Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Autumn 2012

Autumn has brought back to us the crisp, cool atmosphere we missed much of last season.  Already the hunting has far surpassed the previous year. Daisy is healthy again, and she has regained all the spryness of her puppyhood, only this time tempered with seven seasons of experience.

In the late afternoon of the pheasant season opener, the faded memories of brotherhood were rekindled into a bright, hot flame by the the day's final and most fantastic flush.

Up to that point it had been a good day. We had taken a few birds and a cottontail in the morning, and collected another bunny and rooster after lunch. As the day grew older, we turned back to swing our tired legs toward home,  and yet, the best part of the story was yet to come, for Daisy chose the upper grape fields on our return journey for one final surprise.

I'll always remember the set up. Spencer and Charley to the right, lower side of the hedgerow, myself trailing the dog and watching the back door, while Dad and Uncle Tom worked the upper, left side. Daisy had begun delivering all the signs of a bird on the sneak. Her tail whipping continuously 9 to 3...3 to 9...9 to 3. Soon she followed up with a yip and a yap. Our pace quickened with her. "Get ready guys...she's close."  Yet, the quarry was wily, and Daisy soon worked into a frenzy. If I could stop time here for moment, I would. The game was about to flush, but we didn't know it yet. Our minds were focused on the shot we may have to take. Adrenaline was firing on all cylinders. It was time for the tension to break.

What I'll remember most of all was the quiet. It was spectacularly silent. Everyone was brimming with anticipation. The bird...for we all knew...it had to be a bird a this point...was damn close...damn close!

Later Uncle Tom would speak of the wonderful fellowship of the day, and I couldn't think of a more accurate way to describe what happened out there. Right in those final moments before an inevitable flush, we were all in it together, united in a common cause...to hunt the magnificent upload bird, to follow the classic hunting dog with absolute certainty that she would lead us to a worthwhile prize.

Zip back 45 years in time. Two teenage brothers amble down the road in rural New Jersey on an October afternoon with a trusty hunting dog at the heal. Cradled in their arms are double barrel shotguns, broken open. A few shells mashed in their pockets.  "Mom wouldn't let us go swimming, ever! She was afraid we'd drown....but she let us carry firearms into the woods!" Uncle Tom said.

Minutes into their hunt, the beagle pipes up. The game is about to break wide open, and the two youngsters widen their stance, shoulder their guns in preparation for the shot.

And suddenly, here we are 45 years later,  in the flowing hills of central Pennsylvania, and the two boys are now remembering what they'd done before across that wide span of time. Back when they were just kids on Newman's Lane.  Back when life was as simple as a trusty shotgun, a few cent-a-piece shells, and a good dog.

Then, the hen flushed...straight out, and then banking left, it was Dad and Uncle Tom who opened into the shooter's stance, shouldered the 12 gauges, and brought the bird crashing down from its flight.  They were boys again, much like they were all those years ago.

The close of a spectacular October Day afield.

Yellowstone 2012

Venturing into the Black Canyon of Yellowstone National Park

The passage of time is a phenomenon within itself. The past year was one marked with many trials and tribulations, and as the year is entering its finale, the tranquility of the outdoors has reminded me of its importance in my life. So many stories to tell about my fourth trip to Yellowstone, where my friends and I camped in grizzly land.  I think we'll always remember the mystical warm evening in Hellroaring Canyon where we swam, caught plentiful cutthroat, and dined along the sandy banks of the Yellowstone River by lantern light.  The following day we backpacked deeper into the backcountry and coined places like "Starvation Gulch" and watched a bald eagle glide down river at first light.  We rediscovered the depths of Tower Creek, the little mountain stream that always seems to surprise us, beckoning us a little further, a little further until we find ourselves in a wilderness of bear sign and moose scat.  Every bend, every pool...ten, twenty trout?  We were lost within the confines of a deliciously sunny western setting, all the while preparing our campfire smorgasbord of wild brook and rainbow char. It was the best of days. Perhaps, the very best angling there ever will be. And, I was at peace.

Joe's Victory Fishing Hole on Upper Tower Creek
A little while later we'd be hustling to beat the darkness back to camp reeking of fish in the middle of griz country...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Good Start

On Friday I returned home again to my favorite stream, Standing Stone Creek just over Pine Grove Mountain in sleepy Stone Valley.

It was a day a dreamer dreams. Warm sun on my face and shoulders.  Enjoyment in watching a Canadian gosling all yellow in downy feathers find its way to family downstream. A flight of wood ducks, sharp red, teal, white, and yellow painted faces. A majestic blue heron taking full, graceful flight.  Soft breeze.  March Browns escaping risers, and the final rainbow, a feisty foot-long brawler that slammed my mayfly imitation on the third cast and stripped line for a few short runs. After releasing him back into the cool deep waters, I packed up my gear and hiked out. It was all too perfect to continue angling,  just too perfect of a day. One that is already forever etched in memory.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Six Points in December

Two thousand twelve has rolled into existence and as it hurtles through its first four months, a period of reflection seems appropriate. 

"Never, ever give up hope."  Hunting season in general had a less than auspicious beginning in 2011, and the theme carried through most of October, November, and December. The pheasant crop was literally wiped out by a September hurricane that exacted significant damage across much of the commonwealth. My effervescent beagle lost her bubbly nature with several health setbacks throughout autumn, and she was never really able to hunt like her healthy self until late February after a nearly two month break.  The stress of taking six credits to gain a certification and my new job all wound me tight. I found solace through venturing into the woods with a new crossbow.  Of course, I hunted the two-week rifle season too.  I was buck crazy this year.

I found his tracks first. On the north side of a high ridge opposite the lake.  I could see that the lone deer liked to move through the dark pine bows before dropping down into a thicket near a stream before following the low-land out across the road and into the farm fields of crop.  This land I've hunted for a long time, and I know it well. Yet, it always surprises me how stealthy a buck can be.  The first time I ever saw the buck was in the darkness of a Saturday night.

It was the end of week one of buck season,  an early December day that everyone who ventures into the woods hopes for. Frosty, yet clear and sunny. I had placed a stand at the edge of the swamp for my dad, and my friend Spencer would be hunting a thicket on the opposite hillside. Full of hope I climbed into a tall hemlock in the middle of the marsh and waited. About 10 o'clock I heard a single shot, and knew it was Spencer who had fired. According to plan, I would meet my dad and Spencer at noon, and we would all gather up and hike a mile or so along trails to the far side of the lake.

Dad saw a small buck at first light. And, Spencer had missed an eight-point buck. It was exciting to have some action, and we carried on our way pushing a few thickets without success. It was getting warm when Spencer and I pushed out the maze of thorns along the lake around mid-afternoon. Dad's rifle reported several times until the clip had spent itself. Two large does had galloped away from the drive, escaping without a hit.

We would finish the day back in the swamp without success. After dark we had not driven more than 400 yards up the road towards home, when a sturdy six-pointer confidently spanned the road in graceful bounds as he headed toward the promise of food in the open land opposite. He had come from the way I almost knew he would, the dark pine bows and the lowland way.

The next opportunity I had to hunt was the following Thursday during the comfortably quiet second week of rifle season. I tracked the buck again as best as I could.  Around dusk I decided to peak into the open lake bed in traveling a round about way back to my car. Suddenly, I spotted two mottled brown shapes along the stream. Two does. I swung my scope up and confirmed them. Both were decent. But, alas, shooting hours had passed not five minutes earlier. It was a time of test for a sportsman, and I took the higher road, and let them pass. But, I did have a little fun in getting as close as I could to them during the moonrise jaunt to my vehicle.  At one point I was within 10 yards of them, and they stomped and snorted at my presence the whole time.  The next day I didn't see deer until well past dark as I hiked home.  My solace was the beautiful late fall day I had spent in the woods.  And the iridescent sunset framed by a crescent moon and an evening star...unforgettable.

And, so rifle season came and went, and it had now been two years since I last harvested a buck. The holidays were upon us, and it was time for a break. 

The day after Christmas, I ventured back to my favored hunting ground. My father had his blackpowder rifle, and I had my crossbow. The late season was upon us.  It was late afternoon when we spotted a  buck feeding high on the ridge above us, but it was too late to get a good shot. He had seen us, and trotted off.  I circled about in hopes of cutting him off or directing him toward my father, but he slipped away like a ghost.  Dad had to get back, and I finished the day without seeing another deer. But, I made a mental note to return with another stand.

Five days later, I hiked into the forest in the pre-dawn light. It was nearly daybreak by the time I had selected a tree, a dark hemlock to break up my profile, and settled into my stand. The forecast was for rain later in the day, so I hoped that the buck we had seen might venture forth for an early feed.

Around 9:15 a.m. I looked down at my watch and made myself a deal to sit for a while longer before I would get up and stretch my legs for bit.  Then, the buck materialized on the ridge.   He was almost moving in a direct line toward my tree. We were nearly eye-level on the steep slope. Initially, the buck looked to be a long, tall spike set.  But, then, I saw some points. He was nearly 40 yards out.  The world fell silent and my heart hammered.

The deer spotted me and moved his head left to right, right to left,  trying to identify the object before him. Only the vapors of my breath made motion. For many long seconds, I thought for sure he was not a legal buck. But, as he continued browsing, a better visual angle presented itself, and everything changed. He was a legal, six-point buck. A late season buck. It was now or never. It had been an enjoyable, but long season so far. The waiting can be the hardest part.  I knew I had to make a good, clean shot. The buck moved between my position and the top of the ridge. He was broadside. There were a few quick moments when I almost sent the bolt flying, but the quarters were too tight, and I didn't want to risk striking a tree or branch...or worse, delivering a non-fatal wound to a buck that was affirming all the worth of my patience in the woods.

I placed the 30-yard site along his mid-line, and took the shot as soon as he stepped into a clear lane. The arrow struck clean, and the buck ran. Two crashes and silence.  Common knowledge is to wait 30 minutes after arrowing a deer, but I knew it was a good hit, and my excitement got the better of me. I found the arrow in a tree. It was a clean pass. A little while later down the blood trail, it was obvious that both lungs had been pierced. The buck was sprawled over a a fallen tree; he had run no more than 50 yards.

As I leaned down to dress him, I admired his sturdy six-point set. He was a good late season deer, and I was thankful for the opportunity to hunt him. It had been a great season, and the wait was worth the reward.  It took me two hours to hike to my vehicle, but I could not have been happier.  Late that night, I had completed the butchering and packed away the venison in the freezer.  The steaks and roasts have been spectacular.

On cold, frosty nights as I walked out of the forest, I was happy to be part of the wilderness this season.  I never quite knew if I would be fortunate enough to score a buck, let alone a late-season stag, but the not knowing is the excitement.  In essence, all we are really hunting for is an opportunity. Some you let pass in hopes of a bigger reward, and others you take a chance on in hopes of finding whatever it is we seek. My third Pennsylvania buck will always be memorable.  I had never hunted harder for a buck, and the wisdom I gained through the experience will certainly pay dividends on all future hunts.