Friday, January 19, 2018

Late Season on the Pond

It had been a couple years since I'd journeyed down to 'The Pond'. 'The Pond' sits next to the Snake River and is perhaps my most consistent duck producing spot. The weather had been unseasonably warm lately, telling me there was a chance the pond was ice free. It was also early January, meaning that a lot of migrating mallards would be in the area. If I was right about those 2 things, Thursday would be an awesome hunt. 

By 6:30 am, we were making the almost 1 mile hike into the pond. We stopped short a few hundred yards and listened.
"Trevor, listen." I said, haulting and holding my hand into the air.
Trevor looked over at me with wide eyes as a mischievous smile spread across his face.
The sound of hundreds of mallards and geese could be heard. They were on the pond and had likely spent the entire night there.
"That means the pond is probably open. However, lots of birds on the pond in the morning doesn't always equate to great hunting. Sometimes they just leave and never come back," I explained.

We picked our spot according to the wind direction, built a make-shift blind, set up a 9 decoy spread and sat back, waiting for legal shooting light. The birds on the pond got up and flew directly over us as well as hundreds upon hundreds of others that had been roosting nearby on the river.
"Wow, that's a lot of ducks! This is going to be good, Ryan!" Trevor exclaimed, hardly containing himself.
"Gosh there's got to be a couple thousand mallards in the sky!" I marveled, amazed at the number of birds headed out to feed.  
Of course, when shooting light finally rolled around, the skies were nearly empty. We scanned the skies intently looking for dark shapes with cupped wings hoping to meet their fate, but as the skies became lighter, so did the number of birds. That's when we heard them.
"Trevor, I think there are geese on the pond." I whispered, pointing to one end of the pond where we could now hear them honking.
"Should we sneak over there and try to get them?" 
"I think we'd be crazy if we didn't at least try. You should go over there and I'll stay here in case they fly this direction."
"Okay, wish me luck!"
Trevor took off, making a wide circle through the desert, trying to avoid detection and get close enough for a shot.
Meanwhile, a few more ducks started flying, including 2 green heads that looked very interested. They circled twice before dropping right into the decoys. Dang, that's 2 guaranteed birds right there! Trevor better get some geese. The mallards swam around for about 1 minute before flying off. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! I looked over just in time to watch a goose fall from the sky and splash into the water. The rest of the flock flew away. Well at least he got one. I walked down the pond to help him retrieve his bird. I was pleased to see him trudging through the water with a bird in hand and in pursuit of another. I waded out in the pond to help him retrieve the second goose, which was currently still swimming. A shot to the head ended the swimming and we were on the board with 2 geese! Bonus birds for the pond.
We sat back in the blind ready for action, but there just wasn't much flying. Like I had mentioned earlier to Trevor, a bunch of birds at first light doesn't always mean great action. It was looking like this was the case. Even when we would see a duck, it would give us the cold wing and keep flying. Fom precious experience, however, I knew to be patient. Many times those birds that leave early to feed have to return to water later. 
At about 9 am, a lone duck came cruising into the decoys for a fly by. Trevor quickly rose and shot, bringing the fast flyer down. I didn't even know what it was, but I suspected a drake diver of some kind. Trevor trudged through the mud and retrieved it.

"Good job, Trev. A drake ring-necked duck." I said as Trevor admired the beautiful specimen.
"He's going to be our mascot!" Trevor said triumphantly while I chuckled.

Once again, few birds in the air made for slow passing of the time. Trevor went for a walk while I sat silently in the blind. A single green head came cruising in and I rose, making a clean shot.

Trevor returned empty handed and once again we sat staring at the empty skies. Forty-five minutes passed before a pair of ducks came low over the reeds. The white crest on the drake told me these were wigeons. The pair cruised into 20 yards with feet down. Just before they landed I called the shot. BOOM! BOOM! Both birds laid motionless on the water as Trevor went to retrieve them. The drake was a gorgeous representation of the species.

Although the action hadn't been fast and furious, we were slowly building a pile of miscellaneous ducks and geese. At 11 am, Trevor went for another walk, this time to another pond. I soon heard a couple gunshots and I looked to see a lot of ducks headed my direction from where Trevor was. A single gadwal came cruising in and I shot it.

"What did you get, Ryan?" Trevor implored, returning empty handed.
"A female gadwal!" I replied, holding up the pretty little lady.
By noon I was looking at my watch, wondering how long we should stick it out.
"Ryan, I think we should keep hunting. We are getting ducks every now and then. I still think we are going to get our limits!" Trevor said confidently.
"Ok. Hopefully all those mallards will return soon," I replied.

At 12:30 we saw our next prospects. Three puddle ducks took a hard look at our spread and began to circle. We were crouched and ready, my duck call working it's magic as the birds circled. That's when we saw them. From the left, dropping out of the sky, were 20 ducks, locked and loaded, coming right into the decoys. 
"Trev, on the left. Get ready." I whispered. "Take 'em!"
We rose and shot. Dropping 4 ducks from the group.
"Sweet! Those guys just snuck in." I grinned.
"Should we go retrieve them?" Trevor asked.
"No, there are more birds starting to fly. Let's let the wind blow them in." I replied, pointing to the south bank of the pond. 

An abundance of mallards were now flying and it didn't take long before the next big group began to circle. More and more ducks began to join them and soon we had ducks flying all over the place. I waited until the largest group came straight for us with feet down. At 25 yards I called the shot. Three green heads were left floating belly up on the water. Trevor and I quickly went into action retrieving birds. I went to the south bank to grab the previous birds while Trevor retrieved the recent ones floating amongst the decoys. I looked up just in time to see a single green head begin to circle our spread. I was out of range but Trevor was already back in the blind. I crouched motionless next to my pile of ducks until I heard Trevor shoot. I looked to see the green head drop from the sky.

"Ryan, the last bird is yours." Trevor said, referring to the one bird left to reach our 14 bird, 2-man limit.
"As long as someone gets him." I replied. "Gosh I'm glad we stuck it out. At noon I was seriously thinking about packing it up. I really should have known better with all those ducks flying early on in the morning. They have to come back to water at some point."
I felt the crop of one of the mallards.
"Feel this Trev...corn." I said, handing Trevor a fat mallard.
"Wow, there's a lot in there." Trevor said, as corn kernels began to fall out of the duck's mouth.
"This is why they have to come back to water. They need to digest their meal."

It only took 15 minutes before we had our next potential victim. A lone duck began to circle. On his 3rd approach, he came low over the desert with locked wings. He cruised into shotgun range and right over the top of the decoys, slowing as he scanned the decoys below him for signs of danger. He hung in the wind almost motionless directly in front of the blind at 15 yards high. I slowly rose, placed the bead of my shotgun sight on his beak and pulled the trigger. Splash! Bird number 14, a drake mallard, lay on the water, completing our limit.
"We did it, Ryan!" Trevor yelled.
"You didn't have a doubt in your mind all day, did you?" I said as we high-fived. 
Trevor shrugged his shoulders. "That was awesome!" 

We retrieved the mallard and assembled the birds for pictures.

Now it was time for the real work. 14 ducks and 2 geese would be no easy pack out. We crammed as many birds into the decoy bag as possible. The rest would have to be carried by hand. 

This hunt reminded me how important it was to stay later in the day during the late season. Not only are birds more active throughout the day, but if you have a bunch of birds leave early in the morning to feed, they will have to come back to the water to get a drink. The almost one mile hike back was long and brutal, but we kept smiles on our faces the whole time.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Double Does

The story about my first deer with Chad Tennyson
 Late October 2011

I was beginning to think hunting curses were true and that I was the source of a bad one. As a young child I remember my dad bringing home a deer every fall, and despite my begging, he wouldn't take me with him until I could sit through a day of cold with minimal complaining. The day finally came when I was about 10 and my dad took me to his secret whitetail spot up North. Thus began the curse; not only did he not get a deer that year, but the next 3 or 4 years he took me, we came home empty handed. I even told him to go without me one year so he could actually come home with a deer. When I got my hunting license at age 14, I dismissed the big game hunting scene altogether to chase pheasants, ducks and turkeys; claiming big game hunting was just too boring. Being "cursed" and all, what was point in even trying?

In college, I met Chad Tennyson. Chad had grown up in Dillingham, Alaska hunting moose, caribou, grouse and waterfowl. He's a well rounded sportsman and very knowledgeable in all aspects of hunting. Chad and I started hunting waterfowl together and over the course of 2 years, began to kill quite a few birds. I was perfectly happy with our bird hunting endeavors and desired nothing more than to continue chasing and improving our "fowling" skills, when Chad popped the question.
"Why don't we go kill a couple deer? I've always wanted to shoot one."
I had been dreading the day my hunting partner would want more. "Oh. I suppose we could try. I've just never had very much luck at it."
"Well let's give it a go! You know a few spots, don't you?" Chad asked with an enthusiasm that was slightly contagious.
"Yes, I know where to find some whitetails. Let's do it!" I pretended to be excited, but deep down I was plagued with doubt. Hopefully my "curse" wouldn't follow us and spread to Chad.

In late October, we packed our things and headed North. West Harris and his brother Kelly joined us. They had elk tags and decided we should go to one area where there was good densities of both elk and whitetail deer. It took forever to get to the place they picked out and we were truly in the middle of nowhere.

The next day we found ourselves hiking down a steep creek bottom trail with rocky hillsides that even a big horn sheep would think twice about climbing. It looked more like goat country to me, not the rolling hills and lush vegetation of a good whitetail forest. 

After a full day of exploring the area, Chad and I both agreed that if we were to shoot some whitetail deer, we would have to go elsewhere. We split up from West and Kelly and headed back to the area where my dad used to take me. Hope crept back into us as we began to see whitetail deer on the drive approaching our area.

Chad and I set camp and schemed for the remaining 2 days of our hunt. The area my dad and I used to hunt was an old clear cut. To reach it, you had to climb up a fairly tall mountain and it sat just on the backside. It took nearly 2 hours to reach it, so naturally I wasn't chomping at the bit to go there, especially since we had seen deer right near the road. That afternoon we hunted some hillsides near camp and the following day we opted to check out some other areas close to the road. We found deer that day, but all of them were on private land. With one final day remaining, the clear cut would be our last ditch effort at harvesting a deer or two.

Chad and I were on the trail one hour before light. If it were going to take two hours to reach the clear cut, we needed to be close to it when it got light. We slowly ascended the steep trail, which hadn't changed much in the 10 years since I had last hiked it. It began to get light enough to see and we slowed our climb, scanning the forested hillsides above us for deer. We neared the top of the mountain in perfect timing; it was now light enough to see and shoot. An old logging road greeted us and we stopped for a brief moment to load our rifles and discuss our plan of attack.
"This road wraps around and meets the bottom of the clear cut." I said, swinging my hand around and ending directly in front of us, where a small trail continued to the remaining top of the mountain. "We'll take this trail to the top, where we will get a better view of the clear cut."
Chad nodded his head and we proceeded on, rifles ready.

We quickly reached the top and we could now see parts of the clear cut. We crept along slowly as we descended a trail that paralleled the clear cut. The approximate 30 acre clearing opened up before us and we halted to survey it.
"Let's sit here for a couple hours and see what pops out." I whispered to Chad, neither one of us taking our eyes off the open space in front of us.
"Sounds good. I'll get comfortable." Chad whispered back, taking off his backpack and un-shouldering his rifle.
We hadn't sat long when we heard a crash at the top of the far end of the clear cut. A cow elk thundered out of the dark forest and into the open. With a panting mouth the elk stopped momentarily in the open and turned back from where it came, assessing the status of it's pursuer. The elk didn't wait long before it continued down the clearcut and back into the dark forest below us.
"That was strange." Chad said with a quizzical look.
"I wonder what was after that elk?" I said, looking where the elk had first appeared.

We continued our sit silently hidden in the shadows, scanning the clear cut for emerging deer.
"There, on the right." Chad whispered with excitement.
"Oh, I see them!" I said, adjusting the rifle tight to my shoulder.
We watched as 5 white-tailed does emerged and began walking single file across the clearcut. I looked through the range finder and picked a spot on the trail in front of the deer.
"240 yards." I whispered, "should we each pick a deer and count to 3?"
"Yeah, we can do that." Chad said quietly looking through his scope.
"I'll take the lead doe."
"Ok, I'm on my deer."
The group paused and I centered my crosshairs on my deer. "1, 2, 3." BOOOM!
My deer didn't drop or show signs of being hit, and Chad hadn't pulled the trigger.
"I didn't quite feel steady enough," Chad said, grabbing his pack and placing his rifle on it.
"I think I missed." I said, moving into a prone position on my belly, hoping to also improve my stability.
Luckily the deer didn't bolt or seem to have any idea what was going on, and what transpired next, I'm not particularly proud of. Each time my deer stopped and I felt fairly steady, I pulled the trigger and missed. I shot 4 times as the deer walked from one side to the other and just when they were about to enter the woods on the other side of the clear cut, miraculously they turned around and began to walk back from where they came. 
I exhaled in frustration when Chad shot. BOOOM! His deer bolted down the hill and crumpled up, dead.
"Nice, Chad!" I said as loudly as I could whisper.
He handed me the backpack, "Shoot from this, you'll be more steady."
Again, the deer didn't seem to know what was going on. I steadied my rifle, this time feeling solid and as confident as possible after missing 4 shots. I placed the crosshairs on the shoulder of my deer and pulled the trigger. BOOOM! My doe hunched but remained standing. 
"I think you hit her," Chad said.
"I think you're right," I said, still peering through the scope as I watched my deer slowly begin to wobble and finally, collapse. "Wow, that was ugly. Five shots."
"Yeah...but we got 2 deer!"

After waiting a half hour, we approached our deer. The 2 deer had died about 30 yards apart. Together we dragged the two deer next to each other for a picture.

I had a moment with my deer, thanking the Lord for it's sacrifice and admiring its' beauty. We each posed with our deer.

Now it was time for the real work to begin. Luckily Chad was with me to show me how to process this animal. He had shot numerous moose in Alaska, which helped make short work of these 2 deer.

Chad had properly prepared by purchasing and bringing a pack frame. Chad was able to place his entire deer in a game bag and strap it to his pack. Myself on the other hand, out of doubt that we'd shoot 2 deer and not wanting to spend the money on a new pack, had only brought a large backpack. However, in that pack I brought a 15 foot length of rope. Dragging the deer would be my only option. I timber-hitched my deer and began dragging as Chad shouldered his over-weighted pack.

The pack out was long and brutal, but at least it was downhill. I continued to monitor the condition of the hide on my deer to make sure it wasn't rubbing off. Luckily the trail was mostly pine needles and ferns, providing a smooth surface for dragging. By 4pm we reached the truck entirely exhausted. By midnight we were back in Boise.

The following day was Halloween. While trick or treaters giggled through the neighborhood we were in the garage cutting up meat. Every time kids approached the house we were tempted to give the kids a true halloween scare by opening the garage, showing them butchers with knives and hunks of meat. Despite the temptation, we kept the garage closed and together with the help of my friend Kevin, we processed the 2 deer into packages of superb quality venison steaks, burger and sausage. Maybe this big game hunting wasn't that bad after all.

Salmon flies and Goldens on the South Fork

"The South Fork is closed." A mysterious voice said from behind me while in line at the Mountain Home Subway. I turned to see the familiar face of a regular Anglers customer.
"Hey Dave!" I replied with a smile and friendly handshake. 
"Hey, I'm Dave." Dave extended his hand towards Terry Kowalis, my fishing partner for the day.
"I'm Terry, nice to meet you. You fishing by yourself today?" 
"Yeah I'm wading. I've got some spots I know I can hit."
"We got an extra spot in the boat if you want to join us?"
"Yeah I might do that!" 
We grabbed our sandwiches and Dave followed us the rest of the way down to the South Fork of the Boise River.

The fire and slides from several years back had made launching a drift boat more challenging. But as they say, 'you can't keep a good angler down', and in this case, many anglers. Boat owners had taken matters into their own hands and began to create their own boat launch below the previous boat launch, now un-usable as a result of a new rapid. We rigged the boat, looked both ways on the road and backed the trailer down the dirt bank. 

We set off down the river, armed with big dries imitating salmon flies and golden stones. I was on the oars first, the perfect place to assess the river conditions and in prime location to heckle the anglers.

Terry tossed his chubby salmon fly to the bank and let it drift lazily towards an overhanging bush. A golden shape with a red stripe rose with purpose and devoured his fly! 
"There's one!" Terry said, setting the hook with force.
"Nice!" Dave said, starting to reel in his line.
"Keep fishing! We got this. Let's get a double!" I urged and pointed back to the prime shoreline we were passing.

Dave picked up his fly and plopped it back towards the shore. I was staring at Terry and planning where to land his fish when I heard Dave yell, "OOOH, theres one!"
"Doubled up!" I shouted loudly, hoping there were other anglers in the vicinity.

Luckily Terry had 2 nets in the boat. I handing each angler a net and found a calm spot to anchor the boat. We had to get a picture of this double.

Terry and Dave each netted their fish.

We released the two 16-18 inch cookie cutter South Fork rainbows before Terry sat in the drivers seat.

It was now my turn in the front of the boat. I began casting the big salmon fly at every likely home of a bank patrolling carnivorous trout. I placed my fly near the grassy bank and let the current float my fly into the shadows of a tree. A nose rose and consumed my fly.
"There's one!" I said as I heaved back on the rod.

The large trout battled with all it's might before we scooped it into the net for a picture.

We hadn't made it far down the river, but fishing had been great so far. Terry was up next. Terry is a master at achieving a long drift and flirting with danger. He'd place his fly in front of a bush and let it go right into the shadows and sticks, waiting until the very last minute to pull it out. Every time I'd cringe as the seconds would go by long after I would have pulled my fly out and re-casted. I couldn't believe how lucky Terry was at not snagging the sticks and he was often rewarded with a fish.

We continued down the river catching plenty of fish. This was shaping into a stellar day.

After we caught a few more fish, we stopped for lunch in a side channel. 
"Look, a pink!" I said, pointing at the small flesh colored mayfly hatching on the blade of Terry's oar.

"And a golden stone!" I said with exaggerated enthusiasm. I grabbed the crawling trout delicacy and showed it to Dave and Terry.

Dave walked up the channel and began putting on a clinic. He walked each fish down to the boat to net and to get a picture.

We continued down the river picking up fish on both salmon flies and goldens. Our salmon fly chubby was beginning to get quite beat up.

However, the fly was still in it's prime. I've found the uglier the better with chubbys. 

As we neared the take out, we approached a great riffle. A common mistake I see anglers make while floating is not looking downstream. It's easy to miss prime water by focusing on what's directly even with the boat when you should really be looking ahead. I took my eyes off the bank and focused my attention on the riffle we were fast approaching. I knew the boat would run directly over prime trout water so I placed my cast below the boat in line to intercept the mid-thigh deep seem the fish would likely be laying in. With 40 feet between my fly and the boat the fish would surely see my fly before they saw the boat. 
My fly rolled down into the faster, choppy water and a big, golden rainbow charged up to eat the fly. I set the hook and began fighting the fish. We netted it just before the take-out. 

"Wow, that was a great day!" Dave said as he pulled our boat to shore. "Glad I decided to float with you guys."
"You're welcome anytime in our boat." Terry said, shaking Dave's hand.
We made the shuttle back to the truck and trailer, pulled the boat out and said our good byes to Dave. It had been a great day of throwing big dries to big trout, a day we hope to repeat next summer!