Most outdoorsmen dream about that adventure of a lifetime, whether it’s stalking Cape buffalo in the veld of sub-Saharan Africa or going toe-to-toe with trophy tarpon on the Belize flats. But what about flushing grouse atop steep mountains in Kentucky or taking part in the Southern tradition of the midnight coon hunt? Numerous unique and challenging experiences are available throughout the South for anglers and hunters alike.
GROUSE IN BOONE’S BACKYARD
Access is remote and the hiking can be hard. Towns are scattered and motels are scarce. This is the land that Daniel Boone once gazed upon after traversing the Cumberland Gap, which connects Virginia and Kentucky. The land was rugged with dense forests and deep valleys. That was more than 200 years ago, yet much of the old frontier around the eastern Kentucky town of Boonesboro remains intact and teeming with game, thanks to the preservation of the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Marked by steep forested ridges, narrow valleys and more than 3,400 miles of cliffline, the 700,000-acre forest is still one of the South’s top hunting grounds. For Kentucky grouse hunters there is no better public tract.
Hunting grouse Southern-style means climbing remote Appalachian hills in the quest for pockets of secondary growth. The hike in search of game could be futile, but the Daniel Boone National Forest has two special grouse-management zones to assist hunters. A good place to start is within one of these two zones.
The Somerset Ranger District, which includes McCreary and Pulaski counties, is home to the 6,004-acre southern grouse-management zone. According to U.S. Forestry Wildlife Biologist Joe Metzmeier, the grouse-management zone features 10- to 20-year-old pole-sized timber stands. A recent pine beetle epidemic has also created substantial plots of early-stage growth in and around the management zone.
Additionally, don’t overlook edge habitat during the early fall. In particular, hunters should target the edges separating secondary oak and hickory stands, where grouse make their homes, from more mature oak and hickory stands, which provide the birds with an ample supply of mast crops.
The management area is bounded by the South Fork Cumberland River to the west and U.S. Route 27 to the east. Highway 751 leads hunters to forest service roads 858, 856 and 55, all of which intersect the management area.
The northern grouse-management zone is located within the Morehead Ranger District, which includes Rowan, Bath and Menifee counties. Hunters can expect plenty of steep but short hillsides within this 4,728-acre management area. Most of the slopes measure upward of 300 to 400 feet in height.
In February of 2003 an ice storm severely altered the Morehead District landscape. According to forest managers about half of the area was affected, with the southern and eastern slopes hardest hit. Hunters can expect to see several downed trees and numerous missing limbs. The diminished canopy has allowed more sunlight to penetrate the forest floor, spurring fresh undergrowth. In turn, grouse populations should benefit.
Since reaching good grouse cover can be taxing, pack a tent, a sleeping bag, drinking water and a few meals for an overnight stay. The Forest Service operates several developed campgrounds, but most of them are closed by the end of October. Therefore, pack light and leave the car behind.
Primitive camping, which is allowed throughout most of the forest, is a great way to explore the land. Campsites must be positioned at least 300 feet from any water sources, developed trails, or administrative sites. –Brian Ruzzo
Contact: Morehead Ranger District: 2375 Kentucky 801 South, Morehead, KY 40351; 606-784-6428. Somerset Ranger District: 135 Realty Lane, Somerset, KY 42501; 606-679-2010.
When to go: The season typically runs from early November through February.
DRUM AT DUSK
The depth finder reads only 3 feet–dangerously shallow water for a boat at night, especially in the often tumultuous Pamlico Sound–but the shoal is holding monster red drum, every one a trophy. This isn’t a fluke, either. There are a lot of these behemoths swimming along the drop-off, feeding on the large chunks of cut mullet served to them with a hook, line and sinker. They keep coming and coming, hooking up one after another. Your back and shoulders ache with each release of a 50-pound fish, and as the last shades of purple on the western horizon turn to black, you wonder how much longer your body can take the abuse.
Scenes like that are why the months of August and September are top-drawer for catching big red drum (also called redfish) around the mouth of North Carolina’s Neuse River and in the nearby Pamlico Sound.
“You’ll catch half a dozen or more every night, all forty-inch fish or larger,” says George Beckwith of Oriental, one of several guides who keys on the two late-summer months when redfish gang up to spawn. “We’ve caught as many as thirty in one night.”
The huge adult drum move from the ocean into the sound in June, but they’re usually scattered out until late July. That’s when Beckwith and other fishermen start to focus on points and shoals from Oriental to the mouth of the river, across the sound to Cedar Island and Swan Island, and to Maw Point at the mouth of the Bay River.
On a typical trip, Beckwith will anchor his boat on a set of shoals in 3 to 6 feet of water. He’ll set up a chum line using cut mullet or menhaden about an hour before dark to attract schools of drum coming to the shallows to feed.
Using medium- to medium-heavy spinning or bait-casting tackle with 20- to 30-pound-test line, Beckwith will set out half a dozen baits of menhaden chunks and mullet steaks. Fresh bait is a must. Before circle hooks became popular, fishermen used slip-sinkers and “fish-finder” rigs. The set-up has changed since then, however.
“You start with a snelled 14/0 Mustad circle hook with the barb flattened, and a foot of eighty- to one-hundred-pound-test monofilament leader. On the tag end, you crimp a sleeve, then slide on a glass bead, the sinker and another glass bead. Then loop it through the swivel, back through the bead, the sinker and the other bead, and finally crimp the end off,” Beckwith says. “You want the bait to be no more than six inches from the weight; that way, as soon as the fish picks up the bait and starts to swim away, the weight drags the circle hook down to the corner of her mouth.”
The use of circle hooks has dropped the percentage of trophy fish that are deep-hooked to almost nil–an important development in what is basically a catch-and-release fishery for spawning females. North Carolina has extremely restrictive creel and size limits on red drum. One fish measuring between 18 and 27 inches may be creeled each day; the rest must be released.
“We know there are a lot of little schools of fish out there that mix together,” says Beckwith. “I can go to the same place for two months and catch fish every night. It’s extremely consistent. You might catch fish at the same place, day after day, but they’re not necessarily the same fish.” –Dan Kibler
Contact: North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries: 800-682-2632. For guided trips, call George Beckwith, Down East Guide Service, 252-249-3101; Derek Jordan, DJ’s Guide Service, 252-249-0579; or Chris Elliott, Crystal Coast Charters, 252-808-7067.
When to go: Fish a rising tide during the evening through August and September.
COONS AFTER CURFEW
The crunching of dead leaves and sticks ceases. Lamps go out. It is as silent and black as midnight–because that’s exactly when it is.
I feel my hand rising through the cool air to within an inch of my nose, but it’s too dark to see even that. There’s a quick flash of yellow light…the orange glow of a cigarette and ghostly oval of a face, and then blackness again. No one says much, because everyone is listening. Ten minutes become 20, and seem like an hour.
Off in the distance is a low, mournful bawl. A dog strikes and the others pick up the trail. Headlamps flicker to life and we move quickly through shin-deep mud to the baying hounds. It is the music of coon hunters in their woodland symphony hall, and the orchestra is playing at the base of a towering, skeletal oak.
Herb Fields of Lacey’s Spring, Ala., has been chasing ringtails for more than 50 years. He lived it when a fat coon or possum meant a good run of the hounds and maybe meat for supper. Fields experiences it now with other hunters in the Tennessee River Coon Hunters Association, which he helped to establish in 1964.
“We just turn ’em loose and have a good time,” says Fields. “Sometimes we’ll pitch some horseshoes before we go or have a potluck supper. It’s just something we all enjoy together.”
I usually go hunting with Fields and some of his club members at least a couple of times during Alabama’s six-month season. For years, he and other club members would trap raccoons that raided their neighbors’ garbage cans or gardens, then release the animals to chase during hunting season.
Occasionally, the club will hold a sanctioned field trial. Two major organizations-the Professional Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club-sanction thousands of hunts each year for coon hounds, beagles and squirrel dogs, as well as bench shows, agility trials, water races and hunting tests.
Last year at a trial, I joined a group of hunters in the darkness as we listened for the hounds. Handlers are keen on the sounds of their dogs, learning early and well the distinctive voices of their own. It matters, because the first strike and, hopefully, first tree of a coon is worth valuable points. Gamesmanship and sometimes an argument over which dog treed first are part of the deal. No one wants to lose.
Later on at the clubhouse, after the casts were retrieved and the clock nudged 2 a.m., a tie was declared. The handlers agreed to split the winner’s share instead of trudging back into the woods so late for a quick winner-take-all showdown. Tired hunters departed into the night with their dogs. –Alan Clemons
Contact: United Kennel Club: 100 E. Kilgore Rd., Kalamazoo, MI 49002; 269-343-9020; www.ukcdogs.com. Professional Kennel Club: P.O. Box 8338, Evansville, IN 47716; 800-238-5009; www.prohound.com.
When to go: The PKC holds its annual World Championship each October in Aurora, Ky., for coon hounds, and the “Super Stakes” championship for dogs that have met strict registration criteria, including DNA testing.
Five or six does snorted and wandered off as I walked through the dim morning light to my stand. My guide said a heavy-racked 8-pointer had often been sighted wandering through the nearby hardwood flat.
Nothing new about that, though. Big bucks are common at Tara Wildlife. More than 12 miles of Mississippi River frontage and 17,200 acres of bottoms, swamps, agricultural land and hardwood forests are home to an intensely managed whitetail population. About 13,000 acres are designated bowhunting-only. Since 1995 more than 270 Pope and Young-class bucks have been taken, with many weighing more than 200 pounds.
Bowhunting is a specialty at Tara and bucks are held to high standards. They must meet at least three of five criteria, including points, spread, antler base mass, weight and age.
Hunters are rotated among the hundreds of stands dotting the property. Some sites are hunted once or twice and then left alone for weeks to avoid pressuring the deer. Guides keep a good tab on deer movements, and hunters are required to fill out daily sighting records of all does and bucks.
The big 8-pointer never showed up that morning, but at least five other does and a fine 6-pointer walked under my stand. It looked to be about 2 years old, with a high rack almost as wide as its ears. I watched as it grazed nonchalantly, its antlers gleaming in the sun spearing through the oaks. One or two more years, I thought, and Tara’s management would pay off with another fine buck for another hunter. –Alan Clemons
Contact: Tara Wildlife: 601-279-4261; www.tarawildlife.com; Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks: 601-432-2400; www.mdwfp.com.
When to go: The archery season runs from early October to late November.
GREAT SMOKY TROUT
It was the commotion of branches breaking and squirrels barking that at last made me wonder whether these 8-inch browns were really worth the effort.
Not that I hadn’t considered that question before. It had crossed my mind during the butt-numbing, 12-hour drive to the southern end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park; during the slow boat-ride across Fontana Lake in a driving rainstorm; during the six-mile hike carrying a 60-pound backpack; during that spooky campfire the night before when a pack of raccoons (honest!) raided the campsite and stole my bag of Snickers.
Yet acknowledging each hardship only served to build the sense of adventure that had led to this trip.
But now, caught waist-high in Hazel Creek’s strong current deep inside a wilderness filled with black bears while something very big was crashing through the forest directly toward me, adventure seemed like the pursuit of the very foolish, or the soon-to-be dead.
Up until that moment the risk had seemed worth it. Twenty years earlier I’d accepted an invitation to go backpacking for trout in the Rocky Mountains. I caught plenty of beautiful fish, but I also became addicted to a new sport. So with the Rockies a good 24 hours’ drive away, I began searching the Southland for a substitute.
Hazel Creek fit the bill. Born of clear mountain springs close to the spine of the Appalachians as they slice through the center of the park, Hazel is the South’s version of a true wilderness trout creek, spilling like a rebel yell through rhododendrons that flank every inch of its course. There are more than 800 miles of trout streams in the park, but Hazel is considered its Henry’s Fork, offering three species–rainbow, browns and brookies.
Better yet, this isn’t some stocked tailwater fishery where dudes wearing mail-order “fishing shirts” are shepherded to angling glory by carefully selected guides, after which they repair to hot showers and gourmet meals at well-appointed lodges.
This is true wilderness fishing for trout that never hear traffic. You want trout, you have to strap a pack on your back, lug your gear uphill for six miles and go to sleep on the ground.
The fish don’t compare in size to those from Western waters–while 12- to 14-inchers are not unheard of, most trout here average 6 to 8 inches–but the total experience carries many of the same rewards. With the nearest road 20 miles away, your body and soul are massaged by a world in which the only sounds are the rustle of the wind through the trees and the whisper of water over rock. And if there’s a stirring outside your window at night, you wonder whether it’s a raccoon or bear–not a car thief or burglar.
So about the only thing that can disturb this mood of outdoor nirvana is the unexpected arrival of something large crashing toward me. Since my cast has laid a perfect drift through a small patch of flat water, I’m forced to make a quick choice: Drop the rod and try to run, or wait for fate to arrive.
It was a no-brainer. As the rhodos on the creek bank finally parted…I was staring face-to-face with my fishing buddy, his face red with exertion as he displayed the fish in his net: a perfect, 10-inch brown.
“They’re just starting to rise in the pool below here,” he said. “Man, I wish we could stay a few more days.” –Bob Marshall
Contact: North Carolina Wildlife Commission: 888-248-6834; www.ncwildlife.org.
When to go: Fish April through September.
THE RETURN OF ELK
Elk were a common sight for Kentucky’s frontiersmen. However, by the mid-19th century Kentucky’s entire native elk herd was gone. As populations expanded westward, habitat was lost and elk were overhunted.
In 1995, Kentucky game officials, in coordination with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, proposed reestablishing elk in the southeastern part of the state. In 1997, the first Rocky Mountain elk were transplanted to a 14-county restoration zone, including Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Floyd, Harlan, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Leslie, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, Perry and Pike counties. In addition to the restoration zone, a 10-county buffer zone was set up. It includes Elliott, Jackson, Laurel, Lawrence, Lee, McCreary, Morgan, Owsley, Whitley and Wolfe counties. Much of the elk habitat lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest.
By 2003 the Kentucky elk population was estimated to be as high as 3,000 animals, making it the largest herd east of the Mississippi River. The goal is to establish a self-sustaining herd of 7,500 elk.
Hunting for Kentucky elk is restricted to a quota hunt taking place within the restoration and buffer zones. However, elk wandering beyond the zones can be taken legally during deer season by any legal deer hunters. To apply for the quota hunt (the application fee is $10), call 877-598-2401.
Need something to do with that free time during the day waiting for the drum bite to pick up? Try a tarpon. The Pamlico Sound is a major spawning water for many species, including tarpon. Starting in July and overlapping with drum in August, large tarpon move into the sound’s deeper waters. They are caught using the same methods as those employed for large drum but in depths of 15 to 25 feet. Despite biting on the bottom, these acrobatic titans will fight on the surface.
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional