Archive for January, 2010

Model 60 Hare

It was a beautiful day in January with the temperature at about minus fifteen degrees, clear blue skies, and a slight breeze with the sun placed right above us. Today we parked the car on the side of the dirt road around the same place as the last time we set out to hunt. We prepared our gear, set the Bushnell BackTrack and then went up a small snow trail going west. Once we were about thirty meters up on the spot we chose, we headed right into the frozen swamp. There was only one thing different this time; we did not carry our shotguns. My hunting buddy suggested we take out the .22’s as they are lighter, shorter and easier to maneuver; it also makes for a great change and challenge.

The swamp brush was thick and overgrown covering a network of winding streams. Once we picked up on some leads, we carefully navigated through the snow. We took a few steps and then stopped, looked and listened. My hunting buddy ended up about forty meters to my right and slightly ahead on higher ground just on the edge of the woods. Our shot signal would be a series of short whistles, providing the other with a heads up warning and time to get out-of-the-way if needed, which is never the case when we move through the woods.
We are always standing and moving forward in an extended line formation, allowing us to maximize on our shooting arcs, while following our leads and never cutting in front of each other. It couldn’t have been more than forty minutes into our hunt and I heard two faint whistles, then the shot and then a series of cheers; first my hunting buddy and then me. He had harvested his first hare this season and what a feeling! I was so excited for him.
The hare had moved fast through the thick cover most likely flushed forward by the noise and it had circled back around. Then the hare stopped about twenty meters out. My hunting buddy told me that it was the movement that gave him away.  As white as a ghost as they are, if it hadn’t been moving he could have easily walked right by the hare but he didn’t and the first shot went through some brush right into the shoulder-blade. A second shot was taken and the bullet landed right near the first one and the sound was practically muffled as I did not even hear the second shot.
The afternoon had just started and we still had several hours before dusk, so we bagged the hare and headed North West. It was a beautiful, strong-looking hare with healthy white fur and no signs of Tularemia.
We took a few pictures, then moved down away from the forests edge and headed left leading into a clearing. This actually turned out to be the center of the swamp. It was all frozen over and you could see where the ice was thinner. We scouted along the swamp bed and then ended up on the other side. There were only a few hare and coyote tracks. This was most definitely a great spot for hawks and owls and it explains the low activity in this area.

My hunting buddy and I split up again and went through some pretty thick spruce and pine woods which had some great hiding spots all along the ridge but there was no sign of small game. A short time had passed and we decided to start working our way back to the car, which was only about half a kilometer away. But it would take us at least a good hour and a half to make our way back and I also wanted to show my buddy, what I called the “super highway”. It was a frozen over stream with many tracks from all kinds of different game, fox, coyote, hare and cottontail running right down the middle but it was too overgrown to follow. So we went around larger branches but followed along on its side until I found two great lairs well hidden under some logs that I dug up with my boot but to no avail.

The day was coming to an end and it was time to field dress our hare and prepare it for the trip back, so we set up near a few leaning trees and found a flat spot in the snow and worked away. We then packaged it in a plastic bag with icy snow. The Cooey Model 60 had done its job with the help of a skilled hunter and it was now time to go home.

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Duck Luck

Not far from home there are several hunting stores that offer all the gear and accessories that someone would need to have a successful hunt. However if you can’t find the best places to hunt and you don’t have the know-how, hunting in Canada is tough going. Unless of course if you pay twelve hundred dollars or more for a guided Caribou hunt or pay five hundred to sit in a tree stand all week with a guaranteed deer who loves apples. 

After having spent a few dollars in some of those stores for over a year and taking the time to chat with the owners, they finally started opening up to me. I guess I had proven to them that I was not just a once a year hunter and that I really shared their passion for the outdoors. 

So only a few days into last year’s small game season and a couple more friendly conversations with the local store owners, I now had a great spot for waterfowling but not the knowledge and of course, I did not have a family member to teach me.

This meant discovering a beautiful marsh only a thirty minute drive from home but I had neither decoys nor a blind. Last year I tore down a part of my deck in the backyard and around the same time I did some research on duck and Canada Geese hunting. So after a few articles and books, I designed and built my blind using modular pieces of two by four boards from the left over wood. It looked like an upside down table with no table top; all I needed to do was to cover up the sides with foliage from the marsh.

So on a cold December day I set out alone toward the marsh for the fourth time that season. I got on site around one in the afternoon and unloaded my blind parts and began getting ready. I was very excited about being out this time because normally there are always several cars on the dirt road but on that day I was alone.

Once I was all dressed and I had just finished putting in the last nail into the blind, this small pick up truck came up the road at the junction and stopped. He then reversed, came down and parked right beside me. Once we exchanged our hello, the gentleman told me that he had come out to the marsh to have a look at the bird activity and the weather. He noticed that I was alone and asked me if I minded having company for the hunt. Being new at waterfowling I gladly accepted.

By the time the gentleman had gone home to get his gear and come back, it had given me time to bring out my blind into the marsh about two hundred yards into place. This was on the south-west side of the marsh, the darn thing weighed well over forty pounds and it was a pain to carry through the mud alone. 

It was now time for us to set up his decoys, mojo duck and then get into place. The only thing was that all his gear was still in the truck a few hundred yards away including his gun. So he threw on his waders, grabbed a bag full of decoys and went right into the marsh and started setting up.

I grabbed the remaining gear and helped with the rest of the preparations. I had just met the man and he struck me as a genuine person with a great personality. He trusted me instantly, as he had left me by his truck with his gun and over a thousand dollars worth of gear.

To some this may seem trivial but this is part of that membership to an exclusive group of persons who truly appreciate the outdoors and where trust is paramount. I had struck gold. Not only was he my hunting partner for the afternoon but he was a seventeen year veteran to waterfowling and an instructor.

Once we got set up and starting duck calling, my aim that afternoon was not about getting a duck but to learn as much as possible and that I did. We covered everything from blind, decoy layouts and setup, duck and goose calling, using the sun to your advantage when setting up your spot, understanding the jet stream and weather to know when are the best times to get ducks. We also covered the species, feeding, breeding and migratory habits. We also studied the importance of staying still and using all the waterfowling techniques right up until the moment before taking the shot, then using the best type of ammunition which is good for the environment but effective.

By the time four thirty had come, we had called in about twenty-five ducks in groups of five or six and in one single motion the instructor had loaded, fired and harvested his first duck of the day. Unfortunately for me that afternoon did not give me a duck. In anticipation I had raised my barrel too early and spooked a group of five black ducks before they could get in shooting range but I still came out incredibly lucky with an afternoon of masterly tutoring courtesy of my new friend on the art form of waterfowling that will help me next season and for the rest of my many seasons to come.

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Wintery Day with Snowshoes

I went out with my hunting buddy around noon today into the forest near his place which was Crown land. We decided to go a little further into the woods during this day trip, so we parked the car on the side of the dirt road, and walked down along an ATV trail for a while.

We went down the snow-covered trail, and then turned left leading right into the woods where we went up along a frozen creek. We saw a lot of deer tracks but not much hare activity, so we climbed the embankment where we saw a fox hole, and went back into the woods. We went along the creek for some ways, and then back down the embankment further down, and then across the creek where we came up to a skidoo trail up on the other side. On my way down a chipmunk jumped right out from under the snow on my right hand side where it had been hiding, and made me flinch just as a grouse did a few weeks earlier. After a good laugh we headed back into the bush but this time going along parallel to the trail, and this is when the forest just got a lot greener and thicker. We split up with several meters between us, and we each had our own leads to follow; we then stalked through the bush trying to walk the hares.

As we got closer to evergreen trees like pine and spruce, we found several more hare leads going in every direction. We flushed out a couple of spots, and then pushed on. My hunting buddy spotted a hare but it bounced away so fast heading away from him on his left. Minutes later he flushed a grouse but the brush was too thick to take a safe shot and this is when he heard growling. He took his Mossberg 500 off safety while carefully scanning the woods around him but could not see any game. One thing I noticed is that when there are hares there will be coyotes and we were not going to take a chance after what had happened to singer Taylor Mitchell in Cape Breton.

Earlier on we had spotted some coyote tracks, very fresh ones just south of our current spot, and there were four of them. So after about one hour of going through the thick brush, we met up again then broke more trail and came up to the skidoo trail, where we saw a one man dog sled team.

After a few minutes of stalking, we picked up a fresh trail of hare tracks and saw lots of fresh droppings but no hares. So at about three in the afternoon, we started our way back to the car, as we were about two kilometers away according to the Bushnell backtracker.

I looked up at the sun’s position and then we headed out. Once we were about half way back to the car, I mentioned that we should try following more leads and flush the left hand side of the road heading towards the car, which was a frozen over swamp. The brush was thick but I found some great hideouts with fresh pee stains and droppings. I followed two tracks, and went along for only a few footsteps then kicked some fallen logs. By this time my hunting buddy was doing the same on my left hand side around twenty meters in front of me.

I could sense that there was a lot of activity in this area, so I walked slowly going back towards the road and that is when on my right I spotted the bright black eye as mentioned by the older hunters. You could not miss it, just like the painting by Robert Bateman. Dang! I took the safety off, let out a warning to my hunting buddy: “I got one here”…I was so excited. I carefully lifted my Remington 870, 28 inch barrel and lined up my bead sight, then took the first shot, the snow kicked up, the hare was about thirty yards to my right, I was not going to let him get away. I saw his yellowish snowshoes kick up in the air and I pumped my gun in a split second and took the second shot, it cut right through the leaning branch it was hiding behind. Once the snow cleared, the hare lay motionless. I had got my first hare this season. I was so excited when I picked up the hare I started walking deeper into the woods to find another, but I should have just headed to the car. We had just spent five hours in mildly cold ten below weather and it was time to go home.

What a character! After the careful field dressing and making a few coyotes happy for that night, we headed home. I used #6 but I think one shot would have been enough; this is where experience comes into the play. My wife cooked the hare that evening and the following day we had hare, snail and mushroom stew, it was delicious and it made for a great winter meal.

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My experiences in the woods have taught me that tracking is used before and after the shot, first in finding the game and then during the retrieval process. Every sport hunter knows the importance of that first shot and wish for it to be quick and effective, insuring that the game does not wander too far before night fall and most of all does not suffer.

The author Ian Sheldon writes that tracking is a skill that will grow with you as you spend more time in the pursuit of game. This is so true and it is so rewarding to see your skills grow and ultimately improving your chances of being successful in seeing game and your hunt. 

Here is a collection of tracking tips and searching for wounded game: 

-Conduct research on the game that you are pursuing and learn its habits for feeding, resting or even traveling. Learn the time of day you are more likely to see them and most importantly learn their habitat and type of forest and the terrain where the game might be found.

-After firing the shot, allow yourself to calm down and collect your thoughts, so that when you end up at the spot where the game was located, you are able to find clues such as blood trail indicators based on the color on the ground and in the bushes nearby. Look for overturned stones, dirt and leaves that has been displaced. 

-Once you have found some prints look at the type of the print, count the number of toes, check for claw marks, for spacing between the toes and see if there is a heel. Do not limit yourself to one set of prints but use many of them as I have found sometimes they will lead you right to a Snowshoe hare hiding spot. Follow Snowshoe Hare and Cottontail runways or other small game and it might give you clues as to whether they are climbers or live near fallen trees and recesses in the ground. 

-Get yourself a good pair of binoculars and do not just focus on clues but also for the animal itself. 

-Look for indicators of presence of game such as fresh droppings, fresh beds and feeding spots and for recent digging or little chew marks on small tree stubs. 

-Most of us have been reading from a young age using the left to right method and our eyes may at times skip a word or two as a force of habit, this can also happen while scanning the woods. Therefore try scanning the woods from right to left and your eye will notice movement or something out the ordinary more easily. 

-When scanning the woods or fields or different types of terrain, break up the area into zones starting closest to you and moving away toward the horizon. Scan each zone carefully looking for movement and using the sun to your advantage allowing you to notice different colors with better precision. 

-While still-hunting walk very slowly and avoid all types of obstacles being careful not to make too much noise or break branches. Try walking on the outer edge of your boot and avoid rubbing the inside of your hunting pants, from time to time get down on one knee and look around very carefully.

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Contrary to what one might believe still-hunting is not about remaining in the same spot, it is all about the art of stalking. Instead the hunter is spending most of his time moving at a very slow pace through the wilderness scanning for signs that an animal was there. I had an instant attraction to the practice of still-hunting from the time that I started the sport. Is the author Larry Koller right in stating that sitting on a stump or sort of blind waiting for the game to come is not hunting? I believe that whether you have harvested two hare or twenty deer using different hunting methods, most of us deep down agree with Larry, as do most authors that are not afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. However, this might only hold true for small game and some big game. During my hunters course my instructors advised me that stalking black bear was not permitted and most hunts were conducted from controlled blinds or tree stands.

Larry Koller wrote the following in his book: “Currently, the term still-hunting –as used in most whitetail deer country –has no such connotation of skill. Today’s still hunter forgoes the niceties of careful woodsmanship. Instead he plants his butt on a stump, log or rock, and waits there, still enough, to be sure, until a deer wanders by. This may take hours, days, even weeks, depending on how carefully the waiting spot has been chosen. It is a successful way to kill a deer (or other game) if the shooter has the patience enough to wait and is warmly enough clothed to keep from freezing. Strictly speaking, however it is not hunting.

A substitute term for still-hunting is the ancient hunter’s word of stalking. The American big-game hunter and varmint shooter does a great deal of stalking, but only in rare instances would he be likely to stalk a whitetail deer in timber country. The man who stalks his game is the one who has spotted it at a distance too far for him to make a killing shot, and who must make a closer approach, using whatever method he can to conceal his presence until he closed the distance for the kill.” (Koller, 1965, 112)

Koller, Larry (1965). Treasury of hunting. A Ridge Press Book, 112

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When I was a kid growing up on the Atlantic Ocean, we used to spend almost every Sunday at the beach swimming with my friends. We would jump into the waves and let them bring us to shore and then pretend to be washed up like castaways. After getting up from the sand, less than a hundred meters away there was an opening to a majestic gorge with red clay that was surrounded by really high cliffs that enveloped a lush green jungle with a creek running through the middle. After having spent several hours exploring the gorge, our feet would turn red leaving very pronounced sets of prints along with pieces of the red clay that fell off as it baked in the hot sun.

To some readers this might be just a cute childhood story but not to those who can truly appreciate the art of stalking, tracking and still hunting at its origins. They understand that one single marking on a tree or a series of tracks; even a blood trail may offer alot of signs and may eventually lead you to your game.

I can only imagine the excitement this site would bring to an explorer, seeing sets of human footprints leading in and out of the gorge indicating direction of travel, judging by the dryness of the clay they would be able to guess a timeline on how long it had been since the persons were there, how many they were and potentially their age group. If mango peels were left right near the creek, maybe they had a drink after a quick feast on the fruits. This would show their source of food and their potential habits.

What I find truly satisfying is that after you are taught, as most of us are during our hunters education course along with all the books that can be read and the research one can do on the Internet, it never ceases to amaze me and my hunting partner how our surroundings seem to speak to us and you notice things you never saw in the past.

I know first hand how frustrating, discouraging and just plain exhausting it can be when you set out on a day hunt and you never see a thing. It sure does not help either that the chipmunks chip and chuck or that crossbills let out a chipping sound letting everyone in the woods know you are there. However if you apply the principles of tracking and follow them along with the signs, you will come across game. Knowing everything about the game you wish to harvest is very important as well, education and conservation.

A person I once met told me that he tried hunting a couple of times and never came across any game and he felt frustrated about the experience, just as I did the first few times I went out. The difference between him and I was not our hunting gear or rifle, it was the sheer determination not to give up and learn as much as I could every time I set out with my hunting partner-tracker. Some of us do not have the luxury of knowing an elder, seasoned hunter or even have a secret hunting spot and this is when these skills become indispensable. Just as you would do in a grocery store when looking for a jar of peanut butter, you can ask a clerk as you would a guide to show you or you can look for the signs and then find the aisle and then the jar. Never stop learning.

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Quite often when I am out on day trips or simply purchasing material from outfitters and hunting stores with my childhood friend and expert tracker, we come across some second or third generation hunters with many years of experience. When the question is asked about what you are trying to harvest,  if your response is small furred game or varmints, the immediate impression is that you’re a novice and the conversation soon follows up with stories of them harvesting endless bag limits of rabbits and other small game with their uncle or father on the farm.

The true question is once you have been successful in harvesting small game does this graduation of sort become a right of passage for larger game hunts? Or is it a very skilful domain of its own?

I believe that it is not a right of passage but it is in a class of its own and requires incredible skill, advanced bush craft, patience and both mental of physical endurance. You must also take into consideration the method of the hunt, whether it is with the assistance of dogs and other aids, whether it is to feed or just for sport. Do you sit in a blind or are you a tracking hunter or just simply driving around in trucks like they do in some areas of Alberta?

For me and my childhood friend it is about keeping it at the rawest form, not sitting in a blind or setting food caches and waiting. It is about facing the elements and challenging thousands of years of instinct and attempt to outwit the small game in its own domain, in our case this represents the Canadian wilderness.

Larry Koller wrote the following in his book and this has always stayed with me “The snowshoe also is no game for the tracking hunter. Although he may squat under a protecting evergreen bush, much the same as a cottontail in his form, the snowshoe will melt away like a ghost when he sees or hears danger approach. The hunter rarely comes upon a snowshoe close enough to shoot.

The trick to hunting him is to put the long-legged foxhounds on his trail, then take a stand and wait for him to make his circle. In the dead of winter, when the snowshoe hunting is most practical, this business of waiting for the return of the rabbit can be deadly cold. It’s a fine sport, no doubt but I think its best suited to the more rugged individuals than I.” (Koller, 1965, 137)

Koller, Larry (1965). Treasury of hunting. A Ridge Press Book, 137.

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