Saturday, November 11, 2017

Big Six

My first buck with a compound bow was a hunt as memorable as any I’ve the had in a lifetime afield. I had been eagerly anticipating an early November hunt as soon as the calendar flipped to the eleventh month...a magical time of year to be in the Pennsylvania woods chasing bucks.

On the morning of November 2nd, 2017, I was settled in a good stand site along an acorn laden ridge; I had good luck spotting deer in the spot through the first several weeks of archery season—especially in the mornings. A storm system had passed through the previous evening, leaving the forest floor saturated and silent.  An hour after sunrise, a crafty six point buck sneaked in behind me and offered no shot. Soon after another six point buck worked his way down the ridge toward me, and I foolishly rushed a shot in fear of losing another opportunity. The buck ambled off grazed but no worse for the wear. I would see one more buck, a nice 8-point out of range before concluding my morning hunt. I was not discouraged, but rather hopeful that more action would come my way before the day was through.

After lunch I switched to my favorite evening stand, a long walk from the trailhead in the state game lands near my home.  Hiking in, I met my father, George, and my Uncle Tom, who were concluding their first hunt of the day. They planned to grab some lunch and pick up my brother-in-law Danny, who was visiting from Paris, France, and who had jumped at the opportunity to spend some time hunting with us after practicing with my old crossbow.

Little did I realize how fortunate I would be to have family hunting with me on this particular day.

It was a lazy, comfortable November afternoon. The sun was warm on my back and the woods were quiet. But soon, the last hour, the magic hour would arrive.  The cooler air incited deer activity almost immediately. A small pod of does worked along the ridge to my right at 70 yards enjoying an evening meal.  I began to hear movement in the bedding area directly in front of my stand. A doe hopped out of the cover and behind her, a beautiful buck gave chase. I stood, heart hammering, watching classic rut activity. The doe worked her way toward me, feeding on acorns. I knew she was my ticket to the buck, so I concentrated on her position and movement in order to keep my cover. She seemed at ease and continued to feed, occasionally glancing back at the mature buck, who stood sentinel still at the edge of the thicket. My heart continued to hammer and my mind willed him to move into a shooting lane. For nearly ten minutes the buck stayed put, scenting the air and checking the surroundings. Finally...finally he moved toward the doe. Slowly he worked toward her and then with a quick burst he pushed into a decent shooting lane and I drew the bow and placed my 20-yard pin on his side as he quartered away.

Hindsight is 20-20. I probably had more time than I realized in the moment, but I was worried the buck was about to charge off in pursuit of the doe and I would lose a good chance at him. The buck paused and looked toward me and then away, and I let an arrow fly from my PSE 3G Stinger.

It was a hit. The buck wheezed, turned tail, and burst away through the hollow and into the heavy brush. My arrow had hit a bit farther back than I intended, and I could see the bright green and white fletching sticking out of him as he ran.

Initially, I was concerned that I had only struck muscle and the deer was lost. Light was fading fast, so after 15 minutes of anxious waiting, I climbed down and checked for blood. Almost immediately I picked up a decent blood trail and followed it into the bramble nearly 80 yards away.  I found my arrow, covered in bright red blood.  At this point, I had to switch on my headlamp to see in the gathering darkness.  Concern grew. I did not want to push this buck if it was still alive and lose it. So, I began to back off, and decided to hike out and check in with my family who were by now waiting and wondering what I was up to.

By the time I made it to the trailhead, everyone was there waiting and so was WCO Michael Ondik. Officer Ondik checked my license, checked out my arrow, and offered advice about how to proceed.  We were all thankful for his help and good nature in the matter. He did much to instill in me the confidence that the buck was indeed down and out.  At this point nearly two hours had passed since I arrowed the buck.  For the rest of my life, I will be thankful for two specific pieces of this particular hunt. First, I was glad I backed off. Successfully recovering the buck may have certainly depended on it. Second, the help of family is invaluable.  Having four sets of eyes to follow a blood trail in the night is exponentially better than being alone.

An hour later, our party of four arrived at the search site and took up the endeavor of finding the buck. Excitement pervaded, and with each new discovery of fresh blood my doubts dissipated.  Things looks good. But still no deer. Then, Uncle Tom picked up a penultimate clue and Danny found the final one, and there he was catching the rays of my headlamp, a beautiful mature six-point whitetail buck!

How shall I ever forget the joy of the moment? With shouts of joy we all embraced and a litany of thank yous I expressed to my family not only for helping but also for being there to enjoy the memory. Barred owls hooted in the dark night, and we cheered the good fortune a buck brings to the archer on a November evening deep in the Pennsylvania woods.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Rocky Mountain Rendezvous

Backpacking into Pebble Creek in the northeastern section of Yellowstone National Park kicked off our adventure in the Montana/Wyoming wilderness.  In its opening act we were greeted with a 1,400 elevation gain in the first two miles, but it was worth the effort, as the meadows that followed made us feel like we were in a movie set. An explosion of wildflowers greeted us for the next two miles. Bright red Indian Paintbrush, lavender lupine, and bright yellow sunflowers highlighted the show. Close to the early evening we were closing in on camp, and Joe and I spotted a hefty black bear in the distance as he powerfully clawed apart fallen trees likely for a supper of ants and grubs.

In the days that followed, we lived like mountain men, enjoying our own little slice of the backcountry which we seemed to have all to ourselves.  Our site overlooked meadows of willows that bordered meandering Pebble Creek. The flyfishing was fantastic. We fished downstream and upstream catching more cutthroat than one could imagine. Beautiful trout with crimson gill plates, sunset slashes, and golden bodies. Simply put, the fishing was the best I've ever experienced. For its size, Pebble Creek produced some unexpectedly large trout, each and every one feisty fighters ranging from 10-16 inches in size. Green hoppers, PMDs, and caddis were our flies of choice, and the uncomplicated nature of the fish made our options interchangeable.

One morning we trekked up nearby Bliss Pass and enjoyed the alpine views of the Absarokas and Beartooth mountain ranges. We had a snowball fight at 10,000 feet, checked out the whitebark pines the grizzlies would soon visit, and enjoyed a lunch of trail mix and jerky before scrambling back down to the creek for another afternoon of terrific fishing.

We encountered bear and moose. The first afternoon of fishing I had just released a foot long cutthroat and looked up to see a set of bear cubs on the far bank looking at me, one standing upright. There was no sow in sight, so I quickly unclipped the bearspray from its holster, my head on a swivel as I hiked back upstream to gather up the rest of the gang: Joe, Josh, and Shawn.  Both cubs treed, and soon, the mama sauntered along. She was quite amiable really, for she napped under the tree wholly aware of our presence. Giving her a wide berth we continued fishing, and later in the evening, she and her cubs showed up in our meadow. It was quite a show watching the cinnamon cubs wrestle while the jet black sow settled into their bedding site for the evening. 

The following evening we were visited by an immense cow moose and her calf. We were able to watch them devour willows from the comfort of our campsite for over two hours.

Each evening we gathered firewood from the downed wood of the forest and passed the time enjoying its warmth, pumping drinking water from the glacial cold creek, and creating meals from our freeze dried pouches and whatever else we packed. My personal favorite was Mountainhouse Chili-Mac with Fritos sprinkled atop.

The time passed all too quickly. We found ourselves hiking out and experiencing the only unpleasant weather of the entire trip.  We made it nearly five miles before ducking into pines to allow a rolling thunderstorm to pass.

In reflection, this was the best backpack I've ever experienced. Everything came together on this trip, especially the fishing. Yellowstone's backcountry holds many secrets and surprises, and  I was thankful to be a part of it if only for a few magical Rocky Mountain summer days.

The wildflowers of the upper Pebble Creek plateau

The view from camp

A feisty Pebble Creek cutthroat

The beautiful colors of the cutthroat trout

Sunset over the mountains

Bliss Pass overlook

Pollarine points out the Beartooth Plateau to Joe

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Golden Moment

The 2016 deer season was a wonderful learning experience from start to finish. From hours of archery practice with a compound bow as I made the switch from a crossbow to scouting and performing deer drives in December and January, I gained invaluable insight and information that I know will serve my hunting life well for the coming years. Perhaps the finest moment of last season was not scoring my first deer with a compound bow (although it ranks high on the list), but rather, helping a fellow hunter score his first whitetail.

Rifle season brings with it a special nostalgia and camaraderie that sets it apart from the more personal and intimate mood of archery season. Both seasons are highly enjoyable. What I enjoy most about rifle is the chase. Driving deer from thickets and attempting to push them past the rifle sites of the hunters in our party is thrilling.

Often times the deer play the smarter counterpart, meaning they get away much more often than we harvest them. But, when we somehow manage to do everything right and the deer cross us at just the right moment, and we make a good shot, well then, it's a golden moment.

One of these moments occurred on a fine December Saturday afternoon last season. My brother George and I were pushing a nearly impenetrable thicket in hopes of kicking out a whitetail in the direction of our posted hunters and suddenly everything fell into place.

It had been a bittersweet morning up though midday. Some ups and downs if you will. The morning started with Spencer harvesting a nice button buck from a stand I had actually set up the previous evening, so when his 8 a.m. text came asking what township we were currently in, it brought a smile to my face as I posted up a mile away in my own tree.  One deer down for our party of six (Uncle Tom, Dad, Spencer, Charlie, George, and I).

The "downs" included two doe that slipped into a thicket not fifty yards from my Uncle Tom's spot. I could see Uncle Tom and I could see the deer clearly, but because of the micro terrain, he could not see them.  Dad also had a moment with a fine 8 point buck in his scope, but the time was not meant to be and the shot missed cleanly as the deer bounded away unscathed.

Around midday we reconvened and strategized our afternoon hunt. It was then that my brother and I decided to drive a long, nasty thicket that always seems to hold deer.  There is a nice wooded ridge above the thicket which allows a few good shooting lanes if anything should pop out. We first placed Charlie on a mound I like to call "milk crate hill".  It's a rocky outcropping beneath a stand of oaks and there is an old, broken, red milk crate nearby worn down by nature and time. I often think that fifty years ago it provided a nice perch for a hunter.  Charlie found a seat on a flat rock there and I told him to keep watch on the end point of the thicket where eventually a deer might run out of room and be forced to break into the edges about 60-70 yards in front of him.  I was speaking hypothetically, but hope glimmered for some action.

Dad and Uncle Tom, we placed together about 100 yards away along the middle of the thicket more toward the mid-point of our drive. We gave them more or less the same instructions. Keep watch on the thicket below you, you might see some whitetails flashing through there, so be ready.

George and I hiked all the way back to the very beginning of the trails and worked together pushing, crawling, and ducking through the snags, deadfalls, and wicked thorns so characteristic of a deer hideout. We were about 20 yards apart. To my right was an open, grassy trail that I wished to keep the deer from crossing, for if they did, there would be no shot opportunity for our posted hunters. The deer would simply bound up the opposite ridge and be long gone.

About twenty minutes into our drive we were nearing the mid-point. We stopped for a moment to weave a bit closer as the cover began to get even heavier. I remember thinking that the position of the late day sun provided a nice spot for a deer to warm up in amongst the brambles. I took a single step toward my brother when suddenly a doe jumped up from a bed not ten feet away. She was in full sneak mode as she darted like an arrow straight away from us. I took a knee and kept saying, "Come on....Come on....Come on...." as I waited for the sweet sound of a rifle shot. We knew the deer would run straight past all three of our posters if she kept the current course. Just when I began to think it might become another crestfallen moment, a shot cracked, and I knew it had to be one of our guys.  It was only one shot, but it was one of the best sounds you can possibly hear as a driver.

We threw down and started running out of the thicket hoping beyond hope, someone had scored. As we made our way up the ridge toward Dad and Uncle Tom, hope began to wane a bit. They saw no deer and they were busy downing some hot chocolate. But, they agreed the shot sounded close and they thought it was Charlie. God, did I hope it was true. I began trotting up the ridge along the trail toward the rocky outcropping where Charlie had set. But, as the clump of trees and rocks came into view, I did not see Charlie anywhere. George and I hurried along, and about 60 yards later we spotted him along the ridge with his rifle slung over his shoulder.

Oh no! I thought. Another hunter somewhere further down the ridge has taken the shot. But, then, my brother exclaimed, "There's the deer!" And, sure enough at the base of Charlie's silhouette, rested a nice, plump doe. Charlie's first whitetail.  What followed was a blur of happy exclamations, back slapping, and broad smiles.  A single success erased countless empty handed hunts. Joy pervaded.  We knew we were living the highlight of the season in that moment. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

October Glory

Friday, October 16th, 2015...

For months I worked and planned a field trip for my students at Stone Valley, one of my go to wilderness escapes. Great hunting and fishing there. I've taken two nice bucks and a doe there in the late season over the last few years. 

I arrived early before the buses laden with children and enjoyed a quiet hour of solitude setting up a scavenger hunt, checking on the climbing wall, and getting the canoes ready. Snapped some great pictures of the early morning fall foliage along the lake. Already a great day. Really lucked out with the weather. It snowed and rained all weekend. 

Field trip was terrific. Always good to get kids out hiking, canoeing, and climbing. I ran the hiking and canoeing station, and there is just something about teaching kids about the great outdoors that I truly enjoy. 

So, there I was cleaning up after everyone left, and eager to get out for an evening archery hunt. I dashed home (20 minutes), and checked on the family. Got the green light, and headed to a good stand on a high ridge, a place I'd seen bucks cruising the year previous. We had a cold front moving in and I thought that perhaps it might be a good call out of the seven stands I have up in my many wooded haunts. 

Splashed some pre-rut/rut scent on my boots and took a direct route to the 20 foot stand I had in an oak tree, my back covered by an evergreen. Low visibility, but some good shooting lanes. I had specifically relocated this stand from last year, because the bucks were always out of range, so I found a little covered spot that was not more than 10-25 yards from two good trails that I'd seen deer travel, especially the bucks, and especially in the evenings. 

This is literally my best evening stand. 

I settled in and watched the afternoon sun dropping directly in front of me. The breeze was from the west, and I knew I'd have to keep turning to check my back, because if anything picked up the scent trail it might approach from the rear and come up over the rise of the narrow ridgeback and cross wind. 

After what seemed like twenty minutes, some dark clouds appeared on the horizon and I knew we'd get a quick shower. I checked the wind direction with my compass, and just as I was studying it, I picked up a soft footfall at my direct 4 o'clock. I peeked over my right shoulder, and there he was. A buck! He was picking up the scent trail. 

I couldn't believe it at first. Wow, is this real? I could see he was a least a six pointer, so he was legal, and a good sized deer. I didn't move, because even though I had the height advantage, I was still in his peripheral line of site. I waited for that oh so sweet quartering away shot. Plus, I still had the compass to stash. He finally turned to pick up the scent again, and I acted quickly. I spun and placed the 20 yard pin on his ribs and shot. He spun in reaction and tore down the trail whence he had come. 

I knew all the practice all summer was leading to this point. I didn't need to overthink the shot, just make it. I could already see some blood, so I climbed down and checked the spot where I thought I hit him. I found the broadhead. Blood everywhere. But, I remembered some lessons past about pushing deer and the death run, so I waited there and pulled out the binos. 

And, about 35 yards down the trail I spotted him. Dead as the tree trunk he was parallel with. Wow. I checked my watch. 34 minutes. 34 minutes!  It doesn't get any sweeter than that. So, on a banner day, I was dragging what turned out to be a fat, crafty-racked 8-pointer out of the woods by 5 p.m. 

Had him hanging and ready for butchering by evening, and it was wonderful surprising my family with him. I guessed him to be a 2 year-old buck. I think I may have seen him the year prior when he was a wily 3 pointer. 

So far, the ribs, loins, and chuck meat have been downright terrific. My first October buck. Steaks and roasts for the autumn. And, good memories. 

Looking forward to pheasant on Saturday and a few more evenings in the stand before rifle. I still have two doe tags. But, in my year, the mighty buck has been hammered! Yeeeehahhhh!!!

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Time to return to the place that lives in my heart...Yellowstone National Park. A rendezvous with Joe and Polla, childhood friends bonded by the adventures discovered in the Wyoming backcountry. Each journey has had its own story, and I look forward to the new one we are about to forge.  Heart Lake, Mt. Sheridan, Crayfish Creek, Virginia Cascades, Lewis River: all places I've researched since December when this trip was born and the call posted.

When I look across all the expeditions of the past, I smile knowing I'll be gathering firewood in the collecting darkness, such a simple yet satisfying act. I yearn to rock hop across untouched mountain streams, guessing where the trout lie, and revel in the outstanding reward that follows.  I laugh at the fact that we'll be posting paper notes to each other on camp boards, so we can find each other upon arrival, not all that dissimilar from Lewis and Clark during their epic journey into the lands of western North America. 

I hope for a trillion stars, the Perseid meteors visiting us at Heart Lake, a huge cutthroat trout (just one perhaps) from a backcountry lake so remote it will take a four hour hike just to reach it. I hope to see my old friend Tower Creek, whom I last visited nearly two years ago in September, when the aspen trees wore gold and a wonderful, hooked jawed brookie found its way to my Royal Coachman in the way, way back where the moose and grizzly bear play. 

A collection of images from the places we've hiked and flyfished over the last seven or so years. Memories so thick, I have to brush them away. All simply named for the creek or river by which they were taken. Credit to Joe and Polla for their capture. 





Soda Butte

Monday, February 10, 2014

An April Adventure

These frigid nights have me dreaming of warm spring afternoons along a trout stream.  The sound of the crickets and peepers bringing the evening world awake, the earthy smell of the rich brown soil, and the feel of warm rain, are all yearned for.   And, while we'll be encased by snow and ice for another six weeks or so, I can recall some warmth from ten months prior.

One of my favorite memories from last year had to be our late April trip to Poe Valley State Park in Bald Eagle State Forest.  Poe Lake is nestled in a deep valley between two high ridges, nearly nine miles from the nearest paved road. It's a fun adventure just driving there.  We were a party of five that day, with my nephew Jace joining our hunt for some trout. We saw deer and turkey on the drive into the park, and when we arrived, we spent some time playing around the new beach and playground. Poe Valley recently upgraded their facilities, and it really is a gem in the mountains. The lake is stocked with trout, as is the small stream that flows out of the spillway. I've had success fishing the lake, but I never spent too much time on the stream, which recedes to a trickle mid summer.

It was rather windy on the lake that day. And, the casting was difficult. With three boys Kindergarten and below, it was not an ideal situation. I was probably doing more hook management than proper lure placement in the deep lake waters, so we headed toward the much more appealing forested stream, which had plenty of logs to clamor over, waterfalls to throw rocks into, and oh yeah, trout to catch.  What I failed to realize in the beginning of our adventure, was that the Big Poe Creek would provide a much better fit.  Shelter from the wind and smaller water played into our skill set quite well. For a long time, the fish didn't cooperate, even though we could see schools of them lazing about in the translucent long, shallow pools.

Jace, try as he might, could not convince some of the lunker browns and brooks to snap at his silver phoebe, but he kept at it, and I couldn't help but admire his diligence. I perched for a bit with Quinn on a beautiful old moss covered tree which had long since fallen across the stream, making a perfect bridge, albeit slippery, so we crawled along instead of standing up.  Kale tried his hand at a few holes below the logjams, and eventually even tried tossing visible speckled fish a few wax worms to entice them to the surface. Nothing seemed to be working.

We enjoyed the scene as it was, and as we walked, hopped, and skipped through the Tolkien-like woodlands, I kept an eye out for a good run which might be harboring some orange bellied dynamos. Somehow, I had missed a nice little riffle, for we had unknowingly walked by it entirely the first time through. Now, I double backed with Jace and Kale, and perched them one at a time on a piece of limestone that stood like an island mid stream.  From it, they could cast their lines a few feet forward and allow the water to do all the work of the presentation. Based on the way the day had gone, I wasn't expecting much, but figured it was worth a shot as I patiently explained to my two doubters that although the water was shallow, it was fast, and there is nothing an old brookie likes more than to sit along the gravel at the edge of a riffle and dart in and out of the current to snatch whatever fishy morsels might float by.

Jace's line dropped in first, and just as the monofilament curled along the heart of the run, a foot long char smashed it and leaped high from the water while Jace battled him to shore. We dropped the chubby prize into the old wicker creel. Next it was Kale's turn to roll the dice. Fortunately, we delivered a nearly identical cast to the previous one, and although the water had been an uproar of commotion just minutes earlier, an unperturbed colorful brook trout swallowed the worm and dug deep into the bank sending Kale's drag screaming. Boy was it fun to watch him land the flipping trout along the bank, and I clawed at it like a incompetent carnivore just to get it into the basket, which I was finally able to do.  After a few more shots with Jace, we called it a day, and excitedly we hiked out to share our good fortune with Aunt Bek and little Quinn-who was already napping in the backseat. Perhaps, the most rewarding catch of the day was not the fine trout we had in our possession, but rather the terrific photo Bek had taken that framed our day quite beautifully.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

On a Winter's Day

On the first day of winter, I had hands down a great pheasant hunt. My brother, my friend Spencer, and I headed out on Saturday morning to a frozen tundra of high grass and swamp. About 15 minutes into our hunt, Daisy busted a covey of birds, and out came a handsome cockbird right at Spencer, he nailed it, and then all the hens in the harem started running and flying. What happened next was a flurry of activity. All told, five hens took flight, and we knocked down four. The air was full of feathers. We quickly found three dead birds but could not account for the fourth. Daisy took off trailing one of the hens that had run. She soon made a beautiful flush, and I killed it mid air on my second shot (sometimes my best shot). So, we had five birds, one shy of our bag limit.

About a half hour later, Daisy got two more birds running in a hedge row. We were trying to save the last flush for my brother. I had already shot two and so had Spencer, so it would be nice if my brother could get his second bird. 

Well, we had no idea there were two birds. We were watching one run back and forth, sometimes headed the other direction past Daisy, which was sort of comical. It eventually flushed on Spencer's side, but he missed. Meanwhile, Daisy kept bawling at the other end of the hedgerow. We thought she was trailing the bird that had flushed. But, we were wrong. She had been trailing a different hen the entire time. We hustled down to her just in time, and our beloved beagle flushed the bird directly at my brother, and he killed it with his second shot from the hip, aiming directly up.

Done! It was kind of neat walking out by 9 a.m. with six birds. It was a fine morning! 

There was plenty of pheasant for Christmas Eve dinner at our house which happened to be full of people, about 30 all told. I barbequed the breasts and legs in a thick sauce straight from the store bought bottle and it was all heartily devoured right out of the simmering slow cooker.