Thursday, June 28, 2018

More than just Sausage

The story of my first buck: Late October 2012

"I'm telling you Trev, I'll probably shoot the first deer I see. I just see walking sausage." I said as we drove to my in-laws secret whitetail spot.
"I really think you should hold out for a buck. At least for the first couple days," Trevor reasoned.
"It'll be tough for me to pass up a doe, especially if it's an easy shot."
"Just promise me you'll try."
"Ok, I'll try, but I'm not promising."
We would be hunting for 3 days in an area where you can shoot any whitetail deer. The previous year I had killed my first deer, as written in my "Double Does" blog entry. I was still in the infant stage of big game hunting, but my in-laws were diehards and they had agreed to take me. I still didn't understand the allure of big antlers. To me they were just funky bones. Little did I know, this hunt would change the way I hunt and see antlers forever.
We set up camp, loaded our hunting gear into the suburban and set off for an evening hunt. We were bouncing down the dirt road, headed to our hunting area when we rounded the corner and came to a halt. A small clearing opened up before us and on the hillside, 150 yards away stood 2 does. My heart raced as I scanned the terrain for all possible targets. There appeared to be only 2 does. 
"Oh gosh guys, that's super tempting. They're just standing there broadside. That's a lot of sausage..." I said, staring at my rifle and back at the deer, then back at my rifle.
"It's the first evening. We'll see plenty more." Rick said, staring through the binoculars.
"Ok, FINE!" I said, with a slight sense of doubt in my mind.
We drove on and hunted the area planned without seeing any deer. The next day we decided to walk up a closed road and onto a ridge where Rick would meet us. Trevor and I set out in the early morning on the old road, walking slowly and quietly. We reached the ridge and sat down to do a little glassing, scanning the nearby hillsides for signs of life. Across the canyon we spotted 3 bull elk leisurely feeding in the nastiest, steepest country imaginable. I pictured packing an animal out of that area and shuddered. Good thing we didn't have an elk tag or we might have been tempted... we continued on and Trevor began to tell me stories of all the bucks he'd shot on this ridge. My optimism grew along with the elevation we gained with each step. I'd seen the pictures and shoulder mounts to go alongside Trevor's stories and I was beginning to understand why someone might choose to shoot a buck instead of a doe. Regardless, my number one goal on this hunt was to come home with some meat and I wasn't going to let my quest for antlers get in the way of that.
"Look up there Ryan!" Trevor stopped and pointed to a flat area on the ridge.
"Are those mules?" I asked out loud, already knowing the answer.
"Looks like it. I wonder how close we can get?"
"Let's find out."
We approached slowly. A herd of 10 or so mules fed leisurely on the crest of the ridge, seemingly unafraid or concerned with our approaching presence. On the other side of the mules stood Rick.
"Mules, eh?" Rick said from the other side of the herd.
"I guess. You never know what you're going to run into in the woods." Trevor said, getting closer.
The mules moved off a little ways as we met up with Rick.
"I'm going to try to ride one of them!" Trevor said, with a wild look in his eyes.
"That doesn't sound like a good idea." I warned, picturing a wild bucking bronco and Trevor flying through the air. 
"I'm doing it!" Trevor said triumphantly, setting down his rifle.
Trevor walked up to one of the mules, placed his hand on it's side, and jumped onto it's back. I closed my eyes for a moment out of fear and began to open them slowly. The scene in front of me was not one I expected to see on this hunting trip.

The mule picked up his head and seemed to roll it's eyes as if to say, really? The mule stood there for a moment and then began to feed as if nothing happened. Trevor sat on the mule for a few minutes before dismounting and joining us.
"That was cool!" He said, grabbing his rifle.
"Wow, I can't believe it." I said, still astounded.

We hunted that area a while longer before returning to camp for lunch and to plan our afternoon. Rick decided we should head to an area they had seen numerous bucks in the past and plan a nighttime sit over some meadows. We loaded up into the suburban and lumbered down the road. Maybe it was the early morning hike or the soft suspension of the old SUV, but I could not stay awake as we floated down the dirt road. I take great pride in spotting game while driving, sometimes spending too much time looking at the hillsides and not at the road...just ask my friend, Erik Moncada. But this afternoon, nothing could hold back my afternoon nap.
"Whitetail buck! Whitetail buck!"
I suddenly jerked awake as the suburban came to a halt. I opened my groggy eyes in time to see the flashing white flag of a whitetail deer bound away from the road on our left. Trevor and Rick jumped out of the vehicle and crept off the road into the woods in the direction of the deer. I quickly grabbed my rifle and hurried after them. I expected to hear a gun shot as I looked up to see Rick looking through his scope, where 60 yards ahead stood a nice whitetail buck. I heard Rick muttering something that sounded like safety, while I shuffled to the right and loaded a round into the chamber. The deer still stood there looking everywhere but at us. Why isn't this deer running away? Once again, I heard Rick mutter something in frustration about his safety. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew this deer wouldn't stand there forever. I set my bi-pod out, took a knee, found the deer in my scope and squeezed the trigger. BOOOOM! The buck instantly dropped to the ground. Wow! I just shot a buck! The deer kicked for only a minute or so before passing.
"Ryan! That's a nice buck! Good job!" Trevor said, patting me on the back. "Let's go take a look at him."
We approached the buck and admired him.

I placed my hands on his antlers and somehow couldn't let go. Each antler was different from the other. I inspected them from the base to the tips and everywhere in between. I simply couldn't stop looking at them. The antlers were just captivating! The buck was not a giant by any means, but it was larger than I had expected. What also surprised me was the size of it's body.
"This is a lot more meat than that doe I shot last year!" I said, patting the animal on it's side. "That's a lot of sausage!" 

"I think you should do a shoulder mount. I can help you do it." Rick exclaimed.
"I guess. If you think so." I replied, imagining the animal on my wall. I think I could admire this animal forever. "Yeah, let's do it!"
Once the photos had been taken, it was time for the dirty work. The deer was about 100 yards away from the vehicle. An easy drag to the suburban and we could take the deer back to camp and quarter him there.
We made it back to camp and unloaded the deer out of the back of the suburban. Trevor agreed to stay with me and help, while Rick went back out to hunt. Trevor showed me all his tricks in quickly and cleanly quartering a deer. I was indeed thinking about all the good meat this would be, but then I would look at those antlers... Those are pretty neat too. I began to see that each deer had it's own unique antlers. Not one buck is the same as another. Antlers have character and a way of captivating you. Once they start to get in your blood they don't go away. That was the only deer we harvested on that trip, but it made me realize how much more there was to deer hunting. I wasn't out there to simply fill the freezer and head home. I also wasn't out there to trophy hunt. I was there to enjoy the hunt with family and friends and maybe, just maybe, spend a little extra time trying to find one of those unique and mature bucks. I love eating deer, but that hunt made me realize there was more to deer and deer hunting than just sausage. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Little Further Up the Road, Owyhee Reservoir

Springtime in Idaho can be frustrating for a traditional fly fisherman. Most wait impatiently for the rivers, high from snow melt, to recede and the weather to stabilize. Other rivers like the Owyhee receive so much "love" that anglers are practically fighting each other for the opportunity to catch a trout with 5 holes already in it's mouth. I embrace this time of year because of the plethora of non-traditional options available; especially if you have some sort of watercraft like a float tube. Trout are available any month of the year in Idaho, but warm water species like bass and crappie are prime in the spring. 

Katie and I had so much fun last year fishing Owyhee Reservoir that this year we decided to camp and stay a couple days. We arrived mid-morning, made camp on the river and headed up the road towards the reservoir. We crested the dam to find a still water anglers dream: glassy clear water.

"Wow, that cove is just filthy with fish!" Katie said as we rounded a corner, spying the bass, carp and crappie basking in the warm sunlight. 
I chuckled at her expression. "That water is very clear. This is going to be good!"

We arrived at an easy launching place, rigged the boats and kicked out into the calm, clear water. Armed with marabou crappie jigs and balanced minnows under a strike indicator, it didn't take more than several casts before Katie's rod was bent. 

Katie hauled in the fiesty male black crappie, hoisting it up for a picture.  

Crappie are delicious and we intended to bring some home for eating. Previous experience has shown me that crappie smaller than 10 inches are harder to fillet and hardly worth the effort. Katie's was 9 inches, so back in the water it went. If fishing was anything like it was last year, we'd have plenty of opportunities to bring home a pile of crappie.  

We worked the shore line, heading towards some coves we guessed would be productive. Our progress was slow due to the constant task of unhooking crappie. On some stretches of shoreline, we routinely had doubles and crappie were taking our flies every cast. We began to decipher that the average size was between 9 and 10.5 inches. About every 5th crappie made it onto the stringer.

Katie threw a cast towards a rock point. Before the ripples could even dissipate, her indicator took a dive. Katie heaved back on the rod and instead of the scrappy thrashing of a crappie, she was met with the strong deep digging, notorious of a smallmouth bass. After a decent battle, she lipped the smallmouth bass. Owyhee reservoir is home to both smallmouth and largemouth bass.

We were having a blast slowly making our way to the coves, when
dark clouds began to brew. They seemed to all converge over the reservoir promising a thunderstorm. We began to hear thunder in the distance and we kicked hard to get into a cove and out of the water.

Rain came down hard as we sat on the shore waiting for the storm to pass. I remembered I had an umbrella in the pontoon boat and went to retrieve it. Some say it's precarious to walk in fins, but sometimes I think I'm part duck.  

When the storm had subsided slightly, we got back into the boats and made our way to the truck. The air temperature had dropped so much that the air in our boats had condensed, leaving them slightly deflated. We had only covered a quarter mile of shoreline, caught more crappie than we could count and still had about 30 crappie to fillet when we got there. It had been a good first day. 

Spying some promising looking water on the drive back, we knew where we would begin fishing the next morning. By 9am we were on the water, catching crappie again.

The water clarity was even better at this spot; close to 10 feet! Submerged sticks could be seen; a sure sign crappie would be close by. 
We began catching crappie in good numbers as we worked toward a rocky point. My indicator went down and I set the hook. Immediately a large bronze smallmouth shot out of the water, shaking it's head in attempts to free the foreign object in it's mouth. It put up a great battle, doubling over the rod numerous times.

We released the large bass and continued casting towards the rocky point. Katie was into the next fish. Once again, the immediate splash told us we had another bass.

This time it was a nice largemouth. I responded with another bass of my own; a chunky smallmouth.

We continued along the shoreline catching more crappie and bass.

Katie had to remind me it was lunchtime. We kicked back toward the truck. As I ate my sandwich, I couldn't help but think about all the people fishing the river, struggling to catch a few nice trout. Our thumbs were seriously trashed from all the fish we had caught so far, and it was only noon! 

After lunch we got back in the boats and decided to work the opposite direction. Once again, more crappie and bass were caught, including one very substantial largemouth.

We kicked out to a rocky island that screamed of bass. I made a cast to a small point on the island that looked "fishy". My indicator plunged and I lifted back, feeling serious weight. Off to the depths the fish raced. Giant bass occupied my thoughts as line peeled off my reel. The "wow's" and "holy cow's" brought Katie over to my boat to see what was going on. Finally after a few minutes with no sightings of the creature on the end of my line, gold emerged from the depths indicating I had a common carp. The carp had inhaled the minnow; not a first but a rare occurrence.

By 4pm we were tired, sore and content with the number of fish we had caught. The weather had been perfect, the water crystal clear and hundreds of fish had been caught. It was now time to fillet another couple stringers of delicious crappie.

Once again, the hidden fly fishing secret spot, Owyhee Reservoir had not let us down. We would surely return, once our palms and thumbs healed. 

Crappie Palm
Craw-pee Palm

Pricked, scratched and abraded palm as a result of grabbing crappie while attempting to place on a stringer for consumption.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Project Healing Waters Annual Fly Shop Bass Tournament

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) is a national organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel and disabled veterans, primarily through fly fishing events and outings. The Rocky Mountain Northwest region has a very strong presence and participation. Long-time Anglers Fly Shop customer Terry Kowalis is a Board Member for the Boise Chapter. Terry has come up with several fundraisers for the organization, including "Fishing the Governor's Pond," and the "Fly Shop Bass Tournament", both a huge success in 2017. 

The Fly Shop Bass Tournament is just like it sounds; a bass tournament where the local fly shops compete against each other at a private lake in Star, Idaho. Each fly shop sponsors a team of 3 at $400 a boat. Idaho Angler, Three Rivers Ranch and Anglers Fly Shop each sponsor a boat. The winning boat that catches the most fish, receives an awesome trophy (see picture below) and bragging rights. Last year Three Rivers Ranch took home the trophy with 28 bass.

Last year Team Anglers wasn't far behind with 24 bass. We thought we had the dream team; world renowned angler and creator of the Pico Spider, Erik Moncada. As well as world famous fly fishing guide and chicken egg collector, Derek Peterson. Then of course myself, previous Alaska fly fishing guide and Bob Ross fan, Ryan Spillers. We put up a great fight, but one of our team members did not pull his weight in the boat, only catching 2 bass the entire evening. I won't name names, but for some reason, Erik Moncada was replaced this year by Ken Burkholder; world renowned Eastern Idaho guide and oboe player. Would Ken prove himself worthy of holding a place on Team Anglers? We would soon find out! 

We arrived to find ominous clouds approaching, promising a dicey start to our tournament. Regardless, Team Anglers would be ready for anything, and this year we were determined to win! 

The teams launched their drift boats and readied their gear and rods.

However, before the battle began, it was time to eat a delicious barbeque feast catered by Garden City's famous, Cutters BBQ. 

Terry's wife Marcy thanked us all for coming and reminded us of the great cause this event was helping. 

We all scarfed down our delicious BBQ sandwiches, talked a little smack to each other and then headed down to the boats. 

We all rowed our boats out into the center of the pond where Terry was waiting to give us a "shotgun" start, minus the actual shotgun. 
"I'm thinking we should start in that corner over there." Ken whispered and cocked his head to the side, hoping no other team noticed.
"Me too." I replied, using the oars to angle our stern towards the corner we intended to hit first.
Terry's wife Marcy spoke up. "On my go, ok? Ready?... GOSH, it's a nice evening!"
Everyone pulled hard on the oars, falling for Marcy's false start. We all chuckled and got ready again.
"Well GO everyone!" She shouted.
Everyone pulled hard and headed in opposite directions, hoping their chosen location would give them a good start to the tournament. 

Derek was in the bow of the boat first and Ken the stern. Both anglers casted with intensity and focus, knowing we didn't want to receive John's disappointed look if we lost this year.

After about 150 yards of bank with no takes, we began to worry. Derek and Ken were both throwing relatively small flies and stripping them at a medium pace. It had been 20 minutes without even a sniff from a fish. Anxiety began to take hold of the boat.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Derek set the hook on a fish. He battled it like a bass pro, practically skating it across the water and into the net.

"Alright, we're on the board. That took way too long." I said, concerned with how the rest of the evening might go.

Ken switched flies and was soon into a bass himself. Followed by another, and another. Ken racked up 3 bass in a short amount of time on his new fly.
"They're right on the bank, Ryan." Ken said as we switched spots in the boat.
I placed a cast next to a stick just poking out of the water. Immediately I felt the funny line movement of a bass sucking in the fly and swimming off. I leaned forward then set the hook hard. Slack line came back at me, revealing a missing fly on the end of the line.
"Gosh Ken, what pound line are you using? I broke him off right on the hook-set."
"6 pound Maxima Fluoro."
"I guess I better settle down then. You have another one of those flies?"
Ken shuffled through his stuff and handed me a different fly. "It's close but the technique will be the same."
My very next cast produced a large Bluegill.

We kept pounding the banks without much success. We only had a total of 6 fish to the boat in about an hours time of fishing. As we rowed out of a cove, Idaho Angler rowed in. Immediately we heard them hootin' and hollerin', a sure sign they had hooked a fish. Then we heard it again, and again and then again. At the bow of their boat stood Tom Governale, a local warm water fly fishing guru. I knew he would be a threat! Idaho Angler had chosen it's team well this year. A couple minutes later we heard them again. Concern flooded our faces.
"What's that 6 fish in the last 10 minutes? Tom is kicking our butts!" Derek said in dismay.
"We better figure something out fast." Ken replied.
I had tied up a couple flies with this tournament in mind and had Derek tie one on. He was soon into a bass.

As quickly as it had worked, it stopped working, leaving us scratching our heads.
We continued around the pond, depressed and concerned. We imagining the disgusted look John, our team sponsor, would give us.
Derek and I switched rods and I tried the fly I had tied. I missed 2 fish before I connected on the 3rd.

"I think this technique works, we just have to fish it slow." I said, handing Derek one of the flies. "Fish it with a strike indicator on. It will force you to fish it slower and suspend your fly, giving it more action."
Derek tied it on and looped a strike indicator on as well. 
"Wow, that was cool." Derek said, quickly into a fish.

We began to pick up bass regularly. 10, 11, 12... Our numbers were climbing.
"Ken, you need to fish. I'll row." I said, urging him.
"No. You've got the hot hand right now. Keep it up." He replied.
"Ok, Ken!"

Derek and I kept racking up the fish. 16, 17, 18... It appeared we had cracked the code. We wondered how the rest of the teams were doing. 
Derek finally convinced Ken to fish and it didn't take long for him to start catching bass. We even had our first double. Soon followed by another double!

24, 25, 26... The fish kept coming. The sun was approaching the western horizon, telling us the hour glass would soon be empty and the tournament over. It also told us the fishing would only improve with the fading light.

Ken moved to the bow of the boat and continued to catch fish.

The focused, stressed face we had seen on Ken earlier in the evening had now been replaced by a joyful, childish grin of delight. We were now at 38 fish, a number we imagined would be hard to beat. 
Terry came around the corner in his boat. "Time to call it quits. Meet back at the ramp."
"Ok." I said still anxious, remembering how many we had seen Idaho Angler catch earlier.

Back at the ramp we all gathered in the waning light. 
"Ok, Three Rivers Ranch, how many did you end up with?" Terry asked.
"Like 8!" They replied in dismay.
"Ok, and Team Idaho Angler?"
"26!" Lewis said proudly. "Although, no thanks to me. It was best I stayed on the oars." He and his team laughed.
"Nice. How about Team Anglers?"
"38." Ken responded quickly and proudly.
"Wow! I guess it goes to Team Anglers this year."

Terry retrieved the trophy as the fly shops all shook hands and said their goodbyes. Terry handed the trophy to John, and Team Anglers gathered for a photo.

So you might be wondering, what fly cracked the code? If I told you it was a hand carved and painted balsa wood popper would you believe me? I didn't think so...