Saturday, January 21, 2012

Practice Makes Adequate

Outside of rabbits, coyotes, and some small furbearers there are no open seasons currently on the go here in southwestern Ontario, and it has likewise taken a bitter turn to the cold side of winter.

We’d been spoiled with warmth for too long, I suppose.  I hope the deer and the turkeys benefited from the unusually mild and un-snowy winter and have stored up energy for the next six or eight weeks.

For my part though, I hope to get out for a weekend in March to call up some coyotes on the Bruce Peninsula and enjoy some good times with the guys.  I really should plan it and put it in my calendar, because having a family and working for a living is leaving less and less time for road trips.  I’ve got a cousin that hunts near the Barrie area as well…I must remind myself to convince my spouse that we need to visit her parents in the next few weeks.

So what does one do when weather, the exigencies of career and family, and closed seasons render hunting a non-option?  Well if you’re like me, you tinker with gear and you practice.  Now I have a whole post prepared about tinkering with gear, but this one is about the latter pastime: practicing.

Now some hunters practice at the gun range.  This option is not for me for two reasons.  First, there isn’t a suitable range anywhere near me…at least not one I know of.  Second, and more importantly, I shoot just adequately enough (read: terribly) and I am pretty sure that no amount of practice will make me better (read: will likely just wreak havoc on my self-esteem).  So no trips to the gun range for me.

Other hunters hit the woods and scout, cut trail, and generally familiarize themselves more intimately with the terrain and geography of their preferred hunting locales.  This is something I have been doing a little bit of as I’ve been popping out now and then to the local county forests in the hopes of finding some ‘honey-hole’ that no one else knows about.  No such luck yet, and gauging by the number of other boot tracks I’ve seen, many other locals have the same idea.

So that leaves me with practicing my calling, a hobby that I truly relish.  Lately I’ve been down honing my craft in the realms of coyote calling and turkey calling.  This past Christmas I made off like a bandit with some new calls and my basement has been filled with all manner of racket. 

From my brother I received a 3-pack of coyote calls, and I can say without question that everyone in the house (except me) hates these things.  The calls each have a different level of rasp & volume, but they share the trait that they all make the unholiest of noises.  My wife cringes, my son puts his hands over his ears and shouts at me to stop, and my wife’s cat loses her mind and begins literally climbing the walls.  I can’t say that I ‘like’ the sounds myself, but they do sound good (which is an entirely relative concept when it comes to rabbit and rodent distress calls).  I really want to test them out on some coyotes.

But the figurative holy grail that I seek all winter is the opening of turkey season, and the good thing about my holy grail, is that I eventually find it every year.  But before I get there, I sit in my basement, watch turkey hunting videos, and practice my calling.  This year I scored a three-pack of mouth calls from Woodhaven Custom Calls at Christmastime and all I can say is “wow”.

I’d heard great things around the internet about Woodhaven calls, and having tried mine out for a couple of very noisy weeks, I agree with all the good I’ve heard.  As mouth diaphragms go, I’ve been using what one internet forum user called “production” calls…basically the ones the big name companies like Hunters Specialties, Knight & Hale, or Primos would make.  These are all quality call companies, but having used calls from all of them I can agree that the mouth calls do seem a bit mass-produced and not particularly unique.  Absolutely worth using, but not quite to the par that I’ve found the Woodhaven calls to be.  I find these new calls do seem to require a little more air control to run, which probably is not for everyone, but once I was able to get the air flow down I fell in love with these calls.  A more thorough review may be forthcoming, I’m still getting the hang of purrs and and kee-kees down with these, but still absolutely top drawer calls.  The cuts and yelps these things churn out are dag-nasty, and they cluck so realistically and easily that I’m unlikely to buy any other mouth calls for a good long time.

But all the practice in the world probably won't cure my desire to over call, call too loud, and then be unable to sit still long enough to have any turkey hunting (or coyote hunting) success.

But still hopes springs eternal so here I sit, tapping away at a computer with a Woodhaven Red Wasp betwixt cheek and gum, trying to get the purr down and working on my tree call.  My wife says I’m sick, and I’m just starting to believe her.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Workin’ the Cricks

So I’m sitting here enjoying a thin shaving of pungent, densely-grained venison summer sausage with an equally thin slice of crumbling, smoky old cheddar cheese balanced oh-so-delicately on a plain old Triscuit and feeling a little sad.  Now a reasonable person would likely wonder just how on earth I could possibly feel down while enjoying such an epicurean morsel, and they would have just cause to ask that.

Oh, I’m also listening to “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” but that hasn’t got me down…quite the opposite frankly.

The conundrum is that I feel down because I am able to enjoy this.  You see the meat from the recently passed deer season has come in from the butcher and my Dad dropped it off on a visit this past weekend, a visit that was orchestrated so that he and Mom could look after my son while I went out and got shamefully soused at a New Year’s Eve party.  The meat coming in is a surer sign that the year has closed out than any champagne and whiskey soaked televised countdown could be.  It also means that until turkey season, at least, my hunting for sustenance is pretty much done.  The landowners in the area have been reluctant to give permission in some spots where I’ve seen ruffed grouse and rabbits (and those seasons are closing soon anyhow around here) and I’m not quite hungry enough to eat a coyote so really the next few months are going to be passed with the stir-crazy putterings of a housebound hunter (also another working title for this blog before I went with its current name).  This coming Sunday will mark the close of the waterfowl season in the few spots around here that are still open as well, so to make me feel better about the sun setting on the past year’s hunting I’ve decided to reminisce through writing, and by extension share with you, some of my fondest memories of duck hunting on the cricks of the North Bruce Peninsula.

Now a ‘crick’ is really just another word for a creek, or a trickle, or a stream, or a stagnant concession road ditch, or I’ve even heard it used for some local irrigation ponds and culverts, but in the hunter patois of the area it is a spot where there may be some mallards (or the occasional black duck) loafing around.  So we get ready, get safe, and then stalk the banks in the hopes of putting up a quacker or two.  But you don’t just have to jumpshoot these spots.  Getting in early and kicking some ducks out of bed then waiting for them to return in small bunches has also proven to be fruitful hunting.  Here are some of my favourite hunts.

In 2002 I arrived at the farm house in a gale of a Friday night snowstorm.  Deer season was starting three days from then but I had my shotgun as well as my rifle, because Dad was of a mind to get ‘down to the crick’ and see if we could scrape down some mallards for deer camp dinner on the coming Sunday night.  It was hideously windy when I heard Dad’s alarm go off and I secretly wished to stay huddled in my warm nooks and crannies of the down comforter.  Dad’s gruff “You gettin’ up?” put an end to that because I really did want to go hunting that morning too.  It just felt ducky outside, and besides, even a jaded twenty-something with a penchant for slothfully sleeping in doesn’t want to disappoint his Dad.  The dawn was brighter, thanks to two inches of snow on the ground, but it was just grey, squally, and bitterly cold, with the gales conspiring to leather up your cheeks and make your eyes water.  As we snuck up on the spot through some thin trees, I could hear the “raaaaaaak-raaak-raak-rak-rak” of a hen mallard on the narrow trickle of water and the nasally squeaks and gabblings of what sounded like dozens of other ducks.  Dad gestured to me to hug up against a tree trunk, and I noticed he was constructing a snowball with his bare hands.  He tossed the snowball into the stream and with much chatter and whistling of wings a hundred or so mallards got up and flew off with the wind at their tails.  Then we snuck down to the water’s edge, got into the tall grass and waited for the ducks to come back.  The mallards obliged.  Dad had three or four in hand for about the same number of shells before I even pulled the trigger but eventually I was able to connect on a drake and hen that were dropping in against the stiff winds; a breeze so strong that the birds were basically just floating with their wings spinning against the backdrop of a low sky about thirty feet above the lip of the ditch.  To call it a double isn’t really accurate either in my eyes because even though I hit the drake stone dead with the first shot, it took the other two shells in my much-loved 870 to scratch down that hen.  The wind giveth and the wind taketh away as well, which was evident when we spied a pair of geese riding the breeze at low altitude.  It was obvious that they were going to pass right over us, but with a 60km/h tailwind…well, let’s just say they were motoring.  I couldn’t even swing fast enough to catch up to them and Dad got one hopeful pop at them from his Model 1100.  He wasn’t even close and the geese never even reacted at the shot.  That made me feel a bit better about him utterly embarrassing me on the mallard shooting.

On the same stretch of creek, on the same weekend a couple of years later, my cousin Luke, my friend Greg, and I tried to mimic the results my Dad and I had experienced.  Dad declined to get up this time around (even though it was no colder or snowier than that hunt a few years before), but we hit the same spot anyways only to find no ducks.  We hunted for a couple of duck-free hours before Luke came moseying my way.  We spoke in that weird, culturally vague way that hunters do.  You know the way I mean…the one where you stand shoulder to shoulder and speak to a person but don’t actually look at them; you’re too busy having your shotgun slung over your shoulder and scanning the skies for those far-off specks that may or may not be approaching waterfowl.  After some small-talk and in an expressionless deadpan Luke said something like “I’m missing a wool sock” or “I’ve got a bare foot in my right boot” or something like that.  I asked if had gotten a soaker and had discarded the drenched garment or if he had been drinking the night before and had forgotten to put two socks on.  He informed me, rather matter-of-factly, that he had forgotten to pack in some toilet paper and that he’d had an emergency.  He also remarked at how effective “the grain” of the sock had been.  I chuckled, but I also could not argue with the utilitarian logic of it all.  That sock is still out there somewhere.  Good old Luke.

During the double opener (our affectionate term for the simultaneous opening of duck and goose season in late September) we while away our afternoons jumping ponds and streams.  This past year we kicked up a dozen or so mallards off a slow-moving, man-made swale and had a pretty good time of it.  I saw the birds first and admittedly (and kind of shamefully) emptied my gun into the heart of the flock. 

So much for wing-shooting…terrible, I know.

I pulled down a couple of them (thankfully belly up) and a companion swatted one down that was ailing badly even though it was making an airborne escape.  But even though my shooting was not the way I like to be (or even recommend) doing it, the real treat was watching my friend Tack’s dog Levi work his first water retrieves.  We got almost every duck in that bunch, and Levi was working hard getting the ones that hadn’t fallen on the banks as he slogged through the oozy bottom and up the steep banks.  Initially reluctant to bring the mallards to hand, after a couple of retrieves and stern words from Tack he was more forthcoming.  None of the birds were mouthed badly, and we all enjoyed watching the spectacle.  I think all of us, especially Tack, knew that we were watching a first that was special -a nexus between Levi as a dog in training and Levi as a hunter.  Was it perfect?  No, but the world is not a perfect place.  It was still pretty awesome for me, and I’m sure a couple of the guys thought so too.  There were lots of pats on the side and praise for Levi, and some of those mallards were seared in a pan mere hours later and gobbled up by the camp.  Talk about fresh meat; it doesn’t get any more organic than that!

When I was about 10 years old I woke up early, dressed warm, and went out to a field that was under a few inches of water with my Dad and Uncle Kim and those two shot a two-man limit of ducks.  I was layered up in wool sweaters and over-sized flannel-lined work pants, and had a mesh-backed camo Ducks Unlimited hat pulled low over my face. Then we sat the edge of a steep-sided ditch and waited for the ducks.  No calls.  No decoys.  Just the knowledge that it was a good spot with some cover that had been holding ducks for a few days.  Did it ever hold ducks; the bluebird day broke, but there was a stiff wind and the mallards came in threes and fours every fifteen minutes or so for about 3 hours, wheeling around trying to land in the ditch and in the water on the field.  The shooting display put on by my uncle and father (I wasn’t old enough to man a gun) was, as I recall now over two decades later, very efficient.  This is not me heaping adulation on my elders either, they literally did not miss very often as those birds circled and cupped and winnowed their way in.  The last two birds to fall came down with one shot…I can’t recall if it was Dad or Kim that made the one-shot double but it was an incredible thing for me to see for my first duck hunt.  Even though I’d been on a hunt or two before for geese and rabbits and grouse, this one was the first time I felt like an ‘experienced hunter’ because my mentors made me feel a part of the group.  I carried ducks out and when they became too heavy I traded one of the men my burden of feathers and duck meat for an opportunity to bear their shotguns, shotguns almost as long as I was tall.  In the pictures I was just a wide-eyed kid who was hooked on hunting and couldn’t wait to get his license to hunt with “the men”.  It is a truly special memory and I hope to pass a similar one on to my son one day.

Now there are a lot of other times I’ve been out working the creekbanks and ditches of the Bruce when we’ve crested the edge only to see birds making a fleeting escape well out of range, or where we’ve all missed terribly and all we can do is make excuses and blame each other for being such abject failures as hunters and by extension, men.  We’ve also sat for long periods of time watching nothing swim around but chub and minnows and muskrats.  We’ve gone over our boot or wader tops and swore out loud and been miserable excuses for human beings afterwards.  But that is okay, because in some ways working the cricks is not all about killing ducks.  It is about watching wildlife go about its business, just as it does when you aren’t there.  It is about watching a new dog, or an old dog, work for a retrieve and bring a bird to hand.  It is about spent powder hanging in the crisp morning air.  It is about the sun cresting the eastern horizon, or having the wind and driving sleet make you bury your face in your collar and question your own sanity.

There’s a deep spiritual meaning in there somewhere, and I have not fully found or been able to explain it as of yet, but I’ve been close.  So I guess I’m just going to have to keep on going out and trying to make sense of it all; maybe I’ll fold up a nicely cupped greenhead in the process, maybe I won’t.