Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Wild Goose Chase

Goose hunting is often a fruitless endeavor. You wake up super early to set up your $2,000 worth of fancy goose decoys that required you to buy a new storage trailer to haul them. Then you spend a half hour concealing your high-tech ground blind in the middle of a bare field. You get out your $150 acrylic goose call, knowing you haven't practiced enough on it. You load your new semi-auto shotgun you had to buy just to shoot 3 1/2  inch goose loads. Then you crawl into the little frozen coffin you call a ground blind. Despite your best attempts to sound like a flock of happy little geese feeding in a field, all the geese fly by and ignore you. So why do people bother goose hunting? It's because of days like this one. 

My friend Ryan lives in Caldwell near Lake Lowell. He is fortunate to have a "pit" blind in his back yard for goose hunting. A "pit" blind is basically an underground box blind that gives you complete concealment while goose hunting. Many hunters will bury a pit blind in the middle of a field so they can set up and hunt where geese would naturally land and feed. The field Ryan hunts is a mixture of alfalfa and grass. Geese like this kind of forage, but not nearly as much as corn or wheat. This explains why our success hunting here is usually mixed. Ryan said the geese had been flying good lately and told me it was time to hunt. I brought Rick, my future father in law, which took some convincing after last years unsuccessful goose hunt there.
We normally drive a truck and a horse trailer out to the field to set up the decoys. However, due to the warm and rainy weather we had been having, the field was muddy. We'd have to do this redneck style! 


We set up our spread of 6 dozen decoys and crawled into the pit to wait. The calm foggy morning gave me optimism. 

It wasn't long before we heard the distinctive sound of a flock of geese in the distance. They sounded close, but with the fog we still couldn't see them. Ryan and I began to call back to them, doing our best to tell them they should come hang out with us. Apparently we sounded ok, because their honks grew louder and directly from the South, 4 geese appeared with their wings already locked. They descended down from the fog towards our spread, a sight that will always excite me. Ryan and I continued to call as they made a circle around the spread, before picking their landing zone. The geese began back-peddling in front of blind. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. That's when Ryan said the best words in waterfowl hunting. "LETS TAKE 'EM!"

We all shoved the wooden cover boards back, stood up and began shooting. Two of the 4 geese fell. We let the dogs out of their crates to retrieve the birds. It's a good thing we had Gauge, Ryan's oldest yellow lab, to chase down 1 of the birds. Gauge is a seasoned goose hunting dog and rarely lets a knocked down bird get away.  

Gauge and Grace (Ryan's other lab) brought us the geese just in time for the next group of birds. The dogs crawled back into their crates and we shut the doors. We could hear another flock of geese coming from the lake. We began calling and it wasn't long before they appeared out of the fog.
"Here they come, Rick. Get ready." I said, in between calling.
The 8 geese circled around the decoys before back-peddling right in front of the blind.
"TAKE 'EM!" Ryan shouted.
We jumped up and began shooting. This time, 5 of the geese fell. We hopped out of blind to help the dogs retrieve the birds.

We dropped back into the pit and readied ourselves for another group of geese.
"Dang Rick, you must be good luck. Things are going great today." Ryan said from the far end of the pit.
"And it's only 9 o'clock. The bulk of geese haven't even left the lake yet." I added.

A few minutes later we heard another flock. Ryan and I started calling. Once again, another flock of geese appeared out of the fog with interest in our decoys. The 5 geese circled several times before deciding it was safe to land. On their last pass, they swung over the top of the pit.
"Let's TAKE 'EM!" Ryan shouted.
We jumped up and started shooting. Our aim must have been off because only 1 fell from the sky.
"Dang. They were a little higher than I thought." I said in frustration, trying to justify my poor shooting.
"Yeah, should have waited for a better shot." Ryan said as he reloaded his gun. 

Gauge held up his end of the bargain by retrieving the single goose.

We could now hear multiple groups of geese around us. Ryan and I made our best attempts to call and persuade them, but none were falling for it. A couple groups of geese circled high to investigate but kept going.
"This is a little more like how it usually is, Rick." I said, as another group ignored us.
"You mean like that one day you took me last year?" Rick replied.
"Ha, yeah." I chuckled.
Another flock of geese appeared from the South. We slid our covers over our blind openings and Ryan and I started calling. The 4 geese locked their wings and began descending. 

As perfect as it gets, the 4 geese dropped right into the opening in front of the blind. Ryan called the shot and we dropped 3 of them. In Idaho, you can shoot 4 geese per person, per day. We only needed 1 more goose and it was only 10 AM.
"Alright Rick, the last one is yours. We'll back you up." Ryan said.
"O-kay. If you insist." Rick said with a smile.

The morning flight of geese had now started. Flock after flock left Lake Lowell and made their way in our direction. Many groups ignored us, while some circled once for a look before continuing to the North. This went on for a half hour or so. I began to wonder if we'd convince any more birds to land.

Four geese magically appeared from the South and we began calling. With locked wings and scanning eyes, the 4 geese approached the decoys. They made one circle before back-peddling into the decoys.
"Ok Rick, GET HIM!"
We all stood up and Rick made his shot. BOOM! The last goose to his limit fell.
"WOOOO! And we're done. Good job Rick." I said giving him a high five.
"Thanks. What a goose hunt." Rick replied, still surprised at how the morning had turned out.
"I had a good feeling about this morning." Ryan chimed in.
 We gathered the birds and arranged them for a picture.

Gauge and Grace looked proudly over their birds.

We packed up all the decoys and our gear and headed back to Ryan's house. As a fly tyer, I have an extra interest in geese. They have the absolute best CDC feathers of all the waterfowl. The CDC feathers are the small feathers located around a birds preen or oil gland. There are about 20 good feathers there and they are easy to pluck. If you're a goose hunter and aren't taking 20 seconds of your time to grab these little feathers, you're breaking my heart! Wondering what to do with these feathers even if you aren't a fly tyer? Please bring them into Anglers Fly Shop in Boise! You will make our day! We might even disclose some of our secret fishing spots to you...

CDC feathers pictured above.

Another premium feather you can't get anywhere else are the primary wing feathers. They have the best biots for tying small dry flies. 

We loaded our 8 geese and gear into my truck and headed back to Boise. It had been an amazing hunt. The conditions had been just right and we really lucked out. All I could think about was the next wild goose chase!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Steelhead on the Boise

It had been several years since I had fished for steelhead on the Boise River. It was a tradition for my good buddy Camron and I to target them Thanksgiving morning. However, Camron now lives in Rexburg and doesn't make it to Boise very often anymore. When I found out he was coming to town for Thanksgiving, I knew we would have to keep the tradition going. Only this year, we would fish for them the day before, and, Thanksgiving day.

I had to work at the fly shop on Wednesday, so I only had a few hours in the morning. We pulled into the empty parking lot and began to rig our fly rods. Only a faint glow from the rising sun could be seen. We were especially lucky this year with the weather; 45 degrees and sunny. One year, it snowed the entire morning.
With headlamps, we made our way down to the river and began to fish. I was using an olive bead-head leech trailed with a large prince nymph. Camron was using an egg sucking leech trailed by an egg. Both of these setups have been Boise River producers. 

I crossed the river and began swinging my flies through an underwater trench that might hold a steelhead. I heard that they planted the last batch of steelhead the day before. There just had to be some underneath this bubble line, I thought, as I swung my flies through with intense focus.

Movement caught my eye and I looked up to see a beaver swimming towards me. He swam within 10 yards of me before slapping his tail and disappearing into the murky water. The beaver was clearly telling us to leave his home.

The morning progressed like any other steelhead trip and I started to wonder if there were any fish in here. There were now about 10 people fishing and nobody had even hooked a fish. I continued to fish with blind faith that the elusive steelhead was indeed in there.

A few gear guys packed up and left for another spot, giving us the entire gravel bar. I crossed back over to the side Camron was fishing. I began to visit with Camron as he fished. It was nearing my time to leave for work so I considered just clipping my flies off and packing it up. That's when I saw it; in the bubble line where I had just been fishing all morning, a steelhead porpoised. 
"Cam, did you see that? Right where I was fishing. Stupid thing."
"Let's go get him! Put on one of those crystal meth flies you like so much." He replied.
"Oh, I suppose I have time." I said as I tied on an orange crystal meth egg pattern.

We waded back into position as another steelhead porpoised. We both looked at each other with big smiles. I could probably only squeeze another 10 minutes in. Could we make it happen? We both began casting to the opposite shore with intense focus. I could feel every sunken decomposing leaf that brushed my line. My line went tight and I set the hook. The rod bent back and I could feel the heavy weight of a steelhead. 
"Yes! I've got one." I said in excitement to Cam as he reeled in his line. 
The fish pulled hard and made a big run downstream. 

The fish thrashed about near the surface and took off for another run. Most of the steelhead I've caught on the Boise river haven't put up much of a fight. This one was impressing me! I didn't think she was very large until I brought her head near the surface. I realized our trout nets were a tad small for a fish this large. Camron waded out with his "dinky" net and scooped up the pig. 
"Dang dude! She's a beast!" Camron said, laughing, as half the fish hung over the edge of the net.
Sure enough, the fish took the crystal meth. I've probably caught 90% of my steelhead on that fly. Whether the fish really love it, or I just fish it more than any other pattern, I catch a lot of steelhead on the crystal meth.

I set the hen back into the river and she gave a powerful kick. The 29 inch fish disappeared into the stained water.
It was time for me to get to work, so I reeled up and left Camron to catch some more fish. I arrived at work a few minutes late. But when I showed them the photo, all was forgiven.
A couple hours later I received a photo from Camron...

He told me the fish measured 32 inches! His fish may not be the prettiest, but it was a beast! He also told me he hooked another but needed his buddy to net it; Trust me, I would have been there if I could!
Thanksgiving morning we found ourselves in the same place. This time I invited my good buddy, Pat Kilroy to join Camron and I. Pat pulled up, jumped out of his truck already wadered up and rod rigged. Within one minute we were walking down to the river. Now that's a serious steelhead angler!
We began to pound the water with optimism. Quite a few others must have had the same idea as us because there were probably 15 people fishing the spot this morning.
The morning progressed like the one before with not so much as a sign of a steelhead. I switched out a few flies thinking they might want something different than yesterday. We fished into the morning, and before we knew it, it was nearly 10 AM. I put a crystal meth back on and moved into the exact place where I caught the one the day before. A steelhead porpoised in front of me, then another downstream, and another upstream! Are they communicating? I chuckled in my head. It's amazing what seeing a steelhead can do to your focus. My optimism sky rocketed and I readied myself for a steelhead. I placed my cast and it landed a foot from the opposite bank directly across from me. I pointed my rod tip at the fly and waited for the soft strike of a large steelhead. Like magic, my line went tight and I set the hook. I felt the weight and pull of a very lost, sea run rainbow trout. The 9 and a half foot rod flexed deep into the cork. 
"YEP, there's one." I said quietly.
I'm not usually one to make a big scene out of hooking a fish. Partly because by doing so, I will surely jinx myself and the fish will shake free. Then I just look like an idiot who had snagged the bottom and confused it with a fish.
The steelhead made several attempts at long runs but failed to win against the 6 weight Helios 2. It pulled with all it's tired might and in a few minutes we had another steelhead crammed into a tiny trout net. I had considered bringing an actual steelhead net but once again superstition got the best of me and for fear of jinxing ourselves, we stuck with the trout nets.
This fish decided to eat the bead-head leech. We taped the fish out at 27 inches. I decided to take this one home and smoke it.   

Both Camron and Pat had family obligations to get to, and I didn't want to fish alone, so the 3 of us packed up and left. We may have gotten a few strange looks being the only ones to catch a fish and then just leave. We didn't care. The weather had been great the last couple of mornings and we connected with a few fish. Besides, how do you beat fly fishing for steelhead right here in town with such a beautiful setting; trees dressed in orange and yellow, ducks in full winter plumage, and the sound of geese echoing through the trees. What a wonderful place we live in!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 4 and 5: Wild Horses

Day 4

We started day 4 out with high hopes. After seeing so many deer the previous day, we felt we had somehow cracked the code and all we had to do was pick a buck. If only it were that simple. We spent the entire day driving to different locations and going for brief hikes, only to see a grand total of 6 does and one 3 point. These desert mule deer seemed to be able to disappear when they pleased.
Midafternoon, we ended up on a terrible road that was overgrown and very bumpy. Rick swore he knew where it would pop out. I was beginning to wonder as the sage brush encroached and the road narrowed. 
Eventually, it led us to a creek-crossing where we would eat our words: "Oh we can cross there!"
I got out of the suburban as Rick made an attempt to cross. The front of the suburban got stuck and so did the back. We only had traction to the front passenger and rear driver tires. Luckily, we had some shovels to dig us out. Forty-five minutes later, we were back on the road and headed in the right direction.
A few miles later we spotted a group of wild horses!

Darkness approached and we made our way back to camp. How could we see so many deer one day and so few the next?

Day 5
We had just the morning to hunt on our last day, so we rose very early and went to a location we had seen deer on day 3. Sure enough, there were some deer; a lot of deer. We snuck to within a couple hundred yards of the big group of deer. The early morning light made it difficult to judge the size of some of the bucks in the group. One buck, however, caught our eye as he rounded the top of a hill in front of us, and we decided to pursue him to get a better look. We snuck to the top of the hill and slowly peeked our heads over. We spotted a small group of bucks very close by, but didn't see the buck we saw earlier that appeared to be a shooter. We kept going slowly, crawling on some occasions, until we spotted him again. We had made it over two more hills when we got a good look at him. It was his width that was impressive. He had to be nearly 30 inches wide, but he only had 2 short points on one side and 3 short points on the other. Rick decided to pass, saying that he would be a prize next year if he didn't get shot by any other hunters. A deer with genes like that should be allowed to see his potential. As the lead buck of a group of does, he will pass those genes on to future bucks.

The rest of the morning turned up nothing. Rick had another trip planned soon, so he would be banking on finding his big buck then. We packed up camp and headed home. It was a great hunt with some exciting moments.
Of course, Rick had to make us feel guilty about him not getting a big buck like we did.
"Sure must be nice to have gotten those big mule deer! I guess I'll just have to  
keep looking..."

The real rewarding work was yet to come. I take pride in processing my own deer and making things like sausage. Here is some mule deer breakfast sausage. What a rewarding end to a great hunt; a freezer full of delicious meat.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 3: Non-typical

Day 3

We awoke early on the third morning with high hopes that we would at least see a deer today. We set off for a different area. Rick knew all the roads in this country and he had big plans for the day. We had only driven a few minutes down the road before we spotted an unfamiliar animal; A deer! 100 yards or so off the road was a group of deer. We stopped and got the binoculars out.
"Third deer from the right is a buck. Looks like a 3 point," Trevor said.
"There's a 4 point behind him. Kinda small though," Rick chimed in.
The group of 6 does and 2 bucks began to walk further away until they disappeared behind a hill. The 4 point was a decent deer, but not what we were after. We knew we had great potential with a hunt this time of year, so we would be picky about what we shot.
"That 4 point will be a dandy next year," I said.

We continued down the road, and a few miles later, we spotted another group of does. We stopped to check them out. This time of year, if you find does, you'll likely find a buck with them. Sure enough, on the skyline, a 2 point appeared. We got out of the rig and walked a little closer. We used our binoculars to pick apart the deer in the group and check the surrounding area for a large buck. We decided the 2 point was likely all that was there, and drove on.

Already, this day was going much better than the last two. We were seeing way more deer on our way to areas than the hiking around we had done the last couple days. We continued down the road to a nearby reservoir we thought would likely hold some deer. The road we were on was littered with puddles from the last rain storm; Some of which looked deep and ominous. The suburban bounced along, dodging rocks and car sized puddles.
"How far is that reservoir from here?" I asked Rick.
"Just over a couple more hills," Rick said pointing.
I looked in the direction he pointed and something white caught my eye.
"Stop! Deer!" I said as I fumbled for a pair of binoculars.
Near the top of a small hill, a couple hundred yards away, a group of mule deer began to materialize. The 3 of us surveyed the hill and identified what was there.
"Doe, doe, doe... I'm just seeing does so far," Trev whispered.
"Keep looking, there will be a buck with them," Rick said with confidence.
Just then, my binoculars spotted him. Silhouetted on the skyline, a set of large antlers appeared.

"Oh, big buck," I whispered, hardly controlling my excitement.
"Yep, I see him. He doesn't seem too bad," Rick said calmly.
"He's wider than his ears," I replied.
"Ryan, do you want him?" Rick asked me. "I think we'd be stupid if someone didn't go for him."
"Yep, he's just fine for me," I said as I grabbed my rifle from the case.

I got out of the vehicle, walked a little closer and took a knee. The big buck froze behind some brush, his gaze apparently on something directly behind him. I imagine he was checking on some of his does. The position he was in gave me a perfect opportunity to stare at his antlers. Looks like 4 on each side and a small brow tine on one side. I took a mental note to myself. I could try to sneak closer but some of the does would likely spook. I just stared at him until I could formulate a plan. I started to see a few does moving behind him. The big buck turned and disappeared behind the hill.
"We gotta go Ryan. Put your bipod out and lets get to the top of that hill," Trev said confidently.
We took off through the brush, swiftly and quickly. I neared the top of the hill and slowed down to catch my breath. My head was on a swivel trying to detect where the herd of deer were. I took a few steps further. Where did they go? I took another couple steps. There! One hundred or so yards away, at the base of the next sage brush covered hill, was the herd of deer. The big buck was near the back of the herd and they all were staring at me. Crap! They began the trot up the hill. Knowing how hard it would be to sneak up on this group of deer in this open country, I knew this was my shot. I ran forward towards a bush, took and knee and shouldered my rifle. I quickly found the buck in my scope and waited for the opportune time... if there would be one. The group of deer stayed tight together as they crossed the hillside. They slowed to a stop as they neared the top and looked down to check on the danger below (Me). In my sights was the buck, but a doe was directly in front of him. Dang it! Can't take the shot with her there. If they keep going, they are going to disappear again! The lead does began to take off, and so did the one in front of the buck. Just before I could center my crosshairs on his vitals, the buck continued after his does. Crap, I don't want to take a running shot! My heart was racing, but I felt steady. I followed the buck in my crosshairs as he trotted near the summit of the hill. He slowed for a second and I squeezed the trigger. BOOM! The buck stopped for a quick second and then started walking forward. I could tell I hit him but I wasn't sure if I got him exactly where I wanted to. Not wanting him to suffer, I centered my crosshairs on his vitals and squeezed the trigger again. BOOM! The big buck took a few more steps forward, began to sway and then collapsed at the summit of the hill. I took a sigh of relief and began to walk to the top of hill. Rick and Trevor caught up to me, and we slowly approached the buck. All we could see were the tops of his dark antlers sticking above the dry grass. As we neared, it was obvious he had passed. We stood there for a moment to admire him. I knelt beside him as I had my little moment with God and the deer. Then we began to take pictures.

We began to field dress and quarter the deer. Rick started capping the shoulders and head for a shoulder mount. Rick is a fine taxidermist and I'm lucky to have him around to show me how to do shoulder mounts for my animals. By 11:30, we had everything quartered and loaded into the vehicle. I was excited to see what the rest of the day would bring!

We bounced our way down to the reservoir to take a look around. We parked the suburban and Trevor and Rick went for a hike. I stayed at the vehicle and closed my eyes for a bit. Rick and Trevor returned about an hour later without seeing any deer. 

We didn't see any more deer until nearly 3 pm. 
"Stop! Deer!" Trevor shouted as we came around a corner. "There's a buck, 3 point. Near the top."
"And another, he's a 2 point," said Rick.
"Where's the big buck?" I questioned.
We got out of the car and crept closer to get a better look. There appeared to be about 8 does and 3 bucks in the group. With a group of deer this large, where was the big buck?
We took a few more steps forward and something caught my eye. It was much lower than the rest of the group. 
"There he is, and he's BIG," I said excitedly.
Forty yards below the rest of the deer, there was a big buck bedded down. He was staring straight at us, not moving a muscle. Rick and Trevor got down and crawled a little ways closer. Rick took his time giving himself a good rest for a steady shot. I watched from a distance through my rangefinder. The deer was 100 yards away from Rick and Trevor. I watched Trevor set up the video camera. The buck continued to lay there and stare at us. I suspected that this deer was tired from the nightlife he had undoubtedly been having that previous week. I kept waiting for the shot but it didn't come. Then, I saw Trevor switch places with Rick. What's going on? I thought. I moved my rangefinder over to the buck just in time to see the shot. BOOM! The buck hardly made an attempt to stand up before he passed. I ran over to Rick and Trevor.
"Good job, Trev!" I said as I shook his hand. "What were you guys waiting for there?"
"He's got kickers out to the side, we both saw them at the same time and knew he was a shooter," Rick informed me. "I let Trevor shoot him because he has less time than I do."
"Now that's fatherly love," I commented.
"Yeah, thanks a lot dad. He's a brute!"

We walked over to the beast and stood in awe.
"What a beautiful animal!" I exclaimed.
"Look at those kickers. I bet he'll go 30 inches with those," said Rick.
"Gosh Dad, thanks so much. And we got it on film!"
"You boys just remember these things I do for you. Next time I may not be so nice!" Rick said with a half serious smile on his face.

We began to take pictures and continue to admire the buck.

After we took pictures, we decided to leave Trevor to his work. Trevor has cleaned many deer and is very self sufficient. We still had another couple hours of daylight, so Rick and I took off to make the most of the evening. We headed to a couple springs, but saw little. I suppose it was unrealistic to expect us to get 3 deer in one day. We returned to Trevor to find he had finished up with his deer. We loaded everything up and headed back to camp. What a day it had been! Now it was Rick's turn.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 2: Mule Deer Country

Day 2

I was awoken by an eerie sound; Coyotes. They were close, very close. By the sound of it, there were at least 5 coyotes howling and yipping away. They have to be less than 200 yards away... I thought as I lay in my cot. Normally you don't have to worry about coyotes, but when there's that many it can be a little scary. I looked at my watch and saw it was 5 am. I dozed back to sleep and before I knew it, it was getting light.

"Rick, did you hear those coyotes last night? They sounded close."
"Yeah they were very close."
Just then, from over the hill behind camp, a coyote howled. Then another, and another, and another! "They are still there!" I said to Rick, with wide eyes. "Shall we try to call some in?"
"I suppose we have time," he replied.

We grabbed the call, a decoy and our rifles, and headed toward the direction we last heard the coyotes. We found a large bush and got into position. I've never shot a coyote, but I love calling any animal in, even if it's to the sound of a dying rabbit...
Rick hit the call. From the hill in front of us, they responded.
"Dang! There are a lot of coyotes around here." Rick said as several coyotes howled. "It won't hurt to get a few. They kill a lot of fawns in the spring."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. A coyote came into view, running directly towards us. It stopped at 40 yards and knew something was up. BOOM! Rick shot and the coyote fell.
"Dang, that was fast." I said to Rick, congratulating him.

We kept calling, just knowing more were on their way. I looked at my watch and frowned.
"Rick, we better get going. We have to meet Trevor. We better not keep him waiting."
After all, we were here to hunt deer, not coyotes. Rick and I stood up.
"There! To your right!" Rick shouted.
A coyote had just started coming over the hill. I shouldered my gun just in time to see the coyote vanish.
"Oh and there's another one coming in to my left!" Rick shouted in frustration.
His coyote also vanished. We looked at each other and shook our heads.
"Trevor owes us some coyotes." I said to Rick.

We packed our gear for the days deer hunt and headed to the designated meeting place. Sure enough, Trevor was late and with every minute that went by, all I could think about was that coyote that was minutes away from my sights. Oh well, I don't care all that much about shooting a coyote anyway. But I'm sure going to make Trevor think I care!

As Trevor pulled into the turnout, Rick and I shot him dirty looks.
"Trevor, you owe us some coyotes!" I said with disgust in my face. "We were surrounded and they were coming from every direction! But I said to Rick. 'We better go. Can't be late to meet Trevor.' And look who's late..."
"Oh I'm sorry! I tried to text you guys. I guess there's no service here..." Trevor said in defense.
"Whatever. I guess I'll never get my coyote." 

Trevor hopped in with us and we drove up the road to a completely different area. This one screamed big mule deer. Old growth sage brush, aspen groves, and steep rocky hillsides. Does it get any better than that?

My legs were not ready for another 10 miles, so I decided I'd take it a little easier today. We parked the suburban, set our individual courses and took off. Trev and I didn't go far before we saw something every big game hunter gets excited about seeing; A RUB! A rub is where a buck or a bull elk rubs his antlers on a small tree, often tearing the bark off. He does this to rub the velvet off of his antlers and to mark his territory.


The height of this one told us it was an elk rub. We were excited to see this, but we were after deer, not elk. We went on further and found lots of elk sign, including more rubs, but little deer sign. Trev and I split up and I hiked up a draw to watch an area for a couple hours.

The day wore on and still no deer. I didn't hear any shots, so I knew Trev and Rick hadn't seen any big bucks either. This was just such awesome country that there had to be some deer. Evening approached and I watched another hillside in another draw. Another whole day without deer? I thought. Since I hadn't seen any deer sign in hours, I got up and made my way back to the rig. Rick was already waiting.
"See anything?" I asked.
"Nope, found some chukars though."
"I didn't see anything either. Just a whole bunch of fresh elk sign, but I didn't see an elk," I chuckled.
Trev didn't show up until about 20 minutes after it got dark.
"There he is," I said.
A headlamp appeared out of the brush.
"He's got something in his hands," I said with a suspicious tone. "It's an elk antler."
Trev approached the rig and in his hand was a large 5 point elk antler.
"In case you were wondering Trev, NO, it's not fair that you found an elk antler. I've never found an elk antler!" I said with jealousy.
"Oh Ryan, I'm sorry. I've found tons..."

We drove back to camp in the darkness. Another day with no deer. I was beginning to wonder if this was a good area to hunt.
"Tomorrow! I just know we are going to see a deer! I can feel it!" I said triumphantly.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Deer Hunt Day 1: The Luck of the Draw

All summer I dreamt of the large non-typical mule deer that I might encounter this fall. Several months later, my waiting was over.

I certainly won't claim to be an expert at big game hunting. I owe my success in the last 4 years, solely, to my fiancés family. Rick, my future father in law, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to Idaho's backcountry. He's been all over the state many times and seems to remember every road, rock, animal or tree he has ever encountered. That knowledge gives him a huge edge when it comes to hunting. In fact, his intuition is so remarkable, that I hand my license-number over to him each spring to be placed in a controlled hunt of his choice; mainly because if that's where he wants to hunt, I'll want to hunt there too.

Rick put himself, Trevor (my soon to be brother in-law) and I in for a desert mule deer tag that would take place in November. Against all odds, the three of us got drawn! The best thing about our hunt is it's during the Rut: which means all of those big bucks that have been hiding all year magically appear in pursuit of does.

Day 1

Rick and I left Boise early in the morning and headed to set up a camp for our hunt, where Trevor was going to meet us the next morning. We turned down the dirt road and found a suitable spot to set up our camp. 

We were eager to get to hunting, so we hopped into the suburban and drove to the end of the road. We made a plan to split up temporarily and meet at the mouth of a large draw. We would then hunt up the draw and the edge of the rocks. Not far after splitting, I found fresh deer-sign.

I continued towards the draw, seeing more fresh deer sign along the way. After a while, I began to wonder... where were the deer? It was a very beautiful day, maybe too nice; could all the deer be bedded down in the shade?... If they were, they would be very difficult to spot. I kept my optimism up by scanning my surroundings, because if I found some does, there would likely be a buck with them.

Suddenly, I came across a small spring creek that offered up a nice distraction, as I am also an avid fly fisherman. If I were a deer, this is where I would be, I thought to myself as I approached the creek.  I looked into the crystal clear water and... FISH! A big smile came across my face as countless little fish scurried for their lives as if I were a large heron.  I wasn't able to identify the type of fish I saw, but for now, they were safe from me.
I hopped the creek and met up with Rick, who had seen as little as I had. Together we hiked up the draw, and then made our way back to the suburban.
"How far do you think we just hiked?" I asked Rick.
"Probably 6 miles." He guessed.
"You know, that felt good. I think I needed that." I said, after the weight of the pack was off my shoulders. "Too bad we didn't see any deer." I finished saying, as we got inside the suburban.
"Well we've got a couple more hours of daylight, we'll probably see some tonight." He said back to me, keeping the spirit of the hunt alive; but honestly, we were both tired and looking forward to sitting in the suburban, doing some easy road hunting.

Rick turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. He turned it again... silence. In a hurried fashion, he fumbled towards the lights and turned them off, as if he could reverse the damage. 
He turned to me with a grim face. "Battery's dead. I left the lights on." He said, dismally.
"Seriously?" I asked. 
"Yep." He confirmed.
We sat and thought about our scenario; camp was 2-3 miles away and we had a spare battery there for utilities in the tent. We decided we would take one of the pack frames back to camp, strap the battery on it, and hike back to the suburban for a jump. We only had a couple hours of daylight left, so there was no time to waste.

Having a road to walk on made our hike to camp relatively quick.
I slung the battery and pack onto my shoulders, instantly feeling the fatigue in my legs. "Gosh, I'm getting old." I said. 
"Oh you're funny." Rick chuckled.

The sun had nearly set by the time we made it back to the suburban, and no deer were spotted on the way. We hooked up the jumper cables and Rick got behind the wheel. I waited in anticipation as Rick turned the key. The engine turned over a little, but not enough. Crap! I thought. 

We let the battery sit for a while to hopefully build a charge. Rick tried it again. 
VVvroommm!!! The suburban roared to life!
"Thank the Lord," I shouted!
"Well, there went the rest of our day," Rick said, with sadness in his face.  

Once we got back to camp, we both collapsed onto our cots. After walking over 10 miles today, we were tired, and I knew I would sleep good tonight! As I laid there, I began to think how terrible it would have been if we were 15 miles from camp when our battery died. It was a scary thought, but I was soon dreaming about the next day's hunt... I would walk 20 miles if it meant finding a trophy buck. The thought made me smile as I drifted off to sleep. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Band

It had been over a week since I had been on my last duck hunt, as explained in my previous blog. Needless to say I was very eager for redemption. It was almost November and I had yet to experience a productive duck hunt. I picked my day and decided I was going to hunt no matter what! I was unable to find someone who could accompany me, so I readied myself for a solo hunt. 

I woke up at 4am, wide awake and excited. My alarm was set to go off at 4:30, but I wasn't going to risk losing my spot. I got a very early start. In fact, by 5:45 I had the decoys on my back and I was already marching through the darkness out to "the pond". 

As I neared the pond, I could hear the chatter of hundreds of ducks who were "roosting" on the pond. I slowly approached the water and turned off my headlamp to stand, listening for awhile. I couldn't see all the ducks, but a smile came across my face. I had a good feeling about the morning ahead of me. 

I set down the bag of decoys with the rest of my gear and got ready to set up my spread. I stepped into the water and the pond erupted! The wing beats of hundreds of ducks flushed, quacking as they disappeared into the dark sky. I set up my small decoy spread of 14 decoys. I then made my blind in the bull rushes and sat down to wait for legal shooting light. Some of the ducks I had flushed began to come back to the pond and land in my decoys.  
Legal shooting light came around and I anxiously awaited my first group of ducks. A pair of small, dark ducks came zipping in at Mach speed and landed in the decoys. I got excited for a split second until I realized what they were; buffleheads. You guys are safe from me, I said in my head. The pair hung out for a little while before flying away to another spot on the pond.  A few minutes passed and my first group of puddle ducks appeared. They were already locked and gliding into my decoys. As they came near, I could see that they weren't mallards, but gadwalls. They spilt up and landed throughout the decoys. Not wanting to test the curse of the gadwall theory (see previous blog), I refrained from attempting to shoot any of these. There will be more opportunities, I thought.

As a fly fisherman, I've been programmed to hate wind. But it wasn't until I started duck hunting that I found a practical purpose for wind. A duck hunters worst nightmare is a windless day. Wind helps move the decoys, giving them life. This helps convince wary, keen eyed ducks to land. As the morning progressed, my worse fear started to manifest; little wind. Luckily, I have a trick up my sleeve for such occasions. The jerk chord! I rigged a couple of my decoys up to a jerk cord and sat back in the blind. I gave it a pull and life was restored to my plastic friends! 

As I was pulling on the decoys, some movement caught my eye in the sky. I made out a single, large duck headed straight my way. Here we go, I said to myself. I pulled on the decoys again and the duck responded by locking it's wings, dropping into the decoys. I identified the duck as a hen mallard. Normally I don't shoot hen mallards, but adrenaline overtook me and the way she was dropping in was hard for me to resist. I stood up and shot. BOOM! The duck fell, and I had my first duck of the season! I waded out to the duck and grabbed it. "Sorry girl," I said apologetically. 

I sat back down in the blind and admired the gorgeous hen. Little time passed before the next group of ducks appeared. Ten or so mallards made their way over to my spread, analyzing it. I pulled on the jerk cord and gave them a 5 note hen greeting. They locked their wings and I could tell they were convinced. They quickly descended and began backpedalling into the decoys. I stood up and picked out the greenheads. BOOM! My first target fell. I moved onto my next greenhead. By now they were quickly leaving the scene. BOOM! My next shot missed. But I followed through for a third shot. BOOM! I hit the greenhead but he didn't immediately fall. The wounded duck continued to glide away down the pond to my right. He didn't make it far before falling suddenly from the sky. Must have got him in the lungs, I thought. I ran down the bank of the pond to find him laying in the water. I retrieved him and returned to the blind for the first greenhead I shot.
Both birds were large and healthy. I hoisted the larger one up into the sunlight. The beautiful forest green on the head and the iridescence of the blue-green wing speculum reminded me how awesome these animals are.
I was quite out of breath from my run down the bank of the pond and wading in the mud. I grabbed my water bottle and took a needed swig. Apparently catching my breath was not on the schedule this morning because straight ahead of the blind were several mallards locked and dropping in. I slowly, but surely, closed my water bottle just in time to see 3 greenheads backpedalling into my decoys. I stood up and mounted my gun. Two of the drakes started making their ascent and it looked like their paths might cross. I hesitated a moment. Could I possibly get a double? I thought to myself. The drakes lined up and I shot. BOOM! One of them fell, but the other did not. BOOM! My second shot brought the other duck down. I left the blind to retrieve my greenheads. I trudged through the mud and grabbed the drake that was farther out. Something caught my eye as I approached the second bird. I had to do a double take because I couldn't believe what I saw. The duck had a metallic ring on its left leg. A BAND! I was so excited I let out a loud, "WOOOOOO!" I'd been duck hunting for almost 10 years and I'd never shot a banded bird.   

In case you were wondering, biologists catch and place metallic rings on ducks' feet as a way of tracking the birds' migration. Due to the difficulty of catching wild waterfowl, very few ducks get banded every year. Therefore, shooting a duck that has been banded is relatively difficult. Some hunters go their whole lives without shooting a banded duck, while others have shot dozens. It really comes down to luck. And today, I was feeling lucky! For more information go to flyways.us.

The action slowed for the rest of the morning. Several more groups of ducks showed interest in my spread. However, between ducks landing outside the decoys or bad shooting, I was unable to take any more ducks home. I was more than happy with 5 ducks. Besides, it was a long way back to the vehicle and I already had plenty of gear to carry.
I picked up the decoys and loaded all my gear onto my back. I made my way back to the parking lot. There were a couple pheasant hunters there, and I looked up to see them staring at me with quirky smiles on their faces. I was probably quite the sight to see in camouflage, neoprene, boot-footed waders waddling down the road. I had a vest full of gear, a spinning wing-decoy in one hand, a shotgun in the other, a large bag of decoys on my back and 5 ducks swinging to-and-fro with each step. I walked into the parking lot and said, "This duck hunting is sure a lot of work".
"Well, it looks like it paid off for you," one of the pheasant hunters replied.
"Ha ha, yeah I guess it did," I chuckled back to him.

I loaded everything in the vehicle and drove home with a healthy smile on my face. When I returned home, I called the phone number on the duck band. They told me that the duck I shot had been banded in central California in 2011.
I realized I may not be able to go duck hunting again for a while, but only because my next trip would be deer hunting. This year was going to be special because I drew a desert mule deer tag for November. I could hardly wait!


Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Curse of the Gadwal

The waterfowl hunting season is perhaps the most anticipated time of year for me. Over the past 7 years I've developed quite the obsession with hunting ducks and geese. One season I hunted a total of 44 days; not sure how I passed my classes that semester, but I did. The excitement I feel when I see a group of ducks or geese locking their wings and dropping into the decoys can only be compared to watching a very large trout slowly come up and eat your dry fly. 
I had eagerly awaited my first duck hunt of the season. I have always done well at a certain spot early in the season. In fact, the last 3 years, those hunts there have ended in limits. I picked my day and invited my future father in law, Rick. Convincing him to wake up super early wasn't terribly easy, but he agreed to do it.  
4:40 AM came quickly, but I was ready. I sprung out of bed in anticipation of whistling wings and shotgun blasts. I met up with Rick, he threw his stuff into my rig and we were off!
The place we were headed was a pond on public land along the Snake River. This location receives a fair amount of hunting pressure on the weekends, but during the week, it's usually pretty easy to secure the pond. We pulled into the parking lot and a sickening feeling hit me like a ton of bricks. Someone had beaten us to the spot. I looked out in the distance and could see a headlamp moving about. Crap! There were other spots to set up nearby, but they weren't as good as the pond this early in the season.
We readied our gear, put on our waders and headed out into the darkness. We neared the river and decided to set up on a side channel. I started setting up the decoys and Rick began working on making a blind. With the decoys set up and a blind built, we were able to sit back and enjoy the sunrise. One of my favorite parts of duck hunting is watching the world wake up. 

As we sat and watched the sky turn from black to blue and then orange, the whistling of wings could be heard overhead. Excitement began to brew inside me. We looked out in front of the blind to see a group of ducks lock their wings as they made their descent into the decoys. I looked at Rick and he gave me an approving smile back. A group of 6 puddle ducks landed only a few yards away from us. We still had 15 minutes until we could legally shoot, but its always a good sign to see birds landing in the decoys. The ducks milled about for a little while before they realized their friends were plastic and they flew off.  

A few more minutes passed and it was nearly time. A single mallard flew over our heads, immediately locking its wings as I gave it a 5 note hen greeting with my duck call. The mallard hooked around and was headed straight for us, fully committed. The single duck began back-peddling its wings and lowered its orange feet as it plopped into the water in front of us. I looked at my watch and we still had 3 minutes until shooting light. The single mallard drake took off into the sunrise. 

Legal shooting light came around and we anxiously waited for a group of ducks to come near. Several minutes passed before we saw our first prospects. A group of a dozen or so ducks came our way. I watched as they approached our spread with critiquing eyes. They veered toward the pond and I hit them with the duck call. Their response wasn't what I was hoping for. The ducks locked their wings and began descending onto the pond. I called again, but it was clear they wanted to be on the pond. We watched until they disappeared from view. We waited for the sound we dreaded hearing. BANG.... BANG............BANG!
We watched as most of the ducks rose from the pond and flew back to the river.
"That could have been us." I said begrudgingly.

A few minutes later, a single duck appeared out of nowhere. It was headed straight for us and was flying quite low. The duck locked its wings and I told Rick to get ready. I identified the duck as a gadwall as it made its final approach. The gadwall began back-peddling and I told Rick to "take him!". Rick rose and made a clean shot, killing the duck. Splash! It landed in the water outside the decoys. The bird dog (me) went and retrieved it. I brought the duck back to the blind and handed it to Rick.

"Didn't we only get one gadwall the last time we went duck hunting?" Rick asked me.
"Yeah, you shot the only duck that day, and it was a gadwall." I said in reply.
"I hope this isn't a sign." Rick chuckled with a deeper concern in his eyes.
I'll explain what happened the last time I convinced Rick to go duck hunting with me. A friend and I had hunted a spot near Weiser and shot 2 limits of Greenheads (drake mallards). Two days later I invited Rick to hunt with me at the same spot. We drove all the way out there, only to find someone in our spot. We set up nearby in what looked like a decent location. Not long after shooting light, a single gadwall came in and Rick shot it. That was the last duck to come anywhere near our decoys the rest of the day. So you can understand our concern with the current situation.
As the morning progressed, it looked as though "The Curse of the Gadwall" may actually exist. The skies were empty of ducks. Every once in a while, some ducks would come near, but their interest was on the pond. We decided to grab a few of the decoys and set up on the river. It couldn't hurt our current situation.   

You can always tell when a duck hunt isn't going very well by a hunter's body language. For instance, first thing in the morning when anticipation and optimism is high, a duck hunter's head is on a swivel. He is crouched and hidden like a cat waiting to pounce. By late morning of a dismal duck hunt, you will likely find the duck hunter zoning out and becoming complacent. He often forgoes the need of complete concealment. Rick and I were to that point now; sitting on the bank of the river, practically in the open and staring at our decoys.
"Shouldn't have shot that gadwall, Rick."
"I guess we'll know better next time."
We both shook our heads and laughed.
We packed up the decoys and headed back to the rig. We estimated the hunter on the pond had shot 4 or 5 ducks that day. I've hunted this area many times and I've learned a lot over the years on how to hunt it. If the pond is not frozen, the ducks ALWAYS want to be on it. They will choose the pond over any other location. It's easy to blame someone or something (like a silly superstition) on an unsuccessful hunt. The truth of the matter was simple: Someone had beaten us to the pond and our outcome was a result of that. Next time he'll be the one disappointed!