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    Stories

    Bears, in the Wild and in the Kitchen

    Bears, in the Wild and in the Kitchen

    By ambassador Michael Cravens

    When I think of black bears, I think of wilderness. That’s because bears are synonymous with wilderness. Bears are an indicator species, when we have a robust population of black bears, we also have healthy ecosystems. In North America, black bears are flourishing. Managed through hunting and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, we are able to enjoy this magnificent species on the landscape as a functioning component of intact ecosystems and also in our homes as a healthy source of protein. Bear meat is delicious and a family favorite in my home. Not only do they provide healthy meat, but they also provide oil for cooking and fine pelts.

    There can sometimes be mixed emotional feelings surrounding bear hunting, so please allow me to start here: I am a naturalist first and a hunter second. Healthy habitat and healthy wildlife populations, both game and non-game species, are of the foremost importance to me.

    Hunting, while a significant component of our evolution and an undeniable part of the human experience, is absolutely second. Whether it be bears, deer, or rabbits, hunting can only be justified when wildlife populations are at a level to allow take of the surplus population. There are more bears now, and reaching older age classes, than there have been in the past century.

    This success is attributed to careful population management of which hunting plays the primary role. With careful management and habitat conservation, which is funded and executed primarily by those that have a tangible connection to the animals and the wild places they live, we can continue to have, and even increase bear, and other wildlife populations into perpetuity.

    Like I mentioned above, bear is the favorite meat in my family. It lends itself to a variety of preparations and dishes. Let’s walk through the whole animal and I’ll describe what we like to do with the various parts in my household.

    Starting with the non-edible parts, I always keep the skull. Adorning a bookshelf, it makes for a beautiful memento of the hunt and an interesting conversation piece. Same with the hide, but it can also be taken a step further and made into garments. A bear hide is a beautiful thing and should never be wasted.

    Moving on, one of the most valuable components of the animal in days past was the fat. Indigenous peoples and early European settlers depended on bears as a valuable and necessary source of fat. Today, it is still valued by those that hunt them. It can be rendered down and used for everything from cooking oil to leather conditioner. Even those that don’t hunt bears have likely heard of legendary bear fat biscuits.

    Now, working from the front to the back. The neck, this is likely my favorite cut. Full of tough muscle and tendons, this cut would be rendered almost inedible on a grill but braised low and slow all that cartilage melts away and all that tough meat becomes so tender it literally falls off the bone. At this point, it can be used for all sorts of dishes, but my favorite is to mix with chile verde and use as taco meat.

    Moving back, we reach the shoulders. With characteristics similar to the neck, braising is again in order. Just one way I like to braise the shoulders is in apple cider. The cider matches well with the slight sweetness of bear meat and this makes for a wonderful roast served with roasted sweet potatoes.

    Just below the shoulder, are the shanks. Bear shanks, otherwise known as big muscular forearms, cut into rounds, are the perfect cut for the elegant Italian dish, Ossobuco. Next are the ribs, bear ribs are very meaty and absolutely delicious! Done using the 1-2-3 smoker method, or simply cooked in a slow cooker with some BBQ sauce, you’ll be in for a real treat.

    Now the backstraps and tenderloins. These are the undefeated most popular cuts in hooves animals for the fine steaks they make, but since bears are carriers of the parasite Trichnellosis, all meat must be cooked to a minimum of 160° F. Temperatures this high don’t make for very good steaks, so these cuts get ground for burgers, lasagna, chili, etc.

    Finally, we’ve reached the rear quarters, or back hams. Hams are exactly what I do with these. Brined for about a week, then smoked to temperature, you can make a ham better than any you could ever buy from a store. This makes for an extra special dish at a family Easter or Christmas, or it serves up just as well for ham sandwiches the rest of the year. Don’t forget to save the bone for a pot of beans or potato soup.

    Speaking of bones, I would be remised if I didn’t mention bone stock. Bear bones make an exceptional stock that can be used in applications ranging from soup, braising, to simply enjoying a hot cup on a cold night. If you’ve never considered hunting bears, I hope this encourages you to give it a try. Bears are an undeniably impressive animal and provide some of the best, and most versatile, table fair of
    any game species. Furthermore, the more people taking to the woods to pursue these animals and developing a personal and tangible relationship with them, the more people there will be to look out for them and fight to keep the public lands and wilderness they call home intact and protected for generations to come.

    In the words of Clay Newcomb, owner and editor of Bear Hunting Magazine,
    “Keep the wild places wild, cause that’s where the bears live."

     

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    Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

    Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

    By ambassador Mike Neiduski

    I have often joked that I live my life in two different worlds. 

    I try to spend as much time as I possibly can around hunting dogs. Training, testing, judging, hunting, you name it. I grew up a deer hunter, but bird dogs set my path. I travel regularly, sometimes 20-30hr road trips to hunt, fly all over the country to judge dogs. I can’t get enough of it. I meet people from all over, at different points in their life, in their hunting career, with different dog breeds, you name it. The majority of my time outside of work is spent either in these pursuits or supporting organizations that seek to move the ball of conservation, hunting, and fishing forward. I picked up a bird dog that lit a fire in me for these things that I don’t see fizzling out anytime soon, hopefully not in my lifetime. 

    On the paycheck front, I work for a university in gender-equity. I oversee institutional responses to sexual assaults and relationship violence. I try to support victims and survivors as they seek to become whole again. I do not know what it’s like to experience sexual violence, and only have minimal personal experience with verbal abuse in a relationship. I can never know how that experience manifests for the women and men who sit across from me. In these conversations I have to suspend judgment, I must be in the moment attentive to their needs. Support. Connect. 

    To do this well I regularly attend training and conferences and maintain conversations with colleagues around bias, diversity, equity, and inclusion (D, E, & I). I’ve participated in long-running conversations in my head as I strove to interrogate how I think and how I look at the world and those I interact with. Some of those interrogations weren’t pretty. It’s uncomfortable work, both the job and the self-reflection. It’s constant. Things are always coming up that push me and make me think.

    I largely kept my hunting, fishing, and outdoor self from my work environment and vice-versa. With so much of the population not being hunters and anglers, I regularly avoid bringing my hobbies up in conversation. Discussing either in the opposite world creates a knot in my stomach just thinking about it. It’s uncomfortable. Selfishly, it’s easier to keep them separate. 

    The more I became involved in conservation movements and advancing hunting and fishing, the more I leaned into participating in D, E, & I conversations at work on a parallel train. But I quickly found myself cross-walking my work to the spaces of my passions. Never publicly, but those long internal conversations raged. I found myself stuck at the confluence of my work and hobby worlds with no idea how to navigate the river of their combination. And here we are, many in our community are now doing some of their own work, examining our institutions, our leadership, and ruminating on how to do better, how to be better in this arena. These things can no longer be kept separate.

    George Floyd’s murder and the aftermath shook me. It shook, and is still shaking, many things, including those in the hunting and angling space. Organizations stepped up and spoke out. Comment sections raged with accusations of grandstanding, virtue signaling, and cries of “I don’t come here for this.” Discomfort raged, as did my own. 

    As hunters and anglers, we know opportunity lies in getting uncomfortable. The long hikes into the backcountry, the early morning wake-ups, the sits in the cold and the wet. We push forward through it all in active pursuit of what we’re after. Now is the time to get uncomfortable in a different way, to lean into listening and learning, to lean into growth. 

    That discomfort, for me, manifests when I think about my bird hunting trips to faraway places. The cross country jaunts where I sleep in the truck with tinted windows and a sometimes grumbly wirehair and guns. How would that go if I were a person of color sleeping on the side of the highway mid-journey? 

    I remember the time I got pulled over for speeding in the middle-of-nowhere panhandle Texas on my way to Oklahoma. My wirehair was passed out in the front seat after 3 days of ducks and quail on a buddy’s lease, 2 more days of chasing birds lie ahead. All was good until the lights came on behind me. The only thing I could think about when the SUV pulled in behind me was, “I hope he comes to the driver side window.” I didn’t want him to wake my sleeping dog who would surely come out snarling. The Texas State Patrol officer confirmed my fears, choosing the safer route for him, the passenger side away from traffic. In a panic, I put the back window down and stopped his approach, “Sir, my dog is asleep in the front seat.” At my words, she awoke, but it was my words not an unfamiliar knock at the window, all was OK. A few pleasantries, the typical, “do you know why I stopped you?” “I was speeding” ...I drove off with a warning. 

    Who knows why I got a warning, or why he was friendly despite the direct control I took of the encounter. But there’s that discomfort again, what if I wasn’t a straight white dude with a bird dog in the front seat? 

    The reality is, many aren’t so lucky. 

    In a time where all we hear about in the hunting community is R3! R3! R3!, we need to realize the barriers to entry are more than just the money and the time and the access. 

    The pursuit is the same but the path to it is unfathomably different for many women, those in the LGBT+ community, and folks of color - often in a negative way for a myriad of reasons. How are folks with these identities treated on the way to and from pursuing the same activities I hold dear, let alone while actually engaging in them? Do they have role models that look like them in these pursuits? What about in leadership positions within our organizations? So many questions to ask. 

    One more set of questions. Questions I am asking myself and ones I hope we all ask ourselves as we view the current state of affairs in our country, in our conservation groups, with our peers - What am I doing to make this space, these pursuits, and these places, OUR places, welcome for everyone? How and where can I learn from others whose experience differs from my own to increase understanding? Who is leading the charge in our communities in this respect and how can I create space for their message? How can I support them to amplify their efforts? 

    I’m sure there are many more, but I have to start somewhere. For over a decade I worked on these questions, worked on myself. Leaned in to learn, to understand. Focused on another realm than hunting and fishing, sure, but the premises are the same. No different than a new hunter coming into the fold, there exists a seemingly infinite list of concepts to grasp. The one concrete thing I learned? I have a long way to go, more discomfort to sit in, and much more to understand.  

    In an effort to promote learning and understanding around these topics here are some resources to consider as you seek to grow around the topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is important to note, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely an opportunity to start. 

    Resources:

    The Confluence Collective

    Outdoor Afro

    Brown Folks Fishing

    Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Hunting For Sustainability Panel Discussion (password: PiTO#2020)

    Why You Need to Stop Saying “All Lives Matter” by Rachel Cargle

    White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, PhD

    The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

    Black Lives Matter Resources Toolkit

    Make These 21 Books Part of Your Anti-Racism Education
    Make sure your public statement isn’t window dressing: There is your public statement, and then there’s the work from the Avarna Group

    Thoughts on the Killing of George Floyd by Chad Brown

     

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    An Idaho Doe

    An Idaho Doe

    By Thomas Walton

    I believe most hunters would agree that the memories we make with our hunting friends are often the more cherished trophies rather than the animals we harvest. For this hunter, that could not be truer. I have been blessed with the opportunity to hunt with and learn from some amazing people. Without these friends, I would not have seen success or likely appreciated the experiences in the same way. When I think of a recent hunt where the memories made with my friends outweighed everything else, a mid-season whitetail hunt comes to mind.

    We were going to Jason’s cabin way up in northern reaches of the Idaho Panhandle, dang close to Canada. Everyone had tags, and we were looking forward to some mid-November whitetail action. I already filled my regular deer tag during an earlier hunt, and I was hoping to fill a controlled hunt doe tag I was lucky enough to draw for the unit we were hunting in. I was excited as ever, like a kid before Christmas. This was only my second hunting season, and so far I had been blessed with great luck mixed in with just enough missed opportunities to make me earn my successes.

    The pick-ups were loaded down with ATV’s, coolers, and a full array of gear and guns. I hung up the unleaded gasoline nozzle after topping off the truck and 4-wheeler. I climbed into the driver’s seat, put on my favorite driving tunes (Jamie Johnson radio on Pandora) and headed north. I was following my buddy, Justin, and his two sons, one of whom was 13-year-old CJ. 

    Justin and Jason are the kinds of friends who would do anything for you. Over the previous two years, both had shown me the ropes of hunting. I made my first big game harvest, my 2019 archery spring black bear, thanks to Jason. I took my first deer during the previous hunt thanks to advice from Justin. Justin and CJ are an incredible father and son hunting team. CJ has made some amazing harvests during his young hunting career but remains the humblest 13-year-old I know. Every time I’ve hunted with CJ, he always offers others the first shot. Knowing I was a very new hunter, he would say, “You haven’t gotten a deer before, so you get the first shot.” He was never worried about his own success.

    Justin, his boys, and I arrived at the cabin mid-day. Jason and his son would be up later that evening. The cabin could’ve been on a postcard. Made from logs, it sat along a river’s edge nestled in a grove of tall cedars and white pines. Just offshore was primo fly fishing, which Justin was eager to get after despite the frigid November water. As soon as we got out of the trucks, we could see deer tracks, scrapes, and tree rubs everywhere. We were in the deer woods, and my excitement could hardly be contained. We quickly unloaded the trucks and jumped on the ATVs for some scouting.

    The sky was cloudy and everything was wet from a morning rain shower. The air was cool and damp. The four of us started up the mountain, passing several signs warning us we had entered grizzly country. As we gained elevation, the vistas were jaw-dropping. We were surrounded by steep, forest-coated mountains. Misty gray clouds hugged the mountain peaks and filled every drainage. You could see for several miles, and we watched the river flow through the valley far below. We continued our climb, spending our time sightseeing and scouting for deer. We passed through several clearcuts before making our way into the snow line. We came across an eerie streak of bright red blood leading through the fresh snow and up the mountainside, crossing over several of the switchbacks we were winding along. We never found the terminus of the blood trail, but we imagined it was a wolf kill as the wolf sign was plenty. Eventually, we reached the top of a high pass. It was snowing and, despite my ski gloves, my hands were painfully cold from gripping the unheated handlebars of my 4-wheeler. After admiring the lonely silence of the snowy wilderness, we headed back down into the valley.

    After reaching a trail leading down to the river, we split up. CJ and I rode towards the river, while his dad and brother went to check for some other trailheads. We rode through the thick cedar forest and stopped at a well-traveled game trail. It was the kind of trail that immediately gets you excited. I told CJ, “Man, this looks like a deer highway!” CJ agreed and we dismounted the 4-wheeler to investigate on foot. We quietly followed the trail through the woods and ended up at the edge of a large meadow.

    Three sides of the meadow were lined with trees while the side farthest from us was the river bank. Cold mist occasionally pushed across the meadow, and the edge habitat was picture perfect. There were rubs and deer beds everywhere. CJ and I were excited and had to fight the strong desire to keep tromping around hoping to see one of the many giant deer we assumed must be calling this place home.

    It was now mid-afternoon, and it definitely wasn’t getting warmer. We decided to mark the spot for later, and we headed back to the cabin to warm up. We met the others back at camp, and by now everyone was there. We grabbed some chow and spent time just relaxing in the beauty around us. CJ and I were excited to tell everyone about the suspected honey hole we located during our scout. 

    Now, I will admit this was no hardcore backcountry camp. In fact, we had a warm cabin and even a hot tub. The younger boys eagerly jumped in the hot tub and were eventually followed by their fathers. I asked Justin what his game plan was. He replied, “I’m going to hang out in the hot tub and warm up.” The general consensus was the hunting could wait until tomorrow. I, on the other hand, was too excited. I knew there was no way I could sit still in the hot tub and relax while the deer were out there waiting for me. I was here to hunt.

    As I started gearing up, CJ asked if I was going to the spot we found earlier. “Heck yeah!” I said. CJ jumped up and eagerly advised he was going with me. I was excited to have the knowledgeable young hunter join me. While the others sat in the hot tub sipping pop (or whiskey), CJ and I donned our warmest waterproof clothes, slung up our rifles, and headed into the woods. Just before turning the key to start my 4-wheeler, I said to CJ, “How cool would it be if we came back with some meat while these girls are just sitting all cozy in the hot tub?” CJ replied, “We are definitely going to get a deer!”

    I will admit, even though CJ had demonstrated competent outdoorsmanship, I was anxious to be responsible for my friend’s son’s safety while hunting in grizzly country. After a frigid ATV ride to the trailhead we’d previously marked, we dismounted and started our slow walk in. We agreed to still hunt our way down the trail to the field. It was getting late, and the cold mountain air felt alive. It may have just been us getting each other pumped up for the hunt, but I swear you could feel the woods teeming with critters. Everything felt perfect. I mean, if I was a deer, I would be out looking for dinner before the rain started up again. CJ and I agreed I would get the first shot at a doe since I had the doe only tag, and he was hoping to find a buck.

    We walked about 50 yards into the woods when it happened. To our surprise, a beautiful doe flushed like a quail out a draw to our left. The deer ran through the timber right in front of us. I was in the lead and raised my rifle. My heart pounded. I couldn’t believe there was a deer in front of us already. But I needed the deer to stop running. I took a move from the many hunters I’d watch on TV and made the best attempt at a deer grunt I could. The deer stopped immediately and was now situated perfectly between the many trees giving me a clear shooting lane. What luck! I placed the crosshairs of my old hand-me-down scope over her vitals. As I was taught in the Marines, I exhaled until I reached my natural respiratory pause and applied a slow and steady squeeze to the trigger. My .308 cracked, echoing through the trees and off the mountains around us. I saw a bright flash, and the doe vanished.

    I was sure I hit the deer, and CJ and I fought the urge to run over and look. We waited about 30 minutes hoping the doe bedded nearby and expired. CJ was electric with excitement. “Dude! That was a huge doe!” CJ repeated several times. The fact that this young, but fairly accomplished, hunter was so excited over me shooting a doe instantly made the trip. His enthusiasm and willingness to hunt was infectious. He is a heck of a hunting partner.

    We walked over to where the deer was standing when I shot her. CJ told me he saw her turn 180 degrees and run off. Upon inspecting the ground, we found some blood and what looked like stomach bile. I instantly got sick. I started replaying the shot over in my mind. “There is no way I gut shot this deer,” I said despairingly. Maybe I jerked the trigger, or struck a tree limb I didn’t see.

    It was getting dark fast. CJ and I regrouped, got our lights, and started tracking. There was so much deer sign, following tracks was impossible for novice hunters like us. There was no blood trail. CJ began suggesting we go back to camp and bring help in the morning. I told CJ we owed it to the deer to make the best effort we could at finding her, to which he agreed. Although, I knew he and I were both thinking about the grizzly bear warning signs we saw earlier that day.

    It was pitch black out and I was losing hope. After about 45 agonizing minutes of grid searching the area, I decided to take a walk down the main game trail, something I hadn’t done yet for some reason. I only took about 10 steps before I saw the miraculous sight of brown fur and hooves lying peacefully on the trail. It was her. Relieved, CJ and I reveled in our shared success. We shouted, laughed, and exchanged some high-fives. We also took a quiet moment to appreciate the doe’s sacrifice, something we both thoroughly understood. After snapping a couple of quick photos, it was back to business.

    Upon further inspection, we determined the round hit both lungs and a rib bone fragment tore the stomach. Knowing the rest of our party was probably getting worried, we quickly dressed out the doe and loaded her onto the 4-wheeler for an easy pack out. We drove back feeling proud of our accomplishment. CJ and I put in the work and went out despite the temptations of the warm cabin and hot tub. More importantly, we accomplished our mission as a team.

    As we rolled into camp, everyone was standing in the driveway apparently considering forming a search party. We came to a stop and threw our hands in the air in an uncontrollable gesture of excitement and pride. Justin took a few photos of our victorious arrival, and everyone congratulated us for our deer. The guys jumped in and helped with skinning and hanging the deer. In short time, we were sitting around a fire sharing the story, joking, and laughing.

    This may not have been a physically demanding pack-in hunt, and my doe was no trophy whitetail, but it was extremely meaningful and gratifying. For me, it wasn’t the deer that made the hunt amazing; it was sharing the excitement and experience with CJ. It likely wouldn’t have gone the way it did without his unwavering motivation and knowledge. As we move into the 2020 seasons, CJ reminds me of our doe hunt and that we need to do it again. There is no doubt he and his dad will be lifelong hunting companions. 

    Maybe it’s because I’m new to hunting, but I feel every hunt is special whether a harvest is made or not. The memory of the days hunting and spending time with great people is the best kind of trophy. I am looking forward to future hunts with my dear friends.

     

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    Notes from a New England Brook

    Notes from a New England Brook

    Story by Max Dougan

    I adore this spot. An old friend brought me here years ago as a way of handing off the places he grew up with to a younger, childless individual with expendable free time such as myself. I love it simply for what it is, but having been introduced to it as an act of friendship- a desire to share one of his spots- my love has evolved into sincere adoration.

    April was cold and cloudy in southern New England, and the late spring green up was brought to a halt by a heavy frost over the weekend. The floor is seemingly weeks behind, and the forest echoed with a silence invited by the total lack of breeze that falls between showers and thunderstorms. The greenery that should be there is present, only scarce and restrained.

    The first of two wild brook trout that I caught out of a first-rate swimming hole was missing a good chunk of its dorsal fin. My first thought was that this little brookie had a close call with a mink, which may seem like a baseless assumption, so allow me to elaborate. 

    After visiting this same stretch of water a month ago, I walked out of the woods with dinner. But the highlight of my excursion that day was instead an exceptionally lengthy interaction with a mink. 

    If you've never seen a mink, don't fret. They're cunning, skittish critters. At the same time, it's startling how intuitive they can be. They boast a presence of mind- a hyper-awareness, if you will- that other mammals cannot muster. They take no issue with maintaining eye contact for extended periods of time, and it always seems like they know exactly what you're up to while you're wondering the same thing about them. If someone devised a formula to quantify the fearlessness of mammals, the weasel family which includes badgers, wolverines, and otters, would dominate the rankings- the forgotten, scrappy underdogs of the animal kingdom.

    I realize I'm likely crediting this mink with something it had nothing to do with, but considering the equanimity with which it handled our encounter that day, I'm perfectly okay with that.

    The second fish was certainly worth keeping, a good meal for two, but he got away just as I landed him. Keep your lines tight.

    When I say it was a keeper, I mean to say that it was a keeper for this brook. This is far from a trophy fishery. There's no stocking and hardly any access. Here, you'd be hard-pressed to find a trout that reaches 12 inches. So why fish it? 

    I hold dear a very particular notion regarding fishing. I don't know if there's a term for it, but I imagine there are anglers around the world who will concur. I think of it like this; the catches I'm proudest of come from the smallest streams and shallowest waters. It's so rewarding to find fish in places where it's hard to imagine them capable of thriving. I've struggled in the past to explain why I like it, but there's no denying that I do. 

    As I find my way back downstream through stands of mixed hardwoods, and hemlocks where the hardwoods refuse to grow, I start to see them. Golf balls. They can be found littered throughout the brook. Goofy, dimpled, misplaced reminders of a basic principle of nature- water does not discriminate. It carries with it everything in its path. This particular spot is well over two miles downstream of a public golf course. I usually laugh to myself when I see them before that inevitable question dawns on me. What else is that golf course sending my way?

     

     

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