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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stalking the bull

If you were trying to find one animal that best embodies the grace, power, and majesty of the rugged American West...a mature bull elk would be it. He is 800+ pounds of muscle, speed, and power. He is all antler and anger, and uses brute force to drive his competition into retreat, or into the ground. This year I was lucky enough to draw an elk tag, and with a friend as my guide, we'd pursue elk in the mountains of southeastern Idaho.

After months of planning, hiking, and shooting I had arrived in Idaho to hunt elk with a good friend. I've hunted for close to 20 years, but I've never hunted elk. My friend invited me to stay with him, and basically offered to be my guide to show me the ropes and make sure I had a good time. I arrived late in the day on Thursday so we had just enough time to compare notes and make a plan for the morning before getting some sleep.

The first night there I had a dream of a black wolf stalking the valley floor below me. I hadn’t yet stepped foot on the mountain, but even when sleeping in it’s shadow, it’s power was pulling my every thought toward it. It was this simple, but powerful vision of a predator that marked the subtle shift of mindset from being “home” to being “here”. In my mind, the hunt had already begun.  

Our first day on the mountain was a long and difficult one (for me, because I live at sea level...for Tony it was just another day in the mountains). We hiked across miles of rock, sagebrush, scree slopes, and game trails in search of elk. What we found along the way surprised us in ways we didn’t expect. We saw mule deer, moose, and cougar, but no elk.

Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr

Tony had previously told me of a huge bull that had been seen down lower in some rolling fields below the foothills and we decided that tomorrow morning we’d check out that rumor.

Saturday morning found us lying in the weeds waiting for daylight to show us if we had drawn a good set of cards, or if this would be another busted hand. Daylight built up behind the mountain until some of it had to spill over into our valley. When it did, we were shocked.

A lone bull elk stood on a knob below us in the half-dark just before sunrise. Even from a long distance he was impossibly large. He is an animal so massive that it takes the mountains around him to fully put him into perspective. His gigantic light-brown body, bulging massively at the shoulders and hind-quarters, barely tapers as it transitions to a thick, shaggy, dark-brown neck which in turn leads to a massive head that looks surprisingly stubby in comparison to everything else. Atop this monster sits over 300 inches of antlers that are designed to handle the force of two such beasts smashing, shoving, and stabbing each other with tons of force. A bull elk is far from a quaint character in a Disney movie. It is a heavy, muscular, giant of an animal who during the rut will rage, and fight to the death for the right to breed. It is an animal designed to dominate a herd of other large force.

Below us on the knob he craned his neck out, and we watched his massive rack turn in unison with his head as he bugled and screamed from his hilltop perch. It is a call and a challenge at the same time. It says “ladies here I am” and at the same time it says “come at me bro.” He is literally the king of all he surveys, and he is prepared to fight to keep it that way.

As more light spilled over the ridge, we watched in awe as this mature 6x6 bull elk dominated that high knob exactly 500 yards from us. Our excitement was tempered by the fact that the property line was exactly 490 yards from us. A low, four-strand barbed wire fence marked the property line and at the moment the bull was on the other side. Right now all we could do was watch...he might as well have been on another planet.

That bull stood atop the knob like a king. He could survey huge swaths of low ground and green fields below him, and he stood guard there like he didn’t have a care in world. 500 yards away we worked rangefinders and binoculars, marking and mapping every landmark between us, so that when the moment came, we’d know exactly how far he was from our bullet.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr

After a few minutes of feeding and looking around, he made his way toward our fence. He walked along it just long enough to build up some concern that he might not cross it, and then he turned right for it. That monster of a bull walked right up to the fence...and stopped. There he stood for what seemed an eternity. To our collective horror he turned and walked back a few steps, then bedded down on the other side. Over the next hour he teased us a few more times, then crushed us by disappearing over the ridge. We were shocked and excited at the same time, and made plans to return that evening.

Saturday afternoon was a cold, windy, rainy affair that offered ample opportunity to suffer, and none to score. We saw neither hide nor hair of that big bull.

On Sunday, Tony had other obligations so I hunted alone. Much to my surprise the big bull again emerged from the darkness at the bottom of that bowl and marched up to the ridge. After 30 or 40 minutes atop the ridge, eating and thrashing bushes with his gigantic rack, he retreated downhill to a patch of sage brush on a hillside that faced me around 1,200 yards distant.

I had nowhere else to be, so I decided to stay and watch him as long as I could. As the sun came up so did the temperatures. I tucked in tight to cover trying to stay in the shade, and settled in for a long day of recon. I kept a close eye on him, looking at him every two or three minutes to make sure he hadn’t moved. I laid there watching him for the next 11 hours. To my surprise he moved only 3 times all day. Sunday ended with no shot, but a very good idea of where he might be in the morning.

Visions of him bugling on that knob, and running up that draw, flickered in jumpy, black-and-white frames throughout my dreams all night, keeping me from resting; and confirming that once a bull like that is in your mind, he will never be fully out of it. The hunt was far from over but the dread of leaving without him was already welling up in the back of my mind. To come so close, to have had so much patience, to have done everything right, and still fail, was a real possibility...and one that I struggled to keep out of my mind.

Monday morning ushered in a cool front that found our bull charging up that draw to the knob. A friend of Tony’s volunteered to come out in the cold rain to try to call the bull across the line. His expert calls pierced a 500 yard sheet of cold windy rain and enraged the bull. At the first cow call his head snapped up and he began his charge. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I realized “this is it.” My mind was in overdrive trying to plot out all the possible courses he could take and recall the yardages to all the landmarks. If he comes straight in I’ll wait until he’s at 250 yards before engaging. It he runs the ridge on my left I’ll take him at 310 yards.

As his charge carried that huge frame toward the fence I braced myself for the sight we’d been so patiently waiting for...he was going to jump that fence. As his charge began...something happened...he stopped. Once again he didn’t jump the fence, this time he broke three hearts instead of just two. Huddled in the rain, out of sight behind the hill, we drew up a plan for the afternoon and vowed to try again.

Miracle time

On the drive home, my friend Tony decided he’d call the guy who owned the ground where the huge bull had holed up. It was a long shot, this landowner is known far-and-wide as someone who flatly refuses to let anyone step foot on his ground. But with so much hanging in the balance, Tony figured that the worst he could say was “no.”

A word about Tony is in order here. I frequently refer to him as the “Ambassador of the Outdoors”. He does so much, to help so many people that you could write a book about him. He invited me out to elk hunt, and even though he has never shot a bull himself (he’s taken plenty of cows), he wanted me to shoot this monster. He also leads the local scout troop and has done untold amounts of good through that program. There is also no telling how many kids have taken their first deer due to his help...just this week I can think of three kids he has helped tag out...and he got me on that bull. He is just the best all around guy you’re going to meet.

All of his good deeds over the years paid off on that one phone call. The landowner who allows no one on his property, ever, for any reason said that Tony had done so much for him over the years, that he could go onto the property and kill that bull.

Tony hung up the phone and we bolted out the door. I wanted to wait until the morning and catch him during his routine, but even though the wind wasn’t perfect, Tony wanted to strike quickly. Tipping the odds in our favor was that we knew right where the monster had bedded.

When we got back to the area we noticed his bed was empty. A quick search located him a few yards up the hill. He was on his feet and feeding his way around the hill. Hasty plans were made on the fly. We’d sneak up the opposite side of the hill, hope the hill pushed our scent over his head, then circle back behind him. We were at the 3 o’clock position on the hill, and the bull was at 9 o’clock. We had to sneak our way around the hill from the 3 o’clock position, until we were sneaking up behind and above him in a counter-clockwise fashion...from 12, then 11, then 10 o’clock positions.

Both guns were loaded and we dialed our scopes down to low power for the stalk. The odds were that if we got any shot at all, it would be close and fast. It was all business at this point. There was no looking at the scenery or congratulating ourselves on our good was pure business...we were here to stalk it and kill it. It’s something we had both done countless times before.

As we crouch-walked our way across the top of the hill the bull winded us. He came bolting from cover behind us. I saw Tony whirl around and I followed suit. Time moved slower now. I could see Tony dropping to one knee and as he dropped I could see the bull 150 yards away crashing out of the sage brush and pounding his way across this grassy hilltop.

This was the first elk I had ever seen, and it was the biggest, most awe inspiring, thunderous, charging spectacle I could imagine. I don’t remember getting to one knee, but I recall getting my sight picture. The crosshairs splayed across the most western scene one could imagine...a mature bull elk on a dead sprint across a high prairie with mountains in the background. I don’t know how much time passed but I remember losing focus, I distinctly recall thinking “man...look at those mountains...” It was the worst possible time for sightseeing, and I snapped out of it quickly.

I waited for Tony to fire, but he didn’t (he was surely waiting for me to fire) so I acquired a good sight picture, and sent him one. BOOM! On he ran...I needed to adjust my lead. Crosshairs lower, a little closer...BOOM! WHACK...the bullet hit home. Tony’s 7 mag barked now..BOOM! WHACK! I cycled the bolt effortlessly and with the right lead now in mind I got ahead of the great bull again...BOOM! WHACK!!! On he ran.

He had been hit solidly three times and he charged on as if nothing had happened. He was quartering away from us and running with great speed when he began to move down the back of the hill. I rose to my feet, amazed that he was still running, cycling the bolt as I stood. I brought the gun up as I watched him begin to descend the hill toward safety. Standing now, and shooting offhand, I had to acquire the back of a running bulls neck as he descended a hill almost 200 yards away. He could not be allowed off this hill. I don't know if I've ever been presented with a shot that held so much in the balance.

My breathing was fine, I was calm, I remember finding my sight picture and starting to take up what little trigger slack is in the I added more pressure and focused on my sights I saw the huge bull begin to shake. The top of his rack came out of alignment with the horizon as the wheels began to come off the bus. Quickly and in a very jerking fashion his giant rack began to shudder and fall over to the right. It shuddered and fell, then shuddered and fell until the great beast plowed into the earth. I never fired the fourth shot.

I stood there, dumbfounded. Did that really just happen? I was trying to make sense out of it all. How many times had I fired? How many times had I hit? How could that creature continue running unhindered while being pounded with a .30-06 and a 7 mag?

A quick walk over the crown of the hill and down the back side through the knee-high grass rewarded us with a sight we’d been longing to see for days. Months of planning, miles of hiking, and hours of watching, had all brought us to this point. We were now standing over the monster bull. I remember the color of the grass, the mountains in the background, the deep brown bases of his antlers and the polished white tips. This magnificent creature we had come to know through the binoculars over the past few days was now at our feet. There was no adrenaline, no high fiving, it was just a feeling of satisfaction. We had worked hard, and what we had accomplished was far beyond any hopes we had coming into this hunt.

Now the starlit morning hikes into the mountains were over, as were the long days of wandering carelessly around the sage-covered hills and aspen ridges of southeastern Idaho. Now all we had to look forward to was two full days of processing to get this beast in the freezer and ready for my trip home. Like we always say, it's all fun and games until you pull the trigger...then the work starts.
Untitled by scarfam, on Flickr

elk by scarfam, on Flickr

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 and 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 cove. No matter what the wind couldn't affect me here.  

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.  Eventually 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.  The national weather service had issued a bulletin while I was on the lake detailing the storm with terms like "constant cloud to ground lightning", "large dangerous hail", and "60 to 70 MPH winds".  I never got the memo. 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.  The ramp was eerily calm.

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.