Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pop, and Learning to Hunt and Fish

I remember…
                It was early.  The stars were still blazing in the frozen sky as we crossed the barbed-wire fence and started into the woods on a long-unused road bed around the side of the mountain.  The deep grass was white with a heavy frost that gave the impression of a light snowfall instead.  It was cold.  To my ten-year old body the cold was a probing blade seeking gaps in my none-too-efficient armor which consisted of an old pair of Texas Steer work boots from Kmart with all the socks I could fit in them, long johns and denim pants topped off with an undershirt, a long sleeved pull-over, a flannel shirt and a coat.  My head was capped with a knit cap, primarily called a toboggan in the Western end of North Carolina. 
I wasn't worried about the cold at this moment; I had one thing on my mind, and that was   squirrels.  The mountains around Maggie Valley, North Carolina are full of them and this was the first day of hunting season.  And my dad, whom we have always called Pop, was taking me and my brother Roy hunting.  It would be the first of many trips into those woods learning the ins and outs and ups and downs of squirrel hunting.  We made it a tradition and we almost never missed first day until my brother and I each joined the military and could no longer make it. 
Pop planted the seed…
Pop got us our first guns.  My first was a daisy BB gun and my brother got a Crossman air rifle.  Later we graduated to our first shotguns; a .410 for me and a 20 gauge single shot for Roy.  We were in hunting heaven.  He taught us gun safety early and often, and we learned to respect firearms.  We had no question what they could do; the evidence was vividly displayed in our first squirrels and doves.  Young people who actually learn to handle real guns don’t have a problem with treating them with the respect they are due.
…back to the hunt…
We eased quietly around the dark mountain in the graying dawn and up to a ridge that runs out from the side of the mountain, where he turned us up and back into a large stand of old-growth hickory trees.  The mountains across the valley were turning grey by now and Pop picked us out two nice spots and told us to watch the trees above as the morning progressed that the squirrels loved the hickory nuts and would be in for some breakfast.  He was going to circle below and get some at another spot, just down the mountain from us.  Pop had taken us with him hunting near home along the Catawba River many times before we got old enough to carry a gun so we were safe. It never occurred to us that we could be otherwise, besides, looking back, I realize that he needed to kill his limit, if possible, to help feed our family of six, at the time.  Money was tight and squirrels were good food for the cost of gas and a few shells. 
Roy and I sat and waited while he eased off the ridge to circle the base of the mountain.  The cold came creeping and probing in short order.  It’s one thing to stay warm while you hike around and up a mountain.  It’s an entirely different story when you stop moving and your heart rate slows down.  My fingers and toes went numb first, and then I started shivering.  Then I couldn't sit still.  I wanted to move, which Roy tried to discourage at first, but he was in the same boat.  We were several yards apart watching trees in different directions, but close enough to whisper rather loudly to each other, which we did more than we should have.
The sun was behind the mountain and we were on the western slope.  We watched as the sun crept down the mountain across from us.  It looked so warm over there, and the ridge to either side of us was glowing with the sun peeping around the side of the mountain.  The tops of our hickory trees lit up brilliant yellow as the sun began to creep down them.  The leaves were still on and at the height of their autumn color explosion, a part of the tradition that over the years I began to love even more than the hunting.  Soon enough we decided the trees over there were just as likely to have squirrels as the ones we were watching, so we gave in and crept over where the sun was shining.  It was deliciously warm. 
Pop’s gun began to boom with a rhythmic regularity as he circled below.  We continued to see nothing.  Finally Roy spotted one in the trees to our right and he started trying to sneak up on it.  I don’t think he got the first one, or maybe even the second one, but I think he got one or two before we left that section of woods.
Pop came back and we hunted with him for a while. He showed us how to trick the squirrel into circling the tree by sending one ahead while the other waited behind and stood quiet and still.  When the lead guy went by, the squirrel would try to keep the tree between him and the hunter and would circle to where the second guy could get a shot.  By taking turns we could each get chances at several kills.   There were many other things we learned through the years of hunting that mountain with Pop.
…Pop shared his knowledge…
Pop seemed to know every tree and bush.  He knew what it was called, what the leaves look like, what it was good for, if anything.  He pointed out weeds and told us their names.  A bird or an animal would appear and he would identify it and tell us its habits.  We learned of sourwoods, dogwoods, maples, hickory, oak, and so on.  We learned what ragweed, milkweed, Indian paintbrush, goldenrods and black-eyed-susans were.  We saw wood hens, goldfinches, mountain bluebirds, crows, ravens, hawks, blue jays and doves.  On and on, Pop opened up the wild to us, and we made it our own. 
He taught us how to walk quietly in the woods, even in dry leaves.  I was never perfect, but always passable and before long I could creep up on a tree with a squirrel in it and for the most part not give myself away.  Stalking was something he was really good at, and he taught us the tricks.  Sometimes he would whisper and tell us what to do.  Sometimes a hand gesture or even a nod of his head would indicate what he wanted us to try to do.  Sometimes we failed miserably and sometimes we nailed our quarry.  Often, we didn't even realize we were learning something about the woods, but then years later I recall doing something and suddenly realizing I had learned that from Pop.   

Pop taught us to enjoy it…
Pop took his deer and squirrel hunting seriously.  I think he had to.  He had a family to feed, and had hunted growing up to help feed his brothers and sisters. But dove shooting and rabbit hunting was another matter.  We dove hunted on the same farm where we squirrel hunted, only lower on the mountain in the cow pastures.  There was a group of us that went year after year to the farm to shoot the sky full of holes trying to kill a few birds.  We were good friends and when good friends go hunting together, the good times roll.  The hills rang not only with the sounds of gunshots, which echoed and rolled down the long valley, but with the shouts and laughter of friends poking fun at each other and each other’s shooting. 
There were times we were laughing so hard we couldn't shoot.  There were times we couldn't believe the shot someone just made.  There were times the birds flew in, in numbers that seem unbelievable when I look back, and there were days we sat and watched the empty skies.  Not one of those days will be forgotten and not one of them was wasted. 
When we started rabbit hunting we had no dogs.  Guess who played the beagle?  Most of the time it was me stomping through a brush pile or a thicket to scare up a rabbit, while Pop and a friend flanked the cover to either side and waited for me to run them out, but I got my share of shots when we would work our way up the valley in a skirmish line.  With rabbits, we didn't have to be stealthy or soft-spoken.  Once again we let the insults and laughter fly.  I had a Remington and our friend had a Winchester and we got a lot of mileage out of poking fun at each other’s favorite gun.
…Pop was a fisherman…
                As far back as I can remember, I recall Pop bringing home stringers full of fish.  I can’t clearly recall my first fishing trip.  I remember black Zebco 202 reels on fiberglass rods, with bobbers, hooks, and sinkers.  We dug “wiggle worms” and caught night crawlers in the yard for bait, which we used to catch bluegill, bream, and catfish in the river.  Pop showed us how to tie hooks and lures on with a knot that wouldn't slip out when we hook a big one, not that we hooked many of those, but just in case.
                Pop taught us how to cast lures and retrieve them at a speed and with some action to attract the fish we wanted to catch.  We learned that “fish ain't growing in the tree’s, boy”, and “leave it in the water long enough for them to find it”, and “all that racket’s going scare the all the fish in the river”, and many other pearls of wisdom associated with fishing. 
                Pop took us trout fishing on Buck Creek and Little Buck.  We sat in the truck in the dark and listened to the creeks as they tumbled over rocks and old dead logs into pools we hoped were full of trout eager to bite anything we had to offer.  Often they were.  Pop showed us how to float corn into and out of a pool or eddy to present it to a hungry trout.  Later we learned to use other lures and work them to get a wary trout to come after its dinner, only to become ours.

…Pop was a deer hunter…
                I remember from before I started grade school that Pop loved to deer hunt.  At some point in those early years, some idiotic hunter shot at Pop during deer season and hit the tree he was standing next to.  It was years before he would let me or Roy go with him deer hunting.  Finally, one year I saved up my money and bought a rifle and got it sighted in.  It was a lever action 35 Marlin and it was used but in good shape.  So we scouted an area and I picked out a deadfall that looked down into a hollow which had several intersecting deer trails.  Pop thought it was a good place and I was excited and expecting to make a kill on my first hunt.  It wasn't to happen that day, but that morning I saw a very nice buck jump a log on a logging road bed that was out of range of my 35.  It was as beautiful a picture as ever you will see in any magazine and I was hooked.
                As it turned out, It was several years later, after my military enlistment was up before I got my first deer, but It was Pop who arranged the hunt and helped me learn the lay of the land. 
…Pop passed, and still passes, his knowledge along…
                From trailing deer, to catching fish, to sneaking up on a wily old squirrel, to the best way to lead a flying bird to get a killing shot, Pop was free with his help and guidance to not only my brothers and I, but to several other young people he took under his wing at various times.  He also often gave advice to older hunters who wanted to know the secrets of his successes in hunting and fishing. 
…And then I had a son…
                My son John was born in 1993 and before his first birthday I had his lifetime licenses purchased.  The Bible says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  I was determined to raise my son to love the outdoors as much as I do.  I began when he was old enough for a cap gun and a toy lever action.  Early and often I talked about gun safety and respect for the weapon and the game.  I had toy raccoon and other stuffed animals that we pretended to stalk and kill. 
                Later I got him a BB gun and took him with me hunting for squirrels and doves.  I taught him the same things my Pop had taught me.  My father-in-law handed down to my son his old .410 and I got John a Henry lever action .22.  I had him on the right track, but more and more I had to put in some long hours at work and a lot of weekends.  My ability to get him to the field and woods was severely impacted and both he and I got frustrated with it. 
                One sad week I wanted desperately to take my son hunting but was mandated to work again.  I was upset terribly.  Then the thought crossed my mind.  Send him with Pop.
                I called up my dad and asked him, “Pop, are you going to the mountains this weekend?” He said yes and I asked if he could take my son along.  He was happy to get the chance to do that and I sent him off with Pop on Friday evening so they could go groundhog shooting in the mountains on Saturday. 
                Sending my son on that hunting trip turns out to be one of the best things I have ever done.  Pop took him under his wing and taught him more about hunting and fishing than I ever could have and in the process built a bond between them that will last forever. 
                Groundhog hunting is like a fine art in long-range shooting.  You find a groundhog way off down the valley with your binoculars, estimate the range, figure out your windage and try to bust it in one shot.  It’s a primo way to hone your sniper skills, and my Pop is the best I have seen at it.  I’m mediocre at best.  Pop has now spent ten years teaching my son to make that kind of shot and my son is now as good as Pop is, and a better shot than I will ever be. 
                That is why my son is deadly on deer.  Pop has taught us both everything he can about deer hunting and we both do very well almost every season in recent years. 
…Pop is 73 years old…
                To this day, Pop is still taking new hunters under his wing.  A couple or so years ago, he began to take one my nephews on hunting and fishing trips, and this year he started with another young nephew who needs a mentor in the outdoor skills he needs to become a hunter.  He has begun to nurture the interest there that will bring these young men into the hunting fold with the rest of us.  If you look at his legacy, my Pop has done a lot for his family and for our heritage of hunting, fishing, and loving the wild outdoors.  Every time we go, we will have stories and laughs to share and remember with and about the man who showed us the way. 
                Now it’s our turn.  The next generation is coming and they are a blank slate.  I hope I can teach more to my nephews, once my Pop no longer can, as we continue to hunt and fish the hills and valleys of western North Carolina and beyond. Then the torch passes to them.

James Lee Frady (c) 9/21/2014


Saturday, February 1, 2014

My First, and last, Duck Hunt

Duck Hunting

            It was in the last bright days of Indian Summer, those magical few warm days before the temperatures plunge for their final descent into the coldness of winter that Pop came home from squirrel hunting down the river with more than the four or five squirrels that would soon become dumplings in my mom’s biggest pot.  This memorable day he also had killed four or five ducks to clean for the Frady table.  As far as I can remember, it was the first time I had ever seen wild ducks killed and brought home. 

            I was amazed with these ducks.  I had read the outdoor magazines and read about duck hunting, but that was something they did somewhere else, far away from our little corner of the state.   They hunted in fields near lakes and swamps; we had the fields and a river.  They had hunting dogs that jumped into freezing water and swam after downed birds. We had a Feist squirrel dog that wouldn’t jump in the river in late fall for a t-bone steak.  They hunted from blinds set up near decoys with duck calls and fancy shotguns.  We had no such arrangement.  No, the thought had never crossed my mind to go duck hunting along our piece of the Catawba.

            These ducks were Mallards.  The beautifully colored males had the shiny metallic green heads with a white ring around the base of their neck while the female was better camouflaged in grays, browns, and tans.  Both had bright teal stripes near the back inner part of their wings.  Mallards are one of the prettiest birds around and they never fail to make me think of autumn and hunting, even though I’m not much of a duck hunter.  At least these days I’m not.  But there was that one hunting trip I made….

            A week or so after my dad brought home the ducks, there came a perfect fall day and the great outdoors were calling my name loudly and with urgency.  I had to hit the hunting trail.  So I grabbed my brother’s 20-gauge shotgun and a pocket full of shells and went after a mess of squirrels.  I followed the edge of the river down across the empty cornfields toward the cow pastures below.  There were a few rabbits along that side of the fields next to the river but not really any squirrels.  However, once you got down to the pastures, there were some oaks and a good number of hickory trees along the river.  Squirrels were plentiful when the trees had hickory nuts and acorns on them and we had brought home a good number from those trees. 

            Once I was across the fence and approaching the first of the groups of oak trees I slowed to a stealthy pace and tried to keep silent, with other trees and brush between me and the trees I hoped had some squirrels in them.  One slow step at a time then pause, and search the tree from bottom to top for any sign of my prey.  For the first several trees I had no luck. The squirrels weren’t moving.  Then as I approached a couple of hickory trees standing together, a tell-tale flash of gray followed by the hoarse bark of a big squirrel told me my first squirrel was dead ahead.

            Ever so carefully, step by silent step I eased along the riverbank with my eyes scanning the tree.  There he was! About forty feet up near a fork in the first hickory; I saw the squirrel circle the tree.  I watched and waited but he wouldn’t budge back to my side.  I eased in a circle around the base, looking up the trunk and searching every nook and cranny for the squirrel.  After a few scans of the tree I spotted a section of the bark on the trunk that seemed a bit smoother than the rest.  Softly three or four steps back I crept, watching that spot.  I could make him out now.  He was flattened tight against the bark, high up in the tree.  Now that I had him spotted he was an easy shot and I raised that old twenty up, set the bead on the squirrel and squeezed off a shot.  BOOM! And the squirrel tumbled from the treetop down and out to land ten or fifteen feet from where I was standing.  My first squirrel of the morning was in the bag.

            I watched those two trees for several more minutes in case I had missed one, but nothing else showed there, so I turned on down the river. 

            I moved from one group of trees to another hoping for another squirrel but it was a little while before I saw my second one.  This one didn’t try to hide, but took off running from tree to tree trying to reach the security of its nest before I got to him.  I hustled along to get down to where the squirrel was running through the limbs of one tree to head for the next and got there just as the squirrel ran up a long limb and leaped for the next tree.  I brought my gun up and followed through as he ran down the limb toward the safety of the thicker foliage.  BOOM! And the squirrel rolled down the limb and off into thin air before plummeting to the ground near the base of the tree. 

            I retrieved number two.

            By this time I was approaching a shallow bend in the river, which usually had a wide sand bar along the bank I was on.  The bend in the river forces the current over to the far bank and water on my side slowed dropping all it’s sediment.  The sand bar often had remains of fish and fresh-water clams along the water.  Evidence that animals of various kinds had come there to feed and with good success.  I had often spooked up a crane when approaching the sand bar, and had seen the tracks of opossum, raccoon, and bobcat.  It was a popular spot among the animals, it seemed. That day it would become the scene of a terrible massacre.

            Across the river and downstream about twenty or so yards, a large rock protruded into the river current from the far bank.  On the glorious day, what should be on the rock waiting to test my hunting skills?  Six. Large. Ducks. 

            I hunkered down in the underbrush to check my eyes.  A second and third count revealed that indeed my eyes were telling me the truth.  There were six large ducks standing on the rock above the water.  All I had to do was sneak within gun range and I might get lucky and get two. I was pretty fast at popping shells into the old single-shot twenty. 

            I went Full Indian Mode.  Down on all fours, I crept silently through the underbrush.  I wriggled through vines and under bushes.  I got a tree between my prey and me, and I crept straight at them.  I finally eased up behind a tree trunk just across the river from the ducks and peeked across at them.  All were still there waddling around on the rock, occasionally quacking as if in idle conversation.

            I laid out three shells besides the one in the gun chamber. 

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The first round fired and the first duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved. 

            In my mind I thought I was such a good hunter that those ducks had no idea what had just happened.  Now if I had thought a moment, I would have realized those ducks should have flown simply from the noise and it was unnatural for them to just sit there, but I couldn’t wait to get another so:

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The second round fired and the second duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved. 

            Hmmm!?  Dang.  These ducks have no idea what’s going on here.  I have them completely fooled.  There was someone being fooled all right, but we’ll get to that soon enough.  There’s ducks need’n killin’ so:

            I cocked the hammer back softly.

            I carefully placed the bead on the head of the duck closest the edge.

            I squeezed the trigger slowly.

            BOOM! The third round fired and the third duck hit the water.  Click! Pop! Plunk, Snap! And a new shell was in the chamber and the gun was coming up and…the ducks had not even moved.

            Ok fine, I’ve found the stupidest flock of ducks in the state.

            So, I aimed at the next duck without due diligence and BOOM!  The fourth duck hit the water and this time the remaining two ducks lit out like their tail was on fire, running up the hill on their side of the river.  Running? Now that’s weird.

            No time to ponder that.  I had ducks to retrieve and no dog, so it was my plan to outrun them to the next big curve to the left where the current would push the ducks right to me and I could scoop them out of the water one by one.

            I wriggled through the brush and across the barbed wire fence into the cow pasture and took off downstream at a good jog.  A small branch ran through the field and I had to cross it at a point where fishermen had stamped out a trail, so I veered into the trees next to the river down one bank, up the next and on down the river I went. 

I think it was probably three hundred yards down to the curve.  The fields end at the curve and I left my gun in the tall grass next to the fence and scampered through the woods and down the steep bank to the riverside.  I worked out onto a rock in the current and looked back upstream. 

Sure enough there came my first duck and I could see the second just beyond.  The third and fourth would be in sight soon I knew.  I waited and watched as the duck floated nearly straight toward me.  I couldn’t wait to see Pop’s face when I showed him my four ducks.  I was daydreaming about that as the first duck swept into the curve.  It swept past the end of an outstretched log, spun around a couple of times and went right on downstream against the far bank, far out of reach of anything I had to reach with.   Rats! 

The second duck followed the same pattern and though marginally closer it was a lost cause.  The third and fourth ducks followed suit, and I watched helplessly as they washed on down the river toward Lake James.  I was crushed. The greatness of my epic hunt was destroyed by the loss of all the ducks.  The water was far too cold to swim after them and at this point in the river it was far too swift as well.  Dejectedly I watched them float away and slowly disappear from sight. 

With all the spring gone from my steps and a long way to walk back home I climbed back up the bank and out to the edge of the field.  Retrieving the shotgun, I put another shell in the chamber and picked up my squirrels.  I didn’t do any hunting on the way home.  I just walked and thought about those ducks.  What a waste. 

Later that evening when Pop got home, I told him the whole story and how I had killed the ducks and how they didn’t run and how I lost them in the curve.  I was bummed. 

Then he asked me what kind of ducks were they?

“I don’t know, they were just big ducks.”

Then he asked me what colors were the ducks?  Were they green and brown like the ones he killed? 

“No these were even bigger than those and they were all snow white.”

“Holy Cow boy, you shot some farmer’s flock of ducks!  Those were tame ducks and you killed almost the whole bunch.”

With a few choice words he told me he hope to @*%&# that farmer didn’t figure out were his ducks went.  Then he laughed about it and as near as I can remember nothing was ever said about it again. 

Now, I have never gone duck hunting since then, and don’t have any desire to now.  I don’t have the dogs or the lakes, or the blinds, and heaven knows I don’t want to chase them to the bend in the river just to watch them float on by.

James Lee Frady (c) 2/1/2014