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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Blizzard

We thought we were getting out of the mountains for a more temperate holiday experience. We were wrong.
Sue and Sally (her mom) at the height of the storm.

By Wednesday of last week, the meteorologists were hinting at a significant low pressure system to affect the Southeast by Christmas. Right before Sue and I hopped in the car to go to her parents' place on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I staked up the wire cages around the little fig tree and our gardenia, filled them with dead leaves to ward off the frost and bid them good luck. The forecast was calling for scattered snow showers starting Saturday afternoon. It was wrong.

The day before Christmas, Sue and I did some birdwatching on the ocean side of the peninsula. During my time as an itinerant field biologist, I spent several falls and one spring on the Delmarva. After Sue and I met and she decided my company was tolerable, she joined me for a field season at Kiptopeke State Park, where I was trapping and banding migrating raptors for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. She signed on as the official migration counter and, in addition to falling in love with one another, we fell in love with the Eastern Shore that autumn. It's a very roundabout way of explaining to you that we knew where the hell we were going.

I was hoping to see waterfowl and raptors, as the Blue Ridge Mountains are lacking in both departments. At the tiny fishing village of Oyster, we hit the tides wrong so the mudflats in the creek were underwater.

common loon (non-breeding plumage)
High tide at Oyster doesn't leave much to look at. We scanned through the flock of gulls loafing on the waterfront and picked out herring, ring-billed and great black-backeds. These aren't special gulls by any means, but when you haven't seen them for six months, they seem like old friends. At the mouth of the marina, a pair of common loons was diving for lunch.

We took our time driving up the seaside on Hwy 600 - a rural route that wends its way gracefully across the rather ungraceful dichotomy of culture on the Eastern Shore. It's hard to imagine a place where the rich whites and poor blacks live in such close proximity, yet live such distant versions of the human experience. It is a beautiful place though and, much like when we left it for professional opportunities elsewhere, the Delmarva is still a haven for birds in winter.

Along our way, we stopped to admire a male northern harrier coursing over a harvested cornfield. Red-tailed hawks seemed to be everywhere, along with a few red-shouldereds and an immature Cooper's hawk speeding across open ground, just a foot off the deck as it hoped to take some unsuspecting songbird by surprise.

Atlantic brant
The waterfowl I longed for were there as well. I can't remember ever seeing Atlantic brant (or any brant for that matter) feeding away from the shoreline, but Sue and I watched a flock of 40 or so fly in from the seaside and pitch down in the middle of a green field. Later in the day we saw more, though they were in loose association with a couple thousand snow geese doing what snow geese do - eating cover crops.

All in all, it was a very satisfying afternoon of birding for a couple of coastal hearts. Lucky for us, we went before the now infamous storm of the season slammed the East Coast late Christmas Day and took a full 24 hours to pull out.

By noon we were looking at 8 inches on the back deck. Sue's mom, Sally, couldn't keep the feeders filled for all of the blackbirds pillaging the seeds through the middle of the blizzard.

The common grackles, red-winged blackbirds and brown-headed cowbirds monopolized the feeders in the yard, leaving a tiny, suction-cupped window feeder for everyone else. Turns out, American goldfinches are pretty tough customers once they take a stool at the bar - much to the delight of the cats.

By the time it was all over, the house on Church's Creek had 14 inches of snow. When I called back to Asheville, my parents had measured 10 inches in the back yard. So much for escaping winter's icy grip. I have to admit though, with no place to go and the  roads unnavigable, it's been awfully nice to hang around in pajamas, making turkey soup and doing puzzles for the last two days.

Hope your holidays were exactly the way you wanted them. I know mine were.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Partridge In Pear Tree

One... two... three...
Well, not exactly. The Buncombe County Christmas Bird Count would have been a lot more exciting if we had seen a partridge in a pear tree. Still and all, Sue and I had a great time participating in the Audubon Society's 111th attempt at censusing all the birds in North America and points beyond.

How many chickadees was that?
Of course, that's not true either. Such an undertaking would be impossible. The Christmas Bird Count is in fact hundreds of smaller censuses held across the country, with many more in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Each individual census consists of a circle with a 10-mile radius. On the chosen date, regardless of (most) weather conditions, teams of birdwatchers scour the circle and tally up everything they see and hear.The 24-hour counts take place during a 3-week window around Christmas to eliminate the vagaries of migration that could skew the data.

The resulting data are a snapshot of the bird life in the area. Scientifically speaking, comparing two, five, even 10 years of such data has limited value. Number of participants, their level of skill and effort, and weather all have a dramatic affect on the result. When you consider 30, 50, 100 years of censuses, however, you're talking about an invaluable cache of information that shows population trends.

Given the rapidly changing nature of the environment on this continent and others, such trends indicate the health of the ecosystem and allow researchers and conservationists to focus their efforts where they are most-needed. It's citizen science at it's finest.

It's also a wonderful tradition, embraced by thousands of birders with as much enthusiasm as kids on Christmas morning. I've been participating in the Christmas Bird Count since I was 7 or 8 years old. Back in Massachusetts, Dad and I would try to do five or six counts a year. Many of those, like the Quincy count, the Newburyport count and the Nantucket count have been around for decades and come with traditions as cherished as those of any deer camp's. The potluck dinner, roaring fire and dozing birders at the end of the day compilation of the Quincy count is one of my happy places.

Song sparrow
What of the Buncombe count you ask? The weather was damp and cold last Saturday as Sue and I left the house in the semi-darkness. The area we'd been assigned was a long, east/west section of the US 40 corridor between Black Mountain and Asheville. On the surface, the habitat was depressingly urban - strip malls, warehouses and trailer parks, but just behind those lay a hundred little oases where birds can thrive.

We started the day in a RV park next to the highway - a more unlikely looking place you'd be hard-pressed to imagine. But, as would happen time and time again that day, we were amazed at the adaptability of feathered life. The park had been planted in fruiting trees, and so, the fruit eaters were there. Nearly 100 American robins, 65 cedar waxwings and 20 European starlings draped the trees as they shook off the hunger from a cold night. Along the brushy hillside, white-throated and song sparrows, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, Carolina wrens, a brown thrasher and others flitted about.

In the creek next to a ragtag driving range, a great blue heron stalked its prey where a culvert emptied under Hwy 70. A pair of mallards dabbled there, while a mixed feeding flock of tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the kudzu-covered banks.

Down at the only spot in our territory where we could see the Swannanoa River, Sue and I spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers, a belted kingfisher, a flock of house finches and a half-a-dozen field sparrows.

The clouds threatened rain but you would have thought we'd seen a double rainbow when we saw an adult red-shouldered hawk on the side of the road. Our species list was growing with every stop - 38 in all by the end of the day. It's not the largest Christmas count list I've put together by any stretch. These mountains are a tough place for birds to live during the winter months and so diversity is nothing like what it would be on the coast. We birded hard though. We covered our area thoroughly and we saw what there was to see. Did some birds get by us? Of course. Two people simply cannot effectively census flying creatures across 38 miles of road and 3 miles hiking. Our tally sheet will be added to those of the other teams that worked Buncombe County that day and there will be another data point to solidify our understanding of bird life and what needs to be done to protect it.

Just as important for Sue and I; we saw our new surroundings in a different light. The Blue Ridge Mountains are rightly known for their beauty and opportunity for those who love the outdoors. When we started the day, I admit I was more than frustrated to be surrounded by such wilderness, yet stuck down in the asphalt desert by a map that highlighted our search boundaries in mocking yellow highlighter. By the end of it though, I was once again reminded of the tenacity of nature. Wildlife finds a way to survive even when the world is not wild, but I worry about how many straws there are before the camel's back finally breaks.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gear Review: These Slugs Suck

Here it is; the very first Bumbling Bushman gear review.

For non-hunters and hunters who do not use sabot slugs for deer, here's the bottom line of this post, right up front so you can close out and get back to work: Lightfield's 2-3/4 inch Hybred-EXP ammunition sucks. 

After finishing the post mortem on the 2010 deer season (unless I sneak back out there sometime before Christmas for one more try) I have come to the conclusion that I need to make an ammunition change.

A brief background:
I and many of the guys I hunt with take full advantage of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's special permit hunting opportunities. Because many of these deer hunts take place in small gamelands areas with maximum hunter densities, the NCWRC requires the use of shotguns and/or muzzleloaders as opposed to rifles, which can send lethal doses of lead a long, long way. In my search for a dedicated permit hunt shotgun, I immediately decided to go for a platform with a rifled barrel that would shoot heavy lead slugs with accuracy. I tried my uncle's Remington 870 slug barrel in 12 gauge with some success over two seasons. Two mature does were felled where they stood at ranges inside 25 yards. A third doe received a flesh wound when I fired at 50 yards and grazed her belly. When that happened, I decided I needed to look into some options that would allow me to shoot 50-75 yards with confidence (and without having to spend hours and $$$ at the range).

In  2008 I borrowed my neighbor's Harrington and Richardson Ultra Slug Hunter in 20 gauge. His experience with the single shot weapon made expressly for deer hunting at farther distances than traditionally acceptable for shotguns was very positive. I can remember one of his kills being a nice 8-point at 110 yards. Needless to say, I was impressed by the story and thrilled to take it into the field. He told me the gun was zeroed at 100 yards with Lightfield Hybred-EXP sabot slugs and would perform flawlessly with that round. I bought a box (about $15 for 5 rounds) and a-hunting I did go. Coming out of the woods at mid-morning on the second day of the hunt, I and two companions blundered into a basket-racked 7-point buck standing off the side of the trail. Since I was the only one ready to shoot (they had their weapons slung over their shoulders) I did. The deer was walking slowly at 30 yards and quartering toward me. I hit him just in front of the shoulder, right where I was aiming. The buck stumbled off and fell 20 yards from where he'd been shot. There was an excellent blood trail to the deer and during the course of quartering him out that night, I recovered the expanded slug lodged in front of the opposite ham. It was a perfect lead mushroom and I was in love.

The following offseason, I bought my youth model H&R Ultra Slug Hunter in 20 gauge. Despite measuring just under 6 feet tall, for some reason I prefer my long guns to have short stocks. The H&R youth model feels like a sidearm to me and I love it for still hunting in heavy cover. I dutifully purchased a couple of boxes of the prescribed Lightfield ammunition, and also a box of Hornady SST slugs on the recommendation of my friend, Brian, who had bought the same gun a year earlier and found it to shoot more accurately with the Hornady ammo (which was also slightly cheaper). After an excruciating session at the gun range, I left with a weapon I was comfortable shooting out to just 50 yards (well under the 100-200 yard ranges both companies boast of) and convinced my shotgun performed better with the Lightfields.

Over the course of the 2009 North Carolina deer season, I fired the gun four times and brought home three kills. Though I initially chalked up the fourth shot as a miss, now as I look at the big picture of my experience with this ammunition, I'm not so sure. Of those three kills, all shots were within 40 yards. One doe dropped in her tracks. Another doe and a spike buck required tracking over a very poor blood trail (the buck did not bleed at all over the course of a 50-60 yard recovery, despite being hit squarely in the shoulder). The Lightfield slug did not pass through any of them (which is why the blood trails were so sparse) and fragmented in every situation (broke apart into many smaller pieces inside the deer). The "miss" occurred at 15 yards on a big-bodied buck. I shot at an awkward angle, but was absolutely confident I'd hit him either in the the shoulder or right behind it. The deer reacted as if it had been hit hard, but I could not find a speck of blood or a follicle of hair in more than an hour of searching on my hands and knees.

Nonetheless, I brought the H&R Ultra Slug Hunter (outfitted with a better scope) and Lightfield ammo with me to the first permit hunt of this year, around the Halloween weekend. Again, I had trouble sighting the gun in in the days leading up to the trip and felt confident out to just 30 yards with it - no more. On the first afternoon of the hunt, I stalked to 20 yards of a grazing button buck and dropped the hammer on him. The deer was standing broadside and I aimed right behind its shoulder. The slug went where it was supposed to and the deer dropped in its tracks. Despite the close range and frail body of the tiny buck (35 pounds on the hoof!) the Lightfield slug did not hold together and a fragment broke off and ripped through the stomach and intestines. The resulting mess meant that I had to throw away some tainted meat (including the tenderloins) that should not have been affected had the slug performed the way it should have.

Two weeks later, I traveled back east for another permit hunt and stopped at the gun range on the way out to see if I couldn't at least solve my distance accuracy issues. I tweaked the rig and the gun was shooting acceptably at 50 yards again. I also bought another box of Hornday SSTs just to see how they'd do a second time around, as my frustration was mounting with the Lightfields. To my surprise, the Hornady ammo shot just as well as the Lightfield, so I tucked three rounds into my fanny pack, just in case.

On the second evening of my hunt, I shot a doe and her yearling doe at 40 yards with the Lightfield slugs. The doe was hit behind the shoulder and died 40 yards from the spot she was hit. The blood trail was good, but again, the slug fragmented and there was no pass-through. The yearling was gut shot and went some 200 yards with scant blood. That one was my fault. I cannot complain about Lightfield's accuracy once it's been sighted in. The slugs have always gone where I aimed them.

I had finally had enough. The next afternoon, I loaded up with a Hornady SST and clobbered a 115-pound 7-point through the shoulder at 30 yards. The buck didn't go 20 yards on his death run and I heard him fall over, but unbelievably, I later found that even the Hornady slug fragmented and did not pass-through the deer's body. The blood trail was sparse and hard to follow. I am now at my wits end, though I have more confidence the Hornady's will prove to be a quality round in the future, as Brian has had great performance on five out of six deer he's shot with them so far.

As for Lightfield, I'm done. I'm convinced their ammunition is inferior - certainly not up to the performance I expect for the cost and not worthy of being loaded into any of my guns.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Surprise: No Deer!

I must say I've had an astonishing run of good luck. Having only put in six days in the woods, (here, here and here) there are five deer of varying size, butchered and conveniently packaged into roasts and portions of sausage, ground and stew meat, in my stand-up freezer out in the garage. In my wildest expectations coming into the 2010 North Carolina deer season, I could not have dreamed of such bounty with so little effort.

Last fall I managed five as well, but it took the better part of North Carolina's generous Eastern Region gun season (from Oct. 13 thru Jan. 1) to turn the trick. There's still time to tag out (you can harvest six deer in NC) and I find myself in a most-enjoyable position; I can pick and choose the very best conditions to hunt and I can try high-risk tactics that I never would have considered if my situation were less fortunate.

(How I'm going to fit another deer in the remaining freezer space remains to be seen. In the meantime, I'm playing a lot of Tetris in preparation of that potential conundrum.) 

One thing I'd like to try is still-hunting through known bedding areas and trying to catch a whitetail snoozing. For non-hunters, still-hunting is a misnomer describing the act of slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y creeping through the woods in search of game. Entering a bedding area is generally considered taboo because, once disturbed from their beds, it often takes deer weeks to return. It's often a one and done deal. If it doesn't work, you're sort of screwed. If you time it right, however, hunting a bedding area can be highly effective (or so I've read). The key is to wait for a nasty, windy day so the deer will be holed up and have trouble hearing your approach. So that's what I'm doing - waiting for an ugly day that any sane person would spend drinking hot chocolate next to a warm, cozy fireplace.

Even more exciting than the prospect of an up-close and personal experience with my quarry, I recently received a gracious invitation to hunt some private land just 20 minutes south of our home in Black Mountain. Unlike our property in Cleveland County, this is real mountain hunting, complete with high, narrow ridges, steep slopes and thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron.

On Saturday, I had a chance to tour the area with the landowner, who showed me the boundaries of the property and a quick run through places he thinks might be good for hunting. Yesterday, I went in for the first time by myself with a rifle in hand. I needed to see more to work up a solid game plan, but the weather was right for the deer to take a mid-morning stroll. I didn't think I'd see anything, but I was going to go in as focused as I could and try to learn more. 

With overnight temps in the teens, I figured I'd wait for the sun to come up and warm the south facing slopes to get the deer moving. I parked at the front of the property and made my way to the top of a ridge that would take me farther back. I moved slowly and deliberately, trying to minimize noise and stopping every few feet to scan the forest through my binoculars. I paid special attention to areas with brush piles and fallen logs and those thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron, as those are the places mountain deer feel safe and secure. It took more than an hour to get just below the crest of the next ridge - probably less than a third of a mile. All the while I was looking and listening, in close and out far ahead - you just can't do this kind of hunting too slowly.

Yep, I picked it up and I squeezed it.
As I hiked up and over the ridge, being careful not to silhouette myself for any longer than necessary, I noticed a disturbance in the endless monotony of leaf litter that covered the landscape. It looked like maybe, just maybe, there was a trail where some of the leaves were "fluffed up." I don't know how else to describe it, but just as I started to follow this barely-perceptible track, I found a solid clue that my prey was close by.

Note No. 1 - Mountain deer travel on ridges

I looked out ahead of me as the ridge started to descend into the valley that serves as the mid-line of the property and my heart skipped a beat. No, it wasn't a deer, but it was the next best thing - the thickest rhododendron thicket I'd seen so far. This was a bedding area, no doubt about it. Just before I entered the stand, I passed through what can only be described as a deer lavatory. It seemed every deer relieved itself in that spot before retiring to bed. I was more than amped. A silent approach was impossible. There were too many fallen branches and windfalls leftover from one of last winter's ice storms, the leaf litter was far too deep. I went in anyway, knowing that if a deer were to show itself, it would either be holding tight and blow up under my feet or be sneaking out of the thicket way down the ridge line. Neither potentiality happened. All was quiet except for each and every excruciatingly loud footstep I had to take. At the end of the thicket I stopped and watched over a likely looking valley for 30 minutes or so.
My rifle stock may as well be hot pink in these winter woods.

































































































It was getting past lunch and I hadn't brought anything to snack on. I eased down the hill to the bottom and followed the holler out to where it opened into a beautiful black walnut flat next to the stream that bisects the property. With a hunter's eye I sized up the area and picked out two perfect trees for my climbing stand - one for a morning hunt and one for an afternoon session. From each of them I can watch over the flat and the hillsides above.


Note No. 2 - Mountain hunting will require vertical awareness.

By the time I made it back to the truck, my stomach was growling and my enthusiasm had waned. I may not make it back to this spot before the end of the season, but you can be sure I will have it thoroughly scouted before opening day next year. It's a beautiful place, unlike any I've ever had the chance to hunt and I am grateful for the opportunity that has been given me. Places to hunt are like deer in the freezer - you can never have too many.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout: A Quest

Southern Appalachian Brook Trout photo from http://flyfishasheville.com
I love fish. I love to catch them and I love to eat them. Heading into the mountains on a frigid winter day just to see if I could find a trout to take a picture of for this post doesn't seem too strange to me.

Unfortunately, the trout were not at home in the pools spaced along the Little Slaty Branch where Sue and I had seen them a couple of weeks ago while hiking above the town of Montreat. It would seem the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is not so keen on 20-degree air temps and God-only-knows how cold the water is. I don't know what fish do under such conditions. Truth be told, the stuff I don't know about trout, and North Carolina's only native char, would fill volumes. They were there last month. They weren't there today. There's a lot to learn.

It wasn't so long ago folks considered brook trout to be brook trout throughout their substantial range across northeastern North America. As I mentioned before, brookies are actually members of the char family, which look like and act like true trout, but are not. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is recently known to be genetically distinct from other brookies, making it a very special fish indeed. Sadly, its requirement for clean, free-flowing, cold water streams puts it on the fast track toward extinction as the human population grows here in western North Carolina and other parts of the mountainous South where the fish have thrived for eons. Trout waters are easily ruined by sedimentation and pollution. Non-native trout, introduced for recreational angling opportunities often out-compete the little brookies for precious resources. Add climate change and the woolly adelgid infestation that is ravaging the eastern hemlocks across the region and it's not hard to imagine an aquatic environment in the near future that will not sustain Southern Appalachian Brook Trout.

This is a little fish (a 10-incher would be considered a lunker around here), however, with a lot of fans. The Southern Appalachian Brook Trout became North Carolina's official state freshwater fish in 2004. More significantly, there are several state, federal and non-profit agencies that consider its conservation a high priority. Preservation of native brook trout habitat is often cited as one of the key factors in land acquisition by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the handful of active land conservancies working so diligently here in the western part of the state. There are literally hundreds of tiny creeks across the Blue Ridge Mountains where native brook trout still exist. Most of the time they are looking for something to eat and, from what I'm told, are relatively unconcerned with whether it's a bug or an angler's fly.

All I wanted to do was take its picture, but the trout would not cooperate. The Little Slaty is running at half speed these days, thanks to an unseasonable cold spell that has gripped much of the East for the last week. Up here at 2,400 feet above sea level, the daytime temps haven't gotten past the mid-30s in four days and the overnight lows are in the teens. It's been snowing almost non-stop for 48 hours. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find my "secret" trout spot looking like this.

Still and all, it was a beautiful morning to bundle up and go for a hike. The cold kept others indoors. Poor bastards, they probably have jobs to go to. Some day, soon hopefully, I join them again, but for now, I shall endeavor to get out and experience as much as I can about these mountains and the creatures that live here, including those beautiful little trout ... er ... char.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Decking The Halls

It seemed appropriate for Sue and I to head over to the property last weekend in search of seasonal greenery. In Sue's mind, there's no reason to spend hard-earned dollars on boughs of holly, garlands of evergreen sprigs and bunches of pine cones when we grow surpluses of our own.

It was a beautiful day in North Carolina's foothills. The temperature was around 55 degrees, the wind was calm and the sun was shining. Just about all of the deciduous foliage has dropped in the past few weeks, leaving the land exposed to critical consideration. She showed me a spot that might be the one to build a house on. We're calling this one Home Site 1C and it might just be the best one yet. It's about a third of the way up a southwest facing slope, with an open view of No Business Mountain across the way and clear shots up and down the valley. Having the house closer to the bottom of the hill will also alleviate some of the erosion concerns that will crop up if we decide to go higher.

I think we're both starting to realize winter may turn out to be our favorite season here. Sure it's going to get cold, and we'll probably have an ice storm or two before March, but the now barren landscape shows off the topography of the region in a way you can't appreciate when the leaves are on the trees. There's also a growing sense of community. The summer tourists and fall leaf peepers are gone, leaving the locals the time and space they need to prepare for the coming season. "We're all in this together," is a look I recognize as I pass by neighbors who raise a hand in greeting as they stack firewood and burn off the last leaf piles of autumn.

Our greenery gathering expedition could not have been more bountiful. While I looked for deer trails and buck rubs (predictable, no?), Sue filled her bucket with twigs from holly trees, loblolly pines and rhododendron bushes, which she plans to turn into decorative centerpieces and garlands for the mantle place. She even clipped some fern leaves, which grow in abundance down by the creek, to include in her arrangements.

My contribution consisted of a little consulting work and required muscle when it came to cutting down our Christmas tree. I'm not going to lie to you; it's going to be a bit "Charlie Brown," but it came from our land and we couldn't be more pleased with the 7-year-old shortleaf pine that stuck waaaay out the back of the truck on the drive home. I wonder what all those people coming the opposite way from the cut-your-own joints in the mountains, with picture-perfect trees neatly wrapped and tied down to the roof of their cars, thought of us as we crossed paths heading back up to Black Mountain. In my beat-up little Toyota, laden with wild shrubbery and a scraggly looking pine sapling, perhaps they pitied us as victims of the recession, trying to scrape together a little cheer on the cheap for the holidays. 

There might be some minor truths to that imagined assessment, but also the undeniable feeling that, as we drove west late that afternoon, Sue and I felt like two of the luckiest people on Earth.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Most Gratifying Hunt

The view from the "Holler" stand.

I grew up outside Boston in a decidedly suburban setting. Our ranch-style house had a 3/4-acre lot, which I treated as if it were the Yukon or the Serengeti, depending on the season. Trouble was, it was hard to imagine yourself exploring the wildest places on Earth when you could see Mom weeding the garden a couple hundred feet away.

For whatever reasons, I decided as a child that my dream would be to own enough land that, if I wanted to, I could wander far enough from the house that I couldn't see it.  A little more than three years ago now, that dream was realized when Sue and I acquired (with a LOT of help from my parents and Uncle Alan) nearly 125 undeveloped acres in northwestern Cleveland County, N.C. Now we are proprietors of this family land until we are able to built a home there and live the rest of our days.

Back in late October, I wrote about my quest to harvest a whitetail deer there this season. Up until this year, we lived too far away from the property for this to be a realistic goal, but now that we've moved, I'm less than an hour from the land. It's hard to explain how important this is to me. Here in the midst my eighth deer season, I've taken some 20 deer. Some have come from private tracts, opened to me by their benevolent owners. Some have come from public lands the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission holds special draw hunts for which I've been lucky to draw. My biggest deer, a 9-point buck whose antlers measure just shy of 123 inches, was taken on an intensively managed hunting plantation along the banks of the Black River in South Carolina. I paid to have a shoulder mount of the buck and he's beautiful, but he is not my proudest hunting accomplishment - not by a long shot. You see, before I pulled the trigger and sent him off to the taxidermist, I had to pay around $500 for a 3-day hunt and the "privilege" of having a guide drop me off at a tripod stand next to an automatic corn feeder. The deer and wild pigs there were free range, but they were accustom to making regular stops at these bait stations to supplement their wild diets. My role in the buck's demise was to be the lucky sod who drew the long straw when the guide was choosing who would go where for the evening hunt.

I'm not saying I'm now against using guide services to tap in to their wealth of local knowledge and often exclusive access to prime hunting land (shoot, if I had the money, I'd fly all over the place to pay to hunt across the country and beyond) but do-it-yourself hunts are more realistic and satisfying at this stage in my life.

Harvesting a deer on my own land; where I can roam wherever I want, manage however I want and hunt whenever I want (within the confines of the law of course), is my idea of a dream come true.

So, when I heard those footsteps coming down the hill just at sunrise on the third day of the Western Region gun season, I was a bit more amped up than I've been in awhile. I'd chosen the spot during a scouting trip back in October - a pine tree between two ridges, next to a tiny creek -  because I'd found a deer trail running along each ridge and another that ran across the holler, connecting two bedding areas.

The deer was walking from one bedding area to another, just as I'd pictured it in my head a thousand times. When it stepped into an opening with a clear shot, I bleated to stop it and fired a bullet I've been saving for the moment ever since we bought the land. My shot was true, and a short tracking job later, I stood over a modest spike buck that may as well have been the next world record for the emotions I felt.

It's almost a week since it happened and I'm still on Cloud 9. If this is a dream, let me keep sleeping.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Stock Options

The funny thing is, ever since Sue and I moved to this glorious land of organic and free range food, we've actually been eating less of it. I think there are two forces at work here; cost and quality.

Quality first: The meats and vegetables we bought at the Black Mountain Tailgate Market taste so friggin good, I can actually use less and get more, if you know what I mean.

Then there's cost: Local, independent farmers work hard to produce that beautiful, healthy, flavorful food. They do it on a smaller scale than industrial, automated, factory farms and therefore, their profit margins are tighter, even when they charge $3 for a dozen barnyard eggs and $2 for a small head of cabbage.

Let's take the humble chicken to illustrate my point. Used to be, I would put supermarket chicken on our dinner menu at least twice a week. Mr. Perdue makes it cheap and easy to cook, but the hidden costs include poisonous runoff seeping into the Chesapeake Bay, birds living in squalor, immigrant workers (often illegal) laboring in unsafe facilities for unfair wages and growth hormone-jacked meat that, when you really consider it, doesn't taste of anything but the seasoning and sauce you have to smother it with.

During the farmers market season, which ran here from May to the end of October, I had reliable access to local, free range chickens of incomparable flavor. They cost $3.50 a pound. About every other week, you could get fresh, never frozen chickens. These were the birds I targeted, as I quickly developed a preference for whole chickens that I could break down into breast, thigh, leg and wing packs and put in the freezer to stretch the bounty. But, spending $12-13 a bird gives one pause when considering how to cook them. Chicken went from being a stir-fry staple to a featured protein. Chicken for dinner has become cause for celebration in our house. I crave it in a way I never thought possible for what had been a meat so solidly in the mundane.

This past Saturday, the Black Mountain Tailgate Market held its last hurrah; the Holiday Bazaar. It was my last chance to stock up on winter vegetables; lettuces, sun gold tomatoes (the very last pint of the year) radishes, cabbage, potatoes, squash, greens and fennel. When I saw one of my regular producers had fresh chickens, I happily plunked down $23 and bought two.

Back home, I broke the birds down and sent them into the deep freeze for later. Now it was time to get the most for my money and make chicken stock. I'll say right up front that my chicken stock isn't intensely chickeny and it isn't pretty. The experts seem to be in agreement that to make great stock, be it chicken, lamb, beef or pork, you have to use a lot of meat. At the prices I pay for my meat, however, I'm loathe to poach the wings and legs for a better tasting stock. I make my quick and dirty stock with eyes wide open. I know it could be better, but I'm not willing to make the sacrifice.

That said, making stock is still a very satisfying kitchen experience. It happens low and slow and fills the house with rich, comforting aromas. It's a perfect side activity to a lazy football Sunday (or any day that you don't have gainful employment). Here's how I do mine
...
  • three chicken carcasses w/ necks and wing tips (I usually freeze mine until I have three to make the endeavor worthwhile)
  • water to cover
  • carrots (1 or 2 with the tops on if they're fresh)
  • celery (1 or 2 stalks with leaves on if they have them)
  • 1/2 an onion (skin on or off - it doesn't matter)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a pinch of salt
Defrost the carcasses and set them on an oven tray lined with foil. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and set the rack in the middle position. Roast the chickens for 1 hour, turning once halfway through the process. Remove the chickens and place in a deep pot. Cover the carcasses with cold water and put the pot on the stovetop burner set to high. Let the water come to a boil, then reduce the heat immediately to achieve a slow simmer. Allow the stock to percolate in this fashion for as few as three hours or as many as you'd care to give it. If the water level reduces below the tallest peak, add more hot water to the pot to cover.

The reward.
The vegetables are only going to be in there for an hour. When you're ready for that to happen, add them, along with the bay leaves. (Now would be a good time to make this stock your own with whatever strikes your fancy; rutabagas, thyme, tomato paste etc.) At the end of the hour, fish out all the solids and strain the stock through a fine-meshed strainer and some cheese cloth. Return the strained stock to the pot and turn the heat up. Add a pinch of salt (not too much) and allow the liquid to reduce to intensify the flavor. Taste it every now and then and halt the process when you're satisfied with the result.

Cool the stock and store it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, the fat will have risen to the top and solidified, allowing you to strain it out for a cleaner tasting product. I store my stock in 4-cup lots in freezer bags. 4 cups seems to be the most useful unit of measure when you consider all the different uses you'll have for chicken stock.

I find that three chicken carcasses and my personal taste preference leaves me with 10 cups of quite serviceable stock, certainly much better than anything you could buy in the supermarket, and 2 or three cups of shredded chicken meat that I pick off the cooked frames.

Hey bub, you gonna eat all that chicken?
Of course, this technique can be used to make virtually any type of stock. I make it with wild duck, venison, wild pork, lamb and even doves. I reckon there might even be a turkey heading in this direction later in the week. I use the stock wherever its called for in recipes, as well as for cooking rice and making pan sauces.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

After the Shot: The Rollercoaster of Blood Tracking

Could someone please tell me how, with all of my super-heightened senses in a tree stand, I can hear every falling leaf, spot a mouse hopping along at 30 yards and know instantly when the wind shifts direction by three degrees, yet a 50-pound deer can slip inside shotgun range for heaven knows how long before I finally realize it's there?

Those were my thoughts as I watched the yearling nibble peacefully at the edge of a pine stand where it met the creek bottom I was watching the first morning of last weekend's hunt in eastern North Carolina. It was to be a deer and duck hunting bonanza back on my old stomping grounds with my friends, Brian and Nate. The ducks didn't cooperate on opening day, but the deer were on the move.

Having already put a diminutive button buck in the freezer earlier in the season, I wasn't keen to shoot another. Had I stood up in my stand, I probably could have had a clear shot, but I chose to wait to see if Momma would show herself. She did; about 15 minutes after the yearling had moved away, but I only caught a glimpse of her slinking across the trail behind me before she disappeared into the pines.

The following afternoon, I thought I had it all figured out in a small opening near the edge of a bedding area. The wind was right, but the timing was wrong. With 15 minutes left of legal shooting light, it was too dark in the thicket to see anything, so I packed up my gear and eased out as quietly as I could. I knew that if I could make it out to the edge of the woods without being detected there would be enough light to shoot by on the access road and the field beyond. I came out of the woods in a crouch, looked right - nothing, looked left - a dark shape in the road. Through the scope the shape became a deer - another yearling. I throw my age and sex preferences in a potential target out the window when I'm still hunting. When I'm on the ground, it's "jungle rules."

The deer was 70 yards away and unaware. I'm comfortable with my slug gun out to 50 yards, so a stalk was in order. I crept out into the open when the deer had its head down. I shuffled a few steps and stopped when the deer raised its head. Shuffled a few more when it bent back down to feed. In less than a minute, I had closed to 50 yards and was preparing to shoot when the yearling turned broadside. Before it did, another deer lifted its head from the tall grass in the ditch along the path - Momma. I turned my attention to the doe, but her body was hidden. When both deer went back to feeding, I closed in to 40 yards. The doe stepped out into the road and I put the crosshairs on her shoulder and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, the doe jumped, took two hops and then raised her brilliant white tail in alarm as she bounded into the woods. The yearling jumped too, but only to the edge of the woods where the doe had gone in. I put another shell in the single shot Harrington Richards 20 gauge, held steady on its shoulder and fired again. The deer hunched up and ran crazily down the trail before it dove into the ditch. Then it was gone.

It is the moments after I shoot, as the darkness crashes down upon the landscape, that I fear the most. Did I hit my target? Did I hit it well? Will I find my deer tonight? It's amazing how much detail you can remember after the surge of adrenaline has run through your body after taking a shot at a big game animal. I played back the mental tape. The doe reacted as though I'd hit her, but when she put her tail up I started doubting myself. It is popular belief among hunters that a mortally wounded deer will keep its tail down as it makes its death run. A white flag bounding away indicates a miss or a non-fatal wound. I also remembered listening after I made my second shot. I could hear the doe crashing through the woods for a short while to my left, then there was silence.

The yearling, on the other hand, seemed like a no-brainer. A deer running with its tail down and in obvious distress is a dead deer. I had no doubt I had more venison to add to the freezer. I walked over to the spot where the deer had been and turned on my headlight - an embarrassingly inadequate model made by Petzel that I never seem to have the extra cash lying around to replace. There was heavy blood on the trail, from the yearling I assumed, but as I followed it a few steps, the trail went into the woods where the doe had gone in. Well, well ... I guess my first shot had been true.

Buoyed by the obvious sign of a good hit on the doe, I backed out onto the road again to pick up the trail of the yearling. I expected to find blood easily, as the deer had run 10 yards down the path before jumping into the thick stuff. There was nothing. No matter, I thought, I'll just go back to the truck, meet up with Brian, who'd been hunting another part of the property, grab my MagLite and the game cart and come back to collect my bounty.

Back at the parking area, Brian told a spine tingling tale of an encounter with a very large buck that was running several does around and around the block of woods he was stalking. He was dejected that he'd missed his opportunity at the deer of a lifetime, but glad that I'd shot twice. I told him my story with exacting detail and he chucked me on the shoulder. "Way to go buddy. Sounds like two dead deer to me."

We returned to the scene and picked up the blood trail of the doe with ease. The sign was ample and easy to follow. After 50 yards through heavy brush, we found her stone dead at the base of a tree. I dragged her out, with Brian busting a path ahead of me. Then we took up the search for the yearling.

I found a speck of blood just up the path from where the deer had been standing, but there was nothing more. We searched the road with our flashlights. Back and forth, back and forth. Brian asked me to tell him the story again and I did. "I'll bet it never made it out of the ditch. Just go in there and walk until you trip on it. I'll cross over and check the other side just to be safe." I jumped down into the wall of dog fennel and blackberry brambles and started slogging. For the most part, the vegetation was so thick there was no sense searching with the light - just keep going until I kick it with my toe. But I never did. I went far beyond the spot I'd seen the deer go in and all the way back and then some, just to be sure - nothing.

I started doubting myself. Honestly, I'd started doubting myself long before that. Maybe I'd just scratched it and it had run off with merely a flesh wound. The more we searched, the more I became convinced that my slug had missed anything vital. But I kept replaying the scene in my head; it didn't add up. "That deer is dead Brian. It has to be." "I know it is buddy. We'll find it." An hour and a half passed this way and still nothing more than that first pin prick of blood on the trail. If I'd let him, Brian would have stayed all night looking for that deer - he's like that - but I couldn't. Finally, I told him I was satisfied that we'd made a reasonable effort to find the deer. We should pack it in and go home for a late supper. Tomorrow morning, I suggested, we'd bring Brian's yellow lab, Maple, to the spot and see if she could lead us to the deer.

Brian was setting up the game cart to strap up the doe while I played my flashlight in the grass beside the road for the hundredth time. "Brian! Where's last blood? I think I've got new blood!" It was new and it led us on an excruciating search across 200 yards and another hour and a half. Just a speck every eight feet or so. Half the time we were just casting blind. Then I found another spot, but this time there was vegetal material in the blood - I'd gut shot the yearling.

A gut shot, though fatal, is undesirable for many reasons; the wound bleeds sparingly because the exit hole is often plugged with intestine; it can take more than an hour for the deer to die, during which it can travel long distances; and it often means a portion of the meat will be contaminated by digestive and intestinal fluid. The margin for error is small. Three inches further back from your aiming point behind the shoulder and you go from a routine heart and/or lung shot and recovery, to an agonizing track for a gut shot deer.

This track was every bit as difficult as anything I'd been told or read about. It was brutal. Just when we thought we'd lost the trail for good, another blood speck would gleam in the light. To be honest, we really had no business ever finding that deer. We finally came up against the wall when we were still 40 yards from the opposite tree line. There was nothing left, no matter how hard we looked. Grasping at straws, Brian lined up the direction the deer had taken with the blood we'd found and pointed his light to the trees. "I'll stay here with last blood. You go in there and see if you can't find it just inside the trees." Dubiously, I followed his suggestion. I hated leaving the blood trail we had, but there really wasn't anything left to do. A few paces inside the young pine stand, I found my deer. It felt like a miracle.

The next evening, we called Nate to come be a pawn in Brian's chess game against the big buck that had given him the slip. We took up positions on separate lanes that ran through a thick stand of regenerating pines, myrtles and turkey oaks where Brian had seen his monster. Nate and I were to remain silent - I from my climbing stand and Nate and Brian on the ground. From my perch, I could see Brian's orange hat below, just 20 yards to my right, but our areas of influence were completely different.

At about 5 p.m., Brian pulled out his grunt tube to try to draw the big boy into the open. Within seconds, I heard footsteps approaching on the deer trail to my left. It seemed like hours, but probably was only a couple of minutes before I saw white antlers moving through the heavy cover. I couldn't believe it - old mossy horns himself was coming my way. The buck was cautious, and I had plenty of time to raise my binoculars to get a better look. It obviously wasn't Brian's buck. I could count three points on one side of his rack and the other side seemed puny, deformed. I thought about what I'd do if he stepped into my lane. The range would be just 30 yards. Before the hunt, we had discussed what we'd do if a lesser buck or a doe presented itself for a shot. This was Brian's show and he gave Nate and I the green light to shoot anything we wanted, regardless of the fact that it would undoubtedly ruin our chances of seeing the big one.

As the buck stepped closer, I decided I'd take him if I could. The boys would be disappointed if I didn't. Meat is meat. You can't eat antlers no matter how big they are. When his shoulder came clear, I shattered the silence and any chance we had at the buck of our dreams with a shot that drilled the deer in the shoulder. I saw him hump up and dive into the cover across the lane. A good hit, I was sure. Five minutes later,  legal shooting light ticked away and I climbed down from my tree, still shaking from the excitement that never seems to get any better, no matter how many kills I make. I'm not sure I ever want it to. Brian came over all smiles. He said that in the stillness, he heard me pull the hammer back and managed to stick his finger in his ear right before I shot. We waited for Nate and then I told my story. Brian had covered the trail he was watching immediately after I shot to make sure the deer didn't make it across - it hadn't. In fact, Brian had heard the buck crash down in the scant distance between us. It was just a matter of picking up the trail and following it to him.

Ah, but the trail ... Even though I knew my shot had been true and even though we knew the deer was dead, less than 30 yards away, the trail was sparse. Specks of blood again; not the type you'd expect from a perfectly placed slug. The track was widely spaced and difficult. After the trials of the previous night, I was dejected thinking about another gut shot. If it hadn't been for the boys there to help me across the tough spots, I might have just sat down in disgust. But life on the blood trail can turn for the better with every step. After making it 25 yards with very little loss of blood, the buck's wound finally opened up and we followed a scarlet swath the final few steps to my prize. He wasn't a big buck - that I already knew. He ended up being a 1-1/2 year old, basket-racked 7-point; four classic points on his right and three gnarly ones on his left. He probably weighed around 115 pounds.

Three deer down in three days; a great trip wouldn't you say? I would too, but the lessons I learned on the trail were just as important as the venison I brought home. Trust your instinct. If you think you made a good shot, you probably did. There's blood, or hair or fresh dirt turned up somewhere out there that will tell the tale. Persistence, persistence, persistence. Have a powerful light with you whenever you take to the woods. A crappy headlamp is a disservice to you and the deer. Most importantly, get help from friends who will stick it out to the end. Encouraging words alone can make all the difference when you're searching for that one, tiny drop that will lead you out of despair and into euphoria. Happy hunting.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Simple Sausage Science

You aren't supposed to see what goes into policy making and sausages, unless of course you make your own.
Lord knows, the food blogosphere is stuffed with instruction on making sausages, but I figure maybe if you hear it from me, you'll give it a try, and you should. The only piece of special equipment needed is a meat grinder, and for those of you who already own a KitchenAid stand mixer, the accessory pack for sausage making is just a click away. (Note: I realize KitchenAid is a big ticket item, but keep your eyes open and you'll find deals. My father found the one I have on sale for $250 and it came with the meat grinding accessory package.) Of course, there are other ways to grind things - from mechanized meat grinders and sausage stuffers, to hand-cranked models that are more economical, but ask for some muscle fatigue in return. The bottom line is, if you appreciate good sausage - I mean really good sausage - you should be making your own.
A tiny portion of the 2007 grind.
I decided to make a batch of breakfast sausage using some of the venison from last month's successful hunt at Pocosin Lakes NWR, Pungo Unit. I keep this type of sausage unstuffed, in 1-pound packages, so I can form it into patties the morning after defrosting. It is a perfect introduction to sausage making since it doesn't require the additional steps of stuffing and forming links; so we'll go with breakfast sausage in this first lesson. (I intend to post on making link sausages sometime in the future, provided another deer or wild hog steps in front of me during hunting season.) I normally get together with a couple of like-minded pals for a 48-hour sausage marathon at the end of the season. Last year, three of us processed the trim from 10 deer and 4 wild pigs into 75 pounds of breakfast, sweet Italian and Tuscan liver (mazzafegati) sausage. That's a lot of work; too much work. By the end of it, we could barely stand on our aching feet to limp over to the medicine cabinet to pop aspirin tablets for our sore backs. This year, I aim to break things up into more manageable sessions - in this case, 6 pounds of breakfast sausage.
I had the venison, but venison is far too lean to make a proper sausage on its own. It needs fat to give it that satisfying texture and buttery taste. For a few years I've been adding store-bought pork shoulder roasts and adding it in equal parts to the venison. Pork shoulder has plenty of fat and is a fine meat on its own for most sausage making, but it really isn't enough when mixed 50/50 with venison. My sausages were seasoned just the way I wanted them, but they were dry. Then my friend Brian got a hold of some pork fatback from an organic farmer outside Charlotte last year. Fatback is back fat - a thick saddle of fat covering the pig's dorsal anatomy. Here in the South, you can buy fatback in any supermarket. It's widely used to season braised collard greens, soups and stews. Unfortunately, it's unsuitable for our purposes. Not only is store-bought fatback made from factory farmed hogs that live in squalor are pumped with hormones and fed on corn; it's also heavily salted, which alters the flavor of the sausage it's supposed to mellow out. The stuff Brian had was uncured and perfect for sausages. We added it directly to the grind to get the ratio of meat and fat that made us happy. During the recently-deceased 6-month Black Mountain Tailgate Market season, I forged a relationship with a grower who raises a few Berkshire hogs in Old Fort, NC. This is where I get my clean, ethically-raised fatback now. With 4 pounds of clean venison and 2 pounds of fatback, I was ready to assemble the rest of my ingredients and grind this batch out. There are a few sausage-making books out there, but Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn published the best introductory guide in 2005 with their Charcuterie. It is their master recipe for breakfast sausage (they call it "The Bomb") that serves as the base for my version. For my 6-pound batch, I needed ...
  •  4 pounds lean venison, trimmed of silver skin, fat and connective tissue
  • 2 pounds of organically produced pork fat back
  • 2 Tbsp Kosher salt
  • 5 Tbsp fresh ginger, grated (Yes, ginger. It brings all the other flavors together in a most-surprising way.)
  • 5 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped fine
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 tsp grated black pepper
  • 1 cup ice water
That's it.
A cardinal rule in sausage making is keeping everything cold. This is a good idea for the purpose of sanitation, but it's also vital that the fat does not start to "melt." Fat that loses it's structural integrity smears during the grinding process and turns sausage into a pasty mess. If you want to get that classic sausage texture, the fat has to be kept cold. To that end, I keep the grinding accessories and bowls in the freezer between rounds of use. I cube the meat and fatback in a semi-frozen state, add the seasonings and mix everything well by hand - very, very clean hand. Then the bowl goes into the fridge for an hour or so to let the flavors start to blend. When I'm ready, I assemble the very cold parts of the meat grinding attachment to my KitchenAid, using the course grind die (there is a course and a fine grind die in your accessory pack), and run the batch through into a large bowl that's also been in the freezer (this "keeping things cold" mantra is no joke). When it's finished, put the bowl back into the fridge, but before you do, scoop out a small portion of the grind and form it into a patty. This will be your tester. Take a frying pan with a spot of oil and cook the test patty at medium/low heat until it's nicely browned on both sides. Let it cool on a paper towel and give it a try. If you decide the balance of flavors isn't quite right, this is your chance to change things in the rest of the batch before you put it through the final grind.
Protein, fat and spice
The first grind


Once you're satisfied, run everything through the grinder again, this time with the fine die, then add the ice water and knead everything together until it starts to get sticky. When that happens, the sausage is finished and all that's left is the packaging for the freezer.
Now you have the best breakfast sausage you've ever had and a head filled with ideas on how to fiddle with the recipe. That notion is A-OK, in fact, it's encouraged. There are hundreds of recognized types of sausages made by nearly every culture around the world. The variations are limitless and putting your own spin on a classic, or making something completely new is a big part of the fun. If you want to use less fat - do it. If you're on a salt restricted diet - honor it. Pork shoulder, lamb, beef, seafood ... hell, if you feel like putting candy canes in there - go ahead. It's entirely up to you.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Season of Change

When I left Black Mountain last Wednesday for a weekend of hunting at Pocosin Lakes NWR, the autumn colors here were at their most-vibrant. I grew up in New England, but it's been years since I've experienced the reds, golds, oranges and yellows of the highlands. It was glorious. When I drove back home, four days later, I was shocked to see the trees that had been so colorful, now stripped of their leaves. Rain and wind took autumn far too soon and now we are left with the stark skeletal remains of naked trunks and branches. Winter is coming.
That fact of life is not without merit. Yesterday morning, as I took out a pail of kitchen scraps to the compost bin, I heard a curious chirping in the backyard I did not immediately recognize. I ran to my possibilities bag (still packed and sitting in the hallway since the hunting trip) and grabbed my binoculars. Finches with streaky breasts, yellow wing bars and slender, pointed bills - four pine siskins for the yard bird list. Siskins rarely attempt to breed in the high elevation, coniferous forests of the Appalachians. More typically, this northern species is seen during winter, when the population migrates south, as far as northern Mexico. It is one of several irruptive species that, on occasion, invades the southern extent of its range in massive numbers (often estimated in the tens of millions) when the northern seed crop is poor.
In talking to some birding friends up north, I learned that reports are already streaming in that this could be such a year. If so, backyard bird watchers should stock up on thistle and millet to bring the show to their feeders. A pine siskin irruption rarely occurs on its own. The forces sending the little finches our way usually have a similar affect on other boreal species like; purple finches, common redpolls, red and white-winged crossbills, evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and (fingers crossed) bohemian waxwings.
Sparrow heaven
Buoyed by the arrival of the siskins, I decided to go birding later in the day at Jackson Park in Hendersonville. It was a rather dark, dreary day, but that often puts birds in a mood to keep active. Evidence of the changing season was flitting along the paths in the feathered forms of winter's ambassadors. The expected Carolina and house wrens have been joined by their diminutive cousin, the winter wren. Wood ducks, pushing down from the north, have taken up residence in the creek that runs through the park and the small ponds within. A few years ago, the local birding community convinced the parks and rec department to leave much of the open areas in the park unmowed. That move has paid off in spades, as birds of all types now take advantage of the weedy, brushy habitat to forage. During my walk through, the fields held a flock of around 50 white-throated sparrows, a handful of song sparrows, a couple of swamp sparrows and an aptly named field sparrow. In addition to the usual suspects - cardinals, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers - further evidence of the impending finch irruption showed itself in the form of a trio of purple finches. Back home in Black Mountain, the European starlings, red-winged blackbirds and common grackles have taken to using a thick stand of bamboo as a roosting site down the street. If you time it right, you can watch the mixed flock of 2,000 or so blackbirds fly in from the countryside far and wide. The cacophony of noise is almost deafening until they settle down for the night. Winter is coming. You can hear it in the air.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Deer Camp

There are few events I anticipate more on my hunting calendar than the annual meet-up with my gang at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina. We come there during the last weekend in October to hunt deer, swap stories and tell lies (not necessarily in that order of importance). This year's gathering was especially important to me, as Sue and I have moved more than six hours away from many of our dearest friends back East. It was the first time in months that I'd seen several of my closest hunting buddies.
How can we hunt on a wildlife refuge you ask? The area of the Coastal Plain where Pocosin Lakes is located happens to be an important area for wintering waterfowl and one of the highest density populations of black bears anywhere. The management plan reflects an effort to encourage these animals to use the refuge and therefore, much of the available land is put in row crops like corn and soybeans to serve as food for the ducks and bears. The unruly guests at this wildlife party are the whitetail deer, which help themselves to all of the refuge's amenities and drain resources from the species they are meant for. To keep the herd in check, USFWS and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission partner to offer four 2-day hunts during the season to sportsmen who put in for, and draw, one of the 200 special use permits that allow it on the refuge's 12,000-acre Pungo Unit.
When I came as a tag-a-long for the first time back in 2006, I hardly knew most of the guys in camp, but I didn't really care. Deer hunting was fairly new to me back then. All I cared about was seeing and hopefully shooting a deer. Pungo didn't disappoint that season. On the final evening of the hunt, I harvested a big doe from a mature pine stand. That early success branded the Pungo hunt as a must-do for the future, but there was something more to it than that. The camaraderie I found back at the campsite was every bit as enjoyable as the abundance of game. It was a turning point in my hunting career.
Brothers hanging a stand amid the insect onslaught
This year our crew of 10 was the largest it's been since I started attending. Most of the regulars were there; Brian, Paul, Ken and Kenny, along with our old friend Nate, who'd been away for a couple of seasons, but now seems back for good. I made the 7-hour drive with Brian's brother Mark, who'd been the year before and hadn't seen a deer except for the ones everyone else brought to camp in the back of their pick-up trucks. This would be the third year for Mark since he'd come back to deer hunting after a long hiatus that started when he was 18 years old. We were also excited to welcome several newcomers to our camp; John and Brett, who were looking for their first deer kills, and Ray, who recently moved to coastal Carolina after spending much of his life in the Midwest.
The weather coming into the weekend was perfect. The first strong cold front of the season was scheduled to pass across the region the night before our hunt started. Temperatures that had been averaging in the high 70s were forecast to plummet into the low 60s for daytime highs. The moon was in its last quarter, suggesting deer would be on the move during daylight hours (if you buy into that theory - I sort of lean that way). Unfortunately, we had to survive a day of scouting and hanging stands before the weather turned. That meant we had to face the buzzing horde of mosquitoes that had been growing to biblical proportions ever since the eastern part of the state received upwards of 20 inches of rain in some places during a stormy period back in September. The skeeters were as bad as promised. They scoffed at my scent-free/DEET-free spray-on repellent. They attacked as soon as the vehicle doors opened and followed us into the trees as we hung our stands. It was miserable.
Our only relief was back at camp, where the smoke from the fire kept the bugs at bay. We huddled close to the blaze that night, anticipating that first puff of wind from the North that had been promised us. If the front was delayed, the morning hunt was going to be an exercise in survival.
Morning came too soon. I still can't sleep the night before a big hunt. But the coffee was hot and the front had passed. We hit the refuge in high spirits and were rewarded with a deer herd that was on the move. The cooler weather had put the animals in a mind to feed, and several of our gang had placed their stands in optimal spots. In all, five deer fell to well-placed shots, including John's first-ever; a beautiful, symmetrical spike buck that made him the happiest man in camp.
Typically, afternoons are not as productive as mornings at Pungo, but when John and I spotted a deer feeding along a grassy access road at 4 p.m., we managed to buck the norm by pulling off a 600-yard stalk across open ground that got me within 30 yards of the yearling. He ended up being the smallest deer without spots any of us had ever seen, but the tiny little button buck got a trip to my freezer anyway. I had already decided before the hunt started that I'd take the first opportunity that presented itself, regardless of sex or size of the target. The purpose of the hunt is to reduce the size of the deer herd, and my freezer is getting low. Nate also connected that evening, for his first deer in a couple of years. To say the spirits were soaring back at camp would be an understatement. We'd never had a day as productive as that, and we still had another one to add to the tally. Most importantly, there were still a few guys who needed a deer. Mark still hadn't even seen one and neither had Brett. Ray was hunting public gamelands outside the refuge and was seeing deer, but hadn't closed the deal - yet.
The second morning arrived even colder than the first, with a mosquito-killing frost on the ground that made me wish for warmer clothes. The deer were on the move again, however, and this time it was Mark and Brett who tossed the monkeys off their backs in grand style. Mark's 110-pound doe was the largest anyone brought back to our camp during the weekend, and Brett blazed into local deer hunting lore by shooting his first, second and third - all within 30 minutes of each other. Brett may be one of the first North Carolina deer hunters to legally possess three deer in one day. The NCWRC changed the rules this year from a 2-deer daily limit, to as many as the 6-deer season limit allows. The final evening hunt was quiet where I was - except of course for the bears. I was sitting on the edge of a forestry road, glassing for deer in an attempt to replicate my success from the day before. It didn't happen, but the big female black bear and her two cubs that marched all the way to within 80 yards of my chair made for a most-enjoyable experience. I'll admit I wasn't all that disappointed to head back to camp empty-handed. The last night of the trip is always reserved for eating, drinking and late-night buffoonery. Having to skin and dress out a deer is a delay from joining in the merriment. To everyone's relief, however, Ray didn't have any qualms about shooting a nice doe to round out our tally to an amazing 12 deer for our 10 hunters over the course of two days. It was a success rate rarely experienced by our camp - certainly the best I've ever been a part of.
What made the night even sweeter was the arrival of our great friend, Warren, who couldn't make the hunt because of work duties, but made the 3-hour drive to be there Saturday evening just to hang out with the boys. To say he came well-stocked with provisions would be an understatement. We ate and drank like kings until the wee hours of the morning.
As Mark and I drove west the following day - 5-1/2 hours to his home outside Charlotte and another 2 hours for me to Black Mountain - I had plenty of time to reflect on what had been a perfect weekend. Nearly everyone had venison to bring home; Nate and Mark were back on the board after several deerless years of frustration; Brett and John had made their first kills, and by the looks on their faces and enthusiasm to learn, it would certainly seem likely they are in it for the long run; and I had reconnected with my best friends. That seems to be more and more important to me as I evolve as a hunter and grow older as a man. Harvesting game and providing healthy, beautiful meat for loved ones is still a major reason for why I hunt, but sharing the experience with friends is just as important to me now. Too many modern hunters have never experienced deer camp the way it should be. Competition for hunting land and the pursuit of trophies have made it a solo existence for far too many. To them I say, call up your buddies, find a place you can all hunt and set aside a weekend this season to gather at the campfire. If you have trouble doing that, you can always pull up a chair and put your boots up at our fire pit. See you next season.