An old maiden’s voyage

•October 25, 2015 • 1 Comment

 

Beat up, banged up, and older than my grown kids

Beat up, banged up, and older than my grown kids

River hunting means not caring if you get a rezzie, not having to crowd around the refuge shack at 3am slapping bugs, and not having every working bird sent suddenly skyward by a blast from two ponds over. It’s peaceful, unhurried, and relaxing. It also means needing a boat.

So I bought one after last season – my first – and slowly but surely have been tranforming a tired old fishing boat into a duck boat. Mostly cosmetic – paint, new camo seats – since that’s as far as my skills go, with a little rewiring and new trailer lights. It looks good. Well, at least better.

From rust bucket to river ducker.

From rust bucket to river ducker.

Then came time for its maiden voyage this weekend. Yeah, a little late, since most guys were out for the opening day of waterfowl season. But six and seven day work weeks have left no time for getting out on the water. They do make it hurt a little less when you have to buy three new tires because one is flat and the other one and spare are about to be. So the trip to the lake got detoured by a few hours while we waited at Big O tires.

Finally off the trailer and in the water at Jenkinson’s Lake, came the moment of truth. And nothing. It wouldn’t start. More tries, and still nothing, even after borrowing a kayaker’s minivan to jump the battery. Then suddenly, after losing count of the attempts, the old Evinrude sputtered to life. Left Danielle and the dogs on the dock – just so someone could go for help if the old maid sank and me with her.

To my surprise, she ran well, slowly at first and then, throttling up, cutting nicely through the water. After several laps around that section of the lake, I brought her back to the dock to pick up my crew, relieved that the old boat had fared better than the Titanic on her maiden voyage.

Wet at last

Wet at last

Ready for round 2, I went to fire her up again. And nothing. Battery, maybe. Bad fuel? A clog or break somewhere? Or something worse, and probably more expensive?

Whatever it is, it’s going to take more than me and my paint cans to assess and fix. So we loaded her up on the trailer and headed home, happy that she’d finally gotten wet, hadn’t sunk, had made it around the lake a few times, but well short of any high fiving. Now to find a marine mechanic so that when the ducks are here in force, me and my old maid of a boat will be out there ready for them.

10 Years of Zenhunting

•February 15, 2015 • 9 Comments

Taking pictures has never been a priority in the field. It has always been more about recording events in my mind, to be remembered and written about later.  Now that the season is over and a new year is upon us, it seemed fitting to gather up ten years of the photos that were taken and create an album.

Up The River

•January 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment
The opposite of camo

The opposite of camo

Up the river. Not always a great place to be going; a Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now kind of place. Or your trip to New York’s infamous old prison – Sing Sing – via the Hudson. But sometimes it can be a good thing. Like my last hunt of the season, on a river south of my house.

This season was short on waterfowl hunts. A couple of letters for Gray Lodge became paper airplanes. Another for Sac should’ve been skipped but wasn’t and produced nothing but an aching back and a muddy cart. Then came the #1 draw for Little Dry Creek, which delivered limits, plus geese, and a helluva good time for three guys. Refuge hunting at its finest.

And then I discovered there’s something beyond the refuge, beyond the clubs. There’s the river.

Ever since I started waterfowling, I’ve heard guys say they hunt “the river,” different rivers of course, depending on who was talking. Down south, the rivers were rumored to be stinking sewers, or maybe hunters just said that to keep others away. Up north, the only river I’ve been on is the American. I’ve seen ducks on it, dealing with rapids a lot more effortlessly than me in my kayak. But pulling out a shotgun there – with tourists and the weeds ‘n seeds bunch paddling beside me – probably not a good idea.  But I’ve always been curious about river hunting, picturing that lone gunman drifting stealthily around a bend to ambush loafing ducks. Or those crews in bigger boats with swivel seats and grass walls, decoys all around. Just never got the opportunity.

Until Dan, from that day at LDC, invited me along on a river hunt.

We met at the boat ramp, me there early and excited for this new adventure. Happy, too, to be free of the cart, the bag of decoys, cover material. I even had extra shells in my bag, well, because I could. The fog was low and thick when we shoved off, and motoring up the river I was grateful that Dan knew the waterway, turning before I even saw the river bend, slowing down before I even saw the overhanging tree that could’ve taken off our heads. Used to hitting the rutted mud paths out to a blind, it was a strange way, for me anyway, to get to a spot. Mysterious, dark, headlights bouncing off the shroud of fog that surrounded us. Add a foreboding soundtrack and the smell of death, I would’ve thought we were heading up the Nung River in Cambodia.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

After awhile Dan turned off into a little notched out part of the river. Minutes later, decoys were out, spinner up, and we were sitting back on the brushy shore awaiting shoot time. And when it came, our only notice was the time on our iPhones, not shots going off around us. Bliss.

Dawn came without the sun; the fog lifting off our shoulders but never clearing. We could hear ducks and geese, but most flew overhead unseen in the early hours. Later, small groups would circle our little bay, curious but not committed. We saw and heard flocks of wood ducks – something I’ve never had on my strap. None came within range but it was good just to know they were there. I claimed a nice drake mallard a little later, which confounded the dog by falling in a tree just out of his reach. Two more mallards drifted by right in front of us and – six rapid fire shots later – they flew on without a feather out of place. One of those easy shots that make you shake your head in amazement when you miss. Seconds later I doubled on a pair of speeding teal, which was gratifying and both soothed the earlier miss and made it all the more of a head scratcher.

Hours of watching ducks circle and then depart followed, until two mallards swooped in behind us and Dan knocked down both in a tough straight up overhead shot. The low overcast seemed to swallow up most of our potential targets, but I was happy to have a mallard and two teal for the fridge. They were icing on a cake made of beautiful scenery, the natural peacefulness of the river, and a hunting buddy that shares the notion that hunting should get you away from it all not in the middle of it: the neighboring shots that mess up working birds, the 3am crowd at the check station, guys yelling at their dogs or whooping it up every time they kill a duck.

"Blue" takes in the scenery on the way back.

“Baloo” takes in the scenery on the way back.

That night I put the mallard breasts in a good brine, and two days later – coated in flour, egg and Panko breadcrumbs – smiled at the sizzle as they slipped into the skillet. They reminded me of a good morning on the river, a new place, a first time hunt, the kind of relaxing and soul-refreshing day that duck hunting ought to be. But they did raise a question: I wonder if anyone’s got a duck boat for sale?

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

Hitler gets a rezzie

•January 16, 2015 • 1 Comment

The Golden Ticket

•January 3, 2015 • 7 Comments

I don’t know when I first put in for Little Dry Creek on the season long application. It’s probably been nine or ten seasons of checking that box, along with other Northern California refuges like Delevan, Sacramento, and Colusa, most of those when a draw meant an eight-hour drive from South Orange County.

My youngest son Griff or I would get the rare draw – a slow two-duck Sunday at Colusa and an epic stormy day at Delevan when a Eurasian Wigeon and a dozen other ducks fell from the sky and the wind spinner left its stake and flew two ponds over. But mostly we were content to hunt Wister near the Salton Sea. And those hot, stinking ponds produced a lot of indelible moments, especially in the go-go years when ducks and geese were swirling around us even as we were fetching ones we’d just downed.

A Wigeon double for Griff at Delevan in 2005, just after the storm passed and the sun came out.

A Wigeon double for Griff at Delevan in 2005, just after the storm passed.

Still we yearned for a shot at Little Dry Creek, the rare jewel, whispered about, glistening in the distance out of reach. Even hard-to-get San Jacinto and Kern draws would pepper our season, but never a nod from LDC.

Fast forward to 2011: my move up north and three seasons of checking all the boxes for all the refuges – Grizzly, Gray Lodge, Delevan, Sac, Llano Seco, and more. Cards came for every one of them. Except Little Dry Creek. Until this fourth season. But not just any draw for LDC; the golden ticket.

Then rain came, days and days of it. Roads closed, refuges closed. I watched the muddy water in my backyard creek rush past and imagined my long-awaited golden ticket floating away on it, tossed in the chop, torn by the rocks, the words Little Dry Creek and #1 reduced to a stain.

Finally the weather changed and the rains stopped. Glenn Underwood posted optimistic news about roads drying and refuges opening, including LDC. The refuge staff told me things looked good for my Wednesday hunt and the gleam returned to my golden ticket. But a new dilemma emerged; who to invite along on my reservation.

Draw_results3

I called my Southern California friend Matt (mouthcallinmatt), someone who’d proven to be a good luck charm on two previous Northern California hunts, including a high number draw at Llano Seco when Matt’s legendary calling skills and super-sized cart full of decoys turned a wet cow pasture into a place the geese couldn’t resist. But Matt couldn’t make the trip. So invites went out to the big posters on the refuge forums. Big Daddy Gaddy’s “I’m all in on that” added one, and #1wingnut left the river to fill up the card.

Conventional wisdom seemed to be that the #1 draw takes blind #1. But a check of the sheets had better things to say about a different blind, so that one became our pick. Yellow cards in our pockets, we headed out to our designated parking lot, with me wondering if LDC would prove worth all those years of waiting.

After a long haul out, we got to our mud island surrounded by tules. Decoys out, dog situated in her hut, a little blind material up to block the wind and the ducks’ view, we awaited shoot time and listened as dark shapes whooshed by low and all around us. Mike and Dan sipped their coffee and I downed a Monster, a habit I picked up from all the years of hunting with Griff. Then the “chime” of distant shots announced the time.

LDC_scene[web]

Mike was the first to bring one down, a big beautiful greenhead and our only mallard of the day. Then Dan and I started in on our mixed bag of wigeon, gaddies, pintails and the occasional speck. The morning flight filled the sky with birds; flocks of ducks zooming by below skeins of snows and specks. It was almost but not quite pass shooting as small groups skirted our island, and we thinned them by one or two whenever they came closer than surviving this migration would allow. Of the thousand that made it safely to the closed zone only yards beyond our spot, three limits of ducks and a few geese did not.

Most of them were retrieved by hand; after the first few, the dog refused to go in the water. At first I chalked it up to Schatzie going from a kennel in the garage, per the ex-Mrs. Zenhunter, to the soft indoor life of sleeping on our bed that the fiancée encourages. But then I saw Mike’s bright red hands after he reached in the water feeling around for the spinner’s missing leg and couldn’t really blame her. I wonder if she misses the swimming pool temperature of ponds down south.

It was the perfect day, with great hunting partners and birds all around, to get ready for even if they didn’t wing our way, or just to watch. A few times of facing or looking the wrong way when something whizzed by right overhead, as usual. And memorable shots, like Dan putting two shots into a speck as it tried to catch the wind’s express elevator up, then a long moment before his gamble on a third shot – this one dialed-in – brought it down. Good, too, were the duck and another speck that crashed on our island with muddy thuds. Best of all, for me, was that last duck on my strap, a pintail that fluttered in and seemed to pose above the decoys, until a single dose of #2s peppered that beautiful chocolate head. That was an image that I want to keep crisp in my mind in the years to come. Especially since it was exactly like my last shot and last duck of the 2005 season, another hovering pintail, on that unforgettable Delevan road trip with Griff.

Like that Delevan hunt, the day at Little Dry Creek was worth the hike, worth the cold. And well worth the wait.

NB_tailgate_ducks[web]

2014 in review

•December 29, 2014 • 1 Comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,600 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

•December 18, 2014 • 1 Comment

Widgeon_zen_XMAS

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, and hope that the holidays find you in happy places, whether at home with family and friends, or out in the field enjoying the generous wonders of nature.

Home for the holidays

•November 25, 2014 • 2 Comments

antler_candles[w]

Our house amid the oaks is a wonderful place to be always, but especially during the holidays. The candle holders made from my little Iowa 8-point will add a special glow this year. I’m thankful for so much this Thanksgiving – Danielle, our boys, the wild boar meat in the freezer and the venison that’s on the way, work that I love, the better wisdom and reason that comes with age (that reminds me it’s not my circus, not my monkeys, not my clowns when drama both near and distant threatens to feng up my shui). I’m also thankful for the 6,000 who have viewed zenhunting.com this year!

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

The Candelabra of Justice

•November 16, 2014 • 2 Comments

Today I woke up in my own bed in Northern California, the first time in 12 days that a 5am alarm didn’t go off with 20 acres of Iowa clover fields and woods right outside. It was good to be home with Danielle and the girls – our two dogs and a cat – but part of me was still wanting to pull on two pairs of thermals, long-sleeve T-shirt, down vest, multiple pairs of socks, insulated boots, gloves, fleece headgear, heavy Scentblocker® jacket and pants and go climb a tree. The other part of me was happy to hit the snooze button and ponder recipes for the venison coming my way in three weeks or so from the butcher in Milo.

Because I had successfully filled one of my two tags; a nubby eight-point buck, killed with a perfectly placed arrow through the heart at 20 yards from a stand down in the hardwoods. A doe, on the last evening of my time in Iowa, did show herself right as I was preparing to come down from my tree – arrow already back in the quiver and about to lower down my bow and pack. I quickly re-nocked the arrow and estimated the distance at 40 yards in the fading light, but my guess was off by six inches and so she trotted off unscathed, likely wondering what that close by whoosh had been. So much for my perfect but short record of heart shots; I’d be heading home with one tag unfilled.

My first whitetail buck ever, arrowed at 20 yards on a cold day in Iowa.

My first whitetail buck ever, arrowed at 20 yards on a cold and windy day in Iowa.

The buck wasn’t at all what I had planned on, fantasized about, in the weeks leading up to the hunt in Iowa. I’d seen some respectable racks a few times on stand, big 8s and 10 points, but always way out of range, or in the dark too early or too late. Then after seven days of morning and evening hunts, one suddenly stepped out of the woods and onto the open trail. I pulled back my bow, letting the 20 yard sight pin settle just behind and below his shoulder. In those few seconds at full draw I took in his small rack but many other things raced through my mind: the coming subzero temperatures and snow flurries, the chatter on all the forums and websites that said the big bucks had disappeared (locked down with does, waiting for them to be ready to breed), my previous trip six years before when my buck tag went unfilled, the horror of coming home without venison, and the fact that he was the only buck to give me a shot. And so a slight pressure on the release sent my arrow off.

He didn’t go far; dead after 30 yards, tumbling downhill another 30 until I found him in a trickle of water in a deep creek. He wasn’t hard to find; a trail of blood-splattered fall leaves had clearly marked his path. It was the quick clean kill I’d practiced for all summer in my backyard. And now my first whitetail buck ever, and with a bow, was down.

But what to do with him, besides dropping him off at the Milo Locker for processing and the FedEx journey to California three weeks from now? I was pleased to get him, but the expense of taxidermy seemed better saved for another buck someday. Still, I had to immortalize my first whitetail buck somehow, because as a young archer I met on a trail years back in Utah had told me, any buck with a bow is a trophy. And then it came to me: I would make a candlestick holder from his small rack, something to light our holiday table this Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the ones to come. A literal spark for a conversation on how the little bony candelabra came to be. It was then that something else occurred to me; the perfect justice of it all.

You see, I had gone to Iowa hoping for, maybe even expecting, that the legendary whitetail state and its seas of corn would offer me a shot at a monster of a deer. A deer with heavy beams supporting tall antler tines, daggers of bone pointing in every direction, the stringy bark of trees they’d been sharpened against dangling from them. Even a meat hunter like me, a zenhunter, isn’t immune to being enamored of a thing like that. Non-hunters teased that I was going on vacation to shoot Bambi, but no, I was after his dad, the “king of the forest” if you believe in Disney’s false notions about wildlife and the hierarchy of creatures. But it hadn’t worked out that way on this trip. Instead, I got Bambi’s older brother.

Should I have held out, taken a chance on going home buck-less? One of Mike’s young friends brought us pictures of a real “king” he’d taken that same week. And there were the two fine bucks that Mike brought back to camp. It was hard at first, and there was a lot of second-guessing.  No, it happened the way it was meant to.

Mike's young friend brought now this magnificent buck not far from Mike's property.

Mike’s young friend Connor brought down this magnificent buck not far from Mike’s property.

Nature is such an amazing thing, and the universe – from the part we walk through to the territory well beyond our reach – has its own rhythm. Lots of people talk about balance and harmony and justice, from their yoga mats or law offices, while in reality doing all they can to undermine those natural forces or at least escape their impact. But accepting that there’s a natural order to things, my small buck made perfect sense.

Mike had been working hard for more than a year to get his property ready for deer season – plowing, planting, hanging tree stands – almost all by himself, along with a serious investment in the land and all the necessary equipment. Born-and-raised locals like Connor had been scouting and hunting hard every day of the season, and seasons past. They deserve the big bucks they get, but I have to say with some reverence, nature seems to know they deserve them. As I heard a Native American once say, the animal gives himself to the hunter that is worthy.

The first buck ever taken on Mike’s 20 acres: woods, three fields, 10 stands.

And then there’s me. I jet into Iowa every few years, when I get drawn for an archery tag. I stay for a couple of weeks. Sure, I provide my modest boost to the state’s economy with my purchase of a license and tag, and I practice with my bow, but mostly I just show up. Yes, I climb the trees morning and night, endure the cold and wind, but if I’d gone home with a huge antler rack and the others didn’t, I’d still think it would mean the universe was a little out of balance. No, the buck that came to me in the woods just after dawn that morning was the one I had earned, the one I was worthy of.  Maybe next time, or the time after, I will have enough invested to bring home Bambi’s uncle at least. But for now I’m satisfied with my little 8 point. And I will relish every morsel of venison he yields.

Today I’ll go to the craft store and find the parts to turn that small rack into a pair of candlestick holders. And while I’ll probably tell guests only a small part of the story behind them, to me they will always represent the perfection of the natural world, when what I gave was in balance with what I got.

 She might have smelled my footsteps but even with a swirling wind this little doe didn’t know I was right above her, in my Scentblocker® suit.

Shih-tzu as a hunting dog?

•October 26, 2014 • 3 Comments

Maybe there's another way to get a little white & black motion in the spread?

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I was lavishing some attention on Schatzie, the family duck dog, when the little Maltese/Shih-tzu mix puppy Abby intruded into our moment. Pet me! Aren’t I cute? Rub my belly! She demanded. Yeah, cute…but mostly useless. I was thinking of what a live wire she is, always wiggling and bouncing around, streaking around the yard, back and forth, never seeming to tire. She’s easy to spot out back, even in the dark, the bright white fur, contrasted with the rich black of her ears and mask…

And then it hit me.

A field of lifeless plastic goose decoys. Wary birds approaching. And then Abby, launched like an out of control rocket as soon as I pull the flap on a little camo kennel. And in my mind I could see those geese diving into the inviting sight of a decoy spread filled with white and black commotion!

C’mere little dog…how’d you like to go hunting with daddy and your big sis Schatzie?

 

 
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