Fall is for Whitetail Deer

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I have always loved fall, having been born a scorpio, and of course finding the many thrills and rewards of whitetail deer hunting in my later years has certainly added to the enjoyment of this special time of year.

I was on stand before first light for the opening day of rifle season in Wake County. It had been unseasonably warm, but luckily that morning had a slight chill to it. It sort of felt like fall. Our weather has been out of wack yet another year, but at least the deer have made a comeback from the EHD outbreak from recent years.

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There was no wind in the forecast, however, after perhaps an hour following first light, a good breeze crept up in the woods. But that wasn’t all that crept up. As they are often described, as simply appearing out of nowhere, the three-and-a-half-year-old doe could have been teleported to my position for all I could surmise.

I hadn’t thought of shooting a doe on the first day, but this deer was by itself. I watched her for a few minutes and she made as if she was going to run off. She scampered a few yards and paused; it was all I could take. The 30.06 made the first crack in the morning light and the deer was down. I was on Harris Lake gameland, and I hadn’t heard a shot yet.

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I descended the tree I’d climbed before dawn and returned to my truck to drop the stand, change clothes, and take my processing gear down to begin the work I’d gladly asked for. She was skinned, quartered and cleaned of meat in an hour or so and my opening day morning was in the book. Backstraps hit the grill the next night.

Four days later, I finished work around midday and noted the wind was right for an area I wanted to explore. It was a power line section on the other side of the lake from where I’d hunted on opening day.

I was on stand around 3:00 with the sun to my back and the wind in my face. It was warm, but not hot, and the wind was a variable 5mph out of the north.

I ended up having one of those unreal experiences.

I actually found myself in the presence of two bucks fighting for twenty minutes plus. They were in a thicket I’d taken a position on, and did the majority of their rumbling in there, and out of sight. It was absolutely nerve-racking. Crashing off trees and running around, I was sure it was a bunch of squirrels or crazy-ass raccoons.  The ruckus went on for over a half hour. After a while I knew there was no way it was deer.

I’ve seen them rub trees, scrape the ground and lick branches, even a little light sparring, but never actually fighting. But then, the first and bigger deer stepped out, he looked like a good deal of steaks to me, but I was in shock and hadn’t put the pieces together yet. I wasn’t thinking of a bachelor group. So when his sparring partner chased him into the clearing I was in, once again, it was all I could take. 

The 30.06 cracked again and the buck tumbled, but regained his footing and made for the opposite side of the power-line. I gave it a few minutes and decided to get down and see if I could find blood. This is a situation hunters do not want to find themselves in, but at times find themselves there regardless. I knew I had a good bit of light left, so I took my time and soon found what I was looking for.

The whitetail wasn’t completely expired however when I found him. I approached cautiously, but could tell he wasn’t going anywhere. I knelt by his side and placed my hand on his side. He protested slightly, but settled and remained calm. I was with him as he took his final breaths and I passed water to his lips, as I have on many occasions in the past, although never when I knew the animal was still alive. I guess it’s a last offering to quench the animal’s thirst that will become sustenance to extend my life, and I have always done so when I had water with me.

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I only wish non-hunters could experience not only the thrill of that evening, but the reward of the harvest, the connection to the land, the personal and deep connection between man and sustenance; man and wildness. There was no jumping and celebrating, no high-fives or fist-pumping; only gratitude and experience.

If you can fool their noses, you can learn their worlds, and see things most could never fathom; all while obtaining the cleanest meat you can find. This hunt had nothing to do with a set of antlers, nor to ‘release’ anything within me.  But, the way I see it, I am not absolved of the responsibility of the death of the animals I eat, because someone else raises and slaughters them. So, until the day I decide I can no longer be a meat eater, which I believe will come sooner because I do obtain much of my own meat, these moments will be about life, not death, regeneration and the circle we all are bound to, and living it as honestly and intensely as you can possibly imagine.

So, since the early gun season has been good to me, I’ve been processing meat….

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And making jerky…

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And there has been a nice drop of pecans from a favorite tree as well…

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I love fall…did I mention that?

 

 

 

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Fort Fisher Plundering

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photo: Doug McNay

Three members of my family hit the grass flats at Fort Fisher, NC this past weekend.

My brother, mother and myself launched our kayaks from the beach side as the tide was starting to come in. We made our way across a waterway and soon found ourselves surrounded by big, blue sky and light-green grass-lined banks that stretched in all directions.

We tried throwing skitterwalks on top for a little while, but no one hooked up. However, we could see that bait and fish were present. My brother started throwing spinnerbaits and mirrorlures, while I resorted to fresh shrimp rigged on a carolina-rig with a 1oz weight.

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Joey and Mom started into a few channels, still using artificials, and I posted up on a set of small islands of grass. I cut the shrimp into tiny offerings and lobbed a cast at the middle of the triple-chain to my right. It wasn’t a few seconds and fish were biting. I almost never fish with live or dead bait in freshwater, but when hitting these remote salty areas, I like to up my chances on blue-bird days. I’ve learned over the years these types of days can be difficult, as far as angling, and the effort to reach the destinations is extreme, so I will gladly take the ego-punch and defer to more reliable means to fill a cooler, and have a blast in the process.

The first area provided a few small croakers, but seemed void of any larger predator fish, so I broke my grass knot and moved further into the marsh. I never take an anchor in there anymore, the grass is easily tied into a knot around a kayak handle, which makes for a silent-makeshift-anchor, and less gear in the boat. It can be a little itchy sometimes, but its easily dealt with when you find yourself out of the wind, motionless, and catching fish.

I moved as quietly as I could through the many channels and found another spot that looked really active. Bait was present, some mullet were breaching the surface, and I could see swirls that looked to be drum. It was another area with many features, rather than an even-lined channel. I tied to the left side of an island, with another island to my back, and a channel cutting through straight ahead.

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One cast to the point just before the channel, and within a moment, my rod was bouncing wildly. Drag peeled off the 7′ outfit, and I knew I had a drum on. The fish fought for several minutes, darting across the water in spurts, before I saw it was not a red drum, but a large-shouldered black drum. It’s dark vertical lines gave it’s identity away. These fish fight and taste almost exactly like their cousins the redfish, except they have bigger shoulders and a taller profile.

After boat-flipping the fish, I unhooked it quickly and put it on ice. And after another cast to the same spot, another drum quickly inhaled the bait. The same process was repeated and I had a second fish-taco-supplier aboard my craft. I casted again a few times, but both fish had put up quite a ruckus, so the area filled with pinfish, the dreaded bait-stealers. I figured the area could use a rest, so I went to find my family.

They were at the end of the channel section we had entered and posted up on two opposing points. Joey had caught a nice keeper redfish, and a few rats, and Mom had also resorted to shrimp, but had found the pinfish that came in on me. We tried that area a while, and Joey caught a keeper flounder, but the wind picked up and I talked them into going back to the area I had left to rest.

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I got Mom to get into a spot across from the point where I’d caught the black drum, and I positioned myself across from her, on the other side of the point. She threw her bait in and was immediately hooked up. Something was really giving her a tustle, and Joey paddled to her to assist. I was sure it was a big red drum, but after a little while they determined it was a big stingray.

She was a little disappointed, but we told her to throw back in there. From then on, she kinda kicked our butts. I mean, Joey and I still caught more fish, but she repeatedly hooked up and landed red rum, black drum, pinfish, and croakers. It was really fun to watch her fight all those underwater denizens, especially since we were celebrating our birthdays. And she loves fresh fish as much as we do.

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Soon, the water started to rush out on us though, and we had to retreat quickly to avoid being stranded in the marsh. But we had a great day and two coolers full of fish! So we opted to head home and join other family members in celebration. It was a great weekend.

Love the family and grass-flats!

 

Kayak-In Camping

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photo: Scott Kroggel

My good friend, Scott Kroggel and I decided to do some kayak-in camping Friday night.

I escaped society a few hours before he did and went ahead to find a spot and gather firewood. I launched at Ebeneezer boat ramp on Jordan Lake around 4pm and cruised across Beaver Creek towards an area I had in mind.

We weren’t really going to fish, but I knew with cooling temperatures the fish would be shallow, especially in the evening, so I made sure to bring a few dozen crappie minnows along.

After unloading gear and gathering plenty of dry wood for the night’s fire, I sent a minnow soaring across the water on a float. The water was calm, as winds were light and out of the east, and after a few moments the bobber plunged under the water’s surface and I had the first fish on. The small largemouth bass fought hard, and was returned to the lake after a quick photograph.

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That bass was followed by another a few minutes later…

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Then, there was a lull in the bite and I decided to do a little exploring. I always enjoy figuring out what sorts of inhabitants use the same woods I do.

It’s good to see tracks from whitetail deer all around the lake again. EHD seems to be backing off from central NC’s deer herd. I hope for good. The sunset was really nice.

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It wasn’t long after the sun dove beyond the horizon that I started fishing again. I brought a red light-up bobber and soon enough it was dancing wildly across the water.

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From that point on, schools of crappie came through every five or ten minutes and while most were small, there were some slabs….

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photo: Scott Kroggel
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photo: Scott Kroggel
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photo: Scott Kroggel

Scott is becoming quite the photographer, and he spent a good portion of the evening perfecting his craft. Some of these pics are really cool.

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photo: Scott Kroggel
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photo: Scott Kroggel

Jordan Lake Bassin’

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I had a couple hours after work the other day and decided to hit Jordan Lake for the last hour bite.

The weather has been back and forth, but I’d been noticing north winds on the lake when I drive to work in the mornings, and with days getting shorter, I figured I could find some shallow fish. Didn’t have much time, and I would be in the yak, so I opted to leave the stripers alone and go after largemouth bass instead.

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I found them feeding almost straight off after getting to a place that’s always been productive for me this time of year. I saw a small pod of threadfin-shad busting the water, actually leaping out, and after throwing a small crankbait, I was hooked up.

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The fish weren’t full-on busting, but at times small pockets of surface busting cropped up and I was able to take advantage. The fish were mostly small, until I had the double-hookup (feature photo). Those bass were the biggest of the outing; it was just a fluke they were caught paired. I wish I could explain the excitement of this sort of phenomena occurring on freshwater lakes to non-anglers. It’s easy to get flustered and make mistakes, but if you calm yourself and focus, you can catch fish after fish til you leave; really non-stop action.

I caught everything on a small crankbait and a small spoon and had to really burn the baits to get bit. After trolling a bit when the fish seemed inactive, and only getting a few more bites, I headed to the ramp.

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Late Summer Striped Bass Fishing

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Late Summer Striped bass fishing can be very tough.

But Captain Stu called me yesterday around 3pm and said he was ‘trailering his boat and headed to the lake’. I took a quick look at the barometer and it was dropping. There was weather around, the south-westerly wind was light, and it was nice and cloudy…we got on the water around 4pm and decided to run around and look for bait.

Normally, this time of year on our area freshwater impoundments, we are headed towards turnover as the thermocline (if its present) starts to bring the low-oxygenated water from the lower layer of the lake to the top. The stripers are as skinny as they’ll be, as they’ve been chasing bait all summer, trying to stay alive, with an incredibly sped-up metabolism. They just feel like crap, they start to scatter, and they can be very difficult, even when and if found, to get to bite any kind of hardware. Throw in fishing on a lake recovering from a massive kill and, well you get it. I didn’t have much for expectations.

But we caught fish. We started out in deep water, but found no bait, then as we moved shallower we found 15-18 feet of water to be the zone. We pulled spoons and crankbaits over marks and bait for almost an hour without so much as a tail-slap, then when approaching a point a channel catfish doubled over the first rod. Stu fought it and it looked like dead weight. I figured we’d treble-hooked it. But then it started fighting, we thought it was a striper, but it was just a 2 or 3 lbr. I noticed the wind had picked up and thought that was what had triggered the strike and that ended up proving out the remainder of the afternoon. Our strikes came at times when drizzle started or the wind changed. So as we bounced cranks over another point, during a light shower, a decent largemouth pulled a rod down as I was working the deck. Stu got that one too, maybe 2 or 3 lbs again, but it fought him good.

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He likes to run with 6.5’ poles with 10lb test to get more bites. I’ve been warning him about trolling with that light of line……A few minutes later two rods rolled over and the rod I had been working on, to remove a spoon and add another crankbait started bouncing wildly. I knew it. I boat flipped the 17’’er on the troll to help Stu, which appeared to have a bigger fish, but he lost it. Shucks.

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But we had our first target fish. After that the bite died, we ran through the area a few more times, but we had plenty of time. We hit another spot, fully intending to return, and hit a crappie straight off, but then fished that area another hour without a bite. After checking a few other areas, but finding no bait, we returned to the first location and dropped lines. Stu hit the same run on his gps and doubled over one of his ’light outfits’. I grabbed the rod and looked at him and smiled. The fish was pulling drag going for another county and wildly shaking its head. I tried to hand him the rod, but within five or six seconds, before he grabbed it, I felt the line snap. It was a big fish. Of course we debated it a bit.

He’s right on one hand, on many occasions; I have found that a lighter rod and line, on the troll or casting, will out-perform a stronger setup, as far as strikes, but on the troll, with other lines in the water, if a big fish bites a light setup, the only real option is to reel everything in and dead-boat the fish. But we didn’t have time for that. The fish broke us off so fast we didn’t have time to think of that. We pulled around a little longer and noted the wind die down, bait started coming up and the water column had obviously dimmed considerably. We pulled in the gear and hit a spot I know that will often give busting action when protected from the wind, and the breeze was right. We only had a few more minutes, but we found bait up top and within a few minutes noted surface crashing about 50 yards from our position. Stu managed one more bass out of that commotion, while I was jerking a skitterwalk that walked its walk with impunity. It was another schoolie which was quickly released. We called it a day, grateful for the handful of fish which consisted of four species, and trailered the boat in the dark. 

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Whitetail Scouting with Capone

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I took Capone scouting for whitetail sign this morning on state land I’ve hunted for years.

Fortunately, the temps in NC have come down considerably, along with humidity over the last several days. It appears the ‘dog days’ of August may have peaked. And that’s fine with Capone and I.

I’m going to have to brag on my buddy a minute. I got Capone four years ago this month, and like most boxers, he has a surplus of energy. I do my best to walk him daily throughout the year, but the hottest days of summer are very difficult on short-nosed dogs. They just can’t deal with it.

So we’ve taken advantage of the recent weather trend. I tried to take him to Umstead Park this morning, but the place was a madhouse, so we opted to hit the real woods. I don’t bow hunt anymore, so I wouldn’t normally scout this time of year, but with the outbreak of EHD central NC has been dealing with over the last several years, I wanted to see what sign I could find.

I’ve never taken Capone scouting, or hunting for that matter. With no way to cover his scent, or his enthusiasm, it never seemed like a good idea. But he has really been turning into a great dog, and friend. I have him on the boat all the time and he knows where to go and what to do when fish start hitting the deck; he’s a real pro. So I figured it was time to see how he would react in the woods with me when I’m trying to stay undetected by wildlife.

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And he did not disappoint in the slightest. I had him off leash the majority of the morning as we stalked the woodlots and fields for sign of wildlife. When I stopped, he stopped, when I crouched, he seemed to sense what I wanted of him, and he walked behind me, which he never does on trails or sidewalks. He knew something was different about the way we were moving through the woods. It was impressive.

There was a good steady breeze that covered most of our noise as we walked through the dry undergrowth; overgrown from the last several years declining travel by man and animals. EHD, a horrible hemorrhagic disease, had a bad swath that hit central NC, mostly around the lakes, as that was where the gnats bred that carried the virus to our deer herd. They laid in the lake mud, where the waters receded from lack of rains in summer, and bit deer on Jordan, Kerr, and Gaston lakes, as well as others. It was a vicious cycle. Whitetail deer get bitten while hydrating, then the disease makes them feverish. They can then only return to the water for relief, and they die there; never able to recondition their internal temperatures. Boaters were sometimes finding 10 to 50 deer a day during the summers of 2015 and 2016. I estimated the herd where I have frequented the woods for years was decimated by as much as 70%. Mother nature and her very real cruelty is always visible to those who go to her hidden places and truly explore her treasures. I used to go out and see 3 to 10 deer per sit during a season, which over a three month season would turn into roughly 70 or 80 deer sightings in a single season. But over the last three seasons, I’ve seen less than 20 deer total. So I’ve passed up on most of the sightings; won’t shoot a doe anymore.

But, to my surprise, we started finding good sign right off.

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I found several sets of doe tracks in a few predictable places, then came across the buck tracks near a dwindling water hole. We busted a deer a few moments later, but never saw it, and it never blew.

Then, after stalking to a place that I passed a doe last season, Capone and I heard a deer blow and scamper off. But there were two yearlings that seemed to take no note of it. They were about fifty yards ahead and into the wind. The mother had heard us coming and warned the young, but they never heard us and certainly never winded us. I watched them a few moments, then they finally walked off. Capone was very composed and I rewarded him for it. I really couldn’t believe he stayed put.

Our exploration led us to a winding creek bed that was bone-dry. We’ve been in drought again this summer in NC. Capone and I followed the snakelike path of sand and hard clay through the forest for at least two miles and found a spot to hydrate ourselves (luckily I’d brought water for both of us) and watch a few travel routes for a while. Capone chilled and we sat in silence for almost thirty minutes.

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After our uneventful break we headed back towards the truck. We were probably three miles from the road, and back on the trail; perhaps twenty minutes later, and just as we hit the top of a hill, we heard walking in the leaf litter to our left. Capone and I stopped simultaneously, and a young spike, in full velvet, walked out of the woods and across the path not twenty-five yards ahead of us! We stayed crouched and after a few seconds, two more deer hopped out from the same place to cross the path. I kicked myself for having my camera in the backpack. The second was at least a two-and-a-half year old 8pt, in full velvet, and the other was a second spike, also with velvet clad antlers.

I looked down at Capone and again gave him praise for being so silent and for remaining at my side. I did grab his collar after the first deer, but if he’d wanted to bolt, he could have. We stayed there a few more minutes, but I was sure that was all we would see. Batchelor groups this time of year almost never have more than three male deer. But that was the first such grouping I’ve witnessed in at least four years. Very encouraging.

We had almost reached the road when I spotted a box turtle in some grass in the path. Capone walked right over it and actually hit it with his foot. I turned him around to see it, but it took a few seconds for him to register what he was seeing. Then, once he’d done so, he obviously didn’t like the shelled-creature and pulled away from it; apparently he has a turtle issue. I laughed and thought to myself, ‘that’s ok, he did great today’.

So we exited the woods and hit the road. I was encouraged by the amount of sign and the sightings, but as usual, the reward had nothing to do with the quarry.