Thursday, December 31, 2009

Back from exile...


Greetings and Happy New Years. I'm back from a sort of self-imposed month-long exile in which I tried to figure out what exactly I wanted to do with the blog, what I wanted it to be, how I wanted it to look and if - to be honest - I really wanted to continue it at all. I was hoping a break would give me some inspiration for some big, dramatic change; a clear direction, focus. Exactly the kind of things at which I normally suck.

And I can report that I figured out pretty much none of those things, so I just said to hell with it and decided to continue writing.  I've always been better at tinkering around the margins, anyway. As you can see I've been playing around a bit with things, and I'll continue to do so incrementally as the mood strikes me.

I'll leave you with an image from yesterday afternoon's bowhunt, the last one of 2009 (but not the season, still have two more weeks of that) and a quote. The picture is as uneventful as the hunt was. No deer in the field before me like there normally are, but I had a nice time thinking, anyway. The quote is from Kurt Vonnegut, and is, I think, apropos of the vagarities of creativity.

"Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everbody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization." 

Monday, November 30, 2009

OK, so I know I've said this before...

But I really am planning on updating the blog in terms of its look, photography, links, the blogroll, etc, etc. It's just a matter of taking the time to actually, you know, do it...

I know a number of fellow bloggers have added me to their blogroll and I promise that my lack of reciprocity does not constitute blatant assholery on my part. As I once explained to an ex-girlfriend with whom I was breaking up, "It's not you, baby. It's me."

OK, so I just completely made that up. I've never uttered those words in my life and in fact the few times I ever managed to beat an ex-girlfriend to the break-up punch I always made it a point to blame everything on her. That, as they say, is just the way I roll...

But hey, the point still holds. The fact is, I'm still fairly intimidated by the fact that I am solely responsible for this blog's design and content. I'm just a writer, a scribbler. I am, by my own admission, horrible with visuals, art direction or creating anything that looks pleasing to the eye.

You want proof? I couldn't think of an appropriate photo to go with today's blog, so I just decided on this gratuitous cute puppy pic. Of course it's a brainless cop-out, but everyone likes puppies, right?

It's a perfect example of why every time I sit down with the intention of redesigning, adding to or tweaking the blog, my internal voice tells me "You suck at this. Just go have a beer." So I do.

See, I started this blog on a whim, a little side project purely for my own amusement. Just a place to stick things that didn't fit elsewhere, didn't make much sense or weren't and never would be publishable. It's horribly unfocused, completely scattershot, wildly inconsistent, has no target demographic, brand or identity whatsoever and is, quite frankly, a little weird. Just like me.

I never really meant it to be an online resume or portfolio of my writing, and I certainly never expected anyone to read the damn thing.

But The Suburban Bushwacker took a bit of pity on me, and since then I have accumulated a raging trickle of regular readers, a few of whom aren't even family. I mean, every once in a while if the topic is salient or pithy enough I may crack twenty unique visits a day.

And since I have a small family and few literate friends, that means there are literally tens of people out there who are occasionally interested or bored enough to visit the blog.

I thank you, and I once again apologize for failing to extend the courtesy you've extended me. I'm in the process of updating the blogroll, adding pictures, screwing around with the look and themes and generally mucking things up. You might want to avert your eyes, because it might get ugly (ier).

And if you've added me to your blogroll but you don't see yours in mine (when I get it finished) please let me know.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To hell with deer. A hawking I will go...

Apologies for my recent inactivity. Our deer gun season opened last weekend and I've been trying to squeeze in as much hunting as I can between work and other useless activities.

For someone who said he was going to do more meat hunting this year, I've passed on any number of bucks, but sitting in the blind this morning I spied movement on the ridge opposite me and put the binos on what turned out to be perhaps the largest buck I've personally ever seen with a rifle in my hand.

I watched him make his way down the ridge into a heavily-wooded draw running perpendicular to the ridge I was on. All he had to do was come back out of it. Of course he never did.

If I was smart, tomorrow morning, well before dawn, I would slip into that draw and set up on him. But I'm not.

Instead, I'll be watching my betters hunt. Peregrines, gyrfalcons, goshawks, red-tails, perhaps even a golden eagle.

The North American Falconers Association annual meet is in Woodward this year and tomorrow I'm tagging along with a group of falconers and their birds.

It's a rare opportunity to watch something I've always been fascinated with, but never quite thought I had what it took to actually do.

So as much as I want to shoot that deer, I want to watch these birds fly more.

I mean, just look at him. Who wouldn't drop everything to watch that?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Dogs on the mind.

Tomorrow is Oklahoma's quail season opener and rather than hunting I will be puttering around the house watching the boys while my wife takes a group of her students to an "Academic Bowl" tournament (sort of a high school Jeopardy for brainy kids).

Which of course is perfectly fine by me, because being a common non-landed, non-gentried public-hunting prole, I hate quail openers and avoid them like the swine flu.

In fact, were I not staying home with the kids I would be spending tomorrow morning sitting in the cattails with Tess or Lewey listening to the cacophony of shotgun blasts, beeper collars, whistles and the endless screams of "HERE! I SAID HERE, DAMN IT!" as a small army of pointers, setters, shorthairs, Brits and mutts of unknown "bird dog" lineage are loosed upon the land.

And many of them, tasting freedom from the kennels for the first time since possibly last year's opener, take full advantage of it. It's quite the scene. Of course, the sheer numbers ebb and flow according to the yearly quail outlook. This year is supposed to be merely so-so, on the low side of average so perhaps it won't be so chaotic.

Still, I'll sit it out, and when things calm down I'll load up the dogs and we'll go see if we can flush a few quail. Which brings me to the point of this blog post. I used to hunt quail quite a lot but in the past few years I really haven't done much quail hunting, because let's face it: chessies aren't exactly quail dogs.

But the dog in the picture certainly was. That is (or rather was) DP, which is short for Door Prize. I won DP at a QU banquet shortly after I got married and while I was still in college. DP was - and probably always will be- the sweetest little dog I ever owned. She was of Elhew/Fiddler and a little Guard Rail breeding, but heaviest by far on Elhew and so maybe that's where the disposition came from. I'm not enough of a pointer guy to say for sure, all I know is she was a lapdog in a pointer's body. If ever a dog had a truly gentle soul, it was DP.

She was also a beautiful, stylish hunter: her gait was effortless and fluid. When she locked up on point she had a straight twelve 'o clock tail and a gorgeous head (not so much in this photo, which was taken when she was fairly old and sported a head full of scars from a vicious fight she got into with (and barely survived thanks only to our vet) my first chessie (a mean, surly bitch who also ended up breaking my heart).

She was my first real bird dog. But as she got older her pancreas started to fail, and to make a long story bearable, I ended up burying her not far from where she pointed her first quail.

And I haven't had a pointing dog since, partly because I had the chessies to occupy me, partly because we didn't have room for three dogs in our old house, partly because I didn't think I could find another dog like DP and partly because I wasn't even sure I wanted to get back into bird dogs.

But lately I've been thinking. Just thinking, that's all.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Leave the cannoli. Take the (second) chainsaw.

There is a wonderfully droll scene in The Godfather (which in turn inspired the equally wonderfully droll book of essays by Sarah Vowell) in which Clemenza and a nameless minion have just dispatched a suspected rat with a few shots fired into said rat's head from the back seat of a car. As the two men are casually preparing to leave the bloody scene, Clemenza looks at his none-too-bright minion and says with a tinge of irritation "Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli."

Priorities, you see...

I thought of that scene last week as I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck cursing (loudly and longly) trying vainly to start a chainsaw that, up to that point, had never failed to start and indeed had never given me so much as a hiccup in the number of years I've used to it to fell trees, cut firewood and clear brush and the cursed Eastern redcedar.

But last week, it sure enough quit on me. And quit at a time when I was 30 miles from home and without the second chainsaw that I normally take as a back-up. I had forgotten to throw it in the truck. I was in a hurry because I wanted to cut a load of wood quickly and then lazily fritter away the rest of the afternoon hunting. Since we're heating mainly with wood this winter, enduring the former is how I usually justify (to the wife) getting away with the latter.

My chainsaw, however, wasn't cooperating with my plan. After it became apparent the damn thing wasn't going to start, I said to hell with it and decided to go hunting. The only problem was, there was no in hell my wife was ever going to believe that my chainsaw "just wouldn't start." It's November. It's bow season. And she's no fool. Somehow, I needed wood.

Then I remembered the 24-inch bow saw and and axe I always carry in my truck tool box, and thought "Silly modern man! Do you think your wood-cutting ancestors had chainsaws? Your great-grandfather's one-man crosscut saw hanging on the garage wall wasn't always decoration, you know."

So, with visions of self-sufficient rugged individualism looping through my head like some kind of uber-stylized Leni Riefenstahl-ish fantasy, I slung my saw and axe over my broad, rugged shoulder and sallied forth into the big woods, whistling Python's Lumberjack song as I went (Hey, it's the only lumberjack song I know...).

An hour later, with both my broad, rugged shoulders and all illusions shattered I came stumbling back, exhausted, soaked in sweat, rubbery, useless arms hanging from my sides like so much over-cooked pasta. I had managed to cut enough wood to perhaps keep me warm overnight, provided the temperature didn't drop to, oh, say 65 degrees or so.

I figured that at this pace to fill the bed of my truck with a load of firewood, a task that - with a chainsaw - I can usually finish in two, maybe three hours of work would with bow saw and axe take me roughly until mid-January.

My "O, Pioneers" delusions thusly destroyed, I once again said to hell with it, threw the saw and axe back in the tool box, flipped off the chainsaw one last time, grabbed my bow and went hunting. Which is what I should have done in the first place.

A couple weeks ago I wrote a "Field Notes" blog about an anthropologist's claim that modern man is, compared to his forebears, a screaming pantywaist

All I can say is yes. Absolutely yes. I, for one, am a wimp. And if I ever find myself in some post-Apocalyptic zombie scenario in which I must prioritize what I take and what I leave, both the gun and the cannoli stay. But the chainsaw goes with me. After I tune it up.

***As a postscript to this story, the next day, for reasons known only to the whimsical gods of the two-stroke engine, that same chainsaw started on the second pull and cut two pick-up beds full of logs without a hitch. ***

Monday, November 9, 2009

Of mallards, wigeon and Coppertone...

I finally got a chance to get out Sunday morning for a little duck hunting, the first of the season for me.
It's not often that I wake up on a November morning to pre-dawn temps in the sixties and a forecast of sunshine and seventies. Not exactly traditional duck hunting weather, but when you gotta go you gotta go, so I went.

I threw the waders and a half-dozen decoys in the bag, loaded up Tess and headed for a favorite slough on my local lake. It's just a shallow little bowl of water, maybe an acre surrounded by trees, and it's a fairly long walk in, but I can usually find a few mallards hanging around.

One thing that really surprised me was the number of duck hunters I saw on the lake yesterday. I live in a part of the state where duck hunting isn't at all common. During a typical season I'll run into a few hunters from back east who hunt the area until their zone opener, but after that I usually have the place to myself.

Not yesterday. There were no less (and possibly more) than four different groups of hunters on the lake. I'm not used to sharing, and I fervently hope those people had a lousy hunt and decide to go somewhere else in the future. Yes, I've become a little spoiled in my solitude.

Despite the warm weather we've been having there were a few ducks on the lake this weekend and I managed to shoot a pair of mallards and a wigeon. I had my chance to limit out but the poor shooting I experienced during dove season has apparently carried over into duck season.

In fact, my dogs are becoming increasingly concerned about my inability to hit birds. There's nothing quite like a disapproving look to make you feel inadequate.

What ducks I did manage to hit were pretty easy marks for Tess, so the dog work was fairly routine. I am, however, going to have to work on breaking on the shot. It's my fault, really. She knows the rules but I've been letting it slide some during hunting and it's now becoming a problem. One of the disadvantages of hunting alone is it's very hard to work on things like that by yourself, whereas with a partner they can shoot and you can train.

Of course, while I'm thinking I need a hunting partner to help my training, my dogs are probably thinking I need a hunting partner so they might actually get to retrieve something this season...

Friday, November 6, 2009

And I thought Oklahoma's liquor laws were screwy...

But apparently they're nothing compared to what some of our game laws used to be...

I was recently given a copy of the October 1935 edition of Outdoor Life. Besides that wonderful cover art the magazine features a compilation of all the states' game laws.

Here are the season dates and regulations for Oklahoma's 1935 quail season...

Quail....Nov. 20 to Jan. 1

Note: Quail may not be hunted except on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of each week during open season and on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day, or, if these holidays fall on Sundays, on the preceding Saturdays.

Bag and possession limits: 10 a day, 50 a season.

Believe it or not, the laws concerning what days of the week on which you could hunt quail persisted well into the 1980s or even the early 90s. I can't recall exactly when Oklahoma decided to take the great leap forward to something resembling a normal quail season. Maybe an old-time Okie bird hunter could chime in and refresh this youngster's memory.

I vaguely remember the old quail hunting laws but since I didn't grow up with any kind of quail hunting tradition when I took up the sport as a teenager (if you can call stumbling around with no dog and no clue "taking up the sport") I pretty much ignored what I considered a bullshit law and hunted quail whenever I could (in season, of course). What can I say, I was young and I usually couldn't quail hunt on Monday, Wednesday or Friday anyway because I was too busy skipping school to go bass fish, bowhunt, shoot pool and other various and sundry juvenile delinquent activities.

Quail season starts on the 14th this year, runs through Feb. 15 and I can hunt them on any damn day I want to. Screw the good 'ol days. Now if we could just figure out how to bring our quail population back to 1935 levels...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Notes from a recent outing...

This past weekend my eight-year-old son and I took a combination Halloween pumpkin-blasting, firewood-cutting, deer-hunting trip to Ye Olde Wife's Family Farm. Now my son has gone with me on any number of "hunting" trips but this was really the first time to take him with me when I was seriously planning on shooting a deer.

It would be a learning experience for both of us. Here are a few observations from said trip:

1. If you want to document your trip through the wonders of modern digital photography, it helps greatly if you remember to stick the Compactflash card in your camera before you leave the house.

2. When you think you've packed enough food and drink to sustain an eight-year-old on a daytrip, immediately double that amount and you should be good. And don't bother planning on eating yours. He'll want that, too.

3. While you may know to roll up your window when you're about to blast through a particularly muddy and slick section of washed-out county road, don't forget to remind your eight-year-old to do the same.

4. Leftover Halloween jack-o-lanterns make great targets for eight-year-old shooters, but they can only sustain so many blasts from a 20 gauge.

5. No matter how many times your eight-year-old son insists he's "man enough" to shoot your .50 caliber muzzleloader, tell him no.

6. If you feel guilty for wisely not allowing your eight-year-old to shoot your gun, bruise his shoulder, scope his forehead and instantly and permanently lose all interest in firearms, don't try to ease that guilt by handing him your brand-new $20 Swedish firesteel, your expensive custom-made knife and challenging him to make a fire. He will:

A. return 20 minutes later with your custom-made knife covered with charred firesteel slag and the formerly brand-new quarter-inch-thick firesteel ground down to the approximate diameter of a toothpick, or

B. return 20 minutes later at the head of a raging grass fire.

7. When you're bucking logs the wrong way, you know you're bucking logs the wrong way but you go ahead and do it the wrong way, anyway, make sure your eight-year-old son is out of earshot when your bar gets pinched and you let loose a string of expletives or you will be scolded for saying bad words and subsequently threatened with being told on to Mommy.

8. Your idea of "helping out" and your eight-year-old son's idea of "helping out" can vary wildly.

9. When it comes time to go hunting, make sure you pay attention to what your son is wearing. While you know that it will become chilly as the sun goes down, don't be a dummy and assume your eight-year-old son knows this, too. Otherwise, when it's way too late to walk back to the truck for a jacket you will be forced to surrender your nice warm fleece pullover to your shivering eight-year-old son and commence shivering yourself.

10. After you and your eight-year-old son have been sitting quietly in the blind for an hour or so, it's a good idea to take a quick look around before telling your son it's OK to noisily tear open that bag of Skittles...

11. When a nice fat doe walks across the clearing in front of your blind but the weeds and grass are so high the only part of her you can see is the top of her head, you will suddenly and belatedly recognize the wisdom of your eight-year-old son's words the last time you two were here: "Daddy, I think you need to bring the brushcutter down here, You can't see anything!"

12. When that same doe finally gets clear of the brush and you put the crosshairs behind her shoulder, don't start having an internal debate along the lines of "OK, I hope he's ready for this, old enough to understand what's going on, mature enough to handle the finality of death, etc, etc, hmmm, maybe I should ask him one more time if he's sure he wants me to shoot her, if he thinks he's ready."
Because when you lean over to whisper to your son "do you want me to shoot her?" the doe will instantly see your slight movement, the kind of slight movement you perhaps could have gotten away with had you been wearing the camo pullover that's now keeping your eight-year-old son warm instead of the bright neon blue t-shirt that contrasts so nicely with your orange vest.

13. When the doe you just busted blows and crashes off down the draw, taking with it what sounds like an entire herd of as-yet-and-now-never-will-be-seen deer with it as well as your plans to bowhunt this same draw next week, it's a good idea to start working on the excuse so you'll have one ready when your eight-year-old son asks you "Geez, daddy, why didn't you shoot the doe? I kept waiting and waiting but you never shot!"

No deer this trip but a great time was had by all. Deer gun season starts in a few weeks and this was a good trial run for our planned opening weekend camping trip. I guess if I could sum up the lessons learned it would be thusly "don't second-guess your kids and bring lots of candy."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Fowl Thoughts

The long-awaited Oklahoma Zone 1 waterfowl opener is nigh upon us (or me, anyway) and in all probability Saturday morning will find me hunkered down in a makeshift blind clutching my...muzzleloader.

Yes, once again duck season opens on the same weekend as our deer muzzleloader season, which means if you're primarily a public-land duck hunter - as I am - and if you walk in to most of your duck hunting spots - as I do - if you want to go duck hunting, you (and your vaguely deer-shaped dog) will be walking past an army of smokepolers.

Uh, thanks but no thanks.
I used to be able to get around this by hunting my in-laws' place. Used to, that is, until heavy rains earlier this year collapsed the dam on their flood-control lake and quite literally sent my best duck-hunting spot down the river. The dam was repaired, but thus far the water hasn't returned.

So I'll reluctantly load up my deer-hunting gear Saturday morning while the dogs watch and whine. Don't get me wrong, I love to deer hunt but I'm at best a casual blackpowder hunter. It's a good time to be out hunting, so I do, but from a technique standpoint I've just never gotten into it like bow or rifle hunting.

And since Oklahoma has gone to a two-buck aggregate limit across all seasons, it's going to have to be a pretty nice buck for me to shoot it and give up the possibility of later taking one with bow and one with rifle.

But I'll go anyway because you never know, Mr. Boone and Crocket (or even Mr. That's a Damn Nice Shooter Buck) may make an unexpected appearance.

If we could only get enough rain to put some water back in the lake, though, I'd trade a decent buck for a bunch of mallards in a heartbeat.

Here's hoping for lots of rain between now and Saturday...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Of viral infections and independent film...

Apologies to all who have left comments on the blog and apologies to all whose blogs upon which I have failed to leave comments...

I'm sitting here with a 102-degree fever, chills, muscle aches and various and sundry pains, apparently the result of my three-year-old son having bestowed upon his father a raging case of...nope, not flu, but hand, foot and mouth disease.

At least that's my Internet-derived diagnosis. It is by all accounts a rather common viral infection in infants and children. In adults however, not so much. Here I am, a mere seven months away from my 39th birthday and I've contracted a disease generally seen only in the Sesame Street demographic.

I shall refrain from speculating what that might indicate about my maturity level and general worldview, but it does sorta explain why Elmo looks so comforting about now.

Which brings me to the connection between viral infections and indie film. This is a connection I made last night around 1:30 a.m. when I woke up in a cold, achy sweat. My generally listless and zombie-like condition prevented me from reading with any degree of comprehension, so I decided if I was going to suffer, I was going to suffer in front of the television.

Now I watch hardly any television. I know it's fashionable and intellectually smug to claim that, but I truly don't. I catch Top Gear on BBC, the odd nature show with my eldest son and and I also try to keep abreast of what's on PBS. That's pretty much it. Hunting and/or fishing shows? I literally can't name one.

But I must admit that every now and then I peruse the movie channels. It's a guilty pleasure because long ago in a previous, childless life I was (cue French accent)... a cinaphile.

Seeing as how most of my friends in college were art school film majors, it wasn't surprising I was a film geek. And since I was also the only bonafide huntin', fishin', shootin' slow-talkin' Bubba of the group, and given that I was much larger than the average film major (budding filmmakers tend to be a bit sallow and puny...) I was invariably cast in my friends' class projects as either a hulking, lumpen dullard or a machete-wielding psycho.

It was much fun, but upon seeing the final version of their avant-garde masterworks, it's really no wonder virtually all of them ditched film school for journalism.

And when we weren't making films we were watching them. Sort of. My friends and I would buy a 12-pack of Milwaukee's Best, a fifth of Jim Beam and other assorted mind-altering substances (Jolt cola and Slim-Jims, mainly) and watch films we largely didn't understand but drunkenly discussed ad nauseum, topics like "are the films of Akira Kurosawa more influenced by Shakespeare or Dostoevsky and exactly how does this Gai-gin influence color our perception of Japanese culture" (I actually wrote a paper on this. To this day I have no clue what I was trying to say)

Or "What was the underlying symbolry of the last scene of "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover?" (rule of thumb: if the movie was completely lost on you, just make up some underlying symbolry...).

Or in more intellectually honest moments, something along the lines of "Holy shit, look at Isabella Rossellini's tits!"

***As an addendum, I forced my wife to sit through "Blue Velvet" a few months ago. A pragmatic and more intellectually honest sort than myself, she declared it the third-worst film she's ever seen. Number two was another David Lynch classic "Wild at Heart" and the absolute winner, garnering the coveted title of "Worst. Film. Ever." went to Daniel Cronenberg's "Crash." I still enjoy all three for the uh...cinematography.***

Even after college I retained my love of off-beat film, but of course that all comes to a screeching halt when you have kids. The past nine years or so have been something of a film bleakscape for me, a period of time in which I've developed an appreciation for more linear mainstream fare, like SpongeBob.

But last night, shaking and shivering, I turned on the TV hoping a movie would take my mind off my illness, or at least make me drowsy enough to sleep. And that's when I discovered that just being "indie" doesn't make a film suckproof.

In fact, I discovered that a bad movie is much like a viral infection: Once you turn it on, it infects you and you just can't seem get rid of it. Insomnia, morbid curiosity and the 272 channels of infomercials running at the same time see to that. Treating it certainly doesn't work. Believe me, I tried to clear my mind and channel my inner film geek to see what the filmmaker was trying to make me see, but in the end all I saw was a muddled, crappy, juvenile, pretentious attempt at art.

And then it hit me: I probably would have loved this film in college. In fact, I know I would have. With a start I realized the yawning chasm between what I was then and what I am now is a bit wider, a bit more conventional than I had previously imagined.

Depressing, really. So I did what any mature, self-respecting, 38-year-old suffering from an infantile sickness would do in my place: I flicked off the excruciatingly bad movie and started watching some DVRd episodes of "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Ahhh, much better. I finally discovered the cure for a cinematic virus is a healthy dose of joyfully clever and punny 60s-era animation.

Unfortunately, the only cure for a real virus is time, so it's back to bed for me. I was hoping to get out bowhunting some this week but I'm afraid that would require the actual drawing back of the bow, an action for which I'm physically ill-equipped right now.

So I'll just drink my liquids, pop my vitamin C and keep watching to see what Rocky (Doh! I mean Bullwinkle) pulls out of his hat...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

One Fish, Two Fish, Blackfish, Bluefish...

It is now nine days into our deer archery season, it's 41 degrees outside, a few bucks are starting to show up around the house and I find myself still in a fishing frame of mind.

My recent trip to New Jersey has a lot to do with that, but I usually don't start hunting until after the first wave of over-anxious public-land bowhunters crash over the local WMAs anyway, so until this weekend I'll just keep thinking about fishing.

And speaking of fishing, besides the marlin I did catch other fish. False albacore, bluefish (well, OK, only one and it weighed maybe a pound), herring and this ugly thing. The blackfish. Tautog. Or simply "tog."
But whatever the name, the tog is a perfect case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

My first full day in Jersey, Joe and his friend Darren Dorris, saltwater editor of "New Jersey Angler Magazine" took me offshore on Joe's boat. We were hoping for bluefin, dolphin, false albacore and whatever else we could catch.

As it turned out I did get to catch a few false albacore but the weather was going to hell, the wind was picking up and we had to pack it up and head inshore long before we wanted to.

Joe and Darren are pros at Plan Bs, however, and today's plan B would be tog fishing off the jetties. Not knowing what the hell a "tog" was, I just smiled, nodded and kept my mouth shut.

Presently we arrived at the chosen jetty, swung the boat around and tried to idle in place as the waves crashed against the rocks. Darren and Joe took turns rigging rods, driving the boat and cutting the green crabs we'd be using for bait while I sat there trying to look nonchalant about the rocks we seemed destined to smash against with each huge wave that rolled under us.

As they rigged rods the guys tried to explain to me what tog fishing was like. "Tog fishing is all about developing a feel for the bite," said Joe. "It's a very subtle take and it might take some getting used to. You develop a touch for it, but until you do it can be kinda frustrating"

Joe's a master of understatement.

Darren handed me a rod, a conventional lever-drag Penn that - besides not having a level-wind - wasn't too different from the baitcasters I was used to. That was good. And the rod was rigged almost exactly like a typical catfishing set-up back home. Baited hook above a three or four-ounce weight.

Touch, smuch. How hard could it be? I took the rod, cast it close to the rocks, tightened up the line and waited, ready to set the hook on my first tog. I was confident, because one of the things I've always prided myself on as an angler is my sense of feel, my intuition for what's going on down there.

So here I was, on the back of a boat with a good four feet of vertical movement as it rode the waves. There was simply no way to maintain a consistent feel for your bait. But I wasn't worried. Wasn't I the fish whisperer, with an almost superhuman ability to detect a fish's hit? Of course I was.

Suddenly I felt a little tap on the line, and my finely-tuned sense told me a tog was down there taking my crab. I dropped the rod tip, got ready and with a mighty arc set the hook. On a rock.

Now about my hookset. It's a little...dramatic. I grew up pitching big Texas-rigged plastics into weedbeds, the kind of fishing where if you didn't rear back and try your damndest to break your rod as soon as you felt that tap, you probably weren't going to land any fish. It works great for bass in heavy cover, but it sometimes causes problems with other species and other situations.

Like now. My "finely-tuned" fish sense was telling me "set the hook" every time my weight bumped along the bottom. Between the movement of the boat, the rocks and those sneaky goddamned fish down there stealing my crab on every cast I was - to put it mildly - looking like an idiot.

And I was beginning to question whether these damn things even existed. Hell, for all I know we were on the Jersey equivalent of a snipe hunt (hey, let's take the new guy "tog" fishing, nudge nudge wink wink...). And then Joe set the hook on a fish that put a good bend in his rod. I guess they did exist, after all. I was finally going to see my first tog. After a few seconds it broke the surface and Joe swung it into the boat. I looked down at it, rubbed my eyes, looked again and exclaimed "That's a tog? Good gawd, that's the ugliest f***ing fish I've ever seen!"

And it was. I mean, just look at the damn thing. I know ugly, and that was definitely it. It was humiliating. Not only was I being made a fool of, I was being made a fool of by the piscatorial equivalent of the elephant man.

Then Darren caught one. Then Joe caught another one. Then Darren caught another one. And all the while I'm standing there setting hook after hook on...nothing. By then the humiliation had morphed into humbleness. My pride shattered, I conceded defeat. I had been schooled.

And then, quite by accident, I hooked one. I was reeling in slack, felt a tiny bit of resistance,, thought "aww, what the hell" and set the hook on my first tog. I was as shocked as the fish.

I don't know if it was the relief of finally getting the monkey off my back or if I was developing a feel for how tog take the bait, but I started catching fish. And started having fun.

We ended up staying on that jetty catching tog until all our crabs were gone. And a day that could have been sort of a half-bust turned out to be not only a blast, but a reminder of why I love fishing so much.

I may be pushing 40 but every time I pick up a rod, every time I get on the water regardless of how big or small it may be, I feel like a kid again.

Growing up is, quite frankly, a bitch. The necessary demands of life - even a good, rewarding life - can't help but draw down the reservoir of curiosity, awe and wonder each of us are born with, replacing them with worry, weariness, cynicism and despair.

And as we get older we find there are fewer and fewer ways to replenish that reservoir.
But for me, it was always fishing. A rod and reel was my original interface with the natural world, my first portal into its mysteries, and after all these years fishing is still the purest form of unadulterated joy I've ever known.

I've met guys over the years who seem like they're never having much, I don't when they're fishing. They've got goals. Expectations. Demands. It may be all about numbers, or size, or the competition. It's like fishing is a game they need to win in order to derive any satisfaction or pleasure from the experience.

Two days after tog fishing I went out and caught a fish that in all probability will be the crowning achievement of my angling career (unless Field & Stream suddenly recognizes my obvious talents and starts throwing assignments my way. Right...).

And it was everything I thought it would be, and more. But I can honestly say that in terms of the reasons I choose to fish; the awe, the sense of wonder, the pleasure, the satisfaction I derive from it, I experienced just as much of by catching those ugly-ass tog as I did that unspeakably beautiful marlin.

Don't get me wrong: I desperately want to travel to many far-off places and catch many large, exotic and spectacular gamefish. Who wouldn't? But that never was the yardstick by which I measure success or happiness and it never will be.

Fishing is fishing. And for me that's all that's ever mattered. And besides, Joe and Darren say I've got an open invite any time I want go togging again...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

This is why I can't escape the agri-industrial matrix...

You see, that's one of my little peach trees that fat beotch is munching on. I originally planted five of them (along with a bunch of apple, pear and plum trees) with visions of someday harvesting a bounty of free, organic fruity goodness. My natural larder, safe from the vagaries of our food-distribution system and our unsustainable and out-of-balance corporate agri-business complex.

Silly hippie.

One tree got shredded almost immediately by a rubbing buck, one tree took a look at the soil in which it was being planted and decided it was better to just get it over with and die immediately, and the remaining three have become sort of a never-ending buffet for the neighborhood deer. I water and fertilize. They tear and masticate.

I could shoot her, of course. Bow season starts Thursday and the idea of arrowing a fat doe while sitting comfortably at my kitchen table drinking the morning coffee does have a certain lazy appeal to it, especially in light of the fact that I've been feeding this ho and the rest of her herd all spring and summer.

I could put a fence around all the trees, but that involves the kind of work and expense I generally try to avoid.

So I just bitch, occasionally shoot them in the ass with my son's Red Ryder and continue buying my peaches at the grocery store.

Because, truth be told, I enjoy having them around. Especially during hunting season. Not for the prospect of easy venison (I still haven't decided whether it's merely ironic or stupid to have a herd of deer watching you load up your gear to go drive somewhere else to hunt...deer) but for the window it gives me into deer behavior and activity.

I hate to admit this because I've been hunting deer a long time, and I'm pretty good at it, but in the past two years I've probably learned more about deer behavior, deer vocalizations, deer body language and the overall rhythm of their existence by sitting on my back porch drinking beer than I ever have in the woods.

It's kind of my own personal rut and wildlife activity calendar. Last fall I had bucks chasing does literally across my back porch, bucks locking horns in the yard, bucks making scrapes under the bird feeders and bucks using my fruit trees as their sparring partners.

And I had this guy hanging out pretty much all the way through bow, muzzleloader and gun season as his competitors showed up one by one at the local check station. During gun season he actually watched me skin out a buck as he patiently waited for his bucket of corn. I think he ended up fathering half the fawns in the neighborhood last year. Smart fellow, that one.

It was great fun watching it all and learning something new from it, and I guess in the end that trumps fresh peaches.

But next year I'm planting okra. Behind a fence.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Marlin update...

Joe Cermele's Hook Shots episode is up over at the Field and Stream website.

Not only is Joe is a seriously talented video editor who did a great job on this one, he's also a helluva nice guy who busted his ass to make sure I had a great time this weekend.

Head on over, watch the video and leave a comment on Joe's blog. And you even get the chance to watch yours truly getting my ass flat whipped by that magnificent fish.

Well, I'm back...

And to be honest, I'm too wiped out and too busy catching up on stuff to write a proper post, but I'll leave you with a few pics to give an idea of the kind of trip I had...

Getting strapped into the fighting chair...

After an hour in the fighting chair...

Grabbing the bill...

And here's 600 pounds of blue marlin coming into the boat...

I'm not quite sure what I was thinking here...

Time for one quick pic from the bridge (See the blood on my teeth? I bit the hell out of myself while in the chair and I was too wiped out to even notice it)...

Length and girth measured...

And then back into the Atlantic...

Un. Freakin'. Real. I'll actually post words when my brain re-sets and I regain the use of my right arm well enough to type...

Joe Cermele(who took the majority of these photos) is working on getting it all together on a Hook Shots episode over at the F&S website and I'll post a link when it's up.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I'm off to the wilds of...New Jersey?

The problem with success is, that's never the end of it. You can’t just leave well enough alone when you do something right. Can’t just enjoy the moment. You have to go and muck it all up by trying to do it again. Success just breeds success, and then pretty soon you have all those damn expectations. Then when your expectations aren’t met you get disappointed, which makes you work harder to succeed, and then when you don’t...well, you get the picture.

Luckily I don't have that problem. Failure’s always been one of my options. In my world, you always have the choice to not succeed. In fact, if I was in the business of creating jingles for losers, I start with something like "Failure: just keep the option open" or perhaps "Failure: is it really that bad?" or maybe "Without losers there would be no winners!"
I've had some spectacular failures in my life, but nowhere have I been as consistent a failure as in my attempt to catch a fish- any fish - with saltwater coursing through its gills.

My epic failures in this endeavor are sustained by a potent combination of geography (landlocked), funding ('aint got none) and general incompetence (got plenty).

Oh, I've tried. My first attempt came on a college road trip to Galveston with a couple non-fishing buddies. I brought a rod and had every intention of fishing, but we decided to "grab a quick beer" when we arrived and from that point - with the exception of a few lingering nightmares involving motel cockroaches - my memory fails, but I'm fairly confident I didn't catch anything. At least from fishing.

I tried again last year when my wife and I spent a week in Key West drinking, eating and watching drag queens. I also spent the entire week attempting to catch a fish without resorting to either a guide or plunking bait off the side of a bridge. Because I'm a purist, you see. And a dumbass. After a few days even the bums were feeling sorry for me. And when a guy who - literally - lives under a bridge tells you to keep your chin up, you know things aren't going well.

So I kept trying, and after one week, countless casts, numerous hook-ups that didn't stay hooked up and a some truly interesting conversations with the local color, I caught...this starfish. I named him Patrick and let him go.

After that trip I pretty much resigned myself to forget saltwater and go find other windmills at which to tilt, but a combination of ultra-cheap airfares and the pity shown me by Field & Stream assistant on-line editor, saltwater fiend and all-around good guy Joe Cermele has once again given me an opportunity to break the curse.

I called him up one day a few months ago and said "hey, Southwest has some really cheap tickets right now. Any suggestions on a quick weekend trip I can make to sit on a pier somewhere and catch tourist fish?"

He replied "Give me a couple hours, I'll get back to you." By that afternoon my humble plans to drop a bobber off a pier had been transformed into an epic overnight offshore fishing trip off the coast of New Jersey in a boat bigger than the town I was born in, chasing fish I've only read about in magazines.

Joe's good.

So I'm off once again. Pride goeth before the fall, so pride's sitting this one out. Expectations, too. All I'm taking with me is the saltwater monkey on my back. We're going to see just how powerful my saltwater fishing curse is. Can it triumph over a 65-foot boat, a crew of grizzled, experienced saltwater anglers and an entire ocean of fish? Or will it finally be vanquished?

We'll see. I get back early next week. Until then, I'd look for news stories with a New Jersey dateline that read something like this: "Freak waterspout accident sweeps Oklahoma man from local fishing vessel as he attempts to land first tuna. The boat's crew says the man's last words before being swept off deck were "I'm gonna do it! I'm finally gonna do it! Hey, what's that cloud?"

Friday, September 11, 2009

Self-medication, Mallard-style

To the person who stumbled across the blog after Googling "Is there any cure discontent":

Sadly, no.

It is, at least in my case, a terminal condition with no known cure. You can briefly deaden its symptoms with drugs (both legal and illicit), booze, reality television or Wal-Mart people-watching.

All of these things will temporarily make you feel better about yourself, but eventually the discontent will creep back in and soon, very soon, you will be pissed off and dissatisfied all over again.

So my advice is rather than fight your discontent, accept it. Embrace it. View it as a cattle prod for your soul and let it zap you in the ass every time you start becoming complacent, malleable, unquestioning.

Do you really want to be a shiny-happy, well-adjusted, content person, all docile and smiley-faced and ready to accept the fate society hands you? I call those people livestock.

I don't trust happy, contented well-adjusted people and you shouldn't either. Your discontent is a gift that lifts you above the cud-chewers. Use it to your advantage.

And if that doesn't work, if all else fails, then go get yourself a big-bore handgun, a few boxes of shells, a shitload of water jugs and start blazing away. In the long run it's cheaper, more cathartic and a helluva lot more fun than a shrink.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Say baby, how YOU doin'?

Hunting season is about to get cranked up in a big way. The problem is, many of us aren't in the kind of shape serious hunting demands.

So, as a public service, here's my pre-season get-in-shape routine. And I must say, it's working pretty well for me so far...

Wake up one morning. Step on the bathroom scale. Yell at it. Call it a damn dirty liar. Check the batteries in scale. Tell yourself "that can't be right." Step on scale again. Weep.

Look in mirror. Recoil in terror. Accept the fact you're now officially 25 pounds over your formerly athletic high school weight. Mourn. Go eat a pan of brownies to ease the pain.

Wake up next morning. Suck in your gut. Tell your wife you're going on a diet. After she leaves, eat a pan of brownies.

Wake up next morning. Tell your wife "this is the day, it starts now!" After she leaves, eat a pan of brownies. Because you see, it's the last box of brownie mix and you're just "getting rid of them" because you can't just let them go to waste, right? And besides, how can you be expected to start a diet with a bunch of brownies lying around? Geez...

Wake up next morning. Don't bother stepping on scale. In fact, flip it off as you go by. Head straight to kitchen. No more brownies, so grab the kids' Pop-Tarts with one hand. Use other hand to grab a nearby spatula and start beating the hand holding the Pop-Tarts until said Pop-Tarts are released.

Spend the rest of the day munching on cauliflower while staring at the pantry full of delicious, individually-wrapped snack items. Fight back urge to gorge by grabbing your ample mid-section with both hands and doing your best Ned Beatty impersonation.

Go to bed with shooting pangs of hunger in your ample belly, tempered by the distant, haunting chords of "Dueling Banjos" in your head. Tell yourself you've got to get back in shape before bow season opens up or you'll have a heart attack trying to drag out a deer. Fall asleep and dream of sugar. Pure, beautiful, sugar.

Wake up the next morning. Rummage through your man-freezer (the one containing both wild game and other items (stinkbait, pelts, frozen carcasses, etc) your wife won't allow in the "normal" freezer) pull out one of the turkeys from last spring. Skin it, de-bone it and slow-cook it overnight.

Wake up the next morning. Walk into kitchen. Prepare a healthy, low-carb roast turkey wrap with healthy green, leafy vegetables while blankly staring at unhealthy Pop-Tarts and dreaming of unhealthy brownies and unhealthy pecan pie. Tell yourself that being healthy really sucks.

Eat a turkey-based meal for lunch. Eat a turkey-based meal for dinner. Go to bed. Wake up. Eat a turkey-based meal for breakfast. Eat a turkey-based meal for lunch. Eat a turkey-based meal for dinner. Go to bed. Wake up...

Repeat this pattern until you have consumed the flesh of an entire 20 lb. turkey and you've started dreaming in turkey, thinking turkey, speaking turkey, walking turkey, eyeing the hens in the back yard...

Chase hens in backyard, unsuccessfully. Rupture your larynx attempting to gobble. Frighten the neighbors. Come to your senses. Tell yourself the next turkey you consume is going to be deep-fat fried and served with a side of deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Snickers bars and pretty much anything else that's carbohydrate-based and can be deep-fried and consumed with beer. Lots of beer.

Wake up the next morning. Step on scale. Discover that your two weeks of strict adherence to the diet has resulted in a net weight loss of almost twelve ounces. Rejoice. Celebrate with a pan of brownies...

See? Piece of cake. Now you're ready for hunting season...

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A photographic chronicle of youth versus age...

In a previous post I wrote about the opening of dove season acting as a series of waypoints along the path of my life. Well, for better or worse, here's a little photographic proof...

You'd be hard-pressed to find a gamebird that's had more photographic injustices done to it than the dove. Other gamebirds get the artsy poses with fine guns and weathered barnwood, while dove generally get photographed with a group of grinning, none-too-bright-looking Bubbas standing over a huge communal pile of freshly-shot carcasses.

Take this unfortunate photograph, for example. It was taken on the side of some forgotten old section line road south of Mountain View, Oklahoma way back in (if rusty memory serves me) 1988. Despite the potentially destabilizing weight of that massive mullet and dove-flaring properties of that bright red ballcap, my friends and I shot obscene numbers of dove in the disced-over fields on either side of that road.

And as befitting our youth, exuberance and our complete lack of sophistication or taste (Isn't that any teenager?) we took obscenely bad photos. We'd pile our dead birds on the back of that old Datsun, dove spilling off the trunk lid like lifeless little rags, and grin at the camera.

Oh to be young, stupid, clueless and truant. I miss those days greatly, setting off with no plan, no money and no worries beyond finding the next place to hunt. Destination? Nowhere, and damn eager to get there. Just drive west. We’ll find birds. Somewhere.

But time and change are inexorable. I haven't been that young and carefree for a long time, and I rarely shoot dove in waves any more. My friends have long gone on to their own lives, their own changes and so I hunt mostly alone now, and probably will until my sons are old enough to accompany me if they so choose.

And killing something with no other company than your own thoughts is an activity best done at a measured pace and for a measured purpose. So I try to do it with a little more restraint and a little more taste than I did as a youth, despite that underlying urge, the compelling need, to hunt being just as strong in this picture as it was in that one.

Yes, it's a well-worn and familiar pose. Certainly not original at all. And I'm not trying to apologize or make up for the photographic transgressions of a reckless and bloodthirsty youth by getting all faux-elegant and tastefully understated.

Nope, both youth and hunting are what they are. I make no apologies for either (with the exception of the mullet. And for that I'm truly sorry...)

But I like it anyway (the picture. Not the mullet). It speaks to who I am.

And despite its horrendous technical deficiencies and its questionable artistic qualities, I like that old snapshot, too. It speaks to who I once was.

In a few years I'm sure I'll figure out a way to meld a shotgun, a walker and an oxygen bottle into a photograph that speaks to who I'll someday be.

** Since Youtube and SonyBMG won't allow any embedding of their music videos, I guess I won't be clever by adding Social Distortion's "Story Of My Life" video to the end of the blog...

Well, piss on them. Here's the link anyway.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I'm Pretty Sure It Was All the Gun's Fault...

Early-season dove hunting in my area is one of those things best done without the help of a dog. It's usually very hot, very dry, very snakey, sandburrs are everywhere and if you're not careful heatstroke is just one long retrieve away.

Plus, if you're sending the dog on a blind, or even on marked birds that have fallen in the sagebrush, they often have a hard time finding them because scenting conditions are so poor.

So what did I do? Took my dogs dove hunting, of course. I knew at the outset it was going to be a low-percentages hunt, but I wanted to get the dogs, especially my male, the chance to start getting into the hunting season mindset, so I decided to hunt a stock tank on my local WMA and shoot "training" birds, only taking specific shots that would be good retrieves for the dogs.

That turned out to be a fair bit of chutzpah on my part...

My area's wheat crop was a total bust this year. My local WMA manager told me he didn't even bother discing and burning the food plots they plant to attract dove, so right there one of the main concentrators of dove on the areas I hunt is absent this year. That's not to say there aren't good numbers of dove still around. There are. But when there are 16,000-odd acres of native vegetation to feed on, figuring out a good spot from which to shoot a few can be a challenge.

But dove must drink, too, and one of the best (and one of my favorite) ways to shoot a limit around here is to set up on a stock tank or windmill in the evening. Usually by late August/early September we're dry as the proverbial bone and those creaking old Aermotors are dove magnets.

Unless of course, you get rain. Which we have. And unless we've had a spell of cool, cloudy weather that starts getting those dove thinking about leaving for warmer climes a bit sooner than normal. Which we have.

In those conditions, if you hunt public land that means there are few easy birds. You have to hustle and you have to walk and scout to find enough birds to shoot. Not good for dogs when it's in the 90s.

But I felt sorry for the dogs. They've lounged around all summer getting fat and lazy. I couldn't just leave them there, could I? So off we went.

I've shot a lot of limits off this particular tank, and for what I wanted to do it was perfect: fairly short walk, good spot and thanks to all the rain it was about four times its normal size, big and deep enough to provide a good swim for the dogs.

Despite our recent cool weather, it's still getting pretty warm in the afternoons. Which makes this...

One of my absolute favorite parts of dove hunting. Being public land, you (thankfully) have to hoof it to reach most of the windmills on northwestern Oklahoma's WMAs, but when you get there you're rewarded with one of life's greatest simple pleasures: clear, cold water straight from the outlet pipe of a high plains windmill.

That is, if the wind's blowing. If it's not, well, then you're hot, thirsty and screwed.

So we get there and we sit and wait for a dove to fly by. And we wait. And wait. And wait.

I mean, I know I just waxed poetic about the beauty of not shooting dove, but after a while it was like "come on, throw me a bone here, hunting gods! I've been sitting here broiling and musing on life long enough. Now I want to shoot something."

I am nothing if not hypocritical...

So finally, two hours, a sunburn, four gallons of water and two burned-out retinas later, a dove flies by...while I'm eating a bag of peanuts. A few minutes later another one flies by...while I'm taking pictures of the dogs. Several minutes later a pair flutter by...while I'm up trying to chase off the cattle whose sole purpose in life is to mill around in my line of fire while chewing cuds and shitting on each other.

And then, it happens. A dove finally flies by when I have my gun in my hands, a perfect quartering away shot that, if I can hit it, will force the dog to swim the pond diagonally, exit, keep the line, pick up the bird and then swim back.

That is, if I can hit it. Which of course, I don't. Bang. Bang. Shit. This, however, is just the opening salvo in what would prove to be possibly the worst bout of shooting I've ever experienced.

Now I'm not vain nor do I have any grand illusions about my skill with firearms. I consider myself a pretty lousy pistol shot and a merely adequate rifleman. But I've always been reasonably good with a shotgun, and I'm especially proud of my dove shooting.

But for whatever reason - bad luck, self-doubt, karma, the folly of pride - I literally can not hit anything flying. I miss crossers left and right. I miss them flying away. I miss them in singles, I miss them in pairs and I miss them in groups. It is an epic display of shotgunning incompetence.

And after each miss, I look down at my gun - my beloved little Beretta - in amazement and ask "Are you the same gun? What the hell did I do to piss you off?"

Yes, I was starting to get irrational. And the dogs were getting bored.

But finally, after expending a number of precious and now-quite-expensive AAs, a number so staggeringly large it shall not be repeated here, I hit a dove. Sort of. After the shot it flutters across the pond in that way that says "I'm dead, I just don't know it yet." It finally crashes into the side of a sage-covered sandhill about a hundred yards distant.

So much for easy marks for the dogs. My male is a good marker but he doesn't handle very well yet and I don't want to get him out there and get him confused, so I decide to send my old female.

She's a good dog, but, bless her stumpy little heart, she's not the best marker in the world and I know I'll probably have to handle her to the bird, because she's got a pond and at least two depressions to cross before she hits that hill. She also has a tendency for her lines to drift on longer retrieves

I know she saw the bird drop, so this isn't considered a blind. I line her up as best I can and send her on her name, "Tess" (if it had been a blind I'd send her on "back").

Now Tess has always been something of a bank-runner, which is mostly my fault because I never really worked her on things like channel blinds. If she thinks she can get to a bird or bumper faster by running around water instead of swimming through it, that's what she'll do.

But not this time. She hits the water, swims across the pond and starts toward the hill. I lose sight of her when she drops into the first depression behind the pond dam and when she comes out she's tailing off the line to the left.

Thank god for that, because another of Tess' annoying little habits (thanks to my lousy training) is she always, always turns to her right when she turns around on the sit whistle. So if she's tailing to the right to begin with, this means I usually have to give her a left "over" to get her back on line.

I give her the sit whistle and she of course turns to the right before sitting facing me. This puts her directly in line with where I think the bird is. I cross my fingers, give a little prayer to the dog gods, raise my hand and give her a "back!"

She wheels around, takes off and to my utter amazement, nails the bird at the base of the hill. Not only that, she keeps the same line coming back, hits the water, swims back across the pond, gets out, comes to heel and when I say "drop" she gently spits the bird into my hand and looks at me like "whaddya think of that?"

I look down at her - my fat, stubborn little chessie - in astonishment and say "Are you the same dog? Where the hell did you learn that?"
Did I have my camera out for any of this? Silly question. Of course not.

Even though I still had a half-hour of shooting light, I decided picking my gun back up (besides being a superfluous and futile gesture) would surely sully what had suddenly become a good day. So I decided to end it on a positive note.

I let the dogs splash and swim around, threw them a few bumpers and just sat and watched the hard light of day slowly melt into dusk. All in all not a bad way to start the season.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Almost time...

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the mourning dove.

I consider them the most egalitarian of gamebirds in that they're widespread, numerous and you don't need any specialized equipment or tactics to hunt them.

They don't require a boat, decoys, dogs or calls. They don't make you chase them and when you do manage to hit them they have the grace and courtesy to die fairly easily. Even a half-wit can quickly grasp the basics of dove hunting: find a spot, sit down, and when a bird flies by you shoot at it once, twice or thrice depending on skill and/or luck.

As such, they are easily our most popular gamebird. And therein lies the problem with dove: their familiarity breeds a certain degree of if not contempt then at least a sort of one-dimensional thinking in that the entire arc of the popular notion of the dove-hunting experience can be described in one sentence: Opening day dove shoot.

That's it. That one image conjures up notions of the traditional southern social event, the big party hunt where everyone gets together, has a great time, shoots lots of birds, shoots lots of bull and then packs up, goes home and gets ready for the rest of the"real" hunting seasons to open up.

Basically, dove are considered a one-time celebratory kick-off. And that's it. The vast, and I mean vast majority of dove hunters give absolutely no post-opening weekend thought to the little buggers at all.

Which is a shame, really. Because once you get past the action-packed barrel-burning salvos of opening weekend, dove hunting can be a very mellow and contemplative activity. It gives you time to think. And what's hunting without thinking? Some of my most cherished and memorable hunts have been spent sitting under a windmill with the dog, watching the sky and shooting nowhere near a limit.

I guess I'm partial to dove because they were my (for lack of a better term) genesis bird. I had zero bird-hunting tradition growing up, so I pretty much had to make up my own as I went along.

I had no dog, no dad (my parents divorced when I was ten) and no clue, but I did have a shotgun, a bike, a duffel bag in which to break down and hide the shotgun so the cops wouldn't see me pedaling down the street packing heat, and a lot of open fields and riverbottom to hunt.

So I hunted dove, and the occasional kicked-up quail and pond-jumped ducks. But local dove were my main bird-hunting species until well into my later teens and my friends and I finally had access to cars and distant destinations. And since I didn't know any better I hunted dove on into October right up to the archery season opener.

Sure there weren't nearly as many birds as there were in early September, but I could always find a few, and a few were all I needed. Besides, what else was I going to hunt besides squirrels?

Maybe that's why I don't mind the slower pace and lighter gamebags of the mid and late-September hunts: it's merely a conditioned response from my misspent youth.

And here we are again, on the eve of what will be, as close as I can recall, my 25th straight dove opener ( Setting a lifelong tone of shirked responsibility, I always managed to skip school when it fell on a weekday...).

Seen from that perspective, it's a bit hard to reconcile the memory of the 13-year-old me furiously pedaling my bike down to the South Canadian river - hidden shotgun strapped to the handlebars - with the pushing-forty me; the chronically melancholy, none-too-successful misanthrope who, when he's drunk and thoughtful, sees those 25 season openers as a chronology of the ever-widening gap between what he is and what he once thought he'd be, each date a waypoint along a route that never quite made it to the original destination.

But whose ever does, right? Hindsight may be 20/20 but it's also like straight liquor: best consumed in moderation lest it consume you.

So here I am. Tomorrow will bring another waypoint, another rollover of the seasonal odometer and I will dutifully note it in the the only way I know, really the only way I've ever known how to track my life's progression or lack thereof.

Hopefully a few dove will be flying. And if I'm lucky I might shoot a few. Or I might not. Either way is fine by me. I can certainly think of worse ways to dwell on one's life.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Flying with Eagles...

Back in 2002 I wrote a feature story on falconry for our state magazine (the story can be viewed here, but the PDF warning applies...)

One of the people I interviewed during the course of writing the story was a young apprentice falconer named Lauren McGough.

What was extraordinary about Lauren was she was only fourteen at the time and she was a girl in an incredibly demanding pursuit that is practiced primarily (with apologies to all the falconers out there) by old(er) men. And for good reason (the age part, anyway. Gender, of course matters not...)

You see, you can't just decide to become a falconer. Here's how I described it in the article:

"Like all top-echelon predators, birds of prey fascinate us in ways other animals simply can’t. Not only is their method of hunting hypnotic in its beauty and frightening efficiency, birds of prey seem to wear an air of languid superiority as comfortably as they wear their feathers.

Simply put, we love to watch them. By virtue of their very haughtiness, they demand our attention. And we, as spellbound, earth-bound subjects, always give it.

Whether you’re watching from a quarter-mile away through a pair of binoculars or a distance of three feet, the first thing you notice are the eyes. Disconcertingly intense and unmistakably wild, those twin wells of unfathomable depth don’t merely look past you, they penetrate you. In one cold, perfunctory glance, you’ve been sized up, found to be of no real consequence and then simply disregarded.

But there is a small group of Oklahomans that takes our Earth-bound fascination with birds of prey beyond passive observation and into a realm of interaction and cooperation few have the opportunity to witness and even fewer have the dedication to achieve.

These individuals have learned how to fly - vicariously, anyway - by learning how to live and hunt with birds of prey.

Falconry is at once art, science, history and lifestyle. And to be successful, its practitioners say, you have to apply all qualities equally.

Perhaps that’s why there are fewer than 100 practicing falconers statewide. Not only is it the most highly-regulated sport externally, due to a maze of state and federal regulations, the unique demands of the sport are such that anything less than total commitment is doomed to failure.

That’s why the one overriding truth of falconry is there is no such thing as a casual falconer.

To become one, a person must first pass a comprehensive test covering everything from biology to care and handling to pertinent laws and regulations. They must then build housing facilities and purchase certain equipment that must be inspected and approved by a state inspector. They must then purchase all the necessary state and federal licenses.

And that’s the easy part. By law, all beginning falconers must be apprenticed to a licensed falconer for their first two years, and if you haven’t made an honest assessment of why you want to be a falconer in the first place, you can be sure that the person you ask to be your sponsor will do just that."

But here was this fourteen-year-old girl with a red-tailed hawk on her fist taking on the kind of responsibility and commitment that very few adults, much less a teenager, could handle.

At any rate, Lauren was a good interview and I left thinking she'd have no problem making it through her apprenticeship and becoming a falconer.

That ended up being a wee bit of an understatement on my part...

Apparently Lauren has gone on to bigger things (much bigger) and more exotic places (much more exotic) than red-tails and Oklahoma. And she's a damn good writer, to boot. via Steve Bodio's blog

Now that, folks, is impressive as hell.

I'm not sure exactly how old Lauren is now (21ish, maybe) but speaking as someone whose greatest accomplishment at that age was scraping together enough change to buy a few happy-hour draws at Mr. Bill's after class (and sometimes before...), I commend her for the vision to have a dream worth pursuing and the courage to actually go out and do it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

They Call Me Naughty Lola...

I'm a happily married guy. Have been for going on fourteen years. But I have to confess that I still scan the personals every few weeks, looking for that special someone.

Maybe someone like this:

"Attractive F, 32, seeks M, of a not too dissimilar age, who smells nice, dresses well & is good at sex. But must not be a cock. London. "

Or maybe this one:

"Inveterate, pelagic marmalade maker – artist/peace activist. Cheerful F 62 – red/green – seeks help committing future acts of parsimony."

But definitely not this one:

"Two hefty, tattooed Brighton skinheads, 43/45. One writes, one reads. Want uncensored sex with bookish blokes who like rough drafts."

These are all personals from the current edition of the London Review of Books.

If you've never heard of the London Review of Books, well, you're not alone. I'd never heard of it either. But in one of those serendipitous 'net surfing incidents of looking for one thing and finding another I stumbled across the site several years ago while searching for a particular book review.

I thought "Hmmm, what's this?" and started reading. As it turns out, the LRB started out as an insert in the New York Review of Books way back in 1979 before going solo in 1980 (thanks, Wikipedia). It's a good read, but what (immediately) caught my eye were the personals.

And now I have to explain why exactly I was reading the personals section of a fairly obscure (to Americans, anyway) literary journal. Really, it was all completely innocent...

My wife and I had just returned from a ten-day trip to Paris (with a side trip to London). My wife had been to Europe twice already on study abroad programs in both high school and college, but it was the first trip abroad for this provincial rube.

Well, being a history, travel and culture weenie I fell immediately and deeply in love with Europe, and as soon as we got back I started scheming how and when we could go back. One money-saving option we kicked around was renting a flat rather than staying in motels. And the LRB, I noticed, had ads for flats and apartments. But wouldn't you know it, right underneath that was the personals section. I started reading. And then I started laughing.

As it turns out, the LRB was - and is - famous for its offbeat, quirky, witty and weird personal ads. I had no idea. I was instantly hooked, and I've been reading it ever since.

There's none of that earnest, sappy, American-style "looking for that special someone to share my dreams with" bile here. Oh, hell no...

"Bald, short, fat and ugly male, 53, seeks short-sighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite."

"I'm just a girl who can't say no (or anaesthetist). Lisping Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, female, lecturer in politics (37) WLTM man to 40 for thome enthanted eveningth."

"Mature gentleman (62) aged well, noble grey looks, fit and active, sound mind and unfazed by the demands of modern society seeks...damn it, I have to pee again."

Those are just a few of the selections from "They Call Me Naughty Lola" a compilation of the best personals from the pages of the LRB. It's on my Christmas list...