Monday, December 23, 2019

Winter Solstice

A couple of weeks ago I went over to our offshore spot with Secret Skipper to chase lobster.  It was raining on the front end of an approaching storm, so we had the island to ourselves.   We kept at it through the weather, nabbing limits evenly distributed between deep and shallow sets.

We played a lot of name that tune with the radio on, but I  could not get Skipper to stop singing his own version of Neil Sedaka's "Ooh, I Hear Lobster in the Rain."

We had our usual follow-up foody gathering at home, as well as the obligatory growth chart photo of the boys with this season's first bugs.  It was a good start and a hopeful harbinger for good rainfall this year.

On December 21, to celebrate the Winter Solstice, which is always a particularly meaningful waypoint in the seasonal calendar for me, I took our bastard barbarian pointer Tashtego and joined Robert and Todd at 4 am on a hunt near Mount  Palomar for the opening day of a week-long band tail pigeon season.  The altitude and uphill hiking in the darkness was a bit of a challenge for me, but Robert and Todd are experienced outdoorsmen and they showed the way. 

 The weather was windy and cold, with the advanced guard of the front that now has us all in its grip.  This type of pursuit involves full camo forest hunting in pines and oaks.  Hunters find a hidden spot in the trees with a decent field of fire, or put a stalk on birds that had settled in among nearby branches.  We were using #4 shot and full chokes.

The birds were pretty sparce where I was.  I never got a shot off, but Robert filled out his two bird limit and Tash was relentless in his retrieves, recovering both birds in the steep tangle.  Tash eventually decided to mostly follow Robert around instead of me. 

 Even though he is only eight months old, he has tremendous hunting drive and already knows how to sort out and associate himself with the most talented hunter in the group.  We also hit the area around Julian for some productive glassing for deer.  Both the hiking and driving featured beautiful scenery.  The trip was a great way to mark the shortest day of the year before this big weather drove us all inside toward the fire, the food and the fellowship that calls us home this time of year.

As we look back on another year, it is important to remember the opportunities we have made to celebrate
and to toast our blessings

The Solstice is that darkest of days which gives us pause to roll back through the year of memories and look forward to brighter days to come.

We added a couple of new family members
and caught a glimpse of adventures to come

We savored the occasions to walk together
and apart

Once again, the longest of nights has passed and we are in the realm of expanding light as we begin another round of chances to hang out and cash in our time with one another.

Neptune has issued the biggest tides of the year and Apollo has regained celestial primacy. May memory always allow me to celebrate this seasonal turning point with my favorite song from the Optimistic Land of OZ.

"We're out of the Woods,
We're out of the Dark,
We're out of the Night.
Step into the Sun,
Step into the light.

Winter's big weather is surely on the way, but we have once again rounded the horn on the battle between light and darkness.

May the advancing light of a newborn year show us a path to make more memories, a better world, and never let us forget that

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Thanksgiving Pheasants at Woodland's Hunt Club

    We had Thanksgiving week set aside from work and school, so we dialed up Mendel Woodland and set up a hunt for Tuesday of that week.  The hunting crowd would be light and the big rain was not set to hit until the next day.
     Our companions on this walkabout were Ryan Stewart and his son Alec.  We were joined by expert breeder/handler David Awbrey and his son Gabriel, who came out to help us with the dogs we got from David's Mudbone Kennels six months ago.
     Tommy, David and I got the dogs and gear into the car late Monday afternoon and pointed the truck toward El Centro around 4:45 pm, which is the wrong time to start a trip down that way.  We hit some traffic and decided to stop in the cool altitude of Alpine, where  we were seated at the dog friendly patio at the Alpine Tavern. 

 Our jackets came in handy and the burgers were really good.  We forgot our dog food, so we had to splurge on multiple grilled chicken breasts for Dersu and Tashtego.
       The delay allowed Alec and Ryan to catch up and arrive first at our overnight destination at the Quality Inn in El Centro. We purchased emergency dog food at the CVS across the street.
        We got up early and made it to the motel's captive Denny's for a big fat breakfast and then took the 20 minute drive to Mendel's place.  Mendel was waiting for us when we got there and we all headed out to the fields after Mendel awarded us cool hats.

          Dave joined us with his muscular Vizsla Vince, who relentlessly swept the field that held both rooster pheasant and chukar partridge.
           Our pups were both stoked to be out there, but Dersu soon let us know that he was more interested in getting back to our base camp of trucks and chairs.  We substituted Tashtego soon thereafter and Dersu passed on his second rotation when we tried to work him into the line up.  
 David added a headless bonus hen that flew right at and directly above him as he torched off a round.  Ryan and Alec also got in decap shots, which makes for a clean presentation at the dinner table and a spectacularly disturbing separation in the moment of impact.
     Vince was relentless in his pursuit, as he began pointing on birds as we worked Tash into the point on the end of a 30 foot lead, as Tash is not to be trusted to stay close in a field full of birds and bird scent.   
      Although we had a few get away from our gunfire and also the pursuit of the dogs, we hit most of our targets, including several multi-chukar flushes that startled out of the dense alfalfa in a panic of percussive wing bursts.   
      Everyone got in on the action  and made some really nice shots.   My phone battery died, so I did not get any photos in the field. 
     Just like last time, we were treated to a great military display from the nearby Naval Air Station.  We watched as helicopter gunships made strafing runs with rockets and cannons that produced flaming gunfire and staccato thumps of ground impact.
     Dave, Gabriel and their cool dogs had to leave us after we had done most of our damage, but Tash kept hunting the strays that escaped us earlier and we eventually tallied up 16 pheasant and 9 chukar for the day. Tash was not perfect and left a couple downed birds we could not find (without a dog) to chase after new prospects when we let  him off the leash, but he still got us four birds in a final pass from which perfect gundogmanship would have produced six. 

David, as usual, got in a few solo gunslinger photos as Tommy chased Tashtego into the horizon.  He totally ran off after a stray bird when we came back and started to set out the dead birds for the photo session that he avoided, along with Tommy, who came back for one last picture.

      Upon his return, Tash also availed himself of the opportunity to run loose through the camp and catch my mirror-finish 25 year-old Weatherby on his long lead before taking it on a gun-bashing sleigh ride through the gravel of an irrigation ditch.  The gun is likely to outlive both dog and master, so Tash has carved his own love note on a classic double gun that had survived scores of hunts without blemish.  

Ryan and Alec gather behind the Plank of Plenty.  Note the Weatherby's last place of rest in the photo of the two hunters, before Tashtego tore through camp in Tommy's fleeting grasp.
     Victor  and his boy came to the cleaning shack after our hunt to help us clean and bag our bounty, as we had seriously dawdled in the pursuit of our indefatigable Chocolate German. 
     With Tash escaping like Major Shears from the camp on the River Kwai, Dersu trolled Colonel Saito beneath a bridge of birds he could not build himself. 
      After we said our goodbyes to Victor, we headed back hungry for a dinner stop at Montana Jane's  in Alpine.  This  time, we left our dirty, exhausted dogs resting in their kennels inside the truck as we had a really great dinner beneath a moose antler chandelier in the perfect atmosphere of their dining room.  Alpine is the most logical and picturesque midway stop on this trip from southern Orange County.

    We managed to hit a bit of traffic, finding that taking the 15 north instead of the 805 west offered no secret Northwest passage away from lengthy stretches of brake lights.  Both dogs and humans submitted to a thorough bathing process upon our return.
     Once again, we found room for improvement in our own experience and what we can expect from our dogs.  At this stage of our team's hunting development, Dersu is chasing a more polite and ornamental identity. Tash needs restraint from his Ahab-like pursuit, up with which we cannot keep. 
      In recognizing our reality, the e-collars have been ordered, but both of these dogs are already smarter and more loyal to America than Devin Nunes will ever live to be.

     Ryan planned what sounded like a great Pheasant-featured Thanksgiving dinner.  We jumped the gun and had a bunch over for a pre-Thanksgiving game bird feast with many side dishes and sobriety-quenching beverages.  We slow-cooked the pheasant leg/thigh sections in a hoison/citrus vinegrette.  We roasted the chukars in little bags after marinating them in lemon-pepper-garlic dressing and rubbed and roasted the pheasant fore-sections in bacon jackets.

Utilizing these culinary variations, we were able to stretch out our stomachs in an exercise from the Book of Yoga for Gluttons, allowing us to digestively limber-up for the eat-to-win contest with our relatives the next day.
     Later, the carcasses were used for my traditional cauldron of pheasant soup that is a recipe straight out of MacBeth's Book of Primitive Hospitality.  We hope that you all enjoyed good company in whatever celebration you arranged as we roll into what sure looks like winter weather.  The longest tides of darkness are now upon us, but the fires are out, the mornings are crisper and

These Are The Days



Monday, October 21, 2019

Mexicali Redbirds

    Friday night, Tommy, David and our two pointing puppies Dersu and Tashtego hardnosed the highway with me for our first pheasant hunting trip together.  The boys had licensed up after completing their hunter's safety course at On Target in Mission Viejo.  The dogs had recently completed their first live bird training day with the Inland Empire and San Diego chapters of NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) at the Honey Springs facility in eastern San Diego county.  The local properties like Raahagues hunt club and Four Winds where I used to go with their older brother Isaac and our old pointer Victor to chase the redbirds are gone now.  The dedicated operators who used to scratch it out so we could still experience upland game action have been driven out of business by the ratchet-like forces in our state that doom such enterprises to shuttering their operations and never coming back.

      The latest onslaught of California laws regulating hunting, guns and ammo plagued our preparation  for this longer journey as well.  We are now required to use steel shot, but unless you have the new Real California ID, you cannot purchase it in California.   

 Fortunately, I had a few boxes left over from a couple of seasons ago, but I am not currently eligible to purchase ammunition in the State of California, where I have hunted for the past 45 years. We got it done, but this asinine obstacle to outdoor recreation is an example of why some folks think that California, a state I adore above all others, is stupid.  I have now applied to my home state of Ohio to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, so that I can commence the process of proving that I am a US citizen to the indoor wizards of bureaucracy who are imposing this stumbling block to outdoor activity.

      We headed down to El Centro to spend the night at the dog friendly and cattle-pungent grounds of the Quality Inn, so that we could arrive at Mendel Woodland's pheasant hunting property in Imperial at 7 am after getting a great six am breakfast at Denny's, an eatery which has always been synonymous with family road trips for me.

      When I booked our day earlier in the week, I explained to the owner, Mendel Woodland, that we had six month old pointers and two 14 year old boys who had never hunted live birds, but who were reasonably handy at hitting moving targets with shotguns from our standard family indoctrination into essential American marksmanship.  Mendel was helpful and encouraging.  He advised me to get a handler and an experienced dog to show our pups the way of the Jedi knights of the dog world, so that is what we did.

      We arrived at the site on the lucky view side of Mexicali Mountain in Mexico, after a 20 minute ride from El Centro, the last three miles of which was an agricultural dirt road that took us past the network of canals that provide sustenance to this thirsty farmland.  Fighter jets from the adjacent Naval  Air Facility provided us with some pretty cool distractions as they maneuvered about in the clear skies above.  We brought our binoculars to take in the free air show.

     The boys got the dogs out and we cruised the grounds as we awaited our escorts in the long shadows cast by temples of stacked hay.

     Mendel's ambassador Joanna arrived to greet us and explain what we would be doing.  She introduced us to Victor, our guide for the day, and his five year-old German Shorthair pointer Duchess.  This dog was very mellow and experienced.  She had just given birth to a litter four weeks earlier, but was ready for business.   Our dogs immediately bonded with her and followed her around, just as we had hoped.

     We took to the field after getting some safety reminders and a game plan from Victor, who spoke only Spanish.  This might have been more of an obstacle for me, but Tommy and Davey are both fluent in Spanish, so their translation of our conversations and Victor's suggestions made the day that much richer.

     We took our German Chocolate Tashtego out first, as he is the most bird obsessed of our two pups.  We kept him on a long lead at first, as he followed Duchess into some pretty thick cover.  The taller grass made the birds invisible, but kept them from being able to sprint away.  Duchess began scenting into the light wind and going on point. 

We flushed our first pheasant and Davey, who was using his sister Lizzy's 20 gauge side-by-side, knocked it down with his first shot. Duchess brought it back to hand before wheeling and going on point again.

  Another rooster flushed in front of Davey and he fired his second shot for his second bird.  Tash paid attention and began to stalk the birds that Duchess was locating, eventually taking over the retrieval duties like a user who just got handed the keys to the pharmacy. 

 Victor encouraged us to drop the long lead we had on Tashtego to prevent him from running off birds, as Victor correctly perceived that Tash was a quick learner and understood what was going on.  Victor began holding his dog back as we moved on birds and let Tash come in for the flush and retrieve.  The birds began flying Tommy's way and he started dropping them with a quick little Remington 20 gauge auto-loader.

     We got five in pretty short order and went back to change puppies.  Dersu came out and followed Duchess around, scenting the air and backing up his dog teacher, while Tash wailed back at the truck for his turn to come around again.  Dersu was less aggressive at wanting to usurp Duchess' role as primary dog and he was content to ride side car and bound like a deer through the field to celebrate the idea of being a hunting dog. 

 We were stoked that both of our dogs did not range far out into the field and came back to us whenever we called them in.

     Dersu was pretty psyched while he was in the field, but he started to lose focus as the sun beat down and we rotated Tash back into the lineup.  Our little harpooneer came off the bench like a player looking at free agency as he relentlessly bounded through the tall grass to gather red-eyed prey for his gunners.

 He began hogging all of the retrieves and was electrified by the experience.

     The sun got higher and we took more hydration breaks.  Tash was on fire when he was up, but Dersu started to head back toward shade where Tash was tied up when it was his turn to join Duchess in the field.  I think I heard Tash say to Dersu "What is wrong with you?" when Dersu left the field to join Tash near the truck.  Tash was more than happy to give up his shade to get back into action.

     I shot back-up for the boys, who were almost always on target, so that I just worked in a few shots on birds that looked like they might get away.  Three of them did, but we ended up with thirteen roosters and I think Tommy and Davey dropped ten of them, with the death from below being pretty evenly distributed.

     We had some fast pursuits across fields and canals.  Tommy managed to get his shoe sucked off by the mud in the bank of a canal he did not make his longest jump of the day to clear, but that was near the end of the hunt.

  Above,Tommy walking a levee road with Victor and a nice rooster Tommy dumped after  extracting himself  from the mud and retrieving his shoe.  Shortly after this photo was taken, Tommy handed his gun to Victor so that he could carry our exhausted Tash back to the diminishing shade near the truck, where a well-rested Dersu posed with us, as his rubbery buddy was now completely unwilling to voluntarily leave the shade to pose with our bounty.

Davey, like his Crockett namesake, did not waste a lot of ammo missing birds, so we took this shot while Tommy made another effort to drag Tash back into the sun for a group shot.

 At the end of the morning, when we had done our damage, Joanna drove out to us in her badass truck to bring us sodas and delicious burritos that we scarfed down back at the buildings at the the club HQ.  Woodland's has a cool bird cleaning facility and Victor showed my boys the best way to skin out and clean a pheasant.  The fact that it was Victor who was actually doing the wet work was probably a substantial factor in convincing my boys that his was a superior method.

     After Victor took our pictures and we got our birds packed away in the ice chest, we wheeled toward the Pacific and took Interstate 8 through the mountains and back to the coast.  We were home by 5 pm, which probably seemed like a short ride to the dogs and boys who all slept like Rip Van Winkle on the 3 1/2 hour ride home in our ancient Ford War Wagon.  I would have to say it was well worth the time and effort we put in to make this happen.
      We invited our friends and family over for a Sunday feast that featured a number of my different pheasant recipes, none of which rendered these birds inedible.

     I sure appreciate the day that Mendel's club and Victor's perfectly administered lesson plan was able to provide.  This was an extremely positive first experience for both the dogs and humans of our pack.

     As soon as I can get the documents from Youngstown, Ohio to prove my citizenship, I intend to buy more ammunition and get back out to Woodland's again. These dogs are going to get more skillful and willing to get into our photos without the application of force. The season is young, as is this new crop of hunting creatures whose training is just getting under way.  Crisper mornings for winter upland game weather are on the way, so we can dust off our jackets and dream of field time to come, knowing that

These are the Days.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Fishing with Godot

     Tommy, David and I went out  of  'Pedro with Secret Skipper on August 2nd as early as time would allow.  We pulled our from the dock at the stroke of midnight .  We had a good plan.  We were to rendezvous with Skipper' s good buddy East Westman, who runs a  highly regarded charter business on his boat, Mandatory.  Our destination was St. Stanwyck Island, the least understood of the Channel Island chain, which runs from southern frontier of  central coast California all the way down to Oceanside.  East told Skipper that he would meet us there, as he knows that island like the palm of his hand.  I had not been to that place in 35 years and neither Skipper nor I knew any of the good spots from memory.
     We would get sardines and meet Mandatory to team up with our combined squid lights to tank up on the candy bait and get schooled on the nuances of this fantastic rock that beckoned from 46 miles beyond our point of departure.
     The marine forecast was a  bit dodgy, with 4 foot swells at 7 second intervals to give us a series of unrelenting hurdles to lunge through with both wind and seas directly against our course.  That would mean a downhill return, so there was a bright side.
     The crossing proved to be quite nautical.  East had let Skipper know that we were in for a bumpy ride, as he was five hours ahead of us in a larger and slower boat.  Tommy bounced around in the cushion- fortified berth he spun like a cocoon in a vain attempt to keep himself from impacting the interior of the cabin, while Skipper, David and I grabbed handholds in the helm station to wedge ourselves against the hard-to-anticipate impacts that slammed us from the darkness. The wind somewhat unexpectedly came up to blow 20 plus as we got  closer.   It was a new moon, which meant big tides and a beautiful night sky that dazzled us with so many points of light that it sparkled like snowfall in a part of the sea unsullied by any adjacent light pollution.  We arrived  in the jostling rebound of the lee of the island at about 3 and got to unclench a little from the hard ride.  We radioed and scouted the rally point for the Mandatory with no reply.  We then turned on the squid lights at a location that was more random than we would have liked.  We jigged in vain until gray light overtook us.
     The weather began to lay down as we gave up on finding the bait that only darkness can provide.  In the clarity of that transitional pause between chasing bait and the pursuit of the game fish we came to kill, we were treated to an interlude that allowed us to gradually unwrap the emergence of a dawn that slowly revealed the  breathtaking character of our  destination.
     We snuck up on the outside rock that stands sentry to the island from the cover of the approaching swell

     We fired up and began to explore the island for Mandatory and spots that looked fishy. We ended up circumnavigating the island (not very hard, since it is so small) and there was no trace of our intended companions, but plenty of chunky and willing calico bass.  We also hooked a couple of yellowtail that broke us off in the structure and kelp forests.

     Half way around the island, we encountered this foundered little fishing boat, whose crew was no longer in attendance.

      It was completely swamped, but they obviously had made it to the island.  Later, we observed a man in a zodiac drive over to assess the situation.

      As we periodically radioed for our friends on the Mandatory, we continued to pick at the bass, hunt for yellows and drive off the seals which overpopulate  this remarkable sea mount. The island has limitations on how anglers may fish, including an entire quadrant that is completely off limits and  further restrictions on fishing deep water.  Given the fact that this island rises in a near vertical ascent  where it crowns the surface of the water, this regulation has the effect of closing off a sizable number of adjacent pinnacles.

      We fished inside Stanwyck Bay for more bass and  another couple of larger fish that managed to escape us by getting into structure from which we could not extract them.  The day got progressively more beautiful as we fished a spot that is a piece of Nature's Cathedral to the Sea.

     We came around the the arch beneath  an outcropping that juts our into the sea like a pier.

     Below, David takes a break in the action just off shore from the statue of St. Stanwyck, who, legend has it, drove away the seals which infested this island in the early 1700s after being freed from a slave ship  by a galleon full of Spanish explorers, who brought him on to California after intercepting his temporary owners.  This resourceful and grateful native of the Belgian Congo converted to Catholicism and  began working miracles of nature in the early days of the missions along the El Camino Real, eventually settling at the mission in Santa Barbara. This prodigious piece of idolatry memorializes the patron saint at this hallowed spot at the back of Stanwyck Bay.

   In the tradition of sea-dogma, the  pedestal beneath the statue marks a spot from which the last of the sea lions were captured and transported away to a location from which they could never return.

     Unfortunately, in the 1980s, the Friends-of-the-Sea-lion movement joined forces with the Enemies-of-Seamen progressive caucus.    With their rally cry of  "Seamen stains our sensitivity!" this alliance steadily gained traction.  One of its achievements was the establishment of a seal hatchery across the entire side of the island that faces our shore. The sea lion eggs are nurtured in what is now a solar powered hatchery facility, which replaced the old diesel powered hatchery that started this program.  Friends-of-the-Sea-lion projects that this program, along with state and federal protections now in place to make it a crime to even  say a mean thing about a Californian sea lion, will mean that sea lions will soon be the most important and numerous ethnic demographic in the entire Golden State.
     Like Shelley's Ozymandias mutely mocking the subject's delusional tribute to his own immortal power,  the statue  of St. Stanwyck stands sentinel to a lost cause.  The  sea lions are more numerous than ever and sent patrols to follow our every move, along with dogging every other boat that presented them the opportunity for harassment and plunder.  Though the monument to St. Stanwyck remains, our only active guardians are the makos and whites, whose appetites cannot keep pace with the expansion of these pinnipeds.
      As we approached mid day, we went around the island again and continued to find spots that either would not fish because of conflicts in the current and wind direction, or  produced a pretty steady bass bite with  a couple of big yellowtail successfully launching screaming runs into kelp forests.  After noon, when  we were running low on bait and were resigned to the possibility of going home with no exotics, we found a spot below fluttering birds and breaking fish.  We were not the only ones there, but there were few boats in the entire area, as this offshore location gets limited angling pressure because it is so highly restricted and a bit of a pain to get to.
     Crashing yellowtail began breaking on bait fish to our east. The boils migrated toward our boat beneath the telltale wheels of seabirds that began moving in our direction.
     Skipper, who had joined us in tying on a circle hook and fresh fluro to replace the frayed leader he did not trust, was the first to get lit up with a yellow that tore off his line in a screeching run that allowed us to get hopeful again.

Skipper swore that he would jump into the sea and swim away from the boat forever if this one got away too.  It did not.

We were greatly relieved when we managed to  pump it to the top for a crisp gaff shot right in the mouth ...

and over the rail into the boat..

What huge relief to end our losing streak at the fins of these tasty adversaries..

     It would have been a sadder and more lonely trip home if we had been forced to leave Skipper at the base of the statue and drive his boat back to Pedro.  To make sure of driving his point home, Skipper hooked and landed another yellowtail right after this one.
      Your narrator hung one a short time later, as did David.  Tommy got busy with the camera as David was wired and we had a double going. I kept a tight drag, but felt my own anxiety about not wanting to lose another one of these fish that seem to sell their lives so dearly.  It kept making runs and nodding the rod tip up and down against our efforts to claw it from the depths.

It eventually succumbed to Skipper's gaff shot.

  David kept his rig from being yanked into the sea on a yellow that screamed line off his reel against a very tight drag.  It was a big strong fish that ultimately gained its freedom through sheer force.

     With our hold now occupied by three nice yellows, we decided to head back after cutting up our catch.
     Autopsy revealed that these jacks were chock full of tuna crab, which must have been pluming deeper in the water column, as we saw none at the surface.

     We pulled the hook and headed back.  This time, the much gentler wind  and seas were at our back as we surfed home in less than two hours.
     On the way back, when we were in cell-phone range, East Westman finally broke his radio silence to let us know that he was sorry that he was unable to join us.  It seemed that out of concern for his clients' safety, he had turned back mid-channel from Stanwyck and headed to the safer waters off Catalina.  The need for preserving the secrecy of his location and new plan prevented him from answering any of the radio calls we made, along with the fact that he had angrily shattered his radio with a baseball bat after he caught one of his clients frantically trying to Mayday the coast guard when Mandatory was still pointed into the treacherous waters on the way to Stanwyck.
     Thanks to Skipper's raw courage, tremendous angling skills and energetic willingness to risk all our lives in the pursuit of game fish, we had what we needed for another hamachi festival as we join with arriving family to celebrate our Dad's 90th birthday this weekend.
     May your  weekend be as fun and your food fight for its survival just as much as ours, so we can all get to say.....

These are the Days