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Thursday, September 29, 2011

I took off early today and went to the lake by myself.  There is a BFL tournament on the lake this weekend so I figured I'd get my fishing in today before it turned into a mad house. 

As soon as I put in I could see baitfish jumping everywhere...looks like the fall pattern has started...fish are hunting in the coves and creeks...this should be great. 

A fish hit topwater right next to my boat while i was at the fuel dock...a great sign...this was gonna be the best day ever.

I started throwing a spinner bait and running it through schools of baitfish that seemed to be everywhere.  I got no action.  Then I threw a buzzbait, then a crankbait, all for naught.  I got no action.  I fished the coves near the marina first, then I fished a wind swept point, then I fished a rock bluff, fish were busting everywhere but I couldn't get anything, anywhere, anyhow to bite. 

Finally I made it out the main part of the creek.  The wind was blowing way harder than forecast and I could see that as soon as I got around this point that I'd have my hands full trying to control the boat.  I enjoyed life in the calm water as long as I could.

This area is a big gravel point and I was throwing a jig with a craw trailer...nothing.  i rounded the point and got into the wind and I started throwing a crankbait...my all time lucky "everything in the lake eats this type of fish" crankbait.  After 5 minutes of getting the stuffing knocked out of me I started to decide that I was going to leave early...this was an exercise in boat control...not fishing. 

About that time I felt something try to take my crankbait...it missed...but it gave me some hope that I wouldn't get skunked.  I was seriously thinking of selling my boat at this point.

After getting struck I thought to my self "what would the guys at Ultimate Bass Forum do?"

And I thought...they'd slow down and work the area.  So I broke out the jig with a craw trailer and I tried to maintain a feel for the bottom while wind blew me every-which-way-but-loose.

After a few casts I felt something "different" so I set the hook.  Twenty seconds later I had a 2.5 lb spotted bass in the boat.  Cool...at least I won't be skunked.  I started working the area methodically and I really started plotting to get one of those trolling motors with "spot lock".  I can't stand fishing like this...I spend more time trying not to fall out of the boat and trying to keep the boat positioned than I do fishing...I'd be better off hiring a dedicated boat driver.

i'm reallly thinking about going home at this point...I have to be up early and it's crappy on the lake and i have every reason in the world to bail.  Moments later the wind died down and I regained control of the boat.  I decided to work over the gravelly point one more time before going home. 

I broke out my lucky crankbait and I threw to the spot where the gravel peninsula disappeared with water on both sides.  The crankbait landed in shallow water and I could immediately feel the grating of it working into the gravel when THUMP.  Within two turns of the reel something hit me.  It felt heavy...about the time I was deciding if it was a catfish or a drum a fat largemouth breached the surface in a violent fit trying to shake the lure. 

I transitioned immediately from a frustrated dude that wanted to sell his boat to a pacing, praying, cursing, talking-to-himself maniac muttering things like "OMG it's a hog" and "$&#(# I wish I had the net." and "OMG he's gonna break my line...he's a pig...he's a hog" and on and on it went.

The fish breached one more time on the way back and I was shocked at how much water this thing threw when it busted up top...if you air dropped a cinder block into the lake it couldn't have made more of a splash.  I'm guessing a tsunami alert was issued for the other side of the lake but at that point I had my hands full and couldn't worry about it.

At one point I thought he got off...but he had merely been swimming toward me...despite all the rucus he wasn't fighting much.  Then I got a look at him...and he got a look at the boat...the klaxon went off and it was DIVE!  DIVE!  DIVE!!

This was a nice fish...I was really worried about losing him.  I could see i had the treble in the corner of his mouth good, and he had tried to shake it twice so I was sure he wouldn't come unhooked...but the line was the weak link.  When had I last retied?  Were there any knicks in the line last time I checked it?  OMG I should have retied!  How stupid am I for not retying?  ARGH!

He was stripping drag from my reel like crackheads taking copper from an abandoned house.  It was unreal.  Now I'm praying...PRAYING that my line doesn't break.  He might have had 10 feet of line to play with and when I'd get him near the boat....WHOOOSH!  He'd dive under it and take another 8 feet.  I must have brought him out from under the boat four times before he'd tired himself out enough that I could get a hand on him.

Ultimately the line held, the hooks kept their grip, and I landed my personal best largemouth.  And to think I was seriously considering going home early and selling my boat just 10 minutes earlier.

I took a pic, let him go, retied, recast, and BAM!  Another very nice largemouth from the same area.  I was laughing out loud now...all by myself in the middle of the lake just having a ball.  This one got all the way back to the boat and shook the hook....I didn't care...I was having too good a time. 

I'm done fishing for the weekend...but man what a trip.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

This weekend I took a ride on one of the fastest climbing special purpose planes in the country.  This plane has been outfitted with twin 750 horsepower engines and can take a full passenger load of 14 people up to 14,500 feet in seven minutes…which it did…and then we all jumped.  This was the first time I’ve ever not landed with the plane that I took off with. 

Good morning
It was 8:00 AM, I’d had one cup of coffee, and I was gearing up in my flight suit and harness.  I wanted to get the first jump of the day and this was it…we’d leave in roughly 10 minutes.  I was staring out the front window while an instructor tugged on straps and made adjustments to my gear…and I noticed the strangest thing…a hearse was pulling up out front.  I just love an ironic twist and this one got me howling.  No kidding…a hearse…this was a FULL SERVICE flight school.  If the jump goes well you get a video…and if it doesn’t…well we have a coroner waiting on you.  As it turns out the county coroner IS a regular here and another member used to sell hearses and the owner thought it would be great advertising to have one with his skydiving business logo on it. 
As I walked out to the Super King Air that would take me up my wife said I’ll see you in a few minutes and I said “yeah…I’ll be in the hearse if you’re looking for me.”
The Super King Air sounds pretty swanky.  I was picturing something like a G5 jet rigged up with nice leather, a kicking sound system, and maybe a small wet bar.  No.  We had a 5 step padded ladder that led to a sleek looking prop driven aircraft with no seats, a plywood floor, and a sliding plexi-glass door.   I guess the thought is why bother with luxury since nobody will be on this thing very long?  It’s a race car not a touring car.

It is worth noting at this juncture that it takes 80 seconds for the human body to fall to the ground from 14,500 feet.  We would free fall for 60 seconds and then pull the cord. 

My advice if you’re thinking about this
Make your commitment to jump before you go…certainly before you get in the plane, because there is nothing you will see from the open doorway at 15,000 feet that will give you any peace if you are unsure you want to do this.  It is a yawning expanse of risk…seemingly uncontrollable risk.  It is high, it is fast, and it is insanity to be anywhere near that door, much less be looking out it with thoughts of leaping.
If you get to the door and leap there is no going back and you’ll get the ride of your life.  If you decide not to jump and want to stay on the plane you need to know this…from what I saw of the planes return trip…you’d rather jump than remain a passenger.  I saw the plane on the way down… he passed us (keep in mind the direction I was going at the time.)  After we jumped he pushed it hard over and dove for the deck nose-first, leveled off, turned and landed about 4 minutes before I got back to earth. 
The plan
When you pitch yourself out the door your first job is to arch back.  You thrust your pelvis out and pull your shoulders and feet back.  This position allows your body to stabilize into a controlled fall…it’s tempting to say “flight” but that is the furthest thing from what’s going on at this point.  I think the arch maneuver might also have some physiological effect that keeps certain bodily functions from happening involuntarily…but this is just my guess.  This is gravity in its most raw state…it only does one thing…pull things back to earth.  It doesn’t care if you are 4 feet or fourteen thousand feet up, and it doesn’t care if you are wearing a parachute or not.  Gravity’s only job is to get you back to earth and it is going to execute that task with ruthless and unblinking efficiency.  It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t hurt.
I can’t tell you how many miles I’ve run to the old cadence “Stand up buckle up and shuffle to the door, jump right out and shout MARINE CORPS!, If my ‘chute don’t open wide, I’ve got another one by my side, and if that chute don’t open round, I’LL BE THE FIRST ONE TO HIT THE GROUND!”
That’s all good and motivating…but we always ran…and we never actually jumped.  Today I was actually jumping.    
Going up
We piled into the aircraft all facing back toward the tail.  There are no seats in this plane.  There is a bench up front where the co-pilot would be (another strange thing…only one pilot…think about it) that accommodates two people for a tandem jump and the rest of the cabin is basically a plywood floor.  At the rear there is a seat for the camera man.  A quick glance at the cockpit controls made me thankful that I was wearing a parachute…and I began wondering why the pilot wasn’t.  I expected to see the latest state-of-the-art glass cockpit with cool digital readouts and color screens.  What I saw instead was the same old grey sheet metal with crude toggle switches that I saw in old airplanes from my youth.  The rest of the passengers sit on the floor with their backs to the pilot in two casual but orderly rows.  They sit on their butts with the guy in front of them between their legs…two neat rows of parachute laden bodies all sitting in a leaning back position waiting for the “go” sign.

On the side of the plane near the back there is a clear Plexiglass door that slides up and down.  It is closed at the moment but in seven minutes time it will be our portal to destiny.  We taxi out without any fanfare.  I look around the plane and it’s just cool to see everyone decked out in their skydiving gear, everyone waiting for the short flight “up top” so we can do what we came to do.  It FEELS important.
As I looked around the cabin I saw a bunch of folks that could just as easily have been waiting in line for a $4 latte at Starbucks…but instead they were waiting to jump out of a plane from 14,500 feet.   There were no nerves showing anywhere.   The only person I saw that might have had a little bit of hand-shaking was a guy doing his first solo free fall jump.  He’d have an instructor holding his harness as he left but after they got him stabile he’d be on his own.  Even he didn’t appear nervous…nor was I.  I knew what was about to happen.  The door would open and I’d go out it…no questions in my mind. 
Apart from the mood of the cabin you also have to consider the mechanics involved in getting everyone up and out.  You might imagine that it would be difficult to get from a seated position where you are leaning backward with a 50 pound pack to a kneeling, and then standing position.  It is difficult…so they have a procedure that helps with this transition. 
You know the scary turbulence you sometimes get on commercial flights where people get bumped up out of their seats and they start getting nervous and chatty and the captain tells everyone to stay seated with their belt buckled and they put the drink cart away?  In skydiving it’s kind of the opposite.  When we hit our 14,500 foot altitude the captain puts us in a negative G maneuver that floats everyone off the floor for a moment or two so they can get their legs under them and prepare to stand.  Turbulence here is the sign to get out of your seat, roam around the cabin, and then ultimately jump out…this plane doesn’t even have a drink cart.
On top
After a short seven minute ride that took us higher and higher over the bean fields and woods that surround the airstrip I feel the negative G maneuver and I see everyone in front of me float off the floor as if they are in outer space.  Everyone floats for two seconds, there is some shouting as commands are given to open the door and prepare to jump.  This is it…it’s time…no going back. 
The Plexiglas door gets slammed upward and out of the way and its show time.  Folks that are jumping as a group are now fist bumping and slapping fives with their partners in a “good luck, see you on the ground, and if you die I get your gear” type of gesture.  The first group gets up, grabs the door frame, heaves once, twice, and BOOM they are gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where they once stood.  
The thought came to me “Wow…those guys just jumped from a plane...they really did it…they are really gone…this is the real deal…and I think it’s gonna be awesome.”  The next jumper stands in the doorway and visually starts counting to five on one hand.  Once five seconds of separation has been achieved from the previous jumpers he is clear to go…five seconds goes by very quickly when it’s almost your turn to jump from an aircraft.  BOOM….he’s gone.   There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where he once stood.  One more group and then I’m up. 
Mr. Solo Jumper is now in the door.  One instructor is on the outside of the aircraft facing as if he is going to walk back on board…he is holding a rail above the door to keep him on the plane.  Underneath his butt is 15,000 feet of thin air.  He has just his toes on the door jamb.  Normally this would be a precarious position but he hasn’t a care in the world.  He has his other hand on Mr. Solo.  The other instructor is behind him.  Five seconds later, BOOM…they are gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent air where they once stood.  Now the only thing between me and the earth is an empty door and a gut-check. 
Stand up buckle up and shuffle to the door…
I’m shuffling toward the door now, hand on the fuselage to steady myself…I can “see” the abyss.  It’s a clear day but it looks a little hazy…might be my goggles…who knows…focus.  As I take my place in the doorway I’m going over procedures in my mind.  The last thing I want to do is commit a rookie mistake.  There can be no choking under pressure.  Cross my arms on exit, arch, wait for it to stabilize, when he bangs my shoulders the arms come out….look at the camera man…show off some…and enjoy the ride down.
My camera man is already hanging on the outside of the plane like some evil super-hero in the movies.  Who could hang out an open aircraft door like a spider at this height, at this speed, with only one hand and one foot?  No time to ponder it…I smile for the camera, take my spot in the door, we heave once (oh my God), heave twice (this is it), and BOOM…we’re gone.  There is nothing but thin, cold, turbulent wind where the old Steve once stood.  I say “old Steve” because the second I left that aircraft a “new Steve” was born.  The new Steve has jumped from an aircraft at 14,500 feet.  This is some real James Bond type stuff…the only thing that could make this cooler is if I landed in a speeding Aston Martin convertible, drove to the casino, won a bunch of money at Roulette and then killed a Russian spy.  Maybe that’s on tap for the next course. 
I briefly remember seeing the wing tip of the aircraft out of the right corner of my eye…that’s when I knew I had done it.  No two ways about it…the aircraft I got up here in is leaving without me…I am now skydiving.  There is literally no going back now…this is the definition of “commitment”.    
What’s it like?
Words can’t really describe the sensation of jumping.  It’s not like “falling”.  Falling is what you do off a ladder and you think “oh no this is going to hurt and I might break an arm”.  When you “fall” you usually hit before you can even manage to say that much.  This is much different than falling.  I’m not sure if there is a world that accurately describes it…maybe that’s why they made up the word skydiving. 
Here you are thinking “OMG I am REALLY going fast and if this doesn’t work I am going to die badly…but they won’t have to bury me ‘cause I’m going to do a good job of that myself in about 80 seconds if this doesn’t go right.”
Throwing yourself out that door is a completely un-natural experience.  Some truths are so deeply ingrained in our gray matter that they are almost instinctual.  Jumping off stuff is one of those things.  Everyone knows that if you jump, don’t jump from something too high, and don’t ever land in a belly flop.  You are now forcing your brain to shut up and watch as you both jump from something very high and use the aforementioned belly-flop technique. 
The first thing you need to come to grips with when you jump is the new reality that you will not be landing with the plane that got you here…it’s gone.  Next is the exhilaration of free fall, followed by the view, the speed, the thrill, the view, the speed, the thrill….it’s awesome.  You simply cannot beat the feeling of free fall.  Nothing on earth compares to it.  Maybe if you could ride a cheetah on top of a moving bullet train you could get close…but it still wouldn’t be the same. 
The next thing I remember is the view…you can see everything from up here…there is almost too much to look at.  Then the camera man floats up underneath me…this guy is falling backwards at 130 MPH and filming up at me…from about 6 feet away…talk about surreal.  I actually tried to crack a joke with him but there was no way for him to hear me…what a rookie…cracking jokes in free fall.  After a few moments my tandem instructor smacks my shoulders to give me the all clear, I uncross my arms and assume the free fall position.  We are now officially less likely to die.  I didn’t expect it to be so fast, or so smooth, or so loud.  When you are falling at 130 miles per hour the wind absolutely roars and your face gets pushed into funny shapes.  They also told me that it would likely be around or slightly below freezing up top…if it was I never felt it.  I guess your brain ignores the thermostat when all the other warning lights are going off at the same time…its crisis management at its simplest…survive first, then deal with the small stuff.
It felt like an hour had passed but in reality it was 60 seconds.  It was time to pull the cord.  The camera man was right in front of me when it happened.  One moment he was 5 feet in front of me and the next I felt a smooth but firm jolt and then he was about a mile below me and falling away fast.  I could not believe the rate of speed at which we separated.  It looked like he was a goner…no way you could fall that fast and not die.  Apparently this camera man is known for pulling low.  He beat a lot of people to the ground that went out the door before us. 
One thing that surprised me was that after 30 seconds or so I started to get a headache…it was a strange sensation and I was surprised that it was able to cut through the fog of exhilaration enough that I felt it at all…but it was bad and getting worse.  After we deployed the ‘chute I realized that my headache was actually an ear ache…we had just plunged 10,000 feet in a minute and my ears hadn’t adjusted yet.  I’d work on that one the rest of the day.
After the fall
Now we were gliding.  This works exactly as you think it does.  It’s a nice slow descent that you control with the two handles that hang down in front of you…so easy a caveman could do it. 
This is the portion of the jump where you can sit back and enjoy the view of the world (or if you’re scared this is the part where your nightmare transitions to slow motion and you have a looonnng time to worry if you’re going to die on this jump).  If there were a way to feel like a bird this would be it.  You simply glide through the air like a bird with outstretched wings.  Some people might fly like a big, noisy, screaming, crying bird but a bird none-the-less…maybe this is the origin of the term “chicken hawk”…whatever the case, I digress.  It’s very peaceful and it provides a perspective on the land that you otherwise might never get.  It’s also kind of cool to be able to see the top of a parachute…most people look up to see them but I was the last one out the door so I’m looking down at half a dozen of them.
As a bonus I got an extra bit of excitement on my first jump.   My instructor looked down below us at our camera man who had an open canopy but was way off course and heading further away in a straight line and asked “What’s he doing?  Is he….conscious?  Is he slumped over?”  My first thought was “man if he’s asking ME this stuff then that guy must really be in trouble.”
I told him it did look like he was slumped over and I asked him if he had a radio.  He said he didn’t and that he had no way to tell anyone what was going on.  Our man drifted over one field and set of woods and then the next.  We watched helplessly and with great concern for what seemed an eternity and then the canopy turned and he headed back toward the landing zone. 
My instructor said “I guess he came to.”  As it turns out he never lost consciousness…he said he was good the whole time.  It reinforced the stakes involved. 
When we hit the ground I was already plotting my next jump.  If time allows I’d love to go back for the Accelerated Free Fall course…the tandem was a nice intro but there’s nothing like doing it yourself. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I had dinner in Idaho tonight

Most nights when you sit down to dinner you do so in your kitchen and enjoy the normal sights, sounds, and smells that you call “home”.  When you are a hunter you never eat dinner without being transported for at least a few moments back to the field.  Your mind goes back to the source of the meal.  I’ve never taken venison back-strap out of the freezer without thinking of that animal and how I took it as I prepared the meal. 
Usually this has my mind wandering to a cold, gray winter’s day in north-central Mississippi.  As I slice open the vacuum packed venison I can picture the view I had from the hasty ground blind I had assembled, or I can feel the strain in my legs as I slowly stalked an animal until I could get a shot.  This type of eating is way better than the stuff you buy at the store.  I’ve never, ever, opened a package of ground beef and had my mind transport me back to Aisle 5.  “So there I was…right between the pickles and the canned corn when I knew I had to make my move.  The butcher quartered away from me and before he could react I snatched up this cellophane wrapped rectangle of ground beef and I ran.”  Even if it did happen like that I wouldn’t be very excited about reliving it. 
I have a good friend in Idaho.  He’s like a redneck pen-pal of sorts.  We see each other every now and then but we talk and write a lot.  We both love to hunt and fish so there is no end to the stuff we can talk about.
My friend being the high tech redneck sort used a whole host of technological advances to transport me to the mountains of Idaho tonight.  I was sitting at work today when I got a package with the following inscribed upon it “Refrigerate” and “Perishable”.  If I hadn’t known better I might have thought he’d shipped me a few snowballs…or perhaps a six pack of local brew.
I tore this package open with the skill and care of a surgeon and the speed of a meth fueled cheetah.  What I saw when I lifted the lid was beyond belief.  No…it wasn’t six pounds of gold…it was better.  There were three vac packed items inside the box.  They were all neatly arranged and labeled, and they were all still very cold.  One was labeled “marinated antelope steaks”, the next “Elk Steaks” and the final package carried the words “cutthroat and rainbow”.  I’m getting giddy again just writing about this.
A quick word about the male emotional circuit is in order here.  Guys generally don’t get emotional.  We don’t cry at movies and we don’t sit around talking about our “feelings”…but when I saw these packages I was moved almost the point of tears…great big ol’ tears of joy and hunger.
I immediately placed this precious cargo in the refrigerator at work along with the keys to my truck.  Why did I put my truck keys in the fridge?  Because if I didn’t then I might leave work without these sacred packages…so I put my keys right on top of the elk steaks and I got back to work.
My friend was kind enough to shoot me some suggestions on how to prepare each of these treats and I was eager to get home and try them.  After a serious and deliberate bit of contemplation I decided that the elk steaks would be first.  When I got home I ran up to my wife and with all of the excitement and pride of a 5 year old showing off his first Matchbox car I showed her what I had received in the mail.  She started saying something but I blew right by her on my way to the charcoal and hoped she would understand.  I had a primal urge burning in me to get the charcoal lit.   
After I had the coals going I gently sliced open the package containing the elk steaks.  From this bag I removed four of the most beautiful cuts of meat I had ever laid eyes upon.  The first impression I got was just how big these steaks were.  They were big rectangular slabs of lean, moist, ruby-red elk steaks.  Even raw they smelled wonderful.  At this point I also had to hand it to my friend...this meat was obviously processed by someone who knew what they were doing and who cared.  The meat was in great shape with no “silver skin” as we call it in the south…this is essentially tendon attached to the outside of the meat and it creates a very tough and chewy texture if not removed.  My friend had done a masterful job of processing this animal.  His handy-work was now sitting on a dinner plate roughly 1,500 miles from where the animal fell. 
After preparing the steaks for the grill it was show time.  I placed the steaks on the grate about 4 inches above the coals and I prayed I wouldn’t mess this up.  I literally had one shot to make this work.  I had faith in my grill skills and I did what needed to be done.  While the meat was cooking I paced like a coyote outside a chicken house.  This meal could…not…be ready…soon enough.  During the time these were on the grill my dog had been keeping an even closer eye than usual on the grill so I had to watch to make sure he didn’t do something suicidal. 
I had to turn the steaks once or twice during the cycle and these were becoming the most perfectly plump, caramel colored, pieces of protein that have ever graced my grills surface.  15 minutes later the first steaks were ready. 
There was no ceremony, I simply walked in the back door, set the plate on the counter and with tremendous anticipation used my best knife to slice across the grain of this beautiful steaming chunk of meat.  The caramelized outer layer had bits of black charring around the edges that gave way to a thin layer of lighter brown just under the surface which in turn flowed to pink and then darker and moister shades of red as I approached the center of the cut.  Juices and steam flowed and danced in front of me in an irresistible show that beckoned me to partake of this meal.  Enchanting might be the best description.
I cut the first slice into two pieces…one for my wife and one for me.  I handed her the first piece and a moment after she began to chew her whole body slumped in an exaggerated display of relaxation, her eyes rolled back in her head and I kid you not…the first words out of her mouth were “When are you going elk hunting?!?” 
NOW I REALLY owe my buddy in Idaho..big time.  He just single-handedly got my wife to BEG ME to go elk hunting.  This guy is a genius.  This plan was so bold, so audacious, and so…diabolical that I never could have come up with it.  I never could have guessed that this would be the end result.  In my short sighted view of the world I thought I was just getting a really good meal….when all the while he was seeing the big picture, looking out for me, and casting in stone my ability to go elk hunting whenever I want…it’s unbelievable.
I think he has created an extension of the old phrase “give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime”. 
The new saying should go “Give a man some elk and you’ve taught his wife that him going elk hunting is a really, really good deal for the whole family not just for him because everyone loves elk meat and it’s really delicious and good for you too and it’s not just like he’s out there goofing around and playing cards in a cabin with the guys, he’s actually procuring the best meat on the planet for his family and that makes him a great provider and she’s glad she married him and if he gets an elk he doesn’t have to do any of the stuff on the honey-do list”. 
It’s a bit more “wordy” than the original phrase but I think it works.
My friend had told me that the elk would be the best meat I’ve ever had…period.  While I had heard many stories over the years proclaim the joys of elk meat…I had my doubts that it would be the best.  I’ve eaten in a lot of high falootin places in my time.  I’ve had five star French meals on Waikiki beach, and I’ve had Prime-Grade bone-in Rib eyes at some of the best steak houses in the world.  I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had some opportunities to really eat well. 
When that meat hit my mouth it was pure magic.  I want to say it “melted” in my mouth but that’s a bit cliché and I’m not sure it captures the true nature of the event.  That elk meat didn’t just melt in my mouth…it melted with my soul.  If it were ever possible to “become one” with a flavor…it happened right there in my kitchen.  The combination of texture, flavor, tenderness, juiciness, and several other “intangibles” all combined to do more than merely satisfy me.  They transported me.  I was no longer sitting at a dinner table in Memphis, TN...I had just sat down to dinner in Idaho.  I might as well have been standing amid sagebrush halfway up a draw in an Idaho canyon listening to the elk bugling and drawing deep cool lungful’s of mountain air scented with sage and pine and elk musk.  I am a loooooonnnng way from “Aisle 5” at this point. 
These are the things that make life..."LIFE"…and I am tremendously happy that my friend allowed me a small glimpse into his world through the joy of food.  I also owe him huge thanks for getting my wife to demand that I start elk hunting. 
I need to wrap this up…I actually am going fishing tomorrow.  And since I owe my buddy a favor in return maybe I can find a FedEx box big enough to put a big blue cat into.  Who knows…maybe it will make his wife demand that he starts jug fishing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Small mouth, big fight

Temperatures have dropped 10 to 15 degrees here in the last few days and it’s beginning to feel like fall.  Saturday morning was a beautiful morning on the lake.  I slipped away from the dock about 0530 into the cool foggy darkness well before any other boats arrived.  Shortly thereafter the sun began to rise and it turned the eastern horizon into one long streak of orange gold above the dark forested peaks that surround Pickwick Lake.   I took the time to stop what I was doing and watch as it crested the first peak…I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing that.  The bank on this part of the lake meanders back and forth from sheer rock wall dropping straight into 30 feet of water, to gravelly banks where a draw between the peaks empties into the lake.  This time of day the water is like glass and as you look down the bank you are awestruck by the beauty of it.  The rising sun is lighting up the cliff faces, and the mirror-like surface of the water is reflecting every boulder, branch, and cliff above it.  You essentially get the best view in the world…twice.

I was just easing my way down this bank  with my trolling motor and throwing a Rebel Pop R topwater plug.  Each time you tug on this lure it gives  “bloop” sound and spits some water…it basically acts like an injured baitfish on top.  For the first two hundred yards of this I kept catching bluegill.  They were nice sized bluegill but they were an annoyance at best.   Then I saw the shape of something more sinister in the water as I approached a gravel bar.  I threw the Pop R in there and let it sit.  I twitched it two or three times and it disappeared in a swirling motion and my line went tight.  The first decent fight of the day was now on.  A minute later I had a decent little smallmouth bass on board.  He fought hard, I thought for a moment that he only agreed to board my vessel so he could take some swings at me…there is no quit in this fish.  After a quick picture he went back to the gravel bar to pick on more injured fish, and I went back to easing down the bank. 

At the end of this particular section that I was working was a nice gravel bar at the mouth of a small creek.  It actually forms a really small harbor.  Its big enough that a lot of boats anchor behind the bar to hang out all day but if you get three big boats in there its getting kind of crowded.  The wind was beginning to blow but I’d been protected by the big cliffs and hills in front of me.  As I approached the gravel bar it was easy to see that the wind was blowing hard across it from behind, basically pushing a current out into the lake with the gravel bar forming a protected area on my side.  This should be perfect I figure.  The natural inclination is for the bass to push baitfish up on these bars in the morning and feed.  Now I have the added bonus of the wind making some current and pushing water out of the harbor behind it…this turns the gravel bar into a current break that can really stack some fish up as they wait to hammer bait coming by in the flow.

It looked like a good spot and I had nowhere to be so I started working it.  Working a topwater like this is really cool.  You get to see everything the bait is doing and when a fish hits it usually just swirls on the bait and it disappears, so you really have to focus on that lure.  As the sun rose behind me I tossed my Pop R into the water just off the gravel bar and began working it back to me.  Most of my strikes this morning had come within the first few feet of the retrieve so at some point I figure I’m in unproductive water and I reel it back in and cast again. 

After a few casts wasn't getting any action in the shallow water near the gravelly bank.  I decided to work the bait closer to the boat just to see if anything will hit in deeper water.  I popped the lure every few seconds, dragging it out into perhaps 12 feet of water.  "Hmmm.  Nothing."  My bait was about 10 feet from the boat and BAAAAMMMM!!!  The water in front of me exploded as if a bomb went off.  I could…not…believe it.  When the water quit raining down I could see that my Pop R was still on the water.  Whatever it was that had struck at my lure had missed it.  My brain was racing.  "DUDE!  How could anything produce a strike THAT violent and not get hooked by a lure that totes TWO treble hooks?!?!"

Now I’m thinking it might be a gar.  Gar are the ultimate trash fish…big with lots of sharp teeth but they don’t eat good and they waste a lot of time.  I decide to leave the lure in the water and just see if I can trick this gar into coming back for more.  I twitch the lure a time or two and try to make it look even more helpless.  After my third twitch the aggressor came back for the kill.  The lure disappeared in a big swirl and it was “game on”. 

This was a strong fish.  Much stronger than the last one.  This was a fish that was used to going wherever he decided to go…and it didn’t matter if there was a hook in his mouth.  After a minute of fighting I still hadn’t laid eyes on him so I figured I must have hooked a Drum.  They are notoriously hard fighters that love to go to the bottom.  A bass will normally come up top and breach and try to shake the hook…but I’ve seen nothing of the sort yet.  Shortly thereafter this fish drifts lazily toward the top and I get a good look at him as he cruises about six inches under the surface.  My first thought was “OMG…get the net…it’s a huge smallmouth!”  The next thought was that this was really a beautiful fish.  The war-paint like stripes on his face give way to a bronze colored body with dark tiger stripes that run top to bottom…and the red eyes complete the unique look of this predator.  It was a stunning view in the golden, early morning light…and it was the last thing I had expected to see.  I expected a big, goofy looking drum and instead I had one of the lake’s apex predators on the end of my line.

I think this fish only came up so shallow so he could get a look at the jack-wad who put a hook in his face.  He was sizing up the competition so he knew how much aggression to bring.  After he let me get a good look at him the fight really started.  Next I was fighting the fish with one hand and trying to get my net with the other.  This is an extendable type net which means that it’s basically useless when you need it.  You have to extend the long handle to deploy it, and that is a two hand job.  I must have looked as ridiculous as a one-man-band at that point as I was using my right foot to step on the net, my right hand to try to pull the handle out, and my left hand to hang on to the rod; plus I was hyperventilating and shaking like a 13 year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

Once the fish realized that he might be going for a boat ride he hit the afterburners and dove under my boat so hard that he turned my fishing rod into the shape of a horse-shoe.  He was absolutely stealing line from my drag.  Next I was concerned he'd wrap me around the prop, break the line, and that I might lose the biggest smallmouth I’ve ever hooked.  What a painful story that would be to tell.
What a rookie he’d make me look like…what’s worse is I know I’m a smallmouth rookie, so it would really be like him spiking the ball in my face.  I get the net extended and I gently try to turn this fish to get him out from under me without breaking the line.  He shot out like a dart, turned on a dime and steamed straight back at my hull like a torpedo.  I thought if I don’t net this fish now he’s going to break my boat in half when he hits me amidships.  Like a cross between Bill Dance and Michael Jordan it was “nothing but net”.  I had him. 

The fight was over and he was laying in the net on the deck.   I turned toward the helm to start my live-well pumps and when I looked back the hook was no longer in his mouth.  This fish was so loosely hooked that the lure fell out on its own when I put him on the deck.  While it is nowhere close to a record (he might have been just over 3 lbs) it is by far the biggest smallmouth bass I’ve ever caught.  My trip was a total success at that point.  Short of sinking the boat nothing could ruin this trip.

My normal procedure of taking pics with my iPhone wouldn’t work on this fish…I called the wife and asked her to meet me at the dock so she could take one for me.  So here it is…my best smallmouth yet…and the one that will likely go down in history as the one that got me addicted.






Monday, September 5, 2011

Rainy days

The first of September is here, and with it is a line of thunderstorms that will soak Memphis, Tennessee for the next two days.  This means no fishing, no shooting the bow out back, no scouting for deer, if you live in Memphis you’re stuck inside.  If you’re not careful you could get roped into doing chores around the house…lucky for me I have a garage I can retreat to/hide in. 
My garage has a tool room off one side…about the size of a large closet.  It has a workbench and a lot of shelf space and it’s where many of my toys reside.  Fishing poles hang on the walls, boots are in the corner, coolers, ammo, tools, and all manner of hunting and fishing gear line the shelves.  I can always find something to do in that room…something that I don’t consider to be “chores”.
So in times like these when the weatherman says we’ll be soaked for several days I go to the tool room…partly because I need to prepare for upcoming hunting events, and partly because I don’t want get put to work on a “honey do” list. 
September is a transition period.  I’m still fishing with all of my free time but deer season is coming up fast which means I need to start thinking about the upcoming bow, muzzle-loader, and gun seasons.  Today’s weather has me focused on gun season.  My reloading gear resides in the tool room and I have a few hundred pieces of brass to reload.    
Last night I started prepping brass for my 7 mm Mag.  This process brings to mind all of the potential held by the next hunting season.  As I de-prime and re-size the brass I’m reminded that each individual shell I load has its own potential.  Many of these rounds will be used on the target range to punch holes in paper…but some of them will be used in the field to punch holes in my dinner.  Many of these bullets will take a doe for the freezer, but perhaps one of these rounds will find itself staring down the barrel at a trophy buck.  Shooting a tight pattern on the range counts, taking doe for the freezer counts, and killing a trophy animal definitely counts.  All of these thoughts spur a desire in me to make the best possible ammunition I can…quality ammo counts.
So here I sit…in a small dry room as thunderstorms crash down upon Memphis TN.  Just on the other side of the wall the wind is howling, the rain is slashing, thunder is booming and I’m perfectly comfortable and able to focus on the task at hand.  I’m huddled over a small bench that is cluttered with reloading gear from one end to the other and I am focused like a laser on producing the best ammunition I can.    
If I do my job well then this ammunition will allow me to finish a job that begins months before the bullet is let off the leash.  Over the next three months I’ll scout for deer, hang stands in likely ambush spots, and learn as much as I can about the patterns these deer have established.  There will be a lot of sweat and some amount of blood put into this effort.  If it goes well then all of that work will add up to an animal in my sights.  At that point, when I slide the safety off, release half my breath, and take up the slack in trigger I need to know that the bullet I’m about to drop the hammer on is well made.  It needs to leave the barrel of my gun, arc through the air, hit the exact spot I intend, and then perform well enough on impact to kill quickly.  A lot is riding on this bullet.  Literally hundreds of hours’ worth of work hinge upon its performance.  This has to be a well manufactured bullet.
Reloading allows you to get one step closer to this sport than you could otherwise.  I could easily buy some ammo at the store, shoot a couple of rounds to sight in, and then go hunt.  I’ve done that before and it’s very efficient.  But doing it this way is different.  It is very satisfying to walk up to a deer that you killed with ammunition that you manufactured on your own. 
Reloading is as much an attempt at perfection as it is the simple combining of parts.  As you shrink the groups your rifle is capable of producing you become ever-more confident with your weapon.  You come to know its strengths and weaknesses just as you come to know your own.  The hunter who reloads, shoots, and learns from the process is a much more deadly predator than he was when he simply purchased ammo off the shelf and went to field with it. 
After half-an-hour or so hunched over the tool bench I needed a break to stretch.  As I sat up from the work bench I stretched, relaxed, and then stared at the wall as my thoughts drifted.  I began to wonder what my quarry was doing at this very moment.  As I sat there on that rainy day making ammo in my garage…what were the deer doing?
These storms were surely affecting the deer even more than they were affecting me.  I could change my plans, stay indoors, and remain dry.  The deer had few options. 
The first image that came to mind was of deer in the fields feeding ahead of the storms approach.  The overcast skies churn and turn darker shades of grey as the weather worsens.  As this happens the light levels drop and all of the colors in the woods get a few shades darker, and the shadows get deeper.  The reddish-orange summertime coat of the whitetail starts to show more of its browns and greys.  As the first drops of light rain begin to form a misty layer upon the deer’s backs they begin moving toward pine and cedar thickets that will shield them from the violent wind and rain that is approaching. 
It’s pleasing to imagine those deer moving silently past an empty stand that we hung on the field edge in years past.  Long since empty, the cold, wet, iron ladder still stands guard as these ghosts of the woods gracefully and quietly filter past.    
As clearly as if I were standing at its bottom rung I can see that ladder stand.  The ladder itself is a mix of bare dark steel and rust-orange paint that has been slowly worn away by hands and boots and weather over the years.  The pine trunk behind it is stained dark from the rain, and the tall khaki colored grass along the trails edge sways in the wind as gently as ever.  If there were a ladder to heaven this would be it.  It goes straight up for 20 feet and tops off on a platform overlooking a small cornfield next to a funnel of hardwoods in the middle of nowhere.  It’s as peaceful a place as you’ll ever find.
The deer have left the fields ahead of the heaviest rain and have taken shelter in the tight spaces that the woods have to offer.  Cedar thickets on hillsides afford a great deal of protection from the elements and are in some ways as close to a house as a deer will see.  Their broad branches come down low to the ground, they provide a smooth forest floor upon which to lie, and they do a wonderful job of breaking up the wind and keeping the rain off your back.  If a deer needs to hole-up somewhere a cedar thicket can’t be beat. 
So I am here in my tool room and there is a buck out there somewhere holing-up in a cedar thicket.  We are both out of the elements as best we can be, but if you compare the thoughts of a hunter making ammo in a garage and a deer holed-up in a thicket trying to stay dry you can’t imagine that you’d find much in common.  One thing is for certain…despite our differences we are on a collision course that could have us coming face to face sometime in the next few months. 
As this animal rests in his tight cedar-thicket he swats methodically at mosquitos and biting flies with his ears and his tail.  He scratches his hide with his hooves and he waits impatiently for the rain to pass.  When the rain and the wind die down he can leave this tight place.  While it offers fair protection against the wind and rain it is still a small and cramped world that places you at the mercy of the insects…there are surely other places this buck would rather be.
I guess in the end he and I might have more in common than I thought.  We’re both waiting for better times where we can move about and do what we want be doing, free of these weather imposed restrictions.  Soon this storm will pass, I’ll leave the tool room and he’ll leave his thicket.  Sometime this fall we might even meet…and if we do he’ll get to see what I’ve been up to on these rainy days of September.