Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Piscatorial Presence

A well known outdoor writer whom I idolize, Gordon MacQuarrie, once titled one of his stories “Now in June.” I think of this line every year when June rolls around because there is so much to do. 

Mr. MacQuarrie gives eloquent discourse on the dilemma of house chores like screen windows needing washing, gardens needing tilling, lawns needing mowing, etc. But the story starts when the depths of the lake are calling to his outdoor soul.

Bass are coming off of their spawning beds and striking viciously and trout and salmon are at their true fighting weight.

I often spend my mornings on the lake with my friend, Chris Thayer, and his UVM school chum, Jimmy Groves from Manchester. We meet in the pre-dawn darkness and trailer his boat to the Converse Bay access, then launch as the pale green and blue dawn begins to crest Pease Mountain. 

The wake of the boat throws spray into the sunlight and forms rainbows over the gunwhales.

Heading toward Split Rock we careen across the glass surface, the wind rushing through our hair.

Arriving at Split Rock, Chris rapidly throttles down and the boat’s bow plows into the surface. We attach lures with funny names that only a lake fishermen could appreciate. Names like “Sausage and Gravy”, “Michael Jackson”, and “Cop Car.” We lower the downriggers to 14’, then attach cheaters that will follow the arc of the line to the center and wiggle back and forth like a crippled smelt six feet behind the bowed line.

Jimmy is at the wheel and adjusts the speed to a palatable 2.6 mph. The motor hums quietly and we go about pouring the first coffee of the day. The sun is rising over the mountain now and painting a swath of gold across the lake like a wide paintbrush on a textured canvas. 

We are lost in reverie when one of the rods springs up toward the blue sky. “Fish On!” we all yell at the same time. Who’s up? We haven’t settled that yet!

Chris grabs the rod and sets the hook. The fish rockets out of the water 80’ behind the boat. Its silvery skin glistens in the sunlight. It is clearly two feet above the surface and giving us a show. “Did you see that?” I shout. “That’s a nice salmon!” Jimmy belts out.

Chris hands the rod off to Jimmy to fight the beautiful salmonid.

He jumps again and Jimmy bows to the fish, loosening the taught line that connects the two. The bow is a technical piece of fishermenship that allows the fish to thrust itself from side to side without ripping the lure out of his mouth. To me, the bow is an act of respect for this prized piscatorial presence.

He jumps twice more and makes several runs which cause the reel to whine, like when we used to put straws inside the spokes of our bicycle wheels. The faster the wheel spins the louder the whine.

After a long three minute battle the fish tires and comes to the stern.

Chris deftly slides the net under him and Jimmy lifts the rod to accommodate.

Soon the fish is in the boat and we are admiring its massive size.

“He’ll go eight pounds I bet!” says Jimmy as he holds the fish for a picture. “This here is a Derby Dog for sure! Let’s run him to the weigh station quick!”

Later that day, we learn that the 7.98 pound salmon brings in enough points to take a fourth place finish in the Rotary Derby and pays out a nice prize.

Now let me tell you about the one that got away!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sacred Rainbows - The Holy Grail of Spring

Wanna’ know what a real Vermonter does in April?

Most of us, with the exception of my 9th generation Vermonter wife, Katie Carleton, come here from somewhere else. When I first arrived in Vermont in 1975 I knew that my heart had found its home. I felt a sense of belonging like I had never felt before. I was a skier and had done a little hunting back in Pennsylvania. But once the snow melted, what comes next?

Two pronounced characteristics of a real Vermonter are that they celebrate sugaring season and the holy grail of spring, Opening Day of Trout Season.

Granted this year we are joking about having to use an auger to get through all the ice, but seriously, there are streams with open water that hold hungry rainbows and browns that have held over throughout the frigid months of winter.

It’s been a couple of years since my dear friend, Sara Blum, of Shelburne and I have had the opportunity to fish together. But this year I am making a public pledge to get her on the water. Sara started fly fishing just a few years ago, and like many who try this sport, she struggled with the amount of information and technique needed to actually land a trout. Sara is a tenacious business owner (she owns Acorn Marketing which stresses the competitive advantage of highly focused public relations) and as such, she is remarkably adept at learning new means to an end.

On a gorgeous spring day we ventured to the Winooski River to wet our lines and enjoy the dappled sun on the riffles of a feeder stream while throwing colorful iridescent flies into the tail outs of the rippling water.

Fly fishing is more Zen than any sport I know. Listening to the fly line swish by over your head and standing in the current makes one feel as though he or she is a part of a magnificent world. The water and the sky absorb your spirit and soon you find that your mind is at peace with the present.
I was watching Sara as she practiced her back cast and lay down finish. It was a moment of sheer joy to be watching someone learning. I drifted back 46 years to my first fly fishing expedition and recognized that the intense concentration for achieving the perfect four part cast had evolved into a lifelong passion. After numerous false casts, Sara released her forward cast and laid the 6 weight line down on the water in a straight line about 20 yards out and just in the end of the riffles.

I watched her breathe a sigh of relief having accomplished what she had been longing to do.

As she relaxed and reveled in her success, it happened.

Smack! A nice rainbow trout surfaced and hit the elk hair caddis with abandon.
The reel began to scream, ticking off the gears of the internal mechanics, and literally singing as the fish made a run downstream.

“Raise your rod!” I yelled. “And if he jumps bow down to him!”

And jump he did. The feisty rainbow threw himself a foot into the air, sparkling in the bright spring sun. His colors flashed pink and green in the sunlight.

“Did you see that?” I whooped as I walked over to her to coach her on bringing him in.

“Wow! That was fantastic!” Sara replied.

I watched as she played the fish until he was tired enough to bring in to the gravel bar we were standing on.

Sara knelt down, partly in reverence and partly in awe at the glorious being. A smile came over her face that shone brighter than the sun above her head. Together, we were experiencing the present as it is meant to be – a gift – a present - from the Great Spirit. She said goodbye to the piscatorial deity and released him back into the gurgling water.

If you have ever wanted to experience this kind of connection, please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to assist you in finding your own piece of Zen in the outdoors.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Connection Alone is Success

Glory and Wonder

As I sit in my treestand, 20 feet above the ground in a mature maple, I am in awe of the beauty around me. The light filters through the gold and red canopy above me spilling onto the musky forest floor. It feels like I am in a cathedral. I am sitting here practicing being still and mindful only of my surroundings, but I am overcome with gratitude and wonder.

I begin to think ancient thoughts. Thoughts about how mankind has connected to nature and how in the beginning man learned everything he needed to know from animals. He learned to make calls imitating birds, and studied the movements and patterns of four leggeds. He learned to hunt by watching larger carnivorous animals. And ultimately, he learned that he needed them to survive.

This need translated to a closer connection. In order to eat, he had to understand the animals or plants that he could use to nurture himself, and often times learned from experience which organisms could make him sick or kill him, either with tooth and fang, or simply through his stomach.
I hypothesize that primitive man was in some way “grateful” for his successful hunt, although he probably didn’t sit around and pray about it. He just felt it. Food is good. I need food to survive. Therefore I need animals and plants so they become important to me. I rely on them.

As I am pondering these possibilities I drift into my own analysis of why I hunt now, when it would be so much easier to go to the grocery store and purchase the vegetables and meat I need. But do I feel any connection to this food? Am I grateful for it? I may be grateful that I have enough money for the purchase, but am I grateful for the animal or plant? Have I studied its habitat and patterns? Do I honor and respect its life?

Why Do I Hunt?
When I hunt, I feel love. Love for the woods. Love for the breeze. Love for the sunset and the trees. Love for the sound of the geese flying high overhead. Love for the animal I am seeking.

I am filled with an appreciation of all that surrounds me and for who I am as a part of it. I am both insignificant and valuable at the same time. My value is no greater than and no lesser than the animals, the plants and the sun that warms my face. I am at one with my universe. It is then that the universe rewards me with what I need.

A doe steps into the open space beneath my stand. She looks over her shoulder with a maternal glance. Following her is a smallish fawn, no doubt delivered late in the spring. The fawn follows its mother directly under my tree. I watch in utter amazement as they work their way past my ladder. I am invisible.

They sense no threat from me and thus their sixth sense accepts my presence as something natural. 

They wander off behind my stand and I say a prayer of thanks to the Great Spirit for their visit.

At the edge of the field that abuts the woods, a gray squirrel squeals loudly at something I cannot see. 

A twig snaps. My heart races.

I practice breathing like I had never done it before. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Conscious of every breath. Through the tangles that envelop the ditch leading to the field, I catch a glimpse of motion.

Brown motion. 

Then suddenly a stomp and a loud blowing sound. The wind has switched direction and this animal, this deer, smells something that is unfamiliar in these woods. Behind an old oak, I see a head lift and the sun glints off of a set of gorgeous antlers.

Another stomp and blow. The buck is looking right at my tree. He is out of range for my bow. 

He lifts his head up into the pillar of light and scans up the tree until our eyes are locked on one another.

I wait. Measured breathing, Not blinking. We are joined in a primitive moment.

I can see his chest expanding and contracting with mine.

Suddenly, his tail swishes form side to side. He turns his head to the West and begins to slowly walk away from me toward the field.

The sun sets and the birds get quiet. I sit down in my seat and take a deep breath. I say out loud “Thank you Great Spirit for my brother’s visit.” I have received a gift of beauty and wonder this evening that will remain as a memory for the rest of my life. 

And I am grateful.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer's End - Fall's Beginning

Harvest Moon
For many waterfowlers that first brisk Northern breeze that sweeps the pungent fragrance of the lake depths through the valley, means it is time to prepare for resident Canada goose season. While the public basks in the last few days of summer and revels in the glory of Labor Day weekend, goose hunters are preparing for Opening Day. 

Field bags are packed; decoys are set out in out fields, their deceptive motion swaying with the slightest wisp of air. Layout blinds are prepared by picking wheat and clover off the ground and stuffing it into the stubble straps of the nylon blinds, which sit on the dewy ground. It takes more than an hour and a half to properly grass the blinds and crawl into the coffin-shaped boxes.

Dawn of Fall
As the first rays of sunlight melt over the mountains, the sky lights up in salmon and helio, outlined by soothing sage. There is not a cloud in the sky and the sweet smelling northwest wind bodes well for our crew of anxious fowlers. 

We are sharing our traditional cup of coffee and donuts when it happens. Far out on the bay, the echo careens off of the rocky beach. Her-onk! The breakfast flock is awakening.

First call
We return the call with a simple cluck and leave the rest to the imagination. Sometimes the best call is the one that leaves curiosity in the mind of the conversationalist. We wait.

Soon, another muffled, yet intriguing honk comes from the bay. We answer back with a curt hail call. 

That gets the ball rolling! Now we are in an aggressive dialogue about how wonderfully tasty the wheat is this morning. Within minutes we can hear the entire flock begin to debate about when to leave the roost. Juvenile voices say “now!” while the more guttural adult tones profess “patience.” It’s like listening to a family on Christmas morning.
All Set

Twenty minutes pass. We are all silent in the field, when one of our band of brothers calls out “Two from behind! Right over the trees! And Silent!” “Get down!” I counter. Blind doors snap shut and we all disappear in stalks of wheat and sheaths of clover.  

These are the scouts.

We let them circle the spread and do not call or move. They examine us closely, then slide gently back out over the water and land in the center of the bay, clucking to the flock of 300 birds.

The question comes up every year. Should we have shot when they were hanging over the decoys? My answer has always been “no.” Let them take the news to the flock that the field is full of geese and there do not appear to be any predators.

Ten long minutes pass. Our hearts are beating wildly, hoping that we made the right choice. And then it begins.

We hear the wing beats flapping against the water as the family pods begin to peel off of the flock. 

Within moments, the sky is alive with honking, as powerful wing pinions flail at the air. They are arriving in flocks of 10 – 20 birds at a time. 

The first flock to lower altitude swings from right to left across the spread then turns away to the South. 

A single bird back pedals and drops his dark black boots to land in the decoys. “Let ‘em land!” I whisper. When the second flock sees the single bird on the ground, he calls to them.

First Bird
They cup their mighty wings in an arc, the shape of which is emblazoned in waterfowlers’ memories for generations. 

As they glide in to finish their landing, feet outstretched, necks craning, I wish that I could freeze this moment in time and somehow convey to all those who do not hunt what a magnificent spectacle we get to witness.

Some call the Canada goose a nuisance because it fouls their lawns and golf courses. I prefer to think of them as majestic brethren seeking a connection to us.

Smile of Success