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Learning to Pass

The crosshairs were steady on the vitals of the mature buck. He was dead, if I pulled the trigger. But I didn’t, I couldn’t. Something in my stopped my killer instinct, I lowered my gun, looked to my right and smiled. My son was taking aim, trying to steady his breathing enough to fire off his shooting stick. It was a farther shot than he has ever taken before, I was nearly certain he would have trouble with it. But I watched – heart filled with hope and anticipation.
BAM! The crack of a .243 rang out over the rim-rock. A solid miss. BAM! Another miss, I watch as Noah’s chest pounded, heaving with each breath. I pulled up again on the buck, crosshairs finding fur, but I lowered my gun quickly. The buck slipped into the brush, gone forever.
In past years I might not have let that happen. A legal buck would have simply died, or at least been shot at. With a small inspection of my horn collection it is easy to see that I do not discriminate. As one buddy put it to me “I have yet to find a good recipe for horns.” Legal is dead, simple as that.
But this year I have passed three times on perfectly legal bucks.
My motivation for not shooting this year is twofold. First, I really want a whitetail deer. All the bucks I have passed on were mule deer. I have never shot a whitetail in my life; it feels like this is a problem that needs rectified. I can’t shoot a whitetail with a punched muledeer tag.
The second reason for passing this year is that I really don’t want to shoot more than my family can eat. Both Noah and I have cow elk tags, each cow being ample meat for my family for about a year. Add a deer, or two, and an antelope and my freezer will be fuller than it needs to be. We simply do not need to kill that much food. We would be killing to kill, not killing to eat. I have an intrinsic problem with that.
But I might just be putting the cart before the deer. I am worried about having too much meat before I, or Noah, have even killed anything. It is quite possible the only shot opportunities either of us would get this season have already passed. Maybe I have missed my chance? I might not see another game animal all year long. Who knows?
Even if neither Noah nor I connect on a deer or an elk this year, I will feel better knowing I did what I thought was right by the animals. I wasn’t just killing to kill. Even if my freezer goes a little light this year.

Noah in the Sage

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Grilled Venison Salad

The dirt two track waDad Looking For Deers dusty and headed southeast toward a rock out-cropping known as the Rooster Comb. Under the shade of a few junipers and desert sage was the flicker of ears. Dad and I froze, we had been gabbing it up for most of the walk and now were busted. This was an unexpected place to find a group of four feeding does in the middle of the day, but hunting is all about broken expectations.

The does pulled the classic mule deer move – if I don’t move they won’t see me. Well, it wasn’t working out for them. We both nocked arrows and began to position ourselves for shots. Keeping one eye on the deer and the other on the dusty road, I placed each step carefully as to limit sound and to keep the deer as calm as possible. Dad found a shot before I did, I watched him pull back on a large doe. With a quick aim he let fly.

An audible crack came after the shot. I wasn’t sure if it was deer bone or stick. I was focused on my animals. A yearling and a doe had started to circle back on our position. I shadowed them through the head tall sage. The deer finally took note of me and stopped – they were at 12 yards.

I pulled up my longbow looking for a shot. But all they deer gave me were buts and heads. They were pulling the “looking over the back” move that so many archers hate. I momentarily considered a Texas Heart Shot on the big doe, wondering just how far my arrow would travel. Hunting ethics took over, a blessing from my father and other hunting role models in my life. I didn’t shoot, but my hands were shaking like a 13 year old boy at a Jr. High dance, just hoping and waiting for things to work out in my favor.

I let my bow down and watched as the deer wandered out to 35 yards before turning broadside. At that range, I just stood and admired the pair. My effective range is 25 yards. Then the deer simply vanished into the cover.

My dad had cleanly killed a small juniper with his arrow. I found him, Leatherman in hand, digging out his broad head from the tree, his wooden arrow shaft in several sections on the ground. The cracking noise was a broken arrow shaft, apparently. We laughed, sat down in the shade and began to glass the hill over for more deer.

A few draws over my older brother had arrowed a little forked horn buck and was making his way back to camp. His 6 year old daughter had spotted the deer off the trail and selected the one for my brother to shoot. “That one Daddy!” she whispered. We had the deer tracked, gutted and hung in an hour.

That archery season I never flung an arrow. But I still feel successful.

Archery hunting feeds the soul, not necessarily the stomach. Each year archery season tunes me back into the inner workings of terrestrial nature. I get the hunters eye that I lost, often because of a fishing line, in full force. While archery season is almost never successful (I can only count 3 wild pigs and a few rabbits over the course of 20 years) often my best campfire stories come from ones that got away while I had my bow in hand.

I have shot only three arrows at deer in my adult life. All have been clean misses, and in my world that is as good as a clean hit. My shots provided a little education for a small buck and a few does.

When riffle season finally arrives I feel like a superhero. I have an unfathomable amount of power and effective range at my control. Finally, deer are within my reach. Sure, my selections and opportunities are much more limited (bucks only, normally). But I can shoot! Out to several hundred yards! The feeling of supremacy is overwhelming. But the thrill of stalking game is lessend – the difference between getting within 20 yards and 200 yards is huge.

In some ways archery season more natural and spiritual hunting, while riffle season is more about meat collection.

Field Care for Archery Season

More important than shooting during archery season is what you do after the shot. September is still a warm month for the Northwest, averaging about 76 degrees for a daytime high. The low is an average of 49 degrees. Above about 55 degrees meat is no longer being aged, it is rotting. (I have hunted opening day for mule deer with a daytime high of 101 degrees)

Several precautions should be taken to help stop rot. The first one is ethics – don’t shoot unless you are certain of a clean kill. Now I know that shit happens and bad shots happen. Choose carefully and find the deer quickly after the shot, if possible. The longer an animal has its guts on the inside of it the more likely it is to turn bad. Remember that temperature is the issue – waiting the animal out is perfectly fine if it is cold out! But in the summer archery season it is just a bad idea to try and find the animal “in the morning”.

Even after a quick recovery getting the meat cool is vital. Skin and gut the animal immediately. Get the meat onto ice if possible. If not on ice then get it to the coldest place you can manage. Down by a creek, in the shade or even in a cave if possible. Don’t stay an extra day in camp and skip out on the ice, get the meat cold then kick back and drink a brew around the fire.

Citric acid, the stuff you use for canning tomatoes, will help prevent rot. Basically the citric acid is changing the pH of the outside of the meat, making it less hospitable for bacterial growth. I have only used this one time on a backcountry hunt, it seemed to help but I made sure to cut away all acid treated meat before butchering. I much prefer to get meat cold.

The Food –

Pan Roasted Venison Steak with Watermelon, Corn and Zucchini Salad and Brown Butter Sage Vinaigrette

So the crazy part about September archery season is that is it still summer! Hunting is done while the garden is still growing like crazy. Tomatoes, watermelon and corn are all in large supply. Like they say “if it grows together is goes together.” That same principle applies for hunting and harvesting of produce.

This recipe uses fall flavors on summer ingredients, to a surprising affect in my opinion. Butter and sage, staples for butternut squash and halibut are added to watermelon and zucchini. It is a combination of sweet and savory that works great. Feel free to kick it up a notch with a little red chili flake if desired. Then you have the trifecta of flavor – sweet, heat and savory.

Brown Butter and Sage Vinaigrettevenison salad

¼ Cup Unsalted Butter

20 sage leaves

1 ea Garlic Clove, crushed

¼ cup balsamic Vinegar

½ cup Canola Oil

¼ cup Parmesan Cheese, Shredded

Salt and Pepper

Add the cold butter to a medium sized saute pan. Heat pan on medium until all the butter is melted. Add the sage and turn heat to medium high, the pan will spit a little oil out on you. Be careful.

Wait and watch the butter, it should be turning brown in about a minute. Add the crushed garlic when the butter is brown in color and has a nutty smell. Next add the balsamic and the canola oil to the hot pan. This will cause some aggressive boiling, do NOT inhale the fumes. It will be a vinegar bomb like none other. Next add the parmesan cheese to the pan, then add all to a blender and puree until smooth. About 1 minute. Season and reserve but do not chill

The Meat and Veg

2 each large Venison Steaks, about 8oz each

Salt and Pepper

1 Tablespoon Butter

1 small zucchini, cut into large chunks

1.5 cups cubed watermelon

1 ear of corn, removed from cob

2 cups Lambs Quarter, or Spinach

Rinse and wipe out the same medium pan you made the brown butter dressing in. Season the venison steaks with salt and pepper. Add the butter to the pan and return to medium heat. When butter is melted but not yet brown add the steaks to the pan. Cook until dark brown on one side, then flip over and cook until blood begins to rise to the surface of the steak. This should be about medium rare.

Remove the meat from the pan and add the zucchini chunks. Cook until golden on one side, flip and add the watermelon and corn.

While those are cooking add the lambs quarter or spinach to a medium salad bowl. Add 3 tablespoons brown butter sage dressing. Cook the watermelon and corn for one more minute and then add to the mixing bowl. Toss all the vegetables.

Next slice the steak. Pile the salad and gently dump onto a plate. Place the sliced steak on the top. Eat and enjoy!

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What is Wild?

Driving back to work with a friend in the car I made an impulsive stop. It was one of those fancy neighborhood parks in Boise with a sign saying “for subdivision residents only”. But this spot had a grip-shit of blackberries that needed picked. A nice side hill location with irrigation water to keep the berries juicy in arid Idaho. I could easily reach berries without messing up my pants, the sure-fire sign that no one picks this patch.

We picked a pint in about 10 minutes and then left back to work. Back in the car my friend exclaimed “Man, that was wild!”

I smiled wide at the statement, on the inside I cringed a little. When did picking berries become a “wild” experience? Make me ponder just how far our food system has taken us.

It is my job to teach others that what is now wild was not always wild. Berry patches used to be guarded secrets among friends and family. Now they sit, unpicked, surrounded by well-to-dos and their children. Until some crazy Chef in the Suburb comes rolling in…

I will do my best to change this, one co-worker, one child, one subdivision at a time.

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How Not to Catch Surf Perch

I knew, somewhere in my mind, that I really should not be fishing right now. The wind was blowing the snow into drifts, then the drifts were being covered with sand and then snow, sand, snow. Creating this mesmerizing layer cake pattern as I punched holes into the drifts with my hip-wader boots. The slowly receding tide was freezing as it rolled out, the breaking ice caused crunching noises as I walked. But, I do not make it to the coast often, so I needed to take advantage of this surf perch fishing opportunity.

Why? Because I have never caught one. Like ever. Seriously, never. Embarrassing, right?Bait/Dinner

This boney little fish has become my nemesis in the Pacific Ocean. I wish it was a white whale, or a blue marlin or even a sail fish in Cabo San Lucas. But no, it’s a perch…but it’s not for a lack of trying.

Frankly, I am at a loss at why I cannot seem to land this bluegill of the sea. I watch people catch five gallon buckets full, tossing out little hunks of clam and sand shrimp that look no different from my bait. Fishing is one of my strong points as an outdoorsman; I know when to set the hook.

I have fished for surf perch during low tide, high tide, slack tide, hot weather, snow storms and rain storms. The one saving grace about my perch deficit is that I It seems that I can catch everything but surf perch. To date I have caught off the coast of Central Oregon and Northern California the following species – bream, grouper, mackerel, rockfish (like 10 types), lingcod, Dungeness crab, red crab, greenling and one ugly SOB I could not identify so I tossed it back.

Almost all of these species are great eating. The only one that is questionable is mackerel, this is a fishy-fish. Some say that all mackerel is good for is cat food. I disagree; it also makes wonderful bait and exceptional sushi.

Over the years of not catching surf perch I have come up with a 3 golden rules, if I follow these rules (I nearly compulsively do) I can almost guarantee myself a deficit of surf perch.

Rule #1 – Fish Near the Rocks

Being an inland fisherman I have a habit of looking for structure when I fish. The idea of simply casting off the sand out into the surf is hard for me to swallow. I assume that fish want something to hide behind or near or whatever. Just like my lake fish and river trout.

But, as I have learned, surf perch have no fascination with this structure. They instead live in that little trough that is formed by the waves digging a small hole in the sandy bottom. This trough stirs up all sorts of critters and sends them floating into the deep blue sea. The surf perch eat the little crabs and clams that the ocean stirs up. For a fisherman then the goal, or so I am told, is to cast a hunk of meat into the trough and hope that a perch strikes.

If you want to pretend to be perch fishing than you should fish near rock out cropping’s or off jetties. What I do is cast out into the surf, simply guessing where the trough is, and with every intention that a surf perch will bite. Then I slowly retrieve my line towards the rocks. I feel more comfortable this way, even if it is totally wrong. Fishing this way and will almost certainly land you something other than a perch.

Rule #2 – Don’t Poke Pole

In a fit of boredom during low tide I started dropping my bait into deep looking holes in the Newport Jetty. Craziest part…I caught a bunch of fish. Only later did I find out that this is a honest to goodness technique, a less refined version at least, of “poke-polling”. The basics of this fishing method are simple – shove bait into the face of an otherwise unbothered fish. The real key to success is constant movement and hole selection. Basically if something doesn’t bite in the first few seconds switch locations. Just keep bumping down the jetty or rocks looking for a fish to bite. One morning I caught 7 in under an hour. I tossed all but one back but it was a great way to kill a little time wishing a perch would bite.

For better success only drop the bait into deep holes, specifically ones where the bottom cannot be seen. As far as set up is concerned I use the typical surf perch rig, drop shot with two hooks coming off the main line. I use clam, squid, shrimp or artificial night crawler. At the Newport Jetty the most common species caught poke polling will be greenling. I hear that along the coast of northern California you catch monkey faced eels. Not bad options when the Surf Perch refuse to bite.

Rule #3 – Don’t Judge the Man Fishing a Bobber

Look, bobbers and jigs work. Just not on surf perch. What I do is set up a ½ ounce head on one of those big red bobbers from Kmart, maybe about 4 feet of line between the two. Then I’ll cast along the rocks and slowly retrieve. I have nailed the heck out of some rockfish this way before. I have never heard of a surf perch caught in this fashion.

A bobber and a sabiki rig (one of those multiple hook jig contraptions) cast into the surf is a total and complete loss. Never ever do that – you end up with a ball of string and hooks. I have caught a whole bunch of bream with a sabiki and a bobber along the rocks, however.

How to Cook Bait

Some days you win big fishing, some days you do not. This recipe is for a day when you are forced to eat what most others call bait. It’s not halibut, salmon or lingcod – but this recipe will give you crispy skinned fish with great garlic and mustard flavors.

The Bait

8 ea small “Bream” or other bait fish, cleaned and descaled

¼ cup canola oil

1 cup flour

1 tablespoon mustard seed powder

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper, ground

1 tablespoon garlic powderGreens and Fish

In a medium sized cast iron skillet (they hold heat better, but are not absolutely critical) add the oil and turn to “medium” heat. The goal is to get to about 350 degrees. Turn on the oven to “warm” or the lowest setting possible.

To check the temperature of the oil on the stove simply drop small clumps of batter into the oil filled pan. When the batter bubbles quickly and then floats the oil is close to the correct temperature. If the small scrap of batter browns or burns quickly than the oil is too hot.

Combine flour and all spices in a bowl. Wet the fish slightly and then dredge in flour. Wet again and re-dredge. This double batter will stick better than a single layer. Double batter all fish and reserve on a slightly flowered cookie sheet.

Fry the fish for 3-4 minutes on each side, or until the fish turns golden brown and delicious (GB&D). Transfer the cooked fish onto paper towel lined cookie sheet in the warmed oven.

The Green Stuff

To compensate for the fried food I always like a little sautéed super-food as accompaniment. Oh, and mustard greens taste great too.

1 tablespoon butter

1# Mustard Greens

4 cloves Garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon Sriracha

Salt and Pepper

In a medium sauté pan add the butter melt on medium heat. Next add the mustard greens and garlic cloves. Cook 2-3 minutes until wilted and tender. Taste – if to bitter add the sugar. If it has no flavor then add the Sriracha. Mustard greens vary from field to field and day to day on the spiciness level. Either way, season with salt and pepper.

Serve the greens over the top of the fried fish.

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Alaska Caribou Photos

As the days grow shorter and my memory fades I am posting this photo blog about caribou hunting in Alaska. These photos are the ones that bring me back. Back to the soggy ground, back to the sore back, back to the feeling of invincibility. The hunt was unguided, DIY caribou 2500 miles from my home. I am proud of what we did, it was truly grand. I’d do it again any day, not sure the folks who went with me would.

I type this eating sushi at the San Francisco airport, wanting nothing more than to be home. But travel is necessary for work. It is a short life we all have, I realize that more and more each year. Kids are born and the generation above me ages. Shit happens and cancer sucks.

Next time I’m in Alaska, I hope to have my son with me. It will make one of those unforgettable family moments…much like the one I just had with my father.

 

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