Fly fishing fruitlessly in mangroves

Fly fishing fruitlessly in mangroves

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Ghost

6:00 a.m. on October 17th I’m approaching my stand. I access the ridge through some of the thickest growth the hill had to offer, finally hitting the rocks instead. I emerge from a hollow on the south side of the mountain; I follow a diagonal path left unmarked. A few unique trees I have memorized let me know where I’m at in the darkness. I over walk the stand and cross the ridge back tracking to it. It’s calculated but always a gamble, you never know from where the deer might come. The wind is also a fickle beast as changing degrees ever so slightly it can go from steady to a spinning whirlwind. Having hunted this ridge for several seasons now I knew it wasn’t a matter of if, just a matter of when…”why not today” I thought? Enough deer encounters in that area made me a believer, enough to have not one but two stands up there. In the complete darkness and with temps trying to get out of the 30’s I spot the faded camo ratchet strap around the trunk, home sweet home.

Finding the stand and making an inconspicuous approach is a must up there. Deer follow the thermals up, bucks starting to chase would be cruising the place for doe, they’re on the move, they’re sniffing, and they will bust you. The first thing I noticed was how much fresh green growth was illuminated by my headlamp. Being as tall as I was this brush concerned me, upon further inspection I realized my 100% knock em’ dead shooting lanes were reduced from about 6 to a paltry 2. Didn’t seem that bad on a September walk through, but with decent rain and no killer frost yet, this stuff was problematic. Dropping my bow and gear at the base of the ladder I created two mock scrapes with attractant in locations that would hopefully get a deer stepping into a line of fire.

Nestled in my seat at 6:45 a.m., I was downing a sandwich before dawn’s first light. A few moments later the first rays of sun would top the opposite ridge and start to shed light on my little piece of paradise. I call it that because truly it is not only one of my favorite places to hunt, but one of my favorite places to BE. Downed trees, rocks and the turning fall foliage makes this spot among the prettiest I have ever been, seeing deer pass through on occasion just makes it even more special.

It had rained the day before; the damp leaves were like a carpet, even in my huge boots I didn’t make much noise in my approach. It was going to be one of those mornings, “be still” I thought to myself “because you don’t stand a chance at hearing them approach.”

No surprise then that the first movement I detected was not accompanied by a single sound, the buck came in like a ghost.

I first sensed movement to my left. I saw the rear end of a whitetail stepping into the thicket, when the head moved beyond the growth I immediately felt a surge of adrenaline, like an atomic bomb went off in my gut and the heat just surged through my whole body. What happened next happened quickly. The buck walked behind several trees as he approached, every time his vision was obscured, I made a move.

He’s behind a tree, so I stand up, behind another tree, I grab my bow off the hook, behind another tree, and I draw back. I felt the wind in my face…he was beat. He stepped to 20 yards directly in front of me. Bobbing his head he quartered slightly to his left and the arrow was let loose. The last thing I saw was the fletching blur with the color of my pin at a spot where I imagined his lungs would be. 

He kicked and jumped and walked off. He headed in the opposite direction from where I came in. He moved slow but steady over the next shelf and disappeared. This was 7:30 am.

I decided a solid 30 minutes would pass before I even budged. It’s amazing what you do to pass the time. I saw the shot with my own eyes, so there was no need to replay it in my mind.

I resolved to think of my family for a while, my wife and two children, the love and support I get from them and how I hoped to honor them by harvesting this animal. 

I soaked in the beauty of the moment and the place. I reflected upon what had happened. The nervousness, the fever as they call it….in that split second you’re deciding you are going to take a life. But as an ethical hunter you’re taking responsibility for that life and your food. You tap into something primal, something instinctive. We practice to make a clean kill, we scout, we shoot, and we come to grips with it all… raging against trepidation. You won’t find these feelings on your iPad, there isn’t an app for that.

At 8:03 I climbed down and quietly inspected the area the buck stood. Blood and flesh splattered on brush, hair on the ground, but the arrow was nowhere to be found. After a few more minutes of toiling I decided I was confident enough in my shot to proceed with tracking, so on the blood trail I went. The 10 point didn’t make it easy on me; the blood trail was merely a fleck here and there, amidst an army of yellow leaves turning red on the ground! At one point I had even lost it and found myself looking for upturned leaves left disturbed by limping hooves.

A very grateful hunter and his quarry. 
After quite some time and effort I of course began to worry, the idea that I hadn’t found the arrow because the shot hadn’t passed through entered my mind. What if the arrow was still in the deer and clogged the exit wound? My heart began to sink, the deer was going to die and I may not find it, a hunter’s worst nightmare. A beautiful animal, a source of nourishment for family and friends, left to waste. 

In a moment of ultimate frustration I looked to the forest and too the sky and pleaded to see SOMETHING, anything. I was rewarded in that moment, for the next thing I saw was blood, more of it than I had previously seen, it lead to more upturned leaves and eventually a glimpse of white fur in a gully not far in the distance…finally I found him, he was down.

I approached cautiously but knew right away he had expired. I knelt down beside him, took off my glove and felt his slightly still warm neck. All I remember from that moment was repeatedly saying 'I didn’t give up on him,' and that 'I would have drug him out of hell if that’s where I had to track him to,' I also of course thanked him.

You can buy moments like that, but you pay in determination and hard work, the deer of course pays in blood, it’s certainly nothing to be taken lightly.

The arrow is still missing, let it be gone. A friend came and grabbed my gear after I field dressed the deer. I started to drag the buck the long way down the mountain. Me and the ghost moving over rocks, logs and ferns, crossing creeks, his 150 plus pounds reminding me I had to earn him every step of the way…a lesson I will be glad to learn as often as one can.

I'm not one for "Trophy Pic's," but I did want to show the uniqueness of this 6 x 4 rack. Of those in our little hunting troop, no one ever spotted this buck before or got trail camera pictures of him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The soul of bowhunting

Working in an archery shop, we see it all, the gadgets, advancements in shooting technology. There are many products out there that will truly help a hunter enjoy his or her experience in the field, and perhaps have more success. But there are even more products out there just designed to "catch a hunter," as we say. Everyone has their own style and appreciates different things about hunting.

Bow hunting has a certain allure, a certain mystique. It is unbelievably hard to explain to others how much more fulfilling the challenge is, how you can enjoy the experience of it even without success. This time of year we are presented with the full arsenal of the industry, luckily this evening I was blessed to find something that excited me way more than some highfalutin new trail cam, a crazy new broadhead, or the 355th new RealTree camo pattern ever could. I found a video by Clay Hayes, a traditional bowhunter who makes his own bows and relies on woodsmanship to close the gap between him and his quarry. Trust me, you have 17 minutes to watch this video where Clay examines why we hunt, and why reducing the challenge of it might not be all it's cracked up to be.

Readers of this blog may recall I attempted to address these things as well in an earlier post- Why do we do it?

Please take the time to enjoy and share the fruit of Clay's hard work!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Practice?! We're talking about practice!

August is dwindling; you’ll hear no complaints from me! To put it plainly the heat and humidity make me sad. I enjoy the warm times of year, but I’m always chomping at the bit for autumn. You’d be hard pressed to find a hunter from the north east who has an issue with the crisp air and changing leaves. Jeeze, I even opened one of my hunting packs yesterday and was hit with the smell of my year old doe urine scented candles, some people might have gagged, I reveled in the moment! …then again I just might be weird.

Having put a little more effort into property I have permission to hunt I moved a stand to a different location last weekend. One trail cam showed a lot of traffic; Spike bucks, 6 pointers, fawns, yearlings, and most important, multiple Doe. For a meat hunter like me there was no contesting the fact I needed to put the stand closer to that cam.

I felt it was important to actually shoot from the new stand location. The night after I moved the stand I was overcome by worries of shooting lanes and misjudged distances. I had put all the labor in of hauling 90 lbs. of awkward metal through the brush but failed to consider the all-important details of shooting from the dang thing! I think this is something we all should consider. And much to consider there is.

Arrows, Target, and treestand in the background-a beautiful August sight!
As mentioned it is late August, hunting season is getting closer and closer. My personal strategy is to regularly scope things out through the summer but then not disturb the stand area for the few weeks prior to the season. If I wanted to practice from the stand it was this weekend or not at all.

Today’s high temps being only mid 80’s the morning was a little cooler. The first thing I considered was NOT beating the heat and going in too early. This was not a stealth mission so I wanted to make sure the deer weren’t on the move while I was there. Whether checking cams or looking for sign make sure if you’re going on the deer’s turf this time of year it is during a time of day you can safely assume they are bedded down somewhere.

Number two, scent control. Even though hunting season is still weeks away you don’t want to risk them being aware of your presence, so “de-stink” yourself the same as you would in October. This morning it was particularly important as I was going to be touching a lot of cover in the area, and though my clothes were treated I couldn’t stop the sweat, so I tried not to get to grabby with limbs and brush. (As I understand it a deer can smell dead human skin cells that flaked off us 24-36 hours later!)

Now on to the fun part, the Shootin’!

If you’re not aware by now, suspending your target is a great way to extend its life. Whether a $32 bag target or a $150 one, hang it and it’ll last longer. My practice session today would be no exception. I used a spare haul line to suspend the bag between trees. Just a little off the ground to represent the area a deer’s vitals would be. There are 5 possible places I can shoot a deer from this stand, so I moved the target to each one and put multiple rounds in each time, some standing, and some while seated.

Using a rangefinder helped today, just for reference though. I use a single pin sight and leave it locked in at 25 yards for any shot up to 30 yards. I find when shooting from an elevation the true accuracy of your shot comes from knowing how low to aim at varying distances. Some people invest a ton of money into range finders that account for the angle and stand elevation…that still doesn’t mean I have time to fiddle with my pin setting when a deer is moving through my effective range, so not too unlike a recurve shooter I’m just going to get to know my bow and arrow and what they do.

This post is not going to give you the magic code for pushing tacks from an elevated position at varying distances, rather I am just trying to impart on you that being able to do it requires practice. At 20 yards I need to aim 2.5 inches low, at 23 yards it was 2 inches low, at 16 yards it was probably 4 inches low, mind you this was all with my pin set to 25 yards. If you want to google this topic you will find a ton of neat little drawings with triangles and grids and arcs and all of that. You can try wrapping your brain around it or you can simply get in a tree and see for yourself. I don't recommend shooting at a deer until you do.

No two hunters set up is exactly the same. Me shooting my bow from 18 feet up at a 22 yard target means I need to aim 2-3 inches low, this doesn’t mean you will too, so this is an exercise that EACH and EVERY hunter needs to practice on their own. Additionally, anytime something about your rig changes, ie. draw weight, arrow weight, tip weight, you can be sure your trajectory will too!

Shooting from the stand also helped me understand any pruning I had to do to clear shooting lanes. Most of the little stuff will be dead or dying come hunting season, but any branch I could see while shooting that was even 3/16” was getting eliminated. Brush still has time to grow so I'm not taking any chances.

Consider this exercise a dress rehearsal. You are after all getting up there with some of your gear and you darn well better be wearing your harness too. Any stand maintenance or necessary adjustments will become evident while shooting out of it, so make sure you take an extra ratchet strap and some tools in case you need to do a little work while you’re there.

Elevated shooting can be tricky; it’s probably the most intimidating part of bow hunting to me to be honest. The true distance given elevation, the arc of the arrow, it’s enough to make my head hurt. In the end the best shots I made on the bag were the ones where it just felt right to let the arrow loose, overthinking can be detrimental to your experience afield.  The closest range I practiced actually didn’t require aiming terribly low, how’s that for confusing? My guess is between my pin being set to 25 yards and the bag only being at 12 yards (halfway) the arc of the arrow got to its peak at that range…or not, trigonometry was never my strong suit anyways. Point is I know where to aim at that range now.

Pretty steep shooting, took me multiple arrows to figure out where the pin should go, but it's priceless knowledge!
I hope some of my experiences from today help you all too, especially if you’re using a single pin like me. I love the adjustable HHA for 3D shoots, but in the field it’s locked in and the rest is on me.

A few pointers-
  • Even though we’re trying to be scent free, bug spray isn’t a bad idea!
  • Take plenty of arrows, it's no fun having to climb up and down too much.
  • Don’t do this exercise from your actual hunting stand unless it’s a time of day when the deer aren’t coming through, even if that means dealing with August heat.
  • When pruning and trimming shooting lanes don’t radically change the landscape, just take off what you need and leave the area still appealing for deer.
  • Your first shot at each target location should be lower than you think it needs to be, this helps you understand the shot better and will cost you fewer arrows sailing through the woods.

Be safe out there and keep shooting, the season isn’t too far off!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Off Season Scouting

Hello All!
The below post was also posted to my other blog  Woody's Place that I will be authoring on behalf of the archery shop I work at. You can enjoy it here, but I also hope you hop on over and follow the blog. You can also check out our facebook page and our Website!

For me scouting begins at the close of the previous season. The deer find themselves at desperate odds with the environment. Their survival habits will be more evident as they struggle to make it through the winter. Late season hunters get a preview of this, especially in the aftermath of rifle seasons. A hunter willing to put some frozen ground under heel, use trail cameras, and glass deer during the winter, will be privy to habits earlier observations may not have shown them. Chances are a hunter will see sign more than actual deer, with the leaves bare and the ground hard we need to focus more on turned leaves, scrapes, and scat. I think it goes without saying to get your rear in the woods after a snowfall and study those tracks! 
I've often thought of the winter scouting as a great way to figure out my "wild card" stand location, that option for where to be when deer sense more pressure in the woods come fall and I'm not seeing as many as I'd like to from normal stand locations. 
Then of course comes shed hunting season. For some of us this is incredibly exciting! Maybe we get lucky and find a shed that tells us the buck that was consistently one step ahead of us survived. Or it can alert us to other bucks in the area. Coming up empty shouldn't dishearten anyone, however. Finding a shed is merely a sign that a buck was there, the best thing to do is consider where that shed was found in proximity to food or bedding areas and make a mental note.
Spring into Summer scouting can be fun. As temps get friendlier and nutrients become more plentiful deer move from the recesses and security of the deep woods more frequently. Obviously this makes them easier to observe. This is usually a time when many of us begin our scouting. Early summer scouting only serves to get me excited for the fall by reaffirming deer are in my hunting areas, but it's important none the less, because who doesn't want that confidence heading into bow season? It also shows us how many deer survived and how many new deer were born, and I can't imagine a hunter not wanting to see a healthy herd.

This is also a good time of year to consider pruning a path to your stand or blind. Why not get a jump on this? I've been lax some off seasons and it is no fun needing to "machete" your way through to put up a stand or camera. You will make yourself less detectable with a clearer path and strategic trimming around your stand offers deer a path of less resistance, which they happen to appreciate as much as us!

The end of summer can be dicey, as this is when we really want to try and pattern deer, but should not disturb the hunting grounds too much. Trail cams are especially useful in late summer for those reasons, but as we go to check them it should be with little frequency and we should practice the same stealthy tactics we do while hunting.

For any seasoned hunter it is easy to know roughly where the deer are and when under "normal circumstances." Most of us understand natural funnels, bedding areas, feeding areas, and cover areas, but with all that in mind I'd also use scouting to think out of the box. What I'm getting to is understanding where to be under "abnormal circumstances," like say, a Saturday during the season when a multitude of hunters descend upon the woods. You're not just trying to get ahead of the deer, but other hunters as well. This means having a great plan A, but also a B, C, and D, with each giving you a worthwhile opportunity. 

It may seem trivial but even understanding common wind directions and topography of an area will help with stand location and travel routes to stands. Try to find a route allowing a downwind approach, that also avoids deer paths. Some hunters like using a side hill to avoid their outline being detected by the ever watchful eyes of deer, but be cautious in this as deer also use side hills for the same reason, so avoid them at times of day a deer will perhaps use that same hill en route to your stand. This is all part of off season scouting because figuring things out on the fly rarely works to be a successful hunter. I've been known to spent quite a few summer evenings sitting at great distances from my potential stand with binoculars just watching where deer come and go from.

I won't go much into using attractants because not everyone likes the tactic. In the end I like them because it brings deer to my camera or area where I'm considering sitting. With that in mind I am always mindful of natural food sources and usually use attractants in close proximity to them. In PA there is no baiting allowed, so all deer candy has to be gone within so many weeks of the season opener, so I'm hedging my bets with things like acorns and clover anyways.

In the end I believe all these things just help me create a bit more luck for myself. As a self taught hunter I have made alot of mistakes, the one thing I have learned about hunting, public lands in particular, is to think one step ahead. Deer are a living breathing and THINKING being. They are always in survival mode and will not give up too easily. Always be thinking and be creative. Chances are that one extra step you thought was just you "over thinking" a situation, could be the very idea that has you drawing back on a nice buck or doe this fall!

Happy Scouting,