Thursday, April 7, 2022

Bitterwater and the Hogs of Affliction

 Gentle Readers:

Your Reporter and son Tommy recently celebrated spring break and the approach of  Passover with the pursuit of the Hogs of Affliction at Bitterwater, nestled in the confluence of Monterey, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties just east of the location of James Dean's fatal crash. 

It is a popular notion that wild boar are a blight on agrarian society, such that it is practically one's civic duty to go out there and keep the population of these omnivorous marauding creatures at bay.  Coupled with the common belief that boar are dangerous to humans, hog hunters can rationalize their act as performing a hazardous public service, even though pigs are just stupid unarmed animals and we have guns.

We left San Juan Capistrano at 8 am and headed up the 5 toward our ultimate destination at the Grant Ranch, where we had booked a hunt with Clayton Grant of Bitterwater Outfitters. These guys were really nice to us and the operation was smooth and friendly.

 We grabbed lunch at the Jack Ranch Cafe, which is a shrine to the spot where James Dean wandered down that road to Eternity.

After lunch, we headed further north on an opposite-direction detour to take in the town of Parkfield. 

This colorful little destination straddles the San Andreas Fault and is home to the Berkeley Seismic Lab, which is little more than a shipping container with a label that reads "Berkeley Seismological Laboratory."   
It really looks more like a lavatory.

The Parkfield lodge is a fabulously whimsical spot well worth a visit.  Despite its modest claimed population of 34, Parkfield has an elementary school.  Local kids mostly have to spend hours on buses ...or ride their horses to high school.

The Lodge has a number of rooms that celebrate an equestrian/earthquake theme, along with a bar featuring both stools and saddles, in case lodgers have not had a chance to drink from horseback.  Unfortunately, they only serve food from Thursday through Sunday, although you can still get a room.
They even have old seismology equipment randomly stored througout the place

After a quick beverage and a tour of the grounds, we headed down the 41 to hang a left and drive along beautiful Bitterwater Valley Road to get to the ranch.  We were greeted by the ranch bitch, whose throne is adjacent to a great old potbellied stove.

We  met up with ranch hand Terry and went down to the onsite rifle range to get our rifles sighted in.  Terry is a Vietnam vet who imparted considerable ballistic knowledge as he let us throw a few copper rounds down range.  He made sure the Belgian Browning  auto .308 that Tommy was shooting was sufficiently dialed in with hunting ammo, which can often perform much differently than the jacketed lead we shoot at the rangeAs most Californians know, lead ammo is now banned in our state because condors will eat it right out of the box.

For all you ballistic mavins out there, Tommy was shooting Barnes solid copper 168 grain Vortex boat tail rounds.  I was driving the same bullet at a slightly higher velocity with my trusty old Winchester 30/06 model 70 bolt gun. 

Below, Tommy pauses during tent set up near Bitterwater HQ.

The ranch has an office, a nice set of bathrooms with a good shower, plenty of hookups for RV's and trailers, and a covered area with refrigerator, sink and tables.  Nearby is a big  shipping container cooler where the day's catch is hung to cool down prior to transport home or to a local butcher, which in this case is Creston Meats, described in more detail in the  HAMilton report from a few years ago.

We enjoyed a night's sleep in our simple tent, punctuated by howling coyotes, hooting owls and the noisy bawling of insomniac cattle.  Except for a few security lights in the ranch area, there is virtually no light polution.  We were treated to a great night under the stars with a waxing crescent moon and a few meteors striping the heavens.

In the morning, we were greeted by our guide Jake.  We grabbed our rifles and climbed into the polaris-like ATV  in which we would be Ubering about.

We were following another group of three Korean gentlemen with whom we would be spending the morning.  One of them, who I think was named David Kim, owns a Korean BBQ and sushi restaurant in Corona.

They mostly spoke Korean and occasionally addressed us or our guides in heavily accented English with such phrases (to me) as

"Is he your grandson?"

The Koreans were hunting for "trophy" boar,  which essentially means a great big one with tusk-like cutting teeth.  A hunter pays extra for this harvest and the trophies are generally solitary.  Tommy and I were  after "meat pigs," which are usually under 200 pounds, more likely to taste good, and tend to travel in groups ( called either a "drove" or a "drift").  This meant we got to hunt in cooperative togetherness, but gave way when a big one was spotted.  The Koreans made it clear that they were also interested in retaining certain internal organs and glands from the gut pile.  We told them they could have dibs on our gut piles if we bagged something, so we became their grandson/grandpa buddies.

The hills were truly beautiful this time of year.  We stopped frequently to glass the hills for critters.  We saw quail, golden eagle,  assorted live varmints and a dead badger, but surprisingly, no deer.

The Koreans were in the lead vehicle, which I will refer to as the BBQmobile.They managed to dispatch a really big boar from astonishingly close range with a 30/30 lever gun, primarily because it was sound asleep when it was discovered and never woke up.

There was a great deal of sifting through the guts as the animal was field dressed, which became a bit tiresome.  Your reporter took numerous photos of this autopsy process. I will withhold from my readers the opportunity to stare at this yard sale of pathology.  If you would like to message me privately and say "please send me pictures of Korean men brailleing for a gall bladder in a pile of steaming boar guts," I can oblige you.

After our companions bagged their second boar and were engaged in dissection, we split off to pursue a group of four porcine pedestrians that were crossing on a trail below us.  Tommy lined up for a shot, but the pigs were already 250 yards out, running down hill and away.  It was early in the day and we decided to try and intercept them  at closer range by getting back in the ATV and driving to a point of ambush.

Tommy scanned the hills for the pigs that very soon entered our sphere of inflluence.

Once we got in place, we were somewhat surprised by an entirely different drift of nine pigs coming downhill in our direction.  The sun was in their eyes and the wind was at their backs, so we were invisible. Using shooting sticks is pretty common for this kind of shot. Jake pulled out an enormous  surveyor's tripod that made for a stable, if barely portable platform.

Tommy made a clean shot that entered behind the shoulder and out through the neck, as the boar was slightly uphill and moving away.  It dropped dead after a few paces.

Your narrator zeroed in on another boar that failed to leave the area quickly enough.  It did not fall right away, but instead wandered toward Tommy's fallen prey and then conveniently collapsed a remarkably short distance away.  I got it to hold still for good with a second round.

We did not have to move these pigs very much at all to line them up for this gross photo.  These guys were in the 140-160 pound range and had a beautiful layer of fat.  They should be tasty.

We were soon joined by our buddies, who asked us to take their picture with our pigs, which seemed odd, since theirs were clearly larger.  They told us that ours were prettier, but I think they just wanted to make sure we let them paw through our guts for the treats they harvested.

We decided to help them find one last trophy and we were not disappointed.

They brought down this 300 pounder with a hail of gunfire in a steep ravine.  The creature fell back to the bottom, practically on top of the shooters.

It sported a really huge set of cutters and did not smell like victory.

Importantly, it produced the largest pile of guts from which our friends harvested the glandular prizes that apparently help give them erections when mixed with whiskey.  We will have to take their word for it, as we did not stick around to verify the carnal powers of this medicinal offal.

After we got back to the ranch HQ, we got to watch our hogs get skinned and hung in the industrial sized cooler.  We settled up, broke down our little camp and decided to drive to San Luis Obispo for a late lunch with nephew/cousin Kevin Schmitt, who attends SLO and is a high jumper and javelin thrower for the Mustangs track team.

We picked Kevin up from track practice and had a great meal at Firestone Grill in downtown SLO.  Kevin was stoked that he and a buddy had just received the news that they were being flown to Ireland next month to appear on a game show called Beat Shazam, which I will now have to watch.  It was a great chance to catch up and enjoy some fine college-town chow before turning south to hardnose the highway back down to the OC, foregoing a stop at my beloved UCSB.  We figured the Gauchos are not fans of visitors with scoped rifles, even old alums who just want to catch the view from the Carillon tower and wouldn't harm a fly.

Well, it looks like we should have plenty of pork to share with both Elijah and the Easter Bunny as the Judeo-Christian holidays approach.

Spring is upon us, as are the dreams of emerging fish and game opportunities that beckon.

 It is these visions that haunt both our waking and sleeping hours, invading our thoughts with the reminder that

                 These are the Days

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Trivia at Sea

 Gentle Readers.

Your reporter's luck this season has continued and an attempt will be made to celebrate the occasion with merciful brevity.

 On February 26, Secret Skipper, after we again failed to recruit additional crew, set a heading for the island of Romance to chase bugs for perhaps the last time this season, just as the world's  course began to veer toward a more sinister heading.  

The weather was a bit fresh and continued to brisk up as the afternoon wore on.  We left on a strong low tide and headed out into a 30% moon at noon.

Bait was a big problem and Skipper had to drop a benjamin to get enough salmon heads and frozen mackerel to fill 10 bait cages.  With the price increase in fresh fish, nobody was paying for fish butchering, so scraps were sold at an edible premium.

We were quite confident after running the table so far this year. 

Your reporter had flights of waterman's fancy as the island drew nearer.

We made a deep set with three rigs in promising structure 225-250 feet down. We made an intermediate set a good distance away in 150 to 180 range.  We then hit the shallows for a set of four at between 60 and 125 feet.

Although it was windy, none of the rigs were pegged by current or wind.  We fished for bass as we waited for darkness after making our set by 5:30 pm.  True to form this year, we had no interest from the fin fish.

Our first pull at the deeps took place closer to 7 pm, as the sun is now lingering a bit longer into the evening as darkness contracts.  We drew blanks for all three deeps, despite a pretty good soak.

The intermediates delivered three keepers, so we went into the final four shallows needing an average  of one keeper per hoop to get to the halfway mark of a single limit of 7 by the end of the first set, which would be a red hot start.

The first shallow produced nothing at 125 feet.  The next one burped up a few shorts, some turban snails and a spider crab.  The 9th pull came up looking like a basket of kelp, until they started scuttling about in a kaliedoscope view as the hoop drew from color into clarity.  It produced 12 bugs, eight of which were legal. 

It was a new record for me in a season that has already given us records for hoop population, along with outstanding quantity and size.  As we hysterically shook out our bounty onto the deck for sorting, the radio blared Sir Mix-a-lot's "I like big bugs and I cannot lie."  It was the fastest double limit we had made in over twenty years of lobstering.  Giddiness once again became the mood of the moment.

The last hoop put us over our double limit.  We had already started throwing back legals and were done in the first set.  All that was left was to recover our gear and head home at 8 pm, but there was a sea monkey-wrench waiting to jump into our gears.

We had lots of trouble holding position in the windswept deep zone, which had produced zero legals in both the original pull and recovery.   It was not big deal, as empty hoops are just not a labor of tragedy when there is a limit of nice bugs in the tank.

We started catching and returning legals from the mid range, but kept blowing over our buoys in the stiffening crosswind.  We had many resets in our approaches and lots of false lunges at buoys that kept beelining for our props.  Finally, our luck ran out as we tried to bail out of an over-run and ended up chopping up a buoy in the starboard prop.  Upon shutdown and inspection, we had rather hopelessly spun the line around the prop into a ball of confusion.  

We lashed a big serrated Dexter blade to the end of a gaff and began sawing through the many coils of twisted line on the lower unit as the boat drifted without power at a disturbingly swift pace.  We managed to recover the hoop after bouncing it along the bottom and through the kelp for over 500 yards.  We were able to free the prop and motor away after getting dangerously shallow.  We still released four bugs from the wild ride to Toad Hall we gave to the lucky bugs that were liberated.  We watched them pulse down to the bottom, instead of getting tossed into the tank with their countrymen who already had dibs on dinner reservations with us.

By the time we got to the last remaining shallow, it was 10:30pm and the last two hoops had a two and a half hour soak.  They were plugged with bugs as we threw back at least a dozen legals and many shorts.

Eleven of our fourteen bugs were females, which have consistently been a bigger gender percentage of our catch this year.

We were anxious to get out of the wind and head home.  Despite the fact that we had posted our fastest limit ever, we were quite beat up by the time we dragged the last of the gear back up to the truck in the steepness of a new low tide after 1 am. 

There was to be no clemency for these occupants.

The average quality was quite good, although there were no monsters.

Your narrator made it to bed  by 3 am, so it was more like the fatiguing days of past seasons than this year's race to success.  

We had Wendy's brother Randy and our old pals Rich and Rachel drop over for dinner and cocktails.  We celebrated our good fortune and toasted to amplified memories of our fellow Hastings alums  and the dirty old Haight-Ashbury days of the 1970s.

This has been perhaps our luckiest season yet.  
Things are not so lucky for our friends half way around the world.

The pulse of the free world has quickened.  We are in a position to help.  Let us be grateful for what we have, as we feel the harbinger of a nuclear winter upon our necks and realize, with every breath we take, that 

These Are The Days.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Crayfish and Cow report for February 5

 Secret Skipper invited me to head out into the weekend crowds at the Island of Romance to try again for lobster on Saturday.  The big winds that stubbornly persisted from the east and blew everything in the yard around would be tamed at the island.

We got an early start a little past eleven.  The bait receiver we were counting on was closed.  Fortunately, Skipper had frozen salmon heads and several ziplocks full of frozen sardines in reserve, but it was neither fresh nor abundant. 

     We decided to try for mackerel and drifted around the bait barge with sabiki rigs while spooning out cat food.  That brought nothing except seals.  

     In addition to the frozen bait in the cooler, Skipper had an old vacuum sealed bag of slime pads that had been on  the boat many years. They are pieces of  felty cloth about the size of one of those cleaning cloths you get with a new pair of glasses.  They are saturated in a marinade of nuclear fish aroma syrup that is designed to slowly release into the water to bring in the lobster like bloodhounds.  We had ten pads - enough for one in each bait cage. We decided to head over to the island with what we had and try for mackerel there.

   We had a smooth, 32 mph ride over to Two Harbors.  The fuel consumption was 1.4 miles per gallon, which is really efficient for this much boat and motor.

    The island often gets extremely green this time of year after a bit of steady rain.  It was maximum Emerald City as we rolled toward the Isthmus.  This part of the island was surprisingly uncrowded for a beautiful Saturday, but it had been a bit chilly.

    We  headed west past the YMCA camp where we had so much fun with the older kids and so many of their childhood friends 20 years ago. We drifted about in promising locations and yanked for nothing instead of mackerel with the sabiki and cat food combo.

     By 3 pm we started cutting and filling the seal-resistant bait containers in carefully rationed amounts to make sure we had decent offerings in all ten hoops.  We then began getting the gear ready for deployment, attaching lights and paying out and re-coiling all of the lines to get the rope wet to minimize tangles.

   We put out two 300 footers at a depth of 225.  We had minimal current and the counterweighted line came to rest close to vertical with the line decending toward the baited hoop.  We had a lot of time, so we scouted locations and dropped three 200s and a 250 in the 160 to 185 zone.  The 150 went into some promising kelp at about 100 feet and we tried to place the last three in the 60-70 foot zone near rocks and the edge of kelp groves. 

      All gear was deployed by 4:30.  The water was very clear with good visibility.  The sun set just before 5:30, but twilight lingered until just before we started pulling the first of the deeps at about 6:20 pm.  There were some squid that readily came into Skipper's recently refurbished green lights, but they were quickly broken up by the two enormous seals that aggressively chased us around the entire evening.

     The first two deeps produced three legals annd several sub legals, which really boosted our morale right out of the chute.  The four mid-rangers produced one legal despite being arranged around a really promising stonepile.  We rolled into the shallows.   The 150 fooled us into false optimism with huge resistance caused by a load of kelp we were hoping was lobster.  The last three came through through for us with three legals and quite a few shorts.  We had 7 legals on board after the first set was completed in a very short and smooth series of retrieves.  Another great start with no snafus.

     We went right back in to pulling and probably did not give them much of a chance to crawl because of our rapid pace.  The next set of ten produced a disappointing few shorts and a single legal, with mostly empty hoops coming into  view as we peered down into the depths with our lower lips stuck out.  We moved the 250 foot from its spot with the underperforming midrangers to a spot out with the deeps in about 220 feet.  It was still early, but our promising 70% pace had dropped to 10%.

     We took a snack break to slow down and then started pulling again.  The deeps and midrangers produced mostly empties or shorts.  We rolled into the last four shallows with grimmer faces.  The 150 felt promising, but again all it caught was kelp.  The 125 we pulled up immediately afterwards sported the same resistance and kelp colored cargo as it rose toward our straining lean-down.  The kelp started scuttling about in separate movements as it hit the lights and we realized they were bugs.  We had eight, including three legals. It was clear that hoop was intercepting a big crawl.

     We got six in the last three shallows to make our two limits in 30 pulls.  We broke down and stacked the one that  rounded out our limit and then went back out to recover gear at the remaining 9 locations. By now, the wind and current had picked up.  Several of the counter weights were pegged into the butt-end of the deeper buoys. The lobsters were clearly on the crawl, especially in the shallows, as we recovered and broke down the gear to stow for the ride home.  We threw back another 6 legals and more shorts while clearing gear.  They were swarming when we called it quits.

    The wind had come up a bit as we pointed for Pedro at 9:02 pm with all gear stacked and cleaned up for the ride home.  The sky was clear and the stars were out as we headed toward the bright lights of the mainland.   We came home at 27 mph in the increasing  minor chop. The bottom crescent moon was setting when we turned left toward Pedro after clearing the light house. As always, the air temperature  dropped about 10 degrees as we left the open ocean and entered the chilly shadow of the Palos Verdes peninsula.

The moon was just dropping below the horizon of the lights of Pedro as I tried to catch it with this photo.  It is just above where the middle vertical steel rail support meets the rail.

I doubled down from the port side to capture the eery glow of green water that eminated from our fancy squid lights.

     We were in the slip by 10 pm to start clean-up, which we finished at 11:30 pm.  The ride home, influenced by the never-ending 405 freeway closure, was an hour and a half.  After a gratefully celebrated hot shower, your reporter was in bed by 1:30 am. There were plenty of times in the bad old days of youthful middle age when we would still be at the island pulling on gear at this hour. 

     We ended up with a limit of a really nice grade of no-need-to-measure bugs.  The keepers were all females.

     Sunday morning, we got to watch Tommy drop 8 seconds from his prior best to win the 200 fly before I made the boys come home and stand for the mandatory 17th birthday "Lobster Life" photos.

      Wendyjo managed to rustle some slices of cattle and salmon to accompany the crayfish we wrangled from the deep on another lucky, easy outing in what has been a productive and problem-free season so far.

     It was great to have Sarah join us in a birthday weekend combination celebration of quickness in the pool by the young fueled by craftiness in the big pool by the old and dry.

Wendy and Sarah take a break from planning the wedding from behind a protective wall of rawk lobstah.     

    Sarah and Connor share the stupor of lip smacking numb-numbery in the food line up.

     May your offspring be swift, your cows come home and your crayfish crawl toward the lure of your stinkpads as we stalk our way through this California dream that reminds us, whenever we want to notice, that

These are the Days.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Bugging, Birding and Riding Out The First Tsunami of 2022

      On January 14 your reporter once again joined Secret Skipper at Catalina.  We thought we would have the lobster grounds to ourselves in the event a volcano erupted and sent a tidal wave to the west coast.   Skipper told me that was one thing he was sure we could count on.

     The weather forecast was much more negative than the actual conditions.   Once again, we could not book passage for Tommy or David  because of the urgency of aquatic drill and those irritating high school classes on Friday afternoon.  The moon was full and up early, while the  low tide left us with a steep ramp on departure. We picked up some sardines from San Pedro Bait to go with the fresh salmon carcasses Skipper procured and headed toward the water rushing at us from Tonga.

     Skipper's machine had just been serviced like the Tin Man in Oz, so we had some giddyup in our step as we boomed over to the wintery green of our romantic island  at 32 mph.

     The sky was gentle and the ocean glassed over as we made our set.

     Our deepest 300s were placed at just over 200.  We had several in the mid range in the 150 to 175, and four in the 100 foot zone where we did so much damage on our last outing in December.

     If December brought us the best combination of size and abundance of any trip in decades of chasing bugs, January 14 brought us the easiest night of hauling gear we have ever had.  In December, we had ferocious current and pegged floats to go with a monster crawl.  On this occasion, there was a frightening absence of current that left the counterweighted line in motionless verticality. It was so easy to just drift over to the float and get the line onto the wheel as we luxuriated in all the slack that was so easy to retrieve and coil.

     We had a hard zero in the first 300 footer that we pulled in what was not yet night and had concerns about the lack of current. We pulled out three good ones from a squad of five in the next hoop and the crawl was on.  We had 9 legals in the first six hoops.  We were sure that we were going to hit our limit of 14 in one set when we got to the shallow hoops for which we had so much expectation.

     As it turned out, we were a little overconfident, as the last 4 hoops only gave us one real good one. 

        We headed out into the second set in a rapid rotation that left little time for a productive re-soak.  The first few we pulled were empty.  We took a sandwich break to give them a chance to crawl toward our baskets like the Easter Rabbit's Parade.  That little pause did the trick and the next few started producing again. 

      We had a two-man limit in 18 pullls.  It was barely night time as we hauled gear, dumped bait,  heaved back quality bugs and happily stowed and stacked for a ridiculously smooth ride back.  Clean-up was a breeze in our relative freshness.  The high tide of our early return gave us a very gently sloped ramp to push dock carts full of gear up to the lot. We whistled while we worked as though Snow White was waiting for us at the truck.

     We could not get David to show up in time for the lobster life photo on the new BBQ countertop, but WendyJo stepped in with Tommy to harmonize with the limit fronting the band.

     WendyJo had galloped back to our equestrian community on her cow pony after making sure we had some juicy ribeyes to give the crustaceans some company.  Our friends Steve and Jack Howard came by to help us devour our prey.  Jodi Howard missed out, as she was back in Texas dining with locals on armadillo, which is fondly referred to as Texas Lobster by the people of Oklahoma.

The tsunami hit Dana the next morning as the rain poured on us, but we were prepared for both disasters, as were the fishing boats that scampered out into open water as a precaution, leaving the Dana wharf area abandoned in the morning tide.

     We were able to feed off the leftovers over the MLK holiday weekend and thus avoid the famine that so often lurks in the wake of the utter destruction caused by tidal waves.

     Fortunately, our forward planning left us with little time to sandbag against the  volcanically induced deluge, as Tommy and David had agreed to join Tash and I on a Sunday morning walk. 

     We returned to the high desert cactus scrub of San Felipe, which, as a happy literary coincidence, is located at the base of the Volcan mountain range north of Julian. As was the case back in our November hunt in Palomar Mountain State Park, we were lucky enough to join up with our seasoned hunting companions, Todd and Robert.  With quail, reveillie is not quite so nocturnal, so we met at our traditional rally point at the Ortega Highway Del Taco at 6 am instead of 4 am. The weather was cool and clear.

    The terrain in this area gets very steep and prickly in a hurry. That is where most of the quail we were chasing seemed to be taking refuge.  We are near the end of upland game season on public land where the birds have been subjected to a lot of pressure from walkers like us.

     The recent rains had given the hills a little dust of emerald that belied a cactus-infested  land. 

     Tash looked back west from the drop into the lower elevation, but we quickly reversed course and headed back uphill into the rocky scratch that wore us down, but gave us a generally downhill return.

        The birds flew low, hard and tended to double back on our efforts to get close. If  dependent on this kind of outing as a mechanism of survival, your narrator would present a slimmer  holiday profile than what gets earned hunting steaks and lobster. 

      Although we had a lot of desperate opportunities to shoot at birds that were pretty obviously getting away from us, we did manage to drop a few.  Tash earned his keep by pointing on holding birds, but they did not want to freeze for long.  He did a good job of finding shot birds that headed into the manzanita.

     After five miles of getting outsmarted and outflown by these tiny, tasty morsels, we started leaning toward  the spot where we parked the trucks.  Once back, we all got busy picking the abundant variety of cactus spines that perforated our jeans and our relentless, exhausted pointer. 

     We were all more than happy to call it a day at noon, switch  out boots for shoes and drive back up to the Lake Henshaw cafe for satisfying lunch.

      Once back at the Hacienda, we gave the birds a gentle marinade in olive oil, herbs and garlic before flowering and crisping them up in a cast iron skillet bubbling with olive oil and butter.  We had some tasty little birds to sample with our Sunday leftover ribeye and lobster pasta.

    We get to live in a state where we can start a weekend harvesting lobster like they were blueberries, dodge a volcano-generated tsunami, blast quail  and still have a Monday holiday to sit back and watch the Rams disarticulate the Cardinals, limb from limb.

     We are lucky to find oursleves so often in the company of those who share with us the pursuit of that which is elusive, yet attainable.  Life may not always be like this for us, but as long as we find ourselves pulling on a rope or scrambling up a hill behind a pointing dog as one more moment in a perpetual series of occasions for hope, we will surely know that

These Are The Days.