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It’s duck season! No it’s turkey season! No it’s rabbit season!

In addition to picking apples with the family, one of Fall’s greatest attributes is the abundance of hunting opportunities.

A friend sent me a photo of a huge buck he arrowed last week.  I am jealous of him because I have not yet had an opportunity to go bow hunt for deer.

Instead, I have been small game hunting, wild turkey hunting, duck hunting, and trapping.

So, it is not as if I have been missing out on the outdoor experience by failing to bow hunt.  The problem is that I’m in a frenetic whirlwind of other, related recreational pursuits, because Pennsylvania is blessed with an abundance of wildlife and healthy natural habitat.

Spending time with my kids and friends outside in this environment is one of the healthiest, safest, most wholesome activities anyone can do.  Hunting is safer than cheerleading, high school football, soccer, and baseball.  It gets my son’s face out of whatever handheld device is sucking out his brain at any given moment.

Successful or not, time afield is the best family time possible.

Here are some old favorite cartoons about hunting, and most important is the Duck Season, Rabbit Season, Duck Season! episode.

Bugs Bunny vs. Daffy Duck

Rabbit Season! Duck Season!

Why deer hunting is good for the environment

This past week was the early muzzleloader season in Pennsylvania. Instead of the modern inline muzzleloaders, I use an old fashioned flintlock. It is more challenging, and honestly, it’s just plain beautiful to look at.

Up at a relatively small piece of land I’ve been cultivating for twelve years, this fall marked the first time I’ve seen young oak seedlings survive deer browsing. Across the forest  floor a plethora of oak seedlings – white, red, chestnut – create a carpet effect that indicates a future of young oak trees….if they can avoid being eaten by deer.

While I was casually walking through the forest, I saw a young doe looking at me. I raised the gun and fired. I will take any opportunity to help the little oaks become big oaks. They do, after all, produce the acorns necessary to feed deer, bears, turkeys and many other wild animals.

Then as if on cue, one of my very next steps was right into an enormous pile of bear poop. Colored brown from all the acorns, this fresh pile represents a great modern conservation success story, Pennsylvania’s population of huge black bears.

How ironic that deer can eat the trees needed to feed both themselves and their predators, the bears. How ironic that humans, who have dramatically shaped our planet over the past 20,000 years, do all we can to help an animal that might want to eat us (the bear), due to our recreational desires, and in doing so eat the deer sought by the bear.

Life is intertwined. Our futures are intertwined, humans and wildlife. Deer hunting is good, and good for the environment.

 

Am I off the radar screen? Pardon me while I follow the migrations

Across the Atlantic seaboard and throughout the eastern US interior, fish and animals are migrating, or following mating instincts as they prepare to mate or compete for mating rights.

Those of us who are hunter-gatherer-naturalists are following these natural pulses of animal life, as this is the best time of year to intersect with our prey.  These movements and motions of our prey naturally lead us out into the ocean, onto river banks, hunkered down on field edges, along the beaches, or into the woods with a bow and arrow.

Striped bass, blue fish, deer, doves, and geese are all moving.  Their calls may often be distant, or mostly silent, but they pull me nonetheless.  If given the choice between writing about politics and culture, or hunting and fishing (and running a business and family), the blog always comes in last.

So please forgive me if I am off the Internet radar screen right now, as I follow these magical migrations happening all around us.  Our ancestors did the same thing for tens of thousands of years, too.  I will return…

Field Notes

Field Notes are the monthly notes written by PA Game Commission wildlife conservation officers, about notable experiences and interactions they’ve had on the job, out in the field.  And you know that for those folks, men and women, out in the field is truly out there in the wild.  Their descriptions of encounters with people and wildlife are unique and often funny.

Field Notes are published monthly in the PGC’s Game News magazine, and for all of my hunting life (1973 until now), one person really summed up Field Notes and gave them pizzazz, making them my first-read in the magazine.

That was artist Nick Rosato, whose funny illustrations in Field Notes came to epitomize and symbolize the life and lighter side of wildlife law enforcement.  Rosato’s humorous, rustically themed sketches summed up a WCO’s life of enforcing the law against sometimes recalcitrant bad guys, while maintaining an empathy usually reserved for naughty school children, when first-time offenders were involved and a slap on the wrist was needed.

Rosato died this summer, and his art will no longer grace the pages of Game News.  I will miss Rosato’s humor and skill, because for most of my life he helped paint the human dimension of officers who are too often seen as gruff, grumpy, and unnecessarily strict law enforcers.

Speaking of WCOs, a couple years ago I was hunting during deer rifle season when I encountered a WCO I knew.  He had a deer on the back of his vehicle and we stopped to chat and catch up with each other.  Out of nowhere, I asked him to please check me, as in check my license, my gun, my ammunition.

Getting “checked” by WCOs and deputy WCOs is a pretty common experience for most Pennsylvania hunters, but the truth is, I have never been checked by anyone in my 42 years of hunting.

“Sorry, Josh, I just do not have the time.  You will have to wait ’til later or until you meet another WCO out here,” he responded.

With that he smiled, waved, and drove off to follow through on his deer poaching investigation.

I think that encounter should be a Field Note, Terry.  It is probably a first.

Maybe this year I will be “checked,” but perhaps having every single license and stamp available to the Pennsylvania hunter, and hunting only when and where I am supposed to hunt, somehow creates a karma field that makes WCOs avoid me.

Speaking of hunting experiences, yesterday morning Ed and I were goose hunting on the Susquehanna River.  Out in the middle of the widest part, we were alone, sitting on some rocks, chatting about our families, professional work, politics and culture, religion.  Our time together can best be summed up as “Duck Blind Poetry,” because it ain’t pretty, but it is soulful.  Two dads together, sharing life’s experiences and challenges, makes hunting much more than killing.

While we were noting the Susquehanna River’s recent and incredible decline in animal diversity, we suddenly saw four white Great Egrets fly across our field of view, followed by three wood ducks.  Intrigued, we began speculating on where they had all been hiding, when out of nowhere a mature bald eagle appeared on the horizon.  It flapped its way over us and clearly was on the hunt.  So that was why the other birds had quickly flown out of Dodge!

Seeing these wild animals interact with each other was another enjoyable example of how hunting is much, much more than killing.

Unfortunately, during that serene time afield, I introduced my cell phone to the Susquehanna River, and have found myself nearly shut off from communications ever since.  While the phone dries off in a bath of rice, I am enjoying a sort of enforced relaxation.  Please don’t think my lack of responses to calls and texts is rudeness.  I am merely clumsy.  Let’s not make that a Field Note.

 

PGC: Great, Old Agency Unused to Modern Limelight

If there is one take-away from my many years in federal and state government jobs, it is that agency staff cultures change slowly.  In Pennsylvania, a great example of this is one of my favorite agencies, the Pennsylvania Game Commission.  PGC is an agency that is used to doing things the way it wants, often relying on its impressive history as evidence for its present day independence and independent culture.

PGC is presently in the headlines because of a $200,000 payment to its former executive director, Carl Roe, now very recently departed of the agency.

I thought it was an amicable departure; maybe not.  PGC staff say this is a settlement to avoid a possible lawsuit.  Critics of the payment include the governor’s office, the PA Comptroller, the PA attorney general, and many elected officials.  They say this is a sidestep around the state’s prohibition of severance payments, made between a board of directors and an executive director who were actually very cozy with one another.

This is sad, because PGC is a storied agency, a trend-setter in the area of wildlife management, wildlife science, habitat management, and public land acquisition.  Something I like is that PGC has uniformed officers who stand in front of Hunter Trapper Education courses filled with 10-18-year-old kids, and tell them that they have a Second Amendment right to own firearms.  Few states in America have such a wonderful role for their uniformed law enforcement officers.  We are fortunate to have this agency with this culture, and it is for this reason that I oppose merging PGC with DCNR.  Ranger Rick and Smokey Bear are not going to purvey that valuable message.

The flip side of the culture is what is often described as a “bunker mentality” among the agency’s staff, and this payment to Roe probably fits in with that view.

Most agencies are careful to avoid controversy, especially controversy that does not have a strong basis.  This payment does not appear to have a strong basis, so it is an unnecessary controversy that is likely to damage the agency’s standing among lawmakers and executives, as well as the general public and hunters who otherwise happily buy hunting licenses to support their favorite agency.  It comes at a time when the agency is already under the gun from oversight legislation (HB 1576, which does not address actual problems, but rather imagined problems unrelated to PGC and PA Fish & Boat Commission).

Don’t get me wrong, I like Carl Roe, and PGC has also driven me nuts at times.  I clearly recall the day he was brought on to the agency as an intern.  Me, then PGC executive director Vern Ross, PGC biologist Gary Alt, Carl Roe, and senior PGC staffer Joe Neville drove together up to Bellefonte to participate in the swearing-in of a new PGC commissioner.  Carl struck me as a bright, quantitatively-oriented, inquisitive, experienced manager.  Over the years since that day I have had many opportunities to meet with Carl, and he has always impressed me as a stalwart and intelligent promoter of PGC, hunters, trappers, and wildlife conservation.  This huge payment lightning rod situation just does not make sense in that context.

But on second thought, this payment does make sense if the insular agency culture managed to eventually penetrate into Carl’s otherwise solid judgment.  That has been a phenomenon witnessed among other new PGC staff; the broad “something-is-in-their-water” observation that people’s personalities changed dramatically once they joined PGC. Other evidence of an insular culture was recently brought to my attention: Four of the agency’s biologists (all of whom have some or all of the deer program’s oversight) have graduate degrees from the same school and they studied at the same post-graduate field station.  And no, they ain’t from Penn State, or any Pennsylvania university, for that matter, dammit.

I fear for PGC, because at a time when the agency is already under scrutiny from HB 1576, this new payment debate threatens to add fuel to the flames, and add a straw onto the camel’s back.  Part of the culture driving these problems is the same kind of culture that can cause the roof to suddenly come down.  Careful there, boys, careful.

*******UPDATE:

So, as has happened before, these essays get read, and I get phone calls and emails.  People calling me usually do not want to post on the blog, being afraid of attribution, and frankly, what some other people want to post here is not always worth keeping.  So here is the gist of what came over the transom in the past half hour: Things between Carl Roe and the PGC board were not chummy.  The payment to him is seen as a real money-saver.  I am unsure how an at-will employee like an executive director has any real legal recourse, unless he is fired for his religion or political views, things that are a) hard to prove and b) unlikely.  Also, I neglected to mention that Roe had, indeed, given away about $300,000 in agency funds to Hawk Mountain (GREAT PLACE, but not necessarily deserving of big PGC money) and other groups. This unaccountable and unapproved largesse caused real friction between Roe and the board, not to mention the rest of the stakeholders whose donations to and purchases from PGC are expected to be spent in a pecuniary fashion.

For shotgun slug hunters, relief

If you hunt deer in a shotgun-only zone like southeast Pennsylvania, Long Island, or New Jersey, you know the common futility of shooting rifled slugs (Foster slugs) out of your smoothbore barrel.  Within 50 yards, odds are you’ll connect, but beyond the likelihood of bagging the deer drops like a stone.  Foster slugs are effective in close, but never real accurate. (My friend, attorney, and hunting partner George A. would like me to remind readers that he has shot many deer with his Remington 870 rifled barrel, and he can attest to its great accuracy with sabots)

After flinging about a lot of wasted lead slugs last month, most of which were within 60 or 70 yards at deer standing broadside, my frustration reached epic levels.  Instead of leaving my otherwise trusty Remington 870 wrapped around a tree in the woods like some tennis pros beat up on their racquets, I decided to join the growing crowd of shotgun hunters and buy a rifled barrel.

Rifled barrels are known for dramatically improving shotgun accuracy, and effectiveness.  Even a barrel that is nearly snap-on/ snap-off, like the Remington 870, is reported by many hunters to shoot remarkably accurately out to 100 yards.

So, scoring a brand new 12-gauge Remington rifled barrel (open sights, not the cantilevered scope ramp) for $170 was exciting, but was only step one in improving my score.  Next I had to determine which sabots (pronounced say-bo-z) would emit from that new barrel.

After extensive research (which now means reading both drivel and gold on the Internet blogs, forums, product web pages, etc.), I selected the reloading components at www.slugsrus.com.  These are the folks who invented, patented, and until recently marketed the Lightfield slug, as well as the Hastings slugs of yore.  Their proprietary wad and lead mushroom head slug (“hammerhead”) result in astonishing accuracy with 490-grain lead slugs.  Not just claims of accuracy, but demonstrated accuracy in all kinds of circumstances.

That kind of freight, moving at 1600 feet per second, is a whopper, the Hammer of Thor, a ton of bricks, a falling grand piano, and every other appellation you care to assign.  It is a stopper of enormous magnitude. Forget lil’ old deer; grizzly bears and other large dangerous game will have a tough time resisting the urge to lay down and go into the long sleep once they meet this slug.

So I spoke with Pam at www.slugsrus.com, at length, and ended up purchasing sufficient components to reload 40 shells at home.  Reloading is a lot, lot, lot cheaper than buying pre-made shells off the shelf. If you are like me, and you want to see for yourself that the new rifled barrel is indeed capable of incredible accuracy, then a good half or more of those handloaded slugs are going to go down range off the cabin porch.

If you are a shotgun shooter by necessity or choice, and you resent paying ludicrous prices for shotgun slugs, I strongly recommend that you contact www.slugsrus.com and see if they can help you both improve your gun’s effectiveness, and save you a lot of money.

You see the darnedest things while hunting

Southeastern Pennsylvania has an overpopluated deer herd of Biblical proportions. Every drive results in shots and deer scrambling across the landscape, making their momentary escape.

On a recent hunt, a midget deer presented itself to every hunter in our group. It was a dwarf deer, without question not a baby or a fawn, apparently fully developed but the size of a fox. I am not making this up or exaggerating.

Although its tail was the regular size for an adult deer, its body was tiny. We nicknamed it the chihuahua deer, and no one shot at it. It was just too cute and freakish. I wanted to adopt it as a pet, which is a big no-no, as wildlife never goes home to become a pet. But it was entertaining to think of it as a pet. I bet it would become mean and spoiled.

Hunters see the darnedest things while afield: Endless trash left by someone too lazy to clean up after themselves; hawks taking snakes and mice; animals fighting; meth labs; you name it, someone you know has seen it.

Today we saw the chihuahua deer, a first-time experience. Maybe it’s a new species. Maybe its extremely diminutive size spawned too much silliness. Maybe hunting is more than killing; sometimes it’s just the experience of witnessing God’s amazing creation.

Bless you, chihuahua deer.

Good luck today, deer hunters

Like many Pennsylvania families today, ours went afield for the morning. My son, having watched an enormous buck run past us in the early morning dark, minutes before shooting light, decided his feet were cold enough and it was time for him to head in.
None in our hunting party got a shot off, yet, but we are gearing up for an afternoon drive, usually productive.
Good luck today, deer hunters! Hunt safely!

Hunting season is here, and I’m not

Hunting season, around these parts, is an all-consuming month of shooting star-like proportions and beauty. All year we wait to hunt bear and deer, with our packs on our backs and our rifles in hand. Wild areas that haven’t seen a human in a year suddenly welcome one, two, maybe three long striders. And that’s where I’ve been the past month, living in tents in wilderness areas, climbing up cliffs, playing cat and mouse with deer that either walk in front of your car or fall to my bullet, and which provide clean, healthy, sustainable nourishment nonetheless.

With old friends and new, I’ve had some exciting adventures, learned some new things, and had opportunities to reflect on life and career topics. Hunters Sharing the Harvest received one of my deer, with a $15 donation for the processing, and two friends are splitting another deer I took. A third deer I harvested I’m splitting with a friend. Over the coming month, I’ll dole out venison treats to friends and colleagues, sharing nature’s bounty. Along the way, thirty pounds of flubber have disappeared from my torso, and my kids tell me I look like their dad again. Friends tell me I look ten years younger. That feels good.

More to come after this frenetic month ends next weekend. Until then, keep yer powder dry.

Monday: Joe Sixpack Hunts the King’s Deer

Feudal Europe provided the backdrop to American Constitutional government, a stark contrast between arbitrary laws and the rule of law.

No greater symbol represents this contrast than the King’s Deer, a wild animal whose sole existence was dedicated to royalty’s pursuit of hunting pleasure. Surrounding the forests in which the deer lived, lived poor peasants and serfs. Often starving and rarely enjoying fresh meat, any English peasant who hunted a deer to feed his family also put his life in jeopardy. Cruel punishments were handed out to those caught ‘poaching the King’s deer’, despite their wide availability.

Fast forward to Pennsylvania, the Keystone State, the cornerstone of American independence and liberty, and the first experiment in democratic colonial rule. Here, wild game was and remains the property of the citizenry. No longer the King’s deer, our ubiquitous whitetails are available to anyone who wishes to take a basic course in hunting ethics, safety, and wildlife conservation. Our game laws are the opposite of Europe’s, even today. Our wild game are available to all free, law-abiding citizens.

Long a symbol of wild places and clean habitat, the graceful whitetail deer is also a symbol of freedom, of the individual opportunity that defines so much of American life.

Tomorrow, Monday, the rifle season for whitetail deer begins around 6:45 AM, and about one million free citizens will be afield with high powered rifles and shotguns in their hands. Each of us all-American Joe Sixpacks will be pursuing not only deer, but ideas. Ideas of freedom of movement, freedom to own firearms without government approval, freedom from want. Hunting isn’t just about shooting or recreation, but about fulfilling our roles as predators in a complex ecosystem, and our duties in a politically complex Republic. Different religions have different expressions of human freedom: the Passover Seder and the Eucharist are two that jump to mind. But here in Pennsylvania, we also have deer season, a secular but nonetheless deeply meaningful observance.

Good luck, shoot straight, be safe, enjoy your family and friends, and remember that a bad day hunting is better than a good day at the job.