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 chasing bruiser bucks with a muzzleloader in the Adirondacks or braving the froth for a springtime striper in the Chesapeake? Numerous unique and challenging experiences are available throughout the East for anglers and hunters alike.
STRIPERS IN THE SPRINGTIME
The pickup truck washboarded down Route 5, the shaking made worse by the 17-foot V-hull boat we were towing. The trip from Washington, D.C., to St. Mary’s County isn’t long–maybe an hour and a half–but even in that short amount of time I was getting nervous.
It was mid-April and the trophy season on striped bass had just opened in the Chesapeake Bay. So, why not go after a big rockfish? Well, for one thing a nasty cold front had snuck up, and it looked like it was ready to give us a dose of 40 mph winds.
The slow squeaking of the trailer, the howling winds outside, my fishing buddy’s singing–man, they were all making me queasy. Surely I wouldn’t get seasick in the car, on land, before putting the boat in the frigid, choppy water.
The Potomac River meets the Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout on Maryland’s southwestern shore. Tidal flows combine from the two bodies of water, creating a rich fishery. Bait and stripers hold in eddies along the current.
Stripers use the Chesapeake Bay as an aquatic superhighway, moving from tributaries like the Susquehanna River to the ocean. Our focus, though, was on the fat cow stripers in a mad frenzy to reproduce right off the beach.
From the boat launch we could see several boats working a blitzing school. As we watched they appeared and disappeared from view. The water was rough. “Get your gear, we gotta get on those boys,” my friend yelled.
Why not? I had battled chopper bluefish in the roaring surf of the Outer Banks, so this couldn’t be too bad. Luckily Maryland’s limit during the striper season is one fish per person, with a minimum size of 28 inches. One fish each, and then back to the ramp.
Whoa, boy, were the waters angry, made worse by a falling tide and a southeast breeze stiffer than a straight whiskey. A 17-foot boat wasn’t enough, but our IQs weren’t high enough to tell us to turn back.
Chesapeake anglers prefer to troll with planers pulling cut squid on various skirts and rigs. Once I had enough faith in my sea legs to stand, I put the baits out. And then came the longest part: the wait.
For the first time in my fishing career I timed it right. A minute later the rod bent and the reel sang that coarse, high-pitched clicking song that only a big-game fishermen appreciates–fish on. I tried to slow the run, but this striper was having none of it. The tighter the drag, the harder she ran. My partner kept the boat steady, but then his rod bowed too.
Two fish, two anglers and no captain, and neither of us was willing to relinquish his fish to prevent large waves from breaking over the side. After 20 minutes of maneuvers around the boat reminiscent of silent-movie comedy routines, we boated two fish measuring 34 and 39 inches. Then we hightailed it back to the dock, drenched but successful.
A makeshift trophy room had formed in the parking lot at the boat ramp. First, stories were told about the one that got away, then exaggerations of measurements… “Forty-three inches, no, I think he went fifty-two, actually.” No one wanted to leave. Departing meant a drive back to civilization, where an evening on the couch watching the tube just didn’t create the same adrenaline rush as battling trophy stripers in mounting, windswept seas on an April afternoon. –Will Snyder
Contact: Maryland Department of Natural Resources, 877-620-8367, www.dnr.state.md.us
When to go: Stalk stripers in April and May.
The sight of a 600-pound black bear busting through thick brush only 50 feet away and heading straight toward you is enough to get any hunter’s heart pounding. If you happen to be a sportsman who enjoys pursuing big bruins in close quarters, head to the dense swamps of northeastern Pennsylvania to chase these big black bears.
Wildlife Management Unit 3D, which encompasses much of the Pocono Mountain region, is home to some of the state’s highest bruin densities and best bear habitat. It’s also the only WMU where hunters have two opportunities to target bears–the regular three-day season immediately before Thanksgiving and a six-day hunt that runs concurrent with the first week of the firearms deer season. (The second hunt is tentative, based on how many bears were harvested and the stability of the herd in the WMU in 2003.) As a bonus, Unit 3D gives up some of the largest black bears on the continent each year. In 2002, for example, six bruins weighing more than 625 pounds, including a brute that weighed a hefty 761, were taken from swamps in the region.
While Pennsylvania’s success rates aren’t as high as those of some other states (mainly because it doesn’t allow baiting or hunting with hounds), sportsmen can increase their chances of tagging a bear by getting down and dirty and pushing some of the many wetlands that dot the region.
“Swamps make up less than twenty percent of the land mass, but over seventy percent of a black bear’s time is spent in them,” says Pennsylvania Game Commission deer project leader Gary Alt, who spent more than two decades working with bruins in northeastern Pennsylvania while leading the state’s black bear program from 1977 to 1998.
Two places bruin hunters will find excellent public access and good wetlands are the Tobyhanna and Gouldsboro state parks area off I-380 in northwestern Monroe County and the Delaware State Forest off State Route 402 in Monroe and Pike counties. The adjacent Tobyhanna and Gouldsboro parks offer more than 7,500 acres in which to pursue bears and are bordered by the 25,519-acre State Game Land 127, which means hunters have plenty of room to roam. The 81,794-acre state forest contains numerous swamps ranging in size from a few acres to well over 100.
When working the swamps, it’s important to avoid pushing bears into the wind. The animals have an excellent sense of smell; they’ll often sneak off to the side of the drive or circle back toward the drivers if they pick up the watchers’ scent.
Alt also notes that it’s easier to drive bears toward dense cover than away from it. An ideal setup, he says, would be one where hunters are pushing the bruins from one swamp to the next, because bears are often reluctant to break into the open. Since wetlands are usually extremely thick with cover, the people on watch must remain on constant alert. A bear can appear and disappear in a heartbeat.
While larger parties of 15 to 20 people generally have the most success making drives–primarily because they can cover the bigger swamps–much smaller groups can also cash in on the Keystone State’s fine bruin-hunting opportunities. The key is to work minor wetlands, parcels 5 to 10 acres or smaller.
“I’ve seen them hold in swamps that are only as big as an acre,” Alt says. “It doesn’t take much.” –Mark Demko
Contact: PGC Northeast Region Office, 877-877-9357; Tobyhanna and Gouldsboro state parks, 570-894-8336; Delaware State Forest, 570-895-4000.
When to go: Season lengths vary depending on the stability of the bear population. In the past, seasons have been in short splits during November.
BORDER BLACK DUCKS
I’m not into extreme sports. I don’t jump off of cliffs holding onto the sheets of hang gliders. Nor do I free-fall from airplanes, or run kayaks down death-defying rapids and waterfalls just to see if I can survive. But I am into duck hunting, and the best of it takes place during what some extremists would call the “knife-edge season.” It’s especially edgy in Maine, where winter storms can blow in unexpectedly starting in October. Often by November, and certainly by December, it feels like the dead of winter. Bone-chilling winds and snowstorms are part of the game.
Yet it’s just that kind of weather that brings the big black ducks out of hiding and pushes them across the state and down to their major migratory staging areas out on the coast. Because blacks are famously shy, the more remote the waterway, the better the duck hunting–especially if the waterway originates on a big cluster of lakes and ends on the coast.
That description fits the St. Croix River perfectly. The best method for getting to its ducks is to canoe camp down the river, jump-shooting big blacks between campsites and setting up decoys in backwater coves for the morning and late afternoon flights.
The St. Croix forms part of the international boundary between Maine and Canada and originates in the sprawling waters of the Chiputneticook Lakes, the largest being Spednic and Grand lakes. As the weather gets cold, black ducks gather in these lakes from the vast swamps and bogs to the north and east. Then the ducks follow the St. Croix downstream to the Grand Falls flowage, which leads them to Passamaquoddy and Cobscook bays along the coast.
My favorite trip originates at Vanceboro, where the put-in is just below the dam. The river meanders and flows easily, and while many folks are put off by the names of the faster portions–Elbow Rips, Tunnel Rips and Fork Rips, for example–these sections rarely exceed Class II water, and then only when the flows are high. In between the faster flows are wide meanderings of river with many cutbacks, bays and coves. They call for a small setup of decoys and always promise good action.
While black ducks are the primary attraction on the St. Croix, early-season shooting for wood ducks is excellent and there may even be a few teal mixed in. There is always the chance for a few hooded or common mergansers on the river, and maybe a few mallards as well. As the weather gets nasty, goldeneyes sometimes careen downstream with the blacks.
Depending on your schedule, the weather and the ducks you encounter, you can camp a short distance downstream, near Wingdam Island. But you’ll probably make it to the campsite at Tunnel Rips (about 7 river miles from the put-in) or the site just downstream at Little Falls, which provides the only Class III water. It’s a short section of river, however, and you can run it close to the Maine shore or portage around it easily.
Continue about 10 miles downstream to Loon Bay, where an access road will take you back to Vanceboro. Or, if you have the time, go another 15 miles to the Grand Falls flowage, where the take-out at Kellyland connects you to Route 1 near Princeton.
The weather can turn foul in an afternoon, so be prepared with warm clothes, food and shelter. Also bear in mind that the river is an international border. A Maine hunting license and the appropriate duck stamps allow you to hunt the main stem of the river and all of the setbacks and coves on the Maine side, but you can only hunt the Canadian shore with a Canadian license. –Tom Fuller
Contact: Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 207-287-8000, www.state.me.us/ifw
When to go: Maine’s black duck season usually runs from October to December.
CANOE AND CAST
If you’re ready to risk bow-busting waves for a shot at superb fishing, grab your kayak or canoe, a couple of rods and enough supplies for a week. Then head out for a long-distance trip through Lake Champlain, a 120-mile ribbon of water between New York and Vermont.
Lake Champlain is an ideal place to combine a multi-leg canoe camping trip with some serious fishing, and there are plenty of resources available for those wanting to make that kind of trip happen.
History books say when French explorer Samuel de Champlain navigated the lake in 1609 he did so in an Indian birchbark canoe. The canoe remains an excellent choice for a 100-mile trip up or down the shores of the big lake, but a well-equipped sea kayak will do the job, too.
A long-distance paddle on Lake Champlain requires planning. To start, try the Lake Champlain Committee, a citizen’s advocacy group for the lake. In 1996, the group opened the Lake Champlain Paddlers’ Trail, which links about 30 locations and more than 250 campsites on the lake. The trail’s resting places are a mix of public and private holdings. For that reason, official use of the trail requires the purchase of a $40 pass, which comes with a guidebook. (The 2004 guidebook will be available in May.)
If you choose to navigate your own trip, remember the shorelines on both the Vermont and New York sides are peppered with campsites for the water-bound angler. Public state parks and private campgrounds abound–even on some offshore islands.
Champlain’s bass spawn in June. Smallmouths can be found on rocky shores and shoals. You’ll find largemouths in weedy, shallow bays. Tube jigs, spinnerbaits and deep-running crankbaits will entice bass to bite, particularly if the fish can be found on their spawning beds. As for fly selection, during the spawn in June bass are most responsive to poppers, mice and muskrats. Almost any place except deep, cold water is a good place to find bass in Lake Champlain. Concentrate on humps, reefs, weed beds, drop-offs and shorelines. Expect to catch bass in the 3-pound range.
A typical Champlain northern pike weighs 4 pounds, although fish in excess of 10 pounds are common and 15-pounders not unheard of. Pike are usually hiding in the same places as largemouths. Spoons and spinnerbaits–particularly those in yellow perch colors–are deadly. –Matt Crawford
Contact: Lake Champlain Committee, 802-658-1414; Vermont State Park System, 802-241-3655; Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, 802-241-3700; New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Region 5, 518-897-1334; New York State Park System, 518-474-0456.
When to go: June and September are the prime months for bass fishing on Lake Champlain. Other species, such as lake trout, landlocked Atlantic salmon and walleye, are plentiful but are not as easily targeted by anglers paddling in small boats.
The ten-mile-long dirt road, laden with the pothole legacy of harsh Adirondack winters, finally came to an end. It terminated at a state road in equally bad shape. At least this one had pavement, though. A rock rattled somewhere in the undercarriage, and a spiderweb crack had appeared on the windshield–the result of our canoe sliding forward when I slammed on the brakes to miss a logging truck. These were minor problems. What really had my blood boiling were the four deer grazing on the shoulder of this country road.
I was leaving Stillwater Reservoir in Adirondack Park. I had trekked through the mountains in search of a monster mountain buck during New York’s early muzzleloader season. I had seen traces of deer–big deer–near the campsite and near the mountain streams, but never near enough to get a shot. Or even to get a look.
The best pocket we found (signs of about a half-dozen deer) over three days was a two-hour uphill hike from the campsite.
Three days prior, on the first morning of the hunt, the Adirondack mountains lay in front of me. I stood at their feet, wide-eyed at the challenge. My gut feeling told me that I would find a trophy. My gut didn’t have the best record, though, judging from past deer seasons.
What draws an outdoorsman to this hunt is the chance to recreate the frontier experience. We had paddled across a body of water to the edge of the wilderness. Our weapons were blackpowder rifles. Due to poor nutritional planning, if we didn’t find a deer or catch a fish we wouldn’t eat well.
Working a ridge that twisted with a creek in the valley, I tried to remember lessons from my granddad–how to tell the age of tracks, where to look for scrapes, where deer will move during the day. I took a couple of bad spills on slippery rocks but kept trudging along, naively figuring I would come across a pocket of deer.
Then I found the tracks. The hoofprints were there on the ridge, right where they should have been. And they were big. But how old were they–one day, three days, a week?
I was in pursuit of a trophy buck on his home turf, so I worked the tree line slowly and used running creek water to conceal the sound of my footfalls.
I made a couple of noisy slips and realized the wind had turned, sending my scent the wrong way. My outdoor skills just weren’t sharp enough. This trophy would remain a phantom.
Stillwater deer are intelligent deer, much smarter than the suburban garden-eating variety that like to play “chicken” on major highways.
They have to be smart and cunning to survive 300 inches of annual snowfall. So a couple of yokels with boomsticks making a racket didn’t pose much of a threat. Too often deer hunters have fallen prey to modern convenience–deer feeders, patterning cameras and tree stands that look like treehouses. In the Adirondacks the challenge is the hunt, not hanging onto the ATV that whisks you from the lodge to the stand. Success at Stillwater demands first-class wilderness skills, but it could mean the deer of your life.
Neither my hunting partner nor I was familiar with the lay of the land at the lake. A detailed topographic map became an invaluable tool for off-site scouting. We chose a campsite where three streams emptied into the lake and an old logging road traversed the top of a ridge. On paper, it was the perfect deer habitat. On paper it was also only a short paddle in a canoe. In reality it was a good hour, made longer by the approaching darkness.
When we left (without the trophy buck) I proudly felt the part of the pioneer. With primitive weapons, living in a primitive camp and traveling in a primitive boat, we had challenged the wilderness. But now I was ready for a hot meal. –W.S.
Contact: New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation, Region 6, 315-785-2261.
When to go: The early muzzleloader season typically lasts for a week, beginning the second weekend of October.
Since making the special six-day bear season concurrent with the opening of the firearms season for deer, Pennsylvania wildlife officials have seen a sharp increase in the number of bear licenses sold–122,046 in 2002. This is good news for Wildlife Conservation Officers, who believe that more hunters afield will help control the large (and growing) bear population in the Poconos.
According to the WCOs, four factors influence the bear harvest each year: bear numbers, weather, food availability and hunting pressure. With high numbers of licenses being sold, look for news of another record harvest when data is available.
FLUSHING THE GROUSE
After another futile deer drive, my hunting partner looked at me, sweat pouring from his face from hiking up and down mountainsides, and said, “I just flushed another limit of grouse. What are we doing chasing deer?”
Good question. Luckily, we had brought shotguns in case a situation like this arose. In two days of hiking almost nonstop we had flushed nearly 30 grouse–and we weren’t even looking for them. Since parts of all the forests around the reservoir have been logged at some point in the last 40 years, the landscape has been left in varying stages of growth–perfect conditions for grouse. Even better, access is remote so there is almost no pressure, which allows the birds to flourish.
Land on the southern edge of the reservoir is predominantly owned by logging companies. Hunting leases are available to the public, although the grouse hunting is superb (and free) on the northern side of the water.
Logging roads are groomed and accessible on foot. They are the best place to start. New York’s northern grouse season runs from late September to late February.
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional