Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Improved Fall

It occurred to me recently that outdoorsmen (and women) as a whole possess several maneuvers or moves that most people simply cannot pull off.  Years of practice and hours upon hours of trial and error have honed these maneuvers into something of an art form. For those of you who have not yet experienced these moves, I would suggest getting out and practicing them. Flawlessly executing these is a dead giveaway of a true outdoorsman.  So I present to you the first (of many) essential outdoor maneuvers. 

The Improved Fall

Anyone who has spent enough time tromping through the woods, stepping over slippery rocks, or wandering around a wet boat deck knows that one simply doesn’t “fall”. Tripping and falling doesn’t come close to describing what the experienced outdoorsman does when he loses his footing. Let me set the scene for you: 

You and a hunting buddy are quietly trying to sneak downhill through a creek bottom. The deer you are stalking have bedded on the ridge just on the other side of the creek and silence is absolutely necessary if you expect to get off a shot. Everything seems to be going according to plan when suddenly, it happens. A rogue briar wraps itself around your ankle mid-step and you suddenly lose your balance. This is the part that separates experienced outdoorsman from those who occasionally trip in the woods. The average person would realize they’ve lost their balance and fall over very anticlimactically. 

The experienced outdoorsman, however, will execute the improved fall flawlessly. Upon realizing that the fall has begun, the hunter will attempt to catch himself to avoid falling and making noise. Since both hands are usually holding something worth slightly more than his life, balance is attempted to be regained through footwork alone. The resulting stumble will cover anywhere from a few yards to nearly a quarter mile, spawn powerful strings of expletives, and make enough noise to have every deer in the county think that an Abrams tank just lost control in the woods. Finally, after enough distance has been traveled in a futile attempt to regain balance, the hunter can finish the improved fall by actually falling down. It is important to note that even in the falling down process, the experienced outdoorsman will not drop whatever is in his hand. Rather, he will fall triumphantly while holding up the rifle or bow so that it doesn’t hit the ground. Sacrificing one’s body is the final step to finish off the improved fall. 

I’ve witnessed several improved falls over my years in the outdoors. Slippery boat ramps are one of my favorite places to watch the improved fall. There’s something about watching a fisherman flailing wildly on a boat ramp that actually makes time slow. The experienced fisherman will execute the improved fall for hours before finally succumbing to gravity and either fall in the water or finish the fall with some Olympic gymnast move. The latter generally leads to an emergency room visit.

Rough seas provide the perfect setting to witness this particular maneuver. While on a Yellowfin trip one year, we found ourselves offshore in a 6-7ft chop. I say chop, rather than swells, because “swells” implies some sort of wave pattern…which this was not. The entire day was spent clinging onto gunnels, getting soaked by crashing waves, and generally just getting tossed about like rag dolls. However, none of us had actually displayed an improved fall. It wasn’t until a particularly rough series of waves hit the boat that everyone engaged in an improved fall simultaneously. From someone else’s perspective, I’m sure the situation looked odd. A boat full of men in 6-7 ft seas and everyone just casually walking around like nothing was wrong. No one was clinging on for dear life, or breaking rods while trying to catch themselves. It probably looked as though we were all just walking around on dry, solid ground. The truth of the matter was that we’d all completely lost any form of balance. The improved fall can play tricks on the eyes in rough seas. It wasn’t until we made it back to the marina that everyone fell flat on their faces when we stepped onto the dock. 

Moves like the improved fall really can point out a seasoned outdoorsman. If you feel as though you need some practice in this particular outdoors skill, then look no further than some slimy river rocks, wet boat ramps, or cypress knees. If at first you find yourself merely falling over, don’t fret…it takes practice. Get back up and try it again. Mastering this particular move is just one step…or trip, rather…in becoming a true outdoorsman. There are many other maneuvers to master. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Mental State of an Avid Outdoorsman

To the average person, an avid outdoorsman may seem a Crazy, even. We spend an inordinate amount of time up a tree during deer season, and wake up at absurd hours to chase our scaly friends practically year round. To those who don't partake in outdoor sports like hunting and fishing, the things we do may indeed seem insane.

But what about to the outdoorsman himself?

I asked myself this question last week while hunting a dim game trail, so old that a team of paleontologists were beginning to show interest in it. I brushed away a few million mosquitoes, sat back in my climber, and asked myself: "Am I crazy?"

Becoming an avid outdoorsman starts off innocently enough. As a child, or even later as an adult, one goes fishing or hunting for the first time. The experiences had are good enough that before you know it, you now own your own deer rifle and conventional tackle.

And for many people, this is where the progression stops. The outdoors remains something special. Something to enjoy every once in a while. A time for self reflection. Appreciation. Or even just a chance to get away from the busy troubles of life. But for some, just dipping their toes into the outdoors isn't enough. It's a slippery slope, and the transformation over to the dark side happens without one realizing it.

That's right. The next thing you know, you're holding a bow or fly rod in your hand. You don't really know how it happened, but it did. And for some bizarre reason, you only wish to use these tools in the pursuit of game.

I can vividly remember as a child watching my dad fly fishing and thinking to myself: Why would anyone want to do that? It looks a lot like work. Plus, I actually like catching fish. But as I got older, all that "work" started to look like "fun" and it wasn't long before I was right there next to my dad, double hauling for all I was worth.

Every outdoorsman changes as they spend more and more time chasing their quarry. And it's not necessarily the known changes that are often mapped out in an outdoorsman's life (the shooting stage, the limiting out stage, the trophy stage, etc.) Rather, it's little ones that have a major impact on the outdoorsman. Changes in the obsesssion, if you will. There have been periods of time where the -only- thing I wanted to do in the outdoors was snatch mullet with treble hooks. Everything else dimmed in comparison. But after a while, my obsession cooled, and I went back to other activities.

I didn't realize it until this year, but it is actually possible to get burned out on a particular outdoor activity. Even for the seasoned outdoorsman, too much can become...well...too much. And it's in moments like these that one must take a step back, and do something a little different for a bit. This realization came to me right after I asked my question, "Am I crazy?"

Some quick math can spell out my last year as an outdoorsman. I picked up my bow for archery season at the end of last September. I continued to hunt October, November, and December. I took a break in January, and then started my field job in February. To sum up my field work, I darted deer with a tranquilizer gun that has a max range of 30 yards. So essentially, I bow hunted for work. We darted from February through June. So looking back, I pretty much hunted for 7 and 1/2 months during the past year. And from Feb-June, I wasn't just hunting weekends. My shift consisted of sitting up a tree for 6-8 hours. Every. Single. Day. And to be perfectly honest, I got spoiled seeing all the deer on private land in southern Georgia. Central Florida public land just can't hold a candle to it.

So while sitting in a crooked pine tree on Lochloosa WMA, slowly bleeding to death from mosquitoes, and not seeing or hearing the first sign of deer, I realized that I'm not ready to be up a tree right now. I need to take a step back and do something else for a bit.

Being alone in the outdoors can be a great time for self reflection. It is, believe it or not, good for the mind. Healing, even. But one can have too much of a good thing. They say that if you talk to yourself, you aren't crazy. You're only crazy if you start answering yourself.

But what about the deer hunter who talks to himself, and then whispers back the answer so he doesn't spook deer?

Am I done with deer hunting? Absolutely, 150% not. I love to hunt. Hell, it's practically my job. I know that in another month's time, I'll be itching to get back into the woods. But for the time being I'll take a break, do some fishing, and do my best to enjoy myself in the outdoors.

Regardless of the methodology, the time of year, or the quarry, hunting and fishing is an outdoorsman's passion. Those who are avid about it truly love what they do. Some things may seem crazy to others, but are perfectly justifiable to the avid hunter or fisherman. Reasons aside, any outdoorsman does the things he does because at the end of the day, he enjoys it. There may be speed bumps along an outdoorsman's hunting/fishing career, but nothing will ever really deter him for good. It's his obsession. His passion. It makes him feel happy, accomplished, rejuvenated. So when you think about it...

Is it really that crazy?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cichlids...Aren't those aquarium fish?

It had been well over a year since I’d last visited the South Florida canal systems. That particular trip took place in February of 2011 and was quite easily my worst trip to the Glades…well…ever. We somehow managed to time our trip perfectly with a cold front that turned the bite completely off for the whole weekend. 

That mistake wouldn’t happen again. No cold fronts would be wandering through South Florida in the first weeks of September. 

Rather, it was brutally hot. Oven-like, in fact. Hot enough that our chances of catching anything depended on how close we could land a fly to the Lilly pads. The fish might have had the luxury of shade, but we didn’t. Baking in the sun, we could look down the canal to a vanishing point without the first sign of above-water shade. 

It was going to be hot, and we were going to need to get used to it. Quickly. We were on the hunt for aquarium fish. 

To make a painfully long story short: Cichlids were introduced into the man-made canals of Southern Florida decades ago, many through the exotic pet trade. They became established and eventually thrived. The state introduced the Butterfly Peacock Bass (another cichlid) as a biological control for these invasive fish. Years down the road, we have cichlids, peacock bass, and every other exotic creature you can think of now running around in the Everglades. 

But the past few years, finding these fish has been an increasingly difficult task. During the 2009/2010 winter, South Florida experienced record cold temperatures that killed off -A LOT- of cichlids. But even after the winter kill, I managed to find and catch a boat load the following summer. That was 2 ½ years ago and South Florida has yet to see another freeze like that. I therefore assumed the cichlids would be on the rise and back in full force. 

But I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life. 

Our first stop was one of my “go-to” canals that had always produced fish. I’d brought the 3wt fly rod with me specifically for cichlids and I couldn’t wait to start catching them. However, once we launched into the canal, I noticed something was different. There were few fish to be seen. Normally one can just look into the water and see the cichlids circling roots, rocks, or Lilly pads. But this day was different. I couldn’t see –any- fish. The water was also much clearer than usual. At times, I could look down and see the bottom of the canal approximately 12 feet down. In this same canal, two years prior, I caught a total of 43 NATIVE largemouth bass in addition to a cooler full of cichlids. But this day, I never even saw a largemouth. Something changed and I don’t know what, but we knew it was time to look elsewhere. 

Our next stop was the canals off of the Tamiami. Even after the freeze, these canal systems held fish so I was once again hopeful. We launched, motored about a mile down the canal, and started fishing. Almost immediately both my dad and I had a double hook up. Whatever I’d hooked was actually fighting hard and I was praying I’d be pulling up a cichlid. I was relatively surprised when I looked down to see a nice Bluegill on my fly. 

My dad’s fish was even bigger. 

And it was like that almost every cast. The closer the fly landed to the Lilly pads (and the shade), the better. We could have easily had our limit within just a couple of hours, but I generally like to release natives when fishing in the Everglades. I figure they need all the help they can get while competing with the exotics. That, and I hate cleaning Bluegill. Everyone knows they reproduce once placed on ice and I didn’t feel like being behind a cutting board for hours. In previous years we’d almost caught no Bluegills in this particular canal and I took their presence as a sign that the cichlid numbers were low/non-existent. 

No cichlids off of the Tamiami, and we were now running low on ideas. Sure there are plenty of launches into other canals, but those are all located in the kicked-over anthill that is Ft. Lauderdale/Miami. The last thing either of us wanted to do was go fishing smack-dab in the middle of a booming metropolis. Instead we stuck to the saltwater fishing in the Everglades and pretty much crossed cichlids off the list. 

But I had an incessant need to land a cichlid on the 3wt. It practically haunted my dreams and I forced my dad to pull over and stop and literally every canal we drove over. And finally, on the second-to-last day of our trip, I stepped out of the truck to check on a roadside canal. I looked down in the water and had to do a double-take. There were cichlids! Lots of them. I scrambled back to the truck and quickly assembled my fly rod. 

Once back by the water’s edge, I spotted out 2 big Mayan Cichlids, and made a cast to them. My fly landed only inches from them both and I carefully twitched the fly to entice a bite…But nothing happened. 

Confused, I made another cast. This one landing just past them and I began working the fly right between the two fish. To my shock, they spooked. Both fish were terrified of my grasshopper fly.
I repeated this process a few dozen times before I switched flies. Figuring a bead-head nymph couldn’t –possibly- scare a fish away, I began casting it to the exotics below me. But once again, every time the fly came near, the fish spooked. I literally tried everything after that. Different flies, tippits, you name it. Nothing worked. 

There are only two things in nature that literally drive me insane: Whitetail deer, and seeing fish that I can’t catch. I was going to solve this “no catching” problem one way or another. 

Anyone who has regularly read this blog knows that I’m not a purist when it comes to hunting or fishing methods. I’ll just as soon blast a deer with my rifle as I will stick one with a bow. And I’ll just as soon use a rod and reel as I will hop in the water with a speargun. 

So it should be little surprise to anyone that the following morning I was back at the same canal, fresh out of Walmart, with a brand new cane pole and a can of worms. 

I walked to the edge of the canal, saw my prey, and could hardly contain myself for all the anticipation. I’d waited almost two years to catch these fish again…and it was about to happen. However, my visions of filling the cooler with cichlids were quickly snuffed. I placed a juicy, wiggling worm right on the nose of a cichlid, and watched as it turned away and swam off to deeper water. 

Every fisherman has had –that- moment…The moment when dynamite and hand grenades suddenly seems sporting. When, just once, you’d like to hang up that bow and take out a howitzer for those deer. Or just nail that fish sitting the shallows with a big ‘ol rock. 

This was one of those moments…

Completely and totally fed up, I sat down in the tall grass near the edge of the canal, and just watched the water despairingly. But after a few minutes, I noticed the fish were coming back. Right up into the shallows in fact. Slowly, I flipped a worm down to them and…boom. Cichlid. 

The curse was broken! And I’d figured out something important. If I stood up, and the fish could see me, there was no chance of hooking one. So I spent the rest of the morning creeping along the high grass like I was on some African safari hunt, and would flip a worm over the edge of the canal in random places. It worked surprisingly well and it wasn’t long before I was filling the cooler with cichlids. 

But something was still missing; I’d yet to land one on the fly. 

With my new found knowledge and restored confidence, I set about walking down to the water’s edge, crouching in the high grass, and casting parallel to the shoreline. My little fly landed in the mirror still water just a few inches from the shore. I peered through the grass at the ripples it made as it hit the water and I gave it one little "pop". Immediately, a V-wake moved right for it and a big mayan inhaled the popper.

I did this for the remainder of the evening and caught both Mayans and Oscars on the fly. The fish were spread out quite a bit, so it took some walking in between bites. Unfortunately there were no boat ramps into this canal, which figures since we didn't bring the kayaks this year. But even with as much work that was involved in just catching one of these fish, I had a blast. They fight exceptionally hard for their size and actually taste great. Hopefully in the coming years they won’t be such a nightmare to hook, but I know I can’t wait to chase them again.