Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Florida Hog Hunt, Part II: Did He Say These Things Were Dangerous?

Can you see them?
Steve puts down the phone and informs Warren and I that Mr. X is calling for more guns at the tomato field. We quickly batten down the hatches and Steve puts the pedal to the metal. After a brief delay at the gate (blame this city boy for his lack of gate-shutting savvy) we roll off the blacktop and spot Mr. X's truck parked behind some tall grass at the edge of an expanse of fallow land.

My jaw drops as I look out into the field - a herd, a sounder of hogs, maybe 25 strong, is rooting contentedly in the rain-soaked soil. There are three or four black ones that look enormous compared to the kaleidoscope of shoats swirling around their feet. One of them is a boar and he is sniffing the sows to see if any of them are in season for breeding. In addition to the tankers, another five or six sturdy looking pigs of varying colors and patterns complete the group. They are 200 yards away and the sun is setting rapidly.

We huddle briefly and decide to drive parallel to the sounder to where we can park the trucks behind a small, isolated copse of palmettos and oaks. We dismount and creep en masse around the edge. The distance is 150 yards. The pigs are unaware. We belly-crawl the final few yards to a 12-inch dirt berm and steady our rifles on that and dial our scopes up to maximum magnification. The firing line is evenly-spaced across a 30-yard front. Brian is five yards to my right and Nate is a similar distance to my left. Mr. X instructs everyone to pick out a target and commence firing on the count of three. I put my crosshairs on a relatively stationary reddish blond hog and click the safety off.

It occurs to me that someone else may have also targeted this hog. Nate confirms this as Mr. X starts the countdown. "I'm on the big red one in the middle," he whispers. Well, hell. I pull off and frantically try to acquire another target that isn't moving or has its ass to me before ignition. I don't. "Three!" BoBoBoBooom, boom, bamBoom - chaos.

Hogs are running everywhere. As I look through my scope for a target (very hard to do at 9X). I note, somewhat concerned, that all of the hogs appear to have survived the first volley. The boys commence firing at will just as the 10-15 younguns decide as a group to break for the nearest cover, which happens to be right behind us. Everyone is now standing, with a great view of what happens next. The larger pigs take their cue from the shoats and start running towards us. It's like a reenactment of Pickett's Charge. I finally find a pig - the red one, running head-on - in my scope and fire - reload - find another pig. The shoats have closed the distance to 20 yards and are threatening to infiltrate the line, with the big hogs right on their tails.

Brian stones a white sow with black spots just before things get dicey. The red hog (the bloody red hog!) survives the gauntlet and runs between the two of us and into the safety of the thicket. The rest of the sounder, led by the little ones, seems to have finally figured out where we are and our evil intentions and makes a turn to the west, giving everyone broadside shots at running hogs at 15 yards.

My scope is still on 9-power. I can't find anything. Finally, a black blur streaks across my field of view and I swing hard to the left, catch back up with it, pull ahead of it and squeeze the trigger. The pig staggers and I reload. There's no need to rush, however, Nate closes the deal with a well-placed shot. The pigs are once again ass-to me and I lower my gun in time to see Steve and Mr. X bring down a sizeable silver-colored sow, and then it's over. The surviving pigs are moving at warp speed across the field toward the far treeline. We are left standing in the dusky, dusty light, shaking our heads in disbelief. Did that really just happen?

There are four pigs down, including one of the shoats that no one claims to have been aiming at.

Mr. X says he's never seen anything like it - that goes double for the rest of us.

 We head back to the house to show Sean (he's been under the weather since our arrival and stayed back from the afternoon hunt to rest and cook dinner). Dinner is wild duck gumbo, two baked chickens and couscous. Did I tell you about our hosts? Afterward, we decide to process all the pigs so we'll have more time to hunt the next day before we have to leave. We break out the scales and weigh the bounty. The tomato field smack down amounts to 544 pounds of pork on the hoof. The largest is Steve and Mr. X's sow, which weighs in at 149 pounds. The shoat tips the scales at 26 pounds. We make plans to split him down the middle and smoke him over coals with a sweet glaze - imagine pork candy if you will. Added to the two hogs taken and processed before lunch and our total for the first day is over 800 pounds, live weight.

It's after midnight by the time we finish, get back to the house, clean the grime off ourselves and crawl into bed. Day 2 starts in just six hours. 

I am woken by Nate, who's already dressed and ready to go. Sean appears to have driven back whatever ails him, at least for the moment, and has his truck keys in-hand. On the way to the groves, there is a phone call - Mr. X says there's a big black hog in the middle of the field.

Warren is elected to take the shot, for which the rest of us should all be thankful for. As we pull up, Mr. X hands Warren his favorite 30-06 and points to the porker - 200 yards out in the field. Video cameras are deployed for posterity and there stands sleep-deprived Warren, with a bloodthirsty audience breathing down his neck, an unfamiliar rifle, two cups of coffee coursing through his veins and the prospect of the furthest shot he's ever attempted. It doesn't go well. There is a problem with the gun. Warren can't figure out how to chamber a round into the chute. He looks back at the crowd for guidance, gets it, and pushes the receiver button. "SCHWANNNNG" The pig looks up for the first time, sees his would-be executioners and decides life might be better somewhere over in Nassau County. I have never seen a pig run so fast.

It is the only pig we see all morning.

The group is getting whittled down. Mr. X has business to attend to, Steve has departed for the Keys and Warren has taken himself out of the line-up so that he might find a mechanic who can fix the back window motor in "The Beast," which has stopped working. If he cannot, we'll be forced to drive 14 hours through the night breathing diesel fumes.

Nate, Sean, Brian and I decide to push through some heavy cover on foot, figuring the pigs are bedded down in there. In addition to oranges, this is also cattle country and the scrubby thickets erupt with disgruntled beef cows as we stalk through. Oh yes, I almost forgot, Brian has decided to bring his bow for the push.

We're more than halfway through and I pause to reform the line. To my right, Nate emerges into an opening and comes abreast of me some 20 yards away. To my left, I wait to see Brian. He's not there. I start thinking he might have something going on when I see his head poke up behind a tall clump of grass, then he ducks back down, then he's up again. It looks like he's about to pull back on his bowstring when, instead, he takes off running out of the headland and into the open pasture beyond. I can't see what's happening so I run over to where I last saw him and look out.

Brian is still running. There is a herd of pigs running ahead of him, making for another sheltered headland across the pasture. The pasture is full of cows. Brian has his bow and arrow. He looks like an aborigine, racing across the plains; all he needs is a loin cloth.

I run after Brian and the pigs, but I can't catch up before they all dive into the thick cover on the other side of the field. This sequence of events would be surprising except that I've seen it time and time again. When most hunters get busted by the game we seek, the normal reaction is to stop, watch the animal(s) run away and feel sorry for ourselves. Brian chases them. He says it catches them by surprise and half the time, it actually works. The animal stops to see what kind of maniac is chasing it through the forest and then Brian strikes.

I wait outside the head, which is actually a 3- or 4-acre, oval-shaped island of thick vegetation in the middle of the cow pasture. Sean drives up, followed by Nate and I tell them what's happening in there. We sit there outside the head, talking about what an idiot Brian is and then the phone rings.

"Hey, it's me. I'm in the head. There's pigs everywhere," Brian whispers. We let him know we're right outside the edge and he responds, "Did you bring my gun?"

Brian backs out and we regroup. Another 3-man push is initiated, with Sean working the video camera just behind. I'm just inside the thicket on one end, Nate's on the other and Brian's going right down the middle. It's thick in there, but if you get low you can see clearly for 25-50 yards. Two-thirds of the way through and I haven't seen or heard anything, but since we know the pigs are in there, it's getting to be crunch time. I reach the end of my transect, just inside the edge and BOOOM. Then nothing. I can see Nate moving on the other end of the thicket and I'm about to start crossing over to him then BOOOM. I crouch down just as the reeds rustle beside me and a rather large pig explodes out of the tangle. It's running right for me, then it veers slightly and splits Nate and I with just five yards to spare on my side. Nate is shouting to let me know where he is and I let the hog get beyond the danger zone and then touch off a shot. The hog keeps on running.

I think about running after it, a-la Brian, but then the bushes beside me rattle again. As I spin around, 6 or 8 tiny striped piglets emerge from the tangle and start running around my feet. I consider shooting, then I consider hand-grabbing, then they are gone. I have just enough time to run to the edge of the head and watch the hog I shot at  run around the corner under a full head of steam.

We debrief. Brian had pushed at least one hog out of a wet area and towards Nate. Nate spotted the hog at close range and fired, killing it instantly. As he continued, Brian jumped another pig and fired at close range in thick cover. That pig nearly ran me over in its escape. A search for signs of a hit reveal nothing and we're confident both Brian and I missed the hog. Nate's boar, on the other hand, is quite dead and it's a biggun. We have no time to weigh it, but it's heavier than anything we've processed so far. I feel like 165 pounds is a conservative estimate.

Back at the house there is a bustle of activity. Nate's pig is broken down while gear is cleaned and packed. Warren drives up in "The Beast" triumphantly. The window motor is fixed. We stow or gear as tightly as we can and say goodbye to Nate and Sean, who must make it to the Tampa airport in time for Nate's 7 p.m. boarding call. Warren has decided to drive back with Brian and I. Space in "The Beast" is at  premium but we make it work. The trip back to Florence and my parked truck is misery - all fog and rain - but we make it around 4 a.m.

I bid farewell to my traveling companions and go the last four hours to Black Mountain on my own. There's snow on the ground. It's 35 degrees. The orange groves seem very far away.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Florida Hog Hunt, Part I: The Long Road To Glory

I hit the alarm clock on its second beep: 4 a.m. It doesn't matter. I've been up since 2:30, wide-eyed in anticipation of hitting the road for what has become an annual tradition for me and my gang - two days in the orange groves outside Tampa, Fla. hunting wild pigs.

We couldn't do it without Sean. Our man on the ground has a great friendship with Mr. X. Mr. X is the man you need to know if you like the taste of wild pork. The story of their initial meeting is a testament to perseverance and good will. After moving outside Tampa several years ago and finding himself with nowhere to hunt, Sean started a letter writing campaign, leaving respectfully-written inquiries taped to every gate surrounding every juice orange grove and agricultural field in the area. The first round went unanswered, so he repeated. Sean's phone rang one night. It was Mr. X. "Are you the sonnufabitch who keeps leaving letters on my gates?" "Yes sir. Yes I am," Sean replied. "Well, meet me tomorrow morning and I'll show you around."

The wild hog population in Florida is estimated at around 1 million animals. In their never-ending quest to fill their bellies, those pigs do millions of dollars of damage to Florida's vast agricultural croplands, including the orange groves Mr. X oversees.

It is said Hernando DeSoto, Spanish explorer, conquistador and all-around asshole, first introduced pigs to the Florida Peninsula to feed his troops as they raped and pillaged their way to the Mississippi River in search of gold and commodities. The ancestors of those free-ranging hogs, along with infusions from escaped domestic swine and introduced European boar form the bloodline of today's feral pig problem across the Southeast.

In Florida, wild hogs are considered nuisance animals and therefore, they can be harvested without bag limits, 365 days a year on private land. We try to do our part.

I turn the ignition key at 4:30 a.m. and pull out of Black Mountain, N.C. for the 4-hour journey to Florence, S.C., where I meet up with Brian, who is driving a similar distance from the N.C. coast. It's 22 degrees when I leave and the snow from last week's storm still covers the ground all the way to Columbia.

We leave my truck in a WalMart parking lot and transfer my gear into an aged Blazer K-5 that will take us the rest of the way - we hope. "The Beast" is one of our friend Warren's most-prized possessions. Warren and Nate, the fourth member of the crew, happen to be in Tampa for a conference - serendipity. We'll bring their gear and rendezvous at Sean's house just after sundown.

"The Beast" drinks. Thanks Moose!
"The Beast" is running well. We gas up the big diesel twice along the way, thanks in no small part to the $100 gas card I have in my wallet, courtesy of Daniel "Moose" McLaughlin, who ran a contest on his blog, Moose Droppings, last December. If you hunt and/or fish in North Carolina, you should be reading Moose Droppings. McLaughlin does a great job of reporting important hunting and fishing news in the Tarheel State.

I've been friends with Brian for six years now. When Sue and I lived on the N.C. coast, Brian and I shared more outdoor adventures than I can remember. He is one of my closest pals and yet, even though he and his beautiful family visited us in the mountains over the recent holidays, we still have lots to catch up on. I'm not sure why it is, but a long road trip is the best way I know to reconnect. We talk about anything and everything and I remember how lucky I am to know him.

For lunch, we make our annual pilgrimage to one of the best BBQ smokehouses in the South - The GA Pig. Located off Ext. 29 on I-95, you'll know you're at The Pig we you see the smoke billowing from the ramshackle barn just east of the highway. Inside, the pitmaster sweats over a massive brick fireplace, turning out some of the most succulent pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked sausage and ribs you'll ever taste. Make sure you include the Brunswick stew as one of your sides. We've never tasted any better. 

We're driving through Orlando when Nate sends a cryptic text message. He and Warren arrived at Sean's around mid-afternoon and there had been talk of them checking a hog trap before our arrival. "One down" is all it says.

An hour later, Nate sends another text  - this time in regards to the football playoff game between my beloved Patriots and the trash-talking N.Y. Jets. "14-3." The radio in "The Beast" doesn't get AM stations so I can't keep track of the game, but my nerves are calmed by the sight of tropical air plants growing on the power lines. We're almost there.

We arrive at Sean's around 6:30 p.m. The Patriots are 5 minutes from losing to the dog-ass Jets, but I'm placated by a sumptuous meal of broiled yellowtail snapper, homemade menudo and Brussels sprouts spread out on the table. Sean and his wife, Susan, are consummate hosts who have been taking care of us these last four years we've been coming down for the hunt. Their friendship and hospitality can never be repaid.

Pig trap
After dinner, we hear the story of the dead 120-pound boar in the back of Steve's truck in the driveway. (Steve has come up from his home in the Keys to complete our hunting party.) The boys did indeed check the trap before our arrival. As they walked along the sandy road and came around the bend where the trap was set, two pigs were feeding just outside the entrance. Guns were loaded and Steve and Warren crept to 85 yards. The pigs were accounted for and a 1-2-3 countdown was initiated under the direction of Mr. X. Steve's hog is pole-axed on the spot while Warren's runs off unscathed. (Remember, we had Warren's gun in "The Beast," so he was using a borrowed lever-action with iron sights.) Warren is easily forgiven.

It's in the mid-50s outside and I chose to bed down on the sleeping porch Susan has so kindly made up. The frigid Blue Ridge Mountains seem a million miles away as I lay my head down on the pillow for blessed sleep. 14 hours on the road seems a lot harder on my body this time around. I must be getting old.

6 a.m. comes all too soon and we all huddle around the coffee pot in Sean's kitchen, waiting for daylight. The groves we are hunting are just 5 minutes from the house, so there's no need to rush out there in the dark.

Our strategy is simple and usually effective. We drive around the outer service roads and look down the lanes between row after row of orange trees until pigs are spotted. Once located, wind and distance to the pigs are factored and we work our way on foot into position for a shot.

We separate into two vehicles and enter the first block in convoy at 7 a.m. In less than 30 minutes, a hog is spotted and the shooters pile out to deploy. Warren and Nate are first up, as they have the most space in their meat freezers back home. Brian, Steve and I serve as back-up shooters, positioning ourselves several rows on either side of the primary shooters just in case the hog makes it past them. It does and with frantic hand gestures, I'm informed it's heading my way. I prop up my rifle on my shooting sticks and click the safety off. The red-and-black spotted boar is moving at a steady trot, so I'll have little time to acquire him in the 12-foot lane between the orange trees. If I don't get a shot off, he'll make it to the heavy cover surrounding the grove and be gone forever.

The pig's head emerges from the low branches on the right side of the row. He looks my way briefly and then continues across the lane. I hold on his neck a fire. The boar jumps a little and speeds across the lane and out of sight. The 65-yard shot felt good and after a minute, I walk down to where the pig had crossed. With Nate and Sean's help, we find his tracks in the sandy soil and a few yards later, blood. The trail goes 20 yards and we find my pig. My shot was further back than I aimed, but it appears to have clipped the lungs and the result is a 150-pounder that vastly outweighs any of the pigs I have harvested in the past. I'm elated. One half-hour into the trip and I have a full cooler. Ahhh Florida!

We load him up and keep going, but the pigs seem to have retired into the scrubby headlands early this morning. With an approaching thunderstorm in the background, we try a push through some heavy cover. Nate and Brian catch glimpses of a smallish pig, but there is no shot and we jump back into the trucks as the first heavy raindrops start to fall and lightning flashes across the sky. It's time for lunch.

For the next 3 hours it rains, sometimes torrentially, but there's an end to it on the radar and Sean and Mr. X assure us the pigs will be on the move as soon as the rain stops.

We're back in the groves 15 minutes after the rain stops and there are fresh tracks everywhere we look. We seem to be running just behind the herd, however, as we can't find any pigs for the first hour. Finally, the back end of a hog is spotted at close range and we bounce out to deploy the firing line once again. I sling my rifle over my shoulder and grab the video camera as the rest of the crew runs along the edge of the grove to catch up with, and get ahead of the pig on the move. The boys run around a bend in the road and I lose sight of them. BOOM!

I jog up and see Brian, standing in the middle of the service road, reloading his single-shot slug gun. In the water-filled ditch beside him, floats a beautiful 125-pound sow. As Brian was trying to sprint up ahead of the pig to act as a blocker for Warren and Nate, the sow chose to step out on the road in front of him at 20 yards and he dropped the hammer on her.

There are more pigs in the area that we keep catching glimpses of but can't put it together. Mr. X pulls up after checking on a few things and suggests we split up to cover more ground as the sun sets. I stay with Steve and Warren while Nate and Brian hop into Mr. X's truck and they race off to another part of the property. Twenty minutes later, we've seen another pig at great distance and we're driving around the grove to get closer. Steve's phone rings - it's Mr. X. "You need to get yer asses over here to the tomato fields. There's pigs everywhere!"

Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 13, 2011


After my last post on window strikes and the moral questions surrounding backyard bird feeding, my wife, Sue, sent me this link that I thought I'd share. The American Bird Conservancy has good information on the latest data on bird mortality and suggestions for concerned nature-lovers to make a difference at both the local and national level.

Here's another link with some innovative solutions that may be incorporated into future architecture and growth management.

While I'm at it, I think I'd like to update you on a few of the posts I've written here over the past six months. I know I appreciate when bloggers I read go back and answer some of their own questions. I may as well walk the walk here at "The Bumbling Bushman."

In Surprise: No Deer, I intimated my Buncombe County hunt may have been my last of the season. It was. It seemed whenever I thought I might head back into the woods, other duties would pop up or the weather would turn for the worse. In fact, for much of the final week of the western NC deer season, the temp was far, far below normal, making it easy to be satisfied with my stand-up freezer at its current level. For the record, I ended up with five deer for the 2010 season. It's the second time I've come within one kill of North Carolina's annual bag limit. I feel incredibly lucky to have been so successful and deeply content that Sue and I will have venison to share with friends and family throughout the coming year.

I wrote Decking The Halls in late November to share with you the joys of harvesting our holiday decorations from our property in Cleveland County. I'm happy to report our scraggly Virginia pine made for the best Christmas tree Sue and I have ever had. It stayed green and vibrant through the first week on January, and now it's propped up against the backyard fence to provide shelter for the birds. I will say, however, that we had to deal with an astonishing hatch of small, flighted insects that emerged from our tree at a rate of hundreds per day. Their surprise appearance begs the question; what kinds of pesticides do tree growers apply to keep this from happening at commercial Christmas tree farms and what effects do they have on birds and humans? It also helped answer a conundrum I've had for many years; how do insectivorous birds survive long periods of subfreezing weather? The answer is in the trees all around us.

On making meat stocks, I suggested in Stock Options that you simmer your bones/carcasses for at least three hours to extract the most flavor. I'm now in favor of upping the ante to four hours, five if you've got them. The difference I'm getting with the 4-hour simmer is so superior to that which I was getting at three, I doubt I'll ever make stock now unless I know I have the time to do it right.

Similarly, in Simple Sausage Science, I'm going to adjust my venison to pork fat ratio from 4:2 to 3:2. My batch of breakfast sausage is good, but it doesn't compare to that which is made for and sold by Crooked Creek Farms. I bet they're almost at 1:1, which makes the sausage so flavorful and juicy I just can't resist it. Arteries be damned - you only live once! Incidentally, Crooked Creek is where I buy my uncured fatback for sausage-making. Casey and Meredith McKissick run a great slow-food operation down there in Old Fort, NC and their Berkshire hogs are healthy, happy and taste great.

Back in Black Mountain, the frigid winter seems to have convinced the neighborhood black bear to go into hibernation. After being warned of its presence by well-intentioned neighbors when we moved here last summer, I unwittingly attracted the brute right into the backyard with some peanut butter suet I'd hung for the birds. Bear With Me told the tale of its first visit. Since then, the bear has climbed over our fence three more times to raid bird feeders or seed that's left scattered on the ground after I've taken the feeders in for the night. I think we'd have a better relationship if the bear let us see it instead of coming in the dead of night and causing trouble. Stay tuned this spring for more updates.

After a few false starts, I'm starting to figure out the dove hunting scene at Sandy Mush Gamelands, just north of Asheville. In A Babe In The Woods I admitted my trepidation of starting over when it comes to finding places to hunt. As crazy as it may seem, given all of the other things that are far more important, giving up my happy hunting grounds at the North Carolina coast was one of my biggest concerns when we moved. Of course, good old-fashioned legwork and some helpful tips from the locals are putting me on the right track in these here mountains. After striking out a couple of times, I pieced together a couple of nice dove hunts and ended up with 12 birds for the season. It was enough for a New Year's Eve grilled feast for Sue and I and our great friends, Brian and Jacqui.

Finally, I made good on my desire to attempt a corned wild pig ham for Thanksgiving. Using the technique described in The Versatility of Venison, I cured and cooked a boned-out ham from an 80-pound sow that I shot in Florida last January. After simmering the meat for three hours, I removed it, allowed it to cool and then shellacked it with a maple syrup and mustard glaze and left it in a 300-degree oven for an hour-and-a-half. The result was everything I had hoped for - big, beautiful slabs of cured ham with the sugary, tangy glaze on the outside. I fully intend to do it again.

So now we're all caught up and I feel better. I've got lots of ideas for new topics and I can't wait to experience, research and write them all down to share with you in the coming year. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


It happens to all of us who set out feeders in the yard intended to help our tiny, feathered friends survive the harsh winter; you're sitting on the couch watching television, or fixing breakfast in the kitchen, or reading the Sunday paper at the dining room table... "Thhhumph"

Startled, you rush over to the window to see what made the noise, but you already know what happened. It's happened before. You see the smudgy print on the pane of glass and look to the ground below. A bird, one of the ones that comes to the feeders for sunflowers and millet, lies belly-up and toes curled. Another victim of an invisible killer.

I got a call from one of my Birding 101 students last week. A hawk had hit the sliding glass window facing the backyard while she and her husband were out of town for the holidays. She said she thought it might be a young Cooper's hawk and asked if I might know someone who'd want it for scientific purposes.

I said I could make a few calls and asked her to bag it and put it in the freezer for me. I picked the bird up the other day. It is indeed an immature Cooper's hawk (I'm so proud of them for making the correct ID). Now it's in my freezer, awaiting transfer to someone else's freezer, and so-on and so-forth until we can find a university or museum collection or environmental education center that can make use of it.

Though it is relatively uncommon for hawks to strike windows, it is distressingly less so for small songbirds. Window strikes increase exponentially during the winter bird feeding season, when millions of homeowners intentionally attract birds right up to the very edge of that which may break their tiny necks. Are we loving our birds to death?

Studies estimating the number of window-strike mortalities annually puts the figure between 97 and 970 million per year! Many, many of those occur against glass-cover skyscrapers in our largest cities. I don't know of any research that specifically focuses on residential window strikes. Starting this fall during the migration, our tiny, half-acre yard in Black Mountain, NC and its attending windows have claimed a rose-breasted grosbeak, a mourning dove and a song sparrow. Weigh that against the unknown numbers that might survive this winter by our supplemental feeding. How much stock you put into that plus/minus ratio depends on how much credit you give wild birds to take care of themselves during harsh weather. I'm sure some do make it through thanks to the handouts, but I have no idea of a percentage.

Before you despair and take down all of your bird feeders, consider the backyard mortality they're responsible for as a mere drop in the bucket of man-made threats to wildlife. Take pet owners who allow their cats to roam outdoors, for instance. Numerous studies have been done to figure that death count. The numbers range wildly, but even the most-conservative are jaw-dropping. The USFWS estimates approximately 39 million birds are killed by free-ranging domestic and feral cats each year in the state of Wisconsin alone. The national figure is probably around 500 million.

Add pesticides, power lines, vehicle collisions and cell towers to the mix and it's a wonder there are any birds left at all.

We've had good luck with these.
Of course, you could take your bird feeders down and let the little critters fend for themselves this winter. Or, you could make modifications to your backyard feeding stations to lessen the probability of window kills. Sue and I have tried several variations on the window decal theme. Those dark, silhouette cutouts of falcons never seemed to help. Our best luck has been with the spider web decals placed in the corner of the window and the ultraviolet style that's becoming more popular these days. Place the decals on whatever windows are most-troublesome, usually sliding glass doors and bay windows. You can also decorate with stained glass art or other window treatments - whatever you can do to make the glass more visible.

Of course, moving feeders away from the house is a good idea too. It all depends on how much you're willing to give up when it comes to the inarguable pleasure of watching wild birds. For Sue and I, it's an unsteady assumption that, with the precautions we take, our backyard birds benefit from our feeding station and we're willing to accept some losses in that effort.

Whether or not we're being selfish and naive or nurturing and benevolent, I doubt we'll ever truly know.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Bushman In Name Only

The Bushman cometh.
It seems a bit self-serving to write a post about how this blog got its name. The Bumbling Bushman isn't six months old yet and the total post count is laughable compared to those of more established Internet writers.

I am prompted by a challenge from the Outdoor Blogger Network to do so however. In case you haven't checked it out, the OBN is just about the greatest resource on the Web for anyone who enjoys anything and everything outdoors. The site is a well-organized clearinghouse of more than 500 blogs - all specific to activities from mountain climbing, to car camping, to ice fishing, to wildlife photography. I joined The Bumbling Bushman to it about a month ago and it's rapidly become one of my favorite spots on the Internet.

A couple of days ago, the moderators at OBN asked its members to write a post explaining how they named their blogs. The Bumbling Bushman was highlighted as one they were curious about, and who am I to kick free publicity in the teeth. So here goes...

Did anyone check this canoe for leaks?
Hi. My name is Jamie, and I am a bumbler.

It started early on in my development as a bushman. I remember we were on a family vacation to St. Johns in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was 10 or 11 years old and about as addicted to fishing as a kid could be. Mom and Dad made room in our luggage for an old telescoping travel rod and a selection of casting plugs so they wouldn't have to listen to me whine the entire trip. By the first morning, I was thigh deep in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, casting an enormous wooden crankbait as far as my little rod could chuck it.

Watch out for the hole here.
I worked my way down the beach, further and further from family members and other vacationers enjoying the sun and the sand. Suddenly, the rod was nearly ripped from my hands and the drag peeled out. Fish on! I battled my unseen adversary for a minute or two. It didn't seem very big or very strong. When it showed itself, I couldn't help but be a little disappointed; a rather ambitious lizardfish, hardly bigger than the lure it had tried to eat. I worked the fish closer, expecting a routine catch-and-release, but when the fish saw my lily white legs sticking out in front of it, it charged. Maybe charged is the wrong word. The lizardfish was probably just trying to find some cover by which to rub out the hook in its jaw, but it sure seemed to me like it was attacking. I tried to sidestep the rushing fish, then I made for the shore, holding the rod far behind me and high-stepping to avoid the 11-inch missile that was still trying to seek and destroy. Impact came in a foot of water. The lizardfish had run into my ankle and embedded one of the barbs of the giant treble hook deep into my pale New England flesh.

I struggled out of the water, shackled by a huge fishing lure with five more points that wanted to impale me and a very lively lizardfish still attached and making my life miserable with every flop. I sobbed as I crawled up the beach and squatted in the sand. I had a death grip on the lizardfish, but the pain in my ankle was increasing and I didn't want to move. I just sat there, screaming, squeezing the life out of the fish and hoping to be heard over the lapping of waves by someone, anyone.

Dad finally came looking for me about 20 minutes later. He unhooked the deceased fish from my foot and threw me over his shoulder, crankbait still firmly entrenched. We drove to a medical clinic and the nurse looked at my situation. She turned as pale as her coffee-colored skin would allow her, looked wide-eyed at my dad and said, "We don't do fishhooks."

There was the time, many years later, when I went on my first duck hunt with my old pal, Nate. His experience level trumped mine by one session in a duck blind, but it was the first time for either of us hunting out of a canoe.

He came out of my underpants.
We crept down a wooded coastal creek, jumping wood ducks along the way. I had the shooter's position in the bow and quickly filled my limit of two. We switched places and I paddled on, with Nate banging away ineffectually at birds as they exploded off the water in front of us. He had just gone past the point of frustration, when one of the recently-flushed ducks decided to swing around for another high pass over our heads.

Contrary to every rule of safety and common sense, Nate twisted his body around, leaned back and fired into the air. The recoil threw him off balance and in a split second, we were both in the frigid, January water. As my fat reserves are far more plentiful than Nate's, I sucked up the pain and punished him by continuing the hunt until he reached a mild level of hypothermia.

There was also the time I scanned for seabirds from the top deck of my good friend, Brian Patteson's headboat, in the middle of the Gulf Stream off the Outer Banks. Brian organizes field trips (Seabirding Pelagics) to the deep for bird watchers who seek those specialized species that rarely fly within sight of land except to breed on islands far, far away. In those days, I often came aboard as a spotter and it was there I also learned just enough about open ocean trolling to get myself into trouble.

It was a day that Brian had given his first mate off, leaving the duties of tending the fishing lines to me. Our morning had been uneventful; a few birds, no fish. Now the midday sun was pounding down on us. We were 40 miles offshore and there wasn't a breath of wind. It was in the 90s and the humidity was close to 100 percent. I scanned the pupil-searing horizon for life, but there was nothing. Even the paying clients had retreated into the cabin for relief. I basically had the deck of the 65-foot Stormy Petrel to myself. Then I heard it - the line clip popped on the right outrigger.

Yeah, I got the shot.
I looked around for patches of Sargasso weed that could have caused enough drag for the line to pop the clip. There was nothing but deep blue water, 3,000 feet deep.

Dubiously, I looked back at the trolling spread. The bait in question was skipping merrily along the surface, just as it was supposed to. Then I spied the gigantic shadow following it.

At this point in my offshore fishing career, I'd landed a couple of marlin, but I knew the real glory was in hooking one. Marlin have obviously bizarre mouthparts and can be finicky to boot. I had been taught the basics of how to do it, but no one had actually let me do it.

I looked around and saw I had no audience. Brian was in the wheelhouse steering the boat, completely oblivious to what was happening in the stern. I picked the rod out of the holder and gave the reel a few cranks. The change in speed fired up the big blue marlin enough so that it rushed the bait and started swiping at it with his bill - classic hungry marlin behavior.

I threw the reel into free spool as I'd been instructed and watched the skirted ballyhoo disappear down the fish's gaping maw. The marlin turned and started swimming away and I counted, as I'd been instructed, to 10. At 10, I pushed the drag lever back to strike and hit him with everything I had. I nearly fell over as the fish spit the bait out unscathed.

I repeated the sequence, reeling in as fast as I could and the marlin charged again. He batted the bait and I let him have it. I counted to 10 and swung away - miss.

And again. And again. And again. For five solid minutes.

I can't tell you how strange and exhilarating it was out there at the back of the boat, way out in the middle of the ocean, just me and a giant fish weighing in excess of 500 pounds. It was hand-to-fin combat. A contest of wits. Who could best who.  

My intimate version of "The Old Man and the Sea" came to an abrupt end when, out of nowhere, Brian poked his head up the ladder from below. "What the hell's going on back here?"

"Ummm, I don't know," I fumbled like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I think I might have had a strike."

"Goddammit," grumbled my captain as he climbed the final steps to the top. He looked back at the spread and saw the jagged dorsal fin of my marlin cutting the water just a few feet behind one of the baits. "You $#@54 jackass. There's a goddamn blue marlin right there!"

He snatched the rod from my hands and cranked the reel. The marlin rushed in again, opened it's mouth and swallowed the bait. Brian counted to 10, engaged the drag and expertly hooked the fish, which then exploded from the water and greyhounded hundreds of yards across the sea, much to the delight of the now very much aware passengers. Brian shoved the rod back at me. "Get up to the bow and crank this sonnofabitch in," he snarled as he dashed back to the wheel.

It goes without saying that the fish jumped itself off within seconds of me taking control of the rod.

These are but a few examples of my bumbledom. There are many, many more. My friends know that I can't tie a knot and I get lost in the woods easily. It's not even worth it to them to retell every time I forget some vital piece of equipment or lose my truck keys, or driver's license, or hunting license, or wallet.

I'm a bumbler ladies and gentlemen. A bumbler through and through. If we ever meet in the field or on the water, take pity on me and give me a hand. I can't help it. I was born this way.
My God! What's he done to himself now?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hunting A Memory

We had a fine New Years holiday, hosting our great friends from the coast, Brian and Jacqui. Adding their 5-month-old son, Porter, and 6-year-old yellow lab, Maple, to our menagerie of pets (two dogs and a cat) made our little house in Black Mountain a blur of activity that Sue and I enjoyed every minute of.

Among the core group of fellows I hunt and fish with, Brian has been something of a pied piper. In the field and on the water, he is relentless. Organizing trips and making sure all the necessities are packed is his trade. Plunging into unknown territory and coming out with a full game pouch or fish creel is his gift. We call him "Shoe" for the horse shoe that seems to be perpetually stuck up his ass.

In the weeks before their arrival, Brian assigned me the task of finding some public land grouse cover for us to hunt with Maple. Neither of us has ever shot a ruffed grouse. The vast bulk of their population lives to the north, but grouse territory does extend into western North Carolina in the high elevation.

Remembering all of the times Brian has told me to "sit in this tree" or "cast over there" and I've come away with that ear-to-ear grin of success, I wanted to return the favor by finding the perfect hidden cove, filled with grouse for us to shoot and Maple to retrieve.

Of course, that's not what happened. Ruffed grouse coverts are hard to find and even harder to find out about. Southern grousers are a closed-lipped bunch. They keep their secret spots to themselves. I don't blame them. Even the best grouse hunters define success in numbers of birds flushed, not numbers of birds shot. It's a rugged business.

By the time Jacqui, Brian and Porter arrived, the only place I could suggest was Sandy Mush Gamelands, north of Asheville, where a guy I was hunting doves with said he'd seen a grouse way back in September.

Northern bobwhite photo by John Stojohann
And of course there were the rumors both Brian and I had heard that Sandy Mush offers at least a fair shot at a wild northern bobwhite.

The northern bobwhite, or bobwhite quail, is the stuff of Southern hunting legend. From colonization, on up through the 1970s, much of the region was covered in perfect quail habitat and it was a common chore for schoolboys to stomp around the family farm until they secured dinner. It was also such great sport that nimrods from across the country would come to fine old Southern plantations to hunt bobwhites over perfectly mannered pointing dogs. Unfortunately, the quail population in the South today is in precipitous decline for a number of reasons. Agricultural practices have changed and those small, "messy" family farms that provided all sorts of brushy and grassy habitat for quail have given way to humongous factory operations on which not one inch of dirt is allowed to go fallow. Encroaching development has also eaten away at quail habitat and added lethal predators into the mix by way of pet owners who allow their cats to roam free and kill wildlife. Finally, trapping furbearing animals like foxes, mink, weasels and raccoons, has fallen into disfavor, allowing populations of these native predators to expand. It's a tough world out there for a little quail.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has taken steps to reverse this trend on a few of its gamelands properties. When Sandy Mush was purchased by the state back in the mid-90s, it was already being privately managed for quail. Today, the habitat remains favorable, with open fields, planted seed crops and strips of thick brush. In reality, however, I'd never seen a wild quail during the hunting season and I didn't expect to see one anytime soon. I've read about the end of the glory days of quail hunting and I've heard old timers lament their passing, but honestly, I have no point of reference when it comes to bobwhites. They are but a vestigial memory in my hunter's mind.

Despite the long odds, Brian and Maple were raring to go on the first day of the new year. (Well, that's not entirely true. Brian may have overslept an hour-and-a-half, but I think young Master Porter had something to do with it.) Even with the late start, we knew we had rabbits, squirrels, doves and woodcock in season, in addition to the mythical grouse and bobwhite. The imminent threat of cold winter rain could not deter us. We were going hunting.

I parked the truck at 8:30 a.m. and jumped a dove from the adjacent milo field before Brian had even pulled on his brush pants. We got situated, loaded our shotguns and sent Maple into the field. Over the years, Maple has proven to be an excellent flushing dog and she puts that skill to good use in the dove field. Halfway through our push, I whiffed (twice) on a dove as it took off in front of us. I blamed the miss on coffee-induced jitters.

We hiked on down the hill to where tiny Turkey Creek bisects the property without further incident. Maple is a decidedly coastal creature and she seemed unsure of the purpose of our up-and-down walk in the mountains. Brian sent her through likely-looking grouse and quail habitat, but her nose did not detect anything worth chasing.

Along the creek's riparian edge, we came upon a vast tangle of blackberry and honeysuckle vines. Once again, Maple crashed into the wall of thorns, mostly, it seemed, to please Brian. She obviously didn't think it was worth the effort and, after 10 minutes or so, we were starting to feel the same way. Then, all of a sudden, things took a turn toward a very serious direction.

Maple's attitude changed. The difference between a bird dog on a stroll and a bird dog on a scent is remarkable. She put her nose down against the ground and her tail wagged furiously. She used her wide chest and powerful legs to push through the thickest of cover as her nose snorted in the intoxicating smell of gamebird. The whole thicket shook with her effort and Brian and I took strategic positions to intercept the flush, whatever and wherever it might be. The dog tracked back and forth in a small area just downhill from Brian. "I see it," he said. "She's on it." And then I saw it too; a small brown form scurrying across a patch of snow, just a few feet in front of Maple's nose. "I think it's a rabbit," I announced as I prepared for a running target to bound across an opening.

Then everything stopped. All we could see was Maple's ample hind end poking out of the brush pile. She was motionless except for that tireless tail, which swished back and forth, back and forth. And then, she pounced.

Good dog!
"I think she's ... she's got it!" Brian exclaimed. "Bring it Maple. Good dog. Good girl." When Maple emerged from the tangle, we finally knew what our quarry had been - a very surprised, very real wild northern bobwhite. Maple deposited her prize into Brian's hands and looked at us as if to say, "Is that what you guys were looking for?"

We had done it. We had bagged a real, honest-to-goodness bobwhite, on public land no less, and we hadn't fired a shot. For me, the initial euphoria of success wore off quickly. Of course the bird wasn't ours, it was Maple's. She had done exactly what she'd been bred and trained to do, but in the process, she'd stolen our chance to relive one of the great hunting traditions. When I looked at Brian, he was still beaming at his dog and I realized I had not fully appreciated their connection until this moment. To him, Maple's success was his success. If you asked, I bet he'd say he was happier to see Maple catch the free-running quail than if he'd shot it himself. Maple is his hunting partner. Their relationship is at its strongest when they are in the field or the swamp, chasing birds the way men and dogs have done for generations.

I started to feel better, and soon I was almost as happy as the two of them, prancing for joy in the middle of a bramble thicket on a grim, wet and raw New Years Day. My disappointment had been misplaced. I had indeed been part of something special - a reconnection with the past and maybe, just maybe, a look into the future.