Saturday, October 31, 2015

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy)

Hope springs eternal, of course, and we never give up hope of getting in one more fishing trip before winter. The die-hard anglers know that fall fishing might be the best fishing and go after them, but for those of us who like to spend our autumns carrying shotguns and following bird dogs it’s a tough call to have to choose between fishing and hunting. I suppose if all is right with the world we’d get in so much fishing during the spring and summer that we’d be satisfied come fall and happy to stow the rods for the guns. How much fishing would that take? I can’t imagine.

After our great trip to Alaska, Scott and I made one float trip on a familiar river with less than spectacular results – a couple of smallish northern pike and I was kinda’ thinking that would be the last trip of the season. I’ve been in grouse hunting mode since, with thoughts of the approaching deer season but when Scott suggested one more try for muskies I couldn’t turn it down. Fish or no fish, a float down a backcountry autumn river is worth doing.

The days are getting short in late October so we picked a section of river neither of us had been on, but one we could easily finish before dark. I left my place well before sunup and drove through the rain dodging deer the entire way to the landing. It quit raining with the daylight and I flushed a flock of Canada geese when I pulled up to the river. Minutes later Scott showed and after shuttling the vehicles we slipped the Fishcat into the water and were on our way. As usual, Scott took the first shift at the oars of his boat and it turned out to be my lucky day. 

I like fly fishing for big fish and I'm lucky to have a group of friends who feel the same way. I like tying the big flies, though they take a while 'cause of all the material involved, and I like being able to attach the fly to the leader without a magnifying glass. And when that fly hits the water there's no doubt about where it is. Tossing big water-soaked flies can get tiring and a bit tough on the shoulder but it's the price we pay, and at the end of the day I've never heard any regrets from anyone. And when a big fish hits that fly, well...!
I was casting a deer hair diver, articulated red and black, a copy of the one I lost to a nice musky last fall and it was hard to decide where to cast in a river so full of good cover. There were rocks, logs, sweepers, deep holes and runs, and weed beds from shoreline to shoreline. The oars dipped the water and my line zinged through the air. The first fish was a small pike, nothing to brag about but got me on the board. Then we pulled through a couple of shallow riffles and came to a deep run on river-left. I made a cast under a bankside cedar tree and stripped it back just as I’d been doing since we’d started. The fish appeared from below the fly and sort of rubbed it against its back before disappearing into the deeper water again.

I can’t remember exactly what was said but it went something like: “Did you see that?!” “Oh yeah!” “It was huge!” All while Scott was back-rowing to keep me in position for another shot. I was hoping against hope the fish would show again and I took two, maybe three more casts when the big musky came up and nosed the fly, turned away for a second then turned back and grabbed it. Fish on – strip set, strip set, strip set!

There was some pretty excited chatter while Scott handled the boat and I played the fish. We’d get it close but when it wanted to it just swam away, bending my rod and peeling line. It seemed to be hooked well but I couldn’t help wondering about my knots and leader strength. The longer I fought it the more nervous I became, but I finally got it alongside enough for Scott to push the net under it and it was ours.  It's easily the biggest fish I’ve landed on a fly rod and my sigh of relief came with a happy smile.

We pulled to shore for photos and released the fish to swim away a little indignant at having been caught, but perhaps to be caught again.

It wasn’t the only musky we saw that day, another followed that same fly right to the boat but some clumsy rod handling on my part spooked the fish at the boat and it turned away for good. We ended the day landing plenty of smaller pike. I took the big fish award, but Scott caught the most. I’m not saying the fishing is over, but it’s almost November and I can’t think of a better way to end the season.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fine October Days

I’ve been fortunate to have lived many fine days in the outdoors, and I’ll have to count the last two as a couple of the best. Jack was still favoring his front leg after coming up lame from a hunt earlier this week, so my plan was to head north with the dogs and give Jack a short run in cover before hiking up to check my deer stand with my new pup, Gabby. It was sunny and 35 degrees when I hit the road, the remaining fall color was brilliant and I can’t say I’ve seen a prettier October day. 

I took the backroads as much as I could, which is quite a bit, checking new cover and some of my good hunting spots along the way. Over the years I’ve lost some favored covers due to paper company leases, but I’ve heard many of those leases were being cancelled and the Nature Conservancy was involved in buying up some of that land. I need to find out more about that, but I when I drove by a cover I used to hunt I noticed all the lease signs were down. I nearly stopped to check it out, but I had another spot in mind for Jack.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and there were plenty of folks out hunting in the various methods they deploy – I saw a couple of pickup trucks stopped on the road with the doors still flung open and an orange-clad shotgun-toting body or two sneaking along trying to see the grouse on the ground. That’s one way: cruise along slowly ‘till you see a bird beside the road and, if you’re a sportsman, jump out to ground-swat ‘em. Lots of times the grouse goes sulking away, thus the hunters go creeping through the roadside cover hoping to get a look at the bird before it flies away. If you’re not so sporting you might take a shot out the window, but folks get arrested for that every year, and it seems to happen less and less. Then there’re all manner of ATV’s and UTV’s running around with uncased guns aboard, which is apparently legal these days. And, of course, there are plenty of foot hunters with or without canine help.

I turned off one gravel road onto a narrow dead end forest road with one particular cover in mind. There was a truck parked at the trailhead so I drove on to the next good place up the road. I wasn’t surprised to see it empty. It’s a short trail to a tiny clearing and that’s where the trail pretty much ends. If you know the way you can find remnants of logging trails from years past, but it’s not a place to go without a compass and/or GPS. Even if you know the way, it’s a thick, tight cover to hunt and move around in.

I stepped out of my truck and was looking at a grouse twenty feet away. It was alert and strutting around and offered a perfect opportunity to give Gabby a nose full of bird scent. She’s found several grouse so far and though I won’t shoot over her yet it’s fun to watch her rushing around in puppy fashion. It didn’t take long before she snapped to a stop for a moment before spotting the grouse moving away and the short chase was on. I took it as a good omen so I rounded her up and put her back in the truck. Jack was ready and waiting while I put on my vest and old hunting hat. A bell collar for Jack and I grabbed my gun and we were hunting.

In minutes I was at the clearing and Jack worked the thick stuff beyond. A second later his bell fell silent and I pushed in to find him. He wasn’t far and I got to him just as a grouse flushed and was fast leaving when my right barrel caught up and the bird dropped. Neat – one point, one shot, one retrieve. I pocketed the bird and we were off. Minutes later Jack was pointing again. The grouse flushed left and I thought I’d missed but instead of escaping into the cover, the grouse turned and gained altitude, spiraling higher and higher above the trees. I'd never seen anything like it and I stood watching, wondering if I should shoot again. Then the bird came down and hit the ground. I’d read of headshot grouse behaving that way but have never witnessed it. Until now.

I called Jack to retrieve the dead bird but he was pointing again. Another shot and another grouse. While I handled him to the retrieves another grouse got up in front of me, but I watched it go without raising the gun. That made five grouse we’d moved in less than a half hour. Nice. I figured that was enough and we headed back for the truck only a couple of hundred yards away. I could see the truck when Jack swung to the edge of an alder run and stopped again. That grouse went out of a tree and was the first miss of the day. Still, there was a satisfying heft to my game bag and our short hunt was a big success.  I sat on my tailgate eating the hot soup in my thermos and watched a couple of road hunters drive by. I’d heard only one other shot that morning.

I took Gabby up to the deer stand and she had fun tearing around looking for anything she could find. But we found nothing, not even any deer sign.

Speaking of sign, it seems there are a lot more road signs than there needs to be on the backroads. There’s a great big Forest Service sign at the entrance to Echo Lake Campground and that’s understandable, but the two signs down the road announcing the campground in 500 feet seems like overkill. And the metal street signs at the various woods roads take some of the feeling away from being in the woods. There was a big wooden sign erected on a logging road by the Ruffed Grouse Society claiming a management/hunting area, but it appears someone got tired of seeing it. Or maybe they just needed some firewood.

Today I was at Paul’s hunting camp. We’d made the plan to hunt his property with Scarlett and Jack, and I was happy to see Jack moving well after yesterday’s short outing. It was another gorgeous day, sunny and cool, the kind of October day any bird hunter longs for. Jack was still on his game, pointing one of the two grouse we found, and a half dozen or so woodcock. Add in Scarlett’s work and we had plenty of shooting.

It was a fine weekend for bird hunting, the kind classic stories were written about. It was a fine weekend to be outside doing anything. Gabby had her first whiff of dead birds; I was shooting well, though Paul credited that to my shotgun; we sat outside the shack sipping coffee and watched the pup chase around while the two old setters lay in the grass sleeping. All too soon it was time to call it a day and go home to clean birds. Thank you, yeah.