Cubby Calls the Shot

Thursday’s weather was promising to be miserable.  Meteorologist-types were calling for a reasonably clear, but quite cold, morning that promised to quickly devolve into rain, then sleet, then snow, all which would be riding on the back of a wild, swirling, raw November wind. The previous night’s festivities ran somewhat long, as many hunters had, given the forecast, written-off any forays afield at all.

I resolved to make my morning sit a productive one.

While others shuffled past me back to camp for lunch, I stuck out another hour-and-a-half until I felt the first drops of rain.  Then I too made my way to warm confines of the cabin for hot soup, a thick sandwich, and a few rounds of euchre.  All the while the wind whistled and rain, sleet, and snow whipped about beyond the log walls of the camp. We remarked that it was good weather for deer movement, while concurrently acknowledging how unlikely it was that we would actually hit the woods in such an inclement environment.

I even slipped in a quick 45-minute nap.  But something in the back of my mind knew that it was good weather for making deer get up and move around, and that fair weather or foul, my camp cot had poor chances of being the spot the deer walked past.  So, I donned an extra layer, put on a balaclava, and headed out with my cousin Luke for our stands. As we left, my uncle Kevin was also getting geared up, and he said he’d be heading to his tree stand. None of the remaining five hunters in camp stirred, so our trio made our way out the door.

My uncle Kevin has a nickname.  People call him “Cubby”.  I’ve heard a handful of origin stories for this nickname, but they are ultimately unimportant.  Although I still call him Kevin, a lot of the time he answers to Cubby, and he does not really seem to mind it at all.

Lukas and I were hoofing it, but uncle Kevin was going to take the ATV part of the way back to his ladder stand; as he passed us he shouted his prophecy over the hum of the motor:

“ONE OF US IS GOING TO SHOOT A DEER TONIGHT!”

He said it matter-of-factly and nodded a certain nod that he knew his statement to be true.  Lukas and I said something like “Damn right we will…” or something similar and uncle Kevin continued down the trail, out of sight and soon out of earshot.

I arrived at my stand for just ahead of 3pm and there was already a fine dusting of snow on the ground; Lukas made his way onward to his treestand and we agreed to meet back up on his way past me after 5pm. We wished each other luck and I hunkered down under heavy layers of clothes, and inserted a heater pack in each glove. With uncle Kevin’s statement fresh in my mind, I settled in for the rest of the afternoon.

The weather had plans to make me quit early, and I was buffeted by wind, ice pellets, and snow. For a while I could not even look to my left side without my face and eyes being stung by blowing snow. My gun barrel was frosted with a layer of ice and sleet, and I flicked built up snow out of my scope. All around me was streaky white snow, and I pulled up my hood to keep it from working its way down my back. Deep inside my layers of windbreaker, hooded sweatshirts, and thermal underwear, my cellphone buzzed, and after extricating it, the simple message from my cousin was an expletive about the conditions.  I imagined his treestand swaying noticeably.

For a short time, just around 4:30pm, we caught a break in the squally weather.  The sky above me cleared temporarily and for a moment I thought we might get a brief view of the sunset; but winter had other ideas.  The wind picked up again, snow blew in all directions, and I longed to be drinking a hot whiskey by the woodstove. I was just about fed up when, at 4:55pm, one lone shot rang out from my uncle’s position. I marked it in my mind, and went back to scanning what little woods I could for deer movement. What I soon saw however was not a deer, but my cousin Luke’s blaze orange jacket cresting a hill into view.  He had called it an evening.

He got over and simply said “Kevin shot a buck.” That was that; he had prognosticated it on the way out and uncle Kevin had delivered.

We made the 15-minute walk to Kevin’s position and by the time we arrived, my uncle was just wrapping up the field dressing job in approaching darkness, while snow blew around the last resting place of the respectable 7-pointer. One of us reminded him that he had predicted this happening, and he took us through how the deer had shown up and milled around, providing him with an unrushed opportunity to make a quick, ethical kill. It was two deer in two seasons for uncle Kevin and he was grinning as we loaded the deer on the ATV and made our way back to camp.

We arrived an hour after legal shooting light had expired, and despite the near-blizzard outside as we rolled up the camp deck, everyone was out to inspect the kill, hear the story and help winch the deer into the ‘hanging tree’.

Later, as I grilled steaks, my cousin Dane and I stood in the snow by the barbecue, happy that we had a second buck down for the week, and ready to celebrate the evening success with the family and friends in camp. Repeatedly, we kept coming back to the prediction that had come true that evening.

Because Cubby had called his shot, and in a way, no one was surprised about it in the least.

The Important Stuff

I use this forum for a lot of things.  I unpack my opinions, and biases, and experiences both exhilarating and mundane onto all of you, and you all willingly play along, which is awfully kind of you. But today, I have to talk about something that is very close to my heart, and of the utmost importance to me. Sometimes this subject can be controversial or even occasionally divisive, but it is important and I think it needs an open debate.

I’m talking about chocolate bars.  More specifically, which chocolate bars are the best to eat while sitting on a deer stand. I have particular opinions on this essential deer camp debate, and although this list is not exhaustive, I do think that it covers the chief candidates.  By way of a disclaimer this list is regional in that I won’t be able to give an informed deer hunting opinion on American chocolate bars not available up here in The Great White North.

 

Mr. Big

I’ve always had a dream of shooting a giant buck while I was eating a Mr. Big bar.  I could then have a ready-made nickname for my trophy that would also align with the story of how I shot it. To date this has not happened.  A Mr. Big has a lot going on, and can thus be distracting in its deliciousness. Caramel, peanuts, and wafer wrapped in chocolate will vie for your attention, maybe giving a wily deer a jump on you while you black out from candy pleasure. It is also just a giant piece of candy, being one of, if not the, largest bar you can buy in Canada.  Gets a solid 9 out of 10 from me, and at least one or two should be on your packing list this year.

 

Mars

Nougat and caramel, wrapped in milk chocolate. Exceedingly delicious and the perfect size, but suffers in cold weather from poor eating characteristics.  At temperatures approaching freezing, the nougat and caramel both become hard, congealed, chewy, and messy.  Gets a 6 out of 10 from me. Once out of the deer stand however, it can be battered and deep-fried to good effect, but that’s a different story. Pro-tip: On very cold days slip it inside your glove for two minutes before eating it and a lot of the above issues are mitigated.

 

Caramilk

The bar with ‘the secret’, I prefer Caramilk on stand when I know I’m going to be there a while.  The fact that a full size bar is segmented allows for precise rationing, and on cooler days, the bite-size portions can be popped into the mouth and held there for a nice melty/chewy effect. One of my preferred bars year-round, this gets a solid 8 out of 10 on my scale.

 

Snickers

An old standard, it suffers from some of the same challenges as the Mars Bar, but I also cannot say no to peanuts.  If anything I find this bar to be somewhat undersized and I often burn through a supply of them before my week is out, but outside of the Mr. Big bar I find this to be the most filling of treats on offer. On the downside it is a very popular bar in our deer camp and I often think that some of my supply gets mixed up and consumed by someone else. Gets an 8 out of 10.

 

Coffee Crisp

Nicely shaped, crunchy, and impervious to cold temperatures, this is a simple, consistent treat for those long sits. As the name suggests it has the slightest flavour of coffee which makes for a slight bitterness to offset the sweet chocolate. Also, since I’ve either been in the act of eating one or recently finished one when I’ve shot 75% of the deer on my record, I can only presume that, at least in certain situations deer are attracted to it.  Given both it’s pleasing taste and my tendency to prioritize things that are personally significant to me, I give this a 10 out of 10.

 

Hershey Bar

A solid contender in the colder parts of deer season, being whole milk chocolate and often little else, it has a tendency to melt thoroughly on warmer than usual days, or in the very early season. I was unfortunate enough to have one in my backpack for one of our warmest deer seasons on record and could have quite easily squeezed a liquid Hershey bar out of its wrapper one afternoon. Gets a 7 out of 10 on my scale, bonus points up to 8 out of 10 if it has almonds, and penalty points down to a 5 out of 10 if it is the Cookies & Cream variety.

The real challenge here is that every time I think I have this figured out, someone in deer camp rolls in with another type of chocolate bar to try.  So, although I feel fairly confident in the above assessment, as they say, the research is ongoing.

The Drummer

For reasons that will become apparent in a future post, I recommitted my fall 2017 hunting season to ruffed grouse.  I have always hunted grouse as a byproduct of hunting other animals. Grouse were the incidental harvest when I encountered them while out hunting deer, or rabbits, or even while calling coyotes.

Many, many ruffed grouse also got a free pass for precisely the same reason; because I wasn’t hunting them specifically. Sometimes I had the wrong firearm in hand, other times the opportunities were at too close of range, while in other cases I did not want to spook deer, or rabbits, or coyotes by shooting. Whatever the reason, either by choice or necessity, I rarely if ever exclusively dedicated time to ruffed grouse hunting.

Until this month.

It was a grey, humid, and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when I carved out time to stalk some birds in the Simcoe County forests near my home. I parked the car and slid the silky-smooth Ruger over-under shotgun from the fleece-lined gun case. I thumbed the barrel selector over to “T”, broke open the action and casually dropped two wasp yellow 20 gauge shells into their slots. Flipping the action closed with a firm click, I locked the car and started down the two-track trail.

I had a blaze orange hat and matching t-shirt on.  The windless, overcast sky hid above the greenery, and I remarked to myself at how many leaves were still on.  These were not orange, red and yellow leaves clinging to the last vestiges of summer, but rather healthy, verdant, and persistent foliage enjoying the summer-like weather that had continued to hang around southern Ontario well past its expiry date.

A mourning dove flushed from a tree and a snap shot from the Ruger ushered him along unharmed down the arrow-straight path ahead of me. I popped open the gun and caught the spent hull as it launched backwards; the smell of spent powder incongruous to the mild, damp afternoon that had promised rain since before lunch. I reloaded and walked onward to nowhere in particular. This specific tract of public land is made up of a series of interconnected bush roads that winnow their way through a mixed woodland of precisely planted pine trees interspersed with more mature stands of native hardwood. In several places undergrowth has taken hold, and there the ferns and saplings brush against legs and try to tangle the arms of a shotgun-laden hunter. I walked large figure-eights across the bush roads, back and forth between the pines and hardwoods and ferns and saplings in the hopes of flushing a bird, all the while listening for the peeping of an alert ruffed grouse that I might have been able to stalk closer to.

However, aside from the earlier roar of the shotgun, only the sounds of the woods around me played out.  Somewhere squirrels barked at each other, either as an altruistic warning to each other about my presence or perhaps just in the conversational way that a squirrel’s daily interactions might go. Sparrows and blue jays flitted about, chirping and screaming respectively, and for a while I was simply a quiet spectator to the goings on in the woods that day.

Two things broke my enjoyment.  The first was the discovery of a series of tumble-down, makeshift tree stands in the woods.  All were ramshackle and trailing litter and waste. I would have felt reproach, I guess, if I knew who the architects were, but as it stood I could just simply smirk at the recklessness of them all, and stand smug in the knowledge that I was more sensible than anyone who would sit in those precariously perched contraptions. A short while later, I heard the revving of a vehicle and a few moments after that a man and woman on a side-by-side ATV sped past, dirt flying from the wheels and music blaring from a sound system. The din faded down the bush road, and soon enough I was once again in relative peace.

Further into my slow walk, after having encountered a large pile of rotting, discarded hay bales and a dried-up tom turkey dropping, the wind picked up gently and soft drizzle began to fall.  The leaves caught most of it and although the patter of rain on foliage muffled some of the wilderness sounds, the breeze and occasional drop of precipitation cooled me nicely.

I was at a bend in one part of the road when I heard it; faintly at first and then more clearly as I turned and triangulated the source of the sound.  A ruffed grouse was drumming on a log somewhere.

I stood stock still and waited. Hoping to hear the bird again, he obliged me about three minutes later.  I marked the sound and started slowly moving through the trees in the bird’s direction.  Shortly thereafter, he drummed a third time and I smiled to myself.

I was closing the distance on him.

The fourth time he drummed, I froze and moved my thumb to the safety of the gun.  He was close, and his wingbeats thrummed in my ears. As he concluded his thumping, I took two steps towards the sound with the gun at the ready.  Just to the periphery of my vision I saw him running through the low cover. I swung the bead onto the gray of his head while he juked and weaved and disappeared into the undergrowth. I never fired his way. As if on cue, the drizzle became a steady rain.

Standing in the hardwoods, with my shoulders getting soaked, I briefly took stock of the situation.  I was not getting any drier, so I quickly decided to walk along after him, in the hopes of either seeing him or having him flush. After a few more minutes of pursuit, no sightings, and a lot more rainfall, I realized that I was fighting a losing battle, and to boot I was just a bit misplaced. I hesitate to say ‘lost’ since a ten-minute walk in any of the chief compass directions would eventually have led me to a road, but I was admittedly quite turned around.  For just a moment I was unsure if the nearest intersection with the bush road was due east, west, north, or south of me and I felt a snarling murmur of alarm restlessly turn somewhere deep in the back of my head. A brief glance at the compass and I was reoriented and confident, a minor crisis averted.

Having convinced myself that I had spooked the bird thoroughly, and not relishing any further time spent in an October rain shower, I cut north and shortly found myself back on the carpet of dead pine needles blanketing the familiar bush road.

No sooner had I made the road, I heard the grouse drumming…again…from what sounded like the exact last spot where I had seen him.  A wry grin broke uncontrollably on my face at what struck me as a divine piece of wilderness comedy. “Clever fellow…” I muttered to myself, and I metaphorically tipped my cap to the bird.  I’ve had turkeys that I’d spooked do the same thing to me after I gave up on them, gobbling in my direction long after I have decided to call it quits.

On the walk out I heard another grouse drumming from another point in the woods, but he was past the county forest boundary and safely ensconced on someone’s private property.  I pictured that second bird drumming his response to the first bird, and for a fleeting second took it as their derisive, taunting laughter at my failed attempt on their lives.

But even I’m not so far gone to believe that ruffed grouse are capable of that.

Some Thoughts on Competition

Photo from SignsoftheMountains.com

Competition is generally a good thing.  It builds character, it drives improvement, and it fosters a strong work ethic.

This is, of course, the conventional definition of competition, which is not what I’m going to be talking about here.

Reports are starting to trickle in from friends and family, and overall it is looking like being another solid season of waterfowling for 2017. Things have been slow to ramp up, but that pattern has appeared in previous seasons with the action heating up as more crops are cut and cooler weather brings fresh migrators through.

But this year, unlike previous seasons, the reports from the field indicate that competition for access is going to be high, and I’ll expand on that topic in a few paragraphs.

I think back to my formative years when there was virtually no conflict at all when it came to access.  Provided you had a decent relationship with the local landowner and you left the place better than you found it, there was simply no problem at all in getting into a good spot for a shoot.  Almost every landowner we used to have access with asked little more of a hunter than simply closing a gate or parking in a certain spot on the property, and although some would gladly accept some wild game or labour in exchange for hunting permission, most did not even care for that.

Most were just happy to have someone shooting the geese off of their fields.  But something has  changed.  Goose hunting is business for some now, and a few select outfitters have taken to leasing access from landowners (sometimes at premium rates) directly aimed at the exclusion of local, recreational waterfowlers from fields and areas they have traditionally accessed simply on goodwill.

It is tradition versus business, and tradition looks to be losing.

Five points are problematic here and I’ll briefly summarize them now.  Hopefully these serve as some idea of what myself and other waterfowlers (call us amateur, recreational, local, legacy, or whatever else you want to label us with) are dealing with in relation to professional groups barring access through rental payments to landowners.

  1. Reduced Access

Since many do not have the means (through a prepaid client base) to pay up front for access, or to even pay for access at all, for non-professionals, there will be a direct loss of hunting opportunity. That such a situation is problematic when organizations like Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited are bemoaning low hunter recruitment and a loss of support for waterfowling is obvious.

  1. A Dangerous Precedent

Related to point one, this could conceivably set a ‘pay to play’ precedent with local landowners, putting a once democratic pastime in the hands of a moneyed few, or in targeted business interests. In many areas of Canada, there is little ‘lease’ type of access in contrast to what is seen south of the border.  Hunting leases have been targeted as one of many reasons for dwindling hunter participation in America, and it also creates competitive crowding on public lands.

  1. Hunter Conflict

It is not difficult to see how the practice of paying for access at the prohibition of local hunters from their traditional fields and marshes could create conflict.  Waterfowlers in particular seem more attached to the places they’ve hunted and the relationships they have cultivated with landowners.  To reduce those traditions and relationships to merely commercial relationships will most certainly lead to a broader divide in the hunting community.  Is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ between outfitters and their paying clientele on one side, and what I’ll call non-professional hunters on the other really what we need in a time when the tradition is believed to be under attack from outside forces?

  1. Hunter Apathy

This is the scary part.  Generations of waterfowlers, suddenly finding themselves on the ‘outside’ may lead some to give up altogether.  Think I’m being alarmist?  I’ve seen several examples both in the area I hunt and on countless forums, magazines, and in public interaction that lead me to believe many hunters will just say “To hell with it, then” and just stop chasing ducks and geese out of stubborn resentment.  If this happens, and I really do believe it is underway in some places, who will buy the waterfowl stamps necessary for conservation, who will support DU and Delta, who will champion waterfowling to a non-hunting public, and most importantly, who will pass this timeless and incredible tradition to the next generation?  I do not believe this is me using hyperbole.

  1. Hunter/Landowner Relations

For a long time, hunters and landowners worked cooperatively, in a non-commercial sense.  Hunters would offer their labour in exchange for access.  They would offer part of the harvest to any landowners interested in fresh goose meat or a plump mallard. They checked on the fields and popped into the marshes just to make sure things were on the up and up.  In some places I’ve heard stories where hunter access has discouraged trespassing.  In short, there was a sense of community between landowner and hunter.  But with land ownership being centralized and held outside of the local communities, and with guide services exploiting their superior financial position relative to local hunters, how could good relations between landowners and local hunters as stewards of the land continue?  If a guide service has the means to pay, and a landowner wants the money, far be it from me to think I could intervene in a meaningful way.  But an outfitter visits a spot in season a few times, with paying clients from outside the area.  They are there short-term and they are usually gone.  A local that gives a damn about the land drives by it every day.  But I imagine absentee landowners and outfitters care little for these long-term relationships.  To say nothing of the anecdotal stories heard occasionally about guided hunting parties leaving gates open, litter behind, and the like; what kind of landowner relationships spring from that?

Now this could all be construed as just so much ‘bitching’, or a reluctance to ‘adapt’ and perhaps it is those things in a way.  Local hunter in our jurisdiction, and it is possible that in other areas as well, do not have ready means to ‘rent’ access, and we cannot really control the price paid by outfitters and guide services to lock us out.  But with access at a premium, and long-standing tradition of ‘amateur’ hunting in the area, the grievance is legitimate.

It also calls into question, ultimately, what the guide services and outfitters are truly interested in progressing.  Is there a real concern about the long-term viability and participation in the tradition from the grassroots level, or is self-interest in business the lone driver in this push to exclude local participation from waterfowling?  As I see it, paid access is a threat to the viability of the sport long-term, especially in areas where there is not a history of leased access.

I suppose the motivations of those doing the paying and those taking the money are ultimately unknowable answers, but I know where my best guess aligns.

Hunting. Not Hype.