Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A weekend to remember

Ryley taking a moment to reflect on the beauty of his buck.
It’s getting colder and the days are getting shorter. Winter is officially knocking at our door. But that hasn’t stopped us one bit. Two weekends ago Ryley and I set out to accomplish two tasks, go on our first camping trip with his new Boy Scout Troop and get him a deer during our short youth season.

The week leading up to our action packed weekend was filled with the unloading of our fishing gear from our previous adventure and the reloading of the suburban for a weekend camping/hunting trip. Luckily for us we wouldn’t be traveling too far to accomplish either.

Saturday morning came and we found ourselves in a familiar spot. We were sitting in Ryley’s double tree stand at his Aunt and Uncle’s farm. Smack dab in the middle of a cow pasture hunting the wood edge and hedge rows. It was quite cold and within an hour Ryley was confirming with me just how long we intended to stay out hunting. I gently reminded him that we had a camping trip to go on in a few short hours. All of those questions faded away as we caught the glimpse of four does making their way out into the field. We watched them for a good half an hour as they ambled their way closer to us.  As they got close Ryley and I noticed several 4 point bucks about 400 yards off in the distance. As soon as Ryley saw the glint of white that was the small rack he was entranced. But the buck hung back as those first four does got closer and closer to us, finally coming into range about 150 yards out. It was decision time and Ryley kept his eyes on the buck and decided he would take a chance that the does would slip into the woods before the buck decided to move. And that is just what they did. Within a few minutes the buck went the other way as well and there we sat.

But it wasn’t long before we saw even more does come into the field followed by what looked like a nice mature buck. As we watched those deer I saw movement across from us on the hedge row and one of the 4 point bucks had reemerged with a doe by his side. As we sat and waited for things to play out I saw the 4 point stop dead in his tracks as a chocolate racked 7 point stepped up to his doe and lead her away. The 4 point quickly bounded off defeated. But Ryley had his attention on the larger buck that was still a ways off. When I managed to glass the buck it looked like a nice solid 8 point. Ryley was beside himself. Then, as quickly as it started it was all over. The neighbor had driven her car down her driveway and scared the deer off. Now Ryley was asking me if we could stay just a little bit longer. With promises of coming back on Sunday afternoon we packed up and headed home to get ready for our camping trip.

My wife Dawn, joining us for our campfire dinner.
By 2:00 pm that day we had arrived at our campsite in the woods and were welcomed by Troop 270. This wasn’t technically our first campout with the Troop as this is the same troop all my boys have belonged to and even before Ryley became a Tiger Scout we were regularly camping with them. The day was filled with activities to keep Ryley engaged in learning new scout skills and getting to know some of the older scouts who he had not already befriended. 
That evening we had a splendid meal of fried chicken and sides all cooked in cast iron over a roaring fire. The night ended with a flag retirement ceremony and Ryley participating by throwing in the stars on the field of blue.

Ryley participating in our flag retirement ceremony.
The next morning I was up at 6:00 am packing my tent furiously so that we could leave at whatever time Ryley wanted. About an hour later Ryley woke up and decided that instead of hunting the afternoon he wanted to pack up as quickly as he could and head over to the farm that very morning. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the farm. The boy had buck fever, bad!

By the time we go to the farm it was already 8:00 and although we saw a few does running through the cow pasture we didn’t see much signs of life other than the cows. We walked the back hay fields and managed to jump up two does on our way back to the truck. But they ran off before either of us could react. We headed home for some lunch with the intent of coming right back to the farm.

With our stomachs full we again decided to check the back hay fields. To our dismay on the way back we saw a heard of does up by our Suburban as they ambled towards the farm house. By this point Ryley was becoming discouraged thinking he had missed his real good chance at a deer the previous morning. I told him not to worry, we still had a few good hours of hunting light left. I suggested we end our day in the same tree stand we started in the previous morning. Begrudgingly Ryley made his way to the stand and up we went.

Within a half an hour of getting in the stand I saw movement directly across the field from us, near where we saw the 7 pointer the previous day. At first I just saw a couple of does but then quickly realized that the big 8 pointer from the previous day was about 400 yards from us. We sat there for a while trying to will the deer to come out into the field a little closer to us. They just wouldn’t budge. So I asked Ryley if he was willing to take a chance and go after that big buck from the ground. He didn’t even hesitate. We silently crept down the ladder and into the open field. We were lucky in that the ground was sloped so that the deer couldn’t initially see us as we approached out in the middle of the open field. We slowly made our way a hundred yards and stopped. Through my Vortex binoculars I verified the does were still there but I had lost sight of the buck. Ryley said he would be happy with just shooting a doe so we crept a little bit closer, this time hunkering down in the field as we watched the deer in the distance. Then just as we were talking about which doe he wanted to shoot I saw him again, running around the wood line chasing a doe. The buck was still there! But as quickly as he had emerged he was gone again, slipping into the woods. At this point my heart was racing and I know Ryley’s was too. We exchanged looks for a brief minute and silently decided that we would wait the buck out.

We half crawled our way to within 150 yards of the does and slowly stood up. Why hadn’t they seen us by now? It didn’t matter. We were on our feet for only a minute or two, though time seemed to have slowed down at this point, when a doe came running out of the woods. I told Ryley to get ready because the buck would be following her. And out he did come, trotting after her. I honestly don’t remember the next set of events too clearly. Tunnel vision set in and the only thing I was concentrating on was the buck. I don’t think the deer even stopped. BANG. I saw the buck lurch as if it were hit a little far back and then watched him regain his legs and run off into the woods. My heart sank. But then I looked up and the does were just standing there. I asked Ryley if he wanted to shoot a doe, he nodded and she crumpled within 50 yards, from what I would later find out to be a shot to the top of the heart. She had run right to the opening of where the buck had disappeared.

We quickly check on her and she was already dead so we looked for some sign of blood on the ground. We walked all the way down the fence line to where I thought the buck was when he was shot. No blood. Not even a speck. Ryley was already commenting that he thought he missed the buck. I wasn't so sure about that so we kept searching for any sign of blood, even the smallest of specks.

As we made our way back to where the doe had fallen I looked up and there on the side of a small sapling was a streak of red. Not just a splatter but a large swatch of blood. Over the fence we went in search of the buck. I usually like to give them time to die but the sun was setting and light would be gone within an hour. Ryley and I tracked the buck through briers and sticker bushes, into bedding areas all the while twisting and turning as we went. We had to stop a few times and backtrack to pick up a drop of blood here or a smear on a leaf there.

The glint off the antler's told us where the buck had fallen.
I was beginning to think we might have lost him and was about to tell Ryley we might have to head back when I saw a glint of white in the fading light. There he was about 50 yards off to the side of us crumpled up in a heap. I pointed the buck out to Ryley and he was speechless. We quickly went over to the deer to make sure he was dead and that’s when Ryley did it. He reached down to stroke the hair on the deer, as if to say "thank you for giving himself up to me". We said a small prayer thanking God for blessing us this day. I snapped a few pictures and then we proceeded to tag the deer and drag him out, only I had forgotten my knife back at the tree stand. On the hoof this deer was well over 200lbs and after much huffing and puffing I had managed to get the buck into the field just as the last rays of light were shining. I quickly staged the buck and doe together and snapped a few more pictures of Ryley before the cavalry arrived in the form of his Uncle Milt with his four-wheeler and wagon.

A quick shot of Ryley and his deer before I had to drag him out.
As I sit back reliving those moments in my head I cannot stop thinking about how much my little boy is growing into the man he will be. He never ceases to amaze me. In the matter of a weekend he learned that patience is a virtue that can pay off when he passed on his chance at a doe early on. Because of that he was rewarded with a beautiful buck. But even after being blessed with such a magnificent animal he was humbled in it's presence and gave thanks to it and to God for allowing him to have a successful hunt. We couldn't have asked for a better ending to our action packed, fun filled weekend. So the next time a few does comes your way, give them a pass. You might just get the buck of your dreams. Ryley did. Until next time keep taking your kids outdoors...

Ryley with his 8 pt buck.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Catching a Tiger by the Tail

The sky as we drive East towards tiger country.
We awake yet again bright and early for yet another adventure. Our only saving grace for the day was that we got to sleep an extra hour due to daylight savings time. We went through the all too familiar steps of dressing in the dark and leaving before the sun rose. Ryley was becoming good at dressing quickly and falling back asleep as I pulled out of the driveway.

This is not how I envisioned I would be spending a Sunday morning in November. But when an opportunity presents itself you grab a hold of it and hold on for dear life, because you never know where you might end up. And so it was no different this Sunday morning, except for the later than normal start. An opportunity had presented itself; an opportunity for redemption. It was literally time to hold on for dear life because today we were going on a hunt; a hunt for a tiger.

Ryley and Mark with their 53 inch muskie.
A few months ago our friend Mark Modoski reached out to me asking if I still had any digital pictures from our muskie trip from last November. I replied by forwarding nearly every picture I had taken that day. He alluded to a story he was doing about fishing in New Jersey and that he might be able to use one of Ryley. About two weeks ago Mark made good on his promise and published an article in On The Water magazine about the awesome fish hatchery they have in New Jersey. At the end of the article was a paragraph or two about our muskie trip last Fall and our quest to fill a vacant IGFA small-fry tiger muskie record. It was humbling to think about all the work the hatchery put into breeding and raising a small muskie which was released into a lake in northern New Jersey that grew into the 53 inch monster Ryley caught.

Little did I know that the failed quest for an IGFA record would lead us on a whirlwind of fishing adventures this past year and bring us full circle back with Mark, nearly a full year later, out on the water in search of our record again. This time we were more prepared for what might come our way. Mark had the weigh-sling, I had an IGFA certified scale, IGFA measuring tape and the necessary paperwork to seal the deal. We were fishing on a different lake, in Pennsylvania, that only had tiger muskies and no pure strains. All we needed to do was find a cooperative tiger muskie; just one.

Our plan was simple. We would through everything, including the kitchen sink, at these muskie in hopes one of them would fall to temptation and find its way into our net. We would again be trolling live rainbow trout, casting large swim baits as well jigging in deep water. The weather conditions were less than ideal but we were confident that we would be able to put the bait and lures in their faces and hopefully get one to bite.

Our less than optimal fishing conditions; bluebird sky and high winds.
Why is it that weatherman can even find a job these days? They are all-too-often completely wrong in their assessment of the weather. During the week leading up to our trip I saw forecasts that said Sunday was going to be overcast with light winds, forecasts that said it was going to be partly clouding with moderate winds and even one that said it was going to be sunny with high winds. With the way our luck ran with our bear hunt I was convinced that we would have the worst weather possible for our trip. Sadly I was right. Despite the weather, which turned out to be bright sunny skies with high winds, we left the boat launch optimistic. We had an arsenal at our disposal and we were prepared to use it all against these tigers.

I’m not entirely sure if I had explained this previously when I wrote about our first fishing trip with Mark, but he has a rather small boat; a 14ft sea nymph. The conditions on board are quite cramped for two adults and a small child but we manage to make it work. As we left the boat ramp I was slightly concerned with the wind and how it would affect the chop on the water. Luckily the wind wasn’t much of an issue safety wise but it sure did blow us all around that lake!

You can JUST make out the orange bobber we used to troll our trout with.
As we trolled our way around the lake we came upon a spot Mark called “muskie alley”. This was a small sheltered cove at the back on the lake which had a high steep bank but relatively shallow water. The winds weren’t hitting the water as hard hear so we decided to pull out a swim bait and do some casting as we trolled. As we left “muskie alley” for our drift back towards the boat ramp we still felt like we had a chance at catching a muskie. We still hadn’t used all of our weapons and it wasn’t even prime muskie feeding time yet.

Ryley casting a swim bait.
As we drifted we decided to troll a rainbow trout off the bottom (we were already floating on near the surface on a large bobber) in about 25 ft of water and switched out the swim bait for a jigging lure. The jigging lure came up empty like the swim bait had but we saw promise in the erratic behavior of the rainbow trout as we trolled it on the bottom. For a brief few moments it would start to pull line out and it frantically swam in one direction, as if it were being chased by something. We gave it a few minutes each time and then hauled the trout back to the surface to see if it had been hit by a muskie. Each time we were a little more disappointed than before when we saw no signs of a muskie.

Ryley jigging for muskie.
For the next 8 hours we trolled, drifted, jigged and cast our butts off. We saw lots of baitfish and some nice marks on the sonar but we never managed to move a muskie or get one to take one of our rainbow trout. But all was not lost. Mark and I both talked to Ryley and he wasn’t upset at all. Despite the cold the wind and the lack of fish he said he had a good time fishing. He also came out with more prophetic words as we headed back in for the day, “That’s why they don’t call it catching”.

He wasn't real happy with me taking his picture, can you tell?
As we packed up our gear and helped Mark with the boat we talked more about the record that has eluded us for over a year now. It dawned on me then that time was running out on us. By this time next year we would be out of luck. Ryley would need to catch his tiger muskie before he turned 11 next September. As we departed Mark offered up to take Ryley out next May or June and if that didn’t work he would try for early September. It seemed after this trip we were all just a little more committed to getting Ryley that tiger.

So who knows? We might just be able to get him that record after all. Only time will tell. Even if we don’t get him a record I know one thing for sure. He will catch a muskie again in the near future, record or not. He said so himself. Until then keep taking your kids outdoors…

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Successful Hunt

Fresh mountain air.
We awoke bright and early on Monday morning and dressed in silence. The suburban was already packed from the night before so we set out towards our public hunting grounds as quickly as possible. I drove in darkness toward the mountains as Ryley sat asleep in the seat behind me. Excitement and just a little bit of fear flooded my veins. We would be doing something today that hadn’t been done in these mountains for well on 63 years. Today we were going to hunt bear.

In 1972, three years before I was born, the black bear (Ursus americanus) was added to Maryland’s endangered species list. Prior to that listing it had been 19 years since the state allowed its last black bear hunting season in 1953.

Since those dark days, through the efforts of our Department of Natural Resources, black bear populations in Maryland have steadily increased. In 2004, 51 years since it held the last black bear season, Maryland again established a black bear hunting season in its two western most counties. After that first season in 2004 the black bear population has continued to grow and their range has expanded east. This year for the first time in 63 years, hunters were allowed the chance at taking a black bear in Maryland’s Frederick County, where I live. I was lucky enough to draw a tag.

Ryley on the lookout.
As dawn broke we were already making our way to the area where a friend had seen some bears in the previous weeks. There was a slight chill in the crisp autumn air and the only sounds we could hear were the crunching of our boots on the road. As we made our way off the road and onto the well beaten path I could hear a rustling in the leaves. Not the rustling I had expected or wanted to hear but the rustling of the wind as it picked up and began a terrible blow. We hunkered down on a ridge above a small pond in hopes that the wind would die out.

In Maryland you can hunt bear as a group, where I can designate up to two additional hunters on my tag to assist in hunting the bear. This was going to be something totally new for me and by extension for Ryley. I had never hunted bear before and only watched a few shows that even included bear hunting. In Maryland you cannot bait bear or hunt with dogs. So our options were limited.

Nothing like the smell of gunpowder in the morning.
In preparation for our next adventure I headed to the range the week before to sight in my rifle and release a little angst. The proceeding weeks had seen some friends of mine encounter a Sow and four cubs on one occasion and a boar on another. In both instances the bears did not show any fear of man. Even more concerning were two separate videos shared to Facebook during that same time frame that showed two different hunters, in tree stands, having close contact with aggressive bears. I wasn’t really sure I would be able to take Ryley out with me given the circumstances.

There was also the realization that the season opened up for only four days, smack dab in the middle of my work schedule and Ryley’s school calendar. Trying to make the best of a slowly deteriorating situation I decided we would set out in search of a black bear on opening day, Monday October 24th

Someone was tired...
Things weren't quite going as planned. The wind was howling, sending our scent down the mountain, to where I had hoped to find a bear or two. The longer we waited the worse our odds were getting. So, despite the wind overhead I decided we should set out on a spot and stalk.

Not five minutes into our walk and I saw a blur of black out of the corner of my eye. I stopped mid stride and slowly turned to Ryley and whispered that I saw a bear. In the next few moments I tried to set up the rifle and bipod so that Ryley could get a good shot at the bear. Unfortunately because of his small stature and the fact that the mountain laurel was higher than he was, Ryley couldn't even see the bear. By the time I realized this fact the bear had caught wind of us and had bounded over the ridge back down the mountain.

The rest of the afternoon went about how it had went earlier in the morning. We didn't see another bear all day and as the sun began to sink in the sky so too did the realization that Ryley would't be tagging a bear this year. I turned to Ryley and told him I was so sorry that we weren't able to get him his bear. He just smiled and looked at me. He explained that he wasn't upset at all. That he had a great time being out in the woods with me even though we didn't get anything. He was super excited that we got a chance to see a bear and that the thrill of the hunt was enough for him.

As we drove off the mountain and back into the real world I took in everything that had just happened. My newly minted 10 yr old had just taught his Father a very valuable lesson. Sometimes a successful hunt isn't successful because you take an animal. Sometimes it's successful because it grounds you and reconnects you to nature and your loved ones. Sometimes a successful hunt is just to be able to hunt. Until next time keep taking your kids outdoors...