The Gila Monster

In March 2014, after watching way too much of Steve Rinella’s show, MeatEater, I decided it was the right time to start putting in for tags out West. I’d spent many a day in my office pretending to be working on something in Excel while really either daydreaming or watching a Vimeo about the quintessential western pack-out elk hunt. You know the one I’m talking about: guy on horseback leading a packed out horse with antlers strapped to the saddle amid a pristine wilderness with a spectacular skyline backdrop. To me, it was one of those story lines that, to that point, only existed in overblown magazine articles, cheesy Bass Pro / Cabela’s ads and what always seem like too-good-to-be-true outdoors shows. That stuff just doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I figured I would start entering the tag lotto out West in an effort to pull a tag by some time in my early 30s (call it five years out)… My and MarshSvin’s older sister and her family were in the process of moving to New Mexico at the time so I figured why not try for an elk tag there? It’s not like I knew considerably less about NM than anywhere else out West, and I’d at least have family nearby. I did some internet research – pulled the NM tag data, looked at hunter harvest reports, and most importantly Googled stuff. When the day to apply actually arrived, I had it narrowed down to a couple units and keyed them in whimsically from my work computer, with tempered expectations. I mean, statistically there was a very slim chance of my pulling a tag as an out-of-state, non-guided hunter – this category of applicants is only allocated 6% of the total available tags each year and thousands of people comprise the pool vying to be chosen for that 6%.

THE SETUP

Well, as such things tend to go, I of course pulled a bull elk tag for a five-day rifle season split. October 11th to October 15th were marked on my calendar. I was stoked. I upped the internet research: layout of the unit, terrain in the area, climate expectations, gear essentials, logistics, etc., and quickly realized I probably wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. I was going to need experienced, local help. I reached out to a few outfitters in the area. At first I told myself, I’d just do it for some intel, but I’ll admit one of the outfitters sold me with a string of picture texts capped by this grand finale:

Phil Text

It was from Phil Treadwell at Lake Valley Outfitters, who told me this unit was undoubtedly the rugged, pack-out, horseback hunt I’d been envisioning. There was no other way to hunt this terrain successfully, he said. Phil seemed knowledgeable about the area and generally like a good guy so I booked him for the split.

October 11th it was going to be on in the Gila wilderness area! Or so I thought. Ironically, the (literal) next day one of my best friends from college called me to let me know that I needed to get fitted for my groomsman’s tux for his wedding on October 11thin San Juan, Puerto Rico. I couldn’t believe it. Dream turned nightmare. Admittedly, I was pissed when he first told me. Although I told him I didn’t know if I’d still be able to make his wedding, I really knew that I couldn’t miss his wedding for a hunt. Plus, if I did successfully find my Gila monster bull, it would be the hunting equivalent of a blood diamond stored in my freezer and hanging on my wall.

I frantically game planned a way to make the timeline work for me and Samantha: tear up the wedding dance floor Saturday night (on what would otherwise be opening day) then jet to New Mexico to hunt out the remaining three days of my tag (after I burned one day in-transit). In theory, it could work but was three days actually enough? I quickly dialed Phil and laid out the dilemma. He was highly confident that we would get it done in three days or less regardless. Whether or not he was blowing smoke, it was the answer I wanted and needed to hear, so I booked our San Juan to Albuquerque flights for Sunday morning and the hunt was back on.

After a week-of flight plan change by the airline, Samantha and I were scheduled to attend the wedding Saturday night, catch an 11:30AM flight from San Juan to Dallas, a 4:15PM flight from Dallas to Santa Fe, a shuttle from Santa Fe to our rental truck in Albuquerque (where we were originally scheduled to arrive about 5 hours earlier), then drive the final 4 hours (mostly on ungroomed dirt roads) to our camp. Fittingly, camp’s most notable nearby landmark, which I could not have planned better myself, was a small mining ghost town. Also, the final ~2 hours of the drive would be done in the absence of cell coverage, meaning I had to memorize the access road maps.

During the drive, Samantha and I started talking about our expectations for the hunt. She said no matter what, she wanted a 6×6. I didn’t want either of us to be disappointed so I said I would settle for anything over a 4×4. 6×6 bulls were another figment of only hunting show and Bass Pro advertisement realities. And this was a public land hunt.

Miraculously, all went (mostly) according to plan and we arrived in camp around 2AM. Unfortunately, we weren’t positive it was the right camp, although no other humans seemed to be within 100 miles, so we slept in the rental truck for the next hour until Phil woke up and invited us into camp. On the way to the tent, our flashlights lit up a skinned out 6×6 skull. Well, that’s a good sign.

DAY 1

In the morning and with bleary eyes, we met Jessie Haynie (Phil’s outfitting partner), Byron (Phil’s hilarious uncle) and the other two hunters still in camp. That morning Samantha, Phil and I were setting out together, while the other two hunters (both looked to be in their mid-to-late 60s) were taking the horses out with Jessie to pack out the OTHER 6×6 they had taken the prior day. There had been two trophy bulls already taken from this area? Well, now, maybe there wouldn’t be any trophies left for us? Damn! The wedding, fun and all, may have cost me my chance for a trophy bull.

That first morning the plan was to ride to a nearby ridge, hike to the top and glass the lower country. The ridge bounded a natural choke point between the low country and the high country so we could see any post-rut bulls passing through the valley on their way back to solitude in the Black Range. Although I trained for the hunt by running with a weighted pack on and doing some CrossFit-esque workouts, Samantha and I were both gassed within 1,000 feet of the truck. Nothing can prepare you for those first few breaths at 5,000-6,000 ft. of elevation.

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The thought of fatigue quickly vanished from my mind as Phil signaled to us that there was something just over the ridge. We crept to the edge and strained our eyes. Suddenly, the early morning light glistened off a massive, golden elk amidst the pinyon and juniper foliage, and we were seemingly face-to-face with a beautiful 6×6 bull at about 150 yards. We had the high ground on him and he wasn’t at all worried about his surroundings so we watched him for a minute or two before anything was said. During that time, I was going through my shooting checklist and trying to get my breathing under control. I was thinking to myself, “10 minutes hunting in New Mexico and here’s what might be my one shot at a trophy bull.” And on the one hand, I was stoked about that. This stuff just doesn’t happen in real-life and, if it does, it certainly doesn’t happen for me. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed that it had come so easily. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that fishing and hunting (for me) isn’t about catching fish or filling a tag – it’s about the work that goes into it. Take turkey hunting, for example, I’m obsessed and literally have dreams about gobbling toms… And in three years of hunting them, I’ve never even killed a bird!

I tentatively asked Phil what he was thinking and he said, “Man, that’s a beautiful animal but it’s your first morning here. I’d never let you shoot a small 6×6 on your first morning. You guys are in good shape and we’ve got 3 days, so we’ll find something better.” Um, what?! A small 6×6? I’d never really heard of such a thing. Plus, what kind of guide would pass up on the opportunity to fill a tag with a gorgeous bull?

I was shocked but also relieved. First, my shooter’s anxiety immediately dissipated. Second, I realized Phil and I were on the same page – this wasn’t a job for him, it was still his passion and he likes a good challenge. (Turns out, Phil runs cattle and is a professional roper so this was his “vacation” time too in a way.) I knew that I was not only in for a high odds hunt, but that it was going to be enjoyable time spent in the field with someone likeminded on what constitutes a “successful” hunt.

We quietly posted up, watched that bull meander through the woodlands below and glassed the rest of the valley. We saw another similarly sized bull that got within a few hundred yards but passed on him as well.

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A few minutes later, Phil moved further down the ridge for another vantage point and Samantha and I got a second alone. Neither of us said anything – just grinned to each other. No need to jinx it but we were giddy with excitement. After glassing some nice mulies, we headed back to camp around mid-morning to grab breakfast before the evening session.

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We met Byron back at camp and shortly afterward the other group returned. As we sat around the campfire, Phil and Jessie decided we should score this most recent bull. They showed me how the measurements are done and we unofficially scored it at 320+” on the Boone & Crockett scale. I’m sure Phil could see me enviously drooling all over myself, as he smiled and told me that was probably about the size of the bulls we’d seen that morning give or take 15”. The bulls we’d passed on. We got more acquainted with the guys in camp and shot the breeze before heading out around noon.

Phil said we’d have a decent hike to our glassing spot that afternoon, so we’d take our time getting up there then relax before the bulls got active around dusk. With temperatures feeling like 90+°F during the day and frost forming on our sleeping bags overnight, it made sense that these big bulls wouldn’t be real motivated or active during daylight hours.

As we casually bushwacked to our glassing spot that afternoon, I couldn’t help but be excited by the amount of elk sign all around us.

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And you know how excited I get about poop…

When we got to our spot at about 2PM, I was jacked for more action. We were hunting a dried up lake basin that looked a little swampy but was now mostly filled with grama grass. I knew I probably wasn’t going to glass up any bulls but I couldn’t stop looking.

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Samantha, conversely, was having no trouble conserving energy…

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At about 5PM, I spotted a group of mulies grazing the hillside below us but it was still a little early for bulls to be up. Almost on cue about an hour later, I saw what looked like two leafless trees knifing their way through the underbrush and between the alligator junipers – another beautiful bull elk. It was amazing to watch this huge animal try to floss his head cleanly between the brush while still grazing leaves off the tops of bushes. Again, this 6×6 wasn’t a shooter but it was still a surreal setting from which to watch such an impressive animal. We hung out until sunset but he was the only bull in the vicinity.

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We got back to camp, had an awesome dinner with the rest of the group and kicked back to a few drinks around the campfire. The two other hunters were planning to leave in the morning and were in a celebratory mood, which culminated in possible the funniest moment of the trip. These two older gentlemen were clearly feeling really good about their hunting successes and they were stoked to toast those successes… with Limoncello pulls. I’m not sure if Limoncello is a widely accepted toasting liquor – this was my first experience with it – but these gentlemen broke it out clearly feeling it was the appropriate drink for the occasion. They were kind enough to pass the bottle around to everyone in camp so we all appreciatively took pulls. Everyone, except for Byron, that is. As soon as it touched his lips, he roared, “What the hell is this cat piss? Goddamn that’s disgusting!” Phil, Jessie, Samantha and I couldn’t hold back our laughter and the other two guys were champs about it but Byron went on the rest of the night talking about how God awful it was. I know Phil was feeling a little apologetic about Byron’s reaction but everyone took it in good spirits. It’s hard to piss a guy off when you just put him on a monster bull. And to Byron’s credit, it wasn’t the exact drink I would have picked for the occasion but it certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Plus, it had come straight from the YETI so at least it was chilled.

DAY 2

The next morning we got up well before sunrise, again, knocked the frost off our clothes and boots and had some breakfast. The plan was to return to the same spot as the prior morning and try to glass a bull worth chasing for the day. Unlike the first day, there wasn’t a bull waiting for us on the other side of the ridgeline so we had to glass a little more intently. We spotted a few nearby mulies and heard a lot of turkeys gobbling but no elk in the immediate vicinity.

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We used the remainder of the morning light to glass the far ridges (3-5 miles away) for a bull worth chasing. Samantha apparently got her eyes dialed in to spotting bulls because she glassed up a beautiful one about 5-6 miles away. Phil and Jessie turned the spotting scope toward it and we tried to judge its size. After about 20 minutes of observation, we decided it was a big bull and definitely worth the trek. We waited for it to bed down for the day around 10AM and made a mental note of its bedding location.

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From there, the game plan was to head back to camp and tack the horses to get us out to the bull’s general location then stalk him by foot and set up before he got up to start feeding again around dusk. I could not have drawn up a more ideal hunt plan.

After a quick bite, we packed out the horses (and Samantha’s mule, Shorty) and started our ride.

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We rode through the creek bottom that led to the ridge where we’d seen that bull bed down and stopped about a half mile short of where we thought he was located. During the ride, we had mostly chatted and joked around but once we got closer, you could feel the mood growing more serious. The shooting anxiety came back and I found myself drifting into thoughts of disaster. What if I came all this way, spent all this time and energy, only to miss a shot on a once-in-a-lifetime bull? Would I recover from that? Man, that call to my dad, the world’s biggest pessimist, would be so brutal. He’d never let me hear the end of those jokes. I knew I was getting in my own head though so I reminded myself that missing is just a part of hunting. Besides, there were a lot of things that still had to go perfectly right to get a shot on this bull.

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Our plan was to use an adjacent bottom to loop past the bull, then double back by cutting over a ridge and through a small washout. Meanwhile, Jessie would take a 2-way radio and go up the ridge that was immediately across the bottom from the elk (about 500 yards away) in order to keep an eye on his movement(s) while we were getting in position.

We certainly didn’t want to bump or spook this bull and we didn’t expect him to move until about 6PM so we moved at a methodical pace across the ridge. We stopped every so often to quietly radio Jessie for updates.

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I even had time for a quick moment of peace.

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At the final check-in stop, the bull stood up and shifted his position, presumably to get back into the shade. Samantha and I didn’t get a good look at him but Phil and Jessie got more excited about his size. They were certain now that he was a good bull… If they thought he was a good bull, damn, my imagination went wild. And, of course, the nerves started again. I repeatedly went through every step of my breathing pattern and envisioned my shot. I pictured a well-placed shot, quick, clean kill and the obligatory photo shoot afterward. I don’t think that it quieted my thoughts or mitigated the anxiety but maybe visualizing it would help at the pivotal moment. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I don’t think I said more than a few words to Phil or Samantha.

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We picked out a perfectly situated pinyon pine tree that would provide us some shade to break-up our figures and slowly crept the last 50 yards to it one-at-a-time. Phil went first and Samantha and I watched him get to the tree. We whispered our last little, good luck, here goes nothing, fingers crossed thoughts to one another then we slithered in behind Phil. We sat down below the tree and got ourselves comfortable – it was only about 4:30PM so we’d have some down time until this bull even thought about getting up for the night. I got the shooting sticks ready and positioned my body in the direction from where we expected the bull to come.

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To our surprise, about 30 minutes later Jessie radioed to tell us he could see the bull standing up. We got everything ready for a potential shot but didn’t have a direct line of sight yet. We knew exactly where to look but he too was on the shaded side of a tree so we couldn’t see his movement. The anticipation was gnawing at me and it felt like an eternity. I expected at any moment to get a glimpse of the big bull but nothing happened. Jessie radioed again to tell us he’d moved to the other (far) side of the ridge from us. We all sighed in disappointment and decided we’d have to try to head him off by going over the top of our current ridge and continuing down the spine of the ridgeline he was on (our ridge was basically a finger ridge that ran parallel to the ridge he was on). We were all deflated and I immediately started regretting letting those bulls walk the day before. And now there was only 1 day left of season. Isn’t that always the way it works?

We packed our things – I even collapsed the shooting sticks, stood and told Jessie our plan to chase him when Jessie said, “Hold up, he’s still up but he’s just standing there.” Phil motioned for us to settle back in, then took out his cow call and blew a couple mellow notes. Rut was over and he wasn’t going to get a bugle but maybe he could pique this bull’s interest. It was worth a shot given the predicament. Jessie radioed and told us, “He heard it and looked in your direction but he’s not moving at all. Hit it again.” Phil blew another couple notes slightly louder but not Hail Maries yet. I watched desperately through the scope, saying prayers under my breath. Suddenly, I heard Jessie say, “Woah, get ready.”

At that same moment, through my scope I saw a bull materialize at the crest of the ridge, with nothing but the sky as his backdrop, and pause. It was the perfect pose and my heart just about dropped out of my ass. He was 250 yards away, looking directly at us and trying to locate the cow that he thought was making noise in the area. We all froze but I still thought, despite all the camo, he must see us. His gaze felt piercing. After about 5 seconds (which seemed more like 60 seconds), he broke his stare, took a couple more steps towards us, off the ridge, and went behind a barren alligator juniper. I no longer had a clean shot but he was walking towards a perfect shooting window. Phil whispered, “Get yourself ready but don’t rush it. I’ll stop him and you’ll have as much time as you need. Just don’t rush it.”

Once his body was fully in the opening, Phil blew his cow call again and stopped him perfectly in my window and broadside to us. I was sighted in to 200 yards so I barely had to adjust for drop. I took the last of my deep breaths, inhaling and midway through my exhale… BOOM! I squeezed the trigger and the.270 went off but still the noise somehow caught me off-guard. I quickly blinked to regain my composure and analyze my shot. It felt solid but nothing looked different than when I’d pulled the trigger. The bull hadn’t even flinched. I chambered another round and tried to mask my growing panic when I asked Phil, “Where’d my shot hit?” To my relief, he said, “Looked like a perfect shot but put another in him.”

At that point, the bull still hadn’t moved his back legs but he had readjusted his front two hooves to face us head on. I aimed for the spot on his chest where his fur went from thick dark brown to the shorter light golden fur that covered the majority of his body – the spot directly above his heart – and squeezed the trigger again. This time I watched as he listed away from us and I could see one of his big hooves pointing straight up in the air. He hadn’t even taken a full step from the spot where the first shot hit him. Phil leaned over and said, “Damn, you put those shots exactly where you wanted them!” I played it cool like, “Yea, of course I did,” but I was thinking to myself, “Holy shit, those went exactly where I wanted them!”

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If you look closely in the picture above, you can see the bull’s small patch of golden just beyond my muzzle.

Phil and I gave each other the awkward fist bump / high five, then high five / fist bump, ah screw it, just grab hands. Jessie radioed, “Nice shooting, that’s a great bull.” And I leaned over and gave Samantha a big kiss. In all that time, I’d been so deep in my own thoughts that I hadn’t registered how much of a champ she was and hadn’t recognized how stoked she was. While my initial sentiment was relief at not blowing that opportunity, seeing how pumped she was reminded me that it was now time to relish a successful hunt. We immediately hiked across the ridgeline to the bull and I got my first close-up glimpse of this bull.

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Then the photo shoot took place.

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Then Phil and I went to work skinning, quartering and hanging the meat. I had a permanent smile plastered on my face throughout that process, which stayed there for at least the next 2 weeks.

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The plan was to work quickly tonight to get the meat hung in a nearby alligator juniper, then come back in the morning when we had more sun and lighter saddles to pack out the hide, head and meat.

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That night we had a couple celebratory drinks, but unfortunately no Limoncello. In the morning we got up casually, had breakfast and tacked the horses to head back to the kill site.

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Once we got there, Phil and I boned out the meat while Jessie skinned the skull… And Samantha worked her artistic ability on the camera (some more).

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We got to talking and somehow the edibility of the eyeball came into question. I tried to put the question to rest…

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…But it turns out the eyeballs are basically just massive rubber bouncy balls (or at least that’s how they felt).

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We brought Shorty (Samantha’s trusty mule) up the mountain because the terrain was too steep and treacherous for a horse.

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Between Shorty, Phil, Samantha, Jessie and I, we packed the hide, skull and meat down to the creek bottom, where we transferred it to the horses and began our final ride back to camp.

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Once we got there, Samantha and I packed our things and filled the rental truck bed with ice and 230# of boned-out elk meat. I decided to send the hide and the antlers to a guy that Jessie knew well to have them made into a small throw blanket and a head & shoulder mount.

Before we left, we decided to unofficially score my bull. Although it didn’t have the longest or widest main beams, it had large diameter pedestals (the base of the main beams and the brow tines) and exceptionally long swords (the tine third from the end of the main beam). The bull scored 342” on the B&C scale and will forever require that I live in a place that has high ceilings. With that, Samantha and I said goodbye to Phil, Jessie, Byron, Shorty and the Gila.

On the way up to my sister’s house in Taos, Samantha and I started planning our return trip and taking inventory on what we’d need to one day tag a DIY bull elk. We’ll no doubt be back to chase bulls in this area and, even if we can do it on our own, we’d love Phil and Jessie’s company again. I can’t thank or praise them enough for our amazing experience and their flexibility.

The only thing I’ll do differently next time is pack the Limoncello myself…

A Taste of the Good Life

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve thrown a post up and it’s for somewhat of a good reason.  Back in October I had serious damage to my skiff as the result of a collision with a phantom underwater object.  That’s what insurance is for though… No worries right?  Wrong.  After submitting my claim to Progressive I was informed that they had dropped my collision and comprehensive coverage.  What??? I ended up taking my skiff back to East Cape in Orlando and they hooked me up big time, doing everything from remounting the motor with jackplate to totally rebuilding and reinforcing the transom for only $300 (I had quotes around $3k in Texas).  All I can say is that you can’t ask for much more from a boat builder in terms of customer service.  TH Marine hooked me up with a new jackplate as well after I had snapped mine in half and I can’t say enough good things about their customer service.  Unfortunately, my Suzuki motor still needed new motor mounts which were on back order and I was not able to get those until the beginning of February.  All I can say is that it was a dark, dark period of my life where I did a lot of introspective thinking – who am I, what am I doing with my life, where am I going…?  Now, after having been through that and emerging on the other side, I understand fully the answer to those questions and the direction is clear.  I must fish.

Part One: Back in the Saddle 

Z had been itching to fish since we had been out of commission and she had had it even worse since I was still able to fish somewhat regularly without her on friends’ boats.  She was definitely feeling due when we got the skiff back to operational and I needed to get back on the water behind the helm.  So, we headed out to Louisiana together to fish and of course, get some good eats.  Apparently, oysters are a fantastic source of iron that babies need for development (that or Z came up with an awesome excuse) so we stopped at Dupuy’s Oyster House for some retardedly good oysters and crabcakes on the way.  If you have never been, you need to stop by Abbeville to get yourself some and trust me, you will not regret it.   It’s no accident that they’ve been doing this for 150 years or so.

With only Sunday to fish (Saturday dedicated to delectable “baby healthy” Cajun treats), we set out to get Z some long overdue fish and score baby Svintos’ first fish at -5 months old.  Here was the moment I had been waiting for.  Finally I was back in the game with my skiff ready to go and then while getting the skiff ready and I noticed the trim tabs and GPS didn’t work.  It’s always something that needs to be fixed I guess.  I finally gave up and decided I didn’t need either for a one day trip and we got out on the water.  It turned into a great day in the marsh with Z and baby landing their first redfish and drum together as a mother-baby combo.

 

Z and baby's first redfish fishing together

Z and baby’s first redfish fishing together

Z showing me that pregnant ladies can still land fish

Z showing me that pregnant ladies can still land fish

Part  Deaux: Riding Again at Full Gallup 

Two weeks later Boutros and I returned to Louisiana to fish with my dad, brother, brother-in-law, and friend of the family Dave.  My brother Jer had fished with me before in Louisiana, but it was the first trip over for the rest of the crew.  I had been telling them epic tales of the best inshore fishery that I’ve ever experienced since I first moved to Louisiana over 5 years ago.  We rented an awesome house in the marsh and stocked up with food, beer, and alcohol to bring with us.  I had been anticipating this trip for a long time and I knew that at least dad (AKA Steiner) and Bill (bro in law) had no idea what they were getting into or what this sight fishing game was all about and I was so stoked to open up this huge part of my world to them, which they had no clue existed.

My brother Jer flew into Houston to meet up and make the haul across I-10 and the world’s crappiest road, US90, with me.  We met up with Boutros to convoy across, him pulling his skiff and me pulling mine.  We left Houston at about 8:30pm after work on a Thursday.  The plan was to get in and the three of us fish Friday before the rest of the crew got in on Friday evening.  We started making the trip and before we made it out of Houston Boutros called me up and was having issues with his  4Runner.  We were troubleshooting for a while and finally threw in the towel.  He would have to turn back and head to Houston to get his truck issues sorted out and Jer and I continued on alone.  We ended up getting in after 4am, totally fried, and crashed out till nearly noon the next day.  So much for a full day of scouting before the rest of the crew showed up.  We got out on the water and it was cold and blowing a steady 15-20mph and it had been colder than hell the whole week as we were just catching the tail end of a front.  Not a good start to the trip.  We got out on the water and explored some new areas, poling what seemed to be some sexy water but didn’t come across a single fish.  Just an anomaly I was sure.  This is Louisiana, this never happens.  The good news was that Boutros had is 4Runner fixed and was headed over to meet us in the evening around the same time as the rest of the crew.  My dad, Bill, and Dave showed up and we immediately began indulging in some good eats from Don’s specialty meats and Hebert’s that we had brought over with us.  Tomorrow would be a different day.  With bellies full of boudin, chicken diablos, and cracklins amongst other things we crashed for the night.

We got up and got out on the water and decided to explore a new part of the bay.  I was fishing my dad and Dave and Boutros was fishing Jer and Bill.  It was cold and windy again and we got out and fished spot after spot, on the inside of the marsh, outside of the marsh, in the dead-end creeks that usually stay warmer, the outside creeks with deep water access and every variant between and the result was the same – almost no fish.  I didn’t even think this was possible.  Suddenly, I got nervous.  It was an unparalleled shit day on the water, a day that very rarely ever occurs in Louisiana.  I would never live this down with my old man.  He would heckle me until the end of time about our fishing trip where we didn’t see squat.  I could imagine it so clearly because it had been a reality in the past.  Noooooo!!!!  My dad, Steiner (don’t ask where that nickname came from or why it makes any sense), is probably the greatest hater of all time, especially when it comes to fishing.  This was potentially the worst thing that could ever happen for his outlook on future fishing trips.  We had to get on fish.  We got back to the house and cooked up the last of our Cajun meats from Don’s and Hebert’s, the only thing we could do to lift morale, and Boutros and I began scheming to formulate a new game plan for the following day.  We decided to fish more familiar waters closer to the parts of the bay we usually fished the next day.

We got up and trailered the skiffs to launch out of our usual spot and began running the marsh.  The weather had improved in terms of temperature although there was still a stiff wind present, but this day we actually had light.  We decided to switch it up and I was fishing Jer and Bill and Boutros was fishing my dad and Dave.  We got to the first spot and started poling and it wasn’t long before Jer had a 25lb slob on the line.  I texted Baron and my dad and Dave were doubled up with big drum.  Yes!!  At that point I knew it would be a good day.  A while later Boutros was texting me that Dave had just landed a red over 30lbs.

 

Stein and Dave doubling down on a pair of drum

Stein and Dave doubling down on a pair of drum

Dave's and our biggest red of the trip at just over 30lbs

Dave’s and our biggest red of the trip at just over 30lbs

Jer can catch em, just don't ask him to hold em for a picture

Jer can catch em, just don’t ask him to hold em for a picture

Bill and Jer were getting shot after shot and I was so happy to know that I was able to share the Louisiana I came to know and love with my family.  I don’t know what the final tally was in terms of fish caught, but I do know that it was a great day.  We even kept a few slot reds and a sheepshead to throw on the grill that night.  That plus 30lbs of crawfish made for the perfect post-fish smashing meal to cap off the day.

A nice Cajun permit and Billy Z's first saltwater fish on fly

A nice Cajun permit and Billy Z’s first saltwater fish on fly

 

Boutros couldn't be stopped for a picture

Boutros couldn’t be stopped for a picture

We got up for day 3 to Bill cooking up some awesome eats to start the day again.  Biscuits, gravy and eggs.  Definitely much more satisfying than my usual cup of coffee.  We trailered the skiffs down to the spot and launched again.  We switched again and I was fishing my dad and Dave.  The fog was so thick that I could barely see 20-30ft in front of the skiff.  I was so happy I had taken the time to sort out my electrical issues and get the GPS working (not all of them, because now my jackplate was messed up… always something, right?).  It’s kind of a crazy run through the marsh when you can’t see anything ahead of you.  There are countless pieces of oilfield trash, old pylons, wellheads, production platforms, etc scattered throughout the marsh.  We made it out without encountering any of those hazards and quickly got to work.  The fog began burning off and we were slaying fish again.  Dave had an early flight out so we had to get off the water early for Steiner to run him up to the airport.  We caught some good fish early on with Dave landing a good, 24lb redfish right off the bat.  We got a few smaller fish and my old man was putting a hurting on the drum again.  It was about time we needed to call it a day and Dave took a cast at one final fish, a big black drum.  He hooked up and was fighting that fish and I spotted another nice redfish at 5 o’clock behind the skiff.  I called out for Steiner to make the shot but he didn’t see the fish and the cast was off the mark.  The fish slipped away and then barely came into view.  I grabbed the spinning rod from Steiner and fired a shot out at the fish.  It began attacking the DOA shrimp and charging towards the skiff.  I teased the DOA shrimp away from the fish and then made another cast at the fish, with it now closer at maybe 20ft from the boat and it came almost all the way out of the water to gulp this shrimp and I handed the rod off to Steiner.  Game on!  We finished with a solid double header for the day.

A hell of a way to end the day

A hell of a way to end the day

Dave getting it done back in a shallow pond

At this point morale had changed 180 degrees since the first day.  I think I heard the words “best fishing trip ever” floating around amidst the margaritas, beer, and crawfish and we were all feeling great, but there was one last task to accomplish.  We had a half day to fish and Steiner wanted to put a fish on the fly rod.  We got out on the water with Jer and Steiner fishing off of my skiff and Bill with Boutros.  We ran the boat up to the marsh and gave Stein a quick crash course in fly casting.  Let’s just say if we had a longer rod, we’d have had a longer cast to work with.  However, seeing that we had a 9ft rod it was apparent we’d have about a 9ft cast to work with, but in Louisiana sometimes that can be about 5ft too much, so we were still in the game.  We got started and poled around an area with a little bit of a deeper edge that I had been wanting to work and immediately started seeing very large fish.  Unfortunately, the 9ft cast wasn’t doing the trick as we were seeing fish 20-30ft away.  We tried for a while but the floating fish were tough for a first time fly caster.  With the tide now up we could get into the skinny ponds where fish would be sitting still and we could sneak up close, so we picked up and made a move.  We found fish, which all seemingly were about 10ft away.  Damn this 9ft rod!  Haha.  I think at this point Jer was hiding his face where he couldn’t watch anymore.  Then a tailing sheepshead appeared 9ft off of the bow.  Ok, Steiner 11 o’clock! Steiner made a long, 9ft cast and the fish came with its mouth wide open, but oh no! Steiner! No, not the trout set!  Let him eat! Gone. Damn.  I remember when I was a kid Steiner got me this little fish game with a magnet for bait on a line, which you had to drop into the mouths of fish (also magnetized) that were opening and closing their mouths in order to catch them.  Twenty five years later, this was exactly the game we were playing.  Ok, Steiner next time rod tip down and you can get 1 to 2 ticks/strips before you run out of line to work with.  A few minutes later along came another redfish.  Ok Steiner, fish at 10 o’clock.  Rod tip down! No! That damn fish game had left a lasting impression on him again.  Rod tip up, trout set, and right out of the mouth came the fly.  So close.  We were out of time but oh well.  Steiner had come so close that it was hurting him, which in itself is a huge testament to how absorbed he had gotten into the game and what a success the trip was.  He may have not caught his fish on the fly, but to me the objective had been fully accomplished.  I had brought Steiner and Bill into the Louisiana marsh and they had melted into their surroundings, totally immersed in the hunt and the wildlife around them.  Steiner now understood, he told me, that I had been doing something much more than sitting somewhere on my skiff with a beer in hand and line in the water.  At that point I knew he finally understood what this game really means to me and the fact that we now shared it and enjoyed it together gave it that much more depth.

Calling it a day

Calling it a day

 

Skiff Rejuvenation Project

SWAMPING HDR

My skiff, a 1999 Action Craft 1620se is now 16 years old. I bought it from Capt. Dave Saddler back in 2004 as he upgraded to an 18ft Maverick to accommodate an occasional third angler and to take the poundings Biscayne Bay can dish out with comfort. It’s been a great boat over the years, it fishes shallow enough for most of what I like to do and handles the rough stuff ok. It doesn’t make a great Flamingo boat for the flats out front per say, but thats what friends are for. And the 2+ hour haul down there doesn’t happen as much as it used to anyway. The boat is in need of some serious tlc, so I’ll throw some photos up as I go to see how we progress. My buddy Dave Ray has been a workhorse during this, and I can’t thank him enough. We began a couple weeks ago, by sanding the entire hull with 800 then 1000 grit paper, grinding out layers of oxidation, mangrove barnacle grinds, and bridge fender gouges. We followed that up with a good compounding and polish/wax.

This project began after discussing an issue thats been happening for awhile now, over rum, which is the deterioration of gel-coat between the non-skid and my desire to get rid of the mechanical steering in favor of hydraulic. For a good portion of its existence, the skiff has been kept uncovered and outdoors, so by no means do I blame the builder for the gel-coat issues. In fact, for the beating this boat has taken over the years, it’s in great shape.  But the outdoor storage has led to serious oxidation of the whole boat, rendering it a chalky ghost of what it used to be, aesthetically anyway. Dave spoke with a good friend of his in the boat biz, and he offered to help with the project. So now instead of just a major detail, we are talking about sanding out the entire non-skid out of the boat, both the deck and cockpit and having a new non-skid sprayed in. I’m on edge over this not only for the amount of work/time its gonna take in prepping, but how it’s actually going to be when done. And, I’ve never done anything like this before, and it’s tarpon season.  Now.

Keep Rollin

As you can see on the gunnels, the black is where gel coat is missing between the non skid.

After sanding and some buffing were complete, we pulled the old steering system out. Due to the layout of the stern, the outboard would have to be lifted to remove the cable without cutting, so, we cut it. The Dremel killed it. The install of the hydraulic was pretty easy, but it did take some time. After the system was filled and bled, we realized the small note in the directions about mounting the helm port side lines to the engine starboard side line. We didn’t do that. And why the F would you design it that way, and not just change the letters under the helm to reflect which side the hose mounts to? We ran out of daylight, but got a lot done.

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With rain the next day, we took a ride up to Ft. Pierce to check out Marine Connection, and what we could find for the project, cause now I guess were upgrading everything? Found some good deals. New hatch locks, new helm switches, Yamaha Outboard Paint, some odds n ends all at a really good price (really, really good).

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Its been a couple weeks in between time spent on the boat. Since then, I’ve picked up a couple tachs on ebay, the first having to be returned because of a cut wire. The second was a perfect match to what is already in the skiff, and cosmetically it looked perfect (and got it cheap). After install, we were bummed to see how faint the display was. The seller has been really cool, and told me to keep it mounted, and when they got another in they would trade me back out. I’ll take that.

Getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. Prior to the tach install, we removed everything except the Remote Control from the helm. Dave got to sanding with 1000 grit on the chalked out console. I added two more coats of wax to the sides of the skiff, and got the drill going with the decal eraser and began to grind off the Yamaha logos from the outboard.

We found wires under the console that were disconnected from their gauges. I had my remote control replaced last year, and apparently they didn’t do the greatest job of cleaning up and securing the wiring nice and neat again. It was a mess, not as bad as in the photo above, thats after we cut tie wraps off, but still a mess. The console came out so good. Dave buffed it out as I was grinding decals, I could see him grinning in pleasure with his work. We’re gonna strip the cowling and a good portion of the outboard and repaint soon, with a friend of mine who owns Shadow Graphics to re-do the decals.

Dave had picked up some starboard, and created a ‘puck’ to go between the console and the new helm. This would conceal a couple old holes from the previous helm, and allow us to caulk both the puck and the helm to keep some salt out. We also fabricated a piece to mount to the top of the console, where we would thru-bolt the GPS and compass. This was a nice riser as well, since the new helm is at least an inch or two bigger than the previous.

The nomenclature plate as well as the switch plate/switches were all just as sun beaten and shot cosmetically. We removed all the switches (which has created some electrical fun), and sanded out the acrylic plate until surprisingly enough, it came clear. Dave put a coat of black paint on the back of it, and it looks brand new. That’s where we are at for now, until tomorrow morning when we get back after it, and finish a few more things. Thanks for reading, I’ll update more as we finish.

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Back in the Game

I know I wrote my last post under the premise that once it was completed, I actually had some good stuff to share, then proceeded to write nothing. But, I actually do have two other adventures that I’ve been meaning to put on paper. Both from out West – one fishing, one hunting.

After leaving my job in July, Samantha and I took August to bounce out to Alaska and see why all these educational channel reality TV shows have been popping up. (Side note: I’m guilty of liking pretty much all of them – Building Alaska on DIY Network being my latest jam.) However, we were hoping to do that in a place where we could lose a sense of what reality actually held (for me anyway). To that end, we decided to head straight to the Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park to target some fatty rainbows at the tail end of the sockeye run. Svintos and Little Miss Svinny (hehe) showed me pictures from their own Brooks trip the prior summer and I’d been jealous ever since. Although Brooks is probably not known for its seclusion from people, once the salmon run has slowed, the bear congregation largely subsides, and that generally causes the human guests to dwindle as well.

After our flight from Anchorage to King Salmon, we jumped a little float plane out to Brooks. High winds forced us to land on the Upper Brooks Lake, rather than the typical Lower Brooks Lake, giving us a quick glimpse of the headwaters we’d be fishing before heading down to camp (located on Lowers Brooks Lake).

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Beautiful day for flying

When we arrived the ranger checking in the day’s new park guests (8 of us) announced to everyone that there had not been a bear seen at Brooks Falls or around camp in 7 days. While it felt like someone had let the air out of the rest of the room, Manth and I were still stoked. Less fishing pressure for us.

Once we’d received our mandatory Bear Encounter Training, we got ourselves settled in.

Not a bad front door view

Not a bad front door view

After making our collective appetites’ presence felt at the lodge’s dinner buffet, we decided to take advantage of the long Alaskan day to do some recon. I checked in with the lodge’s outfitter to see if he had any intel – he wasn’t particularly helpful but said the guides had mostly been throwing streamers. No egg patterns yet. Meh. We decided to check out the Brooks River ourselves and even jaunted over to see the famed Brooks Falls, although there were no other guests (bear or human) present. We game planned to get to bed, destroy the breakfast buffet, rent some waders, then teach Manth how to fly fish (i.e., unleash the beast).

With bellies uncomfortably full and waders in hand, we got to the top of the river without another angler in sight. I was pumped – we’d have all this beautiful trout water to our own. I made the ill-advised decision to scope out potential starting points before tying anything on. Convinced that I’d found the money spot, I sat down on a log 25 yards away but by the time I had my fly box out, there was already another group (led by a fly-in guide) in my prized spot. It gave me a greater appreciation for how the bear world handles these situations (Death! Death! Death!).

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It was a sick log though

I quickly got flies tied on and hopped in the mix. It was a few minutes before I got to fish my spot but Manth felt understandably uncomfortable learning to throw a fly amongst the crowd. After changing around my fly a few times, I landed a few little rainbows and was just happy to be on the board. At that point, I had gotten my eyes trained to identifying the trout versus the various colored spawning salmon still lurking around. I spotted what, at the time, I thought was a big rainbow laid up on a green algal bed and I started throwing at him. I switched over to a streamer based on the outfitters intel and placed it perfectly in the fish’s field of vision. Not interested. I fed him again and saw him strike at it but no hook up. I sat there and threw everything I had at this same fish for another solid 30 minutes. In hindsight, I should have moved on but for whatever reason I couldn’t let that fish go. FINALLY, he took my offering and I landed my first satisfying-sized Alaskan rainbow.

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Having spent most of my trout fishing time in NC, I thought this was a decent fish

Maybe I have Dikembe Mutombo hands…

However, in the process, I had completely exhausted Manth’s patience as she sat on the bank in her waders, watching me hopelessly throw at this fish. Fortunately, I find patience and stomach space are directly proportional to one another (when one is full, the other is too) so I offered up an early lunch before heading back out to try her luck. After lunch, we decided to start at the opposite end of Brooks River, which is the end closer to camp, to avoid the upper river anglers. There, we started Manth on the arduous, frustrating process of learning to cast. She actually picked it up pretty quickly so we both started working the banks.

As we moved up the river, we became focused on a number of massive rainbows hanging in deeper pools along the far bank. Almost without realizing, two anglers moved quickly from upstream and also began throwing at these fish. Their guide was directing the action and telling them what to do. Manth was livid and couldn’t figure out what was going on. I understood the situation but I was also a little peeved. When the angler hooked a big rainbow that Manth had had her eye on, which then proceeded to literally run between her feet, she stormed passed the angler, while he giggled out his half apology. She took a few minutes to let off steam, then announced she was going to practice her cast upstream and away from these clowns… me included. I tried to keep her in my periphery, but she moved upstream faster than I and soon was out of eyesight and around a bend about 150 yards away. After a couple minutes of not being able to see her, I got uneasy with the thought of leaving her alone in the heart of bear country. At almost that exact moment, I saw her come running, or as close as one can get to running in knee-deep water, back into view. My first thought was that the Bear Training had been a total failure on us, but then I noticed she looked like she was trailing an outrigger on one side.

I high stepped my way up the river to meet her and, as we closed the gap, I could see what was causing the bend in her rod. It was a big bull dolly varden.

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In the infamous words of Loblaw…

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“FIRST FISH!”

Once she’d caught her breath, she told me that she was just practicing her cast in some rapids below the falls when all of a sudden she felt something at the end of her line. It took a minute to register that it was a fish and her initial joy turned to panic as she realized my quick tutorial hadn’t yet covered this step. Anyway, she was stoked about that fish and I honestly think it entirely redeemed fly fishing for her. Hoping to end on a high note and keep that fresh in her mind, we decided to call it a day and hit the dinner buffet.

After dinner, we hung around to have a couple drinks and play some Yahtzee (aka, the Game of Kings) at the lodge. Completely by luck, the only bear of our trip decided to stroll by the lodge and try his hand at fishing during that same period. Along with the dozen other guests hanging around the lodge, we  ran out to catch a glimpse (and some pictures) of the activity. When in Rome…

Sight fishing...

Sight fishing done the local way

The next morning we opted for a long hike to check out the “high country” before getting back on the river.

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Obligatory gluttonous lunch concluded, I ran over to the small shop on-premise to check out their fly selection. Since watching Eastern Rises years ago, I’d always wanted to “skate” mouse patterns to big rising rainbows. The shop had some large, pink mouse-ish patterns, so I had to give them a shot. As if to encourage me further, I heard a guy saying that mouse patterns never work. It was the same guy who told me to fish streamers. Either he isn’t doing it right, or he was trying not to let the secret out…

A slightly different, “Oh shit,” face than the one I had on later that day…

A slightly different, “Oh shit,” face than the one I would have on later that day…

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Mutombo. Hands.

I tied the same fly on for Manth and let her loose with the secret. A couple minutes later, she hooked up. The fish ran hard a couple times and we both held our breath the entire time hoping she wouldn’t lose that fish…

And (luckily) my knot didn’t pull either

Love at first sight…

Little did I know that it would give her bragging rights over me for the remainder of the trip (and beyond).

The one that didn't get away

Of all times for my knot to actually hold, am I right?

We didn’t have anything to measure with though, so I’m still calling it inconclusive. Anyhow, no longer satisfied with catching mediocre rainbows, we threw the mouse pattern for large trout the remainder of the evening.

Stoked about our success, we headed back out after dinner and figured we could get ~3 hours in before “sunset”. Over the next few hours, a few hookups but no landed fish only increased my resolve.

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My dream of fishing a mouse pattern under the overgrowth: fulfilled

Stupidly, I hadn’t been watching the clock closely as Manth pointed out it was almost 9:45. I realized we were on an unknown stretch of water that I estimated was halfway between the Upper Lake and the Falls. It would have taken us a long time to back track upstream and I certainly didn’t want to do it in the dark. I thought there must be a trail to bypass the Falls so we headed downstream.

After a couple belly button-high pools, I made the call to hoof it back on land and risk the bear factor over the swimming (at best) factor. At this point, it was about 10:15 and we were quickly losing light. The trail (maybe game, maybe human, maybe both) we were hiking started to part from the river and I was growing increasingly worried. I knew the general direction we had to push in order to hit a road, but I also was not excited to go traipsing through any pockets that didn’t receive frequent human traffic in this area. We stayed on the trail and saw the Falls viewing platform about 50 yards away. While that was somewhat relieving, there was still head-high grass and a minefield of bear wallows between us and that platform.

Singing as loudly and menacingly as I could, we started across the tall grass. I’m pretty sure I was either singing something from Aladdin (the scariest Disney cartoon I can think of) or the Thunder Song from Ted. Not being able to see where I was going, I accidentally stepped directly into a huge wallow and onto a long, dead branch at its edge. The combination of the wallow and the branch rustling the grass around me caused me to nearly shit myself, but I quickly gathered what was left of my composure and continued on… “Prince Ali, glorious he, Ali Ababwa!” At last, with waders wet from what I hoped was just swass, we got to the platform. Man, there’s no better feeling than the moment when you finally get to laugh about a situation that previously has your butt cheeks perma-clenched, ya know?

On the darkish walk back (~11:00), we decided to just fish the lower section of the river in the morning before flying out of camp. The next morning I landed one more decent rainbow, albeit not as large as Manth’s and that was it. All in all, we had a great time. Most importantly, we headed out of camp with a newly minted fly fisher(wo)man. From there, we went down to SE Alaska to kayak, camp and enjoy the beautiful Alaska summer for another 4-5 days before returning east.

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Back to watching shows about Alaska