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