Good Stripers Gone Shad

What is it about a species that makes us chase it or dismiss it? Why will we travel hundreds of miles in search of steelhead, yet leave largemouth bass to a guy with a day old spin rod and a crankbait? I’m standing deep enough in a maze of thorns that if it were water I’d be drowning, a quarter mile into a half mile hike along New Jersey’s side of the Delaware River.  With me is Rob, photographer, avid fly fisherman, and high school friend. Most people are taller than me, Rob is quite a bit taller, for some reason I almost whisper to him as if we are hunting, “how’s it look up ahead?”  His demeanor is how I remember it, always with a smile, Rob turns back, smile embedded in a big red beard that would make a character from Lord of the Rings jealous and says “Eh looks alright” I nod my head, smile and say “alright”. What he really meant was “looks like hell” and what I meant was “Thank you for not being that guy, although your waders, that are way more expensive than mine give you every right to be, and dear god let us catch a striper.”

DSCF4631 (1)A sea of green, and thorns. Not all journeys need a path. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

This High school reunion started how most start these days, a Facebook message. Where most of these end in an after work drink with dismal conversation about how the hot cheerleader put on a few pounds or the band tuba player lost a ton, our message let both of us know no ones weight would be discussed  “ Let’s go fishing”.  I didn’t feel obligated to Rob to get us into monster fish, he seems the type of guy who can appreciate any species from a small stature, poetically colored native brook trout to a gnarly toothed run of the mill pickerel. Me on the other hand, though not proud, I need something more out of a fish. I thought at first it was the hunter in me. I consider myself a 50/50 outdoorsman, 50 percent fishermen and 50 percent hunter, in reality I probably lean more hunter. The fish needs to be big, it needs to be bad, and I think I need to want to eat it. Now hear me out before you want to catch and release my heart out of my chest. I need to want to eat the fish, not that I’m going to eat the fish, in fact I haven’t kept a fish in quite some time. Even if I have no intention on keeping the fish, when the hook sets, my reel cries with that buzz, and my eyes catch the flash of color as the fish regrets his meal selection, it starts. A primal message from the bowels of my DNA to my brain simply stated “Lose this fish and we starve”. My “big, bad, delicious” moto seemed simple, logical, and somewhat scientific. It’s why when someone would ask, “Do you want to go shad fishing?” I would say “Meh what else ya got?” I didn’t except a Facebook message from an old friend to yank it from the depths of its double helix hiding spot.

DSCF4636Crossing rivers to get to rivers. Not all crossings… ok enough of that. It’s me crossing a stream. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

April in New Jersey and fishing usually means one thing, trout. Cool mornings give way to warm afternoons while winters last remaining soldier of snow releases it’s stranglehold on the ground with a burst of greens. The banks of the streams and rivers flood with fishermen elbowing for room, ears are hooked, lures are lost and old men in rubber hip boots judge young men in neoprene waders. It was at this time, a few years ago, one of the best fisherman I’ve ever met, my buddy James , turned and asked me “ Want to go fishing?” I replied “Sure!” then rattled off a few well stocked and stomped trout streams. The word “no” accompanying his shaking head confused me “Dude I want no part of that circus. Shad fishing”.  I questioned the best fisherman title I gave him with a raised eyebrow and the words “Bait? You want to catch bait?” in my head.  American Shad run the rivers of the east coast starting sometime in April through June. Starting in the southern rivers they slowly make their way up the coast as the water and weather warm. As the shad move their way up stream they are followed by striped bass . Ocean going, sea fairing, some fifty pounds plus, a worthy opponent for my fly to say the least. The bass are spawning as well and my guess fattening up on the shad. With the lure of stripers in mind I joined my friend James. By days end not a single fish lip was harmed by my hook. He had caught a few shad, so I asked “does anyone eat them?”  With an unsure look he replied “I’m sure, but mostly I think people just eat the roe.” Fish eggs, fish eggs in my mind are bait. I did go as far as to try eating shad roe, the taste of which would not be what pulls me from a 4am slumber in search of shad. Imagine grains of sand, softer , fishy, and stuck in your teeth. I was no closer to becoming or understanding a shad fisherman.

DSCF4661Checking out the damage a Bald Eagle did to this shad. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

I was fine with not chasing shad, after all there are plenty of fish in the sea, pun intended. Then spring 2017 rolled in and my buddy James began talking about an epic shad run, best run in years. He spoke about crazy fishing days, you know the stories, fish on every cast, 20-30 landed, fish spitting flies only to have another take it. I thought to myself what’s wrong with him? They’re shad. I shook my head and said I don’t get it man. Almost every day he would send me multiple pictures of chrome colored fish in the 20 inch range fresh from the Atlantic Ocean, along with captions like “Dude you’re missing out!” I would study his grip and grins hoping somewhere between the shimmering dark of a shads back through the metallic glimmer that gives way to the bright white of it belly something would hit me, and I’d say “yeah I think I’ll give this fish a chance.” That feeling never came.

The weeks went on, the shad run went on, James kept sending pictures and I kept hunting turkeys. Then as if the fishing gods were calling me to the river, or maybe it was the turkey gods feeling bad for not having out smarted a gobbler, James sends me a picture. The accompanying text, though not needed, simply read “striper”. The fish wasn’t big, it didn’t have to be, but much like so many shad he had pulled to the bank before, I too was just hooked and being pulled to the banks of the Delaware River. Days later a Facebook message from an old friend would seal the deal. Let’s go fishing.

With a handful of closer minnows and few spots where I think stripers would hole up we head from Rob’s mini van.  Our hike takes us through fields, over downed trees we use as make shift bridges, down steep embankments, and through thorns. In my proposal to Rob I boiled this down to “a short hike”.  Our conversation takes from eatable plants, a subject I’m not so well versed, to how mini vans are the perfect vehicle for overnight fishing trips. We talk about shad too. Rob like me has never caught or really targeted shad. He says he too didn’t really understand it, but I feel he’d be more appreciative than me with a rod bent by a shad.  The unseasonable chill to the air has our breath visible as we near the final leg of the hike, a two tiered near vertical drop which looks as if it’s seen a few of the Delaware River’s historical floods. Rob leads the way down the first drop about seven feet is cleared with ease by Rob where gravity helps me to a speedy decent on my rear end. The second drop looks as though I’d tumble at least four times before my head comes to rest on the baseball sized, and similarly shaped river rock. We clear it gracefully. As we near the river I spot a bald eagle enjoying a fish breakfast about 80 yards down river, right where we plan to fish. Rob readies his camera, as I take this as a good sign there are fish ready to be caught, a second eagle flys in chasing his counterpart away then follows. I can’t help but wonder if either of us would have chased them away from the fishing hole if they hadn’t vacated it willingly. My thought is we would have fished up river out of respect for the fisherman who got up earlier then we did.  Rob hits the river first, I ready my 9wt switch rod and slide into the water down river. Rob’s casts are clean, large waves of fly line lay out in the air before hitting the water without a buckle. His single hand cast looks as though it’s in slow motion as he hits his target in a ballet with the rushing water. I’m almost jealous but I feel my spey cast better suits my personality as it cuts through the water with aggression into a fluid “D” loop that shoots my fly to the far reaches of the fast water. Somewhere in my fly fishing journey I accidentally learned how to cast. To myself I call it an ADHD cast, it covers a lot of ground but I just can’t seem to get to concentrate on catching fish as well. I sometimes catch myself, figuratively admiring its distance and literally in the back of my head, like I said not always pretty.

DSCF4646Spey casting and almost looking like I know what I’m doing… ah the timing of a great photo. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

If you ever find yourself on one of those fishing party boats with me, and are the one going around with the morning collection hat yelling “who wants in on first fish bet?”, you can skip me. I do not, and feel no shame in, ever claiming that prize. On a side note if you are the guy right behind him asking “who wants a morning beer?” please pay me a visit. Right on que Rob’s line goes tight, I turn my head as so many losers of the first fish bet to the words “fish on!” I watched the fight, caught up with it I nearly forgot my own line which was exiting the swing, as Rob’s fight started running into my direction. I quickly reeled in and moved out of the water for the photo opt that was about to unfold. Rob brings the fish to hand. My first thought is “is it a striper?” my second thought is, poor Rob probably doesn’t get many quality pictures of himself gripping a fish since he’s the photographer. I felt bad my own photography skills would not change this, and that it was no striper but a lowly shad he had in hand. As the thought of “well at least I didn’t march him out here for nothing” entered my mind, I saw it. I thought maybe it was just his good nature shining through, but there it was a smile from hairy covered cheek to hairy covered cheek. His face was a glow as he ripped his eyes from the fish and said to me “now I get it.” Rob was caught by the shad as much as he caught the shad, his next words with a giggle “I guess I’m shad fishing!” alarmed me in some way.

DSCF4657Big waters of the Delaware River, behind me NJ, ahead PA. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

I moved down river to slower water, hoping a striper would be lying in wait for a half dead spawned out shad to float his way. I started thinking if a shad took my fly would I be changed? I thought maybe it was the hike in the had Rob just glad he caught any fish. I started to ask myself “Is there something wrong with me?” Then it happened my line went tight. Was I snagged? Was I fishing to deep? Before I could asked another question the fish answered by ripping my line up river. My reel screamed just before my unknown opponent changed course and ripped me back down river. “Fish on!”  I screamed to Rob. This was a big fish no spawned out shad, it was hungry and angry with the power of the Atlantic Ocean behind it. The fight went on and it had to be a striper, as the fish neared the surface at 15 feet from me it was confirmed, this fish did have the power of the Atlantic behind it. It was no striper, it was a shad. Then without delay my DNA from long dead ancestors kicked in “don’t lose this fish or we starve!” I yelled to Rob with excitement “It’s a SHAD!” and “I get it now!” I yelled loud enough for my buddy James to hear me where ever he was “I GET IT NOW!”I was now shad fishing, I am now a shad fisherman.

DSCF4670Hooked up on my very first shad. Photo by Rob Yaskovic

All photos created by Rob Yaskovic. Feel free to contact Rob at http://www.yaskovic.com and follow him on Instagram @robyaskovic to see more great photos. Thanks Rob!

The Streak: A Fishing Story

“It’s broken man, my finger is fucking broken.” I look up from my swollen, shades of purple, middle finger to the face of my friend James, who stares at me and responds how a fishing buddy should, a laugh and a sarcastic “aww”. “Who the hell brakes a bone fishing?” I ask. It was rhetorical, I knew the answer, me that’s who. As I pulled off my soaking wet clothes with my broken finger and broken pride. The surprise swim in the icy Salmon River on a 20 degree day in early March fresh in my mind. The dejected trudge though the snow on my river beaten legs, while cursing my finger, still arching my body. I uttered the words I would think and say after so many fishing trips before and to come “I’m done”.

I’m about to tell you something I am not proud of, nor do I like to talk about it. I’ll lay it out here right in the beginning. I’ll just say it so it’s out of the way. If I don’t say it this isn’t going to be much of a story, it is the story, so here it goes. For the past 5 years I have been, on average, on 3 fishing trips a year for salmon and steelhead to New York State’s Salmon River in Pulaski, NY. In those 5 years I have caught exactly ZERO fish. Zero. Say it with me Zero.  I don’t think I can truly put into words the shame I feel in that, but I’ll try.

That’s 15 trips. It’s 232 miles from my house to the Salmon River, so that’s 6,960 miles to and from. If I were to add up the gear, gas, food, drinks, licence, places I’ve stayed… well I won’t do that. Let’s just say it’d be a lot. A smart man would have quit at 5 trips, an idiot would have stopped tortuing himself and his bank account at about 10. It takes a speical kind of money pissing sadomasaccist to make it to 15. That’s why when September 2017 came around and the Salmon started running, I took a good long hard look at myself in the mirror smiled and said “why quit now?”.

I wasn’t always a bad fisherman. I come from New Jersey, from north Jersey to be exact. It’s not your “Saprano’s” New Jersey or your “Jersey Shore” New Jersey. I grew up fishing rivers like the Delaware and Wallkill. I like every dude I knew growing up hunted in the fall and winter and fished in the spring and summer. At 16 fishing gear with a gold Mepps spinner I’d limit out on trout in 15 minutes. A gear set up is your typical, not traditional fly rods came first, rod and reel you find in any sporting goods store. It’s the spinning reel that most people graduate to once they’ve proven to grand dad they have mastered the Mickey Mouse pole. Why it’s called “gear fishing”? I have no idea. No matter the nomenclature, with that set up I was deadly. Even fish with lock jaw would bite. It was so deadly and easy to catch fish in fact at 18 years old I walk into a fly shop to basically handicap myself.

I know I know I can hear my fly fishing friends screaming their woolly buggers off “It’s not handicapping! Its just a different kind of fishing which requires more skill and….” yeah yeah pipe down. Look is gear fishing easier then fly fishing? Of course it is. I know fly fishing isn’t just about catching fish, that may sound weird to a non fly fishermen. Fly fishing is casting, reading water, presenting the fly, the drift, the swing, the hatch, and so much more. Believe me I know the feeling of catching a Rainbow Trout on the swing is unexplainable, but the bottom line is when it comes down to numbers and time, gear fishing is easier. There is a reason most people start with gear, if you started with a fly rod you’d be so broke and frustrated you’d be reading a golfing blog right now.

I chased small trout on small rivers for the most part. Until I met James. When describing your fishing buddy it feels foreign to be complimentary. Like you don’t stand in a river with a dude and say “great cast” when he makes a great cast, you say “great cast” when he sends his favorite fly into a maple tree. You don’t say “what a great fish” as he’s holding a fish and taking a picture, you say “what a great fish” after his 20 min fight ends with a snapped line and the fish swimming away. That said James DeFrank is the best fishermen I’ve ever met. I once made a joke over beers with a few guys, that when his toe hits the water he yells “fish on”, the next morning he had a fish on with his first step in the water. He has been with me on almost all of my Salmon River trips, and on every trip that I caught zero fish, he caught fish, multiple fish, many multiple fish. Even when I would look up and down the river and no other fishermen were catching fish, he would catch fish. On his first fish I am genuinely excited “awesome there are fish in the river” I think. Now James isn’t the gloating type and I’m not the jealous type, but somewhere around his 10th fish and my of course 0th, I would have to fight myself not to get distracted with jealousy. I’d walk down river and try and figure it out, in my head I repeat the same thing time after time, “what the fuck am I doing wrong?”. I was using the same flies, leader length, weight, depth, I mean it was the same water. Sometimes the same exact water. I would fish a hole for awhile and nothing, I’d walk away, he’d step in and on his first cast “Fish on!”

At first it would truly piss me off, I’ll admit it, but I once heard the coach of the New England Patriots Bill Belichick say after a game where the Patriots ran the score up on another team, that it wasn’t the Patriots job to stop themselves. You may say “but it’s a dick move” well is running the score up a dick move or is letting someone or a team not know how truly bad they are a dick move? I’ll bring this back to fishing. It’s not James’ job to catch less fish to make me feel better about myself. He let me see how many fish I was really missing out on. When I walked away from the hole I’d say “well no fish there I guess that’s why I’m not catching fish” when he would walk in and catch one, it showed me I was doing something wrong. Don’t get my words confused those lessons are painful and made me angry at times. More then once I’d whisper “you son of a bitch” under my breath. If my fly rod didn’t cost so much it would have been smashed across a tree. Losing sucks but if you’re not learning from losing, you’re just losing. That may sound like fishing is competitive, and that’s because, it is. You’re damn right it is. I get it, it’s you against the fish, you against nature, the elements, your own head, and everything else. That’s all well and good if you are fishing alone, but add a fishing buddy and it’s you against him. Now I don’t want to put words in James’ mouth but I’m almost certain he would say “Duuuude I’m not competing with you” and he’d be right, it was no competition, but if you’re the one not catching fish, you keep track of the other guys numbers pretty well.

I should clarify. It’s not that you don’t want your friend to catch fish. I know James was cheering for me to catch one the whole time, probably as much as I was. You want everyone to catch fish, but you want to catch the most, or the biggest, or at least catch something. Hell it’s why every fishing trip from a high mountain trout stream to an ocean day boat trip starts with a bet, first fish, biggest fish, smallest, most, prettiest, whatever. Fishing is competitive even if it’s just for fun.

It wasn’t just that I wasn’t catching fish on these trips. It felt like the universe was against me from the start. On my very first trip to the river we ate dinner at one of my favorite bars. I’d name it here but I’d like to go back to this bar one day, and the following words may affect my reception. It’s kind of a biker/redneck bar. It’s rough around the edges but when you get enough drinks in you to feel comfortable in joining the conversation, the people are great and funny as hell. I’ve witnessed some truly epic ball busting while slamming an ice cold beer after a hard day of not catching fish. The food is great too they serve a chicken sandwich that’s the size of a turkey, a mountain of spaghetti that is just that a mountain, but my favorite is the chicken wings. Here I will say I’ve had the chicken wings since this story. James doesn’t stop for lunch. You hit the river before sun rise and you leave at dark. If you need a drink you better have one on you. Food? Don’t be a pussy. We were exhausted and starving, I didn’t taste my first or second beer. When the wings I ordered came out medium rare, like a starving fool with a dehydration buzz on, I dove right in. Again I’ve had the wings there since, but you don’t know fear until you are standing in a river, wearing fishing waders, shoulder to shoulder with other fishermen and last night’s rare chicken wings open fire on your bowels. I ran from the river yelling “I got to go”. There was a port a John in the parking lot near the river, food poisoning wasn’t enough to make me use a port a john used by salty fishermen for months. I would have shit in my cooler before that thing. I drove back to town and locked myself in the Dunkin Dounuts bathroom so long people were knocking on the door asking if I was okay in there. I was pretty far from okay, my first trip was over. I grabbed my stuff and hit every fast food bathroom back to New Jersey.

There have been cut palms from reels spinning at the rate of a running fish, hooks and lead weights to the back of my head, twisted ankles, broken spirits, broken lines and of course broken fingers. I consider it my rock bottom, literally my ass was on the rocks. That Steelhead trip started like all the others except it was cold and snowy. The eastern shore of lake Ontario where the Salmon River empties after it runs through the town of Pulaski, NY gets snow measured in feet not inches. Honestly they could probably measure it in yards. On that trip I got a taste of what we were in for coming up interstate 81, total white out snow after driving 3 hours . The snow seemed to instantly cover the highway. I put my truck in 4 wheel drive as I was passed by a sideways 80’s era Oldsmobile. I slid into Fat Nancy’s the first bait and tackle shop off the exit and our traditional first stop. I met James took a deep breath and we were ready to fish.

The fishing was tough even for James. We had to cover a lot of the river to find fish, he found them, I didn’t. The river was running high, the air temperature was low, about 20 degrees. The winters snow pack was melting  even as fresh snow was falling. Cold and wet are to words that with ensure any trip, fishing or not, will be terrible. At the close of day one James had landed 3 fish to my 0. We checked into our room already physically drained. I suppose you could call it a room, I mean it had walls, but when they gave us a space heater with the key I wondered if we would be sleeping in a shed out back . That night as trains or trucks roared by, I couldn’t see out of the plywood covered window to be sure, and I zipped up my sleeping bag to protect me from whatever creatures lurked in the bed, I thought “I’m never letting James book a room for me again” my second thought was “this can’t get any worse”.

We walked on what we guessed to be a 6 foot snow pack to the river. With the river running fast I stopped to judge the crossing. James jumped right in and crossed with ease. I should mention James has the best of the best equipment, while he’ll pinch pennies on a room he spares no expense on fishing gear. His fishing room in his house is like a fly shop, but in case his wife ever reads this I’m sure he bought it all on sale. When James crosses the river here his nearly new spiked wading boots grip the river bottom and steadies him like two anchors. My boots are missing spikes, they are missing a lot of spikes. My first unsteady step is followed by two more. Somewhere near the middle of the river I stop as I hit the faster deeper water. My left foot is moved slightly down river  with the current. I try and move my right foot down river to catch up, but it’s to late and the water is to fast. My left foot is swept out and my right finally catches up. My bottom hits bottom and I’m floating down river. James sees me floating in the relatively shallow water and laughs as he says “just stand up dude”. His smile lets me know that if I truly need help it won’t be coming from him. I finally stand and feel a sharp pain in my finger but I have no idea why. James looks at me in disbelief “you ok?” his laughter subsides realizing I’m now soaking wet in 20 degree air. We finally get to wear we wanted to fish, he fishes and I start a fire to stop the hypothermia that I think is sure to follow. The worst time to start a fire is when you desperately need to start a fire. My hands won’t work my wet lighter won’t work and why the fuck is my finger swelling? I tell James I’m heading back to warm up. On my way I slip and fall again, instinctively my hand goes back to break my fall. I then realize why my finger hurts and is swelling. My first fall may have snapped my finger on the rocks below my second fall confirmed it and didn’t help.

Broken broke and dejected that pretty much describes me perfectly after every trip. Financially, emotionally, or physically take your pick it applied. So why go back? why beat my body, my mind, my wallet and my pride? Do you know what it’s like to return from 15 fishing trips saying you didn’t catch a single fish? So why trip 16? Because I refuse to be beaten. Not by the river, not by a friend out fishing me or the cold or the snow, I refuse to be beaten by myself. So September 2017 came and an epic run of salmon came with it. I packed my bags jumped in my truck and headed north. If this losing steak was going to end this was the year to end it or end my fishing trips.

I pulled into Fat Nancy’s at about 7 am. I wasn’t meeting anyone this time it was a solo trip. I hit the bathroom, grabbed some gear, and put on my fishing waders. My first stop was a hole we call “the Paper Mill”. Fish were moving like crazy, single file, small pods and large groups. It was non stop, but the problem was it was non stop. As in the fish wouldn’t stop. A salmon would come into the hole and another would bump it out of the hole an so on. When they did stop I would cast up river, drift to them and right over them. “More weight” I thought. I’d cast up river drift to them and snag the bottom. 7 am turned into 10 am. I changed flies the fish kept coming. 12 noon no fish. I changed leaders but I didn’t change holes. I once heard a fly fisherman say “don’t go looking for fish when you have fish in front of you”. For the most part this is true, but when the fish are in water you can’t figure out, move. I should have moved. I was panicking, 2 pm.

Earlier in the day 5 younger guys walked by, I knew they wanted to fish the hole I was in. They stopped and watched me. There’s a dance fellow fishermen do when they want to fish the water you’re fishing. Most will stop and watch, some make small talk, until you say “do you want in?”. Younger guys will watch from a far, whisper amongst themselves most certainly telling each other you don’t know what you’re doing and they can’t believe you aren’t catching fish. They grow louder passive aggressively letting you hear them talk. Eventually they move on and you keep fishing. I kept fishing. 3:30 pm. I walked up river to a hole we call “Coffin Rock” it’s a small hole and you can only stand in one spot a rock shaped like a coffin, fishermen aren’t creative with names. The 5 younger guys were there. I watched from a far, thought they were fishing it wrong and I moved back down to where I was all day.

4:30 pm… maybe it was 5. I was losing hope, it was still the first day and I felt myself giving up. I left the river early, it was a long drive up that morning, I had to set camp and I seriously needed a beer or two. I grabbed some wings at the bar, pitched my tent, started my fire and pounded some beers. I made a call to James basically telling him I think I’m retiring, trip 16 was it he’ll need a new fishing buddy.

The next morning I was up early. I hit the “Sportsmans Hole” its kind of a touristy fishing spot. It’s elbow to elbow almost every time I go there, but I like the water just below the main hole and just above. No luck below but I watched a few snaggers score fish. Snaggers are dudes that spot a fish and like the name says snag their hook in the fish. This is an illegal mean of take but it doesn’t stop people from doing it. I made the decision to head to the no kill area. In the no kill area all fish are catch and release. I thought if there is one spot I could end this losing streak it’d be the no kill. I mean even fish that were caught were still in the water. I thought wrong.

It was almost noon on the second day and I was almost done. Before packing it in I walked down river out of the no kill, below the bridge that makes the border for fish that live to spawn and fish that go home in a cooler. The first hole below the line was packed. I had already excepted the idea that my streak would continue. In my head I was already asking myself if I was coming back. At first I just watched the guys fish but I thought if I’m going to be standing in the water I might as well have a line in the water. With no room to fish I stood in the tailwater just down from the big hole. The river bends and narrows a bit here, the water is fast, it’s hard to stand. Just to my left as I look down stream  is a small hole, three guys are fishing it but I see room for one more. I fish it for a bit snagging bottom twice, I retie my fly on and say that’s it when I lose this one I’m done. The guy at the head of the hole hooks up “Fish on!” and he ‘s off down river. Fish are coming! Instantly the next guy up from him hooks up “Fish on!” he too is ripped down river to fight a King Salmon. The guy across from me looks at me and I at him. We silently say “who’s next?”. He may have been saying why is that guy staring at me, but I was saying it. Just then he hooks up. His fight isn’t long the fish snaps him off quick and the first guy returns fishless at the same time. My guess is he lost his battle as well. I can’t wonder about them it’s my turn right? Where’s my fish? I’d gladly hook up and lose it anything just please anything. Right on que the fishing gods answer me with a snag on the bottom. I let out every curse word I know and put ones together that don’t even make sense. I’m done, I yank hard trying to break my line I wanted to put the last nail in my fishing coffin. The line comes free, I yank it from the river and slam it back down in anger. Then it happens ,my line goes tight, I see the bright shine of a King on my hook, I set the hook and I’m off down river. “Fish on!” I pass fisherman after fisherman “coming down!” they move I keep going letting the fish take me where he wants. This fish is coming home with me, I don’t care if he pulls me all the way to lake Ontario I’m winning this one. I’m not muscling it, my mistake on so many lost fish. I’m letting him fight my reel and holding on. He comes close to me at times and bursts away back to fast water. I’ll do this all day I think to myself. Then I remember the bottom snag just before this fish hit and I think what damage did I do to my line with that aggressive yank from the rocks, a panic sets in. Come on fish, come on just give up, because I can’t, I won’t, I never will. Then he does, he gives in, and gives up I step close and sink my hand in his gills. It’s over. The fight was over. I raised the fish up and brought it home. Trip 16 was over and so was my losing streak.edited

The Streak Breaker.

P.S. A week later I returned to the Salmon River and knocked the shit of of them. Here’s some pics.

Dog Days of Winter

Its cold, single digits cold, the kind of cold where you inhale through your nose and feel the inside of your sinuses freeze. The night sky is clear and as I look up at the constellation Orion I can he him laughing at us. The “pisst” of a freshly cracked beer turns my head, my buddy Chris shrugs his shoulders in silent apology. I unload my shotgun, grab a beer, and say “what the fuck are we doing?” Chris whispers “I don’t know man this was your idea.” We laugh grab our stuff and head back to his house to finish a very cold 12 pack of cheap beer. My first attempt at coyote hunting was over, just as fast as it began.

Earlier that day I  found myself staring out the window thinking, I should be hunting. It was a perfect day, clear and cold, with a little snow on the ground. The problem was it was late February. Deer season in NJ ends sometime in January, small game mid February, and Turkey Season doesn’t start until April. If you’re a sports fan it’s like the first Sunday after the Super Bowl you find yourself asking “now what?”. Then sometime during the daily ESPN check in on pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training you remember hockey. Yeah I know there is basketball too, but I’m a short dude, after Muggsy Bogues I had no basketball players I could relate to. Besides basketball never seem to make sense to me as a winter sport.  That was my mind frame, checking to make sure I had my tag applications in for next season and studying turkeys, and then I remembered hockey, or coyotes rather.

I have been coyote hunting before, well that’s not entirely true. Like most hunters if you’re on a hunt for deer, turkey, or anything, rabbits, doves, whatever, and a coyote shows up, you are now on a coyote hunt. Coyote hunting never really closes, from January 1st until the middle of March you can literally hunt them 24 hours a day during the permit season. Through out the rest of the year you can hunt them incidentally while hunting anything else. So the only reason there is a time of year you can’t hunt coyotes is because other seasons close. I made that confusing, from early September until mid March you can kill a coyote in NJ. Better? So I have been hunting and I have seen coyotes while hunting, but I have never set out solely for coyotes.

My first run in with the animal came when I was 10 or 11. My dad was shadow hunting with me , meaning he was right behind me on a deer stand, so I had to be young. I only remember my dad hunting with me like that a few years. As a young hunter you want nothing more then to be old enough to hunt alone, you yearn to be able to share your own story with the old dudes without your father chiming in with “quit your bullshiting that deer was in the next county by the time you shot”. Each year the old man moved further and further away, 10 feet one year, the next 50. Until one day as I sat down readied myself against a large oak tree preparing for the deer drive, I looked up and watched my dad walk out of sight. I was alone. I was scared. I wanted nothing more then to have him right next to me in that deer stand and every deer stand I’ve sat in since. Back then the only deer hunting I did was drives, a type of hunting where half the hunting gang would walk through the woods (the drivers) pushing deer, or driving them, to the other half (the standers or sitters). The drivers in our gang would often yell a long YoooOOO! followed by a short YO! This would confuse the deer and keep them running straight and it would let you know where the drivers were. Much like a coyote pack screaming through the woods the deer knew we were coming but couldn’t tell which one of us were closest. Along with deer being pushed out of the woods would come turkeys, bears, sometimes pheasants, really anything afraid of a human. Your adrenaline would race with the sound of sticks breaking or leaves rustling without knowing what was coming at you from the brush. Is it a squirrel? A giant buck? It’s remarkable how similar the sound of a running squirrel and a running deer are. At that time I had seen coyotes before in magazines and books, one dead as well, laid out at a hunters feet. Never face to face, and never running at me full bore from the brush. My dad saw it first, with a tap on my back he whispered “coy-dog get ready”. I had no idea what he meant, what was I getting ready for and what was a coy-dog?  I whispered back “what?” my dads reply didn’t clarify anything for me “SHOOT”. Shoot? shoot what? As I turn back toward the area my dad’s eyes were fixed I saw it, a black and blonde dog that sort of looked like a wolf. As the animal ran by I heard my dad yelling “shoot shoot” I still wasn’t entirely sure he was talking about the dog. I turned back to the old man “but that was a dog dad” he shook his head in disappointment with the shot gone “that was no dog, that was a coyote.” I should clarify, coy-dog is a bit of a misnomer, it leads one (11 year old me) to believe this animal was half coyote and half Labrador. In reality coy-dog is slang for coyote, along with cry dog, plains wolf, prairie wolf, yodel dogs, song dog, coyot (pronounced ki-yot), and I’m sure many many more. They vary in color from black, blonde, red, grey and a combination of all due to a mutation in DNA. These are called color phases. The same color phases are found in grey squirrels and black bears, which seems strange since a black colored squirrel is still technically a grey squirrel and a blonde colored black bear is still a black bear. So no matter the name and no matter the color they are all coyotes and they’re no dog. I didn’t feel bad about passing on that coyote, in fact for years, to myself, I would say “why the hell would anyone shoot coyote?”

So how does one go from passing on a shot to deliberately setting out gun and call in hand to put a shot on one? I’ll tell you it wasn’t for some moral or ethical change. I suppose it’s what I’ve learned about an unchecked predator population and what I’ve seen, or have not seen. Normally I find the “population control” argument to be bullshit, for the most part. I can hear other hunters right now saying “go fuck yourself”, just hear me out before you plan to spit your Beechnut chew in my eye. The reason you hunt isn’t to control populations, you know it I know it and anti hunters know it. Population control doesn’t get you out of bed at 4am when it’s 10 degrees out. You don’t fondly look back at hunting with your dad or grand dad and say “boy we really kept those whitetail numbers down that day” The truth is the argument leads people to believe that hunting can “over control a population”. In fact hunting hardly puts a dent in populations. If population control is your number one reason to hunt, you’re doing a shit job at it. Also if it’s not your number one reason to hunt then why is it your number one  argument with a slightly out of shape women named Helen with a “let me speak to your manager” hair cut from Lodi on an internet forum for save the bears?  Mother nature has ways to control populations better then us with our 12 gauges anyway. Although her ways are heinous, with being eaten as the best death a wild animal can hope for. Wildlife doesn’t die of old age it just doesn’t happen, I’m sorry old Walt Disney lied to you. If it makes you feel better he made a fuck load of money doing it, so there is that. The truth is your out there for food, family, tradition and most importantly you enjoy it. There’s no shame in that. That said I do feel we as humans have an obligation to “try” to control populations whose exploding numbers are solely because we exist. There are right now more whitetail deer in the US then there were when Henry Hudson sailed the… well the Hudson River… they named it after him. The whitetail have our agriculture to thank. The coyote has our extermination of the Grey Wolf (black wolf? still a Grey Wolf. weird right? unless it’s a red wolf ) to thank.

At the time the first European stepped foot on the soil of the Americas, coyotes were found from the south western US to Mexico. The short story is as we pushed west the coyote pushed east across the Mississippi, south to South America, North to Alaska, and further west to California. As we exterminated the wolf, the coyote found itself the top canine predator, and on the top of our shit list. The wolf’s dependence on it’s pack made it an easy target, poison one and poison the the whole pack. That’s right they were poisoned, government hunters didn’t kill for food. The coyote on the other hand, like humans, can live and thrive in both a pack and alone. There are many other reasons the coyote avoided extermination and flourished. Many of which have to do with thousands of years of evolution. My point is we can’t control coyotes and I’m not hunting them to control them.

My buddy Bill and I are sitting back to back in the middle of a large field. The moon is full with a few inches of fresh snow under our asses. My new electronic predator call sarinads us with the screams of dying rabbits. This my second attempt at coyote hunting and I’m not sure but this might be Bill’s first time. If this is sounding a bit homoerotic I’ll clarify with my next words. I lean forward a bit and whisper back to Bill “hey dude this is kind of feeling a little gay.” Bill whispers back “This is what Rick said to do.” Rick is Bill’s older brother and one of the best hunters either of us know. He had been out coyote hunting before and gave us some tips but right now I jump forward again and say “I think Rick is fucking with us.” On that note we both jump up. We bust Rick’s balls a lot while hunting and he tolerates us, if this was some sort of revenge he got us good. Busting balls is an important part of hunting. It’ll keep your mind off the cold, the wet, and especially the exhaustion you feel from hiking all day. I picture a coyote pack much in the same way nipping at each others heels to keep going. Howling and yipping as they climb a mountain that would kill you if you weren’t hunting. Faking a good time while you’re all miserable keeping moral up. We set up three more times that night and nothing came in. Our next trip out lead to the same success rate. It was mid March by now and coyote season was over. If I was going to kill one it would have to wait until fall.

Opening day of archery deer season came quick. I remember years of walking to my tree stand alone before first light chilly from cold and shaking from fear. Lately the cold isn’t an issue. The thirteen different black bears on my trail cam on the other hand have those old school fears itching at my heart rate. I even had a few snap shots of a coyote. In those first few weeks of the season I saw plenty of deer and I saw plenty of black bears, but it was the coyote that stood out.  I watched him that first morning in a swampy meadow about 200 yards out. In my mind he was young and I imagined he had not been on his own very long. I watched him on a number of mornings and evenings I was in my stand, out in that same meadow, pounce mice, chase squirrels, weave in and out of the tall grass after gods know what. I watched him walk right by a bedded turkey and I even watched him get run off by a rutting buck hot on a doe. My guess was this was his first hunting season alone, he was excited and afraid, his father trotting further and further away until now where he was all alone.  Then one afternoon he came out of the meadow nose to the ground and into the hardwoods where my tree is. He was on something and never once put his head up, he walk right to my 20 yard mark, a single rock in the woods. I whistled and he stopped. He looked straight up at me in my tree stand, I was at full draw. My 20 yard sight was fixed on his vitals. This is what I was after all those times out in the cold with my buddies, a coyote, coming in on a string. This was redemption for those skunked nights out, the disappointment beers, the laughs in place of gun blasts. I heard my dad’s voice saying shoot in my head once again, this time I knew what he was talking about. I then dropped my bow and shot straight into the ground. The coyote jumped a little and stood there a second, I tipped my hat to him as he trotted behind my tree, I heard him growl a bit from the brush and he never came back.

Was this the same coyote all season? Probably not. Will I ever shoot a coyote? Maybe? I don’t know. I’m not against coyote hunting, I do feel they should be managed. I know the narrative (at least in hunting circles around me) is that coyotes kill deer, and I’m sure they kill fawns when they can, but I don’t subscribe whole heartedly to that. The science says black bears have a bigger impact. I do feel that rabbit and turkey populations need a checked coyote populous. Am I the guy for the job? I honestly don’t know. I don’t see the coyote as a competitor or a nuance. I don’t see him as a Walt Disney character or spirit animal. I see him as another hunter, laughing with his buddies in the cold, learning from his father in his youth. He is a hunter.

Elk and Bed Bugs in Arizona

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I’m standing naked in a Walmart parking lot at 1am in Payson, Arizona. It’s cold raining and I’m completely sober. Not exactly three words I thought I would be using to describe the after party of a successful elk hunt in AZ, but none the less here I am.

If I were with my buddies on this hunt we would have been shit faced drunk celebrating my first elk. We still may have ended up naked in a Walmart parking lot at 1am, but not sober. Hell if I had anyone with me on this hunt we’d be closing down the Buffalo Grill with aching backs from packing a bull off the mountain. I would have told the story so many times by 1am they would have cut me off. My buddies weren’t with me on this trip, I didn’t have a guide, I didn’t even have a strange dude I picked up at Home Depot to help me. I was solo. Not that my buddies wouldn’t have come, they wanted to, but flying across the country,from New Jersey to Arizona, missing work and family just to watch me shoot an elk is a lot to ask. I wanted to come alone anyway. A solo hunt on public land for my first elk, that’s what I wanted, halfway through the second trip down the mountain with a giant hind quarter strapped to my back I was regretting it, but that’s what I wanted.

When it rains in Arizona it fucking rains, hard and fast, there’s a hacky dick joke there but I’ll skip it. They have a monsoon season that runs from the middle of June until the end of September. My hunt was the early rifle in the last week of September, so it was mostly over. It didn’t start raining until I pulled into the Walmart parking and it was over by the time I had clothes on. It felt like hours but in reality maybe 15 minutes. My dad described the monsoons in Vietnam as raining up. I could see what he meant. I didn’t show up to the Walmart naked. After a long day of packing a 4 to 5 hundred lbs animal off a mountain racing the Arizona sun, losing the meat was a huge fear of mine. Then finding and getting the meat to a butcher, after that day all I wanted to do was drink a few beers in my shitty hotel room and pass out. I almost made it.

In The Beginning

When I dreamed of this hunt, well it wasn’t my dream hunt. My dream hunt is a pronghorn hunt. Lame in comparison to an Arizona elk hunt to some, but since I was in the third grade and learned America had it’s own antelope it conjured images of the African plains. I used a Bowhunter magazine to do a report on the animal. Since then I planned to one day wander out west in search of pronghorn. So I guess you could say I was a little let down when my wife gave me the dates of her business trip and, my free hotel, since they didn’t align with the AZ pronghorn season. In fact not much of any season aligned with the dates, not bear, couses deer, or javalinea, none of those, just one elk. Not a just any old general elk hunt, an early rifle hunt in September. I figured the chance of drawing that hunt would be slim to none, but what the hell. At the very least I’d do some fishing and glass whatever wildlife I could.

I suppose I should explain the tag drawing system a bit, or as much as I can, I don’t fully understand it still. Think of it as a lottery, in fact that’s what it is a lottery. Your odds are better in some units then others, but your hunt success odds, of course, are better in the harder draw areas. I submitted for a middle of the road unit, not far from where I was staying and it was nearly all public land. I pictured my name going in a hat with thousands of other wishful hunters for that hunt. I pictured an old timer standing in some wood panel walled firehouse picking the names and reading them aloud as an old girl with a number 2 pencil writes the names down. I can see his arthritic hand reaching into the hat pulling to many at once, the extra tickets falling to the ground a long with some poor bastards hopes to bag an elk. As they fall there is one ticket lodged under his finger nail that is at “I’m to old to trim” length. He plucks it out and reads the name “Curt Babcock”. The old girl yells back “Burt Abock?”  In reality a computer picks the names.

There it was in my mail box, a small white envelope from the Arizona Game Commission. In all honesty I knew it was coming, Arizona hits your credit card as soon as you win the tag. I would like to tell you it was a dramatic cheering “YES!” when I found out, but my reaction was “who the fuck stole my credit card in Arizona?” then I kind of went oh yeah.   I spent the summer learning more about elk than I could imagine ever learning an animal. I studied hunting forums, google maps, topo maps, I listened to podcasts, watched videos. I studied their eating habits, sex habits, sounds, size, you name it. I picked 10 spots to hunt over the course of 4 days and whittled that list down to 6. Two for each day, a morning glassing “tit” and an afternoon with a nice hike in between. A “glassing tit” as I’ve heard it perfectly described by westerner hunters is an out crop of rock or something where you can use your binoculars to view lots of ground. The idea is to find an elk and get into shooting range without bumping it, easier said then done. Now since I’m doing all of this scouting in Arizona from New Jersey I used google maps and a free trial of an app. I bought a new rifle, .300 win mag, tried a few types of ammo. Bought new westerner camo and boots. Here’s a huge tip, I bought my boots in the beginning of the summer and wore them everywhere, hiking fishing everywhere, brake your boots in. I was ready.

As Colombo would say when a suspect was feeling like they got away with a crime “there’s just one more thing”. One huge thing, one 400 to 800 lbs thing. I’ve never seen an elk in real life. Sure I’ve seen videos, both hunting and nat geo type, I saw head mounts in bars even life size mounts in hunting stores but I’ve never actually seen them. I live in Jersey cut me some slack. My first thought was a zoo. I found a zoo right here in NJ that advertised elk. I packed my wife and kid up and we headed to the zoo. My son loves trains so of course we had to ride the little choo choo around the zoo first. Eventually  we made it to the elk enclosure. I found it odd the enclosure was small and had Bison in it. We circled it 4 times until I realized there were no elk. I mean the sign said elk but no elk, just two mangy Bison. Much like a toddler I then threw a small albeit embarrassing fit. My F bombs gave way to laughs when I thought of all the suburban white collar Jerseyians running around the state thinking Bison were Elk. After striking out trying to find a game farm or another zoo with Elk, I tried to accept the fact that the first elk I see maybe through cross hairs of my scope. I asked my buddy Bill what he thought, I take Bill’s hunting advice to heart, Bill said “Listen dude, you’re hunting solo on public land in a state you’ve never been after an animal you’ve never seen. If you see an elk shoot it. Just make sure it’s an elk.”

 Fear…

Fear is the number one factor for people to fail at obtaining a goal. I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds about right. That and laziness, I believe I have a touch of both. Okay a little more than a touch. Being aware of both helps me conquer them. Well all but one.

I have, or had I’m still on the fence, a huge irrational fear of flying. This wasn’t always the case. I use to fly for work all the time, but one day out of the blue I couldn’t fly anymore. I avoided it like a cat to water, I opted out of family vacations and business trips. Any hunting or fishing trips would have to be driven to. This fear really bothered me, I hated it. One day my job offered me a project in Houston, I knew it would involve a flight, but I said yes determined to over come the fear. I figured my job depended on it. On the day of the flight I made it to Newark airport’s parking garage, where I started shaking, crying, and hyper ventilating. I ate two fast acting chew-able Xanax, nothing, I ate two more, still shaking, I ate two more. I ate seven Xanax and was still frozen with fear. So I drove to Houston that day, happiest god damn drive of my life.

So now I had to get my ass to Arizona. I bought the ticket, knowing what could happen and knowing a Xanax fueled drive was out of the question. Everything was fine until the night before the flight. I thought this time “I’m going to do it, tomorrow I’ll be in Arizona hunting Elk” then full melt down. I stay in meltdown mode until I got to Newark airport’s parking garage. Then like a switch was flipped I grabbed my stuff, went in, got on the plane and got my ass to Arizona. Not one Xanax needed.

The Hunt

I landed in Phoenix on a Sunday morning at 9 am. My plan was to drive to Payson, the nearest town to the area I was going to be hunting, check in to my hotel and head out to do some scouting. After a mix up with my rental, I picked up my soccer mom car and headed out after one of North America’s largest game animals.

My hotel seemed fine, I checked in, got changed from “travel clothes” to “hunting clothes”, and headed out in the Tonto National forest. It was at this time I realized I woke up at 2 am eastern, flew across the country, and it was now 1pm Arizona time. I’m not sure I had any physical or mental energy left to head into the mountains of a state I’ve never been after an animal I had yet to see, but that’s just what I did. I arrived at the trail head I had put the most internet scouting time into. I guess it was my plan A, a two and a half mile hike to just below the Mongolian Rim. There  where two rock out crops one looking north toward the rim and the other looking south from below the rim. I thought I had enough time to hike to the one looking north. I threw my pack on, slung my rifle over my shoulder and started up the trail.

The air was dry and what is commonly referred to as “hot as balls”. The wind was blowing pretty hard and loud, but inconsistent. I took my top camo off so I was just in a T-shirt. With the heat, the hike, and the wind I figured I’d be a swap ass mess if I rushed up to the spot, so I decided to walk slow and even if I couldn’t get up there that first night at least I’d get a lay of the land and may be see some sign of elk. It didn’t take long to see the first sign a simple track, I have never been so excited to see a track, my heart race as if I had seen an elk. Being from New Jersey I’ve seen a lot of deer tracks and since dairy farming is still a thing in north jersey I’ve seen a fair share of cow tracks, these where neither. I knew it was an elk and after a few more steps I confirmed with elk shit. The sign was old, but in my head I told myself “I put myself in a spot in Arizona where elk had been, by looking at a computer in NJ” it was a strange feeling it almost felt like a successful hunt already. I hiked further, but got confused by a chunk of private land. I didn’t want to push it so I figured I’d head back study the map again and come back in the morning after a good nights sleep. I found more sign and fresh, this was the spot, I was excited as hell. Then I found a fresh rubbed tree, and fear crept in. I’ve heard elk described as angry forest horses, by the look of the tree you don’t want to be the stress relief of an angry forest horse.

I felt like I was in the right spot. Yet still was the aching feeling I have yet to see an actual elk. I’d hoped to at least see one by now, the possibility of having to decide weather to shoot the first elk I’d ever seen was still on the table. I drove slow looking left and right, but no elk. Although I did see my first mule deer and jack rabbit,so that was cool.

I woke up the next morning still tired but before sunrise, shit I was still on east coast time so it wasn’t hard. I was up and out in minutes heading back up to where I had saw the sign the day before. There was a horse farm and a few houses just before the National Forest Fire Control road I used to get to the trail. As I passed the farm to my left I noticed two horses and there in the middle of the road standing in my headlights was the first elk I had ever seen in real life. A mother and a calf, at first I had thought that the dudes horses were out but nope, not one but two elk. A mile up the road stood a bull, standing in a yard eating some poor bastards tree. I watched him for a min and continued up the road now with no doubt I was ready to shoot.

I was as ready as I could be to I suppose. I mean I’m still preparing to pull my rifle up on a game animal I’ve never hunted  in a land I’ve never been, and now that I know exactly how big these animals are I was more nervous than before. As I drove up the fire control road I noticed a small group of elk feeding across an old burn, there was one small bull mixed with a few cows and calves. Two bull elk with in 15 minutes damn this was not what I had expected. I could have got out right there and went after that elk but it didn’t feel right so I continued up the road which brought me closer to the top of the ridge. At the top of the ridge I spotted another group of elk further out and feeding down the ridge. In the middle near the back of the group there he was the elk I wanted to go after. He was to far away to see how big he was but I could tell he was big enough for me. I got my binoculars out but with my shaking hands I still couldn’t tell. I drove back down to the bottom of the ridge, noticing the first group had moved off the burn and deeper into the forest. I thought the group with the bigger bull would continue down the ridge and hopefully follow the first group. My plan was to get below the small bulls group hike in ahead of them and call the bigger bull down with cow calls once in position. I read with elk in September you don’t really have to be quite but you have to be fast. By the time I parked my soccer mom ride grabbed my gear and really ran up the ridge and out in front the first group of elk were already there. My heart was racing with nerves and from running. I could tell the cows were on to me as I saw them moving the calves faster nearly running now. I stopped and called with a cow call. The cows now blasted out of there, I thought “shit I blew it”,  but just as that thought crossed my mind I heard him. Before this hunt I may have listened to a thousand elk bugles on-line, but the first time you hear one in the forest is indescribable, here is where I’ll try. The sound was magic, it felt as if my ears had eyes and the just saw a unicorn. I was like I was on skull island and King Kong himself just screamed from the top of the ridge and was heading toward me. I read in preparing for this moment that when a bull screams at you keep answering him. I called again and his scream grew louder and closer. At this point I realized I was telling this wild beast screaming his guts out that I was hot cow ready to breed, this sent a shiver down my spine. It was then I heard a softer and even closer bugle. This one came from about 80 yards it was the smaller bull. I could tell he wasn’t calling to me he was responding to the bigger bull. I could now see the small bull 80 yards and feeding on a small trees leaves. I’d call the big bull bugled back then the small bull would look up the ridge and make a soft bugle. In my head I tought there is a chance the small bull calls off the bigger one before I ever see him. I at this moment have a bull elk standing broadside at 80 yards. I heard my buddy Bill’s voice in my head “dude you shoot the first one you see”.  Rather then wait for the smaller bull to blow my chance and go home eating tag soup, I steadied my rifle against a small tree, put my cross hairs just behind his front shoulder, I took a deep breathe, cleared my mind and squeezed the trigger.

I could tell it was a good hit as he ran up the ridge. The feeling that came over me was too much I sat down right there as he disappeared up the ridge. For sure he would be down just out of sight. At that point no matter what game you hunt and no matter how many great shots I think I’ve just made, doubts creep in, what if. I got on the blood trail, it was a good one. I climbed the ridge and climbed and climbed, every step thinking “he’s got to be down right here”. More steps and he kept going. I thought ” May be I’m pushing him” I’d stop and listen and go a little further then stop again. The blood kept going. I neared the top of the ridge and there standing 50 yards near the top stood an elk. A bull elk, it looked like the one I had just shot but it didn’t look hit. I raised my rifle, but if this wasn’t my elk I didn’t want to shoot two, that’s a big no no. I waited until the elk turned broadside then I saw the blood,it was him, I shouldered my rifle again. The second shot again in the vitals and he dropped. I was nearly in tears as I moved into 25 yards rifle ready when he stood up. I didn’t want to shoot unnecessarily but I wanted this over. he took a step to the left and I shot again. He wobbled 5 yards and there he died.

It was over. The level of exhaustion after the adrenaline wore off was nothing I’ve ever felt. I stared at the animal not letting emotion set in I snapped a few photos and quickly started quartering. By noon I had the elk packed out and to the butcher. I went back to my shitty hotel room showered then went and had a few beers at the Buffalo Bar and Grill in town trying to wrap my head around what just happened. I was to tired to put in a good amount of celebration and alone. I headed to my room to sleep, the next day I’d meet my wife in Phoenix at a resort far away from the where I had shoot the elk. There the hunt would be over.

The End…?

Oh so how did I end up naked in a Walmart parking lot? As I laid my head down that night in the light of the TV as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump traded blows I noticed something crawling on my bed. I jumped up like a kid on Christmas. Bed bugs. I spent the next few hours fighting with the hotel, bagging anything that could be washed and throwing out anything that couldn’t. At 1am I was at Walmart changing in the rain from bed bug exposed clothes to a pair of freshly bought shorts and sweatshirt. I spent the night not sleeping in my car waiting for the laundry mat to open at 6am. After a solo elk hunt and pack out, bed bugs, Walmart, rain, a night of no sleep, and laundry mat small talk, I met my wife at the airport and told her about the greatest hunting day of my life.

First blog coming soon

A new blog post is coming soon. Thanks for for stopping by. The first post will cover my first elk hunt in Arizona. It was solo on public land in the Tonto National Forest. I’ll deal with the most frequently asked question here, “Who took the picture?” Answer: I have an Iphone, it has a 10 second delay. I hope you enjoy it and thanks again.