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.

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.