Friday, February 5, 2016

Jackpot! Yellow Perch

Once in awhile ice fishermen hit the jackpot.

I was recently witness to such an event, and after considerable soul searching, have accepted that it is alright once in awhile.

One of my ice fishing buddies, Ozzie, and I drove north a few weeks ago to the St Albans Bay area on Lake Champlain, in search of a rumor that the yellow perch were hitting hard. Now before all the hardcore ice fishermen condemn me for mentioning “their spot”, let me just say that by the time you are reading this column, the situation will have changed considerably and the perch will have moved on to other shallows.

Here’s the story. Ozzie and I got a late start and by 7:30 am were still not sure where we would go to try our hand. I had just acquired a new Vexilar FL8SE, an economy grade fish finder, and I was eager to try it out.

We pulled up to the Georgia Shore municipal playground and saw about 30 trucks. “This is a good sign” I said. When we looked over the embankment, the ice was littered with people. Not just any people, but people who kept raising their rods quickly and hooking fish with what seemed like every five to ten seconds. “That looks promising” Ozzie replied.

We dragged our sleds out onto the ice and lined up with what seemed like a straight line paralleling the shoreline. We cut a hole with my hand auger and found about seven inches of good ice. I dropped the business end of my Vexilar down the hole and it lit up like a Christmas tree with colors of red, orange and green signifying fish holding to the 12’ bottom.

I dropped a brightly colored bibbit with three spikes on the hook. “Spikes” are what ice fishermen use to refer to maggots. (It keeps the squeamish amateurs grossed out and swearing that they will never ice fish.)

Less than one second passed and I had a bite. Then on the second bite I lifted my 24” ultra lite ice rod quickly and the fish was hooked. I quickly reeled him up, looking at Ozzie, and winking sent the bibbit back down to the shallow bottom. Less than a second later another fish was on. And another and another.

I began to put back any fish less than six inches, reasoning that my mother-in-law loved to eat “crispy tales” which are cleaned and fried so that there are two nice pieces of meat held together by a backbone and a tail – no ribs or other bones. They are eaten by peeling off the meat from either side of the backbone and devoured with the “crispy tail” dipped in tartar sauce. Truly a Vermont tradition.

As I was lost in my reverie it began to snow, lightly. The fish just kept biting, not more than 10 seconds apart. It began to snow harder until I could no longer see the shoreline just 100 yards away.

The bucket began filling up. I kept pulling up fish and my friend Ozzie was doing the same 20 yards away from me. We were like two laughing fools in a snowstorm.

Then suddenly, at 11:00 it shut off like, someone had just turned off the spigot.

We moved around looking for where the fish had gone. As we drilled holes moving south along a small pressure crack, closer to shore, then further from shore, we noticed two young guys who had never stopped catching fish.

We walked over to them and introduced ourselves. They told us what they were using and offered us their holes. But what was more impressive than their generous behavior was a jet sled full of perch. Probably over 1,000 yellowbellies in all. It seems our new friends, Jon and Devyn, had hit the jackpot.

“Hope you’re not planning on cleaning all this yourself” I joked. “No way! We’re selling ‘em!” Jon proclaimed. “There’s probably about $100 worth of fish there.” He asked us if we wanted any. We declined saying that we each had a half a bucket and we didn’t want to clean any more than what we had.

My efforts to comprehend the good fortune that these two young men had experienced posed a moral dilemma for me.

“What is too much?

If I subscribe to the premise that Native Americans espouse; to take no more than what one needs, how do I feel about commercial fishing? Secondly, were these two guys, who have never had this kind of luck, and are not commercial fishermen, damaging the resource?  After considerable deliberation, I chose to accept that these two young men, with their generous offers of lures and bait, even sharing their “lucky holes,” were not commercial fishermen and may never experience another day like this one.

I was quite content with what, for me, turned out to be 114 yellow perch, making up my half bucket, was all I needed that day so that I could contribute something to the Friendship Lodge’s Fish Fry on Saturday.

In conclusion, I still do not support commercial fishing in our lakes and ponds, with the exception of invasive species like the white perch, but I can share the exuberance of someone’s good luck on a day like this.

Everybody deserves at least one of these days when spending a lifetime on the lake.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hunting as Religion

There are many reasons why people choose to hunt for their own meat versus buying it at the store. 

Common themes are that wild game is as organic as you can get, the cost of wild game is free (we’ll get into that perspective at another time) and one of the most quoted is that “I like to take responsibility for what I take from the earth.” 

These are all great reasons.

Mine is one less quoted but considerably older in theory.

Many of us have stated that we see hunting as “religion” and received queer looks from those who do not see the sanctity of killing. I have heard some claim, with a twisted grin on their face, that they belong to the “church of the straight powder” as they head off to the club to shoot sporting clays on Sunday.

But for me it goes much deeper.

I was raised in an organized religion that did not serve my evolving values. I looked for a faith that would incorporate my relationship to the outdoors, specifically animals and wild edibles. I sought a connection to what I put in my body and how I nourished it.

After investigating several religions I was dismayed and lost faith in the churches. Which left me with nothing but the reality of nature’s raw power. I recognized that no man, no matter how rich or powerful he might be in society, was any greater than any other man facing the same need to survive in the wild.

One evening I sat on the shore of our lake, Lake Champlain, in Vermont, as 6 foot waves from a powerful Northwest wind swept over the rocks and smashed into a rock tower that had been built eons ago by Native Americans. No one would survive the crushing waves no matter who they were – not Donald Trump, not the President of the United States, nor any leader of any faith, if they did not respect the awesome power of nature. But behind that rock tower, I sat, my heart aching for connection to this entity that deserved such deep respect. It was the rocks that kept me from getting crushed by the waves. It was one component of nature protecting me from another.
As I sat in the darkness, feeling the waves hit all around me, I reached an epiphany.

It was nature that would become my Higher Power, my God, my Savior…my Great Spirit.
I began to study Native American belief systems, the Hopi, the Abnaki, the Cree, and the Inuit. All of them had two things in common. No leader that “interpreted God’s word” and a deep connection to their animals, land and habitat.

Sacred rituals were handed down through elders to those ready to receive them. Animals were seen as brothers and sisters of the same spirit.

Time warp forward; one of the prime rules of physics (that being the highest expression of mankind’s intellectual rationalizations of how the universe actually works) is the “Law of Conservation of Energy” which states that “energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be changed from one form to another.”

Posit: if energy can be expressed or “seen” as beauty, grace, balance or innocence, and a whitetail deer possesses that energy, what happens to it when I “kill” the animal? Is the energy that is stored in the muscle and tissue still alive?

If I eat the muscle, where does the energy go?

If I consume the spirit of my brother deer, goose or turkey, where does their power of observation go?

After reading “Seven Arrows” by Hyemeyohosts Storm, I chose to believe that it entered me. As the mouse that is consumed by the eagle gains the visual attributes of the eagle, I have chosen to believe that when I consume the flesh of my brother, the goose, I gain the power of communication with my peers and learn cooperation with others to form groups that rely on each other to assist in our flight.
In summary, I hunt to provide myself and my loved ones with a spiritual connection to our food, be it wild asparagus, fiddleheads or venison. I have chosen to make hunting, fishing and foraging my spiritual practice.

I still find myself buying meat and vegetables in the grocery store or at a farmer’s market, and I choose to give thanks to the animals and flora that give their lives that I might continue mine. But, just as the Jewish religion pursues their faith in food by seeking kosher meats, I pursue my own faith by seeking the energy of my brothers and sisters in the wild.

To each his own.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Second Season

Outside my den, I can hear the cold rain splintering like glass against the window on the north side of the house. Occasionally, even though it is late at night, car wheels slosh by on the paved road that extends from Burlington to our humble suburban cape, winding its way south and west to the lake.

A full moon two nights ago ushered in wave after wave of cackling migrators to the swamps now flushed with decaying aquatic vegetation. The lakes depths have begun to turn over, and from the surface, now a thick fragrance of sweet gases are released to drift inland on the northwest winds.

The old wooden boat, a Barnegat style sneak craft, sits on the trailer in the driveway, already hooked up and ready to depart at a moment’s notice.

The weather radio is crackling on top of the old cherry roll top desk and is looping the NOAA forecast for 10-15 knot winds with temperatures dipping into the thirties by noon. We know that this means the possibility that snow may bring in more birds from across the border.

I doze off on the couch under the painting of “Windswept Canvasbacks” by Jim Killen, a prize won at a Ducks Unlimited banquet years ago. It seems like minutes but when I look at the old wooden clock on the wall, it is 3:30am. As I rise from my fitful slumber, pair of headlights sweep across the driveway.

He’s ½ hour early again. My hunting partner, John Lesher, of Burlington is the kind of guy you can trust with your life and is always at least ½ hour early for anything to do with hunting or fishing.

I greet my old friend at the door, rain dripping off the eaves and bouncing off of his signature waxed baseball cap.

“Forecast looks good” he proclaims in his understated manner. “Ayuh” I answer in my best Vermont accent.

“Ya’ ready?” “You bat you!” I reply stealing a line from one of our favorite outdoor writers.

As we roll out of the driveway, I spot the first flicker of white slop as it smacks the windshield of my pickup. We will drive slowly to the access to avoid side-slipping the trailer like I did once many years ago.

We arrive unscathed at the access and within minutes motors are choking to life and the smell of outboard exhaust is blown away in the blustery wind. Navigation lights give off a comforting yellow glow in the stern and the warm green/red on the bow.

We crouch down inside our blinds to escape the breeze and the spray of foamy waves as we cross the bay to our hole in the woods at the confluence of two streams.

Arriving at the blind still in the dark, we are greeted by what seem to be hundreds of roosting birds, which flush up into the murky sky in waves of raucous quacks and squeals. We dismount from our boats and, breaking the silence which now surrounds us, I grin and excitedly speak. “That was quite a show! Look at all the feathers on the water!” “Ayuh” John replies, making me feel kind of silly.

We climb into the blind and get his dog, Remi, onto the dog platform, surrounded by his own little canine blind of cattails. After some french roast coffee with cardamom, pepper and cinnamon, we stand in the darkness listening to the sound of whistling wings all around us. We can hear teal ripping through the spread of decoys and mallards moaning a raspy “Jeeessh” overhead.

To our east, the light begins to painstakingly seep through the heavy steel clouds. “Three minutes to legal” John says. It amazes me how every true waterfowler can tell you the exact time of ½ hour before sunrise on any given day during the season. John is no exception.

The three minutes pass slowly.

“Birds in the decoys” I whisper, as three late migrating teal swing spang in from the south.

“Ready? John asks. “Ayuh” I reply with a grin on my face.

We rise in unison and thus begin another day of revelry in the life of a waterfowler.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Summer's End

Backyard Bounty

The end of August and the beginning of September mark the most colorful changes of seasons. The fairs and Field Days have passed and families are languishing in the last of summer’s freedom. Thedog days of August exhale the last breath of summer heat and the evenings begin to soften withcooler breezes from the northwest. Tomatoes ripen into bright reds and yellows. Peppers display the heat of the summer sun and turn bright yellow, green and red.

Yet, the changes in our backyards pale in comparison to the intensity of the woods and waters.

Squirrels, with their mouths chocked full of ripening acorns, can be heard chipping off the husks in the canopy of oaks. In the distance, a thwap-bap-bap-bap-bap echoes through the undergrowth as a partridge beats his wings against his chest. I like to call them “partridge” even though they are technically Bonassus Umbellus, or ruffed grouse. I do it just to irritate the gentry.

Families of turkeys, with their poults running to keep up with the hens, dart across the dirt road to the fields to dine on the late afternoon hatch of insects and grubs. The poults are pint-sized and tawny brown, and are still learning the ropes from the hens.

Colors of Fall
In the mountain streams, the water temperatures begin to drop from a series of cool evenings and the brook trout adapt their colors with extraordinarily bright orange fins tipped in white, their flanks dotted in blue, red and green. They are imitating nature’s beauty to stimulate their spawning run.

Against the far edge of a field, sitting like a Buddha on her haunches, a black bear munches on blackberries while her cubs roll in the second cut hayfield. They bat at one another, mock fighting and wrestling as if their summer would never end.

Whitetail deer tip toe out to shaded openings on the edge of another field, testing the moist grasses as the sun sets over the Adirondacks. A doe and her now mature fawns flick their tails from side to side, asking if it is okay to step out into the field a bit further. They look back over their shoulders at something still in the trees.

As the last glimmer of sunlight slips below the tree line, he steps out. His head his high and his ears are twitching. He lifts his nose into the air and breathes in deeply. The fragrance of ripe apples tantalizes him and he stretches his neck further forward. As he does, the last glint of sunlight caches his tines. They glow a polished russet brown. Eight distinct branches rise off of his main beam. The two brow tines in the center are at least eight inches high. The symmetry of the rack is punctuated only by the width of the spread.

He is the dominant buck in this area. There are two others that step out behind him with beautiful but lesser racks. They will hope to overthrow the monarch before breeding season.

Summer Fade
As the light begins to fade a distant honking grows louder and in just a few seconds big Canada geese are flying over at treetop height, wings cupped and heads craning from side to side, scanning the bay for a landing zone on the leeward side of the breakwater. Feet down and moaning, they pitch into the bay to roost for the night.

The light continues to filter into a helio horizon and finally fades into the murky mountains to the west.

Opening Morning
September 1 is the Opening Day of Resident Canada Goose season. Lest anyone not understand the proliferation of these majestic fowl, the VT Fish and Wildlife, in an attempt to manage the overpopulation of these birds, have chosen to open the season before Labor Day and increase the bag limit from five birds per day to eight per day for 25 days.

No hunter ever expects to be able to hunt all 25 days, and it is a rarity that a few can actually shoot a limit of birds on any day.

Ethical hunters will appreciate this and honor the animal by taking only what they can use to sustain and nurture their family and friends.

If you’re lucky, and you happen to be at Spear’s Store in East Charlotte after a successful hunt, you may be able to try our tamari marinated smoked goose breast.

A hunters’ cheer to all! Autumn’s bounty has arrived!