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The beautiful power of a free market guitar

A lot of the recent discussion and reporting about the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is how hard the participants there are trying to centralize decision making, to aggregate power into as few hands as possible, and to control the choices that individual people have available to them all around the world. This effort to concentrate power and decision making in the hands of elites runs opposite and directly against the democratic forms of government that many people around the globe have fought and died to achieve.

Places like India, France, Britain, Israel, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, the Philippines, and of course my home country of America, have all offered their citizens a maximum amount of personal freedom and opportunity. People living there can make all kinds of choices about what they want to read, to say, to wear, to eat, what kind of job they want to try, what kinds of products they want to try and create and sell. And that last part, the creating and selling part, is really at the heart of democracy. Because free markets offer choices not just in economic spheres, but which naturally blend into our own personal lives.

When a person, you the reader here, for instance, feels personally fulfilled by fully following your natural talent and curiosity, and by fulfilling your creative spirit, often also followed by greatly improving your physical living conditions, then you become a maximally happy person. This pursuit of happiness is one of the main reasons that America exists, and it is enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. A nation filled with happy people is a miracle, because it is so rare in human history. So we see that free markets create the most happy, most fulfilled individuals, who are creative, educated, and opinionated.

And we also see with the WEF that the wealthiest people on Planet Earth are now scheming and trying to take that happiness away. The WEF people do not want “little people” individuals to make their own decisions. Instead, they want centralized decision making for all of us, by a very small number of ultra wealthy people. They do not support democracy or free choice or you having an opinion that threatens their power.

I want to share a neat related video with you. To me it is powerful because it touches on this subject of an individual who follows his dream to make the best guitars possible within the free markets that the world allows. He succeeds within the international guitar market, but because of a natural resource constraint – the almost complete loss of ebony trees, necessary for making guitar necks and frets – he takes a big risk, makes some big sacrifices, and ends up playing an even bigger and more positive role in the world.

Bob Taylor, of Taylor Guitars, uses careful market-driven management of rare ebony trees and their surrounding forests to create the conditions necessary for conserving the vast African rainforest jungle those trees grow in. When the local people no longer need to poach ebony trees to sell on the black market, they become protectors of the ebony trees. Economics and free markets keep ebony trees alive, and growing for the future, as well as the richly diverse jungle habitat in which ebony trees grow. This is powerful stuff only achievable by free markets.

The same dynamic is also at play with trophy hunting in Africa, where wealthy hunters pay much more to kill wild game than that same animal is worth as bush meat to the local populations. Because the locals get the meat from the trophy animal (99% of the trophy animal is immediately donated to locals, the hunter and the safari camp getting the other 1%) anyhow, and they also get the hunting and tourism-related jobs from the international visitors who want to see and hunt wildlife, the incentive shifts away from poaching and market hunting to the locals then protecting and conserving the wild game they once saw only as a meal. Again, powerful natural resource conservation as a direct result of free markets.

Long live free markets, personal choice, personal accountability, and personal reward for hard work and risk taking. May the World Economic Forum fail in its effort to end our choices and to make us “own nothing.”

Here is the Taylor Guitar video. I hope it speaks to you like it speaks to me.

(and here is the ten years later video, which is about ebony tree planting and husbandry)

Advice from a deer

As sure as the sun rises, there is sure to be complaining among hunters about the state, condition, blood pressure, and dental hygiene of Pennsylvania’s deer herd. In fact, you can’t escape the topic if you spend any time, like even a minute or two, in the company of devoted hunters. No matter who I am standing around, next to, or in line with, the complaints begin to flow about the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its deer management.

Despite being highly skeptical about government in general, and therefore despite keeping an open mind to complaints about government failings, I find myself repeatedly unpersuaded by these deer management complaints. While not quite ranking up there with UFO sightings or insistence that PGC has helicopter-imported mountain lions and coyotes to eat the deer, the fretting and nail biting and angry denunciations always seem to lack key aspects of any serious argument.

For example, for twenty years I have heard that Sproul State Forest harbors no deer. Then last year I easily killed a deer standing right at the edge of Sproul State Forest, and saw many others. This November, I hunted elk in Sproul State Forest and State Game Lands 100 in northern Centre County, and found myself endlessly surrounded by deer, from dawn until way past bed time while driving. Conventional views that these deer do not exist are easily reinforced around bar stools, but I have found them easily and quickly disproven in personal contact with the deer habitat itself.

One of the real challenges to Pennsylvania deer hunters is the change in deer herd size and behavior since 2001, as well as the maturing of our forests since the 1970s, when a lot of today’s older hunters were really getting into the lifestyle. A hunting culture based on sitting in one place and watching unsustainably sized deer herds migrate by resulted, and now that most rural deer herds have been lowered, just sitting and waiting is not enough. Especially when the mature forests we now experience are devoid of any acorns for the second year in a row.

In 2021 a late frost killed the oak flowers in northern PA, resulting in no acorns up north and spotty acorn crops in the south. In 2022, rampant gypsy moth infestations across the entire state denuded entire oak forests of every leaf and flower, which has again resulted in zero acorn production across a great deal of Pennsylvania’s forests. If you are inclined to blame people for things that are mostly out of people’s control, then I suppose we can point out that PA DCNR seemed to hold back on gypsy moth spraying in 2021 and 2022. Had DCNR sprayed more, then the state-wide acorn crop failure we now behold probably would not have been as bad.

The fact is that a great many of us started sitting or walking in beautiful mature forests this past Saturday or Sunday as PA’s deer rifle season opened up, and found ourselves marveling at the incredible silence greeting us. Hardly any bird activity. Maybe one squirrel seen all day, and certainly no bears and few if any deer. This is the result of there being nothing for anyone to eat in the woods.

So, unless your woods escaped gypsy moth damage and has acorns, get the heck out of the woods and go find brushy and grassy areas where deer can browse. Utility rights-of-way and clearcuts are the best places to find deer this season, and in fact the only person I know of who killed a deer anywhere near me yesterday (Sunday) was an older guy in a deer drive through a beautifully overgrown overhead powerline right of way. His hunting party also reported seeing eight does with the now deceased buck, none of which they shot.

Yesterday, while I was sitting miserably sick in my covered stand and waiting out the miserable cold rain and wind, a deer in a top hat and silk gloves happened by and gave me the following advice:

In general, access your hunting area well before sunrise and start every deer hunt with a quiet Sit from 6:30-9am, overlooking some promising travel corridor, funnel, or feeding area. Then slowly and quietly Still Hunt into the wind or quartering into the wind until lunch time. Then Sit down and eat lunch quietly, while overlooking some promising location through which wildlife regularly pass or eat. At 1pm pack up the lunch stuff and Still Hunt again slowly until 3:30pm, and then find a good spot with good views and shooting lanes and Sit quietly until 15 minutes before shooting light ends. Then slowly and quietly walk out, and maybe kill something on your way back to your vehicle or camp, only unloading your firearm when shooting hours have officially ended.

I myself am about to suit up for a long and slow stalk through some brushy utility rights of way. Yes, they are now wet, and always steep, and the going is tough. But that is where the deer are, because that is where they can eat and survive, and I am hunting deer so that I might actually kill one.

The deer and I must meet in person in order for this transaction to happen.

As much as a covered hunting blind may be a necessity when the hunter is sick or the rain is pouring down, the fact is this not really hunting. Slowly and quietly walking into the wind through good deer habitat with your firearm at the ready is real hunting. Do it.

PA elk & bear seasons now behind us

You can spend all year excitedly anticipating a few days here or there, and before you know it, those days arrive, they happen intensely, and then they are over like a dream.

This dream we speak of here are the various big game seasons that are such a big part of so many peoples’ lives, entire families and communities, entire businesses (I think hunting is an annual $1.6 BILLION business sector here in Pennsylvania). Thus far we have had an elk season and now the main bear season pass along. Here are some of my thoughts on these two wonderful experiences.

First, the elk hunt.

I was fortunate enough to draw a coveted PA elk tag, after applying for many years and building up a lot of preference points. The lottery drawing was announced in late August, and I immediately began planning. The general elk season is just six days long, and unless you are going to engage a guide for a few thousand dollars, you have a lot of work to do before setting foot afield with a gun. If you draw a bull tag, paying a guide is worth it.

After a tremendous amount of analysis and planning, and some September scouting, I was fortunate to hunt for elk with some good friends and a .62-caliber percussion rifle over my shoulder in Elk Zone 13. We camped out on a log landing in Sproul State Forest, with elk all around us, and each buddy scouted hard each day, looking for elk that the sole hunter (me) could get after.

Elk Zone 13 is huge, and contains a lot of vast public land. And so the elk harvest data shows that it is a bit of a Death Valley in terms of hunters actually killing an elk within it. While a lot of Pennsylvania elk hunting takes place briefly where a lot of the local elk have pet names and are used to being around people, there are a few elk zones where the opposite is the case. Zone 13 is one of those opposite cases. It is a tough place to hunt under any conditions, and under the rainy, warm, and very windy conditions we had, it was just about impossible. In the end, just one of three bull tags there was filled, and as of the fifth day of the six day season, just one of the six cow elk tags had been filled. I was not one of those people lucky enough to fill my elk tag.

And it was not a harvest failure because we didn’t hunt smart. We hunted so smart that we were bumping into elk guides and their clients at every turn. We had done our homework ahead of time, and we knew where the elk were likely to be, which is where you will find an elk guide, too.

One of the things I did as part of the analysis and planning phase was was plot all of the past elk harvest data on the large Elk Zone 13 map the PA Game Commission sent me. Once your eyes see exactly where the elk are killed every year, almost always in large clusters, over the past seven years that Elk Zone 13 has been around, you recognize where to concentrate your field scouting efforts. And then our subsequent field scouting efforts confirmed the presence of elk, including the day before the elk hunt started.

Like I said above, the weather conditions were awful for any type of big game hunting, and especially with a primitive weapon such as I carried. My effective range was 110 yards, and 75 yards was a lot more preferable. But range doesn’t matter if you can’t get an elk to stand broadside for a few seconds. I did mix it up directly with an elk herd that was hiding in a forest, and I did call one close back to me, and I did get a couple good setups on moving elk. But the seesawing winds gave away my presence each time, and the elk stormed off each time. Like I said, I had a wonderful time with good friends in a beautiful place with a fantastic gun over my shoulder. Elk or no elk in the hunting bag, I had a great time hunting elk in Pennsylvania (an especial Thank You to the many private landowners who generously granted me access to their properties to hunt elk).

Now, bear season.

Bear season ended yesterday, and the last of the bear hunters grudgingly left the cabin today. As usual, we had a large crowd gathered here, with everyone happy to catch up with chums from years past, sharing good food and good drink and good cheer. One thing all hunters eventually begin to notice is that with age comes a mellowing of the spirit. The chase is not as important as simply being present in God’s creation, often communing with Him in the largest house of prayer anywhere, the mountain forest cathedral.

And so fewer and fewer guys are coming here to hunt, and more and more guys are here to relax. And that is OK.

We who both communed with God in the mountain forest cathedral, and who also hunted, saw no bears and only a few deer. Mostly because there are no acorns in the woods, and all wildlife must go where the food is. If there is no food here, there are no bears here. Gypsy moths devastated Pennsylvania’s oak forests this past summer, and so there were no oak flowers to turn into oak acorns to fatten up buck and bear, squirrel and turkey. The woods was totally quiet this week, and it made me wonder what a squirrel migration looks like. Do hordes of mountain squirrels move en masse into suburban yards in lean years like this one? And where the heck do all the bears hibernate?

Roughly 1,450 bears were killed in PA’s early archery and muzzleloader seasons, and so far just under a thousand bears total are reported for this week’s bear rifle hunt. Usually this week’s four-day hunt results in an enormous bear kill. We are now looking at an epically low bear harvest in a state with a huge and burgeoning bear population that needs managing (Just a few days ago New Jersey issued an emergency bear hunt approval, because The People’s Republic of New Jersey is being overrun with bears, which unfortunately cannot be trained to eat liberals but whom the liberals recognize as a natural predator and are seeking to reduce out of self defense).

Another thought a lot of people are sharing today is that the early bear seasons, archery and muzzleloader, are very effective, so that come the late November bear season, there are a lot fewer bears to be had. Bears that are facing both extreme hunger AND extreme hunting pressure will den up early to get out of the storm. It seems a lot of the bears that survived the early seasons arrived in a bleak foodless November and said an early good night until March, 2023.

Next up is deer season, another dream time. And our deer patterns are also all off kilter here, so it is going to be a very interesting deer hunt in the mountains. Again, it’s no acorns, no deer. Except for that one gigantic buck I saw a couple times….stay tuned for that report. Let’s hope it makes up for the no elk and no bear reports we already filed away for 2022…

An 1884 double rifle made for tigers in India would be great bear medicine. If only a bear would appear.

This remote old mine is one of dozens that dot our mountains. It is a fine place to hunt, take a nap, or write in a notebook. A couple times I have done all three in one visit.

Camped with friends on an old log landing in the Sproul State Forest is a wonderful way to spend life’s limited time, elk or no elk in the bag.

A great way to spend a day hunting elk, with a beautiful .62 caliber rifle (not a smoothbore) made by Mark Wheland here in PA. With its 335-grain round ball, it is easily capable of cleanly taking a hearty elk.

We interrupt our regular political bickering to bring you Deer Season

People who don’t hunt may think they have some serious political differences. Well, they have not yet gotten involved in the Pennsylvania deer hunting wars, where fifteen years ago PA Game Commission board members and senior staff believed they had to wear bullet proof vests to public policy gatherings, such was the intensity of hate and vitriol…over deer.

With deer archery season ending Sunday night (our first Sunday hunt of the year) and deer rifle season just two weeks away, what better time to interrupt all the political acrimony from Tuesday’s mid-term election and introduce people to some real genuine debate. Yep. About deer.

Last week PA Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a change to the annual antlerless deer (doe) tag purchase system that only took twenty five years of bipartisan effort to achieve. All too well are Pennsylvania hunters familiar with the gigantic pink envelopes that screamed out to anti hunting Postal Service employees “Throw me away, throw me away!”

The gigantic pink envelope doe tag application system had been in place since the 1970s, and the system that was implemented in the 1970s was only a slight modification of the doe tag allocation process from the 1940s. That is how freaking backwards one major aspect of PA’s deer management program has been…hunters living in 2022, but operating in 1945.

And yeah, aspects of 1945 were great improvements over the sinking cultural ship nonsense we have going on today, but the gigantic pink envelope doe tag application lottery was not one of them. In the era of the Internet and email and texting, the now discarded doe tag system relied upon an unreliable Postal Service, two licked stamps, a check, multiple folds in the gigantic pink envelope, exactly the correctly checked boxes, and hoping your application made it in on time, or No Doe Tag For You!

And for most deer hunters, having a doe tag is a really big deal, because the harvest rate on does is about forty or fifty percent, while the success rates on wily bucks is about fifteen percent. Having a doe tag meant a much higher likelihood of getting fresh and healthy venison for your family and personal enjoyment. And not having the doe tag, because of some ridiculous minor bureaucratic rule or unchecked box in the application, was a big deflation for many a hunter.

Now we are going to have an online doe tag lottery and application process. No more photos of gigantic pink envelopes stacked up in Postal Service back rooms, waiting to be sent in weeks after their best-by date.

What is the doe hunt all about? It is about managing Pennsylvania’s over-abundant deer herd so that the non-hunting public doesn’t start to think that we hunters can’t get the job done right. It is a big and important job. In Europe, if wild game populations get too big and begin causing agricultural damage and car crashes, the local hunters actually get fined for it. Here in PA we have an enormous impact from too many deer, and a gigantic whiny peanut gallery that wants even more deer. Much more than the landscape can feed or than the public can afford to pay for.

Deer population management is done by the PA Game Commission. PGC uses hunting harvest numbers, statistical models, and input from individual hunters, hunting groups, landowners, farmers, “birds ‘n bunnies” environmental groups, and timber companies. One of the loudest voices is from hunters who want to see more deer, but who don’t care about the cost that those deer impose on other people. It is a tough job, requiring PGC to balance a lot of competing interests.

I am always surprised to hear hunters complain about PGC’s deer management, because invariably these critics really don’t know the actual mechanics of how it is done. Nor do they bother to take the time to learn the mechanics. Nor do they take the time to go on a local State Game Lands tour, to understand about deer impacts on the landscape. Instead, these hunters behave like communists and demand that everyone else provide year-’round room and board to the overabundant deer that they want to experience for just a few days a year. As much as I love our hunters, I am getting more and more cranky with them in my old age. Guys, please get educated about this subject, or just leave the adults alone.

This summer my wife and I drove out to Colorado and back. We passed endless deer roadkills on I-76 on the way out, but from the Ohio border westward, we saw just two dead deer on the side of the road. One in Iowa and one in Nebraska. On our way back to Pennsylvania, we saw no roadkills anywhere until we crossed into PA on I-80. Literally within the first mile of entering PA we began counting the freshly dead deer, and we continued that counting all the way home to central PA.

This Fall I hunted elk in northern Centre County and western Clinton County, and we saw TONS of deer every single day. This northcentral PA area is supposed to have no deer since 2001, if the official lazy stumpsitter hunter assessment is to be believed. The fact is, both PGC and DCNR have done fabulous jobs of clearcutting large blocks of forest, which has resulted in perfect habitat for deer and a bunch of other important animals. A hunter simply must get up off his butt and go do the Elmer Fudd hunting thing, nose into the wind. If this is too difficult for you, then deer hunting is not your thing.

I have hit several deer on the road in the past two years, each one doing expensive damage to my vehicles. My friend Mark just totaled his expensive sports car on the PA Turnpike 110 miles west of Harrisburg, because a deer walked out in front of his 70 MPH missile. He texted that the tow truck driver said that his was the sixth deer collision the tow truck operator had to address in 30 hours. That is just one tow truck in one small area, and so we know (and see with our eyes) that the deer collision problem is enormous, and expensive, and unnecessary,

Hopefully with the elimination of the gigantic pink envelope the PGC will also change the way it issues doe tags and the number it issues. I hunt all over PA and my opinion is, you can’t really issue too many doe tags. Especially in the southeast part of the state. WMUs 5B, 5C, and 5D should have unlimited doe tags. Apply for one and get one up until the end of the season.

There are so many deer everywhere, and all of them are causing enormous damage and highway carnage. This is presently a hunting problem to be solved by hunters, and unless PA hunters want to go the way of Washington State, where hunting as a wildlife management tool is being taken off the table, they had better step up and do the job and fix the problem.

Sayonara, Gigantic Pink Envelope! We won’t miss ya! And now that that problem is fixed, let the deer wars bickering begin about doe tags all over again. One camp living in 1945, the rest living in 2025. Can’t wait…..

Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezvous 2022

Jack Keith brought me to my first Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezvous in 2000, back when it was held at Denton Hill State Park in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Jack was the new and the first president of the Pennsylvania Parks and Forest Foundation, fresh from the Army National Guard out at Fort Indiantown Gap. I helped Jack get the brand new PPFF office set up, and he treated me to a trip up north that changed my life.

At the 2000 ETAR, Jack introduced me to Mike Fedora, who was one of the individual forces behind resurrecting traditional archery in America. Many people will argue that traditional archery never went away, but after Mike Fedora started making modern stick bows in reflex-deflex (a high performance combination of long bow and recurve), a lot more bow makers joined in. Fedora made me a bow to my body’s specifications that fit me like a glove, and that I still use. It is a 52 Lb @ 28″ reflex-deflex that is an extension of my soul. Having hunted small game and deer as a kid with cheap fiberglass bows and also a basic Fred Bear bow, I was excited to get my very first custom bow.

Fast forward 22 years and ETAR is now held at Ski Sawmill on the Tioga County-Lycoming County line, on the beautiful Oregon Hill plateau near Pine Creek Valley.

Two years ago my son purchased his second custom bow at ETAR (his first was when he was eight years old). It is by David Darling at The Kalamazoo Bow Works, a 46# @ 25″ draw beautiful statement about how far bow making has come in the past twenty years. Better epoxies, better bow presses, better materials, and constant refinements of the reflex-deflex style now yield bows that are as light as a feather, but which pack enough punch to take any North American animal.

Last week I got to participate in one of traditional bow hunter Fred Asbell’s classes. Although Mister Asbell is 82 years old, he is still out shooting a traditional bow and helping people figure out everything from their grip to their release to how and when to draw on a deer that is just five yards away. While you can watch online videos of sheep hunters killing huge wilderness rams at 450 yards with ultra magnum rifles topped with the Hubble Space Scope all day long, what you won’t see much of are the rare Fred Asbells, taking huge trophy rams with a recurve at 40 yards after a day-long crawl. Fred Asbell is a legend for a reason, and we are so fortunate to have him helping us today.

The two things that Mister Asbell said to me that I took away were I must “allow” my brain to follow its natural inclination when shooting instinctively. This allowance is a natural flow that is easily interrupted by overthinking a shot, aiming a shot, etc. Second, he said that in order to ingrain that natural pattern of allowance so that it becomes truly instinctive, I must both “practice daily,” and make sure that I am “practicing smart.” Meaning, concentrate on each and every arrow being released. He said that as soon as I find myself mindlessly flinging arrows, it is time to stop, because it will simply reinforce bad habits, instead of honing good habits and improving skill.

Advice like this sounds basic, but that’s the genius of someone like Mister Asbell: He breaks down all the artificial complications into just a few words and physical activities that can be easily achieved, if the shooter but focuses each and every arrow released off the bow rest.

Lots of Amish are beginning to camp out at ETAR, and I am hearing more and more from hunting outfitters from Quebec and Newfoundland to Alaska how their Amish and Mennonite clients are showing up with traditional bows and muzzleloaders, and yet outshooting the other hunter clients who are each carrying the super ultra magnums topped with a Hubble Space Scope. Just sit on any of the many ETAR ranges’ firing lines and watch tiny little barefoot Amish kids step up and let fly, and you will understand how they do it, why they grow up to be such amazing archers. No training wheels, no special stabilizers or sights on their bows…

One of the things I always enjoy about ETAR is that I can strike up a conversation with literally anyone, and have a long conversation about American politics and culture, or a long joke-telling session, and always end with a friendly “Real nice to meet ya!”

My own desire is to see Clay Hayes and Ryan Gill set up separate and joint workshops on primitive archery (not just traditional, but a stick and a sinew string with flint-tipped arrows). Plenty of ETAR participants are bringing nice Osage orange split bow blanks, so there is a demand for this kind of truly rustic archery.

This year’s attendance was over 4,000 on Friday, so overall it was probably over 10,000, guessing, when it wrapped up lunch time on Sunday. Major brands like KUIU were represented. To my eye this year’s ETAR was a grand success. If you have a desire to get back to basic archery, so you can have more fun both shooting and hunting, then I recommend visiting ETAR next year. Bring a trailer or a tent, and be prepared to camp out among a lot of other really neat, positive, happy people. When we drove off site, we were watching people begin to potluck Friday dinner. People probably save up their best pronghorn, elk, bison, and venison cuts to cook and share at ETAR. Talk about good people and good times…

A dedicated young man practicing with his new bow at ETAR 2022. His shooting form was praised by an old timer as “a stone cold killer.”

Traditional archery legend Fred Asbell helps Dave improve his bow grip

 

 

 

The swap-meet is probably the most exciting opportunity to acquire raw materials, rare items, hand made archery stuff. When it first started the place was a zoo! Probably a thousand people excitedly milling about looking at all kinds of neat items laid out on blankets

This photo does no justice to the huge number of tents and campers we saw at ETAR 2022

 

 

 

The all-American man who got me back into traditional archery. Jack made me a set of cedar arrows twenty years ago that now sit as a remembrance to this amazing human being. Dear Jack, it is good you are not here to see what has happened to your beloved West Point, your beloved US Army, or your beloved America…but don’t worry, we will fix it

Please do not pet the landowner

A few weeks ago, my wife looked up, startled. Her eyes were fixated on something over my right shoulder, and then she said “There are some men on the porch. Were you expecting visitors today?”

Uh, no, I was not only not expecting any visitors that day, I was not expecting any visitors the entire weekend. Because I was alone with my wife and relishing our rare private time together in a quiet out of the way dead-end location.

Just as I stood up from the table and turned towards the front door, an older guy with a greying stubble knocked. Another guy in his fifties was standing near him, and both were dressed in casual-to-ratty-on-the-crick clothes. I did not recognize either of them, and reflexively felt for the grip of “Biden’s Lung Buster” at my side.

Opening the door and stepping outside, I buried my rumbling fury under a big steaming pile of humor: “Hi boys! You can put the free beer here on the porch and help yourselves to load of firewood on the way out.”

With big smile, of course.

The two men were nice enough, and laughed at my joke. They explained that they had been fishing down in the creek that morning and had heard a gobbler up above them on the mountain. And that had set them in motion trying to figure out a way to get to the gobbler, to hunt it, without trespassing on what they acknowledged is very clearly posted private land all around the gobbler.

After what they said was a lot of driving around and walking and consulting maps, they determined the best way to attain their goal was to drive up the posted and very long gravel driveway to the remote home nestled way the hell back in the woods, and then to knock on the door and ask permission to both hunt the gobbler at present time and in the future cross over our property to access state forest land farther up the mountain.

“You two bastards are lucky as hell I didn’t come busting out here buck naked with an AR to run you off, because the angry naked old man thing is about a hundred times worse than the gun,” I half joked.

The two interlopers chuckled at the joke, and started getting the hint. After all, the land AND the driveway are all posted for a reason. Privacy is a valuable and rare thing, and because many Americans today seem to have been raised without any manners or a sense of self-preservation, big yellow posted signs, buckets of purple paint, and gates are now a necessity to preserve what shreds of privacy people have remaining to them.

But these guys had purposefully ignored all of the legal and physical barriers designed to keep them out of my private life.

“Yeah, I have had that same bird in gun range twice this week, including earlier this morning, and I have decided to let him live, because he is a rare survivor up here,” I explained, truthfully.

Wild turkeys used to be plentiful in Northcentral PA, and for the past fifteen years they are now as rare as hen’s teeth, due to a combination of factors like mature forests and craploads of nest-raiding predators.

“Well, could we at least cross over your land to get to the state land?” the second guy asked, having taken a step backwards off the porch and onto the steps.

To which I replied with bare naked contempt: “Why would we let strangers walk through our best hunting ground so they can go hunt where they want? We leave that area as a sanctuary so we can hunt it carefully, and having people walk through it would just ruin it for our hunting, to say nothing of our privacy up here. And it is remote and quiet up here…right? Guys, there are over two million acres of public land within an hour’s drive of here, and you guys need to be here, right here, on us?”

The second guy looked chagrined, and I felt only the slightest twinge of regret for having spoken so plainly.

“Well, we thought it wouldn’t harm anything if we asked,” said the first guy, who was studying his feet.

And that’s the thing. The signs around the property and at the gate on the private driveway do not say “Hunting By Written Permission Only” or anything similar about asking for permission to hunt on the land.

Rather, the myriad signs and purple paint say keep out, stay out, do not enter, do not trespass, no access, no anything, private land don’t even ask. And frankly, every square inch of private land in the valley (which is about 93% public land) is heavily posted and jealously guarded, so physically asking anyone for permission to hunt is both a fool’s errand and a deliberate theft of someone’s valuable privacy. It is an invasion of someone’s sanctuary.

Folks, don’t try to pet the landowner. He is likely to bite, because he was sleeping comfortably in his quiet little corner when you came up to him, woke him up, and acted like petting him was the best thing he could have ever expected or wanted. When in fact all he wants is to be left alone in his quiet little corner. He never asked you to pet him and doesn’t want you to pet him. He doesn’t want to see or hear you, either.

For some odd reason, a lot of people across America believe that public land sucks to hunt on, and that private land is where all the wild game is holed up. Nothing is farther from the truth than this incorrect notion; almost all of the trophy deer and bears I have killed were on public land. If getting to a piece of public land is difficult, then you should do everything legal you can to get there, because in my extensive experience, hardly anyone else will be hunting that area. But one thing you cannot do is badger the adjoining private landowner. Sending a letter explaining yourself, or placing a friendly phone call, is the only correct way to ask permission.

 

 

 

 

What is hunting?

With hunting seasons drawing to a close here in Pennsylvania, it is worth the time to revisit an old question, which is What is hunting?

We ask because, without question, non-hunters overwhelmingly support hunting that is fair chase and purposeful. That is, hunters who are seen by the public to be respectful of our prey are recognized as a positive force, and worthy of continuing their pastime.

Every scientific opinion survey asking Americans their opinion about this subject for the past several decades has yielded the same result: Hunters who actually hunt get respect and support from non-hunters. On the other hand, people who are perceived by the general public to be casually killing animals just for pleasure or for “trophies” usually do not garner much support.

While there is a lot for us to talk about with even just the survey question itself, like how America has become so urbanized and thus our people so distant from the natural resources and processes that feed and clothe us and wipe our butts (toilet paper from trees harvested in forests) etc, this particular question, and its answer, is most important because hunters are a minority of a minority in America.

Positive public opinion about hunters and hunting is necessary to the continuation of regulated hunting as we know it and as it has been practiced for the past 100 years.

Given that American hunters are lamentably awash in a sea of soulless plastic and stainless steel rifles these days, whereupon the Hubble Telescope-equivalent scope is mounted, many owners of these contraptions are regularly and quite naturally tempted to attempt military-grade long distance sniper assassinations of far-off big game animals.

Though fleet of foot, strong of heart, and equipped with majestically sensitive noses, ears, and eyes, these animals cannot compete with humans who are so far removed from the natural zone of awareness these animals’ senses otherwise provide them. This begs the question of whether or not long-long-distance shots at these clueless animals are actual fair chase hunting, or are they incautious and disrespectful maltreatment of animals we otherwise admire.

Honestly, this stark question brings to my mind the images of charismatic megafauna hand-painted on cave walls by our spear-wielding ancestors: Rhinos, gigantic cave bears, massive aurochs, lions, zebras and wild horses, bison, etc. dangerous animals all, taken at great personal risk and at bad breath distance, contrasted with today’s ego-driven high-fence “trophies” mounted on manicured man cave walls around America, animals snuffed out without a chance at fight or flight.  The cave paintings were the Sistine Chapel experience for paleolithic humans, and today’s manicured egocentric faux trophy rooms are very sorry substitutes. Authentic versus fake, they couldn’t be more different from one another.

So, a bear or deer taken with a bow, a crossbow, a spear, an atlatl, a blowgun, a shotgun, a flintlock or percussion muzzleloader, or a modern muzzleloader or rifle with open sights seems like a pretty natural example of fair chase. The 400-yard Hubble Telescope plus “500 Magnum Killem” caliber assassination of the unknowing and unsuspecting beast is just that, an assassination. Is there anything fair or chase about it?

Just as political America now requires a return to our simple and beautiful founding principles, so will our hunters benefit from returning to mastering the basics of early American woodcraft, the ability to sneakily slither and glide into the wind across a landscape to get within the animal’s sensory zone and make an honest and competitive kill. This kind of field craft is the essence of fair chase.

Artificial reliance by hunters on high tech is embarrassing, to tell you the truth of how I feel. Repent and return to the basics, brothers and sisters! Our fellow Americans who do not hunt will not only support us, they will admire us, and as a result of their admiration our outdoor lifestyle will have a much greater chance of surviving beyond the high tech culture that is otherwise crushing everything natural and alive in its unwholesome path.

Wild animals have understandably inspired humans since our beginning

Hanging this stag’s magnificent rack on your lodge wall would be earned with the bow and arrow

An honest kill. This is hunting

 

Anatomy of a deer season

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt for deer religiously, from October 1 to mid-November; the archery season is always over way too fast.

It doesn’t matter if you archery hunt a bit for bear and deer, hunt the week of early muzzleloader for bear and doe, do some small game hunting, have the men up to camp for bear season for four days, and then hunt every day of deer rifle season. The ending is always the same: It ended way too fast. We wait all year for this time, and before you can blink an eye, it is over.

For many hunters, this time is about being afield, hunting. The occasional actual killing part is a welcome indication that the hunting part was done well. Proof that the time spent outside was not wasted.

Oh, we still have some late deer season remaining, which is the late archery and flintlock hunt. But by now, deer everywhere in Pennsylvania are on high alert. A twig falling out of a tree and rustling a leaf on the ground will send a nearby deer herd into panicked stampede into the next county. So getting deeply enough into the sensory zone of these intelligent animals to take one with a bow or a flintlock at this stage takes real skill, not just the usual luck.

Although I will hunt the flintlock deer season, because I have some DMAP tags left, looking back even now with a sense of longing has me thinking about the anatomy of a good deer season. Some take-aways:

  1. Eat good food. Whether it is home-made jerky and dried fruit we make ourselves for our own time afield, or it is the extra thick gourmet steaks we bring to hunting camp, eat the best quality food you can afford. Hunting alone or with friends and family is a celebration, so eat like you are celebrating. And because Man does not live on bread alone, make sure your drinks are of a commensurate high quality.
  2. Practice, practice, practice with your gun. Archery hunters practice non-stop, but for some reasons many gun hunters leave it to one box of ammo and the days right before the season to “practice” shooting. Well do I recall sharing a range with a guy from Lancaster County at the bench next to me. Friendly enough, he enthusiastically, if spastically, launched his one box of “extra” shells down range as rapid fire as a bolt action can fire. I had offered him the use of my spotting scope and Caldwell shooting sled, and he declined. He did end up relying on my spotting and calling his hurried shots, however, because he didn’t quite have his scope figured out. The old random “spray n’ pray” is the approach he packed up and drove off to hunting camp with. Do any of us think he hit what he shot at?
  3. Bring your best jokes, naughty or practical. Hunting camp is fun, and each of us must contribute to that festive atmosphere. Many years ago, I bent down to inspect a strange looking object hiding under the cabin’s kitchen counter. And just as quickly I jumped back and screamed like a little girl when the damned thing took off running. That it was merely a muskrat pelt attached to a fishing line being pulled by Bob and followed by uproarious laughter at my expense just made my revenge all the sweeter. As for naughty jokes and rhymes, the list is endless. Look them up and bring half a dozen. Maybe I am lowbrow, or maybe I have low expectations, but it sure seems that everyone present laughs at these men-only jokes.
  4. Get out into position early, like at least an hour before first light, and when you move play the wind (nose into the wind), go quietly and slowly, and carry your gun port-arms and not across your back. If you can get out into position at 4:30am, even better. Just bring a blanket and some Zippo hand warmers.
  5. Food sources matter for deer and bear, too. We humans are not the only ones who both enjoy and need food. In a year of abundant acorns, a stand of sweet tasting white oaks will draw more deer and bear, and you can sit down wind of that stand of trees. In a year of scarce acorns, like this year, any tree that had a decent crop will still draw animals pawing in the leaves for whatever may be left in early December. By this mid-November, almost all of the already scarce acorns were eaten up, and both bear and deer seemed to be moving widely across the landscape in search of any food. It makes for tough hunting, and so we have to team up with buddies and other camps to work together to scoop up what animals are out there. Be flexible and think outside the box of a permanent stand.
  6. Speak animal language. Last year I grunted in an Adirondacks wilderness buck after busting him out of his bed. He was a territorial and aggressive SOB. But the conditions were all wrong for playing around, and although his body was visible, I could not shoot through the beech brush to get him. This year I returned for Round Two with the same animal, which had probably never seen a human being, and after two days of tentative efforts, Day Three resulted in the furious huge buck storming right in to my position with leaves, twigs, snot and mouth foam flying. I shot him in the neck at five yards, five miles from my truck. Lot of work, totally worth it for that DIY hunt of a lifetime. My position was carefully chosen for what he could see or smell under a certain wind direction. I waited until it was all just right, and let fly. His response was immediate.
  7. Take pictures, send them in emails. While journaling is not dead, most people today do not write in a personal or camp journal. Instead, we take photos and email them around. The recipients always appreciate them. Especially when ten or twenty years has suddenly passed, our knees don’t seem capable of all those steep climbs and hard sidehilling drives any longer, and a lot of our best times at hunting camp are sitting around with dear friends and reminiscing together. So don’t forget to take pictures and share them.

Northern PA’s acorn crop largely failed in 2021, possibly due to a late frost that killed the acorn flowers. Acorns remaining on the ground looked OK from the outside, but were all rotten like this on the inside. Wildlife is hungry and moving widely to locate food.

My “Freedom Buck,” killed on Sunday November 28th at 7:45am, on private property in PA. The ban on Sunday hunting is an attack on freedom, and so I named this Sunday morning buck after my declaration of freedom.

 

 

The deer that got away, but shouldn’t have

It doesn’t matter how many seasons I’ve spent afield, or how many big game animals I’ve taken while hunting. I am always surprised at how many strange circumstances there are in the woods that challenge my expectations and prior experiences. Over the decades some fatally wounded animals have gotten away from me, despite my best efforts to locate them. Or at least I thought they had gotten away, because I did not find them where I expected them to be, and ended up going home mystified about how such a large animal could seemingly vanish into thin air. Each one of these losses has been a “teachable moment,” and the better I became at following up wounded animals, the more I was able to look back on ones that got away (that actually were there but not found) and realize where and how I had failed to look.
Learning from these moments is important, because dying animals sometimes pull off disappearing acts that you can’t believe. That you would not believe if someone told you, and you would not believe if you did not see it with your own eyes. One big take away from my experiences is big game like deer and bear can be dead on their feet but nonetheless run far on adrenaline, and then do a head dive under a log, into a leaf pile, or over a cliff, thereby disappearing from view. It is up to the hunter to decipher the clues left behind by the mortally wounded animal, so that we can track it down and bring it to hand. Losing wounded big game animals is a big no-no, and although it does happen, it really shouldn’t happen very often.
Even with tracking dogs now legal in Pennsylvania for finding lost big game, a lot of hard work can be avoided if the hunter can figure out what likely happened right away.
Last Sunday morning I was reminded yet again that fatally hard-hit deer can nonetheless run pretty far, not leave much of a trail to follow, leave little or no blood trail, seem to disappear, and important clues about how far they are likely to go can often be found right at the site of initial bullet contact. Even in snow, which in the best circumstances shows all kinds of evidence that is easy to follow.
He had been grubbing for acorns in the brush behind the log at the top of the picture below. He was shot there when he turned broadside, at 120 yards. Notice the wildly turned up leaves and dirt, as his first few frantic leaps propelled him away from the scene of attack as fast as possible. There are just a couple of these scuff marks, and no blood visible on the snow yet. If snow were not present, we would only have the violent scuff marks as an indication an animal had reacted wildly and sought immediate escape. These scuff marks are typically (though not always) only found where the animal has taken a hard hit. In dry leaves and no snow, this might be your only clue at the beginning of a long and faint trail left by a fatally wounded animal.
The buck left a good clue that he was hit hard the first time: A series of sliding steps with scuffed up leaves and some minor blood spray, just little drops, right before bounding farther up the hill and turning around to regard his former position like he’d been stung by a bee. That’s when I shot him the second time. I knew I had connected with the first shot, but my impression was that it was not a hard or fatal hit.

Below is the buck after the second bullet, at about 140 yards, the hole of which is visible behind his shoulder; a classic behind-the-shoulder double lung/ top of heart hit. Usually it’s immediately fatal. Usually the animal is knocked down by the impact. But not that day. He absorbed the second soft point without moving, just standing there broadside, as if I had completely missed him. Even after he dropped he had a lot of life and fight left, as can be seen in his death spiral in the snow.

My challenge was that I did not see him fall, which happened while I was fumbling with my binoculars. Because I do not often use a rifle scope, I do not maintain a magnified field of view after my shot. Going back and forth between open sights and binoculars is my process.

As an aside, you may wonder why I use open sights, or you may be one of those people who deride open sights. Shooting instinctively with open sights is how I grew up and how I learned to hunt. Unlike a scope, open sights can take a lot more abuse in the field before they go out of whack. Unlike a scope, they cannot possibly lose their “zero” after spending eleven months in a closet. Open sights are absolutely reliable, and perfectly effective. Recall that American infantry are qualified on open sights out to 600 yards (or meters), so it is not like these things are relics from the past. Open sights are the best option, provided they are installed correctly and checked annually.

My preference for open sights is about more than performance, however. It has to do with how I like to hunt: On foot, getting close to the animal, within its sensory zone, and trying to kill it on its own terms, up close. This is a true contest of skill, not an assassination. And I hardly think an open-sighted center fire rifle is a disadvantage; it is a huge advantage over a spear or a bow. Scoped rifles are just that much more of an advantage.

So, I did not see the buck fall, and he fell into a small swale where I could not see him. Not wanting to stink up the woods and ruin further hunting, I sat on my butt and scoured the woods for signs of a deer. In fact, I saw a large buck a couple hundred yards away sneak into a thick tree top blowdown. It made me think the buck I had shot at was gut-shot and sneaking away to lie down, and so I did not push him. Only when the crows showed up over an hour later was it evident that the buck was in fact dead right where I had last seen him.

PA’s must-do 21st century deer management policy

When Gern texted me on November 12th “planning to plant the entire farm with grass next Fall… 100%  hay… can’t afford to feed wildlife. Going broke trying to make money,” I knew that my best deer management efforts had finally failed over the past 13 years.

Every year I work hard to make sure our deer season is as productive as possible. Because our tenant farmer pays us a per-acre rent every year, which covers the real estate taxes and some building maintenance, and for 13 years he has grown soybeans, corn and hay in various rotations across the many fields we have. Our arrangement has generally worked out well both ways, but that text message ended my  sense of satisfaction.

While I do wear dirty bib overalls when I run the sawmill and also when I try to impress people who don’t know me, Gern is the actual farmer who tills (broad sense), fertilizes, plants, and harvests a very large farm property in Dauphin County, some of which I own and all of which I manage. Our property is one of many that comprise about 30,000 acres of farm land that Gern and his family cultivate in Central Pennsylvania. To say that his family works hard is the understatement of all understatements. Gern embodies AMERICA! in flesh and spirit, and to see him so utterly beaten down by mere deer is heartbreaking.

Over the years I knew that both overabundant deer and bears were taking a significant toll on our grain crops (Gern’s primary source of family income), and so I worked hard to recruit the kinds of good hunters who would help us annually whittle down the herds, so that the pressure was taken off of our crops. About five years ago I proudly photographed one of our late-summer soybean fields, at about four super healthy feet high, indicating a minimal amount of deer damage. When I passed the soybean field pictures around to other farmers and land managers, nothing but high praise returned. And so I patted myself on the back for our successful deer management, and congratulated our guest hunters, who were killing about 25-35 deer a year on our property. Our hunters were filling an impressive 50% to 65% of the roughly 54 DMAP deer management tags we hand out every year, as well as some of their buck tags and WMU 4C tags.

But, change is life’s biggest constant, and while I rested on my hunting laurels, deer hunting changed under my feet. The past few years have seen a lot of change in the hunting world. First and biggest change is that hunters in Pennsylvania and other states are aging out en masse, with fewer replacements following them. This means that a lot less pressure is being brought to bear on the deer herd. Which means a lot more deer are everywhere, which is not difficult to see if you drive anywhere in Pennsylvania in a vehicle. There are literally tons of dead deer along the side of every road and highway, everywhere in Pennsylvania. We should be measuring this at tons-of-deer-per-mile, not just the number of dead deer and damaged vehicles. Frankly this overabundant deer herd situation is out of control not just for the farmers who feed Americans, but for the people who want to safely drive their vehicles to the grocery store. Hunters are sorely needed to get this dangerous situation under control, and yet Pennsylvania’s deer management policies favor overabundant deer herds to keep older hunters less crabby.

So, because I am about to break out the spotlights and AK47 to finally manage our farm deer the way they need to be managed (and yes, PA farmers are allowed to wholesale slaughter deer in the crops) (and yes, I feel the same way about our favorite forested places in the Northern Tier), here below is the kind of deer management/ hunting policy Pennsylvania needs via the PGC, if we are going to get the out-of-control deer herd genie back into its bottle and stop hemorrhaging farmland on the altar of too many deer:

  1. Archery season is too long. At seven weeks long, the current archery season lets a lot of head-hunters stink up the woods, cull the very best trophy bucks, and pressure the deer enough to make them extra skittish and nocturnal before rifle season begins. Even though rifle season is our greatest deer management tool. The same can be said of bear season, which is the week before rifle season. So shorten archery season and lengthen rifle season, or make the opening week of deer season concurrent with bear season, like New York does.
  2. Rifle season must be longer, and why not a longer flintlock season, too? Is there something “extra special” about deer come the middle of January, that they are prematurely off limits to hunting? Most bucks begin to drop their antlers in early February. Have three weeks of rifle season and then five weeks of flintlock season until January 30th, every year. Or consider flintlock hunting year ’round, or a spring doe season in May.
  3. More doe tags are needed. There are too few doe tags to begin with, and most doe tags sell out and are never used. This is especially true in WMUs 5C and 5D, where despite enormous tag allocations, tags quickly become unavailable. That is because individual hunters can presently buy unlimited numbers of doe tags, for some reason having to do with the way deer were managed in the 1980s…c’mon, PGC, limit of two or three doe tags for each hunter in these high-density WMUs, and at least two doe tags in Big Woods WMUs like 2G and 4C.
  4. Despite good advancements in reducing the regulatory burden on deer hunters this past season, there are still too many rules and restrictions. For example, why can’t our muzzleloading guns have two barrels? Pedersoli makes the Kodiak, a fearsome double percussion rifle that would be just the ticket for reducing deer herds in high deer density WMUs where the PGC says they want more deer harvests. But presently it is not legal. Another example is the ridiculous interruptions in small game seasons as they overlap with bear and deer seasons. This bizarre on-again-off-again discontinuity of NOT hunting rabbits while others ARE hunting deer is an unnecessary holdover from the long-gone, rough-n-ready bad old poaching days of Pennsylvania wildlife management. PA is one of the very few states, if the only one at all, with these staggered small game and big game seasons. Bottom line is hunting is supposed to be fun, and burdening hunters with all kinds of minutiae is not only not fun, it is unnecessary. Other states with far more liberal political cultures have far fewer regulations than Pennsylvania, so come on PA, give fun a try.
  5. Artificial deer feeding with corn, alfalfa, oats etc on private land during all deer and bear seasons must end. Not only does this “I’m saving the poor starving deer” nonsense lead to spreading deadly diseases like CWD, it artificially draws deer onto sanctuary properties and away from nearby hunters. Or it is baiting, plain and simple. Feeding causes overabundant deer to avoid being hunted during hunting season, but then quickly spread out on the landscape where they eat everything out of house and home when hunting season ends. This year up north (Lycoming and Clinton counties) is a prime example. We had no acorns to speak of this Fall, and whatever fell was quickly eaten up by early November. As the weeks rolled on through hunting season, the deer began leaving their regular haunts and unnaturally herding up where artificial feed was being doled out. This removed them from being hunted, and creates a wildlife feeding arms race, where those who don’t feed wildlife run the risk of seeing none at all. So either completely outlaw artificial feeding or let everyone do it, including hunters, so they can compete with the non-hunters. And yes, people who buck hunt only, and who do not shoot does, and who put out corn and alfalfa etc. for deer during hunting season, are not really hunters. They are purposefully meddling in the hunts of other people by trying to keep them from shooting “my deer.”
  6. PGC must better communicate to its constituency that too many deer result in unproductive farms that then become housing developments. Because the landowner and farmer must make some money from the land, if farm land can’t grow corn, it will end up growing houses, which no real hunter wants. So real hunters want fewer deer, at numbers the land and farms can sustain.