Tuesday, November 15, 2011


The boat trailer is already hooked up. As the truck turns over the thermometer on the dashboard blinks reluctantly. 10 degrees. Most accesses will be frozen. I toss the axe in the bed of the truck in anticipation of chopping ice. As I lay my fingers on the steel head of the axe I feel a burn. It’s one of those mornings when everything I touch has a little sting associated to it.

During the drive to the access I reflect on the beginnings of my day. A cold blast of arctic air had crept in through the window of the bedroom. Usually, I leave it open just a crack to let in fresh air to offset the old Vermont Castings woodstove which cranks out an almost intolerable heat from down in the kitchen. I had been sleeping above my covers when the frigid Arctic fingers reached through the window and wrapped themselves around my feet like a death-tolling ghost. I bolted upright and looked at the clock. 3:25am. It would be five more minutes until the radio began crackling the local country station’s middle-of-the-night news. I figured that I might as well just get up. I staggered downstairs and when I opened the porch door to let out my whimpering black lab, Boo, I was assaulted by the air sailing around the Northwest corner of the porch. I commanded him to “hurry up!” and he wriggled past me, breathing frosty exhalations of gratitude for letting him back in. I meandered over to the sink and turned on the weather. The old radio whispered static for a moment then the voice of the outdoors began to deliver his monotone soliloquy. The voice in the box said that the wind was indeed from the Northwest and attached the moniker of an Arctic Clipper. These were to be clear, cold winds of 10-20 mph on land with more dramatic currents on the lake. The lake level was deemed moderately low at 95.5 feet above sea level and the water temperature was delivered in the same uncaring voice; only 36 degrees at the Coast Guard station 20 miles North. In minutes I was dressed and was pouring a thermos of dark French Roast coffee. I grinned as I add a drizzle of maple syrup. What is it about maple syrup in coffee that warms the soul after spending hours outside? Maybe it’s the thought that something that comes from trees has to be helpful to ward off a chill.

Arriving at the access, launching the boat goes smoothly. The ice is about 1” thick but breaks with a gentle tap of the axe. The amber lights of the trailer guides glow warmly in the rear view mirror. Slowly backing down the ramp so as not to lose the boat by sliding off the trailer, I hit the ice on the bottom of the ramp and the truck lurches backward, sending my heart into high gear. Then as the wheels enter the water they catch traction again and I settle down. The bowline is clipped to the rings on the bed of the truck so I can launch solo. The boat slides easily off the trailer and into the steam rising off the water.

The whistler decoys are in a bag, strapped to the bow with bungee cords. The wind is blowing about 10-20 knots from the Northwest. I climb into the canvas blind surrounding the cockpit, being careful not to tear any of the Fastgrass on the sides. I lean over the stern and pray. “Please let this old motor start this morning.” The old Honda resists on the first two pulls and then she coughs once, sputters, and roars to life like a race horse at the gate. I call my pup, Boo to “kennel” into the boat and he jumps proudly on top of the decoy sack, like a hood ornament.

We shove off, busting through a thin layer of sheet ice, turn into the wind, and head toward the corner of the island.

With each decoy I toss out, I am thinking that later it will be painful to pick up with its wet cord and anchor. I set out 2 dozen whistlers and a dozen bluebills, then pull the boat up to the rocky shoreline. I wedge the boat’s hull under an old oak tree that clings to the rocks. My Barnegat Sneakboat is as mobile and shallow drafting a boat as can be made. I am filled with pride that it took me 18 months to complete this craft in my old garage and now it is serving me in these rugged conditions like a dependable friend. I light the propane heater and push it up under the spray curtain. It billows a welcome heat out from under the fore deck. I set up my milk box with a flotation cushion and hunker down inside the grassy mound. I pour a cup of coffee from the neoprene covered thermos and place it on the port shelf made by the canvas siding. I watch the steam swirl off of the cup and feel nirvana arriving. As I load my Benelli I hear it. The distinct, unmistakable sound of cold arctic air tearing over stiff wing pinions, like a child blowing on an acorn top. Goldeneyes!

I scrunch down, hunching my shoulders under the top of the blind and peering out into the smoky fog rising off of the water. I raise my gun to ready and watch closely. The big bird swings across the bay from shore. A lone drake whistler. He swings over the decoys at 30 yards and presents himself to me in a picture perfect broadside belly shot. I raise my gun to my shoulder and swing through the gorgeous black and white body. As my eyes find the cheek patch, still swinging, I squeeze the trigger and the bird folds up in mid-flight, bouncing off of the surface and coming to rest without motion at the edge of the decoys. Boo is shivering with excitement on the bow. “Back!” I command loudly. Boo flies off the bow like an F-16 leaving the deck of a carrier. He breaks through the surging water and creates a wake with his powerful swimming technique, using his tail as a rudder. As he approaches the bird he opens his mouth and slams his jaws shut on the big drake like it was the most important singular event in his life. 

His swim back to the boat is filled with pride. His head is held high above the rippling surface. I could swear he is grinning. He crawls up on the bow and holds the beautiful boutonniere-adorned bird, it’s head glistening in the sunlight, a black-green iridescent sheen. “Leave it!” I command. He gently places the drake in my hand and in that moment life is defined as the joyful expression of the present. I am grateful for all that is. Man and dog share the bond that has spanned generations. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Join us at tomorrow's Dead Creek Wildlife Day!

Join us for the fun! Blow our goose calls, hide in our layout blinds, play with our dogs, learnt o "flag" a goose, set up decoys and "talk to the birds!"


Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Waterfowler's Life Wish

It was late in the duck season, and for several weeks there had been few birds in the area. Rumor had it that “our birds” were staging about 100 miles to our north, in Quebec. We knew one thing that might bring them south was a weather pattern of monumental proportions. On the weather maps all week I watched the powerful front move up from the southeast, spinning counter-clockwise, accumulating strength and humidity over the Atlantic. It was shaping up to be one of those epic Nor’Easters. It was due to hit us hard on a Saturday afternoon, and, we all hoped, would blow the the ducks down from the St.Lawrence and Richelieu rivers

On Saturday morning I drove my truck around surveying all the access points to the lake that could be used with a northeast blow. Most of the accesses were already frozen in. Those that were still open were blocked by drifts of snow too deep for most boats and trailers to penetrate. I found only one that might be negotiated, and it had to be prepared by ramming through some deep drifts that had been plowed up onto the end of a street of summer cabins. The water just past the drifts was full of slush from the snow that had started falling. I started calling around to find trustworthy partners for the trip, preferably ones I could count on in an emergency. My friends John and Eric, my two best hunting partners, signed on. John is a middle-aged well-cultured and dependable friend who has shared many harrowing outdoor experinces and maintains his calm demeanor when faced with challenging conditions. John’s yellow lab, Remi is equally as dependable and a methodical hunter, calculating in his reserved style of retrieving. Eric, a young man headed for the Marines, is a thin, strong and quiet character who takes orders well and anticipates what needs to be done before anyone asks. These are the kind of partners with which you feel confident taking chances. We watched the wind and weather carefully.

At noon the snow and wind tapered off, giving us a short window of time in which to launch our flotilla of handmade sneakboats, bags of decoys, 2 dogs and thermoses of hot coffee. The boats were built to handle extreme weather. Barnegat-style sneakboats have long covererd foredecks and combing encircling the cockpit to keep water out, and with a traingular spray curtain on the deck in front of the cockpit, most of the water rolls off the curtain and back into the lake. Our goal was an island offshore about 400 yards, the first 200 of which were icy slush before we broke into open water. We headed for the southeast, leeward side of the island to set up under a big oak tree that wrapped it’s strong legs around the rocky shore. Then we spread our decoys out to our east with two-pound “H”-style anchors. Finally, we wedged the boats securely between the gnarly old oak and some shoreline shrubbery, then hunkered down to wait for wind-beaten birds to circle the island from the west and come barreling around the corner, seeking shelter in the cove.

The lull in the storm ended, and the wind started to increase in tempo and intensity. We tucked ourselves tightly into our boat blinds, backs turned to the tempest and huddled under our hoods. Then I heard it: the sound of wind strafing over the primaries of a goldeneye, a whistling sound so characteristic that old Yankees call these birds whistlers. "I can't see them but here they come!" I said. And from out of the mist-covered waves came a single goldeneye drake, beating his way crosswind toward our spread of decoys bobbing aggressively in the waves.
As he turned his chest away from the most distant decoy, at about 35 yards, I said to myself "Butt, body, bill...bang!" Down he went, into the icy water, and in a flash my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Boone, leapt off the rocky shoreline and swam powerfully toward the bird who had fallen about 60 yards out.

At that precise moment it began to snow, hard. The wind ramped up, creating waves three to four feet high. Boone had nearly reached the bird, and when they both crested a wave, the bird dove. Boone circled in the trough, the whitecap spray flying over his head. This Chessie was not giving up.

The bird surfaced to gulp a short breath, then dove again. Boone circled furiously. Finally, he stuck his head underwater, came up with the feisty old drake in his jaws, and started to paddle back to shore, fighting for every stroke against the wind.

I watched him a moment. Then I said, "Boys, I think it's time to go. We've got to get back to shore before dark or this is going to be the longest night we've ever spent."

Boone came ashore, exhausted but proud. We took a quick picture of Boone and the bird and quickly packed up our field bags. We shoved and grunted the boats off the submerged rock shelf between the oak and the shrubbery and fired up the short-shaft motors. I breathed a sigh of relief as the 15 hp Honda jumped to life. It is, at these times, that one is most grateful for dependability.

As the motors roared to life, the wind became fierce, the tops of the waves were being blown off in a heavy spray and the snow came at us sideways, burning our faces.  We had to hold our hands over our eyes to shield them from the stinging sharp crystals. We picked up the decoys with numb, frozen fingers and soaked decoy gloves. Then, one wave at a time, we fought our way back to shore. The wind whipped a vicious spray over the bows of the boats and smashed the waves into the foredecks. Water rolled off the boats in sheets. Each wave was a hurdle to be taken with the greatest respect for its own potential. Quartering was imperative. If we were to be blown sideways we would capsize. The only workable strategy was that of taking each wave at a 25 degree angle and pointing the bows upwind as we came off the crests. In my boat, Eric hunkered down on the floor and held on to the cockpit combing with one hand on each side as I had instructed. He was quiet and focused.

As I guided the boat by the tiller of the motor, we gradually, slowly and methodically fought each wave, closer and closer to the shoreline. As we beached the boats on the sandy shoreline o

ut of the wind, we all started to laugh, partly with joy that we had survived, but there was an undertone of wonderment at nature’s extraordinary force. We felt invigorated by the knowledge that we had faced nature’s power and were alive.

As we loaded the boats back onto the trailer, John laughed and pointed at his van window. There in the caked-on snow someone had written the word “Crazy.”

And of course, the graffiti artist had a point. Why would anyone in his right mind go out in a small boat on the open waters of Lake Champlain during a December blizzard, why take that kind of risk? Because risk acknowledges that my life is sacred and cherished, that something important is at stake. I take chances because I feel more alive when humbled by a force greater than myself, one that commands respect and brings out my best. It’s not a death wish, exactly. I’d call it a life wish.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Nature Wastes Nothing

About a month ago I spotted a road-killed forkhorn buck on the side of the road that I travel every day to get to work. Like most people I looked down at the side of the road and sighed. My heart hurt for the senseless death of something so beautiful.  I decided in a moment that today would be different. I was not going to let that creature degrade into another rotting carcass to be dragged off into the ditch and possibly attract other critters to the dangerous roadside, where they too might meet an untimely death trying to do what used to come naturally to all of us; scavenge.

We have become a society where our meat is delivered in Styrofoam containers with polyethylene wrapping under neon lights that flash “farm raised ‘organic’ meat” as if “no animal was harmed in making” this sterile little package. Frankly, I think it’s an insult to the animal’s soul that we are “disgusted” with the act of hunting, scavenging and butchering an animal to nurture our bodies. Animals deserve respect whether they are to look at, eat, or photograph. It is their interaction with us that cries for us to learn to live from them.  Animals have a spirit that desires a connection to their environment and, whether we think we are distant relatives, or are entirely disconnected from their world, we need them to survive. Many religions believe that we are “all one” in soul and spirit.  So this day, I stopped the truck and asked myself, how can I be a direct participant in the life of this being? How can I honor his majestic being?

I called the State Police and gave the location of the buck and asked that they have a Game Warden call me on my cell phone. I wanted to ask permission to take this animal home and butcher it so that the participants of VT Outdoor Women’s Doe Camp could benefit from eating the nourishing flesh of this deer. The call came back quickly. The Game Warden gave me a “tag number” for the deer and I loaded him into the back of my truck then called in to work to tell them I’d be a couple of hours late.

Cleaning a road kill animal, particularly a large one, is not for the faint of heart. Frequently the organs inside are damaged and must be removed quickly and cleanly. It is not uncommon to catch an unfortunate whiff of decomposing matter and fight back the natural gag reflex. I smoke a pipe and send the smoke up to the heavens in prayer for the spirit of the animal. It also helps to keep my breakfast where it belongs. I butcher the body of the animal, blessing each part of it.

I process each quarter into attractive pot roasts, rump roasts, flank steaks, burger, and loin steaks. I wrap each piece carefully and seal it in a vacuum sealer, clearly marked with the type of cut and the tag number. Next I mix some pure pork butt with the burger meat and add in some hot Italian sausage seasoning, then run it through the grinder and feed it into genuine hog casings, creating perfectly cylindrical sausages to be included in a homemade spaghetti sauce on a frigid winter night.

The meat is delivered to Doe Camp in a cooler and the recipes are prepared for the 70+ ladies that will attend this weekend retreat at Jay Peak Resort in Jay, VT. We will use the meat to create succulent dishes in our “Easy Gourmet Cooking” class and another class called “OutdoorCampfire Cooking”.  The ladies and I take the venison roast and cube it into nice square bite-size morsels, flash searing it in a glaze of Jack Daniels and butter. The loin is placed on a  shish-ke-bob skewer and a slice of blue cheese is placed on it topped with a sliced, de-seeded jalapeno, then wrapped in a thick slice of Dakin Farms cob-smoked bacon and skewered. Cooked over an open fire made from a hand drill and bow-started fire, this meal is enjoyed by those who help to prepare it. The beauty and the wonder of the animal are blessed by sharing its essence with those who can honor and appreciate the value of the nourishment. The life of this forkhorn was not wasted.  

If I hadn’t slammed on the brakes and backed up to pick it up, his life would still not have been wasted. It would have nourished some predator and the buck’s energy would have passed into another realm of the same animal kingdom that you and I belong to. After all, we too are animals, and that instinct to scavenge is one of the oldest of natural-born characteristics in all of us. Some do it in the grocery store. Some of us do it on the back roads.
Here's my question: Should we be paranoid about this as an attack on our gun rights or do we need to adapt to survive?

Paranoia or Reasonable Response?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Stalking the Wild Leek

On my way home from a turkey hunt this spring, I was pondering “what does successful mean” when it comes to a day in the woods. Does it mean that we come home with what we were pursuing? Or does it mean that, like my favorite saying, “Happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you get” it is simply recognizing the gifts that are in front of us? All life is sacred, not just wild game, and when we take a life to support or nurture our own, it should be done with reverence and some level of gratitude.

I like to joke with vegetarians that the only difference between them and a hunter is that the animals actually have a chance to get away. How “fair” is it to cut a wild asparagus off at the base or pluck a succulent morel from its musky earth?  Shouldn’t we honor the plants as much as the animals? In Native American belief systems there is a deep respect for all things living. One 19th century Cheyenne, named Wooden Leg said “The old Indian teaching was that it is wrong to tear loose from its place on the earth anything that may be growing there. It may be cut off, but it should not be uprooted. The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growths may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities…”

Many organized religions still uphold that food should be blessed before we consume it, which, in a sense is recognizing the value and energy of the food.

So, here I am, pondering the meaning and purpose of life as I am walking home “empty-handed” when it occurs to me that I am surrounded by one of the Great Spirit’s blessings. I am walking through a strange and fragrant patch of wild leeks (or ramps, as some colloquialisms refer to it) on the side of hill surrounded by an oak stand. There is a small stream of running water from a spring nearby and it nurtures these broad-leaved wild onions. All around me light filters through the newly leafed trees in pillars of warm white sunlight with swirls of morning mist rising from the musky earth. I am transfixed by the beauty. I kneel down, feeling like I have found a place in the woods where the Great Spirit is watching over me and saying “Open your eyes. You are being blessed.”

I dig my fingers into the dark black soil and smell the pungent aroma of last year’s decaying leaves and the sweet smell of over-ripened acorns. My fingers dig in around an unusually large green leaf and follow the auburn stem toward its roots. My fingernails become the ancient digging tools of my ancestors. Several inches below the cool earth I feel the wet and solid bulb and curl the last joint of my finger underneath it. Uprooting it, I hold it up in the shaft of sunlight that is funneling down upon me and peel back its slimy skin to reveal the powerful smelling root vegetable.

I walk slowly home with my prize and show it to my wife who loves wild leeks. “There must be ½ acre of them!”I tell her excitedly. She quickly runs into the house and retrieves her new ergonomic hand tools I gave her as a gift from work, and we head off back to the site.

In a mere 20 minutes we have gathered 4lbs of the sweet wild onions and have not even come close to impacting the patch. Back at the house I think to myself “How can I honor this wonderful gift? What can I do to prepare it so that it will be a centerpiece of enjoyment for all who taste it?” I clean and sort them with a spray gun from the hose, separating the leaves from the bulbs with scissors.

Tonight we will dine on roast leeks basted with olive oil and sea salt, and after  we will pickle the remainder, saving them for special occasions. And the leaves, I grind up in my Cuisinart, add raw garlic, olive oil and roasted walnuts, blending them into a bright green pesto to be savored over cheese tortellini at a later date.

As we sit down to a meal of roast wild turkey breast (from a previous “successful” hunt), garlic mashed potatoes and roast leeks, we toast our good fortune and bless the food with a glass of fine chardonnay.

Life is beautiful. All we need to do is open our eyes and look for the blessings.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Life Stages of a Waterfowler

Have you ever stopped dreaming of waterfowl hunting long enough to ask yourself “what provides me with the greatest satisfaction from this sport?” This autumn I will celebrate my 30th year of waterfowl hunting. If someone were to ask me that same question, I would have to condense my long-winded pedantic answer to several “stages” of my career. I stumbled upon my passion relatively late, at the age of 22. I had no one to lead me, mentor me, or guide me in the dark mornings of my post-adolescence. I was exploring who I was when I found an image of a duck hunter on flooded tidewater, wandering the phragmites in his traditional duckboat with his loyal Chessie. It was a painting by Chet Reneson titled “Northern Birds.” I think it may have been in a Ducks Unlimited magazine that I picked up in a dentist’s office. I was captivated by the solitude of the sport. The romantic notion of a man who knew how to work with nature to take what he needed to survive and to revel in the true meaning of life supporting life.

Something about that image grabbed my soul at its depths and pulled out of my core, the roots of a duck hunter. For the first year, I wandered the swamps around coastal Connecticut and upland New York in search of something that quacked. I had no idea what I was doing. This was the discovery phase of my addiction. I was satisfied with even seeing or hearing a duck. I just wanted to know that I was in the right place. I had no waders, no boats, no decoys, not even a dog that knew what we were looking for. I reveled in the mastery of jumping from one clump of cattails to the next without going in over my rubber boots. I hunted places that no duck hunter in his right mind would venture. Ditches. Streams that flowed past community ballfields. Even small drainage ponds behind manufacturing plants. I’d lay in cornfields so small you could throw a rock across them. I would cover myself up in burlap bags and use lawn ornaments for decoys. All for the hope that some silly goose flying overhead might break all migratory tradition and pick that field to land in. I watched sunrises over developments and restaurant roofs, longing to experience “real” wild places, where vast expanses of water defined thousands of acres of wetlands. Nonetheless, satisfaction came at the end of the day, exhausted and soaking wet, lying in front of the fireplace and smelling my wet springer spaniel sleeping beside me.

The following year, my boarding school drop-out buddy and I purchased a homemade 12’ flat bottom boat, a used trailer, a Sears Gamefisher motor and a dozen L.L. Bean cork decoys. This was the beginning of the next stage; the Equipment Accumulation Stage (EAS). 

By the way, this stage becomes its own addiction and is a continuous aggregation of gadgets that eventually consume entire rooms of the house and garage. When it comes time to move or change households, the first requirement becomes storage space. Vehicles have no place in a garage. Lawns are arranged in a manner as to accommodate several boats, canoes, kayaks and various floating conveyances. The equipment stage actually brings to bear its own sense of satisfaction with the arrival of the UPS truck on a regular basis. Every year brings mountains of new tools. Back then it was Flambeau decoys, then G&H swivel-heads, then jerk cords, quiver magnets, flags, and then the predecessor to Mojos called “Miracle Decoys” with belt-driven spinning wings. Then come the calls. Calls of various tones, colors and shapes, (some purchased for the sheer attraction to marketing verbiage like “bourbon and water colored acrylic”) flutes, short reeds and finally, custom ground calls by Alec Sparks of Dead Creek Calls.

After the EAS, and running concurrent to its rabid development, comes the “I Shot A Duck! stage (ISAD). This acronym, if you are a decent person, is appropriately named because the first time you actually kill one of these beautiful creatures you will likely feel some remorse along with the elation that you were finally successful. This first duck does not have to be a full plumage rare Eurasian Wigeon. It could be just a common hen merganser. It is seen as a trophy and is hoisted high above the proud hunters’ head and he/she is now a card-carrying member of the fraternity. This is generally celebrated with a war whoop and a dance of questionable origins. The elated hunter brings home the trophy with the M.O. of “you eat what you kill.”

This leads to the next stage; the belief that we are now providing sustenance for our families, and thus they are now subject to this new tradition of honoring the animal that sacrificed its life for our nurturance. This stage is known as the Sustenance Hunter Introduces the Tradition (SHIT) of serving wild game to his family, the first meal being roast merganser in a crock pot. To a 23 year old, the meal is pure epicurean delight. It must be because it is served on newly acquired Abercrombie & Fitch placemats with flying duck scenes and water glasses with engraved scenes of the hunt. The meal is paired with a fine wine chosen by the fledgling sommelier, a bottle of Beaujolais, because if it’s French it must be haute cuisine, right? This stage rarely advances beyond its baseline of SHIT.

Occasionally, if the hunter can render his ego to those who truly know how to cook, he can learn to produce remarkable dishes like char-broiled breast of duck with cherry ginger compote in a merlot reduction and presented with a slice of genuine foie gras with Belgian truffles on semolina toast points. But that’s much later. For the next 20 years his family will grudgingly eat the SHIT he puts on the table with such pride.

The next stage is the one where too many hunters get stuck. It is measuring the satisfaction of the hunt by how many birds one kills. It’s unfortunate, but almost everyone hits this stage. This phase is known as the If It Flies It Dies (IIFID). During this phase a good day is defined by limits all around, hens are shot indiscriminately and after a full bag of mixed mallards, the obligatory black and a woodie or pintail, this hunter will shoot a few “extra mergansers” if the state does not count them as a part of the daily limit. This is the stage where game wardens, who in the past have been respected authorities, suddenly become the adversaries. Their interpretations of the law are suspect and the hunter begins to “push the limits,” “legal” out of season baiting, leaving blinds up beyond their regulated dates, and crossing state or international boundaries to shoot another limit in another area. When you meet one of these folks, it’s best to walk away or hunt with someone else who isn’t in this stage. I’m not saying it’s wrong to shoot a limit, but I have to ask myself what will satisfy their idea of the hunt.

After graduating from the IIFID stage we seek to humiliate ourselves in other ways; like learning to shoot expertly. We become obsessed with fancy guns and high scores on sporting clays or skeet courses. Some people actually lose their desire to hunt at this point and subjugate their bloodlust for the fragrance of gunpowder and the recognition of going 100 straight. During this stage you may encounter peers who will shoot a pair of $15,000 custom engraved over and unders at a rate of 300 rounds a day, 4 days a week. They will travel 4 hours to attend a shoot where they receive a small red and blue patch that they can then sew on their leather vest with padded shoulders that reads “100 straight.” When one of these fellows steps up beside you on the sporting clay stand, prepare to be humbled. Don’t fret my friend. Know that many of these shooters don’t hunt. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with this phase…except that it detracts from the actual purpose of hunting. That and I can’t afford the guns. Someday, when I sell my first book, I will buy a Parker side by side.

Another sometimes common affliction of a maturing waterfowler is the dog training tangent. This stage is commonly known as Canine Obedience Means Everything or “COME!” This acronym is frequently employed at trials after a retriever has taken a line to the concession stand rather than the distant mark of a downed avian-fragrance enhanced bumper. What dog in his right mind would turn down the smell of fresh grilled frankfurters? But seriously, these folks spend an inordinate amount of time mastering the intricacies of commands that can spin a dog around to the left or to the right at 400 yards away and “cast” him in the opposing direction by a variance of 2 degrees South/South West to catch a cross current of scent that is rising off of water that is calculated to be cooler than the air surrounding it, such that it will travel between the shoreline and a distant twig bent at a 45 degree angle. And that’s where the bird lies. These people amaze me! 

I have trained with a few of them and am so awed by their talents that I can only console myself by making sure that no one hears me scream “You Moron!” at the top of my lungs when my boy heads for the nearest blind that is cooking bacon on a propane stove. I have even had the privilege of taking one of their dogs hunting and watching them identify ducks that we want to shoot and looking disdainfully at us when we raise our guns on a less desired species. At any rate, the dog training crowd are a force to be reckoned with… and admired.

The next stage is the DIY stage or Do It Yourself. This stage begins the maturing of the waterfowler. He now seeks to add meaning to the hunt by loading his own shells, building his own boat, carving his own decoys and training his own dog. At this point everything takes on greater meaning. Until you have shot a reward banded greenhead over your own cork and pine decoys, out of your own Barnegat sneakboat with a reloaded shell and had it retrieved by your own well-heeled lab that delivers it to hand, I submit that you have not known true magic outdoors. The DIY’er is easily recognized by their quiet demeanor in the blind. They are busy trying to calculate how to engineer a decoy with mechanized tongs to retrieve the bird you just shot. They will look at your custom built boat and take it one step further by adding a “left handed donut shelf” that will not interfere with the camouflaged side rails of the gunwhales. I hunt with one of these guys and let me tell you, there is no one more entertaining than a DIY’er. He’s made dog blinds out of thrown away suitcases and boat trailer guides out of PVC pipe complete with reflective tape. He is the McGyver of the Wetlands. The problem with this stage, if there is one, is that the DIY’er cannot be satisfied. The need for constant improvement will not allow for this. Occasionally, the DIY’ers extravagant inventions allow him to recognize that, at the base of all that is waterfowl, we are all DIY’ers.

The next stage of the aging waterfowler is the Meteorologist & Weather Prognosticator, alias the Logistical and Intuitive Atmospheric Researcher (LIAR). At some point in every waterfowlers career he becomes obsessed with gaining the upper hand on what the next low pressure system is going to bring, which direction it is coming from and what barometric pressure changes may do to the hormonal balances of the migrating flocks in his region. He will sit for hours reviewing every possible chart of the jet stream and the recent history of weather patterns (as if they really had any pattern to them.) They will stare for hours at satellite pictures in Doppler, Mosaic loops, Wind conversion charts and infrared satellite diagrams of pressure fronts as they work their way toward the watched area. A true waterfowler will get on the phone with the local meteorologist and debate him/her after they deliver their evening forecast on the local news channel. The hardcore waterfowler knows what acronyms like GOES, NOAA, NWS and CONUS actually mean. The problem with this group of LIARS (see above) is that they actually sound like they understand more than those around them and convince them that the pothole on the windward side of the river will prove to be the hot spot when that Southwest winds shifts to Northeast at about 8:47am according to the sunrise tables that he has discovered are directly linked to the tidal currents based on solar spot activity following the tail of the last comet to pass through that longitude. It’s scary, because when they are right, we turn our backs on all common sense and from that point on willingly hoist the sails for the long run downwind to “the spot”, bucking 4’ rollers as the sun rises and the ducks head inland for calmer ponds.

When the waterfowler has finally reached the stage of mastery, he is well into his mid-life crisis and is now driven by the desire to re-kindle the spectacle and wonderment he experienced as a neophyte. There is only one stage left that can possibly bring any sense of blind enthusiasm like he felt as a beginner.

The final stage of a well-developed hunter is PIO, or Pass It On. If you have a child, or like me, have to “borrow” someone else’s, and mentor the little bugger, you will see how these stages come full circle. When you see your young protégé’ slog through knee-deep mud with a grin on his/her face, and that banded drake woodie in their hand, you re-discover the meaning of the hunt. It’s not about how much equipment you accumulate, it’s not about how many birds you kill or running your dog like a robot to his mark. It’s all about being there. The smell of the swamp, the bouquet of gunpowder and wet dog, the crafted lines of the hand-made boat, the perfection of a solidly built blind, the calls and bands jingling around your neck, and the eternal beauty of the sunrise over the swamp. This, my friends, is the definition of satisfaction.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Fishing - Brook Trout

In my front yard a proud Araucana rooster announces the first rays of crimson light at about 5:00 am. A quick cup of french roast coffee and I hustle out the door, like the early bird pursuing the proverbial worm. At the stream, I don my hip waders and wade quietly into the pool of dark blue water, just as the sun peaks over the ridge behind me, casting its glorious golden rays on the tops of the sugar maples, just starting to show leaves against the cerulean blue sky. One, two, three false casts in perfect rhythm, like an eternal metronome ingrained in my being, and I let the weight forward 6 weight line fly toward the riffle at the top of the pool, where it embraces the protruding rock and churns quickly around the base. I know from past piscatorial lessons that this is where the feisty brook trout awaits his breakfast, served in the swirling current of first light. Today I am presenting him with an irresistible rust-colored thorax elk hair caddis. The high floating fly whips around the ripples carved out by the rock. As it slows down its drift, it twitches ever so slightly in the slack water, as if attempting to break free from the surface to take flight. There is a moment where my thoughts are singularly focused in the present. Time seems to stand impossibly still. Suddenly, a fierce gaping hole opens in the darkness below and the caddis fly is sucked into a vortex of tooth and muscle. Instinctively I lift the rod tip and allow the ferocious battle to begin. I am on the opposite end of a delicate fly rod using tippet thinner than a human hair when the brookie shows his tenacious personality and rockets out of the water, swinging his head in rebellious denial of my dreams. The fight is one that has been repeated throughout history. The fight pits our prowess against nature’s oldest drive; to provide food. As I land the beautiful brookie in the net, I breathe deeply and admire the perfect yellowish brown spotting on the back and the orange and white tipped fins under his belly. This moment is sacred. And in recognizing this, fully present of having a choice, I choose to release the beautiful being back into the watery world at my feet. There will be many more, but in the tradition of my teachings, I always release the first fish of the season. At the water’s edge I whisper, “Goodbye, my brother. Thank you for sharing your beauty with me.” And such begins the summer.

Biologists from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department on April 27 made initial recommendations to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Board for antlerless deer hunting opportunities during Vermont’s 2011 deer hunting seasons. The Board approved the proposal on the first of three votes necessary to make it law. Citing a severe winter that likely suppressed deer herd numbers in all of the state, the department is proposing to reduce the harvest of antlerless deer during the 2011 deer seasons. The Fish and Wildlife Board voted to reduce the number of December muzzleloader permits issued to 9,575 permits for 14 of the state’s 24 wildlife management units, and to allow antlerless hunting during the archery season in most of the state. Biologists estimate hunters will combine to take 5,224 antlerless deer in the three hunting seasons. “The proposal represents a fairly conservative approach to antlerless deer hunting this fall,” said Mark Scott, Director of Wildlife for the department. “We’ve been able to reduce deer numbers in parts of the state and meet our management objectives in recent years through aggressively issuing muzzleloader permits. That, combined with severe winter weather, contributes to our proposal to the Board to issue fewer antlerless permits during the muzzleloader season this year.” The Board voted to open 23 of the 24 Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) to the taking of antlerless deer during the archery season, October 1-23 and December 3-11. Like last year, the Board voted to close WMU-E to antlerless hunting during the archery season. Youth deer hunting weekend on November 5-6 is again proposed to be an either-sex season statewide. Any deer could be taken during this season, regardless of antler length or points. Muzzleloader season antlerless permits are proposed for 14 of the 24 WMUs. This year’s proposed muzzleloader permits reflect a 63 percent decrease from the 2010 total of 25,600. Biologists expect hunters who receive the permits to take about 1,800 antlerless deer in the December 3-11 muzzleloader season. “Statewide, our deer herd is in excellent health,” said Scott, “and proof of that is how well the herd fared during a winter that was above average in its severity. Antlerless deer hunting remains a crucial tool in maintaining the herd’s health, and we still need to harvest antlerless deer to achieve our management goals.” The Board will hold public hearings on the proposal. Antlerless permit applications for the December muzzleloader season are available on Fish and Wildlife’s website. The deadline to apply will be August 25.

As of this writing, our state is inundated with floodwaters. Lake Champlain lake levels are at a record high for the entire history of record-keeping. Flood stage is recorded as 100’ above sea level. The highest previously recorded level was 102.1’ in 1869. Currently we are at 103’ and we have still not crested. Much of the shoreline and roadways have been closed near the lake. Entire lakeside communities have been under several feet of water and are unreachable by anything but boat. When a Northwest wind sweeps over the lake from Canada and New York it dramatically erodes the shoreline. There are sediment plumes that extend all the way into the center of the 4 mile wide waters. Clean water is rapidly being overtaken by these plumes and creating havoc for lake fishermen. As of this writing, of the more than 25 fishing access areas on Lake Champlain and major rivers only 6 are even open. All others have been closed until the water recedes. As of April 27, the access areas that remained useable for launching boats included: Tabor Point, West Swanton; Mallet’s Bay, Colchester; Lamoille River, Milton; Converse Bay, Charlotte; and Larabee’s Point, Shoreham; and Valentines, Grand Isle.
Our walleye fishing season opened Saturday, May 7th and many anglers were looking to access the lake and its tributaries. The Fish & Wildlife Department has cautioned people who plan on heading out on the water to use extreme care when launching boats and while on the water, as there will be many hazards, both floating and under the water.
For more information, call Fish and Wildlife’s Mike Wichrowski at 802-241-3447.

There is currently a proposal in front of the F&W Board to vote on changing the Boundaries for Waterfowl Hunting in our state. I sat in on the Public Meeting on May 3 in Swanton and was shocked to see so few in attendance. There were approximately 40 people, all die-hard duck hunters who tend to think very passionately about their sport to the exclusion of all else. I found it very odd that of the 40+/- participants that only 3 of us were from “out of town.” This proposal was initiated to appease hunters who prefer to hunt Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge which currently is included in the Lake Champlain Zone (LCZ), and which historically has a split season that does not allow hunting during that split. The proposal considers making the Refuge part of the Interior Zone which traditionally runs 60 days straight. Here’s the problem: Missisquoi is the top destination for waterfowl hunting in the state. It also typically freezes up earlier than the rest of the lake. So, being included in the LCZ, typically it gets closed down during the split for as many as 12-14 days in October during the peak migration. The purpose of the split was to allow late season diver hunters to hunt much later into the season since their 60 days was “split” between a 1st and 2nd season. Since most of the diver ducks like whistlers and bluebills come down late in December, this permitted them to hunt the broader open lake later. With Missisquoi as a part of the LCZ, the two Opening Days were getting over-crowded and, although the split allowed the Refuge to “rest” and build up its duck populations again, those who saw how many birds were using the refuge during the split and then migrating before the 2nd Opener became frustrated. So they proposed to change the Missisquoi Refuge area by including it in the Interior Zone, allowing them 60 days straight. Ironically, at the meeting the F&W Board took a vote and it fell like this; 9 “Against”, 7 “For” and 24 abstaining. WTH? (What the H***?) The Board is hoping that those people who abstained and those who did not attend will send emails or letters to them before the next meeting on May 18, when this proposal will go to its second vote. Why would those who would be benefitting from the change not show? And more curiously, why would those who would benefit from more hunting opportunity (locals) be against it? It befuddles the mind.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

March Northwoods Article

Green Mountain Report

March 2011

Icefishing this season has been a little challenging. What with 2 feet of snow on top of a not-so-thick layer of clear black ice and slush 6 inches deep on top of the ice, it’s been very difficult traveling on the lakes and ponds of the Green Mountain State. The season started out well enough with an early freeze and several cold windless nights that gave us that base of good clear black ice anywhere between 4-8” on most lakes. But then the snows came. It seemed like each week we faced another Nor’Easter from early January right through February. Snow piled up in 4-6’ drifts and was consistently 3’ deep even here in the Champlain Valley. The mountains were another story entirely. They typically receive twice as much snow. This is great for the ski areas, but wreaks havoc on the deer and turkey populations. Vermont Fish and Wildlife has kept a Winter Severity Index for several decades now, and based on snow depth and temperatures this winter is shaping up to set some potential mortality records. We are all very concerned about how this severe winter is going to impact our wildlife. VT F&W had been trumpeting how healthy our herd has been, with higher and higher harvest ratios, considering lifting the “no spikehorn rule” and actually even proposed an October muzzleloader season, which, thanks to some common sense, was soundly defeated in the Public Meetings on January 3, 4 and 5. I’ve got to voice an opinion here and some will agree and some will disagree, but I believe that the VT F&W, although based on biology and science, is also in the business of selling tourism and hunting and fishing licenses. When every year they post higher and higher harvest ratios, we have to look at why. Is our herd really growing beyond its carrying capacity or by adding new seasons, lengthening the seasons, and increasing the bag limits are they simply allowing us to harvest more deer? More opportunity = greater numbers, right? Now we are about to face the moment of truth, where all this science will be tested. If the population is/was too high, we will likely witness significant winter mortality. If the herd is appropriately balanced with the habitat and available food sources, the herd will still be healthy.

The Winter Severity Index is based on a point system. For each day that the snow is 18” or deeper, that day is assigned 1 point. It has been generally accepted that at 18” the snow is rubbing on the bellies of deer. For every day that the temperature reaches 0 degrees or lower, another point is assigned. So, if one day the snow is 3’ deep and the temperature goes down to -10, two points are given to that day. At 0 degrees, a whitetail has difficulty maintaining body heat and sheds weight by burning up valuable calories to keep warm. For turkeys it has been determined that a healthy bird can go as long as 8 days without food and sustain itself in extreme cold temperatures for several days. As long as a bird can walk on top of the snow (consider snow’s “structure” whether fluffy or heavy) it can travel several miles to feed. During a winter like we are experiencing this year, many birds will seek manure piles and roost in nearby trees. Now, if all this isn’t bad enough, throw into the mix a burgeoning coyote population. A pack of coyotes, after locating a traditional deer yard or turkey feed location, will feed heavily on the available herds or flocks.  This all spells trouble for the deer and turkeys. We can only hope for a mild March, which is typically the month that animals are most stressed from the arduous winter weather. Let’s hope that the second half of the season is forgiving.

Now for some good news! On February 5th and 6th a group of 6 of us entered one of the most enjoyable ice fishing derbies I’ve encountered. The Kampersville General Store in Salisbury, VT hosted a true down home derby on Lake Dunmore. I had never fished this lake before and was stunned by its stark beauty. On the first day of the derby the sun rose over the mountain to the East. We had pulled our caravan of 2 shanties, 3 sleds, tip ups, jigging rods, 3 augers, smoked beef tongue sandwiches and beer ½ mile in deep snow and slush. The air was cold and the sun was bright with promise. We fished all day, collecting a few perch and a few smallies that were enough to put us on the board in 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the end of the day. We drove home wondering whether we would return. But our fearless leader, Rudy Castro, of Vergennes, rallied his troops and 5 of us were on the ice by 6am the next day. One of our crew, Chris Holwager, from Ferrisburgh, VT had turned 21 years of age a few days earlier and, as teens are wont to be, was not in good shape to fish at first light. We’re not quite sure what caused him to suddenly spring to life, but after a few flags he came alive like the monster in Mel Brooks “Frankenstein” movie. “It’s Alive!” we all shouted as he sprinted to the distant tip-up. From that point on the boy became a fishing machine. Rudy, Eric Ovitt, of Vergennes, Eric Champney, of Charlotte, and I watched as Chris pulled off some of the most remarkable fishing stunts we’d seen. At one point Chris was jigging for rock bass and got a big bite. He reeled up his ultra light rod and found that he had hooked a tip-up line from 20 yards away. He grabbed the braided line and began pulling it asking himself “What the heck?” OK…that’s an embellishment. He used some alternative language. He tugged on one end of the line and the tip-up, which the flag had been locked into place accidentally, begin to topple. It was spooled out. So he tugged the other half of the line and something tugged back. After struggling to get this “something” to the hole, Rudy reached in with a gaff and pulled up a perfect 6.68 lb laker. This was definitely a derby dog! Chris continued his reign of piscatorial terror, pulling up a 12lb catfish, several smallies and a few rock bass. Meanwhile, Eric Champney was concentrating on single handedly extirpating the entire rock bass population on the West shore. By days end, he and Eric Ovitt had almost a pail full of 1 pounders. With the derby bell being set for 3pm, we started picking up around 1:00 and dreaded the long haul back to the access. We arrived at the Kampersville Store around 2:30 and checked the board. It looked like we had 2nd and 3rd place in the bass category and 1st in the laker column. But, as all of you who have fished derbies know, there is always that guy that comes in to weigh his fish 2 minutes before the derby bell and he’s carrying a monster. This time it was Steve Clodgo, of Middlebury with an 8.12 laker. Still, after everyone checked in we had a 3rd place bass and a 2nd place laker. We were “in the money” at least. The store’s owner, Holly Hathaway, who is as stunning as she is gracious, blushed to learn that her 14 year old son, Cullen, had placed 2nd in the Pike category with a 10.34 lb gator. Cullen has been fishing this lake since he was old enough to cast a line and knows every inch of it. Still, it was fair and he deserves the recognition the same as the grizzled old veterans of Dunmore. All in all, I have to say that if you ever want to fish a real Vermont derby in a real Vermont town with real nice people, you have got to give Dunmore a try. And while you’re there, stop in for bait and a chili dog and say hello to Holly and Cullen. They’re real, good people.

Wayne Laroche, the recently retired and the second-longest serving commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, will be contributing his scientific expertise to the fisheries restoration and water quality improvement efforts of the Vermont-based conservation organization, Lake Champlain International (LCI). "We are absolutely delighted that Wayne has decided to share his vast experience with us in our efforts to ensure a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Lake Champlain.  We are honored, and we are equally excited by the prospects for what can be accomplished when combining Wayne's enormous talent with the commitment and passion of our current staff, our nearly 100 volunteers, and the nearly 23,000 people supporting our events," said James Ehlers, LCI's executive director. Laroche, an accomplished biologist with degrees in both wildlife and fisheries management, has conducted research on behalf of major universities and research laboratories.  The Franklin County, Vermont native has worked as a consulting biologist on projects as diverse as studying the impacts from the pollution generated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Lake Champlain walleye reproduction research.

We’re in for a bit of a battle with the newly elected politicians in Montpelier. There has been a pair of teen suicides in January that led to the introduction of a bill, H.83, to hold firearms owners culpable for the negligent storage of a firearm. As it currently reads, this bill proposes to make it a crime for a person to negligently leave a firearm accessible to a child. It does state that a firearms owner would not be liable if: (1) the child obtains the firearm as a result of an illegal entry into any premises by any person (2) The firearm is kept in a locked container or in a location that a reasonable person would believe to be secure (3) The firearm is carried on the person or within such close proximity to the person that it can readily be retrieved and used as if carried on the person (4) The firearm is locked with a locking device that renders the firearm inoperable (5) The person from whom the child obtains the firearm is a law enforcement officer, or a member of the armed forces or national guard, engaged in the performance of the person’s official duties (6) The child obtains or discharges the firearm during the course of a lawful act of self-defense or defense of another person and (7) A reasonable person would not expect a child to be present on the premises where the firearm was obtained. Is this a reasonable response to twin tragedies or another potential assault on our freedoms?

About 5 years ago I attended the VT F&W Conservation Camp for Educators at Buck Lake. It was the best week of my adult life, ranking right up there with deer camp. Right now Conservation Camp applications are currently available with many sponsorship opportunities from sportsman’s clubs throughout the state. If you are 12 to 14 years old and want to learn about Vermont's wildlife and gain outdoor skills next summer, consider attending one of the Green Mountain Conservation Camps. The one-week camp program is held at two locations -- Lake Bomoseen in Castleton and Buck Lake in Woodbury.  Students are taught about fish and wildlife conservation, forestry, orienteering, swimming, canoeing, fishing, gun safety, and more in an attractive outdoor setting.  Natural resource professionals come to the camp during the week to share information on their programs and take campers out for field activities. Conservation Camps open June 19 and continue until August 19.  Camp tuition is $200 for the week, including food, lodging and equipment. Fish & Wildlife urges anyone interested to print a copy of the camp application from their website (http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/) and send it in with a check.  The application is located under “Education & Training.”