Friday, May 25, 2018

Turkey Manifesto

Editor's note: This is a guest post from my good friend Tommy Baranowski. In a way his story is different than others shared here because it's the first one about hunting to ever appear on The Connecticut Yankee. In many ways, however, Tommy's story is very similar because it's about his passion for the outdoors, an appreciation for putting time in and achieving success, and making memories with family and friends.

First off, I must admit that I've only been hunting for a few years. I never really gave it much thought or attention when I was younger, even though my father is an accomplished lifelong hunter, and my younger brother is no slouch either, whether with a bow or any sort of firearm. I didn’t get sucked in until a good friend Justin Benvenuto started upland bird hunting and took me to a spot I was extremely familiar with along the Farmington River. It was MDC-owned property that I had been fly fishing for years fittingly named The Boneyard. My love for hunting started right then and there.

Ever since that day I’ve been completely engrossed in the sport, though it’s not easy putting down in words exactly why. Maybe it’s the challenge of something new. Maybe it’s the adventure of the whole thing. Maybe it’s the interaction with nature and seeing animals in a different way. Maybe it’s the thrill of going out there and coming back with food for the table. Or maybe it’s just spending more time outdoors with friends and family making new memories. Whatever it may be, I truly enjoy doing it and the spring of 2018 has been a memorable one with some significant milestones under my belt.

This story starts in early spring 2017 when I got a bug up my ass to go turkey hunting. My father and I talked it over and got permission to hunt a large, private piece owned by one of his sporting clay partners. So we set out one May morning and long story short, it didn't go as we had hoped. In hindsight, some birds were around but we were sitting in the wrong spot and calling way too much. More importantly, we flat out went into the whole thing blind; no scouting all, just waltzed in and sat down. While we weren’t able to get out again that season, I told myself the following spring would be different.

If duck hunting has taught me anything over the past few seasons, it’s the importance of putting time in to scout. I extended that same line of thinking to the turkey fields this year. Before the season started, I drove up to the property one morning for first light. I parked, started walking and right on the dirt road there’s a Tom staring at mea good sign! As I walked the cornfield, its edges were littered with turkey tracksanother good sign! 

The next scouting trip was an evening trip. It was a bit windy, but I called a few times with a box call and could have sworn I got a gobble back. I walked over to the edge of the field and about 30 yards away were two big Toms walking off into the woods to roost. Right then I knew it was those birds gobbling back to my call. I was amped! I picked out a couple of trees to sit at the base of and cut a clear shooting path through the briers between this spot and where the decoys would go in the field. The stage was set.

The 2018 spring turkey season started on a Wednesday, so like all other weekend warriors I had to wait until the following Saturday to get out. The day finally came and I met my father at the property for 4:45 a.m. After a quick walk to our spot and decoy setup, we dug in and the waiting game began. As the sun crept up there was a light layer of fog hanging over the field. We soon started hearing the first birds gobbling from their roost and on the ground. From our vantage point, the turkeys were off to our left.  After a few calls from my dad’s box call, we had a nice exchange going but could tell they were heading away from us. The next call he made got a gobble back and while still out of sight, it seemed the birds had changed direction and were looking right at us. Not a moment later my dad whispered, “There they are. Look at the tails!” Thanks to the fog that’s all we could see, two big fanned-out turkey tails moving towards us. Holy shit this is happening…

I sat at the ready with the gun resting on my knee. After a few more light calls, the birds’ ghostly whitish-blue heads came into view. It was surreal how well they stood out through the fog; that scene is one of the more vivid memories from the entire hunt. The turkeys were in a small group of about six moving in our direction when the two Toms in full-strut broke away and headed directly toward our decoys. Directly is not the right word—they were actually zigzagging in front of one another cutting off each other’s display. That was something cool I hadn’t seen in person until that day. Holding steady with my check on the buttstock and staring down the barrel, I could see that one of the birds had one distinctly long beard. The other had two beards that stuck out against the background of the field as vividly as their heads. My game plan was to take the double beard first and if the other bird hung around, take him next.

At this point, the pair of Toms were just beyond our decoys. While trying to control my breathing so my goddamned glasses didn't fog up any worse than they already were, I squeezed off the first round. The bird was stone dead from a perfect shot. I moved the barrel over to the second bird, squeezed the trigger and the gun didn't fire. Since I was using a ridiculously large 3.5” 2 ¼ oz. shot shell, the gun didn't cycle the next shell all the way. I looked at the ejection port, touched the bolt and it guided the next shell right into the breach. I then zeroed in on the second bird that only walked a few yards away and took my next shot. Just over an hour after sitting down, two large Toms lay in front of us on a misty field. Now you must keep in mind, my father next to me has probably forgotten about more hunting trips than I have been on. That being said, this was the first time I had taken an animal in his presence. It was a rather special moment for both of us and as we were getting up I said to him, “It only took me 33 years to do this!”

Approaching the first bird I could now see that what I thought was a double bearded Tom was actually a triple with the longest of the three beards being 10 ½ inches. The second Tom that I thought had a single beard was actually a double with the longer of the two also at 10 ½ inches. What absolutely amazing animals! It wasn’t until I was face-to-face with a wild North American turkey that I could truly appreciate how stunning these animals really are. Their features left me in awe—the sheer size of the birds, their almost fake looking iridescent feathers, giant spurs on the back of their legs, the beards and wing tips that drag on the ground when in full strut. My father and I shook hands, took a few photos and began to haul the harvest back to our trucks.

It was too early to be making phone calls to any sane person, but as soon as it turned a decent hour I called my boy Dustin, the foodiest foodie I know, and told him we had some work to do. Dustin had been perfecting his smoking skills for a while and smoked turkey is just what I had in mind. I got home, cleaned the birds, put the breasts in a simple brine in gallon Ziplocs, and drove to Dusty’s place. We then tied up the breasts, set a timer and put them in the smoker, which was already fired up with golden delicious applewood. About two and a half hours later we took them out and coated one in honey, one in maple syrup, and one with butter and herbs. We then wrapped the breasts in tinfoil filled with bone broth to finish.

It was a goal of mine to harvest my first turkeys and eat them in the same day. The end result was incredibly good and it was truly special for me to be able to share a meal like that with close friends. There's an almost indescribable feeling that comes along with hunting and gathering your own food—a sort of sense of pride and accomplishment. Just knowing that I went out there, put the time in and got this meat myself, not from a store. I plan on turkey hunting for a long time to come and continuing to learn along the way.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fresh Tracks

One of the last brushes with winter found me in the woods along a wild trout stream. The snowfall had just ceased but still clung to everything. When the sun poked out, it melted fast and poured down like rain from the canopy. The woods were quiet and my lone footprints meant the trout had yet to see a fly that day. It was one of the better days I had spent on the water in some time. 

Link to video.

Monday, April 9, 2018

A Confession

Editor's note: Opening Day of trout season is around the corner. It's a weekend that stirs memories and emotions for countless fishermen; some more so than others. This is the finale in a series of guest posts from my friend Chad Wilde. He's a great family man, angler and writer. I like sharing Chad's work here, but fair warning, this is the toughest thing ever posted on this blog. Tell your loved ones you love them.

my earliest memories of fishing involve being woken up in the pre dawn cold of an april morning by my father. he rousing my brothers and i for our annual opening day trip. his voice silent as to not wake my mother and sister; "wake up, pal." i remember the station wagon, the smell of coffee and the calm easy speak of the morning news on the a.m. radio. riding in the way back.

he had great patience and he dutifully baited our hooks with worms and worked out our remarkable birds nests from faulty casting. fishing until we were bored and hungry. then later, our town firehouse served fisherman's breakfast: pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausages, orange juice. i do not remember catching fish though i am sure we did. i loved the 3rd weekend of april, opening day weekend in connecticut, and i still do as a touchstone of spring.

years later, my dad gave me my first fly rod. i was out of college and stumbling around for a career, a woman, an anything or a something. i was drowning in debt, crashing through relationships, emptying bottles; a walking shamble of a young man. looking to be someone and not knowing still who that was to be.

i needed something new and when he gave me my rod for my birthday i thanked him and told him that he had given me a new hobby, and my mind bent towards the rod and its work instantly. i took the rod to a field and amazed myself by being able to lay a reasonable amount of line out on the grass. holy shit, i thought, i can do this. i reeled in and went to the river, where i caught a dace on a big dry fly. that fly rod was just what i needed, and i took to studying it and gradually my spin rods were left home. it is still what i need.

my dad and my uncle began 20 years ago our current opening day tradition of fish camp. he and uncle jim would drag out the pop up campers and load up wood for a weekends worth of campfires, fishing, drinking, and eating terribly unhealthy foods. our camp started small, but grew to its current stature of almost 40 people and 5 campsites. i look forward to it with trepidation and joy every year.

as i grew older, fish camp came to mean more and more to me. as life strangles the time from your days and you hew out what hours you can to fish. a full, unadulterated weekend becomes the carrot dangled in front of the ass: slogging through the winter you find your mind creeping towards spring days and trout fishing.

we camp beside and fish the natchaug river. the word natchaug comes from the nipmuc indians and it means "the land between two rivers". in 2008 i went to sleep semi drunk on the first night of fish camp before anyone else in our camp. i was excited to get a good early start on the fishing the next morning. my dad came into our camper for something as i was bedding down and he said "good night, pal. i love ya." even in adulthood he said that to me.

i dimly recall the gauzy morning light the next morning, the sounds of someone stirring. it is impossible to be quiet in a camper. it was still mostly dark outside and i rolled over and stole another hour in the warm sleeping bag. when i woke up again i dressed and walked to the camp ground bathroom to force the necessary shit out of me to allow concentrated fishing. i saw my dads shoes below one of the stall doors.

mildly hung over, no caffeine in me yet, i took my shit and realized that the air in that bathroom was far too still, oddly silent. my first thoughts were that my father, in the stall next to mine, had fallen asleep. i spoke his name. again louder. i wiped my ass and the panic began. looking over his stall door.

the sight that i saw there that morning. finality and so obvious, an undignified pose, not fitting of he or any man. i broke the door down and touched his neck. i ran from there, one shoe came off as i ran to our camp. i yelled for help. my brothers came. "its dad. the bathroom." they ran as i called 911.

we tried our best. i learned that morning that efforts at resuscitation put air into lungs that the body will force out in a low moan. we heard this sound, awful sound, and it gave us hope. "come on dad!" we called, pump the chest, breath for him, try, anything. the first responders were there before i knew it and they cleared us from the bathroom and tried their best too.

my brothers and i split up. my older brother to my mothers house to get her and my sister, my younger brother and i to follow the ambulance that had left 5 minutes earlier as we 3 blind mice made what plans we could. pearl jam song came to mind:

'i miss you already. i miss you always. 3 crooked hearts swirl all around.'

when we caught up to the ambulance what hope there was faded. no siren on. the lights flashing, but it wasn't going as fast as it could have. there didn't appear to be any urgency: indeed, things had been decided well before the trip.

it was a massive heart attack, sudden and unseen by any. my dad was in good health per his doctor but 2 weeks earlier.

my grief was black anger. pour blood on me, i boil. this is how i grieve. i was a mean son of a bitch, careening from tears and ache to the bile of hate. waking in the night on my now widowed mothers floor and thinking 'was it a dream? no.' being a shitty son to my mother, a shitty brother to my siblings, a shitty man to who is now my wife. a shitty self. so sad, so angry.

my confession is that in the aftermath of that day i was angry at my father as his passing had taken that weekends fishing from me. its there, in the grief stages.  his passing had tagged my life and like a nuclear event had blown it all up and the aftershock had pulled it back together all akimbo and staring outward with a thousand yard stare.

his wake was an opiate. the line of people there to pay respects snaked around the town for a half a mile. i do not believe i over estimate when i say there were thousands of people there. as he had touched me, he touched so many others. a very, very good man. my family stood there and went through the sad chores for better than 2 extra hours than were planned, so as to allow everyone to say goodbye. in between the greetings and tears, i thought of fishing. stripping streamers. stupid white zonkers I could see in the water.  again, i confess. so selfish.

a week later i was back on the water in that hazy grieving state. interface with the new normal: each new day the new longest time since i've spoken with you. the future stretching out in front of me saying figure this out and learn what you can. a stocked trout hits and takes the hook deeply in the gills. try to save it, fail. new tears, for the trout? angrily let it float away and down, down, down. not even saving it on a forked stick to be eaten. fuck you trout. this time i'm god and you lose. i confess that.

don't it make you smile? when the sun don't shine.

and all these years later, i still confess this: that morning, when my father woke up and i stayed in bed for that extra hour....i think deep down that maybe i could have helped him. if i woke too, that extra hour earlier, and we went together to the bathroom maybe he would have said "i don't feel so good." maybe i would have seen it. the doctors told me there was nothing i could have done, but i disagree. i confess that if nothing else i could have helped this man cross over. not alone in a camp ground bathroom. i confess that i don't believe i will ever feel there wasn't something there i could have done and didn't.

but through all that, i’m still out there strippin’ streamers.  and that rod he gave me is still up here on my wall.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Tale of Alan's Tiger

Editor's note: This is another good story from my friend Chad Wilde in the Quiet Corner of CT. It's about tiger trout, a sterile cross between a male brook trout and a female brown trout. Most of CT's tigers are raised in hatcheries and stocked as adults (3,768 tigers stocked in 2017), but once in a blue moon anglers will catch wild tigers in streams with good spawning habitat and populations of native brookies and wild browns.

Chad noted that listening to this song while reading along will enhance the story. 

Living on the brook, I sort of got to know some of its fish.  Like a particular tiger trout that found its way into a prime hole.  It’s an angler’s culvert sort of place.  Easy to fish, consistent.  I got him there three times over the course of a year.

The funny thing about that particular tiger is that I caught it on three different flies and three different fly rods.  So after a while I just stopped fishing that hole.  I started saving it for a friend.

Each time I caught him over the year, he looked a little more colorful, a little more robust.  I could swear he had grown an inch. Vermiculate back like a convolute network of misevolution.  Black pupil that looked oddly innocent.  But it was a brawler.  Not leader shy, this fish.  He fought well, and ruined the hole each time I got him with his ruckus.

Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice, shame on me.

Fool me three times, ah fuck it.

I knew my friend Alan had never caught a tiger trout.  So I held off on the easy fish to hopefully put him on it.  Alan is a good friend, and a helluva rod builder.  He can tie a good deer-hair bug, and he’s handy with a stick.  I haven’t fished with him as much as I’d like, but I have fished with him enough to know that he could figure it out pretty quick, whatever it was.

In the past I had brought him to some of the places I knew on the brook, but never to the hole with the tiger in it. 
I debated the tiger, mind you.   I knew and know there are wild fish in the brook.  I knew this dude was voracious and would eat just about anything.  Maybe I should have offed it.  But of the stocked fish in Connecticut they are perhaps the most interesting.  And I struggle with killing anything.  Even for a good reason.

We got up one day, went directly to the spot with the tiger in it.  I gave him the tit water.  I said, “Right out there buddy.”  I was already proud of myself.  The water was low.  It was late November.  There was ice in our guides.  Naturally, since I had talked the hole up so much, we didn’t catch shit. 

Now, I had been thinking about the Fenton River for some time around then.  It was badly damaged when UConn sucked it dry in 2005.  Where I used to find wild fish in high school now I only found stockies.  But when I’d catch them in the winter I’d tip my hat to them and say go on and lay down some roots.  I’d hope for them.  Against hope.  We’d try it anyway.

On the drive, I wondered if the tiger was dead.  I have always handled my fish with utmost care, but after you release a fish you never really know if it survives unless you catch it again.  Do the chances of its life decrease with subsequent catches?  I know there is stress in catching fish, but I do my best to reduce it.

My friend Dave caught a dubious fish in the Fenton years ago.  A 29- inch brown trout.  The hypothetical fish that could be.  A leviathan of a small stream.  A beast.  He caught it out of an out-of-the-way hole.  I wanted to check out a series of these type of holes I knew of and they weren’t buying what we were selling in the brook.  Alan was game.

I secretly hoped the tiger in the brook was dead since the thing would gladly eat a two-inch fry.  I secretly hoped it alive, stalking some deadfall or tucked into a bathtub sized two-foot deep plunge.  Treating it like a conveyor belt of forage, chasing off all others.  Eating them.  Grown fat and greedy, and strong.  I just hoped for fish.  So we’d try the Fenton.

I couldn’t get it out of my mind that the tiger wasn’t there.  I was disappointed, they’re pretty rare to catch and I thought I could put a buddy on his first.  Maybe it wised up, went feral as stocked fish will and learned to hide better.  Find deeper culverts to haunt.  Mice to eat.  It had, after all, grown an inch in a year.

I had just begun to tie flies at the time and was working on a squirrel leach pattern.  I gave a couple to Alan.  Purple squirrel with a green bead head.  “Broom Hilda-style,” I told him.  Halloween and all.  These flies were the first of my own that I was successful with, and they remain a staple in my box 10 years later.

I worked some water below him and he found his way up to a nice cutbank.  He approached it from below and took a small trout.  After a while he put on the squirrel leach and began to fish it.

I called his cell to find out what he was doing.  He told me he saw a big fish go for the squirrel leach and miss.  I began to head up.  I had just arrived at the cutbank to watch him roll cast upstream along the deep foreboding grey November cutbank.  He began to take short strips.  I looked away.  He said aloud, “I got ‘em.”

I turned and saw Alan on a nice fish.  It’s always exciting to see a friend get a good one.  You want to help, share in the experience.  I saw the fish boil the surface.  It was very light in color.  Was it a huge washed-out brook trout?  I couldn’t tell.  We had a great view of the fish, in the deep colored late fall water.  I enjoyed watching him fight it. 

It was a good fish.  After he fought the fish, I was able to slide a net under it.  This too is special, to help a friend net a fish. 

“No way,” I said.  I couldn’t even believe it. 

It’s a big tiger.

He released it and I never saw it again.  Though no doubt I went looking for it.

Alan's tiger