Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Evening Rise

I'm sitting among tag alders on the bank of a dark, tea-colored, northern Michigan river, killing time by writing this on a smart phone while chewing and spitting sunflower seeds in between cigarettes.  Its easy to get in the river and just start fishing, but the trick is to get there too early and then just sit and wait.  Sit until you've been sitting there so long your legs fall asleep and you become part of the landscape.  Its like being in a cartoon as the fauna forget you’re there and start coming out of the woodwork, talking to each other like people, wearing clothes and playing pranks on each other.  The best part is the small band of birds and chipmunks playing Grateful Dead covers with tiny guitars and flutes.

Waiting out the evening rise is like high chess.  You wait and wait and wait, letting the fish get happy, and pretty soon you’re seeing things 17 moves ahead.  First the pawns start eating.  Whatever you do, don’t let the pawns draw your queen out, they’re only there to set things up for the forgotten, middle-sized fish.  Those gorgeous trout in the high teens come next and as tempting as it is to get up and make that first cast, you know that if you wait just a little bit longer-- usually when the pawns have fallen-- the river will castle and expose its king.

Except the sky has darkened, and while you think you heard him once or twice, you aren’t quite sure of his location as you keep getting distracted by how the air is so clear that the crescent moon hanging over the alpine tree line seems so close you could reach out and touch it.  

So you sit and wait, alone but not lonely, captivatedly bored, patiently watching the river give up her secrets as the sky is now filled with bugs. 

One more cigarette to keep the mosquitoes and no-see-ums at bay.  One more cruise through your Facebook and Instagram news feeds.  The river should castle any time, but the pawns go silent.  The middle-sized trout are neglected once more.  Those enticing fish in the high teens all went home with dudes their own age, and the castle never came.  You consider waiting a bit for it to get darker and try mousing, but its been a long winter and you really just want to play chess, not go all pumping cheat codes into your Xbox. 

It never dawns on you that you drove 45 minutes each way to sit on driftwood and watch trout rise without ever making a cast.  It won’t be the first time or the last.  The time was well spent despite the expectations being contradicted.  The game took an unexpected turn, and perhaps that’s the whole point.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ironman Breakfast Burritos

nom nom nom

The first time I ate these for breakfast was at a trout camp on the lower Au Sable with a bunch of guys from across the northeast and great lakes.  A good friend, Mike, cooked this in a large wok he brought with him from NY and everyone in the cabin raved about them for the rest of the trip.  The thing that I love about this recipe is anyone can make it, yet whether you eat this at home or in the backwoods, you feel like you're eating something prepared by a 5-star chef.  

  • 12 large eggs
  • 1lb ground breakfast sausage.  I like the Johnsonville Mild.
  • Softshell Tortillas
  • Colby Jack, or similar, shredded cheese
  • Green Salsa, the spicier the better.
Serves 4'ish

Cook sausage in a wok style pan.  Set aside and wrap in tinfoil to stay hot.  Leave sausage grease in the wok and scramble eggs in the grease.  Put sausage and eggs on a tortilla.  Add green salsa and cheese.  Wrap up and enjoy. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Short Season

Yesterday was the opening day of the archery deer season here in northern Michigan, which was a Sunday this year.  That means the last day of trout season, 9/30, was a Saturday.  Those two things together meant that you could do a weekend trout/deer camp in the Pigeon River Country, and mix some grouse hunting in to get the most ultimate weekend warrior cast & blast experience ever.

Several of us camped not far off one of the main drags running through the forest.  Lloyd, Carl, Gary, Jake and myself.  There was no agenda, just wake up when you wanna wake up.  Nap when you wanna nap, hunt when you wanna hunt and fish when you wanna fish.  We forgot about schedules and chore lists and bills and any other source of stress in our daily lives.  We just did whatever we felt like doing.  Civilization be damned, for two and a half days, we were wild animals.

While I packed fishing gear, I never got it out.  Actually, I don't think any of us fished.  Most of the time was spent around the campfire or taking long walks through the grouse woods.  The woods are so alive right now.  We had bugling elk around camp all three days.  They made it tough to get a good night's sleep.  I'd get woken up by a long bugle and then just lay there in my tent staring up at the black, listening for the next bull to go off until the sound came and echoed through the forest, or until I fell back asleep. 

As always, food at camp was 5-star.  Ironman breakfast burritos.  Gary brought beef stroganoff.  Carl brought some homemade apple pie- made with wild, public land apples he and his wife picked in the Deward Tract.  Lloyd made his world famous coney dogs one night.  That was all mixed in with a lot of junk food, black camp coffee, good beer and a little bourbon here and there.

Some of the guys who made it out to camp earlier in the year couldn't make it.  The other Gary was in Montana.  John moved.  Jordan fell off the face of the earth.  Greg was busy.  Hopefully they can make it out for the next round at the opening of the 2018 trout season. 

I didn't bow hunt opening morning, opting instead to sleep in and hang out around camp.  Jake and I took a walk for grouse in the afternoon before everyone started to pack up camp.  I brought a bag target, and Jake and I shot our bows for a half hour or so in the late afternoon before I finished packing up.  We rolled out all at once, one vehicle after another drove south down the dirt road before I pulled away from the pack to deer hunt.

I'd never hunted that spot before, only watched deer moving through there all summer long during trout season.  There were a few really large deer in the group, and I was hoping to get a shot at one.  I hunt out of a climber, and the tree I was thinking I could climb was a little too big so I spent the first 20 minutes trying to find a suitable replacement within range of where I expected them to walk through.  When I did find one, I used my rangefinder and marked 15yds and 30yds from its base with a rock on the ground before climbing up. 

Just before I got to the height I wanted to be in the tree, I see two guys in street clothes walking towards my stand.  They were scouting and looking for a place to put a two man ladderstand.  When they got about 50yds from my tree, I whistled, and they walked out the way they came.  Its funny how a hunter's body language changes after they realize they're in someone else's territory, even when it is on public land.  The walk away after you've been alerted you're intruding on another hunter's presence is a walk of shame.  I'm not sure why.

An hour later, I hear something behind me and there is a guy climbing a tree about 40 yards away.  I whistle and he doesn't hear me over the wind blowing through the trees. 

My dog, Finn, the grouse flushing labradoodle

I wasn't really sure what the right etiquette was.  Should I yell so he knows I'm there?  Should I climb down and leave?  Suddenly, he tipped his quiver too far over and all of his arrows fell to the ground.  He climbed down, picked them all up and started to climb back up. I whistled again, opting not to yell because we were approaching prime time and we weren't far from the bedding area.  He didn't hear me again and I decided I would just finish my hunt and find a new spot the next time around.  I didn't feel there was any safety issue, as he was in the opposite side of a huge tree, and couldn't see anything my direction anyway, let alone shoot in my direction.

Soon after, I hear a branch pop.  Several deer were moving out of the swamp and heading right for my shooting lanes. I picked the biggest one and shot as soon as I had the right angle and distance.  It was a 30yd quartering away double lung, she only went about 40yds.  When I had her aged at the DNR office later, they said she was 2.5 years old.  I sent Jake a text before climbing down to track her.  He said he would be out to help me drag her out in about 30 minutes. 

While I waited, I heard another branch pop.  Another group of does were coming along the same route as the first group.  At the back was another very large doe.  She sensed something wasn't quite right, and after the group milled around for a few minutes, you could tell they were all going to move out because of her attitude.  Maybe she knew something was wrong because the first group of does weren't there?  Maybe she was just psychic.

She stopped quartering away at 35yds and I sent the arrow.  It took out both lungs, pierced the center of the heart, and hit the opposite shoulder before making a loud thwack!  I'd later learn that it dislocated that far shoulder.  She went 30yds before piling up and aged 5.5 years old. 

And just like that, I was tagged out.  My archery season over just a few hours after it started. 

I gave some meat to Jake for helping me drag two deer out.  Boy was he surprised when he showed up and found out I had another one down.  That other hunter in the tree behind me was from Indiana.  He wasn't sure how he could go back to camp and tell his buddies that he didn't get anything, but the guy 40yds away he didn't know was there got two.  We laughed about what happened, and he was even nice enough to help me track both deer, though there wasn't much tracking to do. 

The reason for the season
I had them processed by a local guy who did a really great job.  I had him do a couple of batches of jerky, too, which didn't last long after I handed some out to friends and family.  I think that's the best part about hunting- sharing the meat. 

Here is some video of each shot

20171001_184016_1 20171001_190340_1

Friday, September 8, 2017

Fly Fishing for Whitetail Deer: 10 Ways Fly Fishing Tactics Can Make You a Better Deer Hunter

Before fly fishing took over my life, I was a diehard bowhunter.  I hunted whenever I could.  I watched all the latest hunting movies (they came out on VHS at the time).  I read all of the magazines, and when internet hunting forums started to gain traction, I read every thread.  I scouted and scouted and scouted.  The thing is, despite having bowhunting whitetail deer on the brain literally 24/7, I wasn't very successful at bowhunting.  To further paint the picture of how pathetic of a hunter I was, I wasn't even measuring success as being able to kill a big buck, I never actually saw a buck while I had a bow in my hand-- I could barely even fill my freezer.

Then I discovered fly fishing.  I loved it so much that I didn't pick up a bow for almost 10 years.  During that period, I was just as hardcore about fly fishing as I was about bowhunting, except I was a much more successful angler than a bowhunter.  When I came back to deer hunting, I threw out everything I hadn't forgot and decided to hunt using the same tactics I used to catch fish, and as crazy as that sounds, it worked.

From that first day back in the woods, I was seeing deer on almost every trip out.  It was awesome-- I was even seeing bucks!  The more I thought about the different tactics and strategies I used to catch fish, the more I realized that the two sports had a ton in common.  In a lot of ways, it was almost as if fly fishing was like cross training for hunting.  Following are 10 ways you can apply basic principles in fly fishing to make yourself a better deer hunter.

Don't Leave Fish to Find Fish

Its perhaps the first rule in fishing and probably an appropriate place to start.  Don't leave fish to find fish.  If you are catching fish, thats the whole point.  The grass is not always greener on the other side and moving to a different location could result in getting skunked.

That translates right into deer hunting.  If you're seeing deer and they don't seem to be alerted to your presence, keep hunting them!  Every time you hunt an area and don't spook deer, you're learning more and more about their habits, eventually, you'll get a shot opportunity.

With that said, sometimes after you've fished a spot for a few days in a row, the fish seem to just disappear.  Its not that they crawled out of the lake or swam to a different river, they're still there.  The problem is you overfished them.  Only then should you try a different piece of water, or in the case of deer hunting, move to a new stand location.  Which leads right in to our next tactic...

Insanity, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result

If you're not catching fish, its time move or try something different.  This may seem like a no brainer but you have no idea how many people I see casting the same fly to the same spot over, and over, and over, not resting the water at all between each cast as if the fish don't realize how great they are.  If something doesn't work, change things up!

The change doesn't have to be huge, its often just doing what you've always done, but subtly different, that turns the game in your favor.  A great example in fly fishing is changing the angle at which you're casting to the fish-- instead of casting from where you're standing repeatedly, move over to change the casting angle or get closer to where the fish is rising- or both.

In deer hunting, that might mean doing something as simple as hunting from a higher treestand height, or moving your stand 50yds.  It might mean getting to your stand from a different entry route, or taking a different route back to your truck.  I could go on and on, the point being, if something isn't working, fix it.

Don't Fish Where Everyone Else Does

Another no-brainer, but judging by the number of access points I see during fishing and hunting season with multiple trucks parked at them, maybe its not.  Even little fish are harder to catch in areas with heavy fishing pressure.  Trout might have a brain the size of a pea, but they catch on pretty quick.  The same can be said of pretty much every other game fish or animal, especially whitetail deer.

If I see tire tracks or boot prints in a particular area, I fish somewhere else.  That might be as simple as walking in further than the guy before me was willing to go, or it might mean I don't even get out of the truck and fish somewhere miles away.

Since there are more hunters than trout anglers, I usually won't even scout within so many yards of each potential access point on a tract of public land, which is all I hunt.   Once I've determined where other hunters aren't, I'll take the hand I'm dealt and plan how to play it accordingly.

But even then, sometimes that spot you were sure you'd have to yourself has other hunters when you show up, which is why you should learn to...

Pick Their Pockets

During particular insect hatches, our rivers can become very crowded.  Its not uncommon to have over 20 boats on a particular stretch you normally have to yourself.  When that happens, you have three options:  go home (not an option), fish somewhere else and miss the hatch, or pick their pockets.

I will sit at the access and let all of the other boats get far downstream to all of the "good spots."  When they do that, they skip over a lot of really great, overlooked, water.  And I get it all to myself.  #boom.

I did the same thing during a recent rifle season.  The piece of public land I planned to hunt had three cars there when I arrived an hour and a half before first light.  There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground so instead of going somewhere else, I decided to walk the trail back into the timber and see where the other hunters had set up.  All three cut off of the trail at various points just a little ways into the treeline, and knowing the lay of the land I was able to get between them and the deer.  I don't think they knew I was there until they walked out and saw my tracks checking out their tracks.

Those hunters created an artificial funnel that pushed the deer right to where I was waiting at the base of a big white pine.  Fortunately for them, I didn't have a doe tag that year.

Have a Plan B

All that said, sometimes no matter how clever you think you are, something can come up and ruin your trip.  Going home isn't an option, so instead of having to figure out a backup plan on the fly, have it figured out before you get there.  I can't tell you how many of my "Plan B" fishing spots are now on the "Plan A" list.

The old adage holds true, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail."  An example of this in the hunting world is an oak stand I hunt off of a seasonal, not snow plowed county road.  We had almost 18-inches of snow fall overnight a few years ago during rifle season.  Had I not found a little known, alternate route to get there, that spot would have been off the list until the next year.

Understand Your Prey

Good trout anglers could probably pass most college biology classes.  They know about each life cycle of the bugs fish eat, as well as how and when they eat them.  They understand how fish see, where they can see from where they're stationed, and how they eat different prey types.  They understand how fish use the terrain features in a stream or lake to their advantage and a whole host of other things that have nothing to do with fishing, but have everything to do with catching fish.

To take your deer hunting success to the next level, you need to understand deer behavior.  Let me tell you, it might not sound like much fun picking up a book about deer behavior at your local library, especially if its written by an author who has little to nothing to do with the hunting industry.  But trust me, you will savor every page.

Make Every Cast Count

Something you see a lot of beginning fly anglers do is get into the river and basically start flailing away at the water.  They might catch a fish now and then, but could have caught three fish in that spot they only caught one.  Don't just blind fish.  Cast to each spot for a reason, read the water, pick it apart, and then ask yourself why you caught that fish where and when you did.  Pretty soon you will be able to read the water and start seeing trends that will make you a much more efficient angler.

The same can be said for hunting.  Over time as you get more and more experience in the woods, you'll start to read deer sign and predict deer movements.  Some, like funnels, are obvious.  Some, like bedding areas, will only start to stick out once you've...

Put Your Time In

When you're first getting into any hobby or career path-- or anything, really-- you aren't going to immediately be awesome at it.  Sure, there is always that guy that goes out and catches a huge fish on on a twizzler.  In hunting its the guy that wakes up late, gets out to a piece of timber he has never been, sits down on a random stump, lights up a cigarette and shoots a monster buck before he has enough time to finish it.

I've never been lucky enough to be that guy, which is great, cause I don't want to be that guy.  I want to be the guy who earns it because eventually, you catch big fish regularly and on purpose.   Which will help you to...

Be Prepared to Catch Big Fish

We've all heard of buck fever, and if you're lucky enough, you've experienced it.  Fishing has its own version.  You hook up with what you thought was a normal-sized fish only to have it nearly pull the rod out of your hands when you set the hook.  Inexperienced anglers freak out, make simple mistakes and unless they're lucky, wind up losing the fish.

There are two ways around this.  The first is to fight a lot of big fish so you know how to play them, which takes time.  The other is to expect to catch big fish.  When guiding, I almsot always tell my clients, I'm a guide, not a god.  I can't make the fish eat.  But if you're lucky enough to catch fish while we're out today, there is a possibility you will catch a really big one.  You probably won't, but know that they're in there and they might eat your fly.

We then talk about how to play fish, how we'll get it in the boat when they land it, etc.  Again, failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If you spend enough time in a treestand, even if you're the worst hunter in the world, you will eventually have a deer walk by.  Its going to happen.  If you are an intermediate hunter and put yourself in an area with a few bucks around, eventually, you will have a buck walk by.
Its going to happen, so don't let the surprise of a buck walking by let you forget you were expecting it to happen.  Because when you're expecting something to happen, you don't freak out about it.  You're ready!

Don't Blame Your Gear, Master It

If you're in your mid-30's or older, you might remember when a particular brand of shoe came out in the late 1980's that had a pump on the tongue.  You'd repeatedly squeeze the pump and the shoe would inflate around your foot, giving a custom fit.  Kids my age also thought this would help you jump higher or run faster, yet somehow, none of us could suddenly dunk a basketball when we wore them.

In fly fishing, there are rods that cost over $1,000.  That doesn't even include the reel or the line.  There are also rods that cost under $100.  Put both of those rods in the hands of a beginner, and even some intermediate anglers, and other than the expensive rod probably being lighter, they won't be able to tell you what the other differences are.  They won't cast further or more accurate, or catch more fish.  Yet there are many people out there who will buy a high-end rod to improve their casting.
What they soon find out after their purchase is their casting doesn't noticeably improve because the problem wasn't the rod, it was the hand holding it.   The same can be applied to bows, rifles, etc.  If you can't hit that grouse with an 870 Express, you probably won't be able to hit it with a Caesar Guerini Ellipse Curve Over and Under.

Practice, practice, practice.  And once you've become a journeyman at your craft, you'll be able to make educated buying decisions and avoid wasting your hard earned money.

June Recap

And just like that, its July.  June 2018 was everything a northern Michigan trout angler could ask for.  The bugs showed up and the fish ...