Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Not figured out yet

So, for my part of the country, this past weekend was the last weekend of duck season. I've only hit it moderately hard this year by my standards. I'm just a weekend warrior and I only managed to get out ten days of the ninety-some day season. In honor of the last weekend, and in reflection of the fact that a planned semi-marathon of hunting over the New Year's holiday was sidelined by a persistent and nasty cold, I got out both days.

Saturday was the best day I've had in the last two seasons. Booker and I got a bit of a late start. Nonetheless, once we were set up and before I could even get sat down and arranged three mallards tried to land on us. They flared off with a hail mary attempt following them once I could get to the gun. It was fairly chilly, around 20F, causing a bit of mist off the river and hoar frost on the brush, dog, and me:

When I used to do a lot of winter fishing, I could pretty well tell the temperature by how quickly I lost feeling in my fingers while rigging up. If I could get three knots tied without losing sensation, it was around thirty. Mid-to-low twenties, I'd lose feeling about done with a second knot. Low twenties to high teens, right around finishing the first knot. Below that, I couldn't get an improved clinch finished before my finger tips went numb. Saturday wasn't bad, but these drops on the gun are ice from Booker shaking water out of his coat (while standing next to me, rather than down the bank a bit, of course):

Lots of snow geese were flying over, temptingly low in some cases. I hadn't thrown any goose loads in, though, so we contented ourselves to watch them. Most of the geese were up high, anyway:

Not that many ducks were flying early on, but then a pair of mallards circled twice and dropped in to the decoys. When they were twenty feet off the water, I stood up, dropped one, then the other. I'd hoped to have a double retrieve for the dog, just to see how he handled the situation, but I was too slow on the birds and the second one dropped in the brush behind us. Booker didn't see the fall so I had to call him back there after the first bird and have him hunt up the second.

Later on in the morning, around nine o'clock, groups of a half dozen to a dozen mallards were working up and down the river. I was in the right place, this time, as even when the birds were fairly high up they'd turn and come parachuting down. It is amazing how quickly they can lose altitude when they want to get down somewhere.

Just about the biggest thrill in waterfowl hunting over decoys comes when birds see your decoy spread and then start working into it. The birds will frequently make at least one circle, even when they come in without hesitation, and the combination of a close range encounter with them and the tension imparted by the potential for a last-minute error which will send them off makes for a thrilling experience. On Saturday, the birds were trying to land in the area I had set aside for that purpose, but were making their last circle right into the bank I was sitting on, meaning I was face-to-face with the ducks at some fifteen yards. The whole thing, from spotting the birds to having them come down right on top of you, is just too much fun.

We did lose one bird. I was slow getting on him and getting on the gun and, despite two hits, he set his wings and crossed the river into the woods on the far side. Getting back there required finding a spot we could cross the main river channel, which required going downstream a couple of hundred yards and then pushing across a pretty good current of rib-deep water. It's always a good idea to remember to lift up your hunting jacket when you do that, otherwise your shells can freeze together in the pockets. In any event, we worked up to about the right place and then searched the woods and riverside drain well up and down without finding the bird. I've lost four birds now in seven seasons. Some loss is inevitable, but I think shooting steel makes it a bit worse. A couple of times I've hit birds only to have them set their winds and coast for a couple of hundred yards. Those that land in the river or where I could find them were inevitably stone dead by the time I got to them and frequently had good hits that penetrated well. The hard pellets just seem to penetrate, though, rather than imparting all of their kinetic energy into knocking the bird down. So, counting the lost bird we had our limit of five mallards and called it a productive day.

After Saturday's great hunt, we headed back out to the river on Sunday feeling fairly optimistic. Sunday morning was warmer by four or five degrees, meaning no mist off the river and no ice on the Chessie. It was also a bit cloudy, as we had a little front coming in. I set up about seventy-five yards down the river from Saturday's location, hoping that a wide, dry channel downriver from the bend we were on would make the decoys visible for a longer distance. Once set up, Booker and I sat down in the streamside brush and watched snow geese, then several large flocks of pintails, head respectively down and up the river at high altitude. Then, pretty much nothing happened for the next few hours. Quite a few birds went by, but they weren't that interested in the set-up and gave us no more than a cursory glance or two. If not for a suicidal drake wigeon, we'd have gone home duck-less.

We did have a few opportunities, but managed to blow them in various ways. We had three mallards come bombing in shortly after shooting light, only to flare when I turned and looked directly at them, as unaware of their presence as they were of mine until that moment.

At another point, three drake pintails circled us, then decelerated some thirty feet over the decoys. Pintail numbers are down and the limit is one bird per day. For that matter, I've passed on pintails for the last seven years. In this case, I was going to make an exception; however, a pair of mallards was also circling to come in. I held off on the sprigs to see if I couldn't get the drake mallard- some small greedy part of me thinking "if the pintails land, shoot the mallard then try to swing over and pick up one of the pintails and end the season with a really nice double"- only to see the pintails decide to head off down the river and the mallards follow.

Booker did his part, as he broke for the first time this season as three more mallards circled in quite low and mostly behind us. On their last pass, some twenty feet high and preparatory to swinging around to our front and into the decoys, Booker charged after them, crashing through the willows and dead grass and sending them frantically winging off. Then we had words.

At the last, with no birds flying, we walked down river a half mile or so, putting up a couple of bunches of ducks tucked into various pockets on our way. Clearly, the problem wasn't a matter of the birds not seeking to land in the river, but rather with my choice of location or set up. On our way back to pick up the decoys, a lone duck came flying down the river at low altitude. I've found that, often enough when you see a duck a couple of hundred yards distant if you take a knee and hunker down a bit, they will fly right over you even though you are in the open. In this instance, I called Booker to me and made him sit right at my side, then got down myself. The bird flew some twenty yards off to the side and once I saw the white wing patches and white forehead patch of a drake wigeon I went ahead and took him. That duck has added his part to the cassoulet I put together yesterday afternoon and plan on enjoying over the course of this next week. A bit of success from the red gods to finish off a very fun season and grace a frustrating day with a high note.

I'm really not sure what the differences between Saturday and Sunday were, as the decoy arrangements were similar and only a short distance apart in similar sorts of water. Something, weather, the overall look of the thing, something, was different and not to the birds liking. Of course, trying to figure all that stuff out is what keeps quite a few of us out there hunting and fishing. Hope everyone else's season has been as much fun as ours.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Interesting Photos

Via Dr. Hypercube, a link to the Library of Congress Flikrstream, with two sets of photos- news from 1910-15 (sports figures, Mexican Revolution, early planes, and much more) and color photos from the 1930's-40's (Depression Era construction, homesteading, war work, and much more). Set aside lots of time to browse!

Friday, January 18, 2008


These are old photos, as I haven't been pike fishing in a while. The Rio Grande Gorge in northern New Mexico holds Northern Pike that escaped from lakes in Colorado and made their way down the drainage. Later winter, about right now, is one of the best times to fish for them, as the frequently turbid Rio is fairly clear. Also, the pike are pretty cold tolerant and are starting to stock up some calories in preparation for spawning.

In trying for trout, I've had a rough time fishing the Rio Grande up there over the years. The river turns muddy at a drop of rain and has a big drainage. The hatches seem irregular and the trout moody. I've yet to catch a good sized trout and have made several trips that resulted in nice hikes through pretty scenery, but darned little in the way of fishing. I've talked to guys that have gotten into good hatches and caught nice fish, but haven't hit it quite right myself. Part of the problem is I live a little too far away to hit the river that often and I'm not quite in touch with the conditions. Pike, though, have been more consistent for me. I first heard about them via a conversation by other anglers in a fly shop, one guy complaining about a pike glomming onto a nearly-captured trout and breaking his tippet. Later, one of the guys working in the shop gave me a couple of suggestions for finding them.

My first few trips looking for pike met with no real success, although I did get one heart-stopping follow from a nice fish and lost a small one. I tried different flies and changed around set-ups, finally determining that a mini-sink-tip or a sink-tip line and a heavily weighted fly made of Fis-hair or similar material works best. An eight weight rod is about right. The streamers I put together aren't much- a 2/0 hook wound with .035 lead, then mounted with a short wire leader and a six-inch hank of material tied on and wound forward. Coming through the water, they snake along about like a plastic worm on a bass fisherman's line. Also, being simple and cheap, you don't feel too much regret when you hang one on a boulder in the river bottom, which is a fairly common occurrence.

The Rio Grande is a pool-drop river and flows fairly steeply through the Gorge. The trick to finding pike is to find resting water. A nice mud bar or bank is a good sign. The water has slowed enough for silt to deposit and the mud warms up a bit faster in the winter sun light. The other aspect of a successful pike trip is timing and weather. When the lows in Taos don't fall below the upper teens for a couple of sunny days, you stand a chance. You don't want to be on the water before about eleven in the morning. At that point, the sun has warmed the water just enough the fish ought to be getting more active. Once the sun gets off the water, any action usually shuts right down. You're generally finished by three in the afternoon, if not sooner.

You have to get the fly down in the water and casting is generally a bit of a challenge. The walls of the Gorge rise steeply behind you, jagged lava boulders surrounded by fly-grabbing brush, so back casts have to be high and short. Generally, a nice steady retrieve against the current seems to be preferred by the fish, which will frequently follow the fly right up to your feet. Most of the fish I've caught have been around two feet long, with thirty-three inches being the largest I've come across. One interesting thing about the fishing I've done for pike up there is that they will frequently seize the fly in their jaws, holding it so tight that even a vigorous hook-set doesn't pull the lure out of their teeth and lodge the hook in the fish. After a few minutes of fight, the pike simply opens his mouth and swims off. Consequently, setting the hook repeatedly is encouraged.

Assuming you get decent weather, get up to the Rio, then down in the Gorge, then get the fly out and a pike on (and hooked), you are by no means done with the excitement. a pike beached into shallow water will lie quiescent right up until the point where you reach for the fly -using pliers!- whereupon he will start rolling and thrashing, with his mouth open, needle-sharp teeth slashing back and forth. Their jaws are quite tough, so getting the fly back as the fish turns and chops is almost as exciting as the strike. You probably won't forget to turn the barb down on your hook twice.

For a late winter distraction, pike are tops. These are wild, big, and fairly unknown (locally) fish that not many people bother with that are active at a time when trout fishing is largely an exercise in frustration.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Via Two Blowhards I read that George McDonald Fraser has passed away. Sad news that a favorite author is gone. Via links from the Blowhards you can read about the Flashman character who is central to Fraser's most popular books. A word of warning to any unfamiliar with them- Flashman is very much an anti-hero and displays about all of the bigotry to be found in Victorian England. Nonetheless, the contrast between Flashman and many of the historical characters with whom he interacts serves to highlight many of the incredible figures from the 19th Century. For that matter, Fraser also does a good job of pointing out that many of the folks battling against the British Empire were not necessarily good guys just because they were fighting imperialism, an un-PC thought which is seldom encountered. You must love the Flashman novels for the endnotes, though. The lovely endnotes that serve to illustrate the research behind the novels and flesh out the minds of the day make Fraser's work stand far ahead of other historical fiction. The lively writing and humor don't hurt, either.

If the Flashman books are not a reader's cup of tea, I'd suggest another very nice historical novel/romance- "Mr. American". Beyond that, Fraser's "Quartered Safe Out Here" is one of the best memoirs of the Second World War which I've read. It deals with the British campaign in Burma against the Japanese, which is an aspect of the war which hasn't received as much attention as some of the other theaters.

Hard not to imagine Flashman not being one's cup of tea, though, if you are interested in the Victorian explorers and adventurers or the Raj. I haven't met a female fan, though, so that might be the dividing line.

A bit from Flashman and the Redskins, which is Flashy speaking of a confrontation in a London club with an academic, this in his eightieth year or so-
"You may wonder that I got in such a taking over one pompous windbag spouting claptrap; usually I just sit and sneer when the know-alls start prating on behalf of the poor oppressed heathen, sticking a barb in 'em as opportunity serves- why, I've absolutely heard 'em lauding the sepoy mutineers as honest patriots, and I haven't even bothered to break wind by way of dissent. I know the heathen, and their oppressors, pretty well, you see, and the folly of sitting smug in judgment years after, stuffed with piety and ignorance and book-learned bias. Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye, and helpless, and there's an end to it. And that's as true for Crazy Horse as it was for Custer- and they're both long gone, thank God....
So, I'm slung out of Traveller's for ungentlemanly conduct. Much I care, I wasn't a member, anyway."

I hope Fraser gets to meet all those Victorian adventurers he drew so very well.