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Catch-and-release hunting on eagles and moose

October 24, 2009
By Joe Hackett, Enterprise Outdoors Columnist

The North Country woods will be busy this weekend, as Saturday marks the opening of the regular rifle season for whitetail deer. The smell of wood smoke and wet woolies will again scent the cabin with the annual migration of sportsmen returning to the North Woods.

Pickup trucks will line the backroads, and local diners will fill up with an assortment of plaid- and camo-clad visitors looking for a cup of coffee and a hearty meal.

Opening day woods will provide a fresh carpet of crunchy leaves underfoot despite a relatively thick foliage cover. Beech whips are as full and thick as ever, though the beech-nut crop has been nearly a no show.

Although the number of hunters has diminished considerably over the past decade, an estimated 12.5 million Americans still take to the hunt.

Despite a steady decline in the number of male hunters, the number of females on the hunt has remained relatively stable, with one exception. The one group that is actually growing are young, female hunters. Many have taken up the sport with their fathers, while others have pursued it with the entire family.

There are nearly 1.2 million women hunters in the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Female hunters account for 9 percent of the country's total hunting population.

Some believe that women make better hunters because they're more patient than men and can retain their focus longer.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that hunting is a safe, healthy and enjoyable outdoor activity that should be equally shared by all.

A bird's eye view

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to enjoy a few days on the hunt. Although my hunting companion Davor Brajkovic shot at game repeatedly, he never managed to knock down an eagle, moose, deer or duck.

Decked out in camo attire and carrying a rapid-fire contraption that resembled a small bazooka, he stalked prey with the cunning of a fox. His aim was good, and he could shoot just the eyes of a chickadee from 100 yards distant.

The gentleman from Croatia practiced "catch-and-release" hunting, preferring to capture his trophies with multiple shots from a long lens, rather than taking them down with an old lever-action Winchester.

Over the years, he had taken big game and small birds from Australia to Tanzania, Madagascar to Mozambique, Kamkatcha to Kenya, Libya to Indonesia and throughout the United States.

"I was always curious to see the natural world and other cultures, to see nature's creations," he explained. "And I've found that there's a big difference between primitive and natural.

"When you present yourself as a simple person, you are more likely to be accepted," he continued. "Language isn't a problem when you are hospitable."

He came to the Adirondacks seeking birds and other wildlife with a long lens because "it was like Canada, just a big green spot on the map, with a lot of lakes.

"I like to be disconnected from civilization," he revealed. "I like it to feel free from the world, to go where there is nothing and nobody, where you can lay down and there is nothing but silence and stars."

Whether chasing Komodo dragons in the South Pacific or digging a hole in the sands of the Sahara desert to stay warm at night, Davor has lived an adventurous life.

In the process, he has learned the "small tricks of living comfortably while going to places where there are no signs of humans for 360 degrees. If something happened, nobody would ever know where I am.

"Such travels have allowed me to develop an inner alarm. Like the hair on your neck, it's something that can't be taught."

Davor contacted me in an effort to locate local birds to photograph. Not being a birder myself, I turned to Bob Hagar, a well known local birder, for advice.

"Well," Bob cautioned me. "It's going to be hit or miss. A lot of our birds have already left, but you may get a few still passing through."

Bob provided me with a number of likely locations and wished me luck. From the tone of his voice, I expected luck would needed.

The following morning, I helped load a mountain of gear in the truck before we departed the hotel. With great anticipation, we were off on the hunt with a bright and brisk day filling the scene.

For our first stop, I intended to visit the state boat launch on Lake Placid where a pair of loons had been sighted just the day before. Unfortunately, we struck out. Already I could read the disappointment on Davor's face.

Next on tap was Whiteface Inn, where I expected to find ducks, loons and possibly even a lone blue heron.

But as we rounded the corner onto Victor Herbert Drive, we found ourselves instantly face to face with a 600-pound moose. "Maybe it wasn't such a bad start after all," I said to myself.

After shooting the daylights out of the moose, we took off to the Inn, where we found a lone loon, a flock of mergansers, a raft of mallards and a pileated woodpecker that flew so close we could hear its wing beats.

If we had been fishing for trout, the day's limit would be done and it wasn't even 9 a.m. But the hunt continued to Lake Flower, where a flock of Canada geese awaited our arrival. The big birds graciously paraded up and down the lake, and with a long lens, Davor shot the hell out of them, plus a few ducks, pigeons and an assortment of other victims.

We set off next to Moose Pond, with intentions of locating a ruffed grouse, some boreal birds and possibly even a bald eagle that had recently been observed feasting on a dead raccoon along the Franklin Falls Road.

Along the dirt road to Moose Pond, we found a grouse dusting itself. But as the mighty Croatian hunter shouldered his weapon, the grouse flushed and quickly disappeared into the woods. Another near miss!

Returning to Bloomingdale, we were forced to stop for a bridge repair project, but our luck continued. Along the roadside, a lone doe was feeding under an apple tree.

The deer cooperated as the huntsman again dragged his gear out of the truck, circled the tree and began shooting rapid fire. I was certain the staccato sound of the auto-advance would scare her off.

But, with a flick of the tail and a lone glance, she continued to munch on fallen apples without any obvious concern for the camo-clad character clamoring all about the nearby woods.

"What a poser," I thought. "It can't get any better." Yet it did, as a plump, ruffed grouse promptly flew in to take a perch atop the apple tree.

The big bird plucked leaves and rained apples down on the doe below. One actually bounced off her back and it didn't even spook her. She calmly went back to feeding. The grouse quickly became the target of Davon's long lens and yet not a feather was ruffled.

Our good fortune continued for the remainder of the day, with geese in the fields of Gabriels, turkeys atop Harrietstown Hill and a host of other shots fired.

We ended our day in Saranac Lake, where the intrepid photographer collected more baggage courtesy of the Blue Line Sport Shop. Following promises of just a "quick stop," Davor returned with a fold-up, portable hunting blind, a spanking-new "Real Tree" camo outfit and a newly acquired appreciation for a multitude of scent covers, masking sprays, odor guards and scent-free toothpaste.

On the other hand, I learned to recognize the Adirondacks' potential for hosting "edu-vacations." Vacations with a purpose are rapidly growing as retiring "baby boomers" are creating a burgeoning market for soft adventures with a purpose.

In the Adirondack heydays, visitors departed with something tangible, whether it was a fish, fur or a trophy mount. They took a piece of their travels home with them.

As with many trends, what's old eventually becomes new again. And while many travelers no longer have an interest in harvesting fish, fur or game, they still possess a desire to return with something more memorable than just a memory.

Edu-vacations provide travelers with an opportunity to acquire new skills, knowledge or something more, such as a photograph or a painting. It may be time to dust off memories of the traditional harvest and provide visitors with a viable alternative to the usual, consumptive adventures.



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