Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Measure of a Hunter by Norman Strung

It's finally September and the Missouri archery season opens in just 6 days. I'm heading into my fourth year of hunting and I couldn't be more excited. For months now I've been shooting my bow to build up those back muscles and tighten up my groups. I've spent hot Saturday afternoons banging through tick infested brush looking for any clues that could help me cross paths with more deer this fall. The time in between has be spent pouring over satellite images and topo maps and logging waypoints that I've taken in the field to try to put together a few pieces of the puzzle. I feel as though I'm starting to figure out this elaborate game of hide and seek.

As one would expect, my first three seasons were filled with highs and lows. Hiking into my spot and shuffling up a tree with my climber only to realize that I had forgotten to attach my bow to the hoist rope. The bloodtrail of the first descent buck to ever cross my path that lead to nothing but the sickening heartbreak of an unrecovered, injured animal. Cutting down a small tree on the family property to recover my first fox squirrel that became lodged in the crook of a limb. And just last year, the unforgettable mile-long, uphill drag to the truck with my first archery whitetail.

While the learning process has been frustrating at times, all of those experiences have created lasting memories and taught me valuable lessons that I can hopefully someday pass on.

Recently I stumbled across an article written by Norman Strung in the January 1985 edition of Field and Stream. The article, I believe, does a great job of reminding us that hunting isn't just about filling our tags. Every outing is a learning experience, and sometimes the take-home for the day is a lesson in contentment. Hunting is about spending time in the outdoors and making memories that are going to last longer than the meat in the freezer and the antlers on the wall.

We mature as hunters as we mature as human beings, and the process is no less complex than the journey that leads us from childhood to adulthood. I can still recall my first year with a gun. I was fourteen then, with a 16-gauge bolt-action shotgun and an unbridled blood lust. Throughout that fall, I would venture from the family’s summer home every Saturday and Sunday at dawn, and walk the woods all day long, a boy possessed.

My intent was to bag limits of grouse, quail, pheasants, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, ducks, geese, and even crows and fox. This fantasy of mayhem was not blind of reason, however. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I equated being a hunter and sportsman with all the elusive qualities of manhood: courtliness, confidence, knowledge, and above all, freedom. It seemed obvious that the shortest, most direct route to that state of grace was to bring home limit after limit of game. After all, what better proof existed that one was a good and able hunter?

There is, fortunately, a law of inverse proportions at work in the woods when you are young, inexperienced, and bloodthirsty. Although I would have decimated Long Island’s game populations had I been given the opportunity, my aimless wanderings, flock shooting, and sky blasting resulted in a season’s bag of one rabbit and one quail. I came to the painful conclusion that I was not a very good hunter.

The next year proved better. I had begun to learn from experience where and when game was likely to be found. I discovered that the twilight hours of dawn and dusk might be good for trout fishing, but that quail generally stayed under cover until the sun burned off the frost and went back to their roosts around sundown. I noted that rabbits preferred clearing edges rather than deep woods, and that grouse tended to hole up where laurels grew. Occasionally, I shouldered my gun fast enough, and shot straight enough, to bag a few.

Sadly, I had no mentors during those green years. None of my family, nor friends of my family, hunted. But I did have a role model, a man of casual acquaintance who lived next door. He had a pair of sleek bird dogs kenneled behind his home. He carried a fine, engraved shotgun from his house to his car when he left on Saturday mornings. And soon after he returned, a brace of mallards or pheasants or two quail and a rabbit, were usually hanging below the eaves of his garage, catching the low, fall sunlight like a still life by the Old Masters.

One Friday in late November, it snowed heavily. Then the snow changed briefly to rain and it got bitterly cold. I went hunting the following day and surprised a small covey of quail in a flattened, white field, scratching through the crust for ragweed seeds.
I can still recall my elation at the stroke of good fortune. There was generally no place for the quail to hide, and the shooting was wide open. I took my first double ever from the covey rise, then hunted each single down until I reached my limit; that too, a first. In the afternoon, six quail turned slowly on the string that was secured under the eave of our garage.
I waited idly until my neighbor returned, and then pretended to fiddle with the quail and the string. I waved to him as he kenneled his dogs. He saw the birds and smiled, returning my wave. He stepped into our yard.

“Did pretty well today, son,” he said through pipe-clenching teeth.

“Sure did,” I replied, and recounted the circumstances of the hunt.

Like the ticking of a clock, each detail removed one weathered wrinkle around his eyes and mouth. When I was done, his smiling face had become as flat, featureless, and somber as the crusted snow. He tapped his pipe thoughtfully on the palm of his hand, gazed at the quail, and smiled a different smile.

“You’re young,” he began, “ and I was too, once. You got your birds, and you’re proud, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But someday, when you get a little older, you’ll come to find there’s a difference between killing and hunting. It’s a distinction that people who aren’t hunters seldom understand.”

I was devastated. A rite of passage that spanned two years and had at last been successfully run was disqualified in half a minute. If numbers were not the name of the game, by what yardstick was I to measure?

I would like to report that an epiphany occurred that night, or soon after, but such was not the case. I continued to hunt with a laser focus that stretched from the barrel of my gun to the game that rose in front of it. A good day equaled a heavy game pocket.

But I had been sensitized. Long hours in the woods gradually taught me how to spot hiding rabbits and squirrels by the telltale pinprick of light in their shiny, black eyes. I concluded that the gift was advantage enough, and chose to walk them up and flush them, rather than shoot them where they hid. I once did the same thing with a pheasant on the ground. I rushed the bird to make it fly before I shot. I missed.

Aside from those small gestures, though, I was not tested again until my early twenties. By then I had entertained and discarded a dozen friendships with people I had met afield, and had found a handful of special friends called hunting buddies, with whom strong bonds had been formed through times good and bad.

I was hunting black ducks on Moriches Bay with one of them when a norwester arrived with the suddenness and power of a hammer blow.

We were on a long point, and a raft of at least 1,000 birds lay to the east. The fierce winds tore loose a sheet of ice that stretched for 3 miles along the western shore of the bay, and as it bore down on the raft, the birds were forced to move. The wind was so strong that the only way they could make headway was to fly into the teeth of the gale, flat on the deck, where backcurrents and eddies broke some of the blow. Their route took them right over the point where we hid.

At first we were astonished as singles, doubles, and small flocks arrived as if on an assembly line, flying so low that we could touch some of them with our barrel ends. There was also a short time of humbling shooting until we figured out that a bird pumping along at 5 miles an hour into a 55-mile-an-hour headwind had to be led the same distance as one sizzling along at 55 miles an hour on a calm day. But once we got the lead down, there was no contest, and no sport. We found each other reluctant to shoot, saying, “ you take this one,” and “poor devils,” as the confused ducks poured into our decoys.

At some point, one of us spoke for both of us and said, “Enough.” We broke our guns, lay back, and enjoyed the spectacle, leading birds with our fingers, and yelling “boom.” To this day, when I tell the story, someone will allow as how we must have been nuts not to take advantage of such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I recall both of us feeling uncommonly good later that evening about what we had done.

The years went by and I grew in knowledge, experience, and I think, as a hunter. I acquired fine bird dogs of my own, expensive guns I knew how to shoot, and I learned the habits of game so well that I rarely returned from the field empty-handed. But along the way, a curious transformation took place. Armed with such sure knowledge in my callow youth, I would have killed all the limits I dreamed of. Yet now, I began to exercise restraint.

Sure, there were times when filling a table with a feast for friends led me to shoot a limit of ducks or pheasants, and big-game season represented sustenance as well as sport. But more often than not, I would swing on the most difficult bird in a covey rise, rather than taking the sucker shot. When a flock of fidgety mallards swung wide of the decoys and circled overhead, I would resist the long shot for the possibility that they might settle down, and treat me to the singular beauty of a classic toll, approaching the decoys on confident, cupped wings.

I also found that I preferred the company of others with a like mind. It wasn’t snobbishness or elitism; just a matter of priorities. It gradually made more sense to enjoy the company of people who could savor the best of a morning on a marsh, then cap that memory when the bottle was full, rather than let it overflow with the excess of another two or three birds that could be bagged in an instant as a foregone conclusion. I also discovered another common denominator among those I called both hunter and friend: a mutual reverence for the things we hunted.

That one can have reverence and respect for something you are trying to hunt down is easy to imagine as a contradiction, but I have seen antelope hunters choose a tough, tricky stalk over an easy one in exchange for the certainty of a swift, clean kill, and bird hunters who spent half their afternoon finding a cripple. But no example speaks so eloquently of this abiding sense of reverence as the time a friend downed a six-point bull elk that we had hunted hard and well. It was a perfect shot and a magnificent trophy, yet in that ebullient moment of deserved triumph, he was moved to briefly touch the carcass and mutter, “I’m sorry….” It was not a statement of regret, but of humble apology and thanksgiving to and of a spirit that we both understood perfectly.

Upon that cold and windblown hillside, perhaps I arrived at the estate I first sought as an adolescent in thought and years, but I don’t really know. It’s like asking me now, at two score and three, if I’ve finally grown up, and to be honest, I hope I haven’t, because when you stop growing, you stop living. At that moment of salute to the fallen elk, a quote ran through my mind. It has been a creed of mine ever since, and I recall these same words every time I sight down a barrel:

“We are measured more as hunters by the things we choose not to shoot, than by those that we do.”

For the original article, click here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why We Hunt

In a world that just seemingly gets weirder and more out of focus by the day, you don't have to look far to find controversy. People are constantly bashing each other for their choices and opinions. Flip on the news and you see liberals and conservatives fighting it out over marriage, guns, climate change, religion and a list of other topics. Heck, you can't even watch a YouTube video or jump on an internet forum without people criticizing one another in the comments. It's easy to get upset, blow things out of proportion, and say things you shouldn't- especially over the internet. This not only makes people judge you, but it also causes them to look down on the groups and hobbies you associate with. If you really want someone to listen to you and understand your point of view you have to stay calm and think before you speak. I don't wanna sound all deep and soulful with this, but I too need to be reminded of this from time to time. Recently, an article came across my Facebook feed titled "I'm Not a Hunter". When I realized the article was put out by Sitka Gear I became intrigued and decided to give it a read.

Sitka Gear

The article was written by Heather Nutting, a well informed non-hunter. Heather did an excellent job of saying the things that many of us struggle to get out when we're asked "How could you kill an innocent animal?" I encourage anyone who reads this post, whether you hunt or not, to give the article a read. It does a great job explaining the important role that hunters play in the conservation of the animals and wild places that we all enjoy.

Sitka Gear- "I'm Not a Hunter"

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

I'm back!

I know, I know! I haven't posted in a while, but that doesn't mean I haven't had a chance to get out. I promise to begin providing more consistent updates from now on! For now, I'll just give you a massive photo dump from some of the highlights of spring 2015. Enjoy!

I have a love/hate relationship with this little crik

Rod & Gun Club

Had an awesome day on the North Fork of the White with Kyle Kosovitch and Jim Stouffer. You can read more about our trip here.

Kyle with a beautiful NFOW smallmouth

Wild Rainbow

My first NFOW rainbow and first time czech nymphing

Dawt Mill

Deer Burgers and a Local Brew

...And this cutie finally got the Jeep of her dreams

Longear Sunfish

Big Bluegill on a Bunny Leech

He Gone!


Stumbled upon this hidden gem

New 8wt topped off with a Lamson Liquid reel from Plateau Fly Shop

Links to check out:
Kyle Kosovich's Longboat Outfitters
Plateau Fly Shop
Plateau Fly Shop's blog post covering our NFOW trip
My Instagram- because it's updated more often!

Until next time..

Friday, April 3, 2015

Video of the Day: Vermillion

Insanely good videography. Not a new video, but definitely a must watch!

Vermillion from Kitchen Sink Studios ®, INC. on Vimeo.

I hope you all have a wonderful Easter weekend with family and friends!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Good Morning River

The weather forecast called for rain all day today, so I made the decision not to hunt this morning. I wake up this morning what do you know- no rain. Figures. Since the weather seemed to be holding out I decided to grab my gear and hit the stream.


For years I have attempted to fish during the cold weather months and I just can't ever seem to figure it out. I had a few bites early on, but no takers. I would love to have landed or even lost a fish, but there's a lot more to it than just catching fish. It's chatting with one of the local farmers about deer hunting and trophy fish. It's a runny nose, cold hands, and snagging a sycamore on your backcast.

A bad day fishing? What's that?

..and for today's fogged up GoPro grab

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

My First Deer

Saturday morning finds me laying in bed at 4 a.m. wanting so badly to turn off that awful iPhone alarm and return to my dreams that were so rudely interrupted.When I decide to pry myself out of my comfortable bed and commit to my day I begin to feel the excitement and anticipation of spending my morning up in a big ol' tree.

There's not a whole lot of people on the roads at 4:30 a.m. On the way out of town I pass by puke stained groups of party-all-nighter's who are starting to sober up on their long walk home. Gotta love livin' in a college town. Once I hit the country roads I automatically become weary of the critters and begin to criticize other drivers for forgetting to turn off their brights as they pass by. I roll into the small gravel parking are right at 5 a.m. A bit early, but I'm glad to see I'm the only truck in the lot. While organizing my gear I realize that the batteries in my headlamp are completely dead. Great. Knowing that the small sliver of the crescent moon won't be providing me with much light, I reluctantly dig out my backup flashlight. Thankfully, after a few nervous shakes it comes to life. It's an long, but easy walk in to my spot. The damp, cool air is welcome and refreshing after last weekend's sweaty evening sit. After finally reaching my tree I quickly realize that the large handheld flashlight that I had toted in was going to make setting up my climber very difficult. After a few minutes of cussing and fumbling I finally begin my ascent.

As daylight beings to creep through the river bottom I thank God for the opportunity to experience another beautiful morning in his creation. Sunrise always brings a smile to my face. The squirrels running around above me make me question my decision to set up in a black walnut tree. I wince each time a cluster of nuts falls to the forest floor. I guess it's only a matter of time before one of those boogers knocks me right on the top of my head. Oh well, it adds to the experience I suppose.

An hour later the sounds of the local high school marching band break through the silence. I begin to get restless and decide to check the wind. A puff from my wind indicator assures me that the wind is still in my favor. I decide to pull out my camera to give me something to pass the time. After a few minutes of struggling to learn how to set up the correct shutter speed and aperture I decide that I need to put the camera away and eliminate any unnecessary movements.

Around 9:15 a.m. I start to give in and begin packing up for the hike back to the truck. On second thought, nah, I'll hang out until 10. I've got nothing to do today anyways. I spot movement to my right and turn to find what I think is a doe heading my way. I grab my bow, clip on my release, and draw as the deer walks between me and a big mature walnut tree. The high school band is still practicing, literally providing me with my own personal background music. As soon as the deer walks directly in front of my stand I realize that it is in fact a small spike. Do I take the shot? You hear it all the time- "let em' go so they can grow"- but this could be my first deer! He's stops at my 9 o'clock, quartering away at 20 yards to take a bite. I settle my pin, take a breath, and let my arrow fly. THWAK! Perfect shot! He takes off up the hill to my left and crashes within 40 yards of my stand. Silence.

Growing up I spent a tremendous amount of time outdoors. Whether I was running around the fields behind our house or hanging out at the farm with my dad I was always outside. After high school I started to develop an interest in hunting, but I didn't really know where to start. Neither of my parents hunt, but my grandfather has hunted his entire life. Due to an ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease he was never been able to harvest a deer with his bow. After hearing of my interest in bowhunting he passed along his old PSE Polaris to me to shoot around and test the waters. After a trip to the local archery shop I was quickly dialed in out to 20 yards and counting.

I took to the woods for the first time during the fall of 2012. A handful of tags, some cheap camo, and a brand new climber was all I needed to feel like I was on top of the world. I'll never forget how pumped up and clueless I was walking into the woods for that first sit. I didn't see a thing all evening, but I was out there. I was a hunter.

The season of 2012-2013 was a huge learning experience. I discovered the importance of hunting the correct winds and being stealthy when approaching and leaving my stand. I learned the benefits of layering and how quality gear can really make a difference. I'll never forget the day that I left my arrows in the truck... yeah, that was pretty bad. Throughout that entire season I maybe saw 10 deer and passed on a small 8 pointer that would have made the perfect first deer. I ended the season with a pocket full of tags, but I knew I was officially hooked.

Last year was a much more productive year thanks to the lessons learned during the previous season. I ended up taking a poor shot on a nice young 6 pointer that resulted in a gut shot, very little blood, and hours spent unsuccessfully tracking a wounded animal. For weeks I was an emotional mess. I ended the season without any opportunity to redeem myself. I had learned from my mistakes and I had set my expectations high for the 2014-2015 season.

Saturday, September 27th 2014 is a day that I will never forget. It took me three years, but I had finally accomplished my goal of harvesting my first deer with my grandfather's bow. That feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is something that I can't even begin to put into words. He isn't the biggest or the baddest deer around, but I sure am proud of him!

My first deer ever,
with my grandfather's bow,
on public land,
on National Public Lands Day!

Love you Grandpa!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Starting the Summer Off Right!

This past weekend was one of the nice long, relaxing weekends that I look forward to all week long. Lauren and I started it out by heading out to the Farmers Market at the new Farmers Park on the South side of town. If you find yourself in Springfield for the weekend this is a must do cultural experience that every foodie will enjoy. We ended up walking away with a couple of bags of veggies that we picked up from various producers and a package of bison hamburger patties from Elkhead Ranch which is located East of town in Bruner, MO. We ended up grilling the burgers for dinner on Sunday evening and they turned out amazing. Bison is a lot leaner than beef, but still packs a ton of flavor. Talking with the guys from Elkhead Ranch really sparked an interest in me. My family has always had cattle, but the thought of raising bison- an icon of the American West- is something that is truly intriguing to me. I will definitely be looking further into this.

Sunday afternoon I had the chance to hit the James River for a couple of hours. The water was still a tad high from the recent rains, but I was able to wet wade to several good spots. I have been almost exclusively fishing with my fly rod the past few months, so I decided to change it up a bit and do a little spin fishing. On the water I'm guilty of being a little stubborn when it comes to lure selection. It's an awful habit that I need to break if I want to be more productive, but when you have your favorite lures it's hard to not throw them. I'm still very new to river fishing, but I have become very partial to Zoom Speed Craws when targeting smallmouth, spotted bass, and rock bass in the local waters. Zoom is my go-to for soft plastics. They're tough, come in a wide variety of colors, fairly cheap, and found just about anywhere. During my time on the water I was able to hook up with a descent size green sunfish, my personal best spotted bass for this stretch of the river, and about a 15-20'' longnose gar. Luckly, the gar ended up biting through my 6lb. after 2 huge leaps and a quick run down a fast moving riffle. I would like to purposefully catch these living dinosaurs someday, but at the time I was not in a good position to safely land one of these toothy critters.