If you head to the White River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas the weekend before Christmas you will likely hear the frantic quacking of numerous ducks as they are frightened by shot after misplaced shot. Each year I accompany my father-in-law and a group of fathers and sons, to the Fowl Play Lodge in DeWitt, Arkansas for a wild weekend of hunting and general debotchery. Normally we come away with a few ducks for the freezer, and a years worth of stories to tell and retell. This year was special for me as I was bringing along my Boykin Spaniel "Finn" for his first Arkansas duck hunt. I have spent countless hours training Finn to be a retrieving machine, and while he does well retrieving dummies, he had only retrieved a few ducks and pheasants in his limited hunting experiences. Finn was one of two dogs we would be taking this year, and not being a fan of other male dogs we knew we would have to keep Finn and Ike (the black lab) apart as much as possible. Neither Finn nor Ike enjoy the presence of other male dogs, and it was not long before they had a confrontation in a van packed with 12 hunters and two dogs. Finn escaped with a minor scratch on his nose, and Ike with another notch on his collar. Unfortunately we didn't learn our lesson, and a second altercation ensued, this time with my brother-in-law's finger getting in the middle of it. Just another hunting trip story resulting in a new nickname, "dog finger". With the bleeding stopped we rolled into the lodge and were greeted by several guides with which we have hunted with for years. The jokes quickly began, and most of these centered around the make and model of my hunting dog which they dubbed the poodle. Not knowing what to expect from Finn's first big trip I kept my mouth shut, and anxiously awaited the next morning's hunt. That evening I was informed that we would be hunting from boat blind, which would make it difficult for the dog to see and retrieve downed ducks. This was fine by me as at least Finn would get to experience the hunt without much pressure to deliver. Finn would be the only dog accompanying us this morning as the guides decided their young labs would not fare well in this hunting situation. Ike would be hunting with his owner at a different location. Four o'clock came with the smell of cooking bacon, and following a quick breakfast we were off on a boat ride weaving in and out of flooded timber along the flood plain of the White River. While we were all feeling a bit groggy from the antics of the night before the cool morning breeze quickly woke us up and as we transferred guns and shells to the boat blind we awaited legal shooting light. Soon after light fell over our decoy spread the first group of ducks came in, it was now time to see what we could do. As the mallards set their wings they were met with a barrage of gunfire, and three green heads fell from the sky. Now it was Finn's turn. I had pulled back a section of blind material from the front of the john boat and postioned Finn on the front of the boat. At the first sound of gunfire Finn quickly jumped into the bottom of the boat and began jumping against the side of the blind as if wanting to get out. I finally wrestled him back into postion but by this time the ducks had begun to drift to our left in the moderate current of the flooded river. I tried to line him up and send him on his way but he was unsure of how to get into the water. The deck of the boat was several feet above the water line so he was going to have to dive in to the water in order to make his retrieve. Unsure of how to do this Finn stood on the front of the boat barking and whining at the water below. Having no other chioce I was forced to aid him in his entry by tossing him into the water. Finn immdiately headed out into the spread of three dozen decoys where the downed ducks once resided, hopefully his training would get us both out of this mess. I quickly blew on the whistle to stop him, a command we had practiced a million times, Finn promptly ignored me and continued on his way. After yelling and blowing I finally got Finn's attention and he began to turn back. Using handsignals that had also been practiced time and time again Finn eventually listened enough to catch sight of one of the ducks as it drifted 50 yards downstream. As Finn made this retrieve the guides retrieved the other two, as we knew Finn (who weighs less than 40 pounds) would need a little break following this debacle. Finn finally returned after a long upstream swim with a beautiful mallard drake clutched in his jaws. I was excited that Finn was finally able to make the retrieve, but I also knew it was going to take a little more precision on his part if he was going to be considered a valuable part of the team. Not knowing if Finn had learned anything or not I again positioned him on the front of the boat as we waited for the next flight of ducks. We didn't have to wait long as another group of mallards and gadwalls were quickly duped by our decoy spread. Again our aim was true, and this time Finn was ready to go. He was focused on the flock as it approached and after watching a gadwall fall he was off the deck as the duck hit the water. Completely submerging, the curly coated Spaniel popped up like a cork and promptly retrieved the duck like he had been doing it his entire life. I hoped this was a sign of things to come, and as flock after flock came to the gun we continued to shoot well, and Finn continued to retrieve like an old pro. By 8:45 that morning the best duck hunt of my life concluded with a limit of 36 ducks and Finn had retrieved every duck that we had sent him after. While Finn was not perfect, he exceeded my expectations and followed up the next morning with another great performance prompting the guides to go from calling him a poodle to asking how much I wanted for my dog. I knew taking an odd breed of retriever to duck camp was opening myself up to ridicule, but I think everyone who hunted with us would agree that watching him work made the hunt a much more rewarding experience.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Amy informs me that she has set up a Sunburst Ranch page on facebook. This will be her baby as I know very little about facebook. I'm sure if you are familiar with facebook you know what you can do here, I don't. Enjoy and you can look forward to seeing some things we have been doing around here to get ready for the upcoming season.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Chris, Ryan, and Nathan came down this weekend fishing from Chris' drift boat. If you have been on the NFoW you probably recognize McKee Bridge in the picture. Here is a report he sent.
Thanks for the lodging and the shuttle. We had a great time floating from Kelly to Sunburst. We put in at Kelly around 9:00 AM and got off the river at 4:00. Shorter day since I had to get home early. We started the day by rowing up to lamb shoal and then floating down. Ryan caught several nice bows and smallies on this stretch. First two casts were fish. We continued to float down and pick up fish as we went, mostly on the Pat’s Rubberlegs and a few on Red Fox Squirrel Nymphs. I kept waiting for the fish to start keying in on Caddis Pupa but it never seemed to happen. We also through streamers, Yuk Bugs and Berrett Stone’s but nothing seemed to work except for the Stonefly nymphs. The sun was bright and probably slowed the fishing a bit but all in all we had a good day, probably boated around 25 and missed at least that many more on quick releases and hook sets. It was great to get out and scratch the Spring Fever itch with the great weather and wild rainbows. Thanks again for your hospitality.
When the weather and water have been cooperative the fishing has been outstanding this winter. We have really had to pick and choose our days with the cold and the high water. Almost every time I have been out we have caught at least one big fish 18"+. The 20" brown in the picture (judging by the look on my face it was very heavy), was caught on a tan Zonker right out in front of the riverhouse. We have been fishing big streamers on this lower end of the river and on cloudy days have been tearing them up. Our hook rates are pretty low, but watching a fish hit the streamer is fun even when you miss the fish. Friday we floated from Patrick to James and I caught a brown just under 18" again on a zonker, caught a bunch of 10-14 " browns on a Pat's rubberlegs, and lost a 20"+ brown right at the boat also on the zonker. The best part has been not seeing another fisherman on the river the whole time.
Monday, February 8, 2010
I was watching it snow on the river today and after feeding the livestock without freezing to death I decided an afternoon float and fish was in order. I aired up the pontoon and took off with a rod and a cell phone so I could call my wife to pick me up at a location to be determined later. I immediately hooked up with a small rainbow right in front of the house and would hook and lose a big brown just above fantasy island. The water is cranking at about 1500 cfs so all the fishing was done from the boat. Those first two fish took a yellow/brown pat's rubberlegs #6, and the big brown took it in some swift deep water filled with big boulders and snags. I had him on for a minute or so and he rewarded me with a big jump before I finally was forced to pull too hard trying to avoid a downed tree. The hook simply pulled loose and I was bested by yet another big fish. I reached Patrick Bridge without any more action and decided to continue on down to James Bridge about 4 miles downstream. By now I had lost all my yellow Pat's, remember you must get it on the bottom on the NFoW! I now had on a coffee and black Pat's (tied with a little bling)and quickly caught 2 browns in the water leading up to Riverside. Most of the riffles I was flying through out of control so I actually caught more fish in the slower water today. I continued to pick up brown after brown all between 10-15 inches until another big boy ate. As I approached the last riffle above James Bridge I snagged what I thought was the bottom, I set the hook and it flew out of the water and landed in my lap, it just so happened to be a sculpin. Being in red ribbon water I decided to leave the sculpin hooked up and drag it through the riffle (not exactly purist, but all the old timers say sculpin are the best bait). I flipped my rig over a shelf as I floated through and immediately saw a submarine come up and grab my "nymph". I set the hook and after a big tug my line snapped as I palmed the reel a little too hard. That's what I get for bait fishing!! What a wonderful 2 1/2 hours on the water. Nothing big brought to hand but lots of little guys, big clear water, only me the eagles and the deer on the river. If you've never fished in the snow it is an experience like no other, catching fish is just icing on the cake!
Friday, February 5, 2010
Leave it to us to pick the coldest week in the history of the Florida Keys to take a week away from the Ozarks. Amy spent weeks researching where we should go this winter to get away from the cold, finding a nice Key's house that would easily fit a group of nine of us. She found a nice house on Marathon complete with swimming pool, hot tub, and a boat dock if we wished to bring or rent a boat. We left here and headed to Memphis for the flight to Miami, and at 12 degrees when we left we knew anything would feel warm. After going through the excitement and fun of Eli and Molly's first flight we arrived in Miami to a balmy 48 degrees. The next few days would find highs barely above the 50 degree mark, and the wind too strong to bother with renting a boat or going fishing. We tried fishing a little in the canals around our rental house but we were having no luck getting any takers. Finally on the third day the wind subsided and the temperature rose to near 60 degrees so we decided to rent a boat. As we headed out to sea to attempt our first real fishing of the vacation we discovered why no fish had been biting. We passed a commercial lobster boat as they were coming in and one of the crew yelled to us that there were fish floating everywhere offshore. The 10 pound mutton snapper he held up told us that his story might be true. Not fully believing what we had been told we headed offshore to a small patch reef we had seen on our chart. As we approached we began to see fish bellies, and as we continued on we ran into a weed line that held hundreds of cold stunned reef fish. Many different kinds of snappers, groupers, grunts, boxfish, and even queen angelfish floated at the surface either dead or dying. This was quite a sad site to see and as a scuba diver I know what these patch reefs should look like, and how many fish they can actually hold. Naturally we didn't catch any fish as they were either dying or too cold to have an appetite, but we did witness an event that they say happens only about every 40 years. As the week progressed the weather slowly warmed however the fish continued to float up for several more days. The water was a little rough to head out to the main reef so the fishing in the colder shallower waters continued to be relatively pointless. We did catch a few fish, which was refreshing to know they weren't all dead, and we managed to eat fresh fish every night which was a treat. Our last day there we finally awoke to the typical humid ocean breeze, and enjoyed a warm day that might even have broke 70 degrees. Despite the inclimate weather it was fun to get away with Amy's family, and take the kids on their first vacation. We are kind of stuck here in the summer so the kids feel fotunate to miss some school in order to get in some family time. With the snow we endured following New Year's and our vacation the kids were gone from school for a full month. Somehow they didn't seem that eager to get back. Amazingly when we got back the temperatures quickly rose into the 60's feeling as nice as it ever did in the Keys, maybe next year we should go skiing.
We have been here trying to get through a wet, snowy, cold winter. Started renovating the riverhouse, redoing the bathroom and tiling most of the floors, I think it will turn out nice! The phone has started ringing, and cabins are already becoming scarce for many weekends. We are hoping to build two more sleeper cabins before memorial day, hopefully it will dry up enough that we can get that done. I hope to post more blogs in the next week or so, I have been working on a few stories telling what has been going on this winter, I have been lazy with my writing and for that I apologize. I'm sure everyone is on the edge of their seats wondering what has been happening. Look forward to seeing and hearing from everyone soon, we are ready for spring to be here! I have attached an e-mail we recieved from Chris Gates who fished with his dad this week, hope it helps anyone coming down soon to fish. The water is flowing strong, but is clear and gorgeous.
We fished fromPatrick down to James, started about 9:45 and fished until close to dark. In the morning we caught them on Pats Rubberlegs and Red Fox Squirrel nymphs.During the warmest part of the day I saw some splashy caddis rises, we switched the dropper to an RU Experienced Caddis Pupa and started hooking them on that. Actually caught 3 fish where we would see the rise, then setup and fish a pupa to the riser, he would eat. Fun targeting those fishlike that. Finally the fish moved back to the Pats and that's what they atein the late afternoon once no caddis were coming off. We had a fun day with consistent fishing all day, no real slow part. No real big fish, 18 inches was the biggest fish and every fish taken was a brown. Thanks again for your hospitality.