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.  

The Gift of Venison

On the afternoon of Christmas Day, I was practicing a few shots with the crossbow in the backyard. To that point it had been a interesting combined archery and rifle season.  I had missed out on a buck in the early archery season, but had seen plenty of deer. Rifle was enjoyable as always, and I had a chance to take a small doe on the second to last day, but let her walk in hopes that a big buck would be following her, but the scenario for which I had hoped never materialized.  The following day I hunted in heavy snow with no luck. 

And so it was, two weeks later on the first day of the late season, I was filled with hope once more.

It was interesting how the day worked out. I moved my stand to the other side of the game lands I hunt near my home. Probably moved it about 5 miles all told. I knew the tree was decent for late season, as the spot overlooks a pretty good thicket that has significantly increased visibility in December as opposed to leafy October.

I set up my stand around 10 a.m. after bumping into a muzzleloader hunter on the way in who gabbed on and on about a coyote he saw.  The whole time he talked loudly I couldn't help but think there were probably deer out there on the landscape twitching their ears while picking up his booming voice as it echoed through the woods. I figured I'd better let some peace and quiet settle in before doing any hunting.

I went home and spent the day with the boys shoveling snow and sledding. I had them tired out by 2:30, so they went down for naps under their mommy's watchful eye and old dad sneaked out and climbed into the stand by 3 p.m.

Forty minutes later, I noticed some movement behind me and spotted a deer feeding, and then another one. Both looked like does, and both were actually gimpy.  I could tell something was up with the way they were walking, and I figured they had been wounded in rifle season.  Yet, they were both getting along pretty well.

I waited on the doe that was in a decent shooting lane, and when she finally stepped free of blocking debris, I took a shot from about 35 yards. I put the 30 yard pin on her, and fortunately, the shot had just enough distance to catch the deer right in the heart. It was a clean pass, and initially, I thought I missed, but then I saw the deer go down after it ran about 30 yards.

I made quick work of her and hauled her out in the ease of the snow as darkness set in around me. It was a rewarding moment. It's funny how it all works out sometimes. It was one of the easiest hunts I've ever experienced. Almost like all the work paid quick dividends and now I had some nice tender venison for the winter. And, like always, the steaks would disappear all too quickly.

And It Was Not Meant To Be

Friday, December 6th,  the last day of day of "buck only" during rifle season was a rainy, icy day.  I was off work by noon, and checked into the cabin at Stone Valley.  My uncle hunted with my brother in the morning and then we met Spencer down at the cabin soon thereafter. I planned on setting up a blind for my dad on his typical spot overlooking the lake bed, but the stream was running so high I could not cross it without getting soaked. So, I bagged that idea and figured we should probably not waste any more daylight screwing around despite the bad weather. Something told me to go for it. 

So, there I was putting on drives in the thickest thickets for my uncle and Spencer. Getting soaked, but my gear is good, so I was still warm. Lost a glove. Lost a good hat, but kept on keeping on. Finally, the final hour of light arrived. And, I could tell my hunting partners were both cold and itching to get dry back at the cabin. So we walked back to my uncle's truck, and I said, "I have one more spot I'd like to push off for you."

Near the grassy lot is a good hill with the kind of cover that is impossible to see through and a stand of massive old hemlocks planted long ago by Penn State foresters. The deer are in there at times, and earlier in the fall I spooked two nice doe out of it while scouting. So, I placed my standers together so they wouldn't be shooting toward one another. They had a long grassy logging road to cover. About 100 yards of a clear view to the woods edge. The logging road was the basically the only way out for a bedded deer, unless a wily one stayed still or sneaked out behind me. I hiked around the backside of the hill and started pushing through the thickets. No one else was out there in the nasty weather except us.  And, something else was there too. 

I crawled and twisted through the dark thickets and finally emerged to where I could stand up under the sentinel pines. I took no more than five steps when I heard "Crack!" It was the report of a rifle, and I couldn't believe it, and it was my guys! One of them had shot! Doe didn't open until the next day, so it could only mean one thing. A buck! I trotted a few more steps and yelled, "Hey!  Was that you? Did you shoot?" 


"A Buck?" 

"Yeah! Big buck! Big buck!"

I couldn't believe my plan had actually worked! A buck was in there! He watched me walk by him twice and then he finally moved when I drove him off the hill. 
My uncle said he was leaning down because his back was hurting, and he said, "Spence, if anything comes take the shot."  

A few minutes later he heard Spencer say, "Oh My God....." 

He looked up in time to see Spence take the shot and he watched the deer jump and slip into the thicket on the other side of the logging path. 

I ran to the bottom of the hill right to them....

"Where? Where?"  

"Over there...about a 100 yards in front of us..."  It crossed exactly where I told them it would. 
"OK, let's give it a minute, just in case..."

Oh, how I wish that buck had piled up in a heap. But it wasn't meant to be. We tracked his predicted path, but we found no blood. Nothing. And, then darkness was upon us. And the big buck was gone. Victorious. 

Yet, my uncle would later say, he enjoyed that part of the weekend the most. Going after that buck in the rain. It was fun. And, no one felt worse than Spence, but what's the use of making a guy feel bad. I know he did. But, I tried to encourage him, "Spence, the next shot you take is the more important shot now. Can't do anything about this one. At least we know he is alive and well. Might get a chance at him again." I know all to well the heartache of a miss.

Spence said it would have been the largest buck he would have ever shot in his life. At least 10 points, massive body. Despite the fact that I had pushed him off the hill that wise old buck never ran. He was walking, not running when the shot rang out. He was just sneaking and slipping on by, and this time, luck was on his side. He could have been stone dead, perhaps an inch or two away from death. And, he had slipped away from us. 

There are times when I say to my wife, you know sometimes the best movies, the best books, don't end the way you expect them to or even hope them too. Sometimes it's the bitter ending that is better, the heartbreak. It kind of keeps one going more, makes us more determined to find success even when it slips right by, through our finger tips, out of our grasp just when we think we've got it.

We returned to the cabin with some broken hearts that night, but then the snow started falling through the pines, and everything was awesome again, and we were part of a fantastic winter scene in the mountains, warm and dry in a wooden cabin, and we were all full of hope for the next hunt, the next day. Sometimes the best hunts don't always end with a successful harvest.

Yellowstone in September

Throughout the fall months during my Pennsylvania hunting adventures, I thought often of my quick trip to Yellowstone National Park in September of 2013.  Driving the last 50 miles to the park's north entrance through Paradise Valley while watching snow hit the peaks around me was quite spectacular. A monstrous bull elk bugled within a few yards of my open window in Mammoth Village upon arrival. Yes, it was that awesome. A day later, Pollarine and I were fishing up a slot canyon full of feisty cutthroat on quiet Pebble Creek. Polla was right; the fishing is not quite as hot in September as it is in August, when there seem to be hungry trout everywhere.  Yet, discovering new streams and hikes was all very appealing. We hiked deep into the Pebble Creek backcountry and spent the day hopping pools and riffles, and perhaps some day, I will make it back to the Pebble Creek valley to camp in the solitude of its secluded mountain meadows. Armed with just a few high floating attractor patterns, I am sure a fisherman can do well there.

Our second day dawned cloudless and warmer highlighted by a painted blue sky.  It was doubtless we would tackle Electric Peak, an 11,000 foot mountain that dominates the landscape of the park's northwest corner.  Along the ten mile trek from trailhead to summit, we hiked through a sage filled valley, deep pine forests, and finally, through high alpine meadows before breaking through the tree line and clamoring over broken rocks near the summit. From the top, we could see for hundreds of miles. The snow covered Tetons loomed to the south, the Crazy Mountain range could be seen to the west, and the familiar Beartooth Range, which guards the park's northeastern side, visible to the east. It was a scene I will soon not forget, and from the top one could only sit and wonder at the beauty of it all.  After enjoying the top for an hour or so, we began our descent.  A few hours later, we completed the 20 mile hike, and still managed to limp to the Gibbon River before dark and try for a few trout.

Saturday, my last day in the park, was bittersweet. Friday's long hike had beaten us up a bit, so we decided to amble along the solitary banks of Tower Creek near our camp. We hadn't really experienced dynamite fishing, and the stream has always been an old standby for us. In fact, my whole love affair with Yellowstone National Park began with Tower. And, whenever memories of great fishing are stirred up, the days on this small tributary of the Yellowstone River always bob along the top, for there are many yarns involving this stream from which to choose.

We hiked to the very end of the four mile trail like we had over a year before in the sultry summer of 2012.  On that day a year hence, our party of four had encountered cooler waters and fishing never to be forgotten. This time around, we had good success and caught enough char for the campfire yet again, but I found myself purposefully soaking up the beauty of the land. Just after I had landed my second fish, a striking, hooked jawed brook trout which had put up an excellent fight, I gazed out across the landscape, and took a mental snapshot of the yellow aspens, clear water, and deep evergreens that set the scene of the illustration before me. Late in the afternoon, old Polla would slam a hole full of trout, and we walked back to camp with seven or so filets and some mushrooms that Sveta had carefully collected along the way. After devouring the decadent white meat and enjoying the warmth of the fire, it was time for me to saddle up in the darkness of the very last day of summer, and begin the trek home.

As I departed, I remembered all the wonderful sights of the last three days, like the large boar grizzly we encountered in the Lamar Valley on the first day. He was just lazing about without a care in the world, and his coat, was a rich chocolate brown. On the way back through the valley on the same day, we stopped to watch a large bull and his harem of 20 or so cows cross the Lamar River in the soft glow of evening. There was also the harvest moon standing sentry over the park near Dunraven Pass the night we drove to its summit before gathering firewood. Along the way a magnificent bull bison meandered about in the full moon's white glow.  There were the large racked mule deer bucks dashing across the park roads at dark and the fine bison sporting his clean winter coat on our walk back to site 14. We even managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of a badger, and Yellowstone held a few more surprises for me in the darkness of my drive home in the form of a large black bear and more bison and mule deer bucks.

The next day, autumn began and with it, cold weather complete with wind and storms.  I felt fortunate to have been blessed with three near perfect days of warm sun and clear skies that were to be summer's final act.  Of my trips to YNP, this September trip was the shortest of all, but certainly worth all the miles it took to get there.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Back to the Basics

Several years ago, I struggled mightily to train my wing-shooting eye. Struggle might be an understatement. I had no shooting eye. I remember going something like 1 for 90 at the range on a box of clay targets, launched in singles with a hand thrower. Fortunately, I had a great teacher that day, and he calmed me down and inspired me to right the ship.  After that first session with my brother, who patiently guided me through the process of securing the fundamentals first and not worrying about hitting and missing, I've committed my time to practice sessions before each hunting season. Now, I probably shoot hundreds of clay targets, launched from my slick foot-pedal thrower all during the late summer months proceeding October's pheasant opener.  My rate of success on the range and in the field has increased dramatically, and while I am not at 100% yet, on some days, I get really close.  My brother, George, was a hundred percent accurate in his lesson however—success in shooting is cemented in fundamentals.

Image from

Today, as I drove to the range on a deliciously cold September morning, my thoughts drifted back to those teachable moments with my brother so many years ago, and while I was really terrible, I will always be thankful that my teacher that day was my brother. He was the salt of the earth, not the salt in the wound, and that in itself was a lesson worth remembering too.  My friend Spencer met me at the range, and before long, I found myself repeating the same words of wisdom my brother had spoken to me. This time, I was playing the role of instructor, and it was satisfying to see an apt pupil instantly improve as he took the lesson to heart.  In late October, we'll surprise a hen or perhaps a rooster, and then, the hours poured into practice will pay great dividends—and the sense of satisfaction will be worth it.

Called Again

In a few short days, I'll be tracing the conduit of the Yellowstone River from Billings to Gardiner, Montana. My thoughts during this upcoming journey will be with those who traveled this way some 200 years ago—those members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. If there ever is a way to "live" the journey, it certainly isn't hurtling along I-90 at eighty miles per hour in a rental car, but I did read Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose.  I devoured that novel, and in the end, I realized that both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were at their absolute best, their true finest, during the two-year journey across the continent. I actually felt a degree of sadness while reading the part about their return down the Missouri River to St. Louis, because I knew the journey was over, and I had so much enjoyed being a part of it—vicariously through Ambrose's exceptional prose. 

Lewis departed from Pittsburgh in late August of 1804, drifting down the Ohio River to meet William Clark in St. Louis. He would arrive there in October, meeting Clark and making a winter camp before they would begin the expedition in the spring. From St. Louis, it would take the 30 some member group a year to reach the Pacific Ocean.

I too will be departing from Pittsburgh.  But,  I'll be in Montana just five hours later. Yet, I will be thinking of Lewis, and wondering what thoughts coursed through his mind as he paddled down the Ohio.

Meriwether Lewis (image from

This will be my fifth journey to Yellowstone National Park in the last eight years. Why I am going back again? Simply said, it calls me back. I've never been there in any other month outside of August. And, while all of those trips were magical, I am looking forward to seeing the park in the slightly waning light of Autumn. I will meet up with my good friend Pollarine who has participated in each one of my YNP adventures. I can sense the twinkle in his native Montana eye when he describes the scenes of September in the west. 

The closest memory I have is Yosemite in September, and goodness, was it ever beautiful. Cool nights led to sunny days. The kind of sun that is pleasant to stand in. A warm sun. One that knows winter is coming and tries to make life wonderful while it lasts.

I love the anticipation of reaching some of my favorite mountain streams and discovering new ones.  The overwhelming joy of casting that first imitation of the adventure, and hooking the first cubby char for the campfire.

There are new streams to fish this time: Solfatara, Pebble, and Gibbon. New mountains to climb: Electric Peak. And new memories to be made. Perhaps some will involve the bugle of the fall elk or the howl of wolves on crisp, cold nights.

Regardless, I hope for a safe journey for all involved, and I hope for a good time to be had. Maybe, just maybe, old Meriwether Lewis had hoped for the same things.