Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Shotgun Memories

It is always in the home stretch before a hunting season that I get all nostalgic about hunts gone by, and this year is no exception.  Some time ago, my father wrote a piece for the CK Times website (the link is here) about the things he had been privileged to see throughout a lifetime spent in the wilderness.  His lifetime is far from over (I hope) and he’s still making memories every year as he heads into his early sixties.  I’ve got a significantly longer time to go to even up with the years Dad has been hunting, and given the different paths our lives and careers are tracking on (Dad grew up in a rural village and spent 30 years working for Ducks Unlimited, where his work responsibilities often took him into the wild spaces he loves…I grew up in a mid-sized city and my job often takes me to airports, office high-rises, and business-level suburban hotels) it is unlikely that I’ll ever accumulate the literal decades of time that Dad has been in the woods, fields, and marshes.  Since I won’t equal his time afield, I thought I’d at least steal his premise for a post and talk about some of my fondest memories experienced while I was lugging a firearm through the wilderness.

First off, it may just be easier to tell you the fondest memories I have that don’t involve a hunting experience: my wedding, the birth of my two sons, and winning a couple of Regional soccer championships as a teenager.  Aside from those, pretty much everything else I hold dear to my mind involves guns, mud, blood, friends, fur, feathers, and the outdoors.  But here are some specifics to get you primed for the opening of whatever hunting season is coming up near you.

The very first morning I ever hunted turkeys, the dawn broke exactly how I figured it wouldn’t.  My idealistic mind pictured an early morning sunrise, with the glossy feathers of a hefty tom shimmering into view, and the big gobbler stopping in front of me and getting a headful of lead #6s.  After all, that’s how every turkey hunting video I had ever seen had run.  My experience was significantly different.  A low grey sky gave way to misty drizzle, and inside of ten minutes I was soaked in all the places that a hunter hates to be soaked.  The seat of my pants was dampened, but my hopes were not.  Then I heard it for the first time in the wild, the gobbling of tom turkeys.  They were the width of two fields away, and I never got a visual on them but they hammered away in ‘row-row-row your boat’ fashion for fully forty minutes.  I was hooked for life after that, and if you haven’t heard a couple of gobblers sound off like that through the fog and the mist, well, you haven’t lived.  That morning I even managed to call a tom in, but he obviously hadn’t seen all the hunting videos that I had…he stayed in the woods behind me and never came anywhere near where I could see him, let alone shoot.  I had other encounters in the other years since, but that first drizzly, misty, foggy, damp morning sitting on a vest-cushion with wet underpants as I listened to the gobblers do their thing was all I needed to know that I was doing something good with my time.

I had never seen geese side-slipping until my second or third season of hunting them, but the first time I saw it I think I actually shouted some term of wonderment out loud.  We were hunting a field in the days before layout blinds, and we were all safely stationed in the fenceline crouched under low shrubs or sitting in tall fringe grasses.  A gaggle (to use the term precisely) of geese were winging towards us, but I sensed from instinct that their flight path was taking them beyond us.  They were high and they were moving fast.  The one-by-one in a pattern that seemed both planned and utterly chaotic the birds began flipping over onto their backs, dropping speed and altitude with every barrel-roll.  My young eyes had never seen anything like it and I was in awe of this controlled plummeting.  As fast as they dropped in the birds set their wings and the contrast between their rapid descent and the near hovering that they did as they committed to the decoys had me completely bewildered.  Someone shouted to take them, and I managed to drop a single goose from the middle of the flock.  This was coincidentally one of the last, if not the final, time that lead shot for waterfowl was legal in Ontario so that hunt has some historical significance for me too.

Staying with goose hunting, the first time I had ever heard really, truly proficient calling for any type of game was on a goose hunt.  We had set up in a deep ditch in the Ferndale Flats on the Bruce Peninsula (the ditch being the only decent cover) and had put out a dozen or so decoys.  After some time, a line of geese on the southern horizon became visible, and they were making for our setup, or at least that is what I thought.  At about 200 yards or so, there arose such a sound from the next field east of us that I was sure there was another flock coming.  The most true to life clucks, moans, and bawls I’d ever heard drew the attention of the flock from the south and they swung wide of us before setting their wings and dropping to the field on our east side.  Six shotgun reports and a few falling birds later it became immediately apparent that a very accomplished goose caller was working the ‘field next door’.  So it went for a couple flocks more, and though we managed to score a few birds as they fled the gunfire east of us, it wasn’t the hunt for us that it could have been.  But it didn’t matter, at least to me, because my eyes had been opened to a whole new dimension of goose hunting.  After the hunt we waited on the side road for the other group, and as it turned out we had been hunting next to a championship-calibre caller: Craig McDonald.  He was hunting in the area with his Dad (they had a cottage in the vicinity) and while I was expecting an arrogant ‘professional’ (don’t ask me why) he was exactly the opposite; he was nice and humble and offered a few tips, and he had the nicest truck I’d ever seen to that time.  The next week I went out and got my first short-reed goose call, an instructional CD, and started to practice in ways that drove my girlfriend (now my wife) insane.  I’ve done a contest or two myself, but I’m still not even close the level of calling that we were treated to that day.  Nonetheless, I can pinpoint that hunt as the start of my obsession with game calls.  Now my wife knows who she can blame for the soundtrack to her life.

I may have told this story before, but with the early goose season looming, it bears repeating again.  On an early goose hunt in 2006 we spent the better part of a very hot September morning rolling hay bales into a makeshift set of blinds on a field that geese had been loafing in during the early afternoons and returning to in the evenings.  As with all things in goose hunting, as soon as the bales were setup, we went to get some lunch.  Wouldn’t you know it?  As soon as we drove off, forty or fifty geese dropped into the field to hang out.  We devised a plan of attack and secretly began a broad circle that led to us stalking from hay bale to hay bale until we were within sixty yards of the birds.  On a prearranged signal our friend Tack began herding the birds our way.  When he was just under a hundred yards from the birds they got up and began to head out.  They came our way broadside and a mere twenty feet off the ground.  Inside of fifteen yards Rory, my cousin Dane, and I opened up the shotguns; we had to wait that long just for them to provide safe shooting options.  I crumpled a bird with my first shot and then missed in the most embarrassing of fashions on my second and third rounds.  Dane and Rory both emptied their guns, and Rory managed to re-load and pop two more rounds as the birds put altitude and distance between us and them.  Angry at myself such atrocious shooting, I trudged out to pick up my goose.  I was dumbfounded to find that I was the only one picking up a bird: my cousin-Dane has a well-deserved reputation for being lethal with a shotgun, and Rory is no slouch either.  Yet here we were: eleven rounds spent and one goose to show for it.  Dane muttered various curses, exclaiming that he could see the tongues and eyes of the birds, among other things.  Rory blamed the soreness in his cheeks from wisdom tooth extractions performed just days before.  For once (and probably the only time since) I was able to look smug and bask in some accolades.  And the laughs…man did we laugh about that.  A while later, just as we were about to call it a night, a big flock came rocking and swinging into our decoys and we all redeemed ourselves, scratching down another eight birds.  That day at the hay bales was certainly one for the memories.

One of my fondest deer hunting memories isn’t even of hunting deer.  After a long cold day in an early November downpour, we had a sumptuous steak dinner.  We ate whipped potatoes, Brussels sprouts slathered in butter, sautéed mushrooms, and perfectly seared T-bones that were big enough to force all the other fixings off your plate.  Long after many others had turned in my cousin Luke, my brother Donavon, myself and the camp’s oldest member Frank Sweet turned off the generator, lit up Frank’s old Coleman lantern, and sipped cold beer while we swapped stories.  We talked about women, and hunting, and government, and literature, and told entertaining jokes and stories from our lives (although Frank had a significantly larger well of jokes and stories to draw from) while the rain fell on the roof and tinkled against the chimney pipes.  I don’t even recall what time we all eventually turned into our bunks that night (and the rain persisted to keep us all in camp the next morning) but I do recall thinking that there was no greater relaxation than just sitting around with the guys telling benign lies to each other, remembering girls we’d loved, and figuring out all of the world’s problems in one go through.  I was secretly sorry for those who never had (or never would) experience moments like that, and it was bittersweet to know that it was one of those perfect moments that would pass, and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to re-create it.  Frank would be taken away by heart failure the next spring and that just reinforced the fleeting beauty of the times spent in the hunting tradition.  The loss of a friend like Frank, while sad, also galvanizes me every year to go out and make as many memories count as I can.  And in less than two weeks my friends, my family, and countless others will re-embark on that journey.

Enjoy your journeys as much as I’ll enjoy mine and maybe I’ll see you in the fields.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hey?! What’s Happening!?

So, yeah…I know I’ve been delinquent in updating this forum.  I have a good excuse, really, but it is still just that: an excuse.

You see we’re packing up and moving…leaving the fertile lands of Ontario’s southwest, and heading north back to my roots in a way, to south-Central Ontario and the town I spent most of my life in.  It’s a better family decision for sure, and it may just turn out to be a better hunting decision as well, but we’ll see about that.  Throw in long-weekend trips, two rough-housing sons under the age of three requiring attention, and a hectic work schedule, and I’m sure I just sound like a whiner.

Nonetheless, buried under the morass of boxes, bubble wrap, packing tape, paper, and clothes, a close inspection shows the existence of plans and burgeoning excitement for the prospect of another year of hunting kicking off.  In just a little over four weeks the goose season is going to open up down here in my neck of the woods (or swamps, or fields, as the case may be) and just like the years before my mind is alive with visions of a September sunrise silhouetting a half dozen Canada Geese as they parachute into the sweet spot in the decoys.  I can hear the gravelly moans and the sharp clucks and honks as the birds work the spread, and I can sense in my stomach those butterflies that I get just before I shout those magic words: “Okay, Take ‘em now!”.  Just like in real life, I don’t feel the kick of the gun and I barely hear the muzzle barking as I slap the trigger: those have just become blurs in the action.  Finally, I can smell the acrid odour of spent gunpowder mixed with the warm, wild aroma of the fields, the feathers, and the blood.

But until then I’ve just been puttering around (frantically!) trying to get my house packed in such a way that when goose season hits, I can just pack up and go.  I’ve got a box labeled “Goose Hunting Goodies” that has all the basics I’d need to take: boots, coat, calls, gloves, hat and so on.  I may have even snuck a nice bottle of whiskey in there for evening celebrations dedicated to the return of hunting season and all the milestones that 2012 has seen so far…


I took a weekend to hit the Orangeville edition of HuntFest, and even though I saw way more camo hats congregated in one spot than should be allowed (and far fewer shirtsleeves than I was anticipating) it was a great time, literally for the whole family.  My oldest boy spent most of his time gawking in wonder at the taxidermy and climbing all over the ATV displays, but we did wrestle him away long enough for him to watch his dad on stage in the NWTF/Gobblestalker Calls hosted turkey calling contest.  It was my first NWTF-organized event, and I managed to scrape together two 3rd place finishes (in the amateur and senior open divisions respectively) and everyone competing was friendly and good-humoured, which sometimes isn’t the experience I’ve found at other calling contests.  Apparently by placing in the senior open division I can no longer compete in the amateur ranks…call it progress I suppose.  My youngest, being only twelve weeks old at the time, probably wasn’t sure of where he was for much of the day, but I feel that having him immersed in an environment where everyone is talking about hunting, telling stories, showing their taxidermy, and squawking on game calls can only be beneficial to the development of his brain and the strengthening of his innate love of wilderness and the hunting tradition.

Ahhh, the lies parents tell themselves.

After checking out numerous vendors, and getting some advice on a problematic bolt handle on my .243WIN it was time to go home.  But not before we watched a seminar on birds of prey, had a burger, and chatted with even a few more folks.  I was even ‘recognized’ by some people after the calling contest, which is a new and sort of unusual experience for me.  It was a pretty good time and even though a small-time blogger such as I was not “journalistic” enough to get even a moment of time to interview any celebrities of the hunting world (and there were actually a few there) I promised a few of the nicest I met that I’d give them a shout out here and link to their sites and products.  If you dislike such shameless cronyism, you should probably just scroll past the next section.

Gobblestalker Calls (www.gobblestalkercalls.com)
Two days before HuntFest, my clear double-reed turkey call finally gave up the ghost.  I knew that a kee-kee run would be on the list of calls to perform, and unfortunately all of my other calls were just too raspy to run a nice, clear kee-kee.  So I started talking to Kevin Bartley at the Gobblestalker booth about it and for a price that I frankly thought was too low, I managed to get not only a nice-sounding clear double-reed call, but a quick tutorial on kee-kee runs.  Can’t beat that for service.  Did I mention that Gobblestalker organized and sponsored all the prizes for the NWTF calling contest?  Well they did.

Elwood Epps (www.elwoodepps.com)
As I mentioned above, I have a pesky problem with the bolt handle on my .243WIN.  It rusts.  Not the bolt itself and not any other part of the whole damn gun, just the bolt handle.  I slather the Hoppes gun oil to it until it is downright slippery and glistening, and the next time I pull it out of the gun cabinet, it has rust on it.  Frustrating and a bit disconcerting to say the least.  I hunt deer with a casual, semi-retired employee of Elwood Epps, so I tracked down their resident gunsmith and we talked for 15 minutes about the whole thing.  They weren’t going to get a sale, they didn’t even have the gun in question to inspect, but still we chatted comfortably for a quarter of an hour.  I find that most vendors won’t do this, but these guys just genuinely liked talking about guns and gun maintenance.  In the end, I got about four different plans of attack, with the last one being “call the manufacturer”.  We’ll see if it comes to that, hopefully I won’t have to try all of the first three remedies.  Great guys, and pretty much everyone in my family has frequented their store at least once and left happy.

Canadian Waterfowlers Pro Shop (www.canadianwaterfowlersproshop.com)
Now let’s be frank for a minute.  It is a given that everyone who gets a booth at any tradeshow, hunting or otherwise, is ultimately there to make sales.  Hunting is big business, and there are a lot of guys and gals out there trying to get a piece of the action.  What I liked about this company was that it was run by a friendly guy who just wanted to talk about waterfowling and gear.  No heavy sales approach, no pressure, and no attitude.  Just a good dude.  We talked for a while about the gear I’ve got now, new trends in equipment, and what I could implement if I was so inclined to make changes.  On the capitalism side of things, the prices they have are pretty darn good, and I’ve got a real good idea of how this company is going to end up with some of my money…one of my hunting buddies just has to pull the trigger on something.  But that’s okay, because I don’t mind giving my cash to people who run a good business, and it seems like these guys genuinely understand both waterfowling at large and how they fit into the business side of things.  Check them out.

GK Calls (www.gkcalls.com)
So I’ve spent many, many posts here raving about Tim Grounds Championship Calls, and I’m sure I’ll spend many more posts on the same topic.  That said, the guys at GK Calls were something of a surprise to me, and here’s why.  I’m used to the hard sell…call it a consequence of working a career in the business consulting world.  When I ask people in my real job how their product differs from the competition, I usually get stock answer with a heavy slant towards discrediting their competitors.  I was shocked when I heard none of this type of nonsense anywhere at HuntFest, but none moreso than at the GK Calls booth.  They asked me what I was using now, and when I told them it was a Tim Grounds Super Mag, the answer was “that’s a really good call”.  I was amazed.  Here was a vendor, with four dozen of their finest goose and duck calls all shined and on display for sale touting the great things that one of their competitors does.  We talked about what I loved about my Super Mag, and how various GK Calls compared in terms of low-end rasp, reed responsiveness, control, and price.  I declined to try out the calls, but only because with me, if I try, I buy.  And I just didn’t have a couple hundred bucks to drop on calls that sounded great.  It is obvious that these guys know their stuff, and equally obvious that they don’t really consider other call makers as their ‘competition’, more like ‘contemporaries’.  My only knock on them is that they are all exceptional goose and duck callers; which, while fun to listen to, is a bit intimidating to guys like me who consider themselves semi-proficient.  The pros for GK, just listening to them on the calls proves that they are the real deal and I’m just a pretender.

The NWTF (www.nwtf.org)
What can you say about the NWTF?  A great organization with a good history of conservation and hunter advocacy, and they put on a calling contest to boot.  Again super nice guys that were just as keen to talk about your latest hunt as they were to sell you a membership, a contest spot, or a bunch of DVDs.  I had a long talk (and got a calling lesson) from Dale Scott who is the Regional Director for Ontario about turkey hunting in general and the results of the spring banquets circuit, both of which were positive conversations.  After the event, I had to thank them in person for putting on the contest, and even though they didn’t have enough competitors to qualify anyone for entry into the Grand Nationals in Tennessee, it was still a good time and a well-organized event.  They’re hoping for even more callers competing next year, and I’ll be back for certain.

Advanced Taxidermy & Wildlife Design (www.advancedtaxidermy.com)
“Wow” is pretty much all you can say when you see the work this company is doing.  They are obviously skilled, but what got me was how they knew the stories behind every mount, and how they wanted to hear your stories about animals you’d gotten or ones you missed that would have made great trophies.  They are always trying out new techniques for poses and mount configurations and they are genuinely excited about the prospect of doing their job; something millions of us simply cannot say.  If you are in Ontario and you want to really do justice to that once-in-a-lifetime fish, bird, or big-game animal, check them out.  They are in Caledon and their work is exceptional.  Pictures alone don’t do it justice.

There were numerous more who I spoke with that didn’t give me business cards, those like DU Canada, the OFAH, and the big optics manufacturers that were just way too busy to chat, or many others whom I’ve invariably forgotten because that’s how my brain works.  If you happen to read this blog and we met at HuntFest, drop me a line.  Unbelievably, one person I met actually said that they read this blog…although they may have just been being polite.  Probably the latter.

So all those reminiscences and promos are nice, but that still doesn’t change the fact that here I sit in my basement on a Thursday evening, feeling guilty for not posting here in so long, feeling doubly guilty for sitting here tapping away at the keyboard now instead of helping my wife pack more of our stuff for the move in two days, and feeling sorry for myself for leaving all my friends, a few hunting associates, and dozens of soccer teammates in southwest Ontario behind.  The guilt and general malaise is offset by the above-mentioned giddiness as August slides into goose season and what for me and my buddies is the true “New Year’s Day”.  It is the start of what we wait five or six months for, it is the start of getting up too early and going to bed too late, the start of having our cheeks sun-burned, wind-burned, and frost-burned repeatedly over the next four months.  It signals the start of someone going over their boots, and the start of enjoying some peaceful meditation in the outdoors.  Some of us will get sore backs from carrying gear, carrying game, and hiking long miles.  Others of us will just get sore sides from laughing way too often and wrinkles from smiling so damn much.  And even though it is the beginning, it is a reminder that it eventually comes to an end and that there will come a time when we have to wait again for the calendar to roll over once more.

The only remedy for our affliction is to get out there and make the most of it while you’re able to.

Have a great opener everyone, no matter what you’re chasing.