Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Hens

For a several seasons I gunned for a chance to hunt the Christmas hen stocking in Lycoming and Union county's State Game Land 252. In years prior my brother George and I had made it out post holiday, and we usually harvested several rabbits and if we were lucky, a single female pheasant.  For the first time I was able to hunt on the day of the stock, and it was well worth it. My friend and colleague Spencer accompanied Daisy and I on the hunt. It was a beautifully chilly mid-December afternoon and we arrived with just over 3 hours of winter sun remaining. Daisy set out to work quickly, and for once I purposely steered her into the wheat fields instead of the hedgerows hoping to flush birds as opposed to rabbits. She didn't disappoint us. Nearing the edge of a cut field Daisy began to show the frantic signs of a nearby bird. Spencer and I readied ourselves and a nice double flushed between us before splitting in opposite directions. Spencer took the low flier with a nice head shot, and I marked the high flier down in the distance.

Daisy made quick work of the recovery efforts for a second flush—the bird rose not more than ten yards to my left above the blond grass, and my 12 gauge pump dusted it into a pillow explosion of feathers.  With two birds in tow the frustrations of other less fruitful days afield ebbed away in a heartbeat. The sun warmed our faces and we crossed some brier filled woodlots. Upon crossing a low stone wall and reaching the edge of a remarkable field of winter wheat, Daisy plunged into the middle—hot on the scent of another bird. Half jogging, half running behind her, we scanned the edges as she attempted to reign in the bird we could not see. Slowing to a walk and preparing for a shot I knew would come, a hen suddenly burst forward above Daisy and climbed right to left presenting a quartering 35-yard target.  In a relaxed swing I squeezed off a shot and the bird folded in one smooth swoop.  We broke for water and simply to enjoy the beautiful setting and satisfaction of an enjoyable hunt.

Eventually,  Daisy tired of our so called bird hunting, and decided for herself to pursue her favorite target—the cottontail rabbit. It was the last half hour of the hunt, so I indulged her.  Delving into a mess of tangled bramble she was rewarded with a running bunny.  After a cat-and-mouse-like scamper in the thicket, the cottontail sprinted for open field before comically breaking and streaking in the opposite direction. Somehow, the third shot I squeezed off found its mark, and Daisy had herself an early Christmas present.  We enjoyed the early winter evening as we ambled toward home—vests heavy with game.

Daisy's bird count: 27 (new record).

Long Shot

The 2010 rifle season was trying to say in the least.  Having hunted hard for most of the two weeks without success, I decided to call upon a favored spot for our last day afield in pursuit of whitetails.  The more I study and read about whitetail deer, the more impressed I become with them. Reading scouting tips and tracking advice is one thing, but applying it in the field is quite another. Yet, as I maneuvered my dad into position on a cold snap Saturday morning, I attempted to solve another puzzle. The deer were moving. They slipped between and around us in the predawn light, but the snow provided their calling cards. Dad was placed beneath a high pine atop an outcropping that once used to be the gateway to a now dried up lake cove.  Shaver's Creek still meanders its way through the open field that once was Lake Perez.  It is a good vantage point, and one that is uncommon in the eastern woodlands. One can see upwards of 500 yards in multiple directions.  Opposite our location is an impressive heavily brushed hilltop that harbors scores of rabbits and grouse—it's also a prime bedding area for the whitetail. A man can be within a few yards of a deer in the mound's confines and not even realize their presence. Yet, I knew that if I could push the deer off the south facing side of the hill, they might expose themselves to an unobstructed shot from across the old cove where my dad rested in evergreen shadow.

Deer sign was everywhere—buck sign included.  Slipping along the northern edge of the hilltop, I dropped over the crest and into the bramble—weaving my way back and forth hoping to send a group of whitetails bounding into the open. As I worked my way down the slope, I slid, I crawled, and did my best to navigate the treacherous thicket proficiently. Grouse flushed and rabbits ran, and on most days, I would have been delighted by the sight of small game, but on this day we were chasing the more elusive royalty of the wood. Nearing the base of the hill, I began to swing back to the lake trail in order to rejoin my dad and figure out if we were going to pack it in for the season. We planned to hunt until noon, and we were already biting into our last hour.

That's when the shot rang out. Shocked, I tried to place it, initially thinking it had come from another direction, I suddenly heard the sound of a rifle chamber working itself open, and then I knew it was my father who had fired.  Having just enough time to reach the edge of the open cove, another round was fired, and I stood still taking in the scene of the shooter—now standing upwards of 100 yards to my front and nearly 200 yards beyond him—a pack of deer running through the open lake bed. Deer that galloped from the cover of the hill.  My breath rose visibly in the cool morning air as did the smoke from the chamber of the firing rifle. Angling for a leap over the stream, the deer sped onward and a third shot exploded beneath the watchful eye of a hazy sun. I could no longer see the deer by the time the fourth shot echoed across the land, and I had no idea if any of the bullets from the .30-06 had hit home. By the time I had scrambled through the brush and into the cove, my dad was working his way across the the stream and deeper into the lake bed.  Upon reaching him, I wasn't sure if we were going to be looking for the body of a deer or not. After searching for 15 minutes or so with no positive sign of a hit, we searched for the tracks in order to retrace the graceful leaps of the quarry.  We had just turned to head back to the start when dad spotted the spray—a good lung hit. We excitedly scoured the area and followed the blood trail. It stopped at the stream, and just as we began to wonder which direction to travel, dad shouted, "There he is!"

The body itself was under water. An almost ghostly appearance, and at first, I didn't even think it could have been the one fired upon, but as I dragged him to land, it clearly was the same deer—a medium sized button buck.  The round had found its mark from 200 yards away—an admirable shot.  A long shot. The longest my dad had ever taken on a deer.  One that he had fired from a standing unsupported position—straight out of the Jeremiah Johnson movie he used to make my brother and I watch when we were kids.

A few weeks prior my brother George had said, "We've got to get dad a deer this year.  It's been a long time." Rewind to the October grouse opener, and my brother and I had literally stood in the exact spot from which my father had fired.  On that autumn afternoon I had explained to him that I was thinking about placing dad in the said spot for deer season. And so it was that on the last day of the 2010 rifle season, I saw the work of it all come together in the form of my father's first deer in 18 years.  It was well worth it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thursday Night Buck

By 4 p.m. I was hiking into my stand wishing for a good evening hunt.  I had previously scouted the area a few evenings before the opener of deer season—this included study of aerial maps. Because I had hunted rabbits on the same land twice before, I knew the layout well. Choosing a bramble covered hillside splitting an  open forest and a brushy field for my stand site, I counted on working the edge for arriving and departing deer. The spot provides a good view of the forest and covers a a few trails leading into the thicket. 

After I figured out the quietest and quickest way to my stand, I slipped into place with a feeling of relief. It always feels great to lift my feet off the crunching leaves that I always fear alert deer to my presence.  Fifteen minutes passed and I spotted a blaze orange figuring doping around the opposite hillside.  Experience has taught me that hunters on the move can be allies when sitting on the stand. This gentleman had no idea of my presence until he was literally 25 yards away from me. When he finally spotted me, he actually jumped.  He apologized vocally while I waved him over frantically hoping he'd stop talking.  When he was close enough I whispered to him, "No worries," and we worked out a plan for his exit.  He agreed to depart above me in the open field and circle all the way around the perimeter of the land.

About five minutes later a shot echoed from his direction. I wondered if I had just walked him into a large buck. Nearly half an hour later those worries were alleviated when I saw him crest the far ridge with nothing in tow.  Darkness was creeping in rapidly, and I glanced at my watch.  4:57 p.m.  I had about 17 minutes left.

The great thing about an evening hunt is that it is much easier to stay in place until the very end of the hunt. The cold doesn't have a chance to freeze the joints stiff.  Five minutes passed, and I began to think that there just had to be a deer or two on the move with many hunters calling it a day and beating it back to the warmth of their vehicles for the drive home.

Crunch, crunch! Crunch, crunch! My eyes strained to see movement in the draw below. It better not be another squirrel.  Those little heartbreakers drove me crazy on opening day.

A dark shape moved, and then another, and another. Deer! Headed right at me! My heart hit a higher gear and I remained motionless. It was a race against twilight.  A large doe led a small pack.  She was following a trail that seemed to lead straight toward my tree.  Behind her was an equally large doe, followed by a smaller doe, and then a fourth deer.  Checking down the triumvirate, I concentrated on the one bringing up the rear. A shiny antler seemed to glow behind his ear. As he turned my mind confirmed it: a buck!

He was only 15 yards away, but I could not see anything more than a spike set. As he turned broadside, I thought I spotted another point, but he couldn't have been more than a four-pointer, most likely a three-pointer. Yet, I wasn't devastated. I shifted my rifle slightly just to place the scope on the antlers just to be sure. He detected some movement and squared me up, but he didn't spook. The immense tree at my back broke up my profile and the Scent-Away I had sprayed on myself did the trick. None of the four seemed aware of my presence.

As I observed him I noticed all the classic signs of an immature buck: thin neck, shallow chest, and long, narrow snout.  The spikes were a nice long set, so I bid him farewell in hopes of seeing him next season.

Strapping on my headlamp after waiting another ten minutes so as not to chase off the pack, I began my short trek homeward.  It was an exciting hunt.  I was thankful to see some deer, especially so close to my stand. Confidence in the spot increased, and I am already looking forward to spending some more time there in hopes of intercepting a good buck.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gold Mine

I feel fortunate to live within a community that exists large in part to the presence of a major university.  Moreover, thanks to Penn State's vast tracts of public land open to hunting,  we have been able to enjoy several days afield in relative solitude with plenty of game to keep us company.  Over the weekend we hunted a new area of university land and were richly rewarded with a sack full of cottontail rabbits. It seemed that every time Daisy's nose hit the ground, she'd pick up a fresh scent.  She was the champion of the day, as was Spencer who bagged half the rabbits with some quick shooting.  Every bunny Daisy scented she brought around at least once for an opportunity; it was the most fun we've had hunting rabbits in a long time, and the grounds were ideal—not too thick and frustrating, but enough to give us a challenge. The rabbits were wily and tried to fool us at every turn. We missed a few shots too, but having four hunters was ideal. We were able to keep them boxed in, but some still managed to slip through and around us a few times. One sometimes overlooks that prey animals are highly intelligent creatures who are experts at escaping danger.  They just couldn't escape Daisy's nose.

Another exciting discovery was the presence of turkeys. We flushed a total of three, and probably scattered a bigger flock. Unfortunately, turkey wasn't open on Saturday due to a new opening day for bear season. But, we all agreed that it was great thing that this year Fall Turkey season will reopen on Thanksgiving. We vowed to return on Thursday morning for a chance to bag a bird for the afternoon table.  That wasn't the end of the story. We also spotted deer—including a fine buck that had been enjoying some berries when Daisy tore into a thicket after a rabbit. The buck exploded out of his afternoon haunt and dashed away much to our enjoyment. He was at least a six-pointer, and he looked to be close to his prime. A fine specimen of a deer. Tonight, I returned to set up a secondary stand for upcoming deer season and spotted three more deer. A local bear hunter and I crossed paths at dusk, and he gave me some great inside information in regards to bucks in the area.

Thanksgiving weekend is upon us, and I can't help but revel in the crossing of fall small game and deer season.  Consecutive days of hunting small game before the big one (deer season) makes this time of year truly golden.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"First Buck"

A combination of my son needing a diaper change and Daisy needing to go outside for similar reasons roused me from my late fall slumber at 4 a.m. this morning.  I had been planning on hitting the rifle range early to throw down a few warm up shots before next Monday's opener, but there would still be three hours of darkness before the task could be approached on a rather frosty morning. The Centre Daily Times was lounging about in the front yard, so I decided to check it out before catching a few more hours of sleep.  Sundays feature local writer Mark Nale's "Woods and Waters" section, which I almost always enjoy. Usually there is a column and a feature story about hunting or fishing—depending on the season—set in Minnesota or some other outdoor enthused state.  Today, the column was about the magic of a "first buck". At the article's close, Nale called on the general public to submit their own "first buck" stories for possible publication the following Sunday or "Buck Eve"—many hunters will be passing the night in quaint camps throughout the state in quiet anticipation of the event which will see close to half a million men and boys in blaze orange entering the woods.  I spent the next three hours recounting my own "first buck" story before firing it off for a chance to run in print.  The memory is still young, as it was a mere four years ago that my brother, George, helped me end the drought.  But, I suspect the story will always remain clear as day.

"First Buck" November 27, 2006. 

I was 12 years-old the first time I accompanied my father on the annual trek to my great Uncle Bill’s camp in  northeastern Pennsylvania to hunt the first few days of deer season.  While I did not score a buck that first year, the nuances of deer camp left an indelible impression upon my young mind.  I would return for the next four years with fresh hope and enthusiasm that would not wane until my senior year of high school when I skipped the experience to remain focused on my last wrestling season.  A seven-year hiatus from deer hunting began—mostly due to four years of service in the army and the college years that followed at Penn State. Over the span of that time, the prospect of harvesting a “first buck” faded into the background.  

When I picked up the rifle once more, the nostalgia of my earlier experiences returned, and new adventures began.  I hunted on farms and in the big woods. Days were spent patiently waiting on stands and in ground blinds with nary a buck in site. Unperturbed, I continued to make the annual journey into the forest—all the while enjoying the experience regardless of the outcome, which when all was said and done, did not include a buck to my name.

In 2006 my brother George—who had recently finished eight years of service in the Marine Corps—enrolled at University Park.  For the most part we had not been able to hunt together since our youth, and autumn found us taking pheasants on the wing and rabbits on the run over my beagle, Daisy.  Before long it was late November, and a new deer season was upon us.

George, who had taken a buck in archery season, recommended a few good spots, and we scouted them for stand sites in the days before the opener. Eventually, I settled upon a scrappy pin oak which rose above an old clear cut that broke up the open hardwood surrounding it; it seemed like a perfect escape passage for pressured deer.

Monday morning arrived and I woke with a scratchy throat, but the anticipation of a new season remedied all physical ailments and it was not long before I found myself scrambling up a tree in the predawn light like so many other hunters in the commonwealth. I watched the sunlight filter across the horizon and relaxed my mind—taking in the familiar sights and sounds of an awakening wilderness. A peaceful hour passed.  

Suddenly, I saw the flick of a white tail. Immediately, my brain snapped into a heightened level of concentration as my eyes scanned for another sign.  A few seconds later what I could only identify as a single deer skipped into the rhododendron about 70 yards to my right. A single rifle shot shattered the silence.  Another hunter in the hardwood had fired. Moments later activity exploded.  A doe and a four-point buck dashed directly under my stand, and then, another doe trotted into my secluded ally. Directly behind her was the finest eight-point buck I’d ever seen. The buck stopped about 30 yards to my right, and gave me a nearly broadside shot.  Harnessing my nerves, I carefully shifted and took aim—placing the sights of my .30-06 directly behind the deer’s shoulder. I relaxed. I breathed. I squeezed off a round.

A euphoric state that bordered on disbelief and overwhelming joy pervaded my soul in the moments that followed. The fine creature had dropped in its tracks and died quickly. I don’t even remember climbing down from the stand; the adrenaline coursing through my body may have permitted me to make the descent in a single bound.  The hunter who fired the spooking shot ambled along and congratulated me on the harvest and my grin probably told him all he needed to know about my first buck.  

That single moment and the minutes that followed are forever etched into my memory.  A first buck is in many ways a rite of passage for hunters not just in Pennsylvania, but for all hunters across the country.  And even though it took twenty-eight years for it to become a reality, it was worth every second of the wait.  

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nineteen Birds and counting...

Opening Day arrived and passed with much excitement and success. A party of four headed into the swamps, and by noon, we had bagged six pheasants and missed some too. From our warm-up the night prior, I knew Daisy was a lock, and she didn't disappoint the next morning. She earned her afternoon nap at home. John, a family cousin from my wife's side, drove in from Pittsburgh for an afternoon hunt with his new six-month old puppy, Tally. Tally is my Daisy's half-sister. Both were born by the same mother, Chloe. This would be Tally's first real hunt. My brother, George joined us, and the three of us set out to break in the pup. She did great, and by the late afternoon she had learned what a pheasant was and how to chase them to flush. Seeing her run along in the under brush evoked vivid memories of the days Daisy and I spent afield in her puppyhood. It was also enlightening to realize just how good Daisy has become over the years. In her absolute prime now at five, she knows exactly what she is doing, and every time I doubt her nose, she has humbled me by flushing a bird I never anticipated. We bagged three more birds that afternoon, and it was special to praise a puppy after shooting the first bird she ever flushed—a fine rooster that had tried to elude detection by scooting off in the tall grass. The following Friday George and I experienced a golden afternoon by limiting out in less than two hours. Daisy would have been done earlier had we not missed a few birds. We dubbed her "Hell Hound" that afternoon. Nothing fooled her. With three nice roosters and a hen, we shook hands, snapped some pictures, and smiled happily as we hiked home. The next day was Hell Hound 2. My father nailed two nice roosters. Myself a hen. George a hen and a rabbit. We didn't miss any birds, and it felt good to return the favor to little Daisy who over the years has worked more than hard enough to earn a perfect day.

This past weekend the pace ebbed, and as expected, the hunting was tougher. The weather was damp, and the birds hunkered low. There were many runners who frustratingly wouldn't fly, but we still managed to score one bird and rabbit. However, there began to sprout an idea about where all the birds go, especially the smart ones who manage to live through the season. The pressure in the game lands drops off after the first two weeks, and there are still birds, but they become much harder to locate. Many are long gone at the first sound of a dog's bell. And so it was on Saturday evening that I employed technology and used Google Earth to check out the land beyond the boundaries in hopes of finding some secret hideout.

I found one. About 200 yards into the deep woods, there appeared on the satellite shots a field. A field I never knew existed or had previously seen. And so it was on Sunday afternoon George and I set out to find El Dorado. It was real. Needless to say we huffed it back there Monday evening to squeeze in a post daylight savings time hunt with Daisy. An overgrown super-sized patch of bramble spills along the south facing hillside that is the hidden field. It's impossible to walk through any of it, which makes it even harder to hunt, unless you skirt the perimeter and have a very small dog to work through the middle of it. And guess what we've got in Daisy? Presto.

Within ten minutes Daisy flushed a quick grouse, which George missed. Daisy picked it up again, and this time it ran, and afforded us no shot. Yet, we couldn't help but think that it may have been nicked. We worked the terrain for another 20 minutes without any luck, and then we decided to drop down to the hill base. Traipsing through the high grass in the fading light, we were greeted by a explosion of cackling and feathers. Surreal. A cockbird began its ascent between we two shooters. Just as it emerged over the thick hedge George fired and struck it, the bird absorbed the impact and attempted to continue rising, but my 12 gauge pump found its mark, and bird was dead before it hit the ground. Daisy ran up to inspect the kill, and for a few moments we stood there awed. Our plan had actually worked! The rooster truly felt like a late season bird given the circumstances, and it was immensely gratifying to harvest him. Daisy picked up another scent and we had to pull her off a few times to head home. It was already dark. As we ambled home I couldn't help but think that we had crossed into a new level of pheasant hunting.

In the last few moments of this post I'd like to share a recipe or two. So far this year, I happily realize that I've kept up with all the birds I've killed. Meaning that I've prepared each one and all have been consumed by myself, family, or coworkers. Enjoy these made-up on the spot recipes.

Daisy's Brown Sugared Pheasant and Apples. Cut up three pheasant breasts into portion sizes. In a bowl mix brown sugar, regular sugar, a pinch of Old Bay, and some seasoning salt. Coat the breasts with the mixture. Cut up two apples into wedges. In a crock pot add 1/2 cup of water. Make one layer of apple wedges. On top of apples, place half of the pheasant meat. Add another layer of apples. One top of that layer add one more level of pheasant. Cover dish and heat on low for 7-8 hours. Spectacular.

George's Rabbit/Pheasant Stew: this one is straight from my brother. "This is an inexpensive, quick and flavorful way to enjoy game. I survived off of a sack of potatoes and spaghetti sauce in college during the months of November and December as a result of productive days in the field and this recipe." -George L. Cunningham.

One can classico spaghetti sauce, any flavor you like (cabaret works best). 2 medium sized potatoes, 1 large carrot, 1 stem of celery. 2-3 table spoons of Texas Pete wing sauce.
-Quarter and clean bird.-be sure to remove all shot.
- Add One jar spaghetti sauce to medium sized pot,
- Refill jar with water and add to pot.
-Slice potatoes, carrots and celery and add to pot, stir and add bird,
-add Texas Pete,
-cook on low heat for 2-3 hours or until meat falls off bone.
-Strain bones and serve with fresh bread.
Add more water or sauce if cooking more than 1 bird, feel free to replace bird with rabbit or mix the two. Salt and pepper are best added when serving not before cooking.
Score Card

19 Pheasant
2 Rabbits
1 Woodcock

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pheasant Eve

It's almost here, and like childhood Christmas Eve anticipation, I am excited for the 2010 hunting season to begin. Technically, it began with grouse season last Saturday, and while my brother and I did not as so much as take a shot at the wily state bird, we did enjoy our walk in the woods on a magnificent October morning. There will be opportunities for grouse later in the season when the leaves have fallen from their perch, but it's always nice to be reminded while scraping though the underbrush that grouse hunting builds character. Daisy and I took a walk tonight—a chilled October evening full moon included. We didn't flush any pheasants in the fields, but they will be there come Saturday. Tomorrow, we'll warm up by flushing a few...maybe 20-30 minutes worth just to build the excitement for Saturday morning. I can't wait!