Thursday, August 14, 2014

Passing the torch.

     The longbow makes a graceful arch as the boy draws back her weight. Barely making a sound, the worn, leather tips of his shooting glove release the bowstring sending the arrow towards its mark. The distinctive solid thud of the shaft striking the target plays out over and over on today's range...

      The woods are wide and open. Mature white oaks, pignut hickories, ash and tall pine trees are scattered throughout the property. The deep valleys and steep hills leave no doubt that we're in the Appalachian foothills. Far enough East in the Buckeye state that we might as well be in West Virginia. Either way, a long way from home.

      We hike our way through the archery range under the August sun. Last week's coolness has given way to a bout of high humidity and the muggy air can be wrung out of my shirt and wiped from my forehead...The shade of the trees is welcome relief. Each one in our group takes his turn and steps up to the stake. The shooters focus, take aim and launch an arrow, hoping for a good hit. I try not to stare ,try not to critique as my son sends an arrow from his longbow...but he knows I'm watching.

     His arrow hits pay dirt as the scores are called out and the shafts pulled. Solidly in the 8 and 10 rings for the most part. An occasional stray arrow, but few and far between for couple of the boys in our little group. On to the next target and much of the same...My 16 year old's arrows hitting where they are supposed to be while mine are smacking a tree or skidding through the dirt under the target, a clean miss...

     My frustration mounts and finally, I give in...at this point, I'm just happy to hit the target and not destroy or lose any more of my precious arrows. Target archery is as much of a mental game as it is physical, but today, my mental side isn't cooperating...The boy and I aren't in an “official” competition, but I know that he's watching my poor performance as much as I am keeping track of his hits. I can almost sense his sympathy for me with a hint of a smile at knowing what's coming...

      Almost to the end of the course and he hits a rough patch, but is able to shake it off and tighten back up. His lean frame pulls back the string one more time, the longbow shoots with just a whisper and the bright orange feathers of his arrow mark the spot on the target. Just behind the foam deer's shoulder, exactly where it should be. We gather the arrows and make our way off the range...

      The scores are tallied, but I already knew the result. I had given up keeping my score half way through the course...part out of frustration, partly to save myself from embarrassment. Regardless, it was bound to happen and somewhere deep in the woods of Guernsey County, Ohio, it did. The boy didn't just best his old man, he humbled him. No caveats, no excuses. No asterisks of shooting from the youth stakes, this was fair and square, all things equal. A good old fashion tail whipping...

      But rather than pouting or feeling sorry for myself, I was proud of the kid. Years of shooting traditional bows has paid off, not only in the field and hunting, but on the range as well. No sights, no releases, no mechanical aids. Just the boy's instinct and muscle memory. If I'm going to lose on the archery course, I can't think of anyone I'd rather lose too...Besides, I can still beat him at arm wrestling...for now.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

End of Season Gobbler...

The season is drawing to a close. Not quite the 11th hour, but it's getting near. We've spent the better part of our weekends calling and guiding for other hunters, but this last weekend of the season will be ours to hunt.

The spring woods has thickened and changed over the past month. The hillside to my front is now covered in green. Every hue and shade on a color wheel, lime, mint, olive and emerald. The leaves, grass and foliage have all now matured and the blooms have burst. A few ivory pedals on the dogwoods hang on, but this afternoon's downpour is sure to send them to the ground.

The clouds have come and gone all day, bringing with them steady showers and rumbles of thunder and distant lightning. In most cases, foul weather sends us indoors, but spring rain storms bring the birds to the fields. Turkeys by nature are the perfect prey for every carnivore in the woods and the heavy rains take away their sense of hearing. In my observations over the years, the big birds feel safer in the open fields in this damp, gray weather.

We get a break between showers and the boy and I head out. He's opted to tote his 12 gauge since the clock is ticking. Stubborn, I'll still clutch my old recurve bow hoping to get an arrow into a Tom. I know my chances are slim, but at this point in my hunting life, I'm more interested in the process and the “how it's done” rather than the end result. I smile at the kid's enthusiasm as he hikes off up the steep, muddy hill, gun over his shoulder.

The rains have made it steamy, muggy and damp. Feels more like mid July than early May. I settle back in my blind overlooking the wet field and wait. Cow birds make their dripping water sounds just outside of my shooting window and blue jays and crows sound off at each other. An hour into my sit and there, on the hillside a distant gobble. I cut and purr back at the bird and he responds. I yelp and call, doing my best hen imitation and the old boy answers me regularly. We talk back and forth for over 45 minutes, sometimes he sounds closer, other times I can hear he's marching further up the hill. My best guess is that he's still a few hundred yards away and not much hope that he's going to step in front of one of my arrows. I try to lure him down the hill and into my field, but he's hung up for some reason. I continue to call at him and he continues to answer on cue, but I'm certain now that he's making for higher ground as he's heading towards his roosting spot for the night.

He's gobbling less frequently now, several minutes in between his calls. He belts out one final gobble, angry at a noisy crow somewhere up on the hill and then all is quiet. My thoughts turn to my son and I wander where he might be on the hillside and if he's heard the Tom's gobbling. A few moments later, the loud report of a shotgun answers my question...Just one shot, no follow ups can only mean one of two things; A clear hit or complete miss. Unless someone else has sneaked in, I'm sure it was the kid that fired.

The steep hillsides and deep valley keep me from calling or texting him, so I'll just have to wait. I'm anxious to hear and see if he was the shooter and to listen to his story. Five minutes turn to ten and ten to twenty. Just when I don't think I can wait any longer, I catch movement to my right a couple hundred yards down the field edge. The tall, lean figure of my son emerges from the woods and the bouncing, black wings and tail fan of a turkey thrown over his shoulder leave no doubt to my curiosity. I shout out to him, but he's too far to hear my voice. I gather my gear and double time it to try and catch up to the kid, but one of his steps is like two of mine.

We finally meet back up at the truck. A smile, a firm handshake, a pat on the back and then I listen to a story from the young man who proves every time we step into the woods, that this is where he belongs.
Drew's 2014 Indiana Eastern Wild Turkey. 21lbs, 31mm spurs, 10" beard, 4-5 year old bird.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The same old hunter's question, different answer...

Alone far in the wilds and mountains, I hunt, wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee. In the late afternoon, choosing a safe spot to pass the night, kindling a fire, broiling fresh killed game. Falling asleep on gathered leaves with my dog and gun at my side”...Walt Whitman

The above quote has always rung true for me. It makes my senses stir, paints a picture in my mind. It makes me wish I were in the scene and describes perfectly how I feel about hunting. I can almost see the stars in the sky and smell the blue smoke from the campfire as meat sizzles on a spit...

The extreme cold, snow and ice of recent have me thinking too much as cabin fever is setting in. I've passed some time fiddling around outside when I can, but short of ice fishing, the polar weather isn't welcoming to many outdoor activities. It is, however, just the kind of weather to hunker down, read a book or a few magazines and while away the long nights...It's a good time to think, to ask yourself questions and to look for answers. Of course for me, hunting isn't far from my mind and it always gets back to that old question, “Why do I hunt?”...I've been asked and answered many times, some right here in “Along the Trail”, but each time I ask myself that same question, a new or different answer, another reason reveals itself...

I hunt because I love it in the simplest of terms. It's an inherited instinct rooted deeply in human history. In nearly all cultures across the world, there is an undeniable urge to hunt that awakens in boys. A boy will throw rocks, sharpen sticks, make a weapon. Studies have shown that the predatory instinct will appear spontaneously in boys, even without any prior experience or coaching. Sadly, many in today's society want to take the “boy” out of boyhood and eliminate that predatory instinct from our so called “civilized” society. But, somehow even in all of our political correctness, hunting manages to hang on...

For myself, hunting is an almost spiritual experience. It is when and where I feel close to God. Hunting is how I fell in love with nature and the outdoors. It's something that can't be experienced on a golf course or soccer field or in front of a television. Hunting and fishing connect us  profoundly with nature and wildlife. Hunting teaches woodsmanship and skills lost on many of today's youth. It teaches the power and beauty of nature. Hunting teaches us at a deep, emotional level about a hunter's inseparable relationship to nature and his responsibility to defend it. It teaches us that we are participants in something far greater than ourselves and our own selfish ways. It teaches us extreme alertness and we feel alive and connected to the environment.

From an outsiders view, a hunter might appear to control nature, but the truth is, it's the exact opposite. The hunter identifies with the animals, with the game he pursues and feels tied to it. It is, and should be deliberately humbling for the hunter as failure far outnumbers our success in the field.

No true hunter revels in the death of his prey or any animal for that matter. A hunter knows that “life lives on lives” and hunters participate directly, much like farmers, in the fundamental process of life. And that, my friends, is without question, why hunters have been and still are, the premiere  conservationists of wildlife and wilderness to all of our benefit.

Now, to throw another log on the fire and wait for the thaw and the green of March and the booming gobbles of turkey season...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Character and Recovery

     The last fifteen minutes of shooting light and I was on pins and needles. My son was in a hot spot owned by a good friend and the bucks had been up and moving. I was full of anticipation and optimistic that the boy would get to release an arrow from his recurve bow.

      I paced back and forth like an expectant father, constantly checking the time and keeping an eye to the sky as darkness was falling fast. The sign I was waiting for, my cell phone rang and as I answered it, the excited voice of my son on the other end blurted out that he had just arrowed a big buck. His voice shook with a rush of adrenaline and his breathing was heavy. I couldn't help but  share in the excitement as he recounted the story.

      He made his way out of the woods and we made our plan. The shot appeared to be a good one. A little high and a steep downward angle into the ribs, but he felt confident in the placement of the arrow. A heavy, keen broadhead should have done its job and hopefully we'd recover his trophy after a short trail. After a half an hour wait, we took up the track...

      The night was dark, stars in the sky as we searched for sign with our flashlights. He had done a fine job of marking the buck's location and the last spot he had seen him as tore out of the area, but we struggled to find any evidence of the hit. No tell-tale crimson on the leaves or weeds, no hair to signal the hit. Only a couple of splayed hoof prints in the mud where the old buck had leaped a tangle of briars. I tried to remain optimistic for the boy and we decided to pull out for the night and hit it again at first light.

      After a long, restless night, we were back at it at day break with a couple more sets of fresh eyes. We were certain that we'd find the deer piled up in one of the many hollers and drainages on our buddy's farm. Our little group covered what we thought was every inch of ground. We did manage to find the arrow, but the damp fog from over night had frozen on the aluminum shaft, all but erasing any sign of blood along the length of the arrow. We were at a loss and after several hours of the fruitless search, we all had convinced ourselves that the buck was lost. The boy wasn't so certain and still felt confident in the his arrow placement. You could see the disappointment and remorse on the kid's face. It was a long, quiet drive home.

      A few days later and the boy was back at our friend's place, giving it one more shot before the woods was covered in fluorescent orange with the opening day of gun season. He took to the same stand where he had shot the big deer and I kept my fingers crossed that he'd get another crack at a good buck and erase the bad memory of losing a fine animal.

      I hadn't been gone long when my friend called me with a surprise. “You're never gonna believe what I just found”, my good friend stated. “I found Drew's buck!” My pal had watched as a few buzzards circled around a spot on his farm. He slipped through the woods and made his way to an overgrown pond dam. There hidden in a low spot, nearly invisible from every angle was the kid's buck. A fine, mature 10 pointer.

      We immediately called the boy and he climbed down from his stand and rushed to our spot. It was a bittersweet moment. None of us wanted to recover the buck like this, but it happened. We examined the deer and just as Drew had described, the arrow had taken him high towards the rear of the rib cage, hence the non-existent blood trail. We estimated that the buck hadn't traveled more than a couple hundred yards, had bedded down in the hidden spot and then expired. What made it even more of a difficult pill to swallow is that I had walked within 30' of the dead deer during our original, early morning search...
     After some discussion, my son made the choice to stop his hunt for the evening and for the rest of the season. He claimed the buck and checked it in according the to rules and regulations of the State. It wasn't a tough decision for him and he had no regrets, other than not locating the deer sooner and the loss of the meat.

      Yes, I'm happy that my boy had taken a trophy buck with his traditional bow in today's world of speed and technology, but I'm even more proud of the character he showed. The easy thing to do would have been to take the big buck's antlers and keep right on hunting and possibly harvesting another buck, but he chose to do the right thing and for me, that is the real trophy...Well done son, well done.

 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Passing it on...

     5am comes too early as the alarm clock jolts me awake. I shake the cobwebs out of my head and listen to my knees pop as I throw on my hunting clothes for the morning's hunt. I head out the door and I'm greeted by a cool, damp September day. “Should be a perfect morning for the kids” goes through my mind as I drive to the spot...

      All the youth hunters are ready and the camp is buzzing with excitement. Too much energy for this early in the morning...Five kids in total. Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, Mississippi and Indiana are all represented. A couple of real pistols in the bunch as I size up the youngsters. Before I give them the safety speech, the group draws numbers for stand sights and each of them are paired up with a guide to chaperon the hunt.

      I'm secretly crossing my fingers and hoping for the young man from Kentucky. He and I have shared a hunting blind in the past and I'd enjoyed spending time in the woods with him. “Yes!”, my mind yells as it's decided my little friend from across the river and I will hunt together. The hunting spots are divided up and our plan for the morning is set.

      We make our way under the cover of darkness to our hiding spot, a large comfortable blind tucked back in the edge of the woods along the base of a steep hill. Before us is a small patch of clover and with any luck, a buck will stop by for a quick bite on his way back to his bedroom. We settle in and wait for the sun to come...

      Daylight is a long time coming up the Grant's Creek valley. The first sign of sunlight hits the opposite hill on the far side of the creek. A barred owl fires off its last call of the gray morning and sets off a fierce howl and barrage of barking from a pack of coyotes somewhere further down the holler...My young partner and I exchange a glance at each other, acknowledging the coyote's presence and the eeriness of their howling. We focus our gaze back out to the field and wait for light.

      The air is thick, cool and heavy. As the sun creeps higher, a breeze begins to blow, swirling a fog bank from side to side, back and forth across the valley. We sit in silence, waiting for a buck to emerge from the fog, laying low across the clover. I shake off the chill as my buddy tucks his chin further into the top of his coat. We wait and we watch...

      Each minute brings with it more daylight and I'm rooting for the sun to win and burn off the fog. The damp coolness and my stiff joints don't mix well. I peek out the windows of the blind as does my Kentucky friend. We pass the time whispering and talking about hunting, friends, school and the like. All the things a 12 year old, country boy would talk about. I listen hard as his thick, Appalachian accent almost sounds like a different language at times. We talk for a few minutes and then minutes of silence. My mind subconsciously tries to distinguish all the sounds coming from the woods around us. The bird calls blend together into one song, but my brain somehow sorts them out, dissects them into individuals. Cardinals, nuthatches, titmouse, wrens, sapsuckers and woodpeckers can all be heard in the chorus.

      Minutes turn into hours and I can't help but recall past youth hunts. Hunts where I've sat with my own kids, grown too fast. Memories of my now adult daughter and my near 16 year old son, good memories. The kind of memories that put a lump in your throat and a smile to your lips.


      Finally, movement as a buck glides into the clover from our left. A nice buck from his profile view. I do my best impression of a deer and grunt the fella to a stop, 40 yards in front of my partner's muzzle loader. The deer stops on a dime, just as planned and looks directly at us. He's carrying a solid four point rack on one side of his head and a spindly two point antler on the opposite side. My pal looks at me for some guidance and without saying a word, he lowers his gun and gives the strange antlered buck a free pass to continue on his way...Had it been any of the other kids in the group, I'd have given them the green light to take th shot, but this young man is quite an accomplished hunter and has several deer to his credit and to be honest, he wasn't ready for his hunt to end and the more I thought about it, neither was I...

      We spent the rest of the morning watching and listening. Joking and smiling, whittling sticks and dozing off a time or two and creating memories. No Ethan isn't my own son, but I am grateful for the time we shared out in the woods, grateful for jogging my own memory, evoking thoughts of my children, grateful for giving me a reason to get out there and grateful for the opportunity to share and enjoy the outdoors and to pass on a tradition that hopefully he'll carry on.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Tease...

     Can you hear it? I can...faint, barely audible, but calling out to me, ghostly. You can feel it on the breeze and hear it in the rattle of the leaves and see it in the vivid azure sky and star filled night. The calendar says late July, but Mother Nature is teasing us with early Autumn. Just a taste, just a hint, for we know that sticky, dull days of August lie ahead...but every bowhunter hears the same voice calling, the same whisper in his ear that accompanies the first cool morning and chill of night...

      Turkey season is a distant memory as the time between seasons is too long and the hunter has to be idle and wait for his turn again. We long for the coolness of fall, the crisp air, the sting of our lungs as we inhale that first breath of a frosty, pre-dawn morning. The sharpness of the changing colors, that time when the whole world is set ablaze. The lemon yellows, the watermelon reds of the maples and poplars. The tangerine, ambers and auburn of the oaks and hickories as the leaves wither and the trees ready themselves for the cold of winter...

      We pass the time preparing. Scouting trips in the heat, swatting mosquitoes and biting flies, wiping sweat from our eyes. We spy on the deer from a far, spotting scopes and binoculars at the ready. Hidden cameras are placed at likely spots, some heavily used trail deep in the shaded woods or a well worn corner at the edge of the bean field. Food plots tilled and planted, feeding stations checked and re-checked. Evenings are spent driving the back roads, watching the fields, hoping to catch a glimpses of velvet covered antlers and big bucks in their orange coats of summer.

      August arrives, muggy, damp and warm...Squirrel season rings in and helps take the edge off with a few mornings spent under a stand of hickory or walnuts waiting for a gray or fox squirrel to make his mistake and show himself. But fighting through poison ivy and dew covered spider webs in the heat of late summer chasing rodents is no comparison to the freshness of October and the majesty and grace of a whitetail deer...

      Arrows are shot and shot again. Shoulders and back strong from repetition...The targets are worn and tattered from repeated hits and being baked in the summer sun. Equipment is examined...knives sharpened to a razor's edge, broadheads keen and honed, ready to do their job went the time comes. The hunter compares notes with like-minded, when and where the big boys are moving, discussion about spread and points and inches of antler, typical and non-typical. Tree stands are placed and shooting lanes trimmed, all for that one moment.

      August is barely here and plenty of summer is left, but we've been tempted by the weather, a cruel tease, a bad joke. The hunter's heart has been piqued by the snap in the air, the clean, clear skies...Two months out, but the bowhunter knows his time is coming, days spent in the trees, among the wildlife, breathing in deep...So we anxiously wait for our turn, all the while listening to the whisper on the wind calling us to Autumn, calling us to October.

  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Road trip...

     This week, the trail pointed North. Straight up U.S.31 and into Michigan to be exact for the annual Compton Traditional Bowhunters Rendezvous. The event is one of the largest gatherings of traditional bowhunters and archers in America and draws folks from all over the country and even a few international guests. One thing for certain, it is always guaranteed to be a good time. New friends are met, old friendships rekindled and plenty of stories to be told...But for me, this trip is about making memories.

      We turn North and this year, the boy helps to split up the five hour drive with his new permit in his wallet and Driver's Ed under his belt. Hands at 10 and 2, shoulders forward and eyes locked on the road, I glance over at what used to be my little buddy. “No longer that shy, quiet, silly little boy”, I think to myself as he gradually relaxes his grip on the steering wheel and finds his groove. We motor along and I find myself enjoying being the passenger for once, taking in the corn fields and farm houses between Kokomo and farther on...

      We talk about bows and arrows, swapping and trading and hoping for a good deal. He talks about music and four wheel drives as I try not to critique his driving skills or stomp my foot through an imaginary brake pedal on my side of the SUV. The miles click off and the conversations rises and falls which it always does with fathers and sons. We agree, we disagree...We laugh and sometimes we're quiet and I can't help but wander what goes through his brain at times, what does he think of me?

      Almost to the border, the land of the Irish and Notre Dame, no sign of an IU fan to be had. We're not in Southern Indiana anymore as evidenced by the distinct lack of sweet tea and the ever present Northern, upper Midwest accent punctuated with “Ya's” “Sure” and even a few “Eh's”, no "twangs" to be heard...Not long and we're pulling into the sportsman's club and greeted by the sight of dozens and dozens of tents, teepee's and campers. The smell of the blue campfire smoke fills the St. Joe River valley and we quickly find our own spot and set camp. The tent is up, the cots set and sleeping bags rolled out for the night. In typical Michigan fashion, the temperature bottoms out below 50 degrees for the night and I try to get deeper in the sleeping bag for extra warmth.

      The next two days are spent flinging arrows, catching up with old friends and always searching out a deal. We meet up with some of our pals from Salem, Indiana and shoot a few rounds with them. We cut up with each other, joke and laugh and the boy is included. No longer just David's son, he has earned his keep with the other hunters and shooters. No shooting from youth stakes now, the kid steps up and launches his arrows just the same as us 40 somethings and on this day, he hands it to us, out shooting us on nearly every target. A standing elk, almost at 50 yards and he center punches it, easily one of the finest shots I've ever seen, no sights, no range finders, purely on instinct from years of shooting a bare bow...our buddies hoot and holler for the boy, and I stand off to the side and can't help but be proud of the kid, but almost sad at the same time, because there' not much kid left in him...

      A couple weekends ago, I watched my daughter graduate from high school and jump into the world of being an adult. She is ready to go, chomping at the bit and for all intensive purposes, she has already flown the nest. I know that in just a three short years, my second bird will make his leap from home and into life...It's things like this trip to Michigan, shooting bows and watching my kids with other adults, laughing, having fun, sharing experiences, making memories that keep me going.

     It's not necessarily about hunting and fishing, bows and arrows. It's about time...Friends, take time with your kids while you can. That's what they want, that's what they need. In the blink of an eye, it's over, in the past and you will have missed it. If the outdoors isn't your thing, find something that is, something that you can do together to make you own memories along the trail...