Saturday, June 30, 2007

a bit of Panhandle

I recently made a quick drive across Texas and, on the way back, drove under a storm line while up on the Panhandle. The clouds and rain provided a frame for the setting sun while blowing dust and moisture contributed to the colors, which this photo doesn't do justice. Too bad I didn't manage to catch the electrical storm north of the highway, which featured more lightning than I can ever remember seeing at one time. Cool weather!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Good Old Days

I've added Henry Chappell's "Home Range" to the sidebar. I've avoided linking to a number of really good blogs because you can get to them all from Querencia, which appears there. The latter is where I find entrance to many of my most frequently read blogs and I can't really see replicating their blogroll. However, Home Range is right up my alley in terms of tone and content and therefor gets a separate link. For lots of other good stuff, go to Querencia, scroll down, and hit the links on the left side of the page. They're all good to great.

In any event, one of Chappell's recent posts, which talks in part about the decline of quail across the South and Texas and the decreased opportunities for quail hunting, as well as his thoughts on taking advantage of good hunting that is available, got me to thinking about something which has been the source of more than a few campfire conversations I have been privy to over the years. Specifically, the future of hunting and the good old days. I'd imagine the conversation is one of the most common in hunting camps. I'm not going to start to address the future of hunting, many books worth of material and debate are buried in that topic, but I will offer a couple of thoughts about "the good old days" in the context of my hunting, now.

First, a bit of background. I grew up listening to stories from my father's family and friends about their mule deer hunts in southern Utah- stories of huge bucks under the rimrocks which were made tangible by slides of old hunting camps and sets of antlers on the wall. By then we were hunting in West Texas and there were quite a few mule deer, although they are of the desert subspecies and didn't have the size of the Utah bucks. In New Mexico, a surprising number of garages and houses have a huge old rack up on the wall that dates from the late 50's or early 60's. Today, deer are pretty sparse in this state and coming here from Texas was a let down. Hunting pretty country all day and cutting a single deer track, which already has another hunter's tracks following it, is depressing.

Colorado held on to its deer population where Utah and New Mexico apparently allowed theirs to get shot way down. (Most of what I've read from Game Departments blames drought, not overharvesting. Sorry, too lazy to hunt for links right now but I will say that I personally have a hard time with the idea, as the Fifties were notoriously dry and the Eighties were pretty wet in the Southwest.) When we first started hunting in western Colorado in the late 80's, mule deer were everywhere. Legal bucks (three point restriction in that unit) were fairly hard to come by, but it wasn't uncommon to come across fifty to a hundred does, spikes, and fork horns in the course of a day's hunt. I'd imagine the legal bucks got pretty smart pretty fast and were tucked away in more inaccessible corners than I explored. It seemed like every time you thought "that hillside should have a deer on it" all you had to do was glass for a while to spot one bedded in the oak brush. Elk, on the other hand, were fairly hard to come by. The last couple of years we returned to hunting that unit after a fifteen-year hiatus. I don't know if it is due to the drought of the last seven years or so or Colorado's removal of point restrictions back in the early 90's, but there isn't a quarter of the deer population that we saw before.

Today, however, we are in the good old days for elk. This has been true for most of the 1990's, in my opinion. Areas where I used to see the occasional elk track (and elk are crazy and one seems to wander about anywhere) I now find evidence of regular usage. Not only does their range seem to be still expanding, but hunting opportunities are still pretty good and large numbers of animals means success ratios are quite high for most areas. There is a lot more elk sign (and for us, sightings) in the aforementioned area of Colorado.

I don't know how or when the crash will come, but all natural things cycle and I cannot help but imagine that at some point I'll be telling stories to some disbelieving youngster about all the elk that used to be on this or that mountain. Fortunately, I'll have some photos and racks to make the stories a little more tangible.

The optimist in me says that something else will expand to fill the niche in turn or otherwise increase with the new situation. Maybe the teens or twenties will be the decades of the deer again, or another peak for waterfowl, or upland bird nirvana. Another optimist in me says that maybe elk will be the whitetail deer of the West and things will stay good. The part that grew up on stories from a father and grandfather that saw the big bucks go away and talked to long-time Utahns who had observed the same cycle some fifty years before counsels to enjoy it while we can and remember hard.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I grew up with dogs. My maternal grandfather had English pointers, two old girls that were retired from hunting before I can remember. My mom had a German shorthair before I was born that fell victim to a rattlesnake. By the time I came along, the folks had a short hair dachshund who cleaned beneath the high chair and taught me not to mess with the dog, at least much. We later added a sweet mutt of indeterminable origin. By the time I was in junior high, the previous dogs had gone on and we had acquired three more, including a couple of vizslas. The first vizsla we got as an adult; he'd been abandoned by someone and came to us as a burly and wild two-year old. He turned out to be a wizard bird dog with a great nose: capable of pinning of covey of blue quail as he literally slid into a point, dust raising around his feet from the sudden stop. He also ate the birds he picked up for the first couple of seasons. He never got over a hard mouth but we accepted the few extra puncture wounds as the price of doing business and finding more birds. The female was a decent bird dog in her own right, though her nose never matched Red's. She particularly loved to fish in small mountain streams, shuttling back and forth between anglers leapfrogging each other to hit the pools and runs. Every so often she'd wade out next to your fly or bait and look intently in the clear water for fish. Of course, finding none with forty-some pounds of bird dog in the middle of the hole she'd give you a quizzical look as if to question your choice of spot. I'll probably always have an affection for red colored dogs after those years.

During the course of completing my education I had no pets, an odd hiatus in life which extended longer than planned or anticipated. Eventually I moved into a house and initially thought to get a dog (a hunting dog, of course), but talked myself out of it. I figured that it just wouldn't be fair to the dog since I was at work for ten hours or better every day. The cat handles long absences and uses the time constructively to take naps and kill bugs. Meanwhile, I got my dog fix visiting my folks and sister (wirehair vizslas) and annual grouse trips with some friends that run pointers.

Now I've reevaluated that stance. Years go by and I'm not looking at any reduction in work for the next few decades. Any dog living with me will have to put up with some long-ish days alone. On the other hand, it wouldn't be the worst life in the world for a gun dog. Regular walks to stay in some modicum of shape and play weekend warrior for the rest of it. Backpacking, trout fishing the creeks, and road trips to scout hunting areas are all pretty dog friendly. Come fall and winter, I generally make several trips to hunt grouse and then hunt ducks most weekends of the season, which lasts a couple of months. Having a dog to hunt with would likely inspire me to try to find some public-land quail not too far away and maybe work up a couple of dove spots.

So, back this last spring I started seriously thinking about the dog thing. I looked into Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, as a Chessie will be best suited for those sub-freezing duck hunting mornings and still ought to find the mountain grouse. A lab or a hunting golden would also work, but Chessies appeal in looks and general breed characteristics. I was pleased to learn that there is a very well organized and active rescue group for the breed, so I've been talking to those good folks about hunt prospects, ideally in a young adult. There have been a couple of glitches in getting the right dog and travel is likely required, but a hunting partner is in my fairly near future. This fall will be even more interesting than usual.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Too young

When the ever-loving bleeding hell did the thing on the left get re-packaged as the thing on the right? The new container is a "convenient weekend size" package of Coleman fuel. I never had a problem with the square-edged can and felt that it was about right for a weekend. Things might get wet and I might have a hard time getting a fire started.

I like Coleman lanterns; I like their sound, I like their smell, I like the thirty second grace period they give you to get in your sleeping bag before the light they provide completely fades, and I love their reliability and the fact that a hundred-year-old design is still going strong.

I love Coleman stoves a bit less, as they are more troublesome to keep running smoothly, but I've never seen a really decent substitute when it comes to cooking in a base camp.

I never thought much about Coleman fuel. It keeps the lanterns and stoves running. I stuck to the brand-name stuff rather than other brands. The cans are sturdy and seal well, I pack them up against the lantern in a protected corner of my truck bed. I don't like this new container, though, or the pricing. What genius thought that round was a good idea? Do truck beds, liquor boxes, or even panniers come in round shapes? What the heck is the deal with 32 ounces being convenient for a weekend? A transparent lie- clearly the copywriter has not sat up late at night with a couple of good friends, too many bottles of wine, a guttering fire and a softly glowing lantern- nor had to cobble together hangover mitigating biscuits and gravy the next morning, coffee and gravy courtesy of the Coleman stove.

I thought I was a little young to be grouchy about changes, but apparently not. Doom.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Spent the weekend backpacking in the Pecos Wilderness of northern New Mexico, a place that I've visited pretty much every year for a good while, now. I mostly take short backpacks into the wilderness area and do a bit of fishing and looking around. Like many beautiful alpine wilderness areas, the Pecos is "heavily loved". Even so, it is a fine place to see some of the best mountain scenery in the Southwest.

Got rained on halfway to the first day's goal, something you don't expect in June. A few hours under a tarp watching lightning march up the canyon is just part of the game in July, but a bit of a surprise this time of year. Moisture is always welcome, though, whether rain or the still extensive remnants of this past winters' snow pack, the first good one in a few years.

It is a continual wonder to me how just about every trip outdoors results in something of particular interest. This one brought about a couple of observations outside my previous experience. The first was a recent kill of a snowshoe hare along the trail. The young hare had been hit by an owl or a hawk, from the recency of the kill and the location (an open shoulder of the trail in fairly dense spruce) I'd bet owl. The bird had taken an eye, some meat off the head, and peeled back skin and some ribs to get to the heart and lungs. Prior to this, I hadn't realized that snowshoe hares extended this far down into New Mexico. I'd seen them up near the Colorado border, but never twenty air miles (and three thousand feet in elevation) from Santa Fe. The other was a close encounter with the bighorn sheep that live in the highest country up there. Despite a number of visits to their frequent haunts, I'd never run into the sheep in the Pecos. I've talked to people who have seen them, frequently at petting-zoo range, but never run into them myself until this trip. My previous bighorn sightings have all been at much greater distance and I was surprised at how tall they stand. With their rounded bodies, bighorns appear more compact from a distance than they do up close. Very cool.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Playing with a Querencia theme

Reid Farmer recently put up a photo of himself as a youth with a stringer of nice Ozark trout. Matt Mullenix chimed in with a photo of his own early start. Then Bodio contributed a classy black and white snap of himself as a young man with woodcock and double gun. Who doesn't dig old photos? Since summer is nigh and a young man's thoughts turn to fishing (see the last two posts), I thought I'd treat the subject as a meme and put up one of my own. My maternal grandfather and I, circa approx. 1978, South Texas and a few stock tank bass:

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Tie Flying

I started tying my own flies back ten years or so. At the time, I had started fishing the San Juan tailwater in NW New Mexico quite a bit. That section of river flows at a constant 42 F, year round, due to a bottom-draw dam. Given consistent conditions around the year, the bugs hatch and the trout grow at fantastic rates. I learned to throw a two-nymph rig under a strike indicator and split shot and was rewarded with catching many two and three pound trout. The hot flies at the time were a vernille San Juan worm in dull orange (still a must-have for anyone on that river, in my opinion) and the "disco midge". The San Juan worm referred to just above is nothing more than an inch and a quarter of micro-chenille tied to a number 14 nymph hook in two places and brought to a point on the ends. After such a fly is used for a while, the chenille begins to hinge at the tie in points and flops back on itself in the water. At that point, it is useless, as the aquatic worms the lure imitates generally lie straight in the water and the fish won't strike a convoluted worm. These things cost a buck and a half apiece and a decent day's fishing would run through anywhere up to a dozen flies. This situation was not acceptable to a budget flyfisher such as myself. Consequently, I borrowed a vise from my grandad and bought a hundred pack of Mustad no. 14 nymph hooks, a spool of no. 6 red uni-thread, and a package of dull orange micro-chenille - all total about seven dollars, and tied up thirty or forty worms.

A disco midge, although tiny (size 18-24) is also very simple, consisting of an underbody of black or red thread overlain with abutting wraps of clear Flashabou with a thorax of peacock herl or loosely spun dubbing. I learned to tie those pretty quick, too.

Alas, those initial savings have long been consumed in the course of tying many more flies. I took a series of lessons and learned how to tie more complex patterns. All well and good, two and three dollar dry flies could be constructed for pennies. Ninety-nine cent bargain dries could be improved upon, with a little care. Then I got into saltwater fly fishing a bit and had to buy more materials and hooks. A large saltwater fly with eyes can cost well over two bucks just in materials and take half an hour to assemble. The expansion of materials necessary for some of the larger saltwater patterns also led to the over-collection of supplies. I have way too many different colors of bucktail, flash, and synthetic fibers now.

Be that as it may, the economics have subsided into background. While tying will never be an end to itself with me and I'll never name a pattern, it has become an integral and practical part of my fishing. For example, heading up to Alaska for a week's fishing for Coho salmon requires about five dozen flies for the three of us. Since I can tie, a small packet of materials and hooks allows me to knock up a dozen or so of the hot pattern in an evening. I can therefor avoid having to tie an initial batch several times larger than that we carry for the first couple of days. Salmon, strange and wonderful creatures that they are, choose different patterns to strike in different years, perhaps because they aren't seeking to eat? Of course, one really has to wonder what a salmon is looking to do at all, as a fly box for silvers (cohos) looks like box of Christmas ornaments done in poor taste, or as a friend better put it "like sweepings from the dressing room at La Cage".

Friday, June 01, 2007

Laguna Madre

As best I recall, I began fishing the Laguna Madre when I was six, going out with my father and maternal grandfather in the latter's v-hull Invader. We fished out of Port Mansfield and mostly threw popping corks with a two-hook rig off of a three-way swivel underneath. The upper hook was a lead head jig with a Tout tail, the lower was a treble hook holding a live shrimp. Mostly, we caught speckled trout. I remember having to get up in the wee hours, sleeping on the way so that we could be on the water at daylight, and getting to steer the boat on the way in. I also remember the waves seeming much higher and more scary than they could have been in that shallow bay.

The Laguna Madre is a long shallow bay that runs behind Padre Island off the southern part of Texas. It is a hypersaline environment and generally runs shallow, from six feet or so to thousands of acres of flats a foot deep or not much more.

After my grandfather passed away, there was something of a hiatus in my saltwater fishing, just occassional trips, until I spent the summer with an aunt and uncle in Brownsville, Texas. That summer we fished every weekend. The CCA had been at its good works and trotlines were banned. In addition, redfish were a gamefish and no longer subject to commercial fishing. Consequently, redfish numbers were on the increase and the fishing was pretty good. My uncle had a sixteen foot Ski Barge, capable of drifting shallow and running pretty shallow as well. We caught a lot of reds, although proportionally my biggest fish that summer was a 27 1/2 inch trout, probably seven pounds or so. Instead of popping corks and live bait, we threw dark red Kelly Wigglers on 1/4 oz jigheads, for the most part. If the grass wasn't too heavy, we might cast 1/4 oz gold Johnson Sprites. Just at dawn, before the wind came up, we'd throw Zara Spooks or other topwater plugs. The strike from a 24 inch redfish on a topwater makes a largemouth bass look shy and retiring.

Since that summer, I've been fortunate to be able to spend at least a few days fishing with my father and/or uncle in the lower Laguna pretty much every year. It is a fecund body of water and each trip brings a surprise for every few days on the water. Last October brought twenty pound jack crevalle under diving pelicans, mixed in with redfish. A few years before, we ran into mangrove snapper, coming up to chase plugs cast for trout. One fall brought a couple of schools of pompano messing around the surface, allowing me to catch one on a flyrod. Another time, we saw a pod of porpoises herd some reds into a ball and then tear into them, flipping hapless redfish two feet long out of the water to stun them. More recently, five feet of tarpon rolled off our stern, a heart-stopping thrill. Between all that, we drift and cast, trying to catch reds (redfish)-

and trout (spotted seatrout)-

So, very recently I was able to spend a few days out on the bay with my dad. The weather was a bit difficult, rainstorms, wind, and low light, all of which cut down on fly fishing and sight casting opportunities. Nonetheless, we caught some fish, particularly getting into the redfish, and had the sort of good time you can really only have spending hours outdoors in the company of someone with whom much similar time has passed.