Friday, October 7, 2011


I'm not one of those people who goes gaga for crazy roller coaster rides or extreme merry-go-rounds. Heck, the most "extreme" thing I've done in the last 10 years was an ill-advised attempt at recapturing my youth on a pair of water skis - that is until a couple of weeks ago when I went zip-lining through the Appalachian forest canopy.

The Navitat canopy tour was arranged by my wife, Sue, and the other women of the family as a joint Christmas gift for me, my father and my brother-in-law, Jeff. We're talking last Christmas here. It took the three of us this long to get our acts together  and pick a date that worked for everyone.

Driving up.
The weather couldn't have been any better in the valley north of Asheville, where Navitat has a lease on 600 acres of undisturbed forest. After a safety brief where we met our guides and fellow zippers, it was up, up to the top of the ridge in a Kubota all-terrain vehicle to get to the first platform.

Our two young guides were pretty much what you'd expect - recent college grads (or drop-outs) with an appetite for adventure, tempered by the closing days of a long season sheparding people like me, my dad and my brother-in-law through the thrill of a lifetime. To put it another way; by this point in the season, they'd seen it all. But they were good guys and they did their best to stay enthusiastic and keep everyone safe.

Buckling Dad in.

From our perspective, however, it was hard not to be overcome by the amazing act of attaching oneself to a harness and cable, then dropping off of a high platform and allowing gravity to whisk us through and across the forest at speeds reaching 40 miles-per-hour. The first two "zips" were short and slow in order for everyone to get the hang of things. After that, it seemed the sky was the limit.
And he's off!

We were zippin' fools - especially Dad, who decided early on that safety instruction was for suckers and using two hands wasn't what got him through the last 70 years. While Jeff and I tried to remain cool in the face of 900-foot rides across the valley some 200 feet above the ground, Dad was screaming "kawabunga!" and spinning his illegally free arm like a rodeo bronc rider.

I must admit, I have become jaded by my father's antics. After 20 years or so of picking up my messes, Dad seems to have made it his mission in life to try to embarrass me. I can't really blame him, and it sure looked like he was enjoying himself.
Here's where it gets interesting. See those cables stretching across the valley?
His enthusiasm was infectious. Pretty soon, everyone was whooping and hollering as we flew down the valley, zip-by-zip.

Jeff - going down.
There were other obstacles too; suspension bridges and rappelling ropes that squooze our manhood in most-unsavory ways. Through it all we had fun in the sort of crazy, google-eyed wonderment kids run around with at a Chuck-E-Cheese birthday party, except it was better, because it takes more to get us there these days.

Oh, I suppose there are people who come away from the Navitat Canopy Tour with a new-found sense of empowerment or self confidence. I can see how a trip through the tree tops could give a person a thirst for more adventure in their life. But for me, the lesson was learned by watching my dad, who could be sitting on a couch, watching football and drinking soda pop all day, but instead seems to have grabbed life by the tail and is having the time of his life. That's a lesson for all of us.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Killboxapalooza II

Degan's hooked up.
It was a trip that almost didn't happen - a Gulf Stream angling adventure right smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season. It took foresight, tenacity and a bit of luck to pull off, but we did ... thank God we did.

Hurricane Irene threw the first punch with a track that slowly pounded eastern North Carolina and the Outer Banks just one week before our scheduled departure from Hatteras. By the time the storm's 80 mph sustained winds finally subsided, NC Hwy 12 had two major breaches where the ocean rushed across the island to mix with Pamlico Sound. Getting to Hatteras was out of the question.

I never doubted our captain. Brian Patteson and I have known each other and been friends for the last 15 years. He and his company, Seabirding Inc., is widely regarded as one of the East Coast's foremost authorities on seabirds and has led birding trips to the Gulf Stream in search of those fascinating pelagics for more than two decades. These days, he does it aboard his own boat, the Stormy Petrel II - a 61-foot, Maine-built headboat capable of 20 knots - that makes the long run to the Gulf Stream (sometimes more than 30 miles) expeditious and comfortable.

Patteson also happens to be the fishiest, saltiest mo-fo I have ever met. When he's not leading birding trips, he charters the boat out to anglers in pursuit of those denizens of the deep; wahoo, marlin, dolphin (the fish kind) and tuna. When he called me two days after the hurricane to announce he was still alive, still in business and just happened to have moved the Stormy Petrel II to the safe harbor of Wanchese ahead of the storm, it came as no surprise to me. My man is a bulldog.

Hank Shaw in mental preparation for Killboxapalooza.
It was excellent news on several fronts; I was going back East to fish with some of my best friends in the world, my dad was coming along and we were playing host to newly-minted book author Hank Shaw, who also runs the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, on the fall leg of his circuitous, nationwide tour promoting Hunt, Gather, Cook. Hank's writing and philosophy of using the whole animal and treating it in the kitchen as the wondrous gift that it is has been a huge influence on me. My admiration led to an Internet friendship over the last couple of years that culminated in an agreement - if the book tour brought him to North Carolina, we'd go fishing.

Mother Nature still thought about making our lives miserable. In the days before our trip, Hurricane Katia  formed and took a track up the eastern seaboard. Happily, the storm's path kept it far enough to sea to give us nothing more than a long, gentle swell on an otherwise perfect day to head offshore.

How shall I describe it? Hank did a good job of it on his blog post. "Epic" was a popular descriptive, as was "insane," "mind-blowing," and "out of control." It was the greatest fishing day of my life. Our mate, Brian King, said it was the best tuna fishing he'd seen in 10 years. Brian Patteson said we put more yellowfin tuna in the boat in five hours of fishing than he'd caught aboard the Stormy Petrel II in fours years combined out of Hatteras.

Eric the "Tuna Monster" cranks up the first fish.
Let me start where the boat slowed down to trolling speed at approximately 8:30 a.m. We had steamed across the Continental Shelf in search of warm water at the edge of the Gulf Stream. The journey had taken us 35 miles from Oregon Inlet and had been mostly devoid of sea life. It was obvious when we got to where we needed to be; suddenly there were bridled terns in the air above the wheel house, pilot whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins (the mammal kind) breached and played at the surface, flying fish skittered across the swell, the currents had pushed a mat of sargassum together to form a long weedline that stretched as far as we could see and, oh yeah, one of the high-speed trolling rods bent over - fish on!

Everyone hoped for a wahoo, but it wasn't. There was an audible groan from the mate as Eric quickly reeled in a sizable great barracuda. While barracuda from some tropical waters are safe to eat, large individuals off North Carolina are generally avoided because they can carry the ciguatera toxin. Barracudas also suffer a cultural discrimination  off the Outer Banks and are considered to be bad luck by many in the charter fleet. Needless to say, Brian King scowled and never let this one in the boat, flipping it off the hook without touching the evil beastie (superstitions are funny).

If a dark cloud appeared over the crew of the Stormy Petrel II because of the 'cuda, it didn't last for long. The mate reset the trolling spread for dolphin and within minutes we had our first hit. The fish were small by dolphin standards, but that is expected off the Carolinas in early September. The 1- to 3-pound schoolies are called "bailers" because they can be slung directly into a kill box by hand - no gaffing necessary. The school we sat over held more than 100 fish and Brian King quickly had us working at maximum efficiency. Six anglers drifted cut baits back into the chum that King judiciously doled out to the hungry dolphin. As you hooked up, you danced around everyone else's lines while working your way to the middle of the transom, where King wrapped the leader, flipped the fish aboard, unhooked it and rebaited your line with terrifying speed - terrifying especially for the greedy dolphin. In an hour, we had more than 70 of those delicious little fish on ice before they quit biting.
Bailing dolphin.
Patteson turned the boat away from the weedline to search for a bigger bite and he didn't need to go very far. More bridled terns and Cory's shearwaters flocking in the distance told him something was up. As we drew closer to the commotion the cause was obvious - tuna were tearing things up on the surface. Again, Brian King's vast experience paid big dividends. Within minutes he had switched out the entire trolling spread - five rods in all - to tuna gear and within seconds after doing so we had hooked up.

Dad's first yellowfin tuna at 70 years young.
Hank took the first fish, followed in short order by Brian Degan, Seattle Chris and Asheville Nate. Hank's was a small skipjack tuna. The others were hard-charging yellowfins in the 15-20 pound range. This was what we'd all hoped for, as yellowfin tuna are special. Not only do they fight like runaway locomotives and look like exquisite quicksilver bullets, but they also taste like nothing else that swims in the ocean.

Nate and Chris in hand-to-fin combat.
That first triple-header was followed by another ... and another ... and then four on at a time ... and again ... and again. It was the stuff of legends. Patteson would troll through the feeding frenzy and we'd get multiple hook-ups. He'd take the boat out of gear as we fought the fish. Brian King gaffed and re-rigged as Patteson came back up to trolling speed and brought her around for another pass, and the fish kept biting. When Morehead City Nate asked him what was creating this perfect storm, Patteson replied, "I have no idea. I'm just going to keep making circles until it stops."

When it finally did stop, there wasn't any room left in the two giant fish boxes at the back of the boat. At the dock, the fish processors weighed us in at just over 450 pounds of yellowfin tuna. We had sacked the rest of the charter fleet and set ourselves up for a generous winter of meals featuring the kobe beef of the sea.

Even now, two weeks later, I shake my head in amazement when I think about it. A person only gets so many days in the woods and water that are truly worthy of being called "epic." Mine are stored right up at the front of my memory banks and Killpoxapalooza II will be spoken of often in the coming years. The fact that I shared the experience with great friends, both old and new, and my father, who taught me how to fish so long ago, makes it that much more.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The State of The Bushman

Greetings and salutations. At long last, a quiet moment in which I have no pressing commitments and an urge to write.

Just one year ago, I started blogging; partly at the urging of friends from whom I'd recently been displaced, partly to pass the excruciating hours of seemingly endless unemployment (15 months worth, thank you very much), and partly to write down my stories and ideas to keep my skills sharp. I have been a writer by trade you see - 10 years in the newspaper business, along with a flirtation with freelance environmental and outdoors articles. My first newspaper editor once advised me, "Writers write." It was good advice.

I won't lie to you. As The Bumbling Bushman found its footing in the blogosphere and a semi-regular crowd seemed to like what I was doing, my ambitions and expectations started to rise. Maybe I could turn this thing into something more than an online journal. Maybe I could make money at it.

Ah money. The root of all evil. I started blogging when I should have been job searching. I started telling myself that if I could just raise my profile amid the sea of online outdoors writers, someone would take notice and give me money. Every new "follower" was a victory. Every endorsement from another blogger was cause for celebration. I wasn't exactly sure how that was going to happen, but I knew that it did for some of the talented folks I admire and try to emulate.

The trouble was, the emergency fund Sue and I had dutifully built up during 10 years of marriage was dwindling with every trip to the grocery store and the big Cabelas sponsorship wasn't coming. I didn't have any book agents or publishers knocking on my door either.

And then, serendipity.

There was a job interview, followed by an offer. There were hoops to jump through; background checks, psych tests, a state budget crisis and waiting - lots of waiting. Finally, towards the end of May, they gave me a badge and a uniform and I started my duties as a North Carolina State Park Ranger at Lake James State Park. My indoctrination is not over yet, not by a long shot. I still have Basic Law Enforcement training to go through starting in January and all sorts of requirements to fulfill before that. But, I have a job and I love it. I get to share the responsibility of stewardship over 3,600 acres of beautiful North Carolina foothill habitat. I get to teach thousands of visitors about the wildlife and natural history of the area. Eventually, I will be honored to help keep them safe and sound as well.

What does this mean for the blog? Obviously, the frequency of my posts has dropped. When I have time off, I've rarely felt the pull of the computer screen. It would be easy to thank you all for reading, say goodbye and sign off, but I don't think so - not yet anyway.

I'm not ready to give up on The Bumbling Bushman. I've made too many friends here and had too much fun. On the cusp of my fourth decade, I mark my life with the adventures I've had and the anticipation of many more to come. Somebody is going to have to write them down.

To all of you who have visited and commented here, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It's an incredible feeling to know people are interested in you and your life's pursuits. You helped me through the most difficult year-and-a-half of my life just by logging on.

I finally know what I want from this blog. It isn't money. It isn't fame. It isn't free stuff. It's companionship and participation in that grand old tradition of storytelling. Henceforth, I will not post for the sake of "fresh content," and increasing readership. I don't need anymore readers than what I have right now (though everyone is always welcome at this camp fire). I'm going back to the beginning - when this blog was about staying connected to friends, no more, no less. When I have something to share, you'll see it here.

Your friend,

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Whole Lotta Nesting Going On

The migration is fairly well over in western North Carolina. There have been a few tardy travelers passing through our yard in recent days; blackpoll and yellow-rumped warblers in particular, but for the most part, the remaining birds are here to stay throughout the nesting season.

Some of them, like the neighborhood wood thrush and red-eyed vireo, are just getting started. Others, like American robins, Carolina wrens and mourning doves, have already fledged their first broods and started in on their seconds.

Our first indication the 2011 nesting season was underway happened back in late March when a pair of Carolina chickadees started carrying mouthfuls of moss and lint into the nest box I had erected in the front yard last summer.

After completing their nest, the female set to incubating and before long, Sue and I were sitting on the porch watching the adult chickadees ferrying inchworms and caterpillars to their growing family.

Long after we figured the babies would finally emerge from their cozy womb, the chickadees left the nest box for the environs surrounding the house. Unfortunately, in the two weeks since, the only chickadees Sue and I have seen have been the adults and they aren't behaving like they are feeding fledglings. In fact, it appears they've gone straight to courtship behavior, leading me to the sad conclusion that the fledglings perished shortly after their maiden flight.

That would not be unusual. Fledgling mortality in songbirds is extraordinarily high for many species. For those that conduct long-distance migrations (Carolina chickadees do not), mortality can be as high as 70 percent before the end of the first year.

What happened to our nestlings? It's impossible to say. Maybe they emerged from the nest box just hours, or even minutes, before we were hit by one of those strong spring thunderstorms that have been rolling through. It's also quite possible they fell easy prey to one of the feral cats that roam the neighborhood.

One thing is certain, those little chickadees had a great life before their ultimate demise. I opened the nest box last week to clean it out in preparation of a second nesting attempt and had a chance to examine the elegant little structure the adult chickadees had built for their first go-round.
Swedish memory foam.
A thick base layer of the finest green moss, followed by a bed of dryer lint, dog hair and pine needles - where do I sign up?

A good tree for blue jays.
The chickadees have failed for now, but that hasn't been the case for some of the other breeding species around Black Mountain. The yard is filled with the sounds of begging fledglings. At least two broods of song sparrows are using our backyard as their base of operations. The Carolina wrens have also pulled off a successful attempt and I often hear the adults scolding a real or perceived threat that wanders too close to one of the youngsters.

Blue jay nest
Sue has been telling me for a week that she thinks there is a blue jay nest somewhere nearby, but it wasn't until a couple of days ago that we discovered how close it actually was. I as sat one morning at this computer, I heard strange sounds emanating from the pine tree outside the window. I snuck out the front door and over to the base of the tree, where I peered up through the branches and spotted one of the adult jays sitting on a stick nest. I don't think I've ever seen a blue jay nest before, so it will be fun to follow this one's progress.

The hummingbird feeders started to get some action last week and now, weeks after the first wave of male ruby-throateds passed through on their way north, we have representation from both sexes, indicating the breeding season for eastern North America's tiniest bird is about to begin.

May they all have great success and raise babies that are swift and strong.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Mid-May Ramble

Our intention was camping, but Sue's hectic work schedule and a dicey weather forecast in the days leading up to the weekend led us to amend our plans. While I've spent much of the spring chasing wild turkeys around our property in Cleveland County, Sue hadn't been since the first week of April, so that's where we went on Sunday.

We got there around noon and had a picnic down by the creek. While we ate leftover spaghetti and chocolate truffles, we kept our ears open and ticked off the birds singing in the riparian zone: Acadian flycatcher - check, ovenbird - check, summer tanager - check, yellow-throated vireo - check, black-throated green warbler - check.

After lunch, we walked back to the old logging road that the timber company built to access the property some 10 years ago and started up the valley. I must admit, after spending so much time and effort trying to kill a tom turkey during the past two months, it was a welcome relief to just putz around and take in all of the other wild things that live there.

Bugs were the first things we noticed. The butterflies along the road fluttered all around us; beautiful, pale blue spring azures, common buckeyes, silver-spotted skippers, fritillaries of undetermined species and tiger swallowtails.
Love is in the air. Copulating tiger swallowtails (light and dark morph).
Eastern comma
As a casual fan of lepidoptera, I am particularly fond of the group known as anglewings. In our area, these are typically medium-sized butterflies that tend to inhabit shady, wooded areas, though they often come out into openings to sip salt and mineral deposits from the sand or clay. While Sue was off looking at plants, I managed to get a few pictures of a particularly accommodating eastern comma - named for its rather inconspicuous punctuation on it's underwing.

Further down the trail, we came across a couple of bizarre caterpillars, looking menacing and poisonous with a thicket of sinister dorsal spines. Although I fancy myself a serviceable identifier of butterflies in their adult forms (thanks in no small part to Jeffery Glassberg's fantastic guide, Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East), I know virtually nothing about making sense of their larval stage. I took a few photos and hoped for some guidance from David Wagner's very cool book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America. To date, I've had little success keying out the caterpillars in my life with this book, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the variability in their life stages rather than the inefficiencies of the book. This time, however, I think I can confidently say the creepy-crawlies we found were another anglewing type - the question mark. (No, it's not a joke. Similar to the eastern comma, the adult question mark sports the punctuation of it's namesake on it's underwing.)
Question mark caterpillars (???)
Black-shouldered spiny leg - I think.
There were also a few dragonflies buzzing around. If anything, I like dragonflies even more than I do butterflies. Maybe it's their huge eyes and ability to move their heads independently of their bodies that make dragonflies seem intelligent, for lack of a better word. Maybe it's their impossible powers of flight, or the fact that many species undertake long-distance migrations in the fall. Maybe it's the spectacular diversity that changes with every habitat. Likely it's the fact that dragonflies are hell on mosquitoes and other biting insects that like to suck my blood. For all those reasons, I like the heck out of dragonflies and like my interest in butterflies, I find great knowledge in a layman's book by Sidney Dunkle called (shockingly enough) Dragonflies Through Binoculars.

As we hiked up away from the creek and through the regenerating forest the logging company had cut around the turn of the century, the bird song reflected the change in habitat. Yellow- breasted chat - check, prairie warbler - check, field sparrow - check, indigo bunting - check, broad-winged hawk - check.

The mountain wetland hangs on.
Sue took a detour to measure our success in restoring a tiny wetland area that had been filled in when they built the road and choked out by encroaching upland vegetation. Last fall, we spent a day clearing out sweet gum and tulip poplar saplings in an effort to free up the few cattails, sedges and alders that remain. So far, the wetland species seem to have responded favorably to the increased sunlight and available water, but we must remain vigilant for exotic invasives like Japanese honeysuckle. When we have the time and money, our first habitat management project will be to fully restore the wetland. It's going to take a bulldozer to remove the culvert from under the road and the berms where the loggers deposited their excess dirt, but it will be worth it to see the native plants and animals return.

Royal fern?
The spring that feeds the wetland lies on the other side of the road and runs through the aforementioned culvert. There, Sue spied a giant fern that we somehow had never noticed before. Standing more than 5 feet tall, I'm guessing it must be a royal fern - the only one we've found on the property during our five years of rambling.

Our visit wasn't completely benign. Over the winter, Sue had discovered and identified a large princess tree growing at the edge of a clearing. Despite my protests that the tree would make for a perfect place to hang a deer stand, Sue was adamant the non-native and highly-invasive intruder had to die. We stopped at the truck to gather our instruments of death and then hiked on up to the tree. It was certainly a picture of health - filled with seed pods waiting to become a virtual forest of princess trees. Through her research, Sue chose the manner and timing of execution. May is the best time of year for the "slash and squirt" tree killing technique, so I girdled the tree with a hatchet (sighing heavily as I did it in sight of so many deer trails) and Sue followed with a generous squirt of herbicide to every cut. Now we'll wait and see what happens.
Princess tree - a picture of health.
Slash and squirt - dead meat.

On our way back down the hill, we stumbled into a brightly marked box turtle crawling across the trail. Box turtles seem to be well-represented in our little part of the world, but they are in trouble throughout their range. Populations of these long-lived, terrestrial turtles are in decline due to a number of factors, especially habitat destruction and roadway mortality. An adult male, like the one we encountered, can be as old as 40 years to 120 or more - something to think about the next time you see one struggling across a busy highway. For the time being, this one is safe as long as he stays on our side of the valley - and we intend to keep him and all the other wild things on the property that way, for as long as we are able.
eastern box turtle

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Down To The Swamp

The wedding was beautiful. Our friends, Mark and Dana got married last weekend in Charleston, S.C. and it couldn't have been more perfect. The outdoor ceremony took place in an open glade amid the majestic live oaks, draped in Spanish moss as the sun set gently over the low country. As the bride and groom said their vows, Mississippi kites and anhingas soared overhead. It was enough to take your breath away.

Sue and I were so enamored by the setting (Magnolia Plantation), we decided we would return the next day to celebrate the start of Sue's birthday with our good friends, Jenny and Warren, by walking the grounds at a leisurely stroll and soaking in all of South Carolina's natural goodness.

After we woke and polished off a spectacular breakfast at the Sweetwater Cafe on James Island (a joint that has earned The Bumbling Bushman's highest rating), the four of us drove back over to the plantation and paid the $8-a-head fee to enter the Audubon Swamp Garden trail and boardwalk. Lest ye be confused the swamp garden is a wildlife sanctuary with Audubon oversight, it is not. It is a revenue-generating attraction maintained by Magnolia Plantation, but the entrance fee seems to keep much of the touristy riff-raff out and buys you a chance to see some pretty amazing wildlife and scenery.

Great egrets on the nest.
The 1.25-mile trail and boardwalk first led us through the wading bird colony, where great blue herons, little blue herons, anhingas, cattle, snowy and great egrets have built a communal rookery for raising their young.

The sights and sounds of the rookery are interesting and entertaining enough for the most casual naturalist, but the girl I married happens to have been, at one time, the lead waterbird biologist for the state of North Carolina, and she was in heaven. In her hundreds, if not thousands, of hours censusing and studying heron rookeries, Sue admitted she had never experienced anything quite like what we saw at the swamp garden. With a steady flow of visitors, the birds there are impossibly acclimated to human intrusions during the most vulnerable stage of their life cycle. Everywhere we looked, anhinga chicks begged their parents for food, little blue herons incubated their eggs and cattle egrets gathered nest materials.
Cattle egret
Of course, it being a swamp in the South and all, there were reptiles to be seen as well. It took us a little while, but eventually we spotted our first alligator, a young specimen of perhaps 36 inches. Then Warren was lucky enough to see a much, much larger gator, maybe 10 feet, have a half-hearted go at a female wood duck. The gator missed out, but it was plenty obvious none of the swamp's big lizards was going to go hungry anytime soon. The place was a veritable smorgasbord of gator food; with half-a-dozen broods of wood duck ducklings paddling around, an ever-present possibility of heron or egret chicks falling out of their nests and a turtle population that approaches biblical proportions.
Gator snack. Jenny calls them "turtle popcorn."

As we made our way around the swamp garden, the neotropical songbird population was in full song as the breeding season approaches full swing in the South. Prothonotary warblers, northern parulas, summer tanagers, white-eyed vireos, blue-gray gnatcatchers and great-crested flycatchers belted out a background symphony, with amphibian and insect soloists that merely hinted at the unseen riot of life around us.

We would have stayed all day, but duties back home in the mountains for Sue and I, and the North Carolina coast for Jenny and Warren, beckoned and it was time to hit the road again. On the drive home, Sue and I couldn't help but plot our next trip to the low country. Maybe this fall we can squeeze in a weekend on one of the undeveloped barrier islands South Carolina is so lucky to have - I sure hope so.
Whatcha lookin at guys?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Gear Review: The Original Muck Boot Company, Woody EX Pro

After my hunting license, my gun and ammunition, the most important piece of gear in my arsenal is footwear. A good pair of boots, be they hiking, snow or knee, is practically essential to my success in the field. I'm not alone in this opinion. Take a look at the next outdoors catalog that arrives in your mailbox. Chances are, that big section in the middle will be devoted to boots, boots and more boots. Imelda Marcos would be impressed.

I started hunting right around the time the scent management craze hit the industry. If you weren't wearing some sort of carbon-infused fiber to "eliminate" your natural and unavoidable stink, you were wasting your time. Tennis shoes were right out.

After shelling out for a rifle, camo clothing, fanny back and all sorts of "essential" deer hunting equipment, I didn't have the funds for a pair of state-of-the-art hunting boots. I went with what I thought was the next best thing; some uninsulated rubber knee boots off the bargain rack and a pair of thick socks.

I'm sure some folks can sit in a tree stand for hours on end in such an outfit and never get cold toes, but I quickly found out after one miserable deer season that I cannot.

The next year, I received a pair of Lacrosse Lite 7.0 Alphas under the Christmas tree and I never looked back. For hunting the flat and temperate Coastal Plain of North Carolina, the neoprene/foam hunting boot was the way to go, except...

I'm hard on boots. Had I just stuck to tree stand hunting in my new boots, I'm sure I would have been satisfied with their superior warmth and comfort to the nameless, Spartan rubber jobs I had upgraded from. I couldn't leave well enough alone. I wore them rabbit hunting. I stalked wild turkeys in them. I donned them when I chased wild hogs in the Florida orange groves. In less than 12 months, the Alphas were falling apart.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for that pair of $80 knee boots, but I was disappointed. I kept wearing the Alphas despite the tears and the worn soles for the better part of 5 years. There always seemed to be something more pressing, sexier, to add to the arsenal than shelling out the big bucks for a better pair of boots.

My friends, I'm here to tell you that if you are like I was - trudging through life with inferior knee boots - you need to consider making a change.

Earlier this year, through my affiliation with the Outdoor Blogger Network, I was selected to receive and review a pair of Woody EX Pro knee boots from The Original Muck Boot Company.

I take this responsibility seriously. I can't give an accurate review of a pair of hunting boots by simply slipping them on and walking around the block a few times. I decided to wait to do this write-up until I had a real chance to put them through their paces during the toughest, prolonged test I could think of; the spring wild turkey season in the Appalachian foothills.

First, the specs:
Woody EX Pro 

All the standard MUCK BOOT™ features plus:
  • Stretch-fit topline binding snugs calf to keep warmth in and cold out
  • Anti-microbial treatment prevents growth of odor causing bacteria
  • Inscentible® scent masking for improved concealment when hunting
  • 5mm CR flex-foam bootie with four-way stretch Spandura®, 100% waterproof, lightweight and flexible
  • Natural rubber upper reinforcement for added durability
  • MS-1 molded outsole is rugged, aggressive and durable for maximum protection and stability
  • Additional achilles overlay for added protection
  • 2mm thermal foam underlay added to the instep area for additional warmth
  • EVA molded midsole with contoured footbed
  • Reinforced toe
  • Added toe protection with a wrap-up bumper
  • Reinforced shinguard
  • New Mossy Oak Break-Up® Camo
  • Comfort range of -40ºF to 60ºF 
I gave the Woody EX Pros a warm-up during a 2-day wild hog hunting trip to the South Carolina Low Country back in March. The boots are comfortable, there's no denying that. When I first put them on and walked around a bit, I was concerned by the stiffness of the midsole. For the first day or so, it felt like I was wearing a pair of downhill ski boots, forcing me to walk heel-to-toe. After a half-mile or so, however, the midsole loosened up and the boots became much more flexible. They have as much foot and ankle support as anyone can expect from a knee boot (far better than my old pair of Lacrosse), but riding around the marsh in a skiff and sitting in a tree stand was not the kind of test I was looking for.

Enter turkey season; scouting and hunting. The patch of land I hunted is hilly, and when I say hilly, I mean steep. Extended up and down hiking is the name of the game. Ripping, tearing wild blackberries and briars are everywhere. To be honest, knee boots are not suitable for it. Hiking boots are safer and more practical, but I wanted to see the Woody EX Pro perform and perform they did.

With just a pair of lightweight tube socks separating me from my boots, the Woody EX Pros were far more comfortable than I thought was possible for a knee boot to be in that type of terrain. Each boot weighs 1230 grams (I weighed them), which is a full 100 grams lighter than the Lacrosse Alphas. Despite the weight difference, the Woody EX Pro seems far sturdier than the rival boot. In fact, they have so far proven to be, dare I say, indestructible.

The rubber uppers protect the cushy foam booty from thorns and sharp sticks. I have no doubt some of the briar tangles I waded through would have torn my Lacrosse Alphas to ribbons. The Woody EX Pros remain unscathed.

As I stated earlier, knee boots are not my first choice for hiking up and down steep slopes in the western Carolina springtime. With all the miles I logged in these boots (I'd guess 12 over the course of eight hunting trips) it was not surprising to me that I developed blisters on my heels. There were certainly times when I wished for lighter footwear - the kind only found in high end hiking boots - but overall I was amazed at how comfortable it was to hunt in the Woody EX Pros. After three straight days of hunting hard, you would think my feet would be screaming as I put my boots back on in the pre-dawn darkness, but it wasn't so. I always started the day in complete comfort.

As for warmth and waterproofing, The Original Muck Boot Company does not overreach in its performance claims, though I would have been sorely surprised if it did. Knee boots are supposed to be waterproof and should remain so for as long as the uppers stay intact. It seems after my experience, these are particularly durable, well-built boots that should provide many years of dry-footed service. The temperature during my hunting season ranged between 40 - 80 degrees, hardly a test for the Woody EX Pro claim of comfort from -40 to 60. That assessment will have to wait for winter, though I doubt any boot on this earth would keep my feet warm at -40. I can say that even at 80 degrees, my feet remained dry. 
As for claims of anti-microbial treatment and scent-masking technology, I cannot measure. Regardless, I feel these would be a great boot for tree stand hunters in terms of comfort and durability. 

Who should own a pair of these boots? If you still-hunt whitetails and/or wild turkeys in the mid-Atlantic coastal plain, or anywhere with mildly rolling or flat terrain, the Woody EX Pro is a superlative choice. If you walk-in short to medium distances to hunt from a tree stand, this boot is a great choice.

Now, what about the cost? With an MSRP of nearly $220, the Woody EX Pro is hardly an entry-level knee boot. They are priced nearly three times more than my old Lacrosse boots. They outperform them by that and then some.

The takeaway: When it comes to knee boots, at least in the case of The Original Muck Boot Company's Woody EX Pro, you get what you pay for. If you've got the money, I for one, have absolutely no reservations in giving my wholehearted endorsement to them.

Happy hunting.

Disclaimer: This review is an honest portrayal of my experience with the product. I received the Woody EX Pro boots from The Original Muck Boot Company free of charge in exchange for the above review. I am in no other way affiliated to, or have received any form of payment from The Original Muck Boot Company. If the boots sucked, I would tell you so. ~ The Bumbling Bushman

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Flaccid Decoys And Empty Chambers: A Hunting Story

The calendar says there are five days left in the 2011 wild turkey season in North Carolina, but I'm done and not in the good way.

All the pre-season scouting trips back in March; all the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls; all the miles trudged up and down those Appalachian foothills have come to naught. I am turkeyless ... again.

Remember that post I wrote two months ago? I do. I boasted, "There in the thick pine stand roosts the tom turkey I intend to kill on opening day." I hedged my bets when I also wrote, "I've been at this game long enough to realize the myriad things that can and probably will go wrong ..." I was mistaken on both counts. I did not kill that tom turkey on opening day, or any other day for that matter, and I had no idea of the colorful new ways this season I'd find to screw up a turkey hunt.

I'll spare you the descriptive minutia of every trip I made into the woods; the dozen or so times I worked gobblers that responded to my calls and, for whatever reason, did not commit. I'll just tell you about these:

April 13 - Opening Week
A close encounter with two toms a couple of days prior had me thinking I could set up above the roost, set out a decoy on an old logging road and patiently wait out the bird that would finally break my 3-year slump. I climbed three quarters of the way up the hill, found a clearing in the thick pines and unrolled my inflatable hen turkey decoy.

After I made myself comfortable, I put out a series of yelps with my trusty box call and waited. Ten minutes later, I threw out another sequence and one of the toms down the hill responded, starting a game of Marco Polo that went on for the next half hour or so, with me trying to convince him to come up the hill and him trying to convince me to come down. Finally, the gobbler went quiet and I got ready. A responsive tom turkey that suddenly stops gobbling usually means one of two things; either a real hen has come to the party and taken him away, or he's on the move and closing the distance.

It was the latter. After five minutes or so, the tom gobbled just downhill from me. He was searching for that hen who was playing hard to get. I shouldered my shotgun and pointed it in the opening I thought he'd appear. The gobbler fired off again, a little to the left and facing away. A minute later, he gobbled again, further to the left and further away. Reluctantly, I lowered the gun and picked up my box call. I stroked out some soft, sweet yelps and he cut me off with a thunderous gobble. He was coming in hot.

A minute later, I spotted him coming over the rise, right where I expected him to. He stopped for a second, picked up his head and saw the decoy for the first time. He was 25 yards away. I could have shot him right there, but I held off as he went into a half-strut and gobbled again at the decoy. This was game and set. He'd seen the decoy and was moving into position to find some room to do some strutting. I followed him with the bead at the end of the barrel as he orbited the decoy. I was going to let him walk right up on it and then I was going to clobber him.

Little did I know ...

The old tom circled 90 degrees around the decoy, never stopping or presenting a shot. When he got downhill of my itchy trigger finger, he made an unexpected left turn and kept on going down the slope, never to be seen or heard from again. What the ...?

The headless decoy.
I waited a little while, then called a bit, then called a little louder, and then louder still. He was gone alright.

I looked around my ambush. Something spooked him. Was my white tube sock showing above my boot? Had my roll of orange flagging tape (I never go hunting without it) fallen out of my pocket? Nope. I was clean. I stood up and looked down the hill. Wait a minute, the decoy didn't look right. I walked over to my inflatable turkey sex toy and realized the valve had come open and deflated any chance I had of killing that bird. Foiled by a flaccid decoy.

April 28 - Week 3, in the company of the Florida Cracker Contingent
I was excited to host three of my great hunting buddies from the state of Florida, who, over the last four years, have given up their expertise and access to vast orange groves outside Tampa to me and several of my North Carolina compadres to hunt wild pigs. Shooting hogs isn't terribly exciting for them, but they do love to hunt turkeys and I was thrilled by the opportunity to repay their generosity.

We split into two teams. Stephen and I started midway up a ridge and heard a distant gobbler above us right before 7 o'clock. We worked that bird for an hour, but I'm not sure it ever even heard me calling to it. Eventually, the tom went quiet and we made a big move to the top of a ridge at the head of the valley.

Plenty of scratching here. Let's give it a try.
Stephen and I expected to hear something once we got to the top, but it was all quiet. We didn't want to give up after busting our tails in climbing the ridge, so we walked along, looking for a spot to sit and call. There was plenty of turkey scratching up there, so we decided to sit 30 yards apart on either side of the ridge and do a little calling.

I had my back against a fallen log and a great view of the slope below. The only way a turkey was going to sneak up on me was if it came in from behind or slipped in from above on the opposite side of the ridge. That would be fine because that was where Stephen was sitting. I got to calling every five minutes or so, but to be honest, I was doing as much basking in the Carolina sunshine as I was paying attention to the woods around me. Every once in awhile Stephen would call with his slate. He sounded great. Life was good. Maybe I could just close my eyes a little bit and take a nap.

I must have moved my head a little bit right before I heard that all too familiar alarm putt of a male turkey at close range. My eyes snapped open and I spotted a jake on full alert, on the ridge above me, just 20 yards away. He'd busted me but he wasn't quite sure what he should do about it. As he started fast-walking across my area of influence, I brought up the shotgun and followed his head. If he stopped, it was going to be all over. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied another bird, closer, standing stock still behind a large pine. He hadn't seen me yet for the tree between us, so I swung over to him and waited. A moment later, the second jake stepped out into the open. It was a 15-yard shot. I admired his feathers, all bronzy and green in the sunshine, his stubby little beard sticking out of the middle of his chest, his vibrant red head, and I squeezed the trigger. The long wait was finally over. Click. The turkey looked at me and started running down the hill after his partner, then they both took off and sailed down the valley.

I looked at my gun in disbelief, and then the wave of dread washed over me. I worked the pump and opened the chamber - no shells. I slipped my hand into my right pants pocket and felt the three rounds that were supposed to be in my gun. Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. I didn't do that did I?

There are many sins in the woods. Not loading one's gun before the hunt is perhaps the stupidest and most inexcusable and I now count myself among those unfortunate fools who have committed it.

Yes folks, it's been a long season. I didn't get my turkey, but I certainly made things happen. I am sated and take comfort in the knowledge those birds will be there next spring, a little older, a little wiser, and I can only hope that I will be too.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fly Fishing The Davidson (No, Seriously, I Really Did)

One would have thought a serious outdoorsman like myself (he writes with tongue planted firmly in cheek) would have been chomping at the bit to take advantage of the fishing opportunities in my new surroundings. When I moved to these Blue Ridge Mountains a little over a year ago, I left the piscatorial bounty of the marshes, sounds and blackwater rivers, not to mention the nearby surf and Gulf Stream waters, of the Coastal Plain for the clear, cold trout streams of western NC.

Truth be told, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of jumping headlong into the fly fishing scene here. I am little more than a dabbler in the beautiful art of roll casts and nymphing, more comfortable with a spinning rod or a tuna stick really. The thought of laying out the cash for a new fly rod, line, leaders, tippets and tackle was daunting, not to mention I know very little etiquette when it comes to the gentleman's sport.

When my friend Sean called to invite me on a guided fishing expedition to the famed Davidson River, I jumped. Here was my chance to fish under the tutelage of a local expert and use gear suited to the task. The trip was a birthday gift to Sean from his wife and allowed me to join in for a nominal fee.

After a 45-minute drive from Black Mountain, Sean and I met our guide. Starr Nolan. Starr guides for Brookside Guides of Asheville and immediately set to work preparing us for the numerous, but heavily pressured fish near the state hatchery stretch in Pisgah National Forest just outside Brevard.
What 'er we fishin' for Starr?
After a quick casting lesson, with special emphasis on the roll casts suited for the Davidson's tight quarters, we headed to the river to find an open pool to fish. Going in, Starr warned us the river would be crowded and the fish would be wary, but there are enough trout to make it worthwhile for everyone, including novices like Sean and me.

She wasn't kidding. The popularity of the hatchery stretch, on a beautiful Saturday morning in April no less, is a little intimidating. In some pools it looked like shoulder-to-shoulder angling. Add that to the fact we were going to be nymph fishing and I was pretty skeptical of our prospects for success. It didn't help much that a gigantic brown trout was holding in the current at the exact spot we stepped in. When I pointed to the 20-inch-plus monster excitedly, Starr simply acknowledged its presence with a shrug and went in anyway. "Oh boy," I thought, "This is going to be brutal."

With a little more experience with a buggy whip than Sean, I was instructed to head up to the next run and start fishing on my own while the other two stayed back to fish together. Starr tied a large, garish looking nymph with a red bead in the middle of a length of greenish swizzle stick and said, "Try this first. You never know what this fish will do when they see something completely different." I looked at the crazy fly with a bit more trepidation, but hey, she was the guide and you always do what the guide tells you.

It took a little while to get used to the drift and finding the fly as it tumbled across the rocky bottom, but I got the hang of it and eventually saw a trout chase it a short distance as it drifted through the run. With a little more work and who knows how many unseen strikes, I saw and missed my first bite.

Dude, that was a biggun'!
Meanwhile, Sean and Starr continued to work out the kinks on their stretch of water and I watched Sean set the hook on a big fish. The fight didn't last long. Sean only just started fighting the brute on the reel when it broke off. "How big?" "18-inch rainbow," they said. Holy crap!

After several minutes without any action, Starr waded over to me and changed my rig to a tandem nymph and strike indicator. The bit of yarn that served as a bobber (don't tell Starr I called it that) put me back on a steep learning curve as I tried to figure out how to get the drift to match up with the flies tumbling along below. Then it happened. Just as I was about to pick up my cast, I felt a weigh against the line, fish on! I played the little brown against the current and eventually brought it to hand - a beautiful 9-incher hooked in the corner of the mouth. I announced my catch with a prideful "Ahem!" to Sean and Starr downstream and quickly released it, as the area we were fishing is catch-and-release only.

Buoyed by success and new confidence, I finally started fishing. My senses and body tuned in to the river and its immediate surroundings. There! Is that a caddis fly? Look! Another one. There's a small fish rising every few minutes on the other side of the pool. I bet that sluggish spot behind that boulder would be good.

I started to feel like I was hunting rather than fishing. This fly fishing thing was pretty alright.

The sluggish spot behind the boulder did hold a fish and I struck home when the indicator zigged when it should have zagged. The trout raced back out to the heavy current and I let it go downstream. I followed while Starr moved up into position with her landing net. After a short give and take, she netted the foot-long brown for me and offered sincere congratulations. It wasn't the biggest fish in the river by any stretch ofthe imagination, but I couldn't have been happier. I had come to the Davidson and caught a fish as it was meant to be caught. We snapped a few pictures and let it go.
A trophy to me.
At this point, you might be getting the impression I am a fly fishing idiot savant. I am not. Think more idiot, less savant. As the morning wore on, Sean and I kept Starr busy untangling our tippets, retrieving our flies from the rhododendrons and ringing her hands over shamelessly missed strikes. She worked her tail off,  but had her revenge.

With just a few minutes remaining in our session and me already given up and lounging on the bank, Starr asked Sean for his rod so that she might show him what a perfect drift looked like. She cast the rig expertly into a riffle Sean had been flogging for the last 10 minutes and, with a flick of the wrist, the rod bent over. "Oh, you're going to kill me," she said in horror as a 15-inch rainbow skyrocketed out of the water. There was some back-and-forth I couldn't hear, but eventually Sean took the rod from Starr as she unclipped her net and made toward the fish. The leader was touched, but the fish made a final surge for freedom and snapped the tippet. Ahhh well, the Davidson rarely gives up its treasures easily.

On the ride home, Sean and I talked fishing and mountain streams and the beauty of the Blue Ridge. As for fly fishing, I'm off the fence. I'm all in.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Season Of The Grill

I know some of you are still languishing in the cold, wet throes of winter's last breath, but here in the Blue Ridge Mountains it's time to transition out of the kitchen and onto the patio. The era of braising, stewing and roasting is over. The dawn of the grilling season is upon us.

If you eat wild meats like Sue and I do, you already know how tricky it can be to get the most out of them when you're cooking outdoors over an open flame. The meat is so lean, it's quite unforgiving on the grill. One second you've cooked your venison steak to perfection, the next second it's gone too far and turned leathery on you. This isn't the kind of grilling where you can go inside for another beer and leave the flame unattended. You need to have your cooler next to the grill and be there with tongs at the ready. The good news is, wild game cooks very quickly over high heat, so you probably won't need another beer before it's finished.

I love shish kebabs. As a kid growing up near Boston, I remember the lamb shish kebabs they serve at Santarpio's Pizza of East Boston. They are simple; cubed lamb skewered without distracting and unnecessary vegetables, held over glowing hardwood embers by a sweaty old guy named Gino (I made that name up, but he is sweaty and old). The intense heat puts a smoky, char on the edges, but the meat stays pink and moist in the center. It's wonderfully "lamby" with a satisfying undertone of onion essence, despite the fact there is no onion to be found on the skewer. They are the mark when it comes to shish kebab.

That mysterious onion flavor has confounded and haunted me until I opened up Soheila Kimberley's "Taste of the Middle East," published in 1996. There, I learned about the Persian method of marinating meat overnight in a simple blend of grated onion and saffron water. Kimberley uses lamb or beef fillet for her "kabab bahrg" whose origin is Iranian. I, of course, substitute a high quality venison roast or loin. Otherwise, I stick to the script, which goes like this...

  • 1 pound venison roast, cut into strips about 1/2-inch thick and 1-1/2-inches long
  • 2-3 saffron strands
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 3 Tbsp sumac to garnish
  • cooked rice (or couscous) to serve
Take the meat out of the freezer a day ahead of time and thaw it in the fridge. Grate the onion (I used a box grater the first time, then I wised up and used the attachment on my Cuisinart). Pour a tablespoon of boiling water over the saffron strands and allow them to steep for a few minutes before adding them (with the infused water) to the bowl of grated onion. Add the venison to the bowl and mix it to coat. Cover it loosely with plastic wrap and marinate overnight in the fridge.

Holy onion juice! That's ruined, right?
When you're ready to grill, take out the venison and calm yourself. All that onion juice now drowning your beautiful venison roast has not ruined it - trust me. Thread the meat tightly onto your skewers. I know many kebab recipes call for making sure you leave space between the chunks of meat for even cooking, but this venison needs to be packed closely so it won't dry out on the grill. Now is the time to prepare separate, vegetable skewers if you're including them. Kimberley suggests tomato wedges here, but I have yet to make this during tomato season, so I haven't included them... yet.

Melt your butter and bring it out with a basting brush to paint the kebabs as they cook. Season the venison skewers with salt and pepper. I cook the kebabs over a high flame with the lid down for five or six minutes, then flip them over and finish the grilling for another five or six minutes. I know this sounds like a long time for such thinly sliced venison, but that's why you packed them so tightly on the skewer and baste them with the butter periodically until it's gone. The outside of the meat gets a perfect crust while the inside is pink and juicy.
A mediocre picture of a superb dish.
Now, sumac is an obscure spice, but if you happen to have it, use it here to finish the dish. It has a lemony/sweet paprika quality and it's traditional for this preparation. You could substitute some squeezed lemon juice and a sprinkle of paprika with great results as well.

What you end up with is a shish kebab even Gino would be proud of.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Not To Hunt A Wild Turkey

Turkey sex toy.
Well, you want the long version or the short one? Wait a minute, this is my blog. You'll get both.

The North Carolina wild turkey season is just three days old and already I feel as if I've been taken to the wood shed. If I could draw a comparison to a current sports storyline; my season so far resembles the Boston Red Sox - full of promise, short on success.

In the days leading up to Saturday's season opener, I drove through the pre-dawn darkness three times to my happy hunting grounds. I located at least 11 different gobblers sounding off on or near the property and devised a game plan to put me in the meat.

On turkey opener eve, my beautiful wife, Sue, a.k.a. "The Turkey Ninja," announced she wished to join me as an observer in the morning. This was welcome news. In my efforts to introduce her to the world of hunting, Sue has proven reluctant. Turkeys seem to be the exception though, at least once a season anyway.

On the drive out, I hit a rabbit. It was not an auspicious start, as Sue is loathe to harm any creatures trying to cross her path. It may seem like a strange reaction for a woman on her way to presumably watch a wild turkey get shot in the head, but it's really not. The hunters I know consider all lives to be precious. Any animal killed accidentally or through negligence is to be mourned as a wasted life - very different from a life taken intentionally for our sustenance. We continued on the drive in silence for awhile, then I broke it to ask if Sue was still on my team. Her response was noncommittal. I needed to rally.

We settled in at a spot very close to where I'd heard a gobbler on the roost the week before. As we awaited the sunrise and the gobbling to commence, the surrounding hills came alive with birdsong. The second week in April is prime time to meet the northbound migration as it passes through western North Carolina. From our ambush, we could hear whip-poor-wills, a wood thrush, northern parulas, prairie warbler, black-throated green warbler, yellow-throated warbler, a broad-winged hawk and finally, a wild turkey. But it was not the turkey we had planned to target. He was down slope and distant. I knew we were in the right spot and fought off the urge to chase the gobbler.

By 7:15, it started to become obvious the turkey I expected to be roosted in front of us wasn't there. The old tom down the hill, however, was still gobbling up a storm so I finally broke out my trusty box call and gave a loud sequence of clucks and yelps. He responded with a resounding gobble and, after some 20 minutes of convincing, started heading our way.

From his incessant cackling, it was easy to follow the tom's progress as he trekked up the hollow and then turned left into a narrow gully that led to Sue and I. He went quiet for five minutes or so, then the ground shook when he fired off again; very close, but still unseen. He was pacing around just below us and needed to come a few more yards for me to have a shot. I whispered to Sue to cover her ears, as I anticipated a shot to my left and across her body. The turkey gobbled again and again. I could hear his footsteps right below us but there was no way I would risk trying to belly up to the lip of the gully. Turkey hunting is all about patience and I was pretty sure at that point we had game and set and were just waiting on match.

What do you mean, 'That's it?' I thought you said we were gonna get him.
It never happened. The bird kept right on gobbling; answering every yelp and cluck I made with my box call, but it became quite apparent he was moving away from us, back down the gully and out into the larger hollow. We tried moving in behind him to see if we couldn't rekindle that spark we had before, but the turkey kept on moving out in front of us and finally went up and over the ridge at around 9 a.m., never to be heard again.

I had Sunday to reflect (there is no hunting on Sundays in NC - gasp!) and then went back after them yesterday morning. I was on my own and started in a new spot that had three toms gobbling from their roosts back during my scouting days.

It didn't take long for the birds to fire up and I made my approach up the hill and across several ridges until I felt I was in a prime spot. When it sounded like the birds were gobbling from the ground, I called to them and they answered enthusiastically. After an hour of talking back-and-forth with the gobblers, it became apparent that two of them were starting to close the distance. Within minutes, I was back in the same position I'd been with Sue the day before - gun at my shoulder, pointed downhill, just waiting for one of those old longbeards to step into view. Instead, the birds stayed on the other side of the slope and kept on walking to me. Now they were parallel and on my right. I shifted to point the gun barrel that way and thought about how great it was going to be to drive home with a turkey that morning. But the birds kept on going and soon they were above and behind me - gobbling to beat the band. The hairs on the back of my neck were at full attention.

I had to decide on an all-or-nothing maneuver. The gobblers were behind me, in range, but there was nothing I could do about it unless I turned to face uphill. I could also have just stayed frozen in place and hoped for one of them to come back down, but I went for all the marbles and shifted to my butt in a fluid motion that pointed me in the right direction. I was too late. The birds had already crested the rise and they must have watched my little pirouette with smug amusement. In the half-second it took to situate myself, alarm clucks and footsteps running away were the last I heard of those turkeys. I'd been busted.

I was dejected. It was the closest I'd come to killing a wild turkey in three years and I'd blown it because I hadn't shifted my ass in time to keep up with the birds. It was only a little after 8 a.m., however, and a gobble off in the distance indicated the game was still on.

To keep an long story only slightly less long, I won't bother to detail the four other times I had gobblers responding to my calls. They all stayed off in the distance and nothing came of it. I will, however, tell you of my final, heart-breaking encounter of the day.

I was exhausted, having climbed to the top of the mountain and back, and the sun was high enough to have the sweat pouring down my face. I was hungry too. All I'd had to eat since I woke up was a mug of coffee and a lousy pear. On my way back to the truck, I came up short. A hen turkey was standing in the middle of the trail. I threw the gun up, just in case it turned out to be a jake (a 1-year-old male turkey - legal fodder) and watched her as she fled up the slope. It was 11 o'clock. I thought to myself, "I wonder if she just left a gobbler." I hit the call and a thunderous gobble erupted to my left. It sounded like he was just across the creek, so I slipped into the woods, forded the creek and put my back up against a pile of rocks. I yelped again and he answered. He was very close. I put the box call down and got ready. I waited and waited and waited. I should have waited some more.

I grew impatient after 10 minutes and slid my hand towards the call to try to give him some soft yelps and get him to gobble again. As my hand inched away from my body, I saw the feathered velociraptor slipping through the rhododendrons, just 20 yards away. Our eyes met at the same instant. He had me pegged the instant I moved my fool hand. For several long seconds we were frozen like that, then he turned to run away and I brought the gun up to my cheek and pointed it at his retreating head. It wasn't an ethical shot and I checked myself from taking it. Instead, I watched the big tom cross the trail I'd just come off and head up the slope to safety. I was busted again.

I nearly cried. I know damn well not to make a stupid move like that when a gobbler is close at hand. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I just wanted to hear him gobble again. Maybe I'm just an idiot. Maybe I'll never kill another turkey for as long as I live. I had to take today off from hunting to let my mind settle and body recuperate. Tomorrow I'm going back in. Some people are gluttons for punishment.
This was waiting for me back at the truck after Day 2.

Editor's note: If you want to see some real turkey hunting, check out this video link sent in by Bumbling Bushman pro staffers, Brian and Nate. With Nate on the camera, Brian shot his first archery gobbler on opening day in eastern North Carolina. Obviously, a turkey dies in the video, so consider yourselves forwarned. Enjoy!