Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Babe in the Woods

I've been nervous about this moment since I moved to the mountains of North Carolina back in February. For all that Appalachia has to offer; fantastic scenery, unlimited hiking, diverse eateries, slow food, the No. 1 beer city in the country (Asheville), a vibrant music scene ... the region is NOT held in high regard for its abundance of game (with the exception of wild turkeys, which are everywhere). Up until this point, virtually all of my hunting experience has come from the Coastal Plain, where white-tailed deer are often so abundant they are consider a nuisance, waterfowl winter in huntable numbers and small game opportunities abound. I had the best hunting season of my life last year on the Coastal Plain, bagging five deer and various and sundry ducks, doves and rabbits. In western NC, I've heard the deer population is spotty and ducks are virtually non-existent.Now that dove season has been underway across the state, my pals from back east have been sending photos and e-mail accounts of their hunts and in doing so, gave me the kick in the pants I needed to get out in my new environment and start figuring how I'm going to fill my game freezer this year and the years to come. I started by taking stock of my assets.
The mourning dove
Western North Carolina has ample public lands available to hunters, the largest of which are Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. The feds don't manage their lands specifically to benefit hunters, so most of the acreage is aesthetically-pleasing, ecologically-important, but deer-devoid tracts of mature woods. State managed game lands are smaller (usually around a few hundred to a few thousand acres) and receive the brunt of the hunting public's attention. On the coast I had permission to hunt on two private farms. In the mountains I have yet to make any similar connections, though I do plan to hunt the undeveloped land Sue and I own in Cleveland County, with a modest deer population that abuts more than 19,000 acres of South Mountains Game Land. Back east, my hunting buddies and I religiously applied for several permit hunt drawings in areas with limited access, but great opportunity. I have been drawn for several such deer hunts here in the mountains, but I know much chances for success will be slimmer, especially as I face a steep learning curve in figuring out how mountain white-taileds move through the landscape. There's not much learning that can be done sitting in front of a computer, so earlier this week I gathered up a couple of boxes of shells, my 12-gauge and a camp stool and drove off in search of Sandy Mush Game Land, about an hour from the house. Being as it's just 8 miles north of Asheville, Sandy Mush's 2,600 acres gets thoroughly hammered by all those poor, city-bound sportsmen. To remedy the overcrowding during the first week of dove season, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission recently made Sandy Mush a permit-only hunt for that period. Now anyone can pay a $5 chance to be one of the 125 folks drawn to hunt the game land during any of the first four hunt days of dove season. I went on the first day that permits were not required, but since it was midweek, I practically had the place to myself. There was one guy in the parking lot who was packing up when I pulled in. We exchanged pleasantries, during which he admitted to having seen just a handful of birds and shooting (and missing) only once. That was not the kind of report one wants to hear, but I figured this was more of a scouting mission than a hunting trip. What I found was inspirational. Unlike the public dove fields back east, which are supposed to be planted in millet, milo and corn, but all to often come up as acres of ragweed, the wildlife management plan at Sandy Mush is top rate. A patchwork of open fields among the ridges and hillsides are planted in small plots of dove-loving food crops. The place even had a powerline going through it - long known to wingshooters as dove magnets, powerlines offer the birds superior perches from which they decide where they want to go next. In the shady, woodlots surrounding the fields, a fresh flight of question mark butterflies had emerged in what could only have been a day or less before my arrival. The striking colors of their wings flitted everywhere I looked across the dappled sunlight.
A freshly emerged question mark
Without any local knowledge of the place, I had no idea which fields the birds preferred or what food crops they were hitting during the early season. With so many different spots to hunt and only a few hours to spare, I did some "lazy man" scouting, consisting of walking around the edges of fields and along the ridge tops and listening for shooting. When I didn't hear any, I did the next best thing by trying to figure out where there may have been shooting in the past. Unfortunately, this is fairly easy to do as an unacceptable percentage of dove hunters do not pick up their spent shells at the end of the day. Finding places where the action had been hot and heavy was as easy as looking for piles of red-hulled No. 7-1/2s and 8s. When I found a suitably large trash heap, I picked up the mess and set out my stool. The Blue Ridge Mountains and small, picturesque high country farms to the north spread out before me in the beautiful, late-afternoon light and I couldn't help feeling a bit out of place. Normally, when I gaze upon a view such as that, I'm on vacation. I remember watching, with jealousy that made my stomach ache, the Italian hunters in Umbria standing like sentinels on rocky outcrops in the Apennine Mountains as they waited for passing shots at wood pigeons. This place felt like that scene still burned into my memory. It felt ... exotic. The only thing keeping this post from being perfect is that the doves did not fly. I saw two during the course of my three-hour sit, but they were too fast and too far for me to even consider raising my gun, but I really couldn't have cared less. As a hunter, I all too often feel as though society is pushing me to the wastelands, places no one else wants to be. On the edge of that field, with the sun setting at my back, I couldn't think of anyplace I'd rather be.
But, regardless of the scenery, the habitat and the great work that has been put into the place, Sandy Mush was a bust when it came to doves, at least during my hunt. For whatever reason, the birds simply weren't there. Maybe I was between migrating waves, or the doves had gone elsewhere after getting shot up during the first week of the season. Maybe the place never has very many doves. I'm not sure why, but I'm going back to try to figure it out. I've got a freezer to fill you know.

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