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.


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


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


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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sometimes You Just Have to Give Up on the Corporate World and Find Yourself an Island Paradise.

So, about that lease...

The one from my last hopeful post?

Yeah, didn't work out so well.  Before I even comment further though, I have to say it was no particular person's fault, and everyone involved acted very courteously.  Basically, shortly after the lease was official my partner in it drove up to check it out.  The access road had a gate across it, about a quarter mile or so away from the property boundary.  The gate had the name but not contact info for another hunting club.  Strange.

A few phone calls were made, which resulted in more confusion.  They assured us the property had been leased the previous season with no problem.  One well meaning person in the leasers office suggested cutting the chain lock and putting our own lock on.  I wasn't about to do that without some face time with the gate owners.  Also, a search of the property appraiser's website showed that access road traverses the land of another timber conglomerate.  Very strange. 

A few more phone calls were made, and direct discussion with the land manager for that region revealed that he was relatively new to the position and had no personal information about the parcel.  An employee who had been with that section much longer would know, he assured me, but that guy was out on vacation until the next week.  Even stranger.

I googled the adjacent hunting club's name every way until Sunday and finally found a hit on a Craig'slist ad for new members, posted just a few weeks before.  Aha!  A phone number!  I let my hunting partner call because I think he can sound a bit more sympathetic on the phone.  That's where we got our answers.

Seems this 80-odd acre parcel had been leased for years by someone who lived adjacent to it and never had an access issue because he just walked out his back door and across his yard to get to it.  Seems its a great parcel, one of the biggest bucks in the area had been killed there a few years ago.  Seems there wasn't any other way of getting there by vehicle except across their club's road.  Seems the club had voted years ago that no one without a club membership could drive said road.  How much was a membership?  A cool grand a person per year, thanks for asking! 

Actually Donnie said the man talked very nice while telling him this, and I can't blame him for not wanting other people on the land, insurance being what it is. 

So the people at a certain timber company were actually very understanding when the situation was related, we got all of our money back as well as some additional help by the land manager in finding another parcel.  Unfortunately 95% of the parcels are way out of our price range.  One that we could have afforded was about 85% cut over, as in that season, as in a debris-strewn field.  We saw evidence of poaching there too, butchered deer carcass tossed out by the road much younger than January. 

So I've gone back to Plan A, and actually quite happily I might say.  Public land, limited access permits, and having a goal of a mile from a parking area.  My little island paradise in Goethe is waiting for me still.  I went over there yesterday to do some pre-archery scouting, but I'll save that for my next post.  Its pretty optimistic, seriously.

Meanwhile, here's a shot of my hunting bow in my makeshift 15 yrd range behind my house.  I had been shooting down into the ditch at 20 to 30 yrds but its had water in it for a few months now. 

Samick Sage, 45 lb limbs, shooting Easton Epic ST 600 arrows off the shelf with Woodsman Elite broadheads.