Hunting & Fishing for Stories & Photos

Friday, March 15, 2013

Texas Barbary Sheep (Aoudad) Hunt - Preview

Years ago I saw my first barbary sheep in southern New Mexico. Ever since, I have been trying to figure out a way to hunt them. I finally got the chance last weekend! I hunted with Randy Slaughter of Rio Brazos Outfitters on his free-range lease near Post, TX. I shared the hunt with Ryan Balch, one of my best SWAROVSKI customers. This was one of the most glassing-intensive hunts I have experienced, and definitely one of the most memorable.

Here's a partial list of gear I used:
Swarovski Optik 10x42 EL SWAROVISION
Swarovski Optik 10x42 EL RANGE
Swarovski Optik ATX/65/95
Swarovski Optik Z5 3.5-18x44 BT-4W
Christensen Arms .270WSM
Superior Ammunition 140gr Nosler Accubond
Outdoorsmans Tripod
First Lite Clothing
Tenzing 2220 Pack

I will share more later, but for now just wanted to post up a few photos...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Swanson's Laced With Gold aka "Lacey" - RIP

On Monday night we said goodbye to the best friend I've ever known. Her love was unconditional and her desire to please was second to none. In addition to the hundreds of birds she returned to my hand, she also helped return me to a better place in my life. I got her while going through some troubling times, and she helped me transition from what I was before to what I am now. There's no doubt in my mind that I would not be the same person today if not for Lacey.

The cutest little yellow dog on the planet was born in Illinois on May 23, 2001 and died on December 10, 2012. She gave me 11-1/2 years of joy. She was the result of a second breeding, and I was lucky to have met one of the dogs from the first breeding, so I had a very good idea of what to expect. I was not disappointed! I sent in my deposit before she was born and received pictures right after she was born.

I picked her up at the Denver airport seven weeks later, and together we learned about love, retrieving, and friendship. I knew her call name would be Lacey, named after John Lacey who introduced the legislation known as the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act is a federal law that prohibits the importation of illegal wildlife and also prohibits the transportation of illegally taken wildlife over state lines. In just so happened that Lacey was born in Illinois, then flew out of Missouri to Tennessee, before arriving in Colorado. Nothing was illegal, but she crossed a bunch of state lines before she was even two months old!  Due to her coloring and how valuable she was to me, I decided her registered name should be Swanson's Laced With Gold.

For that first year, we trained every day. And when I say every day, I mean every day. If memory serves me correctly, not a single day went by that we didn't do some sort of training, even if it was just a few short retrieves or some "yard work" - sit, heel, here, etc. I am proud to say that she retrieved everything that I ever threw for her. There were a couple tough days, but every single bumper or live bird that was thrown for her, was delivered back to my hand.

Of course we did a ton of very in-depth training, thanks to my good friend Joel Harris. He was my boss at the time when we worked at the sporting clays/bird hunting facility for Gorsuch Outfitters. Joel and his wife also own Rocky Mountain Pet Resort in Yampa, CO and he breeds/trains labs for hunt tests and field trials. He took me under his wing and showed me the ins-and-outs of retriever training. Under his watchful and discerning eye, Lacey became the most well-behaved, best trained, and most accomplished hunting dog I have ever known.

We hunted in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, and South Dakota for a bunch of different species. Here's what I think is a pretty complete list of all the bird species she has retrieved for me: Chukar, Sandhill Crane, Mourning Dove, White-Winged Dove, many duck species including Mallards and Teal, Canada Goose, Blue Grouse, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Pheasant, Pigeon, Bobwhite Quail, Gamble's Quail, and Scaled Quail.

Luckily, I carried a camera on many of those hunts so I have many photos to help me remember her. I also took photos of her just being the cool dog she was: hanging out around the house, going for hikes, going camping, playing with Ruby, playing with Mattox, etc. Many of those photos were before the digital age, so I'll just share a bunch that are not still in hard-copy...

Of all the time I spent with her there are a few things that stick out in my mind:

All Business
She was always a happy-go-lucky dog, but as soon as I put on her electric collar, she would turn all business. She would focus on me, and no one else, and give her best effort to please me. Her instant transformation from fun-and-games to work was remarkable.

On a cold, snowy day, we hunted ducks on the Eagle River with my best friend Rick. He snuck down on a herd of mallards and shot one as they jumped. He pushed them right to me, and I was lucky to shoot two. One died instantly, but the other just had a broken wing. It landed on the ice on the opposite side of the river.

I immediately sent Lacey for the retrieve, but before she could get there, the duck waddled off the ice into the river's current. Of course, Lacey turned to follow. The duck was swept under the ice and Lacey nearly was also. With just her face above the water and her collar caught on the ice, the current tried to pull her body downstream and under the ice. I had just enough time to throw my $2000 Beretta back on the shore, and as I turned back I just knew she would be gone. Thankfully, she continued to fight against the current as I used my elbows to break through the ice to get to her. I reached out and grabbed her collar to pull her from the current.

I had never been so close to losing a dog before. It was very traumatic for us both. Once back on dry land, I just hugged her until Rick made his way back down to us. We took some pictures that day and Lacey has a look on her face like I have never seen. She was clearly pissed...I think it scared us both!

The next day, I forced us both to get back on the horse again. We hunted a different part of the river and I dropped a duck on the ice on the far side. I sent her for the retrieve, but she did not want to do it. It took a little coaxing, but she finally got across the river and up on the ice. I was never so proud to have her make a retrieve!

Nichole and Mattox
Lacey instantly regarded Nichole as her mommy. It took a few years for me to convince Nichole that it should be official, but it was official in Lacey's mind from the start. (I actually think it was official in Nichole's mind, too!) As much as Lacey enjoyed hunting with me, she enjoyed hiking and playing in the snow with Nichole. Lacey was definitely not just my dog...she was a family dog. In fact, when Mattox was born, Lacey would always position herself between Mattox and the door. I remember Nichole and Mattox gently rocking in the rocking chair with Lacey curled up in front of the door to Mattox's room. As soon as I opened the door, she went in and laid down in front of them.

Other Dogs
Lacey thought she was more of a person than a dog. She really just didn't care about other dogs; she would ignore them. That all changed when we got Ruby. Since we never bred Lacey, we got the next best thing: Lacey's niece. She must have known from the start that Ruby was more than just another silly dog because Lacey let her play, chew on her lips, and crawl on her back. Lacey would often look at Ruby like "you are a complete yahoo" but she loved the new puppy and did more than just put up with her. Now that Ruby is alone, I can see pieces of Lacey in her!

I could go on and on with memories, but I think some more photos will have to suffice. Lacey was the nicest, softest, gentlest, most caring, friendliest, best behaved dog I have ever known. She taught me that no matter how crappy your day might be, a wet nose and wagging tail will make it better. They say that dogs come into your life and leave paw prints on your heart. This one also left lasting memories that have helped define who I am as a friend, husband, and father.

Littleone, you will be missed! I love you Sweetdog.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Gear Review - SWAROVSKI OPTIK ATX/STX Modular Spotting Scopes

Disclaimer: I am biased about this product because I work for SWAROVSKI OPTIK.

When I first saw the ATX/STX spotting scope system, I started thinking about all the times I could use the huge 95mm objective lens from the vehicle or when scouting, and then swap it for the 65mm lens while actually hunting. My opportunities came this fall while helping two friends on two separate hunts, and the combination worked amazingly!

Let's start with the basics of this system:

Image Quality
The image quality of this spotting scope is mind-blowing. It has superior color, clarity, and contrast thanks to the HD lenses and SWAROVISION. In addition, the field flattener lenses provide a huge field of view and amazing edge-to-edge clarity. When comparing it to our 80mm HD spotting scopes, which many people regarded as the best spotting scope on the market, the 65mm lens is quite comparable, the 85mm is brighter and clearer, and the 95mm simply blows it away!

The ATX/95mm (front) compared to the STS-80 HD.

The magnification wheel has been moved down onto the "body" of the scope next to the focus wheel. This greatly improves the ease of use of the spotting scope because you no longer need to reach up under your hat and crank up the magnification while trying to hold the scope steady. A simple movement back from the focus wheel places your hand on the magnification wheel, which is easy to manipulate even with gloves on. In addition, since it is near the middle of the scope, it's much easier to keep your scope on target while zooming in.

This is the first spotting scope that has been designed specifically with digiscoping in mind. Previously, spotting scopes were built as spotting scopes, and then we tried to add cool adapters for digiscoping. I don't know exactly what the engineers did, but they incorporated photography into their plans and design elements. What I do know is that digiscoping is far easier with the scope using either of two different adapters, and the quality is far better. There is an adapter for interchangeable lens cameras called the TLS-APO, and one for point-and-shoots called the DCB II. I have been digiscoping for more than eight years, and the first few photos with this scope were better than all of my other digiscoping photos...combined!

Great-tailed Grackle (ATX/85, DCB II, Canon 1400 IS)

Great-tailed Grackle (ATX/85, DCB II, Canon 1400 IS)

Great-tailed Grackle (ATX/85, DCB II, Canon 1400 IS)

I left the modularity for last, because even if your couldn't interchange objective lenses, or you choose to just get one lens, this scope is still beyond compare. However, when you add in the fact that you can now get one eyepiece (angled is available now, straight will be available in 2013), and then pick-and-choose which objective lens you would like, it makes this scope far more useful. As I said at the beginning, the combination of a 65mm and 95mm, seems perfect for me, but the 85mm is such an amazing lens, that I don't see why someone couldn't use just that one. I have glassed and digiscoped with all three, using the 65/95 combo on two hunts this fall. I used the 95mm while scouting, and then the 65mm during the actual hunt. The size/weight savings were definitely worth it, especially on my friend Joel's mountain goat hunt!

Scouting for Mountain Goats (ATX/95mm, TLS APO, Canon EOS Rebel XTi)

Hunting for Mountain Goats (ATX/65mm, TLS APO, Canon EOS Rebel XTi)

Hunting for Mountain Goats (ATX/65mm, TLS APO, Canon EOS Rebel XTi)

There is simply no better spotting scope that I have looked through, and I have been lucky enough to use almost all the other competitors in the field. I have compared the SWAROVSKI OPTIK ATX directly to our 80mm HD and 65mm HD, and it clearly wins out due to the SWAROVISION attributes of better color, contrast, clarity, and field of view. Add to it the improved ergonomics, digiscoping quality, and modularity, and it simply can't be beat!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gear Review - Hunting GPS Maps

If you read my previous post, you know that my old GPS is so outdated that I don't even own a computer that I can plug it into anymore. It was definitely time for an upgrade. After much research, I chose the Garmin GPSMAP 62st, which includes 1:100k maps for all of the U.S.

I then added the Hunting GPS Maps Colorado chip that shows all land ownership and 1:24k topography in the state. The maps are state-specific and are available for 21 different states including all of the West.

I was rediculously impressed by the Hunting GPS Maps. On my friend Rick's elk hunt, we had to be aware of both private land and a national monument. On multiple occasions, we could have trespassed, but didn't because of the accuracy of Hunting GPS Maps. Without it, we would have used paper maps to determine our location, but it would have taken much longer and we couldn't have been as precise.

In the end, the Hunting GPS Maps prevented Rick from shooting an elk because we knew he was on the monument. There were no fences and no signs, but the map was clear. Rick wisely chose not to shoot and just let two awesome bulls walk. I am ridiculously proud of him for his decision, and like he said, "It's my responsibility to know where I am." Hunting GPS Maps enabled him to do that perfectly.

If you hunt anywhere near private land or other property where access is restricted, I highly suggest you get one of the state chips from Hunting GPS Maps. They are easy to use, the 1:24k maps are very precise, and they will help you stay safe and legal.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gear Review - Garmin GPSMAPS 62st

My old GPS is so old that I don't even own a computer that I can plug it into. I figured it was time for an upgrade! After much research, I chose the Garmin GPSMAPS 62st.

The 62st has the 1:100k base map for the entire U.S., which I think I will find valuable throughout my travels. To determine property boundaries with 1:24k topo maps, I decided to get the Hunting GPS Maps card for Colorado, and then add other states as necessary. I couldn't be happier with my choice!

I really like the size and shape of the 62st. It isn't so small that it hard to handle, but it's not so heavy and bulky that I feel like I should leave it in the pickup. I especially like the buttons instead of the touchscreen because I consistently use my GPS with gloves on. I didn't want to risk having to take off my gloves to be able to use it easily. The controls are very intuitive, although I haven't found a good way to "wake it up" in the only complaint!

All said and done, the combination of the high-intensity antenna, ergonomic shape and design, handy buttons, and the additional Colorado map from Hunting GPS Maps make the Garmin GPSMAPS 62st the very best GPS I could have chosen for hunting in the West. With this tool I have the confidence to go where I've never been, and get back out safely again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Colorado Mountain Goat

For some strange reason, I have been enthralled by mountain goats. When my brother started applying for bighorn sheep in Utah, I started applying for mountain goats...I'm now up to 11 points. I have read stories, watched TV shows, and listened with interest anytime the subject of mountain goats came up. In my home state of Colorado, I could not afford the upfront cash fee of $1600 for points so I have never applied. Now that I am back, I will start building my points!

Knowing I am so excited about goats, my friend Joel Harris called me as soon as he found out he had drawn a Colorado tag. I was jealous, but couldn't wait to help him on his hunt. All summer long, I would stop to spot goats along I-70 as I drove back and forth from Eagle to Denver. Even though they weren't in Joel's unit, I called him each time, just to rub it in that I was watching goats.

I also called a customer who I thought might be able to help us. John Legnard is with the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society and since all those mountain hunters stick together, I thought it would be worth a shot. I hit the jackpot! Not only had John hunted the same unit as Joel's, his brother and another friend had also. John offered to help as long as he could bring Jeff Mees, who happens to give the goat hunting seminar each year for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. My simple inquiry turned into the best help a guy could ask for!

Scouting with the SWAROVSKI OPTIK STS-80 HD (background)
and the new ATX/95mm Modular Spotting Scope.

We found this 8" billy high on a ridge the day before the season opened.
We know it's an 8" billy because we met Ben Munoz who hiked in solo and shot him.
(Digiscoping photo with the SWAROVSKI OPTIK ATX/95mm, TLS-APO, and Canon XTi.)

The rest of the crew spent multiple days scouting, but I was only able to get over with Joel and our long-time friend John Cochran the day before the season. We skirted the unit in the pickup and found somewhere around 25 goats, only one of which was a billy. We met Ben Munoz, who we nicknamed "Interchangeable Ben" because he was set up with all SWAROVKSI glass and Outdoorsmans tripods. Due to work commitments, it was his first day scouting and he was hunting solo. After the hunt, he sent me photos of the 8" billy we had found while scouting. Unbeknownst to us, he spent a long day on the mountain - over 17 hours all combined - to shoot his well-earned trophy!

Goats in Colorado live above timberline in the 11,500-14,000 foot range.

Goat hunting...SWAROVSKI style!!

Joel, John C., and I met up with John L. and Jeff early on opening morning and proceeded to the trailhead. As we hiked in, we stopped periodically to glass and John L. was the first to find goats. They were way up at the head of a large bowl, but Jeff quickly found goats much closer. When we sat down to glass and everyone unlimbered their SWAROVSKIs, we found about 25 goats scattered around the bowl, again, only one of which was a large billy.

We decided to split up: Joel, John C., and I headed straight up while John L. and Jeff stayed down low to glass and give us hand signals. The billy was on the move, and there was just no way we could go up as fast as he could go around. He ended up mixing in with a bunch of other goats that all went up and over the top. A quick look down to our spotters confirmed we should climb back down.

The climb down was nearly as treacherous as the climb up. Loose rocks, uneven footing, and the sheer steepness were tough on both Joel and John, but were even worse for me since I had screwed up my ankle on an elk hunt the month before. I don't know whether I had a bad sprain or an avulsion fracture (where a tendon or ligament pulls off the bone) but I do know it hurt!

We found this small band of goats near a couple steep rock chutes.
(Digiscoping photo with the SWAROVSKI OPTIK ATX/65mm, TLS-APO, and Canon XTi)

Even kids (baby goats) are super agile!

Climbing up to the goats through loose rock, scree fields, and snow can be treacherous.

The Black Mamba - Joel's McMillan Rifles .30-.378.

The luckiest find...a matched set of billy horns from a dead goat!

On our way down, we relocated four goats that had not joined up with the others. We knew it was two nannies, a kid, and a small billy. Jeff climbed up to meet us halfway so we could discuss our plan. After much deliberation, Joel decided to shoot the larger of the two nannies. He got setup at over 300 yards, well within the range of his custom McMillan Rifles .30-.378, but since the goats were undisturbed, we decided to get a little closer. At 260 yards, Joel laid down prone and took the shot.

The goat nearly went down, but gathered up her strength, and slowly walked down into a chute and disappeared. We snuck to the edge, only to find her standing and facing us. Joel calmly shot her again when she turned broadside. She reared up on her hind legs, and then stood still again. Joel ran another 180 grain Barnes-X into her chest, which caused her to turn downhill and stumble deeper into the chute. After three shots into her chest, each of which would have killed just about any other animal on the planet, she was finally down.

Joel set up for a shot on his goat from over 300 yards, before we decided we could get a little closer.

Goats are tough - this nanny took three shots in the chest from his .30-.378.

Joel's nanny measured 8" and was aged at 13 years old.

A great crew of friends makes each hunt more fun and more memorable.

With lots of blood on the nanny's white coat, we spent a bunch of time cleaning her up for photos as best we could. Luckily, she fell near a small spring so we had plenty of clean, fresh water. I made Joel pose for a ton of photos, and then he and Jeff went to work on a full-body skinning. They accomplished the task without too many hiccups, so we split up the meat and gear, and headed off the mountain. Of course, Joel got the privilege of carrying the head and hide, which made us all jealous, but proud to be able to help.

Joel's new Outdoorsmans pack made the hike out much easier.

Goat hunting was everything I thought it would be: challenging, majestic, exciting. The country they inhabit is second to none, and to see them easily jump around the rocks and cliffs makes you appreciate the toughness of these animals. They spend their entire lives at elevations where most people can't even breathe, yet they survey their domain as if they're sitting on the beach. Sharing a hunt like this with ethical, dedicated sportsmen made it even more fun. Never had I gotten together so many guys who hadn't hunted together (heck, hadn't even met one another) who got along so well and had so much fun.

It will be a while before I draw a Colorado goat tag, but I hope to weasel my way onto to as many hunts as possible. And you never know, I might just get lucky pretty soon with a Utah tag, too!


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gear Review - FirstLite

Over the years, I have used lots of different camouflage fabrics, but I had never used merino wool until I purchased a set of camo from FirstLite. I have followed FirstLite since its inception, and have met one of the owners, Kenton Carruth, quite a few times. When I needed to make a decision about new camouflage, I decided to give FirstLite a try and I'm sure glad I did. It is the most comfortable, warmest, coolest, and most scent-free hunting clothing I have ever worn.

What do FirstLite and a Thermos have in common?

This fall, I helped my best friend Rick Messmer on an awesome muzzleloader elk hunt in northwest Colorado. The terrain was very similar to Arizona, and the daytime high temperatures were, too. It would start off chilly in the morning, and then rise into the 80's during the day. I was comfortable with just a couple layers in the morning, and while hiking in the heat of the day, I got hot, but I would have been hot no matter what I was wearing. Just like a Thermos, it kept me warm when it was cool, and then kept me cool when it was warm. And just like a Thermos, it begs that age-old question: how does it know? I guess that's just one of the things that is so special about FirstLite's Merino wool.

Rick sporting his full kit of FirstLite while scouting for his elk hunt.

What really stood out, though, was the lack of stink! As I sweated, I could smell the musty wool, but as soon as it dried, there was no smell. After hunting and sweating for five days, when I got home I asked my wife to smell my shirt and she reluctantly agreed...she said she could tell it was not straight out of the washer, but it didn't stink!

I then wore the full get-up on my friend Joel's mountain goat hunt. When we stopped to glass, I added a down insulation layer because when the wind blows at 12,000' in October, it's downright chilly. I stayed comfortable all day as we hiked and climbed. I regulated my comfort by adding and removing layers, and finished the day happy to be wearing FirstLite.

Besides the comfort and lack of smell, I am glad to have a high quality camouflage choice in Realtree MAX-1. Most of what I own is Realtree, from hats and gloves to boots and backpacks. Some people might think it's silly, but I like to have all my camo match - especially when trying to sell photographs!

If you get a chance, take a look at FirstLite. It's available in a few different camouflage patterns as well as solid colors. From what I have experienced, it is the quietest, least smelly, and most comfortable hunting clothing that I have found! And since you can't hunt in Thermos, this is the next best thing!

FirstLite kept us warm and cool (just like a Thermos), and was extremely comfortable and scent-free!