Words and Images from Ed Felker

Hunting

Winslow’s First ‘Real’ Blood Tracking Attempt to Recover a Deer

IMG_2465

Winslow had tracked a deer to a known location on a training run before, but he got his first bona fide recovery call this evening, as my buddy Matt shot a buck with a bow. The deer ran across a big field and stopped at a fenceline not far from Matt’s truck. When he returned to the truck, the deer stood up and jumped over the fence into a patch of moderately dense woods. The track was four hours old when we got there.

We started Winslow at the bed spot at the fence line, handed him over the fence and he started on a line more or less perpendicular to the fence. Pretty thick stuff. After a while he seemed to lose it and doubled back to where we started. Then he almost ran parallel to the fence until we reached a stone wall and another fence. Jumped that and he took off parallel to that fence, so he’s now literally going in 180 degree the opposite direction that he started in, but he seems on a mission so I go with it. For like 500 yards. By the way I’ve only seen a little blood at the fence line bed spot, nothing since. I think maybe I see some deer tracks in a cow pie but at this point I think maybe he thinks we’re just going for a cool walk.

We start getting near a herd of cows and the whole thing doesn’t seem right to me, so we turn back. Matt has to go trick or treating but I really want to find this deer so I stay, and start over, this time from an earlier known spot where Matt had left his arrow, bloodied, where he saw the deer cross a path cut through the field.

Winslow smells the arrow and takes off in the opposite direction from the known fence line spot, and I think, well maybe he’s tracking it backwards to the hit spot. Which would be cool too, at least I’d know he was on the trail. Still, mind you, I have seen no blood but for the known bed.

He accelerates, excited, as we enter the woods. He’s now traveling parallel to the cow pasture track he was on earlier, only about 30 feet away on the other side of the fence/wall. But he’s not really sniffing or tracking. I’m starting to wonder again if he’s just on a walk. I ask him, “Buddy, does this seem right? This doesn’t seem right.” But then he says, “Hold my beer,” cuts left, thirty yards, then left again and kicks up a vulture feeding on the deer he’s been after the whole time.

IMG_2458

It’s not the deer we were after, I’m afraid. And maybe it’s not such a grand accomplishment to scent track a deer in the woods that a vulture probably found from two miles away. But I feel vindicated that he was so far off track for a reason. Vultures and flies already had a good start on this poor boy, who was either poached or ran a good distance from wherever else he was shot. But he is not our deer. Still, it’s the first deer Winslow has ever found on his own, and I thank Matt for letting me take these antlers as a little trophy for him.

We’ve really walked a long way already, but I really wanted that deer. So we went back to the arrow and I pointed Winslow in the right direction. Again, he moved with purpose, confidence and speed, on a path of suspiciously, conveniently short grass to be our deer. I mean, wounded deer don’t want to trudge through four foot tall grass, but dachshunds sure as hell don’t want to either. As we approached the original fence line bed, he turned right and had tracked, with 100% accuracy, directly to my truck.

We watered down and thought about leaving, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I brought him back to the fence bed and found a specific leaf with a specific spot of blood on it and pointed to it. He seemed utterly uninterested, either because he was already aware of that bloody leaf, or he was just done. But I put him over the fence and crawl over myself, and try again.

He takes off, more methodically this time, but along the same line he originally tracked. I don’t know if he’s smelling his own track, or me, or Matt, or the deer, but I put all those in descending order of likelihood.

Low branches, brambles, thorns of course, every yard takes half a minute. We had gone maybe twenty yards and I’m about to call it and I’ll be damned if he didn’t track directly over the first bright red blood spot I’ve seen all day. But that’s it. Just one drop.

IMG_2460

Then he just starts walking up a tree. I’m like, “Well now you’re just fucking with me.” But blood trackers do say “Trust your dog” a lot, so I do actually look into the tree for the deer. He is not there.

IMG_2468

So for the severalth time, I declare we are done searching. Then he puts his nose down and goes again. Ten more minutes, twenty more yards, I’m pulling him back and about to text Matt that we’re done and he finds another spot. It’s on again. He’s speeding up now, and blood is visible in larger quantities and more frequently.

IMG_2469

He moves faster and faster and now I’m starting to think, maybe we’re going to find this thing! We get to another fence with a smear of blood and what looks like a small tuft of white fur on the barbed wire. He definitely passed through this space. It’s a cool thing, to have no idea where this deer went, and then work really hard to get to one very specific place where he absolutely has been.

IMG_2463

But we cross over and all traces vanish. Not a single drop on the far side of the fence. We really looked, but unfortunately finally had to call the search.

IMG_2467

But I’m thankful to my friend who gave us a chance. And I’m proud of my boy who found a deer we didn’t know was missing, and after walking four miles on short little legs, and after having lost interest long since, continued to find traces of blood along this track that were very few and far between.


Black Water, White Dogs and Timberdoodles

If you give me a week in late October, a few tanks of gas and a friend (and his dog) to pass the drive time with, I will point the truck North every time. On this occasion, the passengers were my friend Douglas Dear and his pointer, Vic, and our destination was the north woods of upper New Hampshire, not far from Maine. We met our dear friend Ed Nicholson and his pointers Stella and Ruby for a few days of hunting the odd and challenging American Woodcock, known in some circles as the Timberdoodle. I’m told that people also hunt grouse, but while we did see or hear several in two days of hunting, I can’t imagine how it’s possible to shoot one. In any event, to follow are my favorite photos from my trip, which took a detour after bird hunting to do a little fly fishing in the Adirondacks before I headed south, leaving Douglas and Ed to more birds in Maine…

Douglas gearing Vic up for his first shift afield.

5

This custom Aya side-by-side Douglas shoots was a favorite photographic subject of the week. Absolutely stunning.

8

The first reports echoing through the dense New Hampshire cover were intended for a woodcock who escaped this volley, and gave me a look at just how challenging these birds, and this cover, would prove to be.

10

Conditions have been very warm and dry for many weeks in this area, making for tough scenting conditions for the dogs.

12

Ed bagged the first woodcock here, and the biggest of the week.

14

Here Vic is on point on a bird I shot first with my Nikon, then with my Winchester.

16

Douglas also shot at this bird, and if you’ve ever been around hunters before, you can imagine how much discussion there was about whose pellets brought the bird down. I have shipped the bird and ammunition samples to a forensics lab to settle the matter decisively, but since it’s my blog I’m going to call this my first woodcock.

I love my 1950s Winchester Model 12 16-gauge, but the juxtaposition alongside the masterpiece Douglas shoots is almost comical. Still, they both will kill birds, plus I get a third shot with mine!

The next morning I rushed outside the Mahoosuc Inn where we stayed to try to capture this sky.

21

Our guide, Craig Doherty of Wild Apple Kennel, brought some of his fine pointers as well. With unseasonably warm temperatures, it was important to keep the dogs fresh.

22

Ed, Douglas and Craig heading back to a nice tailgate lunch.

24

Douglas picked up a hitchhiker along the way.

26

Another look at this gorgeous shotgun. That is his boy Vic depicted in the engraving.

28

As with any other type of hunting, gathering around a tailgate recounting the day with a beverage is always a highlight. Even if you’re just drinking cough syrup, like Ed is here.

30

We enjoyed cold beer, hot food and warm hospitality at the home of Craig and his wife on the evening of our second day of hunting. Ed fried up some of his famous breaded woodcock breasts as an appetizer, and they were cooked to perfection and just delicious.

32

Tim, another guide and dog trainer, demonstrates that just because you have very serious bird dogs, doesn’t mean they have to work all the time. At one point in the evening there were six or seven dogs in the kitchen.

34

The next day I left my friends and their dogs behind for some relaxation in the Adirondacks. Many years ago I drove through Lake Placid up to Saranac Lake in the peak of fall and just fell in love with the area. Getting there and finding a decent meal were the only things on my agenda for the whole day, so I took my time and stopped at interesting spots along the way. I toured the Cabot cheese factory, photographed a couple of covered bridges, and stopped at a fish hatchery on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. It’s fun being a tourist with a whole day to burn.

36

The moose population has been decimated in recent years, our bird guide told us, largely from tick infestations. While we saw plenty of moose sign in the woods, and even some fairly recent scat, we didn’t spot any actual moose. I did stop at a house near our Inn that had a sign in the driveway advertising moose antlers for sale. The man selling the shed antlers (yes, I bought a small one) told me the same story of drastically reduced numbers of moose in the region.

2

I got to the Wilmington/Lake Placid area in time to scout the West Branch of the Ausable River a bit before dark, and returned to this spot the next morning. What struck me most about this place the first time I passed through it was the black water reflecting autumn scenery like a mirror. Standing in this river for the first time I can tell you it is strikingly beautiful. And a huge pain in the ass to wade. What it lacks in accessibility, it makes up for in treacherous footing once you get there. But I spent the day exploring, slipping, turning various ankles and knees, and going back and forth between cursing the place and standing in awe at its raw, rugged beauty. Those who have fished with me know that while I prefer to catch at least one fish, I am content to be in a pretty place, watching things like this cloud plume hugging the contour of a mountain on the horizon.

Another place I found while looking for trout that morning seemed a perfect spot to return to with lunch. I found a gourmet sandwich shop in Lake Placid and did just that. As delightful a nonproductive fishing morning as I’ve ever had.

40

Late that afternoon the skunk was extracted, kicking and screaming, from the boat, as they say. Nymphing from a steep bank into a deep hole, this pretty little brown fell for my antics. Anxious to secure photographic proof of the thing, I scrambled down and almost slipped into the chilly Ausable. This fish, by the way, was the only one I got to the net. Whenever I work hard for a long time and catch a single fish, I always feel kind of sorry for it. The future can’t be bright for the only trout dumb enough to be caught by me when I am so obviously doing all the wrong things.

The next morning was beautiful but windy. Fly fishermen: Ever have one of these days? Wanting to get a fresh start, I stood at my tailgate and painstakingly re-rigged everything, making sure knots were secure. I decided to go with a double nymph setup to give me a better chance at attracting another idiot trout or two. The first nymph is tied on, then I cut another length of tippet for the second nymph, tied that to the first, then tied the second, smaller nymph to the end. I picked up my rod and somehow while I was doing all that, with my rod lying on the tailgate, the first nymph had become irrevocably tangled around the rod. Hopeless. I struggled for a while and then had to cut both of them free and start over. I should have quit right then, but I subjected myself to several more hours of aggravation before I decided to just do some sightseeing. I went to the Lake Placid ski jumps and saw them up close, but this view from the golf course just at the edge of town was by far my favorite.

42

Finally, after an absolutely lovely lunch and a couple delicious regional beers at a place called the Pickled Pig, I walked across the street to the Olympic Center, home of the Herb Brooks Arena, where there was a kids hockey tournament going on. I asked at the gate if I could go in and see in person the 1980 rink, where the United States team of amateurs beat the Soviet team in the Miracle on Ice. (Although I wonder why the game was never nicknamed ‘The Cold War.” Just me?) There is a real weight to the place, you can feel it still. I very much appreciated the opportunity to see where the magic happened up close.

43

So it’s been a great, long week. I drove 1,500 miles, and after stretching six days of clothes into a seven day trip, still got an enthusiastic welcome from my wife and all the dogs. I love trips like this, but I’m always, always, glad to be home.


Paintings from the Middleburg Hunt

A couple of recent photographs from the Middleburg Hunt’s Christmas parade and fox hunt caught the eye of two artists from either side of the Atlantic, and I was honored when they asked my permission to create paintings from my images. Since then, Ian Legge from the UK and Jeff Morrow from Cincinnati have produced absolutely beautiful, very different paintings. I asked them to share some thoughts about their paintings and the photographs that caught their eye.

Ian Legge
12 x 24, oil on canvas

painting legge

DSC_5808 copy“I came across the source photograph of Maureen Conroy Britell, taken by Ed at a Middleburg Hunt meet, on the Countryside Alliance Facebook page where a number of Ed’s photos had been posted. Many of my paintings are based on dogs or horses and am always looking for inspiration. A number of photos from the set caught my eye but the one I chose just has a beautifully elegant poise to it. Ms. Conroy Britell looks regal, balanced and elegant and is caught in a lovely light. It was a shot that just popped out at me. Ed kindly allowed me to use the image (with approval from Ms. Conroy Britell too).

“When it came to painting it, it proved quite tricky. I used some old oil brushes here, where recently I have been using watercolour brushes — totally incorrect with oil paint, but there were practical reasons for this. This has led to a slightly more ‘impressionistic’ result than some of my other work. It was nearly erased completely at one point, but I slept on it and found a way through. Possibly the biggest challenge was the veil. The first attempt looked very poor – painted lines just didn’t seem to work. So that got scrubbed. After the paint drying, I re-glazed the surface and then re-worked it by applying skin tones and highlights as ‘blobs’ hopefully suggesting skin through a mesh. Not sure if the end result is the right solution but it’s a solution. Next time I tackle a veil, I may explore other options.

“A learning curve certainly but I think offers a potential for approaches for future work and, happily, both Ed and Maureen have been very kind in their responses to it. Very many thanks to Ed Felker and Maureen Conroy Britell.”

Jeff Morrow
“The Conversation”
24 x 18, oil on canvas

painting morrow

DSC_5143 copy“I never use other people’s photography as reference for my oil paintings, but a few weeks ago while perusing Facebook, I came across a photo [of Devon Zebrovious and Anne Sittmann] by Ed Felker. It caught my eye because of the arrangement of light and dark values that make an interesting abstract pattern. I also like the lighting and how the shadow is hiding the one woman’s eyes. That mysteriousness, along with the fact that the two women are in each other’s space makes the situation intriguing. I felt including the hands of the woman on the left would be distracting from the heads. In my painting it looks more confrontational than the photo indicates. Perhaps because in the photo it is evident that Anne, the lady with her back to us, is pulling down on her vest and not holding her hands on her hips.

“It was fun to paint the extreme lights and darks working against each other. It was a fun challenge to portray the hat on the right with few discernable edges – just melding into the background. Painting the veil over the woman’s…Devon’s…face was daunting because I was afraid if I messed it up I would end up repainting areas of her face. But I think I got the veil indicated just enough that it isn’t too heavily done, yet shows enough to read as a veil. Getting the satiny effect of the vest came slowly and with difficulty. On the other hand, the back of Anne’s head and her collar came easily and quickly. It “fell off the brush” as I like to say. Overall “The Conversation” was a joy to paint. It is being framed and is available at the Eisele Gallery in Cincinnati.”

Many thanks to Ian, Jeff, Devon, Anne and Maureen.

For more of Ian Legge’s work, click here.

For more of Jeff Morrow’s work, click here.


The Great American Outdoor Show

I had never been to the Great American Outdoor Show in Harrisburg, PA before, but will be going back every year. I posted some highlights on Instagram (@dispatches_potomac), but wanted to share them here as well. The show is still going on through February 14th, so there is still plenty of time to go!

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is here… #rmef #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

@melissa_bachman making some fans happy. #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

Long day!! @yuenglingbeer #greatamericanoutdoorshow #dispatchesfromGAOS #hunting #fishing #outdoors

A photo posted by Ed Felker (@dispatches_potomac) on

So the biggest disappointment was Browning. Literally the first thing I sought out was their booth to get a chance to handle their new Sweet Sixteen. None available, and the guy at the booth pointed to a wall of shotguns and said the one I was looking for was “pretty much the same as those.” Wow, really?

My favorite products:

The Flycraft raft. I don’t know what I have to sell to afford it, but not getting the Sweet Sixteen is a good start. Great design, and Brandon was generous with his time showing it to me.

The Sit/Drag. It’s like it’s designed exactly for me. And what I didn’t mention in my caption on Instagram is it also doubles as a drag harness to pull a deer out of the woods.

Vertical gun racks. A beautifully designed, simple product I am already using in my home.

Grandpa’s Country Catering. Rick Fetrow gave a demonstration about how to make venison bologna, and took a lot of the mystery out of the process for me. Looking forward to trying it myself this weekend. Nice man, generous with his time. I bought some products from him to get me started.


Wildlife Capture, Restraint, Handling, and Transport: An Online Course from the Wildlife Center of Virginia

10-2291 released March 1 2011 (1)

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is offering an opportunity to learn about wildlife capture, restraint, handling and transport through an online course. Anyone who spends a lot of time outdoors may some day encounter wildlife in need of assistance. The two-hour course will include photos and video of appropriate capture and restraint techniques of species that are commonly seen in wildlife rehabilitation, and will provide valuable information for those wishing to become permitted wildlife rehabilitators, or those (like me) who simply want to be prepared to help an injured wild animal in need.

“The Wildlife Center always needs rescue and transport volunteers,” says Amanda Nicholson, the Center’s Director of Outreach. “This course will lay the foundation of capture and restraint basics to keep both rescuer and animal safe.”

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE OR TO REGISTER. Please share this with your outdoor friends and facebook groups!

Date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Location: Online!
Time: 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Eastern
Cost: $20

116_1656

Photos courtesy of The Wildlife Center of Virginia.


Antlers, Birds and Exercise

It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…

IMG_4537

We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.

IMG_4519

So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.

IMG_4528

While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.

IMG_4520

You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.

IMG_4521

So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.

IMG_4534

And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


Game Night 2014

“There’s nothing like a nice piece of Hickory.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last year some friends gathered for an evening of food, drink and fun, with everyone bringing a dish made from wild game acquired over the course of the year. That night was such a success we’ve decided to make it an annual tradition! This year we gathered at my friend Jason’s house, and his smoker added a great new dimension to many of the dishes. Here’s a little tour of the feast!

This marinated venison backstrap was on the smoker for about three hours, cooked to perfection and so incredibly tender it was hard to believe. Fantastic. Don’t ask Jason for the marinade recipe, he won’t give it to you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My friend Carolyn told me about this dish and I had to try it. Baked beans mixed with browned ground venison, peppers and onion, baked, then topped with crumbled bacon, drizzled with honey and put in the smoker for 45 minutes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Full smoker! Marinated dove breasts, jalapeno poppers filled with shrimp and seasoned cream cheese, then wrapped in bacon, mushrooms stuffed with ground elk meat and cream cheese, and the tenderloin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cheese stuffed beer bread? YES PLEASE! Thank you Anna!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These are the finished smoked bacon wrapped cheesy shrimp jalapeno poppers. The cream cheese, I’m told, counters the heat in the peppers. Um, no.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anna made this incredible mac and cheese. It was delicious and popular, and good to have a dish on the table that wasn’t meat colored.

macncheese

I don’t really get tired of marinated bacon wrapped venison tenderloin morsels of awesomeness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The finished mushrooms stuffed with elk meat, cream cheese, mushroom and seasonings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I actually forgot to try this! Wild turkey breast stuffed with goat cheese and peppers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Another view of the perfectly cooked venison tenderloin, marinated and then smoked with hickory. Like butter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I took the smoked, marinated dove breasts, wrapped them in puff pastry and baked them for ten minutes or so.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Anna made this wonderful lemon meringue pie from scratch, in addition to the pie and the amazing beer bread.

lemonpie

It was a real treat to sample amazing donuts from Front Royal’s Naughty Girls Donut Shop. The story of the shop and the amazing young woman who started it is a great one, and I encourage you to read about it here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And in addition to all of the above, we of course had a variety of excellent seasonal beers to enjoy.

beers

It’s never too early to start planning for next year’s Game Night, either — I’m thinking venison meatball and cheese sliders will be on the menu!


Shooting Deer

DSC_4185

Rifle season for deer in Virginia started last weekend. I saw a few, but didn’t take any shots with my new Browning .308 lever gun. That will come soon enough, but in the meantime, I wanted to share all the deer I have managed to shoot this year. Most from my driveway, some with a game cam, the rest with my Nikon that I’ve started keeping with me in the car this time of year. Due to the nature of the photos, I won’t bother captioning them because I don’t want to be redundant, to repeat myself, to say things over and over again. Enjoy and stay tuned…

1

2

DSC_3387

DSC_4232

DSC_7677

DSC_8037

DSC_8055

DSC_8304

IMAG0071

IMAG0090

IMAG0129


Operator Error

For the last couple days, ever since my new Nikon D7100 arrived at my door, I’ve been bringing it with me to work. We have occasional turkey sightings and other wildlife in our driveway, and I thought it’d be a shame to have a brand new camera sitting at home if a cool photo opportunity presented itself. This morning an opportunity did just that. As I backed out of the garage I caught a view of the river, shrouded in a low, beautiful mist. I took a few photos, though I haven’t figured out my settings yet at all. When I got to my office I checked to see if I had any keepers on the memory card. Not really.

But it did make me look at that memory card, which was not a great one, and decide to upgrade. So at lunchtime I went to Best Buy and picked up two SanDisk Extreme Plus high speed cards for the new Nikon (which has two memory card slots).

So I drove home, not thinking about my nice new camera or anything else in particular, when just as I reached the front edge of our property I damn near hit a huge gobbler, in full fan and strutting around the edge of the driveway. Gravel crunched as I hit the brakes, watching him. I wouldn’t call him oblivious to my presence, but let’s just say I was not foremost on his mind. He continued to strut.

Then I remembered: I have my camera! Right there on the passenger seat. I took it out of the bag, turned it on and looked up. There he was, through a perfectly clean section of windshield, strutting and fanning and walking slowly away. I zoomed, focused, and snap snap snap snap snap. The shutter on this Nikon is so much faster and quieter and more professional sounding than my old Canon. It sounds really cool! He was probably about 20 feet away now so I took a chance and opened my car door. No reaction, so I walked a little closer. Just then I saw a hen slip under the fence on my left and cross in front of the gobbler. Snap snap snap snap snap snap snap snap. I can’t believe my luck! Just a couple weeks ago my friend Monica and I saw a turkey display from a distance, but we weren’t close enough to get a decent photo. Wait till she sees these, I thought.

I watched him strut into the woods after his hen, fumbled with my new focus point controls and got a few more shots with both of them in the frame, snap snap snap. Then it hit me.

nomemory

I didn’t even need to look. The memory card is still in my computer at the office.

A very special opportunity missed. But there will be others, my new Nikon and I will get together for plenty of captured moments. Besides, I’ve drawn a few turkeys in my day. Even as a kid. So I can still capture the moment to share here. Some day I will replace this with an awesome photo of a strutting turkey, but for now, this artist’s rendering will have to suffice.

turkey


Nose to Nose

yote

Hiking on a cold, blustery day, I kept my eyes to the ground, half to look for antler sheds, half to shield my eyes from a sustained, 30mph wind. I listened more than looked for my two dogs, who were running off leash ahead and behind me in about a twenty-yard radius. Not that I could hear much over the howling winds whipping the tall grass all around me.

But I did hear this. All day I’ve tried to replay it in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. A snort, maybe. Kind of a huff. An unquestionably animal, nasal sound. I stopped.

When I looked up, about fifteen yards up the slope from where I was standing, I saw Finn. He was absolutely motionless, broadside to me, and he was nose to nose with a large coyote.

They faced each other, statues. No more than a baseball’s diameter apart. In my mind I ran through my options. I’ll call him, and hope he comes and the yote doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.

“Finn,” I called. They both turned their heads and looked straight at me. I somehow took a moment to compare them. The coyote seemed a bit taller than Finn, but he was on the uphill side, so truthfully they were probably the same height. Finn is a tall, lean 75 pounds. The coyote had thick fur around his head and neck, giving him at least the impression of being larger than Finn. I could read Finn’s body language, even though much of both their bodies, including the ever-important tails, were concealed by the tall grass. But Finn’s neck was erect, and his ears were up and slightly back. He seemed fine, maybe even playful, but just a bit apprehensive.

The coyote I couldn’t read at all. Ears fixed atop his head, body concealed, blank slate. Like reading a painting of a coyote. Not to mention my lack of experience with the animal – my previous closest coyote encounter was from about 200 yards away, at Yellowstone. This was new territory.

I just wanted to get some space between the two canines.

“Here,” I called, not overly forcefully. Without hesitation, and a bit to my surprise, Finn turned away from his new friend and trotted the fifteen yards back to me, ears up, tail wagging. The coyote watched him.

Eyes still on Wile E., I called for Winnie. Luckily, she was unaware of this entire transaction, and came when called from another direction. I watched the coyote.

He took a single step toward me and I felt utterly unprepared. I don’t know enough about these animals and their behavior. I don’t know the right thing to do if they show aggression, nor do I really know what their aggression necessarily looks like. My dogs were milling around my immediate area but I wanted them still and close. “Finn! Winnie! Heel! Now!

The firm commands, I presume, stopped the coyote in his tracks. He thought better of advancing, and turned around. A step into the grass and he was gone. Far too late I fumbled for my phone, held it up high and snapped a few photos, knowing there would be no sign of him in them. I praised my dogs, thankful this encounter was diffused without incident, and that it was Finn who encountered him, rather than Winnie. I’m not sure things would have gone as well if the roles were reversed.

Hiking back to the car (reducing that 20 yard dog radius to something closer to 10), I thought about the encounter. The noise of the wind likely resulted in Finn and the coyote surprising each other in the grass. I don’t think he knew we were there until he was snoot to snoot with what to him was probably the ugliest coyote he had ever seen. Finn likely viewed him as just a funny smelling dog who doesn’t wear a collar, but I really don’t know. He was absolutely disinterested in the coyote once he recalled to me. He never even glanced back over his shoulder as we left.

I, however, did.


The Allure of Antlers

17

I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.

And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.

2

Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.

Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.

3

Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.

5

Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

8

After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.

9

A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.

10

I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.

13

I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.

11

So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.

16

Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.

18

As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.

Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!


2013, My Year in Photos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay to the hills of southwest Virginia, I logged a lot of miles in 2013, saw places I’ve never seen before and met many great people. I had my camera with me most of the time, and when I didn’t, my iPhone stepped in to capture the moment. Above is a shot of the sunrise over the Chesapeake aboard the Renegade. Below are the rest of my favorite shots of the year, starting with elk prints in Buchanan County, Virginia. Meeting the people involved in the elk reintroduction program in this part of the state was one of my highlights of the year.

Caption

An eerie fog blocked the normally outstanding vistas on Sugarloaf Mountain, but the resulting mood was equally beautiful. Team Orange helped by posing cooperatively, as they usually do.

1

One of several neat iPhone panoramas I took this year. This was at Rose River Farm, awash in golden morning sun. Team Orange, far left, enjoying a romp before a hike nearby.

2

Speaking of iPhones, this may be my favorite iPhone photo I’ve ever taken. Hiking with a friend on the Loudoun Heights trail near Harpers Ferry, WV, the light gave us scenes like this all morning.

4

We have a lot of deer around our property. But, common as they are, when they come close enough I can never resist getting the camera out and snapping a few photos. I liked the background in deep shadow here.

IMG_0005 (1)

A fun action shot of Finn chasing a chukar during a training session with my friend Anna.

IMG_0005

Petey is unlike any dog I’ve ever known, and is full of surprises. Here, when any of our other dogs would have run and barked and chased this young deer away, Petey decided to simply make friends.

IMG_0008

Friend and fishing guide Gary Burwell at Rose River Farm with the mist hanging heavy in the air.

IMG_0047

They do indeed. Old guys — and tractors — ruled at the antique tractor pull and show at Gladhill Tractor near Frederick, Maryland.

IMG_0053

The Wildlife Center of Virginia‘s Ed Clark released this stunning eagle along the banks of the Rappahannock River in front of a crowd of volunteers and spectators. It was a day I will not soon forget. I am holding back a special photo from this day for which I hope to find a print venue for publication. But I love this and many other shots from the event.

IMG_0094

A visit to our friends Mike and Carole Pivarnik of Tulip Hill Farm resulted in this heartwarming shot of two unlikely friends.

IMG_0115

Another shot from my trip to southwest Virginia, here Josie watches intently as her human partner, Conservation Police Officer Wes Billings, drives.

IMG_0139

Volunteer guide Kiki Galvin nets a nice trout caught by Aaron Greene Morse at the 7th Annual Project Healing Waters 2-Fly Tournament at Rose River Farm.

kiki

It’s hard to grow tired of catching these hard fighting, colorful sunfish, even when you are targeting bigger and stronger smallmouth. You will never hear me complain about a day with no smallies, but with dozens of these enthusiastic little fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I spent a lot of time on the Potomac this year. On this occasion we were towing an extra kayak to a takeout ramp downstream. We made it just in time as a big storm was closing in. This is another iPhone photo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This photo warms my hear because of how I felt when I took it. I love spending time with my dogs, but to hike in a beautiful park and fly fish for native brook trout in their company was a wonderful experience. I had to capture it with a rare if unconventional selfie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Team Orange loves the snow, and we had a couple good ones in late 2013. Here Finn sports a snout full, a result of chasing snowballs as they disappear under the surface.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is not our friend August’s first appearance in my Photos of the Year. Two years ago this pic made the cut. It’s fun to watch him grow up so fast, here he entertains a lady friend.

wk

My special girl Winnie absolutely loves riding in the kayak. Here we are taking a break because she does not do much paddling. Propped against a rock in the middle of the Potomac River, I shot this iPhone panorama upstream (left) and down. The Native Watercraft Slayer pictured was a new addition this year, of course in Team Orange orange.

yak5

I’ll be honest, I wish this photo was more in focus. But I’m including it because, while technically flawed, it is likely to hold up as the best photo I will ever take of a baby wild turkey running full speed away from a pursuing moth.

Ack!! It's a MOTH! Get it away GET IT AWAY!!!

Another technically flawed, blurry and grainy image, there’s still a lot to like about this hawk image. I took this through my windshield after chasing this bird off a deer carcass nearby.

IMG_0012

The native brook trout is so beautiful, it’s just about as fun to see one as to catch one. On this day in the Shenandoah National Park, I saw plenty. But none would be fooled by my fly.

IMG_0095

I hope you have enjoyed Dispatches from the Potomac this year, and had fun looking through my favorite images of 2013. You can view my favorite photos of 2012 here, and of 2011 here. And if you haven’t already signed up to receive a notification of new posts, I’d love it if you added your email in the ‘Follow this blog’ link on the top right of this page. Thanks again for stopping by from time to time. I hope your 2014 is filled with fun encounters with nature and lots of opportunities to take your own favorite photos of the year!


Great Gift Ideas for the Outdoorsman on Your List

I have some incredibly talented friends in all walks of life. I want to spotlight two men, both former Marines by the way, who are such experts in their field, they literally wrote the book on it.

books 1

Scott Olmsted is editor-in-chief of the NRA’s American Hunter magazine. He is a former Marine rifleman, NRA-certified rifle instructor, graduate of premier shooting schools and an expert marksman. For his book, Make Every Shot Count! Get the most out of your hunting rifle under field conditions, he combined his wealth of personal experience and that of other experts such as U.S. military Special Forces personnel, shooting instructors and big-game guides to provide the reader with a comprehensive approach that will make any hunter a better shooter. From the Safari Press web site:

We all like to think we are pretty good with a rifle in the field. But we all have limits. Of course, most of us can punch holes in the ten-ring off the bench, but conditions on the range differ greatly from real life. And it’s not too difficult for most of us to make an 80-yard shot from a solid rest in the field. But when that big mule deer appears at the head of the canyon 250 yards away, when your rifle is buffeted by a monster cross-wind, and when you can’t get comfortable, can you make an accurate, killing shot the first time, every time?…

In addition to his descriptive writing, color photos depict the critical placement of a rifleman’s feet, legs, shoulders, arms, hands, and head for making accurate shots on big game. Besides providing readers with the most effective visual examples of what to do and how to do it, these photos devote special emphasis to how your limbs can create maximum stability and the steadiest shooting platform for any shot.

This is a very high quality book just loaded with helpful information regardless of whether you are a high level hunter who’s a great shot, or a relatively inexperienced hunter who makes avoidable mistakes like me. Find it at Safari Press.

books 2

The new release from Stonefly Press, 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish by Terry & Wendy Gunn, is receiving accolades from fly fishing’s heavy hitters. Kirk Deeter, Editor of TROUT magazine, Editor-at-Large for Field & Stream calls it “the most comprehensive ‘where-to’ with ‘how-to’ I’ve ever seen.” It covers the very best tailwaters across the U.S. and Canada, with detailed maps, information about access, terrain, tactics, everything you’ll need to know to have success in these special waters.

One of these waters is the North Branch of the Potomac River in Western Maryland and West Virginia. When you are looking for someone to write a chapter on the North Branch, there is only one individual on that list: My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters. Harold knows this water and these fish like nobody else, and works hard to get his clients on great fish. If you have never fished this river, you will be flat out stunned at the beauty of the North Branch and the fish therein. The first brook trout I ever caught came from this water, with Harold as my guide, and it remains one of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever had the privilege to behold.

In addition to using his vast knowledge and skill to assist clients, Harold gives generously and works tirelessly to help wounded servicemen and women through Project Healing Waters. Please visit PHW’s web site and find out more about this great program if you are not familiar with it. And while you’re shopping this holiday season, please consider making a donation to help heal those who serve.

50 Best Tailwaters is available at Stonefly Press, but Amazon actually has it for a few bucks cheaper, and if you’ve got the Prime thing there’s free shipping.

I’m extremely proud of Scott and Harold, congratulations guys. Ooh-Rah!


Game Night

3

Some good friends gathered on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for what we hope will become a new annual tradition. Game Night is a feast, the sharing of wild game hunted throughout the year. It is a celebration of cooking, drinking, laughing and eating, and all of those to excess. Let me walk you through some of the delicious ways we gave thanks to the animals we hunt, and the friends who shared this special night.

Marinated, Bacon-Wrapped Venison Tenderloin Morsels of Awesomeness

I’ve been making these for a few years, they’re easy and very popular. Cut the tenderloin into good size chunks, marinate overnight, wrap each with a half slice of bacon and secure with a toothpick (soak the toothpicks for 10-15 minutes so they don’t completely burn up). Then grill. Keep an eye on these as the bacon will cause flare ups. Some charring is of course delicious, but you don’t want to leave these unattended.

Here’s what I use in my marinade: 1/4 cup Worcestershire, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a bottle of beer (try different varieties for fun, but I like using a dark, richly flavored beer), 1/4 cup maple syrup, 1 tsp black pepper, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 cup brown sugar (light or dark), 1 tsp of cayenne pepper.

IMG_0007

Here are the completed venison morsels, which by the way came from this beautiful deer. Thanks to Anna for this and other great photographs from the night. Please check out Anna’s web site, AKG Inspiration.

Felker-5894

Bacon-Wrapped Dove Appetizers

Across the board, everyone loved these incredibly delicious dove breasts that Chris and Anna brought. Regular readers might recall our dove hunt. What a fun day that was, and tasting these makes me want to get my full limit when we go back next year. Chris marinated these, wrapped each breast around slices of green bell pepper and onion and secured with toothpicks. Absolutely delicious. Anna also made an amazing pot of macaroni and cheese made with four cheeses: fontina, havarti, brie and sharp cheddar. (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)

Felker-5897

Horseradish Encrusted Venison Tenderloin

My friend Jason loves to cook wild game almost as much as he loves to hunt it, and he is very talented at both. I’ll let him walk you through preparing these great main course: Coat the tenderloin with olive oil, salt and pepper. Then spread prepared horseradish over it evenly. Mix a sauce of about 2 cups balsamic vinegar and 4 tablespoons of sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Stir occasionally until it gets syrupy. Grill the tenderloins (preferably to about medium rare) and remove from grill. Top with crumbled goat cheese and broil on high in the oven for 3-4 minutes until cheese begins to brown. Slice, drizzle with balsamic reduction and serve! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)

Felker-5946

This, in my opinion, is absolutely perfect medium rare venison tenderloin. Great job by the grillmaster Jason.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fresh Wild Turkey Breasts

And I do mean fresh! Jason shot this turkey on Thanksgiving morning. He used a liquid garlic butter rub and coated with Cajun seasoning. Then this was cooked in an oilless turkey fryer. This is the first time I’ve had wild turkey and it was great with quite a kick to it! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)

Felker-5960

Grilled Bacon-Wrapped Asparagus

Thanks again to Jason and Allie, Jason’s girlfriend and a long time dear friend of mine. I did not actually try these, but they looked and smelled great! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)

Felker-5904

At some point when everyone was occupied in the kitchen there was a knock at the door. This is what we saw waiting to be let in. Now, and only now, can we get this party started. Our friends Ken and Mary accompanied this bear, along with more treats. Which brings us to dessert…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pumpkin Roll

In addition to this amazing thing I’ve never had before, our friends Brad and Jess also brought one. I love these things! It’s like pumpkin pie/cake and cheesecake all rolled up and sliced. Fantastic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bourbon Pecan Pie

Okay I love pecan pie. It’s one of my very favorite things, especially at this time of year. And in the heat of the moment last night, with the beer flowing, the hugs being distributed, the laughter and friendship warming us on a cold night, I might have been heard saying that the bourbon pecan pie Allie made from the recipe in my favorite magazine, Garden & Gun, is the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.

pie

Now, a day later, with a clearer head, I do not hesitate to say it again. This is honestly the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.The recipe can be found at Garden & Gun here. Thank you Allie for this! (Photo courtesy of AKG Inspiration.)

Felker-5851

I want to thank everyone for coming and making such amazing contributions to a meal I will not soon forget. As we go through the next year spending time in the woods or on the water, we’ll enjoy setting aside some venison, wild birds, maybe a fish or two, with plans on preparing for next year’s Game Night. Can we top the First Annual? Does a bear drink wine out of a bottle?

2


Taking Life, Giving Thanks

4

I stood quietly, waiting for enough light to see and already feeling like it wasn’t going to happen today. I wanted this to be the year that I finally get my first real buck, and with a late rut and a favorable weather pattern, this, the first day of rifle season, was as good an opportunity as I could have hoped for. But at first light I already found myself emotionally throwing in the towel. Maybe I was talking myself out of wanting it so much.

The first time I ever entered the woods with a rifle, after waiting all morning I watched a large buck walk towards me, a hundred yards out but in heavy brush. I lined up the sights on my Dad’s Model 94, but didn’t have a clear path. I waited for a better shot, but a better one never came. The deer either sensed my presence or smelled my fear, and turned and swiftly went back the way he came. Ever since that day I’ve been a little bit haunted by my decision. Should I have taken the shot when I had it? Would I feel better if I had taken the shot and missed? Will I ever look at a buck over a rifle barrel again? I would forget all about it for months at a time, but when deer season rolls around I’m haunted, just a little, all over again. And as the sky brightened I could talk myself out of it no more: I did want it.

From my position I had two areas to watch: A creek bed in a wooded area to my left, and a hillside off to the right where deer may come up from a ravine largely hidden from my view. Before dawn, I heard movement from the creek bed so that area was getting most of my attention. Two friends, Ken and Chris, were hunting with me, set up near an adjacent field. Chris had just taken a shot and we were texting back and forth when I looked up and saw a deer on my hillside. I raised my rifle to get a look through the scope and saw a nice rack, maybe eight points. But he had already passed the first perfect backstop unnoticed and was now too near the crest of the hill for a safe shot. My heart was pounding just having him in my scope.

He approached a lone pear tree at the horizon and I watched him, magnified 7X, as he stood on his hind legs and rattled the low branches with his antlers. He then got to work scraping the ground around the trunk. After a few minutes of buck stuff, he did exactly what I needed him to do. He slowly moved left, down the hill, giving me a good backstop. So, heart pounding, arms shaking from excitement, nerves and fatigue from watching him through the scope for several minutes, I pushed the safety forward and tried to breathe.

A hundred and forty yards, I would later pace off, is ninety yards farther than my Winchester Model 70 was sighted in for. I steadied the rifle, put the crosshairs on his heart, let out a breath I had been holding for an unknown span of time, and squeezed the trigger.

The round left my muzzle traveling at about 2,850 feet per second and reached him in a blink. It first took about a pea-sized nick out of the fleshy part of the back of his front leg, then passed about two inches below his chest and buried harmlessly into the soft earth. I cycled the bolt and heard the metallic ting of the spent round ejecting as the next round found the chamber. When I reacquired my target in the scope, he had run back up to his pear tree. He was looking back at where he was standing when I first shot at him, occasionally picking up his nicked leg and shaking it. He was putting weight on it, and I have no doubt he was perfectly capable of running away. If he had run to freedom, we both would have deserved that outcome.

Again he was too high up the hill for a safe shot, there was nothing I could do but wait. As I waited, I watched him through the scope and thought about him. Probably three and a half years old, most likely born not far from where he now stood. He has avoided hunters and motor vehicles and illness. And now his life hinged on which direction he would step next. Up the hill to freedom, or down.

He stepped down the hill three or four steps, and the second shot hit him in the ribs. A bit farther back than I would have liked, but good enough to hit a lung and put him down. My heart was racing still as I took the scope away from my eye and slung my rifle on my shoulder. The distance between us felt like a mile now. As I walked toward him, I felt a flood of emotions all at once. Grateful for the opportunity, and to live where I live, and for my friends who were now driving up the hill to meet me. While part of me is saddened at the taking of a beautiful animal, I am so thankful for this deer that will not only provide food for the table, but will also put to rest some internal doubt. I will honor and respect him the best way I know how, by remembering him at the meals he provides, and by being careful to continue to take the very best shots I can take whenever I’m hunting. They won’t always hit their mark, but I owe it to these animals to try my hardest.

7

Speaking of respect, two hundred miles south, my good friend Josh Williams was having a special day in the woods as well. Three weeks ago, Josh was hunting on a friend’s land during archery season when he encountered a spectacular beast of a buck, but he, too, decided not to take the shot. His respect for the animal and care to do the right thing was repaid when he returned for opening day of rifle season. He hunted the early morning with no luck, and was calling it a day when he saw the buck again. Less than an hour after I got mine, Josh brought down this beauty. My sincere congratulations to Josh on this well deserved buck. Read more about his outing here, and while you’re at it, sign up to follow Josh’s great blog.

josh


Deer vs. Man, Then Car, Then Man Again

NOTE: This post contains graphic hunting content. If you are offended by deer hunting, hunting in general, car accidents, blood, humor or amazing feats of manliness, consider yourself warned. Click here to leave this page.

So, this happened.

My wife called from the car this morning on her way to a horse show. A buck, she said, had run into her car about 20 minutes away, across the river in Maryland. She was fine, but the car had fairly extensive damage on the driver’s side. Her biggest concern, however, was the deer. She could see in her mirror after it happened that he had injured a hind leg. He was up, though, and appeared to have limped into the woods on the far side of the road he was crossing.

3

Since she had to continue on her way, she had me contact our friend Chris, who lives near where the accident occurred, to ask if he was available to see if the deer was along the roadside injured or dead. Chris answered my text right away. I asked him to call me and he replied to give him ten minutes.

He needed a few minutes because he was dealing with a deer encounter of his own and needed time to climb out of a tree stand he was hunting out of. Moments before I texted, he had taken a shot at a buck with his crossbow. He knew he hit the deer (he later found the arrow, broken and bloodied), but it kept running. It ran to the edge of the field, through a tree line, halfway across the highway and straight into the side of a car. My wife’s car.

photo-6

We briefly discussed the astronomical odds of a person shooting a deer and then having that deer run into the car of someone they know whose first reaction is to then call that very same person. But then we had things to do. Chris said he would investigate the scene and look for the buck, while I was heading to the horse show to switch vehicles with Sandy. Immediately following the impact she got a signal indicating low air pressure in her left rear tire. If there was a slow leak, I’d rather she have a flat tire in the comfort of our garage than in a field in Maryland.

As I approached the scene I saw Chris and his wife, Anna, on either side of the road. I pulled alongside Chris, who handed me the tail light assembly from Sandy’s car and reported that there was no sign of the deer. But the woods there are extremely dense, you can’t see more than a few yards in. We decided we owed it to the deer to search the woods as best we could.

Even with a couple deer trails as entry points to choose from, entering the woods here was daunting. Dense, thorny brush intertwined with heavy vines blocked progress in every direction. Early in the search Anna decided she needed to turn back and change into more durable clothing, meanwhile Chris and I pressed on slowly and with no real plan. Instead of searching where we knew the deer entered the woods, we were limited to looking where the brambles and thickets opened up and allowed easier passage. Like the old joke about the drunk looking for his keys under a lamppost, not because that’s where he dropped them but because the light was better there. We were not optimistic about finding him.

I finally reached a bit of a clearing and was able to work my way back toward the road near the entry point, when something caught my eye through the brush about twenty yards away. Lying down, head up, still as a statue, eyes trained squarely on me, was our buck. I called Chris over and we weighed our options, which were limited. We were on private property, so he couldn’t bring the crossbow over and reshoot it. Here is the view from the “clearing.” The buck is in the red square, enlarged in the following image.

6
9

My plan, which seemed pretty solid, was for the two of us to spread out a bit and approach the deer. If he had anything left, our presence would force him back through the brush to the road, where he would either get hit again, or, ideally, cross the highway where Chris could legally put it down with the crossbow.

Chris countered with an alternate plan: “I’m going to run over there and jump on him.”

“Um, that’s not a good idea,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Oh I don’t know, wounded animal with antlers and all that. He could really hurt you.”

We discussed, briefly, Phase II of the plan: What To Do Once You’re On Top Of The Injured Wild Animal. Chris said, “Once I get there, it’s over.” Hindsight being what it is, I should have asked for a more detailed outline of Phase II. But to be honest, it never really occurred to me that Phase I would be successful. So after an admittedly flawed review process, Chris’s plan was adopted.

Anna arrived back at the road and we called to her to stay put. If the buck ran across the road she could keep an eye out on where he went. Chris readied himself to put his plan into action.

He chose his line, dug his feet in like a runner in a track meet, and paused. Then without warning he lunged forward, reaching top speed in two or three strides, a camouflaged blur thundering through the brush, closing the distance between man and beast before the deer could react. Almost. Chris stumbled as he reached the deer, allowing enough time and space for the buck to jump clear. But his escape was short lived as Chris righted himself and lunged again, grabbing antler on his way down. Now completely out of view, I could only hear their meeting. And the sound was not pleasant.

There was a thud, like a tree falling to a forest floor of fallen leaves, immediately followed by, well, I’ve heard bucks make noises before, but this could only be described as a growl. Not a whitetail deer growl, but like a Grendel from Beowulf growl. When I reached the pair, Chris was lying on top of the struggling deer, grappling both antlers.

Chris then asked me a question that made me further question the soundness of his Plan: “Hey, um, you wouldn’t happen to have a pocketknife on you, would you?”

I didn’t. But I did have my phone, so I offered assistance in the form of taking a picture.

4

We communicated the details of the situation to Anna waiting on the side of the road. She was probably only fifteen yards or so away, but there was a wall of brush so thick you couldn’t see through it. She could only hear us talking and Grendel growling, I can only imagine what bizarre images came to mind. Come to think of it, her mental images couldn’t possibly be more bizarre than the scenes actually playing out in those woods. Anyway, she would have to run back to the house and retrieve a knife while Chris held down the fort and I found a navigable path out to the road. Some more ungodly grunts came from the area of Chris and the deer, though I can’t say for sure which of the two was making them. Later, Chris told me that during his extended wrestling bout, the buck looked like this to him:

7

Anna quickly returned and the deer, after a decidedly unpleasant day, was finally dispatched. Only then did we have a chance to piece together all the details. The arrow, aimed at the buck’s body, must have deflected off a branch before striking him in the forehead. He ran thirty yards or so before the arrow shaft snapped off on a tree. He then ran into the road where his day got much worse very quickly. The impact with Sandy’s car shattered his left hind leg and most certainly caused extensive internal damage. While he was not long for this world after that, I feel strongly that dispatching him there saved him a long day, and possibly more, of suffering.

Back across the road, holding the souvenir of one hell of a deer story in hand, Chris made a most generous offer. He held out the buck’s head to me. “I want you to have it,” he said.

photo-7

While I appreciated the gesture, and yes it was a team effort of sorts – Chris shot it in the face, Sandy further disabled it with her Chevy Cruz, I found it in the woods and Anna delivered the tool both Chris and I should have had with us – I of course had to decline. Those antlers belong on Chris’s wall. I’m not sure anyone has ever earned a deer as much as he earned that one.

8


Dove Hunting, A Beginner’s Guide

I was about thirteen years old when I tagged along with my Dad for a few days of fishing down in North Carolina. We ended up at some sort of camp with a bunch of his friends, and it was here he told me we were dove hunting that afternoon. When the time came, he brought me to the perimeter of a huge rectangular field and handed me my Remington 870 20 gauge and a box of shells. He turned a bucket upside down and told me to sit there and if a dove comes my way, shoot it. Some other kids and I were at one end of the field, and my Dad and his friends would be at the other. That was the extent of my dove hunting tutorial. Really? People do this? Is this a thing? Or is this a snipe hunting type trick to keep all the kids sitting quietly on buckets for a few hours while the men pile into a pickup and head out to a bar?

Well, it turns out it really is a thing. And that afternoon there was very little bird activity down at the far end, and even fewer birds at the kid end of the field. But in one spirited volley at the far end, dozens of shots were fired at a cluster of birds. Some went down, some retreated over the treeline behind the hunters, and one lone dove flew straight toward me. The shots silenced as he flew out of range of the adults, and I watched him for a while as he approached. I loved the idea of hitting this dove that my Dad and his buddies all missed. This is called, “counting your chickens before they’re hatched.” But I had an easy, low, straight flying bird coming directly toward me. I put the bead on him, waited until I had a nice short shot, and pulled the trigger.

Let me interrupt this story to begin my list of Helpful Hints for the Beginner Dove Hunter:

1. Be aware of the status of your gun’s safety.

In the time it took me to realize the safety of my gun was on, the bird slipped safely and quietly over the tree line behind me. It was the only bird that came my way that afternoon. I unloaded my Remington, put the three pristine yellow 20 gauge shells back in the now full box and closed it and my dove hunting chapter, not to be opened again until almost four decades later. Yesterday.

My friends Chris and Anna invited me to come out dove hunting with their dogs Wyatt and Luna on a stunningly beautiful, blue sky day in rural Virginia. Considering how my first experience went, I was excited to give it another try. We got to the field early and then Billy, the host who set up the shoot, gave us some ideas on good spots. We chose an area where some power lines intersected with a tree line at the far end of the fields. The terrain was brutally difficult to walk in. Deep, irregular mounds and ridges of firm ground – an artifact of a chisel plow early in the season – made it feel like you were walking on bowling balls. But we navigated the obstacle course the several hundred yards with all our gear and set up for the day. Anna was working the dogs and taking photos, Chris and I would be shooting. Here is the spot I chose, some cover of overhanging limbs and plenty of shade, but with a good view of the fields and open sky. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

Dove-3769

The gun I brought, a 1952 16 gauge Winchester Model 12, is one of my very favorites. Light and comfortable, the 16 gauge is built on the 20 gauge frame. I’ve often said of this gun that I could shoot it all day long, but on this day I did exactly that. And the simple, brilliant Model 12 design just makes this gun aim where you’re looking the second you throw it up to your shoulder. However, aiming and hitting are two different matters when it comes to dove.

IMG_0007

Chris chose a spot more out in the open, sitting against the base of a phone pole about 75 yards away from me to my right. He immediately started shooting single flyers racing by him from behind. Here is Chris and Wyatt with the first bird of the day.

IMG_0012

Wyatt making sure I got a good close up before he gave the bird up.

IMG_0016

Watching their flight pattern, it doesn’t take long to identify and recognize these birds. We didn’t get any photos of them in flight, but here is a file photo of a common migratory mourning dove. Note the distinctive shape:

jet

Early on I had opportunities but just couldn’t get a handle on shooting these things. Chris’s success, I determined after observing for about ten minutes, was due to better instincts on where to sit and where to watch, faster reaction time, and better shooting than I exhibited.

2. Have better instincts, react faster, and shoot better.

I brought over 100 shells and within the first hour I had burned through maybe 20 and I’m not sure I even scared a bird. Chris graciously let me sit in his spot for a bit, probably to let his gun cool off and give his shoulder a rest, and before long I had another chance. Three doves whipped around the phone pole I was leaning against, I picked one and quickly took two shots at it. Miss, miss. I took my time on the third and connected, downing my first dove ever. Chris is a truly good friend, and he exhibited this with a genuine, spontaneous celebratory outburst when those feathers flew. I know he would have traded all his birds to that point just to see me hit one. Anna brought Wyatt over to find the downed bird in the thick millet and he made quick work of the task. Here we are sharing the glory.

dove2

Breaking the ice with this one helped a lot. I felt like I started to shoot better and react better. But I was still leaving a lot of opportunities in the field. Some lessons learned:

3. If you stare too long at one distant part of the field, birds will appear very near you in the other direction.

4. When #3 happens, and people try to bring it to your attention by yelling, “LOOK UP!!”, you would be surprised how vast an area “up” is and how easy it is to not see something there.

5. If you put your gun down to pee, you will miss birds.

6. If you hit a bird on your second or third shell, reload before you go to find it. Doves are watching you, and if they count three shots and don’t see you reload, they will come and land on your shoulder or roost on your dove stool till you get back.

7. When you watch a huge field for doves, your brain will send you some false alarms. Dragonflies look like doves. Butterflies look like doves. Trust me, it happens. I had the safety off and the bead drawn on a big, beautiful orange butterfly half a dozen times.

8. If you switch places with someone because you haven’t seen action in a while and they’ve almost limited out, birds will stream toward your original location like your cooler is the very place they are migrating to.

Luckily there were enough birds around that despite my missed opportunities and missed shots, I was having some success. And having the dogs there to find downed birds was just key. We spoke to some guys on our way out who were shooting a lot of birds but not finding many. We didn’t lose a bird all day. Here is Luna with our first joint effort together.

dove1

Anna tucked into the shade and sent dogs as needed.

9. Bring a dog.

IMG_0027

Chris, as predicted, got his limit of fifteen birds, and took just under fifty shells to do it. That, from what I know of dove hunting, is pretty fine shooting. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

Dove-3972

These dogs worked their butt off in very difficult terrain for a long, warm day. (Photo by Anna Gibson)

Dove-3977

As for me, I ended up with seven, and took about 70 shells to do it. Not too bad, considering I burned an entire box before I even hit one.

IMG_0032

But more importantly, I had an absolutely fantastic time. Shotgun shooting is my favorite kind of shooting, and dove hunting is as exciting as shotgun shooting gets. It’s really a blast!

10. Don’t get frustrated, everybody misses these birds. A lot. Just remember how much damn fun it is, hit or miss!

IMG_0048

I’m exploring recipes, and will do a follow up post on eating these dove breasts. It’s always rewarding to me when a hunt becomes a meal.

dove3

I’ve come a long way from that upside down bucket in a North Carolina field a couple hundred yards across from my Dad, watching that solitary bird over the barrel of my Remington as he slipped above the trees. And I think if you told me that afternoon as I placed those three unused shells back in the box that one day I would be writing that in dove hunting I’ve found perhaps my favorite type of hunting, I would have disagreed strongly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But it’s true. It’s fun, casual, social, challenging, rewarding and exciting. And I can’t wait to do it again.

Dove-3924


And Now a Word from our Sponsors…

I am very proud to announce this blog’s first paid advertisers! Welcome and a big THANK YOU to the following sponsors, whose ads are shown to the right. I encourage the readers of this blog to support these trusted businesses. Please click on the ads or the links below to learn more about them!

Eastern Trophies Fly Fishing. – Guided trips, instruction, beautiful flies or fly tying materials, William at Eastern Trophies has it all! Bookmark this site, you’ll be glad you did.

Dead Drift Flies – Josh Williams, veteran, outdoorsman, great fisherman, wonderful family man and he ties great flies too. I probably fish more with Dead Drift flies than any other!

Spring Creek Outfitters – If you long for a place where fly fishing is still a sport of solitude, the rivers of Western Maryland are where your wildest dreams become reality. And nobody knows these waters like Spring Creek’s Harold Harsh.

Rose River Farm – Western style fly fishing for trophy trout in Virginia and amazing, unique yurt-style luxury rental cabins, all set in wonderful, scenic Madison County, Virginia. One of my very favorite places in this beautiful state.

Visual Edge – Visual Edge is a full service landscape management company that can do it all. They’ll keep you looking good in the summer and they’ll clear the snow all winter long.

If you would like to advertise on Dispatches from the Potomac, email me and I’ll tell you how!


My Deer Season So Far

94

My deer season began about a week ago when, while hunting on my property I slipped, fell and slid on my ass down an embankment of jagged shale. The slide, which took place as I was stealthily working my way down to a well traveled deer path behind my house, took long enough for me to go through every curse word in my extensive list and part way through the list a second time. When gravity was done with me, I sat on the ground amid crumbles of shale trickling down the embankment around me, and had two immediate concerns: My rifle, and my ass. The rifle, a Winchester Model 70 I purchased after last season and had brought into the woods for the very first time, was slung over my shoulder behind me when I fell. Miraculously, it was not scratched (although the scope was scuffed pretty badly). My ass, I could tell by the excruciating, take-your-breath-away pain, was not as lucky.

I gingerly limped around the woods until dark, but there were no deer to be found. I’m sure my earlier ‘stealth’ sent any deer in the area into the next county. I tried again the next day, and the next, and was starting to feel like that nice deer wasn’t going to come this season. But I have venison recipes I want to try. I bought two extra trays for my dehydrator and ordered four new flavors of jerky seasoning. I needed a deer.

Every evening this time of year, like clockwork right before dusk, between 7 and 12 small deer enter our front paddock nearest our barn, and work their way down the hill where they graze until dark. I’ve watched them for weeks and rarely have seen a medium sized deer, let alone a large one. But I wanted meat in the freezer, so I decided to take out the biggest of the small ones. Last night I took the Model 70 to the far corner of the paddock, hid behind a pine tree and waited.

Right on schedule, they arrived. A few about the size of my dog, Finn, came first. Then some others followed. Darkness was falling, but there were a few still on the far side of the fence I couldn’t get a good look at, even through the scope. I thought one might be larger than the others, so I put the scope on her and waited till I could get a good look. I had just about decided she was the one, when I heard a truck coming down our driveway. Hay delivery. It was almost dark so I had to either take the shot, or wait for another day. I took the shot.

The hay arrived, the deer left, and after an extensive search for any sign of a hit, I determined I just plain missed. As I put the Model 70 back in the safe I looked at that scuffed scope and wondered if maybe the fall knocked it out of alignment. I would have to sight that in before I brought it out again.

This morning, I reluctantly took a backward glance in the mirror to ass-ess the damage from the other day. A shocking, dark, multi-colored bruise had taken over the entire surface of my butt cheek. And every time I sit down I am reminded of my less than successful attempts to stock my freezer with venison. So when I got home from work this evening and saw a couple good sized doe in the paddock, I went to the safe, reached past the Model 70 with the suspect scope, and grabbed my Winchester Model 94. My father’s rifle. Short and thin and heavy, this rifle feels good in my hands. I fed two 30-30 rounds into the loading gate, eased the hammer down and walked outside to the paddock. Five deer had worked their way down the hill, about 75 yards away. They saw me and heard the dogs in the yard but they see people and hear dogs all the time. They were far enough away they were not concerned with me.

Seventy five yards out, with dusk rapidly thickening, I chose the largest deer at the base of the hill. I pulled the hammer back, leveled the sights on her front shoulder, breathed, and squeezed the trigger. With a flash of orange from the end of the muzzle the shot rang out, echoed and faded. As the smoke cleared, the four non target deer bolted toward the woods beyond the fence, and my doe just stood there.

Have you seen movies where someone gets shot and stands there for a moment, before crumpling to the ground in a delayed heap? Yeah, me too. Anyway, after a few seconds, the doe, unscathed, turned to follow the others. But they don’t call it Winchester Repeating Arms for nothing. Sights still leveled on the doe, I pushed the lever forward and heard the hollow, metallic ting as the spent shell ejected and flipped end over end past my right ear. The second round slipped into the chamber as I brought the lever back and my finger found the trigger again with ease. Swinging right to left, the gun felt light and comfortable in my hands. This is a fun rifle to shoot. I squeezed the trigger again. I felt certain this shot was on target.

I didn’t have to wait for the smoke to clear this time. In the dark shadows of the treeline I saw her healthy, white tail bounding innocently through the dense brush. Three shots at two deer in two days, each bullet whistling by their target by a safe and unknown margin. My freezer remains empty, but as I wiped down the Winchester tonight I had to smile. I’ll be glad to get that scope on the bolt action Model 70 sighted in again, Lord knows my eyes need a scope. But it was fun as hell to shoot that old ’94 tonight.


All the Best Colors


Fall foliage, Team Orange, and the Red, White and Blue. God bless America, my home sweet home.


Happy Birthday, Dad

A gold watch. A Winchester Model 94. A trunk full of shooting trophies. A keen appreciation for the outdoors. A fierce sense of loyalty to good friends. A pretty good head of hair and a tendency to let too much beloved beer hang around the midsection.

These are the things I inherited from my Father.

Patrick Edwin Felker would be 76 years old today, but he died almost 35 years ago. Many of his gifts I see in me went unnoticed, regrettably, for decades. But I don’t think I’m alone in that regard. A typical kid of 15 knows hardly anything and appreciates even less. But I watched him live his life — or the portion I was present for — to the very fullest. It was almost as if he knew he had too little time here. Then I watched him fight like hell in an unimaginably long and horrific battle with cancer. One could hardly expect a man so full of passion for life to give it up easily, after all.

I used to think I would be driven by the desire to have made him proud as I navigated the challenges of a full life without him. And I think I said as much for years after I knew it was no longer true. I do of course wish it, but it’s not a force in my life decisions. I am my own man, and while he is part of me, so much time has passed that the lines between his influence and who I am have blurred. I do wish to have made him proud. But mostly I long to have known him as a man. To fish together, hunt together, joke together and add a little bit of girth to the midsection together.

Somewhere along the line, long ago and without really noticing, I think I stopped needing him, and started simply missing him.


Falcons, Hawks and Lucky Rabbits


“I swear I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, but that…was…awesome.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Really, Ed? Starting a blog post about the ancient art of falconry with a quote from Tommy Boy?” Well sometimes inspiration comes from unexpected places. And besides, I want to be able to capture all the web traffic from people who might Google the terms “Chris Farley” and “Rabbit Hawking” together.

When I learned the Virginia Falconers Association was having a meet not far from where I live (which was right after I learned that falconry was practiced at all in this part of the U.S.), I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. I will be writing more about the sport and my day, but for now I wanted to share my favorite photos from this amazing experience. I hope you enjoy them.

(The beautiful bird pictured above is a first year, or “passage” Red-tailed Hawk named Kingsley. Thank you C.B.)

Gyrfalcon

A Gyrfalcon soars above rural Virginia.

Eva and Kira.

Eva with her Red-tailed Hawk Kira.

Harris Hawk

A close look at the beautiful Harris Hawk.

Eva King and Kira (Red-tailed Hawk)

Eva releases Kira in pursuit of rabbits.

Eva King and Kira (Red-tailed Hawk)

We spotted three rabbits, or possibly one rabbit three times. But came back empty handed. The closest encounter involved a rabbit almost running into Eva's feet, but Kira was tied up at the time.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Kira scanning the woods.

Red-tailed Hawk.

As the hunting party moved, Kira flew from tree to tree above us.

Gyrfalcon

Andrew's stunning Gyrfalcon, Arc.

Gyrfalcon

Arc sitting patiently for photos while Andrew answers questions.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Kira.

Hawks

The birds seemed to be used to each other as everyone met before the hunt. but the only birds that can hunt together are Harris Hawks like the one in the foreground here.

Red-tailed Hawk.

Even without the hunting, which was an incredible experience, just being close to birds of prey is unforgettable.

Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks (this is Kira the Red-tail) use their feet and talons to kill their prey. They are strong and wicked.


%d bloggers like this: