Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Need a Vacation!

Vacations symbolize two things to me. First, it represents a year’s worth of hard work. Much like the weekend, a vacation gives you the chance at an extended break from the normal stresses in life for a slightly longer period of time. Second, it starts a new beginning. The refreshing period before the next stint of rock pounding hard labor that is to come.
Seldom do I take a full week’s vacation in one complete day-to-day time period. Usually I will use a few days here, another there, trying to capitalize on holidays and weekends to make it seem longer and more frequent. However, a promise from my wife and I forced the full week this time.
My oldest son graduates this year. From experience and common knowledge, I realize this means one thing; this will likely be our last successful attempt at a vacation with the complete family. He will be on to other things just like any other child who flees the nest. We always told our kids we would take them to Disney, so if we were to hold our promise, this would have to be the time.
We planned to take this trip last year. But issues surfaced just like with any family. The finances were not quite right. Work required extra time and did not offer an ideal time to leave for an extended period. Of course, there were other excuses as well.
This time, we had to make it happen.
With my wife and daughter’s birthdays coming up during the school spring break, this was the time. My wife planned the trip including alternate plans in case of rain, snow, or hurricane. This was going to be a good vacation, and it was going to be memorable.
We set up a dinner date on my daughter’s birthday with the cast of Winnie the Pooh, TIgger, Piglet, and Eeyore. She always loved those characters, so we thought it would be ideal.
The next day, we planned a day away from Disney. My wife admired manatees since she was little. Never having seen one in real life, that became our destiny and goal. Yes, a bucket list item would be checked for her. We looked over several websites and decided to try several different avenues of opportunity.
Gradually, several of those avenues turned to dead ends.
We packed up our days’ worth of stuff and I drove a couple of hours towards the Atlantic coast side of Florida. There is a national refuge there, not far from Kennedy Space Center that supports a number of species of wildlife. We began by heading to the information center and took a walk around the boardwalk built and supported in the swampy lands. The kids were given a wildlife bingo game to make it more interesting.
The information center had a log book of special sightings as recorded by guests. I browsed through a couple of pages making mental notes of alligators, armadillos, and various birds. I also spotted entries for feral hogs, panthers, and even Bigfoot. This could be interesting.
Midway through the walk my youngest son heard a strange noise off the path. A few minutes later and the family witnessed their first close encounter with an armadillo. The small tank was not worried at all about our presence. He was just worried about the hole he was digging at the base of a palm tree.
Towards the end, we spotted a small alligator. I pointed out the tiger stripes that flanked his sides as he lay just a few feet from us gathering warmth in the Floridian sun.
But no manatee.
We traveled another 30 minutes to a manatee lookout point. Overlooking a river, manatees are known to travel there in order to stay in warmer water. We spotted two rolling in the water near the shore, but they were difficult to see and there were many tourists occupying the lone walkway making it hard to get in position to get a good look.
Frustration set in, and my wife was ready to leave. I drove down another unmarked path further down the river, but nothing was there either. We did see a boat ramp on the other side of the river with a retaining wall harboring a small loch of water to allow for easier boat entry and return.
We drove around to the other side and followed the obvious road towards the ramp. And she saw it. A huge rolling swell of water. A gray mass floating in the middle. Another towards the shore to the right.
In all, there were easily 20 or more manatees in the couple acres of still water. My wife and kids took off to one shore line where there were several within feet of land. Excitement filled the air. Beautiful lumps of gray flesh with large paddle like tails stretching up to eight feet in length. White scars from encounters with boat propellers donned their bodies. They were amazing.  My wife had come up close to the creatures she desired to see.
On our least expensive day, we all experienced something we would all remember. We witnessed one of our great creatures. We did it together.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Bullies have been around as long as humans have roamed this earth. It is a result of an insecurity married with a lack of ability to reason with another individual that forces the bully to feel they have to show a false sense of greater power in order to get their point across. It has become one of the key words over the last few years in the political universe as well.
In decades past kids whom were bullied were told to fight back. Once the bully knew it was no longer an easy win, they would back down and find another to try to express their perceived power over. Of course, with the change in times and social climate, those people no longer have that direction to take. Even a small retaliatory reaction after months or years of abuse can cause the bullied to be in even more trouble than the bully.
The school yard has historically been the home of bullies, with the lunch money swiping big guy towering over the small shaky boy taking everything including homework and pride. There is a class of work place bully that fits into the newly focuses political arena also. Without the ability to manage others, the work place bully forces desired results with intimidation and threats rather than encouragement and guidance.
Sports also had an unseen bully factor until recently. The Miami Dolphins brought much of that to light with the Incognito/Martin incident. Bullying was also present on the fields; it is just hard for the fan to notice from the nosebleed seats above. During the 80’s and 90’s Gary Payton, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were infamous for their trash talking and belittling of other players. Fans appreciated them for their success and skills, but other players were often left with their feelings hurt and heads hanging in defeat both mentally and physically.
But we have experienced bullying techniques in the outdoors world as much as any. There is a constant battle between the haves and the have-nots. There is a constant bashing of those that approve of a different style and technique with those that approve of only one type of hunting. There is a constant clash between outdoorsmen and self-proclaimed conservationists.
I witnessed several months ago a very public battle on social media between two heavy weights in the outdoors world. Off handed comments, low hitting insults, and possible false accusations were thrown out like candy on Halloween. Venomous talk between the two damaged my perception of both. These two respected hunters and outdoorsmen lost my all of my respect. Was it because one had more sponsorships, more fans, or more viewers? I do not know for sure, but it caused a rift that divided fans and outdoorsmen, and brought in questions as to the real focus of various television shows as related to hunting.
It does not stop there. I even catch myself in disagreements over some things. For instance, some hunters only believe a hunt is a hunt if it one person, self-guided, with one particular style of weapon or technique. I primarily bowhunt, and have made comments in private that the reason I like to bowhunt is because to me, sitting in a boxed stand from hundreds of yards away waiting for Mr. Big to show is not hunting. I am wrong. It is hunting. It is just a different style.
A guided hunt does not make one any less of a hunter than one that self-guides. A different skill set maybe, but not less of a hunter.
Yes, some hunts are easier, with a higher potential for success. But it is no reason to attack and bash another.
The battles between PETA, and other factions and organizations against outdoorsmen are too numerous to account for. They are rarely conservation groups. Conservation and preservation are different entirely. If you were to look up conservation in a Google search, there are definitions that merge the two words. However, those definitions are wrong. Preservation prevents the hunting of wildlife and the use of the habitat. Conservation controls the habitat and wildlife in a manner to sustain it for the future. Of course, this can go on to another essay altogether, and probably should. But bullying tactics from both sides are used in order to get the upper hand in the argument.
We, as individuals, need to understand the consequences of not only our actions, but our reactions as well. We need to know that sometimes a push from our power can gain what we want, but it is a false gain, as those affected are driven further away from whatever our cause may be. And as hunters, anglers, and outdoorsmen in general, we need the respect and support of the majority in order to teach and experience those things we enjoy with our future generations.

Friday, April 11, 2014


There are many places that one could go that inspire fear. Trying to stalk into a lion’s hunting ground comes to mind. Or swimming off the coast of Africa where the sharks go airborne when attacking their prey. Honestly, one of my biggest fears, and I am not one to cower at much, is going under a house. Yes, that inspires as much fear in me as facing a black bear with now weapon available. It has something to do with a job I once had in which I had to check the crawl space of a business and just a few feet inside the door was a massive group of black widows. They smothered my coveralls and I could not get out of them quick enough. In fact, I ended up standing there in my underwear running the water hose over my body to wash any of the babies off of me that may have made it past my layers of clothing.
Nothing inspires fear and anxiety as much as the unknown though.
The very nature of the unknown is to provide uncertainty. While gator hunting in Georgia I expected to see alligators. Therefore, the sight and proximity of the gators did not unnerve me. I expected to come face to face with a mountain lion while in Arizona. The mountain lion was what I was after, and the guide explained to me that my shot could very well be from only five yards away from wicked teeth and an angry disposition. In those situations I was fine as it was a known expectation of what was to come.
This fella tried climbing in the boat while hunting in Georgia.
Walking into a closet of an abandoned house I was on my alert for snakes. Not necessarily because snakes had been there before. Mostly because I was young and if something was dark and unknown my mind slithered with snakes in the blackness. I nearly fainted when an opossum hissed with the ferocity of rabies stricken wildcat when I opened the closet door. The unknown and unexpected occurred. To this day, nearly 35 years later if I walk into an old, dark barn, shelter, or house I now expect to see the elongated jaw of a mad opossum to come out of the shadows. And I’m not expecting them to play dead either.
One of the common sayings about the fear of snakes is “I’m not scared of the snakes I can see, it’s the ones I can’t that I’m worried about.” That is me in a nutshell.
From the tree stand, while sitting in the dark waiting for the warmth of sunlight to break the horizon, many strange sounds can be heard. When taking my kids on their first hunts, they were always amazed and a little apprehensive about the shrieks and cries that surround the night. I explained what the different calls were, and on future hunts and camping trips they became accustomed to the noises. But that first instance of the unknown, that was the scary part.
The more we learn, the less we are in the unknown. After all, it becomes a known experience. We become comfortable in the environment that surrounds us and know what to expect.
Except for the owners of that business where I was crawling into the crawlspace. I am sure they will forever be afraid of seeing a grown man dancing around in his underwear while spraying himself off with a water hose.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mating Season

As outdoorsmen, we rely almost completely on animal’s natural instincts. Mating and reproduction are some of the most basic of those instincts that can be predicted.
Everyone knows the rut for deer is the peak time for whitetail hunting. The bucks throw caution to the wind as they search for a willing mate, even if it means exiting the protection of their thick cover during broad daylight at just a scent of a female or sound of a competing male’s grunt. But this is not limited to our most popular hunting pursuit.
Every year over the last decade or so I have watched a series of underwater cameras on the Wolf River in Wisconsin beginning in March. They are similar to the various bird nest cameras or zoo cameras that grace the news every now and then, except they show underwater life.
If you are lucky, you can catch a sturgeon hovering in and out of the view of the screen. Most of the time, when the activity heats up, it is because of the sucker fish spawn. There may be several dozen of the bottom feeders bouncing and rolling over each other. Within a few weeks the sucker fish begin their spawn here in the Carolinas as well.
When I first caught glimpse of a sucker spawn, I was amazed at the sight before me. I have never been to Alaska, but I imagined the suckers crashing the running water with their tails in the shallows were a miniature version of a salmon run on the Copper River.
During the same time span, another species begins their journey up the river basins. The shad, whether hickory or American, will populate the rivers quickly and chomp at anything small enough to digest. Their hunger is only fueled for the tiresome swim against the currents over hundreds of miles so they can lay eggs and fertilize them.
Of course, once the shad begin their track, the stripers follow behind. The stripers are a favorite amongst anglers on the Roanoke River. The significance to a small area in Eastern North Carolina is historical in context, garnering nationwide excitement at the peak. Traffic jams in Atlanta have nothing on the gunwale to gunwale occurrences from the boats lining the river’s surface.
As the stripers ramp up their spawn, our still waters begin to swell with activity as well. Pan fish such as bream fan the bottoms of ponds and lakes in what appears as an underwater lunar landscape. The crappies come from the depths and cover up to the shallow shorelines to prepare for their annual ritual.
 The male largemouth, the predominate predator of the freshwater, begins his bedding process as well. He is hungry and angry and will attach anything that comes near the nesting area. The trophy though is the big female. She carries the eggs and has put on the weight. She may hover just off the bed out of sight until her confidence and safety allows her to re-enter. It all becomes a game of wits. Can the angler outsmart the prey? We can learn when, but we have to become wise to the tendencies and match the techniques.
Spring does not only bring the fish to a fevered pitch though. Neither is fish the only ones we have to outplay the game with.
The old gobbler begins his redundant calls announcing his dominance. His harem will feed and cluck; he will follow and strut. A smaller jake stands no chance against a beard dragging tom during the prime mating season.
Spring sets off a glorious sequence of events of what we would ‘humanize’ as love, and we humans love it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Invasive Season?

Hunting season has once again departed; at least until turkey season comes into full swing. The fishing is trying to heat up a bit, but the weather continues to keep it from its prime. With that in mind, there are some ‘community services’ that one can partake and have a blast doing.
Predation from invasive species is not only a nuisance, but is growing in the effects it leaves on our wildlife and the habitat. In particular, coyotes and feral hogs do not appear to be going away; in fact their numbers are growing rapidly.
Now hunters and outdoorsmen are beginning to understand the significance and the increased opportunities in the process.
The fawns being born over the next weeks and months will become prime targets for a hungry coyote population following a cold winter and early spring. In areas where the coyotes exhibit high numbers, the deer populations will obviously be affected the heaviest.
With the mating season for turkey fast approaching, the same concerns for our turkey populations exist. Again, the poults are especially vulnerable. Not only do nesting birds have to worry about scavenging hunters such as opossum, raccoons, and foxes with their eggs, but they have to protect their young birds from aggressive packs of coyotes.
Then there are the feral hogs. They have multiple litters each year and can overpopulate an area in a very short amount of time. They can obliterate crops, driving away turkey, deer, quail, and other game animals that are drawn to the lands for both food and cover.
A couple of years ago I was invited on a cull hunt for feral hogs on a deer hunting lease. The hogs were consuming all of the baiting areas making it more difficult to hunt the whitetail. Our job was simple, take out as many hogs as possible.
The first evening, just a half hour after arriving and throwing on some camo and climbing the stand, I saw my first hogs come into the open area. Two different groups came in from different sides about 15 minutes apart. I was bowhunting and had four about 27 yards away standing beside each other in twos. I texted to my hunting partner that the way they were lined up I did not have a clear shot at just one. But after assessing the situation, I concluded I did have a clear shot at two. Shoot high in the lungs at the first and on a pass-thru I should be able to connect with the one beside it in the lower lungs or heart.
I drew back the 70 pound bow and waited. After approximately 30 seconds, the shot presented itself. A soft touch of my trigger finger to the release and the 100 grain broadhead found the mark. I saw the fletching of the arrow stay in the closest hog so I texted my partner again that I had one, but I don’t think I was able to hit the second. The arrow must have struck the massive shoulder blade.
After coming down from the stand and starting the blood trail, the trail split about 15 yards away from impact. There was one part of my arrow as well. The arrow had passed through the first hog, and when it struck the second, their reaction broke the arrow in flight. Another 15 yards in a briar patch lay one of the hogs. Ten yards away from the first lay the second.
Sausage and cubed ham filled the freezer. I had a wonderful hunt, had some great food for the family, and helped with the population control of the feral hogs. Overall, I saw a dozen hogs for every one deer during the weekend. And this was on land where good money was spent on leasing and managing the deer herd.
That is a community service with some awesome benefits for both myself and the one’s I helped.