Friday, December 23, 2011

Keeping up

I used to think that I'd always be "up to date" with the current technology and what not.

That dream, however, soon faded and before I knew it I was -way- behind. Actually, I should'nt say 'was'...I still -am-. I use my flip phone to actually make phone calls, I don't have a facebook, and my 0.003 words per minute texting speed throws my friends into fits of laughter. To be perfectly honest, it doesn't really bother me. I seem to be doing just fine while still behind on the technology curve.

But today, I took one step forward in the world of technology as my girlfriend finally convinced me to get a twitter. I still haven't grasped the whole awesomeness of it yet, but I think I've got a basic understanding of it and have even found a few fellow bloggers to follow. And from what I understand, it should be pretty easy to post a picture (of hunting or fishing) quickly if I don't have time to write a full report.

So I've added a little 'follow me' button in the upper right of the page for you fellow twitter users. Please feel free to follow me and if I haven't found you yet on there, please let me know!

P.S. I've been a bit slow with the fishing reports. Good news is that it's because I've been too! Expect some reports soon!

Monday, December 19, 2011

GreenFish Photo Prompt: The Release

GreenFish is a company that emphasizes fishing ethics in order to have a sustainable fishery. One cannot discuss a sustainable fishery without mentioning catch and release methods, and thus, here is a photo-prompt regarding this practice.

“This is my photo submission for the GreenFish and Outdoor Blogger Network Photo Contest

The release...

 It has been done a thousand times before. The cast, action, hooking, fighting, landing, picture taking, and finally, the release, have been repeated over and over throughout my fishing career. It’s often done due to specific size limits, seasons, species, and even from laziness (cleaning fish -is- work). So why does the picture above really pound home the idea behind catch and release?  And why is catch and release so important?

This picture is of me releasing the biggest Snook I’ve caught to date. It was landed during the summer of 2010 which was approximately six months after a major Snook kill. The kill was caused by record low temperatures in southern Florida and although many undesirable non-native species perished, thousands of Snook died as well. The impact of the freezing temperatures was so severe that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was forced to change the existing Snook season. With such a large percentage of the population gone, it was vitally important to ensure the survivability of the species’ primary breeders.

I knew this prior to going fishing in the Everglades that summer day. I didn’t have a permit to keep Snook and the season was closed anyway. But even if I had a permit…even if the season wasn’t closed…even if the Snook population -hadn’t- taken a huge hit…I still think I would have released this fish.

For me, it’s often not about the dinner table. Believe it or not, catch and release plays an enormous role in a sustainable fishery. Don’t get me wrong of course. I won’t hesitate to harvest fish for dinner fare. But I firmly believe in a sort of give-and-take relationship with a fishery. Allowing the bigger breeding fish to live will help ensure that there is a consistent, large scale recruitment into the population each year. If it weren’t for this, I, nor anyone else, would not be able to enjoy the freedom to fill the cooler from time to time.

This fish was special. It showed that the population was still persisting and it felt tremendous to allow a fish like this to return unharmed. Releasing it really made me feel like I was giving back to the species, and in turn, future generations. It’s our job to practice ethical and sustainable fishing. One cannot always rely solely on rules and regulations. It is these practices that must be passed on to future generations if we expect to have sustainable fisheries for everyone to enjoy in the future.

As usual, no one was around to snap a picture of me -with- this beautiful fish. I did my best to awkwardly snap pictures in my lap, and tried to return the fish quickly to the water to not only fight another day, but help contribute to the hurting population.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Big News

Well...I found out earlier this week...


*Cheering and applause*

It's been since last summer that I had a job. During that one I worked as an intern for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and I enjoyed every minute of it. So when I heard that I'd landed this new job, I literally jumped up and down.

Why so excited?

Well, aside from the fact that I'm flat broke, and it's relatively hard to find a job right now, and it's a wildlife job...It's working with Whitetail Deer!

I'm helping out a PH.D student with his project through the University of Florida. The study involves examining the effects of Coyotes on Whitetail Deer. In order to do this, I'll get to essentially hunt does with night vision goggles and a tranquilizer gun, radio collar them, and later use telemetry to track them down and check on the fawns. Two different areas will be compared to examine deer mortality with the presence and absence of coyote control.

Oh yeah...and I'll be getting paid to do this. The study is on a large piece of private land that I've also been given access to hunt and fish on. So excited isn't even the right word.

This job sounds like -exactly- the kind of experience I'd like and I'm truly thankful (and lucky) to have gotten it. I start in February, so hopefully I'll start getting pictures and what not by then. 'Till, then, I'll just have to fill my time with some fishing reports (that should be coming soon as well).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Almost There

So I survived my hell week. Tons of writing, quite a few tests...all that fun stuff. One of my final papers ended up being an absolute nightmare. I want to thank my mom (a librarian) for helping me with finding up to date papers on a subject. I've also gotta thank Kirk over at River Mud for helping me find material that practically invalidates one of USFW's hypotheses for a bird kill over a decade ago (it was all part of the paper). Without them I would have probably slammed my head through the monitor in frustration. Now I just have one more test and a lab practical on Wednesday before the semester officially ends.

Since I got slightly caught up in my school business, I missed writing about the other fishing trips over Thanksgiving break. So here it goes...

The Saturday before I left to come back to school, I got a chance to head out on my brother's boat. It would be my second time fishing on his boat. I was pretty excited since the last time I went out with him, I landed my first Dolphin which you can read about here: The Maritime Wrecking Ball

I knew we weren't going offshore, so there was no chance for Dolphin, but I was excited just to motor around the bay and look for Reds. The wind was surprisingly strong for us -not- having the fly rods on board. Strong enough, in fact, that casting into it even with conventional tackle was nearly impossible. We drove around the bay for a few hours, looking for bird activity and trolled a bit in hopes of picking up a bull. With absolutely nothing biting, we decided to head out to the pass to see what was going on.

We were in for a rather pleasant surprise. Enormous schools of Bonito were chasing bait right on the surface. Each school went 100-200 fish easily and they lazily laid on their sides with the mouths open while they chased the bait. For some bizarre reason, I fail to take pictures while on a motor boat. Put me in a kayak, and I'll snap pictures all day long. But put me in a boat with an engine, and I can almost guarantee no pictures will be taken. So forgive me for the lack of pictures...I was far too busy throwing everything in the tackle box at them.

It was really weird. They were next to impossible to hook. I was finally forced to break out the snatch hook just because I wanted to land -something-. Snatch hooking is still sporty...right?

What I failed to take into account was the hurricane force wind that I tried to cast a treble hook into. Unless I wanted a staggering 8 foot cast, I had to wait for the school to circle around down wind of the boat before casting. Then I had the school right where I wanted them. With the wind now at my back, I was free to unleash rocketing casts that threatened to land in Alabama and spool me before ever touching water. After multiple failed casts, I finally got the snatch hook where I wanted it. I let it sink for a moment, then snatched.

The rod quickly double over and the reel began to sing. Finally, I thought to myself. But before the thought could fully pass through my mind, I was broken off. Not wanting to give up so easily, I tied another snatch hook on, and repeated the whole process for a second time. Even the breaking off part.

Fresh out of snatch hooks, I began throwing whatever was in the tackle box at them. Diamond jigs, Mr. Champs, Gotcha's. You name it, I threw it. And the result?


I finally opened my brother's tackle box and found possibly the only thing I hadn't thrown yet: A pompano jig. I quickly cast it out into the middle of the giant school and almost before it could hit the water, my drag was screaming again.

I fought the fish for maybe 30 seconds before...once again...I was cut off. I quickly tied on another pompano jig guessed it...was cut off again. The 10lb test just wasn't enough against the Bonito's tiny little teeth. I settled for tying on a 20lb Flourocarbon leader and tried again. And tried...and tried. But never hooked into another fish. By this point, even the bay was getting too rough, so we called it a day. Fishless. Bonito: 4, Me: 0.

Hopefully over Christmas break I can get some fishing in. If I'm lucky, I can have another go at some Bonito. I absolutely -have- to get some beach fishing done. J.M over at Something's Fishy tied me up some rigs months ago that I've been wanting to try out on the bull Reds, so I think it's time I finally do so. Look for some reports soon!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hell Week

Oh yes...

It's eluded me all semester...

But it's finally pounced...

My hell week is here. Please don't expect much out of me for about the next week and a half. In that time period I will be knocking out a total of 26 pages of writing (single-spaced *cringe*), a final presentation, two lab practicals, and two big final exams.

I'm currently attempting to chomp away at this behemoth of a work load, but I was forced to take a break because my eyes were bleeding. I'll pick it back up in an hour or so.

'Till next time I post, I'll leave everyone with a picture I snapped last week. I'm REALLY looking forward to being done this semester and getting back to views like this:
Far away from school

Monday, November 28, 2011

100th Post and 2 New Species

So here it is. My 100th post. Looking back and when I started this thing, I questioned whether or not I'd even get past 10 posts. But here I am, and I have my friends and regular readers to thank for helping me get this far. If it wasn't for ya'll, I would have never gotten here. So THANK YOU! my fishing trips.

While home for Thanksgiving, I got five chances to go fish. And like usual, none of them were what I had planned to do. Originally, I had planned to sit on the beach, relax, and try to catch some bull reds. Sadly...This never happened. I didn't even look at the beach during my 10 day stay. Instead, I got some much needed time in the kayak.

My first trip was on Sunday afternoon and my Dad, Mr. Locher, and I took the kayaks to an area that usually produces quite a few trout. As usual, the fishing was great, and I had over 20 fish in the boat in a little over an hour. What was strange this time, however, was that I couldn't get a fish to hit on conventional tackle. Every trout I landed was on the fly...A white clouser to be exact.

Not only did I manage to catch more Speckled Trout on a fly than ever before, but I also caught my biggest on the fly...Just shy of 20 inches.

A few days later and I found myself with my Dad kayak fishing the headwaters of Escambia bay. The brackish water has hundreds of little bayous and creeks that look terribly fishy. I've never spent much time around this area, but I really wanted to get out and explore. We soon found a creek and began working our way up it in search of Redfish or Trout.

After just a few casts, I had a strike, and the biggest surprise of my trip.

A Chain Pickerel!

Now I'm not really a freshwater fisherman. I knew these things existed. But I'd never seen one in real life, much less ever caught one. But here it was, hanging out in a 10 foot wide creek. That fish alone made my trip, but there was more to be caught.

Not long after this I caught a little Largemouth (that shook the hook at the side of the boat). I then turned around and caught a Redfish and a Trout.

All of these fish were caught in the same general area and I'm always surprised when I can catch true freshwater fish and saltwater fish in the same area. The wind had decided to whip itself into a gale by this point, so we called it a day.

My last kayak trip came Friday after thanksgiving. I went with my Dad and brother-in-law close to the same area we'd hit on Sunday. Unfortunately the bit wasn't quite what it had been 6 days earlier. I decided to take this as a sign to go look for new honey-holes and ventured off into a different area in hopes of finding more fish.

I wasn't too disappointed because shortly after moving, I found the fish. They weren't anything huge...the biggest was just around 17 inches, and the smallest was barely the length of my hand. But it was nice to find a new hole. It certainly helps expand my knowledge of the area. You can't really learn too many new things if you do the same thing over and over...right?

This area is where I had yet another surprise. This time, it was on the fly.

A Ribbonfish. Again, I'd never caught one before and was really interested in the way they moved and fought. They pull backwards and use that eel shaped body to their advantage. I caught two of these things, and had to carefully remove my mangled fly from their nasty set of choppers.

And that was it for my kayak fishing over the break. My other trips consisted of venturing off in a power-boat, but that report will have to wait for later in the week. Stay tuned...There's a third new species to cross off my list coming up!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Upcoming Fishing Trips

I've slacked a bit on my writing the past week. I've been fairly busy and to be honest, I haven't been out to hunt or fish since I shot my buck.

Luckily this will all change come this weekend. The beach is calling my name.

I (miraculously) worked out my school schedule and rather than leave to head home for Thanksgiving next Tuesday, I'll be leaving tomorrow afternoon (Friday). This gives me 10 days off, and plenty of chances to go fish. From what I've heard, and from personal experience, the big Bull Reds are starting to move into Pensacola, and I'll have a few shots at them this year.

Last Thanksgiving I was able to get my girlfriend her first over-slot red pretty easily, and this year I'd like to catch quite a few myself.

Weather permitting, I'll get the kayak wet as well and maybe catch a few trout and flounder. Expect some reports to roll in sometime next week! Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Everglades Exotic Fish Tournament

So I meant to post about this back in July, but got...side tracked.

I realize posting about it in November is a bit late, but bear with me. I found it interesting.

Back in July, the Everglades Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area hosted a non-native fish roundup. Simply put, a tournament to catch exotic fish in South Florida. The results, along with pictures can be found here:

I found this whole thing interesting because of recent events here in Florida. Two winters back, Florida had near record breaking cold snaps and freezes. There were widespread snook kills and a massive die off of exotic fish, in particular, the Oscar.

The ecologist in me was happy about the exotics dying off, but the fisherman in me worried. Even for their small size, Oscars are one of my favorite fish to catch. There's just something about tossing a fly near a fallen log, and having a fish a little larger than a bluegill, engulf it and fight 10 times as hard. So was having a large population of these exotic fish die off a good thing?

It's hard to tell really. I've read papers about both Oscar's and Mayan Cichlid's effects on native species such as Largemouth Bass. From what I've read, having the exotics around hasn't really caused much damage. Yes there is a large amount of predation on small bass by the exotics, but at the same time, big bass have an almost unlimited supply of tasty cichlids.

To add, there's actually an exotic species that may suffer from a die off of Oscars. That species is the Butterfly Peacock Bass. Native to the Amazon in South America, the Butterfly Peacock Bass was purposefully introduced into the Florida Everglades by the state to help control Oscar and Mayan Cichlid populations. Since then, the Peacock Bass have become a major sport fish. So there's the possibility that having a large amounts of Oscars dye off could be detrimental to the Peacock Bass.

I've seen a change in the amount of exotics first hand. My first encounter with these fish was in May of 2008. My dad and I stopped along the Tamiami Trail and noticed that there were -hundreds- of fish teeming around the rocks and bushes in the near by canal. At the time, we weren't sure what they were, but we knew they weren't native. Using worms and gold hooks, we proceeded to have a hay-day.

My next trip occurred in early August of 2008. -Something- changed in between that time. Perhaps the heat forced some of the fish into deeper water...Who knows. But they weren't as thick as they had been in May. That's not to say, however, that they weren't there. We still found them, and filled the cooler.

In May of 2009 I found myself down in the Glade's again and just like the previous year, the fish were thick. I caught close to 10 Oscars off of one sunken log at one point and this time we laid into the Peacocks as well.

Winter of 2009 was when the freezes hit.

I made it back down to the Glade's in June of 2010. Immediately, I went to see if the exotics were still there. It took quite a bit of poking around, but I finally found them. They weren't -nearly- as thick as they had been the year before. They were definitely few and far between. I made another trip later in the summer since I was working within 3 hours of the Glades. Once again I found the fish, but they were still lacking a bit.

Realizing that the fish were still alive, I desperately wanted to get back down there. And from everything I'd read, the BEST time to fish for them was around December or January. I made a trip down there again this past February to get in on some of the -awesome- fishing...We went just in time for a cold front.

The cichlids were all but gone. The cold had driven them into holes and deep spots, and we only saw 2 or 3 Peacock Bass the whole trip.

It, of course, was in the 70's the following week, and I'm sure the fish were teeming once again.

I haven't been back down there since. So reading about the exotic fish tournament was interesting. The total weight of fish they pulled in was almost 226 lbs. That may not sound like a lot, but remember, Oscars and Mayans usually weigh about 1-2 lbs. They pulled in -alot- of fish. However, I searched and couldn't find if they'd had previous tournaments. It would be interesting to see if there was a change in the amount of fish pulled in before and after the kills.

I'm really not too worried about the exotic populations after the freezes though. From keeping Oscars in an aquarium, I know that under the right conditions, they can grow up to an inch per month. They usually max out at about 12-13 inches, so you do the math.

I've no doubt that the exotic fish species are there to stay. It would take more than just some cold snaps to get rid of them. I certainly look forward to the next time I can make a trip down there. Until then, I'll just tie up flies for cichlids, and look through old pictures in anticipation.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Everglades Python Eats Deer

Edit: This will take place of Tuesday Terrors this week

Figured I'd throw this one out there before -everyone- had already heard about it. My mom sent me this article the other day, most other article pretty much say the same thing:

As if whitetail Does needed anything else to be paranoid about...

The fact that this happened doesn't surprise me really. The snakes are everywhere down there and I'm sure this isn't the first time it's happened...It's just the first time we've seen it. For anyone that doesn't know, the Burmese Python (along with thousands of other exotics and invasives) is running loose in South Florida, particularly the Everglades which is most similar to its natural habitat.

The snakes got into the wild via the exotic pet trade. They simply get too big (up to 20ft) and some people didn't want them anymore and let them go. What resulted was the release of an invasive super predator in the Everglades. The Burmese Python will eat just about anything that it can fit in its mouth and many biologists fear it poses a serious problem for threatened or endangered bird or small mammal species.

During a wildlife techniques course that I took, we were asked to design a poster presentation to help solve a wildlife technique problem. I chose, "Capture methods of the Burmese Python in the Florida Everglades". The issue right now, is that the snakes are -extremely- difficult to find. The Everglades literally is "a river of grass" and finding them is quite the challenge in the high grass. Baited traps don't particularly work because the snakes prefer live prey (just imagine the flak someone would catch for live baiting a trap with a cat or something). Funnel traps might work, but then you're just hoping the snake slithers by and falls in. Scent dogs have the possibility to work, but most of the snake's time is spent in the water, making trailing by a dog very difficult. Right now, the two most common methods that I've heard of are these: Drive along a road at night and look for them crossing the road. And radio tagging adult females and re-releasing them into the wild. Re-releasing actually seems to be a more effective method. This is because when the snakes breed, a female can draw multiple males two her and they have this giant, breeding, snake-ball thing going on. Using radio telemetry, biologists can just locate the female, and dispose of all snakes present around her.

I, of course, made up a beautiful poster for wildlife techniques, presented it flawlessly to the class, and awaited my grade.

80%...B -. Little did I know, that my professor was actually called down to South Florida to be on the conference board to help solve the Burmese Python problem. He said essentially what I said which was "there's no good way to catch them". And I guess since he obviously knew a bit more about the situation than I did, he felt my presentation was lacking.

Hopefully we find a solution soon. Their spread north continues, though I question exactly how far north they can spread due to freezing winters. I personally think they should just put a 100$ bounty on each snake's head, let people take an snake identification test, and if they pass, give them a license and the go-ahead to kill as many as they can find.

Couldn't hurt...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tuesday Terrors: Bees and Wasps

As I stood there in Austin Cary Memorial Forest, trying to remember the scientific name of Fetterbush for a Forest Ecology class, something kept buzzing around my head. My group members were all in a similar situation, standing waist deep in Saw Palmettos and blackberry briers, and trying to recall scientific names. The buzzing continued around my head until I finally noticed a Yellow Jacket trying to land on my chest.

You stupid...get away...gah...dumb thing, are the usual thoughts as one tries in vain to shoo away a wasp. The key word here is A wasp. Just one.
Photo taken from

The following sting on the knuckle and emergence of a swarming Hymenopteran death cloud resulted in a slightly different response. The string of expletives that followed could make a drunken pirate blush. To add, my thrashing and near teleportation from the area sent my Forest Ecology group running out of the woods like a live mortar round had just landed nearby.

Yes, for the second time within a year, I'd found a Yellow Jacket nest. They nest in the ground and I managed to stand right on top of it. Luckily (I guess), I was the only person who'd been stung. We soon picked a new area to do our survey, and I used some ice I still had in a cup to help with the swelling on my knuckle. Also, I didn't get stung as badly as I did over the summer. That resulted in several nasty stings and me running a few hundred yards before I finally escaped.

Getting stung can obviously be avoided. It's just important to watch where you're going and what you're doing. I thank God that I'm not allergic to them. One of the guys in my Forest Ecology group is allergic and had -he- been the one to step on the nest, the outcome would have been much more serious.

I realized that I literally have -no- photos of bees or wasps. They're generally something I don't hang out around very often, and certainly not long enough to snap a picture. I'm certain I'll run into plenty more in the future, but I hope they're one at a time. Two nests within one year are two too many. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Outdoor Photography

Taking pictures while out hunting or fishing is sometimes quite a challenge for me. Usually, I only take pictures when I'm kind of bored, or see something -very- interesting. When I'm not bored (catching fish/seeing deer) I tend to not take pictures.

This isn't on purpose, of course. But when things get exciting in the outdoors, I seem to just forget to snap pictures. I often get -too- into the moment and then afterward think to myself: Dang....I should have taken a picture of that.

What I take pictures of seems to be rather repetitive. I like to target slow/stationary objects most of the time simply for ease. Sunsets or sunrises, caught fish, smooth water, and storms comprise most of my computer's photo galleries.
Storm in the 'Glades
Sunrise in Pensacola
My Tarpon

Now, I'd love to snap a great picture of that Bald Eagle, those Turkeys, or that doe and her fawn, but usually their either too far away, or gone too quickly.
There's a swallow-tailed kite in this picture...I swear.
One of the reasons I don't usually snap photos of such quick things is because of my camera. Don't get me wrong...I absolutely LOVE my camera. It's waterproof down to 10 feet, shock proof, and generally just a tough little digital camera. But it has its limits. There isn't much of a zoom for those far away shots, and if anything moves with any speed, the picture is blurry. I could probably solve the blurring part, but I don't generally walk around with my camera set to 'sports' mode.

One of my hunting/fishing buddies, Stan, was kind enough to send me some of his pictures he's taken. I honestly had no idea he even took pictures while out in the field, much less such good ones. Pictures like these are the kind of things I'd like to try taking one of these days. But I think I need a slightly different camera first.

For those of you who take a lot of outdoor photos: What kind of camera do you use? I'd like something with a good bit of zoom and can take high quality pictures at a distance. But at the same time I'd like it to be (relatively) small and durable enough so that when I drop it, it doesn't burst into flames. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Taming the Swamp, Part. 3

If you've missed part one and two of this trilogy, they can be found here and here respectively.

I believe I left off in Part 2 with the bizarre phenomena of actually seeing deer.

For some reason, last Thursday, I decided to punish my back thoroughly by climbing into my stand almost an hour early. The weather was far from perfect for hunting...High pressure, full moon, and a wind that made picking a tree next to impossible. To add, it was surface-of-the-sun hot again. I really didn't feel like spreading my scent all over creation and sweating anymore than I already was, so I just climbed the tree. This was a new spot I'd picked out along a rub line and I took a few pictures of the surrounding area.

I brought a book with me for the first time -ever-. I figured it couldn't hurt, and might even kill some time before "prime time". After climbing the tree and securing my safety belt, I took a seat. No sooner had I settled into my seat...I mean maybe 30 seconds...A doe ran up behind my stand.

I sat there in disbelief for a moment. She wasn't spooked by any means. She was just simply trotting by. All of this, of course, was fine and dandy aside from one important detail: My bow was still resting on the ground below me. I didn't even have a chance to pull it up before she stepped out.

I wasn't too put off by this. After all, she stepped out well outside of bow range. However, any prior thought of reading was immediately snuffed. I never even considered opening the book the rest of the hunt.

Over the next three hours, rather than read, I resorted to my tried and proven method of attracting deer: Falling asleep. Many people are unaware that there a multiple ways to fall asleep in the stand. There's the classic chin-on-chest sound asleep method...The thirty-second-blink method...The outright coma method (my personal favorite)...And the 'bob your head like you're trying to stay awake in class' method. I chose the latter of these techniques this particular afternoon and, as expected, I started seeing deer.

I was rather impressed with myself for even spotting out the deer without binoculars. It stepped out at about 120 yards and I only saw a quick flash of movement. I slowly stood up, and waited. 10 minutes later, the deer re-emerged about 60 yards away. I could tell immediately that it was a buck. He skirted around my tree, just outside of bow range. I quietly turned on my helmet camera, and patiently waited for a chance. He then stopped, turned around, and went back the way he came, disappearing behind some brush as he did so.

I quietly prayed that he wasn't gone forever. And after what felt like an hour (even though it was less than 30 seconds) he came out from behind the brush and into shooting range. The process of me drawing my bow and settling my sights on his chest took only a second, but in that brief moment, I still had time to think about everything. I noticed my heart pounding in my ears, but my hands and legs were still steady. I could hear the buck's footsteps crunching in the grass below. I was even aware of the mosquito draining every last drop of blood from the knuckle of my clenched left hand. And in that moment, I realized that my past eleven years of hunting experience had boiled down to this one second...

That's right. Up until this moment, I had never harvested a buck. Be it with gun or bow, I had never even had the opportunity over the past eleven years to draw on a buck, much less take one. This isn't to say that I haven't seen bucks during my hunting career. But due to rules, seasons, you name it, the chance had never presented itself this clearly. I can remember sitting in my tree stand on Eglin Air Force Base while in High School, and watching the -same- three bucks, multiple times, walk by JUST out of bow range. I can remember settling the scope of my 30-06 on the chest of a 3 point outside of Andalusia Alabama, and letting him walk. And I especially remember nearly getting stepped on by an 8 point while walking to my stand during bow season, and still having my bow bungee'd to the stand on my back. My point is that I've come close, but never this close.

I've actually been mocked as a hunter here in Florida for -not- ever harvesting a buck after all these years. I can remember in middle school and high school as classmates would tell me about how they shot this big 6, 8, and even 11 point buck out of a shooting house on their grandpa's land or hunting club. I would tell them that I'd seen only three does all season on a particular piece of public land, and would usually get some sort of laugh out of them.

I've hunted public Wildlife Management Areas here in Florida for the entirety of my hunting career. The only exceptions being three hunts in a hunting club in Andalusia, and a bow hunt outside of Blountstown on private land. Other than that, it's all been public, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

My progression into the sport of hunting was slightly skewed when compared to my friends growing up. While they took their ATV's to the shooting house that sits over a food plot and relaxed with their rifle in their lap, my experience was...different. I started off bow hunting. The area I first hunted was walk-in access only, and I carried my stand (at age twelve) the mile and a half to a dim game trail. My dad would come along with me to make sure I got up the tree safely, and would then climb a tree of his own nearby. This continued until I was 16 and got my driver's license. I then started to venture off on my own. I began to read deer sign better and better and it wasn't long before spots that I'd picked out on my own started to produce deer...even though they were all does.

I realized soon enough just how different hunting was between my classmates and myself. Let's face it, of all the Southeastern states, Florida is the -worst- for deer hunting. Toss in hunting on public land, and the difficulty increases even more. The inability to bait, the (horribly) skewed buck to doe ratio, the running of dogs all season, and the competition between you and upwards of 500 other hunters just makes it plain hard to hunt.  The bottom line is that I feel as though I had more opportunity to learn more, adapt better, and learn from my mistakes than my classmates who hunted private lands simply due to the difficulty of hunting public land. I'd tell myself every season: This is going to be the year. This is the year I'll take a buck. But the mythical antlered creature eluded me year after year.

All of these things flashed through the back of my mind as I settled the little red pin of my sights on the buck's shoulder. And after eleven years of trial and error, blood, sweat, (and yes) tears, I finally let loose my arrow.

Please don't watch the following video if seeing an animal get shot upsets/disturbs you. My apologies for the poor camera skills...I can only do so much at once :)

My arrow found its mark, and my first buck was there on the ground, just 40 yards away. The shot was placed just between the top of the shoulder and the spine, angled downward.

I would have leaped with joy had I not been in so much shock. I quietly sat down after a moment, and let the near seizure-like adrenaline shakes take over my body. I must have quivered like a leaf for a good five minutes. Once on the ground, and sure the deer was dead, I called my closest friends and family members to let them know what had just happened.

He certainly didn't have the biggest rack. But the little six point was a giant in my eyes and represented everything I'd worked for over the years.

I quickly began to cut up a branch and fashion a carrying handle out of it. I secured it in the buck's back legs and started to drag it. *Crack*. My carrying handle instantly snapped in two. The deer was too heavy for the branch. I gave up on the idea of a carrying handle, and just resorted to dragging by the antlers. It was then that I realized the daunting task that lay ahead of me. Not only was I well over a mile from the Jeep, I had to trudge back through the swamp night.

The combination of dragging the deer and carrying my bow and climber nearly killed me. Each cypress knee felt like a mountain when I started to drag the deer over it. After just a few hundred yards, I was forced to field dress the deer just to help cut weight.

By now I had reached the edge of Lake Lochloosa and I had to take a break or I'd keel over. As I sat there, with my head light off (to save batteries), something caught my eye out on the lake. I stumbled out into the waist high grass that borders the lake, and looked out.

The full moon was just starting to rise over the lake and it cast its reflection across the mirror like water toward me. All around me were fireflies. Hundreds of fireflies. They blinked bright green on and off in the pale moonlight around the lake. Off in the distance, a Barred Owl made its call, and in the grass just a few yards ahead, a Bullfrog let out its deep croak. The whole situation was surreal. I was completely unable to capture this moment properly via video or picture. Come to think of it, words can't even really describe it. It was one of those situations that must be experienced first hand. Once it passes, that moment is gone forever, save for your own memories.

I looked at this moment as a reminder of why I hunt, why I fish, and even why I've chosen my career path. It's not about the kill, or the catch. It's about the experience. The whole thing. Every little wonderful (and sometimes horrible) aspect of the trip. It's these experiences that keep me going out in the field. And it's these same experiences that I hope future generations can have and appreciate as well.

I stood for a few minutes at the edge of that lake, and just stared. Then, turning back, I kept on with the nightmare of a task ahead of me.

Dragging that deer out of the swamp was easily one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Being over 6ft tall meant that I had to slouch over to drag the deer and slouching caused the tree stand to sit at an awkward angle while I walked. The whole thing was a nightmare, and I'm certain that my deer put on a few hundred pounds during the trip out of the woods.

You can clearly see from the graph that a deer actually gains weight exponentially over its dragging distance and nears 800lbs as it closes in on the mile mark.

In all honesty, I was having to stop and take a break/stretch my back every 50-60 yards. The drag took an eternity. I started dragging the buck at about 7:25 pm and didn't reach the Jeep until 10:20. THREE hours of dragging. I can't remember ever being that tired. Luckily, the actual process of putting the deer in the Jeep went by quickly and shortly thereafter, I was driving to a friends house to clean it.

Since neither of us had a gambrel, we used our college student ingenuity and strung the deer up on a tree using a dog leash and a keg as the counter weight. The uses of a keg are innumerable.

Harvesting my first buck was an experience of a lifetime. It's an experience I will -never- forget. I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and am truly grateful for every chance I've ever gotten to spend time in the woods. Hopefully, this will be the first of many. But even if it isn't, I can safely say that I'm satisfied and even look at the woods a little differently now. If I wasn't hooked on hunting before this, I certainly am now and I'll do everything in my power to ensure I'm in the woods each and every fall.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Taming the Swamp, Part. 2

Let's see. Where did I leave off in Part 1?

Ah yes. Swamp, at night, world's largest dragonfly, and no head lamp.

It's instances like this that having a back-up something is vital. There are a few items that I -always- carry an extra of: Knives, signaling device, ammo, and...Flashlights. You never know what's going to happen. You could easily lose your hunting bag, break a knife, whatever. You name it, it could probably happen. The last thing I EVER expected was to be attacked by a giant insect and slap my face so hard that I'd break my head lamp.

So I scrounged around in the dark for a few minutes and finally found my spare flashlight. I (hesitantly) turned it on and was relieved when no dragonfly came to attack it. I found the pieces of my headlamp relatively quickly. Most of the lamp had fallen down into a stump hole. Good news was that I didn't actually -break- the lamp, I just knocked the latch off the back and sent the batteries flying. I reassembled the light, strapped it on my head, and kept walking north. The Jeep -had- to be close by.

I walked/tripped/stumbled north for another half mile before I reached a thick wall of palmettos. Knowing that if I kept going north, I'd eventually hit a road that connected to where I parked, I just plowed through the bushes. Finally, after what seemed like a good 45 minutes of walking, I reached a road. Lucky for me, it was a road I had mistakenly driven down earlier that day and I found my Jeep tracks. I followed them the 1/4 mile back to the Jeep, and finally left the woods.

A few days later, I found myself back in the same swamp, pulling down my trail camera, and looking for a new tree to hang my stand. I was unhappy with the spot I hunted before, and it wasn't long before I found a suitable tree that bordered the southwest corner of the swamp. I did, however, encounter a problem that I hadn't had before. Most of the trees in the swamp have extremely wide bases. This means that every time I begin to latch my climber to the tree, I have to scope out almost all the cable to get it to fit. Then, once I'm only a few feet off the ground, the tree narrows and becomes a normal sized tree again.

This wasn't a big problem with the top portion of the climber since I can adjust it while I ascend the tree. The big problem was the bottom part. I'm not sure how many of you have ever tried to adjust the bottom portion of a climber while 20 ft up a tree, but it's nearly impossible. I was forced to sit down on the top part, lift my knees to my chest, reach down, unlatch the cable, scope out one section, then lock it back. It was extremely awkward, but I finally managed it and was able to climb to a decent height. I then snapped a few pictures of the new location. It borders a big 1/2 square mile palmetto thicket.

 I'd been up my tree for about an hour when I heard some bushes moving to my left. I let out a bleat call, and waited. Suddenly, I saw movement. A person's head popped up from out of the bushes, and started climbing a tree about 80 yards to my left.

Ugh, I thought to myself. I couldn't believe I'd been walked in on. ALL the way back in this swamp.

I whistled to the guy and he gave an apologetic wave, climbed back down his stand, and disappeared into the swamp. I still had about two hours of light left, so I decided to wait and see if I still might get lucky. At one point, I heard what had to be a deer crashing through the palmettos in front of me. The sound got closer, and closer, and closer. Close enough, in fact, that I stood up, and got ready to make a shot. JUST before the animal came out of the palmettos in front of me, it stopped, turned around, and crashed through the bushes in another direction. I never saw the deer come out.

Just before dark, I heard some more crashing and looked to see a head light way off in the swamp. Immediately, I saw a doe come running up to my stand. She bounced to within about 30 yards and stopped to look over her shoulder behind my tree. I -could- have shot at her, but it was too dark and I didn't want to risk not hitting her right. So I let her walk.

I started to climb down the tree and the head light came closer and closer to my stand. By the time I was almost at the bottom, the person had made it to my tree. It was another hunter and he apologized for walking in on my hunt. He explained that it was actually his father who'd tried to climb the tree nearby and we talked for a few minutes. He told me of an easier way through the swamp by walking along the edge of the nearby lake. I had no doubt that he knew what he was talking about (after all, someone else had managed to get all the way back here), but he was trying to tell me the lake was in a different direction than it really was. I thanked him for his advice, and went about trying to get out of the swamp.

This is where I made my mistake. Rather than walk the 150 yards to the east, THEN walk due north. I walked due north from my stand. I walked, and walked, and walked........and walked. I walked for at least 45 minutes, heading due north, before I reached the edge of the swamp. Nothing looked familiar. Palmetto thickets weren't where I thought they'd be, and the only path I could find -out- of the swamp, went due west (the wrong direction).

I decided to just plow through possibly the thickest batch of palmettos I could find. It took a good 15 minutes to move about 50 yards. FINALLY, I emerged onto a motorcycle trail. I figured I'd come out WAY to the east of my Jeep, so I started walking west. The trail twisted and turned, emerged out into a big open area, then ran due north. I followed the little trail for about 1/2 mile before, much to my dismay, it disappeared.

Great....I'm lost

Right about that same time, I heard a sound that I REALLY didn't want to hear: My cell phone dying. I flipped it open to see the little battery symbol flashing on empty. I figured someone needed to know that I was at least out of my tree safe, but still looking for the Jeep. The phone had enough battery for a few, short calls.

My girlfriend was less than amused to hear that I was hopelessly lost. I told her I'd call when I made it to the Jeep, and that I was turning off the phone in case I needed to make an emergency call later.

The next step was to retrace my steps. I followed the motorcycle trail all the way back to where I came out of the swamp and then kept following it to the east. It continued on for another 1/2 mile and finally came out onto a road. I realized immediately where I was (thank God). I came out almost 3/4 miles to the north of where I'd parked my Jeep.

As I walked south to where I'd parked, guess who I ran into?

Oh yeah, the guys who walked in on me. They'd driven down the road to check to see if I'd made it out, which was nice I suppose, but embarrassing beyond all belief. Because I didn't begin walking north from where I usually do, I wound up paralleling the road by about 100 yards to the west. I probably passed my Jeep at one point within those 100 yards.

The whole situation was certainly a learning experience, but one I hope to never have to learn again. The one good thing about the trip, was that I had my trail camera...and it had 15 pictures on it!!

I raced home, loaded up the pictures, and was bitterly disappointed.

Some days you just can't catch a break, and this was certainly one of those days. Every one of my pictures was of those other hunters.

I didn't make it back out to Lochloosa WMA to hunt the swamp for two weeks after this. School loaded me down, and I just never got a chance to hunt. Finally, this past Thursday, I had finished all my school work, and had an afternoon off.

I drove out to Lochloosa as quickly as possible and parked in a new spot along the edge of the lake. From there, I was able to follow a path easily that paralleled the lake. This path was infinitely easier to walk down than any path I'd come up with in the middle of the swamp. Luckily for me, I took my time and watched where I was stepping. Remember the Tuesday Terror from a few weeks back?
Pygmy Rattlesnake. Right in the middle of the path.

Not even 200 yards farther down the path, I spooked a full grown Bald Eagle that had been perched in a cypress tree above me. It's easy to forget how big those birds are, but it's always awesome to see one. Sadly, I didn't get a picture of it.

Once I finally made it to the back of the swamp, I found a little rub line and decided to hang the stand. Now this is where the hunt began to get -really- weird....I started to actually see deer!

Stay tuned for part three! It's easily the best yet.