Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Return to my Roots - Small Game Hunting in Piedmont, NC - January, 2011

I grew up in central Pennsylvania - where school is cancelled for the first two days of deer season and no-ones questions why you had doctors appointments the rest of the week that had you coming in late or leaving early.  Even though my parents grew up in and around cities, I will also be a country boy at heart and hunting is in my blood, instilled in me by my grandfather.

I remember my time in the woods with him extremely well - my first hunt, my first buck, my first miss, and many more.  As I got older, we hunted together less as the crippling effects of old age began to take their toll on his body.  And in part because of this, I haven't been hunting in nearly 10 years.  Recently, my grandfather gave me his old hunting belongings and when I was home for Christmas last month I got a chance to go through them.  As I opened one of the boxes, the smell immediately brought me back to a time of my youth.  Gun powder and musty smoke wafted from the container - smells I have known all my life and have a special place in my heart.  Mary May, who was sorting through things with me, agreed.  For her, it took her back to the smell of friend Ted Howse's basement - a man who took her mother and father under his wing and taught them about hunting, fishing, and the outdoors.  It is a smell I know many other outdoorsman know and it is one of those things that makes our common love for the outdoors so special.

I brought the box back with me to North Carolina - full of ammo, clothing, and odds and ends.  Among the odds and ends were knives that belonged to my grandfather, his father, and his father's father.  Coincidentally, Mary May and I purchased our hunting license and a few additional permits a few months ago, so we decided it was time to hit the woods.  Although I love all types of hunting, small game hunting has always been one of my favorites.  So, after doing some research we loaded up and headed out to a section of game lands in search of rabbits, squirrels, and game birds.

Home after our first hunt in NC 
(*note that we were wearing orange hats and vests while hunting)

As always, I was toting my double barrel, side by side, 16 gauge shotgun.  It was the gun my granpda gave me before our first ever hunt and I have used it for nearly every small game hunt since.  Mary May carried her trusty 12 gauge and wore the game jacket I wore when I was younger - another pass down from my grandpa.

We started by targeting a thick, brushy area in a creek bottom.  However, we quickly realized that without dogs our chances there were slim.  It was simply too thick for us to properly hunt.  So we tried another area - again with no luck.  Finally, we came to an area that looked great.  It had a variety of habitats and wasn't far from the water.  It wasn't long before Mary May heard something in some tall grass.  I tried flushing it with no luck, so the mystery animal either headed down a hole or wasn't a game animal at all.  We walked the field and grasses before coming to a brushy draw.  It looked great,  but after walking almost the entire stretch, we hadn't seen a thing.  But finally, a bird flushed to my right and I turned to see a woodcock.  My first shot hit him, but I wasn't sure if he was dead or not.  The second barrel left no doubt as the bird dropped.  It was my first ever woodcock and both Mary May and I were all smiles!

My first ever woodcock!

We stopped at one more location, but it wasn't the type of ground we were looking for either, so we headed back to Hillsborough to clean the bird and make some dinner.  The woodcock has very soft skin that tears easily, so I took extra care to pluck the bird.  After plucked and dressed, I soaked him in saltwater for about 20 minutes - a technique my grandfather taught me that helps draw blood out of the body.  I then added some sage and roasted the bird for about 12 minutes as Mary May prepped some mushrooms, onion, bacon, and garlic in a pan.  She cooked the "hash" until almost done and I pulled the bird from the oven before it was almost done.  I then cut it into small pieces and added it to the hash.  We finished them together with some dijon mustard and red pepper.  Paired with a couple of Yuenglings, the meal turned out absolutely delicious!

Our delicious woodcock hash!

Hopefully we can build on our success during our next trip.  I forgot how hard it was to hunt small game as we covered a lot of ground and beat a lot of brush.  I was so glad I got to share the day with Mary May - a gorgeous and more than capable hunting partner.  Until next time, tight lines?!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Curiosity Caught the Cat - Big Catfish at Jordan Lake, NC - January 2011

Typically, the crappie fishing at Jordan Lake, NC is hot this time of the year.  However, the abnormally warm weather this winter has the crappie a little more scattered than normal.  But, with temps in the upper 60's we couldn't justify not heading to the lake.  Of course, many others had the same idea, so my first couple choices of spots were already taken.  Out of curisoity, I went to a tertiary spot that I know fairly well, but have never fished during the winter months.  It turned out to be a great decision.  Although the crappie bite was slow, the catfish bite was red hot!

Mary May and I with a couple of big Jordan Lake, NC cats

Mary May, Bill Kohls, and myself launched our mini-fleet of Jackson Coosas just after noon.  The wind, which was supposed to be 2-5 MPH, was blowing much harder than expected.  Waves were rolling and we knew setting up over the fish would be difficult.  This time of the year, I target crappie with minnows fished on a small baithook with 2-3 large split shot about 14"-20" above the hook.  I use a technique called straight-lining, which means you try and set-up directly over top of the crappie and drop your baits straight down.  I let them hit the bottom, then reel up to the depth I see fish on my Humminbird 500 series depthfinder.  On this particular day, the fish I was marking were very scattered and most were within 5 feet of the lake bottom.

We set up over a channel and dropped our baits.  Within a minute, one of my rods bent nearly completely over and I lifted to feel a heavy fish - much heavier than a crappie.  The fish was fighting hard and caused me to set the drag back on my baitcasting reel (*note - I typically use spinning gear for crappie, but some random circumstances recently have me short a couple spinning combos).  Immediately I wondered whether it was a big bass, striper, or catfish.  Although I was hoping it was a bass of some sort, I had a sneaky suspicion it was a cat.  And indeed, as he came toward the surface I saw a huge grey flash and undeniable head of a catfish.  He continued to fight, pulling my kayak around as he saw fit.  Finally, the beast came to hand and after a short debate, was added to the stringer.

Within the next few minutes Bill hooked into a nice eater size channel cat and I followed with another channel.  Then it was Mary May's turn.  She set the hook on what she admits she knew was a big fish, but she didn't want to clue us in right away.  Her plan was play it cool until the fish came to the surface.  But, the fish - and fate - had other plans.  The fish happened to hit the minnow on her smallest rod - a 6', medium lite action rod with a size 10 reel and 4 lb test.  She quickly turned to me and asked for advice.  I told her how to turn her drag down and to just be patient.  From there, she did the rest.  She fought the brute perfectly as it pulled her around and tested every bit of her gear.  It made one last run for the bottom, rooting down into the mud and sand.  But she turned him and he finally started to come to the surface.  After what seemed like an eternity, we landed the big blue and Mary May could finally exhale.

We landed another dozen cats and a couple of small crappie before deciding to turn south and look for a school of crappie.  We tried three other locations with little luck, so we returned to the catfish location again.  And sure enough, we found the fish again.  This time we were catching more crappie, although none big enough keep.  We also caught catfish regularly until dark.  My paddle back the launch required two strokes on the right for every one on the left due to the stringer of cats attached to the side.  As the sun began to set, we pulled the yaks to the beach, took a few photos, stashed our gear, and headed home.

A great haul of catfish!  (The measuring board is over 30")

Once home, we took a few more photos, filleted the fish, and prepped the oil.  After a quick soak in milk, the fillets were battered, spiced, and dropped into the hot oil for a yummy fish dinner!  It certainly wasn't Plan A, but it was an awesome day on the water and in the kitchen.  I know the crappie bite will be picking up soon and a return trip to Jordan will be in the cards sooner rather than later.  I hope everyone else is still enjoying their time on the water, because for me this sport never stops!  Tight lines!

MMMM, MMMM good!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ending the Drought.....It's time for Trout! - December 2011

Well, that was a long blog drought and I am very glad it is coming to an end.  December was one of the busiest months I can remember, but both Mary May and I finished our graduate degrees at Duke, had great holiday visits with family and friends, and are now gearing up for professional exams.  I have been super busy with work as well.  In a week, Mary May takes her nursing boards and in April I will sit for the FE exam, which is the first step in the process to become a professoinal engineer.  Mary May also accepted a job at a nearby care facility/hospital and is excited to start next month.  Now about the fishing.....

After some time in Massachusetts, we headed to my folks home in central Pennsylvania.  It had been rainy and the local flows were high, but clearing.  So, Mary May and I took a day to hit the streams in hopes of enticing some giant trout.  We decided to start on Penns Creek, chasing native brown trout in an area I have been fishing since I was a kid.  She started with a husky jerk and I a YoZuri Twitch'N Minnow.  It didn't take long before I had my first bite, but the fish threw the hook...easy come, easy go.  I lost another fish - a long, slender brown trout - right at the bank, before finally landing the first fish of the day on a #2 Blue Fox spinner.  He wasn't big, but he was a start.

But after that fish the bite slowed a little and around the next bend we found more fishermen, so instead of fishing around them we headed to the car.  I had another spot in mind where I have had luck during the winter months.  As we wound along the creek road, I was shocked to find fishermen in that spot as well.  I know 45 degrees is warm for late December in PA, but everyone was out on the water.  No matter, we again moved further upstream to another location.

It was a small riffle and pool, worthy of about 15 minutes of our time.  We cast at every feasible angle with no luck, so I walked the 15 yards toward Mary May to tell her it was time to move.  No sooner did I reach her then she got a bite, but a miss.  Thankfully, the fish came back for seconds and nailed her crankbait.  Her first ever PA trout was in hand!

At this point, I was tired of dealing with the "crowds" so I headed to another native trout stream that is near and dear to my heart.  It wasn't long before I landed our first fish from the new creek.  The brook trout (our only non-brown trout of the day) wasn't a head turner, but the state fish of PA was as beautiful as ever.  We worked our way up the bank of the small stream and it wasn't long before Mary May had the next fish.

Over the next couple of hours, we caught a pile of fish ranging from 10" to 16".  Fish were hitting spinners and jerk/crankbaits.  We even managed a double.

It was a great time on the water that kept us smiling from start to finish.  The aggressiveness of mid-winter trout is hard to beat - especially on ultra-lite gear.  Despite our love of fresh fish, all of the trout were released unharmed.

Until next time, tight lines.......and keep your fish gripped tight!