Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Weekend in the Woods and Meat in the Freezer

Most of you know that a few times a year you get a non-fishing related post here at MPF.  This is one of those posts.  This past weekend marked the beginning of the deer hunting rifle season here in central NC.  I had passed on quite a few small bodied deer in archery season in hopes that a bigger deer would eventually come my way.  The problem was that I wasn't seeing big deer on our trail cam - literally only young 4 points and does.  I had seen a couple nicer deer out the car window over the course of the past 3 or 4 months, but I knew we were on the outskirts of their home ranges.  My hopes were that with the rut in full swing we would have a lot of activity in the woods.  Thankfully, I was right and we filled the freezer.

Nothing beats vension loin on the fire!

Mary May and I were up around 5:30 AM Saturday and in the woods shortly after.  Our land is only 10 acres and much if it isn't worth hunting.  But one side has a funnel area with a slight ridge on one end and there are days when the deer use it fairly heavily.  If you get really lucky, they may even pop up over the ridge and munch on acorns for a while on the massive oak flat behind the house.  I decided to set-up at one end of the funnel and get Mary May set-up at the other end - about 1/4 mile from me.  Then, we waited.

The buck that I was hoping I didn't regret passing on  in archery season - a chunky 4 pointer

Actually, the waiting was minimal.  Mary May texted me that she had spooked some deer on her way into the woods.  And not 30 minutes later, I heard a commotion behind me.  It was a solid buck chasing a doe all over the woods at full speed.  I had never seen anything quite like it as they zig-zagged through the hardwoods.  Finally they came down toward the funnel, but they didn't stop long enough to give me any sort of shot.  I texted Mary May to give her a heads up that they were headed her way.  Meanwhile, I looked to my right and another buck - this one a 4 pointer - is meandering in behind them.  I raised my rifle and put the deer in the scope, but decided to hold off.  About the time he dissappeared a small doe came in and ate acorns just upwind of me.  I was hoping a buck would come in behind her, but that didn't happen as she eventually wandered off too.  I decided to hit the doe bleat call and almost immediately I heard something come in hard from behind me.  It was a small spike buck.  He took his time working his way to the funnel and I didn't bother even raising my rifle.  As soon as he got out of range, I heard a - KABOOM! 

I knew it was Mary May and I started furiously texting her.  About  5 minutes later I got the response, "clean miss".  Bummer!  Apparently what happened was that the bucks I saw chasing the doe had finally gotten to her and were moving too fast to shoot.  But then, a 4 or 6 point buck came out from a flat to the east and was hot on their tail.  But hey, we all miss - it is part of hunting.  I was hoping the action would stay hot and she would get some redemption, in large part because I knew she would be beating herself up until she did.

After her shot, the small spike buck circled back to me and ate acorns for about 10 minutes before moving on.  Shortly after, I decided to try the bleat again.  After a few minutes I spotted movement in the bottom to my left.  It was a young buck, but he had a solid rack and decent weight.  I watched as he moved back and forth across the bottom - eating, scenting, and trying to figure out his next move.  For more than 10 minutes he was well within range, but never gave me a clean look.  Finally, he made his way up my side of the draw and walked through a break in the trees.  One shot through the lungs was all I needed.  I heard him go down about 20 yards away, but gave him about 20 minutes before climbing down to find him.  He was a gorgeous deer with a nice size body for here in central NC.  I reported the harvest, gutted him, and drug him to the house before taking him to the processor.

My 1st North Carolina whitetail of 2013

After I harvest an animal, I always get into a weird mood.  Part of me is happy because a lot of planning, time, and effort mixed with a little luck made the hunt a success.  But part of me is humbled, somber, and even torn.  Hunting is a tradition for me passed on to me by my grandfather.  Beyond that, we as mankind have hunted since the beginning of time and so I think it is a tradition that honors the heritage of us all.  But, it is still difficult to reflect on taking a life.  I know the deer will be used to its fullest and will put food on my plate - something that I believe connects me with the land.  This is one of the reasons I tend toward being a meat hunter rather than an antler chaser.  I don't understand the mentality of those who only want to shoot giant bucks.  Is it nice to shoot a big buck - yeah, it sure is, but that shouldn't be the driving force behind why you hunt.  OK, enough ranting...back to the story.

I got the deer to the processor, ran some errands, and was back at the house by lunch time.  I was torn between watching a full slate of college football while tipping back a few cold ones or returning to the woods.  But eventually I convinced myself to get back outside and sit until dark.  Mary May was also torn, but she finished her nursing school paper just in time and decided to head back out with me.  Around 2:30 PM we resumed our spots at each end of the funnel and began waiting.  This time the wait was long.  For me, it never ended - I didn't see a deer all afternoon/evening.  But around 5 PM I heard Mary May fire.  A few moments later I got a text - "I think I hit him, but I didn't see or hear him go down".  I told her to hang tight, get some visual landmarks of where she hit him and where she last saw him and that I would get to her as fast as I could - it would be dark in about 35 minutes.  I grabbed a headlamp on my way past the house and hurried through the woods with the drag rope.  We went to the spot where she shot at him - no blood.  We went to the spot where she saw him last - no blood.  We looked around the rest of the area for another 10 minutes - still no signs.  So we reset and walked through it all again.  This time I took a slightly different route and about 10 yards past where she had last seen him - I noticed a speck of blood on a log about half the size of a dime.  I still have no idea how I spotted it in the dark.  But then we found a little more blood and a little more and a little more.  Then we saw him.  We were ecstatic!  It turns out that she had made a nice shot - through the lungs - but his adrenaline carried him further than we expected.  She kneeled over him and said a silent prayer before we began the reporting, dragging, gutting, and cleaning process.

MM with her fine looking buck

The next night we celebrated with venison loin cooked over an open fire.  It was a great ending to a great weekend in the woods with the woman I love.  I hope everyone else found success on the water and in the woods this weekend as well.  Until next time, tight lines!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Challenging Fall Day Salvaged by Persistence...and the Fairy Wand

As I have mentioned on a few of my previous posts, fall fishing can be a grind.  Sunday was the ultimate grind.  Three of us arrived at the river with high hopes, but we soon came to realize, it was going to be really tough.  We were met with a combo of morning air temperatures hovering just above freezing, post frontal pressures, blue bird skies, extra clear water, and high, constant winds.  When conditions get like that I try to keep it simple and stick with tactics with which I am the most confident.  Being a native Pennsylvanian, this typically means rigging a spinning rod - or as some folks call it, a "Fairy Wand" - with a finesse plastic of some sort.  I find that most of the guys who use the "Fairy Wand" term are the same ones who struggle to get bites when the fishing is tough.  Other stereotypes include having seven teeth, tossing empty Busch Lite cans overboard, rooting for NC State, and spending thousands of dollars annually on hardware for throwing Carolina Rigs.  On Sunday, I broke out the Fairy Wand, and because of that I turned a rough day into a memorable one.

A fall shot I took on a recent guide trip

I met Brett (Mookie) and Joe (BowfinHunter) at a nearby river to chase some largemouths around 9:15 AM.  It was a stretch that historically has been good during the fall.  In fact, a few years ago a friend and I even had a 40 bass day capped with a couple 4 lbers on the week of Thanksgiving.  So needless to say, I was excited to see what was chewing.  We got our yaks rigged and headed for the water.  Brett was kind enough to let me borrow his Sea to Summit Sit-On-Top kayak cart, which made the portage to the river much easier than normal.  Dear Santa....

We decided to paddle up-river and then float back to the launch.  After about 30 minutes of paddling and shooting the bull, we were ready to start fishing.  Brett caught a small largemouth within the first few casts of the day and I thought for sure the bite was going to be hot.  I was wrong.  I was throwing a chatterbait, buzzbait, and Texas-rigged flipping bait with no luck.  Brett managed another on his spinnerbait and Joe one on a jig before I even had a bite.  I flipped my Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog into a laydown and began to jig it back to the boat.  As I began to reel it in for another cast, I felt weight on the line and set the hook.  The bait came flying out of the mouth of about a 12" bass that I could see in the clear water.  He had hit it while the bait was swimming back to the boat.  Not long after, the same thing happened again.  The fish were eating it more like a swimbait than a flipping bait.  So I tried to mix up my retrieve with more swimming and hopping, but that wasn't working either.  The bait which has been red hot for weeks, was suddenly ice cold.

It was about this time that the wind started blowing.  Usually, the wind on this river tends to alternate between a few minutes of blowing and a few minutes of calm.  That is not always fun, but it is certainly doable.  On Sunday, it was a constant 7-8 MPH blow with gusts of 10-15 MPH - even approaching 20 MPH on a few occassions.  Trying to fish plastics around trees was nearly impossible.  On top of that, the buzzbait bite was totally shut down, nothing was touching chatterbaits or crankbaits, and the Fighting Frog remained ice cold.  So I picked up my 7' Carolina Custom Rods spinning rod that I use mainly for Texas-rigged worms and shakeyheads.  I rigged a 1/8 oz bullet weight above a 4/0 EWG worm hook and threaded a 6.5" Yamamoto Kut Tail worm in green pumpkin-red flake onto the hook.  The line, which I use on all my finesse gear, was 8-lb P-Line 100% fluorocarbon.  The Kut Tail worm is one of my favorites in the fall.  It has more action than a straight tail worm, but is much more subtle than a ribbontail.  I didn't put it down the rest of the day.

Granted, the bite was still tough, but I managed a 12-incher fairly quickly then flipped my worm to the base of a big tree and WHAM.  The fish took off and was pulling drag.  I thought for sure it was going to be a 3-4 lber, but the bass measured only 15.5" - although it did have quite the gut.  I worked for the next hour with only 4 bites.  Two were very subtle and I didn't get a good hook set in the wind, so they spit the hook.  The third was another 12" fish.  But the 4th had me smiling.  I pulled up to a big log jam and grabbed hold of part of it with one arm.  I then flipped the worm between two logs and as it fell, I felt that thump I had been waiting for.  I set the hook and saw a nice fish dart sideways from under the log.  I pushed off of the branch I had been holding and began to try to paddle backward to get the fish into open water.  Somehow, that plan actually worked and I scooped the fish up in the net.  He measured 19.25" on the Hawg Trough and was probably a little over 4 lbs.

This 19.25" fall bass had me smiling

Then came the deflating part of my day.  I went probably an hour or more without even a nibble.  And to add to that, my fishing partners were way down river from me.  I contemplated giving up and just paddling down to meet them, but I kept grinding.  Finally, I caught up with Joe who had been exploring a small, feeder creek.  Brett had decided to call it a day because he had other obligations at home.  Joe and I decided to fish down a stretch near the launch that I had never fished before.  I tossed my worm toward a downed tree and immediately felt a bite, which turned out to be a 14-incher.  At the next laydown, another bite, then another, then another.  On 5 trees in a row I hooked-up - with fish ranging from 14"-18.25" and one that broke my line on a log.  Things were finally looking up and even the wind was laying down a bit.  So we paddled to the far bank to give it a try.  I caught a 12" bass almost immediately.  A few casts later, I set the hook into what at first felt like a mess of sticks.  Then I saw the flash and realized that it was a fish - wrapped in a mess of sticks.  Thankfully, the fish worked himself free of the debris and made a few drag peeling runs alongside the boat.  Finally, I netted him and was all smiles again.  The fish went 20.5" and had a monster gut.  He was between 5.5 and 6 lbs.  We snapped a few photos and let him go.

This 5.5-6 lb beast made my day

At this point, I contemplated paddling back up river and doing it all again in hopes that the bite was picking up, but I was tired, wind burnt, and knew there was a gorgeous girl and two furry dogs waiting for me on the couch at home.  We fished for about another half hour before calling it a day.  I caught one more during that last part of the day - coincidentally casting to a spot under some brush where Joe had cast a minute prior - gotta love that Kut Tail.

We portaged back up to our SUVs, loaded up, and hit the road.  It certainly wasn't my best day ever, but it turned out to be a solid day.  It was all about doing what I was confident in and staying optimistic, which resulted in yet another big, last minute fish this fall.  A big thanks to Joe and Brett - it was great seeing you both and getting to fish with you.  I wish the fish, and conditions, would have cooperated a bit more, but I definitely had fun.

Until next time, tight lines!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Grinding it Out for Big Fall River Bass

Fall is in full swing here in central North Carolina.  Within the past week, the leaves have almost all turned to yellows, oranges, and reds and they litter our driveway and back woods.  To me, this means the time of the year where I don't sleep much.  More often than not, I am up before sunrise and headed out to chase largemouths or whitetails.  Then it is back to work and wedding planning before doing it all over again.  Granted, I don't spend nearly as much time in a tree or my kayak as I wish I did, but I am not alone in that feeling I'm sure.  Last weekend was actually a bit of a relief for me.  I slept until 8, packed up the car, and headed to a stretch of river I hadn't fished in 3 years.  My fingers were crossed that the fall river bite would not dissapoint...and it didn't.

I took this picture on a guide trip.  Fall sure is beautiful in central NC!

I was anxious and excited as I arrived at the launch and started prepping the gear.  Shortly after I pulled in, my fishing partner showed up.  Jerry is a software engineer at Duke and is slowly becoming addicted to bass fishing.  It was his first time every kayak fishing and river fishing - which had us both pretty pumped. 

After we got the kayaks ready, we had to carry them down a steep, rocky hill, then drag them through the mud, until finally reaching the launch area.  The "launch" was an area of cut bank that was less brushy than the surrounding shoreline.  Between the loose mud and quick drop, it was tricky staying dry, but we made it.  Then came the 2 mile paddle up-river against the current and the wind.  But by 10:30 AM we were at our starting spot.

On my second cast, a 13 inch bass nailed my chatterbait.  I was hoping that would be a sign of things to come. Then I caught another on the chatterbait and Jerry caught one on a black, ribbontail worm.  I followed with one on a Deep Creek Lures MT Worm - a flurry that assured us the fall bite had arrived.  But the fall bite can be grind, and we soon found that out. 

The scenery switched from shoals and chutes to slow water and wood cover.  I started flipping a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog.  First I caught a 1 lber, then a 2, then a 3, then I lost what looked to be a 4+ lb fish.  I told Jerry he may want to switch to the Fighting Frog as well.  Shortly after he had his first bite - a giant that managed to use some wood cover to pop the hook.  Three casts later and he was hooked up again - this time with a solid 4 lber that he landed and we snapped some pics of before releasing the brute.

Jerry with his biggest for the day

We caught a few more solid bass between then and 12:30 PM, including another 4 lber, then it slowed down.  Way down.  It was the epitome of the fall grind.  Suddenly I was making 7 or 8 pitches to fantastic looking laydowns without even a nibble.  Great looking areas weren't producing anything.  We fished hard and the bites we got were savored.  I caught a few on the MT worm, a few on the Fighting Frog, and a few on a buzzbait.  Finally, I nailed a solid 18" fish on my favorite SOB Lures buzzer and it started to pick up.  Jerry proceeded to land a couple buzzbait fish - his first ever on a buzzer. I had a solid fish break me off after wrapping around a log, then I paddled back across the river to fish an area of vines that caught my eye.

On my first flip with the Fighting Frog, I felt a bite and set the hook.  It was a solid 2 lb bass. I released him and flipped to the next set of vines.  This time I felt a bite on the fall and set the hook.  I could feel the line tangled around something yet the fish still managed to pull drag.  I immediately knew it was big.  I paddled over to the vines and could barely see the fish, tangled in a mess of vines and sticks under the water.  As he thrashed, I could feel my line rubbing against the sticks.  I prayed the 15-lb fluorocarbon would hold.  Frantically, I worked to free the line from the mess.  Finally, the fish came free and I was able to get her in the net.  She was a solid 6+ lb fish and made my day. 

The big fish for the day at 6 lbs

The rest of the day was decent as we both caught some solid bass.  Jerry also caught a couple bream and a crappie and I had a pickerel come loose at the boat.  Eventually we started fishing a side channel that I had never fished before.  The wind was whipping and I started throwing a buzzbait.  I made a long cast to the bank and began reeling.  I looked down river to see where the wind was blowing me and then suddenly heard something blast the surface.  It sounded like someone had dropped a bowling ball into the water.  I turned to see my buzzbait flying sideways through the air.  Somehow the fish missed both the buzzbait hook and the trailer hook.  I have no idea what type of fish it was, but it was a giant.  I tried to throw a plastic back in its direction, but the fish was gone.  That is one of those fish I will never forget.

The rest of the float was fairly uneventful, other than Jerry losing a healthy 3+ lb bass on the Rapala Scatter Rap.  That capped a string of bad luck for us on the day, as we lost quite a few fish that were in the 3-5 lb range.  But, sometimes that happens - especially flipping thick wood cover from a kayak.  We summed it up as a bad, good day.  We caught about 35 fish, had 5 over 4 lbs and a 6 lb kicker, but we lost some fish that would have turned it into an outstanding day.  I was impressed with Jerry who ended his first ever kayak fishing trip with his first ever river bass and first ever buzzbait bass.  I suspect he and I will be out on the river again in the near future - looking for some redemption.

Until next time, tight lines!