Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas in S. Tx

I hope everyone had a merry Christmas. Ours was spent with my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins down in South Texas. A little quail shooting, a little duck hunting and lots of time with family. In keeping with the major theme of this blog, some outdoor scenes follow.

Shelby the English Lab getting her boots on:

Later, a tired girl:

and no wonder, she had a busy day with lots of retrieves on both water and land:

Bull Nilgai skull:

and an example of the whole animal:

As you can see, there is a lot of water down there right now, which is how we came to be duck hunting. Wading out into flooded brush:

Black bellied whistling duck:

and a brush country sunset:

Friday, December 19, 2008

Leaky Waders

Anyone who has spent much time fishing or hunting in waders probably has a few leaky wader stories. Heck, John Gierach even got a book title out of the subject, one which lets you know the joy of the experience.

For a long time I didn't really use waders. No waterfowling and fishing meant either a boat or wet-wading small streams. Once you get into the creek, your feet go numb and you can't really tell all the violence being done to your toes by bashing around the rocks in the stream bottom (old tennis shoes are the preferred footwear for this) and to your shins by sharp rocks and sticks. Older if not wiser, and also fishing some larger streams more often, I've now worked my way through a few pair of waders and hip boots.

Sometimes it is a little hard to determine whether you have a leak for the first bit of time. With older style rubber waders you might be too cold to tell for sure that you were getting wet, at least until you could feel the water sloshing around in one of the boots. Nowadays, neoprene waders breathe so little and allow so little air exchange that condensation is always a factor. If the weather is warm at all or if you do any work out of the water but in your waders, you'll be well dampened with sweat. Sometimes it's bad enough that you wonder whether you're getting any water-proofness at all from the waders or just insulation. Sniff a sock to determine whether you're dealing with sweat or river water.

The first pair of neoprenes I had, I ran a hole through the leg on one of the evil little willow pungi sticks beavers tend to leave stream side. The darned rodents tend to bite off pencil to fishing rod diameter willows in one or two cuts, on the bias, at six to fourteen inches off the ground. The flexible, sharpened stake that results is one of my least favorite things about beavers. The vertical holes they sometimes dig in riverbanks is another less favorite thing, but that's another subject. In any event, those neoprenes were a lot more fragile and I was pretty surprised when the stob slid right into them. Worse, I was winter fishing in the Rio Grande Gorge and got the hole on the far side of the river from my truck. Wading across twenty yards of icy river is a lot harder when you KNOW you're going to have a cold wet foot by the time you reach the far bank. In any event, once patched those waders gave good service and demonstrated to me the value of neoprene for winter fishing and hunting.

Hip boots seem less likely to spring leaks, but get you wet by inspiring untoward optimism. No matter how small the stream, I always seem to find a hole or crossing that is just an inch deeper than my hip boots are tall. A corollary is that ducks on stock ponds always fall dead just a little deeper than your hip boots. In an experience contrary to the latter observation, a few years ago I was visiting Texas for Christmas and hunting ducks in flooded brush. I borrowed a pair of hip boots from my dad ("No, really, son, I've got a spare and there's no need for you to lug all that down here") and we had a great time, apart from the fact that the rubber was disintegrating on the hippers I was wearing and, by the end of the day, they were mostly useful for holding water in as you tried to wade out. Fortunately, the water and air temps were fairly warm. Two days later, for Christmas, I got a new pair of hip boots. Dad figured letting me hunt wet was worth not spoiling the surprise.

This year marks the first season for a new pair of 5mm neoprene waders, just the thing for chilly duck hunting mornings and winter fishing. It's only recently that I've started to use them, as it hasn't been that cold most of this season. Despite being new, the first bit of deeper water I went across led to that creeping, chilly feeling.

I hate leaky waders:

it's going to be a bugger trying to patch that leak.

Monday, December 15, 2008


This was our second year hunting pheasant up on the Texas Panhandle. Bird numbers were down some from last year, but we had a good hunt and a good time in the family venture.

My sister:

Although new to pheasant hunting, with only four days of it (and guided at that) under my belt, I can see why it is so popular. Not only are the birds large and beautiful (and tasty) but they can be very wary, flushing wild and flying hard. The rush and rattle of a pheasant rise isn't quite the same as a big covey of quail getting up around your feet, but it is pretty exciting.

Our hunt was complicated on both days by a brisk wind, hardly a surprise up there, but which added a lot of speed to the birds' flight once they got up and got going. We mostly hunted relatively small corners of CRP and playa bottoms surrounded by large fields of cotton, milo stubble, or winter wheat.

Guide Dane Swinburn and Hans the wirehair pointer getting an elevated perspective:

Back to ducks and the river, another plains trip ended.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Off to see what sort of year the pheasants had on the Tx Panhandle. With any luck there'll be plenty of birds and we'll even get a few.

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Over at The Thinking Hunter, Galen Greer writes "Recently I was in a discussion with a non-hunter (as opposed to anti-hunter) and this simple question was put to me: 'if hunting is not necessary to obtain food then why is hunting allowed?' My answer was that 'hunting has, for many people, a psychological value that is important to their well-being. Also, the protection of the right to hunt, more specifically the choice about whether to participate in hunting or not to participate, is often equally important to the non-hunter as a guarantee of the recognition of fundamental rights which therefore provides them with a sense of well-being.'"
That sounds like a pretty good answer to me. I'll offer (unsolicited) another one and expand a bit upon a contention from my last post about this sort of thing.

In a world where "sustainable" seems to be a powerful buzz-word, the sport hunting of game and fish is a useful means of preserving habitat and ecosystems. Unlike other use classified as consumptive, sport hunting generally has little impact on land or wildlife populations, besides generating funds and advocacy for their preservation and maintenance.

"Why allow hunting?" is a corollary to "Why is hunting dying?". After all, why indulge the whims of a shrinking, aging minority engaged in an arcane practice? We hunters are concerned about numbers because we worry about our opportunity to hunt in the future and seek allies, hoping to be seen as a "vibrant subculture" rather than marginalized throwbacks to an (allegedly) less enlightened time. In looking for allies, the "environmental" ("environmentalist", "radical environmentalist", "conservationist" all loaded terms) movement at large hasn't been a likely source of allies(here's a view from the other side) and the "shooting community" (scare quotes because I'm not certain of the extent to which it is a community) certainly isn't necessarily congruent with hunter's interests. After all, "hunting" doesn't necessarily equate with "guns". Accordingly, our best bet, perhaps, is to convince the vast non-hunting majority that our sport is also good work.

Economic arguments have been a powerful political tool for sportsman. One of the most compelling examples I can think of was the CCA (then the GCCA) campaign to stop the commercial fishing of redfish in Texas. The heart of their argument were economic analyses showing that while a fish caught commercially by net or trot-line resulted in only a few dollars brought to the state and local economies, that same fish was worth several times that if caught by a sport fisherman. With a limited and public resource, the highest, best, use of that resource was the one that brought the most dollars, argued the conservationists. The argument, while far from applicable to every situation, worked and similar arguments can make our case for us many times.

But see Aldo Leopold-
"When one considers the prodigious achievements of the profit motive in wrecking land, one hesitates to reject it as a vehicle for restoring land. I incline to believe we have overestimated the scope of the profit motive. Is it profitable for the individual to build a beautiful home? To give his children a higher education? No, it is seldom profitable, yet we do both. These are, in fact, ethical and aesthetic premises which underlie the economic system. Once accepted, economic forces tend to align the smaller details of social organization into harmony with them.
No such ethical and aesthetic premise yet exists for the condition of the land these children must live in. Our children are our signature to the roster of history; our land is merely the place our money was made. There is as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest, or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college. Whatever ails the land, the government will fix it." Round River, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993, pp. 156-157.

Which gets us back to why hunting is important and should be allowed. Unfortunately, to the extent that there is an ethical or aesthetic premise for the condition of the land, it seems to be frequently based upon bad information and it isn't applied broadly enough. "Pretty" and "healthy ecosystem" aren't always the same thing. However, hunting can be a valuable means of developing that practical and aesthetic ideal for land of which Leopold wrote. Hunters require good prey populations and enough room to pursue that prey. In other words, decent and plentiful habitat. Much as I appreciate the contributions of time, money and voice by "non-consumptive" users of land and wildlife, I fear that for many of them any little remnant is adequate. They can be content to travel to Matagorda Island to see the whooping cranes, or to see a bit of preserved native prairie and the birds it hosts. If there are some parks, a suburban hiking trail or three that will accommodate mountain bikes and hikers that offers a pleasant view and nothing charismatic going extinct at the moment they're pretty happy, it seems to me. However, to hunt we require more. More space. Healthy populations of game- which themselves require diverse and healthy ecosystems to exist for any length of time. Token patches of habitat, or a few parks, don't meet our (or animals', or ecosystems') needs.

Noted by Reid Farmer on Querencia, here is an excerpt from an Annie Proulx interview illustrating a bit of what I'm talking about: "Proulx liked the people she worked with, but she is not a fan of what she calls "sanctimonious environmentalists." She seems angry at their failure to save this place. 'We never, on all our trips to the Red Desert,' she says, 'ran into any of those people out there. How come the rest of us didn't know what was happening? There's a lot of talk and very little action. I don't like all the speeches and the glossy pamphlets.'"

I firmly believe (and generally find nonhunters somewhat surprised to discover) that hunting is important because it changes the way you look at things. You become invested in a piece of country as you hunt it. You appreciate it more. It is one thing to say "Gee, this area is really beautiful, it's my favorite hike/bike/ski trail" but if that spot is posted or subdivided, folks will just move on. They may mourn it, but it lacks the immediacy of loss that you feel when you have spent time learning how land is used by its other occupants, plant and animal, and see the change. Absent hunting to inspire the focus on land, most people just move through it without really seeing all that much.

As you hunt an area year after year you notice the changes for better and worse. Those changes are more noticeable because of your history with the place, the memories tying you to spots. This is the sort of thing that results in real ties and passionate advocacy for land. As the number of hunters shrink, so, too, will the number of people who really appreciate any given stretch of woods, prairie, or desert. For that matter, hunters are more likely to be in the ranks of those advocating for preservation of "useless" land like river bottom swamp, sagebrush flats, or desert.

So, anyway, there's another long-winded answer about "why allow hunting".

P.S. Lots of dividing going on in this post, what with references "hunters" "shooting community" "non-consumptive users" "environmentalists". Of course, in the real world most of us fall into many or all of those categories to different degrees at different times. The most promising group of hunting friendly (non hunting) folks I perceive right now are the cooks and chefs focusing on the source of their food, folks who read and talk about Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". Bob del Grosso has been working on a farm this last year and, with fall and slaughter, doing a lot of thinking and writing about the consequences of eating meat. Pieces like this strike me as the writing of a person who groks how important hunting and the myriad connections it promotes can be. No surprise how often the subject of Michael Pollan and his books come up in various posts by the folks I read and have on my blogroll.

Monday, December 01, 2008

In which Luck plays a large part

So, this last weekend was a second chance at an elk hunt. The plan for this one was significantly dependent upon snow. The proclamation from the Game and Fish Department notes with respect to the hunting unit I had a tag for something to the effect of "Unit X features small and scattered populations of elk". In other words, don't just expect to find them anywhere. However, past experience has shown that a good snow or three will push elk off a big chunk of (legally) inaccessible property to the heads of some big canyons and a couple of large burns and to places where a fellow can get to them.

Unfortunately, our fall has turned out warm and dry, with only one snow on the mountains in question and that falling in the last week. Nonetheless, you have to get out there to get to them, so I set out early on Saturday morning. I met up with an Atomic Nerd (who'd also drawn a tag) and we embarked upon the A plan for the day, which involved heading up a shallow draw before the morning thermals started in order to glass a big canyon. No tracks in the snow, apart from a coyote or two, a deer, and a few rabbits. Most the way up, we met a couple of guys coming down. A brief conversation imparted that they had been to the top, hadn't seen any elk, and that there wasn't enough snow. One of the other hunters volunteered that a couple of years ago he'd been up at the top of the canyon and seen a whole bunch of elk, but there was about a foot more snow on the ground then. Well, hell. Me, too, buddy. Thwarted, and with one of us suffering from a bit of food poisoning ("a bit of food poisoning" is probably akin to "a bit pregnant" from the prospect of the sufferer) we headed down the hill to figure something else out.

Driving a loop along a couple of ridges revealed a few elk tracks, but not a whole lot of encouragement. Given the short time to hunt, I headed out on my own the afternoon to try to figure something else out. I ended up walking a fence line, looking for tracks and generally trying to get to a quiet place an elk might bed. I found a bit of sign, mostly from the day before. Finding where four elk had taken a walk that morning, I followed:

They wandered about a ridge top a bit, then headed back into private property and out of reach.

Well, crud.

I began to find a finger off the ridge to head down to a nearby road, hoping to find an elk or two bedded in the spruce along the spine of the slope. Before I had gone far, though, I heard a cow chirp off over the edge of the ridge, in a little bowl below a meadow (in the private stuff). I paused and listened, soon hearing another call. I headed back up to the ridge and the fenceline, then down that line into the edge of a bowl. Soon I could hear the elk moving below me, the amount of calling and commotion in the quiet cold mountain air indicating a decent-sized bunch. Although it was now late afternoon, the wind was fair for my purposes, blowing up the slope and keeping my scent above the elk. The rapid cooling as the sun headed down would change that, though, and I waited and hoped the elk would come down into legal territory before they winded me. A chilly bit later, I saw a couple of cows pass through a gap in the trees at the bottom of the draw below the bowl. Soon, I had five cows on a slope across from me and, very shortly after that, one was down and this winter's meat was assured, if not yet quite in hand.

Better still, by the time I got to her I discovered that, rather than being a half mile above the road as I thought, the curve of the ridgetop had brought me (and the elk) back within sight of it. A brisk forty minute walk brought me to my truck and a phone call garnered some welcome help. I drove back up to near the cow and filled and fired up a lantern, got on my headlamp and proceeded with field dressing. About the time the insides were out the cavalry arrived and skinning and all the rest went quickly. Meat now in hand and Sunday was spent turning it into little white packages.

I don't mind hard hunts and the odds weren't looking to good for this one, but I'll never look a gift elk in the mouth.

Update: a much more amusing account of the hunt in which Stingray channels Pat McManus can be found here.