Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Massachusetts Fish & Wildlife Video - The Value of Hunters and Anglers

A lot of folks out there still have mixed feelings about hunting, and even fishing, due to the nature of the sports. If you are like me, your reasons for hunting and fishing are numerous and diverse, and it is important for people to know why we hunt and fish, as well as the benefits of hunting and fishing. This recent video from Mass. Fish and Wildlife did a great job of conveying just how much outdoorsmen and women do for conservation and preservation in MA. Hopefully, we can continue to see progressive strategies and management from MA Wildlife in the future!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Protect the Clean Water Act and Clean Water Rule

I don't get political on this site, and I don't really want to frame this blog in the context of politics, but it is going to happen. The following article has been popping up all over this morning: In it, the Trump administration states "For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years."

As someone who spent years in energy research, the rate at which this country could go backward compared to other countries around the world is alarming. Seriously, to save a few bucks, and mind you, not for me or most of the readers of this blog, but for huge corporations, we should not be willing to throw our environment down the drain. Granted, we don't yet know exactly what will be proposed, but the hints that have been dropped are really discouraging. Regardless of your stance on energy, the second part of the statement should bother you as an outdoorsman or outdoorswoman.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) likely isn't going anywhere, nor will it change, but the Clean Water Rule could. The linked article explains a bit about the rule, but basically, it protects small waterways such as brooks, streams, creeks, small rivers, ponds, and wetlands across the country. Without it, those small flows would not be protected under the CWA. Most industry on such flows has been dead for decades, yet lifting this rule will "help increase wages and employment." Personally, I would like to see those calculations (or are they "alternative facts"?). I have no doubt that restructuring the energy system in our country will be done in a way to increase jobs and profits ("wages"), but I can only think of one way that eliminating the Clean Water Rule would make any type of substantial impact. If eliminated, companies would be able to freely pollute these waters without being fined or held accountable for their actions, at least not to the current level of accountability. For a glimpse into how wrong that can go, look up the the coal ash and sewage issues in NC and how little has been done about them. The adage "We all live downstream" has been a rally cry of environmental protection for years. Maybe it is time to start thinking a bit harder about who lives, works, and plays upstream too.

I advocate for anyone reading this blog to take a second and write, call, or email your local legislators regarding this issue. Notably, those of you who voted for Trump--you wanted this country to be run more like a business, and the self-centered businessman who now calls the shots is doing just that. We need to all come together for this administration to be a success. That means praising the good, calling out the bad, and understanding that there probably will be some missteps due to the steep learning curve of going from business to global politics. In this case, stand up for our woods and waters, as well as all of the sportsmen and sportswomen who call them home.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Look Back at Another Hunting Season

Well, the 2016 hunting season is in the books. Some of it seems like a broken record. For example, I didn't spend nearly enough time scouting or bow hunting. Yet again, I regret it, although I feel like I have  a pretty good excuse (who was only 3.5 months old when archery season started). However, like every year, it was a year of many firsts: my first MA buck, my first miss in quite some time, and my first time exploring numerous new areas. In the end, I keep coming back to the idea that so much of hunting is simply about time and space. OK, that seems pretty obvious, but let me explain.

My first MA buck was worth the wait

Temporally, hunting is a sport of seconds, minutes, and hours. We constantly make split-second decisions. We react to sounds and movements, identify bucks and does, evaluate the shots we take, and the list goes on. Sometimes, it comes down to minutes. For instance, I was slowly working my way upwind into an area to do a push with Mary May toward the end of the shotgun season. As I came around some brush, I spotted a nice buck about 50 yards in front of me. Unfortunately, it was too late. He saw me, spooked, and headed for the hills. Despite my best efforts, I could not turn him toward MM. I kept thinking about the unlucky timing of the encounter. A minute earlier, and the brush may have actually shielded me, at least partially, from his view as he walked in for a potential shot. A minute or two later, and he likely would have continued toward MM and been seen during the push. But that timing and those seemingly trivial minutes are all part of hunting, much like refusing to hit the snooze button for an extra few minutes on those cold winter mornings. Then comes the importance of hours--hours of scouting, shooting, prepping...and hunting. Sometimes, the stars align, and a big buck magically walks in and makes things easy, but typically, those hours need to add up before things come together. Or, it could be that you showed up to one of your favorite areas an hour or so after a snowshoer--who totally sabotaged your final hunt of the season--not that I'm bitter or anything.

Multiple days this season began and ended with icicles on my face

Spatially, it is all about inches and feet. Shooting is a game of inches, and a mere inch can separate a clean shot from hours of tracking. Of course, antlers are also measured in inches, and although I consider myself a meat hunter, there is always something a little more special about harvesting a big buck. Additionally, if you are like me, both good and bad luck have come down to a few feet in one direction or another. If I had stood just 10 feet away from the ancient birch tree I was leaning against, I might have been able to see the head of a large-bodied deer that walked through a nearby thicket mid-season. Within that roughly 10-foot radius were a dozen trees, equally good for leaning, albeit not as big. It was yet another "what if" moment. These instances add up over the course of a season, and when things don't go well, they can certainly affect you mentally, but the only real solution is more time in the woods. That means more time in quiet reflection, thinking about family, work, life, etc. and hoping to catch a brown shadow, or maybe a ghost, in your peripheral vision.

Thoughts of this amazing little guy and his beautiful mom occupy a lot of my thoughts while in the woods 

By the end of the season, just about every facet of time and space had specifically affected my hunts, often negatively, but on a few occasions, those factors aligned in my favor. One such occasion resulted in a beautiful 110 inch, 140 lb (hanging weight) buck, and in the end, that is the only thing I will likely remember 20 years from now. Well, I may remember that miss...that #$%!#* miss. Beyond that, I'll remember this as my first year hunting as a father, and I'll always fondly reflect upon the hours I get to spend with my wife and extended family in the woods as we visit old haunts and explore new ones.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I can't recap a good day in the woods, let alone a good season, without mentioning my grandfather. Below is a picture of him that I recently saw and wanted to share, as it immediately brought a big smile to my face...and I might have had to choke back a tear.

My grandfather, great Uncle Zig, sister, and I with a central PA buck

I hope those of you reading this had a successful year in the woods--whether you harvested a deer or are eating tag soup. Regardless of how it turned out, there is always something to be learned from time in the woods. Sometimes, we learn about the deer, and sometimes, we learn about ourselves. At the end of the season, it always takes some time to get back to reality. It is hard to stop day dreaming about the big deer that roam these New England woods. I may miss the hunt, but I absolutely cherish the time with my young family.

The end of the season means more time with the family--including cruising through the snow in the new ride!

Until next time, tight lines!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Frost Buck

My mother-in-law, Johanna, firmly believes that all big bucks deserve a name that preserves their memory for generations. She has the Christmas buck, an enormous 6 pointer that weighed in at over 200 lbs dressed. As you can probably guess, it was shot on Christmas day. My wife has Talisman, a giant non-typical buck that is one of the biggest in Massachusetts history with a score of 199. The skull of a third giant buck hangs on the wall of Johanna's house. The Bilger buck is a massive 12 pointer that was shot in 1949 by Les Bilger, a renowned hunter and trapper from the area who was a family friend. That buck rough scored 174-175. The buck I harvested this past Saturday wasn't quite at the level of those deer, but he certainly deserves a name. Because of the story that goes with the hunt, I think I'll call him the Frost buck, as a tribute to "The Road Less Traveled." This is how he earned it.

The Frost buck

After a night where Cullen woke up screaming every hour or so, I somehow managed to roll out of bed and make the drive to one of my favorite hunting areas. The wind was howling, with gusts over 30 MPH. I set up downwind of a feeding area, with a bedding area to my south. I was hoping to catch them making their morning commute. Just before first light, I set out a couple pieces of cloth I had sprayed with doe urine. About ten minutes later, I heard what sounded like crashing toward the bedding area, sounds that faded quickly away from me. I suspect a young buck was bedded and came to investigate, only to get a strong whiff of me and head for the hills. In all likelihood, the wind had forced them out of the open feeding area and into the sheltered bedding area earlier than usual.

After a while longer, I crept to another spot where deer move, albeit randomly, throughout the day. It wasn't long before I looked up the ridge to see a couple deer moving. Unfortunately, the wind was swirling toward them in a direction it hadn't blown all morning. I am pretty sure they scented me or something else because they didn't stick around long and never got close to being in range.

My wife is pretty famous throughout MA and New England for this giant buck 

Eventually, I headed back to the house to meet up with Mary May and my father-in-law Jerry. We decided to push an area where we suspected those deer had headed; however, the push yielded nothing. With only about an hour before lunch, we decided to try another short push in area we know well. After getting set, I started to slowly climb a long hillside toward where Jerry was situated. My job in the push is to cover the back door via a route I've walked dozens of times. Generally, I either push deer up toward Jerry or re-direct deer coming from MM's direction. Of course, if you sneak in, it is a great spot to sit and wait, which I have done many a morning. As I walked, I was noticing fairly fresh sign here and there, as well as giant coyote tracks. Suddenly, I came over a knob and saw a blob of orange near one of my old spots. I had to do a double take. At this point, I was way off the beaten path, and we never see other hunters in that area. I was somewhat let down as I pondered what to do next. I decided to circle back a few hundred yards and cross a flat well above him to not disturb his hunt too much. Typically, I avoid that route because walking across it leaves too many gaps in our push, rather than funneling deer toward Jerry's position. In this case, the less-preferred route was my only option.

I slowly made my way up a small secondary ridge and onto a flat that angles uphill for a few hundred yards before hitting thicker woods. I was moving fairly quickly and quietly, as the ground had thawed and allowed me to walk without a crunch beneath each step. As I stepped into a small lane in the trees, I caught a glimpse of the outline of a deer about 50 yards away. I was directly down wind, and he had no clue I was there. As I raised my gun, the deer raised its head, and I could see the reflection of an antler. I took a deep breath, focused, took my time, and squeezed the trigger. The buck dropped instantly.

In full disclosure, it was hard to tell just how big he was originally. I never got a great look at the head, and I could only see from the base of the neck down from where I was standing, but it looked like a big-bodied deer--the perfect kind for filling the freezer. I waited about 20 minutes while trying frantically to get a text message to send to MM letting her know that the deer was down. Of course, I also texted her earlier that there was another hunter in the area, and that text didn't send right away. So, she got the "there is another hunter down here" text and the "deer down" text at the same time. "Yours?!" I eventually got back. I'm sure the suspense was killing her.

In that span, I also heard the other hunter climb down and walk out of the woods. I feel a little bad about the way it happened, although he couldn't see or hear that deer from where he was. I guess luck was simply on my side that morning, and hopefully that luck finds him this season as well.

As they say on those annoying hunting shows, "big buck down"

I eventually walked over to the deer to check and make sure he was dead. The neck shot was a quick kill, and I got my first good look at him. He was bigger than I had thought--way bigger--in fact, the 9 pointer is the biggest deer I've ever killed (granted, I didn't really hunt for about a decade while in college and both rounds of grad school).

Soon after, MM and Jerry got to me and saw the buck. I'm not sure who was more excited, MM or me, but all three of us were smiling from ear to ear as I told the story of how it happened. Our family has been pretty successful the past couple years, harvesting three bucks and a doe, but this is the biggest buck that has been taken by the group since the Christmas buck in 2006.

A family buck! 

We were a long way from the truck, and although over half the drag was downhill, the terrain was fairly unforgiving. The last 1/4 mile or so was almost all uphill. Needless to say, I'm still sore a couple days later, and I'm glad Jerry and MM were there to help me drag it out. Per tradition, we took the buck to Gould's Sugar House to check it in with a state biologist. Processing will begin for us tomorrow, and fresh loins, steaks, burger, and sausage will soon be on the menu.

I always enjoy checking in my deer here in MA and learning more about them from the biologists (also, of course the kid who never wants to look at the camera is staring right at it in this pic)

I always get sentimental after a successful hunt. This year was particularly special because it was the first hunting season for Cullen. Of course, he won't be out there with us, but I like to think of him as my little good luck charm. Additionally, it was my first MA buck, which goes to show that curses can be broken (for more on that, see my synopsis of last year). Of course, I always think about my grandfather, who taught me so much about hunting, and although I never met him, about Ted Howes, the namesake for Cullen's middle name who had such a special influence on MM and her parents (as well as numerous others). Thanks for looking down on us with your amazing facial hair, old timers! You, and fate, steered me down a path in the woods I rarely take, but this time, it was meant to be.

My two favorites snapped a selfie while we were cutting down our Christmas tree last week

Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, December 5, 2016

I @$*!# Missed

There aren't many feelings like seeing a buck approach through the woods. Your heart rate cranks way up, and remaining calm, cool, and collected can be a challenge for any hunter. If you are lucky, the time comes to line up a shot and squeeze the trigger. Often, that moment is the culmination of months or even years of patience and hard work. Bang!

@#!$%*...I missed.

This sequence pretty much sums up my opening day of shotgun deer season here in western MA. I was up early and headed for a section of woods with fresh sign where I had spent a lot of time archery hunting last year. After about a mile walk, I was tucked in behind a large, split-trunk beech tree. I had about 20 minutes before first light, but I was able to survey some of the surroundings in the early twilight. Literally, one minute after legal shooting light I heard something charging up the ridge to my south. "No way", I thought to myself. This is not how hunting works. You don't see deer just one minute into the season. I was almost positive it was a deer, and it was headed right to me, but it slowed down before reaching me, and instead of continuing to the top of the ridge, it split off and headed southwest on a lower secondary ridge. I never saw the animal, but it had me optimistic.

About 40 minutes later I heard something moving fast from the west. It sounded too human to not be a fellow hunter. Notably, there was a slight swishing sound between distinct bi-modal footsteps. Maybe it was Sasquatch or some ridiculously giant buck or bear, but I never saw it either, as it continued west without hitting the upper flat where I was situated. Still, my optimism was high.

I then spent about an hour scanning the woods and trying to shake the cold. Even multiple insulated layers were no match for the mid-20 degree Massachusetts morning. Then, I heard crashing through the woods to the south. It almost sounded too clumsy to be an animal, but to my surprise, a young doe was moving briskly in my general direction. Then, she turned and headed directly toward me and eventually paused about 20 yards away. Suddenly, I heard crashing behind her, and I knew exactly what was happening. I could hear him grunting as he charged, love struck, in my direction. With his neck bristled and nose to the wind, the buck only had one thing on his mind. I could see a rack, although it was tough to tell how big, but likely in the 6-8 point range. Unfortunately, by the time he got within about 100 yards, the doe had started to make her way directly east from my stand. In turn, he started to angle away from me. Seeing my chances of bagging this buck quickly decreasing, I could only hope that he gave me a chance at a shot. He briefly paused pseudo-broad side about 70 yards away. It wasn't the clearest or easiest shot, especially with an open-sighted shotgun, but I knew my hunting time would be limited this year, so I decided to take what the buck gave me.

I rushed the first shot, focusing my eyes more on the brush in front of the deer than on him or my sights. I'll chalk it up to nerves. The second shot was better, but still a little hurried before the deer realized what was going on. By his reaction (or lack thereof), I didn't think that my slug had made contact. I waited for about 20 minutes before surveying the scene, and sure enough, there was no blood, no hair, and clean tracks headed east. I had missed.

It is hard to believe how far my hunting strategy and mindset have come since bagging my first buck 17 years ago

I hate missing. It happens to everyone, but dang is it a tough pill to swallow. As I made my way out of the woods to meet Mary May an hour or so later, I was able to put some of it into perspective. I rushed the shots, and I didn't go through my usual mental progression before I shot. Some of that can be attributed to being out of practice. I haven't shot much this year, and practice goes a long way, even for the most experienced hunters. Also, the idea of my first MA buck has filled my head for years, and I think buck fever got me a bit, as this was the first MA buck I've shot at since moving up here in 2014. However, failure is probably the best learning tool there is, and I learned a lot from my mistakes that morning.

The rest of the day was quiet, and none of us saw another deer. Fortunately, I got a chance at redemption the following Saturday, and this time, I made the most it. That story is coming soon. Until then, tight lines!