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.