Friday, March 27, 2009

Next stop, Venezuela

I have been spending the week tying up some loose ends before I leave Sunday for two weeks in Venezuela to visit the archdiocesan mission there, run by Father Greg Schaffer, a priest from this archdiocese who has been on assignment there for 11 years.

I will spend Holy Week and Easter there, which should be very interesting. Catholics in Venezuela do much more elaborate things during Holy Week than we do. They will have several processions throughout the week, with some lasting four or five hours. Then, the Easter celebration begins early Sunday morning and continues throughout the day.

Several months ago, Father Greg invited me to come down and take pictures of the mission, which will have its 40th anniversary in 2010. I asked if my wife, Julie, could come with me. When he said yes, I accepted. She will go down for a week, while I'll stay for two. She's really excited about the chance to see the mission and the twin port cities of San Felix and Puerto Ordaz. As a photojournalist, I'm looking forward to the photographic possibilities.

We'll be packing feverishly tomorrow to get ready for the flight down to Caracas, after which we'll board another plane for a short flight to the mission. We've tried to take care of things this week like getting our tax return filed. Also, last night, I picked up my bass from the taxidermist and brought it into my office today. It's nice to be able to look at it as I begin to think about this year's fishing season.

Speaking of fishing, Father Greg said I should have a chance to do some fishing while I'm down in Venezuela. San Felix, where the mission is located, is at the intersection of two rivers, and Father Greg has found someone who will take me fishing. It will be quite different from anything I have experienced up here and I'm looking forward to it. I plan to write about it in my April outdoors column. Stay tuned and pray for me!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bagging turkey tags

This week, the state of Wisconsin started selling surplus wild turkey tags that didn't sell in the regular lottery. After computer crashes the last two years, officials revamped the system this year.

I'm happy to report that it worked just fine. This morning at 10 a.m., surplus tags for my area, Zone 4, went on sale at 10 a.m. I bought one each for my two oldest sons, Joe and Andy, plus an extra one for me. That will allow me to shoot two birds during my season, which takes place May 13-17. Zone 4 sales will continue until midnight, with Zones 5 and 6 going on sale tomorrow (Friday). Then, any remaining tags from all zones go on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday.

I don't want to be greedy, but on one farm that we hunt, we have called in multiple gobblers two years in a row. This time, I'll be able to take a second bird if I want to. Another bonus is that the boys' grandpa, Bob Guditis, is coming into town in late May and says he'd like to buy a tag and hunt with us. That would be great.

It could be an exciting spring for turkey hunting. I start off hunting with Bishop Joe Charron of Des Moines in Missouri in late April. I met him last spring when I went down to Iowa with one of our reporters, Maria Wiering, to do a story on the Diocese of Des Moines after Bishop Richard Pates was assigned there. I got a chance to talk to Bishop Charron and found out we both like turkey hunting. He said he goes to Missouri every year with a good friend of his, Joe Lane, and would talk to Joe about having me hunt with them this spring.

Well, a few weeks ago, Joe Lane called me to give me the dates of the trip and invite me to come along. He owns 220 acres south of Kansas City and said he's got a good bird population there. So, I'm excited about the trip.

It's got to be better than my last trip, which I took two years ago with Father Joe Classen near St. Louis. In three days, we only heard gobbling one morning, and that was just for about 15-20 minutes, then nothing after that. The birds did not respond to our calls at all and we both got skunked. However, I very much enjoyed meeting Father Joe and spending a few days in the woods with him.

After I get back from Missouri, I hunt Minnesota for five days starting May 10. That overlaps with my Wisconsin hunt, which starts May 13. I hope to get a Minnesota bird before then and then try for two in Wisconsin.

In all honesty, I'd be happy if I got one bird from those three hunts. If I take more than that, praise God!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Double bonus

Some good news came on Saturday for my two oldest sons, Joe and Andy. First, they both got their youth tags for elk and deer hunting in Montana this fall. The state issues them to youth under age 18 and the boys got them for the second year in a row. Like last year, we will be going out west the week of Thanksgiving.

Both Montana residents and nonresidents are eligible for the youth licenses, provided they have a resident sponsor. Their grandfather, Bob Guditis, lives in Great Falls and filled out the necessary paperwork and sent it to us. The tags went on sale March 1 and were available first come, first serve. He was concerned they might get taken in a short period of time, especially when the state reduced the number available this year.

So, it was a nice surprise to get them in the mail on Saturday. An even bigger surprise was when Joe got word that same day that he had won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the Minnesota chapter of Safari Club International. His prize will be a $2,000 trip to a youth hunting camp in Texas at Indianhead Ranch in Del Rio. Part of the package is a chance to shoot an exotic animal at the camp. Joe is very excited about the trip.

The Safari Club started its Apprentice Hunter Program in 1992 as a way to help educate and train youth in outdoor skills. Topics covered include environmental education, wildlife management and conservation. I suspect this camp will produce wildlife managers someday. Perhaps, Joe will be one of them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Helping young hunters

I got a chance to do a little turkey tutoring last night. My son Andy's friend, Jake Druffner, spent the night and I was able to help him learn the art of turkey calling.

Jake is a very serious outdoorsman and he will go on his first spring turkey hunt this year on his family's land near Hudson, Wis. I demonstrated a variety of turkey calls and was able to help him develop his technique.

Over the last 20 years of turkey hunting in Minnesota and other states, I have become somewhat of a call freak. I carry about eight or 10 turkey calls in my vest when I'm out in the woods and I like to use many of them. Sometimes, a turkey won't respond to one call and will go nuts over another. Don't ask me why, but I have witnessed this phenomenon firsthand and other hunters have, too.

That, in fact, is what makes the game so intriguing. And, it's what makes variety so important, not just in terms of having different types of calls, but also in terms of being able to make all of the different turkey sounds.

Every hunter will hear from the experts how important the basic yelp of a hen turkey is. But, other calls, especially the softer ones like clucks and purrs, can be just as important, especially when turkeys are close or if they're not responding to yelps. I remember the first Minnesota longbeard I shot back in 2004. He would gobble intermittently, but never right after I yelped.

He was getting closer, but I could not tell if he was coming to my call or not. He only gobbled three or four times on his way in and always at least a minute or more after I called.

Finally, he started gobbling like crazy behind me and to my left. He was only about 40 or 50 yards away from me, but out of view. He was walking back and forth and gobbling continuosly, but he wouldn't come any closer. Finally, I picked up my slate call and did some soft clucks and purrs. He went nuts at the sounds and walked to the edge of the field in front of me. I saw him in full strut to my left and he started walking to the right toward my decoys.

Just when he was just about straight in front of me, he came out of strut for a brief moment and lifted his head up slightly. I fired quickly and brought down him down. He ended up being the largest bird I have ever shot. He weighed 24.98 pounds and is only the second bird over 20 pounds that I have taken. Last year, I got a Wisconsin gobbler that weighed 20.5 pounds.

I'll never forget that Minnesota bird and how I was able to pull him into range with the soft calls. I don't think enough turkey hunters realize the effectiveness of softer calls. They also can fall into the trap of over calling.

Hunters should remember two things about gobblers: 1. Their hearing is so good that they can pick up even the softest of calls most of the time, except on windy days, and, 2. Gobblers are used to the hens coming to them and hens usually yelp so they can find out where the gobbler is and come to him to breed. So, when you shut up, it can make the gobbler think the hen has lost interest, which may make him come over to investigate and check out what happened to that hen.

The tricky part about this is it can take a long time for the gobbler to get curious enough to leave where he is -- sometimes an hour, or two, or even three. My brother, Paul, is very patient when it comes to sitting and waiting for a turkey to come in. Consequently, he has shot more birds than anyone else in our family. In fact, he rarely gets skunked. I used to wonder why he always did so well. Then, it finally occurred to me that he is willing to wait as long as it takes for a turkey to come in.

Nearly every hunting season, his patience is rewarded. Sadly for him, he did not get drawn in the Minnesota lottery this year, so he will not be going turkey hunting, even though he has a chance to buy a surplus license, which go on sale today at 5 p.m. for those who did not get picked in the lottery. Although Paul will not be out in the woods this spring, I hope to bring some of his patience with me as I attempt to pursue gobblers in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Friday, March 13, 2009

It's show time

The annual Northwest Sportshow opened yesterday and I followed my tradition of taking my dad to the Minneapolis Convention Center to sample the latest fishing and hunting equipment and talk about the outdoors with people at the show. The show is taking place about a month earlier this year and runs through Sunday.

One of my most intriguing conversations was with long-time fishing guide Tom Neustrom. He has guided for more than 30 years and will be inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in June. He counts legendary anglers Al and Ron Lindner among his friends.

He happened to stop by the Sugar Point Resort booth while I was talking with the owners, Steve and Bunny Fox. This resort is on Leech Lake, which is experiencing a terrific rebound of its walleye fishery. Several years back, the population crashed and the DNR worked hard to restore it. The Foxes told me that the fishing was fabulous in 2008 and they are expecting 2009 to be another great year. Neustrom agreed.

The interesting thing is, he guides on both Leech and Upper Red, which experienced a walleye revival of its own, culminating in the reopening of walleye fishing in 2006. I asked Neustrom which lake he likes better, Leech or Upper Red. To my surprise, he said Leech. Although you can catch lots of walleyes on Upper Red, he thinks the fish are healthier (i.e. fatter) on Leech.

Here's what I like even more -- the limit on Leech is four compared with three on Upper Red. Plus, the protected slot on Leech starts at 18 inches versus 17 for Upper Red. I can't tell you how many walleyes I have caught on Upper Red between 17 and 18 inches. The more of them I catch, the more painful it becomes to keep throwing them back. On Leech, these fish can go into the livewell.

The last thing I like about Leech is it's closer to home than Upper Red -- only about four hours versus five to five and a half. It takes less time and it will save on gas.

I have never been on Leech. I only have seen the lake from the road while driving through the town of Walker. It's very large, to be sure, but both Neustrom and the Foxes say it's not hard to catch walleyes on Leech during May and June. In fact, the west side of Sugar Point is an excellent place to start, they said. You can just drift with a jig and minnow and catch plenty of fish.

For those who want to know more about Leech Lake and walleye fishing, Neustrom will spend time at the Rapala, Northland Tackle and Minn Kota booths. I found him to be both easy to talk to and informative. There's even the possibility of fishing with him this summer on Leech. If I can, I will take advantage of that opportunity. I cooked my last batch of walleye a week ago and am hoping to put more in the freezer this summer.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A hunting he will go

I got some good news from my friend John Nesheim. He was approved by the Minnesota DNR to receive a permit to use a crossbow during the archery deer season. The loss of both his feet and damage to his hands from severe frostbite qualified him for this privilege.

It's nice to know he'll be able to get out in the woods and hunt this fall. He really enjoys deer hunting and his accident in January that caused the frostbite was threatening to keep him from going after whitetails. Now, he'll have that chance, thanks to some quick and compassionate response by the DNR.

I know the DNR takes a lot of heat for the way it manages our state's resources and the hunting and fishing programs. So, I think it's only fair to acknowledge the department for the good things it does. This is definitely one of them.

I hope the people who processed John's permit application know what it means to him to have this opportunity. First, he lost his feet, then his business and has had to struggle with learning how to use a wheelchair and figuring out what he wants to do for a living. At least, he'll have a deer hunt to look forward to this fall.

My heartfelt thanks goes out to the DNR for providing opportunities like this for disabled hunters.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Turkey hunting with a bishop?

I got a surprising phone call the other day from Iowa. The caller was Joe Lane, a friend of Bishop Joe Charron, who was the bishop of Des Moines before being succeeded by Bishop Richard Pates last spring because of illness. During a visit to Iowa before Bishop Pates' installation there, I got a chance to talk with Bishop Charron.

Not long into the conversation, the topic of wild turkey hunting came up and we discovered that each of us enjoys it very much. Bishop Charron tries to go every year and usually goes with Lane, who owns land in both Iowa and Missouri. Back then, Bishop Charron said he would talk to Lane about having me join them this spring.

I had forgotten that by the time the call came this week, but Bishop Charron hadn't. In fact, he planned a trip to Missouri with Lane and instructed Lane to call me and extend the invitation to join them. They are looking at going the week of Missouri's turkey opener, which is Monday, April 20. The nice thing about Missouri is hunters can buy a license over the counter, rather than enter a lottery, which is the practice in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

As Lane described his 220-acre piece of land in Missouri, I got more and more excited. He's got great habitat with lots of birds, he said, and it looks like the three of us would be the first ones to hunt it this spring.

Now, with the weather warming and the snow melting, I'm thinking more about turkey hunting and getting pretty excited. I've already been drawn for a tag in both the Minnesota and Wisconsin lotteries. Hunting in Missouri would be a great bonus.

But, the hunt would come just a week after I get back from a two-week trip to Venezuela. I was invited there by Father Greg Schaffer, the director of the archdiocesan mission there. I will be there from March 29 to April 13, the day after Easter. I will take photos of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies there, which are more elaborate than almost anything we see here in the U.S. I may get a chance to fish for peacock bass and to visit some spectacular waterfalls, including Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world.

So, I'm not sure if I'll be able to do both trips. Still, it's fun to entertain the thought of going turkey hunting with Bishop Charron. If it doesn't work this year, I'd like to do it someday. I think he'd be a lot of fun to hunt with and I sure hope to get a chance to do that.