  I know the straps are supposed to go somewhere but I don't like them, probably going to cut them off.
Here it is, gentle reader, the part we've all been waiting for, when all is silent, and the woods slowly come back to life.  From off in the distance a fat squirrel is heard, meandering closer, so comfortable it's covering the ground instead of the treetops.  Butterflies peacefully flutter by.  The dappled rays of the setting sun, filtered through the pines, ripple across the forest floor.  

Holly scrape in middle distance, smaller fresh scrap in left foreground.  Holly scrape actually didn't look that fresh yesterday.
Except...wait, dammit!  No!  Seriously? Thunder?  Pulled out the iPhone.  Yep, that innocent little line of showers that started on the east coast has continued overland, picking up steam.  Reloading the app did not change the huge blobs of red steadily approaching.  It occurred to me that sitting in a metal frame attached by spikes to a pine tree in a thunderstorm was likely not wise.  Looked like just enough time to pack up and make the truck.  Which I did, fearless followers, shutting the door literally as the first raindrops hit the windshield.

Sigh.

So, what is there to do?  Do I mourn the afternoon as a shitty attempt at a hunt, icing on the cake of a season already so out of whack?  Or do I readjust the mental goalposts and consider it for what, in reality, it truly was:  A full dress rehearsal, a needed one at that. 

And when taken in that light, a damn successful one! 

I took a ton of new equipment successfully into the field.  Every bit of it functioned perfectly (well, when I used it correctly).  I used my climbing stand safely on a pine tree for the first time, rough bark and all.  I climbed higher than I ever tried before (admittedly only about 15 ft, but still, not bad considering my acrophobia).  The ThermaCELL kept the mosquitoes down to a minor annoyance.  I realized several ideas for gear adjustments that I'll make before this Saturday.  And probably most importantly (besides the above mentioned safety), before I climbed down I used my arrows for some stump shooting target practice.  They went where I wanted them.  Two of them too well, the rotten stump turned out to have a pretty solid core of heart wood, took ten minutes with the knife to dig them out.  But isn't that a sign of good penetration to come?

I think my rhythm is back. 

I've got a blind date with a doe on Saturday morning.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Update

At this point Daddy is stabilized an not in any immediate danger.  He's most likely going into a nursing facility this week, hopefully for rehab and to gain strength.  We volunteered to keep his dog in the meantime, a chubby little rat terrier mix.  She's sweet and well behaved, haven't heard a bark out of her yet.

I got to take a break between hospital visits and go for a nice long walk in Congaree National Park.  Like most lowland areas across the south, feral hog damage is an issue.  I saw a few on my walk, three posed perfectly for me a nice short rifle or long shotgun distance away.  Alas, I bet when I go actually hunting them they will be nowhere to be found.

I'm going to try to go out to Goethe one afternoon this week, depending on the weather.  Crossing fingers.

View across the floodplain from the bluffs south of the Congaree River

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Intermission

I'm sad to say my weekend in the woods has been postponed for now.  Daddy is in the hospital and it looks very bad.  I'm headed up there tomorrow.  He's lost over 25 lbs in just a couple weeks.  We don't know a lot more yet, besides all the problems he already has: His kidneys are in bad shape, his legs have greatly restricted blood flow, his heart's not good, all side effects of taking anti-rejection medication for 16 years. 

There are a lot of days left in the season, and fate wiling I'll have other chances.  I'm afraid Daddy has used all of his up.

From right to left: Momma, Daddy, and Aunt Joyce.  Granddaddy's car, late '60's.




Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In The Cathedral

Last Tuesday I left work a bit early to make a scouting trip west of town in Goethe State Forest.  I returned to the general area of my muzzleloader hunt last fall and my turkey hunt in the spring.  I had close calls with game both of those hunts, but I ended up meatless.  Honestly I chalk both failures up to the carry over of a behavior that has served me well for all my years of hiking and general wandering.  I've conditioned myself for years to freeze and go into observer mode when confronted with wildlife.  The thing is, of course, with hunting, at some point observer mode has to kick over into action mode.  I was too slow in both instances to make the split-second transition needed, and as the result a nice buck and a red-headed gobbler ended up in the forest instead of my freezer.

There is a lot of freshwater marshland in that area of Goethe, and I've learned from older aerials that in wet years they become large ponds.  It was far from wet there during my last trips, in fact in the spring even the remnant watering holes were completely dry and there seemed to be little sign of deer or hog.  Since then there have been two tropical systems and a lot of thunderstorm activity, some areas of Florida experienced extreme flooding.  The rainfall triggered hundreds of new sinkholes in the area.  Bearing that in mind I strapped a pair of knee-high rubber boots to my backpack for the trip.

The path out from the parking area follows a dirt road for a short time before angling cross country.  At a certain point it intersects a game trail, trodden for years by deer and hogs.  Although they weren't exactly endangered, the mosquitoes and flies were at surprisingly reasonable levels.  Soon I reached the edge of marsh.  The dog fennel, a native but aggressively opportunistic plant, was tall and green, contrasting starkly with the sun faded browns of the early spring.  Blackberry briars grabbed my jeans as I emerged from the forest's edge.  Amazingly, and truly a testament to the severity of the drought this area still suffers, the trail across the marsh was still dry!  Oh well, so much for carrying a heavy pair of flopping rubber boots on my back for most of a mile. 

Across the marsh I pushed my way though the thick brush at the forest's edge and entered the wide-open world of pine and cypress.  I know many people compare places like this to a cathedral, and the comparison is apt.  Tall, column-like trunks reach up to a high, broken canopy 80 plus feet above.  The open ground is carpeted by years and years of golden pine needles.

As I stood to catch my breath and consider my next direction, heavy thumps come from off to my left.  I look over in a flash and can barely believe it as a huge buck takes off, his head high with antlers well out past his ears.  The dull sound of his hoofs echo though the cathedral, fading in the distance.

Well, looks like I found the place, I thought.  I knew of a scrape in the general area from last season.  I located it, not much signs of activity, but after carefully casting about I found another very fresh one about 40 yards away.  I spend a half hour observing and choosing the tree I'll climb with my new climbing stand.  A few clip-on reflectors to make sure I can find it in the dark and my business is about complete. 

For the slower walk back I pulled out the hip flask and sipped a little Bushmills.  I saw two more deer, one not far from where I spotted the buck and one close to the truck.  The second I jumped only about 10 yards from the road, not quite the rush of a turkey flock in the dark but still enough to make the heart skip a beat. 

Anyhow, guess I'm about ready for Saturday.  Weather and fates willing, I'll attempt my first hunt with a recurve bow.  I'm more than a little nervous, part of me still thinks I'm crazy for not giving in to technology and just buying a crossbow, but where's the fun in that?  Besides, ever since I heard cams referred to as training wheels I can't look at a compound the same way.

Wish me luck, I'll need it.

Looking out of the stained glass window.