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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Lit up after dark

Last Friday I took off from work so I could fish that afternoon.  After a 2 hour drive over to Pickwick lake I was subjected to 6 hours of the most unproductive fishing that you could imagine. 

Yesterday I took off half a day and was determined to erase the memory of last weeks failure.  I was going to hit the lake and catch a few fish.

I left work, loaded the truck, headed east, and two hours later I had the boat in the water.  My plan was the same as last week: to hit offshore ledges and humps to see if the bass had moved to their summer pattern.  I’d work my way from the middle of Bear Creek toward the main lake along their migration route.  It seemed like a logical plan.

After thirty minutes of idling sonar runs, I saw a big rain shower moving in behind me.  The few boats that were on the water were all running for cover.  There was no lightning, and after my last few experiences with storms I had brought a new secret weapon to deal with this situation...a rain jacket.  I continued fishing in my goretex, impervious to the wet stuff that had chased everyone away.  Ten minutes later the showers were gone.

At this point I was using my sonar to examine a place I call “the Hog-pen” due to it’s propensity to cough up 5 lb. bass.  This is one of my favorite places on the lake but lately it’s shut off.  I thought that maybe my sonar could unlock the secrets of the Hog-pen but I was disappointed...I learned nothing.

Hour-after-hour I spent idling.  I’d check on this hump, speed to that channel to survey it, rocket over to that point to see if there was bait...nothing worked.  All I saw were scattered and suspended fish everywhere.  

I was about to say nothing would bite, but then I remembered I caught a very small hybrid stripe and a tiny smallmouth bass on a bluegill crank bait.  These fish were essentially consolation prizes, the equivalent of the cheap water bottle they give away at events all around the country.  It’s the old “you lost, but thanks for showing up.”  At least I’d be able to say I didn’t get skunked.

I have found that on Pickwick, if you take a bluegill crank bait and grind it along a gravelly will typically get destroyed.  I always have one tied on.  I used to have only one on the boat, but one day I lost it...and I about had a panic attack.  I felt a mouse at a hawk convention.  After that day I always have backups of my favorite lures.  Sadly it just didn’t work today.

I didn’t know what to do, nothing was working.  At one point I actually grumbled out loud “I don’t know what to do...I have no confidence in anything.”  I sat back, nursed a cold Gatorade and studied my options.  I liked my original plan, so I decided to stick to it.  The sun was getting low at this point and I could see the writing on the wall.  I figured I’d get a bit more sonar practice and then head home.

One or two more stops for idling sonar runs and I was packing up.  My exact thought was “I’d rather be driving home than wasting time on this lake.”  I reeled in, pulled up my trolling motor, then headed for the ramp...defeated.

I’m a sucker most fishermen.  Even as we are being defeated there is that glimmer of instinctive optimism that’s buried deep down inside our brains that says “one more cast” or “That spot looks really good, I’ll just stop for a minute”.

I had to cross right over the Hog-pen on the way to the ramp and I thought “why not?”  I had about 15 minutes of light left, and there were a few other boats that were going to have the ramp tied up, so I’d probably be better off fishing until dark.  

The Hog-pen is a gravel bar that juts out into the lake from a square block of land that juts out into the river.  The creek takes a 90 degree turn here to run north.  Right where the 90 degree turn sticks out into the river there is a gravel bar that drops from dry land into the lake.  It’s more of a gravel “ridge” as there is a well defined top that drops off on both sides as it takes a long sloping descent from dry land into 20 feet of water perhaps 60 yards away from the bank. 

As I watched a few boats running to the ramp trying to beat the fading light, I picked up my old friend...the bluegill crank bait.  It’s an 11 foot diving crank, and I was throwing it into water that was about 6 feet deep on the other side of the gravel bar.  The bait would  dive until it found gravel, and then it would just grind it’s way up the back slope, over the top, and then back down my side.  

Even if I didn’t catch anything, its still nice to feel that plastic bill grinding gravel.  Its like talking with an old friend, or how Hellen Keller must have felt reading her favorite book in brail...she could feel the words come to’s just a good, comfortable feeling.  

So my little crank bait was doing it’s thing as the day ended.  On my second cast I was dragging it up the other side of the gravel bar and the rod got heavy...but just for a moment.  I swept back and started reeling and it felt light, like I had missed it, then it got heavy again and the fight was on!

This fish felt good.  It wasn’t fighting much but it was heavy, and it was taking an awkward path in the water...kind of like when you snag a rock or a stick and it wallows back and forth as you retrieve it.  As I got it near the boat I saw the reason.  There were TWO BASS on one treble hook!  One of them shook off next to the boat but I landed the other, a nice 2.5 lb. fish.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw both of those greedy bass stuck on the same crank bait...I know it’s just never happened to me.

At this point I was happy.  My day was ending with a nice fish from one of my favorite spots.  I took a picture to send to a buddy in Idaho who was on his own fishing trip.  Then I got back to work.  Just for grins I kept throwing until dark.  I threw out deeper along the gravel bar.  As I mindlessly reeled and twitched my bait along the gravel bar, I was pondering this location and how the bass relate to it.  I distinctly recall thinking “I have no idea where the bass that use this place come from” and BAM!!! My spinning rod bowed under the weight of a big fish.  

This was a good fish.  In the fading light of a miserable day I was witnessing a murder.  A hog of a largemouth slammed that bluegill crank bait like a freight train.  It was a good fight.  He’d dive and run anytime I got him near the boat.  Time no longer mattered, the amount of light left in the day no longer mattered.  This fight was one of those moments when life is so pure, so perfect, that you want to remain in it forever.  A giant octopus could have ripped the motor off the boat and thrown it to the Alabama side of the river and I don’t think I would have noticed...I was that focused on this fish.  As the fight left him he made a final dive under the boat.  At that point I could hear my crank bait slapping off the hull as he continued to thrash.  I knew I had him then, he no longer had the strength to steal line from my drag.

I took another picture and shot it to my buddy...I couldn’t believe I had caught those fish so quickly.  That was two nice fish in three casts.  

I caught nothing else as the light faded toward the edge of darkness.  I was a little confused as to why I got two bites so fast and then they shut off.  My only guess was that it was due to darkness encroaching.  That thought gave me a another idea...maybe I should switch to a darker lure.  

I know that theoretically you should use darker colors at night, but I’ve never had the theory work out for me.  Just to be thorough I grabbed a big, heavy, football head jig with a fat 5 inch tube bait trailer, and launched it into the darkening sky.  

This is a brown bait with some red flecks in does a pretty good crawdad imitation.  I slowly dragged it up the backside of the...BAM!!! I got smashed.  I heaved back on the rod and the fight was on.  A few seconds later I landed my third nice fish out of the Hog-pen.  I was actually worked.  

I always hear about switching to darker colors at night but this is the first time I’ve ever really had it work for me.  It was now officially night time.  The fish were biting and I had nowhere to be so I figured I’d keep fishing and see if I could catch another one.  

I tossed the jig again and felt that big football head grind it’s way over every tan pebble and chunk rock on the gravel bar.  Suddenly I felt like the hunter.  I was now confident that what I was doing would work.  With confidence came patience...and with patience one usually finds success.  

I stood upright and alone on the front deck in the moonlit darkness holding a 7 foot rod with it’s tip pointed straight up.  I must have looked like the human version of an Egret...that tall slender bird that hunts these same points and shallow gravel bars...always stalking...motionless until it strikes. 

The moon was almost full and was doing an admirable job of holding back the darkness.  In this light the world looked like a silky picture.  The moonlight had turned the water and the cloudless sky gunmetal grey.  Water and sky were separated by long inky black stretches of land that ran through the middle of the scene.  Land was a jagged black profile with flat grey above, and shimmery shiny grey below. 

The wind had died down a lot and the only noise to be heard was the deafening chorus of frogs from the bank. Thousands of frogs were calling to each other with their high, shrill, barks, chirps and drawn out warbling notes.  This high pitched song was backed by a regular series of ridiculously low baritone and bass-notes from bullfrogs that I have to imagine must have been the size of cinder blocks.  The frogs called, I cast in the moonlight, and the fish ate. It was beautiful.  

Last night was a great lesson in jig fishing for me.  I couldn’t see my line so everything was done by feel.  I think this helped me concentrate...all I had to do was stare at the distant dark shoreline and concentrate on feeling the other end of my line.  

There were three distinct types of bites I had on the jig.  The first was the classic feel him hit it, you set the hook, and the fight is on.

The second type of bite surprised me.  This is where I thought I felt a hit but when I set the hook nothing was there...the jig just flew up off the bottom.  The surprise on this bite was that after I falsely snatched it up off the bottom and realized I had nothing on...the jig would get HAMMERED as it fell back toward the bottom.  In my mind the process went “! fish...OH FISH!”  I was accidentally using the “hop retrieve” that I occasionally use in other situations...and it was working really well.  

The third type of bite was the “where did it go?” bite.   It’s dark so I can’t see my line at all.  I would slowly drag the jig back to me, maintaining contact with it the whole way.  The only time I wasn’t in contact was when I’d drop the rod tip to reel in some slack and start dragging again.  

Sometimes after reeling in the slack I’d pull back on the rod and my jig just wasn’t weight at all.  Maybe it slid down the slope toward me a little, maybe it fell off a rock and put some slack in the line...I’d reel a little more and it still wasn’t there.  Then the lightbulb went on...something is running with the ball!  

The reason I couldn’t feel my jig is because some greedy bass had picked it up and was swimming toward me with it.  It’s a funny feeling to go through that thought process in real’s like catching a thief.  Then you drop that rod tip, reel as fast as you can to catch up, and sweep back like a pro.  BOOM!  FISH ON!
Those bass would come up tail-walking in the moonlight as they tried to shake the hook.  Every time they breached they’d surprise me.  The calm dark surface of the water exploded as a bass violently thrashed it.  The moonlight turned that thrashing water silvery-white against the black backdrop, creating a stunning effect that looked like tinted glass shattering into thousands of diamonds.  Then the fish would crash back into the water and run, then breach and thrash, then crash and run.  Every single cast held huge potential...and every other cast was getting hit.  Many of those fish destroyed the tranquility of this place with the most violent outbursts you could imagine.  Bass fishing doesn’t get much more exciting this.

The action at the Hog-pen went on like that for 30 or 40 minutes.  I was catching fish every other cast.  I had to break out my head lamp to unhook fish as I caught them.  It was really neat to turn on that light and be looking at bucket-mouth after bucket-mouth with that big craw-colored jig hanging out of it’s mouth.  I have never experienced a jig bite like fact I’ve never caught that many bass on anything in such a short period of time.  Almost all of them were between 2.5 and 4.5 pounds.  I caught only two fish that weighed less than 2 lbs.  For a short period of time I felt like I was on a Bassmaster highlight reel.  

I had endured five hours of frustrating boredom and then had a head on collision with a large, violent school of fish that was hard-bent on killing and eating everything that crossed it’s path.  It was like fighting an aquatic motorcycle gang armed only with a graphite rod.

Once the frenzy slowed, I put my rod down and sat at the helm.  I wanted to take a few minutes and let this experience soak in.  I didn’t want to just catch a bunch of fish and leave the minute they quit biting...I’d feel like I was missing something if I did that.

The moon was high in a clear sky, the water calm and silky, the frogs were singing their songs, a light dew was falling, and behind the curtain of this stage I could hear a trains horn as he rumbled his way past somewhere in the distance.  It was serene.  

Far off in the distance I could see the lights of vacation homes that dotted the hills surrounding the lake.  Everyone was inside, lights on, TV’s going, air conditioners humming...but nobody was on the lake.  I couldn’t believe that I had this entire experience to myself.  

If fishermen had a bible it would undoubtedly include the phrase “Spare the rod, spoil the fish.”  I can tell you that I did not spoil the fish last night, I took the rod to them in a relentless fashion...because I don’t want them to be undisciplined.

At this point I’m really hoping that reincarnation doesn’t exist...because if it does, I’m sure God will send me back this way as a crawfish or a bluegill based on what I did here tonight.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Springtime fishing fury

Earlier this week I decided to take a day off to go fishing.   It's spring time, the weather was good, the bass should be spawning, and the overnight temps are perfect for camping.   It's a really slow time at work and there was only a 30% chance of rain.   Mathematically that means there's a 70% chance that I'm going fishing.   

By noon on Tuesday I was packed up and rolling toward Pickwick Lake.   I would fish til dark, camp on the river, have a bonfire, howl at the moon, wake up and fish some more.   This is always a good's the perfect way to de-stress and recharge.   

By 2 PM I was fishing on Bear Creek between Tishomingo CountyMS on the west, and Colbert County AL to my east.   Around 5 PM a storm moved in and I found myself juuuuussst on the edge of it.  When it began to rain I ducked under the cover of a nearby dock and waited it out.   I used the downtime to update my wife and eat a PBJ.    Luckily it slid south-east and I missed the worst of it.   By the time I finished my sandwich, the edge of the storm had slipped away and I got right back to fishing.   Below is a picture of the first storm that I dodged.   As you can see by the light in the picture can't get much closer to the edge of the storm. 

bear creek 5 pic 1 by scarfam, on Flickr

Now that I had officially dodged the "30% chance" of rain that was predicted, I fished like a man with nowhere to go.  To my right, the sun was on the downhill slope to the western horizon   I was facing south and just casting away with dreams of a full-grown, hog-sized largemouth slamming my jig.  

A short time later I looked north over my shoulder and saw that the mouth of Bear Creek (where it meets the TN River)was totally socked in.  I could tell from 4 miles away that there was significant rain in that area.  As it turns out, I might not have dodged the full "30% chance" of rain.  Maybe I had only dodged 15% of it.  

Normally I'd just leave the lake when I saw a storm coming, but with the low odds of rain, and my plan to camp, I had a little more leeway to make the decision.  

Ordinarily, rain at the mouth of this creek wouldn't be a big deal, but for me to go home now meant that I'd have to drive 4  miles north, then hit the main river and run another 5 miles to my truck.  

The previous storm slid harmlessly to the south-east and very respectfully got out of my way so I imagined that this storm would do the same.  After all, there was only a 30% chance of rain, and I'd already seen this shouldn't last long.  I still had almost two hours of light.  I'd just slowly fish my way north, and by the time I get there this latest shower should have moved on to greener pastures.   

Nothing could be further from the truth.  As time passed the storm didn't seem to go just turned darker shades of gray until it was the color of "I'm going to kill you".  This was not good.  These clouds were so dark that they'd give Jim Cantorie nightmares.  As I waited for the storm to pass it only intensified.  It looked like it had stalled right at the intersection of these two bodies of water...and it just sat there getting angrier and angrier by the minute.  It almost seemed like it took it personal that I had blown it off as "just another rain shower" and was now summoning something big to show me just how wrong I was.  

As sunset approached, the storm intensified and began throwing off huge...HUGE amounts of lightning.  

I was in a metal fishing boat, filled with graphite rods and I did not want to be the only thing in the middle of the lake in that type of lightning storm.  

Thanks to modern technology, I called my father in law for a radar update.  He said that if I gave it about 30 minutes the worst should be past me.  Comforted by that report, I took shelter in a cove and fished for another 30 minutes, which put the time right at dark, then called for another update.  

There was still a lot of lightning in the area so I wasn't terribly hopeful.  He said that based solely on radar, it looked like the ONLY opening I would have for the next several hours was right then.  He said that I might be able to make it back to the ramp between storms, but to be cautious as the situation on the ground might not be what it looks from the radar. 

Armed with that info I decided to make a run for it.  I didn't want any part of what was about to happen.  It was dark, there was a small break in the storms in my way, and I now had a 7 mile run to get to my truck.  

I motored out of the protected cove in which I had taken shelter earlier, and made for the main channel.  I don't think I made it a quarter of a mile before I realized it was a death sentence to continue.  Huge lightning was everywhere.  Some of it lit up large sections of the sky, it danced back and forth inside massive storm clouds, it slammed down to earth in giant white was horrendous.  Every time a big bolt flashed I lost my night vision and it took a second or two to get it back.  After a few hundred yards of this I realized that while there may be a break in the rain...there was no break in the lightning...there was no way I was going to chance running through this weather to try to make it to the truck.  About the time I'm thinking this, another bolt flashed directly off my bow and blinded me, I'm doing about 20 MPH and when my vision comes back it's filled with something big...right in front of me!  I was about to hit something.  I had just enough time to duck and brace for the impact when this towering mass went right over me.  It was birds...a huge flock of white birds had lifted off the water right in front of me.  Holy crap! I couldn't believe it.  That was the exclamation point on my earlier decision.  

I killed the throttle on the spot because in addition to everything else, I realized amid this pandemonium that I had forgotten to rig my running lights.  The only thing that could make this situation any worse (aside from a giant sea creature attacking my boat) would be for me to be running around in this maelstrom with no lights.  I had been so pre-occupied with everything else that I had simply forgot to put them up.  As desperate as the situation felt at the moment with the water heaving, and lightning slashing, I stopped long enough to put those lights up...then I got back underway.

So after being blinded by lightning half a dozen times, giving a flock of birds the scare of their/my life, I turned the boat around and started back for the cove I was in earlier.  At that point I saw what looked like lightning hitting the water back at the cove.  The entire shoreline flashed with what looked like blue-electricity in the water.  It was looked absolutely evil.  I was totally disoriented at this point.  It's dark, the wind is howling, rain is spitting, the lightning has me surrounded and now appears to be striking the water over and over in the one place I know I can seek shelter. 

It took a few seconds to figure our what was going on.  The lightning wasn't hitting the water...what I was seeing was a world class optical illusion in some seriously difficult conditions.  

The west side of Bear Creek has a lot of sheer rock walls that plunge off the hills and drop vertically into the lake.  When the lightning behind me flashed, the intense light bounced off the rock walls that line Bear Creek and created a visual that looks like a long line of electricity in the water.  It was surreal.  It looked other-wordly.  I know it's difficult to picture so allow me to use an analogy.  Suppose you walked into your living room and saw a unicorn fighting Chuck Norris right there in front of your couch.  It would take you a few moments of stunned hesitation to put all of the various facts into place so you could tell exactly what you were looking at...that's where I was at this point.  

After a few minutes of hasty retreat I was motoring back into the sanctuary of my beloved cove.  I was on high alert at this point, it was extremely dangerous and every decision needed to be the right one.  Just then my iPhone unexpectedly adds to the chaos with an incredible squawking...BAAAHHH...BAHHHH....BAAAHHHH!!! Flash flood and severe weather alerts are now joining the chorus of lightning, wind,rain, and thunder.  It...was...chaos. 

Once I got back into the cove I had good shelter from the wind and there was no rain in that location.  I decided I'd just pitch my tent and spend the night right there.  It would dangerous to camp here, but to try to make it to the truck in this weather would be suicidal.  

I got a nice campfire going, set up my tent, and then with a huge sigh of relief and a "thank GOD that is over" I looked north and marveled at the lightning show.  I was at the base of a huge ridge that would keep the wind off me, and I pulled the boat up on the protected side of the gravel bar that forms the mouth of the matter what the wind couldn't affect me.  

The fire was now roaring, and I started making dinner with my Jetboil stove.  I was bent down over the stove when I heard it.  It sounded like the fabric of the universe itself was ripping open right over me.  There was a sizzling, crackling, ripping sound that ended with a crash of thunder of unbelievable volume...if God has a shotgun...that's what it would sound like.  I about jumped out of my rain jacket.  

I thought the storm was going to stay to my north on the main river, but it had shifted a bit south.  Rain now began to hit the campfire.  No big deal, it's a good fire, and a light rain, I'll just get in the tent until it passes.  Then the rain got heavier.  The fire went out.  The tent began to leak.  The boat was filling with water.  And I was stuck in the most God Awful lightning storm I have ever experienced.  Natures fury had come to visit.

I checked my iPhone for the radar update and I thought it was broken because I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.  I thought there was one small storm to deal with...but my phone was showing a huge line of red and yellow with flood warning boxes and severe thunderstorm boxes laid over the radar.  This storm system was over 150 miles long and all of it was lined up to slowly crawl right over the top of my position.  If the radar was right, I was about to get a multi-hour beat down of biblical proportions, with only a leaky tent for shelter.  

radar by scarfam, on Flickr
I was now officially stuck.  All I could do was hunker down and hope I didn't get hit.  For the next four hours there was not a 5 second time frame that didn't have lightning.  It was striking close and loud, every three to five seconds for hours on end.  The thunder boomed longer than anything I've ever heard, many of the booms rolled on for longer than 30 seconds.  At some point I sent a text to a friend that said simply "this has to be what Hell sounds like."

At some point I laid my goretex jacket in between the rain fly and the tent to reduce the leaking...and that worked like a charm.  It was  one of the few actions I could take to improve my position, but it made a huge difference mentally.  

For the next few hours I sat in the tent sending texts to update my situation with friends and family.  A hunting buddy from Idaho cleverly began sending me music videos with appropriate themes.  First came Eddie Rabbit's "I love a rainy night."  In between thunderous crashes just outside my tent one might have been able to hear me laughing.  His texts were a huge boost to morale.  

Adding to the fun was that I don't have an automatic bilge pump on my boat.  So every now and again I had to go out in the storm and turn on the pump to keep the boat from sinking...and make no mistake...this storm was sinking the boat if I didn't run the pump.  The last thing I did before trying to get some sleep was to set an alarm to go off every hour all night so I could get up and go run the bilge pump.  

The weather updates from the family kept me apprised of the storms track and intensity.  It was nice to know when I was about to get a break in the chaos.

Sometime after midnight the storm let up enough that I was able to pack up and head to the truck.  When I finally got underway it was really peaceful.  The water was smooth, the air was cool, and I watched the storm raging over the ridges to my south.  I knew exactly what those folks were dealing with because I had just been pounded by it for hours.  

Interestingly, way out there in the middle of the channel...the air was tinged heavily with the scent of pine.  I spend a ton of time on that river and I've never experienced that before.  My only guess is that so many trees got hit by lightning, or broken by the wind that the whole county smelled like Pine-Sol.

The next morning I found out that the piece of ground right across the creek from me got pummeled with hail, as did a few places just north of me (1 to 1.75 inch hail)...the hail missed me by maybe half a mile.  Last night was the loudest and unfortunately, the most dangerous night I've ever spent outdoors.  Had I had a way to avoid it I would have, but I got caught off guard and had to make the best of a bad set of cards.  

I pulled in to the safety of the harbor around 12:20 AM under a light rain that gave no clue of the intensity of what had happened over the previous hours.  

That marks the first time in my life I was happy to get off the lake.  It could have been pouring down rain at that point and I wouldn't have cared...nothing could compare to the beating I had just taken...everything else was pleasurable by comparison.

A few minutes later I pointed my truck west and began my 100 mile crawl through more thunderstorms, flash floods, downed limbs, lightning, fog, and fatigue.  I crawled into bed at home around 3:30 AM.  

My wife laughed when I finally got home and all I had to say about it was that I need to upgrade my tent.

The video below is from the initial (and very unsuccessful) run I tried to make back to the truck.  These were the best conditions I had for most of the night.  After I shot this it got so bad i had do take shelter in the tent for about 4 hours.  The video was shot with an iPhone…at night…so maximize your screen size…and it helps if you watch it in a low light environment…then it’s almost like being there.  


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Arms, Ammo, and Accuracy

In the entire world of guns I doubt any arm is as picky about it’s ammunition as is an air gun.  Any centerfire rifle I own (and I own a bunch) will shoot acceptably with any off the shelf ammo I buy.  Any centerfire pistol will do the same.  I’d be willing to wager that if we drove to Fort Sill Oklahoma and asked the artillery units if their Howitzers were picky about ammo they’d give us a resounding “no.”  Heck...I bet even Apache attack helicopters can be fed any 30mm ammo in the supply chain and it will work just fine.  Ever heard an M1A1 tank crew complain that “these 105mm shells won’t group worth a flip.” haven’t.  Perhaps because they don’t need groups of 105’ usually does the trick...but I digress.  

When it comes to air guns’s a very different deal.  

How many people have come home with a new air gun and a tin of pellets only to be disappointed when the gun pukes atrocious groups all over the paper at 10 or 15 yards.  Heaven forbid they step it out to 20 or 25 yards.  

The natural human reaction at this point is to blame the gun.  “Man, what a piece of junk!” they might say.  Many will return the gun to the store, swearing to never buy that brand again.  Others will keep it and just cuss it as long as they own it.  A much smaller group though will see this poor performance for what it generally is...the first step in your search for the holy grail...the perfect pellet for your particular gun!

Allow me to ask you a personal question...did you find your wife on the first date with a girl that you ever had?  Almost universally the answer to that question is “no”.  You didn’t find your perfect mate on the first random cast you took.  It probably took a whole lot of tries before  you found “the one.”

So it generally goes with finding the perfect mate for your air gun.  Guns can be picky about which pellets you match them up with.  Some guns like light pellets, others heavy, still other prefer a certain shape above all else.  The  first thing you need to understand is that you’ll have to experiment with different pellets before you find the right one for your gun.  The odds of you printing excellent groups with the first random pellet you buy at the store are pretty slim.  When you buy your new air gun, accept the fact that there will be some trial and error experimentation to find the right ammo.  Heck...embrace get to shoot a whole bunch for cheap!  

Many guns that are declared garbage, or junk, or even worse by their owners, could be absolute tack drivers once the proper pellet is found.  I’m not kidding you when I say that a gun can look defective based on the patterns it throws with one ammo, and look like a highly tuned and accurized machine with another pellet.

When you buy a new air gun, commit to trying a half dozen or more pellets to see what it likes the best.  Several manufacturers sell “sampler” packets that contain a small variety of pellets in one box.  This allows you to minimize the expense of your search.  It’s no fun buying 500 of one type of pellet only to find out that it’s not “the one” after firing the first 10 rounds...leaving you with 490 pellets you won’t use.

I had always heard this advice and I knew in theory that it was probably true...but eventually I had my turn at bat.  I got a gun that didn’t shoot right.  At 25 yards the gun was all over the 5.5 inch target...heck sometimes it didn’t even hit the target.  Not to worry though...I know about sampler packets and I was convinced I’d have the problem solved in short order.

I first went through a 4 pellet sampler from Crosman.  Nothing printed well.  That was surprising, I figured one of those would easily print good groups as I’ve always had good luck with Crosman Premiers.  Oh well, off to the next sampler...this one from RWS.  I went through perhaps 5 or 6 more pellets...with no luck.  The patterns were terrible through the gun.  I had yet another sampler packet, this one from H&N.  History has proven to me that of all the pellets in the world...the H&N Baracuda should print a respectable group for me...and it didn’t even come close.  All told I went through 18 different pellets of various makes, shapes, and weights...and I hadn’t found a single pellet that the gun could shoot well.  

Most people would’ve given up on the first or second pellet.  Many more would’ve given up by the sixth.  Not many would’ve stuck around til the tenth.  But my goodness...what type of fool would stick around til the eighteenth pellet?!?!  A man possessed with a burning desire to find the truth, that’s who.

At first it looked like I had exhausted all of my options.  The pellet list looked like an all-star lineup of great pellets...I used nothing buy high quality ammo from a wide range of manufacturers.  However...looks can be deceiving.  With a little help from a friend I learned that I had not really covered as much ground in my testing as I had previously thought.  All of those 18 pellets had one thing in common...they all had a head size of 5.50 mm.  My friend suggested that I try a different head size.  

Many shooters don’t realize that not all .22 caliber pellets are the same diameter.  You can get .22 pellets in a range of head sizes.  For example, you can log on to Pyramyd Air right now and find .22 pellets with head sizes that range from 5.50 to 5.55 mm.  

Air gun barrels aren’t all produced to exact specifications...there is always going to be some variance from barrel to barrel.  With this in mind I decided to make one final push in my bid for accuracy.  I ordered two more tins of with a 5.51 mm head size, and another with 5.53.  If these didn’t work I would take the gun apart, make a trip to Mordor, and do my best Bilbo Baggins impersonation by throwing the pieces into the Crack of Doom so the gun could never curse mankind again. 

The result however, was astounding.  After weeks of tinkering with this gun, weeks of frustration, weeks of research...the answer was plain to see.  The first group I shot with the 5.51 mm head size showed an almost unbelievable result.  My groups prior to this had ranged all over the paper...rarely putting more than 2 pellets touching, and frequently sending flyers off the target all together.  My first group of 5.51mm head size had all pellets touching in one ragged hole.  

I stood there in utter disbelief.  The answer had been air gun had found it’s mate for had found “the one.”

I wanted to stop right then, but I had an unopened tin of 5.53mm heads that I hadn’t shot...and if 5.51 tightened it up this much...I had to know what 5.53mm would do.

I loaded a magazine and began shooting.  The more I shot the more the group opened up.  It appears that 5.51 (and maybe 5.52) was the ticket.  I know that 5.50 and 5.53 are the boundaries for this gun.  The groups you see in this article prove that.  Now that I know the head size constraint, I can start to play with shapes and weights inside these boundaries to see if I can dial it in any tighter.

If I had begun my testing by including various head sizes I’d have discovered this much sooner and with less wear-and-tear...but such is live and you learn. 

So the lesson I hope to leave you with is that if your gun doesn’t shoot great with the first pellet you try...relax...that’s totally normal.  In fact you might not expect to see it shoot great groups until you’ve tried half a dozen or more.  Just stick with it, use sample packs and experimentation as your guides...they will lead you to “the one.”

All of the groups below were shot at 25 yards with the same gun, from the same rest, by the same shooter, in the same calm-wind conditions.  The ONLY variable in this process was the pellet.

8 shots with Baracuda Extreme 5.50 mm.  This is garbage.  It is a useless, random group of holes.

8 shots with Beeman Devestators 5.50 mm.  This doesn't inspire confidence.

8 shots with Baracuda Green 5.50 mm.  Closer...but no cigar.

8 shots with Baracuda 5.51 we have a group to start working with!!!

Just to be thorough, and 8 shot group of 5.53 mm head is opening back up.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

A warrior comes home

One of the first things I notice with each step is that I’m lighter.  The next is the solitude.  Normally at this time of day I’d have about 80 lbs. of gear weighing me down.  That type of load strains every joint and tendon in your body as it works with gravity to smush you between the gear and the ground.  All day in the unbearable heat you’d be under the strain of the weight and the mission.  Dozens of pounds of equipment riding on straps that move and rub and grind your sweat soaked clothes into your skin until it’s raw and chafed.  In a way it’s like being an 18th century some level war reduces you to a beast of burden.  

Today I’m lighter though, I’m home.  Gone is my kevlar helmet, which is basically a three and half pound weight that sat atop my head all day every day as if it was trying to make sure that not a single muscle in my body went unstrained.  The helmet exists as much to turn your neck into a painful burning knot as to protect your head.  Gone is my load bearing vest whose pockets carried essential but heavy gear all around my chest.  Gone are my rifle, my boots, my pack, and my body armor.  80 pounds of gear and an unmeasurable weight of mental stress has been lifted from me, most of it left someplace far away.  It’s been left somewhere far beyond the mountains that ring this valley and help block those memories from my mind.

It’s almost sunrise.  The air is cool and has a clean smell to it.  Not too long ago my mornings would be filled with heat, and fumes, the sounds of machines, and the feel of a third world, war-torn country.  Sometimes they’d be punctuated by the smell of gunpowder or explosives, or blood or worse.  But today I’m home.  The sounds are from the river softly gurgling past me, the clear melodic chirps of the birds flitting through the brush around me and my own footsteps softly landing on tranquil ground.  My only gear today is a light spinning rod and a very light pack with snacks and tackle.  No stress.

I have time today.  Time to think.  Time to relax.  Time to zone out if I want to and just let the river roll by me like time itself.  I don’t have to react.  I can sit.  I am safe.  I am quiet.  I am home.  

Too many days have been spent worrying about an IED strike taking lives like a random lottery of death where friends are here one moment, and literally gone the next second.  Today the only violent strike I’m worried about is from a trout.

The cool morning air has my left ankle throbbing.  It is a sharp, deep pain that comes and goes whenever it wants.  It feels like an ice pick being driven into the ankle by a hammer.  Over and over, bang...bang...bang.    It’s absent enough that when it returns it makes you flinch, but when it’s there it’s so familiar that you can deal with it like an old friend.  I look down every time it starts, as if I’ll be able to see something causing the pain.  I scan the horizon as the pain starts and I see the ridges on the eastern horizon that are fringed with a fierce yellow blaze as the sun climbs higher somewhere beyond them.  Bang...bang...bang, goes the hammer on my left ankle.  I take a moment to look down before I start casting.  My ankle is gone.  As is most of my left leg.  Gone in an instant after a bomb went off next to me two years ago.  In it’s place is now a cold, hard, metal prosthetic.  

The leg is no longer there.  The flesh, and bone, and nerves were turned to vapor in the hot, dry, dusty air in a desert on the other side of the world.  But the pain remains, it’s the one souvenir I brought home, and nobody can take it away from me.  It remains right there in the ankle that no longer exists.  Somewhere in my upper thigh, the severed and scarred nerve endings are sending a signal to my brain...and when my brain looks at the caller-ID, it sees that the call is coming from my ankle.  While the ankle is gone, most of the nerve line it used to use to “phone home” still remains.  So now when the hammering pain comes back, I look down and see a metal frame where my body used to be.  

WHHHHHOOOOOOSSSSSHH!!!  I drop down an inch out of reflex as a pair of ducks rocket right over my head and blast down the river.  They sound so much like a plane that I almost forgot where I was.  A smile crawls across my face as I realize...I’m home.  THAT is the type of adrenaline and excitement I miss.    

Laughing softly under my breath about those ducks I start to analyze the issue at hand.   Where to make my first cast?  The waters surface is still a dark green/gray as just enough light is trickling into the valley to begin reflecting the vegetation off it’s surface.  It’s a slow current, lazy and swirling.  It, like me, has no schedule to keep and seems in no particular hurry.  There are fish under the surface and my only mission now is to find them.

The river meanders through this valley and in it’s own way reminds me of a fortress.  This is where I come to heal, to be safe, to find peace.  I have a huge ring of defenses protecting me here.  As I look out from my riverside sanctuary I see low vegetation near the river leading to tall thick bushes.  Those in turn are bordered by tall stands of aspen and firs.  The trees rise as the earth heaves upward into an endless series of rolling foothills.  The tree covered hills ultimately give way to the most intimidating series of rocky defenses on the planet...jagged, treeless, boulder strewn peaks that top out at 14,000 feet.  This spot is so remote and well defended that even the bad memories have a hard time finding me.  I smile as I look at the thousands of acres of layered defenses that surround me...this is indeed my fortress.

The earth is damp and soft under my right boot, I can feel the ground with the foot I still have.  It’s damp but not slippery, it’s just right.  Slender reeds and vegetation rise from the damp bank all around me and I can see the slightest hint of my breath on the cool air.

The river bank here is shallow, offering sure footing for this one-legged angler.  The water is only a foot or so below my feet, and the river is only 20 yards wide here with a scattering of rocks and logs that offer the fish some premiere ambush sites.  A quick glance to the eastern ridges hurts my eyes, the sun is almost above them now and will soon burn the darkness off this valley floor.  

My first cast is up current of a small log on the far bank.  The log looks soft and dark, like it’s been in this water for 100 years.   Dark, swirling water slowly swarms around it leaving only traces of current on the surface as clues of it’s path.  The mud on the bank beyond is rich and dark with slender green plants growing from it and providing perfect cover for the small frogs that hunt here as well.  

My right arm comes back fluidly, loading the rod with energy.  Casting nowadays is different.  Throwing heavier tackle with long hard casts is difficult for a right handed fisherman who is missing his left leg.  The left leg is needed to help rotate your hips and generate power for the forward stroke of the cast.  But today I’m casting light gear on light line and I can get all the power I need just out of my shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand.  And so I throw.  

In the still air of the valley I can hear the rod whip past my head, then hear the float cutting through the air until is softly “kerplunks” into the water 25 yards across the river and to my right.  It’s a small bobber, barely enough to leave a splash.  When it touches down it is instantly under the command of the current.  After reeling up the slack I can feel the current through the’s the one thing that connects us.  Slowly the river and I get a feel for each other as we both have a hand on this float.  It slips toward me one moment, then steadily eases away the next as the current curls toward the log on the far side.  

I watch intently, but I’m profoundly relaxed as the bobber slowly rides the current downstream.  I might as well be a million miles away right now.  If a bear chewed off my good leg I might not even notice...I’m that relaxed.  

The slack water behind the log pulls the bobber in like a doe gathering up one of her fawns.  It’s smooth and natural.  The bobber lazily rides a small circular path in the slack water, effectively advertising an easy meal for any trout that might be hiding here.  I watch for any sign of a twitch...but it simply circles on top of the water like a floating feather.  

The anticipation builds as the bobber looks to break out of it’s orbit behind the log and rejoin the main river flow.  Just as that peaceful little float drifts past the jagged end of the log it gets snatched under so violently that my heart stops for half a beat.  In that fraction of a heartbeat, the bobber is gone, my line is taught, and i snatch back on the rod.  

I’m hooked up solid, but the only visual I have is my line slicing through the water with a life of it’s own.  As the tension builds on the rod, the line races back behind the log then just when it looks like it will run out of water it turns and makes a slicing arc for deeper haunts.  The fish is strong, pulling not only my line but also overcoming the friction of that bobber that its dragging around behind it.  

My only thoughts are of the line, which direction it’s slicing, and keeping the tension on.   As it races toward the middle of the river I have to reel quickly to keep the slack out of the line.  The bow of the rod is getting less, the fish is gaining ground on me.  Faster I reel and I feel the tension come back.  Now he darts left and barrels downstream, using the current to pick up speed.  My line again is the only sight I have to track him.  He feels strong, sending the raw energy of the fight up through the line to the rod in my hand.  As I ride the tactile sensation of the fight I wonder for a moment if he can feel me the same way.  Can he feel the trembling in my hands?  Can he feel the unsteady jerk as I rebalance on a prosthetic leg?  Can he feel my heart racing?  All of this happens in a blur.  

He reaches the limit of downstream travel that he’s going to get.  The drag remains silent, he’s not strong enough to steal any line from me.  His arc now curves toward my bank on the downstream side and he’s almost out of room to maneuver.  Now I’m getting glimpses of a long slender fish. Glistening spotted gold.   A flash of red.  Small but violent...a natural predator.  I gently reel him to the bank in front of me, slip a net in front of him, and lift him from his environment to mine.  

Standing here, staring at this fish, I’m still a world away.  I am totally immersed in the present.  The past is gone, the future will have it’s time, but mine.  I’m alive. I’m free.  I’m home.  And I’m having the time of my life.  After a moment the fish has seared it’s image into my gray matter and I release him back to the ever flowing river.  In a way he too is anchored in the present.  The water that held him just moments ago is gone...downriver forever...never to be felt or tasted again.  More water is flowing to him so the future will take care of itself...but for now he is in this water...and he lives for it alone.  The landscape changes constantly, but he takes it as it comes.  I log that as a lesson to ponder as I look to the west.  

The sun has lit the slopes to my west with a clear golden light that almost makes you forget how cold those rocks must be to the touch.  Again my mind wanders, but here it has time to wander, it’s not a distraction, it’s part of why I’m here at all.  If I stare at those slopes for an hour I’m fine with that.  

I stand there on the bank, rod in hand, sun warming me in the mid-morning light, and my mind drifts away.  It’s begun a process that’s so familiar...playing back memories as if trying to sort them into the right bin.  My brain reliving them so vividly that it’s like watching a movie, all while my body remains still.  If you walked up on me like this you might ask “what’s wrong?”  or “Is everything alright?”  That’s what most people do...and then I snap out of it, shrug it off, and get back to doing something else without really giving my mind the time it needed to finish what it started.  Out here I have the time.  Out here there are no interruptions.  Out here I can work through it.

I’ve been around the world.  I’ve saved peoples lives and taken them as well.  I’ve seen war and evil, as well as peace and kindness.  I’ve seen men risk, and sometimes lose, their lives to save a friend (and sometimes even a stranger).  I’ve looked dying children in the eye and thought that if I held them tight enough I could keep death from taking them.  I’ve seen so many broken and shattered bodies that sometimes it’s all I can think about.  Deep down inside it makes me tired.  It’s not just a physical soul is tired.  So tired that many times all I can do is sit and stare blankly, my body unable to do much while my brain tries to sort all this pain into the right box where it can be sealed up and stored away, hopefully forever.

Another flight of those ducks buzzes me and snaps me out of my trance...away from the mountains and memories.  Another smiles crawls across my face as I is my birthday...I just turned 21.

My ankle bangs a few more times as I adjust my weight for the next cast.  I’ve got all day and I feel light and at ease.

The weight never leaves for good, but being out here lets me get out from under it for a while.  It’s the only thing that works.  

**this was written to honor those who have served our country.  It is not the story of one man...but of many.  Thanks to all who have served...and if you have a boat...take a veteran fishing.