Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Growing Local

I was taking with my friend ,Jim Cates, about a couple of things, one was deer hunting. Jim is not a deer hunter and was trying to understand how people could justify spending the time and money they do on food plots. I had to agree with a lot of what he had to say. Mainly that many people are taking this to extremes. I, being of poor means, don’t have the property or the money to invest in this part of game management. My counter to it was this created jobs, helped add money to the outdoor industry and helped provide for wildlife. He said he could see that and to each his own but that wasn’t how he would chose to hunt. It isn’t how I hunt either but I do use food plots and mineral licks to the small extent I can.

Jim gets to fish beautiful waters in east Tennessee for trout and like he said, all he has to do is step into the river. Getting set up to trout fish isn’t cheap but once you do you are mostly done. Deer hunting was like that but it is changing and some of it, not for the better for many of us. Would I like to go on a guided hunt on the Milk River or in Kansas? Yes I would. Is it going to happen? No. I don’t have $10,000 to $20,000 to pay for a hunt and if I did I would be going to Africa. Hunt and lease prices continue to go beyond the reach of most of us dragging the price of products along with them. This includes seeds, fertilizers and supplements.


I was thinking how this type of game management is affecting many hunters that, like me, don’t have much money. I would love to have huge acreage (own/lease) to plant and manage so I could finally take a buck that might go 130”. I never have even though I take a lot of deer, I have the does scared though. My reality is, I hunt small pieces of property, most don’t have a place to plant, I don’t have the rights to plant or have livestock. Where I can plant the spots are small and I do everything with very little equipment. Only twice have I even had access to a tractor. This is how I came up with ways to cut costs and support local businesses at the same time.

Most people plant food plots using commercially available products. They do work but aren’t cheap. These are bagged in amounts for plots from ¼ to several acres in size. The seeds used in these products are good but the problem is they use what I refer to as the shotgun mix when deciding which seed to use. To be fair, they need a product that will work from Texas to Michigan, from north Carolina to Montana. It must have something in it that will grow under a wide range of conditions but no matter what the packaging says, every type of seed will not grow everywhere. This mix has a variety of seeds that once spread out has something in it that will grow. The rest go to waste and while it does make some nice plots, you waste money by having seed types that don’t grow in your location. I can say this from experience since using these products is where I started.

As I tried a few different brands I decided I wanted seed that grew better where I was planting, there was too much in these that didn‘t work. So I went on a quest to figure out what to do. Back then I lived in Murfreesboro, while running errands I saw Hooper Supply just behind Cannonsburg Historic Village. I stopped in to ask if they had something I could plant and as I walked in the door knew I had found what I needed. There were hand printed signs listing seeds, pictures on the wall supplied by farmers and hunters, folks hanging around talking. From seeds for the farm to, can you believe it, a whole board devoted to deer hunters, it was listed right up there on the wall. On it was a list of seeds meant to work in our area. I didn’t see one listed that was the magic bullet of seeds guaranteed to grow everywhere. I looked around, there wasn’t one bag of mega mix, works anywhere, food plot seeds.



Note my high dollar huntin' rig parked out front.



This is Angie, she runs things and keeps the boys working there straight.

Bruce, introduced himself asking what I needed, he took the time to talk to me, telling me deer stories and asking what I wanted my plot to do. We talked about the place I was planting, fertilizer and what seed would work best with the weather conditions we were expecting. He told me they did not carry premixed bags but blended seed for each person’s needs. He would talk to guys, like me, that were new then provide specific mixes for them. Unlike some of the box stores or outdoors mega stores, the seed here was fresh not held over from last year. Some of the big stores are careful about this, others not so much, here it wasn’t a problem. I made my picks, got loaded up and when I was leaving Bruce asked if I would bring in some pictures of my plot. I said sure and headed out to the woods.


Look close my plot is in the top right corner. Look real close and you can find pics of albino deer.

That first plot was a success for the plants. The turkeys and deer used it but I didn’t take one out of it. I did manage to miss a couple of turkeys with my bow. I shot a couple of deer not far from the plot but the best thing was what I learned from it. That little plot taught me what I could do with a limited budget and seeds targeted to my area. It grew into a beautiful spot and the pictures I took are still on the board at Hooper’s. I still use what I learned there every time I put out one of my tiny spots.

The other thing is the use of supplements such as mineral licks. I have used the major brand for many years, paying an average of $1.00 a pound for the natural blocks. During one stop at the Co-Op one of the guys there asked why I was buying that brand. I said it was because I wanted to use a product with no fillers to get my monies worth. He told me to come to the back of the shop where the feed is kept. When we got there he pulls out a fifty pound block used for cattle and says look at the label. Sure enough, it contained the same things as what I had been using. The difference, $6.50 for a fifty pound block, not $15.00 for 14-15 pounds. For the price of one 15 pound block I could now put out 100 pounds. I take the blocks, whack ‘em with a big hammer, so I can spread it out in several spots.


The food plot board. Notice it only has one bag of mixed seed. Here you buy from bulk, no need to pay for packing and big time ads.

What I learned is to stop paying for packaging and advertising. I now buy products that are fresher, cheaper and work better for my needs. I can buy seed for a fraction of the cost and get just what I need for the time of year and soil conditions. I have knowledgeable, local people to ask if something isn’t working and sometimes get invited to hunt a new spot by one of the farmers dropping by to pick up supplies.

I know many folks may not like the thought of products they use not being the best. Can’t blame someone for that. We all want to think our money is wisely spent. Many times that might not be the case. If you take a look you might find the same problems I did and be able to apply the same solutions. If you plant large areas and your seed cost drops, think of how much more you can do. My money now goes farther, products I purchase work better and I help my community by supporting local business.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Places, a Tour

I thought I would share a few more places I have been over the years. Each with great memories. Some I visited once, others I return to again and again. Hope you enjoy a little tour around middle Tennessee.

This was my little corner of the woods in "Airborne" and "Of Firsts and Memories". I got my first muzzle loader doe, first bow buck and first batch of air rifle squirrels in this exact spot. Rutherford County.


This was my first food plot. The pictures of the whole thing still hang in the local feed store. The little corner of the woods is just 60 yards off the right hand side of this picture.

Early season crappie fishing on Percy Priest with my buddy, Jimmy, from "Kentuckys on the Wire".This is just down from Fate Sanders marina.



Two views from a stand that had a terrifying climb into a massive old ceder tree. Sadly it was lost in a storm. Huge tree, huge stand and a beautiful view. Humphreys county.


Finally, a spot two minutes from my house. This is a 200 acre farm that I sometimes get to hunt. This is a spot the turkeys use for a strutting ground. Bedford county.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Airborne

Once upon a time summer was dragging. It had been a good year, rainfall was plentiful but the heat had been rough. The result was a great mast crop. All the trees were loaded, this promised a good deer season. Like many folks I didn’t have huge budgets to maintain massive food plots (still don’t by the way) and was glad to see acorns bending the limbs for a change.

September took it’s sweet time getting here but opening day was within sight. I got my bow and finished tuning up for that 4th Saturday in September, our permanent opening day. Then the weather forecast came in, clear, humid and hot, not just hot, 100+ degrees hot, but I don’t miss opening day.


20 yard group with my Bear, yes that is 4 arrows inside a coke bottle top.

Early morning Saturday, I headed over to my little corner of the woods and set up in my ground blind. Just walking to the stand left me soaked. It was so still, humid and hot that you just sat and dripped. No self respecting deer was going to come near me even if they did move. I sat muttering bad things about weathermen, deer, bugs, the stupidity of people that do this, Al Gore with his global warming, finally gave up and went home. All I saw was a herd of tree rats feeding in a tree 5 yards from my blind. They came from every direction and fed there all day showering me with their nut leavins. That night I sat reading online how no one was seeing deer and tried to figure a way to salvage the next day. I knew I wasn’t deer hunting again until something changed in the weather. I kept thinking about the squirrels, I do love me some fried squirrel or squirrel and dumplings. I got out my small game vest, air rifle and pellets. I had my plan. I love hunting small game but don’t go enough. This was a good excuse to fill the freezer.

The next morning it’s pushing 80 degrees at daylight. I slipped into my blind, this was just something I threw together using whatever brush I could find, so with no top, I can be comfortable and watch for squirrels. I had my folding chair, some water, Little Debbie snack cakes, my Gamo .177, a can of Gamo Hunter pellets and a fresh can of Off with Deet. Yesterday had proved the ferocity of local skeeters and tenacity of our ticks and chiggers. Now I needed a squirrel or ten.

The first squirrels started showing up just after sunrise. I waited to see if they were going to the same tree. Like yesterday each one made his way to the corner of the field where the feeding tree, a big white oak, grew. I let a couple get started cutting then picked one that was coming my way. I had to remind myself to be patient, this was an air rifle not a regular .22. The squirrel kept coming as I eased up from my chair to hide behind a tree. This gave me a good rest and when he got to about 15 yards I got a good look through the scope waiting for him to stop. He finally did before jumping to the next tree.



 The shot hit just under the chin and he spins, takes a couple of steps up the tree then comes down in a tail twirling freefall after a sweet back flip. A nice thud announces his contact with the ground. The other squirrels stop eating but an air rifle doesn’t make much noise. I stand still for a couple of minutes, they start cutting again. The scraping of teeth on shell, pieces of hulls falling through leaves making ticking sounds as they pile up on the ground mark each one. I ease over to retrieve my first of the morning. A .17 caliber pellet moving at over 1000 fps does a fine job stopping a charging rodent.

Slipping back to my chair I wait on the next one. It doesn’t take long. Leaves are thick making it hard to find them, I can see hulls fall and limbs shake but can’t get a shot I feel good about. No hurry since there are several using the same tree. A couple of minutes later one is coming down headfirst almost directly above me. I get braced, take up the slack on the trigger and hit this one behind the shoulder as he turns to go along a limb. Not even a twitch, just falls. That’s two.

 I watch as skeeters bash away at the barrier I set up with half a can of Off. Sprayed on me and all the bushes around me I am trying to confound them. So far it’s working but the heat is getting bad fast, I know I won‘t last long. It takes a little while for the woods to settle but before very long here comes #3. This one takes almost the same track as the last one. I line up, get my sight picture and drop another one. After gathering up those two with heat and bugs getting worse, I decide one more is enough.

My moving around plus the shooting has run off the few that were here. It takes some looking for me to pick up more movement. Limbs are moving in the distance in several places, a couple of them headed my way. I wish he would hurry up, my water is hot and my Little Debbie‘s are melting. The heat is bad, the skeeters are massing along the border, I’m ready to go home. It must have heard and starts my way.

I slip out of my chair and hide as it moves high in the trees. I watch limbs bending and shaking showing his path near the top of the mature trees. These are big oaks and maples, he is using the tops where the others had come in lower. I have to pay attention or lose him in the canopy. Staying hidden as he takes his time stopping to check a hole before coming in, I have a spot picked, if he comes through I will have my shot. Lucky for me he is following the same path as others did once he gets close. That unseen highway through the trees. At 20 yards he sits at the base of a limb, curled up, looking over the area. It is another easy shot and he hits the ground with a satisfying thump. I gather him up, take a few pictures and head home.



Rather than spend a day sitting at home my air rifle provided me with a morning of fun. An adult air rifle can run into some money, mine wasn’t cheap, but they provide a good challenge along with inexpensive ammo. Many places can turn into a range where you could never shoot regular guns. I hope to add a precharged pneumatic .22 and eventually a .45 or .50 caliber. The air gun challenge bit my long ago when I was a kid sitting on the porch with my Mom as she taught me to shoot with my lever action Daisy. Later I got a 760 Crosman which lasted for years, still one of my favorites. The guns available now are hard to believe, from the ones we had as kids to high dollar, high tech machines worthy of the target bench. If you are looking for a new facet to add to your outdoor experience this might be for you.

Disclaimer: All products mentioned were purchased by me. I am not affiliated with nor was I compensated by them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Places

I don't work in many absolutes. I don't have A favorite place but here are a few I enjoy and don't mind returning to. This is for the OBN photo prompt. Enjoy.


The upper section of Percy Priest lake


One of the runs I love on the Stones River


View from a stand on my little 30 acre lease.

Finally sunrise in Jump Off Tennessee.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Cats an Evolution

 My earliest memory of fishing was below Pickwick dam on a warm summer night, my family fishing the tail waters for catfish. This was the only fishing I ever got to do with my Grampa and, being very young, I was just along for the ride. A chubby little boy just happy to be out. They would build a fire, set out rods, sit around the fire cooking and waiting for fish to bite. This is special to me since it is probably this fleeting memory that got me started fishing. Fifty years on and I can still feel the rocks as I laid on a pallet made of old handmade quilts, smelling the wood smoke, watching the fire dance as night settled in and the chill as dew starts to form.


Pickwick Dam at dusk.

For years this was how I went after cats, the same as my family did way back when, cutbait or worms below a dam or a gob of chicken liver chucked into a lake or pond, fingers crossed, hoping a cat would find it. Bullheads to channel cats, from Florida to Michigan to California, over time I caught them all. I got caught up in bass fishing, tournaments and such, other fishing got pushed aside. Bass got to be work so I started looking for something fun, catfish got my attention by accident.

While fishing Percy Priest I did a lot of trolling for stripe and bass since my fishing partner couldn‘t cast for long. Priest has lots of flats covered with chunk rock where, during warm weather, stripe run shad on the flats and bass hold in the rocks. A crank bait running down 10 feet covers lots of water and finds fish. The thing is, along with bass and stripe I kept catching catfish. Channels and flatheads would turn up just about every trip. This brought up questions, why and how. Why are they there and how can I get them. This was 20 years ago and my quest for cats had begun.

Most people know about trotlines (not trout, trot), limb lines and jugging for cats. I tried all of these with some success, the problem with the first two is they are static so you are waiting for fish to find the bait. Jugging seemed to work better since the bait moved but at first it was pretty much throw them out and hope. I decided jugging was the way to go.

My first jugs were nothing more than 20 ounce drink bottles. Free, readily available plus easy to use, they worked. They do have problems, air temperature causes them to expand and contract. They will completely collapse if temps change enough. Another problem was trying to store and transport them. They were a pain to carry around plus you need a rubber band on each to hold your hook. I rigged up a bunch and headed out to where I caught cats trolling and started there. I had no real idea how to make the most of my new toys but I did start to catch fish.

Throw and hope fishermen at New Johnsonville steam plant Tennessee River.

Fast forward about 20 years, now I have designed my own jugs which are really floats. Easy to use and store they have made a huge difference in the number of fish I catch. Besides the floats I spent many years keeping track of how and why I caught fish. One thing that became clear, speed and depth control are as important with catfish as any game fish you try for. Time of year, water temps, water conditions and one of the most important, wind speed/direction, things many people don’t take into account when going after cats became my obsession. After putting in the time it now pays off every trip to the lake.

On my home lake the most productive bait for me has been chicken or turkey liver. It is hard to keep on, especially in warmer waters, but the fish love it. I fish lakes where it might be cut bait or spoiled shrimp but on Priest it is liver. I take 5 lbs for a 2 hr trip. My rigging is simple, 50 lb mono (do not use braid) cut to length, a 1/0 - 4/0 circle hook and a split shot to help it stay down. The line is cut to hold the bait within a foot of the bottom, the split shot is added about a foot up the line. I attach this to the float using a #5 locking swivel.

Once rigged for the depth I head upwind and begin dropping floats every 20 feet working back downwind, carefully watching my depth finder to follow the contours of the bottom. You want the bait to stay close to the bottom but not touching. The wind drifts the baits parallel to the bank hunting feeding fish. I repeat this at two or three different depths depending on the time of year. Pre spawn fish tend to be shallower, as waters warm their depth increases. When you get a hit the swivel allows the float to flip in the air which is fun to watch. Once hooked the fish fights the float and you have fun chasing it around till it gets tired. It is common to have 6-8 fish on at once going different directions, good times.

On Priest I fish shallow flats covered with rocks and stump rows. At deeper depths the oxygen content is low so fishing deep isn’t productive. Early in the year when the water first comes up I rig for 3 feet and 6 feet, later as it warms, I fish 6 feet and 10 feet. These 3 depths produce all the cats I want. One other thing, I only fish in the morning from 7 to 9. Cats will feed during this time no matter your location, plus, I’m not losing sleep over a catfish. When the cats stop feeding do what I do, go fish for bluegill, they are awake by then. Looking back at records I average 20 catfish every 2 hour trip.

Raymond with his two hour catch. He needed these for a family fish fry.

You can target the size and species by changing bait and bait size. Since I want channels up to 4 lbs or so the size hooks and bait I use works great. For flatheads you need bigger hooks, live bait and fish at night when they move looking for food. Big blues can be found under schools of shad where I use whole or cut shad rigged to hang just under the baitfish. For the larger cats hooks up to 8/0-10/0 might be needed. I stick with 50 lb mono on all my rigs.

One very important factor is wind. A wind blowing 10 mph is about the most I will fish in. After that I can’t keep the floats in position and they move faster than the fish like. But if you have a wind of 6-8 mph running parallel with a good bank you are in business. I have banks that are as short as 100 yards or as long as 500. Each is fished basically the same but I also target small rock piles and dropoffs. These are fished with as little wind as possible, dropping floats in a pattern around them. These can produce some very large fish that are territorial and have staked these out as their spot. In short, if it will hold a bass, it will hold a cat.

This is the basics of jugging for cats. It can be taken to levels so far beyond this it is hard to believe it is considered a low level, poor man’s technique. If you look at my bucket list this is the fishing system I am talking about. It is as varied and technical as bass fishing or as simple as you can imagine. If you like cats, have friends or kids where casting isn’t an option for them, give this a shot. I have spoiled more than a few people with a 2 hour trip to the lake without a rod in the boat. A few drink bottles, a handful of hooks and sinkers, a spool of line, there you go. Having fun and catching fish, that’s what it’s about.

Trip saved by bluegill and crappie when wind ran us off our banks. Remember it's about the fun.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the Rocks

Stripers, rockfish in this area, for years caused some massive traffic jams on local lakes and below area dams. I can remember acres of boats side by side on Percy Priest centered over a huge school of rockfish. They would drop live bluegill down and wait for a strike. Below dams, people would line up shoulder to shoulder by the hundreds throwing 1 ounce jigs into the tailwaters, drifting them with the fast flowing current. This was the heyday of rockfishing, when a 2 fish limit was common enough and fishing could be fast and furious. It was a blast to head to the lake at dusk to wait for schools chasing shad to the surface. A big top water bait made out of an old broom handle produced great strikes. The fish were predictable, fairly easy to catch and I miss those days even though the crowds could be trying. The addition of hybrids just added to the fun.

Photo credit: My friend Gary Hanson with one of his recent catches in Alabama.

There aren‘t as many as there were but during cold weather, I still head to Old Hickory or Priest to chuck jigs into the fast water. While you can catch them year round I like the cold weather fishing when there isn’t much to do.

7 a.m. I parked just above the steps leading down to the catwalk. Nice of TVA to pour this for the fishermen. I scan the area looking for the old men that are here almost every day during scheduled generation. If you don’t fish dams this is what they call the water release through the turbines. The rockfish and hybrids love it, they show up about 30 minutes after it starts. This day it was 6 a.m. till noon. I see the old guys, they have already moved down to the lower end of the catwalk leaving the boils where the water exits the turbines empty. Today there are only 5 of us here.

The water is literally roaring, spray filling the air as I get to the edge of the river then turn right to get to the spot I love to fish. It is even with the end of the wing wall where you are standing on big chunks of slippery rock. I can cast to the face of the dam and let my jig drift along the wing wall, brushing against it, then dropping into the eddy spinning at the end of the wall. I rig a favorite, a 1 ½ ounce white on white jig with a bit of silver tinsel for flash, take aim and deliver my first cast exactly into the corner. It drifts fast, makes it to the eddy in a few seconds and drops at the current break…..then stops. Nothing to hang up on here so I slam back on the rod and feel the head shake. Three cranks of the reel handle, get the rod tip down, hit him again and again. The head shakes get harder.

 I only had a 7 ½ foot spinning rod loaded with 14 lb test while most folks fish heavy surf rods up to 15 feet. I knew what was next, he turned and made the first run. Line was screaming from the reel . Between a big fish and fast water all you do is hold on and hope. If they head downstream you get the added fun of running across big chunks of rock till you get back to the catwalk then sprinting along trying to not get spooled. This fish ran straight across the river to stop within 5 or 6 feet of the far bank. Fine by me since I was down to maybe 8 loops of line on the reel.

I yell, “Fish on!“, so the guys downstream know to look out. This is a good fish, I can see his back out of the water, a wide tail breaking the surface. My green fluorescent line looks like ski rope in the sun as it stretches across the current. I start to slowly get line back, this part reminds me of ocean fishing, reel down then raise the rod to make a few cranks. I head back to the catwalk, I want a flat surface under my feet and to get closer to my net man. All the guys stop fishing, one grabs a net and all head my way. As they get even with me I have managed to get 50 yards of line back, they are asking how big, has he made a second run? They got the answer when the fish hits the heavy current at midstream, turns downstream and takes every inch of line back. The rod is popping, the drag protests against fish and current.

This repeats for what seems like 20 minutes but might have been 5. I work slowly down the walkway to the very end, finally making my stand. The fish decides to fight rod and current, fine by me, since I get the advantage. My net man is ready as the fish drifts to the bank, he does a good job, getting him on the first pass. A nice fish pushing the 30 lb mark.

I walk down to the edge of the river and get the hook out. The fish is in good shape, the old guys want to get a good look before I take him to the truck. I get him out of the net smiling to myself cause I have a surprise. Everyone says how good a fish it is, how they wouldn’t mind getting one that size, man he will cook up good…….then it dawns on them where I’m standing. I have eased back to the edge of the river while we talked, turned and to the shouts of “NO”, thanked the fish and put him back. I don’t like rockfish for the table. There were some long faces among my fishing buddies.

I have caught many rocks and hybrids from that spot. Some on my first cast, some on my last. Fishing for rocks this way isn’t easy or fast but I love to go when I get the chance, not often enough these days. During the winter the dams are where the rockfish run, when you find them it is a blast. I look for the shad running the banks. If the bait is there the rocks are, too. That is the reason for my favorite jig, it mimics the shad plus I use a heavier jig to fish part of the water column others miss. The down side to that is losing a lot of jigs to the rocky bottom.

My current rockfish arsenal. 9 1/2 ft Shimano casting rods. Top one of my favorite reels BPS Catmaxx. Bottom a reel I hate Shimano Catala.

If you have rockfish or hybrids in your area and haven’t taken advantage of them I hope you do. They are so much fun to catch and you can use a wide range of tactics to find them. From top water or downriggers, to chucking lead below a dam, even cut or live bait, they provide fishing during times of the year when other fish can be slow.
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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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