Tuesday, December 5, 2017

How to Elk

They should be right up ahead.... Just over this rise. I hope Cody's in position...
Ducking and weaving, I made my way through the low Junipers on the hillside. It was midday, and the snow clumps that had settled in the branches from the previous storm were just beginning to melt. The occasional "thwump" from a falling clump of snow would send me into high alert each time, convinced that it was an Elk. The terrain was difficult to say the least. Mud  caked boots provided little to no traction on the melting hill face and each step threatened to send me tumbling down the hill. That couldn't happen. For this to work, we needed to be quiet. Surprise was the only way we'd pull this off.
With my radio in hand, I tried Cody again.
"Cody..." I whispered, "You ready man?"
I was answered with nothing but the crackle of radio silence.
"Piece of shit radio", I muttered to myself as I shoved it back into the ALICE pack. Quietly, I got back to my feet and stared down the hill. Somewhere, in the Juniper thicket below were Elk. How many, I hadn't a clue. But there was no where else for them to go. They HAD to be here. "...Showtime"
Silently I worked my way down the hill and into the thicket. With my head on a swivel, I kept my eyes peeled for any movement. I made it about fifty yards in and suddenly....
Elk! Two of them, in fact. A cow and calf about 60 yards away on a small rise. They hadn't noticed me yet, so I took a step further. A twig snapped up the hill in front of me and I spotted another about 80 yards away. Another step and I hear snow crunch to my left. A spike. This one just 5 yards away, casually chewing cud and staring at me. The whole situation was odd. Save for the strong breeze and the spike chewing his food, it was pretty silent. Serene, even. Nature at its finest.
Then my phone went off. On loud.
Elk on Elk on Elk
It had been an insane Elk season so far. By the final day, most of our hunters had already tagged out and were busy drinking whiskey and telling tales around the lodge. The other guides and I, however, were functioning on very little sleep and energy drinks to make sure our last few hunters filled their tags. For the past 4 days we'd been going balls to the wall. Elk down all over the place. Spotting, tracking, recovering elk. All day. Every day. But there were still a few tags to be filled, and we'd be damned if we didn't give those hunters the best chance.
We were hunting a slightly different area than last year. And since we were blessed with snow a few days prior, the Elk had been all over the place. Snow equals Elk, and this was obvious by the hundreds that were being seen every day. That ridge a few miles away? Elk. The ravine leading up that mountain? Elk. Crossing the road in front of us? Elk. Elk in the ditch. Elk in the bed of the truck. Elk riding shotgun. Bumping into Elk. Elk watching you pee. Tripping over Elk. Elk...Everywhere.

In the brief periods of time where I wasn't helping recover Elk, I spent it on a hill called "The Kitchen". From this hill, most of the valley could be seen. To the east was a long ridge line that followed a flat valley, and that ridge line is where we placed most of our hunters. We'd see Elk every day down in the valley, and it was around this area where most of our kills had been. A few unlucky Elk were the ones who'd ventured just a tad too close to the western ridge of the valley.
The rest of the herd? Oh, we watched them. Trust me. All day long, all the way across the valley on a Juniper covered hill called "Yellowstone". It was on this hill that the Elk felt safe. They rarely left during the daylight hours. The problem with hunting Yellowstone? It's essentially an island in the middle of the valley. There isn't a real good way into or out of Yellowstone without being spotted by the herd.
It was frustrating, to be honest. Seeing Elk all day, but not being able to do a thing about it. It's sorta like being able to see fish, but not being able to hook them. And those are the kind of things I lose sleep over. But we had a few tags left, we knew where the Elk were, and it was the end of the season. Time to make some moves.
The Push for Yellowstone
By the last day of the season, the guide's bunk room was looking a little rough. Filthy, mud and blood  covered clothes lay strewn about. Spent brass rolled around on the floor, fluorescent orange apparel was scattered about, and wet boots sat near the door, complete with their wet socks. The guides themselves didn't look much better actually. Nick looked like he'd had "that 2:30 feeling" for the past 3 days. Cody would occasionally zone out and give the 1000 yard stare mid sentence.  Aaron had developed a weird tic a few days ago and would occasionally mutter something Elk related in his sleep. I had actually begun to devolve as a person, slowly becoming more and more Elk like. My speech had begun to slowly turn more and more into grunts and clicks. My clothes smelled just like them. Hell, -I- smelled just like them.  And if you've never smelled an Elk before...It's not exactly great. We were in rough shape.
But we awoke the morning of the last day with a refreshed, caffeinated energy and were excited to finish out the season. Before leaving the lodge, we all got the run down of the day ahead. The lead guide explained to us what was going to happen. We were pushing them off of Yellowstone around noon. Aaron, Nick, and some of the other guides would help get the hunters in position. Cody and I would do a walking drive and push them toward everyone else. Once all the hunters were in position, the guide spotting on The Kitchen would give Cody and I the signal to start pushing.
Excited to see how this all played out, we got dressed, geared up, and ready to go.
I should note my hatred of snow. I despise being cold and it's just a giant white nightmare. But since Elk like it, and by this point I'm practically half-Elk, I suppose it isn't that bad. In the mornings, however,  I can never tell if I'm shaking from the cold, or the Monster Energy that I just chugged. Regardless, Cody, Nick, Aaron and I loaded into the freezing cold Can Am, and hauled ass to The Kitchen to wait on the sunrise.

One Elk was shot that morning before the push. The other hunters held tight. They'd been briefed on what was going to take place, so they patiently waited until mid-day for the show to begin. A little bit before noon, Cody and I hopped back in the Can Am, and drove around to the far side of the valley. From there we parked and began to hike up the backside of Yellowstone. This is where we had to be careful. We needed to split up, but still be in contact so Cody handed me a radio. Once we were in position and got the signal, we'd make our move. But first we had to actually -get- into position. Quietly we weaved our way through the Junipers and got closer to our destination.
It wasn't exactly hard to tell Elk had been nearby.

It's a good thing I smelled like an Elk, because the whole backside of the hill reeked of them. There were obvious spots where they'd been feeding, bedding, everything. The place must've been crawling with them. As accustomed to the high-altitude as my Elk-Lungs had become, I was still at least a quarter human. So I stopped to take a drink of water. I also realized that I was drenched in sweat. Amazingly enough, the only thing I was wearing was a long jon top and some camo pants. But even with all the snow on the ground, I was about to keel over. So I took off my shirt and stuffed it into my pack, then wore my fluorescent orange mesh vest haphazardly over my shirtless body. It looked odd, but no one aside my Elk brothers would see me. My looks didn't matter.
I Am The Elk
Fast forward 30 minutes and I'm now standing face to face with a spike elk, calmly staring at me and chewing his food.
This isn't what's supposed to happen. They're supposed to run.
I took another step, then it happened. My cell phone started ringing.
God forbid Verizon give me -any- signal around the ranch. Seriously. Close to 200,000 acres and I can't get a damn bar of signal on any of it.
Well...99% of it. Apparently Yellowstone gets great reception. Maybe that's why the Elk all congregate there. They've got 4G.
I winced and fumbled around in my pocket for the phone. Max volume, and the highest pitched, most obnoxious ringtone echoed through Yellowstone. I look at the name on the phone: Roscoe.
Roscoe's the senior guide who was sitting a couple miles away spotting for me on The Kitchen. He'd apparently lost sight of me and decided to give me a call. My spike friend had now stopped chewing his food, and was simply staring at me with that look you give someone in a movie theater when they forget to put their phone on vibrate. Calmly I answered the phone.
"Hey Roscoe", I whispered.
"DIDJA STORT POOSHIN' YIT", he replied with an incredibly thick South Carolina accent.
Pausing to look at the Spike right next to me, I answered
"I'm uhh...I'm workin' on it".
And with that I hung up the phone with Roscoe, turned my phone on silent, and put it back in my pocket. The Elk was still just standing there, glaring at me. Actually, upon looking around, all of them were. They were all just listening to my conversation with Roscoe.
Why aren't they running? It's like...It's like....No. It can't be...Can it?
The transformation was complete. With the last shred of my sanity gone, it was apparent. I'd been accepted as one of their own. I was in the herd.
I am the Elk.
Last Call
Try as I did, the Elk never full broke me. I remembered what I'd come there to do. It was go time. But there was one slight issue:
They wouldn't move.
I tried hitting a Juniper to make noise. All they did was watch me. I jogged forward. Still nothing.
What the hell?
Up ahead I could see more of the herd. They were swarming inside Yellowstone. And amongst them all, I saw him. An absolute monster Bull. The biggest I've ever seen by far. I got just a quick glance before he ducked behind some trees ahead. But still, the majority of the herd was just watching me. I, however, had finally seen enough. It was long past time. I'd lost contact with Cody a while ago. It was time to really start pushing. So I did the only thing I could think of...
I sprinted straight at the nearest cow and calf. To add to the display I began screaming jibberish and waving my hand above the air like a madman.
"LAST CALL $%&#ER'S!!! EVERYBODY OUT!! GET! BE GONE!! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!" followed by a series of hollers and a colorful line of profanity as I tripped down the hill.
It was like roaches scattering after turning on the light. Elk practically exploded. They were coming out of the woodwork. From behind boulders, underneath trees, everywhere. The herd was MUCH bigger than I originally thought. Getting back to my feet, I kept sprinting down the hill toward them. Limbs snapped of Junipers as the Elk scattered. Rocks skittered down the hill face as they tried to get traction in the muddy snow. And amidst my heavy breathing and violent cussing, the steady rumble of trampling hooves could be heard.
Just a few yards away a cow and calf darted out in front of me. Suddenly from my right, another spike broke through a Juniper, nearly crashing into me. The Elk was so close I seriously could have slapped him on the ass as he went by. I watched the bulk of the herd disappear over the next hill, and head straight for my hunters. But there was a small problem. About 1/6th of the herd broke left, and were going the wrong direction toward a slightly smaller hill to the south called "Little Yellowstone" (creative, I know).
I couldn't let that happen, so I gave chase. Jumping over rocks and logs, slipping through the snow and mud, I raced to cut off the rest of them before they reached Little Yellowstone. Fun fact about Elk: They're stupid fast. Ridiculously quick, in fact. I had no chance in hell to catch them. But for whatever reason, the herd actually turned. Maybe it was because they shirtless, screaming maniac was still running right where they were planning to go. Maybe it was because of the rifle shots I could now hear echoing through the valley. Who knows? But the important part was that they were well on their way to the hunters, and the crack of rifles in the distance meant that my journey to become full Elk had not been in vain.  I got a quick picture of the herd just after they turned. Sadly I wasn't wearing my GoPro for the moments just prior.

Lee's Monster
I eventually gathered myself and worked my way back to the Can Am to meet with Cody. We drove back to The Kitchen and caught up with what was happening on that side of the valley.
Elk were down, and from the sounds of it, almost everyone had filled their tag. All the guides split up and began running around recovering animals. One hunter actually joined Cody and I in the Can Am and while driving to track someone else's Bull, we spotted out a legal bull and our hunter was able to fill his tag.
The next few hours were a blur as hunters continued to fill out tags, and I lost count how many animals I field dressed. As the sun was beginning to dip low on the western horizon, I ran into Aaron and Nick again.
"Everybody good?" I asked as we pulled up next to them.
"Oh yeah. Dude...Lee shot a monster", replied Aaron.
"Really? Like, how big?"
Nick's eyes got all wide and he just shook his head. "Big...We're going to go get it in a minute"
Eventually we got all of our hunters loaded up, Elk ready to roll back to the skinning shed, and our gear put away. It was about that time that the other truck came rolling up with Lee's bull.
"Holy shit...", was pretty much everyone's response. It was massive. And to make it even sweeter? That was the bull I'd  gotten a glimpse of on Yellowstone. Lee was grinning from ear to ear and everyone took the time to congratulate him on the bull of a lifetime. Hero pictures all around, and by far, the best way to end a season that I can think of.

For information on hunting on the ranch or with me, please visit their website at http://www.rrranchco.com/
Note: My apologies for taking such a hiatus in my writing the past couple of months. I was absurdly busy in the Everglades and just couldn't find the time to write during 70+ hour work weeks. Good news is that I've now moved and am in prime fishing habitat in a new part of the state. Looking forward to the coming stories. Thanks for reading!!

Partly Cloudy With a Chance of Elk

Slowly but surely, the sun was beginning to work its way lower and lower toward the western horizon. Its evening rays lit the frozen, snow covered landscape in a pinkish orange glow, interrupted only by the dark green branches of scattered Junipers. Each boot step across this frozen terrain gave a satisfying crunch and on occasion a slip as hurried steps found the sticky, slick mud beneath the snow. The footsteps, however, came to an abrupt end at the edge of a 150ft cliff. And that's where I stood with another guide, both of us looking down to the bottom in the dying Colorado light.
"Well...Shit..", I muttered, peering down the incline.
"He's right down there at the bottom!", yelled one of my hunters from the truck. "I hung my hat right where he's at!"
Far below, I could see a  bright fluorescent orange sock hat hanging gingerly in a patch of  junipers. And I knew somewhere underneath those trees was my hunter's dead Elk. Getting down there by foot wasn't the problem. Nor was getting back up, for that matter. The issue? Getting back up with the Elk in tow.
"...said that Elk had a really long tail. And he goes That's because it was my horse!"
Laughter erupted around the long dinner table at the punchline of one of many horribly inappropriate jokes for the evening. Silverware clanked while the mix of 25 hunters and guides told bad jokes, tall tales, and BS stories around the table. I, however, happily sat in silence, chewing my food and trying to listen to just one story or joke amongst the clamor of the dining room. I practically live for dumb stories. And whether it's telling stories around the campfire with friends, at a bar over a beer, or with guests down in the Everglades, at the end of the day it's always ME telling the stories. And I've heard my tales once or twice. So I enjoy listening.
It'd been a fairly long day. I'd woken up around 11am after a full night of driving through a blizzard. I made my way out to do a little spotting in the afternoon but to no real avail. Hunter's that were out all day (not the ones I drove with the night before) had seen some Elk, but all too far away to make moves on. Good news? They were at least -seeing- Elk. The poor weather we'd had at R R Ranch last year meant that almost no Elk were moving at all. And by poor weather, I mean great weather. 65 and sunny is fantastic for us. But Elk?
Elk are horrible creatures. Originally from the ice planet Hoth, Elk are unsatisfied with any weather above -60 degrees. Comfortable weather for us means that Elk sit high up in the mountains in a vain attempt to get as close as they can to their home planet and stay cool. When horrible weather rolls in (blizzards), Elk get confused as to where they are and venture down from the mountains in search of Tauntauns to prey on. Naturally they use their canine teeth (seriously, google "Elk Canines") to pull an unsuspecting Tauntaun to the ground where they will trample and later gorge themselves on these Snow Lizards in an order to get enough nutrients to survive the eternal winter. Varying reports say that a mature bull will sometimes use his antlers to actually fight Wampa's off their kills. They are, indeed, the terror of the snow plains.

At least back home they are. Here they just eat grass and stuff.
But the good news for us this year was that the lovely blizzard had coated the entire landscape with about 8 inches of that white nightmare you northerners call "snow". This is exactly what the Elk need to get them to move, and the forecast remained cold for the rest of the week, so spirits were high around the dinner table that we may have a very successful hunt this year.
The next morning started around 4 am. I groggily put on almost every article of clothing I brought with me, and got ready to hunt. There was, of course, a minor problem with me hunting this day: My rifle was still in Denver. Since the planes weren't flying thanks to the blizzard, my checked bag (rifle) was still sitting somewhere in Denver Airport. It felt a little odd going hunting without a gun, but at the end of the day, the hunt really isn't for me. It's for my hunters. So with that in mind, I stepped out into the cold to see what the day had in store for us.
Mornings for the guides are generally controlled chaos. We try and gather our hunters, make sure everything good to go, and with all our T's dotted and i's crossed, we head out in the ranch trucks. Where we planned to hunt this year was about a 40 minute drive across the ranch in a pickup. So with the trucks filled to the brim with hunters and gear, they took off. Myself, however, along with three other guides, Nick, Aaron, and Cody, couldn't fit into the available trucks. So we got the next best thing; The Can Am.
These things are a redneck's dream come true. They're essentially a four wheel drive golf cart on steroids. Topping out at 60mph in 4x4 high, it even comes with built in Oh-Shit handles for all passengers that look like joysticks in the center of the vehicle. Bottom line, the thing just looks like too much fun. Especially now that the roads were becoming muddy nightmares. The only problem? It was horribly cold outside and there certainly isn't any heat in the Can Am. Thank god for windshields.
No one really stepped up and said they wanted to drive the thing, so I took advantage of their reluctancy and hopped into the driver's seat.
Now, a wise old man that I used to work with named Stoney once told me "If it ain't yers...Drive it like you stole it". And I've taken that advice to heart over the years.
Ripping down the muddy back roads in the Can Am was exciting to say the least. Since the trucks had already made massive ruts, and the Can Am is about 1/2 as wide as a truck, that meant we spent 90% of the time tilted at a 45 degree angle as we tore down the road. But eventually, and after several moments that made the other guides grab their handles, we arrived on top of a barren hill called The Kitchen. It's called that because apparently when Roosavelt came out for a mountain lion hunt, the camp's kitchen was on this hill. At least that's what I'm told. But today, it would be our observation post to glass over everything (including our hunters). It was still horribly cold, but we were at least greeted with an awesome sunrise.

As the fog cleared, we began spotting out Elk. Some looked like they were getting close to a few hunters, others going the wrong direction. We'd occasionally radio in to the trucks, and try to coordinate who's where and what's going on. But eventually we all heard it...
A far off rifle shot echoed through the valley, immediately followed by a second, and then third. Moments later another from a different location. Then another. Soon more from other directions. Elk were moving, and lead was getting slung by our hunters before we even had a chance to do anything. The morning progressed and things gradually got more and more chaotic. Elk were down, several of them. And we had to coordinate the logistics of getting them gutted, dragged, loaded, tracked, etc. Meanwhile keeping our eyes on other groups that were making their way toward other hunters. It wasn't long before Cody, Aaron, Nick and I all got split up and were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. By mid afternoon we'd switched between trucks and the Can Am so many times that we all had bits and pieces of gear in every vehicle out there. Hunters continued to shoot and down Elk over the course of the day and by one point I found myself back on the kitchen in a truck with two hunters. We sat there glassing and listening to radio chatter while other guides and hunters picked up downed animals. Suddenly I looked to my right and saw them. Elk. Within range.
I bailed out of the truck and grabbed one of my hunters (who was half asleep). With my binoculars I could see the group. 8 of them, running right toward us. One spike...six cows...And right in the middle was a shooter Bull. Definitely not the biggest bull in the world, but nice enough and pretty tall antler wise. The problem was that they were moving in on us fast. Like...REALLY fast. We had only moments to react. I positioned my hunter with his shooting sticks, and got ready. Unfortunately the Elk turned just before getting to the base of The Kitchen. Only about 80 yards down the hill the herd turned to skirt around the Junipers at the base. There was an opening in the trees though, and I could see them jogging through in a line. I knelt down in the mud and whispered to my hunter as I watched through my binoculars.
"The first three are cows...The fourth one...That's the Bull we want...Just wait for it", I quietly told him. He was lined up, rifle shouldered, and waiting.
"There's one...two", I whispered as they crossed our only opening for a clear shot. "...Three...This next one...this is him..."
And nothing. No shot rang out next to my head. Nothing.
I quickly stood back up and tried to reposition my hunter, but it was no use. The small group had managed to skirt around the backside of The Kitchen through the junipers and were already on their way off the property. We'd missed that chance.
In my hunter's defense, he never saw the Bull. Plus the opening he had for a shot was very narrow and the animal was jogging. I certainly don't blame him for not taking the shot. With how many Elk we'd been seeing, I was sure he'd be getting another chance.
Later on in the afternoon we'd heard that one of our hunters had downed a bull in a "difficult" spot. Just how difficult wasn't exactly clear, so another hunter and I drove down to where the bull had been shot. Once there I met with the hunter who'd shot the bull and he described to me where it was. It was here that I walked to the edge of a giant cliff only to look down and see his fluorescent orange hat hanging in a tree.
I know many of you reading this are saying "Well...Just quarter up the animal like everyone else does". And that thought definitely went through our head. The only issue is that the ranch prefers we get all animals back whole. In fact, over the years the ranch has been running, they've only had to quarter up one animal. So we weren't going to do that. But we couldn't exactly get a truck down to this bull. So we came up with a game plan. Commence Operation Tug of War.

A daring plan to say the least, Operation Tug of War was fairly simple at its core. The plan was to somehow get the Can Am to the bottom of this cliff, hook a strap to the Bull, and drag him out. Perfect. Sounds like a plan. First, we've gotta get that Can Am down there. How Jason managed to drive it down into the bottom of this canyon is classified information for Operation Tug of War. It will remain a mystery much like Machu Picchu or The Great Pyramids. But drive it down there he did and once there, we managed to hook a frozen tow strap to the back of the vehicle and the other end to the Bull. Now the tricky part.
We're about 700lbs heavier than before, and the path taken down certainly wasn't about to work on the way up. Our only option was the closest thing to a hill we could find. The slope was at about 75 degrees up, and about 60 yards to the top. But it as the best bet we had. After a lenghty discussion about how we wanted our funerals to be conducted, we set about performing the final stages of Operation Tug of War...
"FLOOR IT!", I yelled as Jason put pedal to the metal and the Can Am roared toward the base of the hill, Elk in tow. Clutching onto the convenient Oh-Shit handle, I watched the speedometer as we gained speed. 25...30...35mph as we neared the base of the hill. I looked back to see Cody with a weird half-scared, half-excited grin on his face. Behind him, the Bull was acting like a snow plow while getting showered in the mud from the back tires. Then we hit the hill.
The engine began to roar even louder under the sudden strain, and we began to slow as we climbed.
For those of you who've ever ridden a roller coaster, and had to suffer through the painfully slow climb toward the top, it was something like that. And just like every roller coaster goer's worst nightmare, we suddenly stopped.
We were now staring straight up into the evening sky. Completely stuck.
"Well...That's as far as she's gettin'", said Jason as he practically stood on the brake. Operation Tug of War was threatening to be a complete failure. At least, until, we got another idea.
I bailed out of the vehicle and onto the near vertical slope, immediately falling into the mud and snow. On my hands and knees, I crawled/slipped my way to the top of the hill. That's where I parked my truck. In the bed of the truck was a good 90 feet of tow strap. I unspooled it, hooked one end to the hitch, then tossed the other end down the hill. Cody was now crawling with the steel cable of the Can Am's winch up the hill toward the truck. When he reached the end of the tow strap, he hooked the winch to it. It was then that the final stages of Operation Tug of War (AKA Pray this works) commenced. F250 in 4-low, tow strap hooked to the hitch, strap over the lip of the precipice and hooked to the winch, winch to the Can Am, Can Am in 4-Low, Can Am to the tow strap, and tow strap to the Elk, I yelled at Jason to hold on. Or at least something along those lines coupled with a string of expletives.
It was a spectacle to behold indeed, but my hunters watched as Operation Tug of War was executed flawlessly. The truck pulled the Can Am up and over the lip, followed closely by the Elk. Figures my GoPro was dead at the time.
The day had been a total blur. I lost count as to how many Elk I'd seen, gutted, dragged, whatever. We slowly drove down the muddy road and back to the lodge with Elk, hunters, and guides safely in tow while the sun dipped behind the mountains. And it was then that I realized something. I'd been working. ALL day. Since 4 am. But there hadn't been a single moment during that day that I felt like I was AT work. Not once did I question anything I had to do, or feel the urge to complain. Or anything. It didn't feel like work. It felt like fun. I was having fun with my hunters and other guides. I was excited to see them successful and even more excited to see THEM excited. It was an indescribable feeling and for the first time in my life I realized what work -should- be. It shouldn't be "work", it should be something you passionately enjoy. Of course I had to work hard. But that's just part of it. And part of the fun. I love working with animals of course, and I love being in the field. Not in some office. But one of the main reasons I got into Wildlife to begin with (as do most others) was that I didn't want to deal with people. Well I've sorta come full circle now. I actually kind of enjoy working with people, but with the right kind of people. People who are passionate about the same things I'm passionate about. People who get legitimately excited over things that you're showing them or helping them with. That's what made this day special and pretty eye opening. And that's my goal for any future jobs I have. I believe it's possible to have a job that you're so passionate about, that it never feels like work.

It wasn't until we arrived at the cleaning shed that we tallied up the days harvest. We succeeded in taking thirteen Elk in a single day. A record for the ranch and definitely a sight to see. Our hunters were pleased beyond all belief and dinner that night had very few old jokes and tales. Instead it was story after story about the day everyone had just experienced. It's days like this one that make stories. The stories that get told over and over around the campfire, over a beer, or at the lodge dinner table years down the road. I can only hope to one day get to sit silently again and listen to the jokes and stories, except the ones I helped create. And with any luck, continue to make new ones for others in years to come.

A Very Floridian Blizzard

"Dude I'm fixin to die. We gotta crank that AC", I told my roommate as we sped away in his car on the way to the airport. "I'm melting"
It certainly wasn't that hot outside. Especially for Florida. The problem? I wouldn't be in Florida long, and I was decked from head to toe in winter clothes for the mountains. I was on my way to R & R Ranch in Colorado for the 2016 Elk hunting season to guide. Rather than try and shove all of my winter clothes into my carry on, I opted to just wear half of it. A decision that I was regretting at that very moment in time.
Cold weather hunting boots, thick wool socks, long johns, jeans, a fleece jacket, hunting backpack, and gun case in tow, I sorta stood out like a sore thumb upon arriving at Ft. Lauderdale airport. I'd once again drawn an elk tag this year. After failing to fill my tag during last year's season, I was excited to give it another go. I'd be arriving just a little bit later in the year which meant more favorable weather and with any luck, better hunting.
With all my information ready, I walked up to the United Airlines counter to get my boarding pass and brace myself for what would surely be an unnecessarily difficult task of checking my rifle in with TSA. I showed the woman my information for my 11:15 departure flight and she began busily typing away before finally responding.
"I'm sorry? Hmm? Everything ok?", I asked, beginning to get slightly nervous.
"Yeahh....But you missed your flight"
In a state of wild confusion, I glanced at the time on my phone. 10:00.
"But...It's only ten..."
"Yeahh...Your flight was actually rescheduled. It leaves in 5 minutes. You already missed boarding."
"Wait...I was never notified of a schedule change..."
"Yeah...There should have been an email sent. But I'm sorry. You'll need to get in contact with your connecting flight's airlines to sort it out."
Great. Fantastic. My plan HAD been to fly from Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando. Orlando to Denver. Denver to Hayden. Then drive from Hayden to the ranch. Now there was a massive wrench in my gears. I quickly got hold of the ranch and explained my situation. The best solution we could think of was to try and rent a car and haul ass to Orlando. It was 10:30 and I needed to be ready to go in Orlando airport at 1:30.
Challenge. Accepted.
Still wearing all my hunting gear and dragging a gun, I practically ran to the car rental area of the airport. During my last trip out west, I rented a car for the first time ever from National, and it was cheap. So I made my way to their counter. Sweating, I told the guy behind the desk that I needed a one way rental to Orlando and quick. Miraculously, it was quite possibly the easiest process I've ever gone through in my life. within about 45 seconds he handed me back my credit card and the slip to get into a car. It was that easy. I gathered my stuff and just before I made it through the door to the parking garage, the man noticed my bright orange hat.
"Colorado huh? Skiing?"
"Nope!", I replied over my shoulder. "Elk hunting!"
The man let out a gasp. "Poor Elk". Then he paused after I assume he saw the look on my face. "I mean...Good luck!"
Not having the time to even get into a conversation with the man, I thanked him and walked through the door into the parking garage. I was holding a slip of paper with some illegible writing on it that was supposed to point me in the direction of my car. Not knowing what I was doing or where I was going, I wandered over to the first person I could find with a green National vest on. She was an absolutely ENORMOUS black woman.
"Excuse me", I began with a chuckle. "I'm...Totally lost" I handed her the slip of paper and she glanced over it.
"Mmmhmm...Mmmhmmm...Full size...Mmhmmm...Orlando....Okay baby I got you", she responded. "Follow me"
"So you got a choice of the Malibu...The Taurus..." she continued, pointing to each as we strode through the garage. "Or...", she cut herself off as a Black Dodge Charger backed into a spot in front of us. "The Charger"
I gave her a giant shit-eating grin as the car finished parking.
"OOooo boy I know which one you gonna take!", she laughed. "Key's in the car. Thanks for choosing National".
Thankfully my gun case fit like a glove in the back seat. And within just a minute, I had escaped the confines of the parking garage and was on the interstate heading toward Orlando. I was tight on time and there was no way I was about to miss my next (and arguably most important) flight. So  I stepped on the gas a little. I should note that I've never really even driven a moderately fast car, so I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the ride. I even slowed down long enough to take a quick picture.

Sorry Mom
I made it to Orlando airport in about 23 minutes.
Once there, I gave the car back to National and made my way into the airport. While standing in line, I actually ran into several of my hunters from last year. They're all from around the Gainesville area and were on their way back again to hunt with me. It only took about a decade for someone to come check my gun in, and FINALLY, after an insanely long morning/process, I made it through security and was happily sitting at my gate, ready to board.
The flight to Denver wasn't particularly exciting. Which is a good thing in my opinion. A brutally boring and excitement free flight is exactly what I want. And after what seemed like an eternity, we landed safely in Denver. It turned out that one of the other guides, Cody, was sitting right in front of me during the flight, and upon landing I unbuckled and let out a groan as I stretched.
"One more flight, then a drive and we're finally there", I told Cody. And it was just then that I caught the eye of one of my hunter's, Ed, a few seats away.
"Our flight to Hayden is cancelled", said Ed, over the seats.
"Bullshit!", I responded, possibly a little too loud since half the plane turned to look at me.
"Yep...snow. Next flight doesn't leave until tomorrow."
No. Freakin. Way.
After the whole process, after traveling almost all day and over halfway across the country, here I sat. Once again, stuck. I soon grabbed my bag from overhead and filed out into the terminal where I met the other hunters. Everyone was busily discussing what to do when Cody and I walked up. Some said we should stay the night. Others argued that the weather might get worse, and we'd be stuck even longer. Some said to rent a car and drive. Others argued it'd take two cars to fit 8 people total (which was how many we had). Regardless, I wasn't getting my gun into at least the next day at the earliest. The discussion seemed to go on and on before finally I spoke up. If there's one thing I hate, it's indecision.
"We don't know if the weather will get any worse, it's alright right now. Let's rent two SUV's, load up everything and just go. Sound good?"
Everyone seemed to nod in agreement, and then came the decision who should drive. One of our hunters happens to be a truck driver, so it was a given that he'd take the wheel of one of the two SUV's. The other? There were no takers. Considering I practically drive for a living anyway, and no one else was willing, I offered to take the wheel of the second SUV.  Being a Florida boy, I'd never driven in snow before...But how hard could it be?
The drive out of Denver wasn't particularly bad. The Explorer we were in handled alright, it was just slightly windy, especially in certain passes as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. We made a stop in Silverthorne to eat at a Wendy's and it was about that time I was thankful for wearing all my winter clothes. The temperature was dropping. Fast. Where only 10 hours prior I had been sweating to death in Ft. Lauderdale, I was now almost shivering in the mountains. After dinner we continued on, and it wasn't long after we left Silverthorne that it began to snow. Hard.
I noticed that everyone in Colorado was still driving like a bat out of hell in the snow. Didn't matter how horribly steep the road was, they were still flying. Hell, I was just doing my best to keep up with our other hunters in the car ahead of us. Just when I thought it couldn't snow harder, it did. Then harder. Then even harder.
I was slowly getting more and more nervous as the weather worsened. Tires began to slide and I was having a terrible time. Our path down I-70 actually led straight through the town of Vail Colorado. Having the last name Vail, I'd always wanted to visit the place. Just for kicks. Well...I got to drive through Vail, but I never saw it. Total white out. The best I got was an interstate sign that read "Vail Next 3 Exits". And that's it.
We got off the interstate in Rifle and began our trek north toward the ranch. The weather simply continued to worsen. Soon there were only two cars to be seen driving down any of the roads, and both were packed full of Florida boys. The old county road leading to the ranch was probably where we saw the worst weather. At some points the car in front of us completely disappeared and they were only about 30 feet ahead. I actually began to worry that even if we -did- manage to make it to the ranch, we'd never recognize it. EVERYTHING was white and even roads leading off the highway were masked in the white nightmare outside.
Thankfully someone managed to get enough signal to make a phone call to the ranch owner who was able to drive down to the highway and wait so we'd recognize the road. We all met, then drove the last few miles to the ranch.
I was completely and totally exhausted. My hands actually hurt from the white knuckle grip I'd kept the whole ride. We finally made the turn into the 4 mile long driveway to finish the trip. We'd left Denver at what 8:30 on what was supposed to be a 4.5 hour drive. It was now 5 am the next day. With the ranch owner in front, the other hunters second in line, and myself and my hunters bringing up the rear, we approached the ranch house. Just a few hundred more yards to go, when suddenly....
The car in front of us hit a huge snow drift and drove right off the road....
We were so close. So damn close to calling it a day. Everyone bailed out and the other two cars set about getting the hunters and gear out of the stuck SUV and into the two remaining cars. We'd worry about the stuck one in the morning. Or later in the day. Or whatever. I was too tired to think.

After finally getting into the house, I met more hunters. We were actually so late on arriving that they were already getting up to go make a hunt. I said hey to everyone, dropped my gear, and sorta zombied my way around the lodge. I was too tired to think, and actually too tired to sleep. I'd pounded an energy drink during the ride, and it was apparently still working. I ate some breakfast and watched as the sun began to rise along the horizon. The storm had finally passed.

Soon after I made my way to my bunk, and passed out cold. We'd made it. Elk season 2015 was a go, and I was absolutely pumped to get out there after them...
Just a little bit later...you know...after I sleep a bit.

*Stay tuned...More of this incredible season to come!*

Outgunned With the Ghost of Flyfishing Future

As far as days go, you couldn't ask for much prettier. The clear blue Utah skies let the sun shine uninterrupted over the river valley, and the occasional breeze kept the temperature in the comfortable low 70's. Nearby, the soothing sounds of a softly flowing river weaved their way through the trees at the water's edge, and each gust of wind made the grassy fields sway in waves, sending clouds of freshly hatched Caddis flies airborne. In an adjacent field, a herd of Alpaca grazed silently. Their methodical feeding halted only occasionally as they raised their heads to see where the one unnatural sound was coming from. Somewhere in the field ahead of the herd, violent coughing and hacking, with an intermittent gurgle was erupting from the grass.

MY violent coughing an hacking.
One of the billions of Caddis flies had managed to find his way straight into my lungs while I was walking across the field. Dressed in full saltwater fishing apparel (I own nothing else), I crawled around in the grass in a futile effort to hack up my lungs. Tears began to stream down my face as I struggled to breathe and eventually an Alpaca came near the fence to see what all the commotion was about. He silently chewed his cud and with an unblinking stare, he watched me struggle on the ground for a few minutes.
A fitting end, I suppose. Who would have ever seen this one coming? Slain by a rogue Caddis in the Utah desert, with no one to witness it except an emotionless cousin of the camel from the Motherland (my mother is actually from Peru). It's a death none of my friends could have predicted, although...Now that I really think about it...I doubt any of them would have been -that- surprised by the event.
But as you may have guessed since you're reading this, I eventually managed to dislodge the foul beast from my windpipe, wiped the tears from my face, and thanked my Alpaca friend for the help. I then grabbed my fly rod and set off to do what I'd intended to do all along: Fly fish for Brown trout.
Having lost my shoes in a fly fishing success story a few weeks prior, I was still running around barefoot. And by running, I mean carefully and deliberately taking each step, only cursing wildly every once in a while when my foot found a thorn. The river I was fishing -looked- fishy, but at this point of my trip I still had no idea what I was doing. None. My only real hope was to just get out there and try it. So I cruised the bank until I saw a decent looking hole, and walked down to begin casting from a rock. Almost immediately I noticed fish rising. BIG fish. Every once in a while it seriously sounded like someone dropped a bowling ball into the water when I fish hit something on the surface. Now remember, I'd spent the past 4 weeks fly fishing Montana in a very long trout lesson that resulted in only a handful of fish. So imagine my surprise when I big brown took my dry fly on the 3rd cast.
The fight was on and I immediately realized something: I was outgunned.
My 3 weight fly rod simply didn't have enough *umph* to get these fish out of the current. The fight honestly took over 5 minutes before I managed to get the fish to the bank. And it was then that I realized I was missing a vital piece of equipment. No, not my shoes...ok...Yes my shoes...But something even more important: A landing net. I splashed around barefoot in shin deep water for what felt like an eternity before FINALLY grabbing hold of the fish. I honestly couldn't believe what I was holding.

My first Brown! I'd fished so long and hard for trout the past few weeks that this just seemed...Easy. Maybe it was just a combination of things. Higher water levels. Different fish. Different river. Different hatch. Shoot, even I can admit I'd learned what to look for over time. Maybe I was actually getting the whole "trout" thing down pat? Regardless, I soon revived the fish, and started fishing again. With the same result. Just a few casts later I was hooked up. To an even bigger one.

Given that I barely landed the last fish, I pretty much had no chance with this one. He bulldogged his way into the current, and then just sat there. Had it not been for him slowly moving further up current, I would have thought I'd hooked bottom. Sadly, my hook eventually pulled, and he swam off. But was it really this easy? It was only 3 in the afternoon. Was this about to keep up the rest of the evening? Excitedly, I stripped out some more line, and executed a flawless cast about 8 feet up a tree on the far bank and broke my fly off.
Fantastic...I thought to myself as I began to dig through my fly box for a clone of my lost fly. And it was then that I realized...That was the only one of it's kind that I owned. Nothing else I had was even -remotely- similar to it. I tried everything. Nymphs, hoppers, you name it. Nothing was working like my long lost fly.
So I sat there on a rock and drank some water. All the while contemplating what I should do. Busily watching fish feed in front of me, I was startled by the sound of something crashing through the bushes behind me. Suddenly a man came staggering out of the bushes. An old man. A REALLY old man. Dressed in waders and a wide brimmed hat, he was toting around a 6 weight fly rod and had the overall look of an old fly fisherman. The creases around his eyes and forehead showed the signs of a man who'd probably seen it all, and slightly crazy from it. Not from life in general, but from fly fishing too damn much. It's estimated that every three hours spent fly fishing is frustrating enough to take a week off of your life expectancy. Given the man's limp he was sporting, as well as his overall appearance, I would have put him somewhere between 80-127 years old. But he crashed out of the bushes as gave me a big smile as he approached.
I was surprised to see someone there since I hadn't seen a soul since I arrived, but we began to chat and he told me that he'd been fishing just about all day and hadn't had the first ounce of success. I told him about my varied luck and he commented about how crazy I was for swinging just a three weight on this particular river, but congratulated me on actually landing a fish with the thing. He gave me the usual old man banter about better rivers elsewhere and the whole "it's not what it used to be" schpeal, and then said he was  giving up for the day because he was sore. Why was he sore? This ancient guy had undergone double knee replacements, double HIP replacements, and a shoulder replacement. And here I was complaining about sore bare feet and a throbbing knee from an ACL tear in highschool.
Before he left, he asked me what I'd been using and I answered as honestly as I could.
"Just this little...brown dry fly thing..."
"Oh, like this one?", he responded, holding up his rod to show me the fly. "I've been throwing this all day and haven't caught a thing yet"
That was it! That's the same fly I'd been using!
"That's actually the one!" I told him.
"Well here...maybe you'll have better luck with it than I did", he finished, and snipped the fly off to give to me.
I thanked him profusely and he said he needed to get going. I told him bye and he wished me good luck before disappearing back into the bushes. Quickly I tied on the new fly and walked up to a fence that overlooked the field with the Alpacas in order to get further down the river. This field was the only point of access to this river, so I expected to see the man walking back to his truck. But it was then that I realized something...There were no other cars when I parked. I was alone out there. To add to the mystery? The man was gone. Like, GONE, gone. As easily as he'd appeared, he'd disappeared.
Was he even real? It was like the Ghost of Fly Fishing Future. If I kept fly fishing like this, I was assuredly going to end up just like him. Was that what I have to look forward to?
Regardless...The fly was very real. And I proceeded to slay the fish with it.

Still outgunned, I only managed to land two other fish, and lost another 5. Oh, and of the ones I landed? Thanks to not having a net, I managed to finally bare hand a fish before he flopped from my grip, and snapped the line...Money Fly in tow. Just as easily as that fly had entered my world, it was gone. And as far as I was concerned, my day was over.
I learned a lot from my time spent out west. As a die hard saltwater guy, I'd always kinda poo-poo'd coldwater trout fishing. It was something that never really interested me because it was something I knew -nothing- about. Having lived and breathed it for over a month, I can say that it's something I thoroughly enjoy. It's extremely technical and challenging. No two rivers are the same, nor are any two days. What worked yesterday won't necessarily work today. And it's details like this that keep the game ever changing and keep the angler on his toes. Of course I love paddling out a giant bloody piece of bait for shark fishing here in Florida, but western trout fishing has managed to find its way into my heart, and I'm sure I'll be back sooner or later to get that fix. Maybe next time I'll get to run into the Ghost of Flyfishing Future again and thank him, and maybe next time I won't be outgunned in the desert.

Full Blown Fishing Bums

When you think of a fisherman, what pops into your mind? Is it Ol' Bill Dance, falling backwards off his boat? Maybe it's that dad with his sons on their way to the lake on an early Saturday morning, or even that part-time guide who owns the fly shop down the street?
Or maybe...Just maybe...It's one of these guys. One of MY guys...

The fishing bum.
We're an odd breed of fisherman. We aren't professionals. We'll never be the ones to win tournaments or start making a living off the fish we catch. We rarely land the biggest fish of the day and getting skunked is certainly not unheard of.
Our gear isn't the best. Sure we'll have a few high end rods and reels, but our matching Simm's outfit is far from complete. If it's warm enough and we can get away with it, going barefoot is just part of the attire. Few of us own boats, and those that do certainly don't own the nicest, or newest, or even most seaworthy of them all.

We're a step beyond the avid fisherman. Sure the weekend warrior gets out there each Saturday and Sunday, but we won't hesitate to go fish at 11, or even midnight, regardless if we've work the next day or not.
Speaking of work, we're (for the most part) perpetually broke. Hence the term bum. We work random jobs to feed our obsession. Contrary to popular belief, most of us are educated. A bachelor's degree is almost a prerequisite before one goes full fishing bum. But a career? Those are few and far between. Restaurant jobs, Exotic reptile farms, Lawn and Garden stores. You name it, we've, at some point, done it.

The obsession runs deep. It's absolutely consuming. Dining room tables aren't used for eating. They're for fly tying and all the materials that comes with it. Freezers don't have Hot Pockets or frozen ground beef. They're full of dead Cigs and Chum. Closets refuse to give up a single article of clothing until you've cleared at least two rods out of the way. Your work vehicle has a breakdown rod and reel for lunch time (who needs to eat?), and damn near every article of clothing you own has a little fish blood on it. You've spent more time looking at maps and weather forecasts than all the cartographers and weathermen in the world combined, and losing a big one keeps you up at night for weeks.
We've an intense passion for beer. Call us...Enthusiasts, if you will. Beer makes the stories better, the spots fishier, and the fish bigger. Plus, there are few things better for a fisherman after either a successful day, or a skunking, than a tall cold one. Seriously, if you don't enjoy a good beer, you're to be untrusted and your fish tales are unbelievable.

There's no such thing as “unreachable” waters. So what if it's hard to get to? That just makes for bigger fish. There's not a single fish bum out there who hasn't hopped a fence, waded through waist deep mud, or bush wacked their way to a fishy spot at one point or another. No vehicle? Not a huge issue. I'm personally guilty of stuffing my fly rod into a backpack and peddling a bicycle across town in the rain -just- to get to a fishing hole. If there's a will, there's a way. And laziness is hard to come by with a fish bum. Well...while fishing, of course. Otherwise yeah...we're total bums.
We aren't purists. We'd never look down on someone for using “spin to win”, or something along those lines. Hell, half the reason we use fly rods is because it makes the story better at the end of the day and makes an already difficult task more difficult. Sure I love to fly fish, but I'll never hesitate to throw on the snorkel and mask and go spearfish something. An obsession is an obsession. And we'll do just about anything to get our fix and our fish.
A bolt of lighting ripped across the dark gray sky amidst the alpine riddled mountains, and the inevitable report of thunder sent small rocks skittering down the slopes and into the clear waters of a swiftly flowing creek below.
“Great”, I said sarcastically as I took a sip of beer and looked out across the creek as the rocks began to splash. It'd been a crappy day, and I was crouched underneath a small fir to try and avoid the rain...and lightning. With a heavy sigh, I pointed my 3-weight fly rod out at the creek. “Shall we? We're here already”.
Jeb and Trent, the guys I was with, agreed and despite the cold, light rain and distant lightning, we proceeded to try and make the best of the situation. Water levels were low here in Western Montana, and this creek was no exception. Just a few fishable holes were available to us, and it made for an aggravating time. As the only decent fishing around, these holes got hit by everyone. Every day. And the fish in these holes had seen it all. Despite all of this, Jeb managed to luck out and land a nice Cutthroat.

Eventually, however, I got frustrated and left the others to the hole. I wanted to find something different. Explore some new water. Maybe, if I was lucky, I could find a new hole to fish.
So down the creek I walked, slipping occasionally as my Crocs were quite possibly the worst footwear choice for Montana. Soon I was forced to cross the creek and waded across the mid-thigh high, swiftly moving water to a nice rock bank on the far side. Up ahead, I spotted out a blown down tree that was situated near the center of the creek.
Well...It certainly -looks- fishy...
A combination of high brush along the bankside as well as the direction of the current meant that I had to stand in the water to cast, but the big tree did have a good looking hole on the down current side. So I found a suitable rock to place my IPA and proceeded to cast into the hole.
I should note that at this point I had still yet to catch a decent trout in Montana. Or ever, for that matter. All of my fish so far had been so small that I back cast them into the bushes behind me by mistake. I really didn't have a clue what I was doing.

So I threw a big fat grasshopper patterend fly that my dad had tied years ago just to see what happened. The fly landed gently at the base of the log, and the swift current soon pulled it into a small eddy on its way down the creek. Suddenly, the water erupted around my fly.
No way...a fish?!
I tried to set the hook to no avail. In my excitement, my fly was immediately back-cast into the bushes behind me, and I was forced to plow my way through them in order to retrieve my fly. After what seemed like an eternity, I got my fly back, and gave the hole another cast.
This time it was even quicker. The fish exploded on the fly, and unlike last time, I set the hook on the fish.
I felt that addictive pull, I knew the fish was on, it pulled out of the hole, into the current, and that was it....
The hook fell out.
The whole thing lasted less than two seconds, but it was enough to get me overly excited. I certainly never thought that a little creek trout would give me the shakes, but this had been a three week long quest at this point, and all I wanted was to land a decent fish. I immediately made another cast and...
Another. And yet again, nothing. I cast for another hour before finally switching flies and continuing. But still. Nothing. I'd missed him.
I walked back to Jeb and Trent completely defeated and totally distraught. What was I doing wrong? How was everyone else catching fish and not me? Was it my gear? Was it my honed offshore/saltwater hookset method? Was I just freakin' unlucky?
I didn't know, but here's where the true fish bum in me shined through. I became obsessed. I didn't sleep. Couldn't...actually. All I could do was think about that fish under the log, what I'd done wrong, and what I needed to do to land it. Come hell or high water, I was getting back to that creek, and I was going to land that fish. I just needed a way to get back there. A spot 45 minutes from town when you have no car is technically impossible to get to. Unless, of course, you're a fish bum.
So for a full week I stewed. I told buddies and strangers at the bars about the fish and about what happened, but was careful to never give away exact locations. And it wasn't until the following week that a chance to redeem myself finally emerged.
I was happily sitting on the couch with my friend Alaina, watching the Big Lebowski, and enjoying a beer when the topic of conversation turned to fishing. I described my lost fish to her and explained how badly I wanted to redeem myself.
“Game to give it a try this evening?” I asked, praying she'd agree.
Without hesitation she responded. “Yeah...Absolutely”
I've always driven either a truck or a Jeep. So it honestly felt a little weird to begin loading fishing gear into a bright blue, late 90's Honda Civic hatchback, but at that point I didn't care. I was about to get another chance at this fish, and being a true fish bum, I literally bummed a ride out there.
After winding our way down a dusty, gravel mountain road, Alaina and I arrived at the spot. I cracked a beer and weaved my way down the poorly traveled trail through the thicket to the water's edge. Unfortunately, upon walking out onto the edge of the creek, we discovered two other fly fishermen had beaten us to the the first hole. But to be honest, I couldn't have cared less. I had a hot date with that log farther down the creek. So we politely walked past the two men, weaved our way down the bank, crossed the swift creek, and made it to the tree.
Once there, Alaina gave me first dibs. Using the same grasshopper fly, I cast below the log and...
I tried again. And still again, nothing. I cast for about a half hour before finally giving my friend a turn. She too was using a grasshopper fly, but a slightly different pattern, and part of me dreaded the idea that she might catch the fish I was after.

Eventually, however, she broke her tippet off on the log and that meant I had another chance at the hole. By this point, the sun had begun to dip below the nearby mountainside, casting us in its shadow, and I'd made the decision to switch up flies. Obviously the hoppers weren't working, so I threw on a sinking nymph and began casting.
It should probably be noted that as a born and raised saltwater fly fisherman, I've never been in the situation where a strike indicator/Bobber/Thing-a-ma-bobber is necessary. So I'm not sure if it was pure Floridian fisherman speaking, or lazy fish bum, or beer, or what, but I opted to just tie the nymph on with no indicator and see what happened.
By this point I'd caught onto the whole “current' thing. Your fly line pulls at the fly and makes it look absurd to a trout. So I made a cast underneath the log, held my fly line out of the water, and guided it carefully down current.

I'll be the first to admit; It was subtle. I barely saw the line twitch. But twitch it did, and with the grace of a newborn giraffe, I set the hook into a fish, and the fight was on.
At first I thought I'd hooked another little guy like I'd done countless times beforehand. But soon it began pulling out line on my 3-weight and got caught in the current. Immediately I knew I was outgunned. 4X tippet and a fish in the current meant I was just a hiccup away from losing the fish, so I did the next reasonable thing; I started running. Down current I chased the fish, trying the whole time to reel in at least a few inches of fly line at a time. Instantly I felt the Croc on my right foot slip off.
No time...Can't...Retrieve...Shoe...
I passionately wish I could describe how painful it is to run along slippery river rocks barefoot, but I haven't the words in me to give it justice. It's like someone hitting the sole of your foot with a wet baseball bat. But I honestly didn't care. I soon realized that this was the fish. This was the one that had haunted my dreams for the past week. My only goal was to land this fish.
With no net and only one shoe on, the landing was sketchy to say the least. But by the end of it all, I looked back to discover I'd run about 80 yards down current to land this fish. I'm usually slow to excite, but as a fish bum, this did it for me. It's a miracle I held the fish still for the picture, and Alaina just laughed at how hard from excitement I was shaking after finally having landed my first...Real...Montana fish.

Obviously not the biggest in the world, but this fish made my entire trip. I'd never been more thankful to have put forth the effort and time into chasing a fish before. I just hope my Croc is out there somewhere, floating around with my other lost Crocs, waiting for the day that my adventures lead to their colony. Maybe somewhere near Fiji. Or New Zealand. Who knows? Only time will tell.

Momma Dog and the Georgian Chinese Firedrill

"Yeah!" I yelled over my shoulder to my friend Jamie in the back seat, struggling to talk over AC/DC's Back in Black which was blaring over the radio. "Apparently the guy's nephew went in there and killed him with an axe years ago. They call in the Boy Scout house!" I pointed out of the window of the truck to a dilapidated field house in the woods as we bounced down the old dirt road. Chuckling to myself, I finished, "But we've always called it the Axe Murderer House...For obvious reasons"
It was a night like any other night which involved riding around, telling absurd stories, listening to music, and looking for pigs to shoot. Except on this particular night, my co-worker Amanda and I had company in the form of our friend Jamie. In addition, Amanda's dog Koda (aka Momma Dog), had joined Jaimie in the backseat of the truck. I was riding shotgun and obviously in control of the greatness that was being rocked from the radio while Amanda was driving us around. We turned onto another dirt road and began to cruise along just as Sad but True by Metallica started to jam through the speakers. Caught up in my own world of rock (guess who rarely got control of the radio), I didn't even notice as the truck sped up, then immediately came to a complete halt. Suddenly Amanda began making strange noises and bobbling around in her seat like someone dropped a hot coal in her lap.
"What the hell is  wrong with..." I began. But before I could finish, she cut me off.
As the cloud of dust ahead of us settled, sure enough, a group of about ten pigs materialized in the headlights. The truck doors sprang open, then all hell broke loose...
It had been a fairly usual day out on the plantation. After finishing up work for the morning which consisted of telemetry and VIT checks on our deer, we were free to pretty much do as we pleased. I had recently brought my .44 Magnum out to the plantation and Jamie brought her .380 with her so we all headed up to the range to do a little practicing. We shot just about everything we brought in the truck, and I tried my hand at Jaimie's .380 which had about a 97lb trigger pull. The girls also seemed to be fans of the .44 Mag.

Momma Dog rode around with us for the whole day and would only occasionally whine a little when she spotted out one of the many fox squirrels that called the pinelands home.

The rest of the day consisted of cooking dinner, playing Hammerschlagen (Google it), and several rather intense games of Super Smash Brothers on the N64. But by nightfall, it was time to get our game faces ready. Serious business was about to ensue. Nighttime meant active pigs, and that meant every chance in the world to run into them. Soon we readied the truck, got all of our guns, and got dressed to go hunting.

Now, I realize some may find my hunting attire to be rather...unconventional, but I've found what works and I'm sticking to it. The shorts allow me to stay nimble while I bound over high brush in pursuit of my prey. A white T shirt means that my coworkers can always spot me out in the inky blackness of the Georgia swamps at night. And the crocs? Well, it's long past time we all realize the effectiveness of crocs as hunting footwear. Aside from feeling like you're walking on pillows stuffed with a mixture of clouds and Pegasus feathers, crocs are extremely quiet when walking through the brush. Add in a pair of mix matched hiking socks, and suddenly you're transformed into a stealthy, nocturnal bringer of death. Function over fashion.
So we went to load up into the truck, and usually I'm the one to drive (I had been doing it all day, after all). But before I could climb into the driver's seat, Amanda piped up that she wanted to drive. Since I'd been doing it plenty, I obliged and called shotgun before Jamie could.
I was obviously excited to be in control of the radio, and we hadn't been driving long before we spotted out our first animal of the night; An armadillo in the road. Dillo's were usual sights on the roads at night. But what wasn't usual was that we had Momma Dog in the truck with us. As Amanda opened her door to get out and look at the armadillo, Koda had finally had enough. The poor dog had been sitting in the backseat all day, being tortured by the sight of fox squirrels and other delectable treats without the opportunity to go "play" with them. She'd finally had enough and before any of us could react, Momma Dog bolted straight out of the back window of the dodge and made a bee line for our armadillo friend. In usual fashion, the armadillo made a futile effort to hop away, and before it got more than a few yards into the brush, the old pitbull was on it. All that could be heard in between our shouts at the dog was a cringe worthy 'crunch' as momma dog found her mark. She eventually came out of the bushes carrying the armadillo and biting down on it like it was a squeaky toy. Or crunchy toy, in this instance. We were mad that she jumped from the window of the truck, but I can promise you'd be hard pressed to find a happier dog than Momma Dog at that time. If dogs could smile, she was grinning ear to ear.

It wasn't until later in the night that Metallica started blaring, Amanda started seizing in the driver's seat, and our bacon friends appeared in the headlights. It took a little longer than usual, but the P word had finally been said. Serious business initiated.
Standard protocol for events such as these is to immediately let out a string of colorful phrases and expletives. In addition to that, it's necessary to lose all motor skills and begin fumbling around- a task which Amanda was executing flawlessly. I immediately reached down to grab my SKS. I fumbled for a moment while I tried to simultaneously open my door, but I finally got hold of my SKS. Except there was a problem. It wasn't my SKS.....
I was holding a .22 Marlin.
In the moments before leaving the field house, Amanda had inadvertently sabotaged our evening. As I had been driving all day, my SKS was next to the driver's seat. She'd been riding shotgun with her .22. We forgot to switch guns. So as I went to extricate my pig slayer from the seat cushion, I instead pulled out a squirrel slayer.
There's an odd phenomenon that occurs in situations like these when time slows down. The pigs were still standing in the headlights, Amanda had yet to shoot, I was holding a freakin' .22, and I was halfway out of the truck. It seemed like the pigs were standing there for a few hours before I finally decided that I can't kill anything unless I shoot, so I did the only thing I could think of...
I unloaded the Marlin at a pig.
Time: Unfrozen. Suddenly everything was happening faster than I could think. The pigs scattered every direction. The truck began to ease forward down the road. I finally got completely out of the truck to see a pig running directly at me. The crack of my SKS signaled that Amanda had finally found her motor skills. James Hetfield was belting out Sad But True from the truck speakers. The pig was now just a few yards ahead of me, still coming right at me. I shot again, pegging the pig right between the eyes and sending it sliding to a halt right in front of me. I took aim at another pig and "click". Out of ammo.
Time went back to normal. From the other side of the truck I could hear Amanda acting out Standard Protocol in reverse order. Cussing and obscenities could now be heard off in the dark. Out of ammo with the Marlin, the .44 Magnum came out to make an appearance. The revolver finished off a wounded pig in the ditch, and I quickly raced around the front of the truck to see what Amanda was still cussing about. When I got to her, she was somehow managing to wield a spotlight in one hand and my SKS in the other. But thanks to a 20 round mag, and my loading it with soft points, a round had managed to jam. To add to this mess, she was trying to keep a wounded pig that she'd shot in the spotlight as it stood there 40 yards ahead of us. I quickly fixed the jam for her, and we put down the final pig.
High fives. Job well done. But before we could finish celebrating, we heard Jamie pipe up from the cab of the truck back at the road.
"What the f*** ya'll?!?"
We turned to see the truck parked no where near where we bailed out. In addition to that, Jamie was halfway between the backseat and the front seat. One hand on the steering wheel and the other holding Momma Dog.
Apparently, in our haste to bail out and harvest wild bacon, Amanda forgot to put the truck in park. Meanwhile, Momma Dog got a glimpse of all the fun that was happening, and was attempting to jump out of the back window for a second time. I'm still not sure how Jamie managed to restrain the overly excited pitbull in the backseat while simultaneously parking our ghost riding truck amidst a pork firefight, but I'm eternally grateful for it.

At least we got barbecue, and stories we'll never forget.