Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Hunt Not According to Plan

Ice ice baby, too cold, too cold
We'd followed the weather to the "n"th degree.  We'd made plans, reservations, invitations, and brother T and I had even scouted the evening before, seeing great promise of both open water and flying waterfowl.  This could be a good one.

Frozen brain...or osage orange
Like so many things in hunting, the big things turn with the small.  The forecast called for cloud cover to paste over the big full moon by 9pm, and for snow to begin by 5am and end by 9am, with air temperatures around 28 degrees.  This would play both the ducks and geese right into our hands, as we were going to be hunting on the only open water for several miles around.    But the clouds didn't come until 2am, the temperature never dropped below 31, and around 6am, pellet ice started falling from the sky.  We hoped it would switch to snow, as we took the long, dark walk down the beach to our chosen hunting spot along a tidal inlet.

Second step's a doozy
We set our carefully chosen decoys in the inlet's churning waters with also carefully selected heavy decoy weights.  The ice continued to fall, but at least the decoys stayed put.  At first light, we heard thousands of ducks and geese but saw no flights.  As the falling ice began to agitate the geese standing out on ice floes, they started transiting - jumping from one loafing area to another, never going more than a thousand feet or so.  Around 730am, the ducks started flying.  Just not how we'd thought they'd fly.

I was set up on the downwind edge of the hole in the ice, where we'd seen several groups of ducks land the prior evening.  Our three other hunters lined shrubs and trees along the open watch patch next to the beach.  We hoped for decoying birds but got dive-bombers instead.  A duck would decide to cruise the inlet at 50mph and 10 feet off the ground and "BOOM.......BOOM.....BOOM!" would result until the bird escaped or was knocked down.   Some gadwalls escaped, some bluebills, buffleheads, and mergansers did not.  Always good to have birds in the hand.

Around 830am, it became clear that I had underestimated the seriousness of the weather.  It was 32.5 degrees and the half-frozen precipitation was starting to make its way down my neck, into the wrists of my gloves, and everywhere else.  I started getting cold.  Worse, the dog started getting cold.  While conditions were really perfect for an all-day duck hunt right there at that spot, we had no real protection from the elements and were simply not prepared (i.e. back up gear in dry bags, firewood, etc) to spend all day on that beach in the raining ice / icing rain.   At 900am we called "retreat" to the upper fields, hoping that we could stay out of the weather in a goose pit and of course, hope that a goose might fly over.

Yeah, bad move.  The goose pit steamed as our body heat boiled off the water in our soaked gear.  Worse yet, the relatively warm air and ice pack offshore brought in an enormous fog bank.  It was serious stuff.  We heard the geese get up off of the ice and leave, but never saw a single one.  Around 3pm, we ended the hunt with the same number of birds we'd had in-hand since 8:30am.  

This was one of those hunts that gave me a lot to think about.   Thank goodness we didn't spend all day in the goose pit.  And thank goodness we didn't stay on the beach.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Beachy Waterfowl Hunt with Brother T

As the first east coast polar vortex in 20 years was wrapping up, we thought that maybe some ice, somewhere, might start to shake loose.  We decided to gamble on the farm up on the upper eastern shore of Maryland, where there's a tidal inlet that stays pretty loose.   Our primary goal was to hunt the morning after our arrival, but we got in town early enough to scout/hunt the evening prior to the planned hunt.   I pulled into the farm to see the big duck boat up on the lift and surrounded by hundreds of yards of thick ice, and a Polaris Ranger with a wheel missing.  Grrrr.  So we had a little walk (3/4 mile) down the beach with our gear.

So fun!  Actually it wasn't bad.  The ice had frozen all the beach pebbles in place, and the decoy sleds moved without much friction over the ice and pebbles.  On the pure sand....not so much.   We eventually got where we were headed and got to appreciate the beauty of an iced over river and Upper Bay.  I had the opportunity to shoot a drake redhead on the water at 40 yards, and didn't, much to Brother T's dismay.  As we closed to 30 yards, the duck exploded out of its tiny water pocket and hauled ass in the opposite direction, of course.  I'm definitely getting older and more mellow in my ability to appreciate the passed up possibility of a kill, especially on such a beautiful (and delicious) duck.   Yeah, part of me wishes I had shot the thing. I won't lie.   It was a beautiful evening and the birds were moving, just not over top of where we were.

We did have a small group of geese come in right over us, so close that they even landed in gun range.  We fretted over the shot overhead, and then fretted more once they were sitting on the ice 20 yards from us, knowing that we could easily kill our combined daily limit, but being unsure of whether we could retrieve the geese from the ice without a dog or a boat.   Again, we let them live.

 It's getting late in the season.  With less than 1,000 geese and around 500 ducks using the Creek, we are at peak migration (the goose number is low, the duck number is higher than normal).  I expect changes in the weather to wreak havoc with these birds, who are already acting extremely intelligent and who have become quite wary of our hunting shenanigans.  I imagine the end of the season will bring major challenges regardless of the weather, and I admit that in some ways, I am ready for the season to end.  I'm willing to accept that my efforts have resulted in average harvests, average effort and average hardship.  Perhaps it's because I've had enough bad hunting seasons to recognize that this is not one.  Perhaps it's because I've had enough great hunting seasons to know that emotionally, I can't get there from here.   Let's carry on for a few more weeks and see what happens.

Want to test your luck?  Try this ice.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Polar Vortex, Stubborn Geese

Three degrees (farenheit) and sunny.  May as well stretch out!
A month ago, I had never heard of a polar vortex, and I don't feel smarter for knowing about it now.  I write this hunting report after the conclusion of our first polar vortex in (apparently?) 20 years, as another is set to bear down upon us.  Hooray!

When the thermometer in the truck bounced between -14 and +3 degrees at 4:45am, I knew I was in for a cold day.  Eventually the rascally piece of ice on the sensor flew off, and I got a real sense of what I was up against:  3 degrees farenheit. On the radio, they said the wind chill was -15.  Hooray again!

Fellow blogger and occasional conservation accomplice Steve Kline had invited me over to his lease on the famed Chester River.  Steve and his buddies had been hunting hard for two days with very little luck, and we knew at some point that the thousands of geese resting on the icy river would eventually have to come into the corn fields to feed.  We knew it.   As we set decoys in the frigid pre-dawn, we heard geese cackling on the river, though not as loud as we would have preferred them to be.   Based on calories and warmbloodedness alone, those birds would eventually have to come get some food.   We were simply asking for a small tax: the lives of the first four geese to arrive.

As the sun came up and the temperature did not, it became clear that the geese simply might not fly.  Groups would spiral up off of the river and then funnel back down to another spot just hundreds of yards away....on the river.  It was incredibly frustrating and quite cold.  The only action of the morning ended up being a large white-tailed doe running from across the farm directly toward our hideaway of standing corn (with a few corn cobs still intact).  She pranced and pranced and pranced, and eventually our scent betrayed us.

This was a rare saturday hunt - I rarely occasionally take time away from the family to get afield.  Around noon, it seemed clear that the hunt was a bust, not because the geese would never feed in our field, but because I had promised to be home in the early afternoon.  And let's be honest, I was cold.

Steve stayed put, and another buddy joined him in the late afternoon.  On this day, the geese did fly, and they sure came right in to Steve's setup.   It was 4:15pm, 30 minutes shy of the end of the hunting day.  For me, a bit frustrating because with better planning, I could have been there, and I wouldn't have missed a shot on these birds.   For Steve, it was the reward for three full days of hunting in the frigid cold and knowing that surely, eventually those birds will have to feed.  Great shooting, Steve.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

700th Post!

I find myself at the whirlwind tail end of duck season, wondering exactly how to write this post.  After a bit of reflection, I'm left with the thought that some milestones are just things we pass on our way to something else.

Such it is with this blog.  Several more hunting posts are queued up, and soon the fish will be biting.   My internal fire for writing is building again, and I look forward to finishing my first novel in the next month or two.

Sometimes a milestone is something you pass.  Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The rotating gear (and gear repair) closet

I left decoys, solo weights, and several long lines in a decoy sled.
Add a foot of snow, which melted and refroze, and now I have this mess.
I sometimes envy outdoorsmen and women who live somewhere or pursue something that is a 12-month (or at least a 10.5 month) pursuit.  I envision being able to keep my gear straight on an ongoing basis, always conscious of things that needed to be cleaned, oiled, or painted for the following week's expeditions.

After thinking to myself in January 2013,
"I need to re-rig about 40 of these decoys
this summer," I ended up having to buy
700 feet of decoy line in January 2014
to finish the job as the decoys get
pressed into service again. 
But I'm an outdoor addict of a different sort.   I like to fish saltwater, freshwater, coldwater, and warmwater.  I like to hunt ducks, geese, quail, turkey, and to a lesser extent, deer.  Until gas hit $3/gallon, I used to surf a dozen or three times per year too.   Gear is always getting pulled out of storage, into use, and then dumped back into storage.  Sometimes it works great.  Usually it works okay.  Sometimes it's a failure, when I do an inventory the night before a big hunt and realize that I need to adjust the lines on four dozen decoys, buy a new battery for the red dot sight, or whatever else.  It's maddening.

But like the 12-month fly angler who studiously crafts his or her next batch of flies, I don't mind the work - it's the surprises that drive me nuts.   Last night found me up until 1am replacing some fabric decoy cord and bad knots with Tanglefree PVC decoy line and Drake aluminum crimps.  It was fun - but it was a job.  Twenty more days of hunting season - let's hold this train together as it barrels down the tracks!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Morning Hunt on Nottoway Swamp

Hank aka The Angel Gabriel

My wife and son both had off of work and school before I could get away from work on the holidays, so they headed south to North Carolina to be with our family.   I followed them about four days later, breaking up the nine hour drive with a stop in the headwaters of the Nottoway Swamp.  My brother, one of the area's relatively few resident waterfowlers, was still out on the tugboat, so his friend showed me a section of (his) privately owned swamp for a quick morning shoot before I hit the road to finish my trip.  My brother T even sweetened the deal by lending me his Mack's Big Ditch Waders and his Mossberg 935 shotgun (the gun I use most often as well), so I wouldn't have to drag mine along on my entire Christmas trip.

The walk into the swamp was great - cold weather had finally arrived.  We snuck through heavy brambles and over old cypress knees as the elevation dropped lower and lower, the pine needle forest floor finally ceding to rotting maple and swamp oak leaves, then to standing water.   Aquatic vegetation was so incredibly thick in the swamp that it was hard to wade, which I knew might make for a great hunt.  Soon enough, it was shooting light.   As I've written before (but not recently), hunting in timber is very challenging before sunrise - the only light is overhead, where we were able to see small and silent flocks of wood ducks and ring-neck ducks crossing the swamp, heading from their roost to their chosen feeding area.  As the sun rose, it was hard not to be taken in by the peacefulness of the place.

And then we shattered that peace with a volley of ringnecks.  I shot once and got very lucky - the duck plummeted into the swamp just 15 yards ahead of me.  As it fell, I tried to shoot another duck, but a shell was jammed in the magazine.  T's buddy apparently can't shoot straight, so the rest of the ducks lived.  A pair of wood ducks came in while I was messing with the gun, and T's buddy shot one, sailing it across the swamp.   As he carefully angled through the cypress knees to retrieve it, a flock of mallards dropped in from over the treeline.  I hastily cleared, or so I thought, and fired.  PING!  I had accidentally reloaded the spent shell.  What an idiot.

After that rather exciting 20 minutes, we had very little action.  Birds appeared to have good local knowledge and knew exactly where they were headed.  By 9:00am, I was walking back out of the swamp, admiring all the cool living things in the swamp like this Old Man's Beard lichen - things we've lost along the I-95 corridor due to 400 years of land abuse.

With my duck and my suitcase, I headed on south for Christmas.  Sometimes, hunting doesn't have to be arduous or involved.  You just have to go.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hunting Harder, Not Smarter

Hunted an afternoon via kayak and had the wherewithal to deploy about half of my old diver rig - about 30 decoys.  Also threw out some magnum black duck and Canada Goose floaters.     I really was in the right spot for ducks, and had swimming ducks at 100+ yards checking out the spread but getting no closer.  It was kind of exciting to watch pair after pair of hooded mergansers pitching right into the decoys.  I let them all live.  Several pairs of ducks survived, too, because they flew in right underneath geese that I was trying to decoy in...didn't work.

About 600-800 Canada Geese were staging on the leeward side of the next island; I thought I'd paddle over there, beach the kayak, and check out the scene.  As soon as I ducked into some brush, my kayak was attracting visitors:

As the sun started to go down, I realized that my island-front decoy spread was in the shade - a problem that resulted in nothing but tundra swans (illegal to hunt) dipping into the decoys.

I got within about 80 yards of a huge flock of geese and waited for them to move.  The time approached the end of legal shooting time and about two minutes after legal, I unloaded my gun.  Of course, that's when this happened:

I take legal shooting hours seriously, but apparently other hunters in the area that evening take it less seriously.  I heard several multiple-gun volleys about 25 minutes after legal shooting time had expired.   Then, as the sky grew dark, dozens (then hundreds) of geese circled my tangled up decoy spread as I tried to wrap up the expedition.  It was 50 minutes after legal shooting time, and truly dark, when a group of hunters on the next creek fired 12 shots in a row.  Twelve!

It was really telling to have worked at least three times as hard as my last hunt and to have ended up with zero birds in the bag vs. "a number greater than zero."   I appreciate these kinds of experiences because they really do make me think about what level of work - and level of thinking - is needed to be successful in waterfowl hunting.  Two recent quotes from folks I've met seem to really personify that:

1.  "The short reed goose call has saved more lives than it's taken."
2.  "These geese have already seen every 35 year old man with a pickup truck and three dozen full body decoys from here to Manitoba."

With all of that, it was fun watching hundreds of birds pitch into my spot as I untangled decoys and got them ready for the paddle back to the dock.   Next time, I'll do it differently.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Hunting Success by Trying Less

I really wasn't going to hunt in the morning.  Then I decided to go, because I could.  Then when the alarm went off at 4:50am, I was like, nawww.  Then I really did get up at 5:30, and in the truck by 6am.   At legal shooting time I was 40 miles from the farm.  At dawn I was just getting onto the farm road.  I looked at all the gear I'd brought for the evening hunt and thought, nawww.

I paddled out to the island with three Canada goose floaters, four magnum black duck decoys, and three magnum bufflehead decoys.  It was nearly 9am by the time I was fully set up.  The air temperature was already in the upper 50s, and the thin clouds were giving way to bluebird skies.  By all accounts, I should have canceled the hunt. I loaded my kayak full of gear and headed out for a slow, steady paddle to the island.   I carefully set each decoy right where I'd seen each species of bird on similar wind conditions.  Geese to the windward outside.  Buffleheads to the leeward outside.  Black ducks in the shade and calm water.

It took a few minutes to catch my breath after setting the decoys and beaching the kayak - the combination of heavy winter gear, a slow recovery from bronchitis, and the hot air kept me moving pretty slow, but happy.  I put down my pack and heard the wings of about two dozen ducks trying to land in my decoys.  I popped up, which flared them out.  I loaded my gun and thought, "Well...maybe....but probably not....but maybe."  

I set my mind on shooting a goose.  Unfortunately they were flaring high over the island's treeline, and my setup and hiding spot were right in the area where they hit the elevator from 40 feet to 120 feet off the water.  Under several flocks of geese were smaller flights of ducks, many of which took a quick look at the decoys within gun range, but I ignored in the interest of pulling in a goose.  That turned out to be a bad move.  Then I finally got a shot at a black duck on the outer edge of the decoys.  I thought I managed a square hit, but the bird dipped a few feet, then regained altitude.  Again...maybe I'd go home with a bird...but probably not.  The thermometer hit 60 degrees.

I was looking the wrong way two more times when ducks flew over the decoys, so I decided to sit my butt down on a stump under a caving-in cliff, and just simply stare out at the small spread of decoys.   Five minutes later, a pair of mallards appeared in the distance, headed right towards me.  They moved left around the edge of the decoys and I thought they'd keep flying around the island.  But they didn't.  I let out a single mallard chuckle, and at the last second, they turned and put down their feet to land 10 yards in front me.  The turn, their descent, and my shot happened within three seconds.  It was 11am, 65 degrees and sunny.  Not the kind of weather where (in Maryland) we kill mallards...or any ducks, really. But I did it - and could have taken even more on that day.  So much for hard work and conventional wisdom...

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 in the Reah View

I Got Baggage
Until Mike from Troutrageous posted a monster rant about "year end blog round ups" in December 2012, I never really felt like they were all that big of a deal (read: superbly annoying).  But with a self-conscious year to think about it, yeah, I can see how the concept of "here's an article to sum up what I thought about the other stuff I wrote last year" is a pretty annoying one.  So, for once, I'll go full-honest and not write about the year of the blog (which was rather menial), but my year in general.

2013 was a weird one, but in the rear view I sense it'll end up being an important year.  January's conversations about "the day at day care" were replaced with December conversations about his Episcopal school's fundraiser's shortcomings, and which Catholic high school he should nine years.  It's absolutely nuts.    Hank caught his first fish on father's day, and has grown quite a bit into a running, jumping maniac.  He's able to help around the yard and the farm as long as I can keep his attention.  Which is anywhere in the range from two minutes to two hours.

I put some really serious focus on my day job in 2013, partly because I planned to not require the income from a second job (teaching college-level biology at night) by the end of 2014.  I turn 40 in 2014 and....yeah...time to support myself on one job's salary alone.   It worked out differently and better than I expected in December 2013, with my boss offering to make up the difference in pay if I agreed to quit the second job and focus fully on my day gig as a habitat restoration project manager (with some new evening obligations that I couldn't accommodate before).

Now, though zero dollars richer, I am able to really focus on a job I love, not obsess over money, and really crank through another two or maybe three years at this organization.  I've never known true work stability, but I think that's what this is.  I am ecstatic to have a supervisor aggressively trying to keep me where I am.  That I love the job is just as important, and lucky.  It's not lost on me that while this isn't a financial change (for me), it could be a significant lifestyle change (freeing up an additional 4-8 hours per week).  Which is important because....

Working harder has meant less fishing and hunting, which stinks.  We'll see what 2014 brings.   This time last year, I did promise myself I'd hunt smarter and harder, and the results have been pretty good.   I've worked hard to get it done, and I'm far more confident in my skills as an outdoorsman because I've been successful at doing it on my own, my own way.  I did very little "destination" hunting and fishing in 2013, and that's something I really hope is different in 2014.  I'd like to make a real trip to do something.  Money's an issue, but who knows what might happen.

Then, there's writing.  My blogging has been less frequent because it's largely tied to my outdoor adventures, which for certain periods of 2013, were much less frequent.   I've also undertaken a couple of major writing projects, one of which is my first novel.  I started writing in October and at about 130 pages, it's half-ish done.  It's about a rather unspectacular man in this place in coastal Virginia who has to deal with some pretty spectacular events in a short period of time.  The working title is "A Needle Marsh Journal" but we'll see if it sticks.  I plan to finish writing in early 2014 and spend much of the year editing and cleaning it up.  Finishing writing will be, by itself, a monster of an accomplishment for me.

Thanks to Google Brain, my SEO score (previously SCREAMING HOT) took a huge dump in 2013, which I'm embarrassed to say has impacted my work on this blog.  People aren't finding the same posts they used to through search engines, which is causing me to ask myself that tedious and tiresome question, "Do I care?"  I think I'm close to 700 live posts and I have two posts with over 150,000 views.  Which is good.  I think.

Regardless, 2014 should likely bring some huge stuff to River Mud.  I look forward to sharing it here.  Thanks for stopping in today and over the last six-plus years. I do appreciate it.

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Over 12 years ago, I started this blog. There were very few conservation or outdoor blogs at the time, few websites with fast-breaking con...