Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kentuckys on the Wire

It’s a hot, muggy August Friday night, just as I settle in the phone rang.
“What are you doing tomorrow?’
“Nothing why?”
“Want to go to Center Hill?”
“Ok, meet me at the house. We are going to the blind drawing at Old Hickory then head out.”
  This is my buddy Jimmy. He is a fishing and hunting machine and Center Hill Lake is his favorite, it’s full of good smallmouth which is what we usually try for. But August in Tennessee is not when daytime smallmouth fishing is best. But any day at the lake as they say.
   Center Hill, like every major lake in Tennessee except one, is a flood control lake, meaning it is man-made. It is also extremely deep with spots 100+ feet deep almost against the bank common. The bottom is mainly rock and rock ledges and a great place for bass of all flavors.
   I headed to his house the next morning with a couple of light spinning rods in hand since that is what he says to bring. No tackle box, no casting rods, just a couple of 6 ½ foot spinning rods loaded with 8 lb test. We get into the truck to go draw for duck blinds with a pleasant 90% humidity, clear skies, mid 90 degree heat without a speck of air moving. Since we had no boat I figure we will go back by the house to pick it up. Turns out, I was wrong.
   After the drawing heat waves are shimmering off the pavement I am wondering (1) why we are starting so late and (B) what in the world he is thinking when he says we aren’t going back for the boat. Center Hill is deep, I am pretty sure we aren’t going wading, he just tells me to wait and see. There are a number of good creeks in the area but we have never, in years of fishing, gone to one but I’m thinking this might be where we are headed. He says what we need is in the truck, that he is going to show me something new.
   It’s past midday, the heat is over 100 as we pull up to the dock where we normally launch the boat, get out and start to unload. Opening the back of the truck I see a large cooler, Jimmy opens it to reveal his secret. Small live crawfish. There had to be a couple of hundred crawling around in there. He transfers these to a minnow bucket, grabs a small plastic tackle box, a landing net and heads toward the walkway leading to the boat slips with me tagging along. We stop near the deep end of the slips, Jimmy opens his tiny box of goodies and removes a couple of #8 short shanked hooks. We tie these on as he explains what we are going to do.
   The Kentuckys (spotted bass) like to find shallower spots to hold during summer months where they feed on baitfish without working. They find local docks perfect for this. The one problem is the docks are in deep water with no bottom cover available to orient to. So the bass hold on the one constant, the steel cables running from the dock to barrels of concrete used as anchors. Schools of spots will stack up around these cables during the hottest part of the year. Jimmy had accidentally found this out one July 4th when he snuck away from a family picnic to fish. Now it’s a matter of finding the depth fish are holding so you can drop down a lively crawfish. While spots feed on baitfish not one of them will turn down crawfish, period.
   The rigging cannot be simpler, a single small hook with no sinker or if you must a tiny bb split shot added 12-15 inches up your line. A 1 ½ - 2 inch crawfish hooked in the last tail segment is dropped to swim freely to the lunch line. When it is at a depth you want to try don’t close the bail on the reel, instead, lay the line on the tip of your index finger to detect strikes. When you feel a light tap or two straighten your finger to allow the fish to run for a couple of feet then set the hook. Having 8 lb line helps when a fish weighing 5 lbs or more decides crawfish is a dandy snack. A net is a must in the tight confines of the boat slips. It might take some trial and error to find the depth but once established you can normally count on it for the rest of the trip.

  Another friend joined us as we set about locating the Kentuckys. After about 20 minutes of trying a few slips we caught the first fish 12 feet down. Once that was figured out we all started fishing that level and it was an eye opener. Jimmy caught three or four in minutes with one close to five pounds. Now everyone is catching fish, most of them keepers. Of all the bass we catch Kentuckys are the only ones we keep, they are great in a fish fry. We take a break to get drinks from the dock restaurant and get out of the heat for a few minutes.
   As we sit around a table, Jimmy tells me you can catch Kentuckys like this from after the spawn till mid September. When he found the fish were using the dock he caught close to 200 over that first weekend. He told about one slip where a tree had drifted in that in two days he caught 75. He went back several times that first year and developed this method of finding and catching Kentuckys. You will catch a few largemouth but we have never caught a good smallmouth. We headed back out for a few more then wrapped it up. When we left we had 3 limits totaling 15 fish that weighed 48 lbs. I was amazed. Simple rigging using live bait from a couple of tournament guys. We went home planning to come back in a few days.
   On our next trip we fished a different part of the slips but nailed them right out of the gate. First 9 casts produced 9 strikes, 8 fish landed totaling 24 lbs. Now the question was, will this translate to other lakes. The simple answer, yes.

   I fish another lake with a good population of Kentuckys, I went there to give this technique a shot. Since I didn’t have permission to fish from the dock I used my boat to probe the outer edges and find the cables holding it in place. Just like Center Hill the fish were holding on the cables and readily took crawfish. These fish are aggressive, possibly from the number of fish in the area, so getting them to hit is just a matter of depth. The lake I fish is very different in depth but still contains a lot of rocky areas. Like Center Hill, this is a warm water technique for the post spawn period, once the water starts to cool the fish move out.
   I know some purists are turning back flips about using live bait but I am not an elitist in any form, just a fisherman. I use what works for the conditions. I love throwing crank baits or plastics but like crappie fishing there are times you can’t beat nature. If the use of crawfish is legal in your area a trip to the local creek will get the bait you need. Throw the larger ones back, 2 inches is the largest you want. A good #8 short shanked hook, a spinning reel loaded with 8 lb test along with a 6 ½ foot rod and you are set.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Of Firsts and Memories

  Everyone has them. Firsts. No matter what you do there was a first time. A hunt, a ski trip, that first date when you are shaking like a leaf, when Grampa let you drive the tractor or old farm truck, whatever it was it left a memory that will always be with you. I was talking with my friend Kari when a memory popped into my head about my first buck with a bow. Not a monster, since I have never taken a monster, in fact, a buck many would pass up but he was a good buck for me and my first with a bow. 

  I had a 90 acre farm to hunt about 5 minutes from my house near Murfreesboro, TN, which had about 5 acres that you could hunt and expect to see something. It is bordered by a large Wildlife Management Area that I could hunt by stepping over a fence. I scouted to find a few spots where I could set up depending on wind. These included a couple of trees that were near good trails along with a couple of spots to ground hunt. I started in late September with our archery season but didn’t get an early deer but did manage to shave hair off a doe. Later I scared some turkeys when one arrow hit a fence then skipped along the ground through the flock and the next hit a tree limb before flying harmlessly over another one’s back.

  I hunted through 6 weeks of archery seeing some deer but nothing else close enough for a shot. Muzzleloader started and was my first chance to give this a try. I headed out opening day and managed to take a doe with a 115 yard shot. I was standing by a fence row where I had watched deer crossing the corner of the field. After taking the doe I built a small blind so I could cover that spot. As muzzleloader went along I hunted my little spot of woods and one cold morning with frost turning everything white, as I sat in my climber, I saw a buck headed to me obviously trailing does. Try as I might I couldn’t get him close enough for a shot. He came down to that same corner and then took a hard left into the WMA. He was the best buck I had seen in this spot and my heart rate got up a bit hoping. The rest of muzzleloader passed without another chance or sighting.

  Muzzleloader ended and a short 5 day bow season began so I grabbed my Golden Eagle to give it a go before gun season. I went out on Tuesday morning to see what was coming through. Instead of taking my climber I just walked in and went to the spot I had taken the doe. When I got to my spot I hung my bow on a cedar tree as I stood by the fence watching the field. After a couple of minutes I saw a movement to my right. Turning my head there at 17 yards is the buck from muzzleloader. Now things happen fast. As he heads past me I slip my left hand into my bow strap, clip the release on, turn to my right and draw all in one motion. The deer circles me to get to his trail then stops, looking my way at 30 yards, perfectly broadside. I complete my turn, find my anchor, pick a pin and release, all in one motion.

  I watch and hear the arrow hit knowing it wasn’t what I wanted. It hit high and back. In my excitement I had picked the brightest pin on my sights. It was my forty yard pin not the thirty. Damn it!! Calm down, breathe, think. I had seen blood as the deer wheeled to his left and ran hadn‘t I? I heard him cross the fence not far away so I eased over to where he had been standing and found a good blood trail. He continued leaving a good trail so I eased along finding where he had gone through the fence. I crossed over but then the trail disappeared. I was sick. Thinking about it I called my brother telling him what was going on and asking for some backup. He says hang tight he is on the way. That was the longest hour and a half ever. When he gets there another friend had come along to help. This was good because my brother was color blind and couldn’t see the red against the green of the low growth. As we start to fan out to find the trail things are not looking up. It is as if he had run out of blood. I finally found a drop 60 yards away going in a wide left circle of where I had shot. I began placing bits of toilet paper on the drips to keep track and get an idea of the path he was taking. This continued for a couple of hundred yards. Drop here, two drops there. Slow going taking tiny steps looking at every leaf.

  My brother tells me he needs to sit down for a minute so we take a break to grab a drink and think. As we sit talking we hear a big commotion and jump thinking we have been busted. Instead a flock of robins come screaming out of the cedars headed straight at us with a sharp shinned hawk in pursuit. Just as the flock separates to go around the tree my brother is leaning against the hawk slams a robin into the tree eight feet over his head. We cheer the hawk as feathers drift down on top of us. A great part of the memory of that day. We get up to start tracking again and within yards find what we had been hoping for. Not the deer yet but a huge spot of blood where he had fallen. The trail gets easier then even better. I find a massive spray along with my arrow leaning against a tree as if it had been placed there. I tell them the deer is within 80 yards of us. It is clear now it was a liver hit and the deer is headed along a creek for water. I look and see blood in the water. I decide to follow the rest of the track myself so tell them to hang back. I got into the creek and followed drops of blood drifting in the water. Just as the creek starts to deepen I look ahead and there in the deepest part is my buck floating just about 80 yards from where I found my arrow.

  I can’t tell you the feeling but if you have had it happen to you, I don’t need to. I yelled that I had him then waded into the deeper water to pull him out. I can still see the crawfish that was sitting on his nose as I reached for his rack. The water running into the tops of my boots didn’t matter at all, I had my first buck with a bow. I had accidentally made a good shot, worked hard to find him, managed a hard tracking job then recovered my deer only 125 yards from where I had started the morning. The buck, you see, had made a huge circle. After running when I shot he continued to turn left headed to the creek and the bedding area near there. We had tracked him for hours along a path nearly ¾ of a mile long to find him just down the hill from my blind. I pulled him to the edge of the creek so we could get a few pictures and celebrate. We got him up the hill and loaded then headed to the house. To this day an 8x10 of that deer hangs on the wall along side a picture of my first archery hog and my largest archery hog.

  He isn’t my biggest deer or my first deer but the day spent tracking my first archery buck with my brother, who is gone now, is one of my best memories. We would take many more deer and spend many more hours tracking but most pale compared to that day. Think back on your firsts, they will always be there. Maybe take time to put them into words. Even if you don’t think you are a writer others will. Share and preserve those moments that only you had so they aren’t lost. Memories are great, memories shared, best.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crappie at Speed

  Today the first snow of the year is beginning to fall, winds are close to 30 mph and temps are dropping. Wind chill warnings for frost bite and hypothermia have been issued so ,of course, I am thinking of fishing. Not the warm weather fishing of late spring and summer but the sometimes you have to bundle up fishing of early spring. Where my fishing begins each year, heading out for crappie.

  Crappie, a member of the sunfish family, cousin to bluegill and black bass, is one of my favorite fish for the table. In lakes where they are found these are a much loved species that many a folk spend countless hours pursuing. I, on the other hand, being short of patience or maybe just lazy have found a way that works for loading a freezer in just a few trips with minimum effort and cost. Of course, I found this after I spent a bunch of money.

  Like most fishermen I enjoy acquiring new tackle and baits to chase each species I fish for under whatever conditions I find. When I decided to start crappie fishing it was no different. You can buy quantities of crappie related baits on sale if you do a bit of looking. Local stores mark down jig heads and trailers, Bass Pro and Cabela’s run sales early each year featuring crappie rods ready to go, rod, reel, even line plus an extra spool. I would get one or two each year when I saw the sale in 11 foot lengths. High dollar reels aren’t needed since they just store line. Crappie aren’t known for their drag ripping runs. I bought packs of trailers, jigs along with massive sets of jigs/trailers where I found them marked down and soon had all I needed. I read magazines, watched pros on TV, researched how guides caught fish and then promptly threw it all out and did it my way when I realized it wasn‘t working. One thing I did was research how Europeans use floats. I was amazed at the information which I incorporated into my fishing with great results.

Just the basics. 11 foot rod, hooks, floats and sinkers

My panfishing basics box.

 After trying techniques learned from “pros” I found it not only boring but slow to produce with many hours of nothing. This, I knew, wouldn’t do. There had to be a better way, so, what was I missing? I care less about fish stacked up in 25 feet of water then waiting forever as a 1/32 oz jig falls down to their level. Trying to keep baits down while fighting my boat just wasn’t worth it. The lakes here don’t have many places to hide from early season winds. Even a relatively light wind moved the boat too fast. What to do? Easy, find aggressive fish other people were missing. While most fish this time of year are down 10-20 feet I wanted shallow, aggressively feeding fish I didn’t have to work for. I found them being passed by every fisherman, right under big commercial boat docks next to the boat ramps. Hundreds of slips, walkways and boats holding tons of fish and I didn’t even need to start my big motor.

Small jig assortment
  At this time of year crappie are starting to move into creek channels where they stack up 10-20 feet down. The dock near the ramp I use has a creek channel running under it that averages 25 feet in depth. The fish moving along it can be caught as they stop to rest and feed under the dock. Many are caught suspended 8-10 feet down but this takes time, too. I found that the end of walkways between boat slips, the spaces between boats, even the lower units of motors and boat hulls held actively feeding fish at less than 3 feet of depth. Now we have fish, what does it take to catch them at speed? I fished jigs in all types of combos which worked but I was still missing something. Small spinners were out because there isn’t room to cast and retrieve. Then it hits, you can’t beat nature. I went and bought some minnows, rigged up to fish them, returned to the docks and held on.

  It was amazing. After a very short learning curve finding the right depth it was literally fish after fish after fish. Crappie feed best on bait that is slightly above them in the water column. I rig my float to hold the minnow just below the walkway, boat, whatever then very lightly place it in the water. These fish are active but shallow and easy to spook. Letting out line to match the length of rod I am using I slowly ease the boat along placing the bait carefully within an inch or two of cover by swinging the bait like you would with a cane pole. Then count to 20, if I haven’t had a hit I move the bait a foot or two and repeat. Many times the float barely has time to right itself before being pulled under. Because the fish seem to hold tight to a very small area you need to try each corner, end, motor and hull you come to but only in water that is 15 feet in depth or more. The shallow water rarely holds fish. This is easy to explain but takes some trial and error to figure out each trip since the change of a couple of inches in depth means catching fish or not. Even during a trip you might need to adjust your float a few inches to keep catching fish.

Nice near limit

Good start for a day. Half a limit already and bonus 'gills.

  My favorite rigging is simple, a small foam float, a #1 gold wire hook and small sinker. I use a bobber stop if I am using Thill floats to make depth adjustments since they are sliding floats. The minnows are hooked lightly through the lips and the livelier the better. If a minnow looks weak swap it out for a fresh one don’t be cheap here. 4-6 lb line is plenty but remember that good bass like to hit crappie minnows so be prepared when a 4 or 5 lber latches on. Use the smallest float you can so the minnow can move freely and bait shy fish won’t refuse your offerings. This is the time for KISS. Small lines, no swivels or snaps, small sinkers, light floats, no casting and a lively bait. The results speak for themselves. What is a nice bonus when the legal size crappie move out bluegill are hitting so downsize your hook, go to worms, meal worms or my personal favorite, crickets and you are back in business. I can average close to 80 bluegill an hour doing this. Bluegill fillets are right up there as table fare, too.

  Even if you don’t have the big docks we have here smaller private docks can hold fish in the same way. It’s common to find brush piles near private docks so people tend to leave the fish holding shallow under the dock itself alone. Try this simple, back to basics technique and you might be surprised how well it works. Refine the idea to fit your area and get ready for some great fishing and good eating.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Full Circle

  I have been thinking about ways I spend time in the field or on the water. I thought I would pass along things I have changed over the years to add more to my trips. These are things that I do for me, I am not advocating that everyone rush out and give these a try, in some places I am sure these are probably not useful or laws may prohibit using them in your area. But there are ways all of us can make our trips afield more meaningful and memorable.Some of my changes bring back memories of when I was getting started many moons ago. In many ways it is the way my trips outdoors have come full circle.
  Like many folks I started hunting with a single shot .410 shotgun. Mine came from a local Western Auto store and was a Christmas present when I was 10. My Dad didn’t really hunt but took me out to shoot a few rounds. My Mom was a very good shot and she had taught me to shoot with my ever present bb gun. Many a squirrel hit the ground because of that humble little .410. I moved up to a single shot 16 gauge which allowed me to add doves to my bag. At sixteen I finally got a Remington 870 12 gauge and the push for more, bigger, faster was on. During this time I had gotten my first recurve bow which was replaced by the new technology of a compound about the same time as I got my 870.
  Over time I got rifles, shotguns and pistols that pushed the limits of technology in speed and accuracy. These did what they were designed to do and I enjoyed every minute using them including shooting in three gun matches. But as my skills increased the challenge of the shot diminished. Like all skills practice made shooting easier which translated to the field and after many years that became my problem, shots weren‘t as hard to make. I didn’t need to get as close to the animals or worry about how well I was hidden and my woods craft began to suffer. To solve this I made the decision to change what I carried to the woods. I still use things that help me make a clean and ethical kill. Optics on everything that will take them and a good range finder will always be part of my kit.
  I decided to go back to that one shot challenge. Rather than some of the new single shot rifles available I went with a muzzleloader with interchangeable .50 and 12 gauge barrels. It was a newer inline since the older traditional styles don’t fit me well plus I wanted something easier to keep clean. I found a used compound bow and then added an adult air rifle to the list. These limited my distance which increased my need for skills in the woods. Stalking, tracking, camouflage all became important again. Even though with a muzzleloader you can still make shots of 200-300 yards I was limiting mine to 150. The air rifle I keep to 20-25 yard shots. The bow I am good to 40 or so. In the future I plan on adding another recurve or long bow back into the mix. By doing this I have sharpened my woods craft which is being lost with the introduction of technology. I am not against the new stuff we have, in fact, I own alot of it, but I personally needed to make sure I didn't lose skills I was taught by some great outdoorsmen.
  Don’t want this to be some long winded article on how-to and why, so, here are some of my firsts taken with simpler equipment.

My first buck with a bow. Taken at 30 yards.

My first muzzleloader buck. Maybe 60 yards.

Muzzleloader turkey

Muzzleloader squirrel

Muzzleloader coyote. This one is on the wall.

Archery coydog. My first coyote taken at 14 yards while deer hunting.

Hard to see, this is my first double with a muzzleloader. Mentioned  in 30 Second Deer

Finally a bag of squirrels with my Gamo air rifle.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Beyond Deer

  I have been wandering the house trying to find my writing mojo. Cutting thru the hunting room on the wall was a bit of inspiration. If you want something exciting that you can hunt year round this is how I started. Apologies for the bad pics.

  Hard to believe it has been eight years since I first went for hogs. I had been thinking of it for quite awhile but here in Tennessee most good places are far to the east where I didn’t have any property. My other option was a game farm which I have a big problem with. I am not a fan of high fence but state law says if you offer hog hunts it has to be high fenced. After researching places and prices I found one that on top of a mountain and covers a square mile of hardwoods and rock outcrops. Plenty of places for hogs to run and hide plus they know it better than I do. There are no guarantees here. If you don’t shoot there is no charge but no promise that you will get anything.
  I decided to use my bow, no dogs, spot and stalk with no gun backup. My friends thought I was nuts and asked why. I told them deer don’t bite and I wanted to try something more exciting. Something with teeth, attitude and on the ground with me filled the bill. I was using my old Darton Lightning with aluminum arrows tipped with 100 grain Muzzy 3 blade. This was before good mechanical broadheads and I was warned not to use mechanicals on hogs. The shield plate on the shoulder is amazingly hard. So armed with information I got my bow set up for the hunt, practiced even more than usual and got ready for an early September trip to the mountain.
  I got to the lodge on a beautiful, warm Saturday morning. I was the only one hunting that day so the guide asked if I wanted him to tag along. I said no I would go alone but took a radio to let him know where I was if I happened to take a pig. He pointed to the main gate and gave me a quick idea of the layout and said he would check with me later.
  I headed up the mountain slipping along pretty much clueless as to how to look for a pig, where to look or whether there would be herds or just singles. As I got to the side of a ridge above a big flat I could smell them, then I could hear them. There they were, a herd of about a dozen walking down the trail straight to me. At about 200 lbs each they looked huge. The thought of no backup didn’t seem quite the great idea it had when I was sitting on the couch.
  I backed off the trail putting my back to a tree just as the lead hogs got to within 25 yards. They saw me move but couldn’t decide what I was so 5 of them got in a line, literally, shoulder to shoulder then started popping their teeth and grunting. This, just so you know, will make the hair stand up on your neck and your pulse run up to around Mach 10. The rest of the herd moved in behind them adding more popping teeth and grunts. I decided the first one that came my way was going to eat a Muzzy then I would worry about the rest. They continued to ease toward me in a smelly, tooth popping scrum so I started to draw, picking out the one that would take the first arrow…….drawing……and the radio went off in my pack. The guide picked just this moment to check in. The hogs screamed and headed off up the mountain probably thinking talking trees where more than they wanted to tackle.
  Shaking and laughing I told the guide where I was so he could pick me up for a quick tour. We spent a little time checking spots finding several hogs but no shooters. He headed back to start lunch leaving me farther up the mountain to work my way back to the lodge. As I hiked back down I was entertained by the exotics. Fallow deer, sika deer, along with several types of goats and sheep like Mouflon and Corsicans. Then about half way down I got a call from the guide asking where I was. I told him, he says wait there he has a hog located.
  When the four wheeler pulls up he says that a hog is out of the fence and at a pond across from the lodge. I jump on and we go tearing through the woods. That was a thrill flying down the mountain along a twisting trail. Along the way one of the dogs, out of nowhere, starts following us, running as hard as he can to keep up. We get to the field where the pond is and set up for the stalk. The hog is 80 yards away out of sight below the bank of the pond so we get downwind and ease towards a spot where we could see, the dog now following close behind.
  We move up and the guide tells me where to place my shot. I ask if the dog is going in but he says, no, they are too smart to tackle a pig alone. I think this over because we are in a field, no trees close, nothing to hide behind or climb. At this point adrenaline kicks in and I start shaking. Worse than any shaking in a deer stand. I get an arrow knocked as we ease the last few yards and get our first look. He is laying in the mud facing away from me at only twenty yards. The guide is behind me, the dog behind him and I am trying to calm down enough to draw. I hear the guide whisper to use my 20 yard pin and aim behind the last rib. I am shaking so bad the arrow comes off the rest and I can’t get it back on. The guide reaches over, puts it back then says you can make this shot.
  I get drawn, aim and my tunnel vision takes over. When I release the arrow actually hits perfect catching both lungs and stopping in the off side shoulder. The hog screams and takes off with our dog in hot pursuit. That was the fastest dog I think I’ve ever seen. We lost sight of the pig as it hit the wood line but three more dogs come from the lodge to join the fun. We follow the sounds for about 100 yards to find my hog piled up in some weeds. Not a monster but a nice 140 pounder with nice cutters. The good part, he ran towards the lodge and gate so it was a short trip to the skinning shed.

  It wasn’t a long day of hunting but one that I hope never leaves me. I have been hog hunting since and it is always a thrill. I still hunt them off the ground without backup. I know other folks take it to extremes way beyond my hunts but for me I love hunting this way. If you get the chance and pigs are in your area give them a try. Year round hunting and in many places considered nuisance animals cheap to hunt and good on the grill.

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Born and raised in middle Tennessee.I'm a working wildlife and landscape artist specializing in watercolors. Now making cedar lures and custom turkey calls.



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