Monday, September 26, 2016

Honoring Remi

The old green Mansfield canoe glides silently through the bay, its bow pointing toward the narrow ribbon of moonlight reflecting on the water. Reeds brush gently by the gunwhales as we maneuver our way down the murky channel and into the cattails.

We can hear the raucous laughter of mallards from a pool deep in the swale grass behind the trees.

We whisper to one another “That’s Right!” at the same time. 

Whistling wings whiz by our heads as we turn into the small slot in the puckerbrush. The sides of the canoe squeak loudly against the ragged edges of the woody branches, like nails on a chalkboard.

 I am hunting with my friend John Lesher in a new spot. The water level in the lake is so low this year that we had to forego the blinds we normally build in the larger backwaters. This year is going to be all about adaptation and honoring our canine partner of twelve years.

We slide out of the canoe in our waders as quietly as we can, mud swallowing our feet in the decaying detritus of swamp gas and pungent wetland vegetation. We have to lean forward with each step to navigate the morass, our rear feet making a deep sucking sound when they are finally freed from the primordial ooze.

I love this. I love everything about this sport. The mud, the smells, the sounds, even the challenge of setting decoys in a small pool of water surrounded by muck.

We get the wood duck decoys situated to the side, greenwing teal to the rear and mallards to the front of a “J” hook pattern, the top of the letter facing into the wind, creating a landing zone in the crook of the bottom of the pattern.

We retreat to the canoe, and comfort John’s 12 year old yellow lab, Remi. This will be his last season.

He will not be asked to retrieve or suffer the indignities of getting stuck in the mud chasing a duck. This year John and I will retrieve the birds and offer them to him in a gracious manner of consent that he has been a great partner for 12 long years, retrieving hundreds of birds, and as he always has, guarding the ubiquitous donuts. 

Remi will be our Guest of Honor this season, allowing him a chance to bask in the glory of what he has most loved during his glorious dozen seasons with us.

As the dark purple horizon begins to show shades of sage and burnt orange, the swamp awakens.

We still can’t see the birds, but we hear them landing in the decoys and flying just over our heads along the tree line. 

6:32am is legal shooting time on Opening Day and we stare at our watches, hearts racing in time with the sweep second hand. 

There are a half dozen birds in the spread, and although we can see the wake caused by their swimming bodies, we cannot distinguish the species.

We wait impatiently. The cup of coffee is sitting on its side amidst the oak ribs of the hull, black liquid mixing with the mud in the bottom of the boat. 

The time has come.

On the count of three we rise to our knees and raise our shotguns in unison.
Nothing moves. 

The birds continue to swim in the decoys. Remi whines and trembles in anticipation. Although he cannot see the birds, he knows they’re there. Likely he can smell their oily undercoat.

Suddenly a flock of bluewing teal strafe our spread, miniature fighter jets, their wings tearing the cool morning air. They race forward and circle back to land at the rear with the plastic deceivers. As they make their final approach, we both shoulder our guns and fire.

The season has begun.

Remi smiles.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Competitive Hunting - Opinion

This is an opinion. My disclaimer is that if you disagree, do so respectfully and I will respect yours.

I do not like competition in my outdoor sports.

Maybe that came from not being very good at baseball, football, basketball, hockey or any team sport. I was always the last guy chosen for pick up teams. On the other hand I was in fierce competition with myself as a freestyle skier in the 80’s. But I didn’t like “measuring” success with numerical values.

When I found that my heart sought refuge in the outdoors, I realized that I wasn’t “hunting” for recognition, but for connection.

While my friends were intent on bragging about how big the racks were on their bucks, or how many rabbits they’d shot, I was driven to learn about the intimate details of how my prey lived. It was never about killing – although that was a part of the process. I found that I wanted was to feel my own heart beat in unison with the deer I was watching. I wanted to breathe the same air, share the same mystery of its wildness.

My first and greatest love has always been waterfowling. To me, the beauty of communicating with a big greenhead mallard and coaxing him in to my decoy spread is paramount to seeking nirvana. Becoming at one with the bird, I seek to understand the intricacies of his language. What does it mean when he purrs before he lands, red legs down in the turgid water? How does the hen seduce the drake to come to her little puddle? What dulcet tones ring out from her sage green bill to attract the wary male?

I study Canada geese relentlessly; I ponder the meaning of their body posture and what it means to others in their flock. I watch the sentinel’s head crane about, taking responsibility for the entire flock’s safety. I wonder at the soft moans of a feeding flock, and marvel at the stretched neck as an active feeder pushes others away from his food plot.

I hunt because I seek connection, not because I seek recognition for how many birds I shoot in a season or how big my buck is.

There are those who hunt for trophies only, often time to challenge themselves. Many trophy hunters are very finely honed and skilled outdoorsmen. Heck, you have to be, to find and select only the most dominant genes in the pool. It takes great restraint and planning. I respect those who choose to hunt this way. And believe it or not – many of them are still humble. Those are the type of trophy hunters that I respect. They do it not for their ego as much as for the challenge.

We have one or two of those men in our town. They are quiet, unassuming men of character. They contrast the road hunters who seek to brag about the 10 pointer they shot from 300 yards after spotting it from their vehicle in the last minutes of daylight.

One of the greatest hunting families in history, the Benoits of Duxbury, have shot more trophy bucks than anyone else can claim, and yet, they have never had any of them “scored” by the Boone & Crockett Club. They never believed that an animal should be assigned a numerical value to its body or antlers.

In my 37 years of waterfowling, I have shot many ducks and geese, but each one of them is a trophy to me, in its own way. I remember certain shots and certain pieces of land, particularly swamps, where I watched flocks of whistling teal dive-bombing the decoys at jet-fighter speeds against a sunrise that was indescribably beautiful. I have slogged through mud two feet deep for hundreds of yards just to retrieve a drake wood duck with its pontifical crown.

I do so, not so that I can brag about the shot or the calling prowess, but to relate to the bird on its most intrinsic level. We are both of the same energy. We share the air we breathe, the water we swim in, the same sunrise and the same love of the mysterious migration that happens each year.

I am never going to be a trophy hunter. That said, I would not pass up a trophy if it stepped in front of me, but it is not what defines my love of hunting.

With the utmost respect for those who do, and who do so out of the same love and admiration as I, I honor you. Not for your scores on the mountain goat you shot from 500 yards, but for the love and drive that it must take to climb 10,000 feet up a mountain to set your sights on a perfect specimen.

It is this love of the animal and the desire to become one with it that exemplifies what it means to have a hunter’s heart.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Hittin' the Road in June

In June I like to drive the back roads of Chittenden and Addison Counties with a Vermont Gazetteer in my lap and proceed from one waypoint to another checking for the tell-tale bolting stalks of wild asparagus, marking them with an “x” on my map. I have been doing this for several years now and have trained my eye to look for ditches, fences and sunny shoulders where, most frequently on the western side of the road, a few standing plants have passed and begun to branch out into the frilly dill-like leaves that indicate a hospitable environment for this, my favorite wild edible.

Summiting a small hill east of Snake Mountain, I spot them in the distance. The elusive, magical wild asparagus. I slow down and check my rear view mirror for interlopers. I am on a dirt road and no one else is behind me. I jump out of the truck, leap over the bank into the ditch, and begin scouring the long grasses that surround the beefy stalks. Score! One, two, three…four nice 1/2” round stalks with the tiny buds still clinging tightly to the main stem. I spot four more but let them be, to mature in another year. I hop back in the truck and mark the spot with my “x” and head north to the river in search of fiddleheads.

Most fiddleheads have passed, except in a few shady riparian riverbanks. These delicious wild edibles are found along river and stream shorelines, where they can sprout up through the root balls surrounded by sandy soil leftover from the late winter snowmelt. The tiny sprouts are tightly bundled and wrapped in a brown paper-like sheath. The inner edge of the spine is concave and snaps off crisply. Sautéed in butter or olive oil with some finely minced garlic or shallots the flavor is as close to rapture as a vegetable can attain. I describe their taste as a cross between a snappy asparagus and an earthy artichoke. Beside a few freshly caught brook trout, garnished with fresh dill and a slice of lemon, there is no finer wild feast that can be had by man or beast.

Wild leeks, colloquially known as “ramps” were harvested earlier, during turkey season. I find them consistently on western facing slopes in wet soil and rocky terrain. The leaves are broad and somewhat waxy terminating to a rounded point. This year, as I sat waiting for a gobbler to walk into my calling, I was overcome with the strong fragrance of these edibles that were discovered by the Abenaki and named “Winooski” meaning “wild onion.” After taking a nice young jake, I sat down in the middle of the field of ramps and picked a vest full of succulent specimens. 

Here I wish to note that I employ sustainable harvest principles for all my foraging and never take more than 1/10th of the population. In the case this year, I was surrounded by a half acre of mature “Winooski” and felt fine about taking five pounds. When I arrived home, I sprayed them off and cleaned them by clipping off the white root and the green leaves and separating them. The white bulbs, roasted with olive oil and sea
salt caramelize into a phenomenally sweet side dish. The leaves are put in a Cuisinart with roasted pine nuts, garlic and, yes again, olive oil. This year I also tried something new. I am a fanatical smoker – not tobacco, but wood – and tried smoking some wild leeks over apple wood and beer, which came out very nicely.

Now it is time to head into the high mountain streams in search of one of earth’s most beautiful treasures, the brook trout. Although a salmonid, the brook trout is actually not a trout at all, but a char. The Latin name salmo fontanalis means “of a spring or fountain” referring to the cold clear water that it requires as habitat. It is Vermont’s state fish and is one of the true signs that a steam or river is clean and well oxygenated. The daily limit on these colorful piscatorial delights is, at this time, 12 per day. Here I will make my opinion, albeit unpopular with the hook and bullet crowd, heard now. I am against this creel limit. 

There is no need to take more than three or four of these majestic fish (I believe in catching my own fish rather than purchasing them at the supermarket where they have been farm raised on a diet of chemically treated pellets that change the color of their flesh) for a meal. And even then, with respect to the specific pool’s population, I would not return again that season. I believe that a six fish daily limit is more than sufficient to appease those who wish to catch dinner and those who would like to feed a party of two. As my friend, Chris Thayer says, “brook trout and orange juice is proof of a Higher Power.” Just look at the colors – green and brown tiger stripes on the back, red dots with blue halos on the flanks and orange pectoral and pelvic fins tipped in white.

On a good day in June, I will spend the entire daylight hours driving the back roads in search of fiddleheads, wild asparagus, ramps and maybe a few chanterelles to share the plate with a few freshly caught brookies.

As a society we have moved away from providing for ourselves from the earth and purchase most of our food in a store under fluorescent lights, wrapped with plastic wrap in a Styrofoam container. However, June reminds me that the Great Spirit still provides us with all we need if we only take the time to worship nature and learn from our ancestors.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Twin Spirits

Sometimes life hands us lessons in unattractive and painful packages, but all of them, if opened and inspected thoroughly, provide us with wisdom and understanding.

A few months ago I had a quarrel with a dear friend over something so petty (at the time it seemed to emphasize our inescapable differences) that it tore us apart by the sheer will of my own ego. I will share how absurd that disagreement was because, again, it emphasizes the absurdity of the human need to be right.

My friend, Chris Thayer, whom I have written about many times, and I, had a shouting match about the fecundity of perch eggs based on the size and age class of the females. Both of us were yelling at each other and the other guys must have thought us insane to be so heated over this topic. It was about being right, and we seemed to always disagree on everything we believed. The argument blew up into a full-scale “I never want to talk to you again” war of words. Forget that this guy had been there for me through thick and thin, a member of our deer camp, my hunting and
fishing partner, and my closest of buddies I’ve ever known. I was throwing it all away.

A few weeks ago, my painful lesson was delivered to me by a mutual friend. Chris’ 26 year old son, Andrew, had been in a terrible accident, and was fighting for his life. Suddenly, my ego came into sharp focus for what it is; a character defect that had to be faced for what it had done – tear apart the heart of one of the people I have loved as a friend more than almost anyone I have known. My grief for him was palpable. I had to make right what I had done.

The day I learned of the accident, I was stunned. Three days later Andrew passed.

That night I came home from work late. There was a full moon, and as I stepped out of my truck, I looked up and cried uncontrollably. I begged Grandmother Moon to forgive me. I begged for Chris to forgive me. I begged to forgive myself.

For me, my connection to nature and our universe has been all that I have been able to count on for healing and enlightenment. Call it God, Buddha, Christ, Allah, The Great Spirit or a Non-Deity, the power that created all of this was all that I felt I could count on to comprehend, not just the loss of my friend’s son’s life, but of my own spiritual dignity.

This past Saturday, I led a migration watch at Dead Creek in Addison and was blessed by the sight of 800 snow geese that sat patiently in a field, feeding. 

We all watched in rapt attention and wondered about the miles and miles of flight that these birds had endured, living and feeding, sleeping and flying, together, as if they were one spirit. When one of my participants said “Let’s go get a cup of coffee”, the birds lifted off and flew right over us. There was a brief moment where two birds, flying in perfect unison, presented themselves, white wings glowing in the sunlight, black wingtips nearly touching. I thought “what a wonderful relationship those two have.” My very next thought was of my friend, and a cold teardrop rolled down my cheek. The healing had begun.

I pray for peace and serenity for my friend and his family. I pray that Andrew’s life will serve me and others the lesson; that the value of life is so much greater than one’s political or religious beliefs. And that we might all think before we speak poorly about anyone. I pray that my relationship with Chris can be healed and we can grow closer by sharing his loss. I pray that, one day, we can once again be united in a spirit and friendship that was born of a love for the outdoors.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

End of One Season - Beginning of Another

March is such an in-between kind of month. The last ice of a strange winter is peeling away from the shorelines. Ironically, the ice fishing is best in March. It’s just a little challenging finding safe ice to sit on.

The Vermont tradition of bullpout fishing begins to tug on my heartstrings. (I like calling them “bullpout” or “hornpout” instead of their proper moniker “bullhead” because it’s a colloquialism taught me by my wife’s uncle, Marvin Thomas, of Shelburne, a seventh generation Vermonter).

As I am jigging for jumbo perch with my Swedish pimple and bibbit on the degrading ice of a pond that holds decent ice structure into mid March, I am already thinking about sitting on the muddy bank of the confluence of Otter Creek and Dead Creek. Locals call it “Donovans” after the campsite by that name on the other side of Panton Road in Vergennes. Once the ice is out of the river, the bullpout begin to swim upstream to spawn.

They are a member of the catfish family and come in brown, white and yellow colorations, with nasty spikes on their dorsal and pectoral fins that only an accomplished fisherman/woman learns to handle properly. Nonetheless, they are delectable as table fare. I like to fry them in a vegetable oil after rubbing the fillets with Cajun spices. They are identical in flavor to their larger cousins but are far tenderer.

Another name for this fish is “mudcat”, a portmanteau that acknowledges the fish’s appearance with its love of wriggling in the mud. Thus, the bait, usually a piece of large crawler or a chunk of chicken liver, is laying dormant in the mud, held down from the current by a two ounce sinker. The bullpout approaches the bait by using its sense of smell and typically ingests the bait and hook in a slovenly fashion, swallowing the entire contraption.

I am lost in my daydream and visualize being comfortably ensconced on my folding chair, hot coffee in my right hand, a maple donut in my left, while my medium weight rod leans on an old “Y” branch stuck in the mud at a 45º angle. The line hangs off of the tip of the rod in a gentle bow, just enough tension to recognize a tug from the bottom of the river.

‘Pout fishermen watch their lines with tremendous concentration, looking for the slightest tug that straightens out the monofilament. When the line moves, the butt of the rod is lifted, gently at first, then quickly and assertively to set the hook. The battle is not typically a hard fight, but a larger fish will create a good wake as it spins side over side into the shoreline.

This is where it gets a little dicey. Remember those nasty spikes? Well, the only way to pick up one of these cats is to aim the belly of the fish into your palm and rest your thumb under one of the pectoral fins and the forefinger under the other, supporting the weight of the fish by the spikes resting above the first knuckle of the finger and thumb. I often use my middle finger to squeeze the belly and my remaining two fingers fingers to brace the lower belly. Unless you are an expert, under no conditions should one attempt to pick up a bullpout by the back, because the dorsal fin spike can easily penetrate the fatty tissue between the thumb and forefinger. And it hurts! Trust me!

Once the fish is in hand, removing the hook is another lesson entirely. I have watched the old timers remove it by sticking a stick down the throat and twirling it around the line then yanking it out, hook and line together. It’s ugly but it works. (I have never seen a catch and release bullpout fisherman.)

When the run begins, it’s not too difficult to fill a half pail full of these delicious mudcats. Some people disdain them, calling them filthy and disgusting, but I think it’s because they haven’t eaten them when they are cooked properly.

As I am thinking about bullpout fishing, I suddenly feel a tug.

My ultralight ice rod is bending down toward the hole and throbbing with life. It’s a big perch. Probably a 12 incher. As I reel up the prize, I realize that this may be the last day on the ice.

My wife’s uncle Marvin should be calling any day.