Clumsy Predators

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As seen in the Winter 2019 edition of STICKTALK, the official publication of the Michigan Longbow Association. You can expect content like this (and more) quarterly for a mere $20 a year. Check out the MLA here.

It began on a dreary afternoon that was nowhere near inspiring or even remotely special. In fact, it was rainy and much too warm for the likes of October. The latter I could tolerate. The former is what kept me out of the woods that morning. I’d weathered the rain before. It wasn’t the discomfort that kept me in bed. Rather, it was something my old friend Hawley would always say that stayed me from the woods.

“Hunting in the rain ain’t no damn good. If matted fletching and poor arrow flight don’t get you, the lack of blood will. You won’t find a drop of blood once that rain begins to fall.”

I knew he was right. But advice – no matter how accurate – isn’t always potent enough to slow the beating of a hunter’s heart. Precipitation might have kept my bow on the rack that morning but nothing short of a hurricane would do so twice. I was headed out the door and into the woods when our cuckoo clock chimed 3 p.m.

My footsteps were quiet as a result of the morning soak but my ears rang from the water spilling from the still-green oaks and maples. I would need to move slowly, rely on my eyes, and shift very little once settled. The land moved here. It climbed, crawled, snaked, and swirled – everything but lay flat. I loved all of it but favored one chunk of earth (or lack thereof) in particular: “The Brown Bowl”.

The bowl was a canyon with steep, wooded slopes on all sides, a creek up the center, and a muddy slough to the South. A series of sister ridges rippled out beyond its edges – the aftershock of some ancient geologic event. The shifting wind, ample browse, and natural funnels made this piece a fantastic choice for anything furry and 4-legged. It had been a year since I hunted this property and the idea of crossing paths with a wayward whitetail washed away the morning’s disappointment. I shouldered my bow, checked the wind, and set a course for success on the eastern edge.

Rubber boots seemed the obvious choice for the hike in. The forests’ sloppy surface squished and belched beneath my feet and licked at my calves wherever water collected. I giggled at the sound, knowing full well my six-year-old would do the same had she been there to witness.

“You tooted, Daddy.” She would squeal. “You smell like stinky farts.” And there would be no defending myself, as there was always plenty of evidence to back up the accusation. Mackenzie enjoyed the squishy things and didn’t mind getting her hands and feet dirty. Her favorite hobby was making slime from baking soda, glue, saline, and food coloring, in fact. The basement was littered with the remnants of the activity, which drove me crazy more often than not, but was worth the joy of observing her creativity. Her sister Aubrey shared her passion for the gooey. She loved the water and embraced it at the expense of material things such as boots and snow pants. She never met a puddle she didn’t like to stomp in.

I smiled. The thought of my children followed me everywhere – even those places I sought to exclude them from – but they were never totally absent. They added to the experience, in fact. Trudging through mud, sloshing through puddles, and destroying perfectly good trouser bottoms were all part of the adventure. That was what hunting was — after all — an adventure, which were usually silly things. They began in the thrill-seeking, logic-bypassing portion of your brain, are encouraged by the heart, and culminate with little more than the desire to have another. Everything was an adventure to children below the age of ten. Hunting wasn’t any different for adults below the age of 100.

It was the notion of adventure that carried me to the creek, which was usually a few inches deep and narrow enough to jump across with solid footing on either side. I discovered the ongoing rain had made it anything but. It had increased a foot in all directions with loose slop on either side. Even with the rubber boots, crossing it the traditional way would make for an unpleasant evening sit. I wasn’t willing to risk it and looked up and down the bank in search of a means to cross and remain dry while doing so. A solution presented itself within the bowels of a recently felled maple, spanning bank-to-bank.

“Why that’ll do just fine.” I thought. “It appears my luck is changing for the better.” I would soon be reminded of karma’s delicate balance. That maple was as slick as a freshly caught brown trout and crossing it didn’t go as smooth as anticipated. My rubber boots had succeeded in keeping my feet dry and scent contained but failed miserably where traction was concerned. Had you witnessed the beginning of my ascent, you wouldn’t have noted anything out of the ordinary. I set out across the log creeping cautiously – toe-to-heel – as if stalking a Pope and Young caliber animal. I learned to trust my toes afield. They kept me quiet and upright no matter the obstacle and I am certain the results would’ve been similar had I stuck with the plan. I did not. I chose hubris over caution, straightened up, and strutted the remaining feet to the opposite bank. It was there, where log met earth, Mother Nature would remind me how insignificant I was.

The log had been there for some time and the bark around the end had been worn away to the bare flesh beneath, which had been marinating in the rain for several days. Add a little bit of mud and carelessness and you’ve got a recipe for the greatest tumble this particular stretch of woods had ever seen. It happened fast. My head went back, my legs shot skyward, and my arms flapped helplessly in a circular motion. Several preservation-inspired thoughts shot through my mind mid-plummet: “Save your head. Save your shoulder. Save your bow.” They were not in any particular order, so I tried to do all three at the same time. I dropped my shoulder, rotated to my left, stuck my bow out to brace my fall, then pulled it back to keep from damaging it.

The results were mixed. My forearm and hip took the brunt of the impact, causing my entire left side to go numb with pain. My bow quiver popped off, cartwheeled into the bank, and rattled to a halt in the mud. My lungs emptied. My eyes filled with stars. Never, in all of my years playing contact sports, had I taken a hit like that. I tossed my bow to the bank, rolled to the arm I could still feel, pulled myself to my feet, and immediately checked to see if anyone had seen the mishap. My entire existence was on fire – my body from the pain, my mind from the embarrassment. I gathered my gear, hobbled to a large oak, and sat against it to re-strap my quiver and get my head back into the hunt. And I might have stayed there had it not been for the repressed voices of over a dozen football coaches screaming at me in unison.

“You’re fine Viau! Get up! Nothing is broken! Rub some mud on it! Walk it off! You’ll be fine! You’re tough! You ain’t hurt! The game ain’t over! Get up! Get back out there!”

And I did. I stood up, grabbed my gear, and slipped down the trail towards the Bowl. Whether it was the manifested collective of barking coaches or my unwillingness to revisit the bridge mattered very little. I was there to hunt and I was going to hunt – even if it killed me.

The walk was uphill and seemed longer than usual from that point. I looked forward to it most hunts. The rolling, hardwood ridges and brush-covered flats had begun Autumn’s transformation and the air always had a potpourri smell to it. Pain aside, I loved hiking these areas. There was something about elevation that made the experience more exciting. Hunting terrain like this was a game of give and take with little in your favor. You needed to understand how the wind affected your scent and be ready to adapt when it changed. You needed to sit extra still when it was time to sit, move extra slow when it was time to move, and avoid wet logs at all costs. These were things I learned the hard way – the latter being my most recent entry – with very little to show for it save for a handful of near successes, a numb arm, and a sore hip. But I regretted none of it. Nor would I ever stop. If I took my lumps on one ridge, I’d climb the next. There was always another ridge and adventure waiting on the other side.

This hunt would be no different. The lumps had been taken and the next ridge was ahead. An eerie feeling washed over me as I climbed it. The steady breeze gave way to sporadic gusts with periods of stillness sprinkled between. Water dripped from the canopy above and steadily pattered the ground below. I moved in silence. I could hear everything. And could see everything once I got to the top of the ridge. That is where I saw the feathers – small pile at the base of a maple. An unlucky crow had met its end by the claw and fang of a predator far more efficient than I. I couldn’t help but envy the beast. What stealth it must have required to get that close. What skill to kill so quickly – so efficiently.

“I bet you never make a mistake.” I thought, examining one of the feathers. “I bet you’ve never missed an opportunity.”

Suddenly a loud “CRACK” erupted from a hollow to my right. The rustling of leaves came after, followed by the un-mistakable sound of claws on bark. I crawled to the edge and peered over, hoping to catch a glimpse of the perpetrator. What I saw was the epitome of woodland comedy. There, in on the trunk of a large maple, was a bobcat, clinging to the trunk by one paw. He flailed there, searching frantically for a foothold but, finding none, plummeted to the earth, in a twisted ball of furry fury. He stuck the stereotypical feline landing, but slipped on a wet log, dragging his rear-end behind him. He stopped, looked around, shook the water from the tufts behind his hind legs and walked off into the woods, as if nothing happened. It was sad to see bad luck befall such an efficient killing machine. I felt bad for him but a whole lot better about myself.

I rolled to my back and laughed, right there in the wet leaves. I had witnessed some hilarious activity in the woods, usually by squirrels or chipmunks, but never from a predator on a stalk. It was a very special moment. Something I would probably never see again.

“What a pair we make.” I chuckled. “A couple of clumsy predators making the best of bad situations.”

I climbed to my feet, bushed myself off, and was about to continue on when I noticed the feathers out the corner of my eye.

“Maybe there is hope for me yet.” I chuckled.

I plucked one of the primaries, stuffed it in my pullover, and headed up the ridge, in search of redemption.

If you enjoyed this please consider purchasing a signed copy of my book. You can do that here. It is also available on Amazon in both Kindle and print. I will also be at the Traditional Bowhunters Expo in Kalamazoo this weekend. You can find me at the St. Joe River Bows booth. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tied to a Moment

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Watching an obsession form can be enjoyable and often humorous — especially when looking into the mirror.

I quickly realized the benefits of maintaining my own arrows early in my bowhunting journey. It made good fiscal sense. I was shooting a lot; I was missing a lot; and the costs were mounting. I could either bring my arrows to a shop and have them re-wrapped and fletched, or I could do it myself for a fraction of the time and cost. I saved up, bought a plastic jig, some generic wraps, and a few packs of feathers. I fletched my very first set of aluminums with that setup and killed a deer soon after.

Learning to fletch was a no-brainer but I discovered more than I signed up for. I knew I’d save money by learning to fletch but didn’t expect the activity to be so enjoyable. I fed the addiction by spending money, on shafting and fletching materials, yet my appetite grew. I wanted more out of the archery experience and was ready to move to the next level — wood arrows.

I started buying discounted cedar shafts whenever I could find them and scoured classifieds and online auction sites for bulk nocks, points, and fletching. Going to the hardware store in search of wipe-on urethanes and cements became routine, as did weathering the unnatural lacquer stench that wafted through our home and soaked into our clothes. I realized my reasons for the effort were no longer monetary when I graduated to feather choppers and burners. I wasn’t saving money and I didn’t care. I had further immersed myself into the archery experience and didn’t intend on going back. I was ready to kick it up another notch, in fact and vowed to kill a deer with a wooden arrow.

It happened that very season. On a crisp, October, evening a doe passed in front of my brush blind and back to nature courtesy of one of my crudely-decorated cedars. I felt invincible. The high was indescribable. I learned that an experience, no matter how good, can be amplified through added difficulty.

Fast-forward to 2018 and my next addiction. I loved fly fishing the moment I picked up a rod and knew it was only a matter of time before catching fish with purchased flies wouldn’t be enough. I would have to tie a fly and catch a fish with it. Period. It was an inevitability.

My fishing friend’s were interested in helping me get started whenever I’d mention it, but stitched in the following disclaimer:

“You won’t save money.”

I considered it a challenge and began tying much faster than anticipated with the help of a my dear friend Thom (Jorgensen) and the lifetime’s worth of accumulated tools and material he handed over. I was a babe in the woods — we both knew it — yet he gave me very little instruction, save for a “have at it” grin and this nugget:

“Your flies are going to be sloppy and look terrible at first. Know that going in.”

My plan was to bury the treasure chest within the bowels of my workshop until winter. There was plenty of hunting and fishing to do and I didn’t need another activity. However, curiosity got the better of me. Within a week, my impulses sent me rummaging through box and Web in search of simple fly patterns. The variety of hooks, thread, furs, and feathers were overwhelming at first. I relied on my limited time on the water to help me sort out my needs and pick a pattern that would catch fish no matter how badly I botched them. Caddis fly imitations seemed like the best bet. I’d been fishing with various forms of caddis for months, understood their lifecycle, and felt them rudimentary enough to cut my teeth on.

I began with their larva form in a size #14, which was a bit bigger than what I was currently finding beneath the rocks of the Rogue, but I wasn’t ready to tie anything smaller. The results were to be expected. I struggled with every element of fly tying from threading a bobbin to mashing a barb. I stabbed myself often. I had little idea as to which hand to tie with. And I broke thread every fourth pass around the shank. The latter resulted in a grub sized olive abomination.

The setback made me try harder. I tied well into the early morning hours and had half-a-dozen olive disasters on the kitchen table before calling it quits. They ranged from too fat to too thin but I was proud of the progression. It meant I was improving. I kept tying the following morning, throughout the day, and into the evening, getting more confident with the materials and tools. When I grew tired of nymphs, I moved to dries, testing myself with an olive, deer-hair, caddis.

Tying a dry, even a basic one, was more difficult than expected. I made the wings too long, didn’t use enough fibers, used too many fibers, and kept covering the hook eye to the point I couldn’t thread it. I also found out I was trimming the wrong end of the fibers, allowing water to penetrate and sink the fly. My tying improved with those realizations and I was able make a handful of serviceable flies to test the following Friday.

I hit the river at 5 p.m., wet-waded in, tied on a small Hare’s Ear, and followed the current to my favorite bend. It was a warm, overcast day with random showers. The fishing was slow but I didn’t mind. It felt good to shoot line again. I fished for several hours, changing flies often with little luck save for a few 4-6″ brown trout.

As it began to get dark, I moved further downstream in search of greener pastures. There was a wide, shallow stretch of water there that was perfect for swinging a wet fly. I tied on an unweighted purplish prince with a yellow collar, found a seam, and tossed it into the drift where it was immediately hit by a decent 10-11″ chub. It wasn’t a trout, but it was something, and I was grateful for the action.

A nice 11" chub I caught on a wet fly.

Everything changed from that point on. The sun went down, the bugs came out, and the fish began to rise. And when they rose they did it ravenously, leaving the water like breeching humpback whales for anything resembling a bug. Everything winged was on the menu, from mosquitoes to white/tan colored moths and dragonflies. If it landed on the water, it disappeared.

I knew these were small fish and probably planted but didn’t care. I hadn’t experienced anything like this for months and wanted to catch fish. I cut off the prince, thumbed through the sparse but coveted “my flies” portion of the box, and retrieved “the best” of my olive caddis. I tied it with shaking hands and eyes distracted by the chaos around me. Then, as I wetted the knot, the water rolled on the downstream side of a large rock in front of me. I reacted with a quick roll-cast before my brain had a chance to foul it all up. The line splashed just upstream of my target. The caddis fluttered down after and I gave it a quick skate as it crossed the threshold of the rock.

The reaction was violent and immediate. My line went tight and the caddis disappeared, as if swallowed by the river itself. The moments that followed were not nearly long enough. I kept the rod up, let the fish pull the slack from my fingers, jumped to the reel, and fought a beautiful 11-12″ brown to the water at my knees. What happened next was heartbreaking. I tossed my rod into the shallows, wrapped a wet, shaking hand around the trout, removed the hook, and reached for my only means of evidence collection. But the camera was not easily retrieved and trout aren’t fond of being captured. Right there, beneath the light of the moon, I fumbled my achievement into the murky water and traded a dramatic conclusion for a tragic comedy.

But that is fly fishing. That is what keeps you coming back to the water. I may not have a photo, but I’ll always have that moment where it matters most.

Author’s note: I don’t have the fly either. I lost it in a tree on the next cast and was unable to retrieve it. That, in itself, is a longer story I plan on including in my next book, which will be a collection of bowhunting and fly fishing short stories. Until then, there are still copies of my current book “Life and Longbows” for sale on this site. You can get a personalized copy right here or you can order an unsigned copy on Amazon. A Kindle version will be available next Friday.