Well, the little guys are showing up again, small bird of peace here for the holiday season-
They look tiny next to those whitewing doves, don't they? Five thousand feet of elevation, a bit of snow in the last week and here they are- not bad for "a small tropical dove of arid areas". Inca doves make a distinctive little rattle when they flush from where they are feeding on the ground. I've enjoyed seeing them, as they are familiar to me from time spent on the Texas-Mexico border and the seeming expansion of range by whitewing and now Inca doves strikes me as a good thing.
I was also visited by what I'm pretty sure is a white-breasted nuthatch. The photos aren't great, they were taken through a kitchen window and my little pocket camera does not do real well on "digital zoom". The little dude was too small and quick to catch with the optical zoom feature, which doesn't offer quite the magnification. I also wasn't going to break out the 300mm lens and a roll of film just to get a better picture.
In addition, there were a gaggle of juncos at the feeder. They are very common, but favorites of mine and rare to my backyard. Typically, I only see doves, English sparrows, and house finches. Then again, I'm gone on weekdays during the hours most of the winter feeding goes on.
Well, the weather this morning was supposed to get down into the low teens, but Booker and I decided to see if we could find a few ducks anyway. I drove by one thermometer that said seventeen degrees Farenheit, which is pretty chilly. I ended up overdressed and sweating, though. It really didn't feel like the teens down on the river, my facemask wasn't freezing up too badly and the reeds on my calls weren't freezing in place. Those are usually pretty good signs of colder weather.
We got down to the river in good time and walked through the trees to the bank to find it up considerably, no doubt due to recent rain and melt from snow the last few days. More than that, the course of the river has shifted, putting me belt-deep in some decent current where a couple of weeks ago the water came to mid-thigh. Step in the wrong spot and the decoy bag would start to lift up on its shoulder straps, giving that walking-on-the-moon feeling.
Back in the beginning of November the blind looked like this:
Lots of bank between blind and river.
Now it looks like this:
The channel running in front of the little flat that blind is on has filled in from waist to knee deep and the river has spread out, all in the course of two weeks between my last hunt and this. We couldn't really use the blind, as I wouldn't want Booker to be sitting in a foot of cold water and most of the brush on the sides and front has washed away.
Accordingly, we shifted around to sit on the bank in some willows just a bit upriver where I could put out a decoy spread that looked good to me. Booker did well at sitting with me and holding still, but he did have a couple of issues with the brush, especially as not many birds were flying:
We got buzzed by a nice bunch of wigeon right at shooting light, but I wasn't ready and they didn't tarry. Surprisingly, the first hour of light, usually one of the busiest times, was very quiet. We persisted and managed to pick up a couple of birds.
Despite the lack of action, we hung on hoping for a bunch or two of birds looking for a late-morning loafing spot, but not even the hawks and cranes that usually provide distraction were much in evidence. Eventually we picked up the decoys and headed back in.
So, I'm coming up on one year of more-or-less consistent blogging and I've devolved to "what I had for dinner", surely a low water mark. I'll try to add some anecdote or throw in some links.
My plan for dinner tonight was a pasta dish I'd tossed together some time back that had worked well. For that, I had a bit of leftover link sausage, so I browned it in a bit of very hot olive oil, added some crushed garlic, then wilted mixed chard with a can of fire roasted tomatoes in the same skillet and tossed it with some penne. Very good, between the garlic, spicy rich sausage, and bitter-ish greens. Unfortunately, I planned this dish a bit too far in advance and my chard had gone slimy. Slimy greens are something up with which I will not put, absent dire circumstances, a relic of working for a caterer/restauranteur who had me and her other staff (all two) wash the slimy layers off nearly gone lettuce so we could chop the moderately firm centers and serve them. After the first case or so= Blech. Old lettuce (or other greens) still sets me off a bit.
In any event, home from work, walk the dog, get ready for dinner and discover it wasn't going to work. Into the compost with the chard and out to the freezer go I, to pull a package from my last elk labeled "thin, flat barbecue". That's what I label the 4 steaks you get from right off the shoulder blade of an elk- the cuts are an inch thick at the thick end, but pretty tender given the short grain of the meat, which must be sliced right off the blade of the bone. That package went into a sink of warm water to quick thaw while I scrubbed a package of Klamath Pearl potatoes from Trader Joe's, then tossed them in a bit of olive oil and cracked black pepper and sea salt in a roasting pan, which went into a very hot (450 F) oven to roast. Once the potatoes were about done (twenty minutes) and the meat well on the way to thawed, I put a knob of butter in a large cast iron skillet over high heat and let it melt.
When I went away to college, I faced the daunting prospect of life without access to a grill. My dad is California born and grilled meat and green salads were fixtures of my growing up that I feel deprived without. In the course of setting me up for solo cooking, my mother instructed me in the basics of pan-frying (to no means to be confused with just plain frying or chicken-frying) a steak. First, use an iron skillet. Second, get it hot, though not blazing hot, third, add a bit of butter, then the meat. Once the meat is well seared, set it aside, then deglaze the pan. The best way of doing that is to throw in a handful of mushrooms and, once they begin to release their liquid, add a healthy dash of Lea&Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce and a bit of red wine, then cook until the mushrooms are tender and the sauce starts to thicken. Until I was the glad recipient of a baby Weber Kettle at the semester break, which grill I still own and cooked on for a good fifteen years, I practiced on an iron skillet when budget allowed and taste required a bit of red meat suitable for something other than stew or burritos.
Generally, I advocate game cooked rare and generally prefer to cook mine on the grill. However, I've learned that well dressed and butchered game, particularly elk, is remarkably flexible. John Barsness, in one of his books, notes that guests were surprised that he and his wife cooked elk "just like meat" in a stir fry. He contends that with proper prep and care such is entirely possible and appropriate, allowing for the lower fat content of game meat. Ditto. So, in this case, once the elk was brown on one side, I sprinkled it with cracked pepper and coarse salt, then flipped it to get the other side to the same point. Then I placed it on a platter that went into the oven that the potatoes had recently vacated and was turned off, in order to rest it while I deglazed the skillet with a glass of red wine and a tablespoon of dried shallots (mushrooms not being on hand). Once the wine was reduced by half, I added a bit of elk demi-glace I'd prepared from bones of that '06 elk- a luxury, but, hey, the British version of "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" was blabbing from the tv and I was subject to repeated exhortations to use good ingredients and prepare them simply. Now, demi-glace is not exactly simple in my book, but it is awfully good and the whole production would surely qualify for Gordon "Two Michelin Star" Ramsay's definition of "simple". Once the demi-clace was melted and trying to boil, I poured it over the meat, sliced off a large chunk, surrounded it with potatoes, poured a nice glass of cabernet and sat down to steak frites, loosely interpreted and impromptu. Fine eats, happy place.
This guy turns out to be a good guide. Good dogs, good property, and he knows that property. We had a good hunt, saw quite a few (and our first) pheasants and even managed to shoot some. We'd hoped to goose hunt in the morning, but the playa lakes are mostly dry and the weather hasn't driven the geese down yet, so a goose hunt was foregone and we walked for pheasants all day. Hard life!
The first day, we were in shirtsleeves by ten in the morning. The next day, fog thickened and thinned and the temperature hovered in the thirties.
None of us had hunted pheasants before and this was probably a pretty easy introduction- birds on private land that have seen limited pressure, hunting strategies from a guide who works those areas every year, and dogs that hunt almost every day during the season. Pheasants were fun, though. Shots ranged from quick, quail-like rises at close range to wild flushes further out that allowed the birds to get up a good head of steam before they passed. Different scenery for me- grain fields and CRP, fence rows, weedy corners, and mostly flat.
New birds, some good shots made and some others missed and a good time with family.
Family and I are off to take a crack at a Panhandle hunt for goose and pheasant with an outfitter who is an unknown quantity to us.
In "Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing" John Gierach writes that "Now and then you'll hire a guide and that's about all you'll get: a boat and someone to row it." Of course, he also writes: "If you decide to be a guide, I think you should do it for reasons other than that you love fishing."
Guided trips are a bit of a minefield of expectations for me. Growing up, we never did or even really contemplated guided trips. We knew some guys that guided, on a part time basis, but didn't make those sort of hunting or fishing trips. Heck, we hunted with those guys other times. Having a professional to help you out, get access to property and scout out the situation, seems like it ought to result in a sure thing, though it shouldn't and doesn't.
As an adult, I've been on a few guided fishing and bird hunting trips. The initial experience down in Belize set a high bar. We were down on our first trip there and had never done any saltwater fly fishing. The hotel had an arrangement with some local guides and we booked a trip for flats fishing and completely lucked out with the guy who showed up. Severo had some gear and took my father and I out to some flats surrounded by mangroves and channels where he rigged up an 8-weight fly rod and had us cast to show him what we could do. Once that was established, he began to pole us to various little pods of bonefish, eventually finding a small mud and staking-out up-current so we could cast into it. After we had both caught a few bonefish (and for your first bonefish, "one" is significant and "few" is very significant),
he asked "Do you guys want to try for tarpon?" What else could we say but "sure"? We ran back to a large lagoon where a series of four-foot tarpon systematically refused the few flies we could get in front of them and the large mirrolure thrown as a back-up (neither of us could throw with a 12-weight at that point). Despite the lack of cooperation of the fish, it was an afternoon of high excitement: first the tarpon would appear, as it grew closer, Severo would guide his panga so that we would intercept the fish, a cast would be attempted, after the rejection or failure to get the fly by the fish, we'd throw the plug, then the fish would ignore that and we'd look for another. The sense of anticipation as the lures were presented to the fish is impossible for me to adequately convey. The next day, we went out with Severo and trolled around a reef for snapper and other reef fish, then for barracuda, all great light-tackle fun. Since that trip we've fished with Severo and his brother any number of times and always had a good trip.
Alas, other trips have not met the high expectations set by that trip. In southern Belize, we were taken on long boat rides punctuated by walks on empty flats by a guy who knew how to run a boat, but didn't appear to have much fishing experience or knowledge. Schools of bar jacks and other jacks were pinning baitfish against flats and tearing them up, but he continued a fruitless search for a flat with bonefish or tarpon on it instead of putting us on some of the easier fish. Finally, late in the second day and after repeated requests, he stopped and poled us to meet some of the jackfish. Since neither tarpon nor bones had been seen, we were happy for the chance to bend a rod. A later trip to the same region and we stayed on a caye with its own little flat and managed to find lots of shots at bonefish and quite a few at permit right there.
Waterfowl hunts have been mixed as well. One East Texas duck hunt went fairly well, the guide had a nice piece of property leased and a good blind and we got into a few ducks. My sister was also treated to lots of opinions as to why hunting is ok and a more than a bit of condescension, probably an unavoidable hazard for women who hunt but not something you really want to pay for. A later trip in flooded timber was worse: the guide brought his adult son along as an assistant, they sitting in either end of the blind. They insisted we keep down and keep our heads down until the ducks were right upon us, then opened the shooting themselves. "Take-bang! bang!-em!" Several ducks were killed, but I only pulled the trigger once and all our chances were at birds flaring from the opening volley. I think the guide and his son had a pretty good hunt. My father and sister have made several goose hunts on the east Texas rice fields. You get up and out early then set hundreds of decoys in the gooey mud and fire ants, typically to watch flocks of snow geese several thousand strong ignore the spread. In three or four trips they've been unable to get a shot. Of course, the huge flocks of snow geese over there are notoriously hard to decoy. A Panhandle Canada goose hunt a few years back was worse. The guide set a group of us out in a cut-over corn field and set up his decoys, then called and flagged as flocks of Canadas came our way. A hundred birds peeled off and began to circle over us as we lay out on mats in the stubble, the birds talking and drifting down, only to flare repeatedly just out of range. It turned out that the guide's young dog was unable to contain himself and was running through the spread behind us. Sixty pounds of Lab tearing around will flare geese, don't you know. Fun to lie there and watch the birds come in and hunting is not all about killing, but it isn't just a matter of going out to run the birds off, either.
My experience with guides on common waters or lands has given me some pause, too. Years ago we were hunting western Colorado and would run into guys in a large tent camp that an outfitter had packed them into on horseback. Of course, we were parked at the end of a road only half a mile or so up above them and the gear was brought in before the season on four-wheelers. Not exactly false advertising, but those guys were paying a fee that bought them a bit of a ride with respect to the difficulty in getting to their camp,if not in other ways. Some guides have a sort of proprietary attitude- because they are out every day and have to make a living off a particular patch of water, they don't hesitate to crowd the rest of us for their sports. When I fished the San Juan in north-western New Mexico quite a lot, I ran into a fair bit of that from guides. The most egregious example that springs to mind was one afternoon in March when I'd found a pod of rising fish a bit down a deep channel. The San Juan is mostly a matter of nymph fishing, but winter and early spring afternoons the blue-winged olives will sometimes hatch and get a rise going. After a (fun) morning of catching fish on nymphs, the spoiled 'Juan angler might head down to Baetis Bend and try to find some fish on a dry fly for variety in his sport. In this case there was no way to get right up to the half-dozen fish on foot. Consequently, I was upstream in water near my wader tops and making about as long a cast as I could manage, trying to throw some slack into it so I could drift a #20 Adams to the fish in a natural fashion. Hard fun! I had hooked one fish and was working on another when a guide in a drift boat with two clients came by. Instead of passing, he rowed back up until parallel with the fish and about thirty feet off, then anchored and proceeded to direct his clients to cast to them. Rude! Not to paint all who guide with the same brush. The vast majority of whitewater rafting guides I've been on trips with have been professional, competent, and fun. My only grief there is that they have started getting a little young in the last few years. I like these guys because they still have a few long-time Terlingua based guides who wouldn't start to be tempted to call me "sir". For that matter, I was on the San Juan another afternoon waiting to see if a hatch would develop in the same spot as had happened the previous two days about that time. Sure enough, BWO's started showing up and fish started rising. I had a prime spot staked out and clipped off my nymph rig and strike indicator, tied on some more tippet and a dry, and began fishing. This guy came by with three clients, an eighty-something grandfather, forty-something dad, and teenage son. He asked if I minded if he placed his clients around me, to which I of course responded "no problem". Kim placed the grandfather first, helping him find his footing and warning him not to venture out further, then bringing the son and grandson up past me a decent distance to get them in position and casting. Before he could get them sorted, the grandfather had a fish and began wading out to it. Concerned for the slippery rocks, deepish water a couple of feet out, and the man's unsteadiness, the guide ran down to him, netted the fish, released it, checked the fly, then came back up. No sooner than he had father and son placed and untangled, the scene repeated. As he chugged back up past me with a little grin, I looked over his shoulder to see his oldest client had yet another fish on. I laughed and pointed him back that way, which was met with a wry shrug as he trotted back down to the old gentleman, who clearly had some ability with a fly rod. Hard working, and polite, guide.
I think I can imagine some of the difficulties of guiding and the grab-bag of people you have to deal with in the course of making very little money and doing a lot of work. Nonetheless, for a regular-Joe type sportsman, a guided trip is a big deal and higher expectations are near unavoidable. With any luck, this upcoming trip will prove satisfying for everyone, guide and client alike.