Heartbreaker

In November, most people think of football and Thanksgiving, but not deer hunters. November marks the Whitetail deer rut and the best chance to see a mature buck moving in the daylight. Like most deer hunters, I try and spend as much time as possible during this precious period in a stand.

The date was November 7th and I was headed out to my stand early in the afternoon. I had a good feeling that I was going to have some action. The wind was 5-10 out of the southwest and the temperature was in the 30’s– a perfect day. After 2 hours of being in the stand, I had my first action. A large group of does were heading right for my tree stand. I was excited because I knew a buck could be right behind them but I also knew that a large group of does is very dangerous. With a lot of does come a lot of eyes, noses, and ears. I watched the does for 40 minutes and all of them came within bow range. About this time I realized that my legs were crossed and my right leg was completely asleep. I started focusing on the weird feeling and after a while couldn’t tolerate it any more. I had to change positions. Huge mistake. One of the does saw me or heard me and blew. Any deer hunter knows this terrible sound. Then one by one the does took off and continued to blow 150 yards into the woods. Might as well have sounded a foghorn. Still, I decided to stay the course. After another 30 minutes of no action, however, I was ready to give up. I remember thinking “well this year may just not be the year” and “why can’t I just get lucky just once”. I was overcome with feelings of doubt and pessimism. I just knew I was not going to get lucky this year. We have all experienced these thoughts. Then above all these negative thoughts, I heard a strange noise behind me, a grunt. There is only one animal that makes a grunt like this in my neck of the woods and it is a male whitetail. My heart started thumping as I heard crashing through the woods. I looked over my left shoulder and saw a doe running as fast as she could. Then, like a bat out of hell, I saw a antlers behind her. I didn’t even need to look at him through my binoculars. I knew he was a stud and a shooter. My mind started racing and I thought of every scenario possible. Soon I realized that the doe was going directly down wind from me and she might smell me before the buck was in range. This was when everything started to turn south. In anticipation of the doe smelling me, I decided that I would draw back on the buck and shoot him the first chance I had instead of waiting for him to get in a cleared shooting lane. As I drew back my bow, my hand hit a limb and my cam hit the stand making a loud banging noise. The doe saw me and took off with Mr. Buck still chasing her. I successfully drew back and waited for him to stop. At 35 yards he did. I knew this could be my only chance. I squeezed my finger on my release and let an arrow fly. In my excitement I had not realized that there was a limb 2 feet in front of me directly in my line of fire. I watched helplessly as my arrow hit the limb and shot off to my left and drilled a tree. Amazingly, the shot didn’t spook the buck. He continued to follow the doe and ran out of my range. I felt like a Mack truck had just hit me. I wanted to cry. I had worked so hard to shoot a buck during the season and I had messed up my chance. Because i did not scare him with my miss, I believed that I many get another crack at him later in the year. I never saw that deer again in person but did get a shot of him on a trail camera. He is impressive! This year- advantage Mr. Buck. All I can hope for is that he gives me a retribution shot next year but until then I am just left with a reminding trail camera picture…

-Grimes Clark

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Low Tides and Low Spirits

It’s a rude 5:30 wake-up on Saturday morning after a long day spent anchored up at Mason’s Inlet, but the fish don’t care whether or not the events of yesterday got the better of you; they’re awake and ready to feed.

I flopped out of bed, opened my curtains and cringed as the harsh morning light flooded in.  As I stood in the bathroom listlessly scrubbing my teeth, I slowly came to terms with my lack of foresight. I wandered back into my room, slid on my pants, pulled my buff over my head and put on my salt-faded, mesh trucker hat. With a soft rub of the eyes and a quick pocket check⏤“phone, license, shades, pliers, nippers,” it was time to hit the water. In need of a little extra motivation, I recited my own version of a well-known psalm, “Today is the day the lord has made, let us rejoice and catch fish.”

By 6 AM, I’ve made my way over to the dock to see my buddy John pulling into the slip with his 17’ Maverick. With local knowledge on my side, I picked my hardware: two 8wt Scott Tidals equipped with the Nautilus NV-G’s. Now it was time to see if I could get the job done in some of the most difficult conditions the summer had seen so far, thanks to the jet skis, tubers and paddleboarders that had put the Redfish on edge. On top of that, three days of cold rain had muddied the water and colder temperatures had lessened the feeding habits of the local fish. Despite all that, I kept my faith. We were going to catch fish, not a doubt in my mind.

We pushed off from the dock and began our extra-long boat ride that would take us around the busy waters of Wrightsville Beach, and after close to an hour we arrived at our first flat. It was an unfamiliar area, so I was eager to get to a closer look at it. I pulled out my fly box and searched for the magic fly. When selecting my fly I usually let my gut make the call, picking the fly that gives me the most instant sense of confidence. In this case, my gut choose a tan, buck-tail shrimp pattern. It was a manageable fly that pushed enough water to draw attention, but not in a way that was too intruding and would spook wary fish. We polled for hours in the morning without a shot at a single fish, and it began to look like the Reds were going to prove me wrong. A little doubt wasn’t enough to make me turn the boat back, so John and I agreed that we would not call it quits until we had landed a Redfish. So, with that in mind, we dropped the motor and sped to a different flat.

We arrived at our new location: a much smaller flat adjacent to the ICW with hundreds of yards to work and plenty of water to cover. Unsuspectingly, we polled right on top of a group of at least 30 fish that were far closer to the mouth of the flat than we had expected. Now that we knew they were there, we settled ourselves and began to slowly work our way around the flat in search of the school we had pushed.

I stood on the bow of the skiff, scanning the surface of the water for the slightest disturbance and found my mark within minutes. About 40 feet out, I gave three quick false-casts, keeping my fly a few feet in front of his face as he slowly swam towards it. Two quick strips and he began to follow. A few more strips and I thought he was locked. Then suddenly, with two powerful swipes of his tail fin, he turned off my fly and bolted into the grass. I instinctively looked at John, as if to ask what I had done wrong, but I knew there wasn’t much else I could have done.  While that didn’t prevent the doubt from setting in, there were far too many fish and not enough time for self-pity.

We moved onward in search of the bigger group, investigating the skinniest part of the flat when we finally saw a group of fish begin to move off the grass and towards the left-side of the boat. I dropped a cast 30 feet out to the front and left of our skiff and popped the fly across the still water. My heart pumped as a large Red approached my fly and raised his eyes out of the water before calmly deciding against it. This time, I knew I was at fault, because once I had stopped moving my fly, I gave the clever, old fish a full look at my fly, which he then decided he didn’t like. Another chance and another miss, but with many fish still lurking about, I knew I would have at least a few more shots.

With the current tide, I was surprised to see tails begin to break the water’s surface as tailing Reds crushed the fiddler crabs dancing across the muddy bottom. Not wanting to spook the group, we polled just outside 60 feet of the group and with the wind being almost non-existent, I was able to drop my fly within inches of my target. I gave three hard strips before, out of nowhere, a red pulled off of the bottom and jolted toward my fly, aggressively hammering it. With my rod tip down, I gave a hard strip set, frantically trying to reel in the slack at my feet. He made an immediate run away from the boat that lasted about 20 yards before he gave two head shakes and put my line slack. I folded to my knees and hung my head in disbelief, feeling the angler’s greatest agony of losing a fish during the fight. I slowly brought my line in and grabbed my fly to inspect the damage, finding that he had bent my hook.

I decided to recuperate and have a drink. Somehow the fish were still around, most of them unfazed by the ruckus my fight had caused, but I still needed a moment to relax and try to put the three fish that I had missed behind me. After a short break, I picked up my rod, got back on the bow and began to look for fish once again. There were still a few nearby, so we crept towards them and waited for our moment as they slowly pushed through the shallow water, making an undulation like that of a brick being dragged across the shallow bottom. I narrowed in on my target, which was a little over 40 yards out.

I plopped my fly a foot ahead of my mark’s nose, barely having time to move the fly before he turned and walloped it on instinct. I had made a strong connection on the stripset and was in position to get this sucker to the boat. The fish immediately began rolling back and forth, thrashing his head with force, but he gave up on that tactic and opted to bolt back and forth in short spurts. My rod shook with the force of the fish, as my nerves and knees began to shake in unision. After gaining more control, I walked the fish to the stern. As John readied the net and I began to bring the fish towards the boat, he got a glimpse at the net and went on another tear, burning out line at an screaming pace. After another few minutes of determined fighting, John reached out and netted the overslot Drum.

It’s a thrill that I’ve never grown tired of. From my first Redfish to my last, each one has provided very similar joys, thrills and pain. That day yielded us a few more shots and one more netted fish, but nothing was more fun than landing that first fish, after hours of low spirits amidst the low tides.

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Season Kickoff and the Coot Scoot Boogy

With only one day before the waterfowl season opener in the Pacific flyway of Montana, I realized that I hadn’t scouted. I had just spent my first full month in Bozeman and got so caught up in the brown trout spawn that I failed to realize that October marked the beginning of duck season in Montana. I now had one night to ensure that opening day was a success.

After hours on the computer and numerous calls across the state, I honed in on a shallow bottom marsh off of the Missouri River. After a dark two hour car ride full of anticipation and uncertainty, I arrived at the FWP parking sight. Close to three hours before game time, I was the lone soul in sight, outside of the bedded mule deer that I spooked when I pulled up.

I fumbled around my dark car for my face paint and began to smear the earthy colors across every uncovered part of my face. This simple, routine preparation, can best be compared to putting on eye black before stepping out under the friday night lights of high school football, though infinitely more exciting. When I left my car, I was greeted by the damp, cool morning air and a nighttime sky that more than lived up to Montana’s “Big Sky” reputation. I pulled my decoys, shell bag and gun from my trunk, slung the exceedingly heavy gear over my shoulders and began the cumbersome hike to the marsh.

As my hike in went on, the half mile walk I had predicted was quickly becoming a 5k. After thirty arduous minutes carrying six dozen decoys and other equipment, I decided to take a seat along the path. I pulled out my GPS and was dismayed to find that I had parked over two miles from my intended location, which provided me with a significantly greater challenge. After close to an hour of walking I arrived at the dyke of this shallow marsh. I was alarmed when I was met by a cacophony of Coot screeches as I entered the water, inadvertently moving the Coots and undoubtedly some ducks. I began to wade my way to a small island around 100 yards from the bank.

I quickly began to build a brush blind under the dim light of my headlamp and with each branch I added, my anticipation grew. I put out the decoys, arranging my divers into rows across the left of me with a cluster at the front to prevent birds from landing outside my shooting range. I grouped the puddlers and Mallards into four pods of eight to sixteen, leaving ample landing room along my right side. I began staking my Mojo Mallards and returned to dry ground to get a better view of my spread. With my decoys in place, I prepared for the agonizing wait till shooting light. The countdown was on!

Across the marsh, birds began to funnel into the thousands of Coots that I had pushed earlier that morning. Group after group of Teal, Mallards and Ringos flocked to the Coots without hesitation. Meanwhile, I sat no more than a couple hundred yards away and practiced my hail call for what felt like an eternity. However, I patiently watched as the Coots began to shuffle across the still water towards me. They swam over in droves of hundreds, gradually settling themselves amongst my decoys. I watched and waited for the ducks to follow. Like clockwork, they did, as I sat concealed amongst the brush and listened as the whistle of wings alerted me to the quickly approaching group.

Cupped and committed, I raised my gun as a group of Mallards dropped over my head and into my spread. I was jolted by my untested 3 1/2 inch Remington Hypersonic steel loads, and my first shot unfortunately missed its mark, hitting one of two hens in the group. I slid the pump down my Supernova and with a rhythmic hym my second shell was ready. Yet this time, I steadied my shoulder and picked my bird; finding my first greentop of the season with my second shell! Both birds folded and hit the water with a satisfying, resounding thud. I looked on as that familiar feeling of euphoria came over me that can only be found in moments like that. Like you all know, there is truly no better feeling than retrieving your birds after a successful volley.

I ran into the water, grabbed the birds and took a moment to admire the drake Mallard that I had killed. The duck was unlike any that I had seen before. On one side, it looked as if he was in full breeding plumage and on the other it looked as if he was just beginning to molt, with no uniformity to his plumage—a peculiar sight. I reloaded my gun, optimistic that another group would follow suit. Although they never did, later that morning a lone Mallard gave me a passing shot to finish off what was a slow but rewarding day. It wasn’t a day for stacking ducks on the tailgate, but for a google earth scouting session the night before, I’d say things worked out pretty well. Surprisingly, on this day, all thanks went to the cooperative Coots!

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-Thompson Long  

The “Large Mouth Bass” of the Sea

It was a cool, brisk morning in North Carolina for early September, especially at 5 o’clock in the morning. However, the only weather we cared about was what the ocean would be like 30 miles off. I checked the report one last time before I fully committed and got out of bed. The report was perfect! A West wind at 5-10 knots. That report meant that the ocean would be flat calm. I jumped out of bed with excitement. It’s not everyday in NC that the ocean gives you such a beautiful day to go fishing. September brings many fishing opportunities including bull Red Drum, huge King Mackerel, and Cheetah like Wahoo. However, I was not going after any of these species. I had one fish on my mind, the Gag Grouper. In North Carolina we have many different types of grouper species including Red, Scamp, Snowy, Yellow Mouth and the powerful Gag. The Gag, is one of the Groupers that is hardest to catch. The Red and Snowy will bite any hunk of meat a fisherman can throw on the bottom. The Gag is different. They will only attack a live bait thrashing around on the ocean floor.

I got out of bed and brushed my teeth. Then, I went into my buddies’ room where I expected Thompson and Kidd to be sleeping. They were no where to be found. They were even more excited then I was and had gotten up a little earlier. I walked down stairs where they had a cup of coffee waiting for me. After we enjoyed a minute of peace it was time to get to work. We loaded 25 fishing rods onto the boat (you can never have too many), the yeti cooler filled with squid wing and Cigar Minnows (just in case we couldn’t find bait), ice in the fish box, pimento cheese sandwiches, the bottom fishing anchor, and plenty of beer.  My final step was to wake up my father and get him on the boat. We were off!

Our first piece of business was to find bait. As anyone form NC knows, the most plentiful live bait is Menhaden or “Shad” as we call them in Morehead. We traveled to my favorite bait spot and within two throws of the 12 foot cast net, we had all the bait we would need for our adventure! We even threw some back just so we wouldn’t over-fill the live well. After that, I turned the boat Northeast and hit the open seas. It took us about an hour to go the 35 miles we needed to get out to the first spot.

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We had finally made it to my secret spot. I did one last check of the rods to make sure our modified Carolina rigs were ready to go. No Grouper could beat out our 6000 sized Penn reels and the 80 pound fluro-carbon leader we were using! After idling around for a few minutes, and not seeing a good spot that I wanted to anchor on, we decided to drift. While my dad controlled the boat and Thompson and Kidd where getting their bait on their hooks, I dropped down a line. It didn’t take long for the 6 ounces of lead to get my Menhaden down 110 feet to the bottom. It was not down there for more then 5 seconds before I felt a massive thud.. I screamed “there he is!” and cranked as hard as a could to get the creature off of the bottom. Whatever it was beat me by getting my line into the reef below. My line snapped instantly. I had missed my chance and now I needed another one. We spent the next 20 minutes drifting around the same spot. Thompson and I continued to drop live Shad to the bottom as well as a few Cigar minnows. We picked off a few Vermillion Snappers which we call “Beeliners” and a few “endangered” Black Sea Bass, but no Groupers. Kidd was dropping down a chicken rig on a smaller rod baited with squid wing. He was picking up Beeliners left and right. The whole time we were drifting, I was keeping an eye on the bottom machine to find a suitable place to anchor. In my opinion, it is much easier to catch bottom fish when the boat is anchored. After a while I had found what looked like the perfect spot on the reef. We position the boat ahead of the reef, dropped the anchor and landed exactly where we needed to.

After 20 more minutes of fishing, we had picked up a few more Beeliners and Sea Bass but no Groupers. I decided I was going to throw a light line out the back just in case a Cobia or King Mackerel swam by. I put my bottom rod in the rod holder and proceeded to hook the Shad through the nose. I had just launched the shad out the back of the boat when my bottom rod literally bent over. I dropped everything and ran over to the rod and started trying to man handle this fish off of the bottom. It was everything I could do to get even an inch of line back on my reel. It was literally like I was reeling up the whole ocean floor. I knew this was a big fish. After I had reeled up a good 30 yards of line, the fish began to float. This was a great sign that it was a Grouper. When these fish are dragged up through the different atmospheres of the ocean, they begin to expand with air and it can cause them to float. Often times, once the fish is at the surface, it’s air bladder can be seen coming out of its mouth.

I kept working this fish to the top and a short while later, I saw a dark blob emerge from the darkness of the ocean. I knew it was a Grouper. I told my dad to grab the small gaff. Once the fish was on the surface, I could see how monstrous it was. It was one of the biggest fish I have ever seen. I stuck the gaff through the creature’s mouth and hauled it into the boat. We all were amazed at what had just come up from the depths of the ocean! It was the biggest Gag I had ever seen. On my 30 lb Boga Grips, the fish weighed just at 26 pounds.

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After that fight, I was tired and everyone else was fired up to catch a fish. Within minutes, we were putting more Beeliners, some Trigger Fish, and a few Sea Bass into the box. The next thing I saw is Thompson’s rod bent over. He was fighting another monster. However, unlike my fish, his fish did not give up. This is a sign that this fish was not a Grouper but something a little different. We were all curious as to what this fish could be and after 20 minutes we saw a giant fish surface a few yards out. It was a monster Amberjack. The beast far outweighed my Boga Grips so I have no idea how much the thing weighed, but it was huge. One of the biggest ones I have ever seen.

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After that battle Thompson was exhausted. He decided to take a little break while Kidd and I kept after the fishing. This time my dad even decided to get in on the action. We were pulling in Beeliners along with the occasional Trigger or Sea Bass like it was our job. We almost had our limit on Snappers so we started only keeping the bigger ones. Thompson was just getting back in the game when we all heard the ‘zzzzzzzzzlle” from one of the reels. I looked around to see whose reel it was. No one was reeling in a fish so I was very confused. This is when all 4 of us, at the same time, realized it was the light line that we had all forgotten about. Thompson got to the reel first. None of us had any idea what the fish was. It was screaming like a King but staying low in the water like a Bonita.

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After a 20 minute fight, we were extremely curious as to what this fish could be. After about 5 more minutes the fish came up next to the boat. This is when I exclaimed, “Aw it is just a Bonita so it won’t matter if it comes off.” I decided that I was going to gaff it anyway for bait. After the fish circled around the same spot, 15 yards away from the boat, for another 5 minutes, it finally came within gaff range. I reached out, and I’m ashamed to say, missed my first shot. This was when I got a great look at the fish. I knew it was not a Bonita but a huge Blackfin Tuna! I really hoped that we weren’t gonna loose the fish especially because I missed the first gaff attempt. The second time the fish swam around, I got my redemption. I stuck him, right in the back. I lifted the massive tuna into the boat and we all hooped and hollered with joy. It was certainly the biggest Blackfin I had ever seen.

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After the excitement of the massive tuna, we decided that it was time to call it a day. It was only 1 o’clock but we had enough fish to clean. We were cruising on the way in when Kidd and I noticed a small hump on the bottom machine. We decided that we should investigate. Once we got back to where I marked the spot, the bottom machine lit up like a christmas tree. We had to check this place out. So we got the anchor back out, and positioned the boat. In my haste, I did not position the boat in the proper place and missed my mark by a good 30 yards. We decided to fish the new spot anyway. On my first drop I felt another huge thud, and this time I hauled up a nice keeper Gag. This is when I first realized that this spot was going to be a good one. We were not even close to my original mark and we were still catching fish. For the next hour we continued to catch Triggers, Beeliners, and Seabass one ofter the other, throwing most of them back. We weren’t fortunate enough to catch another Gag but I suspect we had at least 1 or 2 more on. We did end up missing a nice Mahi out the back of the boat but we did catch a nice Barracuda that was eating a Trigger we had brought up. All in all it was one of the best fishing days I have ever experienced! A days that will stay in my memory forever. I am very fortunate to have been able to spend it with my buddies and my dad! The camaraderie made an already incredible day even better.

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-William Clark